Thursday, June 13, 2013

Serendipitous Research

Been doing some incidental research for the book-in-progress–having to do with Arizona Cypress trees in south Texas, actually–and wandered into a back alley that looked too interesting to pass by ...

This is often the case with research, and it is one of a writer's banes, always lying in wait to pounce when you go out hunting. You are after a rabbit and of a moment, find yourself tracking a bear. This can happen with something as innocuous as looking up the spelling of a word and getting hung up in the etymology–ah, so that's where that word came from! Middle English from Old French, via Latin, from Greek! Who knew? And isn't that fascinating? 

Well, maybe not to non-writers, but to a wordsmith, there is magic and mystery to be found amongst the odd combinations of letters and languages. Much as a carpenter will feel affection for a nicely-made chisel that belonged to his grandfather, writers find joy in the tools of their trade.

Did you know that "livid," means "bluish?" So that when you picture somebody whose face has gone livid with rage, it doesn't mean "red," as I thought for years, it is quite the opposite. Or that the horseback-fighting with wooden lances, "joust," was originally pronounced "just?" Or that "hopefully" does not mean "I hope."

Do you care? Perhaps not, but it makes for interest among those of us who still rail against the incorrect use of "hopefully." Because so many people have used it the wrong way for so long, it has now gained a new sub-definition that allows it to be used thus. The language shifts; one cannot get too attached to it. There once were gay caballeros and that adjective meant lighthearted and carefree, had nothing to do with one's sexual orientation. I can remember back that far. Now? the primary definition of "gay" isn't what it was, and almost nobody uses the original meaning for worry it will be misunderstood. 

Oh, that Larry, he's a character!

Yes, he's a gay one, isn't he?

Really? Larry is gay?

Not that knowing where the word came from is relevant to the spelling I need to keep my narrative flow going, it's just that when some doors are open, you can't walk past without looking to see what's inside. Tell the truth: If you are walking through the French Quarter at night and the guy passing out circulars at the strip club opens the door to give you a peek, do you glance that way?

This was why, before the internet's instant spellcheck, I kept a words-only speller on my desk, just to keep from falling into the word rapture of the unabridged there in the rack.
A dictionary is like a candy store to writers; one can wander around oohing and ahhing for a long time.

The unabridged is in a box in the garage now; with Google, you don't even need to know how to spell a word to find it. Get close, and Google is most helpful: "Camouflige? Did you mean 'Camouflage ... ?"

Why, yes, thank you, that is what I meant.

Something's lost, something's gained, in living every day. 

This gets ever so much more tricky when you are looking for material more substantive and you get sidetracked. The DZ movie script with Reaves I mentioned here? Came about when I was researching and happened across an article on  caves in the U.S. How many there are and how extensive they are? Amazing! Who knew? I mean, I had been to Carlsbad and Mammoth, and a few smaller ones in Oregon and Washington, but there are miles and miles of linked caverns hither and yon, many still unexplored, and the writer's question: What if ... ? popped up and bam! the engine that drove the script was right there. What if there was a cavern system down in the southwest, New Mexico, say, that ran under the border with Mexico, and almost nobody knew it existed? Almost nobody knew, but some thieves found out ... ?

There are all kinds of stories in that. And we told one. 

And I told you this so I could sneak into some ukulele stuff (much like using my made-up cave system outside Las Cruces.) Although the image above should have been a clue.

This concerns the wood used in making stringed instruments, particularly the uke, and the tones they produce.

Basically, most of the sound of a stringed instrument like a guitar or uke comes from the way the top and back interact. With guitars, especially classical ones, the back is usually made from a hardwood and the top from a softwood, and the sound produced is a product of which ones you pair. The sides are, depending on the expert you scratch, more or less acoustically-inert, though there is some discussion upon this. Most agree that the sides matter less than the front and back, the placement of the sound holes, the strings, and so on. 

With ukes, according to this site, instrument tone can be defined on a scale ranging from "warm," to "bright." On the far left, the sound gets mushy; on the far right, it becomes brittle, but twixt those two, you get tones that go from warm and woody to cool and bright, and several other mostly-subjective modifiers. 

For those of you still with me, a graph, showing how one maker of ukuleles sees (and hears) the various woods they use:
On the warmest side, we have koa and mahogany. On the coolest side, rosewood and maple. Somewhere in the middle, there lie sycamore, mango, myrtle, and walnut. Not that each set of wood will be exactly the same, but that one can generalize.

There are other woods, of course, but these are the most common for ukuleles, with koa being the traditional Hawaiian material of choice. And since I'm a fan of warm and woody tones, it's not surprising that I like the sound from koa more than the others.

There. Now you know something you didn't before, and if you are a writer, it will lodge in your brain and wait for a chance to be utilized in one of your stories. Or maybe wake you up in the middle of the night from a nightmare where you are being chased by an all-girl ukulele band bent on your destruction ...


Jim said...

Back when I was in school, I used to have to allow myself about twice the "reasonable" time for research, because I'd get sidetracked by stuff I tripped over. The web is dangerous that way, too... I'll start by looking for something fairly specific, and find myself with a dozen tabs open following something I came across...

Anonymous said...

There was supposedly a cache of Spanish or Mexican gold bars hidden in the mountains near Las Cruces. Is that where you got the idea?

Steve Perry said...

No, I just needed a place in the US close enough to the border with Mexico to make a hike feasible. Set the park out-of-town a little, it was doable.

steve-vh said...

or the fact that they can replicate the sound of stradivarious violins by infecting the wood with fungi?
not sure why this piqued my curiosity....

"According to Schwarze, treating the wood with fungi artificially recreates the structure of the wood that was naturally occurring during Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius's lifetime. The Little Ice Age, a period of abnormally cool weather between 1645 to 1715, made trees create more uniform wood. Treating wood with the fungus artificially recreates wood similar to that which was created in the Little Ice Age."