Parchment Street

The Latin Quarter takes its name from the shared language students from all over Europe spoke as they studied here in Medieval times. They still study at the Sorbonne and other Paris universities today, but Latin is no longer the lingua franca.

Sorbonne University in the Latin Quarter

Back in the 13th century, when most people other than those students and their teachers couldn’t read or write, many public writers and manuscript-copying scribes lived in a street that took the name of “writers street”, rue des Écrivains.

In 1387, the street’s name changed to rue de la Parcheminenerie, for it was now home to parchment vendors. This coincided with a new kind of parchment, not as thick and coarse as the one used since the 7th century. It became widespread, and it was in this street that universities and students stocked up on it. In the 17th century, people still came here to stock up on books. Today the number 29 houses a Canadian bookstore.

Location of the rue de la Parcheminerie
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How to make a feather quill

During research for my time travel story set in the French Renaissance in the early 16th century, my fingers started itching to use a feather quill as my time-traveling protagonist did. I found some how-to websites and got started.

First, obviously, you need some nice feathers. I’ve been told the use of certain birds’ feathers may be forbidden in some countries, so please make sure you know where your feather comes from.

Other items you will need:

  • Soapy water and an old toothbrush or
  • Space in a freezer
  • A recipient big enough your feather fits completely in
  • Sand
  • An oven-proof recipient
  • A sharp knife, an x-acto knife or a cutter work best
  • A cutting board
  • Ink and paper

One internet source says to scrub them in soapy water (with an old toothbrush, for example). During a zoo visit, a bird keeper told me that leaving the feathers in the freezer for a day or two would kill off any vermin. (I left mine for two days, to be on the safe side.)

If you wash them, the next step is obviously letting them dry.

Then you shave off the fibers near the tip because once you dip your quill into the inkwell, you don’t want to have them dripping with ink.

Next you leave them in water overnight. The instructions say this makes them soft and easy to bend.

Again, you let them dry.

Heat sand in the oven to 350°F/175°C. Stick the feathers into the hot sand once you take it from the oven and leave them in there while the sand cools. This is supposed to harden the feather so you won’t have to resharpen it too often.

Now comes the trickiest part – cutting the tip into the right shape. Be warned, the feather is still surprisingly hard and cutting it in the shape you want will not be easy. Use a pen to trace the shape on the tip and then cut along your markings. This is more carving than cutting, actually. Once your nib has the right shape, you need to make a split at the center.

Now all you need is an inkwell, paper, and some practice. Look what my 10-year-old daughter did when I let her choose one of my feathers.

And to to round it off nicely, here’s some history:

In Europe, the feather replaced the reed pen for writing in the 6th century CE. The birds whose feathers were most commonly used besides the goose were raven, duck and grouse for fine writing, and vulture and eagle feathers for bold writing. The feather dominates writing in Europe through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Classical Period, until the invention of the metal-tip pen in the 19th century.

My web sources: and

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In defense of writing exercises

Why should I bother with writing exercises when I’m busy with my manuscript, you ask.
Exercises don’t just serve to learn a skill but also to maintain and improve it.
Let me draw an analogy with sports and take an example from swimming:

I go to swim practice 2-3 times a week on average and have done so for many years. When I do my main strokes (front crawl and back stroke), I no longer have to think about what I’m doing, not even during flip turns. (That’s when you reach the end of the pool and turn around as quickly as possible and push off the wall.) So it’s possible I get lazy and make sloppy moves. But when coach gives me drills to do, such as touching my shoulder with my hand at each stroke or close my fists, or breathe at changing numbers of strokes (3-5-7, for example), I have to concentrate on what I’m doing and focus on my strokes (arm strokes in these examples).

It is the same with writing—there are “moves” that you don’t think about until you’re forced to think about them by doing a writing exercise. As a result, you are more conscious about these particular “moves”.

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Beware of anachronisms

When I’m reading, one thing that’ll jolt me out like nothing else is anachronisms. Please do your research and make sure that nothing is out of place/time.

Time itself is a prime example of anachronisms in stories set in the past or in fantasy settings inspired by the past. In a medieval setting (which is also still very popular in fantasy), even though there are clocks in church towers or secular public buildings, people are unlikely to carry a time piece around with them and say “We’ll meet again in 30 minutes” or even “Wait a minute”. (Unless otherwise specified in your fantasy world building, of course.)

Another example of an anachronism is the mention of electricity passing between the protagonist and the love interest in a book set in Ancient Rome. It jolted me so much out of the story that I haven’t read any of the other books by the author, even though I’m a huge fan of Ancient Rome stories.

You don’t want that to happen with your readers, do you?

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A comprehensive guide to world building (not by me)

I am not going to expound on world building because I can’t claim to be an expert. However, I would like to present the four-part article “The Challenge of Creating A Believable World” by writer Dina von Lowencraft (author of the YA fantasy DRAGON FIRE), as it is the most comprehensive I have come across so far. The article includes several lists of questions to guide your own world building:

Part One “The Physical World” goes over the basic building blocks of world building.

Part Two “The Inhabitants of Your World” takes a closer look at society and how it shapes its inhabitants.

Part Three “The Inherent Conflicts/Issues in Your World” explores different kinds of conflicts linked directly or indirectly to world building.

Part Four “Showing Your World” looks at different ways to show your world building in your story.

Please check out Dina’s book DRAGON FIRE on GoodReads

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Where do you find inspiration?

Sometimes my inspiration takes off and gallops full speed ahead without me doing anything, and this in the most ordinary situations. It makes for seemingly bizarre ideas, but once you build a story around them, the bizarreness fades into the background.

I sat at the back of a bus when the driver stopped, cut off the engine, and got off. A bit later, a new driver got on and drove the bus off. My transport-obsessed husband would explain how this stop was the point where drivers regularly switch duty. My writer mind however wondered what if that new driver wasn’t a RATP bus driver but [take your pick] a hijacker, a wizard, a time traveler wanting to try and drive a motorized vehicle?

A few years ago, there were still a few phone boxes around here, including in my street. One day that phone box was removed. I’ve heard people say, “No one but Superman will miss them”, but maybe someone does. What else besides a changing cabin for superheroes (or the visitor entrance to the Ministry for Magic) could a phone box be used for?

At my day job, I’ve been sitting on the health and safety committee for a few years now. One thing I learned during the training course was that employers have to pay employees for work-related injuries. Then I read pirate codes have similar provisions – pirates get payment for loss of a limb.
If there are such parallels between our modern working world and the centuries-ago pirate world, what kind of parallels could there be in a fantasy or sci-fi world?

A post a made on Twitter and its reply:

I was visiting the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. In the lower chamber, where the MPs sit, the guide explained that the front benches are just a little more than 2 word-lengths apart, dating back to the days when men wore swords, to avoid that a debate in Parliament got too heated.

I read about a German law that requires that seals born in captivity may not be returned to the wild. How would that apply to humans in a dystopian setting?

As you see, inspiration can be found (pretty much) anywhere.

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Some quick thoughts on names

Chances are, unless you’re writing historical fiction (and maybe even then), you’ll need to name lots of characters. Let me share some tips:

If you are writing real-world fiction, consider what realistic names are/were in your chosen time and place. Even if you give your protagonist a “special” name, unless it’s a main feature of your story, most named characters shouldn’t have “special” names. For research, try “baby names popular in year X” (with X being the year of your story minus the age of the character you’re naming, obviously).

For foreign settings, try to find someone from that country/area to confirm your choices (I assure you there are not as many Pierre Dupont in France as you might think, or Hans Meier in Germany). That is especially true with names from cultures where naming rules are different from what you are used to (Chinese names are a prime example).

For stories set in certain time periods or communities, learn about naming customs. Ancient Rome had rather straightforward naming rules that can easily be reproduced and applied to fictional characters. Closer to home, in my grandma’s region of Eastern Frisia, children would receive the same names over and over again from generation to generation, and if in those big families a child died, the next one born would get that child’s name. (Much to genealogists’ despair, I’m sure.)

In a fantasy or sci-fi world, it is you who make the rules, and this includes naming. However, even there it is a good idea to remember to keep your names pronounceable. When I was reading the Never-Ending Story for the first time as a kid (when it was first released and before any movie adaptation), I struggled with the pronunciation of all the names of people and places, it annoyed me to no end. As editor Heather Alexander said at a writers’ conference I attended a few years ago, “you want your readers to be able to talk about your book”!

Don’t use too similar names for different characters (unless it serves a plot purpose). You don’t want your reader to mix them up and get confused.

In real life, people do have unusual names. And there isn’t always a (big) story behind it. But when characters in your story have unusual names (whether the protagonist, the antagonist or a secondary character), readers assume there is a reason (and it better be a good one), that you did it on purpose. Unusual names stand out, so if you give a character an unusual name, you better know why.

Once you’ve come up with a name, check the Internet. You don’t want your protagonist to unintentionally share the name of a criminal, a person well known in another English-speaking country, or an important character from someone else’s books. (Don’t use names that are too similar to well-known characters either.)

Oh, one last tip: Don’t name your protagonist after your kid – or your kid after your protagonist!

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Describing unusual physical experiences

Is your protagonist more daredevil than you, the writer? Would they jump from a cliff into the ocean to save their love interest/board the pirate ship/recover a treasure/win a bet?
So you have never jumped off a cliff and have no intention to do so in the name of research, but you want to make sure your description of the scene is authentic? In that case, your best bet is to find someone who has jumped off a cliff.
Now let’s say you have gone through an exceptional physical experience that might make it onto the page. That’s handy, but how well do you remember it?

One of the first times in my life that I went canoeing, during a homestay in eastern Canada, the river was running high with meltwater from the previous week’s snowstorm. Of course, our canoe capsized on that occasion, throwing inexperienced me into ice cold water. It was a memorable experience for sure, but if I had my protagonist go through it, I wouldn’t be able to describe details beyond “as long as I was in the water, it didn’t feel all that cold”.

So here’s my advice: If you happen to live through such an experience or choose it on purpose, write down as many details as possible as soon as you can. You never know when you might need it. (Or maybe you can help out a fellow writer!)
I’ll share mine here, not the canoe one, but another that involves cold water.

On the beach of Saint Malo in northern Brittany, there’s a swimming pool that is filled by the tides. A few years ago, in mid-May, I decided to take the plunge despite water temperatures being 12-13°C (around 54°F).

Not surprisingly, I had the pool all to myself!

“Going in, its cold. First minute of swimming (I’m equipped with a regular swimsuit, swim cap and goggles), it’s cold. I swim fast, or at last with fast movements (for me). Then it gets better. I don’t see a thing underwater, it’s full of tiny particles, sad! Disoriented, I never swim in a straight line. Instead of the far wall, I end up at the side wall where the diving tower is. After 4 lengths, I could still go on but I leave. Afraid of shaking and shivering once I’m out. (I’ve done this before, but it’s been years.) I’m out. But it’s not so bad. I’m not really cold. I feel a bit cold as I get dressed (on the beach). I start shivering several minutes later. Despite several layers of clothing I’m still cold. An hour later, I’m better. The last to feel still cold are hands and feet. I’d do it again.”
Note: Once I got dressed, I sat around on the beach (no sun) waiting for my family who were flying a kite, so very little movement.

I’ve done it again since, but this was the lowest water temperature I’ve had so far.

Even in July 2020, with the shining in a blue sky, the water is cold (17-18°C)!
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How to persevere in a busy life

You feel like you need to write every day to keep up your skills but can’t because of life?
Let me [once again] draw a parallel between writing and sports, and in my case, swimming:
My swim club card says “tous les jours” (every day), but I can’t go to practice every day because I have a family, a day job, tasks in the household, and I also need to sleep occasionally. If I want to improve my butterfly, or get faster in crawl, or perfect my back stroke flip turn, I should go to practice as often as possible. Since I can’t go every day, I make do with dryland exercises on the other days.

In writing as in swimming, there are “dryland exercises”:

  • Read. Books in your genre and age group. Books for research. Books for pleasure. Books for your kids (read them together).
  • Brainstorm.
  • Do research.
  • Play scenes out in your head.
  • Make the food/bake the cake your protagonist cooks in chapter 2.
  • Dig out those notes from the writer workshop you attended.
  • Look up a grammar rule that keeps tripping you up.
  • Chat with other writers on social media.
  • Go to a book shop or a library.
  • Read.
  • Repeat.
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