Monthly Archives: January 2013

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research – What Ingredients Make a Cake Part II

So, in continuation of this miniseries I interviewed a slightly different sort of author, one who writes for children.  Sharon L Norris write children’s books in order to wrap a story around some fun fact from the sciences.  Here are her responses to my areas of interest.  I have left her delightful Australian spelling and usage as written.

baloonatic

Does your research drive your story; or does your story shape your research?

The concept for my children’s early reader book ‘The Blink-off’ was derived from reading a Little Golden Book on ‘cats’. It mentioned that cats did not blink. I then started researching this phenomenon and found that cats do blink, but not very often. They have a third eyelid, a clear one that covers the pupil and keeps out dust and dirt. This means they do not blink as often as humans do. I was fascinated by this concept and developed a story for early readers around it.

Research was paramount in driving my mid-grade novel ‘The Balloonatic’, published by Macmillan Education Australia. This story, about a young boy who loves hot air ballooning and has to land a balloon when the pilot collapses in mid-flight, required significant research on the subject of ballooning. In the research process, where I learned about the dynamics of flight, I found some wonderfully illustrated books that gave me ideas for the landing scenario in this novel.

How do you keep yourself informed of new developments in the scientific fields?

I am currently writing a YA novel set in the future so I am using the internet to find blogs, pages and discussion fora so I can remain up to date with particular things like weaponry, military behaviour and strategy – things I know little about personally. I am also considering a sequel to ‘The Balloonatic!’ and am expanding my knowledge of modern hot air ballooning.

Do you try to shape your stories around hard science; or do you ignore or reach beyond what is known into the possible, probable, or does it matter?

I specialise in writing for educational markets and the success of ‘The Blink-off’ has encouraged me to continue to explore scientific concepts in fiction for early readers. The language that needs to be used for early readers can sometimes limit what you write. Abstract thoughts and concepts are not encouraged in early literacy materials as they are often too difficult for young children to understand.

What sorts of things inspire your interest to seek more information?

As a children’s writer, I’m fascinated by the natural environment and how things work. The smallest thing can be of great interest to young children, but they need to clearly understand and make connections in order to make sense of what you’re trying to tell them. Researching topics young children find fascinating is part of my job as a children’s writer.

What sorts of things tend to spark the idea of a story?

I’m an avid people-watcher. When I’m on a bus or sitting on a park bench I discreetly take note of everything around me and what people are doing. How children interact with each other and with older people. How they speak and what they say. Riding the bus has given me so many ideas just from hearing people’s conversations. I don’t strain to eavesdrop – buses are noisy so passengers will naturally talk louder to be heard. They just don’t realize how far their voices carry!

The media is also another source of story ideas for me. Reports of real life events, people, places and things will spark story ideas that I then elaborate or embellish. My mid-grade novel ‘Finders Keepers’ was sparked by a media report about children who found a dinosaur egg in sand dunes and hid it when the Government tried to take it away from them. In my story, the two child protagonists find and then hide their dinosaur egg when a greedy uncle tries to sell it to the highest bidder. They end up donating the egg to a museum so it would belong to everyone.

Do you often have characters in mind and find yourself in search of a scientific background to suit their character and its development?

I once imagined what the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, was like as a boy. He was alive then and I could just imagine him as a little boy running amok on his parents’ wildlife reserve (which later became the iconic Australia Zoo). I developed a boy character I imagined was very like Steve Irwin as a child, and thus was born my short novel for early-fluent readers titled ‘The Croc Shock’. This novel chronicles the adventures of Jack Sherman, who lives on a wildlife reserve and takes a baby saltwater crocodile to school for Show and Tell Day (or Show and Crow Day as it’s called in the book). When fear and ignorance about the crocodile threaten to get Jack into a lot of trouble, he gives his Show and Tell talk to the entire school to educate them. In the process, the reader learns a lot of scientific facts about ‘salties’.

Do you like to teach science with your writing and if so, is it your only goal or do you just have a lot of fun playing with the ideas that scientific theory presents?

I challenge myself to take a concept that interests me and look for an ‘angle’ I can explore, just as journalists look for the angle they will take when they write their stories for newspapers and magazines. There is always a lot of fun in this process.

Do you see correlations between scientific theory as it develops and your own philosophy or world view?

I learn a lot from the research process and from critically evaluating the research. I feel this can only stimulate my development as a writer and mean a better story for the reader.

Does this perspective become part of your characters’ development, or just background?

It’s important that child characters in children’s books solve their problems or dilemmas with as little help from adults as possible. So for me, it is important to ensure that I can suspend disbelief so my child readers know their protagonists can achieve the impossible if that is needed to solve a problem or dilemma.

In ‘The Balloonatic!’, for example, my character Monty is a walking, talking encyclopaedia on hot air ballooning but he has never actually flown in a balloon until he receives a gift certificate on his birthday for a dawn flight. When the pilot collapses in mid-flight, Monty has to use every ounce of knowledge he has to bring the balloon down safely as three lives depend on it.

What is your most favorite, wonder, awe-inspiring thing that you have learned in the last few years?  Something that confirmed or changed your point of view of the world and all that is in it?

I am intrigued by the fact that despite the wide-reaching arm of technology and development across the globe, we continue to hear that there are newly discovered tribes living traditional lives in remote parts of the world. People living in complete harmony with their environment, and damaging it a lot less than many of us living in highly developed, technologically proficient societies in first-world countries. There is a fantastic eco-message in that for all of us.

What is your favorite writing project which involved research into the sciences?

I have completed another mid-grade novel (unpublished at this time), which involved researching magnetism. I found out many interesting things about magnets and magnetism and this helped inform the plot and the development of my character, Eric. It was a lot of fun finding ways to incorporate those things into the story.

Sharon L Norris lives in Brisbane, Australia, and is the author of four books for children published in educational markets in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and the United States. Her motto is ‘take the ordinary within you and make it extraordinary’, and feels this is the perfect inspiration for a children’s writer. You can find out more about Sharon’s work via her website at www.sharonlnorris.com.au, and can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SharonLNorrisAuthor

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Book Review ~ The Art of Communication

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.  Available for under $10.00

writingSo, for a bit of a twist I thought I would share a book review today; a how-to book.  I know that not all my fans think of themselves as writers.  We are.  Every last one of us writes for one reason or another.  Tweets, text messages and dashed-off comments on social networks are becoming the norm and are probably doing serious damage to our ability to effectively communicate in our mother tongue.  Somewhere in life you, yes you, will be required to write.  Business communications, customer relations, organization news and inquires, marketing and magazine, internet and newspaper articles.  We still communicate through the written word.  “On Writing Well” is just the book to help you write better whatever the medium or the goal.   Whether it is emails, memos, official letters or brochures, or even books, this is a delightful reference to keep near.

Within the pages of this book, Professor Zinsser provides a well balanced mini-writing course.  He talks about simplicity, clutter, style, your voice and how to develop it, grammar and word usage.  He also presents ideas and examples of different types of nonfiction.  How do you conduct an interview?  What makes a good travel log?  How do you write a memoir?  How do you write about science and technology if you are a professional, or if you’re not?   How can business people and members of institutions write clearly to convey a message and sound like someone you might actually want to call if you have a question?

What is fun about this book is that Zinsser uses stories from his own career, both as a professor and as a writer, in order to illustrate his points.  He also uses his own writing style to show you what feels comfortable and conveys an intended thought; and what leaves you wandering all over the page trying to figure out how you got there. He shares some of his own proofs and indicates the changes he made.

Zinsser also speaks to humanity in writing.  He shows you how to choose the correct voice for the occasion.  A lover of clear, uncluttered language, he provides an example from the Roosevelt administration.  When asked to write a memo about the blackout orders of 1942, a staffer presented this:

Such preparation shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

The President responded with: “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”

Zinsser further illustrates “clutter” with this bit of humor:

It’s the language of the flight attendant demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should run out of air.  “In the unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality,” she begins – a phrase so oxygen-depriving in itself that we are prepared for any disaster.

So, with samples, humor, stories from his own career and a smattering of examples from published works; Zinsser takes you by the hand and leads you to the land of communication.  A land that the reader will want to visit because what you write is what you meant to say.

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Science Fiction/Fantasy Research – What Ingredients Make a Cake – Part I

My blog often discusses recent scientific discoveries that may have roots in history or philosophy.  It also addresses the art of research, whether you are a writer or not, how does one go about finding things out?  How do you fill that sense of wonder that we have?  How do you feed a voracious appetite for knowledge?

These thoughts inspired me to ask some of my Facebook friends who are very much involved in writing, editing and reviewing books that fall into this genre.  I will be featuring my volunteers over the next few weeks and will introduce you to their writing philosophy and their work.  Some chose the interview format, some will most likely present an article.  Here we go with guest number one:  Angus Day.  He chose the interview format.

having nice thingsDoes your research drive your story; or does your story shape your research?

My story line drives my research.  Whether it be technological, historical or theoretical I will find what is currently thought and consider it.

How do you keep yourself informed of new developments in the scientific fields?

Depends upon the field.  Chemistry, materials and things in that vein I have sources as a professional.  Most anything else I skim BBC, NASA, space news sites.  When I use Wiki is at the beginning to determine if there are any credible sources referenced but I never use anything directly.

Do you try to shape your stories around hard science; or do you ignore or reach beyond what is known into the possible, probable, or does it matter?

I do not shape my stories based on what we think we know today.  How people can make determinations about what is possible when we haven’t effectively left the fish bowl yet is beyond me.  I don’t ignore the doubters, but I may try to spin the story so that they get discredited for having closed off their minds.  Addressing the ‘does it matter’, I dislike the hand wave.  Have some guts and build a world where things are possible.  Weave a story of hope.

What sorts of things inspire your interest to seek more information?

Extrasolar planets, out of the box propulsion schemes, myths of my ancestors proven to have merit within new interpretations and someone egotistical enough to claim something is not possible.

What sorts of things tend to spark the idea of a story?

A breeze, news item or an extraordinary event.

Do you often have characters in mind and find yourself in search of a scientific background to suit their character and its development?

Not all of my characters are scientists.  Sometimes they are military, business people…  The fifth novel will have a main character that is a moron finding his way through one accident at a time without any real redeeming qualities.

Do you like to teach science with your writing and if so, is it your only goal or do you just have a lot of fun playing with the ideas that scientific theory presents?

I try to blend the concept of scientific discovery into the lives of my characters.  There is a way to turn me off from reading a science fiction novel and that is the dreaded ‘info dump’.  I have fun with it.

Do you see correlations between scientific theory as it develops and your own philosophy or world view?

My world view is that there will always be the unknowable in everyone’s lives.  It may be out of our reach during our time which does not make it impossible.  Too often people are ready to declare something impossible because it conflicts with what they think they know scientifically and or theologically.  True scientific method seeks to disprove a statement because if you can not then it is possible.

Does this perspective become part of your characters’ development, or just background?

The perspective becomes integral with the character’s development.

What is your most favorite, wonder, awe-inspiring thing that you have learned in the last few years?  Something that confirmed or changed your point of view of the world and all that is in it?

I don’t believe that I learned it but became more comfortable with the view that one’s belief system is personal.  There is no need to strive for conflict with others that don’t believe the same unless they are trying to oppress you.  I try to write open and accepting protagonists.  Antagonists I try to construct believable character flaws that lead to selfish behavior and decisions.  My spinnings are my view of the current and future worlds we live in.

What is your favorite writing project which involved research into the sciences?

Fictional development of the Vascaran drive in Legacy of Daddy was my favorite because it is representative of the boundaries needing conquering in order to graduate to interstellar civilization.  I’m not done with it yet.

I live in Fort Collins Colorado with my wife and son. My daughter has embarked on her career as a graphics designer. I’ve been an Infantryman, Swine Farmer, smattering of other trades and jobs and now I’m a manufacturing pharmaceutical chemist. What aspect of my life that is devoted to fitness favors swimming in open water which means I spend most of the year working out in a pool then hit the lakes when it warms up a bit. My wife Cheryl safety kayaks for me when we manage to make it work.

Some other places to check Angus out: Facebook Group:  Next You Utopian Estates

And on the web: The Next You Universe

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Fiction, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Visiting Adventurers

This week I have something special; a guest blog by an author who took the opportunity to immerse himself in the land and language of his subject.  This post originally appeared on The Thrill Begins  and was presented by a dear author friend, Donna Galanti.   The topic and the process intrigued me.  Someday I hope to visit those parts of the globe that have shaped who I am and what I write.  May I introduce William Burton McCormick, author of Lenin’s Harem.

Researching the Historical Novel in the Former Soviet Union

BadgeEvery author who wants to write a historical novel set in a foreign locale has a fundamental problem: How does one overcome language barriers, cultural differences and temporal and physical distances to get the perspectives of those living in a bygone era?  The problem is further complicated when the historical setting is the early Soviet Union, where information was lost or locked away and official versions of events were distorted to glorify the Communist Party.

I encountered this problem when I first began Lenin’s Harem, my historical novel about the Latvian Riflemen, the doomed vanguards of the Russian Revolution.  The Riflemen were arguably the first great heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution, but they would fall out of favor both with Soviet government and to some degree their own people in later years. Finding unbiased information on the American side of the Atlantic was nearly impossible. History books, even ones on Latvia, made only fleeting references to them. Certainly no source provided enough detail to write narrative fiction.

But I was determined to get the story no other Western writer had yet touched. So, to pierce the veils of history and totalitarian regimes, I moved to Latvia, living in Riga sixteen months to unearth the facts.

It was a daunting experience at first. I arrived in Latvia, knowing little of the language, knowing nobody, not even where I was going to live.  But, for me, there was no other way to do it. I had to immerse myself completely in the land, the people and its history. I rented an apartment in the center of the city and began to explore the country and its past. I met with historians, museum curators and journeyed to every place depicted in the novel. The longer I stayed, the more the region’s tragedies became clearer to me.  Nearly every family had lost someone to the World Wars or Stalin’s purges. I saw the pictures of smiling children who would die on prison trains and went to the graves of soldiers murdered by their own generals.

Bannersm

The biggest challenge, by far, was that much of the information simply wasn’t available in English. To communicate with older historians and specialists on the Latvian Riflemen, I had

to use translators. But this was frustrating and expensive. Because of the Soviet occupation

of Latvia through 1991 much of what had been recorded was in Russian rather than Latvian.

So, as a next step, I set off for Moscow for a fifteen month course in Russian at Moscow State University. My spoken Russian is still terrible, but I used the knowledge I gained at the university to help me with written translation. The time in Moscow also gave me access to the Russian point of view on these events. It gave the book an additional perspective.

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There’s no reason to transport yourself across the world to sit in a room studying. No matter how busy I was I always took time to journey to some location or meet with some key person.  Yet, as my research amassed, I began to spend those long winter nights writing twelve or fourteen hours at a sitting, often until five or six in the morning. I didn’t want any distractions. No internet, no television, only a few music CDs for entertainment.

During this time, I accumulated so much research that I spent the next years cutting through it and polishing Lenin’s Harem into the best, most accessible book I could muster. I knew no one would read a dry historical account. It had to be a gripping, human narrative. Solid entertainment with a warning underneath about the dubious rewards of defending totalitarian regimes.

I thought I had succeeded, but I decided to test it. I wrote a short story about a Latvian revolutionary in a similar style and submitted it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a publication known firstly as popular entertainment and secondly as a tough market to crack. When the story, “Blue Amber”, was accepted, I knew I had the right balance between fiction and history. In fact, the work was eventually nominated for a Derringer award as one of the year’s best.

Then, it was on to submitting the novel and Knox Robinson Publishing picked it up. I was honored to see something to which I had dedicated so many years finally realized.

Was it worth it? Well, strictly in financial terms, unlikely. Living years in Eastern Europe is not a way to make money. But measured in life experiences, inspirations for further works of fiction and an accurate, gripping novel as end product – I think I have succeeded.

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Author Bio:

William Burton McCormick was born in Maryland and raised in Nevada. He graduated from Brown University with degrees in Ancient Studies and Computer Science and earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester. He is a published fiction author and a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.  William is Hawthornden Fellow for 2013.

 

Lenin’s Harem Synopsis:

Lenin’s Harem is the story of  Wiktor Rooks, a ruined aristocrat swept up in the chaos of World War I, who by twist of fate finds himself a member of the elite guard of the Russian Revolution, a group of Latvian soldiers known colloquially as “Lenin’s Harem” for their loyalty to the Bolshevik cause. Concealing his aristocratic past from his enemies, Wiktor hides in plain sight while the Russian Empire crumbles around him. But where does he go when the revolutionaries win?

Connect with William Burton McCormick

Author Facebook Page

Novel Website

Goodreads

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