Category Archives: Writing Hints and Helps

Fiction Fridays: The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part III

Last week Hiram Percy Maxim discovered that his father, the famous inventor of the machine gun, had been dogged by a mysterious acquaintance, Mr. Ru-kai, who had manipulated the creation of the gun and then taunted Maxim with knowledge of the sheer number of deaths caused as a result.  But Maxim intended to win in the end, and had laid a trap of his own–a recorder that would capture the truth in a last interview.  The results of that trap now awaited Hiram Percy’s discovery….

Did you miss last week?  Click here to catch up!

Hiram Percy sat in place for a few moments more, letting the enormity of what he had read sink in. He spread the documents out on the desk in front of him. They were all as his father had described. He turned to the wall where he now recognized the death chart, pinned in place with roofing tacks. Saying nothing, he put everything in the box, tucked it under his arm, and left the room. He went straight to the third floor bedroom where he faced the mantle—an ornately carved monstrosity bedecked with a hundred years of knick-knacks and keepsakes from several owners. He ran his fingers along the underside of the bottom molding and felt a small bump about one inch in from the corner.

Hiram paused, then shook his head, and pushed the button. There was a light cracking noise and a space appeared where some laurels in the mantle’s design contacted the wall. He reached up and gently opened the hidden cabinet. It was about three feet tall, two across, and one deep. The chimney apparently retreated back into the wall at a sharper angle than it appeared, making it possible for the builder to reserve this secret niche. Inside, Hiram saw the promised drum, still rolling quietly, though the recording needle had slid off one end. The cylinder was about four inches in diameter and about a foot long, marked with the one, revolving line that meant it had performed its intended duty.

A drum recording device, similar to what Maxim may have used.

“A wireless recording device,” he mumbled. “Brilliant!” There must have been a short circuit after the device had been activated, because much of it was burnt and blackened by a small fire. The insulated metal box it had been built in had contained the fire, protecting not only the drum from damage but the house as well. Gently, Hiram reached up and brought the tube to a stop. There was a small click and he removed it from its housing. He carried it to the nearby bed and wrapped it carefully in a pillowcase. He then examined what was left of his father’s last invention before shutting the cabinet and making his way into the hall.

It took far longer than Hiram expected to listen to the contents of the drum. He considered sending his family home and playing the recording then and there, but then he remembered how closely his father had been under observation. If the recording was genuine, here might be a chance to smuggle it away from London without their enemies realizing it. He was certain that no one knew of the existence of the drum but himself and his father. So, he had bundled the drum and the box into separate bags of his luggage. They made it safely to Connecticut, apparently unmolested. It had then taken several months of quiet, clandestine work to assemble his own player from scratch, since he did not want to risk buying one outright. Finally, one night a little over a year later, while the world breathed a sigh of exhausted relief at the news of Germany’s surrender and the end of the war, Hiram locked himself into a room in his basement and snapped the precious tube into place. He sat down, wound the mechanism, and it began to play. The static was effervescent, and at times it almost washed out the conversation entirely, but Hiram could hear most of what was said.

A click opened the recording and there was the sound of a door closing quietly. Footsteps slowly moved across the floor.

“Hello, my dear Maxim,” said an unfamiliar, strained voice, speaking loudly enough for Maxim to understand in his deafness. Hiram heard his father reply, weak and obviously ill.

“Mr. Ru-kai, I presume? I must say that you look no different than you did in Vienna all those years ago.”

“I cannot say the same for you, Maxim. I often must remind myself how fragile you have become. The old blood wanes as we near the end of this age.”

“I am not dead yet,” Maxim replied.

“No indeed. But so many others are. We have nearly bled this continent dry with our little invention, have we not?”

“My invention! It is mine!” His father could be heard ruffling sheets as he degenerated into a fit of coughing. The interview must have taken place in his bedroom, not long before he died in November of 1916.

“If you wish to say so. You and I both know better,” came the scratchy reply. “If you admit it, then you can blame all the deaths on those who have so expertly manipulated you fools into this amusing war. Then again, for a proud member of an arrogant race, that wouldn’t be much comfort would it? Is it better to be remembered as a killer than forgotten altogether? ”

“I have done good to humanity. I have! And I still will. The Maxims will be remembered for more than this.”

“Would you like to see the latest figures from our accounting department? The undersecretary is most pleased with our work.” There was silence for a long moment before his father, evidently staring at another slip of paper, responded.

“Are they now so many more?”

“You have not been following the papers? There has been this little matter of the Somme….”

“My God!” the old man gasped helplessly.

“Maxim! You told me you were an atheist. I hope for your sake you are right. Any god would hold you to serious account.”

“But humanity must stop you. We will stop you! I will stop you!” It sounded as if his father was trying to rise, but he apparently collapsed back into his bed in another fit of coughing.

“My dear sir! You have earned your rest for a job well done! Don’t waste your remaining energies on something so futile. Even at your best you were no match for me. Despite our refinements, my people have not forgotten the ancient ways even if yours have.” His voice fell to a threatening growl. “Our blades are curved and sharp.”

Hiram Stevens, c. 1900

“But where will it end? How many must die?” Maxim’s breathing became more labored.

“End? Fie. You foolishly call this the ‘war to end wars.’ It is only a beginning. Ideas have been planted in just the right minds, technology is developing along just the right lines…. It is a pity you will not live to see it, but you can rest assured that your legacy will still play a worthy role in an achievement that will soon eclipse you.” Ru-kai’s voice trailed off thoughtfully. “I think, though, that you deserve more. I will give it to you. I will tell you about what is coming: fire, death, and destruction the likes of which will make your descendants look back to this war wistfully. You have killed your thousands, and those who come after will kill their tens of thousands. Yes, you do deserve to know, but I don’t think Hiram Percy does. He has yet to earn the privilege.”

Hiram gave a terrible start at the mention of his name, falling over backwards out of his chair. How could Ru-kai know I would be listening?! A different kind of static poured off of the recording tube as it played on, snarling out of the speakers like a wounded animal. It completely drowned out all traces of the conversation between Ru-kai and his father.

To be continued next Friday! 

Want the full story without having to wait?  Download the 2012 All Hallows’ Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds from Amazon.com here.

The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part I
The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part II

Fiction Fridays: The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part II

Hiram Percy Maxim had discovered a letter from his late father, the inventor of the famous machine gun.  It promised to tell him the truth, finally, about how his invention came to be.  The letter continues this week.

Did you miss the first installment?  Click here to catch up!

Vienna, Austria, in 1882

It was in the year of 18 and 82 and I was in Austria—that much is true. I had been invited to Vienna on retainer to examine the possibility of installing the first electric lights in some of the government buildings there. It had not gone well (some there had wanted Edison for the job) and I was left sitting in a small pub on the edge of town eating and drinking on their coin while the royals debated.
On my second day of waiting the stranger walked in and sat down in my booth without as much as a please. He was an odd looking fellow, thin and scrawny but at the same time wiry and strong. His back was slightly bent and he had one of the ugliest faces I think I have ever seen. It was broad with a flat nose and sunken, squinty eyes. His hands were large and his fingers looked unnaturally long. At first his skin seemed somewhat tan but there was something off about it. It had a tint to it, though I could not clearly see what it was. We were seated next to a large piece of stained glass, and it made everything seem slightly greenish, like the tea they serve from China. I wasn’t surprised to see him try to keep it all hidden with an almost medieval looking, fur-lined cloak.

I don’t remember much of the beginning of his conversation now, and he never gave me a name. His accent was very strange, certainly not German and in fact hardly European at all. His voice was deep, and a little scratchy. I remember being very impressed with his mechanical knowledge and I have used some of what I learned in that conversation in my attempts to build a flying machine. We chatted about the growing science of electricity and improvements to steam engines and he ordered beer for both of us. We spoke of religion for some time too. I don’t remember how long we talked before he brought up the subject of war. The first words I remember with crystal clarity are these: “Hang your chemistry and electricity, Maxim! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility!”

There was something in that I found compelling. I had of course heard much about the move toward rapid-fire weaponry that had been occurring since the 1850s. Gatling had produced his gun, as had others, but all had significant drawbacks. Particularly, they all required outside energy to operate. I made a remark about the possibility of an electrically fired gun. He responded that there was something simpler: guns produce energy from both ends, after all. Why not use some of the excess to produce a mechanical solution?

And yes, this does mean that the story told in histories about me is a complete lie. I did not, in fact, get the idea of a gas operated machine gun from a childhood memory of being knocked down by recoil. I made it up to cover the fact that I took my inspiration from this man and his conversation. I remember thinking what a fool he was to have said such a thing to me when he obviously had the technical ability to create it himself. It was late in the evening when he took his leave.

After this conversation, I found that I could not rest until I set about work on my new gun design. The Austrians did not employ me to teach them the science of managing electrical systems, but that hardly mattered to me now. I returned here to London and set up a workshop dedicated to making someone else’s idea a reality. After all, as Edison had taken from me, why should I not take from another?

But it was more complicated than I had at first imagined. I had to find a way to delay the ejection of the shell until the bullet had left the barrel. If I did not, the pressure could explode the shell in the chamber, destroying the gun and killing the user. (I have explained the technical details to you before.) I tried a number of different solutions with no real effect.

I was just about to give it up entirely when a package arrived on the doorstep of our workshop. It was postmarked from Austria, but contained no return address. I opened it in private, and found the first of the schematics contained in this box. At first I was alarmed at their accuracy! My correspondent seemed to know as much of my gun as I did! Aside from the unique paper on which they were written, they had only one distinguishing feature: the word “Ru-kai” had been inscribed in red at the bottom corner of each page.

I stood up to storm from my office to order all the doors barred and the windows shuttered when I noticed that not all was as it seemed. There was something different about the recoil mechanism schematic. I found that my correspondent had drawn something—what I later called a “toggle”—that solved the problem of keeping the casing in place until the bullet had fully exited. What was more, a closer examination of the box revealed that he had sent an exquisitely crafted example! I could hardly contain my excitement! I quickly copied over the plans, had a new toggle constructed, and the original gun modified to accept it. It worked beautifully and our project leaped forward.

The parts of the Maxim gun….

My next major hurdle—the problem of how to make the casing move back faster than the barrel—was solved in a similar way. I had hardly begun to work on the problem when another parcel arrived in the mail containing more schematics and another part. This one became known as the “accelerator” and it solved the reliability problem. From then on, my anonymous acquaintance, Mr. Ru-kai, solved all other issues almost before I even knew they presented a problem. While at the time I could willfully ignore what was happening and even now I still loathe calling the gun by any name but mine, I am forced now to admit that it would not have been completed in the time it was without his help. I received a congratulatory note from Mr. Ru-kai when I successfully demonstrated the gun before her majesty Queen Victoria and again on the day when I received my knighthood in 1901, but never again any designs.

What I received instead was much worse. As I sold my gun to all the countries of Europe, I started finding notes in various places. They were unsigned, but they all contained numbers of some kind—you see the collection in the locked box—each one with a larger sum than the last. I found them everywhere and in the most impossible places. The first was affixed to my mirror in a hotel. I found others tucked into my clothes when they came from the laundry, in my wallet one morning, and even in a letter I had forgotten to address that was returned to me with the original seal unopened! I lived for several years in fear of the people who were obviously dogging my steps. Several of my early trips abroad were made with the ulterior motive of throwing them off my track. When I abandoned your mother, I hoped to leave these people behind too.

It took years before I was able to divine what these papers were and their meaning. I had collected a number of them and noted their dates and locations. I made a chart of their progression and looked for patterns. I saw none other than the fact that each one was larger than the last until I happened upon a newspaper account in November of 1893 about the Battle of Shanganai in the British imperial war against the Matabele tribe in Africa. It said that fifty soldiers armed with four of my guns had held off 3,500 Matabele warriors, inflicting 1,542 casualties on the enemy. The next day I found another note under a napkin at my favorite restaurant. When I charted it, I had a moment of recognition! The number had increased by exactly 1,542. I folded up my chart and rushed to the library where research confirmed my suspicions: Whoever was leaving me the notes was updating me on the number of souls my invention had snuffed out.

I have tried to atone for this. I have returned to the study of electricity and moved on to human flight. I created the captive flying machines for the amusement of all. Ye gods! I have even created medical equipment to alleviate human suffering, but no one seems to care or notice. They only know me for the people I have helped kill.

As the numbers grew, so did the weight upon my conscience. How many lives have I wasted by now? With this war, with my guns being used on all sides, how much worse has it become? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I wish I didn’t know, but the notes still came, each one with a new figure. Each one falling upon me now with the weight of a hundred suns. Until a week ago. A week ago I received a note that was different from all the others. It simply said, “We are coming.”

I know there are others like me out there. I can see it in the eyes of other great military inventors. I have heard hints of it in snatches of their conversation. I have come to believe that many of the scientific advancements we’ve seen deployed so brutally in this war were facilitated by Ru-kai and his ilk, whoever they may be. Humanity is cruel enough by itself. We need no further encouragement.

Hiram, my son, I do not know how long I have before that dreadful interview. I have taken steps though, and we may yet have the best of them. I am not arming myself. They will expect that. Instead, I have created something wholly new. Using your radio technology, a drum recording device, and my knowledge of electrical systems, I have created a transmission process that will make a remote copy of everything that is said when they come to me. We will know them for who they are and, with luck, we can warn off others. You will find the drum of the interview in a hidden compartment above the fireplace in the second guest room on the third floor. There is a button hidden in the right corner of the mantle.

I only hope it is enough. Succeed where I have failed.

Your Father,
Hiram Stevens Maxim

To be continued next Friday! 

Want the full story without having to wait?  Download the 2012 All Hallows’ Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds from Amazon.com here.

The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part I

Fiction Fridays: The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim, Part I

Hiram Percy Maxim, at the time of his father’s death

“The terms of the will are quite clear.  Unusual, I know, but so was your father.  Good day.”  The solicitor, an elderly man with an abnormally small mouth and beady eyes, pulled the door closed with a snap behind him on the way out. Hiram sat still, staring at the plain lacquered box on the desk in front of him.  Outside, Hiram could hear the people of London bustling up and down the walk in front of his father’s townhome, some of them no doubt wondering what would happen to the house now that the funeral was over. The rest of the family was poking around for keepsakes of the great inventor. The whole atmosphere was tense with the stress of the Great War, which had raged for two years.

Hiram himself was still quite young looking for his age, with dark brown hair brushed up and back and anointed with cream, making him seem taller than he was. His body was lean; he stood strong and straight. He had a significant mustache of the sort popular at the time, and wore his brown suit with dignity. At 47 years, Hiram was already an accomplished scientist in his own right. He had worked mostly in New York instead of following his father to the Old Country, and he had created a gasoline powered automobile that had won the first race ever held in America. Only recently, he had made significant strides in organizing the fledgling wireless communication movement. While not as famous in military circles as his father and uncle, he had also created a silencer that he later fitted to his father’s famous machine guns. Sadly, the invention came too late to save Hiram senior’s hearing, but it was helping many others, even as the thousands of Maxim guns along both fronts became the very last thing heard by hundreds of thousands of young Europeans. Now, Hiram Stevens Maxim was as dead as they and Hiram Percy was left staring at a box he had known nothing about before that very day.

He sighed, took the key the solicitor had left with him, and opened the lock. The lid fell back, revealing some papers of no particular consequence. They were parchment containing some hand-written drawings of his father’s first machine gun. These had long since been logged with the American patent office and were easily available to anyone with a mind to send for them. There were other, smaller scraps that had what seemed like random numbers scrawled on them with a dark, flowing pen. Beneath each of them, he saw a date affixed in pencil in his father’s own hand. They ranged from a figure of about 50 all the way up into the tens of millions. There was a big jump in the numbers since 1914, but beyond that, it seemed to communicate nothing. What sense does this make? he thought to himself. Why was the solicitor so insistent that we meet here and now for a box with no point? As he lifted the contents out, he noticed what at first looked like a small scratch in the veneer at the bottom. The sun was shining in from the window over his shoulder, and it hit the surface at just the right angle to make the marks stand out. In an instant, his mind made sense of them: “H. P.” Hiram smiled. “You always were clever father,” he muttered as he realized that the box wasn’t as deep as it should be. In a few moments, he had found and worked the mechanisms, and the false bottom popped open. Inside he found several thin sheets of rice paper, covered with his father’s scribble. From the state of the ink and the paper, the writing was relatively fresh—there was no sign of fading—and Hiram was sure that his father had completed them only recently. After pulling the shades down and lighting one of his father’s electric lamps, Hiram sat down to read:

Hiram Stevens Maxim

Hiram Stevens Maxim, inventor

My dear son,

I do not know how to begin. If you are reading this, then I am right on two counts—first, that you are as intelligent as I believed you to be and second that I am as dead as I expected to be. I fear that I have placed myself at the mercy of some very bad people, and I wish to make certain that you know them for who they are before they attempt to manipulate you, as they have me, to the general detriment of our species. To that end, I have set a little trap that I expect will spring closed soon.

First, I suppose I should start at the beginning, if I may use that hackneyed expression. Despite the fact that our family name is now so closely associated with death and slaughter, I was not and am not a particularly violent man. In fact, as you may remember from your early years while I still lived with you in America, I initially tried to make my name in electricity. I created the incandescent bulb, as you know, but Edison stole it from me through his superior knowledge of patent law. I knew that my fortune must be made other ways, and I tried as I could to expand my horizons.

You should remember my explaining to you how I conceived the idea of the gas and recoil operated machine gun that has since carried my name literally across the globe with the march of the British Empire. I had told you that I was given the idea by a fellow American on a trip to Vienna. Over drinks one night something he said to me in sarcasm caused me to single-handedly create a weapon that has slain more men than any other in all of human history. I now will tell you the truth….

To be continued next Friday! 

Want the full story without having to wait?  Download the 2012 All Hallows’ Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds from Amazon.com here.

Inspiration in the Stillness

This month I’ve been looking at who and what inspires me.  For some, inspiration enriches the soul, helps us to appreciate the world we live in just a little more.  For others, inspiration drives us to recreate or, as Tolkien called it, sub-creation.  The beautiful sunset, the rain streaking down the window obscuring the woods, the bright colors of spring reflected in the varied outfits of the busy passers by on the city street, the long road lined with red-buds and blooming trees – they inspire us to paint, sculpt, draw, write, or read. In my last post I called these the wild places that compel me to be something more and make me aspire to tell stories. But often I am too busy, too noisy to appreciate these things.

Inspiration breaths in the quiet moments, when we are still.

I am reminded of Psalms 46:10″Be still, and know that I am God.”

If we acknowledge the truth of what Tolkien wrote about the art of sub-creation- we can only create because God has created us and we enjoy creation only because of Him – then we cannot truly sub-create without acknowledging the creator.  Imagination becomes an imitation of the act of creation.

Be still.

Take a moment and enjoy creation.  Be inspired.  Do not let the business of life detract from the enjoy the world we live in, from finding inspiration in the wild places, the books we read, and the people we know.

Be still and know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Be inspired in the stillness of a quiet moment, of a gentle breeze.

Wordy Wisdom: Why We Love Our Living Language

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all.  Words are wonderful.  Words are magical.  Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy.  Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.

Let’s be honest.  We love words!

(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )

So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”).  Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.

First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing.   When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”

What I see.  What do you see?

What I see. What do you see?

 

Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter?  Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely?  Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone.  An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity.  However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.

Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us.  We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories.  This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.

The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters.  We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.

Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally.  Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs.  Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain?  And I’m not even sorry).

But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.

First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish.  Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests.  We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me).   However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement.  Our language is still alive!  It is growing!  Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.

And some words are just fun to say, aren't they?

And some words are just fun to say, aren’t they?

 

Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text.  A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand.  Something solid.  In our technological age, text has changed.  We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it.  Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another.  It’s not just a thing anymore.  It’s an action.  I can text someone.  Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time.  Because text has changed.

The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers.  We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution.  Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process.  Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language.  We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it).  We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense.  Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.

So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words.  What is your favorite word to say?  What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact?  What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary?  Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps?  Please, I beg of you!)

* * *

Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom:

Too Much of a Good Thing

Very, Very Verbose

I Literally Died!