Archive for October, 2015

FF: All Over the Place

October 30, 2015

My reading is more chaotic than usual this week…

Some of My Folklore and Mythology

Some of My Folklore and Mythology

Just a reminder…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Diviners by Libba Bray.  Audiobook.  A good Halloween-tide book with serial killers, comets, and conspiracies, all mixed in a cocktail shaker right out of the Roaring Twenties.  Only complaint was that several plotlines seemed to be introduced solely because the characters will be needed in book two.  I think she could have waited – even though, oddly, some  of those characters were my favorites.

Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin & Sabine Continues and The Golden Mean: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin & Sabine Concludes by Nick Bantock.  The first book made a sequel seem impossible, so this fascinates.  I realized I’d picked up them out of order, so went back and things right.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.  This came up in Alan and my discussions, so I decided to read.  The Fuzzies are adorable, but the plot drags because the “good guys” don’t figure out what the “bad guys” are up to, even though there’s ample evidence.  But I did love the Fuzzies.

In Progress:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  It’s been a stressful week, so I decided to spend time with my old friend Hercule Poroit.

Fighting the Flying Circus by Captain Eddie. V. Rickenbacker.  A non-fiction autobiographical account of what is was like to be a fighter pilot in WWI.


I’ve been reading about praying mantises and alchemy.  Seriously.  I told you my reading was all over the place this week!


TT: The Next To Last Continent

October 29, 2015

JANE: The other day, when I was adding The Shepherd’s Crown to my shelf of Terry Pratchett novels, I saw The Last Continent. As I know you know, in addition to being a fun novel, it’s also a brilliant look at all the things that are characteristically – even stereotypically – “known” about Australia.

Uniquely New Zealand?

Uniquely New Zealand?

And suddenly I found myself wondering… Could Pratchett have done a sequel, called, say, The Next to Last Continent, about a Discworld New Zealand? Is there a National Type for New Zealanders or are they just like Australians?

ALAN: What a good question! Before I came to live here, like everybody else I lumped Australians and New Zealanders together. To me they seemed indistinguishable, in both their accent and their culture. I just thought of them as “antipodean,” and left it at that. But once I settled in and got used to how things worked, I began to realise that although the two countries do have a lot of similarities, there are some significant differences as well.

JANE: That’s fascinating!  I definitely want to know more.  Let’s start with the accent.  How do people speak on “The Next to Last Continent”?

ALAN: The New Zealand accent has some peculiarities that really make it stand out from its Australian cousin. For example, New Zealanders have a very odd way of pronouncing some single syllable words – they tend to add syllables where none exist. So “known” and “grown” become “knowen” and “growen,” for example. And the word “no” has at least three syllables when spoken by a typical New Zealander, and I’ll swear that on occasion I’ve heard five…

JANE: Can you try to spell “no” as said by New Zealanders?

ALAN: Something like Naooohu. It’s a very odd sound indeed. I wonder what your spelling checker will make of that combination of letters…

JANE: It is puzzled.  I am telling it to just put up with it!

ALAN: Conversely, there is a tendency to drop syllables out of multi-syllabic words. A certain very prominent New Zealand politician cannot actually pronounce the name of the country he helps to govern. It comes out sounding rather like “New Zlnd”.

JANE: Ah…  An interesting contrast, however, not completely alien.  At least when I was a kid – I don’t know if the accent has survived to now – Marylanders often said “Balmer, Merlin” for “Baltimore, Maryland.”  Sounds like a magic spell…

Tell me more!

ALAN: New Zealanders also have a habit of turning declarative statements into something that sounds like a question, but isn’t. They do this by putting the word “eh?” at the end. So someone might say, “This is an interesting tangent, eh?” But despite the rising inflection and the question mark, it isn’t a question at all, it’s just a simple statement of fact. I’m told that Canadians do something similar, but I don’t know any Canadians, so I can’t be sure. Have you come across it? You are a lot closer to Canada than I am.

JANE: I have, although, here at least, the sound is usually given a long “a” sound, rather than the short “e” usually associated with “eh.”  Which sound do New Zealanders use?  Long “a” or short “e”?

ALAN: Definitely a short “e”.

JANE: You asked if I knew any Canadians.  I do, in fact.  My first editor, John Douglas, was Canadian.  He’d lived in the U.S. for many years, but he said that whenever he went home to visit family, his accent would get “recharged.”

By contrast, author Charles de Lint and his wife, MaryAnn Harris, are both Canadian, and I don’t recall either of them using that characteristic verbal trick.

Maybe some of our Canadian readers – I know we have several – could weigh in and explain this for me.

ALAN: Good idea. When in doubt, consult the experts.

JANE: Your comment also makes me think about a tendency my husband, Jim, has, in his speech patterns.  He doesn’t say “eh,” but he often ends statements with a rising inflection that turns them into a question.  “Today we’re going to the grocery store,” can become a question.

This can drive me nuts, since we’ve usually discussed that we are indeed going grocery shopping, and I don’t know why he’s suddenly asking.  Now I wonder if he was influenced by Canadian speech patterns.  He grew up in a part of Michigan that is close enough to Canada that he could see it across the Detroit River, so this isn’t unlikely.  A couple of the guys in his dorm were from the Iron Mountain area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  He said that, based on their speech patterns, anyone would have thought they were Canadians.

I remember you mentioning that New Zealanders also shift vowel sounds.   I bet that really complicates the situation!

ALAN: Yes, that’s an odd one. New Zealanders have completely lost the sounds of “a” and “e” – those sounds have slid over towards “i” and “o.” And of course “i” and “o” themselves have moved a bit in the direction of “u.” So “yes” becomes “yis” and “peg” becomes “pig”. If you go into a shop to buy a pin, you will leave with a writing implement.

Australians love to tease us by claiming, with some degree of truth, that New Zealanders dine on “fush and chups.” Mind you, Australians do funny things with vowels as well; they elongate them. Therefore I could easily get my own back by pointing out that Australians dine on “feesh and cheeps.” So there!

JANE: Yuck! Both versions create nasty mental images for me.

ALAN: But by far the most interesting effect of the vowel shift is that “woman” and “women” have become homonyms. Both are pronounced “woman” and you simply have to depend on context in order to figure out whether the singular or the plural is being used. Even after all the years that I’ve lived here, I still find this one very confusing.

JANE: Wait!  You say they are both pronounced “woman,” but if you don’t use “a,” than the sound is more like “wo-min”?  Am I right?

ALAN: Sort of. The sound is actually closer to “wo-mun.”

JANE: I’m beginning to be surprised that Roger and I could understand you people at all when we were there.  Maybe you made a special effort.  I do recall that Vonda McIntyre had become something closer to “Vondurr.”

ALAN: What makes you think that you understood us?

JANE: (choking with laughter).  Maybe we didn’t!  Still, we all managed.

I also wondered whether New Zealanders had odd words, like the Australian “bonzer.”  (I think that’s right; I didn’t look it up.)   There’s Pakeha, of course, which is a loan word from Maori that’s become part of general use, but are there others?

ALAN: We have a lot of Maori loan words of course (Pakeha is a perfect example), but we also have some constructions that are uniquely our own. If you wander around aimlessly, you are taking a “tiki tour.”  Something that is broken is “munted.” When you are very angry, you are “ropeable” and when you are very happy, you are “stoked.” When you go swimming you wear your “togs.” If you want to take a quick look at something you will “have a wee squiz” at it. When you want someone to hurry up, you might tell them to “rattle your dags.”  Are those odd enough for you? They certainly sounded more than a little peculiar to me when I first heard them.

JANE: Hmm…  I’ve heard of “swimming togs.”  We use that here, sometimes, but the others are completely alien and seem vaguely Scottish, somehow.

ALAN: Well spotted! Much of the South Island was settled from Scotland, and some of their colourful phrasing has made its way into the mainstream of day to day Kiwi conversation. “Wee” in the sense of small is a particularly good example and is very common.

JANE: I feel almost like a linguist!

We’ve certainly had fun with the language.  I bet those language changes – especially some of the expressions you mentioned – reflect a cultural identity that’s distinct not only from the Australian, but from other nations as well.  Maybe next time, you can tell me more about what makes New Zealand uniquely itself, rather than a shadow Australia.

Chatting With Dave Gross

October 28, 2015

JANE: This week I’m interviewing Dave Gross, the author of the recently released Lord of Runes, the most recent of his “Radovan and the Count” novels set in the Pathfinder gaming universe.

 I always start these interviews by asking the same question, so here it is…

Dave's Pathfinder Novels

Dave’s Pathfinder Novels

In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?

DAVE: The first sort, with an asterisk.

One of my first big treasures was an old Olivetti typewriter with which I struggled for years before taking a proper typing class.

I can’t remember when I first started writing stories, but I’ll never forget my earliest positive feedback on a writing assignment. Mrs. Hughes was the fourth-grade English teacher for the problem students, of which I was clearly one because of my habit of reading comics instead of listening. Mrs. Hughes was young, sweet-natured, and a knockout. I’m pretty sure I already had a crush on her before she cemented my affections by reading us The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That was possibly my earliest introduction to full-on fantasy. Before that, I was more interested in horror and science-fiction.

Anyway, for my assignment I wrote a short story about a young guy who goes to Hollywood, gets work with a film crew, and gets bitten by a werewolf, as one does. I don’t remember much detail except that the actress’s name was Rae and a silver pocketknife was Chekhov’s gun. Mrs. Hughes was so delighted to receive a coherent and typed narrative that she read it aloud to class, simultaneously humiliating and inspiring me.

Alas, the school soon gave us standardized tests. When the results came in, I got kicked out of the slow class and the new, stricter teacher confiscated my comics. It was too late for that brand of discipline, though. I was already reading novels instead of listening in class.

The asterisk: My fiction writing became far less frequent as an adult, when I poured most of that energy into college essays, then technical manuals at my first proper job. Later, when I was teaching, and later still, when I was editing, I found most of my creative energy spent on the day job. Only in the mid-90s did I start publishing stories, and my first full-length novel didn’t come out until 2001.

JANE: So often I meet young people – like your fourth grade self – who are enthusiastic about writing or art (or both) and find that enthusiasm dampened by the demands of their school.  I’m glad you found your way back again.

You mention having been an editor first.  Can you talk a bit about that?  How does one move from teaching to editing?  And how did you find your way into the gaming magazines?

DAVE: One of the good things about my college experience is that I never accumulated student debt, but I did end up with three part-time jobs, two of them teaching gigs at the university and at a local business college. Even combined, they barely paid a subsistence living, so I soon realized I couldn’t afford to send myself through a Ph.D. program. I was going to have to take a proper job.

A buddy pointed me to a job opening at TSR, makers of Dungeons & Dragons, which I’d played since I was 12 or 13. The application process is a story in itself, but after a long period of waiting for a traveling VP’s approval, I joined the company as Associate Editor of Polyhedron. Soon I moved up to editor, then over to Dungeon, and then to Dragon and editor-in-chief. A few years after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR and moved us out west, I transferred to the Star Wars magazines. Later still, after we’d all left Wizards to form Paizo, I briefly edited Amazing Stories before being enticed up to the Great White North.

The teaching experience made the transition to magazine editor easy, because marking papers isn’t far removed from blue-lining stories.

JANE: As you know, I’m a gamer.  That’s a hobby that, back in the late eighties, when I was getting started writing and selling fiction, was something one sometimes had to be careful about mentioning.  Certainly, there was a lot of bad gaming fiction out there wherein, to borrow a phrase from the time, “you could hear the dice rattling.”

However, now game-related fiction is a major sub-section of SF/F publishing.  Can you talk a little about what goes into writing for a specific game franchise?  How familiar does one need to be with the game, for example?  How directive are the editors as to plot, pacing, and such?

DAVE: Some tie-in fiction writers barely know the games (a combination of rules and setting), and a few of them can pull it off anyway—but most can’t. The challenge is to write a story that appeals to non-gamers while assuring gamers that the novel’s characters are in the game world. That means getting the laws of magic right, and there are rules for that. That means paying attention to the names of queens and heroes, gods and nations, and basically doing all the same research you’d do if preparing an historical fantasy. So yeah, don’t let them hear the dice rattling, but make sure you’re as absorbed in the setting as, say, a Star Wars novelist is in the films, comics, and everything else about the galaxy far, far away.

I’ve been fortunate in that, when I wrote for the Forgotten Realms, I knew the setting better than the book editors did. When I wrote for Pathfinder, I didn’t know the setting as well as the editors, but I learned it, played it, studied it, immersed myself. When I wrote for Privateer Press, it was even more challenging because, while I read a lot of the setting material, I hadn’t played the games much, so I relied a lot on guidance from the continuity team.

I like it better when I have the time to do the research, including the “lab work” of playing the games. If I’ve done that as a gamer before writing a book, so much the better.

As for how much of the plot is directed, it depends on the publisher. I enjoyed writing for TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Paizo the most because they generally left everything in the author’s hands, editing primarily for setting continuity. Other publishers want you to write their existing characters. That’s fun in its way, but I much prefer creating the plot and characters while using the publisher’s setting.

JANE: I’ve very much enjoyed the three Radovan and the Count novels I’ve read to this point (Lord of Runes, Queen of Thorns, and Prince of Wolves).  One of the elements that I enjoy the most is how very different the sections narrated by Radovan are from those narrated by Count Varian.  You change not only point of view, but vocabulary, narrative style, and – most importantly – interpretation of events.

Since I’ve been reading the novels out of order, I’ve become aware of how your style shifted over time, especially in the parts narrated by Count Varian.  Can you talk about some of the choices you made?

DAVE: The first Pathfinder story I wrote was a novella. While I considered alternating points of view from the very start, since it was a shorter work I decided it would be better to focus on the henchman, Radovan. That put him in the position of recording the stories of the great detective. However, I had just come off a month-long binge of film noir. The voice I developed for Radovan was more Sam Spade than James Watson. I took it a step farther into hardboiled territory by using present tense.

That worked fine for the novella, but when my editor wanted a novel pitch with the same characters, I realized that alternating first-person POV, especially in present tense, could challenge some readers. I ended up rewriting the first four or five chapters several times: first-person, third-person, present tense, and past. Once I started to “hear” Varian’s voice, I went with first-person, past tense, which felt like a good balance between the hard-boiled Radovan and the aristocratic Count.

In the beginning, I wrote Varian’s POV in more compound-complex sentences with occasional $5 words. Then I doubled down and composed his early chapters in an epistolary style to stick a red arrow over the plot point—a missing Pathfinder agent. Looking back at it, I realize the style, along with a first chapter heavy in setting names, was all a bit thick.

That’s why in Master of Devils, and again in Queen of Thorns I relaxed Varian’s diction, depending more on vocabulary and class prejudice to express the character. Queen of Thorns seemed to hit the sweet spot, so while I’ve experimented with slang and diction and different types of low humor for Radovan since then, the style has remained consistent from Queen to King of Chaos and Lord of Runes.

Even while writing Prince of Wolves I was aware that Varian’s voice could use another buff before the final draft, but those first few novels for Pathfinder Tales were on unusually short deadlines, and then my October release got moved up to August, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Rather than a month, I had only a couple days to revise. If I could go back and edit any of my published works, I’d expand and revise “Hell’s Pawns,” “The Lost Pathfinder,” and Prince of Wolves for a deluxe edition.

As for the boys’ different interpretation of events, I think it’s important that every character sees the world through a distorting lens of prejudice, ideals, limitations, and desires. How else do you explain why perfectly reasonable people don’t agree with you on every little thing? There are times in my life when I completely disagree with myself at other times in my life. Perspective is slippery, and we’re all unreliable narrators.

JANE: That reminds me of a question a friend of mine who does a series of interviews for YALSA always asks her subjects. I think I’ll adapt it here.

Is there any advice you’d give your young writer self – either that fourth grade kid or the man who turned to writing novels after that long hiatus?  As a former editor, you’re in a rather unique position to provide such advice.

DAVE: Recently I read an anecdote about a pottery teacher who offered students a choice: he’d judge their work on either quality or quantity. By the end of the term, the students who cranked out many pots to earn their As were also making the finest pieces, better than those by students who agonized over making a single perfect vase each time.

So my advice to Young Dave would be, “Crank ’em out!”

In a way, I’ve had that opportunity by working as what the great Garrison Keillor calls a “deadline writer,” sometimes turning out a short novel in a month when I wanted three. Now there are some fine writers who pride themselves on spending ten years on a single novel to “get it right the first time,” and there’s something to be said for that ethic, but I think quantity and repetition is also a good teacher, maybe a better one for beginning writers.

So, Young Dave, write a story every week, even if it sucks. Then write another one and another and another.

JANE: I’d agree…  Although I’d also tell Young Dave, “But don’t expect them all to sell…”

Finally, do you have any future projects you’d like to tell us about?

DAVE: I’ve started a novel in a new setting that combines several of my favorite genres: epic fantasy, wuxia, and Mythos horror.

The other new thing is I’ve broken from my habit of starting with a novella-length outline. While I have a good sketch of the first half of the story, I’m holding off on outlining the second half until I establish the rules of the world and the principal conflicts. It feels like starting a coast-to-coast trip with a map of only the first state. It’s terrifying. It’s exciting. I’ve got the top down and the wind in my hair.

JANE: That last is particularly fascinating, since my Wandering a couple of weeks ago touched on the subject of intuitive plotter or outliner…  It’s neat that you’re permitting yourself to be both!

I’ll let you get to your novel, and stop taking up your valuable writing time.  Thank you very much.  It has been a distinct pleasure chatting with you!

FF: Art and Writing Intertwined

October 23, 2015

News Flash!  There’s a special offer from Shelfie for those of you who like e-books.  More information at the bottom of this post!

This week, again, purely by accident, art and writing as elements entered into a fair amount of my reading material.

For one, the German edition of Fire Season arrived!  I really like how Stephanie was interpreted for this one, although Climbs Quickly looks like a taxidermied lynx.  Probably just smoke inhalation.

Just a reminder…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Persephone Claims Flammenzeit!

Persephone Claims Flammenzeit!

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Roadsouls by Betsy James.  Manuscript of a forthcoming novel.  I liked and will try to remember to mention when it is released.  Journey is more internal than external, but no less real – and author uses her background as an artist to very good effect.

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce.  Audiobook. A short story collection, containing material from between 2005-2012.  Enjoyed, especially the last story, which is neither SF nor F…

Gryphon & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.  Maybe because Betsy James is also a professional artist, I was reminded of this book (and its sequels) which are as much art as book.  There’s a weird appeal to reading someone else’s mail.

In Progress:

The Diviners by Libba Bray.  Audiobook.  Cultural contradictions of “Roaring Twenties” well-evoked.  Horror elements creeping in…

The Golden Mean: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Conclude by Nick Bantock.  The first book made a sequel seem impossible, so this fascinates.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.  This came up in Alan and my discussions, so I decided to read.  No.  I hadn’t read it before… despite the theme,which is one I have also addressed in my fiction!


After a long time away, I decided to get back into bead work.  I have a weakness for projects that involve very small beads.  I’ve been delving into myriad books, because no one seems to include all I want to know about a stitch.  Assumptions are SO dangerous for a writer!

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The Shelfie Game

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TT: Judging On Their Own Terms

October 22, 2015

ALAN: Jane, you were about to tell me the story of Talli and Great Cthulhu as an example of how cats have excellent memories. My own experiences with cats suggest that they do indeed remember things very well, so I’m curious to see how your experience stacks up with mine.

JANE: Right!  Here goes…

Elephant Gives a Wave

Elephant Gives a Wave

Jim and I went to visit my dad in Colorado, bringing with us our cat Talli.  Talli was initially quite pleased with the new location, wandering around and exploring freely in company with another of our cats, Arawn.  That is, until he walked into the living room, which had a very high ceiling with a fan spinning lazily at the top.

Talli panicked, ran back into the kitchen, then dove under the table.  Eventually, we coaxed him out, but he would not go back into the living room.  What puzzled us was that he picked as his “safe place” the mud room (that’s what we call an entry room meant for taking off dirty shoes and things) off the kitchen, even though he could have gone into several other rooms without passing near Great Cthulhu.

The mud room was not at all a comfortable place, but Talli stayed crouched on the threshold for hours, even though his companion cat, Arawn, had gone elsewhere and we were right there in the kitchen.

Sometime later, my brother, Graydon, arrived, bringing with him his dog, Otis.  Otis was not a small dog.  He was a mutt with some Chow and Labrador retriever in him.  Talli had only met Otis once before, when Gray had brought him along on a visit to New Mexico well over a year before.  However, Talli and Otis had made friends, in part because Otis let Talli eat his kibbles.

When Talli saw Otis, he left the threshold of the mud room where he’d been crouched all this time and, tail held high, made a beeline for Otis.

It was evident that not only had Talli remembered Otis, he’d remembered his scent.  Dad only let Otis into the mudroom of the house, so the room must have smelled strongly of him.  When frightened, Talli had gone to the room that smelled like his friend.

ALAN: Did Talli get over his fear of Cthulhu?

JANE: Yes, in fact, he did, but only after spending some time with Otis.  Who knows?  Maybe Otis told him the house was safe.

ALAN: I don’t want to apply human concepts to animal behaviour. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. Nevertheless I do think that animals and humans share an understanding of some quite subtle ideas.

For example, I’m quite convinced that animals can understand how numbers work. I remember as a child going to see Cuddles the Killer Whale at Flamingo Park Zoo in North Yorkshire. He had an outdoor pool and spectators sat on carefully arranged chairs around the pool to watch him do his stuff. I watched him swimming round and round and round, and every so often he would stop and peek over the edge of the pool at the audience. And then he’d go swimming round and round and round again. Eventually, when he decided that there were now enough people to make his next trick worthwhile, he made an almighty leap out of the pool, high into the air, and then he crashed back down into the water sending a huge spray out over the audience, all of whom shrieked and screamed and ran and shook themselves. And there was Cuddles, peering at them over the edge of the pool, laughing his head off…

He used to do that every day. He never tired of the joke. But he wouldn’t do it if there weren’t enough people to splash…

JANE: Oh!  That’s great! Many people persist in viewing animals as organic computers, with “instinct” as the guiding software.  In this descriptive template, play behavior is simply training for adult roles as hunters or to run faster and jump farther.

However, Cuddles is far from alone in liking to play practical jokes.  Oddly enough, my story about such also involves water.

Back when I was in graduate school, I’d often walk over to the Bronx Zoo during my break.  One of my favorite places to go was the snow leopard to watch the kittens.  This was in the day when many of the enclosures were the old-fashioned concrete floor/iron bar sort.  The snow leopard’s water dish was a large steel basin bolted to the bars.

On this particular day, Kitten One was busily sloshing the water in the basin back and forth with one paw – actually, he had his foreleg in, almost to the shoulder.  Back and forth, back and forth, he went, spilling some water as he played, apparently unaware that his brother was carefully stalking him, using for cover the large deadfall tree that was the centerpiece of the enclosure.

Slosh, slosh goes Kitten One.  Creep, creep goes Kitten Two.  Then Kitten Two freezes, makes that ridiculous butt-wiggle that cats do before they leap and springs into the air.  At which point Kitten One, slides gracefully to the side so that Kitten Two lands squarely in the middle of the puddle Kitten One had been creating – now quite clearly with the intent of catching his brother in the trap.  Kitten Two slid across the floor, before romping back in soggy fury to pounce his gleeful brother.  I was very sorry to leave…

ALAN: Oh that’s lovely! When my cat Bess was a kitten she used to put one paw into her water bowl while she drank from it. Presumably she was holding the water in place to make sure that it didn’t run away. She still has a fascination with water and she will chase the spray from the hosepipe when Robin waters the garden.

Something else I saw at a zoo has always puzzled me. The elephants at this zoo lived on an island with a deep (dry) moat all around it so that they couldn’t get off. Notices saying “Do Not Feed The Elephants” were bolted to the wall of the moat. On the day that I was there, the elephants were standing at the edge of the enclosure with their trunks dangling down into the moat. And every single elephant was standing above one of the notices, and every trunk was dangling in front of the notice, obscuring it so that it couldn’t be read.

I refuse to believe that was a coincidence. But I have no idea how (or if) the animals connected the notices with the lack of treats in their life. I’d love to know exactly what it was that I was seeing there.

JANE: Funny…  I’m not sure if elephants can read, but animals do understand language, including – or perhaps I should say, “especially” – body language.  I’ve noticed this many time in my encounters with the wolves of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.  One example particularly stands out.

Back when I was still writing the Firekeeper books, I’d often invite Wild Spirit to attend book events with one of their “ambassador” wolves.  At one event, my friend Pati Nagle and I were doing an event together.  Her husband, Chris, was there in full Civil War military costume.  (Her book was one of her excellent “Civil War in the West” novels.)

Anyhow, as we were winding down, Chris commented to Leyton, the WSWF representative, that Raven the wolf was apparently afraid of him and wondered if this might be because of his odd clothing.

Leyton said, “No.  He thinks you’re afraid of him, and at these events, if he thinks someone is afraid of him, he stays back.”  Chris replied, “But I’m not afraid of him at all!”  Leyton nodded.  “Maybe not, but your body language is telling Raven differently.”  Chris asked what he should do to change the message he was sending.  Leyton gave him step by step instructions and Chris, who is a fine performer, immediately followed them.  As soon as Chris finished adjusting his stance, Raven rose from where he’d been sitting and went over to give Chris a friendly sniff.

ALAN: What did he have to alter to make Raven accept him?

JANE: It’s been a lot of years, so I don’t remember precisely, but I know one element was how he was holding his arms.

ALAN: My dog Jake is very sensitive to body language – and the position of my arms seems to be particularly important in getting messages across to him. If I point fiercely (yes, it can be done) he knows that he has to stop what he’s doing and go where I’m pointing. I don’t have to say a word, the body language does it all.

JANE: That’s neat.  My cats also understand a fairly wide variety of gestures.  We’re fairly certain that they also know each other’s names, since they respond to their own, but not to someone else’s.  Well, with the exception of Kwahe’e…  He’ll come to someone else’s name if he thinks he can poach their food.

We probably could go on telling each other animal stories forever, but let’s stop here and see what our readers can tell us about their experiences with Earth’s other people – the animals.

Curiosities Now Available!

October 21, 2015

Back in September of 2013, I asked whether folks would be more interested in seeing another of my out-of-print novels made available or a short story collection.  To my surprise, there turned out to be a lot of interest in a short story collection.

At Last!

At Last!

Aside: The comments on the post were only part of the feedback I used to make my decision.  Additionally, many people asked me if I would consider putting together a book on writing.  I decided I’d really enjoy doing that, and so Wanderings on Writing became the project I tackled whenever I had free time.

Now, at last, Curiosities is (or should be in the very near future) available as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, i-Tunes, Google Play, and Kobo.

For those of you who, like me, prefer a “real” book, Curiosities is also available from Amazon Create Space.

Curiosities includes nineteen short stories, ranging from my first published piece “Cheesecake” (1990) to 2014’s “Born from Memory.”  Although all the stories included were published elsewhere, some have been nearly impossible to find for many years.  Each story is accompanied by a short afterpiece talking about some aspect of the story.  I might tell what inspired the story or talk about influences or just offer some odd bit of trivia.  There’s also an original introduction discussing how I came to select these particular stories out of the sixty-some I’d had published to that point.

The cover art by Rowan Derrick is a photo montage meant to represent the cluttered interior of my brain.  Many of the pieces included were taken from my office.  Others were Rowan’s.  You can have fun trying to guess which are which.

Why did it take nearly two years for Curiosities to be completed?  Well, mostly because I wrote a lot of other things as well.  Artemis Awakening and Artemis Invaded came out.  In fact, a good deal of Artemis Invaded was written at this time.  Fire Season (written with David Weber) was released.  The previously mentioned Wanderings on Writing also took a good deal of time and effort.

I also wrote a variety of shorter projects, some of which – like “The Hermit and the Jackalopes” in S.M. Stirling’s anthology The Change: Stories of Downfall and Rebirth, and “The Button Witch” on Urban – are now available.  Others, like “The Headless Fluteplayer” (a prequel to my and Roger Zelazny’s Lord Demon) and “Deception on Gryphon” (featuring Stephanie Harrington and associates) are yet to be released.

We did hope to have Curiosities completed for release at Bubonicon in August of 2015, but various small glitches kept cropping up.  The latest was just this week…  Emily Mah Tippets, who did the book conversion and design, called me on Monday to let me know that…  Oh!  Never mind.  Suffice to say that long before the end, we both decided the project had gremlins.

But it’s out!  I hope you enjoy it.  It was a good trip down memory lane for me.  Now it’s time to look to the future.

FF: A Change of Plans

October 16, 2015

Although I love audiobooks, sometimes I can’t stand a reader’s interpretation of the material.  That happened to me this week.

Plans Take Flight!

Plans Take Flight!

For those of you new to this post…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross.  I enjoyed.  Look for a WW interview with Dave Gross before the end of October!

In Progress:

Roadsouls by Betsy James.  Manuscript of a forthcoming novel.

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce.  Audiobook. A short story collection, containing material from between 2005-2012.  I’m about half-way through and enjoying.

An Important Side Note:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  Audiobook. This is the one I had to give up on as an audiobook, because the reader was driving me completely nuts.  I’ll be finishing as a “regular” book as soon as I can slot it in!

TT: Our Planet is Full of Aliens!

October 15, 2015

JANE: For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been chatting about aliens.  So, have we covered all the bases on types of aliens?

ALAN: No, not quite. We actually live on a planet that is full of aliens. Animals are completely alien to us in the same sense that SF aliens are. They think differently; they react differently; they have different priorities.

Flossy, Mephitis, and Harlequin

Flossy, Mephitis, and Harlequin

JANE: I’m the last person who would disagree with you about that.  As I mentioned a while back, my novel Marks of Our Brothers is rooted in my awareness that how humans view animal intelligence is rarely based on judging them on their own terms.  All too often, how “intelligent” an animal is thought to be is based on how human they seem or at least how well they can mimic human behavior.

I’d rather view animal behavior on their own terms and leave the question of “smarter” or “dumber” out of it entirely.

ALAN: Yes, indeed. And if SF teaches us anything about aliens, it teaches us to judge them on their own criteria rather than to try shoehorning them into ours. Though having said that, I think there’s a definite spectrum of intelligence – even animals of the same species can be “smart” or “dumb” in comparison with each other.

JANE: I agree…  We both like animals and share our homes with them.  I’m sure if we were visiting over coffee, we’d have fun telling each other about the interesting things our co-residents have done.  Typing out stories isn’t quite the same, but we can give it a try.

Let me start with the story of how Jim misinterpreted Flossie the guinea pig.  That way we’ll start off with a creature that most humans would consider at the “bottom” of the spectrum.

ALAN: Tell me more! How do you misinterpret a guinea pig? Enquiring minds want to know…

JANE: We have several guinea pigs.  When the weather permits, we put them outside in a hutch.  We always bring them in at night, though.  One day, Jim commented to me that Flossie really didn’t like coming in.  “She’ll run to the side of the hutch, then try to climb the side to get away from me.”

Now, I’d noticed the same behavior but, knowing guinea pigs (Jim had only been living with them for about five years at that point), and knowing they don’t really climb, I had interpreted it differently.

“She’s not running away.  She’s helping you to pick her up.  She’s noticed that you always scoop her around the middle, then lift.  She’s making it easier for you.”

And, after observing, Jim agreed I was right.  Over time, Flossie taught her “trick” to her hutchmates, Mephitis and Shandy.  The habit did not pass on to the next generation.  (Flossie, Shandy, and Mephitis have all gone on.)  However, Usagi, one of our current residents, does not like being held around her middle.  She’s perfectly fine with being picked up – only on her own terms.  If you hold a hand level in front of her, she will let you slide it under her and even walk on.  Again, her roommate, Silver, has picked up the trick, so we have two guinea pigs who behave rather like large, furry parakeets.

ALAN: Do they perch on your shoulder and say “Pieces of eight!” as well?

JANE: No!  They say “pieces of carrot,” though…

ALAN: It’s clear to me that animals can, and do, think about the situations they find themselves in, then work out a plan to achieve their goals. We took our dog Jake to the park where he can run freely off the lead. There’s a small river running through the park which many of the dogs like to swim in. Jake hadn’t learned how to swim yet. He was happy to paddle in the shallows, but he wouldn’t go out of his depth.

However, one day he was playing chase with another dog and he got so involved in the game that he chased the dog through the water, all the way across the river to the other side. Once the excitement died down, Jake realised that he had a problem. He was on one side of the river and we were on the other side! How on earth was he going to get back to us?

He stood there for a moment, and then he looked both right and left, decided which bridge was the closest, and then he raced to that bridge, came across the river and rejoined us. I was very impressed. Naturally, he got a treat for being such a clever boy. I don’t think many dogs could have solved that problem so quickly and so elegantly.

These days he can swim like a fish, so the problem has now completely gone away and he criss-crosses the river willy-nilly.

JANE: And doubtless shakes water all over you when he arrives.  Oh, well, everything can’t be perfect.

One thing that really bothers me about tests meant to judge animal “intelligence” are those that involve running mazes.  Often these tests are used on creatures that wouldn’t perform a task like this in normal life.  Moreover, how well an animal “remembers” a maze is then used to judge length of memory.  By this standard, I’ve read studies that say that most animals have very short memories.

I don’t know about you, but if my memory (which is excellent) was judged on the basis of running mazes, I’d fail abysmally.  Jim, whose memory is rooted in visual associations, would probably score as a moron, since most of those mazes are without features.

ALAN: I’d be the same – I’m hopeless at mazes. Robin, on the other hand, loves them and is quite brilliant at navigating them. We’ve visited several mazes here in NZ and I’m always astonished at how expertly she finds her way through them. I just tag along, hopelessly lost…

Clearly I’m even more moronic than Jim.

JANE: My point is that none of us non-“maze runners’ are dumb, and neither are those animals who fail to live up to this challenge.

ALAN: Yes, that’s quite true. But, nevertheless, I’m sure that maze-running is measuring something significant about the way that the animals fit into their world. My cats Ginger and Milo never saw a maze in their lives, but I’m certain they’d have been really good at solving them. When we moved to a new house, they both used maze-running techniques to explore it. Ginger used a strict left-hand rule. She circled the house (in and out of every cupboard) hugging the wall as closely as she could and taking every left turn that she found until she ran out of them.

Milo had a different, but equally successful, technique. He started from his food bowl from which he took a revivifying snack. Then he set off in a straight line. Once he’d explored as far as he could in that direction (no turns allowed), he came back to the food bowl for another mouthful and then set off again in a new direction.

JANE: That’s really neat! Ginger was motivated by preserving some sense of personal safety, while Milo was motivated by assuring himself he would not lose his source of food!

I’ve seen many incidents that prove that housecats (who are usually judged by these tests as having short memories) have excellent memories.  One of these is what I call the story of Talli and Great Cthulhu.

I actually related the story a few months ago. But it’s so appropriate to what we’re discussing that I’d really like to tell it again.  I’ll give the short version, promise…

ALAN: That’s a good idea – I’d love to hear that story again.

JANE: Okay.  I’ll start with it next time.

Off to the Balloon Fiesta!

October 14, 2015

I guess there’s some truth to the old saying that people who live in an area are the ones least likely to attend the events that bring tourists to town.

When Pigs -- and Other Things -- Fly!

When Pigs — and Other Things — Fly!

I thought about that this past Thursday as Jim and I sat in slowly creeping traffic on the way to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.  Although this event has been going on (under various names) for a long time, we’d never been to it together.  It had been about twenty years for me and even longer for Jim.

One reason we hadn’t gone before was that our house is right on the flight path taken by lots of balloons, so we see balloons up close almost every day.  We’ve come to recognize the various patterns used by the companies that give rides, and even notice when they add a new balloon to their fleet.  It hardly seemed worth getting up the early hour required and joining crowds to attend the Fiesta.

So what made us change our minds?  Well, as those of you know who have been reading these Wanderings (or Tangents or Fragments), Jim is a pretty good photographer.  When I came across a listing for a contest with the theme of autumn in New Mexico, I encouraged him to enter.  He did and, while he didn’t win any of the main prizes, his photo was among the “honorable mentions” which came with four tickets to the Balloon Fiesta.

It seemed like an omen.

We decided to drive over, rather than taking the Park and Ride, since the price of the Park and Ride included the tickets we already owned.  Besides, we were going on a Thursday, not a weekend.  The traffic shouldn’t be too bad, especially if we left early.

We left our house before 5:30 a.m., which seemed plenty of time given that the event didn’t start until 7:00 a.m., and we’d normally need only twenty minutes to get to the Balloon Park.  We were wrong.  Traffic slowed to a crawl the closer we came to the park.  As we came within a mile, people walking along the paths that paralleled the road were going faster than the vehicle traffic.  I realize this is usual in some parts of the country, but it isn’t in Albuquerque.

We finally arrived and were parked by 7:30.  Happily, the balloons had only just started launching, so we had plenty to watch.  We’d chosen our day because it fit Jim’s work schedule, but an added bonus was that this was one of the days when “special shapes” were featured.

Special shapes are balloons that aren’t crafted in the usual “balloon shape.” You know what I mean – the one where there’s a wide upper dome that tapers at the bottom, providing a place for the gondola to hang.  There’s a variation on this “usual” shape that’s more like an American football – tapered at top and bottom.  These are more commonly used in racing and agility events.

Special shapes vary considerably.  Some are the usual shape with additions.  A good example of this sort was an elephant we saw: the main balloon was pink, but extensions in the shape of ears and a trunk had been added on.  The effect was very convincing.  Another along this theme had side panels featuring three different clown faces.  On this one, the extensions were used to give dimensions to the clown’s headgear.  Oh!  And I can’t forget the one that looks like Carmen Miranda’s head, complete with her signature crown of various sorts of fruit.

Many special shapes don’t bear any resemblance to a classic balloon shape.  They’re more like the huge inflated figures that you sometimes see suspended over parade floats – the difference being that these are free flying sculptures.  We were treated to an amazing variety.  There were three flying pigs – one with wings, one without, and a third costumed as Spiderman.  There was “High Kitty,” a tribute to the famous “Hello Kitty.”  There was the shoe belonging to the Old Woman who lived therein, complete with a child out on the roof.  There was a wizard, with a black and white cat in his backpack.  Oh!  And the heads of Darth Vader and Yoda rose majestically side by side.

There was a full-body beagle, complete with floppy ears and wagging tail.  An orca, leaping through the sky with an enormous grin on its face.  An enormous alarm clock.  Three bumblebees, two of which – as they rose into the air – “held hands” so convincingly that Jim and I were sure the two envelopes were stitched together.  They weren’t – it was the skill of the pilots that enabled this to be carried out.

And these were only a few…  And for every special shape, there were many, many classic balloons in every color you can imagine and a few patterns – like the two that appeared to have been made from batik fabric – that I would never have anticipated.

Because special shapes aren’t as easy either to inflate or to pilot, it’s a lot less certain whether they’ll be able to go up.  Wind that a “normal” balloon can handle with a little care can ground a special shape.

We were very lucky.  Not only was the wind so light as to be unfelt on the ground, the air currents kept bringing the already launched balloons back over the field, so we were able to see them from various angles and at a wide variety of elevations.  By the time the last balloon launched and some of the earlier risers were coming down, Jim finally stopped taking pictures and I realized that I was both cold and hungry.

From one of the numerous concession stands, we bought pretty good breakfast burritos and ate them, watching the balloons all the while.  Eventually, we joined the crowds, stopping to watch some Indian dancers, to look at the offerings of various vendors, and to amble through the art exhibit.  Then we made our way back to our car and joined the crawling traffic.  This time it didn’t seem nearly as bad because we had balloons to watch as we made our way home.

FF: Mostly YA, Purely By Chance

October 9, 2015

News Flash!  Curiosities, my forthcoming short story collection, is now available for pre-order on i-Tunes.  Pre-order on other e-book sites will begin next week.  The print-on-demand version will be available soon, for those of you who prefer “real books.”  Look for an official Launch Day announcement before the end of October.

For those of you new to this post…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kel Claims the Shepherd's Crown

Kel Claims the Shepherd’s Crown

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Interesting mixture of elements.  I don’t think this one would be for everyone, because of the heavy reliance on 1980’s pop culture elements, but it suited me just fine.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett.  I really enjoyed.  The end note is of writerly interest.

Naruto, issue 71.  Lots of fight scenes and super attacks can’t hide that interpersonal relationships are really the center of this story.

In Progress:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  Audiobook.  Starts like a typical “Beauty and the Beast” story, but that’s just the lauch pad.

Prince of Wolves by David Gross.  Time for another sword and sorcery romp.

And Also:

Back issues of magazines that piled up while we were on the road!