Muscle Woman and High Fiving a Robot

First up, some bragging points:  My short story “A Quartet of Clowns” got an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest.  No publication, but I’m moving up.

This weekend, I was at Ravencon, a science fiction convention that’s held every year, now in Williamsburg, VA.  It used to be in Richmond, but the hotel hired new staff, who jacked up the price, so they moved to the new location.

I was hoping for nice weather.  Instead, it was rain and gray skies all the way up.

I had two goals for the con.  The first was to use the hotel’s swimming pool and get a little swimming in. For the con, it was to participate more, because when I do I’m memorable.  Not sure why, but everyone remembers me.

So I had to pick better panels than I’ve had in the past.  A lot of the writing ones tend to be beginner level, so I don’t want to participate (and in some cases, I think what they’re giving out is really wrong).  I scoped out the panels about week before, though first contact changed that.

I got in a quick swim before the con started. About ten laps, which wasn’t much (the pool was small). I also did pool pullups. I use the handles on the ladder to do it.

Then off to the con. The first sessions included a panel on world building.  I think one person suggested the world building topic, because there was a lot of world building panels, and nearly always the same writers on the panels.   One of the commentaries on horses came from a horse enthusiast on panel.  In fantasy novels, everyone always has a horse, but horses are really expensive (why they hung horse thieves).  That made me note a comment to add to the short story I was working on (called Lady Pearl and now in submission).

After that, it was off to a Star Trek 50th anniversary panel—it’s hard to believe it has been 50 years.  The panelists went through all the various incarnations of Trek.  There had been two panels on Star Trek scheduled that I planned to attend, but after this one, I had my fill.  Never thought I’d say that about Star Trek.  When I was growing up, I had a shrine in my room—everything I had all displayed.

I chatted with the panelists before the panels—sitting in the front row is great for interaction.

Saturday started with another trip to the pool. Then off to a panel on robots, which is where my post title comes from.  There was team of teenagers who had participated in an annual contest for building robots.  They’re given a task—in this case, climbing a ramp—and they have to build and program a robot that can accomplish the task.  Everything is Open Engineering Book, so all the teams can use what someone else comes up with to learn.

Two of the team members were girls.  They built a robot which looked like the lunar rover.  It had a hand on the top that gave you a high five, which was pretty cool.

And it was girls, which was awesome,

Then off to Flags on the Moon, which is exactly what it was.  The panelist talked about the trials of trying to stand a flag up on the moon and how many were standing.  We got to hear some clips from NASA and see some moon videos.   This is from NASA on the status of the flags.   No one’s been there, but NASA can tell their presence by the shadows they cast in photos.

World Building: Creating Fictional Political Systems was next.  This one presented an interesting idea, which is that a lot of writers just use the U.S. system.  How our system is unique and the only one like it, so others are better choices.  The panelists thought if there was a world government, it would be more parliamentary.

Next was the Baen Traveling Roadshow.  Reps from the company show us what’s going to be released and give away books. Honestly, it was great looking at the posters of covers they had up. Some really awesome artwork.

And back to World Building with First Contact and Politics.  Hmm.  Do you think the election might be influencing the panels?  First contact is always depicted in films as the aliens contacting the government, but the panelists thought aliens would contact merchants.  Merchants are always the ones branching out to find more markets.

My last panel was on Writing the Short Story.  The panelist was Bud Sparhawk, who’s been in Analog and Asimov’s.  He was joined by another writer, whose name I can’t recall.  That writers was a pantser, so he was the opposite of everything that was Bud.  I didn’t get as much out of the panel as I was hoping, and it was at a really bad time (10:00), so not much on the audience side.  The woman sitting next to me took notes on her checkbook register and had green lipstick that Bud said was distracting (okay, well, it was a con, and at least she wasn’t wearing one polka dot).

For Sunday, it was back to the pool first thing in the morning. This time, a mother brought her daughter, probably no more than 12, to play in the pool. It was 7:00 a.m., so this was very odd. After I did the pool pull-ups, the daughter tried it. Couldn’t do it at all. But then I’m Muscle Woman. I’ve been working on my arm muscles.

I looked at the panels for Sunday, and the only one I might have attended was late in the afternoon.  I booked out at 8:00 a.m., hoping to avoid the predicted rain.  Needless to say, it rained the entire way back and turned into a downpour once I hit Quantico.

Oh, dear.  Need to go off line.  Thunderstorm is coming in.

Spring Colors in Washington DC

We’re finally starting to get some serious color–and pollen–in Washington, DC. These were taken at Green Springs garden. The purple field are daffodils. The orange and pink flowers are tulips. Those reminded me of Pacific Southwest Airlines, a carrier we always flew on in California before they got bought out. The uniforms were those two colors. Not sure what the last flower was, but I liked the splay of the petals.

How This Pantser Does Research

Research came up as a topic on Facebook, one of those things where the writers want to know how you keep your research notes.  I suppose I’m an oddity, because I don’t keep any research notes.

To start with, I don’t plan out my stories at all.  I have no idea what will happen in them, or how they will end.  Consequently, I also wouldn’t know what I needed to research.

I could try, but I would waste a considerable amount of time.  I learned that on one of my book projects.  I researched several subjects to death, dutifully wrote down cool things that caught my interest.  Even went to a college campus, hit their library and looked stuff up, took notes.

Then I made first contact with the story.  Used none of that research.

So what do I do instead?

Most of it is long before I write the story, and it’s not for any specific story.  I go to some place like Old Towne, Alexandria, Virginia and wander around.  Enjoy myself.  Look at stuff.  Smelled the malt of beer being made at a distillery. Be horrified at the cobblestone alleyways—how did people walk on them things? 

Then, when I come with an idea, I do the reverse of what I think a lot of writers do. They get the idea and shape the research around the idea.  If the idea involves a doctor doing surgery, they go out and learn everything about that type of surgery.

On the other hand, I start with the setting, which is where most of my research would be needed, so I can pick some place that I’m well familiar with and intersect other elements, then plop an idea there.  I’m also not going to pick occupations for characters where I have to do research just to do the character.   

As I write, the details filter into the story through my subconscious.  I think that’s because I had fun at these places.  Fun leaves an imprint.

I’m working on a story that started with Old Town as a basis, and I added bits from a fascinating lecture on Civil War maps I attended ten years ago, and  the visit of a three masted sailing ship (isn’t the ship below glorious?).   Oh, and also a Civil War fashion show from a few years back.  Clothes are always interesting.

18th century replica ship

After that, it’s the writing.  It’s a fantasy, so some of it is made up (magic and swords; no repeating rifles or muzzle loaders). Still some research, but it’s on the spot, as I discover what I need while I’m writing the story.  For the story, that’s been food.  I just look it up and put what I need directly into the story.

On the plate for the future is to visit the masted ship in Baltimore.  I really want to walk on board and see what it was like to live there.  Some of my ancestors came over on sailing ships like that.  And it would be really cool to write a pirate story one day…

Glorious Tulips in Washington DC

Washington DC always has very pretty tulips!

Star Wars and Risk Taking

This week, I finally got around to see the latest Star Wars film.  When it came out in December, I was sick with a winter cold that took forever to clear out.  And then I just never got to it.

Took me a while to understand why.

I know this dates me, I saw Star Wars when it was originally released, and it was something new and unexpected that no one had ever seen before.  Up until then, science fiction movies had been about monsters created by atomic radiation (Godzilla, Them), or our astronauts visiting another planet and finding monsters.  They were often lessons warning us that if we didn’t shape up, this would happen.

Star Wars made science fiction fun.

And people lined up to see at the movie theaters.  The news reports showed these lines wrapped around the block.  People bragged that they were on their 17th viewing of the movie.  It was a film that was eminently satisfied and made you feel good when you went home.

Anyone who saw it then remembers that magic.

But all the writers of this new film did was rewrite the first movie.  The writers even used some of the same dialogue, and this made it predictable rather than surprising.  I knew that Han Solo was going to die because the same scene was in the original film with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The result was that it was an okay film.  I liked Rae and was happy to see a woman character getting an action role.  But it wasn’t a film that would make me go back and rewatch it to get immersed in the story all over again. 

Unfortunately, the studios have become extremely risk adverse.  They spend a lot of money on films and want to guarantee success.  So it’s easier to revise an old script or remake an existing project that was successful then it is to come up with a fresh film.

I grew up in the Hollywood area.  A film crew filmed in a house down the street from my house.  I spotted a grocery store we shopped at on Hunter, and another (now a Target) on Scarecrow and Mrs. King.  I saw Martin E. Brooks (Bionic Woman) in a local restaurant.  I’ve been to conventions, where all the fans enjoy the stories that made them excited.

And I want studios to take a risk and be more creative.  Is that too much to ask?

Easy is not always easy

This month, I’ve been taking an online cooking class on how to cook without recipes.  I’ve always hated trying to cook using recipes.

It always seems like the cook-author thinks that I must enjoy cooking like they do.  Not!  And that my kitchen looks like theirs.  Not!

Oh, and that I have a big family and oodles of time to make a huge meal for six.  Seriously not!

Actually, in my travels looking up cooking without recipes, I was surprised to see that a lot of what goes into cookbooks isn’t tested at all.  That goes back to the publishers cutting what they pay the writers.  The writers have to get a book out and aren’t getting paid enough to test it, so recipes go in that may not work according to the way they’re written. 

The result is that I’ve been puzzled when I see recipes claiming, “Easy!” and, well, they aren’t.   Easy is not buying a non-standard pan for a recipe, and one that I will never use again.  Easy is not fifteen ingredients, two of which I have to go to a different store to find.  Easy is not twenty lines of instructions made to look like five.

This was my first meal, which is kale, red bell pepper, carrots, chicken, garlic, and salt and pepper.  (I picked the ingredients for their color, so I was looking for pretty.)

A plate of kale, bell pepper, carrots, and chicken, still steaming.

Unlike most of my past meals, it tasted pretty good.

Tomorrow I get to roast an entire chicken.  I’ve never done that before.  So we shall see.

Military Accident = More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame

There’s an old saying that everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. In Washington, DC I imagine that happens if your car stalls out in rush hour and every news station reports on “stalled car blocking the middle lane.” But we had one soldier who got far more than fifteen minutes of it, all over the 6:00 news.

We drove 915 trucks, which are very similar to tractor trailors, except green. The trailer part is a flatbed, so pretty much anything can be put on it. Add sideboards and a tarp and you can carry pallets of mail as we did during Desert Storm. A forklift can add a shipping container, or load poles. Lots of things can go on it.

We also had two main roads that we could take. But had two bridges. The design was strange because the bridges were together, and the road dipped under the first bridge, and then came up. If the drivers had a trailer, they were not supposed to go on that road, becauase there wasn’t enough clearance.

One of the drivers was carrying two 20 foot shipping containers on the trailer. They contained medical supplies. He forgot about the second bridge and went under it with the trailer. Hit it hard enough to knock off one shipping container and damage the other. Medical supplies were scattered all over the street, and the news crews came out to take pictures. Accident! Military truck! Terrible! Shocking!

We had a second accident, which occurred a few years later. The news footage showed the truck—no trailer—sitting on the freeway divider at an angle. They’d flown a helicopter over it. The mutliple car accident had occured in front of the military truck, and the driver went on the embankment to avoid hitting the disabled cars and also to get out of way. But if you listened to the media, it was “Army driver causes accident.”

Sometimes what seems like the truth isn’t.