Friday, April 16, 2021

Friday Flashback: Xavier Xanthum's first appearance.

Xavier Xanthum, Space Explorer, made his debut during my first April "A to Z Blogging Challenge," when I needed a post for "X". That was in 2013. Since then, I have written and shared about 18 more XX stories, and have a particular fondness for the occasionally hapless explorer. Some of what's in this one I'd totally forgotten and may not be so true in later stories.


Xavier and the X-Ray Eyes

Xavier Xanthum explored space.  With his Arcturian Warp drive, he’d been doing it long enough that time and age no longer had any meaning for him.  Twice he had passed through random uncertainty fields, and met himself coming.  Once he’d hit something strange, and the next ship he met told him a hundred years had passed.  He'd aged two days.

After that one, he’d sold his ship to an antique dealer for enough to buy one of the new-fangled ships with an even better faster-than-light drive, one that was guaranteed to keep him from ever being stranded in a gravity well or adrift between galaxies, both of which had happened to him in the past.

All of which is to say he'd seen plenty of weird things in his indeterminately long life.  None of them prepared him for the eyeballs.

The eyeballs first appeared in the galley.  That was where Xavier usually saw odd things, because this new ship’s robo-kitchen had some very strange menu items.  He didn't think anything of it until he'd had a good sleep and awakened to find the eyes still watching him.

He didn't know then what they could do.  He only knew that there was now some kind of alien--something--sharing his ship.  He supposed he might have picked it up in that last singularity, or maybe it--they?--came aboard from one of the planets he'd visited.  Maybe the one that he'd thought was uninhabited.  It would have been easy to miss a modest population of disembodied eyeballs.

After a week he began to notice that he was seeing things.  Not seeing things the way he did when the robo-kitchen got too imaginative.  That made him see things that were not there.  Now he was seeing things that were there, but not here.  He called it X-ray vision, but it wasn't really.  Not like the kind he'd dreamed of as a kid, that let you see through clothes and into locked safes.

But he found that he could see whatever the eyeballs were seeing, even if they were in a different part of the ship.  And they could see a wider spectrum than he could.  He stopped burning himself on his coffee, because he could see when it was too hot.  If, that is, the eyes happened to look at the coffee.

It was when the turbo-warp booster started acting up that Xavier got serious about the need to communicate with the eyes.  He couldn't fit even his face into the service tube, so he was trying to install the replacement twerger by feel, and it wasn't working.  He realized that the eyes could fit in the tube easily, and then he'd be able to "see" it all.  But he had to find a way to tell them where to go, and to keep them looking at the repair until he'd finished.  The eyes had a limited attention span, and were always drifting off after dust motes.

Xavier now had a near-perfect understanding of the air filtration system, but he needed something more.  How did you communicate with something that had no ears, and maybe even no brain? 

No, that wasn't right.  The things were flighty, but there was an intelligence there.  He tried sign language, since that was visual.

Signs meant nothing to an entity with no body.

Writing came next.  Again, beings with no corporeal presence had no way to develop a written language.  The eyeballs glanced at his message and drifted off after a dust mote.

With the ship drifting helplessly in space somewhere between the Horsehead Nebula and an unnamed star system he wanted to investigate, Xavier grew frustrated.

"Blast it all!" he exclaimed.  "How in space am I supposed to tell you what I want?"  His voice squeaked.  He wondered how long it had been since he'd spoken aloud.

The eyes turned to look at him.  And the answer appeared in his brain.

Just say it.

Unwilling to believe that the eyeballs had ears, Xavier tried an experiment first.  He thought back at them.  You know what I'm saying?

There was no response.  He said it aloud this time.

"You understand what I say?"

Of course.

Cheeky beggar.  "How can you--never mind now.  Let's fix this drive."  Years of talking to hallucinations had made it easy for him to adjust to the idea of talking to a pair of eyeballs.  He explained what he needed, and received the promise that it could be done.  The eyes disappeared down the repair shaft and an hour later the ship was up and running.

After that Xavier began to enjoy the eyes.  Not only did they give him "x-ray" insights into the bowels of the ship, but he enjoyed having someone to talk to.  In an odd sort of way they became friends.

It wasn’t until the eyes helped him through a second repair that he realized the truth.

The eyeballs were a part of the ship.  The part that prevented him from being stranded, because they not only could see all the places he needed to work, but they knew what needed to be done.

The eyeballs were a manifestation of the ship’s computer.  A computer that perhaps had grown as bored with the empty space between ports as he had.  Were they part of the original program?  He asked.


After a long, thoughtful silence, Xavier asked no further.


©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.


Friday, April 9, 2021

Photo Friday: Spring is Springing

 Since I'm still on The River (a designation subject to local interpretation. I'm in the Grand Canyon. On a raft. Probably not writing anything except inarticulate exclamations in my journal about the mind-blowing scenery), here are some random photos from spring in CA, which comes early and fades too fast into summer heat.

These were taken in February and March.

Almond trees

Magnolia tree with Christmas lights :)

Here's the magnolia tree in daylight.

Peach tree

Close-up of the delicate, promising peach blossom

This and the photo below are taken in Bidwell Park, Chico's amazing city park.

Yes, this is still within the city park! Indian Paintbrush is the latest--along with lupines--to burst into bloom in the Upper Park.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021


It's the first Wednesday of the month, and time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Read all about it here. Since I've transferred my insecurities for the time being to things like not falling out of a raft into the rapids and not stepping on a rattlesnake* while on shore, I'm sending you to read about the writing insecurities of my fellows!

*I'm not really very worried about this. The rapids, maybe. The snakes, meh. Rattlers give warning :)

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer's Support Group day. Members post on our blogs, discussing our doubts and fears, struggles and triumphs. We visit each other and offer a word of encouragement for those who are struggling, or cheer for those with a success to celebrate. 

Today's the day--Let's rock the neurotic writing world! 

I'll see you in May!
Remember, writers--slow and steady and you'll get there in the end! (Endangered desert tortoise, Joshua Tree National Park)


Friday, April 2, 2021

Flashback Friday: Random Theories (2012)

Continuing my search through my earliest blog posts, I found this one from November, 2012, and it tickled my funny bone. In the intervening 9 years, the kids who wore me out have grown into wonderful adults who will carry some of my stuff if we are backpacking, but the issues with gravity have grown more troublesome.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Random Absurd Theories

Revisions are on track!  I've finished the first rewrite, aside from some typing.  Bouncing between that and my activities aimed at getting a bond measure passed for our suffering local schools has me exhausted but feeling like I'm at least doing something.

So, for amusement, I'll offer some of the random thoughts that occupy my brain at off moments.  Sometimes, just for fun, I like to invent absurd theories to explain things.  Here we find a few:

Pay the Gravity Bill  There's an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which Calvin discovers his Dad didn't pay the gravity bill, and he floats away.  Well, it turns out that after a certain age, if you forget to pay the gravity bill. . . they turn UP the gravity.  Way up.  This explains those days when working out is just torture.  You didn't pay the bill, you get to suffer.

Too Many Athletes in Colorado  The reason there isn't enough oxygen for a good run in Colorado is that there are too many athletes and they have sucked all the oxygen out of the air.

Kids' energy supplies  We figured this one out well over a decade back.  Kids have separate stores of energy for different things.  For hiking, one source, and not a very big one.  For playing: some other, nearly infinite, source.  You arrive in camp after a three-mile hike with your 8-year-old so exhausted he can't even set his pack down, has to drop it with a crash in the dirt.  Two minutes later he's running up a mountain in pursuit of whatever it is that kids run up mountains to pursue, and doesn't stop until you force him to.
Corollary:  Kids get their energy by sapping it directly from their parents.  Ask any mother of toddlers.

Today you're a dophin, tomorrow a sea slug  Okay, this one isn't a theory.  More of an observation.  It's based on my swimming workouts, but the same thing is true for any kind of workout.  When a swim goes really well, I say I'm a dolphin--swimming smoothly and easily and could go on forever (or at least for a mile).  But other days, I'm lucky if I'm a sea cow, ponderous but not ungraceful.  I'm just as apt to end up a developmentally-disabled sea slug, whose limbs (do sea slugs have limbs?  Never mind) pay no attention to commands from the brain (I don't think sea slugs have brains, either. This may be the problem).  Anyway, it's generally true that if on Wednesday I'm a dolphin, on Friday I'm nearly certain to be. . . something less desirable. 

For biking, I guess you could say that if on one ride I feel like the winner of the Tour (ha!), the next ride I could be ridden into the ground by an Edwardian spinster on a one-speed with a wicker basket and a giant hat.

All of this may be related to theory #1 about not paying the Gravity bill.  

Kids engaging Energy Source 2.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Flashback Flash Fiction: An Elegant Apocalypse

This story first appeared on this blog in December of 2012. I've touched it up a bit, and wondered about the amount of borrowing from Douglas Adams, but decided to let it stand with the original "reverent apologies to Douglas Adams." I'm not sure about the origins--I'm pretty sure someone challenged me with that title, but I kept no record. About the only thing I can be pretty sure of is that I was rereading the Hitchhikers Guide and sequels. We can probably chalk this one up to fan fiction.

Elegant Apocalypse
With reverent apologies to Douglas Adams


Sunrise on Planet X-4732B is 7th most stunning and beautiful event in the Universe following, among other things, sunset on X-4732A and the eruption into the sea of an unnamed volcano on an undiscovered planet. This is a well-established fact, determined by a complex algorithm developed by the Ultra-Computer housed on the 4th Moon of Planet G-7512, known to locals as Home. The lunar location was originally meant to isolate it and prevent the most powerful computer in the universe from running amok. No one has recorded how the residents of Home felt about that.


Naturally, by the time the Ultra-Computer was completed, there were six more computers being built on six asteroids, each one an order of magnitude more powerful than the Ultra. That is not germane to the issue, but does explain why the Ultra was free to spend its time determining the nature and location of the most stunningly beautiful sights in the universe.


 Thus the morning of the last day of the world began with the last most beautiful sunrise. If anything, the approach of the disaster gave the sunrise a more vivid coloration. It was not, however, beautiful in the eyes of the beholder. There were no beholders, for the same reason that X-4732B has no local name: there are no higher order inhabitants on X-4732B. Lower-order organisms abound, or did before the world ended, but they had failed to evolve to create pollution, disrupt the perfect order of the landscape, or anticipate the apocalypse.


The absence of humans or any intelligent observers is, of course, central to the elegance of the X-4732B apocalypse (for every apocalypse is local, until the final event, the end of the universe so eloquently documented by Douglas Adams). Besides a failure to muck up the view, lower-order organisms tend to lack the necessary glands to panic. Had the planet evolved so much as a muskrat, the day would have taken a different turn, and the Ultra Computer would have had to recalculate the event’s standing in its ranking of events approaching perfection.


Naturally, just when it seemed safe to assume that the apocalypse would proceed with dignity and quiet splendor, everything changed. A lone, tiny, and definitely lost space capsule spiraled down through the oddly Earth-like atmosphere.


In the best of all possible worlds, the man who emerged, dazed, from the erring and now disabled spacecraft would have been Arthur Dent.


It wasn’t.


His name was Johnson Bob, and he’d been in transit between two planets far from X-4732B when his flight path took him a hair too close to a concert by the intergalactic band Disaster Area. The cosmic disruption of the loudest band in the universe had put an end to his tedious business trip and landed Johnson on X-4732B in time to witness the end of that world, and potentially to disrupt its tranquil order by the infusion of human terror, dismay, and the filing of complaints to the travel company.


The event was saved from the contamination of panic, despite the intrusion of a more-or-less higher life form, by the simple fact that Johnson Bob never left his ship. He was sleeping off the disconcerting effects of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster he’d had in the space port bar before leaving, a task that requires the full concentration of all bodily forces for a full day. In fact, in an act of incredible bravado, or idiocy, he had consumed two of the Gargle Blasters, and would be fortunate to wake up at all.


Johnson Bob therefore slept through the end of the world. He failed to observe as the sky turned from its usual chartreuse to an odd shade of puce and finally a perfect shade of red-orange with green stripes. Nor was he aware when the atmosphere boiled away, as his ship maintained the ideal balance of gasses for the continuation of human life.


Johnson Bob likewise missed the exquisite moment when all factors coalesced into the perfect, nearly silent yet symphonic finality. It was this perfect coordination of elements that led the Ultra Computer to designate the X-4732B Apocalypse as the most elegant apocalypse of all time.

Millennia of constipated volcanism beneath the immense chain of volcanoes that ringed the planet burst through the plug in every peak simultaneously, exactly at the instant the asteroid that had boiled away the atmosphere struck precisely at the southern pole and the sun went nova.


Johnson Bob should have been boiled away with the atmosphere, of course, but the Ultra Computer considered the final touch that perfected the X-4732B Apocalypse to be the manner in which the volcanic cataclysm ejected the one bit of alien matter from the planet in time to make it a purely local event. When Johnson Bob eventually awoke, he had a nasty hangover but no awareness of where he’d been or what he’d done. The blast had flung him back onto his original trajectory, and he landed without incident and went to the nearest bar for another Gargle-Blaster, in hopes of clearing his head.

To a human observer, the tiny space capsule as it exited would have looked like a watermelon pip spat contemptuously at the remainder of the universe as the planet exploded into a nearly infinite number of identical fragments.


But of course, since Johnson Bob was unconscious the whole time there was no human, or even sentient, observer. That, the computer decided as the final rays of the perfectly symmetrical pattern of dissolution faded into empty space, was perhaps the most elegant feature. Perfection could only unfold unobserved.




 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Cozy Review: The Influencer, by Frankie Bow


The Influencer (Professor Molly Mysteries) by Frankie Bow

About The Influencer

The Influencer (Professor Molly Mysteries) 
Cozy Mystery
10th in Series  

Publisher: Hawaiian Heritage Press (March 17, 2021)
Print length : 205 pages

Digital ASIN: B08QW3QL54 

In Which Professor Molly Learns There Is, In Fact, Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

It's spring break. Donnie's taken the baby to visit relatives on the mainland, and Professor Molly finally has time to catch up on the assessment paperwork she owes the Student Retention Office.

Molly's new renter is a social media star seeking privacy in remote Mahina. The arrangement seems to be working out--until her celebrity renter disappears. Molly and her best friend Emma dutifully call in the Mahina PD and try to stay out of the way. But when fame creates its own reality distortion field, everyone has an angle and nothing is as it seems.

 My Review:

Frankie Bow knows how to spin a story, and her writing is top-notch. If I felt a little out of touch at the start due to jumping from the 3rd in the series to the 10th (what? Molly's married with a baby? Huh?), characters and circumstances were sufficiently developed in this book to keep me from getting wholly lost. It does make for a little more challenging beginning for someone jumping in, but I think that Bow strikes a pretty good balance between maintaining the independence of this book and alluding to the backstory from the other nine books.
The story has a generous touch of humor, with a hint of the absurd (or am I just hoping that social media influencers aren't that... tacky?). My favorite line may have been, "Wouldn't a beef jerky stick with  a soul be even worse?" I'll leave you to imagine the context, though I am definitely adding "soulless beef jerky stick" to my repertoire of insults.
I did have my usual slow start, in part because of my sense that I was missing something (I'll recommend reading the series in order, which is how this slightly obsessive reader usually does things). Mostly, my slow start was due to my limited attention span; once I settled down to a good session of reading the way I used to, the story pulled me in and went fast--perfect reading for a rainy day. The mystery itself ended up being a mix of things I saw coming and things I never saw coming, a mostly satisfying blend that perhaps tended a little too much toward the "I thought so" end of things.

My Recommendation:
This is a really enjoyable series by a very competent writer. I enjoy the Hawaiian setting and, even more, the academic setting, coming from an academic background myself. I recommend it for those who like light, fun, but still smart mysteries, with a bonus if you like Hawaii.

About Frankie Bow

Like Professor Molly, Frankie Bow teaches at a public university. Unlike her protagonist, she is blessed with delightful students, sane colleagues, and a perfectly nice office chair. She believes if life isn’t fair, at least it canbe entertaining. In addition to writing murder mysteries, she publishes in scholarly journals under her real name. Her experience with academic publishing has taught her to take nothing personally.


We are pleased to have Frankie Bow drop by for a little interview today.

First question's easy: What are your books about?

I set out to write what I wanted to read more of: wry academic murder mysteries. Some examples: Mary Angela, Kelly Brakenhoff, Sarah Caudwell, Amanda Cross, Cynthia Kuhn, Kathleen Reardon. Although it’s not strictly a murder mystery, I loved Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Public higher education is expected to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and we have to keep a straight face while dealing with some absurd contradictions.

“Our position is, yes, Mister Yamada, your wonderful idea for a Golf Course Management major is going through, and before you know it, we’ll be putting out graduates who are ready and willing to work at your resort. And also, no, Senator Kamoku, of course we’re not considering offering a major in golf as a taxpayer-subsidized sop to our most powerful trustee. The very idea.”

What do you do when your legislators and your donors have different ideas about what you should be doing, and you’re financially dependent on both of them?


Who is the audience?

The Professor Molly Mysteries are categorized as cozies, and they technically are: amateur sleuth, small town with colorful characters, no sex or violence onstage. Because of the campus setting, many of the readers who enjoy the books are current or retired educators. But readers who want a story where justice is done and cheaters never prosper should look elsewhere.


What is the best thing about being a mystery writer?

After a frustrating day at work, I can come home, sit down at my computer, and ask myself, “Okay, who needs to die?”


I will admit to taking some pleasure in killing off characters in my own work! 

Personality-test time: If there’s a spider in the corner of the room, do you a) panic, b) have to drop everything until it is removed, or c) hope it’s planning to eat the more annoying bugs that get in?

Definitely c. I am pro-spider. Here in Hawaii, we have no cold season to cause a bug die-off. You’ll find all kinds of creeping, whirring, clacking things in your house. As scary-looking as cane spiders are (for example), they eat our giant flying cockroaches. I’m rooting for the spider every time.


Ugh. Giant flying cockroaches. Yeah, I’ll root for the spiders, too!

Final question: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to research for one of your books?

Setting up my own online essay mill! This is where students pay to have their homework done for them. It’s a huge problem with online learning or really with any assignment that isn’t done right there in the classroom. Because each job is written to order, a plagiarism-checker won’t flag it. There’s a subplot in The Influencer involving an essay mill. I researched available domain names and found that was available. I bought the domain name and set up the site! (Go on, try it!)


I checked it out! Beautiful. Since I was an academic in a former life, I share Molly’s agony over chasing plagiarists. I hope she always wins over the Student Retention Office as well as over the devious (or lazy) students!

Author Links
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Purchase Links:
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March 17 – I'm All About Books – SPOTLIGHT

March 17 – The Pulp and Mystery Shelf – SPOTLIGHT

March 18 – I Read What You Write – REVIEW, AUTHOR INTERVIEW

March 18 – Novels Alive – SPOTLIGHT

March 19 – Ascroft, eh? – CHARACTER INTERVIEW

March 20 – Celticlady's Reviews – SPOTLIGHT. RECIPE
March 20 – Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book – SPOTLIGHT
March 21 – Cassidy's Bookshelves – REVIEW
March 22 – Maureen's Musings – SPOTLIGHT March 22 – The Ninja Librarian – REVIEW, AUTHOR INTERVIEW
March 23 – Mysteries with Character – AUTHOR INTERVIEW

March 23 – Cozy Up With Kathy – SPOTLIGHT, RECIPE

March 24 – Baroness' Book Trove - CHARACTER INTERVIEW

March 25 – Literary Gold – SPOTLIGHT

March 26 – Laura's Interests – REVIEW

March 26 – Sapphyria's Book Reviews - SPOTLIGHT

FTC Disclosure: I was given an electronic review copy of The Influencer as part of a Great Escapes free blog tour, in exchange for my honest review, not for a positive review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Photo Saturday: The Marble Caves

 Yup. Missed that "Friday" thing once again!

Back to Patagonia... Moving on from Patagonia National Park, we drove north up the Carretera Austral to Puerto Rio Tranquillo, where the Marble Caves (Cuevas de Marmol) are found on the shores of Lago General Carrera. We arrived at lunchtime after about 2 1/2 hours on the gravel of the Carretera, just in time to gobble our lunch and catch a tour.

The caves are truly marble, in its natural state, of course. As marble (metamorphosed limestone) is slightly soluble in water, wave action along the lakeshore for some 6000 years has carved out low caverns into which you can take a boat. It is possible to rent kayaks in the town for a multi-hour expedition, but as we didn't have time, we took the commercial tour in a small open boat. Sadly, the guide's constant stream of interpretation and information was all in rapid Spanish with no pauses, so I was able to catch only a bit of it myself, and couldn't pass any along to my companions!

All photos, with the exception of the two from the walk up the road, are by Dave Dempsey.

As we approached we saw a bevy of kayakers exploring the caves. They have an advantage, being smaller and more mobile than the power boats.

The lake is fed by the vast glacier fields of Patagonia, giving it the distinctive blue-green color that always indicates glacial silt. The silt may contribute to the erosion of the caves, though I believe they are mostly created by dissolution. 

They drive the crowded launches into several of the caverns as far as possible--not very far. The exhaust fumes made this part of the experience a little less wonderful than it could have been.

They call it the Cathedral, but I kept wondering if that was more like the back of the throat...

What follows is a selection of photos to show the beauty of the rock and the water. We weren't able to be there at the prime photo time (early morning), but it was still worth the price of admission.

If we'd had kayaks, we'd have been right in through there.

One sea stack had the most amazingly striped caves, and the best reflected light.

The tour place was at the bottom of a very steep, rugged dirt road (well, of course. Remember, the "main highway" at this point is also dirt). When it came time to get up the steepest bit, we decided the car had a better chance if some of us walked.

The photo doesn't do justice to the quality of the road!

But walking up the hill did allow us to enjoy the beauty of the lake and the sky.

The whole stop took less than two hours--the tour is an hour--leaving us time to stop in the town for groceries. We had heard from other travelers that we could find peanut butter in the stores of Rio Tranquillo, as well as another shot at some fresh stuff. Our last shopping had been in Chile Chico (at the border) 3 days before, and in that case we had missed the weekly delivery of produce.
Peanut butter AND some fresh stuff, and even a pastry or two... maybe even more exciting than the caves. Pictured: Tom Dempsey. I'm mostly hidden behind him.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Writer's Wednesday: Developing a New Story

 It felt like about time to write about the writing process again, not just about me! Though of course anything I say about the process is actually about me--about my process, which is by no means "the" process, or even one of the best.

Since my new Pismawallops PTA mystery is being proof-read, I'm moving on (sort of) to the next project--developing a new mystery series. Since the last time I developed a new series, rather than a new book in an existing world, is a fair ways back, I'm figuring out how to do that. I was going to say that I'm figuring it out all over again, but I remembered that when I wrote the first Pismawallops PTA book I didn't have an outline for the book, much less any sort of pre-developed world.

Since I also remember the mess that created, I'm trying to go at this one in a more orderly fashion. I've read a lot about how to develop your characters by thinking about their needs/wants/desires, how to develop setting, and so on. Playing with all these things might be a good idea, or might just be a way to keep moving forward a little bit while I continue to struggle with actual writing. I'm okay with it either way, because every bit of thinking and planning I do now will help, even the bits I'll toss out.

Yes, you read that right. I do believe that the brainstorming bits that end up being tossed are still valuable! Anything that gets the creative juices flowing is to be embraced and cherished, and I never know which bit that I thought was no good will come back and prove to be part of the story somewhere.

At this point, the process looks kind of like this:

  • A new character invites herself into my brain. Since I'm busy with another project, I jot a few notes and carry on. This started last fall, which I had illusions of being able to do NaNoWriMo.
  • My new character just kind of quietly hangs around, and from time to time I jot down more notes about who she is, what her story is, and so on. She's gradually becoming more real. This is still going  on.
  • I start to think about her setting. She came to me with a mental image of her on her front porch, with her flower beds in full bloom, so I know a few things. From that I begin to build a town. (In this case, I have toyed with a number of locations for the town, trying to find one that fits the town that insists on planting itself in my mind. I am going to have to modify that vision a bit to fit reality).
  • The real progress comes when I give myself permission to think actively about her story. Now I am jotting notes about the book as well as her backstory. What kind of mystery, exactly, will this be? (I know it will be a cozy, but there are degrees of coziness, including those with no corpse. More waffling ensues). I'm still in this stage.
  • Other characters emerge. Most of the minor characters in a book get developed when they show up, but there are some I know have to be there--the MC, her best friend, the victim. The murderer sometimes takes longer to emerge.

You get the picture. The actual product at this point is a document with everything--at the top, my thoughts about the plot and setting, and below sketches of characters, biographies, and so on. This isn't too different from what I've done in the past, and now that things are beginning to take shape, I'm starting to work on that "question outline" I have used in the past: asking the big questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how, and scribbling answers until I see the form the story will take.

I've mentioned it before, and it's worth repeating: though I started as a pantser, writing mysteries has convinced me that I need a more structured approach, because there are too many things that *must* be right. Some of those I can fix in editing, but my life is a great deal easier if I got it close to right the first time. So, in the end, I have become a planner, though at times there are bit gaps in the outline with vague instructions like "chase red herrings for two chapters."

Since nothing in my brain works quite the same as it did Before, I'm leaning on all this planning and plotting to help me reach the point where I can write. I'm going to need all the supports I can give myself.


This is far from the first time I've written about this process, but since my take on it keeps evolving, I think it's worth revisiting--and it's worth looking at my earlier thoughts, since everyone's process is different! Here are the main earlier discussions of planning and plotting:

The first time was in Feb. 2013.  This post refers to a novel called "Murder Stalks the PTA." That evolved into Death By Ice Cream, the first of the Pismawallops PTA novels. That evolution was one of the things that convinced me the process I discussed in this post needed work. Up to that point, I'd been an unthinking pantser, taking the nugget of an idea and just jumping in and writing.

The second time was in September that same year, and I was starting to develop the outlining approach that I have more or less stuck to since, having struggled with the revisions of that novel.

The third time was in October 2015, as I was preparing to write Death By Trombone. Reviewing that in 2018 while preparing to write Death By Library helped me not make too much of a mess of that one.


When I took this photo I was mentally titling it "Portal to Another World," because that's what I thought the puddles on the road looked like. Maybe it's a good image for the writing process!

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Audio Non-fiction review: 1493, by Charles C. Mann



Title: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Author: Charles C. Mann. Narrated by Roberston Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio 2011, 17:45 hours. Original Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, 557 pages.
Source: Library Digital Editions
Publisher’s Blurb:
From the author of 1491—the best-selling study of the pre-Columbian Americas—a deeply engaging new history of the most momentous biological event since the death of the dinosaurs.

More than 200 million years ago, geological forces split apart the continents. Isolated from each other, the two halves of the world developed radically different suites of plants and animals. When Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas, he ended that separation at a stroke. Driven by the economic goal of establishing trade with China, he accidentally set off an ecological convulsion as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. 

The Columbian Exchange, as researchers call it, is the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand. More important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitched along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; bacteria, fungi, and viruses; rats of every description—all of them rushed like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before, changing lives and landscapes across the planet. 

Eight decades after Columbus, a Spaniard named Legazpi succeeded where Columbus had failed. He sailed west to establish continual trade with China, then the richest, most powerful country in the world. In Manila, a city Legazpi founded, silver from the Americas, mined by African and Indian slaves, was sold to Asians in return for silk for Europeans. It was the first time that goods and people from every corner of the globe were connected in a single worldwide exchange. Much as Columbus created a new world biologically, Legazpi and the Spanish empire he served created a new world economically.

As Charles C. Mann shows, the Columbian Exchange underlies much of subsequent human history. Presenting the latest research by ecologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, Mann shows how the creation of this worldwide network of ecological and economic exchange fostered the rise of Europe, devastated imperial China, convulsed Africa, and for two centuries made Mexico City—where Asia, Europe, and the new frontier of the Americas dynamically interacted—the center of the world. In such encounters, he uncovers the germ of today's fiercest political disputes, from immigration to trade policy to culture wars.

In 1493, Charles Mann gives us an eye-opening scientific interpretation of our past, unequaled in its authority and fascination.

My Review:
Several years ago I read Mann's 1491, which you might consider the prequel to this book. In some ways, I found that more interesting--or maybe just more to my taste? Because the impact of the Columbian Exchange is depressing--but it's also hard to imagine a world without it--I sometimes prefer just to think about the world that came before. 

While 1491 focused on what the "New World" (so-called; of course the inhabitants didn't see it that way) looked like before Europeans brought all the stuff they brought, 1493 looks at the world the Exchange created. That would be the world we live in, for better and for worse. Many of those changes are almost impossible to imagine away. Leaving aside the question of who and what I'd be if my ancestors hadn't moved to North America, thinking about the pre-Exchange diet of pretty much any part of the world is a bit depressing. In that respect, Mann's book has a positive feel--it reminds us of the good things the Columbian Exchange brought us.

In other areas, however, it's the old discouraging tale of extractive industries, exploitation of native peoples by conquerors (on a scale that far exceeds the pre-existing states of conquest and exploitation), and environmental degradation. Having recently finished listening to Isabel Wilkerson's Caste, it was interesting to read Mann's book, which is less interested in the lasting class/caste/racist impacts of that Columbian Exchange than with the ecological impacts. He rather dodges the issue, noting that slavery didn't begin as a racial construct, but without looking into how that changed. Mann's interest is more in what plantation agriculture did to the land, and how communities of escaped slaves (and indigenous peoples) managed their lands, not the impact on social structures.

I found the book a bit unwieldy for audio reading--it takes a long time to go through nearly 18 hours of narration, and there are a lot of names and places to keep track of--but the narrator does a good job, and I was okay with letting some of the details go. Certainly what Mann has done is important: we need to understand how we got where we are. Maps, diagrams, and pictures that are no doubt present in the print edition might be helpful.

My Recommendation:
A good book if you want to really understand what happened when globalization started in the 15th Century. The audio book is good, but it may be easier to keep track with the print edition.

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of 1493 from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Friday, March 12, 2021

Friday Flash: How Does a Dragon Blow Out Candles?

I got the idea for this story from a meme a friend posted, about the things you lie awake worrying about. How, he asked, does a dragon blow out the candles on a birthday cake? This is my answer to that vexing conundrum.


How a Dragon Blows Out Candles 

There was no way to dodge the problem. Every time one of Flick’s fellow students had a birthday they had a party, and at every party there was a cake. Flick liked cake, especially chocolate cake with lots of frosting. The cake wasn’t the problem.


The problem was the candles. Every one of those cakes came with a bunch of candles burning on top, and the excited birthday ogre, gargoyle, gremlin, elf, fairy, or human child made a wish—and blew out the candles.


Flick’s birthday would be one of the last, but it would come, and he couldn’t concentrate in class on account of the one, all-important question: How could a dragon blow out candles?


Flick sat in a desk an extra three feet away from all his classmates, because while he didn’t flame—much—when he breathed normally, there were sparks when he got excited. And once he sneezed and burned up his own homework. He was working on it, but it was hard. It was why dragons lived in bare, rocky places. Huffing and puffing like the others did to blow out their candles would be a disaster, because huffing and puffing was how Flick lit fires.


Grown dragons could control their flames. Some could even sneeze without so much as a spark. But controlling flame was an advanced level of dragon studies, and not something you learned in primary school. Grown dragons might travel and even live in forests and fields, but young dragons kept to the barren places. Flick attending school with the other young of the region was a daring experiment. It was important.


The experiment was important to the grown dragons because they wanted to prove they could be part of society. Managing his cake without disaster was even more important to Flick, because he liked cake and didn’t want to burn it up and disappoint the other students. Flick’s flammable sneezing fit had already raised some doubts about the experiment. If he incinerated his birthday cake, it would be all over, plus there would be no cake.


Mother was no help. She just said, “What’s cake?” When she found out, she said he shouldn’t be eating that stuff and had he done his math homework.


Dad was more sympathetic, having once eaten cake. He offered some very complicated explanations of how dragons controlled their flames. Flick couldn’t understand the directions at all, and couldn’t follow them even if he tried.


It was Grandfather Dragon who at last listened to Flick, really listened, and determined to solve the problem.


“It won’t be easy,” Grandfather said. “But you can learn. All of us do, though it’s easier after we reach, hmmm, a certain age.”


Flick didn’t care what “a certain age” was. He wanted to control his flame.


Grandfather tried to explain the mechanism. He tried to teach Flick the way grown dragons did it. None of that worked. But school was on a holiday, and Grandfather had nothing better to do—they’d thrown him off the Draconic Council for arguing that gargoyles were people. He was interested to learn that the gargoyles weren’t convince dragons were people. He became as determined as Flick that the birthday cake should be a success.


They experimented. Flick tried puffing through a damp cloth, but if it was wet enough not to burn, it blocked too much breath and the candles wouldn’t go out.


He tried blowing on a spot near the “cake” they had made out of sticks and mud, but again, if he blew hard enough to put out the candles, the cake got singed.


“It’s no use,” Flick said, two boiling tears running down his face.


“There’s always a way. But it looks like you’ll have to do it the hard way.”


“What do you mean?”


“You’ll have to learn to mediate, then to control all your bodily functions, and that will teach you to stop the flame when you don’t want it. You’ve started learning that, though you might not know it. What you do with Master Smoke on Saturdays.”


“But Master Smoke said it takes years to learn control!” Flick cried, setting fire to the fake cake.


He started crying harder as he thought about all the birthday cakes he wouldn’t get to eat after they threw him out of school. And he liked being with the other children, even if they did all have to keep a safe distance from him. Some of them were brave enough to play with him, and he was getting pretty good at tag, though he still sometimes forgot to keep his tail out of reach.


The more Flick cried, the more flames came out, and the more tears boiled from his eyes. When they grew too hot to bear, Flick dunked his head in the bucket of water they’d kept handy in case of fire. He kept it there until he couldn’t hold his breath another second.


Raising his head, Flick let out his held breath in a great whoosh—and nothing happened. There was no flame.


“I put out my flame!” Flick didn’t know if he was pleased or scared. He wanted to control his flame; he didn’t want it to go away altogether. A dragon without a flame was just a big flying snake.


“Try the candles,” Grandfather urged, hastily setting up and lighting the “cake.”


Flick gave a great puff. The candles went out, and not a flame escaped his nose or mouth. A few minutes later, while they weighed the plusses and minuses of a dragon of having no flames, Grandfather noticed a trickle of smoke leaking from Flick’s nose. A few minutes after that, Flick sneezed and set the cake on fire again. Grandfather handed him a flame-proof handkerchief. Flick grinned a little uncertainly as he and Grandfather stomped out the fire.


And that is why dragons always bob for apples at birthday parties right before they blow out the candles.



 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2021
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.