Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Chuck Wendig Writing Challenge: X Meets Y

(originally published April 26, 2015)

Who can resist the X meets Y challenge? Though this week has been absolutely bananatown on the work and home front, I had to make time for Chuck Wendig’s latest writing challenge. It was my only solace of the week. Herewith, a mash-up between Twin Peaks and The Matrix.

After the walls melted away, Ryland stood alone in a forest. A dense fog settled among the tall pines. A soft lapping of water came from the right, but the body of water wasn’t visible. A crow cawed in the distance, ahead of her on the wide path.

Gone was the labyrinth of skyscrapers she had known all her life. The absence of sirens disoriented her. Ryland turned slowly in a circle. The portal was gone as well. So jarring was the sensation that she wasn’t sure which world was real—the one she believed she was a resident of, or this one, rich in earthy smells with soft ground beneath her feet.

The lone call of a crow came again, this time more urgent than before. Though she couldn’t see it, Ryland was certain it was aware of her presence.

“Damn her for talking me into this,” she said.

Only minutes ago, she was meeting Wren, an old friend, in a bodega near the theater district. She wanted to go clubbing. Wren had other plans.

“You need to help me,” she implored. “I’m trapped between two worlds. I don’t know how much time I have here. Everything flickers—then I’m suddenly elsewhere.”

Ryland reacted calmly. The virtual reality business was a 3-trillion-dollar industry, consuming all forms of media, and all too many impressionable people were overly susceptible to its lures.

Despite safety measures to alert those unable—or reluctant—to come out of a virtual world, many people disabled the alarms on their own devices, preferring to neglect their own needs, often resulting in death. Regulators shrugged off the reports of disturbing trends in starvation and neglect. The benefits were too great—a pacified population and enormous profits. “People should be free to make their own decisions,” they said. “We aren’t in the business of being a nanny state.”

“It’s a portal to the multiverse,” Wren said, sliding the device across the table where they unwrapped their sandwiches.

Ryland rolled her eyes. “So says the ad campaign.”

And yet here she was. It was unlike any VR experience she ever had.

When the crow called again, she began to walk down the path. The fog enhanced the scent of pine needles and moist earth. The scant park in the city was nothing like this. Those trees are fake anyway. Pollution had long since choked plant life into extinction.

The path rounded a corner. Long benches made of split logs stood to the side of the path. A crow swooped down and landed on a nearby tree stump. It regarded her with its head tilted to one side.

When she blinked, the crow had transformed into a tall man wearing a silver suit. His black hair was combed to the side. His grin was wolfish, and his eyes seemed to reveal a cosmos that lay beyond this world. “It’s about time you arrived,” he said in a mellifluous voice.

Ryland cast a skeptical eye over the handsome man’s figure. “Who are you?”

“Your host,” he said. He bowed deeply, sweeping one arm out as if to hold a top hat.

“What’s your name?”

“Ah, well…people find it easier to name what they don’t know on their own terms. Being presented with a title puts many people off.” He paused mid-bow. “I am at your service, however you choose to name me.”

Ryland stopped short of using her favorite swear words. She bit her lip, the unease of this world sinking into her skin and to her very marrow. The beauty of the forest darkened with a creeping fear. The man staring at her didn’t waver.

Unwilling to come up with a name for the crow who apparently transformed into a man, she decided to change the subject. “What am I supposed to be doing here?”

“Didn’t the little bird tell you?”

“Little bird? Oh. Wren.” Ryland smiled in spite of herself.

The man nodded.

“What is happening to her?”

“The answers cannot be revealed outside of the cabin.”

“What cabin?”

When Ryland next blinked, the man was gone. The crow paused on the tree stump next to the bench and flapped its wings. It cawed once and flew down the path. She had no choice but to follow.

The disorienting feeling of being in such a remote place was amplified by the fog. Movies never had the sounds of the forest. There was always dialogue and music. Things rustling in the distance and branches clicking together high above rattled her nerves. Her mysterious shape-shifting host had disappeared, but she was certain he observed her every move. He’s probably in my head, too.

The path wound down to the right, bringing her closer to the water. A crescent of mirror-gray water appeared. Most of the lake was obscured by trees and fog. A low cabin, shaded by trees, rested next to the lake. The cabin was weathered and sagging slightly. Its shuttered windows revealed nothing within.

Ryland approached, stepping onto the porch with trepidation. She put her ear to the door. Strange sounds from behind the door were faint.

The door swung inward. A young boy wearing dark sunglasses held it open, waving her inside with a sense of urgency. “Don’t let the light in,” he said. “And don’t let the truth out.” His sandy blond hair was combed to the side, and he wore an outfit that reminded Ryland of films from the early twentieth century.

As Ryland entered the one-room cabin, she saw Wren, who was dressed in the fashions popular in the city where they grew up—clothes for clubbing—black boots and a purple-blue dress with a black vest. Wren sat in a leather chair, arms straight along the armrests. Her eyes were closed.

The cabin door closed behind her. The room darkened. A bare lightbulb danged from the center of the ceiling. When Ryland came to stand in the center of the room, it began to flicker erratically.

The shape-shifting host in the silver suit leaned in the corner of the room, picking his teeth. “Ah, she’s here. Very good. You see that, son? Have a little faith in the ways of chaos.”

“The ways of chaos?” Ryland asked.

The boy put his finger to his lips. “Shh. Learn your place.”

She scowled at him and went to kneel by her friend. “Are you okay?”

The horror sank in. Wren’s wrists and ankles were bound by iron shackles. Ryland shook her by the shoulders. “Wren!” There was no response.

The lightbulb continued to flicker—maddeningly, incessantly.

Obscured by an increasing volume of static, jazz from a bygone era filled the air. Shadows danced along the walls.

“Why are you doing this?” shouted Ryland. “What are you doing to her?”

“Time for the truth?” asked her enigmatic host with a wry smile. “Life is energy.” Shadows flickered over his silver suit. “Energy must be directed to secure the portals. You see, my dear, no reality is real…and yet, all realities are real.”

“So she was right about the multiverse.”

“Indeed. You see so few universes with your technology, but we’re working to change that.”


The host stood and straightened his lapels. “The virtual reality industry, of course! Silly girl. Try to keep up. Some realities are more predatory than others, but all entities must sustain themselves and their worlds. We reach in, we take what we need.”

Ryland shook her friend by the shoulders again. “Wren, wake up. We have to leave.”

Wren’s eyes snapped open. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. Her eyes were windows into an endless cosmos. Wren’s voice blended in with the jazz. The static cleared momentarily to let the lyrics though. Let your heart go and let it drift/Clear the shoals or your soul falls in a rift/The void takes all and each precious moment is a gift

The static rose and devoured the words. Wren’s mouth closed and the jazz continued without lyrics. Her eyes stared sightlessly ahead.

“The little bird is gone,” the boy said in a lilting tone.

Ryland sank to the floor and cowered at her friend’s feet. Rough planks shifted beneath her. Grit coated the palms of her hands. “I want to leave.” Tears crept down her face.

The host swept down and his face hovered in front of her. A smattering of galaxies swirled within his inky-black eyes. “You want to leave?” He sighed, planting his elbows on his thighs as he crouched. “Oh, but where to go? Where, where, where? If you’re trying to hide, understand there is nowhere to go. I’ll let you fly for a while, just like the little bird. But we will always find you. When time runs out…” his mouth made a clicking sound and he snapped his fingers.

The boy behind him chuckled. “Through time, at any distance. We know every place to hide. No one is better at hide and seek.”

The host extended a silver arm and held out an onyx orb to her. “Choose your world, but choose wisely.

An Evening with Laurie Anderson

(originally published April 12, 2015)

1982: My mom comes home from work, raving about a song she heard on the radio. The next album we purchase is Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, and so begins a lifelong fascination with unusual music for me. I was probably the only preteen in the audience for the concert we went to that year. I had no one to talk to about this kind of music/performance art outside of family. At dinner, we listened to Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Shadowfax, and a host of obscure New Wave/New Age LPs that are still an important part of the “soundtrack of my life.” Kids in school were bonkers about light pop like the Culture Club and an array of big hair bands. Laurie Anderson made me feel welcome in an alien world, though even at the time, I understood it wasn’t an alien world at all. Her performances were about our world, seen through keen observation, wit, and a tremendous amount of creativity.

As a family, we went to her concerts whenever possible. I can’t tally the number, but it was a lot. We went to French films and my dad and I revered every Werner Herzog film we could find. Being a teen raised in an alternative cultural environment shaped who I am today, as a writer, an artist, and someone who loves an unusual view of the world.

Laurie Anderson is enchanting on stage. When I saw she was giving the Louis C. Elson Lecture at Harvard, I was determined to go, regardless of my intense schedule. Honestly, she can talk about making grilled cheese sandwiches and it turns into an amazing tale. She has a dedicated following, and I swear, even after all these years, I still recognize the regulars from the audience. We never spoke, but certain people stand out. It’s a silent inner circle that gathers to appreciate one of the most amazing artists of our time.

She opened by polling the audience about their own interests: who’s a musician, who’s a painter, who’s a writer. She preferred “multimedia artist,” because it prevents the “art police” from pigeonholing her. And really, it’s impossible to do so. She only considers herself “a dedicated amateur musician.” She’s a master of storytelling. She sees the stories within a stories, and talked about a childhood diving accident that sent her to the hospital with a broken back. She was put in the burn unit, and the dark nights with were filled with tears and sounds of suffering. Over the years, the body and memory change and cleanse some of that imagery, and it took her decades to realize some of the empty beds she woke up to were the result of children dying in the night. The creepiest parts of then stories are the ones that go forgotten for time, she said. And as Anderson puts pieces of them together, and even the saddest or most disturbing of stories have a positive note. It’s part of her philosophy of life.

Anderson described her early years as a “self-righteous minimalist,” who delighted in creating spare components of performances. Though it was never explained to me growing up, this concept clicked with me as she talked about stage design for her concerts. The epic concert film Home of the Brave is probably the best example. People dot the stage in small groups or individually. Some wear costumes. Others move in an erratic dance. A film of animation and/or words plays in the background. There is dance, lighting, movement, none of which seems to fit together in a linear way. It’s all part of her master plan. Everyone has their own rhythm, she said. You have your own way of constructing stories, and you put together the components in a way that suits you best. It was an epiphany that tied together years of seeing her performances. Whether you watched the musicians, the shadows of people on the screen, or to see what unique item she’d use in the center of the stage—be it a glowing violin or goggles with lights like high beams, there is no one precious single meaning she wants you to take away from it. It’s all about how you want to enjoy what she offers.

Experimentation takes many forms, and “I appreciate the feeling of not being sure.” Getting out of your niche is key. She plays with tones and pitches of voices. Anderson has created countless films and art installations where the experience of sound is the feature of the work. “I love broken things,” she said as she described the studios where she uses old analog equipment and digital technology to fuse styles into experimental works. She used carpenter’s level to create a speaker system, depending on how it was tilted, you heard a male voice, female voice, or both. When setting up for a performance once, she told the crew to use the most broken-looking but functional equipment they could find. A photo of a keyboard and decrepit microphone stand that looked like it was set up in an old basement appeared on the screen behind her. “I loved it,” she said.

Ever the traveler, Anderson shares a wealth of experience from installations and performances around the world. Her stint as the first (and only) resident artist for NASA illuminated the connection between art and science. Truth and beauty are much more present in science than most people realize, she explained. Even Einstein didn’t accept some of his own theories because they were not beautiful enough.

Though she had many things she wanted to talk about, and surely the audience would have gladly spent the entire evening with her, time ran short. She shuffled her notes and decided which stories she wanted to tell the most before she opened it up to the audience for questions.

When asked about collaborations, she talked about working with Peter Gabriel on “Excellent Birds.” Each respective version has its own bass because they couldn’t agree on one together, she said. A perceptive member of the audience noted how a portion of one of her stories reminded him of Spalding Gray. She nodded, acknowledging they were close friends. “I’d like to think we keep the people we lost in the back of our minds,” she said. “You don’t lose the texture of someone’s voice.”

With time being finite, one person asked, how do you decide on what to work on with so many varied interests? The first criteria, she explained, is “Is it fun?” It’s best to enjoy as much as you can. Have the best time doing whatever it is at the moment. Everything else falls into place. “I choose to believe in progress because it makes for a happier life,” she said.

I walked home feeling lighter. It had been a stressful few months, and that brief session made me feel so much better. Art heals, it helps us reflect and learn, and while the pieces of the story shift, as she demonstrated with great eloquence, the story is ours according to how we want to make it. As I enter a new era of my own, I’m deeply appreciative for the artsy life my parents gave me, and that I’ve been able to carry this particular treasure with me for more than three decades. Laurie Anderson’s amazing work has become part of me too, and like her friend Spalding Gray, you never lose the texture of voices, and for that, I’m eternally grateful. 

The Oathkeeper’s Forge

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via Flickr CC2.0

[Originally published December 18, 2014: It’s been quite a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing challenges. One of them even produced the final three pages to my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. The randomized titles are among my favorite challenges, and when the d20 gave me “The Oathkeeper’s Forge,” it felt epic. Could’ve been 150,000 words instead of 1,500!]

The sounds of the forge comforted Mattias. He couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t feel like home. His parents laughed and said he was born of it. Now grizzled and beset with a raspy voice from decades of breathing coal dust, Mattias demonstrated his best techniques to his apprentice.

“Why are we here at midnight?” Sylvi asked.

“The oathkeeper’s work is done at night.”

“But you work during the day all the time.”

“That’s regular blacksmith work. This is oathkeeper’s work. Don’t they teach history in schools anymore?” Mattias sighed and drew his gloved hand across his sweating brow. “Yours is a lost generation.”

Sylvi kicked at the loose dirt around the stonework wall of the forge. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”

Mattias smirked. “You’re an oathkeeper’s apprentice. If you don’t know our traditions, then how can you be expected to carry out our laws? I ought to send you back to your family.”
Her head snapped up and she started at him with wide eyes. “I was just kidding. The oathkeeper works at midnight because the Pact of the Four Moons was signed then. ‘The oathkeepers shall protect the land and its people, as guided by the gods and their sentinels on ArĂșon. They are the king’s guard and chosen among the best warriors in Gallixia—may it rule as long as the Jynghast Mountains that embrace it stand.’”

Mattias nodded, placated for the moment. “You’re not a total loss. I guess I don’t have to send you back just yet. Diligence, my girl. Without it, the oathkeepers are weak. It counts for far more than physical strength. Mind that before I cast you out.”

Sylvi’s jaw dropped. She clutched the hammer with both hands and said nothing.
The upturned curl of a smile and glimmer in his eye belied the threat. He winked.
Sylvi sighed and loosened her grip on the hammer. The high arch at the forge’s entrance revealed a clear night sky. A dragon with crimson wings flew from the open plains to the east toward the mountains. “If forging this sword is a secret, then why are we out here in the open? Won’t people see? Isn’t there a secret forge for oathkeeper’s work?”

Mattias shook his head. “The king ordered us to war.” The word king was said with bitter venom. “We work day and night—so the story goes. Now see here, my fine apprentice. Temper the blade so near the hilt. What we do at this stage is critical—temper it too much, and the blade will be brittle and we may as well be charged with murder when the sword falls apart, leaving our warriors surprised and open to attack.”

Sylvi bit her lip. A troubled thought fluttered in her mind. She was grateful for the spray of fiery sparks to conceal her expression as Mattias plunged a massive awl into the coals.
She stared at the blade. Her mentor forged it with such grace and skill; the same hands would wield it for one purpose and one purpose only. The Oathkeeper’s Paradox—when protecting the land and its people meant assassinating the king.

The steel glowed hot. Ash swirled within tendrils of smoke as Mattias turned the blade over the coals. “Almost ready,” he said. “Prepare the cool down.”

Sylvi dropped the hammer she’d been fidgeting with and moved to pour the water in the trough. She murmured a prayer to Setakir, the sentinel of fire, as Mattias lowered the sword into the water.

Mattias peered at her through the billowing clouds of steam. “What’s the matter?”

Sylvi shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”

“To do what?”

She struggled to say the words. “To…change who is in power.”

Mattias scowled through the dissipating steam. “You can’t be serious.”

“What if it leads to civil war?”

“We plan for everything. This is not a situation we take lightly. You kids. Always thinking we elders are too daft to do anything. The oathkeepers have existed for more than eight centuries. In that time, we’ve forged twelve blades for the Oathkeeper’s Paradox. Each sword only used once. Each one hangs in the chantry behind this forge, and as each one was placed on the wall behind the altar, we prayed another wouldn’t have to be forged.” Mattias grabbed the hilt and turned the blade over in the water.

“He’s not even our real king,” Sylvi said, pulling her honey-colored hair out of a ponytail to redo it. Her hair was damp with sweat. The ponytail redone, she wiped her hands on her leather apron. “Does he even deserve the respect of our traditions at all?”

“You mean why can’t we just execute him like he was a common criminal?”

Sylvi shrugged again.

Mattias pulled the sword out of the trough and rested it on the workbench. “Respect for the order of succession. True, Vrenkai is not from Gallixia, but King Domarr passed succession onto his father before he died. Domarr welcomed Varus as an ally and wanted Gallixia to have the protection of the new empire. Varus was an admirable ruler and he became as Gallixian as you or I. Everyone accepted him, and we were honored to bury him with full honors as befits one of our own kings when he died. Terrible tragedy that. His son isn’t worthy to lick his boots. Vrenkai is greedy and cruel. Like some gods-forsaken evil emperor in a tale told to children. As much as the new empire could have helped us when Varus was alive, it’s time to shed ourselves of its influence and return Gallixia to its old ways. As far as the Oathkeeper’s Paradox is concerned, this is one blade with a unique story. To kill a ruler from another land.”

“Why not have one of the dragons eat him?” Sylvi said.

“They don’t want to be involved in this. Besides,” he said with a wink, “Vrenkai’s blood is so filled with hatred it’s turned to poison. Don’t want to harm one of the dragons, do we? They have better things to do anyway—like watch the eastern border for enemies. We’re at a vulnerable time with broken leadership. Now please fetch the cleaning kit, will you?”
Sylvia crossed the room and grabbed the cleaning kit from the toolbench. The cool air in the shadows felt strange after being so close to the forge. She took a moment to breathe, taking in the meticulous organization of blacksmithing tools—awls ordered by size, and fittings separated by type in earthenware jars.

When she turned around, she paused. What she saw was too shocking to make sense. Mattias stood, arms out and bending back and an unnatural angle. A red stain spread over the front of his shirt, the tip of a broadsword emerged through his ribcage near his heart. Behind him stood Vrenkai.

He leaned in to talk close to Mattias’s ear. “You didn’t think I’d find out about your traitorous cult, did you? I’m going to behead you with your oathkeeper’s blade and display your skull at the city gate. This is the end to your cult.”

Red bubbles issues from Mattias’s mouth. His hand twitched as if to point to Sylvi. Their eyes locked.

She couldn’t let Vrenkai have the sword.

Eventually—she would. When she plunged it into his heart.

There was no time for that now. The emperor’s guards rushed into the room.

Sylvi sprinted out from the shadows. A prayer to the sentinel of the air increased her speed. She leapt up to the workbench by the forge and grabbed the oathkeeper’s sword.
Vrenaki struggled to shove Mattias’s body away as he tried to release the sword from it. 

“Get her!” he shouted, and the guards gave chase as Sylvi’s own heart pounded.

She ran down the street. Cutting into an alley, she crouched behind a stack of empty mead barrels and removed some twine from her toolbelt, then the belt itself. She secured the sword to the belt, then looped the belt over her shoulder and across her torso. Jumping from behind the barrels, she climbed the trellis up to the roof of the meadery.

The emperor’s guards ran through the streets, sounding the alarm for the city guards to join them.

Sylvi clambered over the rooftops, grateful that the buildings were in the business distract and closed for the night. She made her way to an abandoned building and stared. No—they’ll rip every abandoned place apart to the last splinter looking for me. I have to leave the city.

She huddled in an alcove under a chimney on a nearby roof. After an hour or so, let them fan out, then I’ll find my way out. Maybe I can ride in an empty mead barrel in a cart going out to Ironwell Falls.

It was going to be a long night. She gazed up at the four moons—the domains of the gods—and affirmed an oath to keep of her own. 

Lost and Found: A Writer’s Guide to Navigation

(originally published November 16, 2014) 

Every so often, an event comes along that is incredibly interesting and while it has nothing in particular to do with a novel I’m working on, I know the notes I’ll take will find their way into my writing—sometime. The Radcliffe Institute’s science symposium about navigation, Lost and Found, is a perfect example.

In a word—this symposium was intense. It started out with presentations on neuroscience. One of the more accessible portions was the work of Eleanor Maguire, who studied the growth of the hippocampus in taxi drivers from training onward through their careers. As a result of memorizing London’s 25,000 streets, the hippocampus grew, and MRIs revealed brain activity as the drivers planned and dealt with unexpected obstacles using a simulation program. Upon retirement, the hippocampus began to shrink, and returned to average size within two to three years. Maguire’s research further demonstrated that people who say they have a poor sense of direction typically fall into a category of people who are able to recognize landmarks, but are unable to place them on a map. In contrast, people who find their way around well were able to draw detailed maps after playing a video game called Fog World. Maguire won an IgNobel award for her research in 2003. Though the IgNobels make light of a lot of research, there was also a good deal of appreciation for what she had discovered about brain function and the ability to navigate.

What followed were presentations on animal navigation and anthropological studies of migrations of people living in the South Pacific; then we were on to two of the most interesting lectures: lost person behavior, and navigation in outer space.

It was these afternoon sessions I found a lot of inspiration as a writer. Professor Richard Feinberg talked about the different types of tools used by cultures: the Carolinian star compass, the wind compass, star paths, and so on. Whether you’re portraying a real human culture and need your seafaring characters to know the trade winds as they cross the ocean, or characters in a fantasy world are trying to determine how to find their way to a land they’ve only heard about in legend, there were a lot of great details that could help shape how your characters journey in known and unknown lands.

The most dynamic presentation of the day was about lost person behavior. There are tons of novels and movies about people being lost, or trying to find someone. Did you know there is a database of more than 100,000 people that characterizes their behavior based on the data collected by search and rescue teams?

After obtaining information about all the wheres: Is it known where the person went? Have they been lost before. If so, where were they found? Where have other people been found if they have been lost in the same area? Is the person a hiker, angler, mushroom forager, or straying child? Once an initial planning point (IPP) has been determined, such as where the person’s abandoned bicycle was found, search efforts begin in earnest. The person’s cognitive abilities provide a wealth of detail that help search and rescue teams: Alzheimer’s patients tend to stick within 15 meters of roads or paths, and usually stop wandering in a short time. Autistic children are often drawn to light, water, and reflective surfaces. There are distinct patterns that emerge ass data continues to be collected. There are specific phases f being lost: (1) The error at the Decision Point, (2) terrain analysis, (3) confirmation bias, or “bending the map,” where people ignore the obvious signs they’re on the wrong track and are convinced they know where they’re going, (4) phase of anxiety, (5) realization of being lost, and (6) the self-rescue strategy, of which there are many.

Self-rescue strategies involve everything from deciding to stay in a straight line to finding contour paths that reach a wider area, or, staying put and hoping to be found. And over the years, statistics have changed due to technology. In the past, most hikers headed down, with only a few staying at the same elevation, and a good percentage heading up to get a view of the vista in order to find the best path out. Now many hikers head up to a higher elevation to find cell phone service.

These known patterns help establish several strategies for finding people, and the maps of probability are based on these behaviors. Robert J. Koester, the presenter of this amazing information, has written several books on the subject. If being lost is at the heart of your plot, you may want to seek these books out to make the lost person’s behavior, and that of the rescue team’s, more realistic.

The final session of the day was perfect fodder for sci-fi fans. With the study of pulsars, we have learned that they can serve as a sort of GPS. In fact, the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes carry plaques suggested by Carl Sagan, to serve as a beacon to show any spacefaring alien life the way to Earth. (Of course, if you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you know this could be a very bad idea, if the Volgons show up to read their poetry before blasting your planet into pieces to build a galactic superhighway.)

The solar system at the bottom of the plaque is obvious. But the star-like graph to the left? It maps 14 pulsars that were known at the time of the plaque’s creation, and they position Earth at the center. Presenter George Hobbs talked about how time and position could theoretically be used as a GPS system in space, if a ship could map at least 4 pulsars. It was fascinating to think of how this could be used in fiction. My fourth novel does have space travel in it, but only as far out as Mars and the asteroid belt. But thinking about using pulsars as a means of navigation made me want to send my characters out even further into the galaxy.

I’ve always been a strong supporter of continuing education, and believe it’s a key component for writers, regardless of genre or writing style. There is a traditional image of writers being sequestered away in their garrets, writing manically and producing book after book. But for practicality’s sake, many of us need careers to support our craft. Publishing houses offer little in the way of advances for a vast majority of authors, and even in the indie world, being discovered by readers on a scale of being able to live off the royalties is a challenge. Indeed, there are those who say authors need to be connected to the world—the awesome blog run by the Alliance of Independent Authors made this point recently.

There are endless, free resources out there for authors to use. And symposia such as these are of immense benefit to all kinds of writers. 

How Wonder Woman Got Into Harvard

(originally published November 3, 2014)

Jill Lepore is one of those people who can expertly, yet completely organically, engage an audience. Her off-the-cuff speaking style and sheer exuberance is charming. Her lectures are fraught with details that sometimes flow at high speed, and reactions from the audience are frequent and often accompanied by gasps and bursts of laughter. The crowd gathered last week at the Radcliffe Institute for her presentation on her latest work, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Harvard man William Moulton Marsten is the inventor of the lie detector. So is there a connection between his pursuit of finding the truth and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth? Indeed. There are many links to Marsten’s life and the heroine who joined the Justice League in the early 1940s. Strongly influenced by the aims of the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, Dr. Marsten created the character of Wonder Woman with specific goals in mind. She was to “set a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations, and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women in all fields of human activity,” according to the press release from 1940. An expert in psychology, he sought to create psychological propaganda for the new type of woman.

Harvard peppers his story. Called “Holliday College,” Wonder Woman storms the gates time and again in the early years of the comic. Many sources were used to produce Wonder Woman’s backstory. Some inspiration is partially derived from the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prolific writer and advocate for women’s rights. When viewing art that inspired the comic, a strong correlation is drawn to artist Lou Rogers, who drew many illustrations for the cause of women’s right to vote. In Wonder Woman’s early adventures, being bound in chains was a frequent plot device. Seeing portrayals of her bursting from the chains with broken links flying out attached to words like “prejudice, prudery, and man’s superiority” had a dramatic effect, one which has unfortunately been lost over the decades with the death of Dr. Marsten and his replacement making Wonder Woman a much more docile figure.
Parallels to the suffragette movement are seen throughout the comics. White horses became a symbol of the movement, particularly when Inez Milholland led a procession in 1913, tiara and all. What followed were frequent images of Wonder Woman riding a white horse, championing a range of causes for the 1940s audience. She was an activist for a progressive era, and she also fought corruption—and many of the issues she spoke out against reflect many of the issues we see today—corporate monopolies, unfair systems, and so on.

Researching Dr. Marsten’s was a delicate business for Lepore, due to his unconventional lifestyle. The family protected many of the details over the years. After graduation with his bachelor’s from Harvard, he married sweetheart Elizabeth Holloway. As a professor at Tufts University, he fell in love with Olive Byrne, and the three became involved in a polyamorous relationship that cost him his career in academia. He later served as an advisor for Universal Pictures, helping them gauge the level of fear a movie-going audience could take with their outpouring of horror films that seem to campy to us today. The threesome had 4 children in total, two by each woman, and Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together for more than four decades after Marsten’s death in 1947.

With the introduction of Olive in his life, the feminist influence grew even stronger. Her mother and aunt, Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, co-founded the birth control rights movement. When Ethel went on a hunger strike (for talking about birth control broke obscenity laws), a deal was made with Margaret so Ethel could be released. This early effort to raise the issue of birth control eventually became Planned Parenthood.

As World War II raged, the Justice League fought the Axis powers and became a central theme to many comics. Once the war was over, a multitude of comics foundered and went out of business. Some later were reinvented in later decades as the comic world grew. But Wonder Woman was always there, though her ascent was a bit bumpy at first. When she first joined the League, she was a mere secretary, signing the letters of membership for kids who signed up. But once she gained momentum, she was a force to be reckoned with, and had no time for marriage.

Wonder Woman’s story took a dramatic decline after Dr. Marsten’s death. When Elizabeth and Olive offered to continue to the story, they were told on no uncertain terms by DC Comics that ladies couldn’t be involved in comics. The job was handed to new writers, who watered down her activist persona and made her much softer, and all doe-eyed over Steve Trevor, the pilot she helps when he crashed on Paradise Island in the first portion of the story. A revamping in the 1960s made her style groovier, but it was clear she had lost her way as a feminist powerhouse. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better.

Jill Lepore commented on recent Wonder Woman comics, and how, much like a lot of entertainment these days, is glorified violence and little substance in terms of character. Despite the overwhelming slew of movies based on comics, with several on Batman and Superman, sadly, they’ve been slow to put Wonder Woman on the docket. And as awesome blogs such as The Mary Sue and i09 show point out, our heroine is even left off the toy shelf sometimes, as can be seen in this Target display, where she’s not to be found at all among the members of the Justice League. While I haven’t read The Secret History of Wonder Woman yet, the title occupies a top slot in my list of books to dig into soon. Knowing Lepore’s brilliance in research, this will prove to be a fascinating read.

Leaving the lecture, I wondered what Dr. Marsten would have thought if he had known that the heated discussions of his day are ongoing, and even sliding backward. Wonder Woman’s legacy should be more than a tantalizing outfit or besotted gazing at Steve Trevor. She stood for something of immense value—the belief that little girls could grow up and achieve anything. Today’s political discourse about women is horrifying. Amplifying women’s roles in entertainment and culture is a key step in changing that, and it’s time to put Wonder Woman on that white horse again and march her down Main Street, USA, and indeed, across the world, to make for a better future. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

An Interview with T. S. Chaudry about The Queen of Sparta

If you’re into historical fiction and have a penchant for the ancient world and classical history, The Queen of Sparta is an excellent account of the Persian Wars from the view of the formidable Spartan Queen Gorgo. I recently had the opportunity to interview the author, T. S. Chaudhry, about the book, and the meticulous research that makes this portrayal so rich. 

Out of all the figures who are described in the works of Herodotus, what was it about Gorgo that inspired you to focus on her?
The whole idea behind the Queen of Sparta came to me when I first read Herodotus. I read his Histories as a teenager when I was preparing to take my ‘A’ level exams in England. Herodotus paints a vivid and romantic picture of how a relatively small number of Greeks managed to defeat a two million-strong Persian invasion. However, he provides us with no direct answers as to how the Greek resistance was organized and by whom. Leonidas could have been a candidate for this but he dies relatively early in the struggle. The Athenians Themistocles or Aristeides could have organized it but the former is shown by Herodotus as a brilliant tactical trickster rather than a strategic genius and the latter is, at the time, a discredited politician who carries little weight in his native Athens, let alone the rest of Greece. And there was no other significant male personality to lead the Greeks. So it had to be a woman, and in a patriarchal Greece, she had to play her role behind the scenes. And Herodotus provides us with ample clues about her: the little girl who prevented her father from making a blunder by warning him against the temptations being offered by a Miletan tyrant; and the young Queen who could find a secret message where the brightest in minds in Sparta could not – a woman who clearly impressed Herodotus.  The Persians could have still won the war but they did not because someone was orchestrating the resistance.  Reading in between the lines of Herodotus, I had no doubt that that person could have been none other than Queen Gorgo.

What were the defining moments in describing Gorgo in the story that helped you conceptualize her as a character?  
 In the history of the Persian Wars there are key events like the Ionian Revolt, the battle of Marathon, and the Persian invasions, where the Spartans behaved in certain, some might even say peculiar, ways. They refused to support the Ionian Greeks in their revolt even though a generation earlier they liked to portray themselves as their allies and protectors. The Spartans delayed their arrival at Marathon at a time when shying away from any battle was considered characteristically un-Spartan. And then whole sequence of how the Persians were slowed down, split up and finally defeated presented more questions than answers. And for me the only explanation to all these recorded historic moments was Gorgo. I conceptionalized her as person who did things a little unorthodoxly, especially in a place like Sparta where strict conformity was the rule, if not the only rule. Her non-conformity comes out both in her personality and in her physical appearance.  

Today, we would call Gorgo a person who thinks outside the box and the box in Sparta was pretty solid and confining.  By thinking outside the box she her save Greece, she challenges long-held Spartan attitude towards their Helot slaves, and appreciates Sherzada’s viewpoints.  Even though she can be ruthless, she has a strong moral fibre that makes her stand up for what she thinks is right. She is at her best in moments of crisis, when her back was against the wall; and becomes the very picture of grace under pressure. That is the image I hope the readers will also see.

The meticulous research is evident throughout the novel, and in particular, the detail on ancient warfare is excellent. One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is integrating research with the plot and the characters. How do you achieve that balance?

The most difficult part of writing this novel was that the plot had largely been defined by history. I could not tell a credible story about a real Spartan Queen without deviating too much from what history had recorded about Gorgo and her times. And, indeed, initially the plot was so restrictive that some of those who read the earlier versions of the manuscript encouraged me to drop the entire project. But the more I read the history of the period, the more I became aware of the many gaps in our historical knowledge. This enabled me to narrate a story without actually changing any of the historical facts. For example, there is no record of what happens to Gorgo and her son after the defeat of the Persians allowing me sufficient scope to develop the story the way I wanted to.

The vast majority of the characters in the novel are indeed non-fictional and I had to restrict myself largely to their respective historical roles and stories. But again, gaps in recorded history enabled me to create a few entirely fictional characters, especially the main male protagonist, Sherzada. Some of my readers might find him unbelievable but he was not at all anachronistic. Modern historical research and evidence supports the notion of travel and contacts between peoples over vast geographical distances.  Herodotus himself attests to long distance contacts. In fact, Sherzada’s journey to the Baltics is largely based on Herodotus’ own description – werewolf included.

Contacts between South Asia and Greece in particular were not unusual. People born in the Indus Valley died fighting for the Persian Empire in the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. and in later battle against the Greeks as they were to die fighting for the British Empire in the Battle of the Marne in 1918 and both the World Wars.  Nor is the character of Sherzada out of sync with the times. His character is very typical of a warrior of his time.

So the plot emerged through a crazy combination – partly determined by straight-jacket imposed by recorded history and elsewhere from the very large gaps our historical knowledge of the period has left for us.  I am not at all claiming that this story is historically accurate, but it is certainly plausible and it is a story that has not been told before.

In the notes about the book, you cite a quote by Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty” in reference to your choice of providing a view of both sides of the war. At what point in crafting the novel did you decide to develop Sherzada’s character to more evenly balance the points of view?

In fact, Aeschylus makes a cameo appearance in the novel, more as comic relief than anything else, which is ironic because he was more famous in his lifetime for his tragedies.

But you have hit the nail on the head but describing this as an underlying theme of the novel. There are essential two factors which led to the development of Sherzada’s character.

The first goes back to my first reading of Herodotus as a teenager where I saw the whole account of the Persian invasion as being largely one-sided.  To be fair, Herodotus tried to be balanced wherever he could to the extent that another famous historian Plutarch accused him of being a “Barbarian lover.” But I did not see it that way. Though I have been raised partly in the West, I am a Pakistani who is no stranger to subtle ethnocentricities which come out even when Western writers try to be even-handed and objective. So I wanted to be the first non-Western writer to give a non-Western viewpoint to what was a core event in Western history –  perhaps opening myself to the very same criticism in the process.  Initially, the entire story was going to be presented by Sherzada’s point of view but I was sensibly advised that it would be more interesting to have both Gorgo’s and Sherzada’s viewpoints presented in the novel side by side. But then I again, I also wanted to blur the lines between “East” and “West.” That is why I underscore the Greek links with India in the beginning to make the point that Ancient Greek history is as relevant and important to Asia as it is to Europe.

The second factor comes from my personal experience as a scholar and diplomat who had dealt with real life conflicts.  In war zones throughout the world, the veracity of Aeschylus’ quote has been impressed upon time and again. There are rarely conflicts which are black and white. Most conflicts are characterized by (no pun intended) multiple shades of grey. I have worked on peace processes in South Asia, the Balkans, and Africa and I have seen no conflict in which truth has not been the first casualty and no war in which every side, rightly or wrongly, felt they were in the right.  And each side always has its story.  In this case, I felt that another side of the story—though not necessarily a Persian version—needed to be told and the writing of history—even in fictional form—need not always be the prerogative of the victors.

You present an interesting concept with Gorgo’s father—rather than being cast as a mad king, he is transformed as a visionary who practices realpolitik. What inspired this unique portrayal?  
 Throughout history men of vision have been condemned as madmen or worse, the treatment of Galileo being but one example.  I too would have relegated him to the status of a madman, had I noted the amount of ink Herodotus invested in King Cleomenes. For any apparently insignificant, and supposedly mad Spartan King, Herodotus devotes a disproportional number of pages to his exploits. So he was clearly a man our historian took very seriously.  Sparta is not a major power in Greece before Cleomenes, rather it is seen a local rival of Argos.  After Cleomenes, it is suddenly one of the most important states in Greece, if not the most important. So Cleomenes must have done something to make that happen.

Modern research also supports the view that there was more to Cleomenes than what met the eye, though historians even now continue to debate which side of the line dividing genius and madness he was really on. To me, Cleomenes was an eccentric; a weird and wonderful politician who could cut through the fluff and see the reality for what it was. It was not that he was a nice person, in large part he was not. Yet, like many Machiavellian characters he knew how to play the game of realpolitik to deliver the best possible outcome for Sparta.  

What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?
I am currently writing the “prequel” to the Queen of Sparta called “Fennel Field.” It describes the events leading up to the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. (roughly a decade before the period covered in the Queen of Sparta). “Fennel Field” is the literal English translation of the Greek word “Marathon.” Many of the characters of the Queen of Sparta make an appearance in Fennel Field with some of the minor ones playing the major roles and vice versa.

“Fennel Field” is a story of a half a dozen or so individuals, including at least one woman, who are caught up in a chain of events that they cannot control and yet inadvertently end up contributing to the outcome of what has been called by many historians as the first decisive battle in Western history.

The book can be found on Amazon.

(post originally published June 25, 2014) 

The (Wine-Fueled) Journey of a Book Cover

My Muse and I haven’t been on great terms for the past few weeks. With the release of the Shadows of a Fading World anthology and the novelette Captured Possessions, I foundered, even though the third novel is well underway. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to resurface from this artistic void and finish the story. Maybe it was time to move on to something else? I wiled away the hours playing Oblivion and thought about working on other stories. As my husband and mom both pointed out, even Hemingway took a break from time to time. After all, I work full-time, am involved in a number of volunteer activities, and am running the PR for my own imprint. Finally, the characters of the third novel came back to me, even stronger than before. 

In recent weeks, I’ve appeared on Wendy Van Camp’s No Wasted Ink blog, and have become hooked on searching for my family tree on What began as a trip to the town where my great-grandmother grew up has sprouted into a new novel, and while I’m still in early stages of research, it’s brought me a lot closer to my family history—something I didn’t pay much attention to before. 

To be fair to the Muse of Words, in order to release Captured Possessions, I had to come up with a cover, so the Muse of Graphic Design had to take center stage for a while. I had long envisioned a certain image as I worked on the story: Eyes of flame looming in the clouds above a dark sea—either becalmed before or after a storm. I was so certain of this image that I bought the images from a stock photo site. However, when I got around to working with them in PhotoShop, the cover looked nowhere near as good as I had hoped. 
What followed was a lot of silly mayhem. I tested and bought numerous images—some were ridiculous but I couldn’t resist trying them out. Then a new vision struck: at first, I saw a close-up of a galleon’s rigging, the words emblazoned around it. I found several excellent images of galleons from the time of Spain’s war with England. Just as I was about to give up (it being after 1:00 a.m. and there was enough pinot noir to knock out a sailor)—the perfect image appeared. It spoke to the lead character and how alone she felt throughout the journey north to England, as well as showing the abandonment of the ship she was on after it was severely damaged after an explosion from a nearby ship within the armada itself. 
Here’s the story of how I got there: 

If you design book covers, what’s your process like? How drastically different are the covers that come to mind, or do you stick with one image and see it through no matter what? Do you share your ideas out on social media channels to gauge interest (or have contests to help decide), or do you rely on your inner circle of people who know your writing best? Which book covers have you found to be the most striking, and why? 

(post originally published February 23, 2014)