Archive for January, 2020

FF: Beneath the Surface

January 31, 2020

Mei-Ling Likes This Book About Fancy String

Some of my favorite non-fiction takes you behind the scenes, beyond the basic assumptions we bring to topic.  I’m certainly getting a solid dose of that this week!

For those of you new to this column, 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 magazines.  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.

And I really enjoy hearing about what you’re reading!

Recently Completed:

Why Do Cats Sulk? by Arline Bleeker.  A light-hearted look at our assumptions about cats.  It’s strongest when the author is sticking to biology.  Some of her later material gets distinctly wobbly.  Nonetheless, a fun book.

“The Demons of Wall Street” by Laurence Raphael Brothers.  Novella.  Noir detective meets urban fantasy.  Very strong world building and a plot that forces the main character to think a lot about her assumptions.  Even the almost too good to be true romance couldn’t toss me out.  Available in March.

Kumihimo: Basics and Beyond by Rebecca Ann Combs.  I don’t usually mentioned craft books, but I wanted to give a nod to the author.  Not only has she written a fine book, she promptly answered a question I sent her when she didn’t cover a hoped-for-point.

In Progress:

Gulp by Mary Roach.  Non-fiction look at the digestive system, starting with the sense of smell (because odor/aroma is closely tied to eating) and ambling on through areas almost tangential to the topic but nonetheless fascinating.  There was an amusing section on why it’s so hard to get diners in the United States to eat organ meats.   We’re currently on saliva.

The Age of Faith by Will Durant.  Part Four of “The Story of Civilization.”  Audiobook.  I’ve finished Islam and put this aside for now while I let all the complex material soak in.

Also:

One of this week’s projects has been writing new cover blurbs for the three “Breaking the Wall” novels in anticipation of the new e-books that should come out sometime in February.  I went to re-read the opening of Thirteen Orphans and found myself completely sucked in.  A very odd, very satisfactory experience.

This Is One of Those Weeks

January 29, 2020

Apprentice Treecat With My Annotated Copy of SK1

This is one of those weeks…  Nothing bad.  Just lots of things.  What’s really weird is that all these things actually mean projects are moving ahead, but I feel as if  I’m getting nowhere because I’m not working on what I thought I’d be working on.  Does that make any sense?

So here are a few of the new things.  The covers for the new e-book versions of the three “Breaking the Wall” novels have been completed.  Cover art and design was done by my long-time friend, Jane Noel, and takes a completely different approach from the covers done originally by Tor Books.

We’re working on the interior design right now…

I’m grounding myself once again in the universe of the Star Kingdom novels that I co-write with David Weber.  (Another long-time friend.  I’m seeing a trend here.)  It’s been over seven years since I’ve written a new novel in that universe, and I’ve had to ground myself in characters and locations major and minor, even in those little tricks of language that make the collaborations have the “voice” of the Honorverse.

Such as, you ask?  Well, for example, treecats are often described as “flowing” from place to place.  Or that when writing treecats “talking” to each other, contractions are never used.  Or that the treecats think of themselves as “The People” and humans as “two-legs.”  And that’s just the treecat stuff.  Unlike in most of the Honorverse novels where the characters are adults, and as such fairly set in their habits, our main characters are changing in ways big and small in every book while in some way remaining organically “themselves.”

What else?  I’ve read/am reading some neat things that I’ll be providing blurbs for.  If you want a hint as to what, take a look at my FF and guess!  Unlike some authors who provide generic blurbs, I only blurb stories I’ve read, and then I try to provide blurbs that in some way reflect a the work.

In case you’re wondering, Wolf’s Soul is still with my copy editor.  I talked with her earlier this week, and she’s hard at work.

On a personal front, Jim and I celebrated our twenty-third anniversary this past weekend.  We went up to Santa Fe to try okonomiyaki, which it turns out we both really like.  And then we wandered around, looking at all the pretty things.

While chatting with a friend about all of this, I had an insight as to how I deal with too much all at once.  Triage.  What must be done, or the project stalls completely, comes first.  Next comes what moves a project along.  The wild idea of the moment—like messing around with the lovely blank journal Jim gave me for our anniversary—that comes last.

So, off to check something off the triage list!

FF: Word of Mouth

January 24, 2020

Persephone Considers The Lore

This week I’ve been thinking about how word of mouth really is the best publicity.  One of the novels I just finished—and enjoyed— never would have made my reading shelf without it.  This week, my reading is heavy on fragments here and there for research, catching up on magazines, so the list is sparse.

For those of you new to this column, 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 magazines.  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.

And I really enjoy hearing about what you’re reading!

Recently Completed:

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson.  Strong characters kept this from being boringly predictable and instead made it a good and gripping read.  It’s also a great example of why you readers of the FF can influence my choices.  I first heard of it here.  Then, when Alan Robson mentioned it in his “wot I red on my hols” column, I decided to try it.

In Progress:

Why Do Cats Sulk? by Arline Bleeker.  A light-hearted look at our assumptions about cats, supported by lots of solid research into felines domestic and not.  (In case you wonder, cat’s don’t sulk.  That’s a human assumption!)

The Age of Faith by Will Durant.  Part Four of “The Story of Civilization.”  Audiobook.  Great moment this week was when Jim learned about the origin of assassins.

Also:

Catching up.  Researching.

Bookends and Bookmarks

January 22, 2020

900 Year-Old Hearth Piece, Notebooks, and Resources

I have a little challenge for you.  What’s the oddest thing you use as a bookend or bookmark?  Here’s why I’m asking…

Last week, I bought a new bookcase for behind my desk.  It’s the same size, more or less, as the bookcase that was there before.  However, this one has glass doors over the shelves.  This not only looks great, but has another tremendous advantage.  You see, Persephone cat likes to knock things off that particular bookshelf.  Sometimes she likes to shelve herself, which is often to the detriment of the books, since she also likes to bite books, especially paperback books.

Acquiring this new bookcase meant taking all the books off the shelf unit that was there, moving it, then moving books hither and yon.  Admirable as this new bookshelf is in many ways, the glass doors take up a little room, so the shelves are less deep.  They’re also fixed, so I needed to consider height, as well as depth, when re-shelving.

(In case you wonder, the former bookshelf was moved into our office closet and is serving as a new home and sorting area for some of the books and journals Jim brought home from his office when he retired a bit over a year ago.  My archeologist is also a scholar.)

In the course of doing this, I found myself looking at the various things I use as bookends.  There are several very attractive actual bookends, including several made from slices of stone that show off the crystals very nicely.  There’s a carved horsehead in Mexican onyx.  There’s a nice set of metal bookends, shaped like gates into Chinese gardens.  These have the added bonus of not taking up much space themselves.

Odder things have been drafted into bookend duty.  There’s a mah-jong set, one of several I acquired when researching the “Breaking the Wall” books.  There’s a pair of cast resin “jade” fu-dogs.  There are several wooden boxes, which do double duty by holding other things.

However, my personal “winner” for the oddest thing to be used as a bookend is a segment from a 900-year-old Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) hearth curb made from adobe.  When Jim and I were dating, he was co-directing a dig near Taos.  I went to visit him and fell in love with the simple grace and beauty of this hearth.  Since it was due to be destroyed, Jim brought me home a segment, and it has been a prized furnishing in my office ever since.

Moving books also turned up any number off interesting bookmarks.  In addition to the usual freebee bookmarks for forgotten bookstores and long-ago book releases, there were plane tickets (from the days when such existed), file cards, scraps of paper (including those with research notes scribbled on them), and envelopes.

Librarians and used-bookstore staff often have wonderful stories of things they find used as bookmarks, including, memorably, in one case, a $50.00 bill in a used book.  My most interesting find was a file card on which Roger Zelazny made some notations for a long-ago project.  Based on the topic, I’d guess it may go back as long ago as This Immortal (aka “And Call Me Conrad”) but I can’t be sure.

How about you?  What’s the most interesting thing you have used as a bookend or found as a bookmark?  There’s no prize except bragging rights, but I’d love to hear!

FF: Linked Activities

January 17, 2020

Dandy Considers The Stars

I’m working on three projects at once, so my reading time has tapered off, but since I’ve learned that for my brain reading and writing are linked, I’m making time to read.

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 magazines.  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.

And I really enjoy hearing about what you’re reading!

Recently Completed:

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World compiled by Kathleen Ragan.  Keeper for my shelves.  Recommended that readers take it a few stories at a time, because it’s easier to think about themes.  Editors notes are usually good, but sometimes less scholarly than I would have liked.

In Progress:

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson.  Recommended by Alan Robson, my former Tangent’s collaborator and a regular FF reader!

The Age of Faith by Will Durant.  Part Four of “The Story of Civilization.”  Audiobook.  Still immersed in Islam.

Also:

Catching up on magazines…  I have a couple that came before Christmas I haven’t even looked at yet.  Sigh!  But I’ve finished American Archeology and Archeology.  Now reading Smithsonian, the cover story of which is an issue I’ve read about in the prior two mags.  Interesting to see the different take.

Wandering For Ten Years

January 15, 2020

That Was The Year That Was

January 13th of 2010 saw my first Wednesday Wanderings post.

A decade.  Ten years.  Fifty-two weeks a year.  And I haven’t missed once.  I think that makes for 520 essays, plus this one today.

Sometimes, like today, the post has been relatively short.

Other times, the posts have been long essays, often on writing. Some of these became Wanderings on Writing, one of the few books on writing that focuses on the unique concerns encountered by a working writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Other times these Wanderings have been about life, or new releases, or trips.

There was that time we saw a camel in someone’s yard…

For seven years, I also wrote the Thursday Tangents, which my friend, Alan Robson of New Zealand.  You can download some of these as a free e-book here.

A bit over five years ago, I started the Friday Fragments, which gives you a glimpse into my reading habits and provides you with the opportunity to influence them.

I’m always open to suggestions as to possible topics for these Wanderings.  Please feel free to make suggestions for the year to come.

Lots of things have changed in these last ten years.  One thing hasn’t.  I’m still a writer.  And now I’m off to write.

FF: More Fragmentary Than Usual

January 10, 2020

Fang-Glorious Persephone

This week I seem to be reading more short works, which is unusual for me.  It’s been satisfying, though.  Who ever thought a Father Brown story (“The Invisible Man”) would have distinctively steampunk elements?

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 magazines.  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.

And I really enjoy hearing about what you’re reading!

Recently Completed:

The Great British Detective edited by Ron Goulart.  Chronological short story collection, one per author.  I thought I’d just read a few, but I found it surprisingly addictive.

In Progress:

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World compiled by Kathleen Ragan.  I’ve been reading more than a few stories a day.  Moving up through Africa.  (The book is arranged roughly geographically, which is rather fascinating.)

The Age of Faith by Will Durant.  Part Four of “The Story of Civilization.”  Audiobook.  Having finished off the Roman Empire, Durant has swirled back to focus on other prominent civilizations of the time.  More on Islam.

Also:

Catching up on magazines…  I have a couple that came before Christmas I haven’t even looked at yet.  Sigh!

Projects Update: Wolf’s Soul and Others

January 8, 2020

Kel’s On Top Of 2020

About this time last year, I wrote a comprehensive update about what I was working on and what could be expected in the year to come.  Seems like a good time to do the same thing again…

As promised, 2019 saw the release of Wolf’s Search, the seventh book in the Firekeeper Saga and the first new book in the series in about a decade.  2020 will see the release of Wolf’s Soul, the second part of the story.  The manuscript is written, polished, and I’m getting feedback from my secret beta readers.  After that’s in, I’ll give the manuscript a review, send the manuscript to my copyeditor, and shift into production.  If all goes well, the book should be available to you in just a few months.

I don’t plan to delay the release of Wolf’s Soul for promotional hype, gathering pre-orders, or the like.  The first announcement of availability will be via my newsletter.  Then I’ll mention it here, as well as on my social media.

Another almost completed project are{is} three new e-book versions of the “Breaking the Wall” novels (Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, and Five Odd Honors).  Each e-book will have new cover art by Jane Noel.  There will also be extra content in the form of essays about how the idea for the series evolved, as well as quite a lot about how elements of mah-jong played a role in the development of the magic system.   We’re working on cover art and design, then they’ll be ready to go.  Again, the first announcement will be on my newsletter, but I’ll mention it here as well.

If you’re not into e-books, I still have copies of the hardcover print editions available at my newly revamped website bookshop.

Contracts have been signed for three new novels in the “Star Kingdom” (aka “Stephanie Harrington”) series that I have been writing with my long-time friend, David Weber.  The series to this point consists of A Beautiful Friendship, Fire Season, and Treecat Wars.  These books are prequels to the “Honor Harrington” novels and, unlike those, take place mostly planetside.  For this reason, there’s a lot more about the treecats, their home lives, and culture.  We’ve started writing the first (yet untitled) book in this new series, and writing this will be my first focus in 2020.

I also have some short fiction forthcoming, including “The Problem With Magic Rings” in DreamForge and “The Greatest Jewel” in a Masters of Orion anthology.  And, yes, I’m continuing to work with DreamForge magazine, which has just completed its fourth issue and first year!

It’s possible that other books in my backlist will be made available as new e-books.  Whether that happens will be a question of time and energy.  I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have with the “Breaking the Wall” books without the help of my husband, Jim, artist Jane Noel, and frequent proofreader, Paul Dellinger.

I’d like to write more short fiction, and may well do so.  There’s also a 150,000 word rough draft manuscript that I’m hoping to get back to and expand, probably into two books.  I’d like to start with that before the year is over.  We’ll see if that’s a bit optimistic on my part…

So, another busy year with many new stories being written.  Any questions?

FF: Old Friends, New Year

January 3, 2020

Mei-Ling: Exhausted From Chasing The Moving Finger

We drove to the Phoenix, Arizona, area over the Christmas holiday, so a bit more fiction time.

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 magazines.  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.

And I really enjoy hearing about what you’re reading!

Recently Completed:

The Making of The African Queen or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and almost lost my mind by Katharine Hepburn.  Extremely chatty, reads as if it was narrated rather than written, with numerous asides.    I wish this was available as an audiobook with the same reader who read Me.  As Hepburn might say “Great fun!”

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, Audiobook.  This is an old favorite of mine, especially as read by Ian Carmichael, but Jim didn’t know it, so it was our audiobook on the drive.  Magnificent in many ways, and as it starts during the winter holidays, perfect.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  A dear friend gave me a copy of this old favorite, and I couldn’t resist re-listening!

In Progress:

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World compiled by Kathleen Ragan.  I’ve been reading more than a few stories a day.  We’ve finished Polynesia, Australia and are now into Sub-Saharan Africa.  (The book is arranged roughly geographically, which is rather fascinating.)

The Age of Faith by Will Durant.  Part Four of “The Story of Civilization.”  Audiobook.  Having finished off the Roman Empire, Durant has swirled back to focus on other prominent civilizations of the time.  We did the Persian Empire, and are now looking at the rise of Islam within the context of Arab culture.

Also:

A few more issues of Grimjack. Holding up pretty well, but more episodic than I remembered.  Oddly, the Munden’s Bar “filler” tends to have more continuity.

Oh, Cookie Tree…

January 1, 2020

This Past Week’s Creative Venture

Oh, Cookie-Tree, Oh Cookie-Tree…  How clueless were those instructions.  Oh, Cookie-Tree, Oh, Cookie-Tree.  Lack of organization and clarity were obstructions…

This is just one of many carols that wandered through my mind as Jim and I struggled to make a “simple” cookie tree this Christmas Eve.  As you can see from the picture, we succeeded.  The end result even looked cute and, amazingly, tasted good, too.  But there were times in the process when I seriously wanted to pull out scissors, tape, and start reorganizing the instructions.

I am, after all, a writer.

In those days of yore when I taught English Composition (aka, writing essays), I taught “process analysis” writing.  I would have given these instructions a C.  They didn’t fail because some of the component parts (like the recipe for the sugar cookies) were well-written.

But even those had problems…

As you celebrate the New Year, let me amuse you with the tale of our adventure.

The adventure of the cookie tree started when my mother bought a kit.  The box showed an ostensibly simple project.  Make twenty star-shaped cookies of graduated sizes (cutters included).  Build a stack from the bottom up, cementing each cookie to the next with a dab of frosting.  Add frosting embellishments using the included pastry bags and tips.  Add a final star at the top.  Tah-dah!

I’m one of those boring, methodical people who read instructions in advance, so the first thing I did was remove the accordion-fold brochure.  Reading these instructions was an exercise in futility.  In addition to the “basic” instructions, there were instructions for three different styles of tree.  All the instructions were in three languages.  However, the languages were not in separate sections, but in sequence for each stage of the process, so it was incredibly easy to miss a section in your preferred language.

Nonetheless, I read the instructions.  Jim read them.  Right off, we rejected “royal icing” in favor of the workhorse buttercream cookie frosting Jim has memorized.  Not only didn’t Mom have the ingredients for “royal icing” (the kit didn’t list what extra items you needed on the outside, only on the inside; since this kit looked so easy, she hadn’t opened it in advance), but also any icing that the instructions warn you will break down in certain circumstances is not my idea of fun.

(No.  I don’t remember what exactly would cause the disintegration.  Butter, maybe?  In any case, something incredibly common.)

First, I set off to make the cookie dough.  The instructions said “Do Not Chill,” so I took a section of the dough and started rolling.   I’m really, really good at rolling cookie dough thin and even.  (Want evidence?  See my Christmas WW for pictures of my cookies.)  However, even with a floured rolling pin and all the usual precautions, the dough stuck.  So I chilled it.  That helped.  But when the first round of cookies came out of the oven, rather than being the sharp-edged items shown in the photo, they were star-shaped blobs.

Deck the trays with vaguely star-shaped blobbies…

Even after being chilled, the dough was so soft that the larger cookies (say the first five sizes) had to be rolled directly on a cookie sheet.  Because the dough spread when baked, this meant the largest cookies had to be baked one at a time, because more than one cookie would merge with its neighbor.  At ten to twelve minutes per cookie, this meant hours of baking time, with someone (Jim usually) having to stay alert to the possibility of burning cookies.

Remember those “basic instructions”?  They did note that rolling on a cookie sheet “might” be necessary.  They did not include any hints on how to deal with all the flour left on the cookie sheet that would otherwise burn.  I’m an experienced baker, so I knew to clear it away.  I also found myself wondering how people would cope who did not happen to have (as we did) six or seven available cookie sheets and a selection of rolling pins that would fit within the confines of a rimmed cookie sheet.

After many hours, we had twenty-one cookies of graduated sizes and a few to spare.  (More on spares later.)  Jim had made the first batch of frosting and, using the delicate touch acquired from many years of archeological digs, he began assembling the cookies into a tree-stack.  He also figured out that a lumpy dab of frosting would invite breaking cookies as the stack grew, so carefully spread the frosting mortar over the contact areas.

While Jim was mortaring the tree together, I was rolling and baking the surplus dough.  That made at least three dozen more cookies, practically enough for another entire tree!  I found myself wondering why the kit hadn’t included a smaller recipe.

When Jim was done, we had a tree-shaped cookie stack, but we couldn’t proceed to the next step because the “mortar” was still wet, so the cookies would slide.  Thus, assembling the tree ended Day One.

Since we wanted the cookie tree to be ready for the evening of Christmas Day, Christmas morning, after coffee, presents, and breakfast, Jim and I mixed up frosting.  The pastry bags included for the frosting were so flimsy that splitting was guaranteed.  Happily, Mom had a couple of sturdier ones.

Jim tinted the icing (the kit recommended several very specific colors of food coloring but, of course, didn’t include them), and we took turns frosting the “branches” with myriad tiny icing stars.  That part was fun, if distinctly messy!  A scattering of ornamental jimmies (also not included, but Mom had some in slightly different colors) finished the task and we set the tree aside to dry.

I did resist, barely, my urge to edit the instructions…

That can wait for manuscripts, which I’ll be getting back to later this week.

Oh!  By the way, Happy New Year!  May your New Year be sweet and creative, whatever your chosen medium.