Nooks and Crannies Blog

Introducing Nooks and Crannies, a writer’s blog focusing on indie authors and publishing. We’ve got a few older entries on EDBOK, and we’ll have some in the future as well.

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Education and Technology Blog

Today we’re starting another new blog, this one on Education and Technology. Ed tech is my background field, and I’m still passionate about it. I do try to tweet about the topic on a regular basis, and this blog will allow me to sort past entries with future ones.

I believe digital books are an important part of the future of education, and combined with tablets and other technologies offer an exciting venue for students. Stay tuned as we focus on Educational Digital Books and other exciting developments in educational technology.

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Stories to Inspire Blog

Over the years we’ve had a few stories to inspire on this site. Now we’re launching the official Stories to Inspire Blog. Here we’ll collect past entries like The Parable of the Stonecutter with other items that hopefully will help authors and their muses, as well as bring a little more positivity into the world.

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An Author’s Guide to the Knights Templar and Banking in the Middle Ages

Thanks to Dan Brown, the Middle Ages are more popular than ever. Many institutions that authors enjoy incorporating in their works have a genesis during these times, including the Freemasons and Knights Templar. Banking as we know it also has a beginning story from this time period.

The Catholic Church, which maintained tremendous sway over affairs of state in those days, generally frowned upon usury (charging high interest for loans). Jews were not under the purview of the church, and so were free to engage in banking activities and setting interest rates as they desired. Catholics were not so privileged.

Nonetheless, a vacuum existed, especially for travelers wishing to maintain their wealth while abroad. The Knights Templar, whose aristocratic members donated their land and money to the order upon joining, were among early Catholic bankers those days. Their castles became de facto bank buildings.

Most intriguingly, the Templars developed a deposit system that formed a sort of early “promissory note.” A pilgrim wishing to travel from Paris to Jerusalem, for instance, could deposit a sum of money into a local Templar bank, and be given an encrypted receipt for the amount. Facing potential robbery, shipwreck and other depredations in the long and perilous journey, the money would remain virtually safe no matter what hardships the traveler personally faced. Upon arrival in the Holy Land, the pilgrim would present the encrypted receipt to local Templars and receive their full amount, minus a reasonable charge for the trouble.

This innovation suffered a setback when the Templars refused to loan money to an over-extended French king, Philip IV, in 1307. He led a campaign against the Templars and helped wipe them out as an order, executing members and leaders.

 

Additional Reading
Unfortunately the Templars are surrounded in myth, and much of what you can find on the Internet about them is mixed in with the fantastical. However, the following links provide a quick background to the subject.

http://thetemplarknight.com/2010/12/22/usury-and-the-knights-templar/
http://history.econtrader.com/fall_of_knights_templar.htm
http://www.keephopealive.org/dfbanking101.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_Templar


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An Authors Guide to Vintage Firearms

Whether you’re writing a murder mystery, a western, a Depression-era detective story, a World War drama, or some other work involving vintage or antique guns, it pays to understand a bit about their history and some of the characteristics associated with old firearms.

History
The first recorded assassination by firearm occurred in 1570 when James Stewart, the first Earl of Moray, Regent of Scotland was shot by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh and Woodhouselee, a supporter of “Bloody Mary.” Hamilton used a matchlock carbine from a window as the regent passed below on horseback.

The first known political assassination by handgun occurred about a decade and a half later, when William I of the Netherlands was shot at close range by a Frenchman, Balthasar Gérard, in 1584.

Firing Mechanisms
Early rifles and handguns were handmade and usually were reserved for the wealthy due to their expense. With the introduction of black powder to Europe, early firearms were little more than portable cannons. Firing early models usually involved a matchlock, which used a fuse (match) near the touchhole at the rear of the barrel in order to ignite the powder.

The wheellock, allegedly invented by Leonardo da Vinci, was superior to the matchlock since a live spark was not necessary to maintain near the powder. It operated similar to modern cigarette lighters, producing a spark via flint when the trigger was pulled. The flintlock was an innovative take on this design, resulting in less complexity and more reliability.

Percussion caps were the stepping stone between flintlock designs and modern ammunition cartridges as we know them today. They contained the primer in a separate cap that was loaded between the touchhole and the hammer in a slight depression at the breech of the barrel. When the hammer struck the primer caps, the caps exploded, and the gunpowder ignited firing the gun. The major advantage in primer caps was their resistance to dampness, allowing guns to be fired in the rain.

A few short-lived innovations around the time of the American Civil War before modern cartridges were widespread included the needle gun, which fired its percussion caps by jamming a needle through paper cartridges, and the pinfire cartridge, which had a pin jutting out the back and was ignited by the hammer striking the pin.

Modern ammunition has the primer as part of the cartridge, along with powder and bullet. Usually the shell is in brass (cheap ammo might use steel), and the bullet is lead, although exceptions exist.

Other Innovations
Muskets were smoothbore, meaning like early cannons the inside of the barrel was smooth. Shot was round and propelled outward without a spin, so accuracy was not guaranteed. This necessitated waiting for enemy soldiers to be within close range and bunched together, raising the probability of hitting somebody.

Rifled barrels were invented by the Germans in the early 1500s, adopted by some early American gun makers and used in the American Revolution, then found widespread acceptance as better understanding of ballistics developed in the 19th century.

Early models were muzzle-loaded, meaning powder and ammo were loaded from the front end of the barrel. Breech-loading, or loading from the rear of the barrel, was an innovation gaining wide acceptance around the time of the American Civil War. One of the major advantages of breech-loading in battle: soldiers could remain in the prone position while reloading, thus offering less exposure to enemy fire.

A variety of breech-loading methods were experimented with during and shortly after the Civil War period. Among the more famous: the drop block design seen in the Sharps rifle, renowned for its accuracy; the Spencer repeating rifle, which was tube-fed and lever actuated; the trap-door design seen in the British Martini-Henry; and the Model 1873 Springfield, a trap-door design adopted by the US Military after the Civil War. Note also that many muzzle-loaded models owned by the US prior to the Civil War were modified to become breech-loaders during the conflict.

Using factory interchangeable parts was an American innovation, popularly credited to Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame who produced muskets under contract for the young American government. At a famous Hyde Park exhibit in 1851, Samuel Colt showed an astonished British crowd how ten separate handguns from his factory could be disassembled and put back together with different parts, and still shoot.

The biggest innovation in firearms came at the end of the 19th century when smokeless black powder was introduced to the market en masse. The cutoff manufacturing date for a gun to be considered “antique” in the US is consequently 1900.

Terms
Revolvers, popularized by Colt, and magazines which could be quickly swapped out, led to rapid fire innovations. Clips hold cartridges together and are typically dropped into a fixed magazine. Magazines are containers holding cartridges, and empty detachable magazines can be quickly swapped out for new ones. People who know guns know the difference, and tend to mock those who do not, so be careful and do your research before writing. Don’t call a clip a magazine, or vice-versa.

Rounds refers to number of ammunition cartridges. So, the great clip-fed battle rifles of World Wars I and II, such as the German Gewehr 98 and the American M1 Garand, were speed loaded by five round or eight round clips inserted into their fixed magazines.

Carbine refers to a shortened rifle. At first they were intended for cavalry use, because longer rifles were cumbersome on horseback. Later, as efficient manufacturing needs manifested in the World Wars, and as the benefits of shorter rifles on the battlefield became more apparent, carbines grew in popularity among various armies for infantry use.

Bolt action rifles, like the Gewehr, indicates the shooter manually cycles the bolt to load another round from the clip or magazine. Semi-auto means the gun will cycle itself to load the cartridge, using spent energy from the fired round to cycle the action. Semi-auto also means one trigger pull, one shot.

Full-auto means the firearm is a machinegun, and will continue firing automatically for as long as the trigger is pulled. A true machinegun uses a bigger rifle cartridge, and is often belt-fed, meaning each round is lined up in a belt that quickly cycles through the gun at so many rounds per minute. They are often heavy, requiring at least two soldiers to set up and operate. A sub-machinegun typically fires a pistol cartridge and can be easily carried around by an individual soldier. It is usually cartridge fed, and the cartridges are quickly depleted due to the gun’s rapid rate of fire.

Conclusion
There’s a lot to know about guns before introducing them into your books from a position of knowledge. Particularly if you’re dealing with a period piece, you don’t want to commit a faux pas by inserting an anachronism that diligent readers who know guns will easily uncover. Take some time and learn more about the subject.

I have a little book on Amazon called Collecting Firearms for Fun and Profit. Although aimed at hobbyists, the book provides an excellent introduction to vintage guns that goes into much greater detail than this blog entry.


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An Author’s Guide to Cufflinks

In today’s world of mass produced clothing, cufflinks may seem like an anachronism. However, men of refined taste still wear cufflinks, and when writing about such a character authors may want to know more about this finer detail of menswear.

First, know that cufflinks are not worn with typical dress shirts. Shirts with “French cuffs” must be purchased. These have sleeves with button holes for the cuffs, but no buttons such as this one on Amazon. They look great when paired with a suit and a luxury watch.

The type of cufflinks chosen to wear on the shirt varies. Some might prefer a vintage pair, perhaps worn by their grandfather in the Roaring Twenties. Others may prefer a solid gold set, or one inlayed with diamonds. Far more inexpensive ones are available, including those with engraved initials one can simply order online. Classic menswear retailers such as Brooks Brothers always offer a fine selection, also.

Pforzheim, Germany is a traditional center of jewelry production, well known for quality cufflinks made of gold or silver. You can still find modern cufflinks that say “Somebody in Pforzheim Loves Me,” and those in the know will get the reference. A lower end traditional center of cufflink production was Idar-Oberstein, also in Germany.

Cufflinks make a fine gift for men. They add a nice detail to a man’s clothing, whether in real life or fiction. Consider including them in your characters’ wardrobes.


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An Author’s Guide to Luxury Watches

So you’ve got a character of means, and he or she wears a nice watch. Which one? What defines a “nice” watch, anyway? Does the brand or style your character wear make a difference? Here’s some background discussion on luxury watches that may help you in defining your character’s choices.

Low End
First, be aware there are different levels of luxury in the watch world. We’re all probably familiar with the low consumer end of timepieces, Timex for instance. Their ad slogan about “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” lasted decades.

Many of us have also purchased and worn Japanese watches by Casio, Seiko, and Citizen. Another popular line on the inexpensive end is Fossil, which is actually a Texas company although the watches are typically made in China and imported. Invicta is another popular American watch company that imports its products. With all these, on the low end of the watch spectrum, expect to pay anywhere upward to $500 or so.

Mid-range
So, what if your character needs to wear something more upscale? A first step up into what might be called the mid-range of luxury watches is the popular brand, Tag Heuer. Many people are familiar with this Swiss brand, which is German for “Day Hour.” The company used Tiger Woods as their ad man for years, and the brand is one of the better known mid-range luxury lines. The Aquaracer and Carrera lines are very popular.

tigerwoods
Watches in this range can have “bling” (such as diamonds) added to increase their value. Typically, though, a Tag Heuer one finds at retail runs somewhere in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, with plenty of exceptions, both lower and much higher.

Another mid-range Swiss brand that is less well known but still holds a high reputation is Tissot. Sometimes a watch aficionado might choose to wear a Tissot to signal they are independent minded, and they don’t want to wear a more widely known brand, yet signal to others that they know watches and appreciate quality.

High End
Brietling is a popular watch brand that advertises “instruments for professionals.” At the less expensive end of their line, these may run $2,000 or so. More typical models will range from $3,500 – $6,000. Expensive Breitlings, such as those in the Bentley line or ones with added diamonds, will sell for $14,000 and up. Breitling would be a good choice for an action-adventurer type hero. It’s well suited for pilots and deep sea divers, or other men who are about exploration or grand feats of derring-do.

No discussion of luxury watches is complete without mentioning Rolex. The iconic Swiss watchmaker was founded in London in 1909, but moved to Geneva after World War I. Among their many accolades is the first water proof watch, the effectiveness of which was demonstrated when Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel in 1927, wearing a Rolex.

Rolex has a long line of popular watches. Among them: the GMT-Master II, which many consider the definitive sport watch. The older style “Pepsi bezel,” which was actually made with Pan-Am pilots in mind, had a blue and red bezel and is one of their most popular models. In 2014, it was re-released in white gold at a steep increase in price.

rolexgmtOther popular models include the Explorer, Yacht-Master II, and the Submariner. It’s hard to go wrong with characters wearing a Rolex, as they are “destination watches.”

Another watch in this category, less well known but popular among aficionados, is the Omega brand. Expect prices similar to Rolex, with popular models including the Seamaster and Speedmaster. Omega watches have a history dating to 1848, and are famous for being the first watch on the moon.

A word about servicing high end watches: About every five years, owners are supposed to have a certified dealer clean and service the watch. This may run anywhere from $500 – $1,000. Servicing is what separates a high end watch from its less expensive cousins. You wouldn’t spend money on a cheaper watch if it breaks, you’d simply toss it and buy another. But for a high end watch, the jeweler servicing your watch will restore it to pristine condition. Scratched crystal? Replaced. Scratches on the band? Polished or replaced. Once serviced, the watch is returned in like new condition, ready for another half decade or so of timekeeping.

Truly Expensive Watches
Luxury watches one step above the high end include two well known brands that should be discussed here. First, Cartier. The luxury jeweler has a most excellent reputation in high end watches. The Ballon Bleu de Cartier is among their most easily recognized models, and it runs in the $8,500 range in stainless steel.cartier

Models made of gold can jump into the $25-30,000 range, and models with diamonds can easily reach the $35-50,000 range. Both men and women of substantial means would not blink twice at wearing a Cartier.

One of Patek Philippe’s most successful publicity moments occurred in 2010, when embattled actor Charlie Sheen lost one of their models, a Reference 5970 worth about $140,000. Needless to say, Patek Philippe prices can range all over the map, up to three quarters of a million dollars. If you’re writing about a “filthy rich” character, it would not be surprising if they wore a Patek Philippe watch.

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Hopefully this helps writers looking to “add a watch” to their characters’ wardrobe. A variety of timekeeping options exists for wealthy characters, as well as those aspiring to become rich. You can learn lots more by browsing watch forums like Watchuseek.


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How to Buy a Good Car Debt Free by Upgrading

Speaking of our first Literature of Money author, Dave Ramsey, one of the most common complaints listeners and readers have regarding his debt-free evangelism is his notion of avoiding car payments.

For Americans, especially those outside major cities like New York where mass transit is a viable option, cars are a necessity. Consequently, car payments are a fact of life for many.

Ramsey says, start with a clunker. Sell the car you owe money on, get out from your payments, and drive a cheap vehicle until such time you can afford something else. This idea seems to bother a lot of people. One of the most common retorts Ramsey deals with is the notion that older cars are less reliable than newer ones.

With all that in mind, let me share my sojourn with cars, and how I was able to upgrade to a much nicer vehicle I bought without going into debt.

First, let’s look at the psychology behind car loans, which General Motors introduced as a way to help sell cars after World War I. Partial payments allow us to buy things we can’t really afford. Studies show that buying things on credit encourages people to buy more expensive items than they otherwise would, had they bought with cash.

And yet, financing a liability that depreciates so rapidly is rarely a good idea. There is no question cars used for daily commuting are a liability. They go down in value immediately after purchase. The popular understanding is, a car drops in value by as much as 20% the minute you drive it off the lot. So, most people are upside down in their loans from the beginning when they finance a vehicle.

So, herein are the steps I took to buy a nice vehicle debt free. First, after suffering a severe financial setback, I found myself in need of a car. This was around 1998. A family member had an old Pontiac T-1000 they sold to my Dad for $600, which he passed along to me.

This was a terrible car. It broke down at the most inopportune times, and was as generally unreliable as any vehicle ever coming out of Detroit. Yet, it did the trick for a while. Until, one day, it threw a rod with only about 75,000 miles on the odometer, and left me stranded in the middle of nowhere. A friendly Texas State Trooper helped me get it off the road and arrange towing.

Needing something cheap and reliable, Dad turned to a friend in the car sales business, who went to an auto auction for me. My request: a Japanese car with under 100,000 miles and under $6,000. He came back with a Nissan Sentra. This particular car was very reliable, even though it was a high mileage vehicle. With my job, and later a new job, I was on the road quite a bit. Unlike with the low quality Pontiac, the Sentra would not quit, and I happily racked up the miles on it while getting great gas mileage.

While $600 was easy for me to come up with for the Pontiac, $6,000 required a loan. At this point I talked to my credit union, which was much more amenable to the idea of a car note for a low income, low credit person like me at the time. I started using the car to make money, taking it to work, and I threw money earned toward the loan to pay it off early.

When I bought the Sentra, it had about 90,000 miles. At about 180,000 miles I wrecked it. Somebody pulled out in front of me and I couldn’t avoid hitting them. They drove off after the wreck, and my insurance company paid me for a hit and run driver.

At that point, the car was paid off, but it was an old and now very high mileage vehicle. The insurance company gave me $2,000. This was reasonable, and I was grateful I didn’t owe anything on the car. I took that money and another couple thousand I had in savings and bought a Nissan Frontier.

This was a very good vehicle, and over time I put about a quarter million mostly trouble free miles on that Nissan truck. This leads us to a “new vehicle” factoid, which essentially states, if you keep a vehicle from the time it’s new until the time it’s virtually worthless, you aren’t losing anything in resale. In other words, if you never resell the vehicle, you aren’t dealing with a huge drop in value. You’re not trying to trade it in, so you don’t particularly care how much it’s worth at any point in time since you’re not trying to sell it.

I’d become concerned about the continued trouble free experience in the Nissan around 2006 or so. So, I took savings of about $7,000 and started shopping around for another car. By that time I’d taken another job that required a lot of driving, and I was worried the pickup would finally start to have problems when I could least afford it. I came across a low mileage Mazda Tribute, (made on the same factory line as the Ford Escape). It was selling for about $17,000, so I took out a $10,000 loan. It had low mileage, and over the next few years I proceeded to rack up the odometer. I was diligent in basic maintenance, rotating tires and getting regular oil changes. But, I never brought the car in for regularly scheduled maintenance at the dealer. By the time I reached 130,000 miles, I became worried dealer attention would soon be needed. So, I traded it in and received $3,000.

At this point, I was ready to go back to a compact truck. After researching on Edmunds, I determined the only four door compact truck with a four cylinder engine was the Toyota Tacoma. This vehicle ran me about $23,000, for which I took out a loan.

At this point, my credit was pretty good. I’d established a relationship with a local credit union, and I’d talked with them about a car loan which they were prepared to offer me. After a fairly uneventful negotiation over the price of the pickup, I went into the finance officer’s office for the last part of the purchasing process. At that point, all sorts of options were offered, including financing through the dealer.

Dealer financing is considerably more flexible than the guys behind the desks might have you think. It’s very lucrative for the dealership. In fact, dealers make considerable money from the service department and the finance department. Since my credit union was willing to offer my nice terms, (although my credit at that point was not outstanding, it was fairly decent), the dealer offered to meet or beat the CU’s rate. In order to cement a sale, and financing, the dealer can sometimes work on the numbers even if you don’t necessarily qualify for the lowest rates.

I took the dealer’s offer, then paid off the truck as fast as I could. An interesting thing about pickups in general, and Tacomas in particular: they have some of the highest residual resale value. Once I had it paid off, I was able to cash in the equity on yet another new vehicle, and managed to use that equity to pay for a huge chunk of the new vehicle. I paid the rest in cash to avoid car payments, this time much to the finance office’s dismay.

So, by simply upgrading from a high mileage vehicle to one with extraordinary resale value, paying it off early and using the equity to pay for a huge chunk of the next vehicle, I was able to trade up into a nice new car, on which I owe nothing. That’s one way to do it.


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Dave Ramsey Helps People Become Debt Free

In all the literature on money, one of the most successful authors today is Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has made a career out of counseling against consumer debt, and has helped countless people become debt free with a simple plan called the “Seven Baby Steps.” He evangelizes a debt free approach to living in one of the country’s most successful talk radio programs, and he’s a frequent guest on Fox News and Fox Business Network, where he used to have a show synced to the radio program.

Ramsey’s breakout bestseller is a book called The Total Money Makeover, where he outlines strategies for becoming and living debt free. He’s made many other products available. For instance, his “Financial Peace University” is a series of lectures and activities that cover his material over nine weeks. He’s popularized several sayings, like “Act your wage,” and “Debt is dumb, cash is king!” and “Live like no one else so that later you can live like no one else.”

As of this writing, he and his daughter Rachel Cruze have most recently published Smart Money Smart Kids: Raising the Next Generation to Win with Money. It instantly shot to the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller List.

As one of the most successful authors in the field of personal finance, no discussion (or blog) about money is complete without mentioning Dave Ramsey. It makes sense to start off the Literature of Money by discussing him.


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The Literature of Money

I’m happy to start off a new blog today about money and personal finances. Specifically, I’m going to be looking at what authors have written about money. The title of this blog is “The Literature of Money.” Stay tuned for new entries.


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