Saturday, August 31, 2013

Setting: the Origin of Patterson Mills, New Hampshire

This one's an archival post. It first appeared here in January, 2012. 

It was inspired by a lecture given by historian David Stewart-Smith. While the town in the story is fictional, I tried to make it an accurate example of 18-century New Hampshire towns. Thanks, Walter Chamberlain, for your help with that.

This is rather personal for me, since it's basically a fictionalized version of my own ancestral history.

Those who have read "Pleased to Beat You" may recognize the name of the woman at the end of this piece.

In 1762, Patterson, New Hampshire, consisted of some ten houses clustered around a common pasture. The school hadn’t been built yet, and even the meetinghouse was nothing but a few sketches and a dream. Old Lady Abbot did have a store of sorts: her son made the trip to Boston every month, and she sold the goods from her house. It was one of the nicer houses, with a summer kitchen and a birthing room, and it was in the birthing room that she stored the goods until they were sold, both because it was warm there and some of the goods could be damaged by freezing, and because neither she nor her sons were likely to have a baby anytime soon.

The worst house in Patterson was definitely James Davenport’s, and it was also the oldest. It was a simple affair made of logs, with a thatched roof, no windows and a dirt floor. A stone chimney had been built to replace the original mud one, and now the chimney was the only sound part of the structure.

James’ grandfather had built the house with nothing but his two hands and an axe, in two weeks one fall on a settlement grant. He’d chosen a great spot on the river where boats could land safely, and when the house was finished he’d built a dock there. Nowadays the dock was rebuilt every year by the Abbots, because they needed it for business.

The house wasn’t as cold as one might think in the winters, since James and his wife Sarah had eight surviving children and the cabin was only about ten feet by twelve. But James worried every time the wind blew.

The problem wasn’t that he and his sons couldn’t build a new house. It was that there were houses on every side, and the old house was smack in the middle of its yard. There just wasn’t enough space left on any side to build a decent house--not and have room for a kitchen garden, and Sarah insisted that she couldn’t cook properly without a kitchen garden. They could knock the old one down first, and then start building after they’d cleared it away, but James didn’t like the idea of the little ones being without shelter during the building. This house was going to be a proper one that an Englishman could be proud of, and a house like that took a lot more than two weeks to build.

There were plenty of trees to cut down for lumber. He’d have to take them to the sawmill in Pennacook, of course: you had to have beams and posts and planks and boards for a proper house.

What he needed was a new piece of land. The old house was in a prime location; any of his neighbors would jump at the chance to take it in trade for any nice lot on the edge of the village.

So James Davenport rose early on a June morning in 1762. He dressed in deerskin breeches and moccasins, strapped on his knife, his musket and his powder pouch, grabbed his satchel and filled it with smoked venison, bread, cheese and wild strawberries. Then he kissed Sarah and the babies and went quietly out the door. He always kissed the babies: you never knew how long they’d be with you.

He headed into the forest on the north side of the village, the river to his right. Southward there was no soil for growing things, just gray granite ledge with a little grass and lichen on it. In a few spots there was enough soil for a blueberry bush to take hold, and the berrying was good there. But it was no place for a house. And westward was the bog.

Sarah would have preferred to build a wigwam instead of a house, and he had to admit that a wigwam would have been much more practical - warmer in the winter and less buggy in the summer, and easier to build, with no lumber to mill, no expensive imported hardware to buy. But luckily it was out of the question and he could have his beautiful English house. Then he could show off to Mr. Steade and his rich Boston friends that he, too, had a fine home. Or at least his children could show it off to Mr. Steade’s grandchildren; it might take a while to build.

The reason building a wigwam was completely out of the question, besides the fact that it wouldn’t win him any goodwill from Mr. Steade, was that it was now illegal - not just technically illegal, but very definitely, totally and impossibly illegal. The law had officially been passed some time ago, decreeing that the wigwams in the Colony settlements were to be demolished, and word of it had gotten to Patterson eventually. Of course most of the villagers pretended they hadn’t heard until an official messenger came from the royal Governor’s office, and then nobody could deny knowing anymore. Yet still those who lived in wigwams continued living in wigwams. They had already built their frame houses, as prescribed by a previous law, but that law just said that everybody had to have frame houses; it didn’t say they had to live in them. This time, with this law, the wigwams were banished altogether, and any still in existence were to be destroyed. But there were plenty of people who hadn’t gotten around to destroying then when a band of redcoats came and got rid of the wigwams for them. They threatened to burn the whole village, too, but James and Mrs. Abbot and Parson Merrick managed to calm them down and, by recruiting enough villagers to help pull the wigwams apart, they prevented any torching.

Sarah Davenport was a Pennacook, like James’ mother and most of the rest of the colonists’ wives. The Pennacook were an Abenaki people, and they took their name from the spot, south of Patterson on the Merrimack River, where there were a lumber mill and a village and, more importantly, waterfalls and sand banks.

But James owed a lot to Abijah Steade. The Steades had been, for three generations now, the patrons of Patterson in general, and of the Davenports in particular. They'd provided the capital to start the town and grow it, and bound themselves with the duty to send up “meate and sundrie provisions” if ever a disaster threatened to wipe out the entire village. In turn they received a tribute of furs and maple candy and birch beer, a monopoly on the sale of molasses and rum, and the right to name the Town. Or, more accurately, Abijah Steade’s father Elias had named the Town, and he had named it for his mother, Dorcas Millisante Patterson.

Abijah Steade, like any true gentleman, had time for leisure, and his favorite leisure pursuit was the astounding field of natural philosophy. Once when James had paid a visit to his patron at the grand house in Boston, Mr. Steade had proudly shown him a crude-looking homemade box hiding under a skirted table in a corner of his office. James had reached out immediately to open the box, but as soon as he'd touched it, he had jumped back with a yell. The box had bitten him. Well, not bitten exactly. It was really indescribable, what the box had done, but whatever it was, it was sudden and painful and thrilling and loud. It stopped your lungs from breathing and even your heart from beating, but only for an instant and then it left you alone, euphoric and quivering.

“What is it?” James had asked, when he could find the words to speak again.

“Electricity,” came the answer. “The box is lined with certain metals of high purity, and contains strong vinegar. The result makes a very nice parlor trick, don’t you agree?”

Abijah Steade and the legendary Abenaki Chief Passaconaway may have come from two different worlds, yet both performed wonders that seemed impossible. Some said that Satan’s power was behind these wonders, but James didn’t think so. How could such good things come from evil? Didn’t the Bible say that good fruit could only come from good trees? Mr. Steade was fond of saying that creation held many secrets, and marvelous works could be accomplished by any student determined to learn them. And that made sense. James’ own grandfather and everyone else from his boat would have died of starvation and exposure if the Indians hadn’t shown them the secrets of creation they needed to survive in these parts.

Speaking of surviving, it was a special dispensation of Providence that Patterson wasn’t on the Merrimack, because these days the French had been sweeping down the Champlain Valley and trekking across the territory of the Western Abenaki to raid villages all along the Merrimack and carry away captives to New France. The ransom for just one captive was beyond the means of ordinary people, even if they could have paid in goods. But the French insisted on coin. If the raiders ever did come up the Blackwater, James had firmly decided already, he would give his life in Patterson’s defense. If any of his family were taken, then without the means to get them back, his life would be meaningless anyway.

With an act of will, James turned his attention to happier subjects. He thought of his grandmother and his mother, who had taught him how to hunt, how to catch and preserve fish and how to build a wigwam. (The Davenports themselves didn’t have a wigwam, but they did help their neighbors build them.) They taught him the importance of washing sick people, although his grandfather used to laugh and quote his own grandmother, back in England: “With washing comes the malady. The Lord has ordained a protection about the body, and by washing the protection is removed.”

In the bigger river valleys, where there were ancient flood plains, they grew a lot of corn, and as a child James had gone with his mother to help his cousins plant the corn and to help them harvest it, and so he had learned that, too. Patterson bought a lot of corn from the corn-growing towns, mostly from Pennacook where vast fields of it grew in the flatness of the Merrimack plain, but they didn’t buy it with currency. Currency was a rare thing in the Colonies, and whether it was pounds or galleons or francs didn’t make much difference; it was Crown policy that coinage belonged at home and the Americans should be content with goods. So the people of Patterson set traps, and traded furs for the corn, and the furs doubtless continued down the Merrimack to the sea and ended up warming the soft white necks of fashionable ladies in England.

And of course in the spring everyone went to Sewalls Falls for the fish run, and the fish were so thick in the falls that all you had to do to catch them was to put a bucket in the water and pull it out. Everything teamed with life at the fish runs, with the water so full of fish and the land so full of people. You got to see all your cousins again, you caught up with friends you hadn’t seen since the last run and made new ones, you made business deals and marriage deals. He’d met his own Sarah there.

And then there were the swallows carved in the rocks. Pennacook, which in Abenaki meant Place of Falling Sands, was named for the place where the swallows lived. The sand bank swallows were the symbol of the Pennacook people, the symbol of the renewal of life in the spring, of the annual banishment of the death that came so easily in the leanness of March and April. Because in May, when the moon was right, the fish would run and the yearly famine would be over. And when the fish ran, the swallows were active in the sand banks; the swallows always announced the running of the fish.

James spent a fruitless morning tramping through the woods, looking at the land. He just didn’t like the lay of any of it. Maybe he should have crossed the river and looked to the east. Or maybe he was being too picky. He shrugged and trudged northward.

Finally, he found it. It was the perfect spot, great terrain for a house and barn, a garden and hay fields and pasture land. The view from where the front porch would be was simply gorgeous.

But what was he thinking? He was several miles from the village by now, and besides, the river here was impossible. He would need to bring the lumber up by boat from Pennacook and no boat would stand a chance in this mess of rocks and foam and roaring torrents. Maybe he’d just have to have it delivered at the village dock and drag it up here by oxen.

The good thing about all these stones was that at least he could probably cross the river now. He turned for one last glance at his house site, saying goodbye, then stepped out onto a rock at the edge of the river and took a careful, calculated leap onto its neighbor.

He didn’t leap again immediately. For a long moment he stood staring down at the rushing water, imagining the lumber boat and how it would fare if it happened to be there. No matter that it couldn’t be there, that there was no way to fit such a large object into the narrow chasm he had just crossed. The pure power of the water scared him, fascinated him, held him entranced.

And that’s when he realized. This really was the perfect spot, and the rapids here were part of the perfection. Pennacook and its mill were far away, and Patterson was growing. James and his sons would build a sawmill here.

He smiled and jumped back to shore and walked home. He arranged with the Abbots for some illegal shovels (all-metal ones, not just metal-clad, made by a man named Mr. Ames who dared defy the law that such products were to be made only in England) and diverted some of that rushing water into a mill race. He bought a minimum of lumber from the Pennacook mill just to get started, and milled the rest himself, along with his sons and a hired man, built the house and the barn and finished the mill.

Over time, a village grew up around James Davenport’s mill, and the people called it Patterson Mills. And now, more than two centuries later, Dean Davenport Massilon lived in Patterson Mills with his wife and daughter and three grandsons, in a big white house with five bedrooms and a summer kitchen, next door to the Heikls who lived in the house that went with the sawmill.

In 2005, Fred Strage and his wife bought a piece of property two miles down a dirt road and four miles by road from Patterson Center, and built a rustic house there.

It was a timber frame house, built largely from local materials, including as much as possible the very trees that had been cut down to make room for it. Fred didn’t finalize the design until he’d looked at the trees, and the living room especially was a masterpiece of posts and beams as continuous wholes, trunks and branches left as they’d grown with only the bark removed.

The house was very small, little more than a cabin, with a composting toilet and a high-efficiency wood stove with an afterburner for the smoke and a heat-powered fan to circulate the heat. It was very bright inside, and the electric lights were cleverly placed and well-reflected, and the hot-water supply ran in coils of copper pipe around the stovepipe, all to keep the electric usage to a minimum.

Downstairs were a sitting room and a bathroom, a bedroom and of course the kitchen. Besides the wood stove in the kitchen there was a gas range for summer use, converted for propane, and besides the standard faucets there was a hand pump at the sink. The hand pump drew a lot of comments and even some criticism, but to Fred and his wife it was important. It was one of the things that had really brought them together, in fact: the odd coincidence that they both wanted hand pumps in their kitchens.

Upstairs, under a sloping roof, was a pair of water tanks, one for hot and one for cold, and another hand pump over the cold one in case of power outage, and a loft with four built-in beds with drawers underneath and two little windows, one in each end, in the gables.

The only flaw, perhaps, was in the insulation. Only after the fact did Fred begin to learn about thermal bridging and the possibility, not only theoretical but brought to reality in actual houses, of insulating so well that even in the cold climate of Canada a house can stay warm with nothing but the incidental heat put off by the warmth of bodies and appliance motors. But as it was, the house needed quite a bit of heating, and with only the wood stove that made it hard to go anywhere for very long in the winter.

The house project, overall, was a huge success and Fred went on to design three more, each better at preserving heat than the last. The marriage, though, did not succeed, and in 2010 they were divorced. As usual the wife got the house, but in this case Fred didn’t mind. He was already working on a design for another one, and for this one he wouldn’t have to compromise with anyone.

The wife, of course, was a red-headed freelance translator by the name of Jade Massilon.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Gods' War

Today we have a fantasy story by a promising young writer named Kate Hawkins:

Shortly after time began, and earth became inhabited by life, the guardian of time created the gods. He created the goddess of music, the god of war, and many many others. He put the goddess of life, Midnight, to rule above all of the other gods. She was kind and just, yet she demanded respect and loyalty. Seeking a refuge for her underlings, Midnight created Kaira, a small dimension that allowed the gods to cross over to earth, putting them in the middle of Central Park.

The gods and goddesses in Kaira lived together in peace for many millennium. Eventually, however, one decided to try and kill Midnight: the god of death, William. Of course, William failed, and was exiled from Kaira. He set out to take over Kaira, and began turning gods and goddesses to his ways. Being that those gods had only been living one way, they began to question Midnight. The guardian of time’s words were no longer enough to keep them as they were, so they began turning to William for a new experience, and to test his ways.

Midnight declared war on William. She wanted to wipe him and the people who had betrayed her out. However, instead of winning the war, Midnight started a cycle. During the summer, Midnight and her followers were winning the war. During the winter, William was. The spring and fall were turning points for them, and no one knew why it was impossible for one side to win.

Both sides had been trying to figure out what made them unable to beat their enemy into surrender; Midnight more so than William, and it had been taking its toll on her. She’d been up for several days straight, again, when her younger sister and heir, Rin, came into her study. “Midnight, you look tired. Go get some rest.” she said, leaning against the arm of a chair. Normally, Rin was shaky and insecure, but when it was only Midnight around, she was much more relaxed. Her rival was Deidra, William’s son and heir.

Midnight smiled warmly at Rin. “Don’t worry, Squirt,” she said, using Rin’s nickname. “I’m not anywhere near as tired as I look. Hell, you’re worse off than I am.”

“Midnight,” Rin groaned, rolling her eyes. “Just take a break, even if it’s just for a few hours.”

Midnight shook her head. “Go take the next few days off. I’m fine.”


“That’s an order, Rin.” Midnight said, more stern than usual. Rin sighed, knowing better than to argue with an exhausted Midnight. Moments after Rin left, the guardian of time appeared in the room. “Guardian,” Midnight nodded respectfully. The guardian was part of a clan which was known for its power and ability to manipulate time.

“You shouldn’t worry about this war, Midnight,” he said, taking a seat. “It’s going to continue whether you’re in charge or not. Go get some rest.”

“I’m fine, Guardian,” Midnight smiled. “Besides, I want to make history here.”

The guardian sighed, “Alright. I’m going to check on Rin.” he said, leaving the room.

Maybe I should listen to them. I am a little tired. Midnight thought, and after a few minutes, she retired to her room.

Midnight woke the next morning to the smell of poinsettias at the foot of her bed, again. Every time she’d slept the past few months, she’d had poinsettias at the foot of her bed when she woke. Midnight sat up groggily. “Whoever is sending these must know a thing or two about me,” she mumbled, moving the flowers to a vase and padding to the kitchen in the Kaira estate. Outside of the estate, there were sparring grounds, and past that lay hundreds of miles of woods, which were used for testing the gods’ survival skills when needed.

When Midnight reached the kitchen, everything was chaos. People who didn’t know the first thing about cooking were running around, and the kitchen looked like a tornado had just passed through it. Rin was standing on a counter, trying to calm the gods, but failing due to her inability to get loud and actually get people to pay attention to her. Midnight joined her on the counter. “What’s going on?”

“William’s launched an attack on us. Most of the gods that left us for him, as well as a lot of his toughest demons are attacking earth. We’ve managed to get them off of earth and swept into another dimension, but they’re getting to the point where they can open up tunnels back.” Rin said, panicked.

Midnight sighed, irritated with William. “I’ll handle him, Rin. Work on damage control.” she said, vanishing in a pillar of leaves before Rin could say a word.

William was easy to find, being that he was always at the center of the problem. New York City seemed to be the center of this problem, so Midnight started there, at the Statue of Liberty, one of the most iconic places there. He stood still, arrogantly grinning at the fight going on below them. “Hello, Midnight.” he said as she shot an arrow at him. Wind blew it off course, and it missed by several feet. “Don’t play games with me. You’re here to stop this, right?”

“That should be obvious, William.” Midnight shot back venomously, drawing her sword and heading cautiously towards him. “You’re going to pay for the lives you took today.”

“Is that so? How do you intend to make me pay?” William questioned, turning to face Midnight. She glared, taking a swing at William. He vanished just before she could graze him, landing his own gash on her shoulder from behind. Midnight gasped in pain, realizing he’d used some sort of poison on her; she knew he experimented with things like that. She sank to her knees, dropping her sword as the poison was pumped through her body. William kicked the sword across the roof, kneeling in front of Midnight. “I asked how you were going to make me pay, Midnight. Are you going to answer?” he asked, smirking.

Midnight glared up at him, quickly loosing strength. Using the small amount of energy she had left, Midnight sent a blast of raw energy barreling at him. William, who was shocked by the fact that she still had that much power left, took the full blast and was thrown across the roof. Midnight stood and made her way to her rival, kneeling beside him. “That’s how,” she smirked tiredly. As she studied him, she noticed his unnaturally lonely eyes, and couldn’t help pity him. So, she put a hand on his cheek, causing him to wince. “I’m sorry if you didn’t want to end up like you did,” she said. “You’ve been alone since you left us, haven’t you?”

When no reply came from William, Midnight sighed and began to draw energy from the people who were barely hanging on; those who were in immense pain. As she took their life, she eased William’s pain, regretting that she was taking life to help her enemy. “This cycle’s been set already; even the guardians say it’s going to continue. We can’t go against fate, William.” she said as William winced, then sighed. “Call off you demons.” she demanded.

William sighed, mumbling something that sounded vaguely like profanity under his breath, then looked at Midnight. “Fine,” he said, slowly clambering to his feet as his demons filed back to their own dimension. William smirked down at Midnight. “Let’s finish our fight.”

Midnight stood, slightly weak on her feet. As she tried to summon her energy, she quickly realized that she was unable to. She tried again, but a searing pain flared in her head. Cursing, she whirled towards William. “You blocked my powers off!”

William smirked at Midnight, again, which only infuriated her more. “What did you think I was going to do?” he asked rhetorically. Suddenly, William pinned Midnight to the ground with his boot. “Listen, Midnight, I’ve been sending those poinsettias.” he said, watching the goddess he’d been trying to overthrow his whole life squirm under his foot.

“Why?” Midnight choked out, trying to break free of the pressure from William’s foot.

He froze when he heard Midnight’s question. After a moment, he sighed. “I suppose you deserve to know, being that I’m about to kill you.” he said. Midnight glared weakly at him. “I’m quite fond of you, Midnight, and if we weren’t enemies, I’d make you my queen. The demons were sent to lure you out. How did you expect me to get that message to you if you attacked me on sight, hm?”

William released Midnight and stepped back. The pair remained silent for quite some time, and Midnight was the one to break the silence. “You sacrificed thousands of human lives to tell me that? Not to mention all of the gods and demons lives that were under us?” she growled, attempting to get to her feet. “You’re so lucky my powers are gone right now.”

Without warning, Midnight collapsed again, curled up in a ball and her arms crossed over her stomach in pain, as was William. Moments later, the two of them were in a deserted field, miles away from the nearest human. The only thing Midnight remembered was William’s declaration of love, and he somehow knew that. “Who are you?” she asked, standing now that her strength had returned. “How can you say that when we don’t even know each other?”

William smiled slightly, holding a hand out to the former goddess. “I can help you, Midnight. All you have to do is trust me.” he said.

Midnight eyed William warily, and, after a few moments, she took his hand, allowing him to take her to a small shack he’d discovered before being chosen to become a god.

William never did return Midnight to her home. Instead, he left her position to Rin, and handed his own to Deidra. The war continued, but Midnight and William lived blissfully ignorant to the gods’ war, and later had a daughter named Kira.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Tour

Today's post is by Luke Bellmason, and I personally think he's got a splendid idea.

Canterbury Pilgrims
Last week my good friends at The Sucker’s Guild held a meeting and we discussed promotion ideas; which web-sites to sign-up to, what kind of thing blog readers like to read, etc.

The web is a great promotional tool, but after the meeting I started thinking about how I could get out there in the “Real World” to promote my books, to meet real people. My plan has always been to build a ‘following’ of folks who like my books and who will tell others about them. It’s a long slow process, though I am promoting myself on all kinds of web-sites – FacebookTwitterGoodreads,Readwave – but I know that one of the most important factors in promotion is ‘word of mouth’.
In one sense, it’s easier to sell your own work. If you’re writing the kind of stuff you enjoy as a reader, like I am (corporate sell-outs stop reading now!) then you should have a fairly strong belief in your product. You know it’s awesome right? So all you have to do is persuade everyone else it’s awesome.
In marketing they have a phrase ‘unique selling point’. This is the one distinguishing feature that your product has which no other product has. It sets your product apart from the rest and makes it stand out. In my case I think the USP for The Canterbury Tales is the ‘tales’ themselves. They are based on the idea of storytelling, of a story teller sitting in front of group of people and speaking. Story telling has fascinated me for a long time because it’s such a basic thing; everybody tells stories.
Go out into a bunch of people in a pub, your local store or cafe and you’ll hear people telling stories. Mostly (but not always)the stories they tell are true, or partly true with some embellishments, exaggerations and omissions. We all learn this skill, some people get very good at it. They learn what part of the ‘story’ works by observing the reactions they get from their audience. They will re-tell that story many times, if it’s a good one, and will change they way it’s told ever so slightly based on these reactions.
Story telling predates even the written word, stories were around long before we had books, but when we did start writing these oral stories into books we had the problem of permanence. Words in a book cannot be changed, sections cannot be left out if the reader shows signs of boredom – sections cannot be added or changed if the reader enjoys what they’re reading. Of course, this may become possible one day with the technology offered to us by eBooks and smart devices.
Each tale in my book is told in first person and they could be read out, I would even say they ‘should’ be read out. All of the story telling events I’ve looked for in my area, however, are related to folk-tales, historical fiction and traditional stories. There doesn’t seem to be sci-fi action/adventure story telling scene; that kind of thing seems to be the preserve of podcasts and youtube. (Ok, so that’s another idea in itself.)
So I am toying with the idea of doing readings from the Canterbury Tales, perhaps in libraries or coffee shops or to local sci-fi groups. The obvious thing to do would be to read the finished ones, but should I consider something even more radical? Should I read the ones I haven’t finished yet, should I even have them written down? Might it be an interesting experiment to come up with a basic outline then attempt to tell the story in character from a synopsis?
Ok, now consider that I am on a sort of pilgrimage myself while I am doing this. This summer I rode from my home by bike out to the Malverns. I took a tent, a sleeping bag and a couple of sets of clothes and I cycled for about a week through tiny villages along back roads. It was such an amazing thing to do and I got fit into the bargain. I’ve done some back of the envelope calculations and worked out that the distance I rode to Malvern and back would have been about the same as from here to Canterbury in the south-east of England.
So, I thought, what about a cycling book tour next summer? By then, I am hoping to have another four stories ready for volume 2 and I would maybe have another couple ready as ‘ideas’ roughly sketched out. I could stay in hostels, which are a lot better for meeting people than hotels or even camp-sites.
I’m sure it would give me a lot of things to write about too. One of the things about this year’s holiday was I didn’t take anything electronic; no iPad, no phone, no laptop. This time I could take some devices with me and live-blog the trip as I go. I actually think the iPad would weigh less than the book and notebook I took with me this year. I think I should also use my time on the road to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well.
On the way round I might be able to find places to let me do readings. I am certain I will get to hear other people’s stories too, though not necessarily sci-fi ones, and just maybe I will meet people who will become fans and will tell all their friends about the crazy writer guy who cycled to Canterbury.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Writers and Mental Illness

This next, as Paul Harvey used to say, is partly personal. M Joseph Murphy reminds us that mental illness and creative talent often go together, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Those who know me personally know that I fall into this category, too.

For the past week my OCD has been completely out of control.

There are many sorts of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Mine, thankfully, is not focused on germs. I'm an organizer. I'm compelled to refold everything in the linen closet, straighten the fridge, recategorize my music collection, or alphabetize my library.

Once I start an activity, any activity, it is almost impossible for me to stop. This is wonderful when that activity is writing or editing. But last week I had nothing to focus on.

Megan Fox Reportedly Suffers from OCD

Without the "distraction" is writing, my compulsive behavior is focused on everything else. I spent 10 hours working in Photoshop on a map for my next novel. Ten hours without so much as a washroom break. My hand seized several times. In fact, my muscles are still sore from it days later. The crazy reason why I didn't stop: a little voice in my head kept saying:

"What if you died tonight?  You can't leave this unfinished just in case."

I knew it was stupid. Completely irrational. I argued with my craziness saying "Stop after the water features are done." Then it got worse.

I turned to Netflix. I started Season 2 of the series 24 at 8:00 p.m. I didn't stop until 10:00 a.m. the next morning. I probably wouldn't have stopped then but my fiance gave me a I napped for a few hours.

Compulsion isn't always a bad thing. Most of the time it actually works in my favor. I keep working on things long after everyone else would have stopped. It makes me a great employee and a very dedicated writer. I can spend hours writing or editing to get a scene just right. As long as I have a goal my compulsion doesn't get in the way of a normal, healthy life. Most of the time.

Dan Wells - Contributor to Writing Excuses

A few months ago I listened to a great podcast, Writing Excuses 8.8: Writing and Personal Health. All of the writers discussed their mental health issues. It helped me realize I wasn't alone. So what can I do about it? I refuse to take drugs to solve this type of problem. I think society in general is too over-drugged. I'm more in favor of cognitive retraining which is why I'm writing this post.

A few days ago I listened to a song on the radio: Who Can it Be Now by Men at Work. It got me really thinking about mental health. I come from a creative family who also have history of mental illness. My mother had paranoid delusions and frequently suffered from hallucinations. My father was diagnosed as bipolar with sociopathic tendencies years ago but, as far as I know, has never taken medication.

Maybe acknowledging and sharing my unhealthy behavior will help alleviate it.

List of Famous Authors with Mental Illness
Creativity 'closely entwined with mental illness'
Women Writers and their Mental Health
Writers Have Higher Risk of Mental Illness: Study
Dan Wells on Depression

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Inspiration and Diligence

When I worked as an employee of a corporation, nobody used to expect me to be inspired, or to work only when the muse was with me. I was expected to show up whether I felt like it or not and get my work done.

As a fiction writer without a boss, I have to work by the same standard. After all, the books will not exist if I don't write them. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not blaming or putting down writers who can't write if the muse is not with them. But I do think that eventually, with practice, a serious writer has to get to the point of writing consistently, regardless of what the muse may be up to.

I recently picked a launch date for my upcoming short story collection, The Sandfruit People. And guess what? I have to actually finish the book, or it won't exist. The next step is to write a few more stories to round out the book. But at the rate these stories just come to me out of the blue, Sandfruit will probably be about five years late to its own launch party if I sit around waiting for the muse. So here's what I'm doing instead:
  1. I started with a few notes for each new story. There's going to be a general story arc to the whole book, and certain important events need to have their own stories. So these notes were somewhat dry and practical, a little bit like the outline of a history book.
  2. After that I look for the most interesting slant I can find on each story. I know what happens, but I need to find a compelling way to relate it. So I think about some of the people who would likely be involved in the story, and imagine telling it from their perspectives. When I find one that shows promise, I start writing notes on how this person would see the events as they unfold.
  3. If that person's point of view would show the events in an understandable and interesting way, then I think about the character and ask myself what his or her goal is, and how the events of the story would affect that goal. Sometimes the answers are obvious, while at other times I really have to think for a while before they become clear. But it's rare that I actually get to make them up, because there's usually a reason that particular character is in the ideal position to see the story unfold.
  4. Next, I come up with some of the details, such as a character's name or whether a particular scene happens in a bar, a supermarket or a nursery. Some of these decisions are made according to what I feel like at the moment, but most of the time there's only one choice that's best for the story.
  5. Step five is to find the perfect way to end each story, and I admit, this one really is best left up to the muse. But there are rituals that can be performed to invoke the muse. Mine seems to be drawn to water. You might be surprised how many endings I've found in a sink full of dishes.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Science Fiction Story Collection

My science fiction story collection now has a title...finally! Here's the cover, short a few tweaks. Planning to launch on Black Friday this year.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cardassian Interrogations

The premise of my Star Trek novel is that a Human from our time, who doesn't believe in extra-terrestrials, is transported to a 24th-Century Cardassian space station. Of course the Cardassians have to interrogate her; the story would be totally unbelievable if they didn't. And since Cardassian interrogations have already been written about, I already had a general pattern to follow in writing this one.

I took as my model Captain Picard's interrogation by a Cardassian named Madred, in TNG's "Chain of Command, Part II" (6x11). Here's a transcript of the relevant scene, courtesy of

[Interrogation room]

(Picard is brought in blindfolded)

MADRED: Captain Picard.

PICARD: I demand to see a neutral representative as required by the Federation-Cardassian peace treaty.

(Madred removes the blindfold and the guards leave)

MADRED: We have already sent a message to Tohvun Three, the nearest neutral planet. They assure us they will dispatch someone immediately. Will you allow me to remove your restraints? 

(Picard holds up his hands.) 

I understand that you are a student of archaeology. Did you know that Cardassia boasts some of the most ancient and splendid ruins in the entire galaxy?

PICARD: I know that the burial vaults of the First Hebitian civilisation are said to be magnificent.

MADRED: Apparently when they were first unearthed two hundred years ago, they were. The burial vaults contained unimaginably beautiful artefacts made of jevonite, a rare, breathtaking stone. But most of those objects are gone.

PICARD: What happened to them?

MADRED: What happens to impoverished societies. The tombs were plundered, priceless treasures stolen, a few were preserved in museums but even those were eventually sold in order to pay for our war efforts.

PICARD: That war cost you hundreds of thousands of lives. It depleted your food supplies, left your population weakened and miserable and yet you risk another war.

MADRED: Let's not waste time arguing about issues we can't resolve. Would you care to tour the Hebitian burial vaults?

PICARD: What I would like is to be returned to my ship.

MADRED: My dear Captain, you are a criminal. You have been apprehended invading one of our secret facilities. The least that will happen is for you to stand trial and be punished. But I am offering you the opportunity for that experience to be civilised.

PICARD: What is the price of that opportunity?

MADRED: Cooperation. We need to know the Federation's defence strategy for Minos Korva.

PICARD: You've injected me with drugs. Surely you must realise that I've already answered truthfully every question you've put to me.

MADRED: Captain, we have gone to great lengths to lure you here because we know that in the event of an invasion, the Enterprise will be the command ship for the sector encompassing Minos Korva.

PICARD: Then it seems you have more knowledge of the situation than I.

(two guards come in and take hold of Picard. He struggles.)

MADRED: Wasted energy, Captain. You might come to wish you hadn't expended it in such a futile effort.

PICARD: Torture is expressly forbidden by the terms of the Seldonis Four convention governing treatment of prisoners of war.

(a metal piece is lowered from the ceiling, and Madred takes a knife from his desk)

MADRED: Are you in good health? Do you have any physical ailments I should know about? (the knife) Beautiful, isn't it? The stone is jevonite. And now you know why it is so highly prized. From this point on, you will enjoy no privilege of rank, no privileges of person. From now on, I will refer to you only as human. You have no other identity.

(Madred cuts Picard's clothes off and leaves them around his ankles. Naked, his hands are manacled and attacked to the metal piece above his head. Then the piece is raised so Picard is hanging just above the floor....)

And here's part of the interrogation in my novel:

Tahmid signaled the guards again, and the one on my right said quietly, "Hold still." The left guard held both my arms, above the elbows, and the right one reached up and took a hold of the neck of the top I was wearing. It took me a few seconds to realize that he had a knife, and was cutting it off me. Soon after, it fell to the floor, and for the second time that day I wished I had chosen a thicker, more modest bra. But I didn't have much time to dwell on that, because as soon as he was done with the top, the guard started cutting my slacks. He must have had a very sharp knife and a lot of practice, because all it took was two quick, neat cuts down the sides and the slacks had joined the top on the floor. I was left standing in my shoes and panties and bra and the strange handcuffs that held my wrists about shoulder-width apart.

Tahmid gestured to the guards again, and asked me, "Is Derek Dellinger a member of Starfleet?"

"As far as I know he's not," I answered, "but I'm not even sure if that's his real name."

"Is Derek Dellinger human?"

A flag went up in my mind. I'd heard of this technique but never seen it in practice. The idea was that they ask you several questions in quick succession, all of which are easy and innocent and take yes answers. Then in the same tone of voice they ask you to confess to a crime, hoping you'll answer yes without thinking and incriminate yourself. I took my time and repeated the question in my head before answering. "Yes."

"What's the last thing you remember before Terra Knorr?"

That wasn't a yes or no question, so he must have picked up on my hesitation, realized I was onto his game. That gave me a fleeting sense of victory, until I realized that he had just read me. Interrogators, of course, are supposed to be very perceptive, but I had been subconsciously hoping this one wasn't. I made a mental note to try not to lie. "I'd just gotten out of a cab in Chicago," I answered.

"What kind of cab?"

"A licensed yellow Crown Vic."

"Explain the term 'Crown Vic'," he said, seeming relaxed again. "I'm afraid there are many details of your culture I'm still not familiar with."

"You're not - " I began, then cut myself off. "I'm sorry," I said, "Crown Vic stands for Crown Victoria. It's a Ford model, and it's used, a lot of times, for police cruisers and taxis."

"A vehicle, then?"


"What were you going to say?" he asked. "I'm not what?"

"Oh," I answered, "I was just surprised to hear that you're not American. Your English is so good, I thought you were."

He laughed, a dry, cold laugh, and said, "Oh, you thought I was American. And now what makes you think that I may not be?"

"When you said," I paused, trying to recall his exact words, and gave up. "Something about not being familiar with my culture."

"How perceptive of you," he sneered. "I am not American." He signaled to the guards again, and almost immediately a strong hand smashed into my face. "In the future you will refrain from sarcasm in this room," Glin Tahmid ordered.

"Yes, Glin," I answered breathlessly, hoping to prevent any further blows. I wondered what I'd said that he'd taken as sarcasm, and decided to leave the subject of nationality alone as much as possible. Warm liquid trickled from my right nostril to my lip. It was blood.

Tahmid leaned back in his chair and looked up at me. “What’s your birthdate?” he asked cheerfully.

“September 13, 1985.” On a Friday. I’d never been superstitious about it, but now I was beginning to wonder.

“Explain,” he said.

Explain what? I wondered, but didn’t dare ask. “I was born on September 13, 1985,” I answered.

"Is that a date?"

Back to the obvious questions, again, or else he was just badgering me. “Yes.”

“By what calendar?”

“I think it’s called the Julian calendar,” I answered, getting sick of these obscure historical questions, “or possibly Gregorian? I’m sorry; I don’t know much about calendars.”

Tahmid had something on his desk that looked like a game controller, and he touched a button on it. A rod began to come down from the ceiling. It was nearly directly above me and pointing straight down like the rod the fan had been on in the restaurant. But there was no fan on this one. I tried to back up a step, in case it came down too low, but the guards held my arms. It kept coming, six inches in front of my face, and finally stopped when it was about at the level of my chin.

As soon as it stopped the guards grabbed my forearms and raised them, fitting the end of the rod into a small hole in the middle of the handcuffs. They locked together with a metallic click. Then the one on my left pulled my shoes and socks off and the one on my right made five quick cuts with his knife, and I was naked.

“I hope we’ve been able to come to an understanding,” he said in a friendly tone. “Think back to the last thing you remember before Terra Knorr. You got out of the cab, and then what?”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Status Update

Here's what I've been up to lately:

Resist the Devil: With the help of some very talented relatives (yeah, I'm that lucky) I sent the novel through another proofread and updated the cover, then expanded its distribution to all the ereader stores (Nook, iBooks, etc.) and made it available in print as well.

Editing: I continue editing nonfiction articles, mostly web content, but I'm also proofreading a novel. I think that must be the ultimate literary nerd test: I love proofreading novels! I think it's because I tend to proofread when I read, anyway, and the mistakes irritate me if I can't do anything about them.

The Claw and the Eye: After the recent work on Resist, I decided my book of short stories could use the spa treatment, too. At this point it's a matter of looking it over and deciding what needs to be done.

An Analysis of the Cardassian Language: I'm still writing the second draft, slowly. I love this book - love the characters, love the feel of the story, love to write it. And I think, in some illogical way, that makes me feel like I have to get everything else done first, before I can work on it. No dessert until your plate is clean. So I've been naughty and not been writing consistently.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Worldbuilding: Dagooldabad of the Gogue

Here's a page I wrote to help me understand the setting for my science fiction story "The Mammal Cage":

The desert stretches for a thousand miles in every direction. Most of it is dry sand in shades of grey and black and green, interrupted only by outcroppings of the rock from which the winds have, over the millennia, created the sand. Some of the rocks are just the right size to fit in the hand, as if they had been made for throwing; some are big enough to be called mountains, and most are somewhere in between. Besides the rocks, two features dot the otherwise monotonous landscape of shifting sand: the oases that foster life and the volcanoes that take it away.
The oases aren't, for the most part, bountiful springs of water that make the land green with the lushness of luxuriant vegetation. They are modest underground aquifers, rather close to the surface, making possible the growth of cacti and scrub grasses that in turn support a modest number of animals.
The volcanoes, also, aren't like the great cinder cones found in other places. They are neither tall nor steep nor round, and never once, in all of recorded history, has even one erupted in that exploding-mountain way that volcanoes are known for.
And they never will, either, say the geologists, because they can't. Only magma rich in silica can build up pressure for huge explosions, because silica makes the magma thick and gloppy, trapping the volcanic gases and holding in the pressure, saving it up for sometimes hundreds of years until one day it reaches its limit, puts on a breathtaking show and causes horrible devastation. The magma under the Gogue desert, though, is made mostly of pyroxenite and olivine, very low in silica and therefore very liquid when melted. Gases escape easily through cracks in the overlying bedrock, and occasionally lava gushes out, too, and forms glowing red rivers which eventually cool into solid black and green rock.
Long ago, the experts say, the Gogue desert was the Gogue rainforest.
Dagooldabad is a place where an oasis and a volcano are uneasy neighbors, the volcano slowly stealing land from the oasis and turning its precious water into steam. 
The village is very old, a hundred centuries old, some archeologists say, while others disagree and said it is two hundred or even five hundred centuries old. What they all do seem to agree on is that, whatever era it was when it was first settled, it lay in a lush tropical environment, in a fertile valley, perhaps even on the banks of some ancient river. The vast hot desert that dictates so much of the villagers' lives in this millennium did not exist yet in that one, and the lake of boiling rock that bubbled and sputtered beyond the cliffs at the edge of the village in modern times still lay under miles of bedrock, although the bedrock may have already been beginning to crack.
According to one theory, there had already been small fissures in the bedrock, and the hot volcanic gases had escaped upward through these fissures, and the frequent jungle rains had trickled downward through these same fissures, and when they'd met they'd created steam, and it was this steam that had first attracted some of the area's semi-nomadic primitives to settle here.
In time, lava had followed the steam through the fissures and flowed down the valley, perhaps meeting the river and turning its water suddenly to vapor in a loud, popping, hissing collision. Eventually, the thin crust of rock on the surface was worn away too much to bear its own weight, and it collapsed and melted and became part of the lake of lava it had sheltered. Now, east and north of the village are great dark cliffs ,and beyond those cliffs lay a plain of rock, rippled and cracked, mostly black and sometimes red, sometimes dark and sometimes erupting with fountains of scarlet that lit up the night.
The village has an odd name, because of its age. Almost without exception, villages, towns and cities have names that sound like the names of people. From the faraway bustling metropolis of Zoke to the little city of Hiyat where most of the villagers work and shop and find their connection with the world, municipalities are called by simple one-syllable names, a vowel or two or at the most three, closed on both ends by consonants. But the village, named in ancient times by speakers of a long-forgotten language, is called Dagooldabad.
There have been movements, over the centuries, to bring Dagooldabad into the modern era by truncating its name. Dag was proposed once, and Bad about a decade later. The last Zirode from Hiyat, the one before the present one, had tried to force the name Gool on the village over the objections of its citizens. But he had lost and they had won, and the village had remained Dagooldabad.
Modern Dagooldabad had about two hundred residents, who by reason of being wedged between the unforgiving desert and the punishing volcano, tend to watch out for one another and be, perhaps, more united, more of a real village in the old sense, than most.