Archive for July, 2014

TT: First Contact — Colonial Style

July 31, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back for a discussion on how conflict is key to a story.  Then join me and Alan as we take a look at a situation fraught with potential for conflict: First Contact With Aliens.  (Or at least with Europeans.)

JANE: I’d asked you about the European settlement of New Zealand.  So, what led the Europeans to become interested in what a friend of mine referred to as “a place too big to be called an island, but too small to be called a continent”?

How Sweet Is the Penguin?

How Sweet Is the Penguin?

ALAN: Well, once James Cook’s discoveries became public knowledge, the whaling fleets of the world decided that New Zealand would make a great stopover where they could process the whales they had caught, and render out the oil from them. A lot of permanent and semi-permanent settlements quickly sprang up to serve the whalers. The most famous of these was Kororāreka; a Maori name which translates as “How Sweet Is the Penguin.”

JANE: Are penguins sweet?  The ones I’ve encountered seem rather fishy.

ALAN: The name supposedly derives from a Maori chief who was wounded in battle. Feeling gloomy and sore, he asked for penguin soup to cheer himself up and alleviate the pain (as one commonly does, of course). When the broth was served, he supped it delicately and said, “How sweet is the penguin.”

JANE: I get it!  Like a nice bowl of Mother’s chicken soup when you have a cold.

 How did the Maori feel about these new arrivals?

ALAN: The local Maori were quick to recognise the advantages of trading with these new people. The Maori supplied them with timber and rope and similar things and in return they received firearms and alcohol. Everybody found this very satisfactory.

Kororāreka had no laws worthy of the name – New Zealand had no real governing body at this time because it wasn’t a colony. It was just a set of isolated settlements with no unifying authority. Nobody really cared what happened in Kororāreka, that isolated tiny town at the bottom of the world. But it wasn’t long before the settlement’s name and reputation spread far and wide among the sailors of the world. They knew the place as “the hell hole of the Pacific.”  Prostitution, drink, drugs, robbery and murder were the norm. Just what sailors like best…

JANE:  Sounds like a film version of the Wild West with sailors in the place of cowboys and Maori standing in for Indians.

Does Kororāreka still exist?  And is it still a wild place?

ALAN: Yes, it still exists. These days it is a sleepy little village called Russell. It is a popular tourist destination because the setting is so beautiful. There is no remaining trace of its violent and dissipated past except perhaps for some colourful hints carved on the gravestones in the cemetery, and some relics and documents on display in the museum.

Did anything like that happen in America? I know that the English colonies on the east coast were quite rigidly governed, but what about the Spanish settlements in the west? I know absolutely nothing about what the early days of Spanish colonialism were like.

JANE: That’s a good question and fairly complicated.  Stop me if I go crazy.

In theory, the colonies were very well-regulated.  The Spanish crown loved law and legal codes. A good example of this is the Camino Real.  This translates as “Royal Road.”  However, it was more than just a road, it was a legal code.  As soon as a “road” (and it might be nothing more than a dirt track) was officially declared part of the Camino Real, the entire legal code pertaining to royal roads – including tolls, penalties for crimes and the like – went into play.  Moreover, use of alternate routes was officially forbidden, something which confused the indigenous populations no end.

ALAN: You take the high road, I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Albuquerque before you… Nope! Doesn’t quite scan. No wonder they were confused.

JANE:  The Spanish government’s affection for paperwork – something we tend to think of as a modern disease – has been hugely helpful to Jim and other historians/archeologists who are trying to find out what happened here in New Mexico in the early days of colonization.  The records may have been lost in the New World, but the copies are often still extant in the Old World.

ALAN: When you use a computer, you are always told it’s a good idea to make a backup copy of your information and store it somewhere safe – preferably a long way away from the computer itself. Many people fail to understand the importance of regular backups and don’t bother with them. Sooner or later, of course, a catastrophe happens and they lose everything. I don’t know why people don’t get the point of taking backups. It’s not a new idea, it’s just common sense. Clearly the Spaniards perfectly understood the idea 500 years ago…

JANE:  Yep!  They would have loved the option to make computer back-ups.  They would have loved carbon paper…  But I get off topic.

Where regulation is concerned, theory and practice are not the same thing.  To understand what happened in Spanish North America, we need to slide over to Spanish South America.  Through tremendous good luck, in both South and Central America, the Spanish stumbled on areas that had two things: lots of gold and unstable local governments.  I won’t go into details here, but for an excellent fictional treatment of the material, I recommend Fred Saberhagen’s novel Mask of the Sun.

May I indulge in a small commercial break?

ALAN: Yes, please do.

JANE: Once upon a time, Mask of the Sun would have been difficult to find, but it has been re-released as part of the anthology Golden Reflections, edited by Fred’s widow, Joan, and their good friend (and prolific author), Bob Vardeman.  I have a story in the collection.  For more about the collection, see my Wednesday Wandering for 11-12-11.

ALAN: That’s good to know. I generally like Fred Saberhagen’s books, but after he died they seemed to fall out of print, and they are quite hard to find these days.

JANE: Joan has been working hard to make sure Fred’s work is available, as least as e-books.  If you can’t get them via usual channels, let me know and I’ll link you up with her.  She has been a wonderful custodian for his legacy.

Now, back to the Spanish in the North America.

When the Spanish moved into North America, they came up via Mexico.  Cortez had done very well there, up to and including finding lots and lots of treasure.  So in 1540, when Coronado and his men came into what would later be called New Mexico, they were hoping to find more of the same.

ALAN: Ah! The power of human greed. The motivating factor behind so much history. Did they find what they were looking for?

JANE: No.  They didn’t.  There is some gold in this area, more silver, but nothing like what was found in South and Central America.  The inhabitants – in part because the terrain is a lot harsher – did not build large cities as did the Incas, Aztecs, Mayans, and such.  They built smaller communities, primarily from stone and adobe.  Or, to be less picturesque, rock and mud.

Do you think the Spanish were impressed?

ALAN: I very much doubt it. After admiring the impressive architecture of the empires they found in the south, they must have found muddy New Mexico very disappointing.

JANE: They did, although that didn’t mean they didn’t take full advantage of what they found.

ALAN: Perhaps you could tell me how they did that next time…


The Beating Heart of a Story

July 30, 2014

As I’ve mentioned, over the last few weeks, Scot Noel and I have been discussing the pieces submitted to the art contest he sponsored and to which I contributed.  Now that the judging is over and I’ve chosen which of the winning pieces of art I’m going to write my story around, I’ve been thinking about the big difference between creating a visual image and telling a story…  As I see it, the heart of that difference is conflict.

Man Against....

Man Against Man, Nature, Self….

Leaving out conflict is a mistake many beginning writers make.  They have an image in their minds and think that verbally presenting that image or writing an anecdote about the characters is a story.   This limited presentation may work for a visual image – but it isn’t enough for a story.  At the very best, you may end up with a vignette – but a vignette is not a story.

(Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines a written vignette as: “a short literary sketch chiefly descriptive and characterized usu. by delicacy, wit, and subtlety.”)

By conflict I don’t mean sword fights, shoot-outs, or car chases.  Those are just the physical outgrowths of conflict.  Two quotations illustrate this beautifully.  Carl von Clausewitz said: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  Zhou Enlai memorably riffed off of this with: “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”  In other words, you can have lots of conflict without a single sword being drawn or shot fired.

(In fact, you can have shots fired and swords drawn and no conflict at all – for example, in a training or practice session.)

There are three basic forms conflict can take in a story.  I’d like to talk a little about them before moving on to the hidden flaw that undermines many a story.

A novel will often have all three forms of conflict.  In sexist days of yore, these were termed “man against man,” man against self,” and “man against nature.”  That’s still a pretty good shorthand, if you understand “man” to mean “intelligent, sentient entity,” which is a real mouthful.  “Person against person” doesn’t have the same ring, and the alteration sounds even worse with “person against self.”  “Human against human” is a dangerous limitation for those of us who write SF/F.  So, for the nonce, let’s stick with “man.”

(Seriously, I worked over these with a word-loving friend for quite a while.  The best alternative we could come up with was “individual” and that just lacks the snap.  I’m open to suggestions!)

“Man against man” superficially seems pretty obvious.  Your protagonist is competing against a person or persons, right?  Most people immediately envision stories involving physical contests, battles, or the like.  However, “man against man” conflict isn’t limited to arena fights or races.  A detective tracking down a murderer or thief is involved in a “man against man” conflict.  Two people competing for the same promotion or love interest would be “man against man” stories.  War stories – no matter how high tech – are still man against man stories.

An interesting twist on the “man against man” conflict is when a character has a secret and someone else wants to learn it.  Secret identities create immediate conflict because the one with the secret has something to lose if the secret is revealed.  However, more subtle secrets work, too.   In her Stephanie Plum novels, Janet Evanovich creates a lot of tension – and occasional humor – around Stephanie’s continuing search to learn more about Ranger.

Evanovich is very skillful at raising the ante.  Every time Stephanie learns something about Ranger, she realizes there is more to learn.   Remember this if you want to use a secret of any sort to create conflict or tension in a story.  Once it’s known, it no longer serves.

“Man against nature” conflict goes far beyond the struggle to be the first to climb a mountain or reach the South Pole or kill the ferocious dragon or man-killing tiger.  (In fact, if the dragon is intelligent, then the story is actually a variation on a “man against man” conflict.)  Any time characters need to struggle to overcome a physical challenge, you have a man against nature conflict.

Frodo and Sam laboring to cross Mordor, then to climb that interminable stair…  Jack Aubrey struggling to sail the Surprise through a keel-cracking storm…  Gully Foyle putting on a patched space suit to venture into vacuum to gather bottled air and supplies…  These are just a few examples of memorable “man against nature” conflicts.

One way to differentiate “man against nature” conflicts from “man against man” conflicts is that the opponent is either non-thinking or restricted to a limited “animal” cunning.  A storm doesn’t care if it sinks the ship – no matter how much the sailors personify it or blame bad luck or whatever.  A man-eating tiger just wants a chance at an easy dinner.  It’s only humans who decide the tiger is on a vendetta to get even for a burned paw.

“Man against self” is the sort of conflict that changes a cardboard character into a three-dimensional human being.  SF in particular is prone to one-dimensional characters – in part because SF is the home of the “idea story.”  In too many idea stories, the characters become nothing but props for the exploration of that idea.

Fantasy and Mystery share with SF the great danger of characters being reduced to “types” – and not just mythic archetypes, but characters right out of central casting: the burly barbarian warrior; the sly, silent thief; the wise wizard stroking his long beard as he expounds some bit of lore; the tough detective whose weary eyes have seen too much; the gangster, street-smart, but curiously naïve; the prostitute with a heart of gold…

Giving these characters some internal conflict makes them more real – and provides some interesting potential plot twists.  What if your burly barbarian warrior is terrified of fire because he saw his family burned alive?  What happens when he confronts a flame-belching dragon?   Will he crumple or will his strong sense of duty to his companions keep him going?   What about a thief who, rather than being sly, is perfectly direct about why he turned to crime – and who hopes to earn enough money to run for parliament and set the social order right?

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a great example of not only a character, but an entire series, being defined by a “man against self” conflict.  Peter suffers badly from shell-shock.  (They hadn’t invented the term PTSD then.  Anyhow, his problem really is related to shelling and trench warfare.)  When he returns to civilian life, he copes by focusing on various hobbies – the most absorbing of which is solving crimes.  As the series progresses, Peter recovers somewhat, but he never gets over a certain guilt that he is sending men to the gallows to distract himself from his own personal horrors.

Take care not to overweight your character with too many problems.  Not only do you risk alienating your reader, you risk turning your character into someone incapable of acting – or worse, a parody.  This last is fine if parody is your intention but, if you had hoped to create a tragic, Byronic figure who has turned to drink and is incapable of commitment, and instead end up with someone the readers see as a self-obsessed drunk who runs through girlfriends as fast as he does bottles of cheap gin…

Overweighting the character with internal conflicts isn’t as much a problem in SF and Fantasy, where rich world-building and complex challenges provide a balance, but I’m seeing it more and more in mystery fiction.

I’ve been talking for a while, so I’ll save a great example of a story that – despite being only novelette length – features all three forms of conflict.  Then I’ll finally discuss the hidden flaw that undermines what might seem like a story full of conflict…

TT: The Mystery of Zea

July 24, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wanderings?  Page back one for a song and some insight into the character of Adara from Artemis Awakening.   Then come back and adventure with me and Alan into the deep, dark verges of Staten Landt.

JANE: Y’know, Alan, we’ve been doing these Tangents for a long while now…

Where the Continents Are

Where the Continents Are

ALAN: Yes – we haven’t missed a week for three years! Let’s pat each other on the back.

JANE:  Actually, we’ll have to pat our own backs, since half-way around the globe is a bit of a stretch.  There, I’ve done it…

Anyhow, I realized that although I’ve been to New Zealand and feel a very strong connection to it because of our continued correspondence, I actually know very little about the history of its settlement by Europeans.  What’s a “Zea”?  How is yours “new”?

ALAN: I’ll do my best – but remember I’m a newcomer here myself. This stuff wasn’t drummed in to me at school. I may need to check things with my godson, Jamie. He’s eleven, and he knows stuff.

JANE: That’s fine with me.  Eleven is a good age for history.

ALAN: And I’m sure I’ll have some questions for you as well. Since I’m from England originally, my view of the settlement of America is accordingly somewhat skewed. (Damned upstart colonials! Humph!).

Now, to answer your original question…

The first European to lay eyes on this country was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. He named it Staten Landt because he assumed it was a peninsula connected to the tip of South America (at the time, the Dutch name for South America was Staten Landt).

JANE: At first, to this typically geography-challenged American, that sounded insane, but I took a moment to consult the gloriously decadent atlas I bought myself (because being geographically challenged is a handicap for a writer), and then the little globe Jim has had since he was a schoolboy.  I could see why Abel Tasman might have thought this.

He was just a bit off regarding distance, though, wasn’t he?

ALAN: Indeed he was.  In fact, when he got back home to Holland, the Dutch cartographers who produced the official maps for his expedition didn’t agree with his deductions at all, for that very reason, and so they named these lands Nova Zeelandia, which is Latin for New Zeeland – Zeeland (pronounced Zay-lont) is a province of Holland.

JANE: Darn!  I was hoping that Zee would turn out to be the name of the cartographer.    Tasman did get a landmass named after him though, right?

ALAN: He did very well in the naming stakes. The stretch of water that separates New Zealand and Australia is the Tasman Sea, and the large island just off the south-east coast of Australia is called Tasmania. That’s the home of the famous Tasmanian Devils that you might be familiar with from Warner Brothers’ cartoons…

JANE: Our zoo here in Albuquerque just received a couple of Tasmanian devils.  They’re not exactly cute like kiwi birds are cute, but we’re very happy to have them.

ALAN: I disagree. I think they look really cute and quite cuddly. Until you notice just how long and scary their claws are…

The Wellington Zoo has an Australian enclosure and they recently received a couple of Tasmanian devils to complete their collection. Most of the animals in the enclosure are free to wander around as they please and the Zoo visitors can wander round with them and get very close. However the Tasmanian Devils are in a separate caged area and people can’t interact with them directly. I’d never seen one until the Zoo acquired this pair, but now that I’ve seen just how lethal their claws look, I’m not surprised that the zoo keeps them caged.

JANE: Yet another thing we have in common!  Astonishing.

Now, we’ve gotten all the way to Nova Zeelandia.  How did you lose the “ia” at the end and acquire an “a” in place of the double “e”?

ALAN: The next European explorer to visit this area of the world was the Englishman James Cook in 1769. He mapped the entire coastline and proved that the country consisted of a set of islands, just as the Dutch cartographers had suspected. He anglicised the name they had assigned, and the country became New Zealand.

The native Maori were not impressed. They called the country Aoteoroa which translates as “The Land of the Long White Cloud.” Aoteoroa is still actively used today, by both Maori and non-Maori alike. And I think it is rather beautiful.

How did America get its name? It’s a weird sounding word…

JANE: First, I agree that Aoteoroa is a lovely word.  In the one story I wrote set in New Zealand, that was the name I chose to use.  However, “The Land of the Long White Cloud” would be a bit cumbersome for return address labels, wouldn’t it?

 As for America, well, it’s a little convoluted.  The name comes from an Italian (Florentine, actually) explorer who demonstrated that – like Tasman – Christopher Columbus was distance-challenged.  Columbus thought that he’d found the western edge of the Asia, thus the name “West Indies” that clings to the Caribbean to this day.  (And confused me like crazy when I was a kid.)

ALAN: I’ve always been vaguely surprised at the misinformation that people have about Columbus. I was taught at school that Columbus proved the world was round and that he discovered America. I was well into adulthood before I discovered that both those “facts” are utterly wrong. Scholars had known that the world was round since the days of the ancient Greeks, and as you rightly pointed out, Columbus didn’t discover America at all, he discovered the West Indies.

JANE: The half-truths about Columbus are fascinating, but you’re not going to divert me!  Back to America.

The explorer who disproved Columbus was named Amerigo Vespucci.  His first name, Latinized, was “Americus.”  This, in turn, became “America” and was attached to the two “New World” continents.  I’ve always thought it interesting that the Italians, who never established any colonies in North America, gave the name that has become almost synonymous with “citizen of the United States,” probably because it’s easier to say “I’m an American” rather than “I am a resident of the United States.”

Songwriters, political hacks, and writers of advertising slogans should probably found an annual holiday devoted to the man who saved them from having to come up with really complicated jingles and slogans.

ALAN: Absolutely! I’ve never understood why you have a Columbus Day holiday in America. You should immediately rename it Vespucci day

JANE: Okay!  I’m fighting an urge to recast a whole bunch of songs…  At least Bruce Springsteen sang, “Born in the U.S.A.”  He’s safe, but…  However, I will be serious and adult.

So, the Dutch were the first to locate New Zealand for the rest of Europe.  (It’s really easier to say “discovered,” but a lot of Polynesian peoples had already done that.)   Were the Dutch also the first Europeans to attempt to settle?

ALAN: Let’s talk about that next time. It’s quite an interesting story…

My Love Is Like a Panther Swift

July 23, 2014

Back in June, I had a lovely surprise.  Chad Merkley, a long-time member of the Wednesday Wandering community, sent me the following:

“I really enjoyed Artemis Awakening.  I’m excited for the sequelOne small element that really grabbed my attention was the song that Adara wrote.  I felt that it needed more verses, and a melody, so here’s a recording of what I came up with.  It’s a pretty rough recording, and my vocals need work, but I wanted to share what you managed to inspire.

Jamming with the Panther

Jamming with the Panther

“Your lyrics had kind of an old English ballad feel to them, so I tried to continue the with the theme, and then in the last two stanzas, to reverse it, where the singer gets punished for his callousness, with a tragic yet just ending.  Here are the lyrics…”

(The first two stanzas are what I wrote for Artemis Awakening.  The remainder are Chad’s original work.)

My love is like a panther swift.

I caught her with my snare.

And after I had captured her,

I left her hanging there.


My love is like a rabbit fleet.

I caught her in a trap.

And after I had captured her,

I gave her heart a snap.


My love is like a shining fish

I hooked her on my line.

And after I had pulled her in

I left her choking dry.


My love is like a cherry tree

Sweet fruit she gave to me.

And after I did eat my fill,

The rest I cast away.


My love is like a rocky cliff

That none but I should scale.

But as I climbed the wind grew stiff

And my limbs began to fail.


My stony love, she cast me down

And spurned me at her feet.

And broken I lay gasping there

And my heart it ceased to beat.

Chad went on to note that the lyrics and melody had come together in a couple of hours.  He’d written the melody on a dulcimer, then expanded with chords.

Chad added: “I have no idea if my melody and lyrics remotely resemble your thoughts about how the song should go.  I think the idea of the reversal or turn is faithful to Adara’s attitude and feelings.  Also, there’s no mention in the book about what kind of music or instrumentation is available on Artemis.  So I just went with the instruments I had, and used a traditional Dorian scale (common in British and Celtic music).”

Chad touched on something that I’d wanted to get into in the novel, but couldn’t without going into a long tangent that would have diluted the scene.  Why would Adara have written those two stanzas?  After all, they indicate both the existence of an abusive and controlling relationship and her awareness of it…  Is this how Adara the Huntress would think?

Well, yes, at the point in her life when Adara wrote those words, I think it was how she might have thought.  She was younger then, not yet “Adara the Huntress,” only “Adara, student of Bruin the Hunter.”  Envisioning herself as the prize would have been tantalizing… if only to a point.   Chad anticipated the manner in which – had I decided to write the entire song – I probably would have taken it.  Adara wouldn’t have minded presenting herself as a hunter’s prize, if in the end the hunter got his comeuppance.  As I wrote to Chad after I had read his take, I bet she would have enjoyed the reversal – and I bet that in later years Julyan might have left off those final verses.  Or maybe he’d have left them.  There’s nothing some women like so much as soothing a man’s broken heart.

When Chad wrote me, he made clear that he did not intend to poach on my work.  He and I have carefully worked out a creative agreement that gives him permission to use these lines and gives us a shared lyric writing credit.  I appreciated that sensitivity – so rare in these days of “sampling” and outright piracy.

The music is Chad’s alone.  I liked his choice of scale, and certainly some variation of guitar and dulcimer would be used on Artemis.  Chad gave me permission to post the chords here, so that those of you who also make music can give the song a try.  Here are two variations.  The first set is closer to the melody as sung:

Chords (according to actual pitch)

/ Em D / G D / G Em / Bm — /

/ G F#m / Em D / Em D(Bm) / Em (D) / Em–:/

This second set permits more precise duplication of the guitar chords as he played them—Capo 2:

/ Dm C / F C / F Dm / Am — /

/ F Em / Dm C / Dm C(Am) / Dm (C)/ Dm — :/

Chad concluded by saying: “I just wanted to know that you were a source of creative inspiration.  I’ve enjoyed many of your books, and I enjoy following your blog and interacting with the community there.  There’s been all kinds of thought-provoking and fun conversations that come from that.  Thanks for your work.”

One of the things a writer learns is that when a story goes out into the world, it takes on a slightly new shape with every person who reads it.  I really enjoyed seeing what Artemis Awakening inspired for Chad.  I’ve already seen a few drawings, too.  There’s a great Terrell out there, readying his lance to take on the metal spider…

Knowing a story has inspired someone else to be creative is really neat!  Speaking of inspiration, Scot Noel and my third chat about the Art Contest and the nature of inspiration is now up.  You can find it here.

In this one we take a look at Social Media, the Popular Prize Winner, and the importance of remembering the reader’s perspective.  Hope you enjoy…

TT: Hail! Hail!

July 17, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and learn about a special quiz you can take to find out where you might have fit in on the planet Artemis.  Then join me and Alan as we continue chatting about misconceptions of climate.

Saguaros and Other Cacti

Saguaros and Other Cacti

JANE: Alan, last time you asked about hail here in desert New Mexico.  I won’t go into the technicalities, but we usually get hail as a result of sudden shifts of temperature.  Although people persist in thinking New Mexico is Arizona – a situation not helped by movie Westerns that mention New Mexico locations and then show saguaro cacti as part of the landscape – New Mexico has a very different climate.

ALAN: Are saguaro those the cliché cacti that we always see in cartoons? The tall ones with U-shaped arms growing out of the sides? What do they have to do with whether or not you are in New Mexico or Arizona? I thought the difference was just an arbitrary line on a map.

JANE: Saguaro actually grow in a very limited range – and New Mexico isn’t within that range.  Consequently, if you see saguaro, even if the movie tells you the story is set in New Mexico, it’s not.

Jim and I had our suspension of disbelief seriously bruised a few weeks ago when we were watching a Western where the action was supposed to take place largely around Santa Fe and there were all these saguaro.

Well, actually, we’d already been talking to the screen a lot because of how quickly the characters got between towns that are actually hundreds of miles apart.  But, I am getting off topic.

ALAN: That’s why we call these discussions “tangents.”  So you’re allowed.

JANE: What a relief!  Anyhow, what I was going to say is that most of New Mexico is blessed – or cursed, depending on how you feel about it – with four seasons.   Temperatures get well below freezing in winter, and if we don’t get snow it’s not because of lack of cold, it’s because of lack of moisture.

What are winters like in New Zealand?

ALAN: Cold, wet, and windy. Much like spring, summer and autumn…

Sorry – I exaggerate for dramatic effect. Early spring and late autumn tend to shade imperceptibly into and out of winter and it’s hard to know when each begins and ends. However, late spring and summer do tend to be very pleasant, and winter, of course, is quite the reverse.

 JANE: When Roger and I were in New Zealand, the weather was perfect.  That was April, I believe, so your early autumn, right?

ALAN: Late autumn, shading into winter. You were lucky. Though having said that, this year has been rather similar to what you experienced. First time for a long time, though.

JANE: Late autumn?  I remember roses…  We were lucky.

You’re originally from England.   How does the weather in New Zealand compare with the weather in England?  Did you like the change?

ALAN: It’s broadly similar, though in some respects a little gentler. I was pleased to find that by and large snow is very well behaved here. It stays on the tops of mountains so that people can ski on it instead of invading the towns and causing much disruption. Of course there are always exceptions to every rule and the South Island towns regularly get a lot of snow in the winter, particularly down near the bottom, which is worryingly close to Antarctica.

But, here in Wellington, snow is unheard of except once, a couple of years ago when, for the first time in living memory, snow actually fell down to sea level and Wellington seized up, descended into total chaos and then came to a standstill.

JANE: I’ve lived much of my life in places that don’t handle snow well at all.  However, on the whole, I like how it happens in Albuquerque.  We get snow.  People run outside and build snowmen; the kids get a delayed opening at school or even a day off; then over the next few days the snow melts.  There are none of the ice banks turning into grey slush and ice that I remember less than fondly from D.C. and New York City.

Of course, that’s just Albuquerque.  I won’t attempt to speak for the rest of the state.

It sounds as if you don’t miss the snows of your Yorkshire childhood.

ALAN: If I never see snow again, I’ll be very happy. When I was a child, we lived in a village which was on the top of a hill. The big town where I went to school was down in the valley. It was not uncommon for me to go to school in the morning, watch the snow fall all day long, and then find that the village was cut off and I couldn’t get home.

JANE: Gosh – what did you do?  Build a snow hut and burn your school books for warmth?

ALAN: Stayed with friends usually. Though on a couple of occasions I did walk home, battling my way uphill through snow drifts and eventually arriving home exhausted, soaking wet and freezing cold.

JANE:  It’s a pity you never had children.  You could have annoyed them with stories about how you slogged home with drifts up to your waist, and made snarky comments about how children these days are too soft.

Reminds me of a lovely one panel cartoon I saw many years ago.  It was a Family Circus, if I recall correctly.  The father and elder son are out walking in the snow.  The father says, “When I was a boy, we got so much snow that it came up over my knees.”  The boy is glancing down and, of course, the snow is up over his knees…  Ah, sweet memory!

Surely you must have some good memories about snow in England?  It always looks so picturesque on greeting cards.

ALAN: It can have its moments. My dog was always thrilled when the snow first appeared and he’d run around gleefully with his nose close to the ground, ploughing it all up. When he eventually came back he’d have a huge grin of pleasure all over his face, his thrashing tail propelling him forwards. And there would be a cute little pyramid of snow balanced on the top of his nose. He’d go cross-eyed trying to stare at it.

JANE: We didn’t have dogs or cats when I was a kid.  My cats are indoor cats, so they don’t go out in the snow, but when we do get snow, they spend a lot of time staring out the window, trying to figure out who spilled all that white stuff on the landscape.  They really enjoy watching the birds foraging.

ALAN: Once my dad took the dog for his morning walk. There’d been a big snowfall overnight, but the morning was cold, crisp and clear with clean white blankets of snow everywhere they looked. They both knew the route perfectly, having walked it thousands of times together, and my dad just turned his mind off and let his legs carry him automatically. But something wasn’t quite right. They both stood there, looking around, puzzled. The dog started digging and it soon became clear to my dad that they were actually standing on top of a car that had been completely buried in drifting snow…

JANE: Wow!  Was anybody in it?

ALAN: No, it was just parked in its normal place. Usually they’d have walked around it of course. But this time, because they couldn’t see it, they’d just absent-mindedly walked up what they’d assumed was just another snowdrift.

JANE: I love that.  Tell me more…

ALAN: But perhaps the most dramatic thing I remember was waking up one morning and opening the back door to let the dog out. But all I could see was a curtain of white with a ghostly glow of sunshine diffused through it. Overnight the snow had drifted up, completely covered the side of the house, and then frozen solid. I actually had to punch my way through it to reach the outside. Fortunately it wasn’t very thick.

I really don’t like snow…

JANE: Oh…  I’ve got to say, that’s a lovely image.  I may borrow it someday for a story.  What might you have found on the other side if you’d known the secret words?  The Ice Queen’s palace?   An alternate world where all was white?  Perhaps a UFO had landed in your yard and sent the snow up in a silent wave to cover your house…


What Would You Be?

July 16, 2014

Want a glimpse behind the scenes of the world of Artemis?  My friend Rowan Derrick – with a little help from me – has designed an on-line quiz that will show you which of the Professions you might have followed if you’d been born on the world of Artemis.  You can find the quiz on my Facebook page or directly link to it here .

Make a Choice!

Make a Choice!

There’s even an “extra” involved in the quiz.  One of the Professions listed as a possible solution has not yet been mentioned in the novels!  Even if this isn’t your chosen Profession, you’ll get a behind the scenes look at the various Professions, what purpose they served, and, in cases, how they have changed in the five hundred years since that seminal event: the slaughter of the seegnur and death of machines.

And, if I do say so myself, it’s a really wonderfully designed quiz.  It offers a lot more options than I’ve seen elsewhere, so you can feel as if your choice is really “yours.”  So, what Profession would you be?

“What are the Professions?” I hear some of you asking.  “And why does she persist in using a capital letter?”

Well, as you learn pretty early in Artemis Awakening, those who created the planet divided the human population into two general categories: Professions and Support.  The Professions were trained with special skills – and often possessed arcane abilities – that enabled them to act as guides and supports to the seegnur when they visited the planet Artemis.  Support was the rest of the population – the farmers, crafters, fishers, and all the rest.  Depending on where they lived, these people might never see one of the revered seegnur.  Or if they worked as staff at a hotel or resort, they might have quite a lot of contact with the seegnur – but of a very different sort.

As I was telling the folks who came to my signing at Bookworks this past weekend – (Thank you!  And thanks for the excellent questions!) – I’ve long been interested in anthropology and mythology.  Most myths grow out of a desire to find answers for those transcendent questions like “How was the world created?”  “Who made us?” “What is the purpose of life?”

I decided that for those born on Artemis they would know the answers – not as matters of faith, but of fact.  There’s a big difference between the two.  As I said a while back (WW 2-19-14), what characters knows is true shapes them in complex and intricate ways.

Certainly, the slaughter of the seegnur and death of machines would raise new questions – but not change those basic facts.  It’s really interesting to write a culture that differs from any other human culture on such a fundamental level.  I look forward to exploring both this root culture and the numerous interpretations that have evolved from this foundation since the slaughter of the seegnur and death of machines.

On other fronts, the second installment of Scot Noel and my discussion about the Art Contest is now up.   This time we start discussing specific pieces of art, so you can get a look at some of the ones that tempted me personally.  We don’t just stick with art, either.  Since we’ll be writing stories based on the winning pieces, we also talk about the nature of inspiration.  That’s always a fascinating topic.

Speaking of inspiration, it’s time for me to get back to work.  I’m researching for a couple of short stories, in between I’m reviewing and revising material for my book on writing.  If there’s ever been anything you’ve wanted to ask about either the art or craft, now’s a really good time!

TT: Whither Weather

July 10, 2014

JANE: Last time we were talking about gale force winds in New Zealand.  How often do you get hit by them?

ALAN:Surprisingly frequently, particularly during the winter.

Flying into Wellington or Albuquerque

Flying into Wellington or Albuquerque

Wellington is actually nicknamed the Windy City – rather like Chicago in your neck of the woods and for much the same reason. We’ve run a couple of SF cons here, which we called Windycon of course, and once we got a full membership from a person in Chicago who wanted one of our T-Shirts so that he’d have bragging rights when he went to the Chicago Windycon…

Anyway, there was a severe weather warning for Wellington just a couple of weeks ago. We were all told about the possibility of roofs blowing off and the inevitability of power cuts as trees and power poles fell over. The winds arrived exactly as predicted and…

…absolutely nothing happened.

When it was all over, an official spokesman said, rather drily, “We’ve had so many gales this year that everything that can blow away has already blown away.”

JANE: That’s scary.  We get high winds here, but you have us beat.

 I bet a lot of people are blaming this on global warming.

ALAN: That might have something to do with the frequency with which these things occur, but there is evidence in the geological record that we have had very high winds in the past. There is a huge forest covering large parts of the top of the North Island. It is growing on top of the remains of one, or possibly two, much older forests which were completely destroyed long ago. As far as anyone can tell, the trees in these older forests had evolved large root systems that easily resisted the force of the prevailing winds. But one day a huge storm came in from an unusual direction and the trees, having no large root systems to protect themselves from those unexpected gales, were all uprooted, collapsing en masse.

Someone once asked, “If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Well, maybe or maybe not. But when a whole forest falls over all at once, I imagine that it must be quite noisy!

JANE:  I’ve always hated that question…  It’s so humanocentric.  But I will resist ranting about that…   Suffice to say that existentialism and I did not mesh.

Other than worrying about having your roof blown off or your house getting crushed by a falling tree, how else do those high winds influence your life?

ALAN: I always get a bit of a sinking feeling in my tummy when I know the gales are on their way. I fly around the country a lot, and big winds can make landing at Wellington Airport more than a little hairy. The powers that be hate closing the airport because it causes so much disruption so it takes very extreme weather conditions indeed to close the airport down. Rumour has it that once you have landed safely at Wellington, you will never be scared in an aeroplane again. I’ve had far too many experiences of planes being thrown hither and yon all over the sky as they line up for the final approach…

JANE: Oh, dear.  I’ve always wanted to come back to New Zealand, but maybe I should make sure I don’t land in Wellington.  Turbulence and Jane do not mesh well.

A couple weeks ago, when I was coming home from my signing tour in California, my plane’s landing in Albuquerque was quite rough.  The skies were blue and bright, but a combination of winds and thermal updrafts made the plane buck like a bronco.  I’d been working for most of the flight, but I finally resigned myself to locating the airsick bag and hoping I wouldn’t need to use it.  I didn’t, but it was a close thing and I felt cruddy for the rest of the day – not precisely the homecoming I’d been imagining.

ALAN: I once read a novel in which a small child, seeking to amuse itself, went sneaking around an aeroplane when nobody was looking and cut the bottoms off all the airsick bags…

JANE: Oh, yuck!  I will now need to check in advance of every flight.

ALAN: You live in a desert which I always think of as being hot and arid, and yet the incident that started this discussion off was a hailstorm that damaged your roof. How can that happen in a desert?

JANE: Technically, I live in a high altitude grassland.  This is because Albuquerque gets seven and half inches of rain per year, rather than seven.  However, given that we’ve had drought conditions for the last several years, this is a moot point.

Deserts aren’t always hot and sunny.  Even at lower altitudes, the aridity can make for very hot days and extremely cold nights.  Albuquerque is at a mile high, so thirty degree temperature shifts are usual and fifty degree shifts are not unusual.  It’s quite possible for the temperatures to be warm enough that I’m wearing short sleeves during the day and covering my plants against a freeze at night.  That’s why even in mid-winter, the Indians could get a lot of use from their flat roof living space.

ALAN: Ah, I see. I wasn’t expecting that. Robin comes from Perth in West Australia. It’s a true desert town and every time I have been there (in summer anyway) it has always been very hot during the day and quite hot at night as well.

JANE: New Mexico has particularly odd weather.  I’ve watched it rain out of a clear blue sky.  The first time I went to Santa Fe, it was raining on one side of the street and not on the other.  I felt as if I was in a fantasy novel.

ALAN: New Zealand is a bit like that as well. We have quite a lot of geography cluttering up the country and that tends to divide the whole place up into a collection of isolated micro-climates. The weather forecasters make sweeping generalisations that are broadly true, but local conditions can override that, and the weather at one place can often be quite different from the weather just down the road.

JANE: Ah, microclimates!  Any gardener learns to deal with them, but here we really need to take them into account.

Not only does New Mexico get rain – when it does rain – out of a blue sky, I’ve also seen it raining up high – and the rain doesn’t reach the ground.

ALAN: Gosh! That’s bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like that.

JANE:  It’s not uncommon.  There’s a meteorological term for this: virgas.

ALAN: Wait!  Isn’t that what you called the Spanish roof beams that you mentioned a few weeks ago?

JANE: No, those are vigas.

ALAN: Oh, so perhaps we’re talking astrology then?  Are they named for the zodiac sign?

JANE: No…  That’s Virgo.  Admittedly, Virgos are known for being orderly, but I don’t think that extends to controlling whether or not rain touches the ground.

ALAN: So are you saying a virga is just like a raincoat for the ground – it keeps the soil dry in the same way that a real raincoat keeps you dry?

JANE: Absolutely!  Have I mentioned that you are a very silly human?

I just realized that we’ve mostly been focusing on the hot, dry, and windy.  I never did really get around to hail.  How about next time?

As Summer Wanders On

July 9, 2014

Artemis Awakening has been out for a bit over a month now and good things are still happening.  I’m doing a signing this coming Saturday (July 12) 3:00 pm at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW next to Flying Star Café).  Drop in and bring your questions not only about this book but about my other books or writing or whatever…

Our Variation of Green

Our Variation of Green

Later this month, SFWA President and author Steve Gould and I are signing at the Barnes and Noble at Coronado Mall (also here in Albuquerque).  In addition to reading and signing, we’ll probably be talking about some of the challenges involved in writing series.

Finally, don’t forget, Bubonicon, New Mexico’s  premier SF/F convention, is three weeks early this year.  The dates are August 1-3.  It’s a great convention, drawing both authors and fans from around the country.  Check out their website for more information.

This week started a multi-part series in which Scot Noel and I discuss various aspects of the Cover Art Contest we were both involved in.  (See WW 1-29-14 for details.)  This week we talk about why we put quite a lot of time – and hard-earned money – into this project.  In subsequent weeks we’re going to be taking a closer look at some of the art, starting with some interesting pieces that didn’t make the Finalist gallery but still struck our fancy, then moving onto the Finalists and Winners.  It’s a great look behind the scenes of the creative process.

Here on the home front, I’m taking a break from writing fiction to write a book about writing.   The book is an expansion of some of the pieces I’ve written for these Wednesday Wanderings over the years.  I also intend to address the question of the elusive Golden Key.  When I’m done, the book will be available as both an e-book and POD.  I’ll keep you posted as I move along.

I haven’t given up on fiction.  Not in the least!  I’m currently researching two short stories.  One will go with the first prize winning piece for the Cover Art Contest I mentioned above.  The other is for the anthology Shadows and Reflections, a tribute collection to the late Roger Zelazny.   Which one gets written first is up to the Muse. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

When I’m not doing any of the myriad aboves, I’ve been enjoying my yard.  The yellow lilies I featured last week are still going strong — and we now have three separate patches so the yard smells wonderful, especially in the evening.  Last week,we started the squash harvest.   I’m also cutting Hungarian peppers and a few eggplant.  We nearly an inch of rain spread out over four days, which has freshened everything up.

It’s actually green!  Amazing…

Houses that Flex, Winds that Roar

July 3, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and find the Adventures of Little Quail. Then join me an Alan for whare and housing woes…

JANE: In answering your question about flat roofs here in the southwest, I found myself going into the sort of details that an author uses when world-building. That got me wondering about what might have influenced the various building styles there in New Zealand.

A Brightly Colored House

A Brightly Colored House

ALAN: The Maori in New Zealand were fortunate in that they had a lot of natural materials to work with. A typical house, or whare (that’s pronounced FORR-EH, by the way)…

JANE: Why? I mean, why didn’t they just spell it “Forreh”? I swear, British words seem to require a code book to pronounce them properly…

ALAN: (putting on his linguistic digression hat):When the British arrived in New Zealand they found a very sophisticated stone age culture already in place. However, the Maori didn’t have a written language and attempts by the invading British to record the sounds of the language were formalised phonetically. It so happens that some Maori tribes pronounce the “wh” sound rather like the aspirated English pronunciation in words such as “where” and “when”. However other tribes pronounce it with a much harder sound, approximating the English “F” . This last is slightly more common, but nevertheless the initial “wh” spelling remains. Similar phonetic arguments apply to the rest of the word.

The Polynesian languages are all quite closely related. Maori sounds very similar to Hawaiian, to give an example slightly closer to your home than to mine. Does that help?

(Alan takes his hat off again).

JANE: Excellent!

ALAN: Meanwhile, back to houses. A whare was built of wood and thatched with reeds bound together with flax. The slope of the roof was quite steep to encourage run off. No trout lakes here either.

JANE: Isn’t flax what linen comes from? Then they had linen ties on their roofs? Interesting…

ALAN: Indeed they did. Flax can be pounded into fibres that are used to weave cloth and to make very strong rope and string. Actually the rope it makes is of such high quality that it was in great demand for rigging the sails in the ships of the Royal Navy.

The fabric produced from it isn’t quite linen because the New Zealand flax is a different plant from its Northern Hemisphere equivalent, but it’s close enough to make a good comparison. However, the cloth itself wasn’t used to make roofs. Just the string and rope were used to bind the reed thatching together.

JANE: Thanks! I must admit, I had a momentary image of bed sheet-covered thatching.   Pray, continue…

ALAN: These days, houses in New Zealand continue to be mostly made of wood – it flexes and bends in earthquakes, so houses built of wood are more likely to survive quakes that would destroy houses built of more rigid, less flexible materials such as brick. Because the houses are made of wood, they obviously need painting, and walking down a typical New Zealand street can be a very colourful experience indeed. A friend of mine has painted his house a rather vivid purple, though he is regarded as more than a little eccentric and I suspect he might have to re-paint it in a more conservative colour if he ever tries to sell it…

JANE: I miss brightly colored houses. During my recent visit to San Francisco, I very much enjoyed the colorful houses. When Jim and I had our house re-stuccoed a few years ago, I pointed out to him that there were some non-brown options. I rather liked a vivid blue. Jim looked quietly horrified.

Still, he got adventurous enough to suggest a warm reddish brown shade called, I believe, “Sedona” after the famous “red rocks” in that area of Arizona. We didn’t think it was all that dramatic, but one visitor insisted the house was now “pink.” It isn’t. It’s still brown, just reddish-brown.

It seems to me that, when looked at the way we have, houses can be seen as mechanisms for keeping out the weather. Design features, especially in the olden days, weren’t a matter of architectural whim, but intended to deal with aspects of the weather.

ALAN: Quite true. New Zealand weather tends very much towards extremes. Huge rainstorms, gale force winds, and very cold winters alternate with fierce sunshine in the summer. Trying to reconcile all of these in one building is really rather tricky. My house is in desperate need of painting at the moment. The relentless sun of summer has dried the paint out and it is flaking off. The steel roof absorbs heat very well and the roof space is always much warmer than rest of the house.

JANE: We have extremes as well and they influence lots of things – including aspects of one’s car. New Mexico gets over three hundred sunny days a year, so owning a car that is painted black or even dark blue or green is not a good idea. Those dark colors soak up heat. Even if you do opt for a darker vehicle exterior, plastic or vinyl seat covers are a very bad idea. Many people cover their steering wheels as well.

ALAN: Three hundred sunny days a year? We’re lucky if we get a tenth of that…

JANE: They’re some compensation for the high winds. At least we get to watch fluffy clouds scudding off against a clear blue sky.

ALAN: Much of New Zealand suffers from a lot of very windy days – and I do mean gale force winds. Gusts of up to 150 kph are common in Wellington (where I live). They are less common elsewhere, but still not unheard of. Just a few days ago, Auckland had 175 kph gales! Naturally, these can cause chaos as trees blow down and fall indiscriminately on power lines, and the power poles themselves often blow over. Thousands of people lose electricity, sometimes for days at a time. There was an interesting video shown recently on the TV news of a house being battered by the winds. Suddenly the entire steel roof just peeled off and blew away!

JANE: Now I understand why you have steel roofs rather than tiles! Tiles would get flung all over the place and asphalt shingles wouldn’t have a chance.

Who took the video?

ALAN: Someone who was in the right place at the right time with a mobile phone, though what they were doing taking movies instead of huddling in a dark corner I really don’t know.

JANE: Wow! What courage – or, uh, idiocy. I’m not sure which… Anyhow, I’d love to go on talking about the weather, but I should get to work. Maybe next time!

The Adventures of Little Quail

July 2, 2014

The gigantic yellow lilies in the accompanying picture are only one of our outdoor bright spots these days. The hummingbirds are back, reveling in the flowers on our trumpet vines and desert willow. We’ve also had migrating orioles through. The males are nearly the same brilliant orange as the trumpet vine blossoms. Funny – one never thinks about super bright orange as providing camouflage.

Yellow Lilies

Yellow Lilies

I had an adventure last week, when I was out riding my bike early in the morning. I saw two adult quail hurrying across the street ahead of me, but it wasn’t until I was nearly on top of them that I realized that their newly hatched chicks were trailing after. The chicks were impossibly tiny, still in stripes and fluff.  Although most of the babies jumped up onto the curb after their parents, one was scared by my bike and went racing along the edge of the street at speeds that I would have thought impossible for something that small.

Afraid the chick would get completely separated from its covey – which had taken refuge in the thread-leaf sage and four-wing saltbush in the nearby park – I tried to get ahead of it. To my astonishment, I found it was nearly pacing me. I was trying to figure out if I could somehow herd a fluffball without giving it a heart attack, when the chick turned around and went racing back the way it had come.  I braked and swerved out so I could watch without interfering.

To my astonishment, the quail chick ran downhill, then stopped exactly where the majority of its family had jumped the curb and gone up into the park. Since there were no auditory signals (quail can be quite loud), I guess the chick was using scent to track. I’ve never really considered birds as scent trackers but, given how often they use camouflage, there’s a certain logic to it. Why hide the babies and then give away their location with loud noise?

I watched as the quail chick considered the curb, decided it was too high, then ran another nine feet to where the curb dipped to allow for baby carriages and suchlike to be pushed up onto the sidewalk. (Nine feet doesn’t seem like a great distance until you consider that this creature was maybe two inches from beak tip to rump.)

“Good,” I thought. “It’s going to be okay.”

As soon as the chick was up on the sidewalk, the little idiot started running full speed in the wrong direction. Keeping my distance, I glided my bike down to where I could try to block it if it went out into the street again. However, as suddenly as before, the chick stopped, spun around, and ran back.   At last it dove into the park, presumably to rejoin its family.

I turned my bike around and resumed my interrupted ride. When I was parallel to where the chick had entered the park, I glanced over, wondering if I would see it. I don’t ask you to believe this next bit.

Sitting in the gap between the wall that borders the park and the nearest shrub was a cottontail rabbit. It looked for all the world as if it had been waiting to direct the chick into safety. I could almost imagine the scene in an illustrated children’s book.

“Little Quail ran up and then he ran down. He was scared and couldn’t remember how to get into the soft scented green where his family had vanished. Then he looked to the side. There was Mistress Cottontail, sitting with her ears high and her whiskers twitching.

“’Here is the path, Little Quail. Come here and I’ll show you where you can find your family.’ So Little Quail did. Mistress Cottontail nudged him to where Mother and Father sat under a four-wing salt bush, all the brother and sisters nestled close. He dove under Mother’s wing and soon was fast asleep.”

A nice way to start the morning…