Posts Tagged ‘low-tech solutions’


A while back, I performed a small experiment with old letter writing techniques. As a result, I learned a great deal about Paper, Ink, Sand, and Pounce, how they interact, and how our layperson’s cinema-informed opinions are (not unsurprisingly) quite wrong.

This week, I dove back down into that deep dark well, and began to obsess about another old letter writing technique: letterlocking.

We’ve all seen it in films set in the early 19th century and before. A letter writer takes their epistle, folds it up and, essentially, makes it into its own envelope. Some of you (like me) may have even tried it yourself, only to end up with an overly thick, bulging, thoroughly recalcitrant bundle that defies closure by any wax seal you attempt to place on it. Even with a larger piece of stationery, I’ve found the process difficult to duplicate on my own.

Until I read this article about letterlocking, which opened up a trove of information.

Letterlocking” is a relatively new word. Coined by Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries, it lumps together the many, many different methods letter writers employed to seal their letters, back in the days before envelopes (and especially, gummed envelopes) were a thing.

While studying letters in the Vatican archives, Dambrogio noticed curious patterns of folds, slits, and excisions in the documents and began to catalogue them. Fresh out of graduate school, it was a while before she realized that, not only were these patterns new to her, they were new to everyone. It soon became clear that all of these marks and seals were not just methods of authentication (using a personal seal to emboss wax or the paper itself could authenticate the sender), but also ways of securing the contents, keeping them from prying eyes. 

Some methods are simple. A few folds and a wax seal are all that is needed to keep a casual letter from being perused by an unintended reader.

Other methods are very complex, with intricate folds, tucking one edge into another, or cutting slits in the letter through which paper daggers are drawn and sealed. My favorite (so far) is the method used by Robert Devereux in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I (ca. 1590), where a “tail” cut from (yet left attached to) the letter is sent through a series of punched holes, essentially stitching the letter closed with part of the letter itself. I haven’t tried this method myself—the paper I have available is not as strong (or large) as that used in the 16th century—but I’m going to, and soon.

So, here’s yet another topic I can add to my list of Proofs I Should Have Been A Museum Conservator, as the idea of spending decades studying not the words of old letters, but the way in which they had been folded and sealed, simply thrills me. 

If you want to know more about letterlocking, Dambrogio and team have a website that includes a history of their project, a dictionary of terms, and a collection of videos showing how the various methodsfrom the 1400s to 1960were employed.

I know that I’ll be spending several more hours over there, learning and testing the methods, with plans to use them in my own letters.


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As I’ve often mentioned, I do not like single-taskers in my kitchen. In order for a single-tasker to remain in my kitchen it must:

  1. do its job very well
  2. take up a minimum of space
  3. be inexpensive

Today, I’ve got two of them. One was a gift from this past holiday season, and one is an old stand-by that has proven itself time and again. (more…)

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Kurt R.A. GiambastianiI heard back from Fairwood Press, yesterday. As publisher of Dreams of the Desert Wind (my genre-mashup of speculative fiction, thriller, and corporate espionage), I wanted to give them the “right of first refusal” on the new FC:V. The good news is that Fairwood is doing very well; the bad news is that their docket is filled for 2013, and they couldn’t entertain this title until 2014.

That’s too long a wait. So, I’m moving ahead; Beneath a Wounded Sky will be published by Mouse Road Press (i.e., me) as part of a full, five-book release of The Fallen Cloud Saga.

Which means that everything is now on my plate. Including cover art.

I have an advantage here. I don’t care if this project makes money. In fact, I assume it won’t. So, if I have covers that don’t tick all the boxes on the marketing strategy checklist, no worries. But I do want to have good-looking covers.

However, I do not want to have the standard-style, heavy-detail, photo-realistic cover of men and machines that you see on almost every alternate history title on the shelf. I want something different.

I’m thinking: minimalist.

There’s a new meme out there. Do a Google search on “minimalist movie poster” and you’ll see what I mean. These are evocative but very stylized images. Most of them play on a previous knowledge of the movie, but they needn’t. They’re eye-catching, they’re clean and easy to understand, and they tell a little story all on their own.

So, I’m reaching out to some of my friends who have graphic art experience, to get their input on the process. I already have concept art for each of the five covers. Three of them are pretty much final product, in fact (yes, I was working on this ahead of time, having predicted the Fairwood response).

These covers will be unusual, setting them apart from the standard cover art for the genre. They will have a uniform “look and feel” to them, identifying them as a set. And since I won’t have to use any stock photo images (bonus), they will also be completely free of royalty costs.

I’m not an artist—I’m saving that learning curve for my retirement—but I understand the basics of design. With some educated guidance, I hope I can come up with a set of covers that will do my series proud.


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I live in Seattle, and we have a reputation for loving our coffee. I’m no different, however, I am not a purist by any means. I can’t tell if you brewed it with tap water or distilled water or filtered water or Artesian spring water, and unless your tap water is really awful, I bet you can’t either.

I have my favorite brands of coffee—Torrefazione Italia is the best I’ve had, but hard to find; Caffe D’arte is a close second, but not available in stores—but they’re so expensive that I only get them from a barista. For everyday brewing, I buy in bulk, try to get fair-trade beans of good quality, and grind it myself as needed in a good burr grinder.

But where I can make a huge difference is in the brewing.

I’ve tried almost every brewing method. I’ve tried brewing it cowboy-style in an open saucepan (toss in an eggshell to make the grounds sink), which I do not recommend, and for years we simply stuck with our standard drip-maker and a small Braun espresso machine.

On the more esoteric side, I’ve tried one of those vacuum-siphon brewers. Aside from the sheer coolness of watching it work, and the drama it imparts to the ritual cup of coffee, it only delivered a mildly better brew than standard drip coffee makers. High-maintenance to use, a bitch to clean, it also was so fragile that it broke after only a few days’ use; a disappointment, but not a tragedy, as I’d already made my decision that it wasn’t worth the trouble.

For pure outlandishness, I have also tried the Presso® espresso maker, which works solely on muscle power. A hand-pulled demitasse is pretty cool, and it cleans up pretty easily, too. It wasn’t expensive, and it’s very solidly built, so I’ll keep it around.

But, for the best cup of coffee you can brew, I say you can’t get better than the old-school, low-tech, tried-and-true method of the French press. We use a Freiling press (pictured top) that has double-sides of stainless steel, so it also acts as a thermal insulator, keeping the coffee warmer, longer. Put your burr grinder on “coarse” and brew up a cup. Steep it for 4 minutes (longer if you need a slice of coffee instead of a cup), keep the press on the table, and serve as needed. It is never bitter, never harsh. My wife, who gave up coffee because it upset her stomach, can drink it again, now that we brew it in the press.

Another win for low-tech!


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1972 Sheaffer Stylist White Dot Fountain PenI used to be much more disciplined about “writing time.” I also used to have crushing deadlines, which were a great motivator. Now, I have less time, my monkey-boy-day-job is more demanding, and it’s just damned hard to find time to shut myself in the back room, sit down at the computer, alone, without distractions, and pump a couple thousand words past the CPU.

To counter this, I’ve tried many tactics. First, I bought a netbook, thinking it would allow me to work anywhere; it turned out to be too slow and underpowered to provide any real convenience. Then, I bought a keyboard for my iPad, but while faster, it proved to be too clumsy to balance on the bus and still required a larger chunk of time in order to be productive.

So, I went Old School, returning to my writerly roots, as it were. As some of you know, my first books were written longhand, with pen on paper. Yes, kids, I actually wrote four whole novels without the aid of a computer. I swear it’s true; FC:I-II and PC:I-II were all written with a Uni-Ball pen on Cambridge steno pads.

This new/old method has increased my productivity for several reasons. Primarily, it is more suited to my Basher style; cudgeling out a few dozen or maybe a hundred words at a time is much easier than trying to force out a couple thousand words. It is also perfectly suited to my catch-as-catch-can writing schedule, allowing me to squeeze out a couple of lines at the bus stop, en route to the transit station, while waiting for a program to compile, or as I’m cooling down after my workout.

There’s also another, less obvious benefit: because writing with pen and paper is slower than typing, the resulting prose is the product of a more thoughtful and deliberate process. Writing with pen on paper increases the lyricism of my prose, and what ends up on the page is tighter, less cluttered by unnecessary wiggle-words, and is closer to what I really wanted to say. Yes, there are lots of cross-outs and insertions (see picture), which yes, looks as if I editing as I go along (Bad writer! No biscuit!), but this isn’t really editing; this is searching for the narrative path.

Moreover, writing with pen and paper just makes me feel like a writer. It is how almost all of my favorite authors composed. It’s an organic, completely natural way to create, completely divested of the trappings and necessities of computers and cables and cords. It’s immediate, it’s personal, and to me, it’s more than processing words; it’s writing.


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