Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Blogging the Blog 8: Characters Come To Life

I advise anyone who is running a blog to do a search for your blog's name once in a while. Often I find references to this blog on other sites that I was oblivious to. Recently I was using someone else's computer and not wanting to connect my Rooksmoor identity to my real identity, rather than simply type in the URL which would then be left in their 'History', knowing that they use a different search engine to me so were unlikely to stumble over my searches, I simply searched it and then linked through. It was interesting to see who had referred to me. There were the references to my posting on 'It Happened Here' which I have mentioned. I was particularly pleased to see a reference from a Liverpool community discussion board to the section of my article on the Great Unrest of 1910-11 and I joined in providing a book reference and filling out some facts for one commentator who seemed to have mixed up some pre- and post-First World War events.

Of course it is not simply humans who reference your blog. There seem to be a whole slew of engines that go around listing links to topics that they think might be of interest. MattFind.com references this blog for my comments on Catherine of Aragon back in October 2007 and on counter-factuals in June 2008. Another such engine, Technocrati, has picked out a more recent posting, from last month, on restraining Wilhelm I whereas the Yahoo! Glue system seems interested in my posting this January about the assassination of King Edward VII. What is interesting is that my counter-factual speculations are listed alongside true historical content.

There is another set of engines, it seems, particular to Germany, though I imagine they have appeared elsewhere too, that goes in search of specific named individuals. The first one I came across was produced by PeopleMe.org about Ingrid Langen. It describes itself as 'a people directory made by users'. Though I have not had any particular interest in the topic, I have been made aware now that I am looking for a job, that it is important to be able to be found on the internet. This can work for you in two ways, graduates are warned about having nude or drunken pictures of themselves spread across their FaceBook and MySpace pages which will embarrass them when potential employers search from them online. Conversely applicants complain that companies that have none of their current employees on a site such as Linkedin, have no credibility and are clearly not worthwhile attempting to work for (though given the economic climate they may have to be less choosy). You are supposed to produce a blog. However, my given the atmosphere of closed minds and bullying I have revealed about my company it could be really detrimental to my career hence me speaking my mind but keeping my identity out of it.

Anyway, clearly PeopleMe (it is actually peopleme but that is difficult to make out in text like this) has Ingrid Langen as a member or perhaps wants her as a member and so asks any passing surfers if she has a blog, MySpace/Bebo/FaceBook/Xing, etc. spaces and if you have any photos of this woman. So how does that link to my blog? Well, it lists all references to Ingrid Langen and importantly references to parts of her name. This means it picks up a ragtag of stuff: the blog of Ingrid Glomp; a man called Gregor from London who writes in German on MySpace and has 'langen', the word for 'long' in one sentence and talks about an Ingrid in the next sentence; the Facebook site of Sigurd Langen, and then the (presumably) relevant LinkedIn spaces of an Ingrid Langen and a Dutch woman called Ingrid Langen de Kanter. You may ask why my blog appears in this very odd list and this is simply because I referred back June 2007 to Eugen Langen the man who constructed the Wuppertal monorail system, the Schwebebahn at the end of the 19th century. I do wonder if more internet systems are actually reading my blog than human beings are!

Looking through the search results for this blog, however, it became even more fascinating and suggested that the desire by society and in particular business to have everyone present on the internet and their details made available (presumably to sell to marketing companies) is leading them down uncertain paths. I found three names that were associated with my blog picked up by the People123 website, another German one. Again it is seeking details, telephone numbers, email addresses and photos of these people across social websites and other locations on the internet. The three people it picked up from this blog are: Werner Meinders, Patrizia Emmerich and Claude Goethals (to be accurate that should be Andre-Leon-Claude Goethals). Now, aside from many other real men in France, this Claude Goethals was a character, a French journalist, in my Beckmann story, 'The Ruthene'; Werner Meinders was another character, this time a 44-year old civil servant for the Bavarian Landesfinanzamt, in my story 'Reliable Witnesses' and finally, Patrizia Emmerich, a young woman living with her mother and grandmother in a block of flats in 'The Dead Landlord'. I try to avoid affectations in my writing because they can really hamstring a decent story. I did allow myself a small one with 'The Dead Landlord' and all the surnames of the characters are of movie directors or actors, many from Hollywood of the past 50 years.

The reason why these characters have been picked out from all the ones that appear in my story is because there are real individuals who have a place on the internet with these names or similar ones. However, what fascinates me, is that my fiction is adding elements to the accretion of data around identities on the internet. Does this mean that I might mislead people, if they do a quick search and find me having written a fictional character who is a civil servant or lives with her mother and they lazily associate it with the real person they are encountering. I trust that would not be the case. It does rather put a great deal of burden on online authors. I always try to get names for my characters appropriate not just to the country but also the time period. Names go through fashions very quickly and it is very jarring to read a novel in which historical characters have modern sounding names. Before the age of internet search engines, I used to read through the indexes of history books about the country I was writing the story about at the time and simply copied down the names of the people listed there. Thus, hopefully the names in the Beckmann series are appropriate for Germany of 1923 rather than Germany of 1973 or 2009. You have to be subtle as when you feature characters who are middle aged or elderly, you need to be looking for natural names of people when they were born 40-80 years, earlier, so for the Beckmann stories, names not only of the 1920s but also the 1840s-80s were needed.

In future I probably need to be more careful when I select names for stories that I am going to post online. Given how much fiction is made available this way whether on blogs, websites or as e-books, I imagine I am not the only one who has encountered this issue. Next time I write someone as a murderer, especially if they are a German character, I will make sure that I check the internet first so as to avoid tarring someone with such an accusation, at least in the eyes of these numerous searching engines. In reality there are some people who end up with names that become famous. In my career I have worked with an Alan Parker, a Diana Ross and a Michael Foot and many of us have probably known a Michael Jackson, none of whom are the celebrities who share their names which must make it a nightmare when trying to find that ordinary person's MySpace page. I suppose I worry a little that I will become like Emma Thompson's character in the movie, 'Stranger than Fiction' (2006) which did not get much attention but is well worth watching for the central idea. In it Thompson's character, Karen Eifel, finds out that the novel she is writing is shaping the life of a real man, Harold Crick and as the man is to die in the novel this puts her in a moral dilemma. So I hope that the reputation of no-one sharing a name of one of my characters ends up being tarred with what their fictional counterpart does. In our world where everything has to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered by internet tools if not by humans, then I can only hope that authors will not be held responsible for happening to select a particular name for a particular character who behaves in a particular way. Folks, it's fiction, no matter what your search tool might think.

P.P. - 11/02/2009: I was interested to find that my views on the dangers faced cycling on British roads was picked up, ironically by 'The Guardian' news blog last July: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2008/jul/09/dangerouscycling
My research on the Great Unrest has formed the basis of the best response to an Answers@Yahoo.com question on this period, with a decent quote from my writing. I find some of the responses to these questions, even the ones picked as the best by the asker, often to be weird or inaccurate, but I can hardly complain in this case!

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