Monthly Archives: March 2013

Alternative History ~ More Than an Adventure, It’s a Mind Expanding Point of View

As my readers know by now, I am a history junkie.  My banner pretty much says it all because I believe there is much we have left behind that could teach us about what we have “yet to find.”  My writing tends to explore both the past and the future and is, consequently, driven by research.  For this reason I like to find fiction writers that do much the same thing because it helps me at least try to share the passion I have for my subjects with my readers.  Learning how people build fictional worlds that attract an audience helps me see the parts that interest readers so I can arrange my factual material in an engaging way.  My current interview target gave me some very interesting ideas.  We will visit my thoughts after we hear from Rob Cerio (

Steampunk World Building and the importance of knowing your history…

One of the trends in science fiction and fantasy literature is toward the rapidly growing genre known as “Steampunk”. For those that are unfamiliar with the genre, it’s a world of steam engines, Victorian sensibilities and fashions, and good old human courage. For those that write Science fiction, it’s also a nice departure from our usual, dreary dystopias and a walk into a brighter world. I have heard it described by many to be the shared universes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, or by others as visions of the future as envisioned by the 19th century. What most of these definitions fail to realize is that Steampunk at its core is an exercise in alternative history, and the best Steampunk Authors do a lot of research into the Victorian era, and the technology and terminology of the time to give their worlds authenticity.

dgstorecovThe key point of divergence between our real world and the imagined universe that most Steampunk stories use is the inventions of Charles Babbage. In 1822, Babbage proposed a device for completing complicated mathematics that he called a “Difference Engine”. The device was intended to replace error prone humans in the calculation of complex polynomial tables for engineering and science reference material. He later refined this design by the mid 1800s broadening its usage to an “Analytical Engine:” a very basic computer. The tremendous cost of building these intricate machines proved too high for him to continue his research.  If he had it was entirely possible that the Computing Revolution of the mid 1970’s could have happened a hundred years earlier, in the “age of steam”, most notably before the development of the internal combustion engine.

Which leads to a neat question… “If modern computing had been applied to the refinement of the steam engine, would we have ever developed the internal combustion engine?” Somehow, I don’t think my uncle would appreciate his Corvette if he had to shovel coal into it every 300 miles.

Steampunk literature suggests that the great scientists and engineers of the Victorian era would have made tremendous advances with access to Babbage’s Difference engines. We are asked to imagine a world where the Montfoglier Brothers used computers to turn their Ballooning experiments into practical airships… A world where Nikola Tesla was able to figure out the Unified Field theory 60 years before Einstein even got a job as a patent clerk… A world where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was a practical machine instead of a flight of fancy.

As a result, to write confidently in the steampunk genre, there is a lot of research you have to do, especially since readers of your fiction will absolutely call you on any errors in facts or style. (I had an editor return a story because a character used the term ‘patsy’ when the word wasn’t in popular usage until the 1920’s or so). On your reading list should be at least one of the works of Jules Verne, and of H.G. Wells, as well as some Mark Twain. The first two are to help you establish the conventions of the genre, the third to help you get the tone and jargon of an American of the period set into your mind. Depending on where you set your story, you may need to look into the real-world history of the country in question.

Many Steampunk stories are set in Great Britain and the United states, but the genre has been opening up to include the Far East, Africa, and the moon. This is great for authors that love writing in the genre, but I still cringe every time someone refers to it as “Space: 1899.”

In my case, the post-Civil War America that my short story “The Great Steamship Race” is set in is very much our current reality. Despite my embellishment of ironclad airships, the tensions in the post-war south and animosities that were held onto for generations are still in evidence. The race that takes place between my fictional airships Natchez and Robert E. Lee is based upon a real event and real historical figures that I discovered while researching other works. While some authors might look at the restrictions of using real history to frame an alternative history story as a chain binding them from telling interesting stories, I would say that they haven’t researched thoroughly enough. The Victorian era of both British and American history is rife with vibrant characters that truly shine when handed futuristic technology.

In addition to old fashioned library and internet research, there is quite a bit of real world research you can do to give your locations and Steampunk devices life. I am lucky enough to live in New Orleans, where one of the last steamships operates on the Mississippi River. By asking politely, I was able to get a behind the scenes tour of the engine and boiler rooms of the vessel, as well as a rare look at the wheelhouse. While not everyone has a steamboat in their backyard, there are steam locomotives that still run the rails in most states as tourism ventures. While much of what you learn by observing these machines in action may never make it onto the page, knowing the smell and feel of these amazing machines in action will help give your fictional versions life. I would also recommend trying on some Victorian era clothing… while I have never personally worn a corset, many of my female author friends insist that it was key to bringing a certain perspective to their heroine’s lives.

Me, I just settled for a top hat and a pair of aviator goggles.


So, the ideas that Rob has popped into my head?  If you have ever watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series you may remember a segment where he mentions that the Greek renaissance of science and math that started somewhere around 570-495 BCE was squelched by Pythagoras and his mystics.  If not for him then the first ship on the moon may have had a Greek name and it may have been centuries before the Americans made their landing.  Maybe, maybe not.  As a race we tend to fear those things that we do not understand.  We give them the aura of mystery and magic and sometimes call them evil.  Or, we do our best to control them.  Some of those “mystics” Mr. Sagan was so perturbed with became the fathers of a more lasting modern science: Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Kepler, and on and on.  There are several Jesuit priests in the mix as well.  Many men, and women, discovered much about our universe while seeking the mind of God: and shared their passion by showing the world what they found.  Sometimes it is a war between the mystics and the rational thinkers; sometimes it’s a matter of timing.

So, what I learned from a point of view such as Rob’s, is a way of inserting or taking away a concept that could change helicopterhistory in order to better understand the pivots of that history.  For instance, what if Leonardo had gotten his whirly bird off the ground?  It is interesting that Rob mentions Mark Twain as a source since he used this approach himself.  If you haven’t read A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court you should give it a try.  An excellent example of “what if they had this!”

Thinking through the “could have beens” help us better understand the “what is now” and may help us build a better “what will be.”  In the meantime, check out Rob’s website and see what he is up to.  You can also let me know what you would like to learn about as we explore our history, our thoughts, our hopes and dreams.

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Filed under Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Who I Am Yesterday ~ A Bit of Horn Tooting.

As difficult as it was to write many parts of my story, it becomes quite worth it all when someone tells me that my writing has touched them in some way.  Fellow author and friend, Philip Nork, Jr. has written a review for my little book on  It is my sincere hope that even with our day to day struggles, my husband and I still manage the joy and love so many have found in our story.  Please check it out, you may find things of value even if you are not dealing with dementia somewhere in your family.

Who I Am Yesterday. A Path to Coping With a Loved One’s Dementia.


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Reflections ~ Do You See What I See; Do I see What You See, Is It Really There?

This week I am going to share an epiphany. It didn’t help me completely solve the problem of the moment, but it did give me a clearer picture of what it would mean to be inside my husband’s head. It kept a situation from turning into another cycle of stress and emotional upheaval. I’m not sure how long this euphoric moment will last, but it is an insight worth sharing.

As with all insights, this one did not spring fully formed into my head; it was the result of accumulated information and experience that finally fell into some useful bit of realization. Ever since I have acknowledged my husband’s dementia (about two years now) I have been reading, searching, learning, watching and digging up every piece of relevant information I could find. This, of course, is part of the reason I wrote the book, Who I Am Yesterday. This week I took another step in understanding that incredible organ snuggled in our cranium called the brain.

The adult human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds, only 2% or less of our body weight. It consumes 25% of our intake of oxygen, 70% of the glucose we consume and 25% of any nutrients we consume. It contains some 100 billion neurons and somewhere around 100,000 miles of vessels, capillaries and other transport systems. Those vessels pump 1.5 pints of blood through the brain each minute. All those little neurons are connected through 1 quadrillion connections. Some 83% of the neurons are in the cerebral cortex which consists of 6 layers. The cerebral cortex is all bunched up on the surface of the brain so it will fit inside our craniums. Total surface area would stretch out to something like 16” X 22”. And that’s just the cognitive part.

Neuroscience has discovered much about how the brain operates, and we’ve only, well, scratched the surface. We are, however, learning how memories are formed, and how the brain can “rewrite” its own memory, change relationships between memories, burn some deeper than others, or forget everything all together. Memory, in fact, helps us build our perception of our future.  We are also learning something about what makes some of us geniuses, and what causes the truly brilliant mind to dance so closely to madness; or to fall completely under its spell.

I say all of this because how the brain works utterly fascinates me. Both because, at heart, I am a philosopher and because it shows me much of what my husband has been and what he is now. It gives me a perspective I would not otherwise enjoy. So, what, then, was my epiphany? How my husband “sees.”

Our brains do an incredible job of interpreting the world around us using our five senses. Everything we know, after all, starts with seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling. Although that input seems seamless to us it really isn’t. In order to save “storage space” and to process things quickly, our brains pick up pieces of what we see and convert that to a whole picture. And, while it seems instantaneous it actually does take a measurable amount of time between sensory input and mental interpretation. It also creates a “story” to inform you what the thing you see/hear/feel/taste/smell means and what you should do about it. There is only one problem with this marvelous creation – our brains lie. Yes really.

There are a number of ways this can happen. Let’s have just a bit of fun looking at ways this happens that you probably already know about but haven’t really thought of in this context. There are two specific areas I really want to address in this blog. One is how we see the plethora of colors, shapes, distances, and movements around us and form some idea of what it all means. The second is that when we “see” something, it is often only relevant when seen in a certain order. In other words, we can’t make sense of something that occurs when our attention is elsewhere or when our comprehension of the order of events is not correct.

Let us start with something simple and familiar, optical illusions. How we interpret pictures or objects is dependent on how our mind interprets the information. Here are two simple examples.

parallel lines

In this simple test you look at the graphic and determine if you see straight or curved lines. Does your brain bend the lines because it is fooled by the diagonals in the background? This is a familiar optical illusion, but effective in illustrating my point. Now, something a bit different.


Stare at the black light bulb for the count of 30 (not much more or the effect will last longer that you care for). When you look away you will see a “negative” of the image, a glowing light bulb.

Here is a different type of illusion, camouflage.   Can you find the owl in these pictures?


You will find these photos and similar challenges on Google here.

Here’s one more “test.” This is one that has been all over the web, Facebook included, so you may be familiar with it already. Problem is, if you know the trick you miss the message. So, here is a video to watch. I’ll wait.

Selective Attention Test

Now you know. When our attention is directed at a specific activity, we can completely miss critical pieces of information. This is one of the reasons why eye witnesses can be so unreliable. What you remember is based on your experience, what is important to you and how important the event is to you. Doesn’t that give “distracted driver” a whole new meaning! The story behind this test can be found here:

Bet you Didn’t Notice the Invisible Gorilla

These quick exercises are meant to show the reader that “seeing” is an interpretive act, even when we firmly believe we are in possession of all our faculties. Now imagine what happens when those faculties start to slip. What happens if we have a difficult time managing our visual input normally, when the brain begins to fail, our memory data banks are corrupted, or time becomes rather “mushy.” That, you see, is the other major element.

When you can no longer keep track of what comes before what or what causes what then what you see can be what your mind remembers from some other time or place. Here is the event that led me down this path this week. In our home we have a large window that looks out over our car port. The roof line allows a clear view of our car. My husband came to me in my office terribly concerned because he saw people in our car. A man and a woman. There was, of course, no one there. After I convinced him that nothing would happen to me, I put a coat on and went outside. I opened all the doors, crawled inside the car, closed the doors and locked them, then went around the car checking the locks. On the second trip I walked around the house while he watched me from the windows. Eventually the incident subsided. As I thought about it I realized that in his mind he could be seeing us. He could have been seeing me behind the wheel and him in the passenger seat just as we are several times a week. He had no way of sorting the sequence in his mind so any bit of motion would trigger his mind to “remember” something in a different way than what I saw to be clearly in error.

This gave me insight and a whole lot more patience than in previous situations that were similar. I suddenly realized that the people he sees and hears (even me in my many, many personas) are real in his brain. We are hardwired to trust that brain, it is supposed to keep us safe. What must it feel like when someone is trying to tell you that what you see and hear does not exist? What abyss yawns before you if you can’t trust your own senses?

This then, was my epiphany. I may not be able to come up with a satisfactory answer as to “where they went,” “why they are there,” or a thousand other questions that come up in our lives together. I will, however, get a lot further along in helping him through those moments if I don’t cast constant doubt on his interpretation of things. He will not change, he cannot understand the problem, and there is no reason to badger him about what he does or does not understand.

I think that there is a similar problem when dealing with schizophrenia. Dr. David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine feels that many mental illnesses have to do with the inability of the brain to properly handle time. In other words, the individual loses the ability to correctly identify cause and effect. I feel that this is true, but that much of the problem also lies in the way the brain interprets input. What gets past our five senses is, to our brains, reality. Whether or not anyone else sees what we see, to us it is very, very real. I have learned that my husband’s innate ability to see patterns, to build mathematical representations of how we think in order to teach computers how to think is now betraying him. He sees patterns where they do not exist and, once they take up residence in his brain, they are real. His reality is teaching me patience with mine.

In the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” there is a scene where Dr. Nash is approached by a gentleman after one of his classes. He turns to one of his students and asks if the man is real. Once existence is established he jokes and indicates that it’s always safer to check. The more I learn about my husband the more I realize that he somehow managed to navigate a world that was constantly shifting and didn’t always have the same elements, occurrences, people or places that existed for those around him. I don’t know if that leaves you incredibly lonely or never at a loss for someone to talk to. I know that understanding something of his world makes mine a whole lot easier to live with.

As you may know, I’ve written a little book about our journey during the first year after his diagnosis of vascular dementia. It contains the story of how I came to acknowledge his condition and how I learned to cope with that and the realization that his world had always been a shade off center reality. I’m told there are many useful bits, a bit of sad, a bit of funny, and a lot of encouragement. Even those who are not presently dealing with dementia in the family or as a caregiver tell me they find things of value within its pages. It’s available on Who I Am Yesterday: A Path to Coping with a Loved One’s Dementia.


Filed under Caregiving Backstage, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Personal Journeys

Bringing History Alive ~ And Discovering Your Own Past

Even when you love history, the task of picking some subject small enough to fit in a book but large enough to engage a reader can sometimes be quite a task.  The shear volume of information that we have about the past can be overwhelming, and yet there is more to learn, more to capture, more to place in a setting that helps us understand more of where we come from and where we are going to.  One of my very best friends ever has taken this task to heart.  Drawn by her love of the book she has written a couple of small books about her experience as a wife coping with Alzheimer’s and her experience as a book seller.  Now she brings us a taste of what it was like to live at the turn of the last century.  What it meant to fight in the Spanish-American War and World War I.  What it meant to live in an America still finding its way in the world.  The product of that journey is Wild Hay, Wild Hairs and Shell Shock.  I asked her to tell me something of her journey to her great-grandfather’s life and times.

CraigieCoverSmI don’t look at myself as the author of Wild Hay, Wild Hairs and Shell Shock; rather something of an interpreter and translator, as well as an editor. To me, Charles Henry Craigie is the true author. He was my great-grandfather by marriage and he left his family with the treasure of his thoughts.

Craigie’s notes were left in the form of a draft manuscript without punctuation or paragraphing. As I typed the work before me, there were times when the whole meaning would be confusing. Suddenly a light would dawn as soon as I switched punctuation and words would fall into order in different sentences or phrases.

Included in the punctuation puzzlements were quotations (without quote marks), many of which involved dialogue. Thus, separating his own writing from his remembered conversations became another challenge.

One curiosity with this manuscript is that Craigie grew up in an era of alphabet sounds (not yet referred to as phonics); his spelling wasn’t of overall importance to him. He simply spelled things the way he heard them. Couple that with penciled, difficult-to-read handwriting on browning, brittle paper, and there you have a picture.

My mother, Sharon Smither-McFarland, had typed up the manuscript in 1999. Having her comb-bound copy in hand, I would go back and forth between Craigie’s original and Mom’s manuscript. Many times, a combination of the two or three (counting my own) ways of looking at his words would spark something of an “Oh” moment. Then I’d be on to changing punctuation (or paragraphing) around again. Without Mom’s initial efforts, I would still be working on this project.

I did succeed in keeping the majority of Craigie’s sentences in the word order he had written them with few exceptions. CraigiePicUniformSmA lot of his philosophical paragraphs and thoughts ended up at the end as Chapter 11. Some just did not fit in with his narrative. In this way, Chapter 11 became my concoction of Craigie’s thoughts.

Because this story isn’t “mine,” I didn’t change anything in his intended narrative. It wasn’t mine to rewrite in that sense. It was only mine to translate for the reader.

Since a lot of his story concerned places-in-time, I wanted accuracy. In order to make sure I reported his story accurately I researched things as detailed as street names in Minneapolis. He grew up and worked in the farm country of Minnesota and the Dakotas and again, it took research to following his narrative. I also researched the places that seemed pivotal to his narrative as a verification of history.

Verifying places in a historical context had me looking up modern and older maps in order to take his words and translate them to places he had been in America and abroad. When it came to his involvement in the Spanish-American War I spent some time learning about the Philippines. I also researched places of importance in the British Isles and France during the time of World War I.

Craigie’s spelling became especially difficult to interpret as he entered his World War I chapter. He seemed to enjoy throwing in some French words here and there, as well as referring to French places. I was getting lost with that research and enlisted the help of my sister, Kelly McFarland-Sellers. Her background in French helped me resolve what he was trying to say.

What I left out of my manuscript were his repetitions. Keeping in mind, this had never before gotten beyond draft form; Craigie was very good at repeating himself. Not wanting to bore the readers, I started to chop a lot of the repeats; especially the clichés, although I didn’t feel it was my right to drop the cliché entirely from his book. It was part of his style and a more acceptable part of his era than ours.

As far as photographs go, I ended up choosing only one, and that is the one of Craigie which was used on the cover of the book, in uniform, with his abundant, white, shell-shock hair. For some reason, the family pictures of Charles with my great-grandmother Lula Belle, in the end, didn’t seem appropriate for the public book.

As you can see, sometimes something as simple as finding your own story can help other see a piece of history they would not have known.  As it happens, Connie’s little book has made it into the top 20 of Amazon’s Hot new Releases in Military/Veterans!  Touch the past, and find the future.

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf (and a movie or two), My Bookshelf ~ Current times, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Reflections ~ an Afterword to Who I Am Yesterday

I am working on a few bits and pieces to add to a re-release of my book:  Who I Am Yesterday.    These, of course, are more interpretive and give you insight to my thoughts, my day to day amazement and sadness.

I ponder, at times
Just how you’d feel
If you knew the person,
The you that is now.

I know there’d be anger,
Frustration, rebellion
Is there then wisdom
In the theft of your mind?

I know that you’re lost,
Unsure, confused.
Thus I shudder to think
What you’d do if you knew.

Locked in your mind,
Fighting to learn
Each simple task
Just to show you still can.

Wanting to go
Somewhere to work
To contribute or die
Yet still locked in your mind.

You reach so hard
For the things you’ve lost
The appointment forgotten
The trip you won’t take

Yet you remain focused
Many hours each day
On your books, your papers
Your unfinished works

I’m never quite sure
How the anger you’ve known
Stays locked beneath
This man you’ve become

And yet your love for me
Still finds some way
To whomever I am
Each hour each day

In the dead of the night
I lie awake
Craving what was
Yet grasping the now

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Filed under Authored Works, Caregiving Backstage, Personal Journeys

Conveying Important Truths ~ By Telling a Story

As a writer of primarily nonfiction, I am often confronted with the need to explain a conclusion I arrived at without making the reader feel as though I am pushing some ideology or agenda.  I want to provide food for thought; not pronouncements.  Many guides on writing will tell you that the way to engage the reader is to present them with something of humanity, some changing moment, some conquest, or some goal.  So, even in nonfiction, we have what we call a character arc or something similar that moves your concept from idea to conclusion.  In order to accomplish this feat with historical people, the author needs to be able to pick and choose relevant individuals (and facts) from the time period in question, or from persons somehow connected to the events or their interpretation.  Then these personalities can be used to convey the different points of view and how such views might resolve into the conclusion the author wishes to explore.

I am in the midst of such a process in my current work, Why Me ~ Come Let Us Reason With Job.  In order to make sure that I keep my text on point and not overwhelm the reader with an unnecessary gaggle of participants, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the issue with a fiction writer that I respect.  Particularly someone who deals with moral growth in her characters.  How, exactly, does she plot a character arc and can I use some of the same tools in selecting the supporting cast to my central figure?  The author I chose is Dianne Lynn Gardner who is both an author and an artist.  She has two books available in her series:  Deception Peak and The Dragon Shield.  This is how she responded to my questions.


I believe that character arc is one of the most important elements of story telling.

Being an author of young adult and middle grade fantasy, my stories are coming of age tales about youths confronted with obstacles they need to overcome. When faced with events and hardships that they are unfamiliar with, their character is going to change. It’s inevitable. I see it in real life, and I use that paradigm in my stories.

I want to take a step back though before I discuss character arc because Victoria posed the question: “How do your characters develop deeper morals without being preachy.”

During my most recent period of studying the art of writing I was introduced to John Truby’s instructional The Anatomy of Story. I was deeply impressed with his system because it was the only book I’ve come across (note– I haven’t read them all) that actually talked about theme and moral development as a plumb line in a story.  I highly recommend it. After reading his book, I interpreted his ideas and formed my own blueprint for story writing.

This technique requires planning and is one reason I don’t thoroughly believe in writing by the ‘seat of my pants.’ (I think that’s the term many authors use). Since I really want to say something important in my stories, (writing for me is a form of inner expression) I must design the plot and conflict from the ground up.

1-2012-12-30 15.51.52For visual learners such as me, (I am an artist after all) the process begins by drawing a line in the center of our paper and giving it a name of some moral importance.  This might be Honor, honesty, integrity, or something along those lines. Then we take our characters, protagonists, antagonists and all their sidekicks and decide where each of those individuals stand in relation to that line. Are they indifferent? Do they care deeply?  Which side do they stand on and how close are they to the middle? Indifferent would be far away, close would be passionately for or against, near to the line. One side will be negative (such as being loyal to evil) and the other positive. Immediately you can see how conflict will develop between the characters and how the main character will be tested.

This plumb line isn’t the plot. It isn’t an event and it isn’t defined in any obvious way. It’s simply the moral fiber of the story. It weaves in and out of everything that happens. The author is the only one aware of it. He or she sifts it into the story. In fact, the more subtle that “plumb line” remains, the more effective it is in developing the plot.

09-SparklesNow we can talk about that character arc.  As I said earlier, all of the main characters should have some kind of growth. We all do. These people on paper won’t have a semblance of humanity if the trials and tribulations they go through don’t have some kind of persuasion over their ideas and inner being. They might grow backwards, but they will grow.

When I have a character that’s young and I want the story to be a coming of age story I’ll define what I want him to look like at the end of the story. Then I’ll create his personality so that he has to really work to get from point A to point B. I can do the same by first creating his character and giving him something to work toward, but I find it easier to work backwards, or to work toward the middle. I explained this process in another blog post during the tour for The Dragon Shield.

So in conclusion, if you develop your characters so that they are real, and give them goals, and obstacles along the way, always weaving around that plumb line of your story, you won’t come off preachy, and you’ll have meat your readers can chew on!

If you’d like to learn more about Ian and his dragons, check out Dianne’s blog.


Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools