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.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Maggie's crazy old ladies.

Alert hearth/myth readers will recall that last week, I mentioned that all the older women in the Transcendence trilogy have memory problems. And I promised that this week, I would talk about why that is.

So here we are -- and here I sit, wishing I'd left myself a few notes about the topic. Ironic, right?

Pixabay | CC0
I could try to jog my memory by talking about what a growing problem dementia is. In 2015, the World Health Organization said more than 47 million people worldwide live with dementia -- and Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's Director-General, said that number is expected to triple by 2051. "There's a tidal wave of dementia coming our way" as the world's population continues to age, she said. The WHO is advocating for a worldwide plan for dealing with dementia, treatment for which is projected to cost upwards of $1.2 trillion by 2030.

I could also mention that Alzheimer's Disease, which gets most of the press, isn't the only type of dementia. There's also vascular dementia, which can occur following a stroke; Lewy body dementia, which happens when abnormal proteins appear in nerve cells for reasons as yet unknown; and frontotemporal dementia, which happens when certain regions of the brain shrink, causing behavior and emotional changes as opposed to memory problems. In fact, any disease or condition that damages brain or nerve cells can cause dementia.

And some other things cause memory issues, too. Stress is a big one; drug interactions, particularly in older people, are another. The good news is that those conditions can be reversed. Others can't yet, though. So the trick is figuring out what's causing the memory loss -- and in the case of Alzheimer's, where the cause is a buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, you can't know for sure without an autopsy.

But I'm pretty sure I wasn't thinking of all that last week. So let's talk about Maggie's crazy old ladies for a minute. (Hey, I made them up. I can call them crazy if I want.)

I mentioned Granny last week. She is a kindly but mysterious figure in a pastel track suit. She travels around the country with Zed, her assistant, in an ancient VW bus. She keeps calling Maggie by the wrong name, which she says doesn't matter because "it's not your real name anyway." She claims to be channeling a Shawnee Indian creator spirit, and she believes she's supposed to rescue or renew or reach 1,054 people before the next major lunar standstill in April 2025. (I talked briefly about lunar standstills last week.) Granny seems to have made peace with her occasional lapses of memory, maybe because Kokumthena is filling in the gaps for her in Her own way.

Ruth Brandt, Maggie's former mother-in-law, is a pill. She believes she knows best how to live everyone else's lives, especially those of family -- and she still considers Maggie family, even though Maggie's been divorced from her son for ten years. Ruth is stressed out because of her cancer treatments, but that's only part of her problem. She's been keeping a big secret for decades, and the stress of that is also wearing on her. In Maggie in the Dark, it falls to Maggie to bring that secret out into the open.

The third old lady in Maggie's life is her mother, Shirley Muir. Maggie talks about her at the beginning of Maggie in the Dark; then we meet her at the end of the book, when Maggie returns home after a couple of months at Ruth's. Shirley's memory issues are a crucial element of the plot of the second book, Maggie on the Cusp, which I'm writing now, so I won't say much more.

Maggie herself is no spring chicken, and the stress she undergoes while she achieves her transcendence is bound to have an effect on her. I don't think it will make her crazy. But then, I'm only partway into Maggie on the Cusp. Our heroine still has a long way to go.

By the way, if you haven't yet picked up a copy of Maggie in the Dark, here's where to go to get one. And thank you!

Camp NaNo progress: I had a great writing day yesterday -- Maggie on the Cusp now stands at about 15,000 words. I hope to add to that tonight, as I'll be out of pocket for a good chunk of the next two weekends, and I won't be able to employ my usual strategy of slacking off during the week and catching up in a marathon weekend session. The advantage to Camp NaNo is that in case I fall really far behind, I can adjust my goal so that I still "win". But that would mean finishing the first draft in May, and I'd really like to have it out of the way by the end of this month. Time will tell...

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What is Maggie transcending?

Big publishing news this week: Maggie in the Dark is out!

Big hugs to those of you who have already picked up a copy. I know the book is a bit of an unknown quantity; I haven't talked much about it, other than mentioning that it has something to do with the giant earthworks that the Hopewell and other ancient Native American civilizations built in the Eastern and Midwestern part of the United States.

As it happens, the series doesn't have a whole lot to do with the earthworks themselves. But archaeologists have speculated that the Newark Earthworks in Ohio were built to mark the passage of time -- not just of seasons or years, but of the moon's transit across the heavens on its 18.6-year cycle -- and they've further speculated that ceremonies were held when the moon appeared to stand still, at the northernmost and southernmost points in its cycle. Presumably, the thinking goes, the ceremony or ceremonies may have involved an effort to renew both the moon and the earth. So the idea of renewing the Earth was one of the jumping-off points for me, when I began planning the series last year. As Transcendence is the series title, it makes some sense that someone may have to transcend something in order to accomplish Earth's renewal.

Renewal was a theme in the Pipe Woman Chronicles, too. The whole thing was put in motion by White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman, who believed monotheistic religion was preventing humanity from becoming all it could be. Her solution was to send all the gods and goddesses back down to Earth to knock heads and persuade everyone to behave. But that turned out to be harder than it looked. The peace that Naomi and Joseph fought so hard to attain in the first five books was almost constantly under attack. In the end, the gods couldn't solve every problem. Humans still had to save themselves.

Where the Pipe Woman Chronicles went for a global renewal, the Transcendence trilogy is much more personal. Here, the gods don't show up on anyone's doorstep; they send messages by way of mysterious strangers, gut feelings, and dreams. The main character, Maggie Brandt, meets an elderly woman named Granny at the Great Circle Earthworks. Granny charges Maggie with -- you guessed it -- Earth's renewal. Maggie's journey is a personal one, done face-to-face: she must revisit turning points in her life by visiting the people who were involved in them, and she must then repair the damage she did back then. Her reparations are sometimes more painful to others than the original wounds, but like surgery, they're necessary for healing. It's not easy. To make matters worse, she's going largely by gut instinct; her only road map is the copper turtle effigy she found when she was a child.

Another aspect of the series is that several of the characters are elderly women with memory problems. That's no accident. I'll talk about that next week.

For the next few days, the Kindle edition of Maggie in the Dark is available at Amazon for just 99 cents. Please feel free to stop by and pick up a copy, if you haven't done so already. And thanks in advance!

Oh, and one more thing: If you know of anyone who might enjoy the Pipe Woman Chronicles, please let them know that they can get a copy of Seized for free at Instafreebie. Thank you! And I hope your friend will thank you, too...

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