Monday, June 20, 2016

Two Literary Greats Talk Writing, Terror, and Rats

This past Thursday, Stephen King made a stop in Albuquerque during his book tour for his latest release, End of Watch, which is the final book in his trilogy about retired detective Bill Hodges and the Mercedes Killer. I was unbelievably excited when I found out he'd be in town. And then I found out that George R. R. Martin would interview King. How often does one have the chance to hear two literary powerhouses riff off one another? My excitement doubled.

The crowd was filled with all types, and with people from all over. A guy down the row from me was wearing a white shirt covered with blood stains. Surprisingly, there weren't many people in costume or spooky attire. But everyone seemed filled with anticipation for the moment the two authors came out on stage.

I found it amusing that both men had East Coast accents. Jersey vs Maine was entertaining. Apparently they've known each other for decades, and it showed in their easy exchanges. They spoke for an hour, although it felt like they were up there for fifteen minutes. The crowd let out a groan of disappointment when King announced they'd have to wrap it up soon.

King started by admitting he had put off reading the Song of Ice and Fire books for a long time. But one day he ended up with excruciating pain from sciatica and was laid up for a while, so he told himself, "I'll try one of these fucking George Martin books," and as he put it, it blew him away.

Both authors write some pretty dark stuff. I've read the Song of Ice and Fire series, and I watched the show until the episode with the Red Wedding. It was hard enough to read it, so I certainly didn't want to see it. Instead, I sat in the other room while my husband watched, and I cringed at the sounds. King has also disturbed me and made me feel uncomfortable. He digs into the darkest recesses of human nature and holds those dark things to the light for the reader to examine. I didn't write this particular bit down, so I'm not sure who said it, but I think Martin was prompting King to say that if you can't do terror in a story, go for horror. If you can't do horror, go for the gross out. Both have certainly made their way up and down that scale many times.

And this brings about how both of them had stories about rats early on in their careers. Or, as Martin put it, "Rats have been good to us." And then Martin asked the big question: "How do you write so many books so fast?" This won a big laugh from the audience. King said that when he's working on a project, he writes six pages a day, and he writes for three to four hours. He tries to make those pages as polished as he can. It takes him roughly two months to finish a project at this pace.

Toward the beginning of their talk, they both plugged their own work, and King plugged his son's work. I found it amusing that even though they were big name authors, they still felt the need to do the shameless plug. And although Martin laughed about King's productivity, I don't think he was entirely joking. I think there's some... if not outright jealousy, then wistfulness there. They've won awards and they sell tons of books, but I get the feeling that not-so-deep-down, they're just as neurotic and uncertain as any other writer. It's comforting, actually.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Guest Post with Jeff Provine

Today I'd like to welcome Jeff Provine to the blog to speak a bit about points of departure when it comes to writing the 'what ifs' of alternative history. His new steampunk book, Hellfire, comes out this week.  Read on to find out more.

* * *

Alternate History (or “alternative history” for the grammatically strict) is a burgeoning genre. It is by no means anything new—people have been asking “what if things had gone a little differently?” since the days of Job wondering why he had been cursed. Two thousand years ago, the Roman scholar Livy discussed the ancient Alexander the Great, pondering what might have been if the great conqueror had marched west against the Roman Republic instead of storming the Persian Empire. In accordance with Roman pride, Livy of course suggested that they would defeated him.

Whether it’s called alternate history, alternative history, or the scholarly studies of counterfactual history, all of it begins with a “what if?” The most common what ifs stem from big events, such as what if the South had won the American Civil War or what if Nazi Germany had won World War II? A lot of alternate history immediately jumps into the fallout from such a change, not worrying about the details. Depending on the story, the details of how exactly the change occurred might not be as important as describing the changed world where, say, the western trenches of World War I stretch from the Appalachians to the Rockies or struggles against censorship in an America patrolled by the SS.

When crafting an alternate history, however, it is important to determine the “POD” that acts as the change to the timeline. POD stands for “Point of Divergence” or “Point of Departure,” depending on taste. I personally enjoy “departure” as it illustrates the hypothetical journey that you are about to take as you map a new timeline.

Like a butterfly being killed in the age of the dinosaurs or a drop of water trickling down the hand of a paleobotanist, when one little thing changes, the whole course of events change. Knowing how that first change happens is key to determining what the world will become, so do your research all about the people, places, and events circling around what you plan to change.

With the classic “what if the South won the Civil War?” example, there are numerous different takes on what exactly caused the South to win. One of the most popular is Confederate General Robert E. Lee winning the Battle of Gettysburg. Some writers and alternate historians get even more detailed, talking about the artillery barrage just before Pickett’s Charge or Union General Meade’s individual reaction. Once the change happens, the writer can follow through with its impact on 1863: Meade retreats, Lee seizes the railhead at Harrisburg to cut Washington, D.C., off from the rest of the country, and the draft riots in New York City intensify (these happened the week after Gettysburg, which shows that not all Northerners were eager to keep the war going). The anti-war sentiment spreads until the North demands an end to the war.

In my latest alternate history Hellfire (releasing June 8 from Tirgearr Publishing), there are arguably two PODs. The background steampunk world begins when Isaac Newton discovers a crystalline catalyst that makes fires burn hotter than they should for the fuel present. Newton, called “last of the magicians” by John Maynard Keynes, wrote more than a million words about chemistry, and rumors say that a lot more of his work was burned in an accidental fire. Circa 1700 during Newton’s lifetime, such a discovery might be little more than a parlor trick or a curiosity, like much of Robert Boyle’s work with gasses. As the industrial revolution begins, though, “free” heat from a fire is world-changing.

With ultra-efficient fires thanks to the catalyst, steam engines become much more powerful with less coal or wood needed to boil water. Factories can churn out more goods more cheaply. Further, without needing to haul fuel around, transportation booms as locomotives and steamboats conquer distance with ease. A powerful furnace not needing so much fuel could heat up ambient air to fill a balloon, giving rise to airships in the sky. Since the catalyst is such a powerful technology, it of course is a carefully guarded industrial secret, manufactured in one location by a cult-like workforce so dedicated that many people whisper some of them never leave the factory.

There are plenty more superstitions about the catalyst. It gives the fire it burns in a foul odor, reeking of rot and sulfur. Many people won’t even have it in the house. Some say that amid the roar of the flames, they can hear voices that whisper evil ideas. Those who spend a good deal of time near fires using catalyst go mad, often violently. Over the course of generations, this “Stoker’s Madness” is accepted as a part of life, a trade for having trains, factories, and airships. New mental institutions are put up near industrial centers.

Following the Law of Conservation of Energy, the extra heat has to come from somewhere. People say the catalyst acts as a wormhole, opening gates into hell itself, leaching the heat of the Lake of Fire while it lets slip the words of the damned.

With all this as background for the setting, the more obvious POD in Hellfire is the state of Gloriana. In 1806, Aaron Burr, of the famous Hamilton-Burr Duel, bought a huge parcel of land known as the Bastrop Tract in what is today northern Louisiana. In our own timeline, he was arrested for treason with suspicion of conspiracy toward sparking a war with Spain, and the colony fell apart.

For Hellfire, however, Burr successfully defended himself before Congress with such vigor that he not only won attention for his colony but embarrassed Thomas Jefferson and his supporters for legal shenanigans, causing James Madison to lose the 1808 election. There is then no war of 1812, and instead American-British relations improve as Burr spends a great deal of money importing Newton’s Catalyst to establish a city of industry at Lake Providence on the western banks of the Mississippi. The settlement grows into a territory and finally Gloriana, a powerhouse in the western South. Yet progress comes at a cost: people work endless hours pursuing wealth, and stagnant putrid clouds from the many catalyst-driven fires linger over the city.

Hellfire opens in 1856 with Newton’s Catalyst practically commonplace around Gloriana. Then something more than whispers begins to break through, as seen in this excerpt from chapter 1:

* * *

Even with the gushing hot wind from the furnace, Nate shivered. He lifted his boot from the pedal and let the doors swing shut again.

“Everything all right?” Jones called.

Nate shook his head slowly. “No. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not right. There’s something in the fire.”

“Can you dump it with the ashpan?”

Nate kept shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”

A jarring bang rang from the firebox doors. Nate jumped back and held up his shovel like a weapon.

The doors rattled again, and then the one on the right shifted open just a crack. A fresh sound of wailing poured into the cab. Something not quite black and not quite gray slithered out like a headless snake.

“What is that?” Jones screamed.

Nate swung at it with the shovel, whacking it with the dull side. A roar like the wind out of a cave came from the firebox.

Jones screamed louder, “What was that?”

The tendril grew longer and pushed back the firebox door. Steadily, fighting the weight of the heavy door, the thing climbed out of the firebox. The tendril was like a tail reaching from a shoulder. Its five other legs were segmented like a spider’s, but its body was fat and grotesque like nothing Nate had ever seen. It had eyes, shining, black eyes that blinked all over its bulbous body.

It cleared the door and fell to the metal plate floor of the cab. Sounds came off it: gurgling, whining, and guttural spitting. Nate stood frozen, watching the horror as it squirmed.

Jones jumped forward and stomped it with his boot.

The thing squealed and wrapped its legs around Jones’s boot, somehow bending them backward by twisting its own knees out of socket. Jones gave a horrified shriek. He stomped again and again, but the thing didn’t seem to get hurt.

Nate shot forward with his shovel. “Hold still!”

Jones froze with his leg in midair. The thing held tight around his boot.

Nate whacked it with his shovel again. It gave another unholy rumbling scream. Several of its legs came loose and wagged in the air.

Nate lifted his shovel and stabbed downward with the blade, running it just underneath Jones’s sole. It caught the thing on its belly or back, Nate didn’t know if he could call it either of those, and the force was enough to shove it off.

The thing fell to the floor again and writhed.

“Throw it back in!” Jones shouted. He had pushed himself against the side of the cab as far as he could.

Nate whacked it again with his shovel and then scooped it up. Its legs wriggled, but they didn’t seem able to grab hold of the blade. He stomped on the pedal to open the firebox.

The heat and wailing of the flames leaped out at him. Nate fought past and shoved the thing back inside. He stomped the release and sealed the doors again with a clang.

* * *


Hellfire is available on Kindle US, Kindle UK, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and Nook. Check out more alternate timelines from Jeff at his blog, This Day in Alternate History.



Monday, May 23, 2016

Splurges

Oh, boy, this week I'm going to reveal the things I splurge on. These items are my Kryptonite. Dangle any one of them in front of me, and I'm as good as gone.

My primary indulgence is Starbucks. Specifically, Americanos. I don't particularly care to get a plain old cup of coffee when I go in there, and I don't want to get one of their liquid deserts. Tasty as a white chocolate mocha can be, I don't want that much sugar in my body. So Americano it is, with some half-and-half and some Splenda. Conveniently, there's a Starbucks right near my work, so I can pop in whenever I have a moment, or on my way to work.

When I want to indulge in a quick, tasty desert, I head for the bakery at Whole Foods. I love their chantilly lace cake, their key lime pie, their chocolate cake, their cheesecakes, and their chocolate salted caramels. I've, er, tried just about every desert in that place. And the one near my house just opened a bar. Imagine, if you will, a slice of their pizza, a slice of cake, and a glass of red wine. Oh, heaven.

Me every time I walk in a bookstore.
And I splurge on books, too, of course. I will drop money on a bunch of books like I'm toting around Bill Gates's wallet. I'll wonder if spending $50 at the grocery store is necessary, but I won't question spending that much at the bookstore.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Tackling the To-Be-Read Pile

I've skipped blogging the last few weeks due to various reasons, but this week I'm picking up with the series of posts on #listifylife. This one is really close to my heart. I'm supposed to talk about the top three books in my To Be Read pile. This is also a tough one because there are so many books in my TBR pile, and they're all fantastic. But, here are the next three I'd really like to read.

1. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey. Doctors are prescribing exercise and physical therapy more often these days to help with a variety of issues. As a physical therapist, I definitely agree that movement can help with a host of ailments and problems. I'm eager to see what this book talks about and if it covers any new ground.

2. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I love a good, suspenseful, scary book, and this one promises to fulfill on many levels. It just won a Stoker Award, which has bumped this book higher on my list.

3. The third is actually an unknown number of books. I'm researching for a new novel, and much of that research has to do with day-to-day life in ancient Greece. I'm trying to figure out if I can afford a trip to Greece as part of that research. If anybody has a spare five thousand dollars or so lying around, let me know... At any rate, I'm starting with mostly children's books on the subject because (1) they're usually well written without extraneous and boring details, and (2) illustrations! I'm a visual learner, so that helps a lot.

If you'd like a look at my extensive TBR pile, or if you want to see what I'm reading, friend me on Goodreads.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Fifty Years of Women Running the Boston Marathon

It's been fifty years since the first woman ran in the Boston Marathon. I always knew that Bobbi Gibb had a tough time when she ran, that some men weren't happy with her being there, but I had no idea just how hard it was for her. She had written to the marathon officials asking for an application, but their reply was that women were not physiologically capable of running a marathon. So she hid in the bushes near the start, wearing a hoodie as a disguise, and joined the crowd when they started. She worried she might be arrested. Can you imagine?

Physiologically capable
Running is such a basic part of human nature. Running means escaping danger, chasing food, rushing to help someone in need, or that you're having fun. Most little kids love to run. They chase each other, have impromptu races, or run just to enjoy the speed or the feeling of the wind against their skin and in their hair, or simply because it feels good to move. I have a good run when I invoke those childhood sensations, when I think, "Hey, this is fun!" I can't imagine being told, "You're not meant to do this thing that brings you joy."

This past weekend I ran a 5K. It was my first race in inclement weather. It was cold and windy, and it started sprinkling right before we started. When the clouds parted later that day, there was snow on the mountains. Despite the wind and the stinging rain, I had a great time. Despite the fact that I was still getting over being sick, I improved upon my pace. There's something wonderfully primitive about running in a large group. It's like being part of a pack. There's a sense of safety, of camaraderie, of friendly competition. We ran through some fields near the Rio Grande River. I spotted geese and ducks in a field that was being flooded, and a couple of horses. I got to run through a neighborhood I'd never been in before. I finished the race and had a delicious slice of cinnamon swirl raisin bread and chocolate milk as I trekked back to my car. It was great.

I cannot imagine being told 'no' to something like that. I'm glad that the running world, and the world in general, has changed its attitude toward women. I'm glad that Bobbi Gibb had the guts to sneak into a race. The world needs people who refuse to take 'no' for an answer.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I'm a Spelling Bee Failure

Nearly every person has a hard time spelling certain words. There's one in particular that crops up for me from time to time as I'm making my grocery list. Deodorant. Somehow I keep wanting to write it as deoderant. I keep forgetting that 'odor' is a key part of that word. Doh! Fortunately, I'm much better at remembering to put the stuff on than I am at remembering how to spell it when I'm making my list of necessities.

Thank goodness for editors
And what's up with fuchsia??? Somebody screwed up the three letters in the middle there. I always want to put the 's' in front of the 'ch.' A quick jaunt over to the dictionary tells me that the word comes from modern Latin and was named in honor of a German botanist by the name of Leonhard Fuchs. Okay, I have a dirty mind, but tell me you can't say that name aloud and not giggle. Now every time your kid pulls that crayon out of the box, you're going to laugh because your mind is as entrenched in the gutter as mine.

And one other thing I always screw up isn't necessarily spelling, but... hyphens throw me for a loop. I either leave them out when they need to be there, or I stick them where they have no business existing. I worked with an excellent editor for my urban fantasy trilogy The Necromancer's Inheritance, and he dinged me on hyphens. A lot. I am hyphen challenged. That should probably actually be hyphen-challenged. But I have no idea because I am horrible at knowing when to use them. I mean, the word hyphenated does not have a hyphen. But the word non-hyphenated does. It's amazing people can communicate in English at all.

Monday, April 4, 2016

It's the Little Things

"I don't have to take a trip around the world or be on a yacht in the Mediterranean to have happiness. I can find it in the little things, like looking out into my backyard and seeing deer in the fields."
                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                              -- Queen Latifah

***

Queen Latifah, she's wise.

One of my happy places
I've blogged before about keeping a tiny journal where you write a sentence or two a day. I tend to keep it focused on the positive, although some days I just need to put down the awful things that happened. I've been writing in it for over a year, and now I get to look back at last year's posts as I add new ones. I've gotten better at noticing the little things that make my day brighter, and I often think, "This is what I'll put in my journal tonight." And while it's great to take big trips (I sure wouldn't turn down some time on a yacht in the Mediterranean), those things are few and far between. I think it's important to find happiness whenever you can. So I wanted to share some of the little things that make me happy. Indulge me as I make a list:

Coffee in the morning when there's no rush to go anywhere
Gardening/getting my hands in dirt
A good run
My son's laughter and his smile (that's really the best thing in the world)
Reading a good book
Planning a vacation
When I come up with a really good line while writing (I feel so smart! It makes up for the other times when I bang my head against the desk because I can't find the right words.)
Being outside
A nice sunset
Reaching traffic lights at just the right moment
Browsing through a bookstore

Focusing on the little things that make me happy keep the nasty inner voices away. Sometimes I'm wracked with doubt as a writer or a parent or even as a human being trying to navigate the world. Sometimes I'm depressed. That's when the voices are the worst. But writing down the good things, thinking about the good things, reliving them all serve to keep those voices silent. I encourage you to go make a list of the little things that make you happy, especially if you're having a rough day.

***

"It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important."

                                                                                                         -- Arthur Conan Doyle