Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

It's been an eventful week, most of which I spent on the east coast - traveling to Baltimore to visit with my folks, and from there into Virginia wine country.  Got to tour Monticello (and Jefferson's more private retreat, Poplar Forest), saw so many gorgeous views, dabbled in wine-tasting, and tried duck for the first time.  As always, it wasn't long enough and I'm reluctantly easing back into the daily routine, but I did miss my puppies.

On the writing front, I wrote a poem - free verse - got the germ of an idea for another, and pondered expanding a third ... but as to the last, I've looked at it multiple times and it seems to resist being turned from its current state - a single cinquain, a snapshot of imagery - into something with enough meat to submit.  I also finished Nesting Instinct, which at 17,700 words and a little change has a lot of heft of it ... and still has that, "Yes, but ..." ending I love to wirte.  Oh, boy, does it ever.  I think an immediate sequel to this work would have to be a novel:  the implications are too broad even for another novella.

... and if there's one thing I learned from writing Nesting Instinct, it's that I don't think I could survive writing an entire novel from the first person perspective of a blind woman.  The tactics I used in a shorter (relatively) work would begin to wear thin and leave a reader unsatisfied in book-length fiction, I think.  On the other hand, maybe I should take that as a challenge ...

My next project is the final editing pass for Scylla and Charybdis, a focused, "cramming style" readthrough.  I found this immensely helpful with Butterfly's Poison (even if Harper Voyager didn't agree) and I'm looking forward to a similar clean sweep.

Forward march!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

The subject on my mind this week is stories inspired by or reinterpreting various myths, fairy tales, ballads, and so forth.  I'm going to arbitrarily set what I'm talking about apart from retellings that are relatively faithful to the source material - that's not the topic I'm interested in.  Obviously, there are grey areas, but for the purposes of this, let's say that a retelling would relating part or all of Snow White from the point of view of the huntsman; a reinterpretation would be a story where Snow White is a werebear and she's hibernating, not sleeping.  (I never promised to provide good examples.  On the other hand, I would read that story.)

I'm fascinated with the opportunities provided by this source material.  Much of it has a primal depth to it, and you can offer a number of variations before you start to dilute the core.  The story (or stories) that got me thinking about this was a (series of) retellings from a shared world where I decided to use the ballad The Cruel Sister as partial inspiration for a character's background.

(It's a common story with a lot of variations.  One version is here:  The Cruel Sister.  Loreena McKennit also has an - overly prettified - version, The Bonny Swans.)

Since my character was a harp player - ironically, this was before I came to the instrument; ancient history, that - obviously, he came into play as the musician of the piece.  I decided he and the lady-harp developed a romance, one that is shattered in the fallout of the revelation that ends the ballad.  (We never find out what happens after, at least not in any versions I've seen.)

This was a fantasy land created by someone else outside of the bounds of story or ballad, so some changes / disguise of the original narrative were inevitable.  Still, I made a few direct references:  the title of one of the stories was "So Coal Black Grew The Other One" (another version of a line in the first verse, above).

As I start thinking about rewriting it, I ask questions that aren't in the original narrative.  One I've already indicated - what happens after the harp reveals the murder?  What happens to the beloved after the younger sister drowns?  Why / would the older sister really think she could just be given the beloved like a prize?  (Not that women haven't been treated like this in old stories so often it almost doesn't bear mentioning.)  What kind of love is that?

I think this is another powerful lure of these old stories - so often, we're left to ourselves to fill in the gaps, ask the questions ... or be content with the mysterious and nebulous impression that it would all make sense if we pulled back the curtain.  The authority of these stories is such that we don't always feel we have to ... and a fiction writer drawing them can sometimes get away with the same trick, sometimes not.

When dealing with these sources, though, the question (or a question; there are numerous) is how much to disguise them.  Does one maintain names, settings, even specific lines?  Some tales are practically public consciousness; others are more obscure, such that only a student / scholar / geek would recognize even extensive references.  Then there's the story where the author conceals the recognizable elements, only to reveal them at the end, with an, "aha" moment for the reader.  The infamous example of this is the two people who crashland on a planet and turn out to be named Adam and Eve.  Writing this story will get you retroactively blacklisted back to the point your parents met.

I'll plead guilty to writing love letters to Greek myths ... a lot of them.  We're having quite the steamy affair.  Mythocraft is essentially a reintepretation of Greek mythology with a clockwork (we'll call it proto-steampunk) angle.  A story I haven't sought publication for yet, Inside The Box, imagines that Pandora was trapped in the box after she opened it (there's another myth / tale where I don't think we really find out what happens after) and leads her through a series of dream-encounters with other mythological figures.

Then there's the simple substitution method:  X, only with Y.  A writers' challenge to take a fairytale and use a subgenre with which I wasn't comfortable led to a tale I simply had a blast writing:  a steampunk retelling of The Six Swans (or Seven - fairytales seem to have difficulty counting higher than three).  And, of course, The Naming Braid combines multiple Lais of Marie de France.

All of these are pretty transparent:  anyone who is familiar with the source material should recognize it quickly, if not immediately.  One of the major projects I've contemplated writing down the line is a fantasy reinterpretation of the Helen of Troy myth, really utilizing and treating the gods as they were in the source material:  flawed, larger-than-life meddlers.  I've been in continuous debate how much to obscure the original.  Does it lose power if too subtle - or contrary-wise, if one is slapped in the face with it?  But mythological research has already suggested some interesting variants, not all of which the purists will be happy with ... so I don't want to stay so strictly in the lines that people will pick at inaccuracies.  (For instance, my Odysseus is a woman in disguise, and while I have multiple mythological tidbits that made me decide it was appropriate ... oh, there could be uproar.  Confessedly, part of my reason for doing it was also that I hate Odysseus and it's interesting to justify "his" behavior as the effects of trying to conceal gender.)

But enough about me ... finally ... and this is by far the longest post I've done in a while, at that.  What's your favorite myth variation scheme?  How much do you think a reinterpretation or inspired-by story should be disguised?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mondays for Moms

One of the most important things mothers do for us is introduce us to the world, answering the limitless questions we have - even after we leave the infamous "Why?" stage.  The closest I've come to this personally is as a teacher, and I've found that sharing knowledge with other people is a heady thing.  There are times, however, when it has to get wearing for a parent.  Here's a bit from Taming The Weald.  Keryn has brought Verdant to her home in the space station's living quarters after years in a small, artificial wilderness:

Keryn almost needed a cargo lift to get Verdant into the shower, but once the girl got used to it, she laughed, splashed and used far too much soap.  She reached for her plant-cloak when she came out.  Keryn intercepted her with a towel.

Keryn almost needed a cargo lift to get Verdant into the shower, but once the girl got used to it, she laughed, splashed and used far too much soap.  She reached for her plant-cloak when she came out.  Keryn intercepted her with a towel.

"It's better than the waterfall," Verdant chirped.

"Of course it is," Keryn said.  "You're no longer in the Weald."  Was there running water in the Weald?  There must be - she had heard plants needed it.

"You call my home the Weald?" Verdant asked.


"What do you know about it?"

Keryn had the uncomfortable feeling she was being tested.  She knew children did this.  "No one knows its exact origins," she said.  "It was part of the original station.  Much larger, at one time, but cut down when the need for it passed.  The rest remains out of a sense of tradition."

"What was the need?"

Keryn was embarrassed how little she knew about the Weald.  "I don't know," she said, "but the station has grown immensely since then.  There are a lot of things we don't need.  Most have been forgotten, but the Weald stays."

"That's sad," Verdant said.  "Everyone should remember their roots."

The clothing arrived via chute that afternoon.  Verdant adored it - until she had to put it on.

"It's heavy and slimy," she complained.

"It's not slimy, it's smooth," Keryn said.  "No rough edges, unlike the -" she stopped herself before she could describe the girl's old attire as trash.  "You'll get used to it."

"Is this what living in your world is like?"  Verdant pursed her lips in a frown.

"It's your world, too," Keryn said, "even if - somehow - you were ripped out of it.  You can't go outside dressed in anything else."

"It's not cold," Verdant said.  "Why not?"

She found herself explaining modesty and that led into other social norms, things she had always taken for granted and never been terribly good at.  There was so much to be explained she would have wondered if she was making the right decision, but the girl was avid, attentive, drinking it in ...


(Check out the full story here:  Taming The Weald)

Of course, at least most mothers don't have to explain to their children what clothing is ... do they?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

GoodReads Review: Icons of American Cooking

Icons of American CookingIcons of American Cooking by Victor W. Geraci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book offers twenty-four mini biographies of important figures in the popular culture of cooking. It offers an interesting range, individuals important not just for their careers as chefs or cookbook authors but reviewers (Ruth Reichl, the Zagats), television personalities (Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray), a kitchen supplier (Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma) and even a few entitites that aren't people at all (Betty Crocker and the Culinary Institute of America). It spans a good range of the modern era, with a bit of a paucity in the last two decades - but I guess it's hard to say which currently prominent chefs will endure as icons. I do think that this book isn't properly complete without Alton Brown, however. I'd argue the man is more of a modern institution than Mario Batali is.

These biographies cover a lot of ground, from history to critique to the personalities of these famous faces. I particularly loved how almost every entry surveyed how the individual became acquainted with food and what their childhood relationship to it was. (The obvious exception being the fictitious entity in the list above.) I was very surprised by the Betty Crocker "bio" - it's fascinating. Who knew an imaginary figure had such a backstory?

Unfortunately, the fact that this book is written by multiple authors makes it somewhat uneven. Some of the bios are slight; some are overly consumed with lists and dates; some don't talk about the personality of the chef, which was one of my favorite parts; others don't make sufficient effort to present events chronologically, which requires the reader to stop and retread. I was particularly disappointed by the brevity of the James Beard bio here, and the Culinary Institute of America "bio" is a particular mishmash of trivium. In some cases, I think the bios aren't much more detailed than you could find on Wikipedia.

Overall, though, the biographies that are good here are fascinating, and there are definitely people in here I hadn't heard of before (and am hunting down now). There are plenty of moments of, "So that's what happened with XYZ" ... and even a bit of dirty laundry. And if you're a foodie follower, you'll be entertained by references to other figures in the field - there's a great story about Tom Colicchio in here, and Rick Bayless comes up several times. This book is definitely worth checking out as a kickstart into culinary figures.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

So I spent most of yesterday with my younger puppy, who had a medical incident.  (This is writing-related - bear with me for a few moments.)  This morning, I took her in for blood tests to rule out the scarier possibilities.  They're all outside chances - the odds are very good that it was just an isolated episode - but what's hardest to deal with is not knowing the outcome.

After a long, bleary day, I started applying this to a writing context.  In broad strokes, there are various ways of generating suspense for characters.  One is dangling an "inevitable" event or threat over their heads, highlighting what is to come.  Probably the most wretched example of this (at least, to me) is the overused Hollywood trope of starting at the critical moment and then flashing back.  Another is to set up multiple possible outcomes, some of which might be catastrophic, others which might even be beneficial ... and then obscuring which way the pendulum will swing.  (There's a 1.5 option, or maybe it's a 1.66 or ... a compromise where the reader knows what's coming, but the characters do not.  The reverse is also an option, but difficult to do without feeling like a cheat.)

So I got to wonder - which is more effective?  The dread or anticipation of a single moment, or the uncertain shuffling between many?  Obviously, the answer depends on the needs of the individual, but given a choice ... what's your preferred poison?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mondays For Moms

I think it's only been in the past few years that I've really appreciated the opportunity to be with family - and some of that has been due to living in another state for the first time in my life.  (That's a geographical state, not a state of mind, though perhaps both are accurate.)  I've always been very close to my immediate family, and holidays - even minor ones - seem a little peculiar without them.

One of the central threads of my story Xmas Wishes is the absence of Irena's mother.  She has her reasons (and they may be more than they appear) but Christmas is somehow hollow:

Presents glinted under the tree, but Irena hardly thought about gifts - not even anticipating the look on her grandfather's face when he saw the antique watch.  Instead, she was fixed on the party, the thought of spending time with Justin, and the hovering promise of mistletoe.

Christmas Eve arrived with no phone call from her mother, perhaps because Irena stood staring at the phone, willing it to ring.  She expected to feel more resentment, but her heart seemed encased in ice.  It was difficult to feel anything.

"Her duties are very important," her grandfather said.

"A midnight call, I expect."  Her grandmother's pinched face encouraged her to believe this.  "So as to reach us when it's properly Christmas."

Phone call or not, Irena didn't intend to be home at midnight.  She endured the carols, cookies and traditional Christmas movies - a Christmas Story, Elf and, for reasons never properly explained, The Long Kiss Goodnight - with her attention elsewhere.  She felt more distant from her family than she ever had.

"I don't feel well," she said after dinner, feeling the lie tingle on her tongue.  "I think I ate too much.  Do you mind if I lie down?"

"Go on, dear."

Irena trudged upstairs, resisting the urge to sprint.  She plumped her pillow and blankets in what she hoped was a convincing fashion.  She had never broken out of her house before.  What if she couldn't manage the climb?  Television made it seem so easy.  Obligatory for any teenaged girl, in fact.  She knew she couldn't risk wearing tights and a dress.  Well, she had planned on slacks anyhow:  her thighs were too big.

Maybe that should have been her third wish.

She tossed her cellphone on the dresser - she always put it there when she slept; it would look suspicious otherwise.  She eased the window open, wincing when it creaked.  The cold slapped her in the face.  She held her breath, sliding out.  Her fingers clutched awkwardly at a frost-covered branch.  It stung.  She should have worn gloves, but they were downstairs in the closet.  She wobbled out into the crook of the tree and pushed the window as far shut as it would go from the outside.

Then she was alone in the darkness.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

More thoughts hatched from Nesting Instinct ...

We live in a visual world, where the majority of the meaning communicated to us is through imagery - from things as complex as a movie to as simple (but vital) as the colors of a stoplight.  What happens when a writer tries to remove these details from a story - in my case, because my first person narrator is blind?

... a lot of headaches.

I'm not even talking about description primarily, because I've been able to get around that.  My narrator has an assistant / guide who describes places and things for her; she also hasn't always been blind (though it's been almost half her lifetime), so she has some dim visual memories, especially for the character she knew (and almost married) before she was blinded ... and of course, she has a projected idea of what his daughter looks like.  We also get an idea for what the narrator looks like indirectly, through comparisons and by her description of her ethnic type while trying to visualize a new friend of the same nationality.  Are these accurate images?  Does it really matter?

I also had fun playing with readers' ideas of attractiveness:  while I have some limited description of two characters, you see mainly through the assistant's perceptions that one is plain, even homely, and the other quite beautiful.

But I digress - what I've found most difficult with this story is dialogue, specifically interspersing it with action and human movement.  How can you describe what your character's conversational partner is doing if you can't mention the smile, the frown, the restless pacing?

Of course, I can mention some of these things to some extent, but the language is complicated:  you can hear the first two in the voice and the rap of feet on stone (or grass, or ... more cues as to the visual nature of the surroundings).  I've had to get clever with ways to show the action without coming off contrived, and sometimes it comes down to picking moments and observations that a visual person might not even necessarily register.  In this, I often go back to my favorite friend, scent cues.

This is not the first time I've tackled a sightless character, but the first time was a flash fiction piece.  Sustaining this in a longer work has proved a challenge.  I'm most concerned about not leaving the readers feeling as if they're in a void, without compromising my character's point of view.  Right now, I'm working on a longer section where her assistant has stormed out in a fit of pique, and ...

... well, you'll have to wait to read it.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Monday for Moms

Welcome to my May-only Monday feature, with excerpts about moms.  Since I'm a daughter myself, I tend to write from that perspective.

Starting out, a brief piece from Flow, after Kit has discovered her grandfather - her mother's father - is a medium:

Kit shifted to face him. A question buzzed on her lips. "Then at least you owe me one thing," she said. "You can talk to the spirits of the dead. What about my mother?" And why doesn't she talk to me, she wondered, fingers moving up to the hidden necklace.

"Only once." His expression turned rueful. "I was not speaking from empty platitude when I told you months ago that she wanted you to have every happiness. Her last words were hope for you, and she went beyond in the belief you were safe."

Kit sat numb, the words pouring like so much sand through her head. It went unvoiced that it was somehow her fault - that Eleanor had done something, stood in the way of someone, defended her daughter with her life. It was a debt no answers could ever repay. Kit burrowed against his shoulder, too disciplined - too old, or maybe just too dry, after the past day and a half - to cry, but she could cling and hold onto ignorance for a little longer. 

After a bit, she tipped her head up to look at him. "Was my mother a sorceress?" she asked.

Arthur rubbed her shoulder, sighing. "If she was, I never saw it. It seems unlikely, but if she gave it up before she had you … perhaps. I wish I could give you her legacy, Enid, but I've nothing but memories."

It was another unanswerable question. Kit nodded against his chest.

"Tell me about what you see," she said, as she had from the time she could form the words.

Arthur led her into the solarium with one hand on her back. They sat in the semi-dark and watched the play of the shadows. He spoke of the footprints of fairy dances and the cobwebs of spells done and undone - and for the first time in years, she believed him.

... or as my own mother (deathly afraid of sharks) would say:  "Lindsey, I'd jump into shark water for you.  For your father, I'd just yell, 'Swim fast!'"

It's not all about life-and-death drama, of course.  often, it's a matter of Mom knowing when the system is wrong:  when to have faith in her child and seek another explanation.  For me as a child, terrible headaches (and behavioral issues because I felt so miserable) stemmed from environmental and food allergies, when the latter were considered something of a fringe science.  I'm fortunate to have had a mother who pursued the research and listened to her own instincts.

... and to have lived inland.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

As I've been writing Nesting Instinct, I've been dealing with a problem that applies in a very specific way to mystery-style stories in a secondary world fantasy setting:  how to worldbuild and give the reader the setting information that relates to the mystery without pointing big red arrows to the culprit.

It's easy to see why this would be an issue.  If I tell you that the murder weapon was a bullet from a handgun, you instantly know a lot about the crime without me having to elaborate further.  As one example, you know that handguns aren't hard to acquire, so you're looking for a different suspect than if the weapon was a sniper rifle or a trebuchet.  I don't have to explain any of this.

On the other hand, say the victim was poisoned by a rare plant - we'll call it plotia devicia - that leaves red stains around the mouth.  Obviously, you've never heard of it, so none of this common knowledge applies.  I potentially have to explain how it kills (ingested, bloodstream, simple contact?), how long it takes, what the symptoms are, where it grows, and who can get their hands on it.  If I only provide one or two of these pieces of information, then you know those are strictly relevant to whodunnit ... and in some cases, that's all right.

Another place where this is tricky is motive.  If I tell you that a rich billionaire in our world is dead and his daughter is a major suspect, one possible motive immediately springs to mind:  she wants her inheritance.  On the other hand, if I tell you that the victim blasphemed against the god of war, I probably have to give you more context to explain why this would be motive for murder.

I've found at least two techniques that are useful for this.  The first is mixing the key fact in with other information.  To take the poison as an example, I would provide all (or nearly all) of the nitty-gritty details, making it less obvious that the key point is not where the plant can be obtained, but the fact that it only poisons if it enters the blood.

The second is providing the information out of context, in a part of the story where the reader isn't looking for a clue.  For instance, let's say there's a romantic subplot in my story about the blasphemer, so I might have my character worry about her significant other's religious tendencies.

(A lot of television mystery shows seem to use the same technique in reverse:  an unrelated conversation, usually with family or friends, gives the clue to the missing piece.)

There is a theme in both these strategies:  they require more content than the strict bare bones of the mystery.  Thus, they're difficult to pull off in short stories.  Nesting Instinct is shaping up to be a novella, but I have successfully written shorter mysteries.  Looking forward to attempting this in novel form ...

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Two pieces at Penumbra!

First of all, a blog post - I got so busy I didn't notice this had gone up:

A Moment With Lindsey Duncan

And!  The Penumbra Oceans issue has gone live, with my story.  Check it out:

Penumbra:  Oceans