Archive for December, 2015

TT: From the Coal Face

December 31, 2015

JANE: Well, Alan, it’s New Year’s Eve.  Christmas is now over, so I can now safely ask you about something you mentioned last time.  Coal…  I thought about asking last week, but I didn’t want to give Santa any ideas about what to put in my stocking.

Jet Mountain Lion, Coal Wolf

Jet Mountain Lion, Coal Wolf

ALAN: But how will you go first footing tonight if Santa doesn’t bring you any coal?

JANE: Oh, boy…  You’re going to need to remind me what “first footing” is.  Over here, coal is what bad little boys and girls get in their stockings…  No one wants to invite that!

ALAN: First footing is the tradition of being the first visitor to the house in the New Year. The visitors often bring a lump of coal with them. We discussed the tradition way back in 2011.

JANE: 2011, huh?  I guess I have a good excuse for not remembering the details!  Thanks!

When you mentioned your grandmother’s “huge and ancient fireplace,” I envisioned one that burned wood.  But then you went on and said: “the fire would be carefully lit and fed regularly with the best of all possible coal.”

That really seemed exotic and old-fashioned to me.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a coal fire.  I have some questions for you.

ALAN: I find that astonishing. When I was a boy, everybody had coal fires in their houses.

JANE: Well, I am somewhat younger than you.  However, Jim is a bit older than I am, so I asked him if he remembered coal fires.  He said that when he was a boy, his grandparents had a coal-fired furnace, but all he remembered about that was how it was apparently finicky.

Jim’s own home, which was somewhat more modern, didn’t use coal.  The house I remembered best used oil for heat, though I seem to recall my dad talking about the oil furnace being a relatively new element in the house, so the house was probably originally heated by coal, but that would have been before my time.

ALAN: I suspect I might have been part of the very last coal generation. Certainly by the time I left home, coal fires had largely disappeared.

JANE:  Well, I’m hoping you can clarify a point that puzzled me.

You talked about a “hot water cylinder.”  I’m assuming that’s what we here call a “hot water heater.”  If it depended on the coal fire being lit, what did your grandparents do for hot water in the warmer months?  Did they need to have a fire burning even in summer?

ALAN: The “hot water cylinder” is the tank full of hot water that feeds the taps (you’d say faucets). The pipes that feed water into the cylinder pass behind the fireplace and transfer the heat from the fire. The whole system is known as a “wetback,” though I gather that word has a slightly different meaning where you come from…

JANE: Yes, that it does…

ALAN: And to answer your original question, yes – if you wanted hot water all year round, you needed a fire all year round. However, my father bit the bullet and  bought an electrical immersion heater when I was about eight years old, so we could do without fires in summer, if we had to.

JANE: That sounds like an excellent investment on your father’s part.  I hope your grandparents made a similar choice!

ALAN: No – they were far too set in their ways for that.

When you depend so much on coal, you need to make sure that you never run out of it. Every house had coal delivered to it every few weeks. Naturally, the coal had to be stored somewhere dry – wet coal doesn’t burn very well. Posh people had a coal cellar with a convenient chute down which the coalman could empty the contents of his sacks. We didn’t have a cellar, so our coal was stored in a shed. After WWII, a lot of air raid shelters had a second life as a convenient place to store coal.

Robin moved from Australia to England in the 1980s. Coal fires were long gone by then, but the house she lived in had a shed which still had some lumps of coal in it. She’d never seen coal before and she found it quite fascinating. That winter, when it snowed, she took the lumps of coal out and put them in the snow because she thought the contrast between the black coal and the white snow was really pretty. I think that’s a lovely story…

JANE: Indeed it is!  It’s fascinating that to this day snowmen are usually depicted with black eyes.  Originally, these were lumps of coal.  I wonder what people use today?

ALAN: That’s an interesting question. I wonder if we have any snowmen among our readers who could enlighten us?

In Yorkshire, the place where the coal was stored was known as the coal hole (or, more accurately, the coal ‘ole). There was a song we sang as children:

We’re reet down in’t coal ‘ole
Where t’muck slarts on’t winders.
We’ve used all our coal up
And we’re reet down t’ cinders.
When t’ bum bailiff calls
He won’t know where to find us
‘Cos we’re reet down in’t coal ‘ole
Where t’muck slarts on’t winders

Do you need a translation?

JANE:  Actually, I don’t.   The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett educated me quite nicely in Yorkshire dialect.

ALAN: Perhaps one or two of our readers aren’t Secret Garden fans. So, just in case:

We are right down in the coal hole
Where the dirt covers the windows.
We’ve used all our coal up
And we’re right down to cinders. (ie: We’ve only got cinders left)
When the rent man calls
He won’t know where to find us
Because we’re right down in the coal hole
Where the dirt covers the windows.

JANE: Lovely!  I wonder if the hearth Martha is always tending in The Secret Garden burned coal or wood.  I’ll need to go check.

Your song got me thinking about “clinkers.”  These days, I’m betting many people don’t even know what those are or why something that doesn’t work out is a “clinker”?  Do you know what a clinker is?

ALAN: Yes – it’s the stony residue left behind after burning coal in a furnace. I got very confused when I first heard of “clinker built boats.” For a long time I was absolutely convinced that boat builders collected clinker from fires and furnaces and then welded it together into boats. I remember being quite disappointed when I finally found out what the phrase really meant…

JANE:  I was similarly puzzled, though I didn’t get so creative in figuring out how clinkers could be used.  This reminds me…

Some years back, when Jim was digging a historic archeological site, some younger members of the crew came across some clinkers.  They didn’t have any idea what they were.  Happily, they brought them to Jim (since he’s the go-to guy for rocks) and he did know what they were.

ALAN: And, to clarify what you said earlier, I presume, that because clinkers can’t burn any more, anything that doesn’t work anymore can legitimately be described as a clinker?

JANE: That used to be fairly common slang here in America.  However, I think it’s fallen out of use along with home burning of coal.

That reminds me of an interesting story about coal and fiction…  However, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m going to go make some preparations for seeing in the New Year.  I hope that you and Robin (who are probably already into the New Year, as people read this) have/had a lovely one and I look forward to talking more in 2016!


Travel, Tribulation, Tales?

December 30, 2015

Over Christmas, Jim and I flew to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to celebrate Christmas with his parents, his younger sister, and her family.

Can I Get Inside?

Can I Get Inside?

(No, Jim isn’t from Texas.  Much of his family just ended up there.)

The trip out wasn’t bad, but the trip home wasn’t much fun.  Weather delayed our flight, so we left the gate an hour and a half late.  Then we spent way too much time on the tarmac, hoping we’d depart before the flight crew “timed out” and we had to return to base.

This gave me a lot of time to think about travel, especially as related to writing.  (I would have preferred actually writing to thinking about writing, but the airport was too chaotic, even for me, and I can write just about anywhere.)

Adventure fiction, whether of the completely speculative variation, like SF/F, or of the more reality-based types, such as historical fiction or thrillers, often includes considerable travel.  I can’t remember the quote exactly (or who said it), but isn’t that pretty much the definition of adventure?  Someone else in trouble a long way off?

To get a long way off, travel is necessary!

With this in mind, I started considering whether Jim and my travel last Sunday qualified as “adventure” or not.  My first thought was definitely “not.”  We were in a relatively safe environment.  Even if our flight didn’t depart, we’d have shelter and access to food.   We’d definitely be inconvenienced but, while inconvenience can be an element in adventure, it isn’t adventure as such.

Now, if circumstances changed and we were trapped in the airport – perhaps by a huge amount of snow – and the power went out, and we were in danger of freezing, then that would come closer to adventure.  Add in attacking zombies, or a dimensional portal opening and invading aliens spilling through…  That would be the stuff of many an SF/Horror film!

External circumstances aren’t the only thing that could turn being delayed at the airport into, if not an adventure, then material for a story.  Let’s play with some possibilities.  We’ll call our protagonists Tom and Lily.

Perhaps Tom and Lily must arrive at their destination by a certain time.  In that case, every ten-minute delay posted to the board becomes an element for building tension.  Maybe their need for a timely arrival is purely personal: perhaps Lily is in line for a job that will go to a rival or perhaps Tom is in need of medical care.

Maybe the reason Tom and Lily are desperate to get to their destination is something more dramatic and less personal.  Maybe they’re spies smuggling key documents.  Maybe they need to deliver crucial information before a certain time, information that can’t be trusted to any conduit less secure than word-of-mouth delivery.

What if you’re more interested in stories with a personal slant?   Perhaps Tom and Lily have some personal issues.  Will being bottled up at the airport intensify their conflict, or will it provide an opportunity to pull together in the face of shared adversity?  Perhaps Tom will discover a secret depth in Lily that will show her in a new light.  Maybe Lily will see Tom helping an old lady with her luggage during a gate change and remember how kind he can be.

Or maybe delving into Tom’s overnight bag in search of aspirin, Lily will discover something better not known: a letter from an old flame or a compromising picture.   Or Tom will find that Lily’s been writing her former husband’s name with her own intertwined in hearts inside the back cover of the novel she’s been reading.

Then there’s that oldie but goodie – the accidental exchange of luggage.  These days, that could be updated to swapped phones or computers…  Either way, Tom and Lily might be drawn into someone else’s crisis.

As I thought about this, I realized there are many reasons why travel makes for good stories.

One is that characters are out of their usual element.   They lack resources they otherwise take for granted.  They may need skills (maybe first aid, maybe riding a horse, maybe fixing a warp drive) that their daily lives never demand.

Another good story element is that people who might otherwise not meet are thrown together in intimate circumstances.  Chaucer used this to good effect with the Canterbury Tales.  Centuries later, it still works.  Where else than in a plane or in a waiting room do you find yourself sitting shoulder to shoulder with a perfect stranger for hours on end?

However, no matter how much travel seems like a great way to frame a story, readers will quickly sense if the material is simply filler.  If, at the end of the journey, all that’s going to be different is that the characters are now at Point B, rather than Point A, then it’s enough to write “Two weeks later, the ship docked safely in New York.”  Don’t make the reader live through all the days of travel unless there’s a reason, either in incident, character development, relationship development, or, preferably, more than one of these.

Have doubts how to judge?  Recast your story in another format.  Take your heroic quest and think of it as if it was a contemporary mystery novel.  If it would seem stupid to outline every detail in the mystery novel (because, after all, all the person did was drive from Phoenix to San Diego to interview someone), then skip it and move to the real action – that interview.  But if something key happens during the drive, then take the reader on the trip with your characters.  Both the reader and your story will be richer for it.

Now…  What to do with Tom and Lily?

FF: So This Is Christmas

December 25, 2015

The Friday Fragments is suspended today in favor of wishing you a Merry Christmas!

Usagi and Christmas Guinea Pigs

Usagi and Christmas Guinea Pigs

Or a Happy Hanukkah. (Although, it’s over, still, I hope it was happy.)

Or a Cool Yule…

Or a Cosmic Kwanza…

Or whatever way you celebrate the end of this year, the beginning of the next year, the return of the sun.  (Or the beginning of the sun’s retreat, for those of you on the bottom of the world.)

All the best from me and Jim!

More about books next week!  I’m off to read some of those I found under a tree…

TT: Christmas Eve!

December 24, 2015

JANE: Happy Christmas Eve, Alan!

ALAN: Thank you. And the same to you.

Santa Claus aka Father Christmas on the Job

Santa Claus aka Father Christmas on the Job

Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat…

How fat are your geese? Mine are doing very well, thank you. Tell me, what does Christmas Eve mean to you?

JANE: From the time I was small, Christmas Eve was my favorite part of the Christmas season, even more than Christmas.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered that for some people it’s just another day to shop.

ALAN: Oh shopping!

Here, all the shops are closed on Christmas Day, of course. But they re-open the day after. Nevertheless, everybody appears to develop a terrible fear of starvation and the supermarkets are always seething with people whose trolleys are piled high with (usually) rubbish. I hate it because I feel very uncomfortable in large crowds. Nevertheless I still go to the supermarket on Christmas Eve because fresh fruit and salad stuff and bread really does need to be bought at the last minute. But I still hate it! Nevertheless, strawberries!!

JANE: Ah…  For you, those would be summer strawberries, which I agree would suffer if bought early.  However, down here, most of the produce is only the illusion of fresh.  A day or two one way or another doesn’t make a big difference.

ALAN: And then there are all the people who are doing their last-minute present shopping. That I avoid completely…

It gets worse every year. There have always been big sales after Christmas and in the New Year, but lately the shops have started having pre-Christmas sales as well, and therefore shopping has now become a total nightmare. I refuse to take part in it.

JANE: Since all my family lives at a distance, I usually have completed most of my Christmas shopping a couple of weeks before Christmas.  We do some of it far in advance, because if we see the perfect thing, we buy it and then put it in a special “present box,” to be pulled out and marveled at later.  However, since kids’ tastes shift rapidly, I usually wait until December to shop for things for nieces and nephews.

All of which is to say that by Christmas Eve, gifts are wrapped and shopping can go on without me.  As far as I recall, this is how it was when I was a kid, too.  Christmas Eve was centered around two things: food and church.

ALAN: Church was always a complete irrelevance in my family, but food… Ah! Food! I have an interesting food story, but you raised the subject, so tell me your food story first…

JANE: I was raised Catholic.   In the olden days, Christmas Eve was a “meatless” day.  However, since my mom came out of an Italian-American tradition, this was far from a burden.  Dinner would consist of a wide variety of seafood dishes.  The two I loved best were stuffed squid (with the tentacles served separately, blanched, then seasoned with  garlic and olive oil, included as one of many appetizers) and spaghetti in a red sauce with clam and lobster.  I’m sure there were other dishes as well – certainly an enormous salad and some form of fresh bread – but those are the two I anticipated every year.

When I’m home for Christmas Eve, I still make them.  Jim won’t eat squid, but he’s become very good at making the clam and lobster sauce.

ALAN: That sounds mostly yummy. I absolutely adore squid and I love lobster (though it’s so expensive that I almost never get a chance to eat it), but I really don’t like clams at all. So perhaps together Jim and I add up to one normal person…

JANE: Oh, you’d be able to avoid the clams.  They’re more in the sauce as seasoning anyhow.  I could omit putting them back in if you and Robin were dining with us.

Do you have any special Christmas Eve foods?

ALAN: Now thereby hangs a tale. When I was a child, the only relatives who lived nearby were my grandparents. They lived about fifteen minutes’ walk away on the other side of the village. So each household took it in turns to host Christmas – one year they’d come to us, the next year we’d go to them.

JANE: That sounds nice.  We didn’t have any relatives near, except sometimes a visiting grandparent.  However, we always had close friends over, so we never felt bereft.   So what was it like to go to “Grandmother’s House” for Christmas?

ALAN: My grandmother had a huge and ancient fireplace with a built in oven off to one side. The fire itself was used to heat the hot water cylinder and it also kept the oven nicely warm. So, once every two years, it would be ritually cleaned and scrubbed and serviced. This generally involved at least one, and possibly two, visits from a chimney sweep. He always came well equipped with oddly flexible brushes with which to poke and prod the oven’s mysteriously convoluted pipes and grilles.

When all was deemed ready, the fire would be carefully lit and fed regularly with the best of all possible coal. The turkey would go into the oven early on Christmas Eve and cook slowly for at least eighteen hours. Occasionally it would be prodded, and the juices and giblets would be examined with all the care and attention to detail of a haruspex on the threshold of an important divination. Eventually the monster bird was deemed to be cooked to perfection. Time to overeat…

JANE: Eighteen hours?  That was either a very cool fire or a truly enormous turkey…  We routinely cook our turkey on our grill and, though it does take hours, it’s more like fifteen minutes per pound.   Are you’re teasing me…  again?

ALAN: No, I’m not teasing you. In my memory, the turkey does indeed loom enormously, though I am prepared to admit that memory may be exaggerating its size a little. I’m fairly sure that I’m not exaggerating the cooking time though, so you are probably correct in assuming that the oven didn’t get very hot.

Despite all the careful servicing of the oven, when the bird was eventually brought forth it would reach the table dusted with a light sprinkling of soot. The really lucky diner would also get the occasional crunchy cinder to chew on. Yummy!

But, joking aside, I really do have very fond memories of Christmas dinners at grandma’s place.

JANE: I love the ritual that goes with making an elaborate dinner – and putting up decorations and all the rest.  When I was a kid, part of that ritual was the Christmas Eve “Children’s Midnight Mass” at our local church.

Midnight mass is usually only celebrated at, I believe, Christmas and Easter.  Maybe only Christmas…  It’s been a while. Anyhow, the idea is to be in church at the magic moment when the special day arrives.

ALAN: I’ve never attended any church services of any description, so I’ve always found descriptions of them quite intriguing. Tell me more.

JANE: Glad to!  Our church had a realistic sense of what it meant to have over-fed, over-stimulated children awake at midnight.  So the children’s “midnight mass” was celebrated at 9:00 pm, with all the appropriate pomp and color and ritual.  But it was over by about 10:30, so kids (who were also anticipating Santa and the contents of shiny packages) could be gotten home and into bed.

ALAN: Very wise.

JANE: We were usually permitted to open one package on Christmas Eve.  Mom would often steer us to one that included an item of attire, so we’d also be wearing a new sweater or something, which just added to the feeling of Special Occasion.

ALAN: Lucky you! I never got any presents until Christmas Day. How could I? There weren’t any presents at all in the house until Father Christmas came overnight.

JANE: Ah, but these were gifts from family or from the friends who had come to join us for Christmas Eve dinner, so Santa Claus was in no way compromised!

I loved going to church and singing at the top of my lungs.  I loved going home to try to sleep for a few hours before one or more siblings would come creeping in to find out if I thought it was morning yet.

Somehow, after all of that, Christmas itself couldn’t live up to the Eve.  But it was pretty great, too, with presents and more wonderful food and more wonderful guests…

Ah, happy sigh…

I hope that all of you out there have a memorable Christmas Eve!


December 23, 2015

Last Saturday we had about a dozen people over at our place making and decorating cookies.  I did most of the making, because there’s only so much room to roll dough and, anyhow, it gave me a chance to play with my frighteningly huge collection of cookie cutters.

Just a Few of This Year's Cookies!

Just a Few of This Year’s Cookies!

I have enough cutters to overfill one of those long plastic boxes that most people use to keep sweaters or other bulky clothing items out of sight under the bed.  These cutters range from the common shapes – Christmas trees (three different), Santa, sleigh, gingerbread men, reindeer, star, bell – to  the still traditional but slightly less common shapes –  camels, trains, candle, chapel, angel, candy cane, holly leaf, snowflakes, cottage, elves, packages, and, of course, seals.

(Hey, you’ve heard of Christmas seals, right?)

Then there are the completely non-traditional, but what the heck, why not shapes: unicorn, rhino, horse, wolves, bear, fish, dogs, pick-up truck, buffalo, saguaro cactus, ankh, hedgehog, squirrels, cats, guinea pigs.  This year we added bats and a mummy case, for reasons that made perfect sense at the time.

By no accident at all, our guests included friends who we knew were artistically talented or who had shown interest in decorating cookies in the past.  These included my book cover illustrators, Tori Hansen (Wanderings on Writing) and Rowan Derrick (Curiosities).  Oh, and Cale Mims, who came up with the original cover design for Artemis Awakening, was also present.

Jim and I enjoy decorating cookies.  In fact, he’s developed a real gift for channeling the exuberance of his inner five year-old (although with a lot more dexterity).  However, what we learned the first time we included a few other people to help with decorating is if you give a bunch of people the same batch of sprinkles (okay, we have a lot of those, too, including black, which was Very Popular this year) and bags of frosting for piping,  you end up with a whole lot of variety in what the cookies look like in the end.

Since we’re not looking for neat arrays of elegantly matched cookies, we are completely thrilled with this.  In fact, the only thing that’s tough is deciding which miniature work of art to eat next.  “There’s Melissa’s candy cane!”  “Or, there’s Hilary’s wolf!”  “Or, did you see that incredibly detailed tree Pati did?”


This holiday season, as we wandered about doing our Christmas shopping, I became very aware of two conflicting elements that seemed to be competing: a desire for individuality and a desire to be up on whatever everyone else is into.

Among the gift offerings I saw frequently repeated was some variation on the classic charm bracelet.  Sometimes a necklace – rather than just a bracelet – was being promoted.  I saw a nifty locket that opened so that tiny charms could be inserted inside to create a sort of medicine pouch of emblems significant to the individual wearer.

Nor was this desire for individuality restricted to jewelry.  Michael’s craft store (a chain here in the U.S.) was encouraging people to buy charms and make them into pictures – for example, a Christmas tree shape, made from a dozen or more different charms.

Christmas tree ornaments into which a photo could be inserted were popular, as were kits that could be used to make an ornament featuring a pet’s paw print or child’s handprint.  Catalogs promoted gifts personalized with monograms or mix and match shopping for anything from soaps to candies to coffees – to give the gift “that personal touch.”

I admit, I do a fair amount of my shopping either from artists directly or at arts and crafts stores, so maybe I come across more of this than is usual, but I was impressed by how many ways there were to purchase mass-made items that could then be made more personal with minimal effort.

Side by side with this, however, individuality is competing with those who want these same individuals to make certain they are not left out of the herd.  We see this year-round with websites that inform you, “If you liked this… Then you’ll like that.”  Or “People who purchased this item, also purchased this other item” with the implication that you’re not an individual so much as an element in a specific herd: a wildebeest rather than a zebra, but still one with the herd.

As the year ends, we’re beginning to see a plethora of “best of” lists as well.   Lists that promote the best books, movies, anime, television shows, webcomics, whatever… all imply that in order to be “in” or “hep” or “cool” or “chill” or whatever, you need to be familiar with all of these works, since someone has named them “best.”

Never mind that individual tastes vary widely.  If someone else ordains an item “best,” you’d better jump for it.  I’ll admit, I’m just cranky enough that this sort of list is probably the best way to keep me from reading, viewing, whatevering, the item in question.

(The one exception to this is the Nebula Awards where, as a voter, I feel a responsibility to at least sample the items most likely to show up on the ballot.  For this reason, I wish to high heaven they hadn’t changed the rules and gave us more time!!)

A new wrinkle on these “best of” lists is the “most anticipated” list.  These are works that aren’t even out, but are being promoted with an appeal to the herd instinct.  Even when a work I am, in fact, anticipating (in my case, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King) is on the list, I feel absolutely no desire to get in line for the rest.  In fact, I’m aware of a strong desire to not even read the books I am interested in.

So…  Individuality or herd…  Or both.  Honestly, I think that all of us react with a certain amount of “both.”  I enjoy reading books my friends are reading so we can have heated discussions on them.  However, my best book buddies are those who abide by the unwritten rule: Just because I liked it doesn’t mean you must.  Just because I hated it doesn’t mean you must.

And I still haven’t seen Buffy.  Ever.  However, despite my dislike of anything to do with vampires, I must admit, a show that Yvonne, Julie, and Sally have all at different times been crazy about probably merits watching.  Maybe this year I’ll see about joining the herd.  Maybe!

FF: Waiting and Reading

December 18, 2015
Ogapoge Nabs a Future Read

Ogapoge Nabs a Future Read

Waiting on line at the post office wasn’t onerous at all with a book to read.  I noticed that people who were checking e-mail or doing things on electronic devices were the most fidgety, even more so than those people with nothing to occupy themselves at all.  By contrast, those with physical books were positively tranquil.

For those of you just discovering this feature, 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 description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Lair of Dreams: A Diviners Novel, by Libba Bray.  Audiobook. If you need to have a plot you can’t figure out to enjoy a book, then this is not the novel for you.  However, interesting characters and loving attention to setting gives a lot of appeal.

The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes by David Willis McCullough.  Non-fiction look at the world-wide interest in these patterns.  A wandering book – sort of a labyrinth in itself.  Enjoyable, but the visual images scattered within the text really, really, really needed captions!

In Progress:

Midnight Thief, by Livia Blackburne.  I’ve enjoyed visiting with Livia at Bubonicon these last couple years, so decided to try one of her books.


Still doing lots with craft books…  I rarely copy anything precisely, but they’re good sources for techniques.

TT: Fostering How Others See Us

December 17, 2015

JANE: As a Tangent off our quest to understand what makes New Zealand a unique nation, rather than something to be lumped into “antipodean” nations, we’ve been chatting about New Zealand authors.

Part of the Foster Club

Part of the Foster Club

In an e-mail, you mentioned you had a tangent off of that tangent.  I eagerly await!

ALAN: Well, I found myself wondering if there were any books about New Zealand written by authors from other countries. Parts of David Brin’s novel Earth are set in New Zealand. Also Poul Anderson has a series of far future stories in which the Maurai Federation, descended from the New Zealand Maori of course, dominate the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas of the world.

But I think that the very best New Zealand novel by an overseas author was written by Alan Dean Foster: Maori, a most magnificent novel set in nineteenth-century colonial New Zealand.

JANE: That’s interesting.  I’ve seen it about, but I admit I haven’t read it.  I do like much of his work, however, and I like him, too.  Have you met him?

ALAN: Yes, I met him when he was a guest of honour at a New Zealand Convention. We commiserated with each other about how often people spell our first name wrongly. That was an instant bond. I asked him to autograph Maori for me. He was quite flattered to be asked and very pleased to find that I’d read and admired it. He told me that he’d spent his honeymoon in New Zealand and the things he saw here inspired him to write the novel.

JANE: I first encountered Alan Dean Foster when we were among a slew of writers invited to attend the grand opening of the main Phoenix (Arizona) Public Library.  I’d been looking forward to meeting him, since (for reasons I’ll share later, if you wish) some of his work had made a great impact on me.

Jim and I had arrived and checked in, collecting our badges.  I pinned mine on, then we headed for the elevator.  I was one of the keynote speakers.  For reasons that completely escape me now, I was coordinating the upcoming panel discussion.  (Rather than the much more famous and very nice Harry Turtledove.)  For this reason, I was incredibly nervous.

Then, as we’re riding up on the elevator, another passenger greeted me very casually, something like, “Hi, Jane.  Good to see you.”

Inside I froze.  His tone was so friendly, it seemed as if we must have met before.  His face looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think we had met.  This is one of the horrors of being a semi-demi-hemi public person.  You meet a lot of people.  I try hard not to forget anyone, but sometimes it happens.

I decided not to bluff. “I’m sorry, sir.  I don’t recall if we’ve met.”

His face lit up into a beautifully impish grin.  “We haven’t.  I’m Alan Dean Foster.”

I liked him instantly!  And then I remembered… I was already wearing my badge!

ALAN: That’s him! You’ve described him perfectly. He’s impish, amusing and very entertaining company. I liked him instantly as well.

JANE: Tell me more about Maori.

ALAN: Maori tells the tale of the explosive eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 in which 120 people died. A few days before the eruption, local Maori reported seeing a phantom war canoe on Lake Tarawera. Tribal elders believed this to be a waka wairua (spirit canoe), a definite omen of doom!

In telling this story, Alan Dean Foster talks a lot about whaling in New Zealand, the Maori wars, gold mining, and the fascinating wild life. He does a magnificent job of bringing the time and the place alive. It’s my very favourite of his books, though I have a soft spot for several others. What do you think about his books?

JANE: Well, as I said above, Alan Dean Foster’s work actually had a big impact on me.  I doubt the works in question are ones he would consider his best, but they hit me at the right time.  These were his adaptation of the Star Trek animated episodes into print fiction.  I came to Star Trek in re-runs, and didn’t catch the animated version when it was aired.

(Remember, this was in those dark days of yesteryore, before VCRs changed viewing habits forever.)

So, one day, during a visit to the Smithsonian, I saw a boxed set containing four books containing more Star Trek.  New (to me) stories, even…  I plunked down my hard-earned pocket money and took them home.

(This was in the days before every TV show had novelizations all over the place…)

ALAN: I’ve always been very suspicious about novelizations of films and TV. Often they are rather dull. But it seems that Alan Dean Foster is actually quite good at them. Finish what you were saying, and then I’ll tell you why I think that…

JANE: Fantastic!  Okay, here’s the rest of my story.

I might have been disappointed by these adaptations, but Alan Dean Foster did a wonderful job.  He gave the characters backgrounds and depth only hinted at in the visual versions.  I don’t think it’s too much to say that these books helped shape me as a writer because I compared and contrasted what print could do that visual media could not – and the reverse.

In other words, I wasn’t just reading as a fan getting a “fix” on a show I’d thought forever gone.  I was developing creative impulses – and critical ones as well.  Now that I think about it, Alan Dean Foster may have also contributed to my becoming interested in lit crit.  Amazing!

ALAN: Yes – that sounds just like him! He’s actually written a lot of novelizations. One of them was the novelization of the film Dark Star. I’ve always been a fan of the film. Not only was it first class science fiction, it was also extremely funny, often quite subtly so. I approached the novelization with some trepidation. Would the humour still be there? Much to my relief, it was. Alan Dean Foster perfectly captured both the letter and the spirit of the movie and now I find that the book and the movie are inextricably mixed up in my head.

It turns out that he is really rather good at humorous SF, such a relief in this day and age when so much SF takes itself far too seriously.

JANE: Okay.  I’ve my pen and paper ready.  Can you give me some titles?

ALAN: I suppose you could call Mad Amos a weird west book.  (Yes, that really is a genre.) The book is a collection of linked short stories about Mad Amos Malone. He is a mountain man who rides a horse called Worthless. He has adventures out West with dragons and spirits and shamans and volcanoes. The stories are enormous fun. I particularly enjoyed the very understated scene where Amos adjusted the leather patch on his horse’s forehead and reminded himself to file the horn down because it was starting to grow again…

JANE: I bet these are good.  Alan Dean Foster lives in Arizona, so he’d have an advantage when writing about the wild west…  I’ll definitely look for these.

Any others?

ALAN: Yes – Ross Ed Hagar, the hero of Jed the Dead, wants to see the Pacific Ocean, so he sets out to drive across America. On the way he comes into possession of the corpse of an alien. As one does…

He calls the alien Jed and sits him in the passenger seat and talks to him, though the conversations do tend to be a bit one sided. Jed attracts a lot of attention on the trip, but Ross Ed always bluffs his way through. And then the government gets in on the act, and so do several other interested parties, some of them more or less sane, some of them more or less legal and some of them more or less human. But Jed doesn’t care. He’s dead. Even just thinking about this book puts a smile on my face and I really feel I have to go and read it again.

JANE: “As one does…”  You are distinctly evil!  Now I must find a copy of this book.  In fact, after our recent book chats, the idea of being able to raid your library would be a definite incentive for us to move to New Zealand.

ALAN: Then I suggest you book your tickets.

Meanwhile, next week is Christmas Eve. Do you have any special traditions for the day?

JANE: Definitely!  I’ll share them with you next time.

Love Writing for Itself

December 16, 2015

It’s been a crazy-busy time, what with holiday preparations and all.  I’ve pulled out my polymer clay again after a long hiatus, and am facing the challenge of making a camel to go with the Nativity set I’ve been making piece by piece for my sister, Susan, over the years.   Camels are weird, but I’ve managed the basic creature and will be adding details next.

Projects in Process

Projects in Process

I also crafted some handmade items for a few people on my list for whom nothing in the stores seemed to fit.  Actually, I’m not quite done with those, either!

We also send lots of Christmas cards…  With handwritten notes and a Christmas letter.  This takes time.  Jim handles the decorating, bless him, so the house looks very festive.  And we’re inviting a few folks over to decorate gingerbread and sugar cookies on Saturday.   There are other types of cookies I’ll make on my own.

We don’t do all of this because we’re trying to be Martha Stewart or anything.  We do it because we enjoy it – because it’s nice to punctuate the end of the year by saying “Hey!  We like you!  Thanks for being a bright spot in the world.”

But all these additional activities do make me feel pinched for finding time to do the other thing I really love: writing.  Why I write is something I want to talk about because – despite the popularity of SF/F – this is a really hard time to be not a writer – but to be a published author.

In the last week, I’ve had three or four people tell me that they want to write, that I’ve been an inspiration to them.  While I’m thrilled that these people have discovered the joy of telling stories, I also feel concern that they may not realize what they’re getting into.  While it’s true that you can’t possibly sell a book without writing one first – writing that book doesn’t mean that it’s going to sell.

You’ve got to love the writing for the sake of the writing, not because you think writing a book will automatically lead to being published.  I wrote several novel-length manuscripts before selling Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls.  This doesn’t mean your first novel won’t sell – mine eventually did, although only after I’d added to it and revised it significantly.  (This was The Pipes of Orpheus.)

I’m not going to blight my mood by talking about how the market is now.  I’m going to talk about love.  I’m writing a piece right now that has me obsessed.  When I’m writing it, I don’t want to stop.  When I’m not writing it, I’m thinking about it.  However, it’s very odd.  It does not fit any market parameters that I can think of except that I guess it’s Fantasy.  Maybe.

But it’s not epic fantasy, urban fantasy, or sword and sorcery.  It’s just the story that has me obsessed.  When it came to me, I had to make the choice – am I a writer or am I someone who writes to be published?  I decided that I’m a writer.

I’m even writing it long-hand, which is the way I wrote my first several novels.  I only switched to writing first drafts directly on the computer when I was under contract and couldn’t afford the time to retype.  So I’m being horribly unprofessional.

But I’m in love.  I’m writing something I really, really want to write.

So here’s a holiday gift for you and you and you and you…  For the people who have contacted me over the years saying, “You’ve inspired me.  I really want to write.”

Make sure you’re writing because you’d love to write even if you never see publication.  Write because you have a story you want to tell, a story no one else is telling the way you’d tell it.  Write because – even with packages to wrap, cards to send, presents to make – you can’t wait to grab a pen and start scribbling.

Write from love.

FF: Finding Time to Read

December 11, 2015

With holiday preparations taking up time, I haven’t had as much reading time as I’d like.

Kel Curls Up With A Book

Kel Curls Up With A Book

For those of you just discovering this feature, 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 description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  Setting was the most interesting part for me.

In Progress:

Lair of Dreams: A Diviners Novel, by Libba Bray.  Audiobook.  This one is over twenty hours, so I’m still going along.

Midnight Thief, by Livia Blackburne.  I’ve enjoyed visiting with Livia at Bubonicon these last couple years, so decided to try one of her books.  Just started.

The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes by David Willis McCullough.  Non-fiction look at the world-wide interest in these patterns.  Reading a little at a time.


Some craft project books.

TT: C is for Crumpy

December 10, 2015

JANE: So, Alan, over the last few weeks we’ve discussed Mansfield, Mahy, Marsh, and Mann. Last week you shocked me by hinting that there may actually be New Zealand writers who do not have “M” as a first initial in their surname. Would you care to enlighten me?

Bess and Crump (by Alan Robson)

Bess and Crump (by Alan Robson)

ALAN: Yes, indeed. Have you ever read anything by Barry Crump?

JANE (wincing at needing to express ignorance, once again): I don’t think so…

ALAN: I’m not really surprised. As far as I am aware, he was only ever published in New Zealand, with perhaps a little exposure in Australia. And I think that’s a pity, because in my opinion he was one of the finest New Zealand writers.

JANE: What made Barry Crump’s works so special?

ALAN: I have literally cried with laughter while reading his books, and yet at the same time he could also be quite serious. Being able to combine those two things is a great gift.

His first novel, published in 1960, was A Good Keen Man. It was a semi-autobiographical account of life as a deer culler deep in the New Zealand bush. It was very funny, but it also showed clearly that “Crumpy” (as he was affectionately known) had a genuine love for the bush. That feeling of deep attachment permeated all of his writing. Some of his stories were set in the city rather than in the country and, while I enjoyed them, I always felt they were less successful. The bush was where he properly belonged, and the stories that he set there were gems.

JANE: I think you mentioned Crump in passing in an earlier Tangent – or maybe in one of our e-mail exchanges.  Please tell me more.

ALAN: One reason for Crumpy’s popularity was that he defined New Zealanders in the way that New Zealanders thought of themselves. The clichéd picture has always been of a rugged, self-reliant person who could fix anything with a length of number eight fencing wire. Crumpy took that caricature and made it work and that, together with his humour, was a guaranteed recipe for success.

JANE: Ah…  Like that television character…  MacGyver?  But a New Zealand version.  Cool!  I suppose today his characters would use duct tape, rather than fencing wire.

ALAN: Very probably. Amusingly, the phrase “duct tape” is quite hard to say distinctly. It often comes out sounding rather like “duck tape”. Some marketing genius has taken advantage of this and there’s a brand of duct tape on sale here in New Zealand under the name “Duck Tape”. I always enjoy asking for Duck Tape duct tape, just to watch the expression on the shop assistant’s face…

JANE: We have “Duck Tape” here, too.  It’s very trendy.  You can get it printed with all sorts of patterns, including tie-dye and various cartoon characters.  There are books about making various craft items – including wallets – out of it.  There’s even a contest for the best prom outfits made out of Duck Tape (although I think duct tape is also acceptable).

ALAN: Can you make a duck out of Duck Tape? That would be a meta-duck. As in: “I took my dog for a walk in the park and we meta-duck.”

JANE: Ouch!  Don’t tell Jake.  He’ll be afraid to go to the part for fear of the meta-duck.

 But, returning to the works of Barry Crump…

Did he have any continuing characters or were his novels always stand-alones?

ALAN: He had a character called Sam Cash who appeared in three rather loosely-linked novels, Hang on a Minute Mate (1961), One of Us (1962) and There and Back (1963). Sam was a drifter, a jack-of-all-trades, a con man. I actually found him quite an unsympathetic character, though he has his fans. There was always a seedy feeling to Sam and he was quite untrustworthy.

JANE: Interesting.  I know from reading your “wot I red on my hols” column that you can enjoy a crime novel and even some very dark subjects, so Sam Cash must be very unsympathetic.

Does Crump have any other continuing characters?

ALAN: Sort of. In 1992 he published his autobiography (The Life and Times of a Good Keen Man) which he said was the first volume of a trilogy. To complete the trilogy, he published two collections of short stories (Forty Yarns and a Song and Crumpy’s Campfire Companion). In addition, many of his earlier stories also had their autobiographical aspects. The first person narrator of all of these is a constant voice. Crumpy seen through his own eyes, as it were. I like to think of that voice as a continuing character.

JANE: Well…  That could be said to be a “given.”  But, in a sense it isn’t.  I think more readers need to be aware that an autobiographical narrator is as much a character as any other…

Do you have any favorite Crump novels?

ALAN: Yes, I do. In my opinion, Barry Crump’s very best novel was Wild Pork and Watercress (1986). The story tells of Ricky, a Maori boy who has run away from his foster home and is trying to keep one step ahead of the authorities who want to put him back into care. His pakeha friend Uncle Hec is a grizzled old anti-social bushman who takes Ricky under his wing. Together they escape into the bush. It’s a funny and ultimately very moving book as the relationship between the two deepens and grows. Crumpy’s love of the bush has never been more strongly expressed, and there’s a beautiful twist at the end.

JANE: I think I’d like that one…  I’ve always been a sucker for books where a kid finds an atypical mentor.

Is Crump “Uncle Hec”?

ALAN: I think probably a large part of him is.

JANE: Any others you’d like to recommend?

ALAN: Yes, I’m also rather fond of Gulf (1964) which, just like A Good Keen Man, is about things that Crump himself actually did, though of course he isn’t afraid to twist the circumstances around for dramatic and comic effect. The hero travels to Australia to hunt crocodiles. The book is full of delightful sketches of eccentric Aussies (that includes the crocodiles) and, as always, his love of the bush and the feeling of being close to nature is intimately woven into the story.

JANE: Barry Crump’s books sound like fun.  I’ll keep an eye open for them.  These days, courtesy of the internet, it’s amazing what one can find.

Next time, I want to bring up something you mentioned in an e-mail a while back…  However, for now, I shall remain mysterious!