Monthly Archives: February 2014

Classics You’ve Never Read Part Five: Getting Better All the Time

First off, a quote I should have used to open the series back at Part One. But I didn’t know he’d said it.

“Classic. A book which people praise and don’t read” – Mark Twain

Now you know for sure I was right with the title of this series; you wouldn’t dare contradict the author of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a classic!

For the sixth book (trust me, I can count, we’re on book 6), I come at last to a deeply embarrassing confession. I loved the book, really. But not the way I expected, not as much as I hoped. And my expectations were set in this case, because I had seen the movie first! {Oh, the shame…} And LOVED IT! But that’s OK, because you probably haven’t seen the movie either (not the right one anyway- there has of course been a remake).

Now you need to thank me, because the easiest thing to talk about with this book would be, ONCE AGAIN, world-building. Or at least, society-building in its lowest common denominator. But this is a tale about how life continually improves, and why, when you land on … The Mysterious Island

You map something and it's real!

You map something and it’s real!

I heard that wise-crack- “enough with Jules Verne already”. Pipe down, you- do you realize all of his tales I could have used? And I will, if you don’t behave, you watch me. But I admit this is not one of his more famous novels, which is curious because he did what we’re all supposed to do as authors- went back to one of his most popular characters for a sequel. Even better, he hid him for half the book! Instead he follows more good writerly advice and whacks you between the eyes with a fabulous opening. Five remarkably-diverse but worthy men and one faithful dog escape a Confederate prison in the waning days of the war, by stealing a balloon Mys_Isl1which promptly gets caught in one of the most powerful storms of all time. Blown halfway around the world, marooned on an uncharted island… oh, you’ve heard this one before? Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson… guess what, Verne’s first draft of the tale was titled Shipwrecked Family: Marooned with Uncle Robinson. So, there’s some encouragement for you if you think the greats were never inspired by (read- cribbed from) what they read. Or never got rejected by publishers.

So yeah, it’s the whole we’re-alone-in-a-strange-place-what-do-we-do-now genre: at the bottom looking up. Ingenuity to the rescue- MacGuyver without phones, A-Team without helicopters: when you think about it, there’s a very  long standing tradition of we-can-do-without-almost-everything, one that can be really fun to contemplate. These five guys drop onto foreign soil with just one penknife and the scraps of the stuff that makes a balloon. No food, no orientation, no extra clothes or shelter or whiskey or  cigars. But they’re AMERICANS, by golly; once they create a fire, it’s all downhill from there.

Sure enough, they construct shelters (even becoming socially mobile and moving up to better and better quarters over time). They fire bricks, smelt iron, create explosives, herd cattle, determine their latitude and longitude- it’s the man-cave run wild. I kept waiting for them to make a toilet with no seat to have to put down. Which brings me to my first observation about this kind of story- survival and improvement tales are all about authority in your voice. If you do a ton of research about an historical period, or a scientific subject pertinent to your plot, you know you want to show it off to the reader. And that’s not wrong- it excited YOU, there’s got to be something there for them. But how?

Here’s how- the castaways are struggling for their very lives, and that’s an empathic situation for the reader, they wonder “what WOULD I do?”. Once you introduce an authority figure- in this case, the super-genius American entrepreneur Cyrus Harding- who starts to tell the others how to do a thing, it naturally translates for the reader. See that red earth there? Here’s what you do… and the reader is practically feeling like one of the workers now, going step by step, building it up and sighing with satisfaction when the job is well done. As the characters feel increasingly empowered, the reader is also carried along, thinking “wow, I could survive on a desert island”. If you get there, you’ve got them.

Lucky they teach guys so much as civil engineers! My credulity got strained when it became clear that Harding knew everything, like the combined reincarnation of Archimedes and Da Vinci. They build a boat, a serviceable sailing ship, and while discussing whether they could make it to civilization aboard, they get a mysterious message in a bottle from another castaway on a

Hey, sustainable.

Hey, sustainable.

“nearby” island. Me, I’m thinking “maiden voyage, nearby means I can see it from here!” but nothing scares these guys, and they duly depute a couple to sail over and pick the fellow up. Then comes the elevator, the telegraph- OK, now I can chuckle and relax into a more normal state of suspended disbelief. After all, what did Jules Verne know about “Gilligan’s Island”?

And that’s the second point- do you want to be a laughing stock with your story? Isn’t it kind of, you know, bad to portray nothing but uninterrupted progress throughout a tale? What about conflict, downturns, that terrific way you can play yo-yo with a reader’s emotions? Your sadistic cackle of satisfaction as you picture the reader alternately throwing the book on the floor with a scream, and then snatching it back up along with a tissue, to turn the page. Is that why Mysterious Island wasn’t a big hit, isn’t this something you should never do?

My unhesitating response is- let me get back to you on that. I can only speak for my genre, and even there not with authority, but I think it’s safe to say that epic and heroic fantasy are in a strong swing towards anti-heroes, deconstruction and morbidity right now. I’ve gone on and on about Game of Thrones, but GRRM is hardly alone and it’s hardly been just recently. We’ve become more hard-bitten as an audience generally, I think; all kinds of rather horrible things get lined up under the rubric of “realism”. Witness the incredible popularity of “The Walking Dead” on TV! There’s a point of view that your story needs to portray the world “as it is” which is to say, going to hell in a handbasket, in order to be serious or believable. So you certainly can’t afford to show the heroes constantly progressing, improving and having nothing but good times… right?

But there’s so much to be gained from a rise to triumph over circumstances, against all odds. All-time best survival-struggle-ingenuity tale in history- Captain Kirk, the 23rd century starship

Well sure, all us space-age guys know the formula for gunpowder!

Well sure, all us space-age guys know the formula for gunpowder!

captain, marooned on a worthless planet against a bipedal xenophobic gila monster, manages to cobble together a prehistoric shotgun that fires diamond ammo. Man, they learn almost as much at Starfleet as a 19th century civil engineer!

I guess the only right answer is, sometimes. If readers believe their own  alleged-real lives are going in the hopper- first of all, they might be right or wrong about that. And second, assuming they’re right they might want to see it played out straight (fist-raised, rock-musicked, drug-smoked anti-war movies for the Vietnam generation) or to escape it (Astaire and Rodgers skating around a richly decorated ballroom for mass audiences during the Depression). We seem to  be in love with bad these days, the only reason the characters get a lift is so the next drop can be even deeper. Me, I get about five hundred pages along, and realize the latest bout of good fortune is just another dead-cat bounce, and I’m done. So a movie like Mysterious Island should tank. I gather the remake in 2012 did; I didn’t even get past the trailers. But it wasn’t about things getting steadily better- it was another thrill-ride with crisis after crisis, you can tell.

Um, does the CRAB know it's on the menu?

Um, does the CRAB know it’s on the menu?

The REAL movie, from 1961? Man, what a fantastic flick. Same survival theme, manly men scraping for their lives and making it better. But hey- giant crab for dinner! My debt of pure joy to Ray

Harryhausen is vast… And I have to admit, once in a while Hollywood gets it right. They put two women in- another shipwreck- and it was the right move. No big romance, but more of a balance to this miniature society.

There you go. It’s not necessary to have the tale’s tone be all-down, or only-up-to-go-down. But it does have to point to something else to Mysterious-Island-2really succeed. Swiss Family Robinson always emphasized the family above all; Robinson Crusoe found out a lot about what he didn’t need (and what he still did). With Mysterious Island there is a strong aspect of what it takes to be a society: Harding is elected leader and his judgment always prevails. The members of this tiny nation have their parts to play, and work hard to reap rewards with satisfaction, overcoming their differences in the process. Others can be admitted if worthy- the castaway is a wrongly accused pirate, and while the handling of the former slave Neb is still stereotypical, it’s a big step that he is accorded equal’s treatment. The group even domesticates an orangutan and raises him to near-human status. Oy, give me the English ladies in the movie, who make the point perfectly well that you can admit new members who merit our interest, but still decide to reject the pirates (who show up in both the book and

Ah yes- tonight's special.

Ah yes- tonight’s special.

the movie). Yeah, pirates with cannons, not exactly a fun development- and by the way, lest you think this tale is Sunnybrook Farm without the little girl, did I mention the volcano is going to blow!!

The book and movie have a second theme as well- the eventual discovery of the island’s former total population, Captain Nemo. Once again I found the treatment of his character and his

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and-  oops wrong movie.

Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and- oops wrong movie.

part in the plot was better done in the movie- his heroic sacrifice stayed with me since childhood when I first saw the film, and I kind of realized that he wasn’t all bad, but it was better he wasn’t coming back to the world. Pretty serious thought for a kid of eight watching a movie- maybe things don’t have to get better all the time, for everyone.

In The Plane of Dreams, the main party of adventuring heroes starts out having ejected one of their members, and admitting new ones to their society. Along the course of their new adventure, they run into some serious trouble, not quite marooned on an island but nevertheless bad. The party is looted and beaten up, and it’s somewhat a wonder why they haven’t been killed. Still, things are not good…

Zoanstahr was certainly surprised to awaken at all. Twice he had been the special target of an attack, and this time he had already seen the rest of the party fall before him. But the unusual fact that he was still alive paled to insignificance when he realized that he was completely naked.

Wm. L. Hahn. The Plane of Dreams (Kindle Locations 870-872).

Starting from there with literally nothing, the party starts its climb back up- and they must redeem their reputations as well as their belongings. It was a long haul for them, but a fun and ultimately rewarding one to witness. (That’s all I do, by the way, just watch them in action) Even the party member they rejected at the start helps to save them all,  by sacrificing his life unknown to the world. The more I think on it, the more I realize how much I’ve drawn inspiration from the work of others (and we both know what THAT word means!). For me, it was the movie first this time- but then, they read the book, so it’s all good.

And I didn’t have to wait to be rejected by a publisher before putting The Plane of Dreams out there. I guess it is getting better all the time, for me.

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How Tales are Born

Probably, the number-one question I get when I meet someone at a party, and they find out I am an author is: “How do you come up with the ideas for your stories?”

Naturally, I tell them “I turn inward, using my keen introspective to dig deep within my soul for the story.”

After they ‘oww’ and ‘ahh’ over my artistic creative ability, I then tell them, “That’s not really true, in reality, I owe it all to Willow!

First the eyes go wide, and they want to know, “Who’s Willow?”

“My Muse of course.”

Their eyes narrow as the person glares at me like I just dropped out of the sky from the human-like planet of Torenlia (which is just a hop, skip, and jump over in our nearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri solar system). I especially love it when their nose squishes up like a rabbit.

“But it’s true. It really is,” I tell them.

Then I get The Smile, and they say, “Oh, you mean your imagination. Cute.” It’s a bonus when they shake their heads and roll their eyes.

“But I actually hear Willow talking to me.” I have the story down pat and try to keep a smile on my face the entire time, hoping it will help my case, but I know my next words will only add to their disbelief. “And after I come up with the basic concept, the characters start to converse with me, though not nearly as often or as a clear as Willow.” After all I don’t want to seem crazy.

Oops, narrowed eyes again. “It’s just you using the right side of your brain versus the left, correct?”

I can see the look of incredulity, though it is somewhat difficult through the slit their eyelids have become.

“Yes and No.”

That gets me a frown.

“It is somewhat true in that the right side of your brain tends to look at pictures and events as a whole, opposed to the left side, which looks at sequential steps to make a whole come together.” I don’t bother to go in the study of right and left sides of the brain, but just continue, “But Willow draws from both sides to provide me the images and the flow I need to come up with a story idea. And I can actually hear her voice, the inflection and everything.” By the way, it has a bit of a southerly draw to it, like found in the deep south of the USA, with a southern California overlay.

“So it is just in your own mind?” Their face lights up like they proved a point, but then the lips twist or similar facial expressions appear that reveal their hesitancy. “There really isn’t a Willow is there?”

I have to smile myself now as I have them thinking, maybe, just maybe. “Let me give you an example of how I come up with a new story idea.” I don’t want to make it all about me (well yes I do), but after all, they did ask me.

Meerkat on Guard Duty“I was on a family outing to the zoo, and decided to take a break, just away by myself to commune with the animals. Actually, I was looking for a beer garden, but that really isn’t pertinent. However, while I was walking around (looking for the ‘commune garden’) I turned a corner and there was an enclosure of meerkats. Their little butts sticking out of dozens of caves in the ground, dirt flying behind them as their long claws dug further under the surface.” I take a dramatic pause; which works out nicely as I can also take a sip from my glass of wine.

The momentary break also gave me time to consider something that had always bothered me. What happened when the meerkats had created a honeycomb of tunnels that would cause the ground to collapse? Then I rationalized that maybe zookeepers came in at night and filled in some of the caves. But I digress.

I pick up the story, “What really caught my attention, and made me block out the zoo visitors and all the other meerkats, was the one meerkat sitting upright on its hind legs, at the highest point in the enclosure. Its head darted from side-to-side looking for a threat to the clan below. This one meerkat was giving up its favorite pastime, digging (which I still don’t get), to look after its family, its clan. After a while, another member of the clan took its place and the new meerkat continued the constant guard duty. “

I would get a lot of responses, at this point, from “I knew that.” to “Yeah, I’ve seen them do that. They almost seem human.” And this is normally followed with a well veiled comment like “Interesting.”; which can be translated to, “So what?”

Nevertheless, I push onward. “Like everyone else, I am amazed at the organizational instinct and loyalty to family and clan, but then I sort of zone out, and I can actually see someone. Well, to tell the truth, I don’t see them, but I can feel them as if they are standing next to me and I can tell you what they look like.”

I have to talk fast now, or I know I will lose them. “Then I hear ‘What if it was dragons rather than meerkats?’”

My educated response is ‘Huh?’

Dragon Guarding the Clan“The voice continues ‘What if there was a clan of dragons that lived in caves?’ This voice starts to feed my mind with images. ‘The caves could even be in the ground rather than on a mountain. And what if the older dragons took turns perched on a high peak, above the clan, looking for danger, so they could warn the rest of the clan?’ A landscape starts to fill my mind. I start to picture the concept — a desert or a forested area, with a lot of small hills with cave entrances cut into them, and a lone spire that rises above the hills, where the dragons stand guard. I’ve got the concept, and this is where my right brain would have done its duty, but then Willow gives me more.”

“So that is how you come up with a story?” They still don’t look convinced.

“Yes and No.”

Another frown.

“That is part of it, but there is more to it than that.” I always get to this point and find it hard to describe what happens, but I try nonetheless, “Willow takes these images from my imagination, if you will, and starts putting them in a sequential manner. Then she says ‘What if there were other clans, and the clans didn’t get along, just like meerkat clans? However, the clans must come together with the help of a small group of humans (got to have a group of humans) to combat some great evil that would otherwise devour both humans and dragons alike.’”

“That sounds kind of cool.” I can see a bit of excitement in their expression.

So I drop the bomb. “Then one of the main characters, a dragon, starts telling me how it wondered what these puny humans that had intruded on the clan’s nest wanted from it?” I think they thought I was maybe kidding earlier about characters talking to me.

At this point, I normally get one of two responses.

The first one is “Really? You hear voices?” And then I can count to myself, and before I reach ten, they will have to go refill their drink or just saw someone they needed to talk with.

The second one is “Really? That must be so cool!” And they will spend the next hour pumping me for more information about how I write and my stories.

But the bottom-line is that a tale is born. Or at least that is what Willow tells me.

How do you find inspiration and come up with the story line for your tales?

“Swordplay” blog tour

Blog Tour Badge

The release for my blog tour is running rather smoothly. Here is the link to the schedule. Of course, there were a few tiny hickups, but nothing major. For the last few days, there’s still the chance to enter the the giveaway to win a copy of the book. Also, I wrote several mini-stories about the most important characters that will go out to anyone joining out list (plus an exclusive YA Fantasy eBook, so it’s well worth leaving your eMail address — we won’t spam you, promised).

YA Urban Fantasy Murder Mystery

YA Urban Fantasy Murder Mystery

About the Book

CSI with magic but without the gore

Despite her obvious lack of magical talent, nineteen year old Moira Bellamie apprentices with the Gendarmerie Magique, the magic police. She puts all her effort into solving a burglary at the National Museum where antique weapons have been stolen, to keep the hard won job. Falling for her partner Druidus wasn’t part of the plan. When more and more people are murdered with one of the stolen weapons, Moira must tame uncontrollable magic, or the people she cares for will die, her partner first and foremost.

For lovers of Fantasy and Mystery from 14 years up

eBook on Amazon:        German, English
and Smashwords:           German, English
other retailers will follow

Paperback in German or English on Createspace (Beware: postage), or in German or English on Amazon (no postage)

If this sounds like a book you might enjoy, joining out list and receive exclusive mini-stories about the characters. Thank you.

Some Musings on Animals and My Daughter

This post is not about writing, nor is it about reading.  It’s about life and living, death and dying.

All three of my children like animals, but my older daughter has always had a special affinity with animals.  She loves animals and they seem to know it.   When she was just a tiny little girl, she boldly walked up to our cow in the field with a fist full of grass to offer her.  I didn’t see her until she was already right up to the cow.  I held my breath as the huge cow with sharp horns leaned down and gently slurped the grass from her small hand.  Then I remember when she was about four.  I sent her out to dump the small garbage container into the compost bin.  She returned talking about the pretty black and white kitty that was out there.  (It was a skunk!  I’m very glad it did not feel threatened by her.)

As she was growing up, we had a succession of cats, some were strays that stayed, which she name, petted, and befriended.  We had two main dogs as she grew up.  One was named Tippy, a black and white shepherd and the other was Pal, a small mutt.  Both were with us for years.  Katrina loved feeding and caring for the dogs. It was never a chore for her.

As she became an adult, her love for animals did not fade.  She and her husband took in two cats and they were part of their family for years.  Then they took in a rescue dog that had been abused. He became another part of their family.  (They have no children, so the animals really were their family.)  A couple of years ago, one of the cats died.  It left an empty place in their hearts, but after a few months, a kitty was added to their “family”.   That cute little kitty grew and grew, playing with the older cat and the dog.  Three months ago the second older cat died unexpectedly, which left the grown up kitty and their calm older dog, and another hole in their hearts.  They had had the dog for almost ten years.  Last week he suddenly became ill and they found that he had a tumor.  The rest of the sad story you can guess.  Now only a lonely kitty wanders the house, looking for her playmates.  And another giant hole gapes in their home.

Animals.  They give much to our lives within the short time we have them, asking for little in return.  Dogs, especially, love their people unconditionally.  Maybe we should take a lesson from our animals and love each other unconditionally.  Stop asking and start giving.

Life is short.  Don’t put off telling your loved ones that you love them.  Don’t put off all those things you want to do or learn. Live life now!

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