Archive for October, 2011

TT: Prohibition Reconfigured

October 27, 2011

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back.  I’m sharing news about a new sale!  Then come on back and join Alan and I as we look at the oddities that have evolved from regulating drinking.

JANE: Well, Alan, last time you asked if Prohibition was still an issue here in the

Yo Ho Ho

United States.  The answer is, as with so many things, yes and no.

The “no” is that there is no longer a Federal law prohibiting the drinking of alcohol on a national level.  However, there is a crazy quilt of state and county regulations that make the issue confusing to say the least.

For example, in the same state you may have “dry” and “wet” counties.  As far as I can tell, all this does is raise the revenues for sale of alcoholic beverages in those “wet” counties bordering the “dry,” but maybe it makes the people who live in dry counties feel more secure.

ALAN: We used to have something similar but the “dry” and “wet” areas were suburbs in the same city.  Every time there was a local government election, the dry suburbs would also have a referendum to see if they should become wet. The dry suburbs seem to have completely vanished now. Our liquor laws were extensively revised a few years ago and now you can buy beer and wine in the supermarket (and even at the corner shop) along with your groceries. Strangely, the supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell spirits.

JANE: Our supermarkets can also sell spirits – also called “hard liquor” – at least in New Mexico.

Another restriction is against selling alcohol on Sunday.  Even in relatively cosmopolitan Albuquerque, you cannot buy alcohol on Sunday before noon.    I guess morning is for religion but afternoon is for watching sports – a religion that cannot be practiced by many of its devotees without alcoholic stimulus.

ALAN: Again we used to have something similar but now, since the bars and shops and supermarkets are open seven days a week, that restriction too has completely disappeared. Interestingly, it still seems largely impossible to buy alcohol on Sunday in Australia – their liquor laws are much more restrictive than ours.

JANE: Supermarkets handle the Sunday restriction by putting a rope as a symbolic barrier between the public and the booze.  I’ve often envisioned how it must be when a duly appointed clerk removes the rope and the panting customers rush in to get their supplies before the Big Game starts.

I believe that sales of alcohol are also regulated on Election Day, although I cannot remember right off if that’s all day or just part of the day.  I think this one dates back to the bad old days when the custom was to get voters drunk and then encourage them to vote for your candidate.

ALAN: That’s bizarre! In our elections, touting for votes in any way, shape or form on election day is illegal and anyone found trying to influence the voters in that manner would quickly find themselves in court facing stiff penalties. Even the hoardings have to come down the day before the election.

JANE: Uh, hoardings?   That doesn’t have anything to do with dragons, does it?

ALAN:  Hoardings are synonymous with billboards. But I tend to think of hoardings as temporary structures (often raised in people’s front gardens), whereas I think of billboards as somehow being more permanent.

JANE: Certainly the days when voters would get drunk at the candidates expense are over, but billboards and signs remain up.  The only restriction is that any such must be moved a relatively short distance from the polling places – I think a hundred feet.

Another restriction on drinking surrounds the legal age to drink.  These rulings can get confusing in the extreme as, once again, they vary from state to state.  When I was in college in New York State, the legal drinking age for wine and beer was 18, but 21 for hard liquor.  I assure you, students can get quite “pissed” on beer and wine.  They just need to process more liquid to do so.

Later, I believe still during my college career, the law was changed to 21 for all types of alcoholic beverages.  This was really annoying for those students who, at 18, had been legally  permitted to get trashed, but now could not do so.  Did this stop them?

ALAN: Of course it didn’t! Our legal drinking age has oscillated a bit as well. Currently it is 18 but there are moves afoot to try and raise it again. Part of the problem here is our tradition of the six-o’clock swill. It used to be that the bars all closed at 6.00pm. And so everyone would leave work dead on the dot of 5.00pm, race down to the nearest bar and spend the next hour hurling as much beer down their necks as they could manage before they got chucked out into the street.

The six-o’clock swill is long gone now, but the culture of binge drinking that it encouraged is still very much with us and many people, particularly young people, seem to think that the best way to spend an evening is to get paralytic as quickly as possible and then spend the rest of the night throwing up, picking fights and driving very fast.

I doubt that raising the drinking age again would stop this behaviour. That would require a cultural change rather than a legal change

JANE: I’m a little confused here.  Is the six-o’clock swill a New Zealand thing?  I’m sure I’ve read British novels where “last call” (as in the title of the Tim Powers novel we discussed a few weeks back) comes much later.

ALAN: Yes – the six-o’clock swill is completely Antipodean. The British licensing laws are something else again. They were originally introduced at the start of  WWI because the Prime Minister (David Lloyd George) didn’t want the munitions workers to be too drunk to make artillery shells. And so the pubs closed mid-afternoon, re-opened in the early evening and closed again at 10.30pm. All that nonsense was finally done away with early this century and now, as I understand it, pretty much anything goes.

JANE: I really like the historical roots to that.  Here I’d love to know the source of some of our really weird regulations.  When I moved to New Mexico in 1994, it was illegal for a liquor store to sell a drink in a glass.  However, in some parts of the state,  there were liquor stores with drive up windows where it was possible to purchase a bottle and a glass – complete with ice.

ALAN: I can’t match that! But I do have a strange term for you to ponder. Sly grog refers to the illegal sale of liquor, often homemade (with an implication of poor quality). It is sold from unlicensed premises and, of course, the government gets no revenue at all. Sly grog has also largely vanished now. It was another reaction to the lunacy of the six-o’clock swill, but since you can now legally buy alcohol here twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, there seems little point in it any more. I suppose that sly grog shops were the equivalent of the American speakeasy.  I think it is a lovely phrase, beautifully descriptive.

JANE: Moonshine is our poetic equivalent for illegal liquor – probably because it was made at night, by moonlight.  Other names for illegal liquor are far less attractive: hooch, bathtub gin, rotgut.  Home brewing remains a tradition, though.  You can easily buy kits for making your own beer and wine.  Occasionally, the amateurs become professionals.  My friend Pati Nagle’s brother Darragh has a small but successful meadery – nice stuff, light, not thick or sweet.

That reminds me…  A week or so ago, we were discussing how  when a local gem gets taken over by larger businesses, so often what was unique is lost.  I’d like to ask you about local gems next time…

Two Types of Teeth

October 26, 2011

Last week I learned that my novella “Two Types of Teeth” has been accepted for

Some of Known Space

publication in Larry Niven’s latest Man/Kzin Wars anthology.

Wait! Saith you…  Jane Lindskold writes Fantasy.

Not so fast, saith me…  Of my first five novels, Marks of Our Brothers and Smoke and Mirrors were definitely Science Fiction.

As I saw it, my first novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls was also Science Fiction, even though Avon put “Fantasy” on the spine.  Donnerjack, one of the two novels I completed for Roger Zelazny, was also science fiction.  And quite a few of my sixty or so short stories, including the Captain Allie series, recently released in e-book versions (see “Dipping in a Toe,” WW 8-10-11) have been science fiction.

And I’m writing Science Fiction again in my current collaboration with David Weber (see WW 11-10-10).

Okay, saith you, but Man/Kzin Wars?  That sounds pretty military.  The other books aren’t military science fiction, are they?

Well, that’s true enough.  I don’t usually write military science fiction, although I’ve blown up a few ships in my time and sincerely enjoyed doing it.  I’ll admit, if I’d been asked to write a blasters blazing, laser cannons flashing tale, full of tactical details and hanging on a thread of statistical probability, I probably would have declined,

But I would have declined reluctantly, because Larry Niven’s Known Space stories are among my favorites in science fiction.  Since I can’t live in Known Space, writing a story set there is the next best thing.

When I say Known Space, I am including not only the wealth of Niven’s short stories, but also the associated novels, including Protector, The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, and, of course, Ringworld.

Among the many things I love about Niven’s Known Space stories are the complex and fascinating interactions between human and alien cultures.  So, when given a chance, that was the sort of story I wanted to write.

“Two Types of Teeth” is set at the very beginning of the First Man/Kzin War, later than Niven’s classic “The Warriors,” but before humanity has anything like a complete understanding of what it’s up against.  The main character is a doctor with an interest in xenology, living in a universe where the existence of aliens has only been recently confirmed – and that under very hostile circumstances.

This brings me to one of the challenges of setting a story in another author’s universe.  “The Warriors” – the story in which Niven introduces the Kzinti – is a first contact story in two ways.  It is the tale of the first contact with the Kzinti.  It is also the story of humanity’s first contact with any alien race at all.

However, if you read elsewhere in the Known Space stories, there are references that indicate that contact with the bandersnatchi came even earlier.  Then there are the questions of the “Sea Statue” and of Brennan…

I e-mailed Mr. Niven and asked what his preferences were.  His reply noted that there was a certain “randomness” in the early Known Space stories and he encouraged me to make my own choices.

So I did.  Since “The Warriors” is the story of first contact with the Kzinti, I decided to make that my foundation.  My main character has always wanted to meet aliens and now she has her chance.  The situation rapidly evolves into something neither she nor her employers could ever have anticipated.

The projected release date for the anthology is May of 2012.  I’ll certainly mention here when it’s actually out. I hope you’ll join me there to learn what “Two Types of Teeth” has to do with understanding another type of person and how that understanding might change the course of many lives.

TT: On CAMRA

October 20, 2011

Hi…  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back and join the chat about how to hook a reader  or stay here while Alan and I continue to look at the weird world of  beer and the language associated with it.

JANE: Okay, Alan, last time you promised to tell me about CAMRA.

Campaigners

ALAN: Ah yes! By the late 1960s, most of the craft breweries in the UK had been absorbed into big conglomerates and a dull uniformity had settled over what was now essentially a mass produced and rather bland drink. Four beer enthusiasts, incensed at what they regarded as the loss of a great brewing tradition, formed CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in 1971. They seemed to strike a chord and people joined the campaign in droves. As a consumer based pressure group it proved to be remarkably effective and it gave a new lease of life to the few remaining small breweries. Even the big conglomerates started making craft beers again and many new breweries sprang into existence.

JANE: I bet you have some colorful example of beers that were saved from extinction.

ALAN: One very famous beer that was saved from extinction by CAMRA is Theakstones Old Peculier. Note the peculiar spelling. It is quite a strong beer and rumour suggests that the name derives from the fact that if you drink a pint of it you feel very old and very peculier!  And you lose the ability to spell.

A close friend of mine spent his honeymoon in a carefully chosen small pub that served Old Peculier on tap.  By the end of the honeymoon he and his wife, with a little help from the locals, had drunk the pub dry.

“We’ve none left,” said the landlord. “You’ll have to drink bitter instead.”

And so they did.

JANE: Hm…  I can think if more interesting ways to spend a honeymoon, but at least this one wasn’t boring or routine!  What other weird beers are there?

ALAN: When I lived in Nottingham, the local beer was brewed by Shipstones. Of course you will have immediately spotted that “Shipstones” is an anagram of “honest piss.”

JANE: Actually, I wouldn’t have caught the anagram.  I’d probably have figured that a shipstone was what you used to holystone a ship’s deck and that the name dated back to the days of tall ships.

ALAN: As it happens, the beer was named after one James Shipstone, the founder of the brewery. However the anagram is very appropriate as the British often call beer “piss”. An evening’s heavy drinking is referred to as being “on the piss” and when you are quite drunk you are, of course, “pissed” .

I gather Americans find this usage confusing?

JANE: Well, not this American.  I mean, it sort of follows.  Drink too much beer and then, well…

Now, the more common meaning for “pissed” over here is “angry” or “disgusted.”  Even that meaning would sort of make sense when applied to someone who has had too much to drink, since drunks are notably obstreperous.

ALAN: Since you don’t use the word “pissed” in the same sense that we do, what words do you use to describe someone who is drunk?

JANE: The one that first springs to mind is “trashed.”  Then there are some impolite ones like “sh-tfaced” which I won’t spell lest a spam filter gets annoyed.

“Drunk as a skunk” evolved into “skunked.”   This, of course, maligns skunks, who, as far as I know, are not known to get inebriated.  Birds do though, and bears, both of which species have been known to deliberately seek out fermenting fruit for the buzz.

Ah…  That’s another one.  Buzzed!

In the Firekeeper novels, Firekeeper won’t drink alcohol because she’s already familiar with the vulnerability caused by such indulgences.

“Wasted.”  “Gone.”  “Tanked.”   I’m sure there are others that make the activity seem more attractive, but right now the only ones I can think of strike me as being, from an anthropological point of view, indicating very little pleasure coming from the activity.

Interesting…

ALAN: In the north of England, being drunk is sometimes referred to as being “slewed as a newt”. I’m really not sure why newts, alone among reptiles, are considered to be the archetypal drunk. However the expression sometimes morphs into the spoonerism “nude as a slewt” which I am really rather fond of.

JANE: Colorful indeed.  Actually, with your wisdom about what we might call the “lore of pissedness,” maybe you can answer a question a friend raised the other night.  Why is the phrase “take a piss” when, logically, it should be “leave a piss”?

ALAN: You’ve got me there! Certainly you always leave it behind and seldom if ever take it away with you except under most unusual circumstances. But since when did logic have anything to do with bodily functions?

Since we seem to be heading towards toilet humour again, perhaps I should point out that Shipstones was a temperamental beer that needed very careful cellaring. It often hovered on the cusp of undrinkable and it didn’t take much to push it over the edge. Drinkers beware!

I once saw a graffito that said:

Has the bottom fallen out of your world? Drink a pint of Shipstones and the world will fall out of your bottom!

But in its defense, I must say that a properly looked after pint of Shipstones truly was a magnificent beer.

JANE: You’re using the past tense.  From that I assume that CAMRA did not save Shipstones?

ALAN: Alas they did not. The brewery was taken over by one of the big conglomerates and the last true pint of Shipstones was brewed in 1991. The beer continued in name only for a few more years but the heart and the taste had gone out of it. It no longer exists.

JANE: That’s actually rather sad.   It always puzzles me when big business takes over something delightful and regional, then makes it generic and boring.

ALAN: Unfortunately it seems to be the way the world works.  We should chat about that sometime.  But while we are on the subject of beer, and drink in general, I’d be interested to find out if prohibition is still an issue in America?

JANE: Not exactly, but the laws that do regulate drinking alcohol can be as colorful and strange as the slang for being drunk.   Sometimes they even create the problem they’re trying to alleviate.  I wonder if it’s the same there.

ALAN: Indeed it is. Some of the rules and regulations that surround the consumption of alcohol here are both weird and wonderful.

JANE: I’d like to chat more on this, but it’s time to go write fiction.  How about next time?

Hooking A Reader

October 19, 2011

Last week, I promised you a funny story about narrative hooks.  I was told this

A Reader Hooked

one many years ago by Roger Zelazny.

Roger had been asked to speak at one of the big-name writer’s workshops.  I think this one was in Iowa, but don’t hold me to that.  In any case, this workshop was one of the multi-week ones that had two different sets of instructors: the regular faculty who were there for the whole six weeks or so and the guest speakers.

Roger was one of the guest speakers.  He came in early in the course and therefore was asked to talk about starting a story.  As he told me the tale, he began by discussing how important it was to start a story with something that would grab the reader.  Only after the reader was invested in the story should the writer go on and provide the background necessary to understand the events.

He paused, and his co-instructor, a member of the regular faculty, nodded enthusiastically and said, “By all means, let’s talk about narrative hooks.”

As Roger told it, he looked at her quizzically and said, “All right.  What are those?”

He always laughed when he told the story, but I think he also was making a point.  No matter how many writer’s courses you take, no matter how many trade terms you soak up or how good you are at slinging the jargon, a writer needs to understand the art from inside, not superimpose it from the outside.

Last week, we talked about novels that were ultimately great reads but didn’t necessarily have the best openings – those books we might have missed if we didn’t give them more than a few sentences.  I thought it was only fair to talk about the openings that have grabbed us – and whether or not the book measured up to the expectations that had been raised.

I’ll put myself on the block first.  Last week, Dennis Herrick very kindly mentioned my novel Marks of Our Brothers as having a great narrative hook.  For ease of reference, here it is.

“My martial arts instructor says that I’m a hopeless cause.

“‘Do you really want to learn this or is this some kinda joke?’ she growls.

“I don’t answer except by hopelessly screwing up another attempt at a breakfall, but I really do want to learn.  There are six people that I have to kill and I figure that some idea of how to defend myself might come in handy.”

Within in the next couple of sentences, you find out that the speaker has already succeeded in killing one of her six targets, so you know she’s serious.

This book was published in 1995, written some years earlier, but even so, I’m too close to it to look at these lines objectively.  I can tell you this.  While this was a great hook for some people, for other readers – those who like a book to stay predictable – it did not serve.  They wanted the narrative hook to be the equivalent of the thesis in a term paper, a neat spelling out of the book in miniature.  They wanted to read a book that would have ticked off murder by murder in neat order.

Well, this is one of my books, so that’s not precisely what happened.  However, the issue does remain at the heart of the book, although not in the manner either the reader or the main character would have imagined at the start.

Narrative hooks are too complex a topic to deal with conclusively in a few hundred words.  Besides, I don’t think I have all the answers.  However, before I sign off and open the floor to discussion, I’d like to share one of my favorite narrative hooks ever.  This one is from The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe Lansdale.

“When I got over to Leonard’s Christmas Eve night, he had the Kentucky Headhunters turned way up at his place, and they were singing ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett,’ and Leonard, in a kind of Christmas celebration, was once again setting fire to the house next door.

“I wished he’d quit doing that.  I’d helped him the first time, but he’d done it the second time on his own, and now here I was third time out, driving up.  It was going to look damn suspicious when the cops got here.”

Does this predict the book’s future action?  No, but it certainly tells you a lot about the two main characters and their interaction.  I, at least, had to keep reading to find out why Leonard kept burning down the house next door – and why he apparently didn’t think he needed to hide his actions.  By then I was invested.  I kept reading.

I’d love to hear what grabs you in an opening.  Are you looking for a plot summary?  A taste of the characters?  An interesting puzzle?  Something entirely different?

I’ve got a mug of coffee and I’m ready to listen.

TT: What’s In A Beer?

October 13, 2011

Welcome to the Thursday Tangent.  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to offer your opinion on how much you read in a book before putting it aside.  Or join me and Alan as we finally get around to discussing beer.

JANE: As I mentioned last time, I really know very little about beer.  In fact,

A Confusing Throng

until I got together with Jim, I just figured ale and beer were two different words for the same drink – regionalisms, so to speak.    Is this the case, or is there a “real” difference?

ALAN: These days there is no real difference and the terms are used interchangeably. Only an extreme pedant would insist that they were two different drinks. Originally ales were simply fermented grain products which did not include hops, and beers were fermented grain products which did include hops. But you can see how far we have come from that original distinction when I tell you that India Pale Ale is one of the hoppiest drinks imaginable! The hops give the beer its distinctive bitter taste and also act as a preservative. India Pale Ale was originally brewed for the British troops in India and so it had to survive a long sea voyage and still be drinkable at the other end. So it is very, very (say “very” a few more times) hoppy indeed.

JANE: At least I can be “hoppy” that I have a reason for having been confused!

Since we talked about Tim Powers (and he mentions it) – I’d like to know what a “bock” is.  For a while, Sam Adams here did a “triple bock” as a seasonal item.  It smelled and tasted – to me – more like port.  So if you know…

ALAN:  Bock is a very strong lager that was originally brewed in Germany. Despite being a lager, some of the bock brews are quite dark. The triple-bock is very strong indeed.  They partially freeze the beer and remove the water ice, leaving the concentrated alcohol and grain extracts behind. It’s called freeze distillation, and it can give quite interesting tastes and textures to the final drink. That would account for the port-like smell and taste that you noticed.

JANE: Ah!  I’ve heard of that technique, but for making a brandy-like drink from wine.   I encountered it first in a novel where the author clearly wanted strong drink, but at a technological level where distilling was impractical.

ALAN: I’m interested to hear that Sam Adams brewed it. I drank some Sam Adams beer when I visited America many years ago and I was very impressed with it. American beers have a poor reputation in the rest of the world. They are thought of as weak, watery and tasteless. The SF commentator Dave Langford once remarked that you can get a hangover from drinking American beer, but you don’t have the pleasure of getting drunk first. However I found the Sam Adams brews to be  extremely palatable. Are there any other American beers of a similar standard?

JANE: I can’t name specific brewers – but I bet some of those reading this can.  I do know that what are being called “artisanal” or “craft” beers (all you American beer drinkers, please feel free to correct me if I have missed a subtle difference between these two) are becoming quite popular.

Now, as I’ve said, I’m a non-drinker, but I will taste something if people are saying it is interesting.   Beer usually disappoints me.  To me it smells wonderful, but tastes like stomach upset.  However, a few weeks ago, I tried a craft beer from a place up near Taos that was the first beer I thought I could drink.

I know there’s a trend here toward beers that are include odd ingredients.  Just the other day, I read about a beer that included cherries, another that included hibiscus flowers…  I’d be curious whether the trend towards odd ingredients in beer is common “over there” and, if so, what you think of it.

ALAN: Using odd ingredients is very much an old brewing tradition, particularly in the Trappist monasteries of Belgium and Holland. Trappist monks aren’t allowed to do very much at all, they can’t even talk to each other! So to keep themselves occupied they have spent several hundred years perfecting the art of brewing some amazing beers. I once had a Trappist brew made with so many cherries that the foam on the top was bright pink! That was a very surreal experience. It was also, at least in my opinion, an extraordinarily disgusting drink. But then I don’t really care for cherries all that much.

JANE: When we were talking about how a good writer of alternate history remembers the subtle changes, you said something about lager.  What is it that distinguishes a lager from other types of beer?  Why would it have taken the Germans to bring it into England?

ALAN: Lagers are made with a yeast that sits at the bottom of the fermenting vessel and grumbles away slowly to itself. Other beers, particularly those brewed in the UK, use a different yeast that forms a foaming crust on the top of the fermenting liquid. The yeast used in bottom fermented beers works best at lower temperatures than the yeast used in top fermented beers. The final result also tastes better if served chilled whereas the top fermented beers taste better when served at room temperature.

JANE: Wow!  Obviously brewing beer is much more technical than I ever imagined.  How many different kinds of beer are there in the world?

ALAN: There are probably as many different kinds of beer as there are different kinds of wine, and for much the same reason. We recently had a beer festival here in Wellington. It was called Beervana, and it had 212 distinctly different beers available for tasting, almost all of which were brewed here in New Zealand. And that’s just one small country! Imagine the range of beers available in Europe where they’ve been brewing the stuff for hundreds, if not thousands of years!

JANE: Did you taste all 212 beers?

ALAN: No – I only managed about 10 of them before I had to (reluctantly) give up. But each was distinctive, each had its own flavour and texture. And of course, being a beer festival, Beervana was also full of beer snobs talking learnedly about aftertastes, chocolate flavours on the palate and crispy smoothness. Beer snobs are just as bad as wine snobs. Have I ever told you about CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale?

JANE:  No, you haven’t.  How about next time?

How Many Pages?

October 12, 2011

Oddly enough, in the last week or so, in very different contexts, I’ve found

Jousting Against Time

myself involved in a discussion of the question “How much do you read of a book before deciding you’re not interested?”

The final discussion, the one that made me decide to bring the question to our little living room and see what a broader range of readers might think, was with a group of writers.  The topic came up, not as a matter of craft, but  in the context of awards and award judging.  Many of those present had judged for awards (or read slush, which for the would-be-writer involved can seem very much like a contest).

One person commented something like, “Well, the thing is, no matter how much you have in front of you, the initial culling goes pretty fast.  After all, usually a couple of pages are all you need to know whether it’s worth going on.”

There were lots of nods around the table and the conversation shifted elsewhere.  Afterwards, though, probably because of all those earlier conversations, I found I wasn’t comfortable with that easy “usually a couple of pages are all you need to know whether it’s worth going on.”  Was that really the case?

I decided that while in many cases it was – certainly a few pages would be enough to tell if a piece was poorly written – I wasn’t sure I could join those smiling and nodding around the table.  Within a relatively short time, I thought of a couple of situations where, if I hadn’t read on, I would have missed good reads.

First was Emma Bull’s novel War For the Oaks.  I’d tried this book, but couldn’t get past the opening section.  Then my buddy David Weber asked if I’d read it.  I told him I hadn’t and why.  He boffed me around the ears (figuratively) and said, “So skip the opening.  You’ll love that book and you’re robbing yourself of a great story.”  So I did and I read and he was right.  Not only did I love War For the Oaks, I  recommended it to lots of other people.  Then I went and hunted out everything else Emma Bull had written, too.

My other example is more a body of work than a single novel.  Terry Pratchett often starts his Discworld novels with a page or two of very strange description of a peculiarly existential nature.  If you know the Discworld, this description often provides a foreshadowing of the action to come.  However, until I became familiar with the purpose of this section, I often found it off-putting.  Now that I know to expect it, however, far from being off-putting, I find it tantalizing, not merely for the foreshadowing but because what is being foreshadowed often seems quite impossible.

So here’s my question.  How much do you give a book before you decide it’s not for you?  Do you give it a sentence?  A paragraph?  A couple of pages?  A whole chapter?  What circumstances might prompt you to go on beyond your usual interest?

As a reader, I’d love to hear about books you almost didn’t read, then discovered were gems.  Please tell!

TT: Living History

October 6, 2011

Welcome once again to the Thursday Tangent.  If you’re looking for the

Historical, More or Less...

Wednesday Wandering, just page back and take a look at what inspirational items I have hanging on the wall next to my desk.  Meanwhile, Alan and I are chatting about the appeal of historical fiction.

JANE: Last time we started out talking about alternate history fiction which led Alan to an interesting question.  Alan?

ALAN: So when you do all this historical research, do you feel inspired to write a straight historical novel?

JANE: Actually, I don’t.  People often ask me why I write science fiction and fantasy.  If they read the genres, this question is usually just curiosity – rather along the lines of “How did you come to buy a house in that neighborhood?” or such.  However, people who don’t read SF/F tend to ask the same question guardedly, as if expecting I’m going to start telling them about the UFO that landed in your yard or the fairies that were my bestest friends when I was a little girl.

I write SF/F because I like the skiffy approach.  “What if?” has been the kick-off for so many of my short stories and novels.   Although some could argue than any fiction deals with “what if?” to a point, no genres deal with it better or more creatively.

ALAN: That’s certainly true and it’s a large part of the reason why I like reading SF/F so much. But, done properly, historical novels can also play with this a little bit. Just like SF/F, they can be used to illuminate strange and unfamiliar (dare I say alien?) societies and customs. I’m thinking here of James Clavell’s marvelous novel “Shogun” which follows the adventures of a shipwrecked English sailor in seventeenth century Japan. The society it portrays is so bizarre (to Western eyes) that even though it is actually a straight historical novel you can easily think of it in SF terms as a “first contact” story, except that the aliens are neither bug-eyed nor green and they have the proper number of limbs…

JANE: I’m sure this was the case when “Shogun” first came out, but I think it would seem less so now.  I read “Shogun” for the first time in the late1980’s, I found it a great read, but I didn’t find the Japanese culture any more alien than that of the European.  They both seemed cultures of their time and place.  Now, admittedly, my fondness for mythology means I’ve been reading about different approaches to the same problems since I was quite young.  Maybe that influenced my reaction to the sense of difference.

ALAN: The book definitely presents a culture of its time and place, no argument there. But looked at in a wider context, and with modern prejudices, the society comes across as very weird and therefore hard to appreciate. Hence the analogy I drew with other more sfnal alien cultures. I think it helps to consider the culture the book presents in isolation rather than thinking of it as the culmination of a series of historical forces. The latter tends to bring the imagination down to earth with a bit of a thump!

JANE: I can see that.

I have written at least one “straight” historical piece.  Back at the turn of the century (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I was asked to contribute a story to the anthology “The Blue and the Gray Undercover: All New Civil War Spy Adventures,” edited by Ed Gorman.   Although these were historicals, because they were  spy stories, they also had a bit of that “secret history” element you mentioned when we were talking about Tim Powers’ work a few weeks back.

I did a ton of research and wrote about how the pivotal battle of Stony Creek might have come to happen through the interplay of various historical figures who could have been – but might not have been – involved.  It was fun, but it was also very “what if.”  I don’t think I would have been interested in writing a straight dramatization of those same events.  That would have felt like reportage.

This doesn’t mean I don’t read historical fiction.  I do, but I’m not sure I’d want to write it more than occasionally.

ALAN: Turtledove has written a series of four novels set in ancient Greece. They were published under the transparent pseudonym of “H. N. Turteltaub” and again they manage to bring a very strange (in our terms) society to life. Using the same pseudonym, he’s also written a novel about the life and times of the Emperor Justinian, a very odd man indeed. And L. Sprague de Camp wrote several historical novels of which my favourite is perhaps “The Dragon Of The Ishtar Gate” where he has some very interesting theories about just what that famous dragon might have been in real life. I’m not sure what this proves, if anything, but they certainly provided me with a lot of good reading.

JANE: If we’re mentioning authors who do a great job with making historical settings come to life while still showing the “strange” elements, I’d like to mention John Maddox Roberts, author of the long-running “SPQR” series of mysteries.  Unlike two other authors who have written mystery series sent in ancient Rome, John writes about convincing late-Republic Romans, not Americans in togas.  I wonder if this is because John also writes SF – and often in collaboration with Eric Kotani, who is Japanese!  Now that I think about it, John has also written at least three alternate history novels as well.

ALAN: I’m not surprised that you like these kinds of books. I suspect that there’s a large crossover between SF/F fans and fans of certain kinds of historical fiction. I’m thinking here particularly of the Hornblower novels and of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. There are many analogies to be drawn between voyages across the sea and voyages across space and the strange and wonderful things to be discovered at the end of the journey. I don’t want to belabour the obvious, but isn’t the fact that your friend David Weber has described his Honor Harrington novels as being directly inspired by the Hornblower books significant here?

JANE:  Well, sort of….  I believe Weber pitched the project to Jim Baen as “Horatio Hornblower in Space,” but Weber has always asserted that his inspiration was less the fictional Hornblower than the non-fictional Admiral Lord Nelson.  So, you could say that Honor Harrington and Horatio Hornblower begin from the same historical source.  However, the shared “H.H.” of their initials was certainly Weber’s way of acknowledging that he was not the first to begin at that source.

ALAN:  A fair point. But the fact that the analogy works at all, let alone that it works as well as it does, suggests that there’s some truth to it.

JANE: Oh!  I agree.  Weber certainly never denies familiarity with the Horatio Hornblower novels – and had (at least at the last point we discussed the matter) deliberately avoided the Patrick O’Brian novels lest there be a temptation toward influence.

By the way…  I’m also a fan of the O’Brian novels.  Jim started me on them when we were courting and we continued reading them together after we were a couple.

Now, speaking of Jim reminds me…  We meant to discuss beer.  I’ll admit, by now I know what he likes, but I’m still not sure whether all those terms – ale, porter, stout, lager, and suchlike – really indicate different drinks or if they’re just culturally different terms for the same thing.

How about filling me in?

Wall To The Left

October 5, 2011

I love my office.

Wall to the Left of my Desk

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (“Battling Against Distraction” WW 7-06-11), when I started writing, I vowed to avoid anything that would become a “must have” before I could write.  This included privacy and that much cited “room of one’s own.”

However, a few years ago, I realized that Jim and I were out-growing available workspace in our little house.  When he’s not in the field, Jim usually works at home two days a week.  Although he had a desk, it was buried beneath his research materials and forms, so he tended to flow out of the small spare bedroom we used as an office and take over the living room.  The way our house is laid out, this meant he effectively took over the front of the house.

In turn, this meant that when I wasn’t working I’d feel awkward about doing anything in the kitchen or even moving out into the yard because I didn’t want to distract him.  For years we’d talked about building on a office.  The time had clearly come – it was that or move.

We built on the office.  It’s a large rectangular room with ample windows to let in natural light.  These are carefully placed so that we have room for lots of bookshelves.  We also have wall and shelf space to display pictures and trinkets of our choice.

The wall to the left of my desk is a display area on which a carefully selected array of inspirational items are arrayed.  As you may be able to see from the picture accompanying this, while there are pictures and photos, much of what is on display is three-dimensional.

The pictures – starting from the right – include a colorful piece of Mexican folk art depicting a strange deer/dog creature amid fanciful flora.  This was my father’s, so it’s also a memento of him.  There’s a story in this picture, I’m sure, and I look forward to finding out what it is.

In the middle are two pictures.  I hadn’t noticed until now that both feature pumas.  The one on top is a watercolor featuring a centaurian figure, except that the bottom half is puma rather than horse.  The torso is humanoid, but the head returns to puma.  From his attire, this fellow clearly has Plains Indian leanings.  The backdrop is a lovely eagle’s head.  The title is “Puma Brave of the Eagle Clan” and the artist is Paula Shricker.  I believe I bought this at an SF con when I still lived in Virginia.

Below this is a marvelous photo sent to me by Phyllis White of Flying Coyote Books.  Across the snow a puma chases a coyote. That coyote is running so fast that its hind legs overlap its front.  The puma looks intent, but not too serious, so I figure the coyote made it.  At the base of this picture we attached a lovely mother of pearl and abalone barrette that was a gift from Charles DeLint and MaryAnn Harris.  It features two wolves howling at the moon.

The remaining two pictures are photographs.  One is the same picture of me and Dakota the wolf that’s on my homepage.  I don’t usually like pictures of myself, but this one is so joyful I didn’t hesitate to put it where I’d see it every day.  The other is a black and white picture of Roger Zelazny.

All the rest of my art is three-dimensional.  Returning to the right, there’s a lovely handmade miniature pueblo.  On it I display some of my collection of miniature pottery (see Sky City, WW 10-27-11, for a close-up of a couple).  Beneath this is a leather bag painted with a green and yellow horse.  I beaded the fringe.

Next is a box shelf on top of which stands an iron statue of Artemis, brought back for me from Greece by my friend Bobbi Wolf. Artemis shares her space with an utterly wonderful puma fetish carved from shell.  Lurking in the box is a resin cast figure of Coyote, clad in blanket, moccasins, and hat.  To the left of this is a piece of metal lace that depicts an Asian lady reading a book.  This was a birthday present from my mom and so is also a reminder of her.

Moving up to the left of Puma Brave is another box shelf.  On top of this one is a unique horse from the Painted Pony’s series.  Jim gave me a blank horse to paint.  I decided to do it in black, with minimal paint on mane and face, adorning the rest with tiny faux gems.  In the box below is a wooden carved wolf head – again from Phyllis White.

Beneath this is the head of a tiger with aspirations toward saber teeth.  It wears a red velvet hood and has lovely “live” eyes.  The artist is Jim Humble.  I saw this piece at MileHighCon in Denver and put a bid on it.  Eventually, I was outbid and philosophical.  However, my friends David and Sharon Weber were at the same convention.  While Weber and I were on a panel, Sharon went and bought me the tiger.  Nice people.

Left of the tiger is a lovely Chinese dragon Jim gave me for Christmas one year.  The detail is exquisite, right down to the gold outlines on the scales.

Toward the bottom of the picture, you can see the practical and inspirational mingling.  On top of the apothecary’s chest (absolutely the best place to keep all those small, fussy office supplies) is a pen carved from antler, featuring a wolf and an eagle.  Next to it is one of my many mah-jong sets, fronted by a pair of carved stone leopards (a gift from Jim).  Next to this, seated on top of some storage boxes, is a teddy bear.  This was an surprise gift from my friend Jane “the Mermaid” Campbell.  The bear arrived one day after I had gone through a particularly bad time.  I keep it near to remind me that the world is full of unexpected  kindness.

Finally, on top of my printer sits a box patterned in mah-jong themed fabric and on top of it a very silly tiger cub.  Jim was (again) responsible for the tiger.  It makes me smile.

So there’s a little corner of the world where the writing happens.  The photo couldn’t show the area near the ceiling where a tiny dancer spins and a high relief wood carving of a wolf keeps guard over all, but it’s a sample.

I do love my office…  It’s a good place to write and a good place to dream.