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Posts Tagged ‘academic publishing’

15 years ago in 2006 my first academic journal paper as a historian was published. Sole authored, it looked at the borrowing records between 1732 and 1816 of Gray Library in Haddington, East Lothian, an unusual example of an early free town library. The paper examined these borrowing records to see what they told us about the town’s reading habits at this time.

I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective blog about this journal paper. The paper was published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and the full published PDF version is available on my website, in green Open Access form on my publications web page. Note I had earlier co-authored publications from my computer science days, but this was the first academic journal paper I wrote fully myself, and my first history piece after retraining as a historian, picking up BA, taught MPhil and PhD history degrees.

The paper was written fairly early on in my part-time history PhD at Dundee University, investigating Scottish reading habits circa 1750-1820 (my full PhD thesis is also available freely online). I decided to write the paper to give me a push to write up this good case study, but it was also creating good analysis I could use in my PhD thesis.

I submitted the paper too late for that year’s competition by the journal for postgraduate students. I remember Callum Brown, the then JSHS editor and at the time a professor of history at Dundee University, asking me if I wanted him to hold my paper back for the next year’s competition. But my health then was so precarious with my neurological disease resisting treatment, so I asked him to just consider it for normal publication as soon as possible. So he did.

It’s common for academics looking back at their early published writing to find it naive or flawed in other ways. I’m actually really proud of this paper, and its breadth and depth of analysis. Admittedly I would struggle to write it now, as my neurological disease has progressed more. But I still think irrespective of that aspect that it stands up well to the test of time.

I was blessed with rich library borrowing records, though I had to transcribe these all myself, working on a microfilm copy of the manuscript originals at home (yes I have my own microfilm reader!). That and the subsequent checking took many months, but gave me over 5000 borrowings to analyse.

Using my genealogical skills and research, especially in the then National Archives of Scotland, I researched the library borrowers extensively, allowing me to identify hundreds of them confidently, and note their gender, occupation, birth and death dates, and address if more specific than (or different from) Haddington. Adding these genealogical details allowed me to examine the borrowers and their borrowings in myriad different ways and groupings, and was a very powerful tool.

Such analysis was only practically possible because I built a linked relational database of the library borrowing records and its readers. This is something that at that time was groundbreaking in a Scottish book history context, but even today would be unusual. The three linked relational tables of borrowers, borrowings and books were then loaded into a MySQL relational database system, where I could run SQL queries to search for the borrowings of specific groups of borrowers that I was interested in. For example the following query counts the most popular books among teenage boy borrowers:

SELECT LinkToTitle, Count(LinkToTitle) FROM
(SELECT *
FROM borrowings, readers
WHERE ((borrowings.LinkToBorrower=readers.ReaderID
OR borrowings.LinkToOtherReader=readers.ReaderID)) AND readers.AgeOfBorrower=”teenage” AND readers.Gender=”male”) AS tmptable GROUP by LinkToTitle
ORDER by Count(LinkToTitle) DESC

Comparing male and female borrowings at the library was very important, and allowed me to engage using this substantial data with academic theories and contemporary opinions about differing reading habits by gender. I also relished the way this system allowed me to examine other groups in detail. For example I was able to pull out the borrowings of teenage users of the library, both boys and girls, which led to a particularly satisfying section of my paper.

One branch of my family tree traces back to Haddington, and it was a delight to see ancestors pop up among the library’s borrowers. Two of them sneaked into my published journal paper: my 5xg-granny Jean Veitch (later Mrs Somner) and her father William Veitch, a watchmaker in the town.

My Haddington library records and database have recently been gifted to the Books and Borrowing project based at the University of Stirling. This means that other researchers can build on my work, indeed a number of them already are, which has been fascinating to see. And ultimately the Haddington borrowings I recorded will be available to view freely online.

The findings in the paper were numerous, ranging across changing reading habits, variation by gender and occupation, demonstrating the use of books to educate young minds, and different ways of fitting in the library into your working week. However I think its main contribution was as a proof of concept. Both for the power of relational databases to analyse library borrowing records in a myriad of ways, but also for the potential of enhancing the library borrowings by other genealogical and historical research to better contextualise the borrowers and their borrowings. However on a personal level it was also a proof of concept for me, re my ability to write and publish academic journal papers. Even if with it sailing through peer review with no revisions required prior to publication it perhaps gave me an overly optimistic and unrealistic view of the tribulations that might ensue in that process!

Again my journal paper about the Haddington library borrowers is freely available to download and read on my website, as a PDF linked on the publications page.

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I was invited to speak at the Scottish History Society AGM today. Which normally would be face to face in Edinburgh, but this year – of course – is online, by Zoom. I was speaking about a forthcoming publication I have with them – transcript plus accompanying essay – about a poem recording events at the local court in Melrose in 1682. A poem written back then.

It went very well. I’ve been so extremely ill with my progressive neurological disease lately, and am still recovering from that flare in symptoms, that I was worried I wouldn’t be strong enough, especially if I’d had little sleep beforehand. When my brain shuts down it’s quick and sudden, with initially slurred speech then rapid confusion. And that could have struck at any point through my 20-minute slot (10/15-minute talk, plus time for questions after).

But I made it through. The audience enjoyed the talk, and are looking forward to reading the full piece when it is published. I was able to field the many interesting questions and discussion. The other talks were stimulating and interesting, and I was able to participate in their Q&As too. And best of all I felt engaged in and part of the academic community in a way I haven’t for ages.

Meanwhile though back to sleep more …

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I’m pleased to say that the article based on my postgraduate Masters research into Melrose’s court is now newly published. It’s in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and is currently the featured article, so can be read and downloaded freely by anyone without subscription. I had much fun doing this. I completed this research long ago, before my separate history PhD. It’s been a delight to revisit the work, and consider what else I can do with it.

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March 31st 2020 will mark exactly ten years since my successful history PhD viva. I thought it might be nice to reflect on how the subsequent years have gone, and where things stand now for me, in academic terms.

I live with a severely disabling neurological disease, which struck in 1994 when I was just 22. It’s gradually progressive, and prevents me from working in any paid capacity in academia or elsewhere, and limits what I can do. The last decade saw me continue to battle a major relapse in my disease, including needing high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Fortunately this treatment helped stabilise my condition, although it is still progressive.

Nevertheless I have continued to be active as an academic, publishing new peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters, and presenting conference papers and participating in other ways.

In the early stages post PhD my primary focus was on publishing work from my PhD thesis. Increasingly I have moved onto new research and new topics, and have a number of interesting new research projects underway.

An unexpected more recent change of tack saw me switch from my usual eighteenth century interests to jump back into the seventeenth century. My pre-PhD MPhil (taught PG Masters) dissertation studied a rich set of seventeenth century Scottish local court records, and I felt strongly that these merited publication as well as my later PhD research. In addition I discovered a poem about the court in 1682 – written then too! I have an annotated transcript and accompanying essay about the poem due to be published soon. This might sound straightforward, but the seventeenth century context is far outside my comfort zone as a historian. Yet I have derived much pleasure working in it, and learning the historiographical ropes. Encouragingly I also think there could be more publishable outputs possible from this MPhil dissertation research.

I have also combined my historical interests with indie computer game development, specifically traditional text adventure games, or interactive fiction as they are more commonly known nowadays. Two games have been entered into competitions, one about Border Reivers in 1490s Liddesdale, the other an occult treasure hunt in 1590s Scotland based on a true story in my family history. I plan to write more in future. It’s a creative hobby that gives me much pleasure.

Another area I would like to explore more is digital humanities. I’ve always used large scale computer techniques in my historical research, probably inevitable given my previous background as an academic computer scientist. Yet I would like to do more, for example building online portals to some of the databases and resources I have built in my research, and using spatial analysis and visualisation to further explore Scottish book history and urban history.

One thing that has declined over the last decade is my participation in academic conferences. This has had a strong correlation with my neurological disease progression, and the increasing practical challenges of attending conferences given these circumstances. However I do still occasionally speak at conferences, or attend. I was due to speak at a conference in May, but then Coronavirus happened. Hopefully the event is just postponed, rather than cancelled.

Something else that has declined over the last decade is how frequently I have been able to attend Dundee University history research seminars for the university’s history academic staff and postgraduates in particular. There are various reasons for this, but my progressive disease is definitely a major factor. I was delighted recently when I managed to attend a history seminar, the first in a very long time. Many familiar faces to see and catch up with, as well as new folks to meet. Yet even largely home based I don’t feel completely cut off as an academic historian. Twitter is a particular boon, connecting me with fellow academics and historical researchers with shared interests, all over the world. I also have a good number of lecturer friends I can call on for advice if need be. Ever since my PhD I have had an honorary research fellowship in history at Dundee University, which has also been a huge help, and is very much appreciated, giving me ready access to electronic journals and other resources, so vital to allow me to continue to keep up with research in my academic fields.

I don’t know what the next few years are going to bring. But for now I look ahead with optimism, and hope to continue to build on the good progress I have made as an academic historian in the last ten years.

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I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

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Mainly as a prompt for myself, to encourage me to get it all done, I thought I’d blog about some writing projects I want to finish off in the next year.

First up is a rewrite of a conference talk, which I want to submit in print to a new academic journal. It’s almost finished. I just need to tidy up the last few bits. And some sections are time, or more pertinently date, critical. So I need to get on with it. That should be done soon.

Secondly I have a brand new journal paper combining urban history and book history, the topics of my PG Masters and PhD. It needs more work, but I’m really pleased with it as it stands. I think it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve written, and it’s a topic that probably only I could do, given my combined background. The trickiest bits are sorting out illustrations for two case studies. For the first, a town, I can probably work from a published town plan, if I can pick a suitable one, and get permission to use it. The other case study, a regional case study, is possibly going to need a new map. I’m not good at drawing maps! So I’m still pondering what to do re that. It definitely needs some kind of cartographic illustration, to explain unfamiliar geography to the reader. But if I can crack the mapping issues I ought to be able to submit this journal paper in the first quarter of 2018.

Slightly more straightforward is developing an already accepted manuscript publishing proposal for the Scottish History Society. This concerns a poem from the 17th century, which I have transcribed, and will be published in annotated form. The key work to do is to add numerous annotations and expand the introductory essay. Annotations will be added for people’s names, places, events, anything else needing explaining. This should be largely straightforward, but will be somewhat time consuming, and may hit tricky patches. The introductory essay needs more on the possible provenance of the poem and its mystery writer. I may need to consult an academic specialist on poetry of this period for that. I expect that I can finish this by summer 2018, but have a much longer deadline option available if need be.

I also have a short journal paper in progress, concerning a 16th century poet ancestor of mine, a royal courtier, whose family history as published eg in DNB is very wrong. I thought I might write a note putting on record a corrected version, based on my research. This is in progress, in Scrivener on my iPad, but isn’t urgent to finish. It can wait until all the more important and heftier items are out of the way. So while it might be nice to submit it in 2018, in practice it may be done later. Not least because of how ill I am, with a severely disabling MS-like illness.

I have other academic writing projects in the air, but for most I need to do more research in primary source materials, i.e. documents, first.

As well as the academic writing projects I have two fun recreational things that I hope to submit in 2018. I am writing a number of interactive fiction (IF) or text adventure games in Inform 7. And I may be ready to submit two of them to IF competitions in 2018. One of my games, a 15th century set game about the Border Reivers, is about 80% finished at the moment. I need to add further refinements, and improve interactivity, and it still needs thoroughly playtesting. But that could easily be completed well in advance of the 2018 IFComp, the main annual competition for interactive fiction games that takes place each autumn. The other historical game I’m writing, about mathematician John Napier and a treasure hunt he was employed on for my ancestor Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, around 1590 or so, is much earlier in development. But I expect I should be able to get an opening portion ready to submit for IntroComp, for the opening sections of games, if that competition runs again in 2018, most likely in the summer.

So those are my writing goals. Submit two journal papers, complete another already accepted publishing piece, and submit two interactive fiction games to competitions in 2018, all going well. Let’s see what happens!

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As the month nearly comes to a close I’m winding up my AcWriMo activities. And as always around this time I thought I’d look back on how things went.

At the start of the month I had three goals outlined, all involving academic journal papers in various stages of development.

Two of these goals were fully or better accomplished. One was revising an accepted paper, which I turned around in the first week and emailed to the relevant editor. Another was starting to convert a conference paper from spoken talk with PowerPoint slides to a written version suitable for an academic journal paper. I set out only intending to start this process, the first draft of converting the spoken text to words, with much further development and enhancement required later. But as things turned out I went far beyond this, developing many sections of the paper more fully, and having it much closer to possible submission to a suitable academic journal.

The remaining goal was to finish developing an already mostly written academic paper, ready to send to a colleague to read through and give suggestions before I develop it further prior to submitting to a journal editor. This was the only goal not fully completed, although I managed to overcome a major impasse, working out a new strategy for approaching one of the main case studies in the paper, which I then largely wrote up. There are many sections still to be finished off and polished, and it’s not ready for that read through yet. But it is well advanced, and I should be able to get it ready to email off by Christmas, with hopefully the aim of submitting it to an academic journal paper sometime early in 2015.

All this was achieved against the backlog of struggling for much of the month with my neurological illness, more so than usual. There were several weeks when I could barely manage an hour of writing total. And then there were better weeks when I might manage 2-3 hours total if lucky, again done in 1 hour bursts.

The main strategy I found for keeping going when well enough was to think in terms of which goals I would target in specific weeks. So I had in mind key activities for the first week, and the second week, and so on. This broke down what might still have been quite a daunting task – three quite ambitious goals for the whole month for someone so very ill with so limited time – into more manageable chunks. And if I put in the time, even in isolated one hour chunks here and there, I could make slow but steady progress. Breaking it down into week by week goals also helped to keep the momentum going, and that I had to get on with things, lest time slip by and be lost. But I did have to rest when too ill.

Academic writing month can be a wonderful focused time, but for me the best thing about it is the good habits it can help to develop, which can be applied throughout the year. So the importance of making achievable goals and to-do lists, breaking down larger tasks into manageable chunks, and keeping going, even in small bursts, to make progress in spite of time and other limitations.

So I’m very glad I took part again. I look forward to taking part in 2015!

 

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Well it’s a few days later than I’d intended to post it, but it’s still roughly the middle of the month, so I thought it would still be a good time for a post looking at progress so far.

On the downside for the last two weeks I’ve been struggling a lot with my neurological disease. However I’m coming out of that bad patch now. And despite that I’ve still managed to make progress with my writing goals.

Goal 2 – to revise and submit an accepted prizewinning journal paper – was finished by 7th November. Lots and lots of changes made to the paper, and the revised version emailed off to the editor.

Goal 3 – converting my SHARP Antwerp conference paper into the first rough draft of an academic journal paper – is well under way, and I hope to have it completed by next week. This is very much only the first step in the process, and I will need to develop it further in future. But it will be a great start.

Goal 1 – get a journal paper in progress ready for a colleague to read and give feedback – is under way too, though more in the early stages. The paper itself is already well developed, but I still have a few sections to flesh out. In particular one, a case study of the Perth book trade circa 1825, needs me to learn a lot more about Perth then to do it justice. So to that end I’ve been reading a number of old books about the town, including several written back then and fortunately available in digitised PDF form from the Internet Archive, to better acquaint myself with how the town functioned then, and its layout of streets, and shops. I should be able to move on to writing up the case study more next week, with a fair amount of confidence of completing this goal by the end of the month.

So all very encouraging I think. As I’ve said before I can’t do AcWriMo in a hugely intensive way. Rather I have to write in short bursts, often no more than an hour at a time, a few times a week if I am lucky. But I stick at it, and give myself achievable goals, and that way get things done. So I’m very encouraged.

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I’ve been working on a number of journal papers lately. Some are brand new, or in early stages, others are revisions of existing papers, including one to be resubmitted elsewhere. And it got me thinking about how I feel about the academic writing process in general.

When I start a piece of academic writing I find it terribly exciting. There is an element of Schrödinger’s cat to it – writing with masses of potential, that until you start writing it almost has the potential to go anywhere.  You can scribble mind maps and preliminary ideas, and there seem to be so many possibilities for the writing to take, almost infinite at times. That’s quite thrilling, and in some ways it’s a perverse version of blank page syndrome: you can be scared to start writing, not because you don’t know what to write, but because once you start writing the range of possibilities starts narrowing. The hard part is keeping that enthusiasm going as things get pinned down more, and the writing progresses, keeping an open mind, and stepping back at times.

Stepping back is also vital when revising a piece of existing writing, whether in response to reviewer comments, or on your own initiative. Reviewer comments can be really tough to take. I read a good blog post today about various strategies for dealing with academic feedback. I coped well with feedback throughout my history PhD. It’s been harder since finishing, as I aim to publish in ambitious journals. Initially I was knocked sideways by some of the feedback from anonymous peer reviewers, which could be very aggressively expressed and quite personal at times, but quickly learned how best to deal with it, for me anyway. I’ll glance quickly through it on first receipt, then put it to one side for days, possibly weeks. Then I’ll look at it afresh, by which time I’m much happier reading it, and work out a strategy for addressing their concerns.

So that’s partly what I’m working on at the moment: turning reviewer feedback into positive revisions for a journal paper resubmission, and nursing burgeoning new journal papers, trying to keep that initial spark of enthusiasm burning brightly, and not narrow things down too much. But it helps me that I’m juggling multiple things at a time: keeps me from getting bogged down in any one task, and gives me the variety that I need to support enthusiasm and creativity.

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Just before the old year ends and a new one begins I thought I’d do a recap on how things have gone for me in the last year, particularly academically.

My honorary research fellowship was renewed again. This is from History in the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee. After I finished my PhD in 2010 I asked if I could get an honorary fellowship, to help me continue to access vital resources like electronic journals, which are typically only available to current staff and students of universities subscribing to them. This is particularly important as more and more university libraries switch from subscribing to print copies to e-journals, which, generally, are restricted in who can use them. I’m a life member of one local university library, and have another one nearby, but neither opens up their e-journals to people who aren’t staff or students. So this was important to allow me to keep up to speed with current research and new developments. And the fellowship has been renewed every year since. It’s also nice that when I give a conference paper or publish a new academic journal paper it provides some kudos to the department which has supported me so well.

Over the year I’ve submitted more journal papers. I learned early in January that another paper had been accepted. It’s derived from part of my PhD thesis, with new additional material, and will be published in Library & Information History in 2014. Another prize-winning paper is due to be published at some point in the Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society. And I was asked to do my first academic book review, for the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and it was published in November 2013. Other papers are with editors, or at various stages of development. And I was pleased to see two of my past academic papers became freely available online, under open access rules.

I took part in four academic conferences this year. The first was a conference for archivists, where I gave a talk about my experiences as a disabled user of archives. This was held locally, in a hotel in Dundee, so was easy for me to get to, but I was very weak from the neurological disease that day, and it was something of a struggle. But I wanted to present this important view, and was glad to make it. I blogged about both my time there, and the topic I was talking about.

In the summer I attended one day of a conference about the Middle Ages in the Modern World. This was at St Andrews, my former university, actually very near to where I was once a science undergraduate and postgraduate student. This was much fun. Again my husband was with me on the day, to help me manage everything in my wheelchair, and I blogged about my time there.

The third conference was that of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland. Their autumn conference, in September, was held in Inverness, and focused on the topic of Rural Scotland. I gave a talk about my postgraduate Masters dissertation research examining Melrose regality court records (local court records for Melrose and the surrounding area) in the late 17th century. I am currently looking to publish this as an academic paper, and got very good feedback and had a very rewarding time there.

The fourth conference was held in late October to celebrate the work of my PhD supervisor who died a month earlier. It had been planned long before he died, and was a conference of mixed emotions, but ultimately positive.

I also had another flying visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. Not academic at all, but a wonderful celebration of books and reading, and I was very glad to be able to go again.

In November I took part in Academic Writing Month again. My goals were more modest this time: resubmit a revised journal paper (done), and submit a paper to the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2014 conference in Antwerp (also done). Whether my paper for SHARP is accepted or not I will be there. I’m also planning on going in 2014 to a book history conference at St Andrews in the summer, and will be flying down to London to attend the Worldcon World sci-fi/fantasy/etc. convention at the Docklands.

Another major interest of mine is genealogy. I run a Cavers one-name study, researching all families with this surname, particularly before 1900. Developments on this in 2013 included me starting a new Y-DNA study to use DNA to look for connections between different Cavers lines. I also gave a talk about my Cavers one-name study at a Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth. A version of this is online, with PowerPoint slides and my audio delivery.

I also run two one-place studies, where I research two parishes in the past. Both of these have a particular focus, for practical reasons, before 1820. The two parishes are Coldingham in Berwickshire, and Melrose in Roxburghshire, both Scottish Borders parishes with family connections for me. I continue to transcribe and develop online resources for these studies, and in 2013 this included adding a person index of about 9000 names for Melrose court participants between 1657 and 1676. Likewise for Coldingham I put online a list of 19th century prisoners from the parish.

I’m a roleplayer, and play Call of Cthulhu online at Play@YSDC. This works well for my neurological disease, meaning I can play as and when I’m able to. It also means I get to play with people around the world. In 2013 I started a new game in our ongoing campaign of Doctor Who / Call of Cthulhu crossover games. And I also started a game set on the Bass Rock, hopefully the first of many games (if our characters survive!) set in Scotland. Sadly I also dropped out of a game for the very first time – it was proving too unreliable in terms of keeping going, with long periods of inactivity by the keeper which I couldn’t keep up with – but I hope that won’t happen again for a long time.

Continuing the roleplaying theme I’ve been writing more of a series of crossover history/roleplaying articles, which I plan to compile into a book, probably in digital format. This is slow-going, but I hope to make more progress in 2014. Likewise I have been continuing to develop my very long-standing interactive fiction (text adventure) work in progress – a whodunnit set in Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders, about 500 years ago. Again another thing to work on in 2014.

My neurological disease continues to be a problem, but is being a bit better behaved at the moment, and may have gone into remission or need less daily chemotherapy and steroids to control it. I’m still left with the legacy of brain damage from the past, and wide-ranging disability that this causes. But I hope for a bit of a break from too toxic a cocktail of daily drugs. And maybe I will be able to get more done in 2014 than I have for a number of years. It may be just a temporary respite, but I want to make the most of it.

Anyway I’m looking forward to 2014 in an optimistic manner. Hopefully it will be as productive and rewarding as 2013 was.

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