Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Man In The Tree

He cannot write English, said the critics. No matter, said the public; we can read what he does write, and that without yawning. And so Dr Pessimist Anticant became popular.
Anthony Trollope, The Warden

I finished Damon Knight's The Man in the Tree earlier this week. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

Knight, as I mentioned in the post where I said I'd picked this up at a used book store, is best known for the story "To Serve Man," though he was well known in the science fiction world. While The Man In The Tree isn't perfect, it does some things I find very interesting and enjoyable.(I believe the rest of this is relatively spoiler free. Good luck tracking down a copy if you want to read it, though.)

The story focuses on a man named Gene Anderson, tracing his life from when he was born in the mid-1940s until the mid-1980s (when the book was published). Gene always had two things that separated him from other people: he was exceptionally tall, and he had the power to feel other worlds, grabbing duplicates of items from another universe and doing other strange tricks. Interestingly, the oddities affect his life about equally.

When Gene is nine, three older boys begin picking on him. In the struggle, he accidentally kicks one of them -- the son of the small town's police chief -- out a window and to his death. Gene realizes that there will be serious repercussions and runs away. The police chief, Tom Cooley, spends the rest of the novel trying to find and kill him. Because of Gene's special powers, he can survive by himself. He raids a scout camp ground, and duplicates all the food and supplies he needs to survive in an abandoned cabin by the woods, by trees he finds unusual. But Cooley catches up with him and he escapes, leaving Cooley's accomplice dead, though again that's not what Gene intended.

While the pursuit is always a factor for Anderson, it's not always the main factor. With no home or anchor in life, he tries to figure out what to do. He goes to an art school in Los Angeles, hangs out with bohemians in New York, becomes a circus giant, and much more..

My largest complaint with the book is with what I guess I should call the climax. It might, if you go by that basic "intro, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion" formula actually be the falling action. I think the end structure got somewhat muddled. But it's when the Big Things happen; when Statements are made. It didn't work for me; the scope and tone were too different from the rest of the book.

Though the plot didn't completely satisfy, there were many things I liked.

Knight was not afraid to keep things understated. Throughout the book, I kept expecting someone to bring up the Norse myth of Odin and the tree, an obvious parallel for the title and a someone who is more than a man growing up and looking for purpose. (It does, however reference other relevant legends.)  In another example, at one point a woman tells Gene his fortune with Tarot Cards. After that, Knight doesn't feel the need to hit us over the head with Gene's destiny. Perhaps that's why the ending fails for me; it goes from understated to putting all the cards on the table.

Everyone acts intelligently. Have you noticed when reading a novel, people talk about literature and poetry? In real life, television, movies, or contemporary culture are more likely to be discussed. I understand why; in real conversation, you don't want to lose your audience. Suppose I want to talk about satire. People watching Tina Fey know she's satirizing Sarah Palin. If I start talking about Anthony Trollope's character Dr. Pessimist Anticant, most people will not know that I'm talking about a play on Thomas Carlyle. Since "The Man In The Tree" is literature, the characters discuss lots of arts and literature. It makes me feel cultured to read that. Even characters who aren't well read don't behave stupidly. The sheriff of a hick county doesn't buy Cooley's story that Gene "just happened" to shoot Cooley's friend in the heart, though he can't prove otherwise. Cooley uses some clever techniques to track down Gene over the years.

There are a few passages that I just find great, some for reasons I can't identify. One example:
They went to Notre Dame de Paris, in whose vast shadowy vault the rose windows stared down like celestial mandalas. Gene was moved beyond speech. A woman near them was talking loudly and angrily in German.
"Everyone hates the Germans," Claudina remarked afterward, when they were sitting in the sunlight at a brasserie across the street from the cathedral."
"Because they invaded France?"
"No, just because they are German." 

In short, I like The Man in the Tree because Knight respects my intelligence as a reader. He's willing to assume I'll figure things out, rather than whacking me over the head with it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Doctor, Doctor, give me the news

John Cleese: I think, one of the most curious things about this piece is its wonderful "afunctionality."
Eleanor Bron: Yes, I see what you mean. Divorced from its function, I think, purely as a piece of art, its structure of lines and color is curiously counterpointed by the redundant vestiges of its function.
John Cleese: It has no call to be here; the art lies in the fact that it is here. 
Doctor Who, "The City of Death"

Introduction to the main part of this post
I have created a bunch of self-imposed rules for writing this blog. Some, I think, are common sense. For example, I will never write about my work here. I don't think a potential audience of seven billion should see my personal thoughts on my job. I also try to update it at least weekly; if I don't keep some momentum, it would just fade away.

Others are just a reaction to what annoys me with too many internet posts. I try to avoid turning into an encyclopedia entry. I figure if you want to know about something, you'll highlight the terms, right click on them, and use the option that says "Search Google for..." I also try to avoid too many hyperlinks. Used sparingly, they can be interesting, but used aggressively, they just divert the reader from this page onto others.

Consider these two paragraphs:

I just finished the novel "Declare," a supernatural spy story by Tim Powers. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't realize that one of the major characters, Kim Philby, was a real person until I read the author's afterward. I don't know if that's because the Cold War was never a major part of my life, or because the weak American education system made history really boring.

I just finished the novel "Declare," a supernatural spy story by Tim Powers. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't realize that one of the major characters, Kim Philby, was a real person until I read the author's afterward. I don't know if that's because the Cold War was never a major part of my life, or because the weak American education system made history really boring

The first one encourages you to stick around on CaveFelix and follow my thoughts on the novel. The second one encourages you to look at LOLcats and Wikipedia and whatever the random words I linked to remined me of.

My mini-review of the novel, by the way: This story, set in the Cold War, with flashbacks to World War II and earlier, tells the story of Andrew Hale, a British agent, and his involvement with a mysterious operation known as "Declare," that the Russians are working to prevent. Complicating the matter is that Declare doesn't just involve the British and Soviet agencies, or even just numerous international agencies. It also involves non-human creatures, alien things that humans sometimes call djinns, sometimes angels, sometimes fallen angels. It's a good spy thriller story, and I like how Powers handles the supernatural in his story; it's not people waving their arms and throwing fireballs; it's people following astrology and subtle superstitions and scared to death of what it might bring. While it's good, I feel that it's a bit too long. Some of the repetition in necessary for the plot and theme, but some of it feels like padding. It's almost 600 pages long, and could have been brought down to 500.

This intro is a little bit longer than I anticipated. I'd planned to just start writing about Doctor Who, and why I like it so much. But I wanted to start out by mentioning something about movie critics, which refers to an essay by Roger Ebert. And if I linked to the Ebert essay, you'd be leaving this site to read his work, and he's got a lot more experience writing interesting things than I do, so you might not come back, and then I'd be sad, just like this lolcat.

The Main Part of this post: Thoughts on seeing the new episode of Doctor Who
One of the late Gene Siskel's favorite movies was "Saturday Night Fever." I'm sure most of you would consider it a decent film, but wouldn't rank it up there with Citizen Kane, and wouldn't make it a point of pride to purchase the white suit from the film at an auction, like he did. Roger Ebert, in a reminiscence on his old partner, said it was because Siskel saw the movie at a particular time in his life, and empathized with the dreams of Tony Manero because of that. It's like the fact that, although the best pop music of all times clearly came out in the 1980s, people of my parent's generation would say that it was the 1960s that had the greatest songs, because that time period holds fond memories for them.

So, while it's possibly just because of when I first saw it, I'd say Doctor Who is the most important television show in history.

I was probably about nine years old when I saw my first episode. My father was watching the show on New Jersey Network. We were watching in the den, the only set in our house at the time with cable. (It was actually possible to watch NJN on UHF. I had an old black and white TV in my room. The main knob had 15 settings, from channels 2-13, and 'UHF.' Once set to ultra-high frequency, you chose the channel you wanted, and hoped the antenna sticking out of the back of the set was up to it. Primitive, yes?) I was only watching with half an eye.

I know it starred Tom Baker, but I don't know which episode it was. All I remember is that the Doctor, and possibly his companion, had to race against the clock to complete a task, or the villain would win. Even at that young age, I was sure what would happen: the clock would get down to one second, and the Doctor would pull the lever or whatever to save the universe. I knew, because TV scripts are horribly formulaic.

So my little pre-teen mind was absolutely blown away when time ran out. The Doctor had to find a completely different way to save the universe. It was like watching an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk fails to get the people who have pink makeup and the people who have blue makeup to realize they're the same species, and they wind up annihilating their planet. It was like watching an episode of a sitcom where someone overhears a snippet of conversation, and rather than jumping to a ludicrous conclusion, just walks in and says "I'm sorry, but did you just say that you're planning to kill someone?" only to be told "No, we're making a surprise party for Helen." In short, it was the most exciting script I'd ever seen on television.

Doctor Who aired in England on November 23, 1963. (In the first episode of the show's reboot in 2005, they showed a photograph of Christopher Eccleston standing in Dallas on that day as a nod to this fact.) Almost immediately, the show was a large hit; the second plotline featured creatures known as the Daleks, homicidal monsters that look like saltshakers on wheels armed with laser beams with the trademark, robotic cry of "Exterminate!"

The basic formula for each show has remained the same over the years: The Doctor and the people he's traveling with at the time, known as his companions, travel in a machine called the TARDIS, which can go anywhere in time and space (unless the plot dictates otherwise). They arrive somewhere and discover a mysterious danger. It might be an alien invasion in the Andromeda Galaxy in the year 2567, or a peasant who found a dangerous alien artifact in 10th century France. In the end, they beat the bad guys, mostly because the Doctor is one of the most intelligent people in the universe.

One of the most interesting parts of the show started in 1966, when William Hartnell, the first man to play the Doctor, became too ill to continue the part. Rather than shutting the show down, or finding a lookalike, the script writers decided that the Doctor was an alien who happened to look human, and had the alien ability to change bodies (called regenerating). So they replaced Hartnell with the completely different looking Patrick Troughton.  And it allowed them to write the Doctor with a new personality; Troughton was a lot more mischievous than Hartnell's crotchety old man.

It's something that's kept the show very fresh over the years. I read one interesting analysis which said that they've always hired first rate actors to play the Doctor. When the show is in a slump, it's more likely because of so-so script writers.When I started watching, NJN was airing shows written by Douglas Adams, author of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

When I started watching, the USA was way behind the curve in Doctor Whos. I was watching episodes that had originally aired in Britain in the 1970s, and the order Americans saw them in depended on how their local public television station negotiated with the BBC to buy the rights. Although the show went off the air in 1989, I probably saw the last episodes sometime in the early to mid 1990s.

When it came back, they had made a few changes to modernize it. To my mind, the biggest difference is not the actual special effects, but the fact that the companions have a totally different relationship with the Doctor. Not only is there sometimes romantic interest, but the original shows almost always had a scene like this:

Doctor (to Companions): I'm going to investigate this. Stay here.
Companion 1 (10 seconds after the Doctor leaves): Let's go wandering off and get captured by aliens!
Companion 2: Great idea!

Now the Companions are much more likely to be useful; often they're needed to keep the Doctor from doing something stupid.

Last night, I watched the first episode of the latest season, which introduced Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. (Anyone reading this from Britain saw it two weeks ago. I don't know why BBC America delays it for two weeks, but it's better than when I started watching, and there might be a 25 year delay.) If I had to grade it, I'd give it a B or B-. It was enjoyable, but I felt like I'd seen some of it before.

The plot was fine (and I feel this is a relatively spoiler-free summary; it shouldn't affect your viewing pleasure too much): the newly regenerated Doctor discovers a crack in reality in a young girl's room. It leads to an interstellar prison where the guards are on the lookout for an escaped "Prisoner Zero." Unfortunately, since the Doctor has just regenerated, the Tardis is unstable, and he needs to take it on a trip to stabilize it, telling young Amelia he'll be back in five minutes.

One of the staples of the show has been the Doctor always had trouble with fine steering of the Tardis, and this is no exception. The minutes turn out to be years, and Amelia Pond has become plain Amy, a disillusioned young woman, crushed that the mysterious Doctor did not take her away from this boring little town to fairy tale adventures.

This is pretty effective, and a good reason to explain why this companion is interested in the Doctor. But unfortunately, they did something very similar a couple of seasons ago, where the Doctor promised to show a young lady miracles with the Tardis, and miscalculated how long it would take to return.

There was also a bit of foreshadowing that felt formulaic, when the Doctor is told that the season's big bad is coming and will threaten the entire universe. Since the last time we saw villains whose existence threatened all of reality was the preceding episode, where Doctor 10 gave his life, it felt a little unnecessary. An alien monster on the loose and Earth in jeopardy was enough excitement.

While things may have been a bit by the numbers, they were executed well. The acting was good, the action kept moving. Despite some cosmetic changes to the interior of the Tardis and the Doctor's favorite gadget, the sonic screwdriver, I'm not yet sure how Smith is different from his predecessors, but I'm willing to give him time.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Revenge of the Passover

April: So, what do you guys like on your pizza?
Michelangelo: Oh, just the regular stuff: flies, stink bugs... It was a joke.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990 movie)

Although Passover ended four days before I began typing this, both of the anecdotes in this story relate to things that I did today because of the holiday.One is fairly pleasant, the other less so. Let's start with the unpleasant one.

Why I didn't get the breakfast I wanted this morning, and vowed to continue to harm the environment just a little
I woke up hungry this morning. That's a little unusual for me; normally a glass of orange juice is all I really need. This is good, especially because I'm not at my best in the morning, and may not be up to the difficulties of actually cooking.

While I was thinking of what to make without much work, I saw we had a handful of trail mix left over from Passover. As I think I mentioned, I bought a lot of fruit and nuts before the holiday, in an attempt to have something tasty around. So I thought that oatmeal, with a handful of nuts, raisins and dried cranberries, would certainly qualify as easy and tasty.

Had I made the oatmeal, this is the recipe I would have followed:
   1/2 cup oatmeal
   1 cup water
   handful of trail mix

   Step 1) Put everything in bowl. Put bowl in microwave for about 2 1/2 minutes.
   Step 2) Eat

However, as I went to get the first ingredient, I could see a cricket sitting in the oats. It wasn't the largest one I've ever seen, but it was almost an inch long. The cricket seemed to look at me, as if to say "Do you mind? I have to finish this half-full box, and I'm the only one in it." I obliged Jiminy's non-musical cousin, putting him (or her, I don't know how you tell a cricket's gender, and don't really care) and the oats in the garbage can.

How did the cricket get into the oats? Passover.

During the holiday, we put all our hometz -- food which isn't permitted during those eight days -- in the basement. Which, like most basements, has some insects. In this case, the oatmeal obviously wasn't well sealed, and an insect got in. Since I didn't want to eat something filled with cricket poop, it had to go.

In a related note, two ladies came by the house today as part of Project Porchlight. They were handing out energy-efficient light bulbs and asking people to take steps to make the planet a little greener. But when I saw the cricket, my first thought was "I'm glad I add to the landfills during Passover."

Years ago, my sister found a bug in one of the glasses we use for the holiday. Much like hometz is stored downstairs during those eight days, the equipment for Passover is stored there the other 357. It gives bugs plenty of time to crawl in there. Since then, I've been using paper cups during the holiday. I know that it's possible to wash the glasses in really hot water, to make sure they're clean, but I still have the mental image that generations of spiders might have lived in the glass I'm drinking from, and it's not a mental image I want.

Maybe in 2011 I'll try to use the same disposable cup for more than one meal or snack before throwing it away. At least, that's what I'll tell myself now when I'm thinking about the environment. I'm sure I'll forget before then.

Date, apricot and almond cake recipe
As I said above, I bought a lot of dried fruit and nuts during the holiday, and since I now have real bread and other foods to eat, they're less appealing as a snack. Plus, they're really crowding the shelves.

So I turned some dates, apricots and almonds into a cake. It's okay, but not awesome.

I adapted a recipe from a book "Jewish Holiday Cakes," by Hana Shaulov. I wonder if it suffers from some translation issues. The only liquid it called for were eggs and oil -- no water, no juice, no milk. With 3 cups of flour, and lots of dates, nuts and apricots, there didn't seem to be much to bind it together. After I'd mixed the egg yolks, oil and dry ingredients together, I thought the cake was destined for failure. It didn't resemble a batter as much as a crumble. It was only when I stirred in part of the beaten egg whites (prior to folding) that it began to resemble an actual batter. But that batter was so dense that the rest of the whites served only to turn if from a super dense batter to a relatively dense batter. The didn't give it the fluffiness I think egg whites should if I go through all the trouble to beat them. If I ever make this recipe again, I'm throwing in half a cup of apple or orange juice, or maybe brandy.

The result I wound up with is flavorful, but dry. 

Also, if anyone reading this is ever shopping with me when I buy whole almond, and there's a possibility I'll use those nuts for cooking, for the love of all that is holy, please remind me to buy blanched almonds. Getting the skin off those suckers is such a pain in the ass, even if they make it look relatively effortless on cooking shows and recipe websites. The skin just does not want to come off some of them, no matter how hard you try. Or worse, half the skin comes off effortlessly, and the other bits just won't let go, and you keep wondering if you did something wrong, even though the next almond gives you no trouble at all. (The recipe called for chopped almonds. I don't mind chopping them; in fact, I like the texture.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

And if you remember then follow, follow follow, follow

They've been going in and out of style/ But they're guaranteed to raise a smile/So may I introduce to you/ The act you've known for all these years. 
The Beatles

I will start this off with a video of one of the most amazing feats ever accomplished. Someone completed Super Mario Brothers 3 in under 11 minutes. Why they give out Nobel Prizes for achieving world peace, or discovering antibiotics, but fail to recognize accomplishments like this, is beyond me:

What I wrote about last week made me nostalgic for some older Mario. Since I have Super Mario Brothers 2 and 3 on my Wii, I started playing the third one. Many Mario purists would say that the second game in the series shouldn't count. In Japan, it's not part of the Super Mario series; it's actually a different game which they slapped popular Mario characters into to appeal to American audiences, much the way American actors were thrown into Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

I've had SMB 3 on my Wii for quite a while, but haven't touched it since soon after downloading it. For one thing, it felt extremely difficult. It's extremely easy to die if you're not careful. But I'm glad I took it up again. I'd forgotten how fun it was. I'm not quite done with it yet (just got to World 7) but I'll share my impressions so far.

While the controls on Super Mario Brothers Wii feel a little different, they're similar enough that I could take my experience back with me. While many of the levels are difficult, they're also perfectly sized. They're often amusees, a delicious way to start the meal, but only a couple of bites.

A few other impressions:
  • The game seems huge, especially when you consider it came out in 1988, when computer memory was expensive. Like the last one I reviewed, it's broken into eight worlds, each with many sub-levels. And, like its successor 20 years later, each world feels enormous. World 6 has 10 basic stages, three mini-castles, and several places where you can earn special prizes or pick up extr. Some optional paths on the worlds are blocked off with boulders. In one, I broke a boulder on one world which let me enter a pipe that led to a raft. And that raft let me sail across a sea to where there were half a dozen prizes waiting to be picked up. In addition, almost every level seems to have hidden areas to reward inquisitive players.
  • There's an incredible amount of variety. There are one or two monsters here which didn't make it into Super Mario Brothers Wii, but probably deserved to. For example, one castle looks like it has candles lighting it. But those flames are actually little monsters which will jump off the candlestick and chase you if you turn your back on them. In Super Mario Brothers Wii, one of the bosses (I never learned the names of Bowser's kids) threw giant bouncing balls at you. I was amazed to see that he used the same trick in Super Mario Brothers 3, and that you could jump off those balls to get at him back then too. It felt so sophisticated to find in a game back then. 
  • There's also a bit of mental variety. Some worlds are best handled by running  as fast as possible. Others require careful timing and judgment. A few are even puzzle worlds; you need to figure out the correct way to get to the exit.
  • While losing all your lives resets the numbered levels on a world, the castles stay defeated. Since defeating a castle unlocks shortcuts to get around the world, it makes the game a lot easier. If you die while fighting the final boss of a world, you may have to play through one or two boards to get to their flying ship, but you don't need to replay all of them. 

The coolness of Super Mario Brothers 3 inspired me to go out and pick up a classic controller today. I've always heard that Super Mario 64 was an incredible game (and Super Mario Galaxy is excellent, so I know Nintendo can do 3-D Mario) and figure I should check that out, and maybe some others in the series.

(An aside: While I was waiting in line to buy for my controller, I saw the meanest mother ever. She was with two boys, about 6 and 9, and kept saying to them they were only there to see if they had a game the older child wanted. Then she kept pointing out the awesome games they had. "Oh look, here's a 'How To Train Your Dragon' game! Didn't you love that movie?" she said. "There's Animal Crossing. Didn't you always say you wanted it?" Why tell them about all the great things if you're not going to buy them?)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Fantasy Wargaming

Eternity with nerds. It's the Pasadena Star Trek convention all over again.
Nichelle Nichols, Futurama, "Where No Fan Has Gone Before"

This post involves an obscure role playing game. I've attempted to make it interesting to those who don't follow the games. The fact I feel this disclaimer is necessary means I'm not sure I succeeded or not.

This week, someone on an internet discussion board replied to a thread I started, and finished, in 2008. The board is, and the thread is titled  "[Let's Read] Fantasy Wargaming (seriously)".  For those not familiar with, it's one of the largest boards on this series of tubes for discussing pen and paper games (like Dungeons and Dragons, as opposed to computer games like World of Warcraft). "Let's read" threads are ones where a poster reads a book and comments on it along the way. (And my name on the board, obviously, is Felix.)

If you read the first post, you can get an idea why I started the thread. It was sort of like the "I Watched This On Purpose" section of the Onion A.V. Club. In the obscure world of RPGs, Fantasy Wargaming has some notoriety. It was offered as a book club choice, so it was a widely distributed game seen by people who didn't go to hobby stores. Unfortunately, it's not well written, and has so-so production values. For thousands of people in the club, this was probably their first, and only, exposure to an RPG. Lots of copies wound up in used book stores or the garbage can. (It came out before paper was commonly recycled.)

If the game had come out today, it would be called a "fantasy heartbreaker." That is the term, among the pseudo-intellectual RPG theory movement, for a game which has some interesting aspects, but ruins them by aping too many elements of more popular games like D&D, and leaving itself destined for failure. (Yes, there is an RPG theory movement. Do all hobbies have them? Do, say, Strawberry Shortcake doll collectors go around inventing elaborate theories as to why the designers matched certain nationalities with certain scents, or come up with obscure labels to differentiate the way different little girls played with the toys?)
For example, Fantasy Wargaming had a rather clever idea for a setting: medieval Europe. Not the historic Europe, but the world as people believed it at the time. Angels looked out for you; the fair folk held sway in Celtic lands; if you sneezed, your soul might be taken by an evil spirit; and most villages had a wise woman who could cast charms. You might play a soldier during the battle of Hastings, or a priest coping with the evil spirits causing the black death. But despite this setting, it devoted a lot of space to describing how to build a classic RPG dungeon, with dozens of descending levels, each deadlier than the last. When was the last time you heard about something like that in an Arthurian legend, or folktale from the Middle Ages?

As I said in my first post on that thread, it also had a nice, simple system. Essentially, you figured out how difficult a task was for you (normally on a scale that went roughly from 1 to 10) then rolled on the appropriate column of a chart.  The higher you were on the scale, the more likely you were to succeed. However, the game never put it that clearly. I think that, like many role playing games, the designers never intended for you to learn by reading the book. They just had it printed up for use as a reference guide. You were supposed to learn the rules by playing the game with people who already knew the game. For someone like me, who picked the book up more than 20 years after it went out of print, that wasn't an option.

The game also had some other interesting ideas, probably worth stealing for a better game system. The astrology rules were pretty interesting, and a great way to apply flavor. Once you got past the poor presentation, the combat system actually seemed pretty elegant (on paper, at least). The magic system was also pretty easy to handle; you built spells by with a sort of "recipe" system, adding up the cost of the effects and savings to see how difficult it was to cast. The player could try anything from getting a little luck during difficult times to turning a foe into a sheep. 

On the other hand, there were some real off-putting parts of the book. It may be the most misogynistic game book I've read. Also, since my last post was about observing Passover, I'm not thrilled with the idea of categorizing being a Jew as something that's appropriate for the "Bogey Table," even if it was a bit of a drawback in the middle ages (Other bogeys included winding up with a fetish, or fear of water.)

My last post on the thread, after having read the whole book, was about the idea it would be interesting to try a play session one of these days. Unfortunately, I am easily distracted. To hold a session, I'd need to figure out when and where the action would take place, and might even need to do some research (e.g., look up Italy in the 1300s on Wikipedia).