Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Salute to Sekinder: or, How Much Does a Golden Skeleton Weigh?

This could be amusing to you, or perhaps it will serve as a dark warning about the dangers of writing epic fantasy to the modern world. I’m aiming for both!

I ran into a conundrum when taking notes on the most recent chapter of my WiP, “The Plane of Dreams”. I had first witnessed the events in this tale more than twenty-five years ago; before Hussein had invaded Kuwait, almost before Al Gore had invented the internet. I’m not a scientist, I studied history. But enough excuses. I saw something back then, in the Lands of Hope, and now was starting to doubt the truth of it.

{Brief aside, for anyone tempted to conclude that I made this whole thing up. I repeat, I am not a writer, but a Chronicler, and the event I refer to was witnessed by over a half-dozen others.}

To the matter at hand: 26 years ago (real world calendar), a group of heroes and I were observing the fabled underworld city of Jengesalamur in the year 2001 ADR. The Tributarians, after surviving several weeks on the perilous Shimmering Mindsea, had discovered the ancient city of Despair and come across notes from the journal of Sekinder, the mad alchemist who had been the city’s ruler millenia ago. In his diary, Sekinder made obsessive references to his quest to find the Eternal Reagent, a chemical solution that would turn any substance to gold. After much searching through the city, and fighting against undead guardians there, the heroes came across the alchemist’s laboratory. There, to their horror and astonishment they viewed all that was left of Sekinder: a perfect golden skeleton holding a bubbling alembic over his head in short-lived triumph.

After much rejoicing, a few unkind jokes and some more deadly encounters, the Tributarians hauled the skeletal treasure back to civilization, thus ensuring the fame and fortune with which they began the tale known as “The Plane of Dreams”. Now that I was tasked with writing up that story, a sudden thought gave me a chill- was this even possible? Not the bone-to-gold thing; that we accept as a matter of course. But what would readers say about a golden skeleton?

Could they have moved it? And what would it be worth?

As I said, I am a historian, not a mathematician (or a doctor, to echo James “Bones” McCoy!). My early calculations, containing several important errors, indicated a weight that was beyond credit. I almost panicked- what had I missed? Was gravity in the Lands of Hope as low as that on Barsoom? Was Spitz, the party’s largest warrior, five or six times as strong as my notes indicated? But I knew what I saw, so I plunged back in and eventually straightened out my calculus. You might say I boned up on the subject. But I wouldn’t.

Sekinder was, for all his evil and arrogance, a normal-sized human, a bit thin and tall like others of his era. We can safely assign him a weight of 150 pounds and height around 6 feet.  The weight of a human skeleton (using Bing to find all my mathematical/scientific data points) ranges from 12-20% of the total, and I used the suggested average of 15%. At this point I converted to metric (because of the later calculations needed) so I concluded that Sekinder had 10.13 kg of bones under his skin. Who’d have thought the old man to have so much calcium in him…

If all that mass of bone converted to gold, the total weight (gold being 10.17 times as dense as human bone) would be 102.96 kg (around 225 pounds) of golden treasure on the hoof. Literally.

But just a moment, what about calculating via volume? What is the volume of a human skeleton, and what would that weigh converted to gold? This route yielded a more interesting, and somewhat more alarming figure.

The only solution I could find was to draw an imaginary cylinder around Sekinder. The formula you’re looking for is

V=πR2h

And assuming Sekinder’s diameter is 2 feet and height 6 feet, you arrive at 32,556 cubic inches. How much of this was comprised of skeleton? I could only guess that it was a small percentage, since the cylinder contained a lot of not-Sekinder within it. I used a figure of 5%, yielding 1,628 cubic inches. Converting to cubic feet and then to cubic meters gave me just 0.03 cubic meters of bone. Seemed small, but that gave me a startlingly-high 50.69 kg of human bone in the alchemist’s body- in gold, a whopping 515 kg (over half a ton in English pounds)!!

Even so, I realized, Spitz could do the job of moving it.

This is where it gets tricky, because while we observed these heroes of the Lands closely over the years, we couldn’t actually pull them into our world and give them a nice NFL tryout or other means to gauge their strength. But I used some guidelines I had developed in my notes. Please understand that Spitz, at six and a half feet of ripped muscle, is enormously strong. Spitz can use his foot to batter open locked doors, and if he drops his two-handed sword he can snatch up tables and chairs to swing as weapons. He’s also a true shield-brother with a sexy deep voice, charming smile, not a jot of fear and a snazzy dancer. OK, exaggerating about that last bit. But he’s STRONG.

Spitz can lift and carry 90 kg for a long period. So by my first method, he could almost tuck Sekinder-in-gold under his arm and walk away. If he sets his mind to lifting, Spitz can certainly bench-press 125 kg (about as much as he weighs) and dead-lift nearly 180 kg; more than needed by the mass-method, but still short by the volume-method. However, he doesn’t need to lift the statue, he only needs to SHIFT it. With no mechanical assistance, he can push 324 kg, and with maximum exertion Spitz can shift up to 450 kg, which is pretty close. Spitz and the heroes rigged up a travois, like a cot with two wheels on one end, and carted Sekinder off with his arm in the air and that look of astonishment still stamped on his skull-face. Spitz split time with the others in the party (who worked in pairs) hauling it over sand (admittedly, not an ideal surface).

So they WERE able to move Sekinder- affectionately known to the heroes as Golden Boy- though not fast enough to outrun the nine-foot tall iron demon-golem who guarded the city. But that’s another story!

How much was this treasure worth when they got it home? As you will see in the tale, Sekinder was never melted down and cut up into coins; the statue was sold intact as a work of art. So once again I had to estimate. Depending on which method you fancy, the Golden Boy weighed in at either 3,300 or 16,500 Troy ounces (the unit of measure whereby gold is valued in the real world). I didn’t bat an eye at purity- nothing but 24-carat gold, I was sure, would do for an evil alchemist willing to spend that long and work that hard for success. At a current price of $1,657.45 (goldprice.org, noon on Thursday April 26th), that yields a market price (before Imperial taxation of course) of between $US 5.4 and 27.4 million. The Tributarians probably got ripped off on the price, and still were outfitted with new enchantments, the finest equipment, nothing but the best… until the robbery…

So then- how much of all that went into my story? Not one jot.

But yes- evil does not pay (though it can occasionally generate a lot of loot for the good guys). Sekinder did die in the moment of his victory, the Tributarians did haul him back to town, Spitz was bushed (yet still manly), and the heroes were definitely rich as well as famous. It’s a relief to know that my eyes did not deceive me.

Here’s hoping that the internet age won’t rise up to haunt you in your writing.

How My Stand-Alone Novel Became a Three-Book Series

The idea for my fantasy book, A Singular Gift, came to me many years ago.  I asked myself “What if?”  What if magic could be inherited?  What if a young magician inherited a gift of magic, but she had no teacher?  How would she learn to use the magic in a responsible way?  I wrote the first three chapters about a young teenager, Jean Ryan, with the working title, The Gift.  I started the story from a third person point of view, then changed to first person, because it just felt right for Jean to be telling her story.  Then the manuscript was laid away for a long time.

When I pulled it out again, I again asked myself “What if?” questions.  What if someone else wanted her gift, wanted it badly enough to cause my heroine much trouble?  Why did they want it?  To what lengths would they go to try to get her gift? What challenges would my main character have to face?  Would she have any help at all?

I wrote the book, thinking that was it.  I had an ending and the story was finished.  I revised it using Holly Lisle’s novel revision course, and published it with Amazon and Smashwords.  Then a reader asked, “What happens next?”  And another reader said, “I’d like to read more about Jean and Wayne.”

Hmmmm.  I had written the story and thought it was the end.  After thinking about it, I said to myself, “Maybe not.”  So, I began to “What if?” again and came up with a story featuring Jean’s sidekick, Wayne, in a more important role.  In this story, A Singular Chance, I decided to have both Jean and Wayne telling the story, in first person.  Each chapter has a subheading with the name of the character that is telling the story in that chapter.  As I drew to an end in this sequel, even though it had an ending, another book was necessary to finish the fantasy adventures of Jean and Wayne. I am currently working on completing the outline of the third book. The current title is A Singular World.

So, what started out as one single book has accidentally morphed into a three-book series.  I get annoyed when I read series books that end with a cliffhanger, then I have to wait a year to find out what happens only to find that yet another book is needed for the continuing story.  My books can each be read by itself and have a complete story, but like most series, it’s more fun to start with the first book, then read the second, then the third.

Do you write series on purpose?  Or are your books all stand-alone?  How do you decide?

Author Spotlight: Thomma Lyn Grindstaff

I’m very excited to have the opportunity to introduce you to my good friend and fellow indie published writer, Thomma Lyn Grindstaff. TL and I have never met in the real world, but we encourage each other on a weekly basis in a private goals group. She’s a great person and writes wonderful tales of love and redemption, but enough from me…let’s hear from Thomma Lyn!

*~*~*

HeartsChalice

Heart’s Chalice
by
Thomma Lyn Grindstaff

Destiny rarely gives a woman a second chance at love, especially not with a man who died twenty years ago.
 
As a young woman, Laurel misinterpreted a psychic vision, causing the death of her first and only love. She has lived with guilt ever since. Two decades later, struggling to free herself from a toxic marriage, she’s pulled to an alternate reality where her beloved still lives. There, she’s the dead one, and he and their children are grieving for her. When she tries to contact them, they think she’s a ghost or a product of their wishful thinking.
 
She desperately wants to remain in her family’s reality and connect with them. By enjoying a long, happy life with the man she loves, she can rectify her mistake and free herself from her guilt. But she’s running out of time. Every shift between realities damages her body further. And her soon-to-be-ex will stop at nothing to shackle her to a life she despises.

*~*~*

Welcome, TL! I’m thrilled you could join us. Now, something I’ve been curious about for a while, how did you get started writing fiction? Was it a childhood dream?

I started writing fiction when I was a little girl, and yes, it was a childhood dream. I started reading at a very young age. The wonderful stories I read delighted me and swept me away. I longed to write stories that would sweep other people away.

Do you classify your writing as fantasy, paranormal, or magical realism? Why did you choose that genre?

It depends on the book. Heart’s Chalice is dark, edgy women’s fiction / magical realism. Mirror Blue, my debut novel, is classified by its publisher, Black Lyon, as a literary love story. Patchwork Stained Glass, another of my novels, is mainstream fiction with romantic elements. As a writer, I tend toward genre-bending. My #1 consideration is telling a good story; genre/classification comes second.

Are you comfortable being categorized as a women’s fiction / magical realism writer?

Sure.  🙂 I’m comfortable being called a writer of women’s fiction, magical realism, romance, literary love stories, mainstream fiction, literary fiction… however readers experience my fiction is A-OK by me. One recent reader of Heart’s Chalice classified it as a hybrid of fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery! Um, did I mention I tend to be a genre-bender? 😉

Where do you get your inspiration?

All sorts of places. In a word: life. One of my biggies is what I think of as the Magic Mountain. I live near a network of gorgeous mountain trails, and I hike every opportunity I get.  The mountain, with its forest and waterfalls, directly inspired Heart’s Chalice: characters, story, and setting. Another tremendous source of inspiration is music, another of my lifelong passions. I’m a classically-trained pianist and I compose songs and instrumental pieces.

What’s your greatest obstacle to writing? What gets your through it?

I’d have to say my greatest obstacle to writing is getting in my own way. When I let the story flow, unimpeded by anxiety, that’s when I’m at my best. When I feel blocked, I spend time at my piano, go for a hike on the mountain, or enjoy a peaceful meditation. One of my mantras is “Let go and let be.” In the context of my writing, “Let go and let be” means to strive for excellence, but to let go of outcomes and write joyfully, in the moment.

Who are your favorite authors?

Here are just a few: Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen, Madeleine L’Engle, William Styron, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, Carl Sagan, Dorothy Parker, Charles Frazier, Alan Watts, Pema Chodron, Sherman Alexie, Cormac McCarthy, Jodi Picoult, the Bronte sisters, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, A.S. Byatt, Dōgen… oh, I could go on and on.

What can readers look forward to next?

My next novel will be a time-travel love story called Maestro. Like Heart’s Chalice, it’s a wild ride. And my hero, a hunky concert pianist (for whom the novel is titled), is quite a hottie, even if I do say so myself. 😉

I, for one, can’t wait to read Maestro! Bring on the hunkie concert pianists *lol*

If you’d like to know more about Thomma Lyn, be sure to friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or check out her website!

I Remember Robin (Hood, That is)

Nerd confession, incoming.

I’m the kind of guy who re-reads the same book- and the longer, the better. Tolkein, maybe six times; even the Silmarillion a couple of times (which really isn’t fair, he didn’t mean for it to get published in that form! But I loved it anyway.). Count of Monte Cristo and Cyrano de Bergerac every three or four years, which at my age… a lot, OK, let’s just drop it. So these tales, many of them stretch back into my childhood. And this time around I’m beginning to realize, in my chronicling, how much they influenced my thinking from as early as I could remember.

I know you’ve seen the movie (one of them, anyway). Have you read Robin Hood? I mean the Pyle version with the fabulous illustrations. I had them read to me by my father around age five, and the illustrations might as well be branded on my forehead.

It’s been a revelation to me how much of my own efforts are really aiming to revisit the feelings I got from this version of Robin Hood (and if you’ve seen the movies, believe me, they’re trying to reach this same sentiment). I re-read it this time in the Kindle version.

  • Good news- it’s free!
  • Bad news- no illustrations.
  •  Good news- double-click on any olde-Englishe word and get the definition!!

Since I recall the illustrations anyway, that’s a win-win for me. Think about it- is your experience of heroic fantasy the same as mine?

Robin almost never kills anyone. One arrogant forester in the beginning (which makes him an outlaw), but he’s defending himself. Then Guy of Gisbourne near the end (who the tales make very clear is a monster). In the Lands of Hope they slay monsters without mercy- but other people are considered off limits until they prove their evil intent. And that reminds me…

Hardly anyone is that bad, and neither is their punishment. Pyle pulled his punches to make his tales safe for kids. So the worst that happens to the greedy sheriff or bishop? A little well-deserved humiliation, and he loses maybe two-thirds of his purse (one-third to Robin’s band, one third to the poor). Sometimes the bad guys stay for feasting and hunting and end up having a great time. Which leads me to…

The outlaws are called the Merry Men for reason. They’re having a blast- time and again, even people who have every reason to be furious can’t help but laugh. Check out the scene with Midge the Miller’s son, see how the four doughtiest warriors in the Midlands are defeated by a man with a sack of flour, and tell me you don’t chuckle. The stories just drip with good will- they tease each other and banter incessantly. Lord, how I love that, all my heroes banter like maniacs. And there’s an obvious contrast between living the high free life of the forest and obeying the laws of corrupt lords and selfish men of the cloth. Friar Tuck is, not to put too fine a point on it, a roaring, belligerent drunkard. But he’s miles closer to a proper priest than the establishment orders. Speaking of which…

– Filed away under I Don’t Know and I Don’t Want to Know“… there are many instances in Robin Hood where one of them declares another to be a fine fellow, which is great, but then follows up with a kiss. And plenty of embraces, and more than a few declarations of “I love you well” and sometimes tears. I’m thinking “wow, Victorian era book, are you sure?” I can only say that as a child I didn’t pay it the slightest mind. Even now, it’s only a cause for more smiles, in between the adventures. And that brings me to…

– Robin and his crew only get into scrapes because they can’t stand the lack of adventure in the forest. Once the Sheriff stops coming after him, Robin has to go into disguises, sneak back into the city, try the archery tournament with a patch on one eye, etc. for some excitement. That one trait, the desire to seek adventure when wealth and fame are already assured, is at the heart of the lives of the heroes in the Lands of Hope. Now that I see it in Pyle’s book, I’m struck with wonder. How did I not see that before?

So Pyle’s Robin Hood is right at the heart of me, right at the start of me. His tales, and others I could name, continue to inspire my work. {P.S.: One of the best computer games I’ve ever played? Legend of Sherwood– it’s thrilling and hilarious!}

Which books have driven you onward? Do you consciously write in another author’s style, or go for the same kind of characters? Is there a sense of right and wrong you believe someone else got perfectly? What’s there at the heart of you?

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