The Stories behind the Stories, Part II

Today I’ll continue my attempt to convey where my ideas come from by listing the remainder of my published short stories, and the source of the ideas for each one. If you missed Part I, here it is.   And now for the most recent seven stories:

“Blood in the River.”  At Ralan, I came across a request for submissions for a horror anthology about fish or fishing, to be called Dead Bait.  I had no desire to write horror fiction, and tried to move on to other writing projects.  My muse, however, wanted me to write it and whispered the story idea quite loudly.

 

“A Sea-Fairy Tale.”  As I recall, the discussion during one critique group session had turned to the then-current popularity of fairies in fantasy fiction.  Again, I had no desire to write anything of the sort, but my muse insisted.  I gave my fairy story a sea-going flair.  The story was published in The New Fairy Tales Anthology.

“The Finality.”  Another visit to Ralans showed me Severed Press was looking for submissions for an anthology about the Mayan 2012 prophesy, to be called 2012 AD.  I’m not one of those who thinks the world will end this December, but that Mayan calendar myth does make for good story material!

 

“Bringing the Future to You.”  My critique group decided to task ourselves with a writing exercise.  (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by just such a group challenge.)  We chose a phrase at random from a book of writing prompts.  The phrase was, “The fortune teller said…”  This story was published in the anthology Cheer Up, Universe!

 

“The Vessel.”  I got this idea at a science fiction conference.  I don’t remember the exact inspiration, but while at the conference I suddenly got a vision of Atlantean sailors returning in their ship to find their homeland, their island, gone.  The idea stuck with me for several months.  Then I had occasion to read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.  His non-fiction book deals with the interaction between high-technology and low-technology cultures in history.  There are elements of that book in my story.  “The Vessel” was published in Quest for Atlantis:  Legends of a Lost Continent.

“Within Victorian Mists.”  I enjoy steampunk, and one night I was websurfing about the topic and saw some buzz about people bemoaning the lack of steampunk romance.  I didn’t want to write romance, but the muse prodded me to give it a try.  In thinking about what I could write, I remembered a mention, years earlier, of someone being surprised radio was invented before the laser.  That got me wondering what might have happened if someone had invented the laser in Victorian times.  This story was published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing.

“Leonardo’s Lion.”  Like many people, I’m fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci.  One aspect of his life is rarely mentioned; late in life he constructed a mechanical lion as entertainment for a royal party.  I got to thinking–what happened to that lion afterward?  Gypsy Shadow Publishing also published this one.  (Notice the clockwork gears on the cover.)

Some writers struggle to search for good story-writing ideas; some bump into ideas all the time.  Whichever you are, may you come across the inspirations you need, the ones that prompt you to write great stories.  That’s the wish of–

                                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 26, 2012Permalink

Book Review — Remarkable Creatures

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  To that I’d add “or its blurb.”  I just finished listening to a book on tape, Remarkable Creatures, © 2010 by Tracy Chevalier, put out by Recorded Books Productions, narrated by Charlotte Parry and Susan Lyons.   More about that blurb below.

The novel is the story of a lower class woman in England in the early 1800s, and her dealings with an upper class spinster.  The story starts with the first woman, Mary Anning, as a child when the spinster, Elizabeth Philpot, is in her twenties.  They end up sharing an interest in gathering and understanding fossils.  Fossils had caused a stir in the scientific community since many seem to be from animals that no longer exist, which called Biblical teachings into question.  The two women develop a knowledge of these fossils that equals or surpasses some of the learned men of Europe, but it is a time when women were sadly powerless in many areas, including science.

The author really puts you in the timeframe, and you come to care about the characters.  If you don’t think you’re interested in fossils before you read the book, you might well be fascinated with them when you’re done.  You’ll be drawn in as the two women become frustrated with their inability to be recognized by the male scientific community, and with their lack of success in finding husbands.  All they really have is each other, and the author  skillfully leads you along the ups and downs of their relationship.

What I didn’t know when I began reading is, these women were real.  There really was a Mary Anning and an Elizabeth Philpot.  In fact, most of the characters and events in the book were real.  I had thought it was just a historical setting with made-up characters, but that is not so.

The narrators, Charlotte Parry and Susan Lyons, did a fine job in this audiobook.  The book alternates in point-of-view between Anning and Philpot, and the narrators take turns.  I wondered, at times, if it would have been more effective to have the ‘Mary’ narrator speak Mary’s actual lines and the ‘Elizabeth’ narrator speak Elizabeth’s lines, but Recorded Books chose the point-of-view method instead.

On the negative side, there is not a lot of action in the book.  Moreover the conflicts and problems of the characters are not well defined.  Fiction is about conflict and the attempted resolution of problems.  I understand it can be difficult to force such a fictional constraint on real historical people, but there is a reason real life tends to be more boring than fiction.  Fictional characters have well-understood goals and passions, and really important problems to solve.  It’s my understanding that someone has bought movie rights to this book, but if a movie is made, they’ll have to put more action scenes in it and make the conflicts more apparent and dramatic.  Either that or opt for a straight historical documentary.

I was enticed into reading the book by the blurb on the Recorded Books cover, including this intriguing sentence.  “Mary discovers she has the ability to ‘see’ and locate fossils buried deep in the cliffs near her village.”  That certainly makes it sound like she has some supernatural x-ray ability to see through rock, right?  Nothing of the sort.  Mary’s good at locating fossils, but due to the shifting of land in the area and the action of waves on the beach, new fossils become exposed on the surface quite often and it is these Mary can spot.  Although it was a good book, I feel a little cheated by the misleading blurb.  I can’t really fault the author for that, though, since she probably didn’t write it.

A surprisingly good book, I’ll give it a rating of four seahorses.  Whether you concur with my opinions or differ, I’d like to hear from you.  Just click on ‘leave a comment’ and you’ll get a reply from–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 25, 2012Permalink

The Stories behind the Stories, Part I

In these blog entries I’ve usually refrained from shameless promotion of my own stories, but today will be different.  However, since my purpose in these blogs is to offer help to beginning writers, I’ll couch my blatant self-advertising as instructive, educational matter.

Hundreds of cards and letters and e-mails have been pouring in asking me one question.  Well, maybe dozens.  Okay, maybe it’s just a question I’ve been hoping others would ask me:  “Where do your ideas come from?”  I explored the topic last year, but today I’ll trace the origin of the ideas for each of my published short stories.  Perhaps in reading through these, you’ll see how ideas can occur any time and for any reason; good story ideas will come to you, too!

Target Practice.” I wrote this story in 1999, and I honestly don’t remember what the inspiration was.  Back then I was in the midst of writing a novel, and I took time out to write this story and submit it for publication to a wonderful anthology, Lower than the Angels.  I think I just wanted to see if I could create a truly hopeless situation and figure a way for my protagonist to resolve the problem.

“The Steam Elephant.”  Seven years later, as I mentioned here, I was inspired by the book The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown.  It contained short stories written by modern authors as tributes to Verne.  As a Verne enthusiast, I was thrilled by the book, but disappointed to find no stories echoing Verne’s two-part novel The Steam House.  I decided to write my own, and it was published in Steampunk Tales #5.

“The Wind-Sphere Ship.”  I’m not sure why, but at some point I must have been pondering why steamships weren’t invented much earlier.  After all, the power of steam was known to the ancients.  The Greek inventor Heron (or Hero) developed a steam toy in the first century A.D.  This suggested an alternate history story.  Gypsy Shadow Publishing put this story out in e-book form.

“Alexander’s Odyssey.”  I’ve long been fascinated by the history of submarine development.  One tale held that Alexander the Great descended under water in a glass-windowed barrel.  I  wondered how the sea god, Poseidon, would have reacted, and the story wrote itself.   It was first published in the anthology Magic & Mechanica and then later (in a longer version) by itself in e-book form.

“The Sea-Wagon of Yantai.”  I continued my quest to fictionalize, in short-story form, the development of the submarine.  I found tantalizing references to the Chinese having developed a submarine around the year 200 B.C.  However, I couldn’t find any details.  I figured that left me free to write the story as I wished.  My story was also loosely inspired by Ray Bradbury’s marvelous story, “The Flying Machine,” which I’d read in high school.  Eternal Press published my story.

“Seasteadia.”  Knowing of my interest in the sea, a fellow writer in my critique group sent me an article about the concept of seasteading.  I decided to write a series of stories about seasteading’s possible future.  “Seasteadia” is the first, and so far the only published one, and it appeared in the anthology Aurora of the Sun.

There are more, but I’ll save those for next week’s blog entry.  The point is, a writer’s story ideas come from many sources.  Who knows where your next story idea will originate?  After all, your creative mind works differently from that of–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 19, 2012Permalink

Book Review – A Curse on the Cygnus

At DarkoverCon last November, I met author Kevin M. Houghton, and bought a copy of his book, A Curse on the Cygnus.  It’s the subject of today’s book review.

This steampunk novel follows Royal Defence Service agents Colonel Ian Grey and Lady Victoria Dallas on a trip aboard a British Imperial Airways airship called the Cygnus.  A murder occurs onboard, and the protagonists become involved in the investigation. The question is whether this is a straightforward, naturally explainable crime, or whether it has something to do with the airship’s cargo of ancient Egyptian treasures and an associated, rumored curse.

I found the story engaging and exciting; it’s high adventure in a wonderful steampunk setting.  The novel gives the reader a good feel of being in an airship, conveying a sense of being confined.  Lady Victoria Dallas is a strong character, well able to defend herself.  The author does a fine job of making clear the motivations of all the major characters so their actions are believable.  Tension builds nicely through the story to a dramatic conclusion.  Moreover, the book is short and written in an easy-to-read style.

However, most of the characters seemed rather stock steampunk characters to me.  I would have liked Ian and Victoria to each have an endearing character flaw to make them seem more human and compelling.  I found I didn’t care about them as much as I like to care about protagonists.  There were a lot of characters to keep track of, but the author did a pretty good job of giving the reader little reminding clues to keep them straight.

The story’s beginning was slow, it seemed to me.  I was confused by the Point of View throughout.  Third person POV is most common these days, but this novel seemed to either employ third person POV that flipped frequently within scenes (and once within a paragraph), or else employed omniscient POV.   I was never quite sure whose head I was in.  A large number of grammatical and editorial errors also detracted from my reading enjoyment.

Using my seahorse rating system, I give this novel three seahorses.  If you enjoy steampunk and like a good murder mystery with a touch of the supernatural, then I recommend you read A Curse on the Cygnus.  If you do so, and come away with a different impression, please leave a comment for–

                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 18, 2012Permalink

Diagnosis: Writer’s Block

Have you experienced writer’s block?  That condition where you feel the desire or pressure to write but you can’t actually come up with any words?  It’s a real thing, an occupational “hazard” first diagnosed in 1947.

I think there are two forms of it–Major Writer’s Block and minor writer’s block.  I define MajWB as the state of being unable to start writing a new work, and of long duration.  On the other hand, minWB is a short-term state of being stuck while in the midst of a work.  MajWB can last for years or even be a career-ender.  But minWB is almost always temporary, lasting a few hours or days.  I have yet to experience MajWB, but get the minor version often.

In either case, the symptoms are pretty much the same.  Words won’t come out, try as you might, and after a while you don’t feel much like trying.  I pay attention to the blogs of writer Andrew Gudgel (full disclosure:  Andy and I are friends), and he wrote a great blog entry on writer’s block on May 3, 2011.  In it, he states that the condition of not writing is only a symptom, not the problem itself.  He makes the case that only when you know the problem can you begin to solve it, and that the problem itself points to the solution.

He divides the spectrum of possible problems into craft-related problems, and problems with other aspects of the writer’s life.  I’ll divide writing block problems a different way, as follows:

  • Story-related problems:
    • plotting problems–the story isn’t going in the right direction
    • character problems–a character isn’t fully fleshed out, or is taking over the story, or is otherwise not proving suitable
    • setting problems
    • other problems with the story itself
  • Craft-related problems that are writing-related, but not about the story:
    • overwhelmed by task
    • inferiority complex, thoughts that your writing won’t measure up
    • lost interest
    • pressured by deadline
    • paralyzed by own success
    • pressure of audience too close (more below)
  • Personal, but non-writing, problems:
    • illness
    • depression
    • relationship problems
    • financial difficulties

Again, identifying which real problem is present can point toward the solution.  The stress caused by any of the problems above can really inhibit the normal creative process.  What’s thought to happen in the short term to the human brain under stress is a shift of activity from the cerebral cortex to the limbic areas.  In other words, the focus shifts from the areas devoted to attention, consciousness, language, memory, and thought to the basic, instinctual fight-or-flight area we inherited from the dinosaurs.  Extended periods of stress damages brain cells, weakens memory, and causes depression.  All of that is bad news for writers.

Most of the items on the list of problems above are self-explanatory, but I thought I’d discuss the pressure of the audience in more detail.  Writing expert Dr. Peter Elbow wrote a much-discussed essay called “Closing My Eyes As I Speak.”  He claims writers feel the presence of an audience as they write.  Unlike performance artists such as singers or stand-up comedians, writers do not have their audience physically present, but they often imagine how readers will react to their work.  Dr. Elbow considers the pressure of this unseen audience can disrupt the flow of words, and suggests writers disregard the audience as they write their first drafts.  The writing will be more natural and genuine.

As a non-writing example, look at this picture of world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in performance.  He often plays with eyes closed, as if he’s deliberately distancing himself from his audience and playing only for himself in his own private world.  Metaphorically, we should all write that way, too, at least in our first drafts.

I’ve discussed the condition of writer’s block and potential causes, but never got around yet to how to overcome it.  Getting unblocked will have to be the subject of a future blog post by–

                                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 12, 2012Permalink

Book Review – The Theory of Everything

Boy, do I feel smarter!  I just finished listening to The Theory of Everything:  The Origin and Fate of the Universe, published in 2006 by Recorded Books, LLC.  It was read by Dr. Stephen W. Hawking who, interestingly, has not endorsed the book and tried to block its publication.

Dr. Hawking is arguably the best known physicist in the world, not only due to his brilliant work with black holes and other phenomena, but also due to his compelling life story.  He suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which confines him physically to a wheelchair and requires him to communicate via a computer, while mentally he roams the vastness of the universe, all of time, and every microscopic particle.

Among the books he does claim credit for are A Brief History of Time (1998), The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), A Briefer History of Time (2008), and The Grand Design (2010).  Such narrow topics!  He’ll have to strive for a more all-encompassing title for his next book.

Whether authorized or not, The Theory of Everything touches on the Big Bang, black holes, the relationship of universe theories to religion, the ultimate fate of the universe, string theory, and the search for the Grand Unified Theory.  Yep, just about everything.

Needless to say, I can’t comment on the validity of any of his contentions, but I will critique the other aspects of the book.  In the lectures that form this book, his meanings are clear to this layman without Hawking coming across as condescending at all.  He uses easy-to-understand analogies–globes, balloons, water glasses, etc.  Moreover, you might think you’re not interested in black holes or the Big Bang, but Dr. Hawking’s lectures will leave you fascinated by them.

On the negative side, I have to say that although the lectures are semi-related, they don’t hang together as well as if he was writing a coherent, integrated book with a central premise.  There’s some repetition within the book as well as repetition between it and A Brief History of Time.

Lastly, and I hate to say this, but perhaps the audiobook should not have been a recording of Dr. Hawking delivering his own lectures.  Yes, I know he is known by that distinctive, synthesized voice.  He even jokingly apologizes for its American accent, saying that he couldn’t get it to speak “proper English.” It’s just that some words spoken by his computer are difficult to make out.  I think Recorded Books LLC should have gotten one of their staff readers to read it.  In stating this I mean no disrespect to Dr. Hawking or anyone suffering from ALS.

These weaknesses, along with the fact that I discovered after reading it that it is not sanctioned by Stephen Hawking, lead me to give the book a rating of three seahorses, according to my seahorse rating scheme.  Good book, but I think A Brief History of Time is more worthy of your…well, your brief time than is The Theory of Everything.   Wishing I was half as smart as Dr. Hawking, I’m–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 11, 2012Permalink

Book Review — Lost Empire

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Clive Cussler’s novels, mainly because they’re exciting and they convey the author’s love of the sea and history.  Nearly all the Cussler books I’ve read were within his Dirk Pitt series.

I just finished listening to Lost Empire, which Cussler wrote with Grant Blackwood.  The audiobook was a product of Recorded Books, LLC and was narrated by Scott Brick.  This book involves a different set of protagonists.  Sam and Remi Fargo (nice pun–“far go”) are a wealthy, young married couple who enjoy treasure-hunting.  While scuba-diving in Tanzania, they discover a ship’s bell that gets the adventure going.

First the good points. Remi is a strong female character–something missing from the Dirk Pitt novels.  Sam ends up dealing with most of the physical rough stuff, but Remi is no slouch.  The story is a rollicking adventure along the lines of most of Cussler’s works.  The tensions build nicely and the chapters are short, making for easy reading.  I haven’t done any fact checking to see how plausible the historical aspects of the plot were, but I didn’t detect any real howlers as I was listening to the book during my commute.  Scott Brick did a great job with the narration, providing authentic-sounding and consistent accents to the various characters.

However, the character physical descriptions are sparse and I didn’t get a great feel for the character’s inner selves.  In fact, there were times when I wasn’t sure whose point of view I was seeing the world from.  It seemed as if parts of the book were written rapidly; here’s an actual sentence from the book:  “I agree,” Sam agreed.  What’s wrong with ‘said?’  As with many of Cussler’s books, a character with the actual name ‘Clive Cussler’ makes an appearance and assists the heroes at one of their most desperate moments.  As a best-selling author, Mr. Cussler has earned the right to employ such deux ex machina devices, I suppose, but any such manuscripts from me would be rejected amidst gales of laughter.  Lastly, Cussler is starting to re-use concepts from earlier books; I seem to recall that his novel Treasure also involved a manic trying to create a modern version of the Aztec Empire.

You know my book rating system by now.  I give Lost Empire two seahorses.  If you enjoyed Mr. Cussler’s other books, or love easy-to-read adventure novels, then this book will pass the time effectively.  Otherwise, well, there are reasons some empires should become lost.  I could be wrong, though, and in that case you should leave a comment for–

                                                                 Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 8, 2012Permalink

The Classics, Pro and Con

Are you a reader of the classics, those works of literature that have stood the test of time?  Do you think reading the classics would improve your writing?

Most people have a negative view of classical literature.  They associate those books with difficult high school class assignments, slogging through indecipherable prose, writing mandatory reports, as well as answering impossible questions in class and getting the answers wrong.  Little wonder the classics are not more widely read!

You may have your own reasons for not reading the classics.  Here’s a list I came up with:

  • They’re difficult to read.  Often the language used doesn’t make sense to modern readers.  If it does make sense, it’s often overly descriptive, or it dwells on single topics to the point of boredom.
  • They seem irrelevant.  A modern reader can’t relate to the characters in the stories, who face problems today’s readers don’t understand.  As a result, the characters seem unrealistic.
  • They’re not in my genre.  There are several modern literary genres–science fiction, westerns, and mysteries, in particular–for which there are few examples among the classics.  Those who enjoy reading from, or writing in, these genres will not feel any inclination to delve into the classics.
  • Their style is archaic.  One could never write that way for a modern audience and hope to get published.  Therefore it seems unlikely a writer of today would learn much of value.
  • I could never write that well.  For those classics that can be read today with little trouble, an opposite problem occurs.  A would-be writer might well compare his or her own prose to that of a literary master and become discouraged enough to give up.
  • They won’t help me write for today’s readers.  This is an extension of some of the reasons above.  All the works we consider classics today were written for the audiences of eras now long past, not today’s reading public.  Wouldn’t a writer’s time be better spent reading modern works?

Those are persuasive reasons, and perhaps they strike a chord with you.  However, let’s consider my list of reasons for reading the classics:

  • They’re about the human condition.  Though individual situations and technologies in the classics seem historically quaint today, these works deal with timeless aspects of what it means to be human.  In that sense, they will never become irrelevant.
  • They help us understand history.  The present we see around us is only a snapshot, a result of the great chain of causes and effects that is human history.  Our present was forged by events in the past, events described in classical literature.  In that respect, too, they remain relevant.
  • They’re about philosophy.  The classics often explore the deep thoughts, the perplexing ideas worthy of intense study.  Questions about aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and metaphysics bedevil us still.  They seem to have no right answers and yet we must choose some path to live our lives.  If Socrates is correct that the unexamined life is not worth living, then you want the fiction you write to be about philosophy, too.
  • In context, they make sense.  Whenever I hear the finale of the “William Tell Overture,” by Gioachino Rossini, I imagine what it must have been like for the audiences in 1829 to hear it for the first time.  They did not know a world where it was the Lone Ranger theme, endlessly repeated.  Often a classic literary work represented a break with the past, a novel new way of writing which was fresh at the time.  Though now commonplace or even passé, such works can suggest ways to make your own work fresh and different.
  • They can improve your vocabulary.  In classical literature you encounter such interesting words.  Often they’re outdated and inappropriate today, but you might come across the perfect word for your story.  In any case, you’ll increase your knowledge of English and the derivations and evolution of word meanings through time.
  • They’re often referenced.  As a writer, you’ll occasionally correspond with other writers or appear on panels at conferences or get asked questions at book signings.  Someone will bring up a comparison to a classic work.  If you haven’t read it, you’ll feel a little stupid.  Best to avoid that.
  • Stealing from them is legal.  Modern writers often base their works on the classics.  Hey, if it worked once for Shakespeare…  It’s not uncommon to create a complete retelling of a classic work set in modern times with modern characters, and the similarities can be blatant or subtle.
  • They’re examples of great writing.  The classics have lasted because they are well written.  Their authors were masters of putting words together.  Maybe you and I could learn from their example.  Even if we don’t attain their heights of grandeur, perhaps we can approach a little closer by studying them.

In conclusion, there are good reasons for and against.  You’ll have to choose what’s right for you.  As for me, I read about four or five classic books each year, roughly ten percent of my reading. Not yet a writer whose works are destined to be classics, I’m–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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February 5, 2012Permalink