This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (3,070) on Friday, September 15, 2023.
For the past few months, it seems, the world has divided itself into three warring camps: those who believe that AI (artificial intelligence) is the greatest thing since sliced bread; those who think AI is a moral abomination and the users of which are certain to eventually reside in one of the circles of Dante’s hell; and those who are close to clueless about whatever AI is.
Count me in the third camp. I think we are the vast majority, which feels pretty good for once, but oddly enough, I have been trying to escape and have been dipping my toe into the AI ocean to see what, as a writer, it feels like. One of the more interesting articles I have read lately about AI and writing comes from fiction writing author and instructor Audrey Kalman. She wrote “I Hired ChatGPT as my Writing Coach” and gives the AI software a solid 70 percent as a coach:
In some cases, a generative AI is better than a human. It doesn’t sleep, take a lunch break, or stifle a yawn in the middle of your rambling explanation of a writing problem.
However, the 30 percent of the competencies that it lacks represent the real juice of human-to-human coaching relationships, making a strong case for engaging a human coach, either exclusively or in addition to an AI-based one.
I recommend you read the entire article (about five minutes) if you are interested. It caught my attention, and now I am conducting a few of my own experiments with AI as a writing aid. I will update you on what I have found in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, have a great and literate weekend.
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The Baroness who created the modern superhero
Our modern superheroes, for one, generally work behind the scenes. There is a sense of modesty about what they do. They are not trying to take credit or necessarily become famous. A public good or a manifestation of justice is what they are after.
Superheroes have both a costume and a symbol. The costume allows them to disguise their identities so that their good deeds are not laid to the credit. Their symbols are often something they can leave behind, so that people will know who it is that righted a wrong or achieved justice.
Superheroes take risks. The issues they deal with are not minor. They often involve life or death.
The modern superhero does not work alone. Sometimes there is a sidekick, and at times the superhero has a set of confederates to help accomplish their goals.
Finally, of course, the superhero needs a nemesis in the form of a person, an organization, or an idea. The superhero battles this nemesis, often at great odds, using what tools are necessary but rarely crossing the line into criminality.
So where do all of these ideas about a superhero come from? Many of these ideas about heroes have been around for centuries, but one novel published in 1905 by a Hungarian-born writer living in England is given credit for most of the modern characteristics we have about superheroes. (Think Wonder Woman and Batman.)
Emma Orczy was born in Hungary in 1865 to an aristocratic family that was well-off enough to finance her studies of music and art in Brussels and Paris. She moved to London in 1880, where she married Montague Barstow, a wealthy businessman.
Orczy began writing in the 1890s, and her early work was published in magazines such as The Royal Magazine and The Strand Magazine. In 1905, she published The Scarlet Pimpernel, which became an instant bestseller. The novel tells the story of Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy English fop who secretly moonlights as a masked vigilante who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was a huge success, and it has been adapted into numerous films and television shows. The novel is credited with helping to popularize the superhero archetype, and many of the characteristics that Orczy developed for Sir Percy Blakeney can be seen in modern superheroes such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
Orczy went on to write several sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel, as well as other novels, short stories, and plays. She died in 1947 at the age of 82.
In addition to The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy also wrote a number of mystery and detective novels. These include:
The Old Man in the Corner (1909) stories are set in London and feature the Old Man in the Corner as he solves a variety of mysteries. The Old Man in the Corner is a mysterious figure who always sits in the same corner of an A.B.C. Tea Room and listens to the conversations of the other patrons. When he hears a story about a crime, he will often offer his insights into the case, even if he is not asked.
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910) stories are also set in London and feature Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk as she solves a variety of crimes. Lady Molly is a strong and independent woman who is not afraid to challenge the status quo. She is also a brilliant detective with a keen eye for detail and a knack for solving even the most difficult cases.
The Unravelled Knots (1925) stories are set in a variety of locations and feature a variety of detectives. The stories are well-written and suspenseful, and they offer a glimpse into the minds of some of the most famous detectives of the day.
Although there has been a renewed interest in Orczy’s work, she has not been treated kindly by the critics in the past century. Julian Symons, whose book Bloody Murder: From Detective Story to Crime Novel is one of the go-to sources for modern crime writing, gives Orczy little more than grudging kudos. He dismisses her Old Man in the Corner stories this way:
The writing is lively, and some of the stories contain ideas put to use by better writers . . . . Too often, however, they depend upon police work so inefficient as to make Lestrade (of the Sherlock Holmes stories) look like a genius. (p. 85)
Symons calls Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard a “disastrously silly” character.
Despite what contemporary and later critics have said, Orczy’s mystery and detective novels were popular in their day, and they continue to be enjoyed by readers today. She was a skilled writer who created memorable characters and plots that kept readers guessing until the very end. Even if she had never written The Scarlet Pimpernel, she would be remembered for her other stories and novels and the unique characters she gave to her readers.
In addition to her mystery and detective novels, Orczy also wrote a number of other works, including plays, poetry, and historical novels. She was a prolific writer who produced a wide body of work, and she is considered one of the most important authors of the early 20th century. She was a pioneer in the field of superhero fiction, and her work has had a lasting impact on popular culture.
One of the great privileges I have had over the last few months is working with a dedicated group of folks to produce a daily devotional podcast series for 1st United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee.
Our first season (15 episodes, plus maybe a bonus one or two) is up and running now and can be heard at https://1stchurch.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple, Spotify, Google, etc.). The episodes are about five minutes and are meant to enlighten and inspire.
The episodes are also on YouTube, if that is your preferred way of receiving these things.
My colleagues in this venture are Greta Smith, Jonathan Jonas, Clayton Hensley, Jason Norris, and Mark Blodgett, among several others.
Give us a listen, and if you are on a platform that asks for ratings, give us a rating and a comment. And please let me know if you have any feedback.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Group giveaways for September
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
Jacques Futrelle: The Leak
This week we resume the presentation of some of the rivals to Sherlock Holmes that came to life in the pages of books and magazines during the late 19th and early 20th century. One of the best was from the American writer Jacques Futrelle. This week’s entry in his “Thinking Machine” series is The Leak.
“Really great criminals are never found out, for the simple reason that the greatest crimes—their crimes—are never discovered,” remarked Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen positively. “There is genius in the perpetration of crime, Mr. Grayson, just as there must be in its detection, unless it is the shallow work of a bungler. In this latter case there have been instances where even the police have uncovered the truth. But the expert criminal, the man of genius—the professional, I may say—regards as perfect only that crime which does not and cannot be made to appear a crime at all; therefore one that can never under any circumstances involve him, or anyone else.”
The financier, J. Morgan Grayson, regarded this wizened little man of science—The Thinking Machine—thoughtfully, through the smoke of his cigar.
Toni S.: I still think LBJ set up JFK’S assassination. He wanted to be president and knew he couldn’t win in a regular election, so he called in all his “favors” and the rest is history.
I saw the whole thing, and Oswald didn’t look like he had the smarts to pull it off.
Anyway, that’s my theory and, I too, believe there was a second shooter as his brain matter went backwards instead of forward.
Marcia D.: Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter but I believe that there were more people involved.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Afternoon at Cole’s General Store
Best quote of the week:
If more politicians in this country were thinking about the next generation instead of the next election, it might be better for the United States and the world. Claude Pepper, senator and representative (1900-1989)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the BibleProject.com. The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.
Helping those in need
Earthquakes in Turkey, fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee: disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Crimes and thrills in Icelandic fiction, more on the JFK assassination, and more of the Thinking Machine: newsletter, September 8, 2023
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