Archive | September, 2013

Mondegreens, Eggcorns, Malapropisms And Spoonerisms

27 Sep

Language is great when it works, but sometimes it’s a lot more amusing when it goes horribly wrong. Frequently, these mistakes also have rather interesting names, and indeed histories. So, without much ado, here’s a few of my favourites.

1. Mondegreens: This is something we all do, but you might not have known there was a proper word for it. Effectively this is hearing one word or phrase as another. These days, the most common are in song lyrics. According to one of my favourite radio presenters (Stuart Maconie on Six Music), the most common of these is from Purple Haze where people mis-hear ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky’ as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy’. I frequently do this myself and for many years thought ‘Forever in blue jeans’ was ‘For Reverend Blue Jeans’! The word Mondegreen was coined in 1954 and itself comes from the mis-hearing of an old Scottish folk tune, in which, as a child, the writer Sylvia Wright heard the lines ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green’ as ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen.’

2. Eggcorns: Again, eggcorns is not a word you might be familiar with, but you’ll know exactly what it means when you find out. It’s when someone mistakes one word for another but somehow the meaning remains the same. The most famous example is the use of ‘Old-timers disease’ for ‘Alzheimer’s disease’, but the word itself, which was coined as recently as 2003, comes from replacing ‘Acorn’ with ‘Eggcorn’, which, while wrong, you know the meaning of right away. If you want to waste some time on a Friday afternoon rather than work, you can check out the Eggcorn Database for more examples, some of which are very amusing.

3. Malapropisms: In many ways malapropisms are the opposite of Eggcorns. This is where you replace one word with another that has a similar sound which has a completely different meaning. One of the best examples comes from Yogi Berra when he said ‘Texas has a lot of electrical votes’ rather than ‘electoral votes’. If that sounds like the kind of thing a recent American President would have said, you’re right but I’ll get to that later. The word Malapropsim comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop from a 18th century play called the Rivals.

4. Spoonerisms: Spoonerisms are those mistakes that newsreaders dread, but occasionally make. It’s when you exchange the first letters or syllables of two neighbouring words to get something completely different. Named after the British Academic Reverend William Spooner, one of my favourites attributed to him is when he used the phrase ‘The Lord is a shoving leopard’ rather than ‘The Lord is a loving shepherd’.

5. Soramimis: Soramimis are related to Mondegreens, but involve words or lyrics which mean one thing in one language but are interpreted as meaning something different in another one because of what they sound like. For example, the line ‘We transgress the context of commonplaceness’ from the 1999 song ‘Decade of Therion’ by the death metal band Behemoth can be interpreted in Polish as ‘Łyżwiarz wie, że kotek odkopał prezent’ or to give it its English translation ‘The ice-skater knows that the pussycat has dug up the present’.

6. Neologisms: Neologisms are new words or phrases. When you first hear them, they’ll often sound odd, but after a while, if they are used enough, they may become a normal part of the language. Neologisms might start with a single person, but often the precise point they enter the common lexicon is unclear. Neologisms which have made it into the dictionary in recent years include things like laser (an acronym for ‘Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’), Taser (another acronym, well of sorts, this time for ‘Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle’) and Blogging (which originates from ‘Web logging’). Indeed, many of the above words started off as neologisms. Interestingly, the zombie genre is often repleat with neologisms for the undead, such as walkers, twitchers and (from my own book) drifters, each of which signify a slightly different class of zombie-like creature with its own specific characteristics. While the use of neologisms by children is considered normal, the tendency to use them in adulthood can be a sign of psychopathy.

7. Stunt Words: A stunt word is a neologism which has no meaning, and they are often used by writers and performers for poetic or humourous effects. Dr. Seuss is probably the most familiar example, but they are remarkably common in literature. Interestingly, the ability to infer the (hypothetical) meaning of a nonsense word from context is used to test for brain damage.

8. Backronyms: Backronym is both a neologism in its own right, and a way to create a meaning for other neologisms. An acronym is where the initial letters of a phrase create a word in its own right (such as the laser example given above). A backronym is where a phrase is created from a specific word, often already in common usage, to justify its meaning. For example, the term ‘Ned’ is commonly used in Scotland as a term for a specific type of juvenile delinquent. While the term has been around for years, recently it has been defined as standing for ‘Non-Educated Delinquent’, and has even been used in the title of a film about ned culture. Others include ‘All Day I Dream About Sports’ (for the sports brand Adidas), ‘First On Race Day’ (for the motor company Ford) and Port Out Starboard Home (for the origins of the word ‘Posh’). Of course, some of the worst offenders when it comes to backronyms are politicians. Take for example the ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001’, more commonly known as the USA PATRIOT act.

9. Bushisms: Bushisms are really a collection of many of the above mistakes with a few others which don’t really have their own names thrown in for good measure and are named after the former US President George W. Bush because he frequently made them while speaking. One of my favourites is ‘There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again’. Slightly more worrying is ‘Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.’ or ‘For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It’s just unacceptable. And we’re going to do something about it’. And then there’s the classic ‘They misunderestimated me’. It will be interesting to see if the word Bushism (itself a neologism) will, like Spoonerism and Malapropism, become codified into the English lexicon and live on long after its original namesake.

10. Typos: Of course, all of the above refer primarily to the spoken word, but similar things exist in the written word. While they are generally grouped under the term of ‘typos’ (a neologism which originates from ‘typographic error’), they probably fall into a number of different classes. Probably most amusing are the single letter substitutions (SLSs) that can completely change the meaning of a word or phrase. There are to particularly famous examples of this which are household names but that you might not even realise originated in SLSs. The first is the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel guides. This comes from the lyrics of a Joe Cocker song which starts ‘Once while travelling across the sky, this lovely planet caught my eye..’ This was misheard by the founders as ‘Lonely Planet’ (making it a mondegreen!), and so the brand was born. The second is the computer game ‘Donkey Kong‘. Have you ever wondered why it’s called donkey kong when it’s about someone trying to defeat a gorilla? Well, one story claims that it’s an SLS which occurred during translation and it should have been the much more logical ‘Monkey Kong’, although this may well be an urban myth.

Of course, modern spell-checking programs are meant to do away with such things, but they only work if the typo doesn’t happen to create a real world. I heard great example of this yesterday where someone came across an employment training course titled ‘Learning how to work for otters’ rather than ‘others’. These are, apparently, known as ‘Atomic Typos‘ because of their potential to do so much damage if they go undetected. I’m not immune from these and at one point, when writing For Those In Peril On The Sea, realised I’d created such an Atomic Typo when I’d accidentally replaced the ‘o’ in rope with an ‘a’, completely changing the intended meaning of the following request from one character to another: ‘Jon, give me a hand with this rope.’ Luckily, I spotted this before it was too late. Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true of the author of a poster I once saw at conference which stated in six-inch high letters across the top that it was about ‘Pubic Attitudes Towards Whales And Dolphins In Western Scotland’ rather than the intended public attitudes.



*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Forever Autumn: A Post-apocalyptic Survivor’s Favourite Time Of Year

25 Sep

Those of you who like your 1970s concept albums based around early twentieth century post-apocalyptic fiction will know where the first part of the title of this post comes from and it happens to be one of my favourite songs so I couldn’t resist shoe-horning it in. However, this post has a serious side for those interested in post-apocalyptic survival.

Autumn (or fall as it is known in some parts of the English-speaking world) marks the transition from the heat of summer to the cool of winter, and in almost any post-apocalyptic situation it will be the only time of year when you won’t have to struggle to find food. This is because you’ll be able to find food everywhere, just waiting for you to pick it, catch it or shoot it – or at least that’s how it is in Scotland at this time of year. However, if you want to be able to make the most of the bounty that will surround you, you’ll need to know what you’re doing because making a simple schoolboy error can result in at best a badly upset stomach and at worst a long and painful death.

So what am I talking about here? Well it’s what has come to be known as wild foraging. In its most recent incarnation, this is a trendy new middle-class pastime endorsed and encouraged by a flock of celebrity chefs, but when I was a kid this was just a way to make money stretch by getting food for free (I don’t think I ever ate store-bought jam until I was well into my teens). Wild foraging is, quite simply, making the most of the food that is available all around you in the countryside, and sometimes even in the city. At this time of year it’s everywhere and knowing how to exploit it will be a key skill for post-apocalyptic survival.

Wild brambles are everywhere in autumn, and you can even find them on any waste ground in most British cities.

Wild brambles are everywhere in autumn, and you can even find them on any waste ground in most British cities.

Just to show you how much there is, this is what I found along a half mile stretch of a long-distance pathway called The West Highland Way that’s within a day’s walk of where I live in Glasgow. Firstly, there’s brambles. Brambles, known outside of Scotland as blackberries, grow almost anywhere that’s left unattended and in autumn they provide a super-abundance of large, black, tasty fruits. There’s two secrets to picking them. The first is to wear a thick glove on one hand so you can push the thorny runners out of the way without getting hurt. The second is never to pick anything that is below the height that a dog can lift its leg (if you’re wondering why, it’s the same reason you shouldn’t eat yellow snow!

Known as haws, the fruit of the hawthorn tree can be used to make a tasty jam.

Known as haws, the fruit of the hawthorn tree can be used to make a tasty jam.

Hawthorn trees and hedgerows are also awash with their bright red fruits by late September. Haws are most often turned into jams and jellies, which can then be stored to provide sustenance throughout the long winter months, but you can also eat them raw from the tree (apparently according to this source – I’ve never actually tried this though). You can also eat the leaves of the hawthorn tree (they used to be known as the poor man’s bread and cheese because of their flavour). These are tastier when they are young and tender in spring and by autumn they can be a bit tough and bitter, but they’re still better than nothing.

If you know what you're doing acorns can be ground into flour to make bread.

If you know what you’re doing acorns can be ground into flour to make bread.

Acorns can be found anywhere there are oak trees, and this will include many city parks and tree-lined avenues. You might have to soak them for a while to get out all the rather poisonous tannins they contain, but do it right (it’s a bit of a black art and isn’t something for the uninitiated to try) and you can grind them into flour to make bread.

Rose hip are what form if you leave roses on their bushes, and believe it or not they're edible.

Rose hip are what form if you leave roses on their bushes, and believe it or not they’re edible.

Who would have thought that roses could be a source of food? Well, they are. Leave the flowers on the plant and they form edible rose hips. Again, you need to know what you’re doing to process them properly but get it right and they can be mixed with haws to create jams and jellies with a richer flavour. You have to be careful about seeds though as they can cause a great deal of irritation if ingested.

Nettles might sting, but they can also make a tasty soup.

Nettles might sting, but they can also make a tasty soup.

We might think of nettles as weeds, and they do grow anywhere shady, but boil them up and you can make a tasty soup. Okay, tasty is over-doing it a bit, but it hot and nutritious and that’s what counts when you’re talking about post-apocalyptic survival. You also need to remember the ‘dog leg’ rule mentioned for brambles when collecting nettles to eat.

Apples can be found both growing wild and city gardens, and they can be a great food supply.

Apples can be found both growing wild and city gardens, and they can be a great food supply.

Apples are everywhere in autumn and whether you’re talking about wild trees or ones in your local parks and gardens, come the end of the world, you’ll be able to stuff yourself with them at this time of year. You can eat them raw off the trees or cook them into a wide range of pies, crumbles and sauces. Alternatively, you can turn them into cider (whether of the alcoholic version found in Britain or the non-alcoholic version that seems to be favoured in the US). Find a cool, dry place and you’ll be able to store them, providing you with a ready supply of food throughout the cold and dark days of winter when there will be little else available.

Elderberries can be used to cordial syrups or, if you'd prefer something a little stronger, wine.

Elderberries can be used to cordial syrups or, if you’d prefer something a little stronger, wine.

While elderberries are inedible when they are raw, if you boil them up, you can a nice rich syrup which you can use to flavour other food. However, in Scotland most people who collect elderberries use them to make elderberry wine, and let’s face it, after a long day of surviving the collapse of civilisation, you could do with kicking back with a nice glass of red.

In Britain, sloe berries are most often used to make something called sloe gin.

In Britain, sloe berries are most often used to make something called sloe gin.

If your day’s been really bad and wine just won’t do it, you could always hit the gin, and for that you need sloe berries. It’s not real gin but it can have one hell of a kick. This makes it the perfect thing help you forget your troubles of few hours after you’ve just watched your best friend being torn apart by zombies. Of course, you can’t get too drunk or you might not hear the undead horde when they come back for you!

So as you can see, there’s plenty out there to feed the hungry post-apocalyptic survivor in autumn, and so far I’ve only considered the plants I found. There are fungi everywhere at the moment too – although I don’t currently have the knowledge to know which are edible and which are lethal so I don’t go near them. There’s also animals making a welcome return to my local countryside that add to the autumnal food base. The rivers are full of Atlantic salmon returning to spawn. Find the right spot, and they’ll pretty much leap into your arms. Okay, it’s not quite that easy, but at certain waterfalls you’ll see salmon as long as three feet trying to leap up them to get to the place they hatched years before and it’ll be your best chance of catching them with little or no effort. The salmon are not the only thing migrating around here, and the geese which over-winter in Scotland are starting to arrive. Once they’re here, flocks, which might be several hundred strong, will graze the fields each day and roost on the lakes at night, and they’d be a tempting target for anyone craving a bit of fresh meat.

Of course, if you want to be able to access this cornucopia of wild food, you really need to know what you’re doing because the stakes are high: if you eat the wrong thing or prepare it in the wrong way, you and anyone else you feed it to can end up dead or incapacitated (and in a post-apocalyptic world they are pretty much the same thing).

Luckily, there’s plenty of places you can go to learn some foraging skills, and it’s surprising the number of courses which have sprung up in the last few years where you can go along and have someone show you exactly what you need to know. So don’t delay, book one today because you never know the world might end tomorrow and you need to know what’s safe to eat and what’s not. And even if the world doesn’t end, you’ve gained a useful life skill which allows you to eat for free – and let’s face it with the way the economy is these days, anything that helps you keep the bills down is a bonus!


***WARNING: Tasty things often look very similar to poisonous things, so do not eat anything unless you know exactly what it is. Also, you should not use the photos in this post to identify what might be edible and what might not. I’m no botanist, or trained wild forager, and while I’ve done my best to make sure I’ve photographed the right plants to illustrate this article, I cannot guarantee it.***


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Extreme Running: The Perfect Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness Training

23 Sep

You see them everywhere these days, people in their fancy (or, in my own case, not so fancy) running gear, jogging along as they pound the pavements beneath their feet. Most of them are probably just doing it for the good of their health, but I’m sure at least some are thinking about the cardio rule from the movie Zombieland, and are doing it as part of their zombie apocalypse preparedness training. However, while it might help keep them fit, I suspect it will do little to help their survival if (or should that be when?) the undead rise. This is because there’s a big difference between running slowly round the block while listening to your favourite tunes on you iPod and running for your life. This difference is that to survive in a zombie apocalypse you need to be able to think on your feet while you run. For this reason, if you want to prepare yourself for life in a zombie apocalypse, you should consider not just running, but extreme running.

Now, I know you probably won’t be familiar with this term, but it’s a catch-all term for a growing collection of extreme events held all over the world which set challenges that mix basic running with other skills. Take the Spartan Sprint events which are held across the US, Canada and the UK. These mix a 3 mile race with 15 pretty serious obstacles which you need to get over in order to complete it. This is exactly the type of thing you’d need to be able to do to survive the immediate threats at the start of a zombie outbreak (forget about fighting back – getting the hell out of there as fast as you can is always going to be your best option). If this sounds a bit too light weight for you, there’s harder versions in the Spartan Racing series, right to marathons with as may as 50 obstacles for you to surmount.

Similar to the Spartan races are ones known as Beasts. These tend to put particular emphasis on the obstacles and are generally over much rougher terrain, and are based on assault courses used in special forces training. If want to get an idea of what one of these would involve, you can look at the course for my local one in Scotland, called, quite simply, The Beast Race.

Beyond these relatively simple obstacle courses are the more complex adventure racing and rogaining events. These are long-distance races across hills, mountains, rivers, lakes and seas which combine a range of skills and challenges, and often take place across several days. In them, you have to carry everything with you and cannot use motorised transport or GPSs for navigation, and the clock never stops meaning at the end of a day you have to choose between getting some rest so you’re fresh for the next day, and carrying on into the night to save time. Now that good training for surviving in a zombie apocalypse.

Of course, none of these will prepare you for being chased by a horde of zombies, but this is where the 2.8 Hours Later events come in. These are open-ended events which take places in real world locations over several hours and involve being chased by real life zombies (ok, they’re only actors dressed as zombies but they seem real enough when the jump out at you from an alleyway – if you don’t believe me watch the trailer posted on their website!). If that doesn’t help prepare you for surviving when the undead rise, then nothing will.

Finally, if you don’t want the fear when you’re running to be fake, there’s the famous Running with the Bulls in Pamplona in Spain. This involves hurtling through narrow cobbled streets over a distance of 825 metres. It doesn’t sound like much until you find out you have to do this while being chased by a herd of bulls. It’s probably the closest you can ever get to being in a crowd fleeing from marauding zombies (until a zombie apocalypse happens, but by them the time for preparation is over!).

So what’s the take home message here? Well, I think it’s that while the cardio rule is good, there’s more to it than just being able to do a couple of laps around the block. Instead, to prepare yourself for a zombie apocalypse, you need to train yourself to do more than just run! And for once I’m going to put my money where my mouth is because I’ve rather rashly agreed to take part in my local Spartan Sprint in Edinburgh. Luckily, I’ve missed this year’s event so I’ve got just under a year to get myself in shape (or work out a way of getting out of it!).


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

What Would You Do If … Dilemmas In A Zombie Apocalypse: No. 28 – The Rope Bridge Dilemma

20 Sep

You’re running through the trees, trying your best to stay on your feet while dodging the low-hanging branches. Around you are a crowd of people who are all running too and for the same reason: there’s a horde of zombies chasing you. Ahead, you see the trees thin out and you know you’re almost at the ravine at the edge of town. You speed up, making it to the bridge before anyone else; its old, and is little more that a series of wooden slats held up by ropes strung to posts hammered into the ground at either end. You feel the bridge shudder beneath your feet as you race across it. Once you reach the other side, you turn, machete in hand and consider your options. If you cut through the ropes, there will be no way for the zombies to get across and you’ll finally be safe, yet there are still others streaming across the bridge. You glance at the ropes, not knowing how much time it will take to cut through them. If you start trying to cut them too soon, you’ll be sending many other survivors plunging needlessly to their deaths in the river far below. If you start cutting the ropes too late, the zombies will have time to make it across before you can finish severing them and then you’ll be doomed. What do you do?

As always, this dilemma is just here to make you think, so there’s no right or wrong answer. Vote in the poll to let others know what you do if you were in this situation, and if you want to give a more detailed answer, leave a comment on this posting.

*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Eight Quirks Of The English Language

18 Sep

English is an odd language and I can understand why those trying to learn it sometimes struggle. Despite being a writer, there are still bits I can’t quite get my head around. Here’s eight of my favourites.

1. Why do you frequently hear of people being overwhelmed or underwhelmed by events, but you never hear of them being whelmed? It’s a real word, but I’ve never heard any one use it.

2. Lead (the thing that you use to take your dog for a walk) and lead (the 82nd element on the periodic table are spelt in the same way, yet if you read a scene in a book where a man says ‘Go get your lead!’ to his dog, you know instantly which one its meant to be. I guess, for some words, context is everything.

3. I feel disgruntled every now and then. Does that mean I spend the rest of my time being gruntled? Am I also consolate and combobulated much of the time? If not, how could I ever be disconsolate and discombobulated?

4. If articulate and inarticulate mean the opposite of each other, how come inflammable and flammable mean the same thing?

5. If you follow the examples found in other words, the word Ghoti can be pronounced Fish (think of how you prononce the ‘GH’ in Laugh, the ‘O’ in women and the ‘TI’ in station).

6. My spell-checker keeps suggesting that undead should be changed to unread. Does that mean Microsoft don’t believe in zombies or are they just being rude about people who don’t read much? I know this isn’t technically a quirk of the English language but it always makes me think!

7. If you silently mouth the phrase ‘Elephant Dew’ (as in the small droplets of water you’ll find on elephant first thing in the morning), most people will think you’re saying ‘I Love you’! Try it – although probably best wait until you get home or you might get yourself into trouble if you try it on your colleagues at work … or on random strangers on the bus!.

8. You can unedrsatnd a senetnce eevn if the lteters are jumlbed up in smoe of the wrods. All that matetrs is whehter the fisrt and last letetrs are in the rihgt palce. This dosen’t maen you don’t hvae to wrory abuot proof raednig yuor wrok beofre you pulibsh it thoguh!


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

How Does Creative And Scientific Writing Compare?

16 Sep

In the last few of weeks, I’ve been spending much of my time working on the scientific writing which is the mainstay of my day job and little time doing any of the creative writing which I post here (hence the lack of any new short stories or flash fiction recently – although that will hopefully change once these current projects are finally out of the way). The writing I’m working on is a mix of technical manuals for post-grad students and scientific papers, and you might think that this type of writing is very different from creative writing. That’s certainly true at first glance, but if you look below the surface, you’ll see that a scientific paper and a short story have very similar underlying structures and rules.

In fact, believe it or not, just like any good story, scientific papers have plots with a beginning, a middle and an end, characters that need to be introduced and described, and the best will even have a twist at the end. Indeed, I’ve often found that the easiest way to explain to students how to write a good scientific paper (and indeed how to interpret one they are reading) is to explain their structure in just these terms. This is because most students are familiar with these terms, while the terms used by scientists for these aspects of a scientific paper are much less well known, or indeed obvious.

Take the plot for example: Any good story must have a plot which moves along from a beginning where the basic premise of the story is explained, through a middle where much of the action happens and the tension is built and on to an end where the tension is resolved. Within a scientific paper these are simply known as the introduction (which sets the scene), the method and the results (which move the story forward and develop the tension – will they find what they set out to find, or will they find something unexpected which over turns our current understanding of the world?) and the discussion (where the ‘story’ being told is resolved). Just as with a short story, these sections all need to flow into one another to form a continuous storyline or the reader will get confused, and just as in short stories, you cannot suddenly reveal something at the end to explain your findings if you haven’t already introduced earlier into the paper.

Then there are the characters, except these are generally known as your study system and can be anything from atoms and quarks in the Large Hadron Collider (famous for recently finding evidence of the elusive Higgs Boson) to a Petri dish filled with bacteria or (as is often the case in my papers) species of whales or dolphins. Just as in any story you need to introduce these characters and describe them so the reader knows how they behave (or should behave if you’re going to have a twist at the end!). And just as in any story, your characters can be goodies and baddies, and sometimes you need both to make your paper really stand out. For example, in a paper I’m working on at the moment, the goodies are harbour porpoises which are trying to survive while the baddies are (believe it or not) larger bottlenose dolphins which beat them up and kill them. The tension within it comes from whether or not these attacks are frequent enough to cause the population of porpoises decline or not. The twist at the end of this particular story is that the answer is yes, but only under certain conditions caused by climate change (which no one was really expecting).

While the link between the structure of scientific papers and creative writing is easy to see once someone points it out, what it perhaps even more unexpected is that the same links even exist within the technical manuals like as the ones I’m currently working on. These contain a series of exercises for doctoral students to work through to help develop their technical skills, and you might think these would have little to connect them to writing short stories, but there is. This is because, you still need to have a ‘plot’, drawing the individual exercises together so that the student finds they are developing their skills as they work through it, while the characters are the data which the students will get to know as they work with them. Even within each exercise, you need a clear aim (which equals a sub-plot), and a clear movement through a beginning, a middle and an end otherwise the student will not feel they’ve gained anything from working through the exercises (just as a reader must think they have gained something from reading a story).

I’ve often thought that scientists should be taught creative writing as part of their training, and I’m sure if it were, scientific papers would be both easier to understand and more accessible to non-experts. However, this is an idea which always meets with resistance when I suggest it. Partly, I think this is because the word ‘creative’ in the title as this makes it sound like you are encouraging people to make things up (a big no-no in science), but I think it is also due to a certain level of intellectual snobbery. In particularly, there is a not unsizable proportion of scientists who revel in making things as difficult to understand as possible. This, they seem to feel, is a way of keeping the knowledge within a small elite group. You’ll only be welcomed into this elite if you can prove that you, too, can not only understand papers written in highly technical language filled with strange terms and complicated formulae which no outsider has a hope of understanding, but also write them. To them, writing clear, well-structured papers which takes the reader by the hand and leads them through from start to finish are an anathema which is to be discouraged rather than applauded.

Personally, I feel that this is science’s loss as in today’s world, we to make it as easy as possible for any interested amateur to understand what scientists are finding rather than making it more difficult. We, as scientists, need to share our skills and knowledge with as many people as possible, and the only way we can do that is by making our writing easier for anyone to understand.


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

What Would You Do If … Dilemmas In A Zombie Apocalypse: No. 27 – The Air Strike Dilemma

13 Sep

You are the leader of an army unit sent in to contain a zombie outbreak in a nearby city. At first, it looked like you manage to get it under control but now you realise its spread too far, and the only option left is to call in an air strike. The airforce will then drop a series of powerful fuel-air bombs which will obliterate everything within the affected area. The outbreak is spreading fast, and the sooner you call in the air strike, the smaller the area they’ll have to bomb to stop it in its track. This means fewer innocent civilians incinerated along with the zombies. If you call in the air strike right away, the death toll will only be a few thousand people, but you will definitely be one of them. If you delay calling in the air strike for half an hour, you’ll be able to get far enough away that there’ll be a 50% chance of you surviving the blast, but it’ll also give the outbreak time to spread and a much larger area will have to be bombed to stop it. As a result, tens of thousands of people will die. If you wait an hour, you’ll be able to get far enough that you’ll definitely survive, but by then the whole city will have to be levelled to stop the outbreak spreading to the rest of the country, and that will mean the death of half a million people. What do you do?


As always, this dilemma is just here to make you think, so there’s no right or wrong answer. Vote in the poll to let others know what you do if you were in this situation, and if you want to give a more detailed answer, leave a comment on this posting.

*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.