How to Make a Book Step 2: Set a Publication Date

In this eight-part series, I’ll walk you through the creation of a book using the next release from Practical Fox as an example. As I do the steps to make Life Among the Paiutes, I’ll write about it! Start with Step 1 here.

You’ve written your text, or picked a public domain text, or bought the rights to a text. However you got yourself some text, the book is ready to be edited. But hold on! It’s going to seem like putting the cart before the horse, but trust me, if it’s in your power to do so, pick a publication date now. Before editing, before marketing, before any of it. This will be your own personal map for making a book.

Real talk! I do not do always this. Setting a publication date early in the process is definitely a “do as I say, not as I do” practice. But maybe by offering this piece of advice to the internet, I will guilt myself into doing it consistently for every book I publish. Maybe.

Picking the Publication Date

First you’re going to set a publication day for your book to officially come out. This is the day it will be on shelves both virtual and physical, the day it can be sold by every bookstore in the land, the day you will throw the big party and maybe read a little from it for your friends and fans.

Yes, this seems totally backward, but that’s kind of the point. You’re going to pick that date and create a publication schedule by working backward from that date. A couple of pointers:

  • Pick a date at least six months away to give yourself time to build up your marketing machine.
  • Books are usually released on Tuesdays, so that’s a solid bet. But you can pick any day you like.
  • Try to pick a month without other obligations, like weddings or international travel. You’ll want to be on deck for the last-minute details of launch day.

For my novel Skull and Sidecar, I set the publication date for a Saturday in June, which is an unconventional choice. But it was the same date that opens the book, which is set in the summer of 1926. It’s entirely possible to read the book over the same week that it takes the main characters to ride across Oregon on a Harley-Davidson with a sidecar to rescue a skull stolen from an archaeological site.

Wind It Back

Once you know your pub date, everything else falls into line. Your marketing plan will start six months (or more!) before that date. We’ll talk marketing in a later post.

For Life Among the Paiutes, my current project for Practical Fox, I want to have a publication date of May 19, the Tuesday before the Memorial Day holiday. I began working on marketing in early January 2020, though truthfully I should have kicked this into gear before the end of 2019. It is what it is; moving on!

Here’s a sample schedule for this book based on that pub date:

  • Pub day: May 19
  • Upload ebooks: March 19
  • Ebook design complete: February 29
  • Upload to distributor: February 19
  • Proofread in layout: February 18
  • Paperback design complete: February 15
  • Hardcover design complete: January 31
  • Cover art complete: January 31
  • Assign ISBNs: January 31
  • Text proofread: December 31
  • Text edited: November 30
  • Text downloaded: October 30

Note that I gave myself plenty of leeway in case design goes awry, or the uploads don’t work the first time (they never work the first time).

I also give each major step, like editing and design, at least a month to complete. That’s because I’m doing these tasks myself for a book that was published in 1883. The editing is light and the design is not too challenging. If I were working with editors and designers, as I do for books I’ve written myself, I would allow even more time for revisions and feedback. I’d also factor in getting on the schedules of those professionals, which takes some scheduling.

There Are Many Minutes Better Than the Last One

You might wonder why I bothered to upload books so early if the publication date is in May. First, those are target dates. I have wrestled with uploading systems and persnickety design requirements for weeks with other books. It’s a system I call, as of right this second, “Tweak and Try Again.”

Second, having them in the systems that will sell those books to the people allows me to sleep better. Even if you don’t upload the full, completely designed interiors, you’ll want to get the basic info into your distributor’s systems so you can do preorders. A cover image is going to be key here, so you’ll want that nailed down early.

Doing all of the production work earlier in the process means that you free up time to do some major marketing moves closer to the publication date. Again, marketing basics are coming up in a later post.

Next Time…

Even though I didn’t have to edit Life Among the Paiutes much, editing books is a huge part of how I make a living. So I’ll detail the editing process, from draft to proofread copy, in the next step.

How to Make a Book Step 1: Get Yourself Some Text

In this eight-part series, I’ll walk you through the creation of a book using the next release from Practical Fox as an example. As I do the steps to make Life Among the Paiutes, I’ll write about it!

The most basic thing every book needs is some text. Some words on some pages, whether they’re virtual or on paper. Fiction? Needs words! Nonfiction! Still needs words! Poetry? Needs some very specific words in some very specific places! (Comics don’t always need words, but the process of creating comics and graphic novels is a whole different ballgame from your words-on-pages book project. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how that magic happens, so I won’t cover it here.)

For many people, getting the text to make a book means making the text. You have to write it yourself. And revise it yourself. Then you show it to your writing group, your beta readers, your book coach, your developmental editor—whoever you choose to trust with those words. That person might not be the person you married, and it almost definitely isn’t your mom.

This isn’t a series on writing advice or practice; there are loads of excellent resources out there for support as you muddle through the process of writing a book. Follow any author whose work you like on Twitter, for example. They’ll almost always offer some great advice based on their experiences. Delilah S. Dawson, Sabaa Tahir, and Chuck Wendig spring to mind first. There are also podcasts and websites and Facebook groups and #bookstagram. Really, writing nerds are everywhere online and in the real world, and there’s a flavor of advice out there that will help you write your next project.

Other Ways to Get Text into Your Book

I’ve written and published three of my own books, but for this project, I’m reissuing Life Among the Paiutes by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins. This book was first published in 1883, and in it she details her life as an interpreter between the Paiute people in northern California, Nevada, Oregon, and eventually Washington state and English-speaking settlers, agents, and army officers. Her descriptions of midnight rides across vast territories to deliver messages during the Bannock War are thrilling, and she pulls no punches in her assessment of the government’s treatment of her people. It’s amazing in both enlightening and disappointing ways how relevant this book is more than 130 years after its first publication.

So finding books that are in the public domain is another way to get some text when you want to make a book. Being in the public domain means that the copyright is no longer legally binding; anyone is free to reprint or remix the text. Copyright is very tricky and sometimes involves estates that are protective of the author’s intellectual property, so be careful about going this route.

In the United States, generally anything that was published more than 95 years ago is in the public domain. For 2020, that means anything published in 1924 or earlier. There’s a quick explainer on Book Riot and another explainer on some of the books that fell into a midcentury registration loophole on Boing Boing.

Of course, publishers also get text for making books by buying the rights to the brand-new books that you write. Publishers large (Penguin Random House) and small (Forest Avenue Press) get text this way.

Next Time…

Step two will give an overview for making a publication schedule. This is super handy to have as an indie publisher! And also nerve wracking and intimidating!

Banned Books Week 2019

Happy Banned Books Week, everybody! I’m celebrating this week (Sept. 22-29) by collecting some of my favorite banned books and putting them in my online bookstore. You can find that collection here.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before in blog posts and on social media, but I am very lucky to have a mom who let me read anything. Anything. Any time. She kind of kept an eye out for age appropriateness, but not too much. I read beyond my level as a kid, but there were adult themes that I had to grow into like everyone else. But Mom let me pick my own books and read what I wanted, as did the school and local librarians. If a book was beyond me, I just stopped reading it and came back to it years later.

When I created the collection of banned books for the shop, I used the American Library Association’s list of banned books, especially the classics list and the diverse list. I’ve read almost everything on the classics list, and much of it before I’d graduated high school.

The diverse list had more new titles for me, but that’s because a lot of the books on that list are books for children, middle grade, or young adult readers, and they’ve come out since I graduated college. I didn’t read them when I was young because they just weren’t there. But I am very glad they’re available now for kids reading today, and I hope to see more diversity in publishing going forward. I’m doing my best as a book editor to help make that happen.

Many of those more recently banned books are by or about people of color and LGBTQ+ people. Merely accepting the humanity of marginalized people is, for some folks who probably are not readers themselves, worth trying to get a book banned. My eyes, they cannot roll hard enough. But I can work to create more opportunities for more kinds of authors to publish great books about more kinds of people.

Remember, some of the books we consider Important Literary Works were burned by Nazis in 1933, including Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and even Jack London’s Call of the Wild, which I’m sure you recall is about a dog. And freedom.

How to Get 25% Off Books on My TBR Pile

Did you know I have an online bookstore that sells loads of books — not just books I’ve written? I do!

On the homepage of my bookstore, you’ll find a collection called “KHG’s TBR Pile.” If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a reader and a writer, so you probably already know that TBR is to-be-read. These are the books I have bought and have not yet got around to reading. I have them in ebook form, paperback, hardback, audiobook — I’m truly not picky about medium.

If you click on the KHG’s TBR Pile collection, you will find paperbacks and hardcovers from my TBR pile. Every book in this collection is 25% off if you use promo code KHGTBR. Every book. Brand-new books shipped from the distributor I use for my Practical Fox books. Not used, and not from my personal library. New books waiting for you to buy them for 25% off.

BUT! As soon as I get around to reading these books, I remove them from this collection. They’re still available in the store, but the half-off discount no longer applies. Please note that some of the books are new and cool, and some of them are very old and deeply nerdy. This is truly my very own reading list, so it’s a weird collection.

I almost always post my next read on Instagram (@kristen_hg). So if I’m reading a book you’ve been thinking about picking up, come get it before I finish the last page! Once I’m done with a book, I also post mini reviews on Insta. But the discount (promo code KHGTBR) will be gone by then.

Freelance Perks: Serious Time Off

Here is what it is like to be a mid-career freelance editor and writer. After building up subject expertise and reliable contacts and great clients, I get to take a month off. Like, a whole month. This month, to be exact.

How I Planned It

In the spring, Mr. KHG and I discussed taking time off. He has a regular job, the kind where you can accrue vacation time. He often works way more than his 40 hours a week (it’s a social justice nonprofit type of gig), so he has accrued as many hours as they will allow. He can take an entire month off.

I looked at my schedule and my little stable of regular clients and said, “Yeah. I think I can do that too.” So I made sure to tell everyone months in advance — early and often — that I would be out of the office for August. All of it.

Being a mid-career freelancer, I have long had the emergency funds built up and ready to deploy if necessary. I have a business savings account, a personal savings account, and a retirement plan. The first years were rough, but as things smoothed out in about year five, I was able to build up these safety nets for myself. That means that now, 13 years after going freelance, I can plan to take a month off.

The Lead-Up

There is a lot of advice in the world for people who are new to freelancing and very little, I’ve found, for people who’ve been doing it a while. This is probably because we’ve made it through the scary years and have figured out how we work and why.

But sometimes, you want to see how someone else did a thing rather than inventing every, single, tiny process for yourself. Taking a month off probably won’t work for people who are just starting, but if you’re a few years in, it probably — surprisingly — will. Here’s how I did it.

  • I blocked off August in my calendar so I wouldn’t schedule a project start date or deadline during my month off.
  • I told everyone, my assigning editors for articles and my book editing clients, that I would be taking August off.
  • I planned all new projects to either end before August 2 (my last day in the office) or begin September 3 (my first day back in the office). I have enough new work coming in after vacation that I know I won’t be broke later in the year.
  • I communicated to all clients that I worked with in July that their deadlines for getting materials to me had to be met. If they didn’t get their manuscript back to me in time, I wouldn’t be able to finish editing it before I left the office. People were very cool with this! I did get one manuscript a day late with a lot of apologies and hopes that it wouldn’t wreck my vacation schedule (it didn’t; I’d built in a schedule buffer).
  • About two weeks in advance, I added a line to my email signature that included the days I would be out.
  • On my last day in the office, I set up a very bare-bones out of office response.

The key here, my mid-career friends who may be reading this, is that no one will forget you after a month off. They’ll hardly notice you’re gone. They know and like your work and can survive with the other freelancers in their contacts list. Or if you’re the only one who can do what you do, by your giving them this much advance notice, your clients can plan around your absence.

A lot of us chose freelancing for the freedom (cue George Michael video). Then we found ourselves working in a near-constant panic in an effort to create a steady-ish income. But eventually that steady-ish income does arrive, and with comes that freedom you wanted in the first place. Don’t forget to use it!

Skull and Sidecar: Where Did Those Characters Come From?

If you’ve read my novel Skull and Sidecar, or even if you’ve only read its description, you might be wondering, What the hell kind of name is Gunn Flagely? And where did Nell Kelly come from? Well, wonder no more, friends! 


Gunn Flagely

A couple of years ago, I was on the phone with my grandmother. I hadn’t begun working as a freelance writer and editor yet, but we had moved into the house where we live now. I was in my old office, which is upstairs. It wouldn’t have been painted deep pink yet; it would have still been the pasty tan color that the renovators used on all the walls. 

Gram had reached the part of the conversation where she told me how her friends were faring, health-wise. I always do my best to pay attention, but I’ll admit I often fail. I hear her, but I’m not listening carefully. My mind wanders. I look out the windows at the clouds above the elementary school across the street, or at the squirrels playing in the plum tree next to the front porch. 

On this day, during this particular failure of mine to pay attention, Gram said something like, “You remember Gunn Flagely, from over in…” I did not remember a Gunn Flagely. There was no way there could possibly be a person with a name like that. But I was hooked on the name. I began to imagine this woman who, in her youth, wore a tweed riding suit and had a motorcycle. She had bobbed hair and fantastic lipstick. 

I could not let her go. There was obviously a book to be written about her. But she needed a foil. Someone less audacious, less daring, less sexy. 

Nell Kelly

Gunn Flagely needed a Nell Kelly, but I didn’t have a name for this character. I wanted her to be serious, studious, and feminist. She should be smart and strong, but in ways different from Gunn. The tension between them would come from their different ideas of how independent women should live their lives. 

So this character needed a straightforward, no-nonsense name. I tried a few; none clicked. I don’t even remember what they were. 

Between my North Portland neighborhood and the southeast part of the city where my friends lived is a home renovation and reconstruction business of many decades: Neil Kelly. Its headquarters has the name spelled out in big red letters on a two-story building that sits at a corner with a red light. I often get stopped there, and I often laugh to myself at the number of times I read that sign wrong and think it says Nell Kelly. 

Oh, hey. Nell Kelly.

After spending years writing, revising, and publishing Skull and Sidecar, I now have trouble remembering what the actual name of the business is. Nell Kelly comes to mind far more often than Neil. 

Once I had characters and names, plus a motorcycle with a sidecar, the rest of the book spooled out across the state of Oregon. There were plenty of dead and dreadful drafts in the early days, but these two women were always the twin stars that kept the story moving. 

Get a Copy of Skull and Sidecar

Skull and Sidecar
Skull and Sidecar

On Finally Hiring Help

I am currently on my lunch hour in my office. I don’t usually eat lunch in my office, and I don’t usually work during lunch. But today I am eating leftover vegan quesadilla at my desk because there are two super cool people cleaning my house right now and I do not want to interrupt their flow. That’s what the cats are for.

(They love the cats.)

I have long wanted help running my business, but I am clueless as to how one goes about doing that. What would that other person do? Would I have to tell them how to do everything anyway, which would negate the whole point of having help? How many hours of work would I even have for another person to do?

The cleaning people are my baby step toward hiring help. Because they come in once a month and clean the living hell out of my house, I do not have to take any time to do that. I can keep up with dishes (we have a dishwasher) and laundry, and Mr. KHG can keep up with cat litter and garbage. The occasional wipe-down on the counters is fine. The two hours or so that I pay these cleaners for cleaning once a month frees up hours and hours of housekeeping time for me.

What have I done with this housekeeping time? I’ve gotten this blog back on track, for one thing. I’ve mapped out a marketing plan for the fall to grow my editing business. I’ve been doing hours of French homework most nights. I am doing a ten-day Adobe bootcamp to do more cool social media stuff, like this Helen Oyeyemi quote thing that I made for Instagram Stories (@kristen_hg).

The cleaning people are straight-up pros. I had to give them a wee bit of instruction the first time (don’t bother trying to dust the roleplaying minis, for example), and then they set to cleaning. They’ve been around for three or four months now, and it has made a huge difference in my productivity and my ability to see past the next project and plan for my future.

I’m still not sure I’m ready for an assistant to help me with my actual work, but I can see how it might be really great in the future if I budget the money and a little time, at least at first, for it. But since I’ve hired out the housekeeping, those admin tasks that I used to dread aren’t so terrible anymore. If I don’t have to worry about how disgusting my stovetop is (whew, it was gross, y’all), then I can worry about keeping my clip files up to date and, you know, writing more blog posts. I may even get around to creating the newsletter I’ve been trying to imagine for, like, two years.

How I Became a Book Editor

I’m realizing now, after working as some variety of editor since 2004, that people take many different paths to become book editors. There are degrees and certificates, and there are internships and mentors. I went the DIY route, but only because I didn’t know any better. This isn’t a blueprint or a life plan I would recommend, but it is the way it worked out for me. If you seem to be on a strange path and yet headed for book editing, and that’s what you want to do, take heart! Your strange path isn’t necessarily wrong.

Phase One: Magazine Editing

In the early 2000s, I was hired to do data entry at a car magazine. It was a lot of logging new subscriptions and sending files to the printer for mailing. But somehow, I ended up doing some proofreading for the magazine.

I knew grammar and spelling; I could fix things. It was a small enough magazine in page count, staff, and circulation that this seemed fine to everyone. We did have a professional freelance proofreader who marked up the printed pages by hand every month. Bill would bring them into the office, and I often ended up entering his changes. I learned a ton from Bill, and I googled the proofreader’s marks he used to learn what he wanted me to do. Then I started using those marks too.

I got pretty good at proofreading, so I moved up to copy editing. It was easy to move up; entire departments at that magazine had one person in them. I became the copy editing department when the previous copy editor left to to travel the world on the cheap with his wife for a year. He gave me as much training as he could, and then I swam in the deep end for a while.

I became a pretty good copy editor, and I had shown a love of filling in to-do items and checking them off on the big shared whiteboard where we tracked the status of the magazine’s content each month. Those skills meant I became the managing editor. I worked much more directly with the writers to improve their work, and I still copy edited a lot of those pieces. And I wrote quite a bit for the magazine too.

Phase Two: The Word Mines

When I left the magazine in 2006, I planned on being a freelance writer with a little editing on the side. So I took as many writing gigs as I could, and I eventually signed on with a business that provided editing services for early-days indie authors.

Some of the books I worked on were brilliant and probably should have been shopped to agents and traditionally published. Some were total trash that should not have been printed at all. Some needed the lightest of touches to polish them to sparkling, and some needed heavy-handed sandpaper to make them readable. My rate was the same either way, and it was non-negotiable. It was also not very high.

I never got to interact with the authors, which was odd. The editors’ names in Word had to be set to the level of edit they were working on, so Line Editor or Proofreader would show in the comments. I did get feedback from the company, which did improve my editing acumen. I also worked on dozens upon dozens of books with quick turnaround times. It was a slog and an education. And I burned out.

Phase Three: Indigo

Luckily, around the time that I knew I could not go on with these editorial mills, I picked up some of Indigo Editing’s overflow work. After a few projects, owner Ali asked me to join the team. I also take clients privately; however it works out best is fine with me.

In any case, I now get to work closely with authors (if they want to), and I get to pick which books I work on. I specialize in historical fiction, works in translation, and nonfiction because I like to look up details and fact check things. I have learned over the years that I like developmental editing and line editing best, though I can proofread if I need to. I still remember the proofreader’s marks Bill used in 2004.

The Next Phase

It only took me about 15 years to realize that I am good at editing and I really love it. During these years, I also wrote about cars for the New York Times, PopSci, How Stuff Works, TechCrunch, and a bunch of other places. I got to drive Ferraris and Rolls-Royces and a preproduction Spyker in Arizona. But I liked the book editing best. Even better than the Aston Martin.

I do still write about cars. You can find my work regularly at U.S. News & World Reports. I also still write about weird non-car stuff for How Stuff Works. (It’s worth noting that I have great editors at both of those places.)

But book editing is what I love the most. My brain is worn out at the end of the day, and my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style is full of sticky notes and coffee stains. I always learn more about my editorial craft from the books I edit, the books I read for fun, my fellow editors, and the occasional online class to keep things fresh.

So yeah, it was a crooked path. But it got me to the right place: in a studio in my back yard with a manuscript open on my screen and an open style guide to my left.

How Many Licks

The Science and History of the Healing Power of Dog Licks

When it started, I thought my ten-year-old dog, Danny, had a sore hip. He was trying desperately not to limp on our walks and even in the house. He’s old but he’s active, and he’d been running more with me in the fall of 2018. I thought he’d pushed himself too hard and injured his old hip, probably because that is exactly what I do.

It turns out that, while my dog and I are close, we are not exactly the same. He, for example, has fully embraced the barefoot running craze, while I wear shoes. He also likes to run along the fence and bark at the neighbor dogs. Not only do I not enjoy this activity, it drives me crazy when they do it right outside my writing studio window.

After a couple of days of treating the hip injury it turned out he did not have, my husband discovered that Danny had scraped his rear driver’s side paw raw. The largest pad at the base of his foot was red and weeping, as well as a couple of toe pads (or “beans,” as the internet calls them). I spent two days apologizing to the dog for not seeing the problem for what it was, despite the fact that he hid the injury from me. He is very good at enduring injuries and not limping lest he be left behind for morning runs. He also tucks injuries under his body when he sleeps so I won’t see them. And this whole scraped-paw mess probably resulted from running along the fence in the rocks and sticks and blackberry vines while barking annoyingly at the neighbor dogs, which he’s not really allowed to do. What I’m saying is, this is really on him.

I did feel terrible for him though, so I called the vet. They’ve known Danny his entire life, from the day I adopted him when he was one-ish years old. They love him, and he loves them. They have jars of peanut butter treats, and he will do anything for those crunchy nuggets. But the kind vet tech who answered the phone told me exactly what I expected to hear: there’s nothing to do for a scraped paw because dogs are on their paws all the time. Nothing to stitch, but I could bandage it if I wanted. (We have tons of first aid supplies for the dog. He has become very accustomed to having a foot or leg wrapped.) The best thing to do, she said, was to rinse it with hydrogen peroxide twice a day and let him lick it.

I’d heard this from the vet before when Danny had injured himself. As long as a wound is shallow and not serious, dogs are pretty good at keeping things clean. I’d also read this same advice a few days before in a text from the thirteenth century.

GERALD OF WALES

“A dog’s tongue has healing powers,” Gerald of Wales wrote in The Journey through Wales from 1214. “If a dog is hurt, it can heal itself by licking the places. … If a dog has a bad place on its neck, or its head, or some other part of its body which it cannot reach with its tongue, it transfers the healing properties of its tongue to the wound with one of its hind feet and so heals itself.”

Okay, so Gerald was a priest, not a doctor. I don’t know about that transference of healing powers to a canine’s extremities. But Gerald was certainly not the first to propose that dogs’ mouths had healing properties.

A review published in 1912 of a book called The History of Medicine by a Professor Neuberger noted that there was a Mesopotamian medicine known as dog’s tongue. There was also a goddess of health and healing, Gula, who was often shown with a dog.

Ancient Egyptians were among the early believers in the healing powers of dog tongues, and then the Greeks picked this belief up from the Egyptians. The Greek temples of Asclepius had dogs that were trained to lick people’s wounds, and they were believed to have a “presentiment of epidemics,” according to Patricia Dale-Green in “The Healing Lick and the Rabid Bite.” Dale-Green wrote that in Punjab, dog’s tongues were supposed to contain ambrosia. And there were Assyrian deities called aralêz, which she translates as “licking continually,” that were born from a dog and healed soldiers’ wounds.

If all of these ancient civilizations believed in the healing power of dog tongues, I figured it must appear in the Christian Bible as well. I was not disappointed. Here’s Luke 16:20-21:

And there was a certain beggar name Lazarus [not that Lazarus], which was laid at the gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores.

But alas, the beggar dies in the end. So did the rich man with the crumbs, for what it’s worth. The Bible is fun.

FRENCH KISSES

Not long after my old friend Gerald of Wales recommended dog licks for healing, Saint Roch, who was born in Montpellier in the early fourteenth century, left to live a religious life in Rome. He treated plague suffers along the way and finally got sick himself once he’d reached Rome. Even though he’d helped so many, he was banished from the city. While he was wasting away in the forest, a dog found him and licked his plague sores, and they healed. The dog also somehow brought Roch bread without eating it himself, which is what Danny would do. More believably, the dog’s master followed his dog and found him ministering to Roch’s sores. Roch eventually was named the patron saint of dogs, but I feel like that dog deserves some kind of recognition for being willing to lick plague sores. My stomach turns a little every time I type that.

Saint Roch being French makes perfect sense, as that country has a reputation for its love of dogs. They’re everywhere, even in restaurants and stores, eating off plates and pooping on linoleum. They are a delight. While on vacation in Marseille (and Montpellier, home of Saint Roch, coincidentally) in the early 2000s, we were hanging out by the old port after the fishing boats had come back in that morning. An old, crusty man in a wool cap, an ancient jacket, and worn leather shoes was talking to another man with an equally weathered face under a sheen of gray stubble. Two very tough men of the sea, smoking cigarettes and grumbling together. The first man held the leash of a tiny, adorable white puppy with black spots. I like to think of the man and dog fishing together all morning and taking an après dejeuner nap.

If you’re feeding your dog at the table, you probably assume your dog’s mouth is pretty clean, if not downright medicinal. There are a few ways of putting this in French: langue de chien, langue de medecin is one; la langue d’un chien vaut la main d’un medecin is another. Either way, dog’s tongues are healers in France.

MODERN MEDICINE WEIGHS IN

We’ve learned that “old wives’ tales” and traditional medicinal practices have some validity, but not every single bit of folk wisdom holds up. For example, the early Roman natural philosopher Pliny apparently thought that dog vomit cured dropsy. I’m not entirely sure how that cure was to be administered. Topically? Internally? Ew in either case.

Folk Beliefs of Southern Illinois, published in 1950, has a list of things people in the region believed.It has “103. Let a dog lick a wound to heal it,” but also “119. To cure shingles, rub on the blood of a black cat.” The author did note that people would share all the beliefs they knew of but that they did not always believe these things themselves. So do not smear cat blood on your shingles, please. Maybe try the vaccination instead.

Modern science has indeed found that dog licking is good for dogs and for humans. Dog’s tongues will clean out the dirt in a shallow cut or scrape. So will a human tongue, if you’d like to lick your own wounds, be they physical or metaphorical. Saliva has been found to contain histatins, which ward off infection, and epithelial cells, which grow and close the wound. Both of these speed healing.

Keep in mind that dogs and humans both also have a cocktail of bad bacteria in their mouths that can cause infections. This can be especially dangerous to either species if the wound is deep and those bacteria are introduced deep into the muscle.

LET WOUNDED DOGS LICK

So as much as I could, I let Danny lick his own paw and keep it clean. When it was causing him so much pain he couldn’t walk on it, I used antibacterial ointment that had a little pain-killing action along with a nonstick gauze pad, some stretchy wrap, and a waterproof bootie over it. Putting the bootie on before walks meant I got to say, “It’s bootie time!” in the morning.

The scrape did take a long time to heal, as the vet said. But I could also see the new skin growing over the raw, red scrape. I was watching those epithelial cells doing their job. Gerald of Wales and my vet gave basically the same advice across eight hundred years, and my dog is back to morning runs.

Danny’s Bootie

READ MORE

“Dogs in the Ancient World” in the Ancient History Encyclopedia: https://www.ancient.eu/article/184/dogs-in-the-ancient-world/

Stanley Coren’s “Can Dogs Help Humans Heal?” column in Psychology Today from June 7, 2011: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201106/can-dogs-help-humans-heal

Patricia Dale-Green’s “The Healing Lick and the Rabid Bite: A Study in the Symbolism of the Dog,” published in the January 1964 issue of British Homeopathic Journal: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0007078564800788

“The History of Medicine,” a note on the publication of the book, was published in The British Medical Journal on August 24, 1912: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25298328

Lelah Allison’s “Folk Beliefs Collected in Southeastern Illinois,” from The Journal of American Folklore, 1950: www.jstor.org/stable/536530

Life’s a Beechnut

Lesson thirteen brought such useful vocabulary as le verger (orchard), the difficult for me to pronounce yet slightly more likely to come up in conversation l’écureuil (squirrel), and the very unlikely term la faine (beechnut).

There were many sentences to write about squirrels gathering beechnuts in the autumn in this lesson, which was actually about quantity. Do they gather two beechnuts? Some beechnuts? A lot of beechnuts? (Ils rammasent deux faines, rammasent de faines, ou ramassent beaucoup de faines.)

Beechnut image by Magnus Hagdorn
no changes to the image have been made
Creative Commons

But it made me wonder about beechnuts. I remember eating them as a kid. Friends of my grandparents had a cabin in the middle of nowhere; if I were forced to find it today, I would be absolutely unable to do so. There was a dirt road that meandered along in front of the cabin under a canopy of Northeastern American forest. Part of that canopy was beech trees, and they dropped beechnuts. My grandmother would encourage my brother and me to gather the beechnuts like squirrels (rammasez les faines comme écureuils). She didn’t give a shit about beechnuts; she did give a shit about walking with her friends along a quiet dirt road and talking with them without being interrupted by my brother and I. We would open their burred casings, if they still had them, then crack open their little tripod shells to get at the meat. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I liked opening the nuts, and I liked eating them. According to a forum run by the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden people, beechnuts are “safe, if not all that palatable.” They’re probably right.

Beech Reading

So the French squirrels and I must have beechnuts in common, non? No. Beech trees don’t really grow in France. They grow farther north in Europe and kind of mark the line between deciduous forests and evergreen forests. They’re found in places like Norway, not Normandy.

But the book I’m using, Shorter French Course, was written by professors at the University of Toronto. Since beech trees grow east of the Great Plains and mostly in the north in North America too, it made a bit more sense. I don’t know why anyone would need to talk about beech trees all that much, even in Toronto, but so be it.

Lo and behold, the word beech comes from old northern European languages. Makes sense the people who had the tree would also have a name for the tree. But here is where the humble beech gets to humble brag: it also gave us the word book.

Beech Books

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Grimms – yes, those Grimms, of fairy tale fame – postulated that the Old Norse word bok meant both beech tree and book. That’s because this population used wooden tablets to write on. So the word for the thing they wrote on because the word for the thing itself.

It’s happened before. The Latin word codex meant “tree trunk.” Then wood was used to make tablets for writing, and then a tablet was also called a codex. Then those tablets were collected together to create a written work, which was called a codex.

Still, the Grimms’ idea fell out of linguistic favor in the middle of the twentieth century. As people dove deep into these early languages with modern analytic tools, they found inconsistencies in the noun classes and the etymology. But in recent years, linguists have mostly come back around to Grimm’s original idea that the word for beech was the word for book because beechwood tablets became books.

Just to hit this nail with this hammer one more time, the Oxford English Dictionary also notes that the Sanskrit word for birch, bhurja, in the masculine means “birch tree” and in the feminine means “birch bark used for writing.” The Grimms were no joke.

I had to look up the word for beech in French. It obviously has a different etymology than the Germanic languages, because it’s hetre. For the record, the modern French word for book is livre, which comes pretty directly from the Latin liber.

100% That Beech

I’ve wandered pretty far from squirrels and beechnuts. But since I had to write:

Qu’est-ce que les écureuils ramassent en automne?

Ils ramassent beaucoup de faines.

I figured I might as well reward myself with a trip down the research rabbit hole. If you love research, here are some entry points, some of which are paid sites I use all the time:

The Book and the Beech Tree Revisited: The Life Cycle of a Germanic Etymology

Marc PierceHistorische Sprachforschung / Historical Linguistics Bd. 119 (2006), pp. 273-282 Published by: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (GmbH & Co. KG)https://www.jstor.org/stable/40849386

University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens Forum https://forums.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/threads/edibility-of-beech-nuts.739/

OED entry for book: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/21412?rskey=pMoHGm&result=1