I interviewed Paul Anthony Jones about his research into positive words for his book, The Cabinet of Calm for the #237 Oct 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum.
Paul has been writing about language in some form or another for nearly a decade. His background is in linguistics, and based on that he wrote a book on the origins of words back in 2013. Around this time, he started a Twitter account, @HaggardHawks, to tweet about words and word histories that he had discovered in his research.
The Cabinet of Calm is his seventh language book – eighth book overall. He told me it feels different from other books he has written. The focus isn’t on the meanings and histories of words, but on how they can be interpreted or considered. Paul confessed it was an interesting book to compile but a real challenge to put it together.
“The idea for writing a book to bring together little-known calming and reassuring words began when I sadly, lost my mam at the end of 2018 and my dad a few weeks later at the start of 2019. I and my family were floored by what happened. I explain in the introduction to the book I’d initially resolved to take some time off when my publishers approached me with the idea of The Cabinet of Calm, exploring how language ties into tough times like I’d experienced.”Paul Anthony Jones
Paul revealed he was in two minds about whether to take them up on their offer, until spring 2019 when he walked into the city centre in Newcastle to clear his head, and was wandering aimlessly around the shops when he spotted a shirt his dad had worn hanging in a clothes shop.
“It all came flooding back—and just as quickly as it had struck me the grief was gone again – I was back to normal. I remember walking out of the shop, going to get a coffee and thinking there’s a word for that.”Paul Anthony Jones
A few years earlier he had written a blog about a word, stound, he had found in an old dialect dictionary. It’s defined as a wave of grief or emotion when a loss is suddenly remembered. He explained this was precisely what he’d experienced and knowing a word for it somehow made it easier because it meant that someone somewhere at some time had experienced precisely the same feeling, to such an extent they’d coined a word for it. It was at this moment he knew he had to write the book, and set to work brainstorming ideas for how it might come together.
Paul has blogged and written about language for so long now, he has accumulated quite a database to mine—besides an ever-growing collection of old dictionaries and glossaries he has picked up from second-hand stores and online sellers over the years.
He explained he raided all these for words to make interesting topics. After a few weeks’ work he had a list of about 300 possible entries. It took another month to cherry-pick the most interesting ones – those with the most intriguing meanings and histories – until he had trimmed the original list down to a shortlist of around fifty.
He divulged whenever he starts work on a new book, there’s three ways it comes together. First, something he already knows gives him the gem of the idea – in this instance the word stound. Secondly, there’s all the other words and etymologies he is already familiar with through his work to fit the same brief. Then there’s everything else: words and etymologies he does not already know, found from researching the new idea. Paul told me this is the best part and makes up the vast majority of material in the final draft. The initial idea forms the foundations, his research builds the rest of the book.
“In The Cabinet of Calm, the first chapter I wrote was actually for a word I found while searching specifically for topics to do with feeling overworked or overwhelmed: cultellation. I’d never spotted this word before; derived from an old surveyor’s tool, it describes the process of cutting a larger task into smaller more manageable jobs. It was the right mix of a brilliant-sounding obscure word, a perfectly appropriate meaning for what I was compiling, and a fascinating and very unexpected etymology.”Paul Anthony Jones
Paul’s tip to anyone interested in writing about language or words is to track down reliable sources. It makes for much more rewarding research and raises the reliability not only of your work but of this genre of book as a whole. This makes the finished work more robust. You’ll know yourself what constitutes a reliable research source – even then, try to back everything up.
Paul explained The Cabinet of Calm went through quite a difficult draft period, with both himself and his publisher approaching the idea from two different angles. Initially, he wanted to bring together lots of much shorter dictionary-like entries, and divide the book in two halves—the first listing words for worldly problems, and the second for calming, reassuring words to act as their solution. His publisher had a different idea, and pushed him towards writing fewer chapters of more detail and content. It took quite a few attempts to get it right and Paul is happy how the final format works well.
He advocates, no matter how you find yourself researching, that’s the best way for you. Many writers – especially when they’re first starting out, are overly self-critical, and feel they are not taking their writing or research seriously if they don’t fit the romanticized idea all writers are forever carrying a notepad, jotting down ideas in coffee shops, and pouring over piles of books in libraries. If this is how you work, great! But if it isn’t, it’s fine too.
“Work out what works best for you, and stick with it. By all means take ideas or inspiration from other people, but don’t compare yourself unnecessarily to them. We all have our own ways of doing things, and your writing will be happier and more fruitful if you allow yourself time to figure out what works best for you.”Paul Anthony Jones
To find out more about Paul Anthony Jones you can follow his personal account on Twitter @PaulAnthJones and his professional account @HaggardHawks. You can also check out his websites: www.haggardhawks.com and www.paulanthonyjones.com.
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