Archive for June, 2012

TT: Class Rings and Yearbooks

June 28, 2012

Hi!  Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and join me as I look into some of the amusing challenges offered when writing historical fiction.  The come back and help me educate Alan in the complexities of the American school system.

JANE: All right, Alan.  I’m ready to continue making Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Jim’s Yearbooks

and all our other American school dramas intelligible for you.  What’s your next question?

ALAN: There are so many weird words and concepts that I’ve come across over the years that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about this… what’s a class ring?

JANE: A class ring is a ring, usually crafted in gold or gold-colored metal.  Often, the emblem of the school is worked into the band.  The “stone,” I believe, is in some way representative of the school colors.   You usually get your ring sometime late in your junior year – probably because by then it seems likely you will graduate from that school.

However, I’m guessing on a lot of  this.  I went to an all-girls’ Catholic high school.  Our class ring was a tasteful affair: gold band set with a rectangular black onyx bezel on which was a very small representation of the school seal.  I wore mine quite happily until I discovered that something in the band gave me hives.

Class rings gained a special significance because, in the days of yore, if a guy gave a girl his ring to wear, that meant they were “going steady.”  Not quite an engagement ring, but close.

Do you have any emblem similar to the class ring, something that marks you as having attended (and presumably graduated from) a specific school?   How about those “class ties” I’ve read about?

ALAN: No – we have absolutely nothing like that. That’s why I find the idea so odd. I can’t imagine any circumstance where I’d ever want wear anything  representative of my old school.

You mentioned our “class ties” – I think you actually mean “old school ties.” They are really only associated with the old, and extremely snobbish, public schools (you’d call them private schools) like Eton and Harrow and Rugby and they are yet another manifestation of the British class system. A friend of mine got a scholarship to Cambridge University. He told me that he felt quite out of place there – it was full of public school people and old school ties and he, being a simple working class Yorkshire lad,  just couldn’t fit in.

JANE: Right!  Old school ties…  Thanks for clarifying.

Why do you folks get public and private schools mixed up?  I knew you used the terms backwards, but I never could figure out why private schools were called “public.”

ALAN: Oh, it’s all perfectly logical. In medieval times all schools were private schools, generally run by the church, with lots of complex rules about who was (and was not) eligible to attend. From the 16th century onwards, schools that were independent of ecclesiastical control started to appear. These schools were open to all (hence they were public schools). However they had no source of funding so in practice they were only open to all who could afford the fees. In other words, the sons of the gentry.  And that had the side effect of making the public schools private in all but name.

More modern, government-funded schools are properly public in the true sense of the word. But we don’t call them public schools because that’s what public schools are called.

JANE: That’s wonderful!  What a perfect, logical explanation.  Thank you for solving a mystery that has puzzled me for decades.  Now, where were we?

ALAN: Another phenomenon that seems to be peculiarly American is the idea of a yearbook. From context, these seem to be a collection of formal photographs of students with embarrassing comments written beneath each picture. What puzzles me is why anyone with an ounce of self-respect would ever agree to pose for these in the first place, particularly if someone is going to say something horrid in the caption. But then, I am notoriously camera shy…

JANE: You’re pretty close on yearbooks.  However, a good yearbook is far more than a collection of photos.  It’s also a memory book of the major events of the previous school year.  One of my first pieces of published writing was an essay on “Field Day” at my high school.  I don’t remember exactly why Field Day was important (except that we didn’t have classes, a rare occasion at my very academically demanding school).  However, I do remember my opening sentence: “Sunshine on their shoulders and bare feet…”

My high school was very formal, so we didn’t have the embarrassing quotation thing.  Therefore, someone else is going to have to explain that one to you.  However, yearbooks also often served as autograph books.  At the end of the year, students raced around getting their books signed by friends, especially those who were graduating.

ALAN: The closest we ever got to that was a group photograph. It was taken on a panoramic camera. Traditionally, once the camera has swept past one end, someone is supposed to run round behind the group (out of camera shot) and then stand at the other end ready to be caught as the camera completes its traverse, thus giving the impression of twins. I’m not sure anyone has ever really done this, but that’s the urban legend. However since we actually did have twins in our class, the teachers deliberately placed one twin at each end to give the impression that the prank had been played, even though it hadn’t! We all enjoyed the meta-joke.

JANE: I like it, too…  Especially since the teachers got into it.

I know you have other questions, but I am reminded that I have work to do.  Let’s take them up next time.  Meanwhile, I hope our readers will fill you in on other details of class rings and yearbooks.


Facts or Fiction?

June 27, 2012

A couple of days ago, fellow author Paul Genesse sent me a nice long e-mail

Two Takes on History

discussing his reactions to my novel The Buried Pyramid.  He complimented me for my use of Egyptian material, both historical and mythological, noting that although he is an avowed “Egyptophile” I had included some elements he had never seen used in that fashion before.

Well, of course, I was tickled.  Additionally, Paul’s comments got me thinking about writing historical fiction. I specifically found myself wondering if there is a point when too much accuracy gets in the way of the story?

When I was writing The Buried Pyramid, I researched my material on several levels.  My novel is set in the late 1870’s, so first I needed to make myself familiar with that time period.  I’ll just give one example of the complexities.

When looking into what type of clothing my characters would be wearing, I learned that this was a period of transition in women’s fashions.  Unlike today, older generations often held on to the styles of their “day,” while the younger people were more adventurous.  Therefore, I needed to be familiar with both older and cutting edge fashions.

I remember my copy editor querying me about the point where Jenny goes to the bazaar wearing a “daring” ankle-length gown.  The copy editor asked if I meant something shorter.  However, at the time in which my novel was set, especially for a young lady of good reputation, an ankle-length skirt was very, very daring – just like Jenny herself.

The Buried Pyramid offered me challenges far beyond fashion.  Most of the book is set in the 1870’s.  However, there’s a point where events get very, very weird.  For that section, I needed the most up-to-date information available about ancient Egypt.  Therefore, I had to divide my Egypt research into two parts.  One was for the Egypt – both ancient and “modern” – that my characters would know.  The other was for an ancient Egypt as close “real” as I could get.

Happily, I have a friend who shares my enthusiasm for matters of Egyptian history.  He loaned me armloads of books, including travel journals written by people who were in Egypt at the same time my characters were.  I had a wonderful time immersing myself in the material.  I even learned some elementary hieroglyphs and their varied meanings.  Fun!

One problem with about writing historical fiction is that some historical realities are distinctly unpleasant.  Here I’m not talking about the things everyone brings up, like body odor or the prevalence of disease.  I’m talking about social attitudes.

Here, I think, is one of the places where an author risks alienating readers.

One of my favorite examples of this problem is illustrated by the attitude shown towards two specific social customs in two popular Roman mystery series: the “Novels of Ancient Rome” written by Steven Saylor and the “SPQR” mysteries written by John Maddox Roberts.  These books are both set near the fall of the Roman Republic.  In a couple of cases, the action even centers around the same events.  However, in my opinion, Roberts does a far better job of getting into the mind set of a Roman of that time period.

Saylor’s main character is uncomfortable with slavery.  He frees a slave and – if I recall correctly – even marries her.  He’s basically a twentieth century American in a toga.

Roberts’ main character, Decius, is completely comfortable with slavery.  He keeps slaves and is unsentimental about them.  When Decius sets up housekeeping on his own, his family gives him a couple of elderly retainers, much as today parents might give their kids the old furniture from the storage unit.  Decius is happy to have these slaves – even if he wishes he could have younger slaves, and, especially, slaves who hadn’t known him from the time he was a child and so feel free to nag.

Admittedly, Decius is something of an eccentric.  He actually cares “who dunnit” and why, whereas his family is mostly interested in what political advantage can be gained from murders and other scandalous events.  However, except for this, he is very much a man of his time.

Decius is young and lusty, quite capable (especially in the earlier books) of getting into affairs that aren’t exactly wise.  However, when the time comes for him to marry, Decius is not led by either his heart or his desires.  He knows that for a Roman marriage is a means of social advancement and of cementing ties for his family with other families.  He’s lucky that one girl among those who are suggested as suitable – the niece of a rising politician named Gaius Julius Caesar – is also quite to his liking.

No marriages to slaves for him!

Later on in the series, Decius does free his body slave, a young man named Hermes, but not out of any sentiment that slavery is wrong or that Hermes “deserves” to be free.  Decius simply decides that it would be advantageous to him to have Hermes be able to function as a freedman, since slaves were barred from certain areas.

Demonstrating the responsibility of Roman slaveholder to house slave, Decius waits until the somewhat impulsive young Hermes is ready for the responsibility of freedom.  He also comforts himself with the awareness that legally Hermes will remain his client, bound to him within the complex rules that govern client-patron relationship.  Thus, Decius will not lose a valuable associate, nor will Hermes be out of a job.

I guess you can tell that I prefer Roberts’ more historical approach, but the success of Saylor’s series (and that of Lindsay Davis, set somewhat later in Roman history) shows that there are plenty of readers who think otherwise.

I want to take a further look at dealing with unpleasant social realities, but first I’m going to let you get a word in edgewise!  How historical do you need a historical novel to be for you to enjoy it?  When does history get in the way of fun?

TT: Bizarre Education

June 21, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and tell me about the times you’ve felt like an alien.  Then come and help me educate Alan on just how the American education system works!

ALAN: Every so often, as I read American novels and watch American films and

Patron of Teachers

TV shows, I find myself brought up with a short, sharp shock when some social and cultural custom that seems quite normal to the characters in the story comes across to me as utterly alien and bizarre.

And nowhere is this better exemplified than in the American educational system. I simply don’t understand it at all.

JANE: Actually, Alan, I sympathize.  My education was mostly in private Catholic schools.  Many of the rituals are pretty unfamiliar to me, too.  However, maybe our readers can supply what I don’t understand.

ALAN: I first stumbled across the differences in a minor way when I was at university. We had an American maths lecturer (except he called it math) for a term (except he called it a semester). At the end of the term he gave us an exam, (except he called it a quiz). And he didn’t mark the exam, he graded the quiz. None of us had any idea what he was talking about.

JANE: Maths vs math…  Oddly enough, this came up just the other night when we were having dinner with our good friends, Mike and Yvonne.  Yvonne was showing us some amazing knitting patterns designed by a professor of “maths.”  Mike, who is himself a mathematician, commented: “Well, they say sport and we say ‘sports,” so I guess this is the law of conservation of “esses.”

ALAN: Such strange usage, from both points of view. We must have seemed equally as odd to our visiting American as he was to us. But we really found it hard to take his quiz seriously. After all, a quiz is a game show on television with magnificent prizes to be won!

JANE: Well, not in this case.   I find it interesting that he called an end of the year test a “quiz.”  Normally, “quiz” is used to indicate a short test, meant to measure comprehension of, say, the previous night’s reading assignment.   (Or, cynically, whether the student in question bothered to do the assignment at all.) The term “exam” is usually used for both mid-term and end of term tests.

ALAN: Oh, it wasn’t a significant test. It had no importance at all in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t count towards our final marks or anything. That’s probably why he referred to it as a quiz. Amusingly, every single one of us failed it, much to his bewilderment. We’d never seen multi-choice exams before and we didn’t know how to cope. The curious idea that questions had unequivocally right or wrong answers with nothing in between was quite foreign to us. We were used to much more discursive questions, even in maths, that rigorously factual discipline.

Talking about grades rather than marks, what’s a grade point average, and why is it important?

JANE: How grade point average (or GPA) is calculated varies a little, but it basically works out like this.  The standard grades of A (best) to F(failed) are assigned number values.   A is worth four points, whereas F is worth zero points.

By the way, “F” stands for “failed,” which is  why the grades go A, B, C, D, F, skipping “E.”

If a school uses “plus” grades, the calculation is changed so that while “B” is worth 3 points, B plus is 3.5 points.  If the school uses both plus and minus grades, the number values are adjusted accordingly, so there is a slight difference between a B minus and a C plus.

Then the values are added up and averaged by the number of classes taken, resulting in the student’s GPA.  This is usually calculated for each term or semester.  (We use both words pretty much interchangeably).

So students might have a high GPA in their major area of study, but a somewhat lower overall GPA.  Mine certainly went up when I was done with required (sometimes called “general distribution”) classes and focusing on the things I was good at.

So the GPA is a way of calculating if a student is performing well overall or only in their major.

ALAN: I’ve just checked, and New Zealand universities now seem to be using GPA to keep track of their students, though their method of calculating it is much more complex than yours with all sorts of curious weighting factors built in to mess up the arithmetic. And they don’t omit “E”! It isn’t much used in England, though I have discovered that my old university (Nottingham) is considering introducing it. This is causing great controversy; very few are in favour of it.

In my day, people kept track by just glancing at the results for each subject in the end of year exams. And exam results were reported in percentages. A pass mark was generally considered to be about 70%.

JANE: Yes.  I think that’s about right.  That would be a “C.”  Weighted grades…  I’ve never liked those and never used them when I taught.

So what other questions do you have?

ALAN: Oh lots and lots! But the next bit gets complicated. Perhaps we’d better leave it for next time.

Living the Alien

June 20, 2012

The other day, while I was waiting for an appointment, I started leafing through the magazines provided.  The selection was relatively up-to-date and heavily

Find the Alien!

concentrated on the popular press.  As I leafed through People and skimmed the photo essays, I found myself wondering…  Do people really care what the current celebrities wore to some event?  Why is it important who was best dressed and who was worst dressed?

Then I admitted to myself that maybe people do.  I’m pretty much a fashion failure.  One of my best friends likes to tease me about my propensity for wearing jeans and tee-shirts all the time.  I don’t wear make-up.  I don’t dye my hair.  So probably I’m not the right person for judging whether fashion is important or not.

I think the interest in what other people wear (especially “famous” people) goes deeper than a mere interest in what looks good, what doesn’t.

When you think about it, clothing and hair style is about the only thing we can use to judge for ourselves when trying to get a feel for most celebrities.  We don’t know what is going on in their heads.  We know what their press secretaries tell us they think and feel, but we don’t know if that’s the truth or whether it’s been made up as good promotional material.

After a while, I start wondering, do these people even dress themselves or is their “personal look” designed by someone else to promote an agenda of some sort?  We can’t really know.  Perhaps that person in the disastrous gown was told to wear it to deliberately raise their profile.  Maybe being on a “worst dressed” list is better than being passed over entirely.

So maybe it’s all an illusion, even the things we “know” from seeing them with our own eyes aren’t true.  And when people start imitating these celebrities as “fashion icons,” what was unreal from the start become a version of reality…

Many years ago, the World Fantasy Convention was held in a hotel across the street from a huge shopping mall.  During a break in the action, Jim and I and David and Sharon Weber decided to go over and have lunch.  As we walked through the mall, I realized I felt like I was in another world.  It wasn’t just the different styles of clothing (the convention was in the Midwest; I live in the Southwest), it was little things, right down to how people walked and used the space around them.

Having been told over and over and over again that mass media and rapid transit have all but eliminated regional differences in culture, I was surprised how out of place I felt in this most normal of American settings.  I felt something like relief when we returned to the convention and I was surrounded by people who were “familiar” in some indefinable way.

Nonetheless, with the contrasts fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but realize how weird my “normal” would feel to the bulk of the people over in that shopping mall.   The feeling of being in a world within a world that might not be a real world stayed with me the rest of the weekend.

Has anything ever made you see the world inside out?  I’m not talking about a sensation as negative as “alienation” – just the little things that take you out of your zone and make you see the world fresh, that make you, even if for just a moment, an alien.

TT:Speculative Governments

June 14, 2012

Break out the balloons and fireworks!!!  The Thursday Tangent is now officially just over one year old!  If you’re interested in owning an e-book containing all our posts until just a few months ago, Alan is offering it for free at

Oh…  And if you want to read my latest Wednesday Wandering, just page back one to revel with me beneath the glories of the Big Sky.  Then come on back and join me and Alan as we take a look at how SF/F are great grounds for experiments in alternate governments.

JANE: One of the things that makes for a good SF story for me is when the

Open for Speculation

author takes a look at the governmental systems we have and feels free to suggest a tweak or two.

In Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein introduces the idea that perhaps the right to vote should be earned.  He makes it relatively easy for this to be done.  Military service is one route, but if I recall correctly there are others.

ALAN: Yes indeed. Heinlein makes it quite clear that any form of government/community service will earn the franchise. The novel concentrates on the military aspects because that was where his interests lay (and of course it makes for a more exciting story than a novel about garbage collecting would have done).

JANE: The novel’s young protagonist comes from a family with money, so he is surprised to realize the extent to which two of his high school classmates – including the girl on whom he has a crush – will go to in order to earn the vote.

That made me think.  I am very aware of  the abuses that have been put in the way of those who wished to vote.  However, giving the vote to everyone of “voting age” hasn’t seemed to increase its value.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if perhaps – as with so many other things – people would value the vote more if they didn’t automatically get it.  As I noted a few weeks ago, growing up in Washington D.C. and realizing that I didn’t have a vote on some things made me value the right when I relocated.

ALAN: Universal suffrage is a relatively recent phenomenon (women have only had the right to vote for a century or so). I’d hate to see something that was fought so hard for disappear again…

JANE: So would I, but does it go away if everyone truly has the right to earn it?

Okay.  I could go off into some of Heinlein’s other governments.  He did a very good job with theocracy in “Revolt in 2100,”  for example.  But I’d enjoy hearing about other writers.

ALAN: I’m very fond of Cordwainer Smith’s stories about the Instrumentality of Mankind. They are some of the weirdest things ever written, and describe a very peculiar form of government, but they have an undeniable magic that makes me return to them again and again.

The Instrumentality itself is an outgrowth from a police force of “perfect ones.” It is a council of largely independent people all of whom seem to act in sometimes arbitrary ways to enforce arbitrary decisions, so to that extent it’s not a council at all! The Instrumentality is benevolent but certainly not benign, and it can often be extraordinarily callous. Smith takes huge delight in such contradictions – perhaps you could call the stories an investigation into the politics of paradox!

JANE: That sounds really interesting.  Could you suggest a title or two?

ALAN: Smith was not very prolific and he died quite young. He wrote one superb novel (Norstrilia) and a handful of short stories. My favourite of the short stories is “A Planet Called Shayol” which I think shows the Instrumentality at both its best and its worst. Incidentally, all of Smith’s work is available from NESFA Press in two very handsome volumes.

JANE: Thanks!   I have Norstrilia and I’ve read many of Cordwainer Smith’s short stories.  Needless to say, I find the human/animal Underpeople fascinating.

As I noted above, while I like the weird, I also like those stories where the familiar has been permitted to evolve.  In addition to being good at creating aliens, I think Larry Niven is very good with governments.  In his Known Space stories, the UN has become the dominant government of Earth.  Especially in the earlier stories, there’s a strong sense that humanity’s choice to move off Earth and establish colonies on the Moon, in the asteroid belt, and on other planets in our solar system has finally led Earth to move toward developing  a collective identity.

The Belt seems to be more parliamentary.  Its chief of state is the First Speaker.  I enjoyed the passing mention in Protector that the current First Speaker got into politics because “Aptitude tests said I had a high IQ and liked ordering people around.  From there I worked my way up.”

When designing alien governments, Niven is even more creative.  The Kzinti have a Patriarchy.  The Puppeteers are governed by He Who Leads From Behind.  The Protectors’ version of government is even more complex, rooted in their biology.   What I really liked was that these choices weren’t simply copies of human governments but evolved from the larger alien psychology.

When I think about them, I find myself thinking about how an alien  might come to conclusions – both right and wrong – regarding human nature from studying our various governments.

Okay.  Your turn!

ALAN: One of the more overtly political writers in modern SF is Iain M. Banks. He also writes mainstream novels as Iain Banks (and I must confess I prefer his mainstream work to his SF). However, in both incarnations he writes consistently from a left-wing perspective.

The Culture is his name for a galaxy spanning government that he has created for his SF novels. It is an anarchist, socialist utopia. I’m not sure how viable it is – certainly it seems to depend strongly on vast and powerful artificial intelligences in administrative positions. It also makes the big assumption that these artificial intelligences are benevolent. Neither of these assumptions bears  much resemblance to reality (yet). However it certainly leads to some entertaining stories and speculations.

Also I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that Iain Banks had read and enjoyed Cordwainer Smith in his youth. It seems to me that his Culture has many resonances with Smith’s Instrumentality.

JANE:  We’ve talked about several authors, but I suspect we’ve barely touched on what has been done with inventive SF (or Fantasy) governments.  I’d really love to hear what our readers have to suggest.  I know my reading list has already grown as a result of this conversation.

Big Skies

June 13, 2012

Over the last couple of weeks, Jim and I have done a lot of driving.  Over Memorial Day weekend, we drove out to Utah.  First, we passed through a long stretch of northern New Mexico.

Big Sky in Jemez

I finally saw Shiprock on the Navajo Reservations, a landmark familiar to me from the many Tony Hillerman novels I have read.  I was dreadfully excited to finally see “the rock with wings” with my own eyes.

After a long stretch of nothing that was dramatic in and of itself, we passed up into Colorado.  There the land suddenly became well-watered, rolling, and lushly green.  Eventually, we crossed over into Utah.  Despite the basics of the ecosystem not being all the different from the one in which we live (rocky, filled with juniper and pinyon, flat plains framed with cliffs and mountains) I found much to fascinate me.  Then, last weekend, we took a day trip into the Jemez Mountains with our friend, Michael Wester.

Funny how I don’t seem to get jaded on the magnificent views, whether they’re stark landscapes of red and golden brown sandstone, or strata of rock that show the passing ages, or pastures with grazing animals, or cascading mountain streams.   I’ve said “wow” so often that I’ve found myself laughing that someone who loves words as much as I do can’t be more articulate.

I mean, I know the terms in several languages.  Mesa, butte, arroyo, gulch, escarpment, plateau, acequia, cliff, peak, valley, vale, hoodoo…  Not a single one of them expresses as much enthusiasm as that single “wow.”

I can list many of the different trees and flowers by name…  But saying “Look at that stand of apricots, just ripening.  Look how the orange and green are blending…  They didn’t have too hard a spring up here if fruit set.”  Somehow that sentence doesn’t express much of what I feel as a simple, “Wow, those apricots are beautiful.”

Our sightseeing also has brought back a lot of  memories.  When I first moved to New Mexico, people kept asking me what I thought of the “big sky.”  They were clearly very proud of this element of their landscape and thought I was having a wonderful treat.  I had no idea why I should be impressed.

There was a sky.  There was a lot of sky.  The sunsets were great.  So were the sunrises.  So were the clouds.  I really enjoyed being able to see rain falling a long way off.  “Virgas” – when you can see rain falling way up, but it doesn’t hit the ground –  were admittedly neat.   But why were people acting as if I should be overwhelmed and impressed by all of this?

Finally, it hit me.  I wasn’t impressed because I’d had known “big skies” all my life.  Sure I grew up in Washington, D.C.   Sure I’d been surrounded by towering trees and rolling landscapes that had blocked the sky, but these big skies weren’t new to me.  How come?

Well, when I was about three, my parents bought a little cottage on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  Our house was right on the water – about ten running steps, even for a kid.  And over all that water was the sky.

The room I shared with my sister Ann faced the water.   Since there wasn’t anyone to see in on that side, my folks didn’t bother with curtains.   We woke with dawn over the water and learned  long before we ever heard of the rhyme “red sky at night, sailor’s delight/ red sky at morning, sailors take warning” how to judge what sort of day was in front of us from the hues that tinted the clouds.

We learned to watch for storms coming and to know the hiss of the rain as it raced across the water.  I don’t think we had many virgas – rain tends make it all the way to the ground in that part of the country – but we certainly learned that rain can be falling in one place and not in another.  A rainy day was something we knew was localized – and something that would always pass.

We played in and over the water, surrounded by the sky.  The community in which we lived shared the “Big Pier” – a board and piling construction that was long enough for us to race our bikes up and down.   There were days I nearly lived out there.  I was a fanatical catcher of blue crabs, an expert with a long-handled net taller than myself.

Sure there were days we played mostly in the woods, but the water – and the big sky – were always there.  Those big skies made an impression on me.   When I was in first grade, my teacher expressed some puzzlement that I had painted a landscape in which I had made the sky come all the way down to the ground.  (My attempt wasn’t effective.  I recall my frustration that the watercolor paints made the paper get all soggy and bubble.)  My mom explained that I had grown up near that water, that I knew perfectly well that the sky didn’t stop “up there,” that the sky came all the way down to the ground.

And now, once again, I’m living surrounded by a big sky.  The trees here don’t get very tall, so ever though my yard is framed in them and I live in the city, I can easily see the Sandia Mountains to the east.  Black basalt mesas are visible right outside my front window.

Embracing it all is the sky.  Often it’s such a brilliant blue that Jim jokingly commented that obviously the Lone Ranger (in the television incarnation) wore a blue outfit in order to camouflage better against the sky.

Makes sense to me…   How about you?

TT: Genre Governments

June 7, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back for a discussion on series characters.  Then come and join me and Alan as we investigate interesting types of governments that have occurred in Fantasy fiction.

JANE: Having agreed that there’s room for a lot of different sorts of

A Question of Rulership

governments in Fantasy fiction, I think it would be fun to explore a few options.  Go for it!

ALAN:  I really would like to see more genre novels where the government is organised along socialist and/or communist lines. It’s not unheard of – William Morris used fantasy to as a vehicle to explore socialism.  (The Well At The World’s End invented most of today’s fantasy cliches, but it also has its subversive moments.)  Both Mary Gentle (most notably in Rats and Gargoyles) and China Mieville  (in everything) write from a socialist point of view.

And if I can introduce SF into the discussion, Ursula LeGuin’s utterly brilliant novel The Disposessed compares and contrasts anarchist, collectivist and capitalist societies.

JANE: Absolutely introduce SF – after all, I did last week!

ALAN: While socialism is a very viable political philosophy (I’ve lived under socialist governments all my life, to a greater or lesser extent), communism has never really worked at all in the real world (on a large scale anyway) and off hand, I don’t recall any SF or fantasy novels that deal with it. I’d be very interested in seeing if a bit of magic and mumbo-jumbo could make  it work…

I could easily imagine Tolkien’s dwarves organising themselves along socialist lines – social ownership and control of the means of production work well when heavy manual labour is involved. And I wonder if the wizards, with their huge powers and their deep sympathies would actually be able to make communism viable?

JANE: Interesting thoughts…  Let me play devil’s advocate, starting with the wizards.  Saruman  had huge power but not “deep sympathy.”  He had “deep panic” instead.

Really, when you look at the wizards in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is exceptional in his caring for other peoples – and even then he can be pretty brutal when wanting goals achieved.  Poor Frodo!  Only one other wizard is mentioned,  Radagast the Brown.  Is he ever on stage?

ALAN: I think Saruman was not typical of the Maiar. After all, he was corrupted by Sauron and he had very different goals than did the rest of his order.

JANE: Did he really?  I saw him as someone who started out liking being in charge, panicked, and gave in to the Power he thought would maintain his power.

ALAN: I saw Saruman as more selfish than that, looking to achieve more personal power over the races of Middle Earth. But either way, I don’t think his attitude was typical of the wizards. It certainly took Gandalf by surprise!

JANE: Excellent point.  Please, continue.

ALAN: The other wizard, Radagast, has only a small part to play in the events of Lord Of The Rings, but he seems much closer in spirit to Gandalf than he is to Saruman.  In the novel, Gandalf refers to Radagast as his cousin, so presumably they are quite close.  As an aside, Radagast will have a significant role to play in the film of The Hobbit.  (He’s played by Sylvester McCoy).

JANE: All right, moving on to dwarves…I certainly like the idea of socialist dwarves but, you know, Terry Pratchett had his dwarves be a monarchy – perhaps for much the same reasons I mentioned last time – it enabled him to focus on a few people as decision makers.

That’s the problem always faced with SF/F and new cultures.  How much of the focus of the story is on the world and how much on the people and events in that world?  If the story is not about discovering the world (as was so often the case in LeGuin’s more anthropological SF) then it’s hard to have a good story.  Note that her Earthsea books – which are more character driven than idea driven – returned to monarchies when governments are mentioned at all.

ALAN: And LeGuin probably did that for all the reasons that you’ve been emphasising. It is a good answer to that age old problem of fiction – how do you strike a balance between show and tell?

However, other points of view are certainly possible. Science fiction is sometimes thought of as the fiction of ideas since it encourages the exploration of “things as they might be” rather than “things as they are.”  Robert Heinlein was particularly good at this and he liked to explore other forms of government, most noticeably perhaps in Starship Troopers, though he flirted with it in other books as well. Perhaps we could talk about that next week?

JANE: Absolutely!

Living and Growing with Characters

June 6, 2012

This past weekend, I gave a talk for about writing series characters.  I enjoyed the topic and thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

My Series

I’ve written three series on my own: the two athanor books (Changer and Legends Walking), the six Firekeeper books (starting with Through Wolf’s Eyes and going through Wolf’s Blood), and the three “Breaking the Wall” books (Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, and Five Odd Honors).

In addition, I’ve done series short stories: my three Captain Allie stories (now available as an e-book under the title Star Messenger), my three “Andrasta” stories,  at least four stories featuring the Albuquerque Adepts, a couple featuring Lillianara and the android, Alastar, and  a couple featuring a Chinese mage named Tieh.  (If you want publication information on any of these, go to my website,; they’ll be listed under Other Works).

I’ve also done three series stories set in David Weber’s “Honorverse.”  “Queen’s Gambit” tells how the current reigning queen of Manticore took the throne.  “Promised Land” and “Ruthless” focus more on Elizabeth’s younger brother, Michael.

The reason that I like writing series stories is that because, once you’ve created the background, a lot of the setting is in place.  This leaves more mental room to focus on characters and plot.

Let me use the stories in Star Messenger as an example.  I created Captain “Allie” Ah-Lee for a story called “Winner Takes Trouble” for the anthology Alien Pets.  She’s a singleship captain, strong and independent, the sort of character I enjoyed reading about in the works of such writers as Larry Niven, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, and Poul Anderson.

In “Winner Takes Trouble,” Allie wins an alien creature in a poker game.  When, a few years later, I was invited to write a story for an anthology called Guardsmen of Tomorrow,   I immediately thought “Hey, this would be a great opportunity to explore Allie’s background.”   Allie is a bit of a bender of rules, so casting her as a “guard” of any sort was a fun challenge.   A story called “Endpoint Insurance” resulted.

Later still, I was asked to contribute to the anthology, You Bet Your Planet.  In “Winner Takes Trouble,” Allie had already been established as a gambler.  In “Here To There,” she takes on her biggest gamble ever – one where she’s the only person playing who realizes that the peaceful coexistence of several races may be decided by who wins a “reality show” type game.

Allie begins these stories as an adult with a profession, a spaceship of her own, and a lot of life history.  I find that there’s a special challenge involved when writing a series character who begins the series relatively  young.  In this case, especially if the books span a good number of years, the character needs to grow and change a great deal while, at the same time, remaining recognizable as the person whom the reader started out with.

My most long-running series, both in terms of books and in terms of the years of the characters’ lives, are my Firekeeper books.   In Through Wolf’s Eyes, Firekeeper is about fifteen years old.  For as long as she can remember, she has lived with wolves, as a wolf.  Only in her dreams does she remember anything about her life as a human.  Writing from Firekeeper’s point of view at this early stage in the series was very challenging.  Although she has language, she has no reference points for anything to do with human culture, including such basics as clothing and domestic animals.  I basically had to create an alternate vocabulary for her, one that would make sense without driving the reader (and myself) nuts.

As the series progressed and Firekeeper acquired a familiarity with human customs, the challenge was to keep her recognizably “other” without making her stagnant.    I handled this by having Firekeeper – no matter how much she learned about human culture – persist in thinking of herself as an oddly shaped wolf.  This manner of thinking provided a well-balanced – if decidedly odd – person.  Firekeeper’s companion, the wolf Blind Seer, often quotes from wolf proverbs to provide a sense of wolf culture.  In fact, he does this so often that Firekeeper starts accusing him of making them up!

Firekeeper is the youngest of the point of view characters, but several of the others are comparatively young.  Derian and Elise begin the books in their late teens.  By the end of the series, both have experienced a great deal.  From people with unfocused dreams, they become people with responsibilities – responsibilities they have chosen based on their varied experiences.  In their own ways, they were as challenging to develop as the more obviously alien Firekeeper.

Another challenge is writing a series where one or more of the characters are quite young children.  In the “Breaking the Wall” series, Nissa Nita has a two and a half year-old daughter named ‘Lani.   When a child is that young, even a month can mean significant differences in interests and abilities.   Birthdays are a big deal, for parent as well as for child.  Even though ‘Lani is a comparatively minor character, I had to keep track of the passage of time and adapt her accordingly.

I’ve never been fond of series where characters don’t change at all, although I will make exceptions.  I like both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poroit and Miss Marple.  I can accept that they don’t change much because from their first appearance forward, as both are quite elderly.   The skills that they need to draw upon to be successful in their chosen lives are ones they already possess in great quantity.  Why should they change?

It’s important to note that Christie could and did write characters who changed.  Her recurring characters Tommy and Tuppence (first appearance, The Secret Adversary)  change a great deal over the years from their first appearance as young people, recently “demobbed” from service in World War I, through later books where they are married and have children of their own.

Christie showed that an older person may change a great deal if the right stimulus is applied.  Mr. Sattherwaite, the point of view character for the stories collected in The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, begins as an older man, set in his ways, believing – and even content – that life has passed him by. By the end of the series, he has been changed by his experiences and has become a player in the game of life, rather than merely an observer.
Something I like even less than characters who don’t change at all are those who change either in the direction of near perfection or in that of being so shattered by their experiences that they are jittering balls of nerves and quirks.   Both strike me as variations on lazy characterization.  The first is dull and – especially in Science Fiction and Fantasy – can verge of turning the characters into superheroes.  The second ignores that even when people are hit hard by adversity, they usually acquire some interesting coping mechanisms.

So…  There are some very basic thoughts about living and growing with characters and the challenges of writing a series where the characters live and change.  I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the matter.  Any characters you particularly like for how they evolve?  Hate because they fail to evolve?   What do you hope for in a series character?