Archive for October, 2012

Trick or Treat?

October 31, 2012

This week, in honor of Halloween,  I want to talk about an event that I used to think was a Trick but I now think might well be a Treat.  This is NaNoWriMo, which officially begins tomorrow, November 1, and ends at midnight on November 30.

The Trick of Writing is to Write! So is the Treat…

What is NaNoWriMo?  It’s often described as a “contest” in which the goal is to write a novel (defined as a 50,000 word piece) in a month.  I think “contest” isn’t actually the best word for this event.  It’s more like a great, writerly group hug in which people involved in the otherwise solitary act of writing can feel they’re part of a larger effort.

When I first heard about NaNoWriMo, I really wasn’t a fan.  I’m what is usually considered a “fast” writer and 50,000 words in a month seemed pretty ambitious to me.   If I’ve done my math right, that comes out to just over 1,666 words a day or about six pages a day, every day, no holidays.

(Note: The usual translation of a “page” into words is 250 words a page.  This dates back to the days of old, before computer word counts let you know exactly what you’d written.)

As I said, I’m usually considered a pretty fast writer, and I consider five pages a day, five days a week, good output.  It must be, given that I’ve managed to write 22 published (and several not-yet-published) novels in under twenty years.  Add in that most of those years, I’ve also written a lot of short fiction and non-fiction (go over to my website bibliography if you want to see the details) and you’ll see I’m no slacker.

So, the first reason I thought NaNoWriMo was more a Trick than a Treat was because I thought it set a pretty impossible goal.  Add into this that the end result was actually a fairly short manuscript by modern standards and I thought the participants were being set up for disappointment.

Another thing that bothered me was the idea that people were being led to think they could write a novel in a month.  Writing a novel is more than writing down a lot of words.  Writing a novel –  even if it’s set in the here and now and contains none of the outlandish elements that characterize SF and Fantasy –  involves research, character development, and, most importantly, polishing.

Well, you say, “Of course, it does!”   However, apparently, many of the people who participate in NaNoWriMo don’t know this.  I have heard from more than one professional editor that immediately following November 30th, the mail is filled with submissions of short novels written during NaNoWriMo and sent with minimal – or often no – polishing at all off to the publisher.

These writers apparently believe the publisher will now recognize the brilliance of this highly inspired piece and buy it, typos, poorly developed characters, skimpy plots, and all.  I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing that self-publishing venues like Kindle and Nook see a huge up-tick after November 30th, too.

All of this made me feel that NaNoWriMo was not encouraging people to be writers but doing exactly the opposite – setting very high production goals that would only produce unpublishable, even unreadable, material and therefore set the participants up for disappointment.

What made me see the Treat side in NaNoWriMo was a chat I had with my friend Rowan last week.  Possibly because she has known me for quite a while, Rowan knows that writing a novel isn’t just a matter of getting a bunch of words down on the page.  Therefore, I was surprised to find out that she was eagerly intending to participate in NaNoWriMo.

I started out to offer my usual warnings, then I decided that I should hear what why Rowan was prepared to invest so much time in this project.  Her words reminded me of a lesson I’d learned so long ago that I blush to say I’d forgotten it: If you want to write a novel (or even a short story), you need to make time to sit down and write.

Rowan talked about how easy it was to let the day slip by without writing.  She’s has had an idea for a novel for a while, but has never got around to putting more than a little on paper.  NaNoWriMo (and a cheering section of her friends) was going to be her incentive to actually write it down.

As we talked, I was reminded of myself in college.  I scribbled a lot, but I never finished anything.  Then, in my senior year, I took an elective writing course.  I can’t say it taught me a lot about writing (as in the craft), but it did force me to finally finish something.  That was a huge benefit and I’ve always had a soft spot for that course because of that.

Next, I asked Rowan questions about her novel, focusing on character and plot.  I became convinced that Rowan had the basics in place.  I started getting excited.  Who cares if the finished product will be a bit short?  She’ll have a good idea where to expand.  Who cares if some of the characters will be a bit sketchy?  She’ll know them better than she would if they remained vague in her head. Rowan knows she’s going to need to polish but, by the end of November, she’s going to have something to polish.

Talking to Rowan made me really glad that I’d accepted an invitation to give a presentation at my local library (Taylor Ranch Branch, Albuquerque, November 1, 6:00 to 7:00 pm)  as part of their launch of their NaNoWriMo program.  I’m going to talk about beginnings, middles, and endings.   I hope I’ll be part of inspiring people like Rowan to do their best, to move  closer to fulfilling the  dream of becoming writers.

Have any of you ever done NaNoWriMo?  What do you think of it?  Are you taking part this year?


TT: Barons Without Peer

October 25, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and travel time with me to the days of Chronomaster and a Noel that has nothing to do with Christmas.  Then come and dive through the looking glass as Alan and I continue trying to make sense out of titles.

JANE: Okay, Alan.  Last week we learned you can count on a count but a countess doesn’t have ears…  Or something like that.

Lord Byron Would Be At Home Here

Next, I’d like to ask you about barons.  Do the British have barons or is that another title that is more properly continental?

ALAN: Sort of…

Blame it on the Norman Conquest again. William introduced the rank of baron into England. Prior to that, it was purely a European title. The English barons were men who had pledged loyalty to William. They were required to perform military service for the king and had to attend his council meetings. This last function evolved into an advisory body which a wise king really should listen to, if he knew what was good for him. The consequences of not listening could be dire. It was the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta when they failed to attract his attention by more informal methods.

JANE: Ah…  Go on!

ALAN:  These days, in the UK at least, baronies (in the feudal sense of pledging loyalty) are obsolete, though the rank still exists as the lowest rank of the peerage. Life peers are generally barons, and many members of the hereditary peerage are barons because their ancestors were in the right place at the right time when the titles were being handed out.

JANE: Peerage?  Peers?   Today when people use the word “peer” they usually mean “people who are like you.”

Somehow I suspect those within the peerage considered themselves without peers?  Or pare?  Or something…  Help me out.

ALAN:  Peers (or, more accurately, Peers of the Realm) are members of the aristocracy. The word is really a collective noun for that amorphous set of beings known individually as dukes and earls and counts and… They do form a peer group in the sense that you used it, but they are a very special peer group in that they are in charge of everybody else. It’s a bit like the old Roman division between patricians and plebeians.

JANE: Ah…  And, eventually, toward the end of the Roman republic, it was much better to be a pleb than a patrician because patricians couldn’t participate in grubby commerce.  Please, go on.

ALAN: However, when someone is put on trial, they are judged by “a jury of their peers” which these days means that the jury is made up of ordinary people, just like the accused, rather than of actual members of the peerage. I would not be at all surprised to find that the phrase derives from ancient times when members of the aristocracy were both judge and jury over the accused. These days we’ve just changed the meaning a bit to bring it more in line with modern thinking…

JANE: Actually, I’d wondered about that.  What if, say, Prince Charles was to go on public trial?  Would they need to make up the jury from other princes?  Or is this a circumstance where the local greengrocer and librarian are considered equal to the heir apparent of the throne?

ALAN: I suspect the latter. The novelist Jeffrey Archer is a member of the aristocracy (he’s actually Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare). In May 2001 he was put on trial for perjury. The jury of ordinary men and women found him guilty and he was sentenced to four years imprisonment. He wrote three books and several short stories about his incarceration. Authors never waste good material.

So in this particular case, the jury of his peers was definitely not made up of peers…

Damnit, English needs more new words! We really must stop trying to shoehorn contradictory definitions into one word. It leads to nothing but trouble.

JANE: I agree…  And, believe me, as a writer this is something I wrestle with more than my readers ever realize.

I am not done with you, but I think I’ll save my next question for next time!

Chronomaster of Friendship

October 24, 2012

Back in late 1994, when we were living together in Santa Fe, Roger Zelazny got a call asking him if he’d be interested in coming up with an original story that would be the basis for a computer game.  Roger loved alternate forms of storytelling, so he was enthusiastic.  On the other hand, he knew absolutely nothing practical about either computers (he still worked on a typewriter) or games.

Scot and Jane Noel

He asked if I’d be interested in joining him on the project.  Since I’d been a gamer for about fifteen years at that point (I’d actually published a couple of Call of Cthulu adventures in Challenge magazine) and knew a little about computers,  I felt I had something to contribute.   Roger ran a bunch of ideas by me.  The one we came up with involved a mission to discover who was disabling a series of pocket universes.  Revenge was involved and the solution contained a rather nice twist.  We named it Timepockets.  Later, it would be renamed Chronomaster.

In mid-1995, when Chronomaster was underway, Roger died.  The first person I heard from, outside of our immediate circle of family and friends, was Scot Noel, my contact person on Chronomaster.  He arranged for a huge basket of food and fruit to be sent.  I’m not kidding when I say that, if that hadn’t been in the house, I’m not sure if I would have eaten.

When the initial shock was over, Scot assured me that DreamForge wanted to continue working with me.  This was a terrific relief.  Not only had I gotten attached to the project, I was already seeing how the business world was falling into two camps: those who still valued my contributions and those who didn’t have the time of day for me now that I was no longer connected to The Famous Roger.

(First aside: I should note that by far the majority fell into the first camp.  Roger befriended and chose to work with good people.)

Scot Noel at DreamForge became one of my lifelines.  Once the basic game design was completed, he asked if I wanted to work on the scene by scene development – this would mean designing the scene, dialogue, and the basics for some of the puzzles.  I did.  I  had a lot of fun – including coming up with what I still think was one of the best alternate endings put together for a computer game up to that time.

Next, Scot drew me in for beta testing.  I’m sure he had something to do with getting me recommended to write both the player’s guide and the associated novels.

(Next aside: Chronomaster launched to very good reviews.  However, the company issuing it – as opposed to DreamForge, which created it – suffered financial problems.  The game went off the market far too soon.  Only one of the three projected novels was written.  I understand that particular little paperback is fairly collectable.)

Through all the steps of my involvement with Chronomaster, Scot was incredibly patient with me.  He never forgot that I was grieving.  Nor did he fault me for my technical shortcomings.  Although I knew the basics of word processing, I hadn’t done much with computers beyond that.  I didn’t even have e-mail.  Moreover, I was broke and really couldn’t afford upgrades, especially for a one-shot job.  Scot found ways around all these problems.

When Chronomaster was completed, I was invited to a launch party in Hollywood.  I went, mostly hoping to meet Scot.  He wasn’t there, having chosen to be among those who stayed home to attend to all the final steps in the game’s release.

Time passed.  In 1996, when I settled down to write my Christmas cards, I decided to send one to Scot, since he’d been kind when I needed kindness.  To my pleasure, I heard back from him.  That started a correspondence which has been going on for about fifteen years.  I was delighted when Scot married Jane, who had been art director for Chronomaster.  I followed their adventures with interest.  I held my breath when Jane quit game design to found her own company.  I was thrilled when “Jane’s Computers Made Easy” (now CME) was successful enough that Scot also quit the world of computer games to join her in running the business.

About six years ago, Jim and I went to the Pittsburgh area to visit my sister and her family.  In between attending a Mother’s Day celebration at my niece’s kindergarten and other such fun adventures, I managed a book signing.  Scot and Jane brought a few friends down for it.  After, we all went out to eat.   We found visiting as easy in person as it had been through letters.

This past weekend, Scot and Jane came to New Mexico on their own family visit.  They made time for us. They came by our house and we had a great time talking about all the things that don’t seem to make their way into letters.  They’d memorized the names of all our pets.   We took them out to see the petrogylphs near our house.  Jane asked to see my polymer clay figures and we compared notes on technique.

At some point, I brought out the notebook I’d used when we were doing Chronomaster, complete with some of the original character sketches.  Scot and Jane told stories about their side of the project, filling us in on where some of the programmers and artists had ended up.

The game is gone, useless to anyone but a stalwart collector of old hardware.  The book is nearly vanished, its unfolding story incomplete.

But Jim and I gained a couple of good friends out of the project.  Somehow, I end up feeling that we got the best part of the bargain.

TT: Dukeor/of Earl

October 18, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and hear how I recharge between projects.  You can also see a photo of my assistant, Kel.  Then join me and Alan as we continue to explore the often hilarious convolutions of British titles.

Kings, Queens, also Dukes, Earls…

JANE: Well, Alan, last time we learned that even the “simple” titles like king, queen, prince, and princess can get pretty complicated.  Now it’s time to delve into what – for Americans, at least – are murkier waters.

Last time you mentioned that both Phillip, husband of Elizabeth II, and Camilla, wife of Prince Charles (is this getting confusing enough, yet?) prefer to be called by titles beginning with Duke or Duchess and followed by a place name.

Now, I happen to know that the title “duke” has its ultimate roots in the Latin “dux,” meaning “leader,” “captain” or “commander.”  In other words, it began as a military title.  What is it these days?

And, while we’re at it, I believe I’ve heard of “Grand Dukes” and “Grand Duchesses.”  Do those still exist or are they extinct?

ALAN: A duke is a ruler of a province and gets first dibs on the income from the province. Grand Dukes and Duchesses are a European (mainly Germanic) institution and I’m really not very clear how they fit into the hierarchy. They have no British equivalent that I can find.

Generally dukedoms are hereditary, though there are exceptions. The Duchy of Cornwall is always held by the eldest son of the monarch. The monarch is also traditionally awarded sovereignty over the Duchy of Lancaster and is entitled to the revenues from it. Amusingly, the title associated with the office is always Duke of Lancaster, even when the monarch is a queen!  The monarch also rules the Channel Islands as Duke of Normandy.

So Queen Elizabeth II is, quite legitimately, two times a duke!

JANE: However, I suspect it would be improper to call her “duchess.”  The highest title wins!

ALAN: I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but you are spot on with that observation.

JANE: Next, I’d like to bring up the interesting question of the title “earl.”  Again, there’s a root meaning here – in this case out of the Old English “eorl,” which basically meant someone of rank or nobility.

ALAN: In Anglo-Saxon times, earls had authority over quite large administrative areas (Earldoms). They collected fines and taxes on behalf of the king, and creamed off a nice living for themselves in the process, thank you very much. In times of war, they also led the king’s armies.

JANE: I’m with you so far, but here’s a wild card.

Unlike prince which becomes “princess” in the feminine and duke which becomes “duchess,” there seems to be no related feminine for “earl.”   I came across a whole mess of titles that seemed to fall into the same general area – marquise, count, margrave – but all of these seemed more European.

So, what do you folks call a female earl?   Is such a title still currently in use?

ALAN: She’s  called an early bird. And she’s often really good at catching worms for her husband. Earls do a lot of fishing, you know…

JANE: Okay, you can have your joke!  However, I have to admit, this is question I’ve seriously wondered about.

You see, when I did the Firekeeper books, I used variations on the British titles because I figured they’d be most familiar to my audience.

I simplified.  (Queen Zorana the Great who founded the whole system had an aversion for ornate titles.)  However, since there didn’t seem to be a female “earl” and title in this world were held by males and females (without any sense that a “king” outranked a “queen” or suchlike), I found myself in a dilemma.

I tried making up my own female variation of earl.  First, I tried adding “ess.”  That became Earless, which sounded pretty good but looked too much like “ear-less.”  Then I tried “Earlene,” but my then editor (Teresa Nielsen Hayden) said it sounded too much like a southern redneck.  I had to agree.

We went round and round, trying alternatives.  Finally, we settled on adding a silent “e” to the end, making the feminine version of the title “Earle.”

ALAN: Actually, to be serious for a moment, there really is an official word for the wife of an earl. She’s a countess. After the Norman Conquest, earldoms largely vanished. William divided the country into shires (subdividing many of the larger, older earldoms in the process). Shires were administered by counts, which was a Norman rank. So earls and counts are largely equivalent in terms of their place in the hierarchy. Hence Earl/Countess.

JANE: That’s wonderful!  I knew counts were roughly equivalent, but I didn’t want to use that title because it sounded so very European.  Count Dracula is probably the best-known count in the United States.  Although Sesame Street’s “count who loves to count” probably is better known by the kids…  Or Count Chocula of cereal fame.

Anyhow, all of these counts have strong (if not very precise) European accents.

ALAN: And they are all very trustworthy. Everyone knows you can always count on a count.

JANE: <giggle!> I like that.  It’s right up there with “Cheetahs never prosper.”

Since I can’t possibly top that line, I think I’ll wait until next time for my next question!


October 17, 2012

First off, I’m happy to share the news that Fire Season, the first of my collaborative novels with David Weber, hit the New York Times best seller list at number thirty.   Needless to say, I’m pretty happy.

My Assistant Kel

The odd thing is that when you write for a living, the book that just came out is often “old news,” because there’s always something else that needs to be done. That really came home to me this past week.

Last Wednesday, I had lunch with a friend who has, in retirement, finally finished a novel he began about three years ago.  He asked me, “How do you handle writing all the time?  Do you take breaks between projects or do you just go immediately from one to the next?”

Since I was just about ready to turn in the manuscript of  Treecat Wars, the second of my collaborative novels with David Weber, this topic was much on my mind.  Huntress, the first of my new “Artemis Awakening” novels for Tor, needs to be finished by the end of February – and by “finished” I mean written, proofed by me, and proofed by Jim (who always serves as my first reader), and ready to be turned in.  That means I really need to have a complete manuscript by the end of January, at the latest.

Now, Huntress is already started.  In fact, I’d say I have at least half of the novel written and a good idea where I want to go from there.  However, holiday-crammed November through early January are full of days lost to work, even for someone, like me, who is more than usually disciplined.  So I feel a little like a racehorse who, having finished one race, is immediately led back into the starting gate and told to start running again.

It’s a good thing I like to run – I mean “to write.”

Nor is Treecat Wars necessarily off my desk.  One of these days – and I have no idea when – I’ll get editorial notes and need deal with them.  So, I still feel under pressure from that job.

Nonetheless, this weekend it hit me that my Muse is tired.  She’s clamoring for a chance to rejuvenate.   And I realize that, if I want to keep writing up to the level I expect of myself,  I’ve got to give her that chance.

So, although I know I’m going to be thinking about Adara and Griffin and Sand Shadow and all the other people (human and not at all human) who populate Artemis, I’m also going to take some time for me, just for pleasure.  I started by finishing Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, a book I’ve been nibbling at for the last couple of weeks and which I really enjoyed.  Now I’ve started Caliban’s War by James A. Corey (slow start but getting good).   And after that…  I have others in mind.

I’m going to listen to music.  Finally pickle those jalapeños.  Maybe pull out my polymer clay or, if modeling seems too demanding, just a box of crayons and some blank paper.  I’m going to read some poetry (the Powers’ novel fanned an interest that had been growing for quite a while into a roaring flame).    Maybe I’ll even write a poem or two.  I do, sometimes…

And while I seem not to be doing my work at all (and feeling, quite honestly, a little guilty about slacking off), I’ll be recharging the deep wells from which my stories rise.

Sounds good.  Sounds positively delicious…  At the edges of my mind, I can feel my Muse purring and stretching.  Or, maybe, that’s just Kel drowsing on my desk.

TT: Twisting Turns of Titles

October 11, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and tell us what you keep – and see how what you keep may tell us who you are.  Then come and join me and Alan as we venture into the twisting maze of royal titles.  Warning!  Expect weirdness!

Many Hats to Wear

JANE: Well, Alan, as you have commented in past Tangents, readers of Fantasy – apparently particularly American readers of Fantasy – have a fixation with Royalty.

I thought it might be amusing to take a look at titles and how they work in reality.

Certainly, when I dealt with the traditional structure when writing the Firekeeper books, I stumbled across some interesting quirks in the system.


ALAN: Certainly! But don’t expect any logic to the discussion. We’re looking at many hundreds of years of often quite arbitrary tradition…

JANE: Oh!  Arbitrary is a lot more fun.  Let’s go for it.

Everybody knows what a “king” is.  That’s the man who is the top of the heap, unless you have an emperor, of course.  And, I believe, you were once part of the British Empire.  How was that title handled?

Did you have empresses as well as emperors?

ALAN: Well, sort of (I suspect I’m going to be using that phrase quite a lot…).   Although Britain had a world-girdling empire, it didn’t have an emperor in charge of it until the nineteenth century when it became clear that Queen Victoria’s daughter (who was also called Victoria) would become an Empress when her husband inherited the imperial German throne. It didn’t seem right to have a daughter outrank her mother and so Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India. This also had the useful side effect of emphasising her higher rank over the various kings and queens that ruled British India in her name. The title was inherited by her descendants and wasn’t finally abandoned until the mid-1950s when both India and Pakistan became republics (though they had been independent since 1948).

JANE: That’s neat!  I knew that Victoria had a special relationship with India, but I didn’t know the why behind it.

Next!  The female equivalent of a king is a queen.  However, whereas a reigning king is married to a queen, a reigning queen’s husband is not a king.  He’s a prince consort.  How come?

ALAN: I think it probably derives from the assumed (and somewhat sexist)  fact that a king outranks a queen. So the wife of a reigning king is legally a queen, though the title is never used. She is always a Princess Consort (or sometimes Queen Consort). Phillip, the husband of the current reigning Queen, could legitimately call himself a King Consort as well, if he felt like it. But he’s not legally a king because, if he was, he would outrank Elizabeth and that would never do. So he’s more usually known as the Duke of Edinburgh. It’s safer…

The current Queen’s mother who was the queen consort of George VI until his death in 1952, was known, from 1952 onwards, as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother despite the fact that she was never actually a queen, except in the legal sense of course. But once her husband was safely dead, there was no conflict any more in the use of her legal rank as a title. When (if) Charles inherits the throne, Camilla will use the title Princess Consort even though legally she too will be queen.

It all starts to sound like some of the word games that Lewis Carroll used play with Alice…

In 1689, England did legitimately have both a King and a Queen when William and Mary ruled jointly. But I think that’s the only example of both titles being in use at the same time.

JANE: I had no idea there were Queen Consorts and King Consorts.  For some reason, I thought Phillip (the Duke of Edinburgh) was Prince Consort.

ALAN: He is. He wears many hats…

JANE: This is getting confusing.  However, we shall forge ahead.

After kings and queens,  there are princes and princesses.  In the simplest version, they are the sons and daughters of the king and queen (or queen and prince consort).  When they are promoted, princess and princesses move up to being kings and queens.

However, it seems to me that they also can get, well, demoted?   Or maybe their spouses do?

I’m thinking of Prince Andrew.  Wasn’t his wife merely a duchess, not a princess?  But when Prince Charles married, his wife was Princess Diana, not Duchess Diana.  This is where we mere Americans start getting confused.

ALAN: You start getting confused? How do you think I feel? It bewilders the life out of me!

Princess Diana was not a princess, except by marriage. It would have been correct to refer to her as Princess Charles, since she married into the title, though that looks and sounds rather odd to modern sensibilities. It was not correct to call her Princess Diana, but everybody always called her that anyway, possibly because she looked like a princess. Camilla prefers to be known as the Duchess of Cornwall, another title that she married. Again, it would be correct to refer to her as Princess Charles (and possibly, by implication, as Princess Camilla but she has refused to accept that out of respect for Diana).

Is your head spinning yet?

JANE: Let’s say it’s spinning faster!

In fact, it’s spinning so fast I’d like to continue this next time when I can get my thoughts into some sort of order…

What Do You Keep?

October 10, 2012

Jim and I took advantage some free time these last couple of weekends to do some much needed organizing of our storage space.  To understand why this is a major job, you need to remember that we’ve lived in this house for over  a decade and a half.  Moreover, it’s not just our house, it’s my office – and Jim’s several days a week (unless he’s in the field).  In addition to all my old manuscripts and such, I have boxes of books that are now out of print.  (See my website bookstore if you’re interested.)

Smokey, Ceram, and The Shirt

Yes.  We have dedicated office space (for a glimpse of one part, see WW 10-05-11) but necessary storage flows elsewhere, especially into the garage and the shed out back.  This last – which measures twelve by sixteen feet and is packed with bookshelves –  functions as a library.   There is storage space in the demi-attic above.   In case you wondered, this doesn’t eliminate the need for bookshelves in the house.  We have shelves in every room except the bathrooms and they only avoid the honor because they’re too small!

No.  We’re not hoarders…  Far from it.  However, both of us have a tendency to want to keep things that are tied to memories.  Here’s a good example.  C.W. Ceram wrote a wonderful book called Gods, Graves, and Scholars.  We currently have three copies. One was given to Jim by his grandmother when he was young and already showing an interest in archeology.  One is mine, given to me by Roger.  One was Roger’s copy.  I don’t tend to give Roger’s books away except to someone who will treasure them.  So each book contains a memory, as well as text.

In my bedroom closet hangs a flannel shirt that is frayed at the cuffs and so threadbare that one would need good eyes – and good imagination – to see that it was once printed with images of wolves and hawks.  I bought this shirt years ago, when Through Wolf’s Eyes was first released, and wore it at a lot of conventions as a sort of jacket against the inevitable chill of convention hotels.

However, the associations with my books is not why I have kept this shirt.  Some years ago, I was horribly sick with hives.  Making matters worse, the weather was so cold that I had to wear long sleeves.  This shirt – which had been handmade – had finished seams on the inside.  It was the only long-sleeved shirt I could bear to wear for months.  When it went into the wash, I suffered because any other shirt irritated the hives and made my arms swell.  In thanks for the comfort it brought me, that shirt will probably hang in my closet until it turns to dust.

Another precious keepsake is  my collection of old stuffed animals (or stuffy toys, as they are often called these days).  Even when I gave up almost everything else I owned, I kept these.  When I moved to New Mexico, I was a bit worried that Roger might not want them around, but I figured we could work out a compromise.  To my great pleasure, Roger not only wanted them around, he put up shelves for them in our bedroom.   He mentioned how much he regretted that his mother had thrown his old bear away to make him “grow up.”  And when our landlord – a man in at least his forties – came by to fix something, he commented “I wish I still had my old animals.”

And Jim?  When he moved in with me, he reclaimed his old Smokey the Bear from his parents and Smokey (clad in the trousers Jim’s mother made for him when the originals wore out) has joined the zoo in our bedroom.  Dare I admit there have been some new additions?  Steve and Jan Stirling gave me a howling wolf…  There’s the seahorse we got in Galveston…

Having been in the position of clearing up after several deaths, I’ve become familiar with the strange sensation of looking at something and wondering if someone kept it only because he  never got around to getting ride of it or because – like my old shirt – it held a special significance for the original owner.  It’s hard to know, but those secret stories, never to be told,  haunt me.

These days, I tend to feel I “know” a character if I can answer what he or she would keep, even though to anyone else it would be trash.  Firekeeper, for example, would keep her original knife, even if offered one far better.  She’d probably accept a new one, but she’d keep that first one because, to her, it was the means of survival – her one fang that kept her from being toothless (as well as nose dead and otherwise crippled) in the world of wolves.

Pearl (of Thirteen Orphans and the other “Breaking the Wall” books) has a home filled with reminders of events in her long life, not only her triumphs in the movies, but of her later phases as she reinvented herself.  Riprap, by contrast, is an army brat who doesn’t keep a lot.  However, I know that back in Denver there’s an old footlocker filled with those things he hasn’t given up.  That footlocker would be the first thing he’d take with him to make a new place “home.”  This isn’t ever mentioned in the books, but knowing it was there made Riprap more real to me.

I’m not alone in this characterization trick.  One of the most heartbreaking moments in the Lord of the Rings saga is when Sam finally gives up the pots and pans he has carried with him for so long – not only because they are practical, but because they are a tie to the world he has left behind.  He’s not the only member of the fellowship to keep a private treasure or two – and not all of these are as dramatic as heirloom swords.

How about you?  What do you keep?  Do you store your memories in things or in other ways?  Do you ever consider what your wandering characters hold onto?

TT: Who Pays? How Pays?

October 4, 2012

This week’s Wednesday Wandering  announces the release of my newest novel.  Yes!  Fire Season, written in collaboration with David Weber, is now officially available.  Also, if you’re wondering what the title was of the piece of art we chatted about last week, that has also been posted.

Mosaic of Medicine and Money

Next, Alan and I conclude our discussion of the different ways medical care is paid for in our two systems.  We had a lot of fun tracing the convolutions.

JANE: In one of our earlier conversations, you surprised me by mentioning both your private medical system and the fact that you had medical insurance.  Why would you need that if everything is paid for in your system?

ALAN: Not everything is paid for. Dentists and opticians aren’t part of the public health system (I have no idea why) so medical insurance helps with those costs. And while visits to the GP and prescription charges are heavily subsidised, they aren’t completely free and so medical insurance helps to offset those small charges as well. Also, if you do happen to get caught in a long queue, with medical insurance you have the option of going privately and speeding things up a little.

The company I work for pays my medical insurance premiums. If I had to pay them myself, I probably wouldn’t bother with medical insurance at all. It’s definitely a luxury, not a necessity. None of my friends have medical insurance.

JANE: In a way, the more you describe this, the more it sounds like your socialized medicine is very similar to our private insurance systems.  Jim and I have separate policies for optical and dental.

ALAN: In my opinion, the two sound exactly the same apart from the vexed question of who actually pays for the treatment. We pay nothing at all for major tests and treatments and surgeries, and we pay trivially small costs for routine things like visits to the GP and prescription charges.

And of course there are no arguments about what is and is not eligible for treatment. We don’t have to depend on the whims and vagaries of insurance companies. It’s all very simple – the system pays for everything and treatment is never refused.

JANE: I agree, but in the end somebody has to pay the costs. We’ve heard that countries with socialized medicine have very high taxes to cover all of this.

ALAN: It depends what you mean by high. The only direct tax I pay is income tax and that works out to about a third of my salary. Any interest I earn on money deposited in a bank is also taxed at the same rate. Then there’s an indirect tax called GST (Goods And Services Tax) which is like a rather complex sales tax. Shorn of the complexities, everything that involves an exchange of money has a 12.5% tax associated with it.

Businesses also pay tax – but since I don’t own a business, I have no idea how that works or what the rates are.

JANE: Ah…  I’m a business and my taxes are decidedly weird.  However, Jim works for the state.  I’ll ask him how much of his check goes for taxes.  Here in New Mexico, we pay federal tax, state tax, and sales tax on many items (but not food).  Everyone one in the U.S. pays the feds, but the others vary from location to location.  So I’d just be speaking for us, not for the nation in general.

ALAN: But it would still give a useful point of comparison between your system and mine.

JANE: All right, here’s how it goes.

First, I need to explain that Jim can choose at what rate to have money withheld from his check.  He usually chooses the highest rate because he’d prefer not to be surprised to learn that he owes more at the end of the year.  So the figures for tax may be on the high side.  Are you with me?

ALAN: Yes, though I find the notion of choosing your tax rate to be more than a little odd. However, I can see that it could have its advantages.

JANE: The total amount for state and federal taxes that Jim has withheld from his check amounts to about 16.4 percent.   We also are taxed on the interest on our savings.

In addition to this, Jim has 2.15 percent withheld to cover our medical care.  Most of this is for general medical care, but we pay an additional .18 percent to have dental and optical insurance.

Now, this doesn’t mean we have no further medical expenses.  In most cases, we have a co-pay.

ALAN: Hmmm… You certainly seem to pay less tax than I do. What’s a co-pay?

JANE: A co-pay is the percentage we owe toward a particular procedure.  In a few, rare, cases, like our annual “wellness” check-up, there is no co-pay.  However, in most other circumstances we pay an additional fee.  Some of these are quite low – $10.00 to $25.00.  Some are a percentage of the procedure.  So even though we had insurance, when Jim had his sinus surgery earlier this year, we got hit with an additional charge.

We also have co-pays for prescription drugs.  Again, many of these are very low, but some are not.   One of the drugs Jim takes for his cholesterol was very expensive until a kind pharmacist came to our rescue with a coupon offered by the drug company.  And, if you choose to take a drug not on your insurance company’s “list,” you may end up paying a much higher co-pay or even the full amount.

So, I suppose you could say we pay to join an insurance company’s program.  This in turn gives us access to lower – but not zero – charges toward any medical care that is covered by the program we chose.

Do you folks have anything like co-pays?

ALAN: Sort of – the government decides which drugs it will subsidise and if a doctor prescribes a drug that is not on that list, then you will have to pay the full cost of that drug. However, the list of non-funded drugs is very small and items on it are very rarely prescribed. As a point of comparison, I too take drugs to keep my cholesterol under control. But they are fully subsidised and it costs me the princely sum of $1 a month…

JANE: That is certainly a lot less than Jim pays for his – even with the discount coupon!

One thing I don’t like about our system is that billing can be a nightmare, especially when the insurance company messes up and bills us for something that is covered.

Last year, Jim spent ages on the phone with people straightening out that we were not to be charged for certain lab tests because they were included in our “wellness check-up.”  He “won” in the end, but I found myself wondering how many people with less confidence or less persistence would simply have paid a bill – even if they didn’t owe anything – just because they received notification that they owed.

ALAN: And I spend exactly zero time and zero effort on this kind of thing. My tax rate is a little higher than yours, but, on the other hand, I simply don’t have any significant medical expenses at all. I’m more than happy to make that trade off for the sake of peace of mind.

JANE: I must say, there’s a distinct appeal.   When Jim broke his hand some years back, the first thing I insisted we do was set up a file for all the billing paperwork that was certain to come in so we would not end up paying twice for something.

How do people who don’t have a job get coverage?  After all, 33% of your salary is something, but what if someone has no salary for the government to take 33% from?

ALAN: The taxes that we pay fund the service and the service is available to everyone. If your circumstances are such that you have no income (and therefore pay no taxes), it makes no difference whatsoever to your entitlement to service. There are no exceptions – everybody gets free medical care.

JANE: I believe your 33% also covers other government programs as well?

ALAN: Indeed it does – there are a whole raft of benefits which kick in depending on individual circumstances. You can claim a sickness benefit if you are too sick to work, or an unemployment benefits if you lose your job, and so on and so on. The tax take funds all of these things. It’s probably a bit too complicated to get into the details here.   Perhaps if our readers would like to know more, they will ask in the Comments.

JANE: Sounds very good to me!

Fire Season is Hot!

October 3, 2012

First thing, for those of you who haven’t checked the Comments from last week, the title of the piece we were discussing is “Temple of the Horse” (artist, Marjie Bassler).  It’s really worth looking at the comments, since people had such interesting and different suggestions for the title – all of which “fit” one way or another.

Jessica, Valiant, and Lionheart

That brings me to the title of this particular Wandering.  I started to write “Fire Season is Out!” Then I realized that saying a fire was “out” had the opposite meaning of what I intended, especially if you didn’t know this was the title of a book.

And it is…. Fire Season, the first of my collaborative novels with my friend, David Weber is now officially available.

As those of you who have been reading these Wanderings for the last couple of years  know, this project has been in the works for quite a while.  I announced it in my WW 11-10-10, but even then it had been under discussion for almost a full year.   In the WW for 3-16-11, I told you about Weber and Sharon coming to visit, in part so Weber and I could brainstorm.  I’ve mentioned my labors on the book here and there since.

Now Fire Season is available.  What’s it about?  Well, let me quote the cover copy, since it’s a bit more accurate than the usual.

“Loyalties Tested By Fire!

“Fire weather…  That’s what the treecats call those rare seasons when the slightest spark can set aflame the vast green reaches they call home.

“Teen-aged Stephanie Harrington rapidly learns just how deadly those fires can be.  Guided her treecat companion, Lionheart, Stephanie and her good friend Karl Zivonik venture into the heart of a raging inferno to rescue twin treecats put at risk by human carelessness.  Only the trio’s absolute trust for each other stands between them and disaster.

“But Sphinx isn’t the only thing ripe for burning.  Stephanie has fallen hard for new arrival to Sphinx, Anders Whittaker.  When Anders vanishes without a trace, Stephanie is at the forefront of the search.   Then a lightning strike sets the Copperwall Mountains aflame and as a provisional ranger she is ordered to her post.

“Will Stephanie choose to honor the claims of her planet or those of her heart?”

What else?  I like the cover art…   It features one of my favorite secondary characters, Jessica Pheriss, and a couple of treecats.  (Jessica’s holding an injured one.)

Baen Books is doing something nice to commemorate the book’s release.  They’re sponsoring a donation drive for the Carolina Tiger Rescue, a refuge for tigers and other wild cats in need of a safe home.  Baen Books will match donations through either of these links – or  – made in the month of October, dollar for dollar.

Obviously, I’m too close to the novel to judge it fairly, but I can say I definitely got into the adventure and came to really care about the characters.  I know some of the regular readers of these Wanderings landed advanced copies of Fire Season.  Maybe you could share your thoughts?

And I’m, of course, open to questions.  Indeed, I invite them!