Thursday, May 31, 2012

Convention report

I occasionally write up my notes from a convention. What I remember, that is. For those who enjoy such reports, BayCon 2012 is here.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Eclipse Diary, Part 4 - Afterthoughts

Chris at Lassen Park
The next morning, my friend and eclipse-buddy Chris and I drove up to Lassen Volcanic National Park, as she had never been there before and it seemed a shame to drive all the way and not see any of it. The road was closed by snow only a few miles past the entrance, but we stopped to goggle at the snow-draped mountains and sulfur vents. As the perfect ending to our adventure, we met a trio of avid cross-country skiers, preparing for the day’s outing. We swapped eclipse stories and theirs topped ours, hands down. They’d made the ascent to the top of Lassen, broken open a bottle of champagne while they watched the eclipse, and then skied back down.

Eclipse Skiing Party
Looking back, I’m struck by the wide range of knowledge of the people we encountered – from the astronomer who had not only his telescope (with solar lens) and camera (with solar lens), but everything hooked up to a laptop, and the physicist who explained to anyone who asked how a pinhole camera works and why the Moon looks red in a lunar eclipse, to the wine-sippers who hadn’t even realized when the eclipse began or what they were seeing. I fell somewhere in between. I want to understand what I’m seeing, but at heart, I’m more interested in what it means in the lives of the people who, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, formed a spontaneous community. I want to spin it all into stories. I suppose that’s why I’m a writer and not an astronomer.

But it sure was cool.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Eclipse Diary, Part 3 – Ring of Fire

Deborah's attempt to photograph the eclupse (far right)
Photographing through a welding visor
The solar system is mostly empty space with leeetle teeny objects hurtling round a star (and some of them, around others) that, while quite medium and ordinary by galactic standards, is by far the largest, most massive object anywhere around. So Earth is hurtling around the Sun, the Moon is hurtling around Earth (and therefore, around the Sun in a sort of perambulatory – not a correct astronomical term, I believe – fashion). And every once in a while, the Moon comes between the Sun and the Earth, thereby blocking the sun’s rays and casting a shadow over a leeetle teensy area of Earth’s surface. Sometimes the disk of the Moon obscures the Sun – that’s a total eclipse, and in the area of the resulting shadow, there’s no sunlight, so it appears to be night – but, because the Moon isn’t always the same distance from the Earth and objects appear smaller when they are farther away, at other times, they line up but a ring of Sun remains – an annular eclipse. And because the lineup has to be exact for either of these to happen, the shadow cast by the Moon falls on only a small area of Earth. Hence, our journey to Lassen Volcanic National Park. (My husband stayed at home and got to see a partial eclipse.)

Astronomer Explains His Strategy
Once we’d established ourselves in a suitable viewing area, hoping fervently that the clouds we’d seen earlier would remain cooperatively absent, the countdown began. Solar eclipse shades are very cool things, if a bit hokey. They’re cheaply made, like glasses used for 3-D movies, but the film has to cut out all the harmful rays from the Sun in order to allow direct viewing, so everything else looks utterly black. I’ve spent my lifetime Not Looking Directly At The Sun, so at first it was odd (to say the least) to put on these black-out shades and do just that. The Sun appeared as the single luminous object in a field of black.

And then…a tiny dimple appeared in the orange disk.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eclipse Diary, Part 2 – A Community of Sun-Gazers

Mt. Lassen from Lake Almador
This is the second part of my solar eclipse adventures, accompanied by my intrepid neighbor and walking buddy, Chris.

Today’s lesson, young grasshopper, is that things turn out the way they do, no matter how different that is from how you expect them to be. All the information we had been given was that the best place to view the annular solar eclipse was from Lassen Volcanic National Park, plus there would be an educational presentation at the Information Center auditorium. Life, however, does not always follow what is given out in magazine articles and websites. When, after a morning of hiking around Lake Almador, we arrived at the park entrance, a long line of cars awaited us. The time for the presentation approached, with almost no forward progress. At last, when the entrance kiosk came into view, a Park Ranger informed us that not only was the parking lot full, or about to become so, but that we would not be able to view the entire eclipse from the park. She advised driving to Redding, about 90 miles away. She mentioned the Mineral Vista Point, considerably closer, but thought that the parking area might already be full.

In the tiny town of Mineral, we stopped to chat with the proprietors of the all-purpose lodge/market/general store. A number of people who’d turned back at Lassen had clearly decided that the way to view the eclipse was from the café patio, a cold beer in hand. They didn’t seem to mind that there were some rather large hills to the west. We, on the other hand, decided to try the Vista Point, reserving the lodge parking lot as a backup plan.

Eclipse Tailgate Party
When we arrived at the Vista Point, some 10 miles down the road, the formal parking areas were full, but we nabbed a shady spot off the road. I suspected that we would be only the first of many to park there, and I was right. We found an astronomer setting up a telescope and camera with special solar lenses. Before long, we’d struck up conversations not only with him, but his physicist friend and wife, and a family from San Jose. (I confess, I broke the ice here when I noticed the teen wearing a shirt saying, “Bow Ties Are Cool,” and began a Whovian conversation, during which Chris – who is an ardent Trekkie – entered into a spirited debate with the young man on the relative merits of DS9 and TNG, therefore imbuing the viewing with the flavor of a gathering of fans.) That family had brought a welding visor, and father and son busily figured out how to take photos of the eclipse through the visor glass plus the eclipse glasses.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Eclipse Diary, Part 1: Anticipation and Entitlement

Deborah's attempt to photograph the eclipse
 To begin with, I did not intend to make a journey – a pilgrimage – to see the May 20 annular solar eclipse. The reason is not that I am indifferent to such a spectacle, but that for a long time, I have operated under the principle that if seeing the wonders of the sky – or any other wonders – involves expense or training or any significant break in the daily work routine, then I am not entitled to it. I suspect this attitude – what my husband teasingly refers to as my “poverty consciousness,” stems from being the child of working class parents who came of age in the Great Depression, and who as a young person myself rarely had much disposable income. What I did not understand then, and am coming to understand as I get older, is that life is an adventure to be lived, not scrimped through. Some years back, I had to make a choice between returning to school for training that would take all my time and energy for several years with the end result of earning a modestly comfortable living, or to keep on at my current day job and being able to write. I had to ask myself, what is really important? Being able to buy new clothes instead of picking through thrift stores? Or sailing on my dreams, spinning out the stories that are in me to tell? I picked the dreams, and I have never regretted that choice. It changed me, of course, not just the writing but the very realization that as far as I know, I will only go through this life once. The world and the heavens are full of mysteries and glory, just waiting for me to look.

At Wyoming Infrared Observatory, 2011
Studying astronomy had been somewhere on my list. I call it a “wistful list,” or maybe a “wishful list,” not a “bucket list.” The litany went, Someday when I have time…but Cabrillo College is a 45 minute drive away… but the classes are at night and night-time driving in the mountains is exhausting… but… but…” Then last spring I saw an announcement for Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, a one-week intensive course for science fiction writers held at University of Wyoming Laramie, created and directed by astronomer/sf writer Mike Brotherton, and funded by NSF. “They’ll never take me,” I thought, “I write fantasy these days.” But it’s just as important for fantasy (and horror, and Romance, and thriller, and mystery writers) to get the science right. So I applied.

They accepted me. I danced around the house, whooping with delight. That summer, I proceeded to get my brains stuffed with amazing facts and ways of looking at the universe; I met fantastic writers and scientists, and shared their passion for exploring – by telescope, space shuttle or imagination – beyond the borders of our home planet. Every day, my mind was filled to overflowing with story ideas and incredibly nifty data; at night, we gazed at the stars for ourselves. If I had not been willing to take that chance, to say, “Hey, what about me?” then I would have missed out on so much.

Fast forward a year, and I see on the astronomy and science websites that I now subscribe to that there will be an annual eclipse of the sun (one in which the occlusion is incomplete, so there remains a “ring of fire” around a dark central shadow), visible not too far away (but too far to drive and then return home easily in the same day). The old “poverty consciousness” voices began their murmuring. Never mind that this is the closest I’d be able to see a solar eclipse from (or that it doesn’t involve staying up until 3 am, another bugaboo that assumes more importance as the decades pass). My neighbor and walking partner said, “I’ve booked a motel room near Lassen so I can go up and see the eclipse, and I’m looking for someone to share the room.”

And the world stopped. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Coming Soon -- Eclipse Journal

Shortly, I'll be off, driving with a friend to Lassen Volcanic National Park to view the annual solar eclipse tomorrow. I'll be blogging about my experience, beginning Tuesday.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

GUEST POST: Julianne Lee on Time Travel

I adore time travel stories. As far back as H.G. Wells and Mark Twain, the concept of time travel has given us the opportunity to examine how things change and how they stay the same. It is the ultimate fish-out-of-water scenario, and it’s one of my favorite to write because the possibilities are limitless.

Nearly any type of story can involve time travel. Take, for instance, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger, which is one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read. Henry DeTamble, somewhat like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five,” becomes unstuck in time and spends his life shifting back and forth between present, past and future. Sometimes knowing what will happen, and yet never knowing when, Henry examines his life from a rare perspective. But “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is not categorized as science fiction, or even fantasy. Nor even romance. And that, to me, is a good thing. All fiction should be fluid of genre.

In writing stories of time travel, the field of genre can be quite open, but I believe there are certain rules that must be followed, for the same reasons we adhere to spelling and grammar conventions. It aids communication. Not so much to be rigid about tropes, but for the story to make logical sense. As in any world building, regardless of genre, consistency is key.

Of course I have my preferences, and I’ll say right here that Tim Powers’ “The Anubis Gates” is my bible. Powers begins with a mystical time transport mechanism and lays it over a quasi-scientific approach, and makes us believe his premise, which is that there are time portals that can be used to the advantage of those who know about them. The story is deliciously convoluted, yet it is so perfectly consistent internally that the reader can trust the world that has been built. Suspension of disbelief is effortless.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Feathered Edge: Desire in Florence

Italy has some of the most romantic and mysterious cities in the world, and I was delighted when Jay Lake and Shannon Page sent me a story set in the Renaissance Florence.

Florence, by Thermos
Venice, by Paolo da Reggio
My own adventure began in 1991, when I was living in France. We used our children’s spring break to visit Italy, and that meant Florence and Venice. These places overwhelmed me with a sense of being not quite in the same reality as other places I’d been. I was accustomed to living near water (having come from Venice, California -- all right, just across the street from the Venice city line), but not the pervasive sense of dark, fluid depths underlying every building and every walkway, nor the atmosphere of age and history, or the constant reminders of private lives – of secrets – behind those shuttered windows and doors. Whether strolling through the piazzas or over one of the many bridges, or riding in a gondola, or sitting in a café, I felt myself surrounded by stories. I remember the moment of awe when I stepped out into the plaza of the ghetto (the original ghetto, after which all others are named). There isn’t much to see, just a well-swept space surrounded by tourist shops; it’s not what I saw but what I felt, century upon century of hope and despair, of huddled safety and wellsprings of determination.

A tourist brochure, perhaps from the city of Venice itself, I can’t remember now, featured images from carnevale. One of these was the famous character, Bauta. This costume consists of a unadorned white mask, flared at the bottom where the mouth should be, a black tricorned hat, and a black cloak. It is impossible to tell if the person wearing it is old or young, man or woman, rich or poor – a true disguise for that brief time of merry-making when such distinctions no longer hold sway. In the publicity image, indirect, diffuse lighting cast the figure in mysterious shadows. You can see something of what it looked like here.
Or here.

Oh my, I thought. Story material.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Exercise and the Older Writer

Today's blog post is an excerpt from my post on Book View Cafe. We're doing a series on "Citius, Altius, Sapientius," ("Stronger, Faster, Wiser," according to our resident Latin scholars). I've been struck many times over the years with how many writers are also martial artists, dancers, runners, horse people, mountain climbers...and, as we age, students of yoga or tai chi chu'an. Is there more to this than the simple need to get up and stretch once in a while? And what can we learn from one another about staying strong, flexible, and energetic throughout our creative careers?
It seems that the older I get, the more integral exercise is to my writing practice. The way they are interwoven has changed with the passing decades, as has the type of physical activity that appeals to me. I no longer exercise to change my appearance (not that this ever was a huge motivation, but I think all young people have at least some small measure of physical vanity). I think more about staying healthy and maintaining the strength and flexibility that allow me to do other things I enjoy — like sitting comfortably while I write, exploring new places…having adventures. First and foremost, however, I like things that are fun. So I’m not going to give you a litany of all the reasons you should exercise to prevent heart disease or stave off Alzheimer’s. I’m going to talk about the ways being active have made me a better writer, in ways that I couldn’t appreciate when I was a newbie.

Once upon a time, I was an active kid. I didn’t think about exercise per se, I thought about playing. I ran through sprinklers, I rode my bike and attempted to roller-skate, I played outdoor games with my friends — tag, Red Rover, hopscotch, Simon Says, jumprope and ball-bouncing games, running around with dogs…but best of all, I acted out the stories I made up, either with my friends or by myself. I think this was my first and foundational experience of how glorious, how unexpected and consuming and enriching story-telling might be. As kids, we threw ourselves into one adventure after another. Granted, much of it was derivative, a sort of live-action fanfic. What we could do physically — climb trees, build snow forts, crawl under bushes, sneak around buildings — we did, and the rest we mimed as best we could. Stories were experienced not just with words, but with our whole bodies.

As readers, haven’t we had the experience of feeling our heart rate accelerate and our muscles tense during a particularly gripping or suspenseful scene? Our visceral reactions intensify the action, helping to link us to the characters and their plight. So many times, I’ve read a passage that skillfully depicts some action and thought, I know what that feels like. I’m in that character’s shoes, or riding boots, or skin-diving flippers, or crampons, or toe shoes.

Read the rest of it on the Book View Cafe blog.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Rayne Hall on Music For Writing Fight Scenes

Whatever music you play in the background affects your writing. It helps if it's instrumental, because lyrics can be distracting. Try to  find tunes which suit the mood, culture, period or setting of your story.

Ideally, the music you play in the background should have medium or fast tempo. The tempo of the music will affect your heart rate as well as your subconscious. Fast, bouncy music leads to fast-paced scenes, while ambient relaxation music can give your scene the pace of a slug.

Consider burning a CD or creating a playlist for every WiP, or better still, for every scene. 

Is Harry Hero about lead his loyal henchmen into battle against the Forces of Evil? Will Helga Heroine defend her virtue against Vicious Vince? 

Put on fast music, and the fight will practically write itself.

Here are some of the tunes I play while writing fight scenes. At YouTube, you can listen to them for free. Just don't be tempted to watch the clips when you should be writing.