Secrets of the Past

Is it possible that some amazing things happened in historical times, but never made it in the history books? Today I’ll discuss the subgenre of fiction known as secret histories.

Wikipedia’s entry provides a good definition: “A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. Secret history is also used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.”

With secret histories the author can deviate from actual history as far as she’d like, but she must return things to status quo or else explain why historical accounts don’t align with her story.

For this reason, secret histories are not to be classified as alternate histories (as I mistakenly did here.  There is no permanent altering of history. Rather the world returns to the one we know. The thrill for the reader is seeing how close the world came to actually changing in some dramatic way.

Secret histories work well as thriller stories with assassins or spies, since they work in secret anyway. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle are two examples.

I’ve written secret histories myself, but my stories involve technology, not spies or assassins. In each one I leave it to the reader to speculate how much further ahead we’d be if some inventions had occurred earlier.

9781926704012In “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” an inventor creates a submarine in China in 200 B.C. There are obscure references asserting that something of that sort actually happened, and those references inspired my story. The tale ends in a way that explains why more submarines weren’t made as a result of this invention.

steamcover5My story “The Steam Elephant” (which appeared in Steampunk Tales magazine) is a secret history in which a traveling group of Britons and one Frenchman are enjoying a safari from the vantage of a steam-powered elephant invited by one of the Brits. They get caught up in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. This is intended as a sequel to the two books of Jules Verne’s Steam House series.

WindSphereShip4In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” Heron of Alexandria takes his simple steam-powered toy and uses it to power a ship. If there had been a steamship in the 1st Century A.D., it boggles the mind to think we could have had the Industrial Revolution seventeen hundred years early and skipped the Dark Ages.

LeonardosLion3fAnother secret history is “Leonardo’s Lion” which answers what happened to the mechanical clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515. In the story, humanity comes very close to seeing all of da Vinci’s designs made real, which would have advanced science and engineering by centuries.

TheSixHundredDollarMan3fI’d categorize “The Six Hundred Dollar Man” as secret history too, when a man fits steam-powered limbs on another man who’d been injured in a stampede. The story takes place in 1870 in Wyoming and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end why that technology didn’t catch on.

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry” is a tale about a young man who learns there have been secret high-technology regiments and brigades in wars going back at least to World War I. Members of these teams cannot reveal their group’s existence, so it fits the secret history genre.

ToBeFirstWheels5In “Wheels of Heaven” I take what is factually known about the Antikythera Mechanism, and weave a fictional tale to explain it.

As you can see, I like writing in this sub-genre. Imagine something interesting and imaginative happened in history, write about it, then tie up all the loose ends so that our modern historical accounts remain unchanged. Leave the reader wondering if the story could have really happened. History that might have been, courtesy of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 7, 2014Permalink

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

The Trick Is…

Remember the TV show ‘Cosmos?’ No, not the new one starring Neil deGrasse Tyson (though I enjoyed that too). I mean the original Cosmos, starring Carl Sagan. There’s a brief part of one episode that’s stuck in my mind for all the decades since that show first aired.

CosmosTCYou can see the episode here and the part I recalled is from time 41:45 to 42:30.

In the clip, Carl Sagan is standing in a library. He says, if you read one book a week, over a normal human lifespan you can read only a few thousand books. (50 books per year times 70 years would be 3500 books.) He then paces off a distance across some library shelves to indicate that many books.

After remarking on how that’s only a tenth of a percent of the content of a library, he then says, “The trick is to know which books to read.”

That’s it. No follow-up. He goes on to discuss other things.220px-Sagan_planetary_orbits2

Thanks, Dr. Sagan, for clearing up that mystery of the universe.

How about telling us which books? Is there a list somewhere? Don’t just leave us with “the trick is…” without solving it for us!

Okay, okay. I do really like Carl Sagan, and loved the show. And I get what he was saying. His main message is that our lives are too short to permit soaking up all of human knowledge. As you choose books to read, go in with the understanding that you ain’t gonna read ‘em all.

Moreover, there can’t be one right answer to the question of which books to read. There are billions and billions of answers. (Yes, I had to say that.)

But allow me to take up Dr. Sagan’s challenge, and to set up some criteria for selecting books to read, given that you can’t read ‘em all. Here’s my answer to “which books to read:”

  1. Read books you think you’ll enjoy. This is the most important criteria, since if you don’t like reading, you’ll stop. You’ll never come close to reading a book a week for life.
  1. Read some classics, on occasion. They represent the greatest wisdom of the ages, and they have persisted because their value and relevance is timeless.
  1. Read way outside your interest area, on occasion. This helps broaden your knowledge, and you never know when one such book might spark a new passion for you. Try to eventually cover the whole Dewey Decimal System, and all fiction genres.
  1. Read both fiction and non-fiction. You can choose the percentage of each according to your preferences, but I think there’s value in both.
  1. Read books by authors you enjoy, and also give different authors a chance. There’s a strong temptation to keep reading books by the same author. After all, you liked the previous one; chances are you’ll like the next one. That’s fine, but it’s okay to read books by authors who are new to you, every once in a while.
  1. Give each book you select a chance, but don’t be afraid to abandon it. Read past page one; often the value of a book won’t become apparent until later. However, if you’re well into the book and getting nothing out of it, stop and get another. Your lifespan is too limited and there are too many better books for you to slog through reading a bad one.

That’s it, my attempt to respond to Dr. Sagan’s challenge to all of us, to figure out which books to read.   They may not be the best criteria in the cosmos, but they’re good enough for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 9, 2014Permalink

That’s Classic!

Today’s lesson is: how to write a book that becomes known as a classic. Good news—we can identify some attributes of classic literature. Bad news—no book becomes a classic in the author’s lifetime, so you won’t find out if your book made the list until after you’ve been dead awhile.

ClassicsI’ve blogged before about the attributes of good, quality short stories, but today’s question is about the few books that attain true classic status. These must pass a more stringent test.

Easy, but Unsatisfying Definition

Many people say that a classic is that which endures, stands the test of time, and which people still read long, long after the author is dead. In his book Antifragile, Hassim Taleb states that you can make a rough prediction about how long a book will remain in print. The average time a book will remain in print from this point on is equal to the time it has been in print so far.

To me, this definition of a classic, though true, doesn’t really settle anything. It begs the question, why do readers today still want to read this book? Let’s accept that a classic must endure, but I want to explore why this is so.

Other Folks’ Definitions

I’m not the first to knock on the door to this party; in fact I’m way past fashionably late. Many people before me have come up with great definitions of what makes a classic.

  • Italo Calvino says you can’t feel indifferent to a classic. That definition makes it a personal connection between book and reader. However, that’s not so useful to an author trying to write a classic.
  • Blogger Chris Cox builds on Mark Twain’s definition. There are two kinds of classics, those we’re embarrassed not to have read yet, and those we nag others to read. Funny, but again it concentrates on the reader-to-book connection.
  • The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve said the author of a classic “….has enriched the human mind…caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered…who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.” This is closer to what I’m looking for—let’s hold those thoughts.
  • Goethe said it’s not a classic because it’s old, but because it’s forever new. I like that one.
  • Some blog commenters have said a classic had some impact or effect on the age in which it’s written. That may be true for most classics, but not all such books endure.
  • Others say a classic is that which is new or innovative in its time. But, again, it’s not clear to me why such books would necessarily stand the test of time.
  • Jonathan Jones, a writer for The Guardian, says a classic must be elastic. That is, it endures despite plagiarism, satire, criticism, etc. Hassim Taleb would hasten to add that such pummeling of a classic makes it stronger, more enduring, and to use his word, antifragile. I like this attribute too, but it’s more about the reaction to a book rather than the writing of it.

My Definition

Borrowing the attributes I like and rejecting the rest, here are my rules. A classic for the ages must:

  • capture its time
  • be well written
  • say something profound and permanent about the human condition

There you have it. Write your book that way, and it might become a classic someday. Something for your great-grandchildren to enjoy. Currently at work on a classic, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 2, 2014Permalink

Writing for the Very Young

As someone who’s read books to his children and (more recently) his grandchildren, I’ll offer my thoughts about books for the very young. Here I’m considering books for children who haven’t begun to speak yet.

baby-looking-at-the-bookI believe the writer and reader of such books share a profound duty, one they shouldn’t take lightly. They work together to create an experience, from a first and indelible impression to a repeated pattern that becomes an ingrained habit. Their shared purpose has several facets:

  1. To entertain. This is not as important for this reading audience as it will be when they get older. Perhaps I could have phrased it as “To avoid boredom.”
  1. To teach vocal communication. The child needs to understand the one-way vocal transmission of thoughts and ideas. Sure, you don’t need a book for that, but the book provides something to look at while the speaking/listening communication takes place.
  1. To transmit the joy of human story-telling. It’s a primal human trait; we tell stories.   We convey life lessons through the use of characters, which make the lessons clearer. We pass down the stories through generations, and that strengthens an understanding of ancestors and the past.
  1. To imbue a love of books and reading. At some point the child will realize the book always opens the same way; the pages are always moved one at a time in the same order; the book doesn’t change from one reading to the next; and there must be some connection between the funny little marks and the sounds the reader is making. The child should come to see reading a book as a quiet, comforting experience.

The reader has a huge part to play in accomplishing these purposes. I think it’s important to introduce books in brief doses. Don’t even read the whole book at first. Gradually lengthen the time spent reading. In every case, you should finish before the child is ready for you to finish. In other words, don’t associate reading with boredom. Needless to say, vary your voice pitch as you read, and read with dramatic emphasis.

Enough about reading. For the writer, you have only pictures, words, and book layout to work with.

  1. Pictures. At first, the child will know your book only through the pictures. Make them bold, colorful, and immediately obvious.
  1. Words. The child won’t understand the written words, but will experience them by listening to them. Use short, simple words.   Make use of rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. Use words that sound good together.
  1. Book Layout. Consider cloth or plastic pages for early books, or a thick grade of paper. Don’t put too many words on a page; make the reader keep turning pages frequently.

Another thought on book layout—as the shift to e-books continues for adults, e-books will soon appear for adults to read to small children. From what I can tell, the ones available now still have real pages to turn, and the book narrates its own story without needing an adult. I think there would be value in a sturdy e-reader able to display pictures and text, but requiring an adult to read it.

Whether you write books for little tots or read books to them, please take the task seriously. If you do it right, you’ll spark a love of reading. If you do it wrong, the child will forever consider reading boring. Thank goodness Mom and Dad did it right for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 12, 2014Permalink

The Story behind “The Cometeers”

As I mentioned in my News page, Gypsy Shadow Publishing has accepted my story, “The Cometeers” which will be published as part of the What Man Hath Wrought series. The intended launch date is in early September.

TheCometeers72dpiHere’s the marvelous cover, designed by Charlotte Holley.  Yes, that’s a planet-destroying comet headed right toward the Earth.  But if you look closer, you’ll see an silvery man-made projectile on an intercept course.  Just possibly, its occupants might save the entire world.

Inquiries have been streaming in from every corner of the planet (and from some of the comets), asking what this story is about. Far be it from me to deny my fans information about my latest tale.

Here’s the book blurb: A huge comet speeds toward a devastating collision with the Earth, but no one will launch space shuttles filled with nuclear weapons. It’s 1897. Instead they’ll fire projectiles from the Jules Verne cannon and try to deflect the comet with a gunpowder explosion. Commander Hanno Knighthead isn’t sure he can motivate his argumentative, multinational crew of geniuses to work together. It turns out one of them is a saboteur. Then things get worse. Only a truly extraordinary leader could get this group to cooperate, thwart the saboteur, and jury-rig a way to divert the comet. Lucky thing Hanno brought his chewing gum.

Armageddon-poster 1998If you recall the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” then you can think of my story as Steampunk Armageddon.

I don’t recall the exact inspiration for this story. As stated in this post, and this one, I use the “seed and twist” method of coming up with story ideas. In this case the seed is the standard save-Earth-from-destruction idea, and the twist is to set the action in Victorian times.

My problem became one of technology. They just didn’t have sufficient know-how in the Nineteenth Century to divert or destroy a comet. It’s an open question whether we really have the technology today.

640px-From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_VerneTherefore, I assumed the world of Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon.  In that world, men had already achieved space travel in 1867. With funds from many nations, the Baltimore Gun Club had built a 900 foot long cannon outside Tampa, Florida, and launched a projectile containing three men.

My story is set thirty years later and no one has used the cannon since, due to the enormous expense. With a giant comet on the way, however, something must be done, so every country contributes what it can.

You can’t simply launch projectiles full of gunpowder at the comet and expect to hit it. The target is too small, the distance too great, and the calculations too imprecise. You must send men up also, in separate projectiles, to travel with your gunpowder bombs to make the necessary course corrections along the way.

That plan should work.

Unless something goes wrong.

“The Cometeers” will launch in September. For further updates, keep visiting this blog and reading the posts by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Story Behind “To Be First”

ToBeFirstWheels5As the launch date for “To Be First” and “Wheels of Heaven” nears (this Tuesday, July 1st), and excitement builds, I think it’s time for me to reveal the story behind “To Be First.”

A few years ago, I watched an episode of the TV show Mythbusters where they replicated a feat supposedly performed by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi in the Ottoman Empire in 1633. Çelebi is said to have constructed a rocket chair, launched himself into the air, and flown down safely using a wing-like apparatus. The event was intended to commemorate and honor the birth of the Sultan’s daughter.

The Mythbusters team considered the myth busted, but it got me to thinking. What if such a marvelous flight had taken place? What if the Sultan had understood the geopolitical and military implications?

LagariThink of it. Manned rocket flight in the 17th Century. Defensive city walls and high castle walls would mean nothing to a country with armed rocket-men. Rather than expanding and then beginning its slow decline to finally die with the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire might have spread much more quickly and farther.

Had the Ottomans also embraced the science behind rocketry, they might have hastened other technical achievements, and been the source of those advancements rather than watching America and the rest of Europe prosper.

It seemed like an interesting basis for an alternate history tale, so I wrote one. In my version, it’s 1933, three centuries after Çelebi’s flight, and two Ottoman astronauts (called lunanauts) are returning from the first manned flight to the Moon. Yes, I said 1933, not 1969.

Nuruosmaniye_MosqueI imagined their space capsule being about the same size as the Apollo capsule, but dome-shaped with a central spike like the roof of an Ottoman mosque.  The capsule would have a couple of windows and there would be some of that beautiful, flowing Ottoman Turkish writing on the outside.

As the story commences, the lunanauts encounter a strange ionic storm in space, and their capsule passes into an alternate universe. The tale takes off from there.

My central characters, Yazid and Kemal, hold differing views on what it means to be an explorer. What are the motivations behind those who roam beyond all prior journeys, who probe far into unknown regions? Do they do it for the money? For fame? For love? Or is it something simpler?

If you read my story, perhaps you’ll be motivated to become an explorer, and you’ll write your own gripping story of heroic and fantastic adventure. You, too, can manage ‘To Be First.’ At least, so says—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Story behind “Wheels of Heaven”

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiWith my story “Wheels of Heaven” about to launch on July 1st, I thought I’d tell you how I got the idea for the tale.

The series What Man Hath Wrought consists of alternate history stories involving technology. Basically, they’re “what if” stories that ask what would have happened if things had gone differently. While doing some research on interesting ancient technologies, I came across the Antikythera Mechanism. Or perhaps I saw a mention of it on a documentary on the Science Channel, Discovery Channel or History Channel.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1It’s a fascinating machine, advanced well beyond what anyone gave the ancient Greeks credit for. Moreover, until x-ray tomography was conducted on the device in recent years, no one knew what it was for.

Intrigued by the mechanism, I then had to think of an interesting way to fictionalize it. Some outlandish, but really fun, ideas occurred to me, but other authors had already explored notions such as the device being a time machine, teleportation machine, or even an alien communicator.

My story ended up being more plausible. I portrayed the mechanism as being exactly as it really was, a device for computing the position of the sun and major planets—the wheels of heaven.

In 1900 and 1901, divers discovered the device amid other shipwreck debris off Antikythera Island. “Wheels of Heaven” is my fictional account of how it came to rest there. An arrogant Roman astrologer will discover he can make predictions with greater speed using the device, but will come to question the connections between people and the stars.

rimtradeWhen research revealed the wreck to be a Roman merchant ship, I checked out what those ships were like. They differ from trireme warships in interesting ways. The carved neck and head of a swan which I describe in the story was actually a common feature of these ships.

For the most part, of course, “Wheels of Heaven” is about the struggles people have, the struggles we still have today. If you were certain you were right about something, an idea about which you’d formed a long career, and you found out it was all wrong, could you accept it? Are we all slaves of predetermined fate, or do we have free will?

Go ahead, take a trip through time to about 80 B.C. and voyage with my characters Viator and Abrax aboard the Prospectus. I know you’ll enjoy it; that much has been written in the stars by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Launching July 1st

It’s the event anticipated all over the world and throughout the known universe, and it’s happening July 1st. For those not in the know, that’s the date of the launch of my newest ebook.

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiIt’s part of the celebrated What Man Hath Wrought series published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing, and once again you’ll be getting two alternate history stories for the price of one.

“To Be First” follows two space voyagers from an alternate universe as they return from the moon, in 1933. In their timeline, manned rocketry began in the Ottoman Empire, which advanced and spread. When these Ottoman lunanauts end up orbiting our comparatively backward world, they have a choice to make, one that will forever change their future and ours. Along the way, one of them will learn something about why humans explore.

In “Wheels of Heaven,” an arrogant Roman astrologer finds a geared Grecian machine for predicting the positions of celestial bodies. Today we know the device as the Antikythera Mechanism. On the voyage back to Rome, the seer meets a sailor who dismisses astrology, an astonishing notion in 86 B.C. But when the sailor’s prediction is right, and every one of the astrologer’s is wrong, he begins to question his most basic beliefs.

The star-studded cover, designed by Charlotte Holley, not only demands attention, but it illustrates the connection both stories have to outer space.

You’ll be able to purchase the book in all the usual places: Gypsy Shadow Publishing, Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, etc.

Now you’re caught up with everyone else in the universe. No need to thank me. It’s all part of the service provided by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Cover Teaser

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiHere’s the amazing cover designed by artist Charlotte Holley for the next book to come out in the What Man Hath Wrought series. The book contains two stories: “To Be First” and “Wheels of Heaven” and will be published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing.

The image captures the essence of both stories and is aesthetically engaging. As for the stories themselves, I’ll post more info about them as we get closer to the book’s launch date, currently planned for July 1st.

Sorry to leave you in suspense about the stories, but I’m actually thinking of your welfare. Too much excitement and anticipation too early could be harmful to your psyche, so I’ll release information in stages to avoid such damage. No need to thank me; it’s all part of the services provided by—

Poseidon’s Scribe