The Big Idea: Douglas Hulick
Posted on March 31, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 25 Comments
Some say that dictionaries are descriptive, some say they are prescriptive — but how many say that they are inspirational? Douglas Hulick is one of the (I assume) relatively few in that last category, and he’s here to explain how a chance encounter with one eventually led to his debut fantasy novel Among Thieves. The power of a big book of words and phrases! You must respect it.
Twenty years, and (if you’ll pardon the cliché) I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was on the way to the check-out of my alma mater’s student union bookstore, a pile of SF and Fantasy novels in my hand, when a single word caught my eye: “Underworld.”
It was on the spine of a thick, hardcover book on the remainder table. I stopped. Underworld? I looked again. Arching above that word were four more: “A Dictionary Of The.”
Well, that sounded, if not promising, then at least interesting. I began flipping through it. To my delight, I discovered it was a book detailing the secret slang and patois of the criminal class throughout history; in short, a dictionary of thieves’ cant. “Someone actually wrote something like this?” I remember thinking. Cool!
I was mesmerized. Some words, like grifter (a short-change swindler) and shiv (n.: knife; v.: to stab), I knew from popular culture and old gangster movies; but other terms, such as tail-drawer (a sword stealer) and Barnard’s Law (a four man short-con involving cards), were new to me. And the book didn’t just define the words; it gave descriptions of the cons and crimes, often in the words of the criminals themselves (even as far back as the 1500s).
The book cost all of eight bucks. It’s possibly the best eight dollars I’ve ever spent.
Not that I knew it at the time, of course. At that point, I figured I’d found a fun book to flip through now and then; something to kill a few minutes when I wasn’t otherwise occupied reading a novel or short story collection or (rarely for me) a text book.
Over time, I seemed to stumble across more books on historical crime and canting. Pamphlets on Elizabethan cony-catching (confidence games and how to supposedly avoid them); books describing the careers of various Thief Takers in London (men paid to find and return stolen goods, who were often criminals themselves); plays fancifully detailing the lives of criminals during the English Restoration; and a primer on the art of the con in early 20th century America. All found their way into my hands.
As I devoured these accounts, I noticed a couple of things: first, there was an informal hierarchy among criminals, and not just in the modern “Godfather” sense. Even in the Renaissance, the type of crime you did determined your place in the pecking order of the criminal underworld. Secondly, some criminals were specific not only about the kinds of crimes they committed, but also about what they called the people who performed them. So, a thief wasn’t just a thief: he was a prigger of prancers (horse thief) or a high pad (highwayman), or a draw latch (burglar). Likewise, a confidence man might be a ring faller or an Abraham man or any other number of monikers, depending on the kind of con they pulled. That isn’t to say one person couldn’t do more than one law (branch of roguery) — it wasn’t as if they were worrying about bad job performance reviews — but some criminals became known for a specific kind of crime, and that label stuck with them.
And the third thing that became clear to me? With all this fodder, I had to write a fantasy novel about criminals, of course.
One thing I knew from the start was that I needed the main character to both be an insider and an outsider to the criminal world at the same time. As an insider, he’d have the knowledge and lingo and finer details of the underworld at his finger tips, ready to share with the reader; and as an outsider, he could act as a guide for the reader, explaining people and practices–and occasionally judging them–without having to step out of character. But how to do that? How do you write a criminal who isn’t a criminal?
My first thought was an outcast, but that didn’t seem right. Too easy. Then I hit on the idea of the 1940s noir private eye: someone wise to the street, but also above it; a character able to comment on and move through that world at the same time. I didn’t want to do a mash-up, but the traditional narrative style of the P.I. genre — close first person — had a lot to recommend it, especially for a less than pristine protagonist. Besides, I like writing in first person.
Okay, I had a voice, but I still needed someone who would make it his business to kick around the underworld, looking for trouble. I considered a couple different criminals before finally settling on a Nose (yes, it’s actual cant, although I tweaked the meaning): someone who spied on other criminals and reported back to his boss, helping keep the organization, if not honest, then at least less crooked. An internal affairs agent for the medieval mob: a man of the underworld who would also be distrusted by its members and kept at a distance. Yes, I could see fun things there.
And so Drothe, my protagonist, was born. Oh, there were other pieces of inspiration, of course; no book is made up of just one idea. My degrees in medieval history certainly had an impact on the world building, just as my time spent practicing Renaissance rapier combat influenced how I handled the combat scenes. But the darker, meatier stuff in Among Thieves — the mystery, the criminal hierarchies, the looming gang war, not to mention the double-dealing and street fights and thieves’ cant — all found their initial spark in a dictionary I was lucky enough to catch out of the corner of my eye over twenty years ago.
Yeah, definitely the best eight dollars I ever spent.
* = The book is properly titled, A Dictionary of the Underworld, by Eric Partridge (Herfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1989)
Among Thieves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.
Mr Hulick – Is there, to your knowledge, a comprehensive list somewhere of all the scams that conmen perform?
Damn, that sounds awesome. You have found a place in my next book order, sir — right next to Steven Brust, though from the sound of it I may be courting an overdose of rapiers. :)
This is why The Big Idea is such a good idea!
As an ex-AD&D-er who relished playing thieves, I can’t wait to steal away with this book. Just pre-ordered for my Kindle.
Doug was my college roommate and one of the many gamers in my RPG campaign(s), and he was a spiffy writer even back then. Go buy this book! You won’t be disappointed!!
– Dr Mike
I’ve a sick kid at home today, so I may not be as quick to respond to comments as I’d otherwise like. With that excuse out of the way…
JohnW: Depends — are you talking modern or historical? For modern(ish) information on con games, one of the best starting points I can think of is David Maurer’s “The Big Con” (http://amzn.to/eIZYPn), which is a study of the culture of con men from the 1920s up through the 1950s or 60s. He goes over both long and short cons, as well as some of the lingo in this book.
For Elizabethan coney games, I recommend “Rogues, Vagabond & Sturdy Beggars”, edited by Arthur F. Kinney (http://amzn.to/fCct8l). It’s a collection of 16th & 17th century popular pamphlets that purported to details the common scams and “cons” of the day, all presented as “cautionary” works. They also give a list of some of the various criminal classes about, and a short glossary of canting terms.
Rebecca: Brust. Yes! I still remember when his first book came out. (oof, I think another gray hair just came in)
Rick: Thanks to you, sir. :)
This Big Idea made me want to look up “A Dictionary of the Underworld.” I found it on Amazon but I think that there may have been a slight crossing of the wires there. The reviews on that page seem to have migrated from a different book entirely:
“This review is from: The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe (Hardcover)
This most delightful book is not only erotic and impossible to put down but is extremely well documented. The author cites over 100 sources to support his points. Many historical references to implications of various styles are nicely illustrated with drawings and photographs. It is impossible to refrain from self-analysis and sizing up the personalities of those around you based on the psychosexual themes conveyed through dressing the foot. The book is a comprehensive look at the historical and contemporary implications of the role feet and shoes play in flirtation and mating.”
DanB: Yeah, that doesn’t sound quite right. I think if that review squared with what I have on my shelf, I would have written a MUCH different book (and, frankly, I don’t think I’d want to write the first-person action sequences that would have arisen out of that other book…). The brief description of the dictionary you link to sounds right, though.
Dr Mike: Thanks for ratting my gaming out, man. ;)
SirKennth: I have many fond memories of my character being turned upside down and shaken, to see what fell out (and sometimes, he wasn’t even a Thief…).
This is the most interesting-sounding Big Idea in a very long time. Quick! TO the wishlist!
Dang it! I’m never going to catch up with all the books I want to read. Between Big Idea books and BookPage, my reading is at least six months behind, and here’s another book I want to get and move to the top of the pile. And it made me pull out two old books of my dad’s, titled Grafters I Have Met (J.P. Johnston 1906) and Memoirs of a Scam Man (Patsy Anthony Lepera & Walter Goodman 1974) to add on too.
Oh, and that sword guard is spectacular – who’s the cover illustrator?
No problem Doug, I won’t tell them that you are 6’7″ and wear a fedora, either.
You have combined my two favorite genres! I read this.
Pre-ordered. Too bad I can’t start reading now as I am a few hours from getting on a plane.
Oh, wow. Sounds right up my alley! I’ll definitely be checking this one out.
That’s such a cool “where I got this idea from” story! Thanks for sharing it.
KateH: I recall reading about Johnston’s book in other works, but have never found a copy. “Memoirs” I’m not familiar with, but I’ll add it to the list. You have a couple nice pieces of reading there, I think. :)
I’ve had several comments on the sword rig (mostly from other fencers — go figure); the artist is Richard Jones. I *swear* I’ve seen an actual piece that looks like that, but I can’t remember where, or in which museum/collection. Cool, isn’t it?
Thanks to everyone who liked the inspiration story. It’s one of those whim buys that paid off more than I ever thought it would. If only they all turned out so well.
Sounds fabulous. My only complaint is that I can’t sample it *right now*. Alas, I don’t have the funds to preorder on a whim.
@DanB: I noticed that too; in fact, when you go to the Amazon page for A Dictionary of the Underworld and click on the other versions, they’re all for a book called The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe. Maybe they somehow ended up with the same ISBN?
Just pre-ordered Among Thieves for my Kindle. Looking forward to it!
You also want to chase down a copy of Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy. You didn’t know how filthy that dialog is.
Wow~ The first thing I noticed was the review from Brent Weeks – one of my favourite authors. I will definitely be checking that out!
I found this blog after searching up tips for teenage writing and I’ve been hooked ever since :)
Nice one. Ordered.
I think Arms and Armour does a swept hilt similar (twisted but not leaf),but Im not 100% certain…and yes when it comes out I will be picking the book up. Im rather curious now.
Neal in Chi: Shakespeare and filthy language? Who’d have ever thought! (Not that I have friends who used to do the Ren Faire circuit–oh no.) Sold and sold again — I’ll be hunting down that book now. Thanks.
Michael: Good thought on the sword guard. I live about ten minutes from A&A; you’d think this would have occurred to me. Now I need to stop by and check. (Yes, this is me gloating/bragging. :D ) Thanks for planning to pick up the book.
Read it. Loved it. Can’t wait for more!