Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Every Day Above Ground Is A Good One

Over the next week, I'll be getting ready to release the first book in an urban fantasy trilogy. The Graveyard Girl features a necromancer named Rose, and so I've been thinking about death a lot recently and searching for interesting death-related tidbits of information as well as pondering my own experiences with death.

My first semester in physical therapy school I took gross anatomy. I spent hours every week in a lab studying a dead body. It remains my favorite class ever, and I wish I could take a refresher course every ten years or so. Working on a human body is irreplaceable when it comes to learning how we're all put together. I'm amazed and awed that there are enough people in the world who donate their bodies to the purpose of educating those in the medical field.

As what happens so often when we're surrounded by death, we resort to humor to dispel the seriousness of the situation. When I went home for Thanksgiving break that semester, I endured many jokes about being the one to carve the turkey since I'd had so much recent experience with a scalpel. Normally my family is a sarcastic bunch, but I think, in this case, there was a little discomfort mixed in with the usual cynicism. After all, none of them (to the best of my knowledge) had ever cut open a dead human before. For a great article on what it's like to take gross anatomy, check out this article.

So for the rest of the next week or so, I'll be talking about death and all sorts of assorted facts, from shows like Six Feet Under to books made of human flesh (like the book of magic in The Graveyard Girl).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Taxidermy Kittens & Burial at Sea

I am floundering in between huge projects right now, so I've been taking advantage of the time to write some short stories. I tend to do at least a little bit of research while writing, even if it's something as simple as verifying the distance between two intersections. But for recent projects, I've come across some interesting and rather disturbing tidbits of information.

In an ever-increasing effort to make my search history more interesting should the FBI ever confiscate my laptop, I recently did a search for 'taxidermy kittens' and came across Walter Potter, a fellow who lived in the Victorian era and who was famous for creating dioramas of cute little critters acting out human activities, such as having a tea party, or going to school. Apparently he began his taxidermy career as a young man following the death of his canary. After performing an autopsy on the canary, he then stuffed it.

Another bit of research led me to a tiny island in Greece known as either Vidos or Vido Island, depending on your resource. The island has been occupied by various military forces over the years, and it was once used as a prison. According to Wikipedia, the waters surrounding it are the final resting place for roughly 5,000 Serbian soldiers from WWI. Many of them had tuberculosis, and while the island was used as a quarantine, the quality of its soil didn't allow for burials. These are the sort of tidbits that get the story wheels grinding.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Well Begun is Half Done

Like most avid readers, I usually pick up the latest from my favorite author with hardly a glance at the blurb on the back, much less cracking it open and checking the opening lines. But I've picked up a few new authors this year, and part of the process of picking new books and authors involves reading the first few paragraphs. So I thought I'd analyze a couple of beginnings and try to figure out what made me decide to buy each book.

First is the opening paragraph from Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet: Dauntless. I picked this one up initially because I liked the cover, and I was sort of in the mood for military sf. Without further ado, the opening: "The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. But he didn't move, knowing that if the enemy had resumed the attack there'd be alarms sounding and many more than just one blow struck to the ship. And, attack or not, he had no assignment to run to, no job to fulfill."

I think several things work for this opening. First, several sensory details are given to firmly place the reader in the story: cold air, the faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment, voices raised in fright, etc. Second, there's a sense that things are happening, that the story is starting en media res, or in the middle of the action; people are running around doing things immediately following some sort of attack. Third, it aroused my curiosity about this one person who is sitting (presumably alone) in a room while all heck breaks out. And finally, there's something ominous about the line "…if the enemy had resumed the attack there'd be alarms sound and many more than just one blow struck to the ship." This opening conveys a ton of information in just a few lines.

Next is a completely different sort of book. Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star is part ghost story, part police procedural, and a new twist on Jack the Ripper. That, and the fact that the main character grew up in Louisiana but is now going to boarding school in London, drew me initially to read the first few paragraphs. It opens with: "The eyes of London were watching Claire Jenkins. She didn't notice them, of course. It was an accepted fact that London has one of the most extensive CCTV systems in the world." There's more about the cameras, but I'll leave the rest out.

I like the first line. It's creepy, and it fits with both the ghost story aspect and the Jack the Ripper aspect of the novel. The bit about the cameras is not only a nice juxtaposition to the idea of Jack the Ripper, but the cameras are important throughout the story. It's a completely different sort of beginning when compared to Dauntless, but it works. It sets us in a time and place, and it gives us someone to focus on immediately. Unfortunately for poor Claire Jenkins, she doesn't last more than a couple of pages. It's a story about Jack the Ripper, after all.

What are some of your favorite beginnings?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Misunderstandings Lead to Some Funny Ideas

My recently turned four year old has become quite the conversationalist. I enjoy hearing his explanations for things, and I have a notebook where I write down the more memorable words and phrases. For example, he must have heard somebody say 'sugar buzz,' only he calls it 'sugar bugs.' Fair enough.

That got me to thinking about my own childhood and things I heard but didn't understand as a kid. I grew up in South Texas on the Gulf Coast, and I experienced a couple of hurricanes. I was a little kid when one came along. People talked about the eye of the hurricane, and I immediately pictured an enormous eyeball floating in the middle of the storm. Creepy, right? But wait, it gets better.

On the news, one of the meteorologists spoke about birds and how they get trapped in the eye of the hurricane. So then I was imagining a giant eyeball filled with grackles (because that constituted the majority of birds in the area) trapped and trying to peck their way out. Is it any wonder I have an aversion to all things eye-related?

So this hurricane hit. The windows were boarded up, so I couldn't see outside at all, but I could certainly hear the wind battering at the house. Then there was a lull in the storm, and one of my parents said the eye was passing over. Again, I picture a giant eyeball, only now it's floating in the resaca that marked the back boundary of our property, and it's filled with angry birds trying to peck their way out, and because the windows were boarded up, I couldn't see them at all, and that's actually worse than being able to see a giant eyeball filled with birds.

At some point I figured out what the eye of the hurricane actually was. Boy, I felt a little silly for thinking it was a giant eyeball, and I was simultaneously relieved that it wasn't. What are some things you misunderstood as a kid?