Saturday, June 06, 2009

Hail to the Chief

You may have seen the story about President Barack Obama visiting the pyramids at Giza (guided by no less a luminary than Dr. Zawi Hawass) and joking that a hieroglyph looked just like himself, big ears and all. The resemblance is a bit startling, but Dr. Hawass, Egypt’s head of antiquities, later explained that the symbol, far from being an omen of Obama’s coming, was simply the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “face.” He did admit it resembled the American President.

But even cooler—and, yes, a nerd like me thinks this is all very cool and envies the American leader the tour inside and on a pyramid, if not the problems he faces in the Middle East—even cooler is what that face inscribed by someone dead thousands of years shows about the nature of hieroglyphics themselves, that they are more than picture signs or pictograms. Yes, the face does sometimes stand for “face,” and, in that role, it is called an ideogram. In those cases, the sign would most often be written with a short line under it to show that it is an ideogram, that is, that it symbolizes the thing it looks like.

But Egyptian hieroglyphics are more complex than picture-writing. Signs also stand for sounds and groups of sounds. When it is not representing “face,” the hieroglyph for face stands for the sounds ḥr in words that may be completely unrelated to the concept of an actual face. (Few vowels are represented in hieroglyphic writing, much as if you wrote “building” as bldng. Context helps the reader figure out the writer's meaning.)

If you place the hieroglyphic for face over another hieroglyphic, this one a picture of a head in profile that stands for the sounds tp, you get the word ḥry-tp, which means “chief.”

Yes, President Obama’s face plus a head equals “chief.” Okay, yes, I find that very cool. Nerdwise, of course.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Can Use This

How do writers use their own experiences in fiction? There's the obvious. Kathy Reichs, a forensic archaeologist, writes mysteries about a protagonist who's a forensic archaeologist. In his series that includes The Bookwoman's Last Fling and The Bookman's Promise, John Dunning uses his knowledge of the book business to write mysteries involving rare books. That he has had a varied career which involved thoroughbred racing, among other pursuits, helps him weave other threads into his fiction. (Note to self: sticking with the same career for over 30 years wasn't the best preparation for writing.) Immigrants to Canada often write about immigrants to Canada. (Boy, do immigrants to Canada write about immigrants to Canada!) People who grew up on the Plains often write stories about growing up on the Plains.

Yes, all that goes back to the old "write what you know," but aren't there less obvious ways we put ourselves into what we write? A famous writer, told that his latest book had the same theme as an earlier work, replied, "Of course it does! I've written the same book over and over, and I'll keep doing it until I get it right!" Some writers try to work out relationships in their own lives, usually problematic relationships, through their characters. Sons with fathers, daughters with mothers, husbands with wives, etc. Experiences may be revisited in a fictional world and played out to the same or different conclusion. The themes of our lives, whether we know or acknowledge it, may become the themes of our stories. Our conflicts may become the conflicts of our characters.

There are also incidental ways we put our world into a fictional world. A character may represent a person in our lives or may share physical or personality traits with a real person--a mother, a brother, the girl with the cellphone who annoyed us on the bus, the man arguing with the older woman in the restaurant--or be an amalgam of several people. (It's handy to have a lot of siblings and cousins.) The same is true of the places we've been. Our fictional settings can be places or a combination of places we know well.

Emotions? Actors are known for thinking during even the most personal experiences, "I can use this." Writers may be much the same, mining the past and present for emotions they can "use." Perhaps we control our emotions, rage not leading to murder, sexual attraction not leading to the abandonment of our spouse and children, but what if our characters don't exercise the same restraint?

We think we write fiction. But how much do we really make up?

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Has it really been THAT long since I posted? Since then, Obama was elected President of the United States and... What else happened?

Anyway, I got older, and I realized that I don't want to get older, and I also don't want to die. That may or may not be progress, but it's representative of my psyche. I want to continue to live in Canada, but I have no intentions of changing my citizenship. I never feel more American that when I'm in Canada. I never feel more Canadian than when I'm in the United States.

Since I last posted here, I've written two novellas instead of working on my so-called second novel. I want to revise both of those and have considered expanding them to novel length. What is novel length anyway? My first novel was quite short after I revised and edited it to half its original length. I think every piece of fiction I read should be shorter. If I had edited War and Peace, you could read it in an afternoon. Just kidding. (Not really.) No, I'm kidding.

One novella is about a woman who's married to a Canadian and lives in Vancouver. Where do I come up with these things? She returns to Ohio to attend to some family matters and deal with a secret from her past. Stuff happens. (What? You think I'm going to give up the whole plot?) She returns to Vancouver, not a different woman, but a woman ready to make changes in her life.

The other novella is a romance that takes place in a Michigan defense factory during World War II. That one was so much fun to write and allowed me to indulge my interest in that era. That's the third novel, okay?

But now I've joined a writing circle through the Canadian Authors Association. Well, we sit in more of a rectangle, but they call it a writing circle. Because we send each other our chapters before meetings, this called for some decision-making on my part. What chapters should I send them? What am I REALLY working on? I decided I'm still working on that Egyptian novel. And I am. Working on that Egyptian novel. Still. I'm falling in love with the characters and situations again. I've also figured out why I stopped working on it. I had this one outlined from beginning to end, but then what I was writing began to deviate from the outline. It happened a little at a time, and then I realized that what I was writing was way better than what I had planned. It was more complex and more difficult to write. When I finished Chapter 16, I was stuck. Not blocked, as I was writing other fiction, just stuck. I thought I should be able to write beyond the old outline, as I've usually written from only a few notes, say some opening sentences for chapters, or an idea that I need to get from here (beginning) to there (end).

Now, having shared a few of the early chapters with my writing circle, it's clear what I need to do. I need to throw out the old outline (step sheet) and write a new one for Chapters 17 on and, when that one is no longer working, write another. Boring, eh? Not to me. I can hardly wait to get going on it.

FOCUS. Oh, yeah, I am SO focused.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Which novel is the SECOND?

Today I wrote a chapter of a novel. But it isn't the novel I've dubbed "the second." Oh, well, I'm writing.

Last week, I decided I should either finish my manuscript of The Golden Goddess or move on to something else. The impetus? A letter from my brother saying he had read my first novel Counterfeit World and liked it. He liked it, he really liked it!! (Sorry, Sally Field, for the--hackneyed--paraphrase.) He said he has had it for a while but didn't have the nerve to read it because what if he hated it? What would he do then? He was relieved that didn't happen, surprised that the novel didn't sound like his little sister. (I wonder what his little sister sounds like? Whiny probably. Really whiny.) So, with that external motivation, I got out my half-finished manuscript of "The Golden Goddess" and read the first page of each chapter. Hey, I liked it, I really liked it! So I decided to continue work on it. I mean, I know what happens next, I just have to write it, right? One word after another, one sentence after another, and suddenly you have a novel.

Then today I wrote a chapter--of another book.

I actually have parts of three novels written and/or outlined. Here's the thing. Time. Not time to write. Heck, I'm retired and have plenty of that. It's TIME I'm thinking about. Pushing sixty, I tell myself, not much TIME left. Do I have TIME to write three novels when I've only managed one so far?

Sure, you do, I answer (silently, I'm not totally crackers), you just have to do it. You're not BLOCKED or anything, are you?

Nope. Not blocked. Just lazy.

And that's the truth. So I'll have a race. First novel to the finish line gets to be the SECOND NOVEL.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Writing and Unwriting

First, I want to thank the judges of the Golden Crown Literary Society Awards (the "Goldies") for short-listing Counterfeit World for best science fiction novel and best debut novel of 2005. Okay, so it didn't win either award--but it was noticed, and I appreciate that.

Secondly, I had a great time at the GCLS Convention in Atlanta. It was a time to learn more about my craft (and I don't mean boating), to see old friends, and to make new ones. I actually took part in a panel this year, the Special Worlds panel about why we bother to write speculative fiction when so many people don't bother to read it. I was honored to sit at a table with Jean Stewart, Jane Fletcher, and Justine Saracen with Karin Kallmaker acting as the moderator. I not only didn't faint, introvert that I am, but I actually managed a few coherent sentences. Okay, so I kept grabbing the mike, and Karin probably wished I would faint. But the audience was receptive to what we panelists had to say, and I was left feeling that they like us, they really like us!

And thirdly--1, 2, yes, 3--I've been writing like crazy since I got back from Atlanta. And unwriting like... well... like crazier.

There's a name for a book which is revised while it is being written: an unfinished novel. But I've just written Chapter Thirteen of my new novel--twice--and have unwritten and rewritten Chapters Three, Five, Nine, Ten and Twelve. But I will finish it. You see, I've figured out what this novel is ABOUT and what it is NOT ABOUT. From here on, it's just a matter of putting in more of what it is ABOUT and leaving out what it is NOT ABOUT. Simple, right?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Reading through the RAIN

Winter is my time of hibernation, the time to read more than to write. And I've really been indulging my need to read.

A couple of non-fiction books I recommend are TALK TO THE HAND by Lynne Truss and OUR ENDANGERED VALUES by Jimmy Carter.

TALK TO THE HAND proved to me that someone in this world is more of a curmudgeon than I am. Does everything everybody else does bug you? Then TALK TO THE HAND is a book for you. Not quite as useful as Truss's EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES, it is still filled with British humor. (If you haven’t read “WATCHING THE ENGLISH” by Kate Fox, you might want to give that a look, too, especially the sections on British humor.)

In OUR ENDANGERED VALUES, President Jimmy Carter provides evidence and commentary to support his two propositions: that “fundamentalist” Christianity actually contravenes traditional Christian values and that the alliance of fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Republicans is turning the U.S. from traditional American values. The Baptist church Carter describes—the one in which he was raised—isn’t much different from my childhood church. However, whereas I see organized religion as a large part of most problems in the world, Carter sees religion as a force for good if it is turned into good works and not into judging all those who don’t believe as you do. (But don’t look to Carter for support for gay marriage; he’s against it.) At the time I read this, I had little hope that the U.S. government, with all three branches in the hands of right-wing Republicans, would change course—or that Democrats would be up to the challenge of regaining power or even moral authority. Since then, I’ve seen glimmers of hope, just glimmers.

Other than those two books, it’s been a feast of light fiction for me.

Having seen the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” based on a short story by Annie Proulx, I decided to read BAD DIRT, WYOMING STORIES 2 by the same author. (She also wrote SHIPPING NEWS, which I strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it.) This little book is full of stories and tall tales about the eccentric residents of Elk Tooth, Wyoming. Its mix of splendid humor and humanity is deeply satisfying.

PREDATOR by Patricia Cornwell and FIRE SALE by Sara Paretsky are fine diversions for a rainy afternoon or a trip to the beach. (Summer is coming, right? Or spring at least?)

In PREDATOR, Kay Scarpetta and company find links between apparently unrelated deaths and follow those links to a man called Hog. Although the plot is satisfyingly intricate, the end seems rushed. (Monster die, bye-bye?) And does EVERYBODY in a Scarpetta novel have to be so darned depressed?

FIRE SALE brings back my favorite private detective. Nearly blown up in a South Chicago flag factory explosion, V. I. Warshawski backtracks to tell us what led up to the big boom and then goes on to solve the mystery of why the factory and its owner went up in smoke. In the process, V. I. coaches a girls’ basketball team and locks horns with the family that owns By-Smart, a huge chain of stores that runs rough-shod over suppliers and poor employees alike. (No, By-Smart, not Walmart.) When I finished this Paretsky novel, I felt, as I always do, that this was the best book in the series so far.

Finally, saving the best for last, there’s NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters. Leaving Victorian England behind for this novel, Waters takes us to London during and immediately after World War II. The story is told in three parts. In 1947, the characters (Julia, Kay, Helen, and Duncan) try to live with the consequences of choices made during the war. In 1944, their actions precipitate changes in the relationships among them. In 1941, the sequence of events is set in motion. No, I didn’t relate the parts backwards; Sarah Waters did. This book proves that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

So pick up a book—or start typing.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Bailey liked to pretend that her father had left her the big brass belt buckle. Actually, she found it in a cardboard box, Arrowroot Potatoes in black print on the side, that her mother had put out for the trash. A pair of jeans, butt worn clear through, a gray work shirt, “Pete” sewn on the pocket, probably from a factory job that lasted one whole winter, and this belt buckle, a brass oval with the outline of a man riding a bronc and the engraved words, “Let ‘er buck!” Little Bailey snatched the buckle from the box, and, wrapping it so tightly in her hand she could feel the cowboy’s spurs, smuggled it back into the house.

So, when anyone asked the grown-up Bailey about the buckle, she said, “My old man left it to me.” Although she didn’t remember her father wearing the buckle, it must have been his. And, if he hadn’t left it to her, he had left, so she figured her story wasn’t that much of a lie.

On this particular night, Bailey was leaning against a bar in some town in Wyoming, not Cheyenne or Laramie, but some place as full of tourists and cowboys. Not that this bar was likely to have any cowboys in it, if you get my drift. It was near the end of the fire season, and Bailey had taken leave from the Forest Service. Like her “leaves” from all those other jobs, this one might turn permanent.

Bailey had hoisted her snakeskin boot onto the bar railing and told some pretty little thing from Ohio or Iowa or one of those small square states—some state with a lot of corn—about the buckle being the only thing she had left of her father’s, when she felt a hand land heavy on the right shoulder of her green and black striped Tony Lama shirt.

Bailey turned quickly, figuring anyone who touched her new shirt without a by-your-leave might need a lesson in manners.

The hand came off her shoulder and, matched with the owner’s left hand, rose in the universal sign for “no-harm-meant.” Bailey looked into as open and honest a face as she had ever seen, an unlined pink face framed by short black curls, a face that reminded her of that round-headed kid from the comics, Charlie What’s-his-name. Except, of course, this was a female face.

“Buy you a drink?” Without waiting for an answer, the round-headed woman signaled the barkeep, this time using the “another of whatever she’s having” sign. Bailey’s new friend from Ohio or Iowa had already wandered away, so she shrugged and picked up the cold bottle of Moosehead the bartender set down.

The beer’s provider showed that she did have good manners by waiting while Bailey enjoyed a long swig. Then she asked, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

This wasn’t the first time Bailey had heard that question. She was a veteran of failed relationships, an expert at leave-them-before-they-leave-you. So she just shook her head and took a cautious swallow.

The woman, far from put off by Bailey’s silence, smiled fit to fill her big pink face and said, “I’m Carmaline. Carmaline Mathers.” This tickled something far to the rear of Bailey’s brain, somewhere between the name of her first dog (Skipper) and the first street she remembered living on (Carlisle). “Your cousin, dipwad!”

“Dipwad” more than the name or the declaration of kinship did it. Some connection shifted into place, and Bailey remembered a face—a very small, very round face—pressed firmly against a screen door. “Auntie Vernie, can Bailey come out and play?” Sing-song, a high whine that repeated over and over until “Auntie Vernie” found Bailey wherever she was hiding or pulled her away from whatever she was clinging to and thrust her toward the kitchen door.

“Carmie?” Bailey asked, voice as low and quiet as if she were still that hiding child.

“That’s me.” Recognition evidently conferring rights, Carmaline threw her arms up and around Bailey’s shoulders and squeezed long and hard before letting her go. Bailey, conditioned two decades before to defer to her cousin’s wants and whims, not only put up with the hug but, accepting yet another Moosehead, followed the shorter woman to one of the bar’s wooden tables.

After they were settled across from each other, Carmaline studied Bailey’s face for a good minute, all the time with that huge grin that seemed to say, “Aren’t we lucky to be here together after all this time?” And then the first thing she actually did say was, “Aren’t we lucky to be here together after all this time?”

Bailey nodded. And smiled. Sort of. She was still a little wary of relatives, even those who could probably be counted on to say, “hi,” buy a couple of Mooseheads, and then disappear for another twenty years.

“I knew it was you. I just knew it,” Carmaline went on. And on. “I mean, I heard you tell that girl—do you think she’s even old enough to be in a bar?—anyway, I heard you tell her your name was Bailey. How many women are named Bailey? Not many, right? And you look just exactly like I remember Aunt Verna, God-rest-her-soul, standing like a Sequoia on the other side of her kitchen door. And then I couldn’t help but overhear that story about your belt buckle. A tall, red-headed woman named Bailey with her father’s rodeo buckle. That had to cut the odds, didn’t it? I mean, it had to be my cousin Bailey from Bent Lake, didn’t it? Well?”

Bailey tried to catch up. “I guess not that many women are named after a hat company. At least, I’ve never met a Stetson or another Bailey. And I do take after Verna. But the belt buckle?”

Carmaline shook her head. “Not the belt buckle so much. I don’t remember seeing that before. I barely remember Uncle Pete. But I remember my mother telling me that, if Aunt Verna had one regret, it was throwing out Uncle Pete’s belt buckle, the one he won at the Oakville Rodeo.”

Regret and her mother didn’t go together in Bailey’s mind, but she bit anyway. “How come?”

“Because Uncle Pete told her, ‘You give this to Bailey, something to remember me by.’ Mom said that Aunt Verna was too mad at Uncle Pete, and she threw the buckle out with some of his old clothes. She thought better of it later, but, when she went to get it back, the trash man had already taken the box.” Carmaline, whose mouth had settled into a straight line at the thought of her aunt’s regret, smiled, her more natural expression. “Mom must not have known the whole story, ’cause you’re wearing the belt buckle your father left for you. Everything worked out just fine. No harm done.”

Bailey took another swig of her Moosehead and set it back into its wet ring on the table. She thought of all the times she told folks about the belt buckle, how she wished all these years that what she said was true, that her father really gave a damn about her. Realizing that Carmaline had stopped talking, Bailey looked across at that round face that was the same as all those years ago, just the same as when it had a screen door cross-hatching it, just the same as when Bailey knew her dad would leave but always come back.

Bailey cleared her throat before speaking. “Yeah, Carmaline. You’re right. No harm done.”


The problem wasn’t the new cat. It was a pretty cat, black and white, what his wife called a “tuxedo.” The problem was that it was the thirty-seventh cat.

Bill’s wife Cora had always brought home stray cats. Some stayed, but never more than eight or nine at a time. Five years ago, when Bill finished his and Cora’s dream house at the lake, he helped Cora move the cats that shared their apartment in Vancouver. They were part of the family.

But now there were cats on the sofas and beds, cats on tables and chairs, cats on the sideboard and dressers. Tigers, tabbies, calicos, tuxedos… The screen porch facing the lake, where for the first year Bill and Cora shared breakfast, was now filled with litter boxes.

Oh, Cora took good care of the cats. She bathed the new arrivals in the deep sink Bill had installed for her and treated them for fleas and worms. She kept records of shots and vet visits. She made meals that met their special dietary needs. Regularly she scooped their boxes, so that Bill and Cora’s house, while it smelled of cat, never smelled of cat litter.

But with the arrival of the thirty-seventh cat, Bill had to face it. No matter what promises Cora made, nothing changed. Except the number of cats. There would be a thirty-eighth cat and a thirty-ninth. Someday there would be a hundredth cat, and every surface would be covered.

The day after the tuxedo cat arrived, Bill drove into the city to see Dr. Fulton, Cora’s physician. He described Cora’s obsession with cats. Dr. Fulton told him that thirty-seven cats were a lot, but they had a big house in the country. Besides, adopting strays demonstrated Cora’s kindness, and Bill wouldn’t want her any other way, would he?

Driving back to the lake, Bill realized cats weren’t hot flashes, and no doctor could cure Cora of them. But there was a solution: a house for the cats. All Bill had to do was build it.

When he brought up the idea to Cora, she said cats need a home, not a kennel. Bill told her it wouldn’t be like that. Just as he had built this dream house for Cora and himself, he would build a dream house for the cats.

Cora put her heart into planning the cats’ dream house. It would be built on a corner of their lot. The front would be a picture window facing the lake. There would be a small kitchen for preparing cat meals, even a bathroom, although Bill didn’t see why cats needed that.

Finally, the house was completed, and, of course, Cora wouldn’t move the cats over. A home is more than windows and beds and chairs, she told Bill.

Bill guessed it was also more than a microwave, a shower, and a toilet. A home required a television set and cable, too. He would see to those before he moved in.