Saturday, April 30, 2016

Weekend Odds and Ends #27

  • Here's your laugh for the day: hilarious grammar mistakes in vintage want-ads.

  • Over at the (newly-made-over!) Penslayer blog, Jenny Freitag has been turning out inspirational posts at the rate of a mile a minute, and these two are my favorites: how to be more efficient while working from home, and some tips on how to show love to your favorite blogs (one of which I am adopting, as you see).

  • This fascinating post at Stars and Letters was part of the Beyond the Cover blogathon that I participated in earlier this month—letters by the art directors of To Kill A Mockingbird about a trip to Monroeville, Alabama to gather local color for the film's design, assisted by Harper Lee herself. It's easy to see why the film turned out so well. (I was also interested by mention of the interior of Mrs. Dubose's house—I wonder if early drafts of the script included her subplot?)

  • A real-life Lassie-come-home: a sweet story about a sheepdog who left his new English home and traveled 240 miles back to his original owners in Wales.

  • This is pretty neat. Eighteen albums of sheet music hand-copied by Jane Austen and her family members have been digitized, and are now available on Internet Archive. (HT: Austin Kleon)

  • For Marguerite Henry fans—did you know that nowadays you can camp on Assateague Island, right in the midst of the wild ponies? I didn't, until yesterday!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Research Diaries, Part II

If I were writing down a set of guidelines for research based on my own experience, a phrase appropriately couched in 1940s slang would likely head the list: "Get the dope from somebody who was there."

Honestly, personal accounts are the best. That's not saying that a well-informed, well-written piece of historical nonfiction isn't excellent, because it often is—and depending on your subject, sometimes that's the only resource available. But if you want to capture the feeling and spirit of a time period, and understand the way people thought and how they reacted to the historical events you're studying, a good memoir, journal or collection of letters is golden.

On the other hand, a not-so-pleasant conclusion I've recently arrived at—and this isn't just my predilection for old books, but a clearly discernible fact—is that there's a notable drop-off in the quality of grammar, punctuation usage and general writing style in nonfiction books published within the last decade or so. Several times recently, when reading for pleasure or for research, I experienced for the first time in my life the impulse to send a volume sailing in a graceful curve across the room (for reasons grammatical and otherwise). They were library books, however, so I refrained. I did send one of them back with pencil notes in the margin—also a first. I've always felt grateful to those knowledgeable prior readers who make discreet penciled corrections to the model of a plane or the caliber of a weapon, and I felt rather as if I were paying back a debt to them.

On the brighter side—at least it's the brighter side in my opinion; those who have to live with me might think differently—when you do find an excellent research book that is packed with just the sort of details you're looking for, it has the effect of leaving you feeling like you're ready to burst. For weeks I have longed for someone on whom to unleash a torrent of detail about destroyer escorts' size, weaponry, maneuverability, training, and primary uses, along with tales of particular ships' exploits—probably very little of which will actually make it into the pages of my novel, but is still good to know (and tremendously interesting). For the most part I swallow my enthusiasm, not wanting to bore anybody. But I'm still looking for a chance to corner someone and fix them with a glittering eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and tell them all about how the USS England sank six submarines in twelve days or how the USS Samuel B. Roberts made four knots over her maximum speed in the Battle off Samar.

Getting back to essentials, probably the single most vital passage I've come across so far in actual relation to my planned novel is this one relating to the censorship of a ship's outgoing mail:

...Each envelope, after being sealed, was stamped with a small circle in which was inscribed "Passed by Naval Censor," then it was initialed by the censoring officer. The officers stamped and initialed each other's mail unread, on the principle that those who were charged with enforcing the regulations would neither violate them nor jeopardize a fellow officer whose initials attested to his confidence in one's own integrity. That may well have been a violation of the rules, but that was the way it was. There was room, also, even in wartime, for exceptions based on judgement, trust, responsibility and integrity. The same courtesy the officers extended to each other was extended in special cases to solid, responsible individuals in the crew. After a thorough explanation of what could and could not be said, I certified, unread, the personal correspondence of [several men under the author's command]. Other officers did the same for men they knew could be trusted, and whose privacy they felt it unnecessary to violate. (Edward P. Stafford, Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE-343)

The issue of mail censorship was one thing that worried me about writing an epistolary novel. Should I just write the letters in full, and make-believe that they reached their recipient that way—or should I try to imitate the appearance of a censored letter by blanking out words and phrases? The above paragraph was an illumination and a weight off my mind: as my male protagonist is an officer, censorship thus becomes a non-issue. (It rang a bell of accuracy, too: I recalled once reading a mention of a sailor who sent letters home uncensored because of an understanding with a superior officer, and this explained the practice.) All I need to do now is find the official censorship guidelines for wartime letters, so I know what he would and would not be able to write.

The journey continues...

The Research Diaries, Part I
image: postwar photo of USS Rombach (DE-364) from Wikimedia.

Friday, April 22, 2016

April Snippets

At one point I cherished fond hopes of being able to raise my Camp NaNo goal from 20K to 25K words, but things didn't quite work out that way. As matters stand now I think I'll probably come in under the wire just in time with my original goal and be satisfied with that. The past week hasn't been exactly easy. I'll tell you, if it wasn't for Camp NaNo keeping me up to the mark I might have knuckled under and put my notebooks away for a while by this point...but seeing as it is Camp NaNo, I forge on. Anyway, here's a few snippets of The Mountain of the Wolf from all throughout the month, mostly from the early scene-setting part of the story:

Quincy got up and went to the door and opened it. A rim of pale light still rested round the horizon, and above it, a single glimmering star hung straight over the canyon. All else was blue-black. The silence was enormous, as if the vastness of the uninhabited mountains expanded after dark.

Asked in that honest way, it sounded like such a small be a little lonesome. Rosa Jean would have given a good deal not to answer the question, but she did not feel like being rude this morning—not to someone who had treated her better than most.

There was no answer, and [Charlie] slid his elbows off the fence and moved closer—edging round outside a certain radius from the door, however, for he had met a pan of dishwater in the face before, and he could not be entirely certain it had been by accident.

As they neared the herd one or two mares' heads went up, nostrils flaring to snuff suspiciously—one of them stamped a hoof, but still they did not move. Then suddenly a trumpeting whinny rang from the canyon walls and a dark streak of a stallion plunged from the brush where he had been keeping lookout, diving between the mustangers and the herd.

Quincy turned and looked down at him, and somehow the sharp blue slice of his glance robbed Charlie of any further desire to be facetious. "Mind your own business," he said.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books That Will Make You Laugh

Everybody needs a good laugh once in a while. And a good book that can make you really, seriously shriek with laughter is a treasure. Books that will make you laugh is the theme of this week's Top Ten Tuesday, so here's some that have done it for me.

Now, I could easily have just written "P.G. Wodehouse" ten times and left it at that. Picking up a Wodehouse book is practically a guarantee of laughter. But I wanted to include a little variety on this list, so I've contented myself by bookending it with Wodehouse titles.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
This was my first taste of Wodehouse, and I still rank it as one of the funniest—if not the funniest—books I've ever read.

Once On a Time by A.A. Milne

Milne's writing for adults is every bit as delightful as his writing for children, and this cheerful send-up of the classic fairytale is absolutely hilarious. Also in the running for funniest book I've ever read.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

 To get an idea of why I laughed so hard at this one, read the first quote in this post. A very-British comedy of manners and errors with a liberal dose of the woes of authors.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

"You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?"

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Once you have read it, you will never forget the tin of pine-apple, or Uncle Podger hanging a picture. Trust me.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

A thoroughly affectionate and hugely entertaining satire of small-town life, set in Canada around the turn of the 20th century. Read my review here.

Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington

I tend to prefer Tarkington's "serious" novels to his humor, but this one, concerning the misadventures of a young girl playing matchmaker for her lovely and much-courted aunt, honestly made me shriek with laughter. Read my review here.

Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Another non-mystery Rinehart book that's a real hoot—told in first-person by an irrepressible teenage girl in the pre-WWI era, who wishes her family would treat her as a grown-up, is enamored by Romance with a capital R, and is firmly convinced she knows how to spell. End result: getting into the wildest scrapes and driving said family to distraction.

Kathleen by Christopher Morley

A charming short read, in which a group of Oxford students go in search of the author of a stray letter signed "Kathleen" which captivated them—a search ending in screwball comedy. Read my review here.

Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse

(Also published under the title Something New.) All I can say is that the scene on the staircase left me quite incapable of speech, or anything else besides laughter, for several minutes.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Notes From Camp NaNo

Somehow or other, here we are at the midpoint of April's Camp NaNoWriMo, and as nearly as I can guess I'm somewhere near the middle of The Mountain of the Wolf's first draft. My very rough little outline had thirteen numbered scenes and I'm currently working on number 7, but I have squeezed in a 7B and 9B since I first wrote it out.

This is my second time doing a Camp challenge, and once again I'm finding I really love it. I love the comparatively lower pressure of being able to choose your own goal, and with a smaller goal, being able to allow yourself a little more time to get there (e.g. I haven't been officially working weekends, which I'd almost certainly have to do to reach a 50,000-word goal in a month). I also really enjoy the social aspect of cabins—this year I'm in a filled-to-capacity cabin with a lot of wonderful writers, including Schuyler, Suzannah and Annie, and it makes for a great, fun atmosphere to chat and share progress and encouragement and snippets. Much more comfortable than the enormous NaNo forums where you hardly ever run into the same people more than once, let alone have time to get acquainted!

And the story itself? Well, aside from a few patches that I'm very pleased with, I feel like I'm drafting a framework more than anything. As often happens with me, I didn't have a lot of the early and middle scenes planned in detail, so I'm muddling my way through discovering exactly what happens there. I'm okay with that. There's always the chance, of course, that all this will look surprisingly better when I type it (a lot of my handwritten pages look like a combination of a crossword and a spiderweb), but even if it doesn't, I'll have plenty of leisure to build on my framework then. The important things right now are that I love my characters, I'm very hopeful about the story, and thanks to Camp NaNo I'm getting it all out in the open on paper. Maybe I'll do a snippets post here sometime next week, when I've got a little more material to draw on!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Extracts From the Diary of an Author, II

As I approach having yet another journal filled up and starting a new blank one, I've been flipping back through the pages of the filled one and reading an entry here and there. Reading old journals is sometimes surprisingly enjoyable once you've come far enough that you don't remember everything you wrote. Sometimes I find a useful idea filed away; other times (inevitable) I wince and grin and move on; and frequently I get a good laugh out of an old entry. I remember I did a post a few years ago sharing a few writing-related extracts from my journals, so I thought I'd pick out a few more such ramblings that are story-spoiler-free and share them here. The first one comes from just after I finished typing the manuscript of One of Ours:

December 8th, 2015
I don't know what it is about finishing a project that makes me want to clean out my notebooks. I got rid of a whole bunch of notes I know are too juvenile to use and therefore so much dead wood. It's a little like saying goodbye to old friends and a little like getting rid of grasping poor relations.

...Then there's about a dozen pages of concepts for books and stories that I may get some use out of one day—I don't think I should waste my time copying them into a notebook (because I'd probably immediately decide I wanted the notebook for something else and tear them out), but I'd feel more organized if I could put them in a smaller binder.

January 31st, 2016
I think I know why I'm a writer. I hardly ever think of a clever answer until hours after the conversation is over, or else I think of something but don't have the nerve to say it. But in writing I have unlimited hours to think of something clever, and unlimited rounds of edits to decide whether I want to say it.

February 9th
If writers' novels are their "children," mine is at the awkward, gangly early-teen-years stage right now. I guess I should take comfort in the fact that, since I've grown as a writer since creating O.o.O. [One of Ours], future novels will be better in their first-draft stage and therefore will need less editing. I hope.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Beyond the Cover Blogathon: Kidnapped (1960)

These days, one frequently sees popular historical novels based on the life of some real historical figure, or featuring real people from history as characters. One might say that Robert Louis Stevenson was ahead of the curve in this area. The plot of his 1886 novel Kidnapped is largely built around the real-life unsolved "Appin murder" of 1752, and a number of historical personages appear in its pages—particularly the enigmatic Alan Breck Stewart, who in Stevenson's hands became one of literature's most memorable characters. In the book's dedication, Stevenson charmingly acknowledges his use of poetic license, such as in moving the year of the murder to 1751 and "the Torran rocks [having] crept so near to Earraid," and goes on to add his opinion that his fictional imagining of the solution to the murder case is likely enough to be a correct one.

Walt Disney's 1960 adaptation of Kidnapped was one of a string of live-action Disney movies set and filmed in Great Britain throughout the 1950s and '60s—Disney, like other film studios, began filming in Britain in order to make use of profits from earlier films which post-WWII English treasury regulations prohibited them from taking out of the country. Kidnapped was written and directed, appropriately enough, by English director Robert Stevenson—apparently no relation to the novelist.

To be honest, when I first saw the movie years ago I didn't think too highly of it. It seemed to rush too quickly through the plot; James MacArthur seemed too American for the role of David Balfour; it just didn't seem very interesting. But when I saw it again within the last year, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it this time. Both the production values and the script seemed better than I remembered. Perhaps reconizing the slew of  fine British character actors that populated the cast, whom I'd since seen in other movies—Bernard Lee, John Laurie, Finlay Currie, Duncan Macrae, Miles Malleson—increased my appreciation a bit; perhaps having a little distance from the original novel, which I haven't read in some years, allowed me to enjoy the movie more for itself and not merely as an adaptation. Whatever the reason, I think I would now count Kidnapped among my favorite live-action Disney movies.

At the outset of the story, young David Balfour (James MacArthur) leaves home following his father's death to look for the uncle whose existence he has just been made aware of, supposed to be a man of property. To his dismay, Ebenezer Balfour (John Laurie) turns out to be a greedy eccentric living a miserly existence to rival even another literary Ebenezer in the ruins of his manor house. When David begins asking too many questions about his father and the family estate, Ebenezer manages to have him decoyed on board the ship of an unscrupulous business partner, Captain Hoseason (Bernard Lee) and shipped out to sea, bound for indentured servitude in the Carolinas.

But a collision at sea brings aboard another unusual passenger, exiled Jacobite Alan Breck Stewart (Peter Finch), and when David warns Alan that Hoseason and his crew are plotting to rob and murder him, the two become unlikely allies. Separated after a shipwreck, their paths cross again on the scene of the Appin murder, and with Alan the chief suspect, the pair are forced to flee for their lives across the Highlands. Their journey is marked by pursuit from soldiers, occasional wrangles with each other, and contentious encounters with highland chieftains Cluny MacPherson (Finlay Currie) and Robin MacGregor (Peter O'Toole, in his film debut), and at its end, if they reach the Lowlands in safety, will be the challenge of confronting Uncle Ebenezer and finding out the truth about David's inheritance.

Like most feature-film-length adaptations of novels, Kidnapped basically hits the high points of the story, but hits them briskly, and chooses some of the best parts to spend the most time on—David's introduction to Uncle Ebenezer and the crumbling House of Shaws, the battle on board Hoseason's ship, David and Alan's flight from the scene of the murder. All the acting is good, but Peter Finch's vigorous performance as Alan Breck Stewart brings the biggest jolt of energy to all the scenes he appears in, much as the character of Alan does in the book—and John Laurie is hilariously scene-stealing as the miserly Ebenezer Balfour. (The scene where Alan and Ebenezer meet is one of the best in the movie; I think it even outdoes the same scene in the novel.)

It's a colorful and visually attractive film too, with a nice historical flavor and some stunning Scottish location shooting. I suspect part of the reason that the scenes and characters largely match the way I always imagined them is because the film obviously takes some cues from N.C. Wyeth's classic illustrations for the 1913 Scribner edition, the one I grew up with. It's the only adaptation of Kidnapped I've seen (according to IMDB, there have been at least thirteen of them), but though there may be others that incorporate more of the book's plot, I have a hard time picturing another one capturing the characters and the spirit of the story as well as this one does.

This is my entry to the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy. Visit the host blogs throughout the next few days to check out all the other participants' posts on movies adapted from books!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A Poetry Tag

Among various wonderful birthday gifts from my family this year was a hardcover copy of the New Oxford Book of English Verse. There's a bit of a story there: my parents ordered the original Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, which was the one I wanted, but the seller sent the New Oxford instead. I'd still like to have a look at the original if I can ever get hold of it, but there's so much great poetry in this one that I'm certainly going to enjoy it in the meantime. (When I cracked it open for the first time, the first lines my eye fell on were "With blackest moss the flower-pots/Were thickly crusted, one and all," and I had to start laughing—My Fair Lady fans will know why.) Browsing through it yesterday evening inspired me to go ahead and do the tag questions for Hamlette's Poetry Month here they are.

What are some poems you like?

Alfred Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" is probably my favorite right now. Others include "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 43, "My Wife" by Robert Louis Stevenson, "Autumn" by Emily Dickinson. "Not to Keep" by Robert Frost breaks my heart, but I love it anyway.

What are some poems you dislike?
I can't think of any I disliked enough to remember disliking. I found Emily Dickinson's work to be largely a mixed bag—some I loved, and others seemed just a muddle. Other than that, if I've come across poems I didn't care for I guess I've just forgotten them.

Are there any poets whose work you especially enjoy? If so, who are they?
Those whose work I've consistently enjoyed so far include Coleridge, Tennyson, Byron, Alexander Pope, Walter Scott, some by G.K. Chesterton and certain bits by Emily Dickinson.

Do you write poetry?
I wrote a lot as a child, quite cheerfully and un-self-consciously...though nowadays if I find any of my early poetry I do my best to suppress it! I don't write much now because I don't feel I really know how, but occasionally if a certain mood seizes me I'll scribble something on impulse.

Have you ever memorized a poem?
Yes, definitely! I've memorized about a dozen poems or excerpts from poems, of varying lengths. I'm still working on my most ambitious undertaking, "The Lady of Shalott," which I've got about two-thirds memorized.

Do you prefer poetry that rhymes and had a strict meter, or free verse?  Or do you like both?
I generally like my poetry to rhyme—and I find something that has a catchy or lyrical flow/rhythm more enjoyable and easier to remember. Occasionally a non-rhyming piece may catch my fancy, but it's more an exception to the rule.

Do you have any particular poetry movements you're fond of? (Beat poets, Romanticism, Fireside poets, etc?)
I read poetry in much the same way I listen to classical music—I don't pretend to be an expert, but I know just enough to enjoy it; and when I find something I like, I like it. At this point I think I'm more likely to define my tastes in terms of individual poets' work rather than movements. Unsophisticated, maybe, but it works for me!

To answer the tag and link up yourself, visit Hamlette's post here. Meanwhile, I'm going to keep browsing the New Oxford Book of English Verse until I find those chaps gazing at one another with a wild surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien. They'd better be in there.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pictures and Words

Recently, I caved in to the demands of 21st-century life and got my first cell phone. Consequently, I followed that by getting Instagram as well. So if you're on Instagram, you can follow me here if you like.

I landed there just in time for the Commonplace Book Challenge hosted by Suzannah Rowntree, in which participants share favorite quotes each day. Confession: I actually have three little notebooks that could qualify as commonplace books. I don't know if that means I'm extravagant, fickle or just over-organized. One is for poetry, another for writing quotes, and the third just for any quotes I like. But I expect I'll be drawing on all three and then some for this challenge! Here's the list of daily themes—it looks like it's going to be great.

A photo posted by Suzannah Rowntree (@suzannahsnaps) on

Meanwhile, April also happens to be National Poetry Month, which should cross over with this challenge quite nicely. Hamlette over at The Edge of the Precipice is hosting a poetry-themed link-up for bloggers, which you can find here. I haven't decided yet if I'll be able to contribute anything to that, but it should be fun to follow.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beautiful People: Rosa Jean

It's almost time for Camp NaNo again! Last year was my first time participating—I set a modest goal of 10,000 words, and ended up putting a little more than 14,000 toward my rewrite of One of Ours. This year I'm starting a project from scratch and taking on a slightly bigger challenge of 20,000 words, which I figure should get me most of the way through my first draft of The Mountain of the Wolf (very brief synopsis at my NaNo profile). In order to get warmed up, I thought I'd do this month's Beautiful People (hosted by Sky and Cait) to get a little better acquainted with one of my story's protagonists, Rosa Jean Kennedy—and I guess it worked, because I had a few good new ideas while answering these questions.

What first inspired this character? Is there a person/actor you based them off?
Actually, this character and this whole story began with a name. One day as an experiment I wrote out a chart of compound girls' names—you know, Mary Ann, Betty Lou and so forth—in my "name notebook," trying to see how many creative combinations I could come up with. When I was trying out the name "Rosa" for the first part, I came up with Rosa Jane or Rosa Jean, and I liked the latter name so much that I started imagining what sort of character it would belong to. I came up with a vague concept for a Western about a girl whose brother was murdered...and later when I had the idea to write a Little Red Riding Hood retelling, I matched it with that scrap of imagining and The Mountain of the Wolf was born. When I created my Pinterest board I found some pictures of an actress who matched my mental image very well, but that came later.

What is one major event that helped shape who they are?
Her older brother's death, which left her to fend for herself, and left her with the desire for revenge that drives all her actions.

Write a list of things they merely tolerate. Ex: certain people, foods, circumstances in their lives...
At the head of this list would be Charlie and Wirt. They may have been her brother's friends, but that's the only thing that would make her tolerate them.
Her means of making a living—cooking for and boarding itinerant mustangers and prospectors on their way back into the hills—is something she doesn't particularly care for, but treats as a necessity.

How do they react in awkward silences?
For Rosa Jean, silence is a weapon of self-defense. It's usually the other person involved who feels the awkwardness.

What theme song(s) fit their personality and story arc?
I hadn't thought about this until I got the question during #WIPjoy on Twitter, but then I realized that "Lost" by Michael Bublé actually fits many aspects of Rosa Jean's character at the outset of the story really well.

Do they believe in giving other people second chances? Do they have any trust issues?
Trust issues, yes. She's been sharply disillusioned by the cowardly or indifferent behavior of people she counted on to seek justice for her brother, and so is in the habit of anticipating selfishness or weakness in anyone she meets. You might persuade her to give someone a second chance if you coaxed hard, but she would do it warily and without expecting much.

Your character is having a rough day...what things do they do to make them happy again? Is there anyone they talk/interact with to get in a better mood?
When she's upset, she usually takes refuge in some kind of hard work—cleaning out a chicken coop, scrubbing the floor, baking a pie. Physical hard work helps her vent frustration and quiet her mind.

What do your other characters have to say about them?
Some of them just think she's incredibly obstinate, and others can't figure her out at all.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Favorite TV Episode Blogathon: The Virginian, "Old Cowboy"

One of the things I like about The Virginian is that it never lets you forget that its characters actually make their living at ranching. Even if the plot of the episode doesn't revolve around it, there's always some herding of cattle or breaking of horses going on in the background, or at the very least some scraps of dialogue about the day's work, reminding us that Shiloh Ranch is, in fact, a working ranch. That's in contrast with other westerns like Bonanza, where I find it hard to summon a recollection of ever seeing a live cow. And the episode that I picked to spotlight for this year's Favorite TV Episode Blogathon, season three's "Old Cowboy," may have more scenes of ranch work in it than all the Bonanza episodes I've seen combined.

The titular character of "Old Cowboy" is Murdock, played by guest star Franchot Tone, who's utterly transformed here from the dapper, sophisticated leading-man roles he played in 1930s and '40s films—a stooped, craggy-faced, gravelly-voiced, often touchy and boastful old man. Murdock is an elderly ex-cowboy, now reduced to tramping the roads on foot with his young grandson Willy (Billy Mumy). He clings to the glories of former days by telling stories of his exploits driving cattle up the Chisolm Trail in his youth, and won't admit that he's any less a top hand than he ever was—and though it's plain from the first scene that Willy knows exactly what his grandfather is and is not capable of, he plays along with the elaborate pretense, echoing him and agreeing with him.

When Murdock—bluffing a little too much, as we will see is his habit—loses badly in a poker game with some Shiloh hands, Trampas (series regular Doug McClure) takes pity on him, and much to the dismay of Shiloh's foreman, the Virginian (series regular James Drury), offers him a job at the ranch. Murdock, scorning the idea of helping out with chores around the barn and bunkhouse, insists on doing a full day's work as a cowboy, though it's plain to all that he is no longer up to it. His insistence on tackling jobs too hard for him and his bragging about his experience and skill as a cowboy cause one calamity after another, earning him the ridicule of the other ranch hands and starting trouble with a hot-tempered rancher neighbor who is not at all amused by a mix-up in the branding of calves.

Matters only grow worse when Murdock sees that Willy has taken a shine to Trampas, the real top hand on the ranch, and has begun to tag after him and imitate him as he used to do his grandfather. The old man's jealousy spurs him to unreasoning resentment of Trampas and more foolhardy actions that even Willy can't pretend to excuse—and which finally lead to a disastrous fire that threatens the livelihood of all the surrounding ranchers. Called on to help with the Virginian's efforts to save their herds, Murdock is given one last chance to try and recapture some of his boasted prowess as a cowboy...but is it too late?

(Another thing I've noticed on The Virginian is that the stunt doubling is usually very good, and "Old Cowboy" is no exception—Franchot Tone's double does an excellent imitation of Murdock's stoop-shouldered, lumbering gait, even when wrestling with a calf or trying to hang onto a bucking horse.)

Written by Gabrielle Upton and directed by William Witney, veteran action director of a multitude of B-Westerns, this episode is really one that revolves entirely around ranch work: herding, roping and branding cattle, digging post-holes, barn the hazards of fire, stampede, dust storms, and wolves. With plenty of other episodes about showdowns with outlaws and other extracurricular activities, it's nice to see the Virginian, Trampas and the rest of the Shiloh crew (including regulars Randy Boone and L.Q. Jones, who both play nice supporting roles in "Old Cowboy") given a plot that centers on what they're supposed to be doing all along: being cowboys.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Musical Interlude: Jupiter

I had big plans for editing a final couple of scenes in my novel this week, but instead found myself flattened by a bad sore throat and fever. So I spent what was supposed to be a productive Monday in bed instead. Oh, well. Anyway, during the first night when the sore throat was at its worst, I clamped on my headphones and listened to our local classical-music radio station to try and distract myself a little—and this piece came on: "Jupiter" from The Planets by Gustav Holst. Isn't it terrific? What struck me about it was that it sounds a lot like music from a Western soundtrack, with its rollicking rhythms and brassy instrumentations. Even the slower theme for strings has an expansive feel that makes you think of the wide-open spaces.