Archive for August, 2011

Meeting Authors

August 31, 2011

I really enjoyed the lively and detailed comments last week, both those about

Author Met

various experiences at science fiction conventions and those related to the question of meeting authors.

Meeting authors – and being the author met – is such a complex picture I couldn’t give a fair response in a short comment, so I’m going to have a go at it here.  Mind you, this is not meant to be the Final Word on the subject, but just, as always, one person’s experiences.

Where to start?

I mentioned last time how I went to my first SF convention specifically in hopes of meeting Roger Zelazny.  That went really well.  (I’ve told the story elsewhere, although not on in these wanderings, so I’m not going to go into it again.  Let me know if you want to hear it).

However, I can’t say all my meetings with authors whose writing I’ve liked have gone as well.   One such experience, however, caused me to make a rule that I follow to this day.  Many years ago, when Roger was still alive and we were both still writing for Avon Books, we were seated at a table with another Avon author.  I’m not going to use this author’s real name for reasons that will be obvious as I continue.  Let me call him Sandro Sands.

Well, I’d read some of Mr. Sands’ work and, while I didn’t think it was a great as some people did, I was interested in meeting him.  First meeting went nicely.  Mr. Sands was quite polite, if very, very lively.  Later the same day, I spoke to Mr. Sands again.  This time Roger (who was very, very admired by Mr. Sands) was not present.   Mr. Sands could not have been a more different person.  He was so brash and arrogant as to be unpleasant to be around.  I thought: “Hmm…  Here’s another of those people who have one face for Roger and another for the peons.”  I disliked him greatly.

Time passed.  Another convention.  Another year.  I encountered Mr. Sands again at another Avon Books-sponsored event.  Roger was not around, nothing about me had changed,  but Mr. Sands could not have been nicer.  We had a great chat.  Moreover, he has been lovely every other time I’ve met him in the many, many years that have passed since.  We are not bosom buddies, but we are certainly more than polite professional acquaintances.

I’ve often been glad I gave Mr. Sands another chance.  If I had judged him based on that first bad impression, I would have lost a wonderful opportunity to know an interesting person.  I might have missed some great books (since, like Maria said in her comment, I have trouble reading books by people I dislike).  This experience meant so much to me that I have made myself a hard and fast rule to always give an author a second chance.

The fact is, as Alan said in his comment, authors are humans too.  However, sometimes, even when addressed with polite friendliness, they may not react the same way.  Maybe they’ve just had bad news.  (Remember, authors often are doing business at a convention as well as seeing fans.)  Maybe they have an upset stomach or slept poorly.   Maybe they are coming off a stressful panel.

That brings me to judging authors merely by their behavior on panels.  I’ve talked to fans who obviously believe that panels are easy and fun for the authors.   They figure we just get up there and breeze through the material.  It’s not like that at all.  Most of us spend a lot of time preparing – often more time than the panel itself will take.  Yes.  A good panel is fun, but easy…  Oh, no!  Questions come out of left field.  Another panelist may go on a rant or decide that he or she is the only one the audience wants to hear.  The moderator may decide that being moderator means he or she is actually the only panelist.

This year at Bubonicon, a young man complimented me on a panel I’d been on.  Then he commented with an ingratiating grin, “A whole lot easier without Mr. X?  Right?”  I was baffled.  I’d liked Mr. X.  Yes.  He could talk the hind leg off a whole herd of donkeys, but he was  nice and had opinions.  He’d even shown up to pour tea at the last minute.

I said as much and the Nice Young Man said, “But he seemed to get to you on that panel last year.”  Then I remembered the panel.  Mr. X had decided the whole topic boiled down to one or two jokes he liked.  He kept making them.  I actually thought the panel had a lot more potential and I tried to take it there.  Did that mean I didn’t like Mr. X or that I’d refuse to work with him again?  Absolutely not!

Then there’s the question of when you choose to talk to an author.  Fact is, a lot of well-meaning fans often insert themselves into what are private conversations.  When this happens, the author is at a loss.  On the one hand, it’s a compliment that someone likes your work enough to want to stop and chat.  On the other, you were just taking to a friend.  Maybe you were saying something that wasn’t meant for general consumption.

I hate being rude to a fan, but when to do when the fan is rude, especially when the rudeness persists over an entire weekend?  I’ll admit that I have  asked for a moment to finish what I’m about before turning my attention to the newcomer.  If that makes me rude…  Well, I don’t know what the solution is.

Fact is, it’s hard facing the expectations placed on an author at a convention.  I walked down a corridor early one morning and overheard the following statement: “I was just in the elevator with Lois McMaster Bujold.  She didn’t even look at me.  She’s so rude!  I’m never going to read one of her books.”

I wanted to shake the speaker.  She judged a writer based on an elevator ride?  An elevator ride where the writer did nothing worse than not look at her?  Wow!  It’s enough to make me afraid to walk over the threshold of my hotel room into public areas!

Okay.  Not really.  But I think you see what I mean.

So meet the author by all means.  Chat.  But remember to extend the courtesy you would to any other human being.  Wait for an opening.  If you want to chat, have something to say other than “I love your books,” because, reasonably, the only polite response the author can give you is “Thank you.”  Questions are good, because they open up the chance for conversation.

Finally, as I learned with “Mr. Sands” all those years ago, give the writer a second chance.  You may be glad you didn’t close a door too quickly.

I’m sure some of you have come up with other guidelines or stories about good and bad meetings.  I’d love to hear them.  After all, I’m meeting authors all the time!

TT: Tea and Yog(h)urt

August 25, 2011

Welcome to Thursday Tangents…  If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just page back and I’ll tell you how two ferrets nearly kept me from attending my first science fiction convention.  Meanwhile, Alan and I were chatting about yogurt.

ALAN: Last week you noted how surprised you were by the thick, creamy

Tea, Anyone?

consistency of yoghurt in New Zealand. I found this rather puzzling. I was also intrigued by the fact that we both had different spellings for the word – you say yogurt and I say yoghurt as the old song very nearly has it. So just what is American yogurt like?

JANE: Well, when I was growing up, yogurt had a strong “sour” note that I didn’t like at all.  Combined with a texture not as thick as custard (or what we would call “pudding”), which was too thin for me to find appealing, it was not on my list of favorite foods.  This would probably be in the late seventies or early eighties.  Even mixing in jam wasn’t enough.  I still didn’t like the flavor.

Now, before I go further, I should note that this “sour” note was not the same as what you find in what we call “sour cream.”  I like sour cream – a lot.  When my sister and I were young, in the summer, we’d sometimes walk to the country general store.  If we had enough pocket money, we’d splurge on a little container of ice cream.  However, a few times I got a container of sour cream instead and found it just as delightful.

So it wasn’t “sour” alone.  It was a particular sour that I didn’t like in yogurt.

Commercial yogurt manufacturers  now seem to have eliminated a lot of this sourness and to be adding something to thicken the consistency.  In the last year or so, variations on yogurt – particularly Greek-style, which is marketed as having “twice the protein” of ordinary yogurt – are becoming more widely available.  I’ve tried most of these, but none of them have lived up to my memories of that glorious New Zealand yogurt some sixteen years ago.

ALAN: Obviously the extra “h” adds to the texture. My cooking tends towards the low fat end of the spectrum and when recipes call for cream I always substitute low fat (“weight watchers”) yoghurt. It works very well – even the very low fat yoghurts (less than 1% fat) are still thick, creamy and tasty.

Now, before I forget, there remains the fact, as I said last week, that you simply can’t have Tea without tea.

JANE: That’s absolutely true.  For Bubonicon’s Author’s Tea, the teas are donated by the St. James Tea Room, a lovely establishment here in Albuquerque.  I’ve been informed by those who have reason to know that St. James serves a credible English High Tea.  I certainly have enjoyed my visits there

For the Author’s Tea, Pati Nagle usually arranges for four different teas of varying types: one traditional black tea, one scented tea (black or green, usually), a green or white tea (sometimes scented),  and an herbal tea or tisane.

Is such a variety typical if you’re just having tea with Tea at home?

ALAN: These days yes, it certainly is. I’ve got half a dozen different kinds of tea in my cupboard and the supermarket shelves are positively packed with all manner of different teas and infusions. There’s even a specialist shop in central Wellington which sells nothing but tea and there, of course, the range is just mind-bogglingly huge.

A couple of months ago Robin and I went to a presentation about tea. It was given by a man from Dilmah (a tea exporter based in Sri Lanka — they have a huge presence in New Zealand and their teas are very popular here). It cost us $10 each to get in and we each left with about $30 worth of free samples that we are still drinking our way through, so I think we got a bargain.

It wasn’t always so. When I was a child in England, there was only one kind of tea. There were quite a lot of different tea companies: Typhoo, P. G. Tips, and (my mother’s preferred brand) Hornimans. But they were all interchangeable. Tea then was a strong, brown drink served with milk and sugar and drunk almost non-stop throughout the day. I had read about tea being served with lemon but I’d never seen anyone drink it that way. I once asked my mother about it.

“Oh no,” she said quite firmly. “That would never work. The lemon would curdle the milk.”

JANE: Just as an aside, are you aware that the autobiography of the physicist Richard Feynman is titled Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman because when he was in college and invited to his first formal reception he was asked if he wanted milk or lemon.  Nervously, he responded “both” and the woman hosting the event said dryly, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman.”  This stung so much that he never really recovered, but with typical humor turned it around and made use of it.

ALAN: I’ve certainly read the book, but it was many years ago and I’d forgotten that particular incident. How nice to know that I have something in common with him – he’s one of my heroes.

These days both Robin and I drink our tea without any milk or sugar at all. However I must admit that we are regarded as a little odd. Most people that I know still prepare their tea in the traditional way.

How do Americans drink their tea?

JANE: Well, as I’ve noted elsewhere (see the Wednesday Wandering for 6-08-11, “Black Coffee”), I’m mostly a coffee drinker.  When I drink tea, I also tend to drink it black.  One of the delights of working on the Author’s Tea has been that I’ve learned certain teas are enhanced by just a touch of cream or a little sugar.

Based on observation, I’d say there’s no dominant choice here.

However, although when it comes to hot drinks I’ll choose coffee over tea, I do enjoy iced tea.  When I make it, I brew the tea (it’s brewed hot, then allowed to cool) with lots and lots of mint from my garden.  This makes a very refreshing hot weather drink.

Touching on regionalisms, again, for many years you could tell how far south you were by whether you were asked if you wanted sweetened or unsweetened cold tea.  At extremes you wouldn’t be asked at all.  In the north, cold (or iced) tea would arrive unsweetened and you would add your own sugar.  In the south, it was the reverse.  For a someone like me who prefers unsweet drinks, this was a shock and I quickly learned to ask for unsweetened tea.

ALAN: I’m with you on this. I really dislike sweet drinks; they taste quite horrible.

JANE: Has iced tea caught on in New Zealand – or England for that matter?

ALAN: No, not at all — iced tea is a barbarism. I have noticed bottles and cans of iced tea sitting in the soft drink section of the supermarket. However I’ve never seen anybody except visiting Americans drink it. And nobody would ever dream of making iced tea from scratch at home.

JANE: All this talk about sweetening reminds me.  I need to ask you about some of the odd sweeteners I’ve encountered in my British cookbooks.  Maybe next week…

Science Fiction Conventions

August 24, 2011

The two girls were wearing fur bikinis, live ferrets, and very little else.  The

A Few Convention Badges

moment I saw them, I nearly turned around and walked out of the hotel, away from my very first ever science fiction convention.

The year was 1989.  The convention was Lunacon, held that year in Tarrytown, New York.  I was a newly-minted PhD.   I’d come to see and, maybe – if I could get my courage up – to meet, a writer who had been kind enough to exchange a few letters with me.

The writer was Roger Zelazny.  The meeting did happen and had huge consequences for my life, but it nearly didn’t happen because of those cute girls and their ferrets.

Despite having been a long-time science fiction and fantasy reader, at that point I had not discovered SF Fandom.  I’d heard a few vague rumors of “Trekkies,” but, as these were always presented as extremely weird people who wore Spock ears, I wasn’t exactly eager to seek them out.  Although Washington, D.C., my hometown, apparently has and had a very active fan community, they didn’t touch my own life.  Equally, although I went to college in New York (Fordham University, Rose Hill campus in the Bronx) and had a few friends who did SCA events, I didn’t hear about SF Fandom then, either.

So it took until I was in my mid-twenties for me to find out about SF conventions.  I wouldn’t have heard about this one except that a friend called and said something along the lines of, “Hey.  I just got a flyer across my desk.  That author who’s answered a couple of your letters is going to be at a science fiction conference.  Maybe we should all go.”

And we did, thus beginning my involvement with science fiction conventions, an involvement that has now become a regular part of my life.

Why do I like science fiction conventions?  Is it all only about self-promotion?  Is it just about outreach to readers and potential readers?

No.  It’s not.  Soon after that first, rather startling, Lunacon, I moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, in order to take a job teaching English at Lynchburg College.  There I discovered that Virginia hosted several science fiction conventions.  I think the first one I went to there was the now-defunct RoVaCon, but I also went to a convention near the coast.  I can’t remember the name of that one, but I met Phyllis White there.  She owns Flying Coyote books and sold me a copy of Dayton O. Hyde’s  Don Coyote, a non-fiction book that contributed a great deal first to my  novel Marks of Our Brothers and, some years later, to Changer and Legends Walking.

By then, I was learning that science fiction fans are interested in a lot more than just science fiction.  In fact, I learned it was usually the other way around: The reason people become interested in science fiction and fantasy is because they are interested in a whole lot more.

RoVaCon got me involved in fandom after I was asked by the director if I would be on the board.  That was an interesting experience, since the convention would start self-destructing that very year.  However, since I acquired my  dear friend and pen pal, Paul Dellinger, through the experience, I can’t complain.

RoVaCon’s self-destruction led to me learning even more about fandom after several of my friends teamed up with one of the factions to found a new convention.  The new convention started as Kaleidoscope and was associated with the Lynchburg city festival of that name.  When the convention moved, it was re-named SheVaCon, for Shenandoah Valley Convention.  For several years, I worked on the convention behind the scenes.  In fact, until just a few years ago, I could still find paragraphs I’d written in the program book!

From working on Kaleidoscope and SheVaCon, I learned even more about fandom.  Not only are fans largely very intelligent and well-read, they are also amazingly generous with their time.  Many of the fans I met – including the Klingon club which provided convention security – worked with literacy groups, hospitals, and as fund-raisers for other organizations.  Many conventions include a charity auction in their events, often raising substantial funds.

I also learned how very tolerant fans can be of difference – even when it’s hostile.  Lynchburg was home to some right-wing Christians who decided it would be a great thing if they could cause problems for “that Satanist D&D group.”  They came to the convention on a Sunday morning and made pointed, rude comments.  When  this failed to cause a rumpus, they started loudly singing hymns in the hotel foyer.  I think they were shocked when the fans – led by the Klingons in full costume – applauded loudly.

And this tolerance wasn’t an isolated case.  Over the years I’ve been to many conventions at hotels that also had some other – often religious – event going on.  Convention staff not only politely answered questions, but often offered a free day-pass so the curious could see what’s really going on outside of the public areas.

When I moved to New Mexico, fandom made me welcome.  I still remember how Craig Chrissenger (the Bubonicon con-chair) was horrified when he realized that Roger Zelazny’s date was also a writer.  “I didn’t put you on any programming!” he said, obviously ready to hurry off and do so immediately.  I told him that was okay.  I only had a few short stories out then and was feeling pretty shy anyhow.

But the next year, when my first novels were out, the fans came to the signings.  And I’ve always had plenty of programming at Bubonicon since.  I’ve been part of fund-raising that has benefitted organizations as varied as local food banks, the Jack Williamson collection at Eastern New Mexico University, and our local wolf sanctuary.  I was Guest of Honor for Bubonicon 30 and Toastmaster a few years ago, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Vernor Vinge.

Bubonicon is this coming weekend.  I’m making “Slightly Spicy Cream Cheese Roll-ups” for the Author’s Tea.  I’m on a couple of panels, including one on Jules Verne with the translator for the new authoritative edition of many of Verne’s novels.   And I think I’m going to read “Hunting the Unicorn.”

It’ll be fun…  This time,  if I see a couple of girls in fur bikinis, wearing ferrets, well, I’ll probably wander over and ask if I can hold one of the ferrets.

(I’d love to hear about your convention experiences!)

T.T. Two On Tea

August 18, 2011

Here we go again with Thursday Tangents.  If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, go back one to hear all about the Spaceport Archeologist.

JANE: Well, Alan, in about ten days I’ll be helping host the Author’s Tea at

American Versions

Bubonicon, our local SF convention.  To clarify, this is not a Tea for the authors, but rather a Tea hosted by the some of the authors.

In addition to teas contributed by a local tea room, we provide a massive spread, including sweets, savories, and an assortment of fresh fruit and cheese.  Moreover, in many cases, the authors themselves do the baking.

Thinking I might vary my usual offerings, I pulled out an English cookbook I was given some years ago.  I immediately got stumped.  I hope you could help me figure out some of the ingredients.

ALAN: I’ll do my best – but I tend to be much more of a consumer than a producer in this area.

JANE: Okay.  Here’s the first.  A recipe for Saffron Buns calls for “strong flour.”  Any idea what that is?

ALAN: Ah! As it happens I do know the answer to this. Strong flour is specially designed to induce anaphylactic shock in people who are gluten intolerant. It is milled from unbleached wheat and tends to have a brownish colour. It has a hugely high gluten content and is mainly used for baking brown bread.

JANE: But isn’t that the same as whole wheat flour?  I figured that the “wholemeal” flour mentioned in a couple of recipes fit into the puzzle there.  I wonder what the equivalent of “strong flour” is here.  Maybe some of the bakers in our readership can help.

ALAN: Now I’m lost. I have no idea whether or not strong flour and whole wheat flour are the same thing. This is definitely one for the readers.

JANE: All right, here’s a new one.  The same recipe calls for either currants or sultanas.  I have baked with currants, but not with sultanas – in fact, I’m not even sure what a sultana is.

Let’s see…  My dictionary gives a variety of definitions.  Since I’m betting the recipe doesn’t want me to include “a female member of a sultan’s family” or an exotic bird,  I’m guessing what’s indicated is a raisin made from a pale golden grape.

Any idea which would be better?   (Currants or sultanas, not birds or female sultans, that is.)

ALAN: I’ve always considered raisins, currants and sultanas to be equivalent. They are all essentially just dried grapes of various kinds. Currants are black and wrinkled. Sultanas and raisins are lighter brown, less wrinkled and much sweeter. This is true for both fruit and female sultans, though it is less true of birds. On the other hand, the older the female sultan, the darker and more wrinkled she tends to become…

JANE: I’m going to quibble here.  Currants are a fruit that grows on a bush.  You can eat them fresh, but mostly they are sold dried.  In both forms, they are called “currants.”

However, raisins start their lives as grapes.  So, apparently, do sultanas.

ALAN: Ah! We’ve found another linguistic difference; quite a subtle one this time.  Your statement about currants puzzled me so much that I actually had to go and look it up on them there interweb thingies. What I found astonished me.

According to Wikipedia,  in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, the word “raisin” is reserved for the dried large dark grape, with “sultana” being a dried large white grape, and “currant” being a dried small Black Corinth grape. Wikipedia insists that Americans (alone in the English speaking world) call these last “Zante currants.” It even has a photograph of a packet of Sun-Maid Natural California Zante Currants to prove it.

As far as currants being a fruit that grow on a bush, I’d call those “blackcurrants” or “redcurrants,” but never just currants. Also I don’t recall ever seeing dried blackcurrants, only fresh ones. Perhaps we have another cultural divide here?

JANE: We must.  For one, I’m about as American as you get, and I’ve never heard of a “Zante” currant.  For another, a popular landscaping shrub here is the golden currant (Bibes aurcum).   There is also the wax currant (Bibes cereum).  I’m sure there are other varieties.  So currants are not merely another word for “grape.”

As an aside… Prunes start their lives as plums.  However, after decades of being associated with old people who have “bowel” difficulties, the American market has decided to make an effort to re-market prunes as “dried plums.”

Now it’s your turn…

ALAN: Prunes! No such euphemisms as “dried plums” here. We call a prune a bloody shovel. Oh no, that’s spades…

I have a lovely recipe for pork, cooked with apples, prunes and sage. I make it regularly; Robin and I are both very fond of it and the cats enjoy the off-cuts from the raw pork.

JANE: Sounds wonderful!

ALAN: Have you considered providing a Devonshire Cream Tea?

Nowadays you seem to be able to get pale approximations of the real thing almost everywhere you go, but in my youth it was available only in Cornwall and Devon, in the deep southwest of England.

We used to spend our annual summer holidays down there and every year we would gorge ourselves. The cream (clotted, or clouted cream) was thick and heavy, often with a slight yellow tinge because it was so full of fat – full of goodness, as my mother used to say. We would spread jam on freshly baked scones, smear thick dollops of cream on top and stuff our faces.  It is a hideously unhealthy  meal but truly blissful.

Can you get proper clotted cream in America? A lot of the settlers in Australia (and to a lesser extent New Zealand) came from the  south-west of England and so cream teas are quite common over here.

JANE: Whoa!  Slow down….  Before I tell you whether or not we can consider a Devonshire Cream Tea, I need to ask, is the only difference the inclusion of clotted cream?

ALAN: Yes – it’s just scones and jam with clotted cream. And pots of tea, of course. You simply can’t have tea without tea.

JANE: Sounds lovely, but I doubt we could manage a cream tea for Bubonicon.

I do believe you can get clotted cream, but whether or not you would consider it “proper” I can’t say.  That’s the problem with words – they only go so far.

One of my fondest eating memories of my long-ago trip to New Zealand was the morning that I decided to eat “light” and took a selection of fruit and yogurt from the hotel buffet, rather than the meat and egg-oriented meals I’d been eating.  The yogurt was, by far, the best I’ve ever had – creamy, rich, and incredibly indulgent.  If I’d known about it, I would have skipped all the bacon and other stuff and just eaten that.

ALAN: Now I’m puzzled again. Isn’t that what yoghurt is always like? What does yoghurt mean to you?

JANE: Uh, oh…  I see we’re heading off on another tangent.  Let’s save yogurt for another time… And you’re not off the hook for tea items.  I haven’t even gotten to the confusion of sugars.

ALAN: We haven’t even discussed tea itself…

JANE: Next time, definitely, next time.

Spaceport Archeologist

August 17, 2011

Spaceport America, August 2011

Over the last three months, Jim has been senior project director for an archeological project at the location of the new Spaceport America in the Jornada del Muerto, about an hour outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

It’s made for an interesting summer for both of us.  Jim would leave early on Monday morning and get home in the evening on Friday.  In between, he and his crew would be out in temperatures that regularly topped a hundred degrees, with no shade or water except what the crew brought in themselves.

The area they were looking at has seen human occupation for something like 11,000 years, starting with the prehistoric Folsom and ending with the ground side of human ventures into outer space.  Until recently, most of that occupation was relatively transient.  The area isn’t very inviting.  Jornada del Muerto is usually translated as “journey of the dead man.”  The name is said to be a reference to the fatal journey of Bernardo Gruber.

When Jim and his crew got down there in May, the winter and spring had been so dry that not even weeds were growing.  Tenacious mesquite was about the only plant in sight.  Although this offered a little shade, Jim’s crew couldn’t be all that grateful, since mesquite also has thorns that will puncture a truck tire or go right through the bottom of a hard-soled boot.

So what sort of human activity went on in this hot, dry area?  Mostly hunting and gathering.  Mesquite beans (actually seeds) are a good source of calories, so they were probably being gathered.  The crew found ample evidence of stone tools, including a fair number of broken Folsom points.  They found locations where shelters had been erected.  They also found some fire pits, probably used for roasting tubers.

They actually won’t know what they found until they finish the lab work.  Contrary to popular views of archeology, field work is only part of the job.  Much of the actual discovery is done in the lab.

Jim’s crew was in many ways representative of those working in Southwestern archeology.  Gender was slightly biased toward female – with five females and three males.  Jim’s co-director was a woman.  Ethnically, they had five Anglos, two Navajo, and one Spaniard.  (All Americans, of course.)  Education ranged from several post-graduate degrees (including one law degree) to high school level.

The one way the crew was not representative was in age.  All but one of the crew members was over fifty.  Several were over sixty.  Only one was under forty!  This was because the office was also fielding a crew down at Cooke’s Peak, where a lot of climbing was part of the daily routine, so the younger staff got shifted there, while the older staff got sent to bake in the desert.

Looking for artifacts was only part of the job.  They noted plants and wild animals in the area.  Early mornings during their drive out to the site, they often saw various small rodents, antelope, mule deer, rabbits, and coyotes.  Rarer sightings included badger, ring-tail, and fox.  Oh, and rattlesnakes…  The area is really inviting for rattlesnakes.  Both Jim and his co-director, Nancy, wore snake gaiters when checking out new sites.

As the summer progressed, tarantulas wandered in to find out what was going on.  One of my favorite stories came from an encounter with these furry spiders.  Jim had stopped to check in with the folks at construction headquarters.  The fellow he was talking to asked, “Is the tarantula out there still?  Do you have a shovel you could use to shift it for us?  We don’t mind it, but some of the female visitors get scared.”  Jim laughed and replied, “I’ll see what we can do.  My female crew members are out taking pictures of the spider.”

For such a barren area, there was a considerable amount of avian life.  Jim reported several types of hawks.  One of my favorites was the nighthawk which, upon research, turned out to be defined as an “aberrant goatsucker.”  That is, most birds in the goatsucker family are nocturnal, but nighthawks will fly by day, making them aberrant.  Don’t ask me why…  I thought this was very funny.

Working at the spaceport offered challenges archeologists don’t usually face – like the week they had to change plans because the site they were working on was right in a launch path.  However, overall, Jim’s crew was delighted to be so near the spaceport.  They watched as the main building grew and changed color, went out to investigate the massive runway, and basically enjoyed being part of the transition between the oldest of human endeavors, just finding enough to eat, and the newest – reaching for the stars.

But we’re both glad to have Jim home again.  It will be fun to hear how the lab analysis progresses, to learn what might have been cooked in those huge fire pits, and all the rest.  And in a few months, Jim may have another field project starting up, but that one, rather than being in the outlying areas of the state, will be much closer to home – right off the Santa Fe Plaza.

TT: Mysteries of Measurement

August 11, 2011

If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just page back one for my announcement on my new venture into e-book.  Otherwise,  join me and Alan as we venture into the mysteries of measurement in an international age.

JANE: Alan, the other day, after you asked me what a “brownie” was and I sent

Measuring Systems

you my recipe, I realized that you might not be able to use it because the measuring systems we employ are quite different. Then I realized I had no idea what you would use as equivalent measurements for teaspoons or tablespoons or the like.

ALAN: Actually it didn’t bother me – partly because I grew up using imperial measurements in England and partly because I’m notorious for not measuring ingredients when I cook. I tend to keep the proportions of things roughly right but that’s about as far as it goes. People have learned to stop asking me for recipes:

“How much liquid should I use?”

“Twice as much as you have rice.”

“So how much rice should I use?”

“Half as much as you have liquid.”

It’s too frustrating!

JANE: I could have possibly done my part to get revenge for your friends by confusing you.

Over here, an informal way of measuring butter or margarine in a recipe is to say so many “sticks,” since a pound of butter is usually divided into quarter pound “sticks” which also happen to measure to half a cup or eight tablespoons. It’s very convenient – indispensable, really – if you’re used to it.

So we have sticks but not stones for measuring weight – I believe you folks used to use “stone” as a measurement of weight. Utterly confusing for an American.

What is a “stone,” anyhow? Are they used anymore? And is it part of what you’re calling “imperial measurements”? Do you prefer one type to another?

ALAN: Sixteen ounces is a pound and fourteen pounds is a stone. It’s actually a very convenient unit – someone who weighs 140 pounds (your phrasing) would weigh 10 stones (my phrasing). I’m much happier with small numbers than with large ones. I have no idea if the British still use stones since they have gone metric now, and I haven’t lived there for about thirty years, but certainly it was common usage for all of my (English) life.

I studied science at school and university and the sciences work exclusively in metric, so I’m actually quite happy to work with either metric or imperial units, but (perversely) I cannot convert the one to the other. England was just starting to go metric when I left and New Zealand had been metric for donkey’s years when I arrived. So I’ve been happily immersed in both systems all of my life. But even under the metric system some things never change.

Centuries of dedicated research have proved that the pint glass is the ideal size for drinking beer. Smaller quantities leave the drinker unsatisfied and larger glasses are too heavy to lift. But a pint is perfect. Imagine my horror when I discovered that an American pint is roughly 20% smaller by volume than a British pint. If I drank beer in American pints I would die of dehydration. Not enough liquid…

JANE: Yes! I recall Jim expressing delight about how he discovered the English pint when he visited England.

The American tendency to skimp carries over to non-alcoholic liquid measurements as well. When I was a kid, most drinkables came in pints, quarts, and half-gallons. Then – in what we were told was the beginning of a transition to international standards – instead of getting a half-gallon of soda or milk, we were expected to settle for 2 liters, which is a smaller amount. And somehow, gee-whiz, the price stayed the same.

And the overall transition to “international standards” never happened.

Jim, by the way, is very accustomed to making conversions between metric and “imperial” (although we just call this “real”) measuring systems, since archeology made the switch many years ago. He’s rarely happier than when he can find a good tape measure in meters.

I need to deal with metrics in my collaborations with David Weber, since the Honorverse uses metrics. I’m okay with the larger measurements, but somehow describing someone’s height in centimeters seems all wrong. I’m not sure most of my readers will have any idea what height anyone is, either.

(For those of you wandering in late, see Wednesday Wanderings “Lindskold and Weber to Collaborate” 11-10-10 and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” 3-16-11.)

Another area where Jim is more sophisticated than I am is British currency. He’s a coin collector, so has the basics down. I, however, spent a troubled childhood trying to figure out why people in England paid for things by weight for big items (pounds), but in “real money” that is, pennies, for little purchases. And I fear I never got crowns, half-crowns, shillings or the rest of them straight.

It made reading any story where money was important completely confusing.

ALAN: Ah yes! LSD – or pounds (livres), shillings (solidus) and pence (denarius). British currency was always a conspiracy to confuse foreigners and it succeeded brilliantly. I was very sorry to lose it. After all, how can you possibly tell the time using the twenty-four hour clock if you don’t understand pre-decimal British currency?

JANE: Huh?

ALAN: Simple! 1500 hours is 15d (fifteen pennies) which is one shilling and three pence (1/3d – one and three). Disregard the shillings and consider the 3d as three o’clock. Try doing that with dollars and cents!

JANE: I’m still hopelessly lost. Try again. And don’t forget to explain why you use pounds, which, as far as I’m concerned, is a measurement of weight!

ALAN: The pound (currency) was originally defined as being equal in value to the weight of one pound of silver. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Hence 240 pennies in a pound. A crown is 5 shillings (60 pennies), but they were special coins minted only to celebrate special occasions – as a child I had a coronation crown, and another that was minted when Winston Churchill died. Half a crown is therefore two shillings and sixpence (2/6d which is 30 pennies). And that’s why 15d is three o’clock in the afternoon. See?

JANE: Not really, but I’ll take your word for it. Thanks for trying!

Dipping In A Toe

August 10, 2011

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was dipping a toe into the production of

Here We Go!

e-books. Well, the first one is ready. As a sort of “training wheels” project, I decided to put out three of my more than sixty published short stories. Of those stories, about a dozen fall into “series” of three of so stories about the same characters. Possibly because I had just finished working on the first of my collaborations with David Weber, I was drawn to a science fiction series, rather than a fantasy.

So my debut offering is the three stories featuring Captain “Allie” Ah-Lee of the singleship Mercury. Allie is one of my contributions to the type of science fiction stories I loved when I was starting to read SF. She belongs to a future where the individual still matters, where aliens trade with humans, and all the complications that can occur in such situations can and do.

The first of these stories is “Endpoint Insurance.” For those of you who note such things as copyright dates, yes, “Endpoint Insurance” was actually written second. The next story is “Winner Takes Trouble,” the story that introduced me to Allie and her interesting universe. The final story is “Here to There.”

I’ve made the stories available both as individual downloads and as a “bundle” of all three. The bundle contains a bonus in the form of a short introduction in which I talk a bit about the stories, both how they came to be written and what appeals to me about such a setting.

I’m not going to go into depth about the technical challenges of such a project for the very good reason that most of those were handled by someone else. I’m also not going to enter into the ongoing debate as to whether this sort of thing is a good idea for a new writer. However, I do want to tell you a little about my reaction to the project.

First of all, people will tell you it’s easy. Maybe it is if you’re the sort of person who likes spending time with computer programs. All I’ll say is that if you want to do a careful and meticulous job – the sort I felt I owed my readers – it’s time consuming. This was true even though I didn’t do my own program conversion. I entrusted this to a very reliable friend. (And paid for her services).

Even so, just reviewing the stories, making certain there were as few typos or other errors as possible, took time I could have spent on other things. So did responding to her queries on items as small as typos I’d missed or consulting over what dingbats – those little symbols that indicate a pause in the story – we would use where. (We also selected distinct dingbats for each story.) So did writing the introduction and cover blurbs. So did setting up with the various companies that handle distribution and setting up a Paypal account so that, if people wanted to buy directly from my website, they could do so.

(Aside One: Yes. I finally have Paypal on my website, both for e-books and for those out-of-print books I offer. Hopefully, this will make things easier for those would-be purchasers who have informed me that they’d love to get a signed book or two for themselves or for friends, but they don’t own a checkbook!)

In keeping with my philosophy that, for a writer, writing must come first, I would start in on my part of the e-book preparation only after I’d put in my quota of writing for the day. It made for very long days.

Second thought, although I think I have invested more considered study than most writers in the question of book covers, I don’t have the skills to make a good cover myself. Therefore, I decided to work with Pati Nagle, who will do cover design for a reasonable fee.

You can see  her work at http://mandala.net/ebooks-covers.html

I heartily agree with a statement that Tom Doherty of Tor Books has made on the question of authors and cover art. Tom says that most writers think would be a good cover is actually a good frontispiece or illustration. A cover needs to be something that provides a shorthand comment about what the reader can hope to find inside. First is genre: SF, Fantasy, Mystery. Second is some feeling for what the focus will be. Only third – and last – should come any actual illustration of some part of the book.

E-book covers provide the added challenge of needing to do all this in a very small image. Therefore, for the cover of Star Messenger (the collected stories) we selected a simple head-shot that with its space helmet and planet says SF, right off. I’d like to hope the image also says “SF, person, rather than scientific-extrapolation, oriented.” Finally, I chose this picture because the subject was looking right out at the viewer. I like her slight smile; to me it’s a little wry, a little ironical. Now, does this person “look like” Allie? No. Not really. However, I felt she had an “Allie-vibe” and to me that was much more important.

My cover designer chose a font that, I think says “SF.” It’s classic Star Trekish, somehow, with a bit of Star Wars – both futures where the individual remains very important to the story. We used the same basic image for the short stories, but selected slightly different planets for the background and a different color so no one could get confused and wonder why the same book was up four times.

(Aside Two: If you’re interested in hearing more about my views on cover art, good and bad, let me know and I’ll see about updating some of the columns I did on this subject for Tor.com).

Now, I should note that these short stories are not the first available electronic versions of my work. Tor has made certain that all of my novels with them (the six Firekeeper novels and the stand-alone works Child of a Rainless Year and The Buried Pyramid ) are out there. I’m certain various collections to which I have contributed are available. This is simply my first effort at making otherwise unavailable works available.

Now that I’ve dipped in a toe, I’m planning to continue the plunge. Next will come my novel Changer. Changer has been out of print for so long that I ran out of copies to sell a long while back, but I still get requests for it. A bookseller friend tells me that copies in good condition are hard to find and usually priced impossibly high. I’ll probably follow Changer with its stand-alone sequel Legends Walking, but I believe I’ll go back to the title I wanted all along – Changer’s Daughter.

I’ll also probably make both books available as print-on-demand for those who, like me, still prefer having the option of a non-electronic book.

Let me know what else you’d like to see. More short stories? More early novels? If so, which ones? I’m listening.

TT: Conversing on Art

August 4, 2011
Ponga Pencil-Holder

If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just page back for a discussion on just how much luck and coincidence a story can take…

JANE: For the last couple of weeks, Alan and I have been chatting about loan words and how they complicate the already complicated job of English-speakers communicating with each other. This week, I’m going to ask him about the arts.

Alan, art is a place where a I see a lot of loan words here in New Mexico. As I mentioned in my Wanderings for 9-15-10, our State Fair has three or four different art shows. Through them, I’ve become familiar with the difference between bultos and santos. Both are New Mexico Spanish religious art. A santo is a flat panel elaborately painted and often with a carved border. A bulto is a three dimensional sculpture. Both use traditional iconography associated with different saints. The artists who make these are called santaros and are highly revered.

ALAN: Absolutely; art is a very strong cultural influence. Maori have a tradition of tattooing (moku) that goes back many hundreds of years. The designs are formal and meaningful and often sacred. The current fashion for tattooing has seen an upsurge of Maori-influenced tattoo art.

JANE: When I was in New Zealand, the gift shops were full of Maori art. In fact, I still use the pencil holder I bought then. I believe it was carved from some sort of giant reed, and the striping is the natural coloration of the wood.

ALAN: Yes – it’s called ponga, and the striping effect is really very attractive. You can also get jewelry (and weapons!) carved from native jade (greenstone; the Maori word is pounamu). Native woods, mainly kauri and rimu, also lend themselves to carving and they have a beautiful finish. Again, traditional, often sacred, Maori representations have had a considerable effect on contemporary carving.

JANE: It’s good to hear that Maori art has been allowed to evolve into contemporary carving as well. There’s something sad about a formerly living traditional form become nothing but tourist junk.

Here in New Mexico, the traditional arts are also alive and evolving. At the State Fair there were a couple of paintings after the manner of santos, but using superhero style as well. Without reading the title of the painting, I could tell Jim what three saints (Michael the Archangel, St. Frances, and Saint James) were depicted just from the symbols assigned to each superhero. I found it a fascinating blending of the modern and the traditional.

ALAN: The Maori influence is also seen in areas other than the visual arts. My wife Robin sings in a kapa haka group. If you wanted to be completely traditional about it, a kapa haka choir would sing only Maori songs. But these days, while traditional songs are still a large part of their repertoire, they also sing many other songs as well, but in a Maori style of course. This involves choral singing accompanied by traditional dance movements and, depending on the song, a solo chant on the backbeat rising above the choral accompaniment. The effect is eerie and dramatic. I love kapa haka; it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Robin is Australian, but that doesn’t matter. Her group has a Chinese lady and several pakeha ladies without a trace of Maori ancestry between them. I was chatting once with one of the actual Maori members of the group and I told him that when I watched the performances I liked to play the game of “spot the Maori”. He laughed.

One reason that Robin loves singing with the group is because of the Maori songs. Many Maori words begin with the letters “wh” which is pronounced “f”. And so a perfectly legitimate word like whakenuia (no – I don’t know what it means) comes out sounding really rude. She claims that Maori is the only language that allows her to shout the f-word at the top of her voice without giving offence.

JANE: Excuse me… I’ve got to swallow a giggle.

Sometimes the cross cultural loans here in the U.S. get incredibly complicated. The squash blossom necklace is my favorite example of this. As a gardener, I was always puzzled why these were called “squash blossom” necklaces, because the “blossoms” looked nothing like those of the squash.

Then, at a museum, I learned the explanation. When the Spanish taught silver-smithing to the Indians, they wanted the Indians to execute designs that would sell in the European market. Therefore, the Indians were taught to make a design the Spanish had adopted from Moorish invaders – a pomegranate.

So we have American Indians making for the Spanish market a Moorish design…

ALAN: That’s fascinating. However, I thought I read somewhere that the American “Indians” prefer to be called “Native Americans,” since, after all, they have nothing to do with India.

JANE: Ah… Actually, they have more to do with India than you might imagine…

Let me answer your question first. Here in New Mexico, “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” is preferred. Even better is to know what the person’s tribal affiliation and use that – something that can become amazingly complicated given the amount of inter-marriage between tribes.

ALAN: Tribal affiliations are very important here as well. Maori define themselves in relation to their whanau (extended family), hapu (a clan, or larger kinship group) and iwi (tribe).

JANE: And now for the tie between American Indians and India… There’s a reason that the patterns on early Navajo rugs look like something that might come out of India… Once again, the market – in this case, the American market, rather than the Spanish – found it easier to sell such patterns and the trading posts encouraged the native weavers to manufacture such. Over time, the art has evolved, but the influence remains.

ALAN: Ah! So Columbus was more correct than he realised…

JANE: That’s true! I’m sure Cristobal Columbo would be very happy to know he had found India after all.

Luck And Coincidence

August 3, 2011

So, just how much luck can a story take?

Lucky Fish

Perhaps because of the events of last week’s baseball game (see “Retro Isotopes,” 7-27-11), I’ve been thinking a lot about luck – especially as luck is related to stories.

We all accept a certain amount of luck – or luck’s close cousin “coincidence” – in our daily lives. Indeed, I think we enjoy sharing stories of when our luck worked out – especially for the good, but even when the outcome was bad. Perhaps we like these tales because luck (or coincidence) seems to hint at a larger pattern of purpose in a universe that has come to seem increasingly purposeless.

Ah… But I become too philosophical.

In the not so distant past, an author could get away with using coincidence to move along the plot. The protagonist might overhear a conversation which warned him or her of a sinister plot or revealed that someone whom he (or she) had thought was a friend was actually not as favorably disposed as the protagonist had believed.

Sometimes, this overheard information might prove to be flawed. Especially in romance novels, the heroine frequently seems to be in a position to see her beloved embracing a beautiful woman before glancing up and down the street and slipping into a nearby house. Of course, later you learn this woman was his sister or cousin or whatever, but the plot has been jiggered along with a new complication.

There’s a lovely bit in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader where, via the agency of a magical book, Lucy overhears a girl she thought was her friend saying unkind things about her to another girl. Lucy is – quite understandably – shocked and hurt. Later, however, she learns that the friend had only spoken as she had because she feared the other girl. This scene provides not only a nice reminder about the dangers of eavesdropping, but also a hint that events are often more complex than we imagine.

As time progressed and writing overall became more sophisticated, situations such as the villain neatly outlining his entire plan to conquer the world when the protagonist is in position to hear the details and so foil the villain’s nefarious schemes became regarded as so contrived and unlikely as to become a matter of humor.

Towards the end of Roger Zelazny’s Prince of Chaos, Merlin (not the Merlin of Arthurian legend, just someone with the same name), waits in a room off a long corridor to avoid an approaching group of people. Merlin thinks, “In a badly plotted story they’d have paused outside the doorway, and I would have overheard a conversation telling me everything I needed to know about anything.” They don’t, of course. In fact, what Merlin overhears is so banal as to be less than useless.

I recently read – and enjoyed – Jacqueline Winspear’s post-WWI historical novel Maisie Dobbs. However, there was a sequence early in the novel that nearly kept me from reading further. Maisie has newly set herself up in business as a private investigator. In a tremendous bit of luck, she meets up with a war veteran who had his life and his leg saved by the surgeon Maisie was assisting. (She’d been a nurse during the war.)

Not only does Billy remember Maisie, but he is also so intensely grateful that he offers to assist with little jobs about her office. Moreover, he turns out to have the exact combination of skills and traits necessary to help Maisie solve her first important solo case. Had the book not been recommended by someone whose taste I trust, as soon as I saw how large a role coincidence was going to play, I might not have finished reading.

And yet… Would I have been right to do so?

Is the ruling out of coincidence as an element in a story’s plot entirely fair? Plans do get overheard – especially if the protagonist is already suspicious and therefore searching for opportunities to learn more. I believe that there is documentation that even more unlikely occurrences – such as a pocket Bible or lucky silver coin stopping a bullet – have happened.

So how much luck or coincidence can you accept in a story before you begin to feel cheated? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts and feelings on this tricky aspect of the storyteller’s art.