Archive for April, 2012

TT: To Vote Or Not To Vote?

April 26, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back and offer your opinion on what you think would be the ideal cover for my novel Child of a Rainless Year.  Then come back and join Alan and me in a discussion of the vote.

JANE: A few weeks ago, Jim and I got into a serious discussion about voting

Exhortation

with our friend Michael Wester.  One of the topics that came up was how to make voters feel their vote matters.

This is a big issue for me.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, growing up in Washington, D.C., I was very aware of being disenfranchised in some parts of our electoral process because of where I lived.  However, when I moved to New Mexico, a state with a very small population, I suddenly came alive to the fact that my vote really mattered.

Anyhow, on that particular day, we started talking about other systems of government.  Michael suggested we ask you how voting and voter registration works in your part of the world.

ALAN: In New Zealand, voter registration is compulsory. However, prosecutions for not being registered are unheard of – the courts have better things to do. Every time an election is looming, a vivid orange cartoon man appears on the television exhorting us all to enroll, and explaining just how easy it is. Amusingly, the felt tip pens with which we mark our ballot papers are the same shade of orange as the man. I doubt if this is a coincidence.

JANE: Is it the same in Australia?

ALAN: No – voting is compulsory in Australia, and while prosecutions for not voting are very rare, they do happen. I know people who deliberately spoil their ballot papers (which is not illegal) simply so as to stick to the letter of the law.

JANE: That’s fascinating.  As you probably know, in the United States, citizens are not required to vote or even to register to vote.  Do you think these requirements make the citizens of Australia and New Zealand more conscious of their rights and responsibilities?

ALAN: I doubt it. We’re just as intellectually lazy as anyone else. But I suspect the decisions that we have to make are much simpler than yours are. At election time, we each cast two votes – none of this “one person, one vote” nonsense for us! One vote is for the party that we want in government, and one vote is for the person we want to represent our district in that government. It is a very common tactic to vote for a local representative who is from a different political party than the one you cast your government vote for… As it happens, that’s exactly what I did in our last election.

JANE: Okay.  Two votes only, but it sounds as if those votes cover a lot of people.  Where does your Prime Minister enter the picture?

ALAN: The leader of the party that is voted into government becomes Prime Minister. The party leader is chosen by the party itself and each party has its own arcane rituals for selecting its leader.  However, if the party leader is unpopular with the electorate, it can have a big effect on the final election result. The Labour Party was soundly trashed in our latest elections, and this was put down to the fact that its leader was generally seen as ineffectual. He isn’t its leader any more…

JANE: So the Prime Minister isn’t as much like our President as most people here seem to think.  Interesting…    Don’t you have any say in your local government?

ALAN: We certainly do.  We vote for local district councillors and the local Mayor, though these elections take place at a different time from the national governmental elections.

In America, you seem to have a lot of elected officials that we simply don’t have. Apart from the Mayor, all our other officials are appointed rather than elected. That makes life a lot simpler for the voting public.

JANE: We definitely vote for a lot more offices than you do…  In fact, there are times I think we vote for too many officials, to the point that turnout for local elections drops off drastically because people get overwhelmed.

While I understand,  I think this is an incredibly short-sighted reaction because those local officials (city councilors, members of the school board, and the like) are actually going to have more of an effect on a voter’s daily quality of life than will the President of the United States.

I want to continue this discussion, but I need to go write some fiction, so later!

Covering a Rainless Year

April 25, 2012

A couple weekends back, as Jim and I were registering for a coin show, I was

Romance Novel Cover?

slightly startled to see a copy of my novel Child of a Rainless Year looking up at me from the table.  Then enlightenment hit.  We were meeting our friend, Michael Wester.  Michael is very fond of this particular novel and often brings copies for me to sign so he can give them to various people.

Me to Jim: Ah!  Michael must be here.  I thought I’d seen him ahead of us.

Coin Show Official (not quite catching what I was saying): Someone left a book here.

Me: Probably a friend of ours.  I wrote that book.

CSO (interested but obviously confused, for good reason): I think someone left this book.

Me: Yes.  I think a friend of ours did.  I wrote that book.  He really likes it.

CSO: Oh!  You really wrote it?

Me (reaching for wallet): I did.  Want to see my ID?

CSO: That’s really neat.  I don’t meet many authors. [Pauses to look at cover with expression of mild regret.] I wouldn’t have read this one.  I don’t read this stuff.

Me: What do you read?

CSO: Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Me: This is Fantasy.  It’s set here in New Mexico.

CSO (looking newly interested): Oh!  I thought it was a romance novel.

Well, about that time Michael showed up, reclaimed his book, and, after exchanging a few more words with the CSO, we wandered off.  (Jim and Michael both collect coins.  I just go along to hang out with them.)

However, I couldn’t quite let go of that conversation.  It haunted me through the following week.  I found myself wondering how many potential readers – even those who already liked some aspect of my books – hadn’t picked up the novel because the cover made it seem as if I’d wandered somewhere they didn’t want to go.

Certainly, the jacket copy for the hardcover edition didn’t help.  It begins with the killer word “middle-aged” and doesn’t really get provocative until the end of the second paragraph with the line “…as a condition of being allowed to adopt her, Mira’s foster parents had agreed to change their names, move to another state, and never ask why.”

The cover for the paperback did a lot better.  It opens with “Art teacher Mira Fenn’s life was curiously lacking in color until the day she learned of a mysterious inheritance from her birthmother…”  Still, to get to that point, the reader would need to not be turned away by the cover art.  (I should note that the novel also came out in trade paperback, but for reasons of sanity I’m not going to get into the variations on that cover.)

And, especially for this novel, it is very odd cover art indeed.  In some senses, it provides a perfectly accurate representation of the opening scene.  However, for a book that has as its opening line “Color is the great magic,” it is remarkably drab.  The dominant shades are muddy blues and browns.  The only flash of brilliant color – a red shawl – is occluded by the title (and on the paperback the title and the author’s name).

It’s a fine painting.  It’s an accurate illustration.  However, to me, it says nothing at all about the book.  And, yeah, I don’t blame the Coin Show Official for thinking it was a romance novel.  I’d go even further and say an old-fashioned romance novel.

On the mass market edition, the background parts of the cover are done in tannish-orange stripes – not distinct stripes, like those on a zebra or tiger, but muted stripes that blend into mud.  The text fades into this, so the wonderful review quote from Library Journal, a quote that might let the reader know this isn’t a romance novel, is nearly unreadable.

Let me share what Library Journal said with you: “A tale of the Southwest filled with memorable characters, brilliant splashes of color, and, at the forefront, an unforgettable woman imbued with a desire to know the truth about her heritage.  Lovers of magical realism should relish this powerfully written tale of art and life.”

I know from other comments to these wanderings that Child of a Rainless Year has found enthusiastic readers despite the cover.  However, I’m curious…

Did the cover draw you in or push you away?  If you didn’t know my work, would you think “romance novel”?  If you were to put a new cover on the book, what would you choose?  Let your imaginations run wild!

TT: Mis-Naming Imaginary Places

April 19, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to read about why permitting yourself to mess up is an important part of being a writer.  Then come back here and join me and Alan while we talk about SF/F place names that might have worked a little better than they did…

JANE: Last time we were talking about imaginary place names that work.

Some Imaginary Places

However, too often I find that SF/F place names seem to have come out of a random name generator and show no sense of consistency or internal logic.  Use of such programs can cause another  real problem.

As a writer, I know I favor certain sounds and initial letters almost subconsciously.   I’ve known other writers with this tendency, too…  Roger Zelazny, for example, had a fondness for the name “Jack.”  He uses it in “Shadowjack,” “Halfjack,” and, I’m pretty sure, a few other places.  When it reappeared in “Donnerjack,” I pointed this out to him and he just sighed.

Anyhow, when writers use random name generators, they tend to pick similar sounds over and over again, leading to duplication not only within a single book but also within their body of work.  Using such programs can be a great way to become generic.

ALAN: Ah, but Roger also had his names of genius. I am particularly fond of the Dung Pits of Glyve where Jack of Shadows gets resurrected. And you have to admire the sheer cheek of placing the Dung Pits at the West Pole of the world!

JANE: I’m the last person to argue if you want to say Roger was a brilliant writer.  I certainly agree.  He was another writer who had the skill to interweave real place and imaginary places in a fashion that helped make the imaginary more real.

There’s one writer I know – but won’t name, because what I’m going to say isn’t kind – who has such similar names and name structures repeating in some of his books that I get confused as to which series I’m reading.  Turns out he uses a random name generator and then picks what “sounds good.”  And, of course, what sounds good is often the same type of sound.

ALAN: Oh, guessing games! I love guessing games. Let me see…

JANE: Nope.  Not telling…

And then there are the just plain stupid place names…  They can work, like the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride – a movie in which  exaggeration is the rule, but I am amazed how often, especially in the work of newer writers, these sort of names come up.  It’s as if these fictional places were named by real estate developers looking to sell suburban housing.

ALAN: My particular bete noir in this area is the practice of stuffing names full of apostrophes. It seems quite common, particularly with writers who are just starting out (though Anne McCaffrey did it all her life long). Just what are the apostrophes meant to indicate? Xhosa clicks? Glottal stops? Contractions? Again I find that they break the spell of the story while I puzzle out how to pronounce them.

JANE: I think the apostrophes are meant to indicate contractions, indications where something has been left out in pronunciation.  Certainly, that’s what McCaffery intended with her Dragon Riders of Pern.  When you became a Dragon Rider, you lost vowels…   I was never sure why.

Sometimes using apostrophes works when the writer is trying to indicate how a language has evolved away from its original meaning, so that parts of words are missing.  An example might be a futuristic piece where New York has become N’Yawk.  Mostly I avoid apostrophes even when transliterating languages where they are used to indicate pauses or sounds not found in English.  When I was writing Changer’s Daughter (aka Legends Walking), I learned that one of the most common transliterations of Yoruba used both apostrophes and lots of accent marks.  I decided to leave most of these out because they’d drive a reader insane – but I did apologize in my Afterward for doing so.

ALAN: Personally I’m glad you left them out. No apology was necessary as far as I am concerned.

Fictional place names lend themselves well to humour. Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork springs to mind here. But actually there’s a better example which isn’t related to SF at all.

On April 1st 1977, the Guardian (a newspaper in the UK) published a travel supplement which gave glowing reviews of a trendy holiday destination in the Mediterranean – the island paradise of San Seriffe. All the carefully described locations on this island were named after font faces and typographical conventions, though sometimes the names were slightly abused so as to make them look and sound more real (so san serif became San Seriffe, for example). It’s probably one of the best April Fool jokes ever played. Enormous numbers of people were so convinced of the reality of San Seriffe that they even tried to book themselves holidays there, much to the confusion of their travel agents!

JANE: I love it!

And so we come full circle. We started with real place names, digressed into imaginary places in fiction, and finally we finish with an imaginary place that many people were convinced was real.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed these Tangents, Alan has put the first series together into a free e-book.  They’re available at http://tyke.net.nz/books.  I’ll eventually have them on my own website’s e-book store, too.  I’m just not as efficient as Alan!

Messing Up

April 18, 2012

Have I ever told you that I do work in polymer clay?  I do.  Oddly enough, it’s writing that got me into it.  One of the two books that Roger Zelazny left Stages of Messing Upunfinished at the time of his death and I later completed was Lord Demon.  Kai Wren, the main character, is a potter and glass blower.

When I started the book, I found myself having a little trouble getting into Kai Wren.  I decided I needed to know more about his craft to understand him.  I read a bunch of books about making pottery and blowing glass.  I watched some demos in person, getting the heat of working glass into my blood, the wet fluidity of making pottery into my soul.

In the course of all of this, I learned about polymer clay.  Unlike “real” clay, polymer clay can be fired in your home oven.  It’s affordable, multi-colored (a huge attraction for me), and a fairly forgiving medium.  As my last step in getting to understand Kai Wren, I bought a pack and started working with it.  The book is long done, but I’ve never lost the attraction.

Maybe because I started working with polymer clay in association with my writing, it’s also something I continue to associate with writing.  This is true to a greater or lesser extent with several other crafts I do.  All of them occupy my conscious mind so that my subconscious mind is freed up to work on the story in question.

I talked about this a bit back in my Wednesday Wandering for 8-11-10, “Walking Away From It.”  Today I want to talk about something related but different: The Importance of Messing Up.

The importance of messing up is related to feeling free to take risks, something I talked about a year ago in relation to planting lilies (WW 3-30-11, “Taking Risks”).  By the way, the lilies did pretty well, but the ones by the sidewalk struggled with the heat.  We’ve moved them to the back.  We’re going to try zinnias by the sidewalk.  The lilies we put by the pond did great.  That was a risk that paid off.

Messing up may be related to taking risks, but it’s completely different.  When you take a risk, you know it might not work.  When you mess up, you know you’ve done something wrong.  You’ve wasted time.  You’ve wasted effort.  Where a risk taken that doesn’t pay off merits a shrug and an “oh, well,” messing up can trigger anger, resentment, a feeling that you’ll never get it right.

For any type of project this is dangerous, but for writing it can be devastating.  Why?  Because writers so often expect to get it right the first time through.

Let me go back to me and polymer clay.  I was working along, blending a color for modeling a figure.  I’d gotten it just right.  Then I realized I didn’t have enough for the project.  I pulled out more clay and started blending again.  This time, whether it was because I was tired or impatient or just eager to get going, I messed up.  I forgot one of the cardinal rules of blending polymer clay.  Always add far less of the “darker” or “stronger” color to the lighter.  Suddenly, instead of the tawny orange shade I wanted, I had something between flame and pumpkin.

To make matters worse, my hands hurt from all the kneading I’d been doing.  I wanted to quit.  But, hey, this was just polymer clay.  The orange wasn’t wasted.  I could use it some other day.  I pulled out more yellow and added a small amount of the pumpkin orange.  Eventually, I had my color.  I was out of time to finish that project, but there would be another day.

With writers, however, too often the reaction to messing up is to reject the project entirely.  It isn’t good enough.  It’s lost its “magic.”  Something else would be more fun, easier, more popular.

The thing is, unlike that polymer clay which can be reused, a story rejected because the writer “messed up” is lost forever.  The writer really has wasted time and effort.  I’m not saying every story is worth finishing.  Sometimes what is learned from messing up is that this particular piece truly is a dead end.  Sometimes, however, in working past where you messed up, you can learn a lot, not just about that story but about how you make stories.

So don’t be discouraged when you mess up.  Come back and give it another try.  Maybe you’ll need to walk away for a while.  Maybe you’ll need to categorize the new effort as taking a risk, but at least give it a try.  At the very worst, you’ll know you didn’t just surrender to frustration.  At the best, you may have a finished piece where otherwise you’d just have had a sense of disappointment.

How do you handle when you mess up?  Any tricks?  I’m always glad for something to add to my toolbox.

TT: Naming Imaginary Places

April 12, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wanderings, just page back for trains, technology, and the difference between knowledge and information.  Then come and join me and Alan as we chat about places that don’t exist – but certainly seem to do so!

JANE: We’ve been talking a lot about real place names and what they can tell

A Source for Imaginary Places

about the history of an area.  Given that we’re both readers of SF/F and I write it as well, the logical place to go from here is fictional place names.

As I see it, Tolkien set a really high bar in his books for place names.  Not only did he name places and natural features, often they had different names in different cultures.

ALAN: There’s no doubt that Tolkien was an absolute genius when it came to naming things. Mostly, of course, this was because he was so immersed in the history (the back-story as it were) of Middle Earth. But he was by no means the first writer to be good at naming things and neither was he the first to work within an invented history.

Robert E. Howard invented a whole mythology and history for the world in which Conan went adventuring. Many of the books which collect the Conan stories together are prefixed with a long and erudite essay called “The Hyborian Age” which goes into this in great detail. It’s an extremely clever essay which sounds completely real and which is very convincing. I think Howard made it so convincing because it was a mishmash of real names (“the Picts”) and names which sounded as though they ought to be real (“Aquilonia” – I’ll swear that’s a province in Spain…). The whole was greater than the sum of the parts and Howard’s Hyborian age felt utterly real as a result.

JANE: I didn’t read Howard until I was an adult.  I really enjoyed the Conan stories.  It’s a pity how the movies have presented him only as a shallow brawler when he’s actually a complex character who evolves throughout his life.  I found it easy to imagine that Howard’s Hyborian Age fit into real history somewhere.

ALAN: Henry Rider Haggard was very good at this as well. And, like Howard, he did it with a judicious mixture of the real and the imaginary. The Africa in which Allan Quartermain and Umslopogaas lived and died was very real. The lost cities of Kor and Milosis were not. But nevertheless they felt like part of the real landscape and even today the description of Umslopogaas’  defense of the Queen’s Staircase in Milosis can bring tears to my eyes.

JANE: Now that I think about it, there is a long tradition of fitting imaginary places into our real world.   I have a book on my shelf – The dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi – that takes a look at a wide range of these from several different  genres.  I guess making up new places is part of the pleasure of writing.

Of course, there can be too much of a good thing.  I remember when I was a kid, I found Tolkien’s insistence on everything (and many characters) having multiple names annoying.  Rather than adding to my reading pleasure, it detracted from it.  I blush now to admit that I preferred The Sword of Shannara because things had only one name and it was basically the same plot.  To excuse myself, I was very young…

ALAN: There’s nothing wrong with youthful follies – we all have them. Personally I was imprinted on Edgar Rice Burroughs at a young and impressionable age. And he too was just brilliant at the naming of names. Burroughs’ lost city of Opar, and also Athne and Cathne, two cities eternally at war, were just spellbinding. Again, as with Howard, there were hints of real history to make the story convincing. The cities were lost colonies, probably Phoenician, though I seem to remember that Tarzan also stumbled upon a lost Roman city in one of his adventures.

I was never completely convinced by the city state of Helium that John Carter found on Mars. Even as a child, I knew that helium was actually a gas – it’s the gas that makes balloons float and makes people speak with squeaky voices when inhaled. The mental image of John Carter trying to seduce Dejah Thoris and declaring his undying love in a voice that sounded like Donald Duck always broke the spell of the adventure for me…

JANE: Oh!  I also loved Burroughs, especially the Tarzan stories.  They had a huge impact on me.   John Carter never worked for me, though.

On the whole, though, I like place names that tell you something about the area and the people who settled it.  Larry Niven’s Known Space was all the richer for me when – as a reader, adventuring, so to speak with the characters – I learned why “We Made It” was called that or why there was a Mount Lookatthat.

ALAN: I find that completely convincing. There’s actually a bay in New Zealand called Taylor’s Mistake because a ship’s captain (the eponymous Mr Taylor) sailed into it under the impression that he was somewhere else entirely. So Niven’s names definitely strike a chord with me.

JANE: Great…  We’ve been talking about some of the best, but maybe it would also be fun to look at the worse and the just plain weird.  Let’s go for it next time!

Steam Engine Stripped

April 11, 2012

Ever seen a steam engine stripped to its shell?  Toward the end of last week, Jim and I had the opportunity to do just that when we visited where Engine 2926 is being restored by a group of talented train enthusiasts belonging to the New

Ken and 2926

Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society.

Our guide, Ken Dusenberry, started us out by showing us the already completed tender.  The tender – for those of you who (like me) don’t know much about trains – is where the water and oil is carried.  This one was equipped to hold 24,500 gallons of water and over 7,000 gallons of oil.  Looking at the tender, bright and shiny in its fresh coat of paint, it was hard to believe that this was a machine dating from 1944, built to support transportation of troops and supplies for WWII.

Quick historical aside here…  Yes.  Steam engines were already becoming outdated by 1944, in the process of being replaced by diesel-electric engines.  However, WWII influenced what engines went where.  To paraphrase Ken Dusenberry, “In 1944, just about every diesel engine was going into a submarine somewhere.  That’s why this train was built for steam.”

After we viewed the tender, Ken took us through to where the steam engine itself was being restored.  Jim and I had seen it a few years back, and even though it was obviously old (Engine 2926 sat for many years out in the open in a park in Albuquerque) it had a certain dignity and grandeur.  This was a very different machine.

The cab had been removed.  So had the outer plating.  This left the brown metal exposed to inspection.  Grids had been drawn all over the body, sections within the grid neatly numbered.  Pipes and bolts were clearly visible.  Such a job could not have been done out of doors in many other places in the United States.  However, Albuquerque’s very dry climate meant that what rust the engine had accumulated was minimal – and the worst of it dated back to those years as a park ornament, when watering the park’s lawn meant the engine got sprayed with water a few times a week.

I’m not going to even try to summarize all the details we heard in Ken’s intricate and informative talk.  However, I can say I came out of it with a great deal more appreciation for how intricate a piece of technology a steam engine is.  I suppose, having seen them in old movies, having heard one too many stories about little boys staring at tea kettles on the boil and dreaming up steam engines, I thought they were fairly simple.  No such thing!

As I listened to Ken talk about the various people who had worked on the project, about their contributions, not only of time and money, but of knowledge as well, I began to realize something else.  Even in this day and age of written records, knowledge gets lost very easily.  By “knowledge” I mean something more complicated than mere information.  By “knowledge” I’m talking about the combination of experience and information that comes together to tell someone that a machine (or anything else) is working right.

Over and over again, Ken mentioned how important were the contributions of people who had worked on other engines or who had worked in some capacity or other on working steam engines.  This last category provided particular treasures.  As Ken put it, “When we hear that someone actually worked on a steam engine – or even better, drove one – we grab that person and drag him off, then start asking questions.”

All this got me thinking…  A popular sub-genre of SF (and some Fantasy, too) deals with the rediscovery of lost technology.  In these tales, the old machine is found.  The characters in the story want to get it up and running again.  Sometimes they find the old instruction manuals, sometimes they’ve just “heard” about how the old machines worked, sometimes there’s an old computer around from which information can be scavenged.

Having listened to what Ken and his associates have gone through in their restoration of Engine 2926, I suspect this is a very simplistic picture.  They’re working on a machine that was built in 1944 and ran for some years thereafter.  In these stories, the “lost” technology is often hundreds or thousands of years old.  I can’t help but think that, while the information might be available, the “knowledge” about the finer points would have been lost.

Told right, though, figuring out the missing parts of the picture could make for a gripping story.  Has anyone written something like that recently?  Any titles you could recommend?  How would you figure out how to launch that ancient space ship you just happen to find in your backyard?

TT: Taking Back Your Name

April 5, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one to learn why a raven is like a writing desk…  Well, actually, about why a book cover is like a door.  Then come and chat with me and Alan about names.

JANE: As I was looking for well-known locations here in New Mexico with

Kewa or Santo Domingo

names rooted in the indigenous cultures, I realized that most of the places the tourists visit have either Spanish or Anglo names.  The best I could find was Taos, which is apparently  named for a nearby pueblo.  The word from which “Taos” is derived is from the Tiwa language and means something like “in the village.”  The people who live in the pueblo have a completely different name for their village but, when asked where they lived, they must have replied “in the village.”

However, those days are ending.  More and more Indian settlements are asserting their right to be called by their original names, not the names others gave them.  Santo Domingo Pueblo now is officially “Kewa.”  In Arizona, the Pima are now known as the Akimel O’odham; the Papago prefer to be called Tohono O’odham.

Even with those groups that have not officially renamed themselves, the trend is such that work by an artist may be identified by both names.  So something from Jemez Pueblo may be also identified as from “Walatowa” – the group’s name for itself.   By the way,  “Jemez” is a Spanish version of a Towa word given as “hay mish” – the original meaning of which is still argued about.

ALAN: We are seeing the same kind of thing here. The highest mountain in New Zealand is Mount Cook. It’s named after James Cook of course (though interestingly he never saw it!). Its Maori name is Aoraki which is actually the name of a person (an old Maori name for the South Island translates as “Aoraki’s Canoe”). In 1998, the government signed an agreement with the major South Island tribe which redressed some of the wrongs perpetrated on them in colonial times. As a result of this agreement, Mount Cook was officially renamed Aoraki / Mount Cook. Both names now appear on maps and both names are commonly used (either singly or together).

JANE: Here there’s a neat story about how Washington Pass was renamed Narbona Pass.  I’m going to quote from Place Names of New Mexico by Robert Julyan: “The renaming had its roots in the discovery by some NCC [Navajo Community College] students and their teacher, Herbert Benally, that the name Washington Pass honored not George Washington or Washington, D.C., as most Navajo had assumed, but rather Col. John Washington, leader of a US military expedition against the Navajo in 1849.”

Well, as you can imagine, the Navajo didn’t much care for this.  What’s wonderful, though, is that the proposed name change was supported not only by Navajos, but by a large number of non-Navajos as well.  The new name “Narbona Pass” commemorates a Navajo leader – and advocate for peace – who was killed (and scalped) by the American forces.

This naming blends cultures in that it follows the Anglo tradition of naming for an honored person.  The Navajo traditional name was simply “Copper Pass.”  So in the name two worlds meet.

ALAN:  The meeting of two worlds sometimes has strange side effects. There’s a big volcano in the west of the North Island. The European name is Mount Egmont but for hundreds of years it was known as Taranaki by the local Maori. The name was reviewed in 1986 and now the names Mount Egmont and Mount Taranaki are used interchangeably. Interestingly the Maori prefix “Tara-” means “Mountain,” so Mount Taranaki is obviously a name supplied by the government’s official Department Of Redundancy Department.

JANE: Some people find the renaming a nuisance, particularly when the names don’t wrap easily around an English-speaker’s tongue.  Me?  I like the challenge.  Relatively soon after I moved to Albuquerque, the Navajo reservation area of Canoncito was renamed Tohajiilee.  This is pronounced something like “t/d-ha-jo-lee.”  It’s harder to say right,  than to spell (which isn’t easy).   However, I spent a pleasant fifteen minutes or so with a Navajo jeweler who tutored me until, with a big grin, he announced I had it “just right.”

ALAN: The Maori language is relatively unstressed and the syllables aren’t too hard for a European tongue to wrap itself around. The spelling is largely phonetic since the Europeans who wrote the words down were trying to transliterate what they heard (Maori do not have a written language of their own). There are some rather odd vowel sounds, but by and large it’s quite easy to pronounce. However, even though the language is the same all over the country, there are small regional differences of pronunciation. Wanganui, which I mentioned before, is a perfect example. Some people prefer to spell it Whanganui which approximates more closely to one particular pronunciation. Amusingly, after a referendum in 2009, it was agreed that both spellings would be allowed but that official government documents would standardise on Whanganui. There were no rulings on the “proper” pronunciation…

JANE: We’re running into something similar here.  One complication is that Spanish spellings don’t lead to intuitive pronunciations for non-Spanish speakers.  A good example is “Jicarilla.”  This name, which means “little cup” or “little drinking gourd,” was attached to several areas and even an Apache tribe.

Most English-speakers would pronounce it “ji-ka-ril-a.”  Its actual pronunciation is closer to “hik-a-ree-a.”    The quirks of Spanish pronunciation can be managed with a little tutoring.

However, when an Indian group insists on something being  referred to by a pronunciation closer to their language, this can cause problems.  The Hopi make a ceremonial figure called a “kachina.”  These have become very popular in art, so much so that other tribes make them for the tourist market.  Some Hopi insist that the word is pronounced closer to “katsina” and would like everything changed, but as this has led to a lot of confusion, at least at this point, the change has not become general.

ALAN: I find it fascinating that the places where you and I live are so far apart from each other and yet so similar in the way they work. Is it too trite to say that people are the same the whole world over?

JANE: It’s only trite if you forget how very different they are as well.

Open The Door

April 4, 2012

Earlier this week, I had an amazing insight.  The physical act of opening the

Three Doorways into Changer

cover of a book is very much like that of opening a door.  I owe this insight to an interesting comment made by Chad Merkley in response to last week’s Wandering:“Zink Makes Me Think.”

I suggest you check out Chad’s comment(and while you’re at it, take in all the rest; they were especially thoughtful). In brief, Chad was talking about how he went and viewed some of Melissa Zink’s work on-line.  Her later work in particular made him consider the abstract nature of the written character.  He then speculated on how we might react differently to seeing the same characters on a computer screen or on the pages of a book and how the physical possession of a book makes us feel we own something that puts us in direction contact with the characters and their world.

Chad’s comment made me think about how I was reacting at that very moment to the book I’d just picked up from the library. Since this particular book is one I am reading mostly because I want to form my own opinions, not just parrot what “everybody” is saying, I’m viewing reading this book with some trepidation.  I keep peeking inside, reading a few words, then closing the book – rather in the same fashion that, as a child, I might have opened a door and checked out new and potentially dangerous terrain.

But, you know what they say…  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  It’s true.  You need to open the door and go inside the world beyond.  There’s a similarity to the two physical acts.  Humans are physical entities.  I’ve read that similar motions can trigger the similar responses.

Last year, I read how a popular juice brand changed its packaging to a more efficient and ergonomically designed model.  Within a few months, they changed back.  People didn’t “feel” they were getting the same experience, even though the contents were the same.  Sales dropped off in favor of juices in more traditional containers.  I’m sure you folks can supply other examples of when a change of shape or action changed the experience.

I bet that the “open the book” experience is why some of the most popular e-book covers mimic the shape of a book, complete with a cover to open.  The model Jim has is even embossed leather.  You don’t get much more “book-like” than leather binding.  All of this has given me serious insight to why I reacted so differently to trying e-book readers in stores and viewing material on Jim’s once he bought it.  That leather cover makes the e-reader look and feel more like a “real” book.

Think I’m pushing the idea that form can color the experience too hard?  Here’s an interesting anecdote in support.  A few years ago, a friend who lives in a foreign country begged me for the electronic file of a forthcoming novel.  He later wrote back that he was not as happy with the story as he had hoped he would be.  Later, when the book came out, he bought a physical copy.  He wrote me as soon as he finished reading it, making me promise that I would never again let him talk me into sending him a book as an electronic file.  The novel’s contents had been just fine.  He’d loved it (and went on the read the rest of the series).  It had been the experience of reading the text off a standard computer screen that had put him off.

I’ve heard similar stories from other authors, other readers.  A story is changed by the format in which you read it.  To this day, when Jim reads one of my books in manuscript, he requests a very specific format, one that lets him feel more as if he is reading a “real” book.

So maybe there’s nothing like “opening the door” and walking into a book.  Maybe that’s why despite the efficiency and increased sophistication of e-book readers, tablet computers, and all the rest, still, there will be nothing quite like holding that physical tome in your hand and feeling connected to the people and places within.

What do you think?  I love being stimulated into new ways of thinking about familiar things.