Tag Archives: Fiction

Well, I thought Spring was here….

Bloodroot in blossom

…and I may have been right, looking at the calendar, but when the temperature drops from a very pleasant 72F to barely 50F overnight and you have to turn the furnace back on, then you start asking if winter is having trouble leaving us.

Yes it was very nice last week. I was happy to be out in the warm weather with no sweater or jacket, even happy to be able to scrape the mud off the soles of my hiking boots, and looking forward to more days like that, and then – WHAM!! Back we went to the low to mid-50s. And I see by looking at the weather map that it’s still snowing in many places.  That’s fine. I like wearing sweaters.

So that brings up attention to detail. It isn’t necessary to overwhelm anyone with details, but if you read detective novels, they are the people who notice the small things. Something out of place. A sweater not neatly folded but thrown on top of a pile of stuff. The dirt marks on a clean floor. Tiny bits of gravel where they shouldn’t be. Pens scattered instead of in a collecting cup.  Basically, show us the unexpected things.

All people have certain habits, things they do that they aren’t aware of but other people are. There are people who will complain if there is no rain and also if there is too much. Never ever happy. Too hot. Too cold. Too bitter. Too sweet.  Too many cars. Buses never on time. These are things that go into building characters, things that can be repeated until they are unconsciously recognized by your readers as habits or characteristics, such as a very sensitive sense of smell, that give your characters a small touch of reality.

There are other things. Butterflies, for instance, will flock to a place that provides salt and other minerals. In a mystery novel, this might be a clue to where the body is buried if there has been a lot of rain and the soil covering the corpse has been leaching away.

It isn’t necessary to cram the details in all at once. Distribute them through the story, and for Pete’s sake, make notes about it! It’s easy to lose track of who is who and what is what.

Have a nice Spring weekend, even if it rains!




The End of Summer…

It really is the end of summer now.  In the Pagan/Wiccan calendar, Lunasagh marks the beginning of the harvest of foodstuffs to be stored and used through the fall and winter into Spring.  In the old days, when icehouses stored winter ice cut out of ponds, lakes and rivers for use in the summer, people would find themselves coming to the end of their supply of ice.  In truly hot, humid weather, that could become a burden.

If you pay attention to the rising and setting of the Sun and the Moon, then you will mark the Moon’s position in her relationship to the Sun through the seasons.  Why bring this up?  Partly because most of my life until I was an adult was spent on a farm or in farming country. I’m still conscious of the seasonal changes. The Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac (two separate publications) have online presences as well as published print editions that give weather forecasts, tidal changes, the phases of the Moon, the planets in their various constellations, and all the other things that people who work in a ‘natural’ setting will notice more than those working indoors in an office.  There is an article in my local newspaper noting that fewer and fewer people, adults and children alike, are spending time outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine for various reasons, and it does have a very real affect on their emotional state when they shut themselves up in buildings.  They become more fractious, contentious and sometimes aggressive.

I love fantasy stories. Good fantasy storytelling is always something I look for.  The things I’ve already mentioned – seasonal awareness, the effects of being outdoors versus indoors all the time, noticing changes in the sky in daytime and at night – are essential to making your people believable to your readers.  This is what Tolkien did when he created the Universe of Middle-Earth.

I also love good science fiction.  When Anne McCaffrey invented the world of PERN, she paid attention to those very things. Her people had to do so, or suffer the consequences.  It’s as necessary to fantasy as it is to science fiction, both of which I grew up reading, and wondering if I could come close to telling tales that resonated with people the way the stories of J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Robert Heinlein did.

If you are going to invent a Universe to populate with dragons and sea nymphs and Sea Kobolds (look that one up, it’s interesting), then I encourage you to fully understand that Universe yourselves.  If you are going to write fantastical tales of Knights lost in a wilderness, find out why they are there in the first place, and then tell us what happened and how they’ll get out of this dilemma.  How many will survive? What are they facing?

I have a good friend working on his first novel, trying to make it as good as he can, so my part in it is to ask him questions.  What? Who? Where? When? How? Why?  He will send me his chapters and I will send him mine. His is a world that is unique and has not been done before – or if it has been done, it did not last because it was not done very well by someone else and he’s found his stride in creating it.

I apologize for taking so long to write another post, but this is part of what happens when you do want to take your story from start to finish.  Your blog posts become unintentionally sporadic. You forget to fix lunch and you drink ice tea (when it’s hot) instead of having breakfast, and find that you’ve shrunk a full dress size without trying.  No harm in that. Just take your vitamins, get a ham and cheese sandwich and some grapes, and keep pecking the keys.  And if you get stuck, don’t worry about it.  Have something else you can turn to. And get outside in the fresh air occasionally. It will do you a world of good.


In regard to characters

Geese doing morning yoga

Yes, geese do yoga at the start of the day.

Now I’m going to expand a little more on what I said last time.

This has to do with the characters you create if you are writing fiction. I think it’s a real good idea to spend a little time interviewing them, to see how much depth you can give them. What drives them?

I’ve said before that one of my favorite writers is the late Georgette Heyer. She wrote a long, long list of period romance novels set in the timeframe of the Regency Period in England, before and after the War of Independence. She does refer to specific military actions to set the stage for some of the male characters and why they say and do some of the things they do. I don’t know if she ever did anything like an interview for any of the people whose lives she made so real for her readers, but her perception of those people was bolstered by superb research into the Regency Period itself.

For example, in ‘The Toll Gate’, Captain John Staple gets bored silly if he doesn’t have an adventure on a regular basis. The fights with Napoleon gave him that, and then he was picked up at sea by smugglers and spent a week with them. His mother wants him to find the right girl, all the girls he’s met bore him silly, and he wants to join his friend Babbacombe for hunting, because it’s early fall and the scenting days will give them a few great runs. So he bails out of his cousin’s dinner party, goes off to find his way north, and gets lost in the rain and falls into a wonderful (by his words) mystery. Along the way, he does meet his dream girl. You can almost hear the fanfare when they see other for the first time.

Piled into all of this are Heyer’s skillful inclusions of character assessment for each of the people involved in this adventure. She made tons and tons of notes for her stories. This is the best kind of example to follow.

So how do you do something like that for people who live in a world created out of whole cloth, as in sword-and-sorcery stories, fantasies, and science fiction, or just plain old fiction?

When I said last time ‘make a lot of notes’, this is something that I do. It’s necessary for me, at least, to do this, because I find that these characters which I imagined into existence not only decide what THEY want to do and how the story should be told, but they also are grumpy, happy, angry, excited, quizzical, lost and completely bewildered in the ‘why is this happening?’ sense, and definitely more and more solid.

I don’t mean that I merely ask someone what annoys or excites him or her, or that I create a physical description of someone as a frame of reference. If I have a team of five people who were thrown together and left on their own, I want to find out what their quirks are, what makes them part of this team, what makes them laugh and cry and what their goals and desires are.

All your notes, and if you also want to do the Q&A thing, interviews with your characters to find their speech patterns and how they think, are worth every second of your time and effort. I’ve found in doing this that I’ve compiled many, many pages of information that gives my characters more depth.

I want to know what it is that will cause a character like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in ‘Breaking Bad’ to go from being just a man who left his job to being a dark, ruthless criminal. And why did he leave Gray Matter Tech in the first place? The depth of that fall into darkness was fascinating, because he could have done just the opposite and become a crusader like Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland in ’24’

It’s being willing to look at these things and put them into play that gives invented characters depth and makes them more real to people.

On delays and – well, whatever!

Beach rocks sunning themselves

Beach rocks sunning themselves

Yes, I’ve been distracted, by something that has nothing to do with writing. Yes, I failed to make posts that I woulda-coulda-shoulda made. Yes, I slacked off, I goofed off, I set this place aside and told it I’d be back in a few. Then I realized that I missed it a lot and took it off the shelf. I guess some of it was also a little bit of confusion. I wasn’t even sure I had anything important to say.

A 1st edition of Joseph Conrad's short stories

A 1st edition of Joseph Conrad’s short stories

It wasn’t that writing specifically was put on the back burner. I post comments on someone else’s blog regularly. That other blog has given me the gift of putting my brain to work harder, more than I realized. I won’t give up posting comments there, nor will I neglect my own work. I have three novels in progress and they, too, were set aside while I goofed off.

There is, however, a great deal of value in stepping back from something like this and then coming back to it because you miss spouting off in print.

I had to figure out how to create sci-fi ‘armor’ for a team in a story, and give them something that protects them against a fictitious sci-fi weapon. I only bring this up because if someone can imagine something existing, eventually someone will do the math and others will do the experiments, and at some point, the imagined object will come into existence.

Your computer, for example, started as INIAC in a room-sized facility filled with telephone switchboards and switching jacks and women operators making the switches, and vacuum tubes and all sorts of peculiar items that are in a museum somewhere, and now you can do 100,000 times what INIAC could with your smartphone or tablet or whatever you have.

So I went back to my basic sci-fi author, Robert Heinlein and the part in ‘Have Spacesuit – Will Travel’ where he describes Peewee’s spacesuit helmet, which is a plasma bubble that can be opaqued. If you slap it, your hand will bounce off of it, but you can push your hand through it slowly and not be injured. This is what’s behind the scene in ‘Star Wars’ with the tractor beam pulling Han Solo’s spaceship into the Death Star through an opening without the storm troopers flying out the door. The plasma field acts as an airlock, keeping space out.

So what did I come up with? Using fullerenes, or buckyfibers as bucky balls and bucky paper to create a structure for plasma armor that is lightweight, flexible and protects the wearer from injury.

In that regard, I guess my goofing off wasn’t so awful, after all.

Then I went on to my incubus/succubus story, which got bogged down in narrative and needs to pick up the pace. The ‘fast forward to’ style doesn’t work for me, because it skips important things such as why ‘she’ (the main character, the narrator) becomes who and what she ends up being. (Damn! A dangling participle!! Shame on me!!! That’s bad writing, but you get the idea.) When you create someone out of whole cloth, unless you plan to merely present a cardboard cutout for hallway decoration, your protagonist needs a reason for existence, a focus that impels her (or him) to do what your have planned for that story. Having a mere concept is not enough. Real people require substance to exist.

The red Swingline stapler

The red Swingline stapler

And then there’s that whole business about ‘can I create a story from a man’s point of view if I’m not one’. Yeah. Since there are men who write under women’s nom de plumes, then the answer is ‘yes’, but it requires that I learn how they really think and that demands getting past the barrier of the differences between us. That involves getting grown men to tell me the truth about what they think about in a firefight, because this story’s main character is a warrior lost in a future world of warfare through no fault of his own. I persisted and finally got honest answers. That was all I asked for.

I think this means that my goofing off time was less goofing off than collecting info for future reference. I did a lot more than just collect information, but didn’t realize it until I looked back on all the notes I’d taken.

So maybe I wasn’t goofing off, after all, but — well, doing research?

The Leidenfrost effect and the ship of the imagination

Wood anemones

Wood anemones

A while back, I read an article on the Leidenfrost effect, which was discovered in the 18th century. It occurs when cold water is dropped onto a heated surface and the drops move around because there is a vapor separating them from the heated surface. The difference in temperature is what creates this effect. There is a video online showing phyics students working on a way to turn this effect into something useful. They are able to control the direction in which water droplets move and can make them move uphill on a serrated surface, as if the droplets are climbing stairs.

These people are not limited by someone else’s idea of what can and cannot be done. I’m going to take a little time to show that imagination plus ignoring ‘can’t happen’ and ‘can’t be done’ can come up with something useful.

When Albert Einstein was pondering things and coming up with the theory of relativity, he said that space can be warped. A few decades later, the Hubble telescope gave us a photograph of the light from distant galaxies being warped, and the photograph clearly showed that space was also being warped.

Prior to Hubble, in 1956, Robert Heinlein wrote in ‘Have Spacesuit – Will Travel’ that Mother Thing’s beehive-like spaceship didn’t move through space. It simply slid past it.

Gene Rodenberry, in an effort to keep production costs low, came up with the term ‘warp drive’ for the Enterprise. If you haven’t heard of ‘Star Trek’, you’ve been living in a small closet. ‘Star Trek’ ran for a couple of seasons and then was canceled, but its succeeding progeny in the form of several series used the same terms as the original series.

Miguel Alcubierre, a Spanish physicist, was a big fan of ‘Star Trek’. In 1994, he developed the math for the warp drive, which shows that a starship which creates a warp ‘bubble’ will warp space in front of it and behind it, and surf through space. It does not actually move, and therefore, Einstein’s prediction that an object approaching the speed of light will acquire excessive mass, does not happen.

So we go from Einstein to Heinlein to a TV series to a physicist with a love of the TV series and a vivid imagination, and the news a few weeks ago was that some NASA physicists are running experiments to see if they can create a warp bubble.

Other people, with no imagination, complained that the energy from the ship coming out of warp travel would make nearby planets explode. Well, people used to say that cars would scare horses to death, too, and that people couldn’t fly in a heavier than air machine. Now we have cars with silent engines (electric/gas hybrids) and airplanes, and before too long, Richard Branson will be sending tourists into space. There is always a nay-sayer somewhere in the crowd. These are the people who squash imagination instead of applauding it.

If someone offers you a trip on the ship of the imagination, take him up on it. My wish for all of you who read this, for this year 2014, is that no one will squash your imagination and your sense of wonder.

The wood anemones at the foot of the tree in the photo at the start of this post are something that have fascinated me since I found that clump of blossoms. I keep wondering when I will run into an elf sitting there, counting his arrows and rolling a new bowstring into shape with beeswax. Or will I find one of the Little People there sometime in April, having himself a pipe and a mug and waiting to tell me ridiculously funny stories?

I don’t know, but I do look forward to it, and all the months and years to come.

Why you should not make love in a hayfield

Wildflowers in summer

Wildflowers in summer

Yes, I knew that would probably get your attention, so I’ll get right to the point.

I spent almost an entire day at the shop getting work done on my car. Now it’s all fixed up and ready to go for a winter that looms on the horizon like an unwelcome guest. I don’t mind snow, but I detest the bitter cold. I took with me, for the purpose of keeping myself occupied while my car was on the lifter, a Regency romance by Georgette Heyer, ‘The Toll Gate’, which is both a romance and a mystery novel.

Now, while Ms. Heyer never relayed to her reader the business of lovemaking by the parties involved, because she didn’t think it was necessary, she went to a great deal of trouble to build relationships between the principals involved. It is almost entirely modern authors who include love-making scenes for their readers.

I have no issues with that, as long as it is appropriate to the context of the story. We should all know the difference between the gratuitous use of sex, which you find in what are politely called girlie magazines, and romantic sex, which is what you find in modern-day romance novels.

But I do think that if you want the reader to believe that it’s going to be truly romantic, you should take into account the setting. That, too, needs to be romantic, and there is nothing romantic about making love in a hayfield. It might seem as though there is, but if you’re the one creating a love scene in a hayfield, I’d like to know if you’ve ever really done that yourself. Do you have any idea how many bugs there are flapping around in the hay before it’s cut? Or what it’s like to have your nicely-washed hair tangled in weeds? Have you ever had the stubble stick you right in the behind?

It’s not much better in a barn. They usually smell of horse or cow manure, they’re as dusty as all get-out, and the spiders up in the rafters will wonder what on earth those two humans are doing down there on the hayloft flooring. And in a barn stall, it’s worse. There is ALWAYS, ALWAYS detritus of all sorts everywhere, stuff that you don’t want on your clothes or in your hair. And you certainly don’t want either a telltale straw stuck to your clothing or the smell wafting out of your hair, do you? No.

There’s that scene in ‘From Here to Eternity’ where Burt Lancaster is on the beach with the waves coming in, kissing Donna Reed. Seriously, folks, there is nothing kills the moment quite like being swashed with cold water. It is NOT sexy, but it is definitely uncomfortable, never mind the sand in your swimsuit. I know that the waves washing over the two lovers was a cinematographic euphemism for (gasp!) forbidden sex, but the producers obviously hadn’t down been to the beach to have that particular experience.

The front porch steps won’t do it, either. The edge of each step in your back. Try it some time. And then there’s campout overnight – mosquito city. Do you really want people to notice the mosquito bites on your neck? And has anyone, anywhere, ever actually tried it on the back of a horse? Let me know: you must have remarkable anatomy.

No, I’m heavily in favor of lovemaking (okay, sex) in a comfortable, clean bed. Warm in the wintertime, where you can enjoy each other’s body heat, and cool in the summer, with the night breezes washing over you and the moonlight showing the sparkle in your lover’s eyes.

Even in the movie ‘Body Heat’, the two lovers were in or on a bed.

All that other stuff comes under the category of foreplay.

New releases Thursday

Lake country

I used to listen to this radio station that had a list of new music releases every Thursday. Well, why not do the same thing here, any time you get something done and published?

So here’s my latest effort, ‘Mayday’, a short sci-fi story involving the only survivor of a decompression accident in space. He hallucinates and can’t tell if he’s been rescued or it’s his imagination. After all, he only wanted a breath of fresh air.

It is now available on Kindle and in the Kindle Lending Library. I have others in the mill, and this one comes out of the Work in Progress section.

Here’s something we may not think about when writing fiction. Sometimes a story may become more complex than we had originally meant it to be, and it develops enough material for a full-length novel as it progresses. Short stories are frequently harder to write than book-length stories. You can become so embedded in the characters and their development that before you know it, you are doing a full-length chronicle of their lives. You might also be providing hints to the reader as you go that point to a longer timeline than you had originally anticipated when you started.

That’s kind of like the Red Queen in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ telling Alice that the faster you run, the further you have to go, because you’re just running in place. The reference to relativity in physics does apply: the faster you go, the more time slows down and the further away is the finish line.

There are exercises that can be used to get into the ‘start to finish’ habit. One of them is using the TV script format from the Screen Writers Guild. A half-hour TV show takes 24 pages of mostly dialogue, which allows two acts with time for commercial breaks. A one-hour TV show takes 48 pages of (mostly) dialogue, which gives you 4 acts of 12 pages per act, with commercial breaks inserted between those acts.

Following these formats will give you the discipline of telling a complete story within a specified page length. This is not about writing scripts, but rather about building the habit of the ‘start to finish’ discipline and the follow-through of continuity. You need to be aware of what each character’s behaviors, speech patterns and motivations are in order to make each of them flesh-and-blood instead of cardboard and window dressing.

I did that a while back. It was fun. It was a tremendous learning experience. I found that a character’s personality is just as much a part of his presence as his costume, his appearance and his name. In fact, if you refer to any of Shakespeare’s plays, nowhere does he physically describe the characters or what they wear. He allows the actors to flush them out through their speech. We know that Petruchio was a soldier of fortune, but why was he really in Venice? And we know that Kate was the older sister, but why was she being kicked out of the only home she had ever known?

The best part about this practice of following a set format is that you are required to write a comprehensive story within a set number of pages or word count. This cuts away unnecessary rambling. If it’s a TV show you know and watch regularly, you already know the characters, how they move, how they speak. That makes it easier, and now you see where I’m going with this.

Go on – give it a shot. What do you have to lose?