November 27, 2015

Time Change Alert!

I can write, but apparently I can’t read!  I’m scheduled to be at Page One Books tomorrow at Noon, not 1:00 pm.  (Although I’m likely to still be there at 1:00 pm, at least for a bit.)

 Now that I think about it, I probably got the name of the store and the time confused…  Sheesh!  Anyhow, hope to see some of you there.

FF: A-Mazing Options

November 27, 2015

Reminder! I’ll be at Page One Book on Saturday, 11/28/15, at 1:00 pm, helping out with their Small Business Saturday promotion.  Want to talk books?  Have fun (rather than stress) with your Christmas shopping?  Do drop by!

Persephone is Amazed!

Persephone is Amazing!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Kitty and the Deadman’s Hand by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Werewolf Kitty’s plan to dodge all the wedding-related chaos by eloping to Las Vegas rapidly goes out of control.  Out of her own environment, Kitty is less sharp than usual, but I felt her reactions well-supported by the text.

The Black Knight by  Kai Tsugui.  Manga.  Finished the four volumes I had…

Eighth Grave After Dark  by Darynda Jones.  Audiobook.  Despite Charley being restricted in her actions, the plot was all over the place.  Conclusion contained major plot twist.

In Progress:

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Audiobook.   Invited an old friend to keep me company for the holiday…

The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes by David Willis McCullough.  Non-fiction look at the world-wide interest in these patterns.  My only complaint is that it really needs more illustrations.

A World Without Heroes, “Beyonders” series, volume one by Brandon Mull.  I read part of this before deciding to send it to my nephew for his birthday.  Have decided to finish for myself!


Some research into “traditional” healing options, a subject that’s always useful for a writer interested in low-tech (whether fantasy or historical) settings.

TT: Two More M’s

November 26, 2015

First of all…. Happy (American) Thanksgiving to you all.  I hope that, no matter your situation, you can find something to be grateful for…

The New Zealand Rule

The New Zealand Rule

And now, I will bother Alan again for your amusement!

JANE: I really enjoyed discussing Margaret Mahy’s works.  Alchemy was excellent, both thoughtful and stylistically challenging.  As soon as I finish the heap of books that just arrived from the library, I plan to read more of her work.

 What other New Zealand writers are there?

ALAN: There are two other New Zealand writers I’d like to mention and probably they should be considered together because they have quite a lot in common. I know you are very fond of the detective novels written by Dame Ngaio Marsh. But are you familiar with the science fiction novels of Phillip Mann?

JANE: Wait a second…  Before I answer that, I have a question for you.  Is there some sort of rule that New Zealand writers need to have surnames beginning with M?  We’ve done Mansfield and Mahy, now you want to talk about Marsh and Mann?

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. It’s the most important clause in the Literary Nomenclature Act of 1923, which is re-ratified annually on every April 1st. So I’m sorry Jane, but you are one letter too previous for New Zealand and therefore you aren’t entitled to a visa.

JANE: Wow!  I had no idea.  I’m willing to adopt a penname for New Zealand.  Jim’s last name is Moore.  I could use that, though I could give it a really odd Gaelic-inspired spelling…   How about Mohrr?

Going back to your original question, no, I haven’t read anything by Phillip Mann, although I am familiar with his name from reading your “wot I red on my hols” book review column.  My library doesn’t have any of his works, but I’d enjoy learning more so I can order one of his books.

ALAN: Not all of his novels have had American editions, but I do know that The Eye Of The Queen was published by Arbor House in hardback and that Wulfsyarn was published by William Morrow in hardback and by Avon in paperback. So they, at least, should be relatively easy for you to find.

One interesting thing that these two authors have in common, other than the letter “M,” is that both Dame Ngaio Marsh and Phillip Mann came to the world of letters through the theatre and the theatre always remained their constant passion.

Dame Ngaio produced many plays for New Zealand theatres. Shakespeare was her first love, but she also produced dramas by Pirandello, Chekov, and others. She toured with the New Zealand Players, a national professional repertory company. Until his retirement, Phillip Mann was a drama teacher at Victoria University in Wellington, and he is well known in New Zealand theatrical circles as both a producer and a director.

JANE: Have either Marsh or Mann written plays?

ALAN: Strangely, it would seem that they haven’t. Both of them seem to have concentrated on novels, and genre novels at that, rather than the mainstream literary novels that you might have expected from them, given their theatrical interests.

I’ve read very few of Dame Ngaio’s detective novels. However I know that you are a fan. Perhaps you could say something about them, and then I’ll tell you about Phillip in return?

JANE: I’m hardly an expert, but I’m certainly a fan.  I started reading her works because she was regularly grouped with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham as writers of classic British mysteries.

Most of Marsh’s novels feature Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. (Pronounced “Allen.”)  Alleyn is a very atypical police officer.  Because he is interested in art and theater, he is often assigned cases involving elements of the artistic community.  In fact, he meets his wife this way…

ALAN: That’s a nice touch – far too many fictional policemen are artistic philistines.

JANE: It’s worth noting that the characters change and develop as the series progress so reading them in order can prevent spoilers.  It’s not necessary, though.  I read them out of order and enjoyed nonetheless.

Many of Marsh’s novels are set in England – probably because that was what publishers perceived the audience as wanting.  However, even before I did any research, I began to suspect she had a close tie to New Zealand.  She’d slip in characters from New Zealand, wherever she could.

For example, in Light Thickens, which is centered around an apparently cursed production of Macbeth, one of the actors playing a smaller role is Maori.  Moreover, he’s used some moves he learned from traditional – possibly sacred – Maori culture to make his witch more outre and fascinating, then becomes very worried that he has transgressed.

ALAN: That sounds interesting. I’ll add it to my list.

JANE: Light Thickens was her last novel and brings back some characters from the earlier novel, Murder at the Dolphin, but I think it stands on its own.   Marsh had wanted to write it for a long time, but feared it was too rooted in theatrical material to appeal to her readers.  Not only did she use the superstitions about MacBeth, she showed a lot of the tensions that go on backstage – even if there isn’t a murder. However, it apparently did very well.

ALAN: Personally I’m always interested in listening to enthusiasts describe their enthusiasms, even when I don’t share them. So I suspect the readers would have enjoyed being exposed to elements of professions that they otherwise wouldn’t know about.

JANE: That’s how I feel, too!

Most of the time Marsh has Alleyn is stationed in England.  However, during World War II, Marsh has him posted to New Zealand.  This enabled her to set several novels there.  In some of these novels, Alleyn writes home to his wife, occasionally commenting on differences in culture or values that complicate his investigations.  None of this is heavy-handed, but it added a richness to the novel.

ALAN: You know, I’d always assumed that Dame Ngaio was just a pale imitation of Agatha Christie. Clearly I was wrong; it sounds like there’s a lot more to her than that. What are the titles of these New Zealand books?

JANE: Let’s see…  Died in the Wool is quite good for looking at cultural values.  It deals with the disappearance of a wealthy sheep rancher who is also a member of parliament.  Among her many activities is providing patronage to a young man who she feels is musically gifted.  His father – one of the men who works with the sheep – has very mixed feelings about this.

Colour Scheme is another of the New Zealand novels.  I think I mentioned it a while ago, in one of our Tangents.

ALAN:  A lovely piece of trivia that I picked up about Dame Ngaio was that she had houses in both New Zealand and England and, when on theatrical tours, she would sign British hotel registers with her New Zealand address and New Zealand ones with her London address.

JANE: I like that.  What a nice way of proclaiming that she was “at home” in both lands.

I could keep going on about Ngaio Marsh, but I’d like to hear more about Phillip Mann.  Maybe next time?

What To Do…

November 25, 2015

First off, I want to thank all of you who turned out for last Saturday’s signing for Curiosities.  We filled every chair and most of the aisles, ate all the cookies, and, I think, had a very good time all around.

Me and Mike M's shoulder at Page One

Me and Mike M’s shoulder at Page One

Looking for a chance to visit more informally?  Next Saturday (11/28/15), I’ll be back at Page One Books at 1:00 pm to help out with their Small Business Saturday promotion.  I attended last year and had a great time talking about books with the people who dropped by.  Look for me wandering the aisles near SF/F, children’s books, and YA.  Small Business Saturday is a great way to get a jump on your Christmas shopping without dealing with crowded malls and over- stressed, newly-hired sales clerks, who know nothing about what they’re selling.

I’m looking forward to the long weekend for other reasons as well.  I’ll write, of course, because I’m addicted to the weird project I’m working on now.  Otherwise, I plan to enjoy having Jim home.  We already have some fun things planned.  Both of us want to continue our current craft projects.  I’m working on another beaded bracelet, this one featuring a dragon.  Jim has been hankering to make arrowheads.  He also wants to dig the first of our numerous compost trenches.

Thursday, I’m making pecan pie to take when we join the extended Estell/Mumma clan for Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s my own recipe, the result of baking numerous pecan pies from a wide variety of recipes.  Funny thing…  The recipe that came with the pecans actually used too many pecans.  (Yes.  This is possible.)  Another created too much filling.  Another was far too sweet.  However, by experimentation that subjected poor Jim to testing numerous pies, I arrived at what, for me, is the perfect balance between buttery sweetness and ample helpings of lightly toasted nuts.


Friday, we refuse to have anything to do with all the Black Friday chaos.  Our intention is to stay home, work on the yard if the weather cooperates, and then make homemade sausage.  Last time we made sausage, we made Italian, following my maternal side of the family’s recipe.  This time we’re going to make a Polish sausage that comes to us via my Russian “Baba,” as I called my paternal great-grandmother.  It’s spiced with caraway seeds, garlic, white pepper, and a dash of dill seed.  Unlike the smoked kielbasa that one usually gets, this is not in the least salty, instead being both robust and savory.

To go with Baba’s sausage, we’ll make homemade whole-wheat fettucine noodles.  Both recipes make enough for multiple meals – especially in our two-person household – so we can anticipate enjoying the end results for weeks to come.

Saturday we’re off to Page One but, both before and after, we hope to stop at some other small businesses and support them by doing some of our Christmas shopping there.  We were sad to learn that Weem’s Art Fest, our favorite place to find odd and interesting gifts, is no longer being held, but we’ll stop by the gallery and see what we can find.

Sunday we’ll probably force ourselves to be at least a little practical.  (Even writers need to grocery shop and housekeep.)  In the evening , we’ll continue our on-going roleplaying game.  Last week took an interesting turn and I (as the one running the game) am very much looking forward to seeing what my players come up with.

After a heated aerial battle on pegasus back, during which the Fides discovered that they really have improved a great deal since they first arrived in the court of the Faceless Tyrant, they face a challenge none of them had anticipated – the possibility that they might actually get everything they’ve been striving towards.

I can hardly wait to see what they’ll do!

Any of you have a long weekend coming up?  What do you do to make Thanksgiving special?  I hope that, whatever it is, you end the weekend with much to feel thankful about!

FF: Transformation of Expectations

November 20, 2015

Reminder!  I’m doing a signing for my new short story collection Curiosities (and other works, depending on what the store has in stock) this Saturday, November 21st, 4:00 p.m., at Page One Books here in Albuquerque.  I think I’m going to bring homemade chocolate chip cookies…  Hope to see you there!

Usagi Contemplates a Future Without Carrots!

Usagi Contemplates a Future Without Carrots!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Seventh Grave and No Body by Darynda Jones.  Audiobook.  Darynda has made the choice to morph her lighter “paranormal romance interwoven with detective story” into something darker and more complex.  While some of her readers are probably disappointed, I’m very pleased.

Alchemy by Margaret Mahy.  YA.  Almost surreal at times, as befits the title.  I enjoyed and will be seeking out more of her books.  (For those of you who missed it, Margaret Mahy and her works is the subject of this week’s Thursday Tangent.)

In Progress:

Kitty and the Deadman’s Hand by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Werewolf Kitty’s plan to dodge all the wedding-related chaos by eloping to Las Vegas rapidly goes out of control.  I think Kitty’s about to have some preconceived notions badly shaken up.

The Black Knight by  Kai Tsugui.  Manga.  I’ve actually finished the first two volumes and am on volume three.  Certainly more than the romance title the jacket presents it as.


Usagi is taking a look at Hot Earth Dreams by Frank Landis – better known to regular readers of my blog as “heteromeles.”  This books takes a detailed – but often quirky and even humorous – look at the question of climate change, especially if human society can no longer draw on reserves of carbon-based fuel.   It’s a good read, especially if you’re interested in speculative fiction set in the far future.

TT: Mahy’s Marvelous Mystifications

November 19, 2015

JANE: I enjoyed learning about Katherine Mansfield.  I have a feeling New Zealand has other authorial gems of whom I am unaware.

Are there other authors you can tell me about?

ALAN: Yes indeed – does the name Margaret Mahy mean anything to you?

Mahy for Middle Grade

Mahy for Middle Grade

JANE: I’m sorry, but I seem to have missed her.

ALAN: She was a modern day New Zealand writer with an international reputation. (She died in 2012). She won many prestigious awards for her middle-grade and YA books. Her stories tend to appeal to SF fans because they often have a strong SF/Fantasy/Supernatural flavour. They discuss relationships and the rites of passage that separate children from adults. Many of them are set in New Zealand, and I think they give an accurate picture of the character of New Zealand society.

JANE: I’m hooked.  Tell me more!

ALAN: Before I do, I must tell you a really cool story… One day I was sitting in an airport lounge whiling away the time by reading a Diana Wynne Jones novel. Margaret was also in the lounge and when she noticed what I was reading, she came bouncing over and introduced herself so that she could talk to me about Diana Wynne Jones who, it turned out, was one of her very favourite writers. We chatted away quite happily until it was time to board our respective flights.

JANE:  That sounds wonderful.  Knowing how much you love Diana Wynne Jones’ work, I bet you two had a wonderful time.

Had you read any of Margaret Mahy’s works at that point?

ALAN: Indeed I had – I’d made a deliberate effort to read her books because she’d been a guest of honour at a convention I went to shortly after I first came to live in New Zealand. I have an autographed copy of her novel The Changeover, which is a coming of age story in which a young girl risks her life to save her bewitched brother. It’s also a rather sweet romance story about the relationship between the girl and a rather aloof prefect at her school who is also a male witch. Amusingly, the family’s surname is “Chant.” I asked Margaret if this was a reference to Diana Wynne Jones’ “Christopher Chant” but she said it was just a coincidence.

JANE: A believable coincidence, too, since sorcerers are usually described as “chanting” spells.

Is The Changeover set in New Zealand?

ALAN: Yes it is. The action of the story takes place in Christchurch, Margaret’s home city. Anyone familiar with Christchurch will immediately recognise it in the book, and anyone familiar with the way New Zealand society works will recognise all the people in the novel. Margaret captured the zeitgeist perfectly and really managed to convey a convincing picture of contemporary New Zealand life. It’s one of the book’s great strengths. And Laura Chant herself is part Maori and part pakeha, which allows Margaret to comment directly on both those aspects. A lot of New Zealand children will recognise themselves in Laura.

JANE: This sounds like a book I want to read.  I’ll need to look for it.

ALAN: I’m glad.  Let me see if I can give you the flavour of it. Here Laura and her mother Kate are discussing Kate’s new boyfriend, a Canadian:

“He’s a librarian at the Central Library… in charge of the New Zealand Room.”
“A Canadian in charge of the New Zealand Room!” Laura exclaimed. “What’s wrong with a good, honest Kiwi joker?”
“It may be International Swap Over Year in library circles,” Kate suggested. “Or they may be promoting Commonwealth understanding.”

JANE: I like that.  The sense of internationality is subtle but strong, and the awareness of being part of the British Commonwealth as an element in the New Zealand mindset is also good.

Also, there’s a strong sense of place in that use of the word “joker.”  Certainly, an American wouldn’t use it in that fashion.

I realize this book was from the 1980’s, but is the word “joker” still in use in that fashion, or was that slang of the time?

ALAN: “Joker,” in the sense of “ordinary person,” is one of those timeless pieces of slang that seems to have been around forever. It’s just as appropriate today as it was in the 1980s as it was in the 1940s…

JANE: I think it’s fallen out of use here in the U.S….  Well, I’ll bring it back into fashion. Tell me more about this joker, Margaret Mahy.

ALAN: Margaret was quite passionate about encouraging children to read. Many of her books were written for very young children and were designed to whet their appetite for words. She also had a “road show” – she would visit schools and libraries and, wearing a multi-coloured fright wig, she would read stories and poems the children. If you search for her in Google, you’ll find a lot of pictures of her wig.

JANE: I searched and I did.  My goodness!

ALAN: As I mentioned before, the first time I met Margaret was when she was guest of honour at a convention in Christchurch. She confessed that she didn’t really know how to behave with adults, so she said she’d read us an SF poem that was always a big hit with the children. It’s called Bubble Trouble:

Little Mabel blew a bubble
And it caused a lot of trouble!
Such a lot of bubble trouble
In a bibble-bobble way.
For it broke away from Mabel
As it bobbed across the table,
Where it bobbled over Baby,
And it wafted him away.

The townsfolk chase the bubble all over town trying to rescue the baby. Hilarity ensues!

All the children in the audience (by which I mean the whole audience) were utterly captivated. We all fell a little bit in love with Margaret that day.

JANE: I think I have, too.  What do you say you wait while I run off and see if my library has any of her books.  Okay?

ALAN: That’s a good idea.

JANE: (panting slightly).  I’m back.  Turns out our library has a pretty good collection of Margaret Mahy’s works.  However, our branch only had two, and both were for younger children.  I didn’t see The Changeover listed, but they did have a YA novel called Alchemy.  Given my current obsession with the topic, I put an order out for it.

Can you wait again while I read the two books I brought home with me?  Maybe Jake would like to go for a run or you could hunt with Harpo or even nap with Bess.

ALAN: Oh – you’ll love Alchemy. It has similar themes to The Changeover and is aimed at the same age group. And yes, alchemy has a large part to play in the story. Meanwhile, it’s a hot day here so I think Jake and I will go to the park. He needs to have a swim.

JANE:  Alan!  Are you back?

ALAN: Yes – just got back. Sorry we took so long, but Jake found a sheep’s skull that just had to be played with.

JANE: Yuck!

I’ve just finished reading – brace yourself, Ms. Mahy apparently liked long titles – The Great Piratical Rumbustification & The Librarian and the Robbers and Tick Tock Tales: Twelve Stories to Read Around the Clock.

ALAN: Yes, that sounds like Margaret. But she only used the long titles on the books she wrote for young children. I kept hoping that one day she’d publish a book whose title was longer than the story. But she never quite managed it.

JANE: I liked both books a great deal.  The stories were full of an illogical logic that is absolutely natural to children.  I thought that Mahy actually tried to make this point overtly in the story “The Boy Who Made Things Up,” as if she wanted to shake parents with too practical mindsets.

Tell me, is “rumbustification” a typical New Zealand word?  She used it in two different stories.

ALAN: No – it’s a Margaret Mahy word.

JANE: A pity.  I’d rather hoped that when Jim and I make it to New Zealand someday, we’d get invited to a rumbustification.

Having just “met” Margart Mahy (and feeling rather sad that I won’t ever get to do so in person), I hope that she is not forgotten in New Zealand.

ALAN: She’s remembered very fondly indeed. In 2009, a bronze bust of Margaret was unveiled outside the Christchurch Arts Centre. Everyone was very pleased that she lived long enough to see it.

JANE: Is she wearing her trademark wig?

ALAN: No, unfortunately. Indeed, I think she must have had her hair done specially. I’ve never seen her looking so neat.

JANE: Still, that’s a tremendous honor.  I find myself envisioning an annual event held in her honor.  Or, rather, “honour,” since it would be in Christchurch.

The bust is adorned with a rainbow wig, then a librarian takes a seat in front of the bust, and reads some of Margaret Mahy’s short stories to a circle of children.  I think “The Boy Who Bounced” would work very well, or maybe “Poodlum Hoodlum.”

I suspect Ms. Mahy would have thought this a great deal of fun.

ALAN: She’d have absolutely loved it!

There are some other New Zealand writers that you might enjoy. Are you interested in hearing about them?

JANE: Absolutely!

Getting Into the Writing Zone

November 18, 2015

News Flash!  This Saturday (11/21/15) I’m doing a book event for Curiosities at Page One Books here in Albuquerque.  Hope to see some of you there!

November is NaNoWriMo.   I don’t participate, but one thing I’ve noticed is that by mid-month many of those who do are feeling the pressure of trying to write a substantial amount every day.  After two weeks plus, with nearly as much time left to go, they’re wondering how to get into their writing zone, each day, every day.

The Writing Zone

The Writing Zone

Even people who aren’t formally participating in NaNoWriMo often feel the pressure to produce.  Write more. Write faster.  After all, they’re seeing that other people are doing so and wondering if they’re slackers.

(For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the short version is that NaNoWriMo encourages people to write a 50,000-word novel in a month.  Want to know more?  Here’s a link.)

I’m not going to talk about NaNoWriMo today.

What I’m interested in is chatting about how to get into your writing zone on a regular basis.  There are as many ways as there are writers, but I’ll share a couple.  I’d be interested in hearing what tricks you use to find your way into your creative space.

Instead of waiting for the Muse to come whisper in your ear, consider ways that you might invite her.  Environmental stimuli are often good.  Remember: Humans can be programmed for stimulus and response.  Don’t believe me?  Think about the last time you tried to break a habit.  Doing so takes more than simply giving up cigarettes or coffee or a favorite food.  Breaking a habit often means giving up or adapting those things you associated with that habit as well.

So, if you always have chocolate with your morning coffee, and are trying to give up chocolate, then you’re going to miss chocolate more when you sit down with the morning coffee.

When you’re trying to break a habit, the stimulus trigger is a horrible burden.  However, when you’re trying to acquire a habit – like writing every day – the same quirk of human nature can work in your favor.

I’ve known writers who create musical playlists to go with whatever story they’re working on.   When they want to get into the zone for that story, they queue up the songs.  In time, the playlist becomes the opening theme…  They hear the music and slip into the zone where the story lives.

I’ve never systematically used the music trick but, when I’m restless and unwilling to settle down, I’ll put on music that for one reason or another I associate with the piece.  Often there is no thematic relationship between the story and the songs.  When I started Artemis Awakening, I’d recently seen the film Velvet Goldmine.  I’d also picked up the soundtrack and listened to it quite a bit.  Although the works have nothing in common – Velvet Goldmine is set in England and deals with glam rock; Artemis  Awakening is set on a fictional planet and has absolutely nothing to do with music or glam or rocks – something in my brain linked the one with the other.

When I started writing Artemis Invaded, the sequel to Artemis Awakening, a certain amount of time had passed.  I’d written another novel in the middle.  However, I found that putting on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack put me back into the “Artemis” zone.

Other little rituals can help you find that zone.  I know one author who uses the solitaire game on her computer as a form of self-hypnosis.  She only plays the game before writing, so playing a game becomes a signal to her brain that she’s about to write.

Other writers use items of clothing, locations, or time of day to put them in the right mindset to write.

Of course, there’s a danger associated with any of these rituals.  If you become too dependent on them, you may be unable to find your zone without them.  I know one writer who absolutely had to write first thing in the morning or she would not write that day.  She might write for ten minutes, then go do something else, but if she didn’t get that early start, she had lost the day.

Determined to write and unable or unwilling to break that habit, she decided that she had to find a way around it.  Her solution for those days when she could not get to her computer was to grab a piece of paper and write longhand.  Later, transcribing that material would become a bridge that would take her back into the zone.

Interacting with prose can become a ritual of its own.  I know one prolific writer who begins his writing day by reviewing what he wrote the previous day.  He tightens and edits as he goes along.  This then takes him smoothly and naturally into new material.  It has the added benefit of polishing the prose, so when he finishes the piece, his rough draft is a bit less rough.

One thing I feel is important to remember is that NaNoWriMo – or those lists that encourage people to post how much they wrote that day, or that week, or other such activities that use the sense of belonging to a group to encourage the writer to write – will not work for everyone.

Production requirements are most useful for those people who benefit from the validation of a group or who have a competitive streak. I’ve known excellent writers who produce nothing at all for months, then go on a binge and write an entire novel in a relatively short time.  It wasn’t that these writers weren’t “working” during the time they would have been unable to report any words written.  It’s that their work took a less quantifiable form.

So, there are a few of my thoughts on getting into the zone.  I’d love to hear what tricks, gimmicks, incentives, or whatever you use to find your way into your personal creative zone.

FF: Interview Alert and More

November 13, 2015

Dave Gross interviewed me for his “Creative Colleagues” feature.  His questions were just different enough to be fun – including a couple related to my alternate life as a gamer and how it relates to writing.  Hope you enjoy!

Ogapoge ContemplatesTransformation

Ogapoge ContemplatesTransformation

Just a reminder…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Fighting the Flying Circus by Captain Eddie. V. Rickenbacker.  Non-fiction autobiographical recollections of one of World War I’s hotshot pilots.  His framing war as a form of sport was unsettling and alien, but a good eye-opener.

Naruto by Masahi Kishimoto, issue 72.  (Manga.)  I’ve been following this story nearly from the start.  This was the last issue.  I enjoyed – especially the resolution of the conflict between Naruto and Sasuke, which took an unexpected twist.  Short epilogue was interesting, too.

In Progress:

Seventh Grave and No Body by Darynda Jones.  Audiobook.  Didn’t have as much time to listen as I would have liked, but am enjoying.  The ostensible “case” is taking backseat to larger plot elements.

Alchemy by Margaret Mahy.  YA, rather than her younger offerings that I looked at last week.


I also sampled some novels I was considering giving as gifts, just to make sure I liked them.  I’ll be finishing some later on and let you know more!

So, what are the rest of you reading?

TT: The Many Facets of Mansfield

November 12, 2015

JANE: All right, Alan, I’m tantalized.  Last time you said you had some thoughts as to how we might pin down national character…  I’m eager to see what you have in mind.

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. I was thinking that fiction writers, whose material is derived from everyday life, give us a nice definition of what it means to be living in a given time and place.

Monsters Are Everywhere

Monsters Are Everywhere

Are you familiar with the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield? She never wrote a novel, and during her life she published only two collections of stories: In a German Pension and Bliss and Other Stories. Two more collections were published posthumously: The Garden Party and The Dove’s Nest. So she was certainly not prolific.  But many of her stories are steeped in the minutiae of daily life in colonial New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century

JANE: I believe I’ve read some of her works, but I certainly am far from knowledgeable.  Tell me more about Katherine Mansfield.

ALAN: She was born in Wellington in 1888 and died of complications from tuberculosis in 1923. She moved to the UK in 1907 and became part of the Bloomsbury set. Virginia Woolf is on record as declaring that she was jealous of Mansfield’s writing skills. Mansfield (probably) had a sexual relationship with D. H. Lawrence and I know that your PhD thesis was about Lawrence, so you may have come across her when you were researching Lawrence’s life.

JANE: That seems quite likely!  Now I know why she sounded familiar.  Go on…

ALAN: She tends to be a bit unpopular in New Zealand, mainly, I suspect, because far too many generations of school children have had her stories endlessly analysed in dull English classes. I remember her as a rather gloomy writer, but I re-read some of her stories recently and, while she certainly isn’t full of sweetness and light, she was nowhere near as dark as I remember.

JANE: When you say “steeped in the minutiae of daily life in colonial New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century,” what do you mean by that?  And how does “gloomy” reflect the national character?  I found New Zealanders anything but…

ALAN: She had an enviable ability to invoke a time and a place. I think the only way I can tell you what I mean by that is to quote from her. Here are a few sentences from “The Woman at the Store”:

Jo rode ahead. He wore a blue galatea shirt, corduroy trousers, and riding boots. A white handkerchief, spotted with red so that it looked as though his nose had been bleeding on it, was knotted round his throat. Wisps of white hair straggled from under his wideawake—his moustache and eyebrows were the colour of old bones—he slouched in the saddle, grunting…

We were on the brow of the hill, and below us there was a whare roofed with corrugated iron. It stood in a garden, rather far back from the road and half in shadow—a big paddock opposite, and a creek and a clump of skeletal willow-trees. A thin line of blue smoke stood up straight from the chimney of the whare; and as I looked a gaunt woman came out, followed by a child and a sheep dog—the woman carrying what appeared to me a black stick. She made gestures at us.

I find the pictures painted in my mind by those words to be very vivid. I can see the landscape and the people and I’m sure she’s reporting very accurately just what she herself experienced.

JANE: Lovely prose.  Wonderful use of color.  I can see why Virginia Woolf admired her work!

Mansfield uses some very specific terminology.  I realize you’re a late 20th, early 21st century Yorkshireman become New Zealander, so you may not be able to answer this, but I’m curious, would words like “galatea,” “wideawake,” and “whare” have been understood by a non-New Zealand audience of the time?   For example, by the members of the Bloomsbury set who would have been her audience and – probably – her publishers, as well.

ALAN: Perhaps they’d be fine with “galatea” because of the classical links. “Wideawake” I’m not sure about. But I’m absolutely certain that “whare” would not have been understood. (It’s a Maori loan-word and it means “hut” or “house”. It is pronounced “foray”).

JANE: Uh… “Galatea”?  How would a knowledge of classical material help with that?  What comes to mind to me is the girl in the Pygmalion story, the one who started life as a statue.

Are you saying we’re to envision this man wearing a blue shirt printed with girls?  Or statues?

ALAN: Galatea translates as “she who is milk-white” and the original statue that came to life was carved in ivory. Perhaps I’m wrong, but because of this I’ve always thought of the cotton galatea fabric as being white. The blue shirt that Mansfield refers to has presumably been dyed.

But a blue shirt printed with girls sounds like a wonderful garment to wear. It will be Christmas soon. Hint… Hint…

JANE: I’ll make sure that Robin gets that hint!  And I think your idea as to the meaning of “galatea” sounds promising…  but I like mine better!

Sadly, I fear that “wideawake” means nothing to this American except for what I’m not until I’ve had my shower.  No, that’s not fair.  I have a vague idea that it’s a sort of hat.  But I have no concept as to what sort of hat.

ALAN: Sorry – I can’t help you there. It means nothing to me either.

JANE:  Okay.  We’ll toss that one to our readers.  They’re wonderful at figuring out such puzzles.

I was interested in what those words might mean in context because, as a former English professor, language like that would be the sort of thing I would need to make sure my students understood, rather than breezing over.  “Breezing over,” then admitting confusion, is a pretty typical response.

Help us out!  We need help if we’re to understand what New Zealand is…

ALAN: The words may well have been unfamiliar (particularly whare) but the approximate meaning can be deduced from the context. So to that extent I think she is playing fair with her audience.

JANE: Maybe…  Now, how about Ms. Mansfield’s “gloomy” aspect?  As I said, that didn’t seem representative of the New Zealand character when I was there.

ALAN: As for gloomy – well, she herself wasn’t the happiest person in the world. Many of the relationships between her characters are quite tense and there is a dark undercurrent of violence. We’re probably just seeing a reflection of her own personality. But that doesn’t invalidate the word pictures she painted.

JANE: I agree…  But I think there’s more to “national character” than simply landscape descriptions and idiosyncratic vocabulary.

ALAN: Oh, definitely. It’s the people who live inside those descriptions that bring the whole thing to life. “Prelude” is a story about the Burnell family moving house from Wellington to a country village. They are only moving six miles, but that distance, small though it is, is huge in terms of lifestyle changes. I think that contrast is a valuable indicator of just how people lived at that time.

JANE: Hmm…  I see what you’re getting at.  However, in terms of pinning down national character, I think we’re a century out of date.  No wonder the school kids don’t identify.

ALAN: True – but you could say the same about Mark Twain and the way he chronicled the American life and times. He couldn’t describe modern day America, but that doesn’t make his work any less valid as an exploration of the time and the place in which it is set.

JANE: I agree, but while I’ve enjoyed some Twain, I wouldn’t put him forth for anyone trying to understand the “character” of the modern U.S.  In fact, it would be a stretch to say that such trickster, law-bending characters as Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, or even the Connecticut Yankee (of King Arthur’s Court fame) were representative of any but a small fragment of the population even at the time Twain was writing.

After you reminded me about the link between Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, I started remembering that she’d had a very open mind for the time, both regarding sexual relationships and race relationships.  I went and double-checked and the rather nice write-up on Wikipedia confirmed my memories.

Mansfield was apparently fairly honest about being bisexual.  One of the great loves of her life was not only a woman, but a Maori woman.  In other discussions about New Zealand – including our recent one about politics – you mentioned New Zealand’s liberality in both of these areas.

So, would you say that Mansfield reflects New Zealand’s character in this way?  That her fiction being a staple in schools provides a subtle indoctrination, perhaps?

ALAN: It’s certainly a reflection of New Zealand as it is today, but I don’t think the ideas applied in Mansfield’s time. One of the reasons that she left the country was because of her frustrations with the provincial life of colonial Wellington. She described the journal she kept at this time as consisting of “…huge complaining notebooks”.

JANE: Ah, well.  It was a nice idea.

ALAN:  Mansfield’s gloomy aspects have had an interesting side effect. A couple of years ago, New Zealand writers Matt and Debbie Cowens published Mansfield With Monsters which took some of her iconic stories and, just as she descended into existential angst, they introduced a zombie or a vampire to take over the drama. It was a surprisingly effective ploy. They caught Mansfield’s style perfectly and the joins didn’t show at all.

JANE: Would you consider these readable by someone unfamiliar with Mansfield’s work?  So many parodies rely on familiarity to be funny.

ALAN: Yes, I would. The book won a national award in New Zealand in the year it was published and many of the voters would have had little familiarity with the original.

JANE:  While I’ve really enjoyed discussing her works, I’m not convinced that Katherine Mansfield would be a good gateway to understanding the national character of New Zealand.  Do you have any other authors you’d like to put forth to add to my understanding of New Zealand – whether then or now?

ALAN: Yes, I do. But you’ll have to wait until next time to find out who they are!

Variety Is The Spice of Write

November 11, 2015

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been doing a bunch of things that – to an outside observer – would appear to have nothing at all to do with writing.  However, in how these things are stimulating my imagination, they’re having a wonderful impact on my creativity.

Various Activities

Various Activities

Last Friday, I went with Jim to a coin show.  Jim is our family’s coin collector, but I often go along with him and our friend Michael Wester.  Michael mentioned that he’d promised a mutual friend that he’d look for some buffalo nickels.  I volunteered to help stretch our friend’s funds by searching through the loose coin boxes and see what I could find.  Since the coins in these boxes have usually only had minimal sorting – usually to cherry pick out the best coins of a type – it’s possible to find some interesting things.

Armed with Jim’s magnifier, I set to work.  In the course, I learned a lot of things, both about coins and otherwise.  I learned that buffalo nickels were not well-designed (at least from a collector’s point of view) because the date is placed where it quickly wore off, as did the artist’s initial and other details.  This meant that many of the coins I looked at had a smooth spot where the date should have been.  I also learned that the tiny “S” or “D” mint marks were on the opposite side of the coin, so that to inspect coin properly, both sides needed to be checked.

Jim estimates that I looked at well over a thousand coins.  In the course of this, I found twenty-two different dates and/or mint marks.  I also found one 1935 nickel that had slipped through the pre-sorting.  It was still very shiny, the date and mint mark both clear, as was the tiny “F” that was the artist’s mark.  I bought this one for myself as a memento.

I also overheard some very interesting conversations, including one where a retired military officer mentioned being called back out of retirement because his specialization was needed.  He also talked about various investments he’d made – none of which were things I would have every considered as options.  As I sorted, I also had a nice chat with two of the coin vendors, and learned a lot about the trade.

On Saturday, Jim and I met our friend, Chip, and went to the natural history museum.  The New Mexico Natural History Museum is one of the “youngest” such museums in the country.  One of the very cool aspects is that, if you so choose, you can visit the various galleries in order of time, rather than randomly, by subject.  You begin with the formation of the universe and solar system, then the planet, then progress to theories regarding how life might have come to be.

From there, you get to wander along, viewing increasingly complex lifeforms, up to prehistoric mammals like mastodons and mammoths. Oh, and dire wolves, of course!

Another thing that makes our natural history museum cool is that whenever possible the displays are tied to New Mexico.  For example, instead of a generalized discussion of how areas that were once swamps are now mountains or deserts, the displays use sites in New Mexico to show the changes.  This makes change on a geologic level a whole lot more real. The time-organized route ends where you can look into a paleontology lab, where fossils are being prepared for future displays.  It’s really fascinating.

After we finished with the museum, Jim and I stopped to buy beads so I could finish a bracelet I’ve been weaving in my spare time over the last couple of weeks.  For those of you who are into this sort of thing, I’m using even count flat peyote stitch.  The original Eye of Horus pattern was odd count, but I find odd count too much of a hassle, so I adapted to even count.

Anyhow, after many hours and well over a thousand beads, I came up short by about eight rows.  However, now it’s done and I’m looking forward to wearing it.

This past Thursday night, we finally had our killing frost.  Earlier in the week, I spent a fair number of hours out in the garden, picking everything that could be saved.  I also picked a bucket of green tomatoes, so we could renew our supply of green tomato relish.

The recipe we use is my maternal grandmother’s and is suitably old-fashioned, with measurements in bushels and pecks.  However, with the aid of a dictionary, we converted the amounts to cups.  We could have done metric and really brought the recipe into the 21st century, I suppose, but most of our cooking gear doesn’t have both formats.

It’s funny but, although I think of this as my grandmother’s recipe, we’ve adapted it to our tastes.  The original calls for white vinegar, but we use apple cider vinegar.  The original calls for green peppers, but we substitute some jalepeños, making for a hot/sweet relish, rather than just sweet.  The end result is very good and worth the labor.

Another interesting thing about the recipe is how very much the process reduces the vegetables, mostly by removing liquid.  When we finished the first stage of preparation, we had 36 cups of ground vegetables.  This sat overnight covered in salt to draw off some of the liquid.  By the next day, after we drained off the liquid, we had about half as much raw material.  When we cooked this in vinegar, sugar, and added spices, then bottled the end result, we were down to seven and a half pints.

That, fifteen cups, for those of you who don’t do pints…

So, what does any of this have to do with writing?  I’d enjoy hearing what you think…


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