Sunday, May 21, 2017

Life moves pretty fast.

Alan9187 | Pixabay CC0
Did ya miss me?

You all know how reliable I am. If I'm going to take a week off, I always tell you. Right? But for the past two Sundays, I've been a lousy correspondent. Last Sunday, I was out of town (and very busy the day before, putting the finishing touches on the first draft of Maggie on the Cusp). But I have no excuse for missing the May 7th post. It just...happened.

I guess I could blame fatigue. I had plenty to be tired about: I'd won Camp NaNoWriMo the previous weekend, and was also finishing a shawl. We've had plenty of weird weather -- some days as hot as July, some as cold as March -- and the air conditioning in our apartment building has often been broken on the hot days. And for some inexplicable reason, I decided to sign up for Irish lessons -- the language, that is -- and the first class was May 4th.

But there's also been this thing going on down the street from my day job. Stories have been coming out of the White House thick and fast since Inauguration Day, but lately the pace has sped up, with new revelations hourly. It's hard to keep up -- even for someone like me, who used to make a living by keeping an eye on dispatches from two wire services at once.

In the midst of this week's tsunami of revelations, the Washington Post ran a story called "Trump is mirroring Nixon's final days." That headline pulled me up short. See, I remember Watergate. The congressional hearings occurred while I was in high school; some teachers had TVs in their classrooms and would watch the proceedings between classes.

Here's the thing: The Watergate break-in occurred on June 17th, 1972, and President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. That's a span of about two years. (Wikipedia has a timeline of events leading up to Nixon's resignation.) Compare that with the timeline for President Trump's troubles: It's been barely a year since the Democratic National Committee announced its server had been hacked and the job pinned on Russian intelligence sources. (Journalist Bill Moyers is keeping a timeline of events relating to Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election.) And Trump is already mirroring Nixon's final days?

Part of the difference, of course, is the style of the two men. But another part of it is the speed at which news is disseminated today. Back in the '70s, newspapers and television news operations each had only one deadline per day. Cable news wasn't a factor -- CNN didn't go on the air until 1980. If you had a scoop, you had to wait hours before you could get it out to the public (and hope nobody stole it from you in the meantime).

Contrast that to today, when cable news is on 24/7 and newspapers release stories online at all hours of the day and night. Journalists can begin building on each other's scoops within minutes, and can release new details immediately -- and we mere mortals viewing the news on our smartphones can share them seconds later.

The danger is that we may all burn out. Lately I have my phone in my hand almost constantly, and I'm pretty sure that's not a good thing. And it's going to get worse before it gets better; the special counsel is just beginning his investigation.

Maybe this is a good time to recall the immortal words of Ferris Bueller.

Thanks, Ferris. I promise to put down my phone and look around once in a while.

These moments of speedy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why you should write what you know - with a caveat.

One of my fellow minions at Indies Unlimited, Gordon Long, posted an article this week about how, in his opinion, scientists shouldn't write science fiction. You've heard the saying, I trust, that you should write what you know. Gordon's argument stands that saying on its head.

His premise is that scientists tend to geek out over their subject matter and include way too much detail -- which, while accurate, will bore the reader to tears. He does allow for the fact that sci-fi readers expect infodumps of technical information about the way things work in the story's universe. That's pretty much a given in sci-fi. But he says it's too easy for overly enthusiastic new authors to include too much information in an infodump, or too many infodumps in a story, or appendices (in a novel!) with an excruciating level of detail.

Gordon's got a point, and it doesn't happen only in sci-fi. Years ago, I wrote a horror story that was set in a TV studio. I spent a lot of time in that story describing the layout of the studio, down to the position of the lights hooked up on the racks above the set. It was way, way, way too much detail -- so much detail that on a re-read years later, I was embarrassed I'd written it. (No, you can't read it. I think I lost it in a move -- and good riddance.)

The thing is that there are good reasons for scientists to write sci-fi. Regular readers of the genre do expect infodumps -- but they also expect the science behind the whiz-bang special effects to be plausible. The fiction part can't violate the rules of the science part; if it does, readers will call you on it. Or they'll call you an idiot. Or both.

What Gordon is arguing for, I think, is moderation -- authors should include only as much description and background information as is necessary to tell the story. Some authors resist the temptation to include too much detail by not inventing an extensive backstory at all, although that can get you into trouble in other ways (say, in book two).

Perhaps the best way for an author to avoid tedious infodumps is to enlist a layman or two (or more) as beta readers. You're looking for the holy grail here -- somebody who not only knows just enough to realize when the author is heading off into the weeds, but who is also willing to tell the author that those weedy bits need to be excised. An author could also trust their editor to tell where to cut, but editors cost money. Beta readers can help with the rough polishing before an author sends the book to the editor.

At the end of the day, I don't think Gordon's view is far from mine. Feel free to write what you know -- with the understanding that all those details that are so fascinating to you may bog down your story for your readers.

Good news on the Transcendence front: Today is the last day of the first session of Camp NaNoWriMo this year, and I was able to "win" last night by topping 45,000 words on Maggie on the Cusp. While camp is over, the book is not; I have a handful of scenes yet to write. But I expect I will wrap that up here in the next week or so.

Also, and speaking of sci-fi: Plan 559 from Outer Space Mk. III is out! I had a little fun with the characters in my story, "Shreeg." See if you can tell who Captain Lodestone is based on. First person with the correct answer wins an autographed paperback of Maggie in the Dark. Good luck!

These moments of bloggy moderation have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

World Book Night: Touchstone novels.

Happy World Book Night! This is a UK celebration, but I don't think anyone would complain about people in the United States participating. One of the suggested activities is to recommend a book that has made a difference to you. Not one to do things by halves, here are four novels that resonated with me during various periods in my life.

My first touchstone book was Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The edition I owned looked like this -- it was an abridged version that I received for Christmas from a relative when I was little. This book may be responsible for my obsession with craggy mountains -- as well as my interest in tiny houses, come to think of it. I was enchanted by the account of Heidi living with the Alm-Uncle in his alpine hut. I was especially enchanted with the description of Heidi's bed in that hut. The Alm-Uncle beds her down in the hayloft. One day I did my best to recreate it by tucking in my quilt along the end of my own bed. I didn't have any hay to use as a mattress, though, which was disappointing -- and anyway Mom, who wasn't charmed, made me take it apart.

Later on in elementary school, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott became my favorite novel. Again, I had an abridged version, with only the first half of the book. I was shocked later to discover that there was more to the story -- not only did Meg marry John and have two kids, but Amy ended up marrying Laurie, Jo marries a German professor, and -- most heart-wrenching of all -- Beth died.

Sorry for the spoilers. I thought it would be okay, as the book's been out for almost 150 years.

Anyway, that was my favorite novel until, in eighth grade, I read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Her sister's novel Wuthering Heights is read more often in school, but Jane's story resonated more deeply with teenaged me -- the tragic heroine, the star-crossed lovers, the brooding Mr. Rochester. I deeply felt the injustices the world handed to poor Jane. And then to snatch her chance at love away from her! And how selfless she was, to give so much of her inheritance to the Riverses! I found it fascinating that the most recent movie version, with Mia Wasikowska as Jane, dropped the unlikely coincidence that Jane and the Riverses are related. It did stretch credulity -- even more so than Rochester's eerie cry across the moors that sends her running back to him in the end.

The cover of my paperback copy looked like this -- so very 1970s! -- and I read the scenes between Jane and Rochester so many times that the book fell open at the juicy bits by itself. And all that angst cost just 50 cents!

And then, in the early 1980s, I found The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, the epic fantasy series by Stephen R. Donaldson. I was working at my first radio job in LaPorte, Indiana, when I checked the first trilogy out of the library, and devoured them. Covenant is the quintessential anti-hero -- he's a leper, which was incurable back then, and the disease shatters his life. Somehow he's transported to a magical Land where his leprosy is cured and he's hailed as a hero reborn. Or maybe not. Covenant is faced with a dilemma -- not whether the Land is real, but whether, in the end, it matters.

Covenant's moral quandary resonated with me as a young adult, and gave me a framework for making ethical decisions. What Covenant learns is that no matter how unbelievable the situation you find yourself in, the most important thing is to be true to yourself.

Little did I know how much of an impact that series would have on my life. In 2000, while idly searching the web, I came across several sites dedicated to the series -- including one called I considered that site my home on the internet for more than fifteen years. Thanks to the Watch, I've met people from across the United States and around the world, many of them in person -- including the author.

Which books are your touchstones? I'd love to hear about them.

These bloggy touchstones have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

My tiny house adventure.

Three years ago, almost to the week, I posted about my then-new obsession -- looking at photos of tiny houses on wheels (THOWs for short) on teh intarwebs. Just because I haven't mentioned it since then doesn't mean I've given up the habit. In fact, I have found a couple of manufacturers whose websites I sometimes visit just to drool over the new models.

To recap: A tiny house is a dwelling that's less than 500 square feet in size. A THOW is a tiny house built on a trailer; these rarely run more than, say, 350 square feet. Much bigger than that, and you need a semi to tow it.

One of the most drool-worthy (in my opinion) THOW manufacturers is Escape Homes in Wisconsin, and as soon as I found out they were opening a dealership in Virginia, I started looking at my calendar. Because it's one thing to drool over photos, and another thing to stand inside a tiny house and decide whether you could live there.

Yes, I said "live there." And yes, I do think I could downsize from our current 1,150-square-foot apartment (which I share with my two daughters, so that's less than 400 square feet each...) to 350 square feet or so. And now that we've established that many of you will think I'm nuts, we can proceed.

I've had my eye on the Vintage XL and Traveler XL models in particular. Both are in that 350-square-foot range; both have a ground-floor bedroom, full-size kitchen appliances, and a washer-dryer. The bedrooms are basically just the bed (which is true of nearly every THOW floor plan I've ever seen) and the living/dining space is, well, tiny. But most people who live in these units consider the outdoors an extension of their living space.

Anyway, this weekend, I drove five hours to southwestern Virginia to see what this new dealership had on offer. And I found I liked the Traveler XL better than the Vintage XL. Here are a couple of shots of the Traveler XL interior. The first one is from the bedroom doorway, looking toward the bathroom. To the left, out of the shot, is an electric fireplace with a TV above it. You can see a corner of the optional couch, which folds flat for extra sleeping space. And yes, there's a loft, which you can use either for more sleeping space or an attic (ding ding ding).

This next photo is of the bedroom. On the right, out of the photo, is a closet that's maybe 24 inches wide, tops. Clearly you need to keep your wardrobe very basic if you plan to live in one of these. The little nightstand is built in, and there's a shelf above the windows with LED reading lights built into the underside. They had a TV hung on the wall to the left of this photo, but I think two TVs in 350 square feet is overkill. Although maybe that's just me.

The problem with any THOW is where to park it -- especially if you plan to live in it year-round. Cities and counties have a strong bias toward permanent improvements to real estate, because that way they can collect more in property taxes. THOWs are not permanent structures -- they aren't attached to the property. So the authorities are okay with you buying a 500-square-foot condo in a high-rise, but they are generally not okay with you parking a THOW on a parcel of land and living in it -- even if you paid as much for your THOW as you would have for the condo.

Some cities are coming around, but they're eyeing THOWs mostly as units for homeless people, or for low-income workers who can't afford to live in the city where they work. Retirees are mostly out of luck. I've read many comments on various sites from people nearing, or in, retirement who would love to live in a THOW (or its 400-square-foot cousin, a park model RV) full-time, but they can't find a place where zoning regulations would allow them to do it. Even rural counties are getting cranky about it.

So as cute as these units are, I would need to have a site lined up before I bought one. Which is to say that I'll probably end up with a condo.

On the way back, I drove part of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. This weekend and next weekend are fee-free days at all national parks in the US (so get out next weekend and find a park!). Skyline Drive was a little crowded today, but not as crowded as it usually is in the fall when the leaves turn. When I was there today, the deciduous trees hadn't really begun leafing out yet. Still, it's not a bad view.


I'll be back in the Camp NaNo saddle this week, continuing work on Maggie on the Cusp. I was far enough ahead on Friday that I was comfortable with taking the weekend off for my little jaunt.

Have a great week, everybody.

These moments of tiny bloggy living have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.