Shadowbox: What Immortal Hand Or Eye?

In 1832 there were no Dickens classics.

Dumas had yet to invent The Three Musketeers, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Man In The Iron Mask – and much of his own mythology into the bargain. Victor Hugo was a journalist, Gaston Leroux not yet born, Jules Verne a mere stripling with no thought of fantastic voyages.Mysteries of London, a Penny Dreadful

Even the Penny Dreadful (such as The Mysteries of London) was yet to slouch into existence.

But literature in 1832 was more than the preserve of just a few well-heeled individuals.

A trade had arisen during the 17th century of chapbooks, hand-printed paperbacks sold from ass-back by travelling pedlars. The rise of the industrialised working class also led to a basic education being delivered to the workers.

And once you learn to read, you want more books.

Comedies of manners; tragedies, based on those who had something to lose; exposure of injustices; tracts against slavery; political attacks; sales pitches; journeys of exploration.

Hand coloured print, about 1830.  © Victoria & Albert Museum, LondonDiscovering the rest of the planet’s multitude of people didn’t stop us from cataloguing their differences, quaint ways and funny customs. All this was entertainment, and the unwritten works of countless theatres, magic-lantern showmen, circus troupes and travelling players must have thrilled with tales of pirates and Hottentots, Egyptian pharaohs and the like (if the stories we have from the High Middle Ages are anything to go by).

Sir Walter Scott died in 1832. Jane Austen had already passed on, and Émile Zola had yet to be born. Victor Hugo had just published Notre Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“Usually, the murmur that rises up from Paris by day is the city talking; in the night it is the city breathing; but here it is the city singing.
Listen, then, to this chorus of bell-towers – diffuse over the whole the murmur of half a million people – the eternal lament of the river – the endless sighing of the wind – the grave and distant quartet of the four forests placed upon the hills, in the distance, like immense organ-pipes – extinguish to a half light all in the central chime that would otherwise be too harsh or too shrill; and then say whether you know of anything in the world more rich, more joyous, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes – this furnace of music – these thousands of brazen voices, all singing together in flutes of stone three hundred feet high, than this city which is but one orchestra – this symphony which roars like a tempest.” ― Victor Hugo

But common reference works were fewer. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare (sonnets and all), hymns sung in church and often learned by rote because you’d not be taught how to read, nor write.

Few people in western Europe would have read the Koran, the Mahabharata, or the Art of War – not even those gilded few who went to school or university. You’d have studied Latin, or Greek, reading Homer’s Iliad and the plays of Aristophanes. You’d read Shakespeare, and Chaucer, and Coleridge.

British Library Chaucer ManuscriptSo what of literature in 1832?

What would Louis Beauregard remember by rote, as he lies in his bed in Paris, sleepless with remorse?

…Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death…
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Grief

Fear death? – to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin…
– Robert Browning, Prospice

Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear:
And one to me are shame and fame.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brahma

Chatterton, oil on canvas by Henry Wallis, 1856 (c) Tate Gallery


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Dreadful Symmetry.

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Shadowbox: The Maps I Used In 1832

SHADOWBOX takes place in two cities which have very different characters, even in 1832.

Paris, and London.

Both cities are long-established national capitals. Paris has a head start on London, having been absorbed into the Roman Empire earlier by sheer geographical proximity. Over the course of a couple of millennia, both cities were shaped by their landscape, their people and by their wars.

La Bièvre, by Charles Marville c.1865

La Bièvre, by Charles Marville c.1865

While I’m acquainted with the streets of central London (to a very limited extent) from the time I worked in Southwark, as well as visiting for shopping or the odd night out, I have next-to-no knowledge of Paris.

The only time I visited the city for any length of time, other than passing through, was in 1990. At that time I was on a budget that makes austerity look positively decadent.

The other few times I’ve been through Paris, it’s been a short trip on the Metro from the Eurostar at Gare du Nord to one of the other international stations. Not much time for dawdling when you have a sleeper to catch…

On the other hand, my knowledge of London also consists of traversing the city from modern transport hubs to specific other places – museums, offices, a friend’s house, shops. I haven’t the innate knowledge that someone has when they’ve lived in a place all their life, or even just taken the time to explore their neighbourhood on non-motorised transport.

Street Scene in London with Saint Paul's Dome. by Samuel John Hodson (1836-1908)

Street Scene in London with Saint Paul’s Dome. by Samuel John Hodson (1836-1908)

So…

I needed maps.

And guidebooks.

And possibly a trip to visit Paris, although I haven’t made it so far.

In the event, mainly to stop using the lack of a Eurostar ticket as an excuse to stop writing, I made do with a number of online and offline resources that I hope have given me enough flavour of the city to paint its details in words for the reader without affecting the story. For example, is it essential to tell you that:

  • Belleville and Montmartre are in their own respective arrondisements, when those parts of the city don’t feature in the novel?
  • the Ile de la Cité is covered with telegraph wires (which it wouldn’t have been in 1832)? and
  • semaphore towers stretched across the country from Marseilles to Cherbourg, hubbing at Paris Montfaucon (an early technology abused to such devastating effect in The Count Of Monte Cristo)?

Readers only need to know details when they act in service to the story. While factoids like those above are fascinating, if they don’t help me paint you a picture or tell you a tale, I’ve left them out.

So, to the maps.

How far back did I have to go? And how detailed?

First off I found a very basic map of Paris, showing the Ile des Cignes. One of the Seine’s smaller islands, downstream of the heavily-fortified Ile de la Cité, by 1832 this had pretty much been joined to the mainland.

While the Ile des Cignes has some nice supernatural echoes, it isn’t significant in the city’s cosmopolitan circles – the circles within which Charles Lyell and Louis Beauregard mingle, along with Adolphe d’Archiac, Garibaldi and other notables.

Then I took a download of the Plan de Paris en 1787 par Brion de la Tour, and examined the basic street layouts. Much of the streetage in the centre of Paris was laid out by Henri IV in the early 1600s, and wasn’t significantly disturbed until the reforms under Hausmann following the revolution of 1848.

The French revolution of 1848 at the age of the sage site

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, on 25 February 1848, refusing the red flag, by Félix Philippoteaux

But there’s a huge gap between 1787 and 1832 – 55 years, in fact – during which the political landscape changed significantly in France. Did it affect the geography of Paris?

Then I found the highly useful oblique projection of the Plan de Turgot, which shows what sort of farms and houses and river traffic to expect in Paris in 1832. You can see how much detail the map-maker has included, although the scale of this map isn’t great.

The map that gave me much more was the Picquet map of Paris 1814. The link takes you to the wikipedia page for the the full map, which is a massive 89Mb. It’s closer in date to the time of SHADOWBOX. The file is larger, which means you can see more detail. For example, look at the little trees and furrows of the market gardens in this sample:

The tributary rivers of the Seine are clear, and the barrieres across each major road. I originally mistook these for the barricades of the revolutionaries, but after a bit of rootling around I realised they were more like the turnpike gates of Britain.

For London, I used a WikiPedia download of the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map of London (again, another large file).

This was one of the maps I used in 1888 when I was editing THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, but there was more in common with 1832 than the later period.

In 1848, for example, there was still an open square of parkland in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which had mostly disappeared under buildings by 1888. The railway stations had yet to be completed in 1848 – but in 1832, they didn’t exist, so where they do appear on the map I had to ‘imagine’ them away, or avoid the area altogether.

Goodmans Fields

What I do find rather interesting is how both London and Paris developed most strongly on their northern banks. The Tube map of London shows this most clearly. The map of the Paris Metro doesn’t have the same projection.

But the reasons for that development aren’t found on any maps.

“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” ― G. K. Chesterton

I adore maps. I’m grateful to my childhood geography teachers for showing me the language of maps, how to read within their folded sheets the secrets of cities and landscape and geology, developed over centuries.

I like being able to see the history of a place laid out in its streets and gardens, the names and patterns of all ages mingling to bring each town and city a flavour of its own.

And in 1832, both Paris and London had very distinctive spirits, as well as similarities.


Next: The 5th post in the SHADOWBOX series: Rivers of Paris, Rivers of London, a supernatural and physical journey across time and faith.

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P.S. If you want to find the rest of the posts in this series so far, click on the link to the SHADOWBOX page. When the novel’s available I’ll add links there too.

Shadowbox: Germinal 2

In Germinal 1 I described how the story of SHADOWBOX developed from its earliest beginnings to the point where I knew what I wanted to write – what story I wanted to tell. But still I held off, unwilling to start writing until I had a framework – a storyboard – a script for the action.

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, in keeping with the novel’s theme of a Sacred Kingship attuned to the tidal waters of the Thames, I deliberately set the action against the schedule of a complete tide cycle, 24 hours from high tide to high tide. The constriction set the pace for a novel that dealt with action, adventure, peril.

SHADOWBOX is different.

Night: Seaport by Moonlight (1771) by VERNET, Claude-Joseph Oil on canvas, 98 x 164 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

Night: Seaport by Moonlight (1771) by VERNET, Claude-Joseph. Oil on canvas, 98 x 164 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

The overwhelming emotional drive of SHADOWBOX is the grief cycle, the adaptation to change and how different people deal with that in different ways. Grief takes time to manifest itself. I couldn’t cram the action of SHADOWBOX into a single day, nor even a weekend.

I needed more time.

Tied to this was the simple fact that Louis Beauregard travels from England to France. In 1832, this wasn’t as easy as hopping on the Eurostar. Dickens describes the journey in near(er) contemporary terms in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and on that basis I knew that, again, I needed more time.

Then I remembered the elemental nature of the world I’d created.

The Sacred King – Le Roi Sacré – is attuned to the tides that affect the River Thames in London. The events of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN take place over one tidal cycle, at the Spring Equinox. The one overarching, controlling factor in all this was clear:

The Moon.

Instantly, I grasped that a full month was the timescale I needed. My characters would have time to experience all the stages of the grief cycle in the 28 days, even if the timescale was too short for their grief to run its course.

From Full Moon – when madness stalks the earth – through the utter blackness of New Moon, when the night sky is darkest. A time of spiritual descent into shadow. Of light diminishing, of darkness, of utter annihilation.

But New Moon is also a time of renewal. A time when ideas, like seeds, sprout and grow, culminating in fruition at another Full Moon.

A month – a lunar cycle – gives my characters the opportunity to live for a little while with the consequences of the novel’s founding action.

A month is long enough for Louis to travel to Paris and for Godfrey to develop a life beyond his youthful parameters.

A month is long enough for grief to work on them both.

And thus, with this structure in place, I began to storyboard the novel which became SHADOWBOX.


Next: The fourth post in the SHADOWBOX series: The Maps I Used In 1832.

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Shadowbox: Germinal 1

I had the idea for SHADOWBOX in 2010, after I’d finished the second or third draft of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. The character of Louis Beauregard fascinated me – here was an elderly man, still vigorous, in an unusual situation. Questions began to from in my mind.

Who was he?

Where did he come from?

How had he become the head of the shadowy organisation known as the Cuckoo Club?

As I’d written THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, some of those questions were answered – briefly, the way you’d refer to Ian McKellen’s Richard III to put his Gandalf into context, or Christopher Lee’s Saruman in the shadow of Dracula, and Scaramanga, and Lord Summerisle.

Ian McKellen. Richard III.

I knew Louis was sprightly. I knew he’d had a long eventful life. When I wrote ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER I shaped him up to face his future, to make him become the man of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. And there I saw a glimpse of the man he’d been before.

So SHADOWBOX became a story of the young Louis Beauregard, when his position as the Sacred King was a fixed part of him, but he’d yet to fully adapt to the challenges of his destiny. He had to have a life, and I already knew he was privileged. So I asked more questions of myself:

– what was he like, this young rogue?

– what makes a character roguish?

– how would this express itself in its period? How does one become a rogue of the 1830s? When all around is excess?

In order to find out, I had to investigate the times. My notions of the 1830s were way out. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Pride & Prejudice bonnet-land, nor the preRaphaelites, nor Restoration. Deciding the time period was just one element of the story.

And then there was the conflict within the story. Conflict forces the action. It’s the trigger event that makes things happen, that gives us a story to follow in the first place, that keeps us turning the pages until The End.

This is where Godfrey Woolverham comes in. He started out as Pawel Czerczy, a goldsmith, a man who was wronged by Louis Beauregard. The conflict at the heart of SHADOWBOX was always there in my early plans. But it took a while to work that conflict into a shape I could write a novel around.

The key to this was the Amber Room of Peter The Great.

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, Sylvester de Winter roams London in an amber-lined coach. Something about the material properties of Baltic amber had a pivotal impact on the world I had created, and this conflict and impact could be used as a plot device.

And thus the amber carvers arrived in SHADOWBOX, to give the story a point of intrigue, a hook, or maybe a MacGuffin. The real story began to spin off, away from a simple tale of supernatural mystery and into a deeper analysis of the conflict both main characters suffered as a result of the novel’s founding event.

Godfrey and Louis were set on a collision course of death and murder, and nobody could stop them.


Next: The third post in the SHADOWBOX series: Germinal 2, deciding the timescale of the novel and other matters.

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Shadowbox: Bienvenue

This is the first in a month-long series of posts about my forthcoming novel: SHADOWBOX (currently in pre-production for release by the end of June).

Set in 1832, SHADOWBOX is a story of loss and revenge. Excess and obsession. The damage a man does to his soul by refusing to accept change.

In this series of posts you’ll find the story of how the novel came about, the historical research that hopefully found its way onto the pages of SHADOWBOX, and links to places you can discover more. Remember to subscribe to the blog if you want to read the latest updates.


SHADOWBOX: An Introduction

One of the joys of being a historian is the ability to time travel. To go back in time, shedding the veneer of centuries, picturing people much like those we already know in situations very different to our own.

SHADOWBOX could be classified as historical fiction, but the elements of myth and magic within the story produce a Gothic flavour, a gaslit fantasy of Greek tragedy and exuberant adventure that mixes fiction with real-life characters in the usual speculative tradition.

The novel deals with a number of themes – death and revenge, excess and obsession, lust and hatred and fear and grief. It wasn’t an easy story to write. At times I wondered whether I should give up and go write something happy, with sunshine on every page.

But I realised there were important things I wanted to say in this novel, not just because the story forms an early, formative part of the life of Louis Beauregard – one of the protagonists in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Sometimes you have to ask a lot of questions before you understand what your real problem is.

1832 was a strange place. Looking back almost 200 years, much has changed in Britain. For one thing, the UK had a king and an Empire that started with Ireland, something odd to those of us who have grown up knowing only Elizabeth II as monarch and a British Commonwealth.

SHADOWBOX takes place in Paris too. And Paris, in late 1832, was a much more peculiar place (to this author at least), its population repressed after a notable uprising and a disastrous cholera epidemic, ruled by a Bourbon king, the city as prosperous and lively as London.

I did a lot of historical research for this novel. Some of this has already appeared, before I wrote the story, in posts such as Giovanni Belzoni Gets A New Assistant and First Steps On The Journey – 1842. As well as (hopefully!) finding its way into the novel without overwhelming the reader, the historical research was great fun.

As I said at the start of this post, one of the joys of being a historian is the ability to time travel.

One of the joys of writing historical fiction is the ability to take other people with you.


Tomorrow: The first post in the SHADOWBOX series: Germinal 1, covering how I came up with the idea for the novel and the first steps I took in laying out the story.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

Death Of A Novel

Yesterday, I decided to kill off a novel.390px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Portrait_of_Genghis_Khan

Project RC, begun in late 2011, abandoned mid-edit in February 2012, has been officially retired.

Ninety thousand words, a bundle of characters, settings, challenges. A plot that wove between them all less like a hessian sack and more like a bucket of beansprouts. I even had a cover. One I was pleased with.

Deciding to abandon all thoughts of reviving the story has lifted a weight off my writing wrist, freeing my creative mind to look for other stories. Better tales. Fascinating characters, some of whom I like.

I feel like I’ve made a big step in terms of writing progress.

I’ve learned that I’m better at writing novels when I have a structure, and characters I know, and a definite sense of time and place.

When I went back to review this project all I saw was another six months of editing the story, staring at maps of Eurasia, finding better places to set the story and blending those into the words I already had, and trying to work out who my characters thought they wanted to be.

Sure, there were some beautiful passages, some ‘darlings’ I was pleased with:

His little psalmbook had become pulp in the humidity and was no use for even lighting fires, yet he kept it, squeezing the water out occasionally and wondering if he should drink the liquid to save the ink, which had so recently told God’s words, and perhaps maintained some element of holiness within.
At that point, he realised he was growing mad.

And:

In midsummer the nights seemed endless and when he travelled with the monks into the blue-topped mountains on a pilgrimage he saw the stars disrupted by some shimmering, shifting wave that shook pale green across the sky, drifting like sand across a dry riverbed in the deserts east of Aleppo, rippling like the dusting of snow that skittered over the steppe and sung of desolation.

RC Nestorian_Mongolian_BishopEnding it here, like this, is a little like ending a friendship which didn’t quite work.

Perhaps the story of a nomadic monk caught between the Black Death and the Mongol Invasion of Europe will resurface at some point in the future, but if it does, as the old joke goes it won’t start from here.

In the meantime, I have other work to do.

Look out for a novel in June.

Published in: on April 2, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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We Were Not Alone

It’s one of the great themes of storytelling: We Are Not Alone.

All over the world – in literature, mythology, folklore – is the idea that humans share the Earth (the Universe) with some other sentient being or beings.

Gods, nymphs, daevas; fairies, leprechauns, kelpies; trolls, yetis, dwarves.

Others.

There are eversomany much more than six billion of us on the planet now. Some of us read – and write – stories where humans explore the depths of the Universe in search of intelligent life. Some of us follow religions that suggest we are the progeny of divine beings who walk amongst us. And some of us are exploring the inner workings of what makes us human – DNA, the chemical building blocks of life – to come up with some surprising answers.

Hot on the heels of the earlier announcement that a Mesolithic person in northern Spain had blue eyes and a darker-than-modern-European shade of skin comes the revelation that Neanderthals live on.

Neanderthals look like rich westerners after all! Is there no end to our cultural appropriation ;-)? Eh?In us.

Some of us, anyway.

For me, there’s something special about looking at another type of human being and knowing that, unlike mammoths, they did not die out at the end of the last Ice Age.

I’m Scottish, with the traditional features described by the Romans of the Picts. The notion that I’ve got the genetics of another species of humans in my blood, well, that’s just fascinating.

When I was studying prehistory back in the late 1980s none of this genetic information was available. Archaeologists speculated on the fate of the Neanderthals with only the physical evidence of bones, and stone tools, and their utter absence in the modern world, to guide their hypotheses.

Maybe we were more able to take advantage of the changing climate and food resources and simply pushed them into marginal areas where the food supplies were scarce, much like the early pastoral farmers of southern Africa did to the !Kung San.

Perhaps we fought wars with them over the north European plain, the differences between us not being great enough to permit both types of human to live in peace alongside one another (they wouldn’t be the first or last species on the planet to be eliminated by the ingenuity of Homo sapiens sapiens).

Or did we outbreed them, or hunt them into extinction? I don’t think we can truly say, except that if we are still 20% Neanderthal there was a lot more than hunting going on ;-).

I just wish the artists who make up reconstructions, or Photoshop images, let them smile a bit more often…


(Read more of the original report at Science magazine – click on the hyperlink or cut’n’paste http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2014/01/28/science.1245938 into your browser)

First steps on the journey – 1842

It seems like an age hence that I was using up spare leave from the Day Job to swan around Georgian England. April, in fact, and the weather was balmy – one day we had rain, and when I was in London it was sunny.Dodwell & Pomardi party on the Peleponnese. No, I'm just making this up...

The museum visits – Belzoni’s sketches of Seti I’s tomb, the drawings of Dodwell and Pomardi – are still fresh in my mind. I can picture the roads they walked on. I see their own depictions of their clothing. Prosperous men, making a slash in the world’s perception.

Of the houses from that time, I saw the Georgian House in Bristol, and was reminded of the tenement flats of Turin and Glasgow, large rooms with tiny fireplaces and high ceilings.

Ornate plasterwork on the cornices. Chinese or Japanese fabrics on screens, on lacquerwork furniture, on fine bone china.

Silk, embroidered, the work of tiny hands, a nation’s wealth in fabric sheer against lined paper walls and painted wooden balustrades.

Homes built on slavery and trade of other sorts.

Small piano-type instruments, keys of ivory not yet scarce; books the size of a card-table spread open at hand-painted birds of paradise from the Indies. Animal products from far-off lands where the people are different from us.

Wigs to be powdered, pearls to be worn by the maid before the lady of the house entertains.

Pero.

The wealth of merchants and the asceticism of Methodists, the freshness of plantation sugar and the new industrial works roaring beside canals dug by Irishmen on government subsidy through newly-enclosed land.

Books, the rare stories treasured, the poetry mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know.

The loss of the New World still stinging.

Since then, I’ve read a little of the period’s surviving literature – Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield – and boned up on history. I’ve developed a feel for the society on the cusp of a new age: leaving behind the excesses of the Georgian period and setting forth on the fecund part of Victoria’s reign. A transition from one form of the British Empire to another. A rise in mercantile power, in global reach, in ebullient confidence.

A formative part of the national psyche, in fact.

I’ve explored modern perceptions of the period too, between the pages of Queen Victoria’s Book Of Spells and Mysteries Of The Diogenes Club, and social history such as the Chartists, to bolster my earlier reading of Robert Louis Stevenson and The Coral Island and The Water Babies and a bundle of other books that all squidge together in the memory. I know I’ve missed out a lot. That will come, as it’s needed.

In doing so, I’ve built up a picture – a landscape not unlike those sketched by Dodwell and Pomardi. A schema, similar to that Belzoni made of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs for touring Europe, raising funds for his next expedition.

I’ve created a background against which a story can take place.

This is the world of the young Louis Beauregard.

And he has just begun to stride across it, heading for his destiny.

Grumpy Old Bookman’s Fame & Fortune

Meandering through the back issues, as it were, of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog, I found a few interesting snippets.

The site is a wry and honest* (cynical?) take on the  publishing business from a British perspective, and pegs itself neatly to the ground about the business of writing. Useful to have that sort of perspective to hand when faced with those who insist that I, too, can be a best-seller by blogging my way to free giveaway million-download instant success.

This post, titled Fame & Fortune Await You, caught my eye recently, with a taste of what it’s like on the traditional side of the business:

You write a first novel which is respectably reviewed, and this creates such a windstorm of interest among booksellers that they order 200 copies of the next one.

Go read the rest of the post. I’m off to revise my sales target spreadsheet!


*Especially gloomy about novels, heheheh. I defy you, Mr GOB. Then again, I don’t have your years of experience. Yet. Mwuhahahahah… or something.
Published in: on October 26, 2012 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Grumpy Old Bookman’s Fame & Fortune  
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An Excellent Post About Scrivener

Someone recently asked me about Scrivener, a piece of software I use and love; and, in lieu of today’s post (which was going to be about something else) I recommend you hightail it over Lorelle Van Fossen’s blog and scroll down to the bottom half of the post for the best summary description of Scrivener’s abilities that I’ve read.

Phew! Now I don’t have to do this myself…

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 4:20 pm  Comments (2)  
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