Getting There

Fantastic and historical fiction is full of journeys, quests, hot pursuits, and other assorted road trips — sometimes with magical assistance, and sometimes not.

It’s with the “not” that things can get difficult, because a lot of modern-day writers don’t have anything like a working knowledge of any kind of travel that doesn’t involve an internal combustion engine and a four-lane divided highway.  Doing research can be tricky, too, because while modern-day horse people (and trail hikers and dogsled racers and people who raise and train yokes of oxen for fun) are almost always delighted to share their specialized knowledge, a lot of the time it can be like asking a NASCAR driver or a rally enthusiast, “How many days would it take me to drive from Podunk to Ashtabula?”

You’ll get an answer, all right, but it may well be so full of qualifying details that you can’t sort out the single thing you really need to know, or so far out there on the extreme performance end that an ordinary mortal wouldn’t have a chance of coming near it.  These people are all highly-qualified experts driving perfectly-maintained, high-end machines, and all you really want to know is roughly how long it would take an ordinary Joe or Jane driving a plain vanilla sedan with an automatic transmission and 50,000 miles on the odometer.

(I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that once horses stopped being a means of transportation and became a hobby, the equine equivalent of the midrange family car with automatic transmission and cruise control started fading out of the picture.)

Nevertheless, you have to try.  Criticism of fantasy, both from within and from without the genre, has already said a lot of true and cutting things about fantasy horses that are functionally indistinguishable from motorcycles; you don’t want to provide the critics with yet more ammunition.

For some help on that, you could do worse than to read this LiveJournal post, here — also the comments, which contain much additional useful information.

Another Way to Make an Author Happy

If you know an author, and are at the same convention with them, or share the same local bookstore or library or coffee shop, and you see that they’re scheduled to give a reading:

Go to their reading.

Unless they’re serious rock stars like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin or J. K. Rowling, most writers live in fear of the dreaded 10 AM Sunday morning reading slot . . . the one where the audience consists of four rows of empty chairs and one drowsy con-goer who fell asleep in the room after the last party of the night before and is now too embarrassed to leave.

What do you get in return for taking the time to attend a reading?  Well, stars in your crown in heaven, of course, and the chance to hear early drafts of forthcoming books and works-in-progress, and the sincere and profound gratitude of the writer in question.

Especially at 10 AM on a Sunday morning.


Link of the Day

(In lieu of a more substantive post, because I’ve got a Viable Paradise chat conference tonight.)

The New York Times has a series of blog posts on the process of writing, by various authors.  The current one, “Writing and Fear”, by Sarah Jio, is one that ties in with my own stated maxim that writers shouldn’t flinch away from the strong stuff, even if it scares them.

There are a lot more posts in the archive.  I’ve only had the chance to read a few of them, but they all look interesting.

I have a theory:  writers like to read other writers talking about writing, because this can be a lonely job, and it’s always heartening to know that somebody else out there has hit that Slough of Despond in the middle of the book, or had their hard drive die without warning at the eleventh hour, taking a novel’s worth of hard work with it in its death throes, or struggled to retain their dignity in the face of an utterly wrongheaded review.

Five More Days

Until applications close for this year’s Viable Paradise.  The ferry to the island pulls away from the dock at midnight on June 15 — if you’re thinking of applying and don’t have your application in by then, you’ll have to wait until next year.

(You can submit your application by e-mail in .RTF format, with hardcopy to follow, so you can’t get away with telling yourself that there isn’t time for the envelope to get there.)

Batteries Sort of Included

Not too long ago, three out of the four Uninterruptible Power Supplies in our office setup expired from old age.  A bit of internet research informed us that replacement batteries for all three, plus shipping, would cost about the same as buying one new UPS, so — not being intimidated by the idea of opening up the dead power supplies and performing a bit of open-case surgery — we decided to go the replacement-battery route.

What was never in question was the idea that an Uninterruptible Power Supply belonged in the “replace when broken” category.  We’ve been big believers in having a UPS for our computer since the early days, when a UPS was essentially a motorcycle battery in a metal case with a plug on one side for wall current in and a plug on the other side for battery power out.

Our conversion experience, as it were, came during our time in the Republic of Panamá, where the power downtown had a tendency to fail at inopportune moments.  One weekend afternoon, my husband and eventual co-author was playing Jumpman Junior on our Atari 800, and after a session of extended play had succeeded in racking up an all-time high score.  Flushed with triumph, he went on to the screen where he could save his high score and his initials for posterity . . . and the power went out.

We ordered our first Uninterruptible Power Supply that same day.

A Bit of This, a Bit of That

Writers and other freelance artists have more than a little in common with small farmers, and not just that people in both occupations have insanely complicated income tax forms and a tendency to get depressed when thinking about health insurance.

They also have to hold all sorts of odd jobs in order to continue working at their chosen vocation. A sculptor I once met, for example, said that most of the ceramic artists he knew kept themselves in rent and food money by making coffee mugs.  And I still treasure a sign I once saw outside a farmhouse on Route 3:


My own list of oddball writer jobs is atypically prosaic, mostly versions of “taught freshman English someplace,” though I did spend one semester in graduate school as an elderly faculty widow’s live-in companion, which was not the sinecure you might think, and a later summer answering correspondence for the National Solar Heating and Cooling Foundation.  I spent a lot of time putting together letters out of prefab paragraphs that all said, more or less, “Yes, you can retrofit your house for solar energy.  It will be very expensive.”  I’m pleased, these days, to note that science has marched on, and solar panels have dropped enough in price that they’re even showing up in a low-income area like far northern New England.

My favorite, though, was the guy who wrote to ask if he could use passive solar energy to run his earthworm farm. I had to take that one upstairs to the engineers, who were equally delighted to see it — apparently earthworm farming was an ideal application for passive solar.

It’s All in the Timing

We had breakfast for dinner tonight.

To be more precise, we had buttermilk pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, and scrapple for dinner tonight, and our established grammar and syntax of dining say that this is breakfast, even if eaten at 8 PM.  And a meal that would be eminently satisfactory in its accustomed time slot becomes something even better — unexpected and even a little bit subversive — when consumed at a time of day normally reserved for roast meats and steamed vegetables, for soups and stir-fries and casseroles.

The same principle holds for writing.  Put a character into a setting that’s out of sync with his or her normal environment, and you add interest.  Move an event out of its traditional or expected place in the storyline, and you generate suspense — if the author has played fast and loose with one set of expectations, all of the others are fair games as well, and anything can happen.

It’s not always necessary to invent new things.  A lot of the time, you can do just as well simply by putting familiar things in unexpected places.

The Benefits of Forethought

A line of thunderstorms rumbled through northern New England late this afternoon, knocking the power out in our town (among a whole bunch of other towns) for over four hours, right about dinnertime.  The only place on Main Street with power was the local video rental, ice-cream shop, and pizza joint, because they had at some point invested in a generator.  And they were doing a land-office business, selling pizzas and sandwiches and ice cream to a whole bunch of people — including us — who didn’t want to open their refrigerators until the power came back on.  At the point we got our pizza and took it home, they had seventeen pizza orders stacked in a holding pattern waiting for oven space, and were down to their last five foot-long sandwich rolls.

And thus we see the virtue of having a good backup.

Backup plans and equipment are a good thing in the writing business as well.  Don’t throw out the old computer when you upgrade; you never know when you might be facing a hard deadline and looking at a dead machine.  (We had to drop back once from an Atari ST to a nearly-antique Atari 800, under just those circumstances.)  Don’t forget to keep backup files of completed and published works (otherwise you may find yourself laboriously rekeying something you wrote a long time ago; and yes, I’ve done that, too.)  Don’t forget to keep backup copies of works in progress — save in multiple places on your hard drive, save to the cloud (Microsoft Skydrive, Google Drive, Dropbox; or what the heck, all three), save to removable media.  That way, if two weeks before a hard deadline the state police start knocking on doors all over your neighborhood and yelling, “Get out now, the water’s rising,” you can, if need be, finish your work-in-progress on a library computer a hundred miles down the road.