Tag Archives: sci-fi

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?

Apocalypse? I think not

The end of Winter, beginning of Spring

The end of Winter, beginning of Spring

Everything seems to be real dicey right now, doesn’t it? Terrible things are being done to innocents, to people who just want to live their lives and raise their families. They’ve done nothing bad to anyone, just led peaceful lives. And then, out of nowhere, everything they took for granted has been torn from them and their families are dead or missing. And then while War gallops through Ukraine and the Middle East, Pestilence in the form of ebola invades our consciousness and offers another form of terror in the form of death that rots you from the inside out.

I’ve been distracted just like everyone else, by events that are literally beyond my control. The hideous slaughter of innocents in the Middle East and the rebellion in Ukraine were suddenly overshadowed by a lethal, horrifying disease caused by an organism which has no other purpose than its own survival, at any cost whatsoever.

We are all distracted by this, but there are so many parallels to these things in history that I spent some time researching them, just to set my own mind at ease.

In the Middle Ages, great armies formed at the behest of Pope Urban II, after a potboiler speech on an auspicious day, armies whose sole purpose was to take control of lands in the Middle East, wresting that control away from the Moors and other Middle Eastern tribes and clans that held it. This was the start of the Crusades, land wars which lasted for several centuries of continuous warfare. Kingdoms and empires rose and fell during this time, and over those many, many centuries the wars continued in one way or another.

Once the Crusades were underway, trade began with the Far East and the unknown country Cathay, which we now call China. The known world began to expand. With foreign trade came the trading ships in the Black Sea loading goods from caravans crossing the Gobi Desert, following the oldest trading route in the world, the Old Silk Road. One item gave that road its name: silk, cloth made from fiber spun by silkworms into cocoons in which they would gestate while they became silk moths. With those trading ships, loaded to the gunwales with cargo, came rats infested with fleas that carried the Plague. The Plague did not kill everyone who got it, but it did empty entire villages in many places. They became ghost towns. It did not differentiate between peasant and potentate. It did not care about anything but finding a host and expanding. Yet other villages and cities survived unscathed.

What do we face now? War in the Middle East which started when some of you reading this were barely in the first grade and are now reaching adulthood, warfare that looks as though it may follow the same pattern as the Crusades as it runs its course; and the ebola virus, a pestilence in the form of an aggressive, lethal disease that has no cure and lives on after its host has died, or is defeated only by the robust immune system of its host.

While it’s easy enough to slip into the mindset of dystopia, which is the setting in which everything has gone bad and survival is chancy at best, as in the “Mad Max’ movies, “The Hunger Games” and “The Children Of Men”, among many, many other stories, books and movies that have followed this ‘end of days’ theme, somehow humans have managed to survive, rebuild and prosper, and then move onward, despite Plagues and apocalyptic events.

We have survived, regrouped, prospered and moved on.

The future is always uncertain. There is no way to avoid surprises like this, but rather to try to be prepared for them. And with this, rather than take the view that we are all doomed to extinction, something I do not believe to be true, I have chosen to use these events as historic parallels in my stories, and to allow us mere humans to find ways to overcome those kinds of threats that say ‘doom on you, doom on you’.

This is partly because, as I said, we mere mortals have somehow survived, rebuilt and moved on over many thousands of years. We aren’t dead yet. A thousand years from now, we will be looking back at this time and wondering how anyone survived it. And we will still look at the stars and wonder if there is someone else out there looking back at us.

Perhaps some day, we’ll find that we are looking back at ourselves.

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?

Solving a problem….

Garden path

Garden path

I’ve been faced with a small but rather serious dilemma for several weeks.

It involves something called a temporal paradox.

My main character is rescued from oblivion. Without rescue, he is listed as missing in action and never recovered. If he’s rescued, he loses everything that was familiar to him, but he’s the main character of the story which makes his rescue imperative. He is, therefore, rescued so that he may do what I have planned for him through to the end of the story, which is rather long and involved and romantic and (for me) loads of fun.

In order to solved this dilemma, I had to ask myself this question: if this happened to me, if I faced oblivion and were rescued at the critical moment for my survival, but have lost everything that was important to me in the process, just how angry would I be? And how could I overcome that anger and meet whatever destiny lies ahead?

Destiny? Lies ahead? Yes! It is a cliché! Ignore the cliché. It just wants attention. All clichés do. Without them, purple literature could not possibly exist. And, occasionally, they do serve a purpose.

In that phrase ‘whatever destiny lies ahead’, while it is a cliché of the kind that makes me cringe a little, there is a nugget of truth. This character has to be believable or he isn’t real. He’s just a cardboard cutout in the movieplex lobby. Therefore, being brought up short against the brick wall of ‘you can’t go home’ is the kind of thing that will generate anger in any one of us, for a good reason: we’re human, not cardboard popups that are taken down at the end of the movie run.

Temporal paradox stories are as twisted as a Mobius strip. They have no beginning or end. The action is repeated over and over ad infinitum, even when the problem is solved. So a character who is rescued will always be rescued, but since his destiny lies somewhere along that twisted Mobius loop, whatever he does is what he will always do.

In this case, since I knew that I would be extremely angry as well as skeptical if someone dropped such a ridiculous story on me, the problem had to be solved by what I would demand from my rescuers. I’m a demanding sort anyway, and I’d be all over them to prove that I could not have my life back. The delightful part is that the rescuers don’t know why my main character is so important or what he does that makes him so important. They only know that he does something important in the future.

The twist in the Mobius loop now rises in front of me and my main character: he rescues the guy who leads the team that rescue him.

If it seems like a cheap trick, it isn’t. It is a way to use the temporal paradox to make the story work. You rescue me, and when I find out that you were the one rescued by me, and that all the stuff I remember before I was jerked out of my familiar world is still there, I go to great lengths to rescue you. The rescued becomes the rescuer. Now I can move forward again.

Where do I go from there? I get on with telling the story.