Monday, February 28, 2011

TIPS: The Story Behind a Place

In 2010, I started looking around me. I'd never done it before, not really, not in my entire life. I'd gone to university and kept my mind on daydreams and chores and reading books. I've bussed to many locations and not really seen them. For some reason, perhaps because I catch the bus at the same time twice daily now that I work, or perhaps for some intangible reason of personal development, I actually opened my eyes and started looking.

I noticed so many things. How the cockatoos toss their heads in flight at dusk, screeching and squawking. How a car alarm sounds when surrounded (or perhaps causing) bird song and how in Australia it's sometimes hard to pick out the alarm at all. How beautiful the birds look and how insane they sound. The stages of bark on the trees. First they're all barked up, then it starts sloughing off leaving green beneath, then it starts toughening up again over summer - leaving me lots of crunchy bark pieces to jump on. How some bits of pavement are concrete, others as asphalt (often covered in loose gravel) and others are beaten dirt. How often you can see glass from old smashed windows, perhaps from decades ago, glittering like gems in the dirt by the side of the road.

Then there's the buildings. Chipped paint, gleaming paint, patterns of fresh and older paint. Corrugated iron roof tops - new or freshly painted, faded or rusted. Sagging verandahs. Shiny iron lace. Trees, plants, a dozen types of fencing.

I look around me and I see, hear, and smell all the places around me and I wish, truly wish, I could capture this experience and put it onto paper. The trouble is, of course, a plethora of details won't help me capture that experience so I guess it's all in the telling details. Each description of a place should be an anecdote. A story. A tale. It should imply much even if it says little.

Have you told any anecdotes in your descriptions lately?

Friday, February 25, 2011

DIAGNOSTIC: Hell's Fire - Chris Simms Book Analysis

Just so you know, this isn't a traditional book review. This won't discuss the good and bad aspects of the book and then weigh them both up for an assigned score. This is more an analysis of what Chris Simms did right and a few details about techniques that might assist us to pull off what he accomplished. I will do negative review / analysis in future when I next read a bad book but I won't be naming names.

So, without further ado, Hell's Fire by Chris Simms. First of all, the title. I love all things demonic or demon-inspired so the red inked Hell's Fire really caught my eye. When I realised it was a crime novel, my thoughts immediately turned to arson even before I read the blurb which mentioned the torching of churches and links to satanism. It also has a sub-title 'There will be no forgiveness' which actually conjured up a few themes and can be taken several ways that are all relevant to the book. The first theme conjured up in my mind was 'vengeance for crimes both real or perceived' and its a theme held dear in a few of the character's hearts. Another theme it suggests now that I've read the book are thematic questions such as: 'What would it do to a person to know their crimes, or the crimes of a loved one, will never be forgiven?' 'Is there such a thing as an unforgivable crime?' and 'Sometimes, it is better to forgive'. Without giving too much away, forgiveness is as much a driving theme as the more obvious vengeance plot with attempts to reconcile family members over past arguments and a man struggling to deal with the idea of an unforgiving God.

The novel also explores a contentious issue in society today about freedom of religion. This adds richness to the story because the author ensures that this issue is explored by a number of characters in different ways and they each have their own perspective on the matter. A rift in a family between a staunch Catholic and her burgeoning Wiccan daughter. The protagonist's issues with religion in general - whether its pagans, satanism, or organised religion - and how sometimes religious beliefs can lead to murder (or the establishment of refuges for the homeless) all weave together to challenge preconceptions without the author ever intruding by saying that any one of these religions is outright wrong. There are examples of people doing immoral things in the name of religion, whether its due to their fanaticism or simply a calloud desire to exploit the spiritual needs of others, but it's very much a sense of individuals doing this. It's not about any one religion being *evil*. It's about people. That helps keep it from getting preachy.

I also like the specificity in descriptions. This book oozes authenticity because he always nails the little details about arson investigation. I couldn't say whether it's true or false, whether his research is wrong or right, but it feels right because he's confident enough to be unambiguous in his descriptions. I really like that.

There are other good things about it, but I think I'll leave it there. Until we meet again, bloggers and bloggettes....

Thursday, February 24, 2011

RANT: Inspiration from Raquel Byrne's M&Ms

So, I'm reading Raquel Byrne's neat blog and apparently she separates her M&Ms into piles of colour and then eats the smaller pile first. This may be a lie. On that post, she has a number of facts about herself and apparently one is false. That doesn't matter. What matters is that it's an interesting trait and it led me to realise what's missing in a lot of fictional characters - especially Fantasy characters. Kooky mannerisms.

I don't mean kooky mannerisms like a need to sniff every tree because you're an elf and tree pheromones tell you what they're feeling. I mean the kind of weird things that individuals happen to say or do. We all have them. It often makes it easier to identify with a character if they happen to have one as well and, sure, you don't want to put too much words towards something not strictly plot-relevant but these sorts of mannerisms don't need many words to detail them.

Some of them are gross: peeing in the shower, scratching one's crack, cupping our farts and shoving them under people's noses, wiping snot on our sleeves if we're crying and can't find a tissue, or making it rain dandruff by scratching our heads, letting a dog lick your face, always kissing with tongue no matter who's present, ripping off the edges of your finger/toe nails when they get too long and leaving them on the table, shaving your face and leaving the hairs behind.

Some of them are silly: crawling up the stairs to the first floor, throwing a pseudo-tantrum at bed time so your partner has to drag you across the tiled floor by your feet to get you to the stairs, getting really hyper when you're over-tired and talking a hundred miles an hour, or sudden giggle bursts where you just can't stop laughing, snorting when you laugh (I do all these things).

Some are just odd: separating M&Ms according to colour and eating the smaller pile first (sorry Raquel), ironing your socks, snuffing out candles with finger tips rather than blowing them out, changing your sheets every morning, using eating utensils like you're left-handed when you're actually right-handed, constantly fidgeting, jigging your foot constantly, flicking your fingers when you get bored, attempting 'puppy dog eyes' to convince people to do stuff for you when you really can't pull it off, never being able to get the tone right to pull off a joke.

These are all mannerisms I've seen in real life. I'm sure that even in a fantasy world some of these would transfer over with few, or even no, differences. Why does your character have to be squeaky clean and normal? Why can't they pop zits or threaten people with snotty rags or spend 20 minutes trying to make sure that painting is perfectly level? Making the characters feel that extra bit more real should be a priority.

So, give it a go, and please, tell me ... what are some of the strange mannerisms you've either used in a book or seen in real life?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

DIAGNOSTIC: Why I Love The Procedural Crime Genre

This may come as a surprise to some of you, since I read fantasy novels and am even writing a few, but I have a lot of love for the crime genre. Ed McBain of the 87th Precinct series is my favourite author and I read his novels over and over without feeling bored - even though a lot of them are quite short.

So what is it about the style of writing in the Crime Genre that makes it awesome?

Sparkling dialogue: Perhaps it's because of how important dialogue is so important in revealing clues, but generally, the dialogue in crime novels are often very individualised to the speaker. The sense of rhythm differs, the slang differs, the sense of perspective differs, and the core of the characters differs which means you can get some very interesting twists and turns in the dialogue that hold the reader's attention. There are often several minor characters that have a few pages of dialogue to explain certain situations and these minor characters are often as well-drawn as the primary protagonists. This means that I pay a lot more attention when they're speaking because by anaylsing the words a) I sate my voyeuristic need to understand where other people are coming from, and b) you never quite know what will happen next.

Quirky characters: I find this especially in procedural crime novels, perhaps to provide contrast against the rather sensible detectives, but it's also true of other sub-genres as well. The characters are often quirky in new and amusing ways. Personally, I think this is because really good procedural crime novelists do a lot of research and listen to a lot of anecdotes. They notice the strange reactions people have sometimes and they port some of that into their books. It's harder in speculative fiction because the only 'anecdotes' you have for people's behavior in other worlds is other people's works and importing them only makes your work more derivative. The exception to this are fantasy and science fiction novels set in the modern world with a few twists. Perhaps it would help if speculative fiction authors spent more time asking people about random anecdotes about other people and then seeing if those reactions could work in lands dramatically different from our own.

Precision in description: Perhaps again related to the copious amount of research a crime novelist has to do but they often are very precise with their details. They use the correct titles of rooms, the right names for equipment, and at every step try to pack the most information into the fewest words. This may be more of a personal preference as I'm sure a lot of readers enjoy the more leisurely and diffuse descriptions that can often be found in other genres but I certainly enjoy a certain crispness to my descriptions.

What do you like about the crime genre?

Disclaimer: Writers in other genres have achieved all of the above and more. These are simply positive points that I have more often found in the crime genre.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

RESEARCH: Crime Scene Investigations

I’m thinking this week should have a theme so, in line with the brief book review from yesterday, I’m going to do all of my posts today based around crime scenes and the crime genre. Today is, of course, the research day, so let’s take a look at some of the research I’ve done for a roleplaying game I’ve run for the World of Darkness (any excuse for research is a good excuse). A note to authors: this information could be comprehensive enough for your first draft but due to regional differences, try to double check these sorts of facts with a local pathologist or crime scene investigator. They’re generally happy to help.

Crime Scene

When a Medical Examiner comes across a crime scene, they are hoping to establish the cause of death (the injury or disease that led to the death); mechanism of death (how they actually died – blood loss, cardiac arrest, etc.); and manner of death (whether the death is a homicide, suicide, accident, natural death, or unknown).

First, they examine the crime scene in a systematic manner to gather additional information or evidence before moving over to the corpse, if any. The corpse is photographed extensively and then the Medical Examiner declares the person deceased and looks for any obvious injuries. The body may be rolled over, examined for obvious injuries of the back, photographed again if any are found, and then plastic bags are placed on the hands and feet as a lot of trace evidence can be found on these body parts (especially under the nails. The corpse is wrapped in a white sheet brought to the location by the crime scene investigators. They don’t use sheets found at the home because that would contaminate the corpse with trace evidence from the person’s home, for instance loose hairs, fibers, etc. could fall on the corpse. Once wrapped in the white sheet, the corpse is then put into a body bag and a tag on the body keeps track of where the body goes and to whom it goes so that the Chain of Evidence can be established.

Autopsy Room
The corpses are stored in refrigerated units that might be found in drawers along a wall of an autopsy room (open the cupboard door, pull out the tray) or adjacent to the autopsy room in a room that looks like a collection of steel tray pigeon holes. These units are often kept at around 3.3 degrees Celsius which is cool enough to delay decomposition without being cold enough to freeze and damage the tissues.

The autopsy room itself is well-lit, generally windowless, and air conditioned. The autopsy table is generally two-tiered with a perforated and curved top tier to allow body fluids to drip down into the collection tray during the autopsy. A metal stand beside the table contains a range of implements from scalpels to serrated knives, clippers to scissors to magnifying glasses. The room is also often equipped with U.V. lighting, X-Ray machines, hanging scales to weigh organs, and vibrating bone saws. A microphone is suspended from the ceiling for the Medical Examiner to record their findings. Sinks and cupboards stand against the walls. Tissue samples are placed within collection bottles and envelopes. A Sharps contained can normally be found in this room.

The Autopsy
The body bag is examined before being discarded for any trace evidence that might have fallen out of the white sheet. Then the white sheet is unwrapped and discarded. Photographs are often again taken at this point with special care taken to photograph any newly revealed evidence. The clothes are then inspected for any tears, holes, or trace evidence before being carefully removed and stored for later examination. The bags around the hands and feet are then removed and inspection.

Finally, attention is paid to the body itself. Nails are examined and then scraped beneath the nail for any trace evidence. A detailed examination of the naked body is made, first with the naked eye, and then with a magnifying glass. All wounds, scrapes, bruises, etc. are noted, photographed, and measured.

X-Rays may be taken to look for any metal objects (bullets, fragments, knife tips) or abnormal structures or breakages in the bone. The Medical Examiner then views the body under Ultra Violet light which reveals body fluids (semen, blood, etc.) and even very faint bruising.

The internal investigation is begun with a Y-shaped incision whereupon all the internal organs are removed and examined from trauma and disease (these will later be replaced inside the body cavity). Samples of blood will be taken from the heart and peripheral veins, urine samples taken from the bladder, and sometimes even thin slices of organ tissue are taken. In cases of suspected rape, vaginal, oral, and rectal samples will be taken. Special attention is paid to the stomach contents as within 2 hours of eating, 95% of all food has moved out of the stomach and into the small intestine. The contents themselves can also confirm or deny witness statements such as if someone said the deceased had a home-cooked lasagne with them when evidence of a Big Mac and chips were found.

The neck may then be dissected to look for damage to the cartilage, larynx, or the small hyoid bone which would suggest strangulation. The brain is then dissected to see if injuries to the brain match injuries to the skull. As the brain floats relatively freely in brain fluid, it moves a little when the head is moving. To determine if an unmoving head was hit by a moving object, the Medical Examiner would check to see if the injury to the brain was directly behind the bruise (called a “coup” injury). If the victim’s head was moving at the time of the impact, the bump on the head should oppose brain injury (called a “contra-coup”).

Bone marrow samples may also be taken in some cases of drowning to search for minute single-celled organisms called diatoms that should have been breathed in unless the victim was already dead when they were pushed / dropped / fell into the water. A gas chromatograph can also be used to check the blood and tissue samples for toxins but the investigators need some idea of what to test for and it can’t be used to do a comprehensive check of every possible toxin.

Next week, Wounds, Decomposition and Much, Much More!

Monday, February 21, 2011

REVIEW: Great Resource for Crime Scene Writers

The Medical Examiner, by Toney Allman, from the Crime Scene Investigations series.

Yes, it's often filed under Juvenile literature but it gives such a good grounding in the work of a Forensic Pathologist, or Medical Examiner, at a crime scene and in the autopsy room. It also gives information on livor mortis, rigor mortis, and algor mortis and the stages of decomposition of the body. True, you should probably double check your facts (if only because of regional differences) but this should give you enough information to get the first draft out there without making any dramatic story-based mistakes that will need a lot of ironing to get out of the novel. I whole-heartedly recommend this book. I'm even hoping to get a chance to read other books in this Crime Scene Investigations series.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

LISTS: Brainstorming Horror Themes

Since my fantasy world has a very strong emphasis, in one regard, on sin with a certain class of people being the embodiments of sin, I figured it might be worth-while to brainstorm a list of horror themes that could be used in the construction of such monsters. I'll begin by creating a list of villainous traits, horrific terms, and terrible possibilities that I'll later blend into the monster ideas.

First, the List:

Psychotic breaks with reality.
Forced pregnancy.
Physical Decay.
Moral Decay.
Pain beyond death.
Loss of control.
Ever-lasting grief.
Subverted innocence.
Multiple personalities.
Forced to commit a heinous act.
Ignored prophecy.
Forced invisibility.
Abandoned buildings.
Grisly medical experiments.
Loss of innocence.
Pain of growing up.
Evil children.
Alien geometries.
Pretense at being human.
Identity theft.
Regression to childish cruelty.
Blood lust.
Injured by light.
Injured by shadow.
Buried alive.

Now the Monster Ideas:
Breathdrinker that leaves its victims paralysed. Nightmarish monster that can injure people through their own dreams. Oneiromancer who can drive people mad through their dreams. A madman whose insanity is contagious. A man who slowly dismembers and devours his victims. A monster who is perpetually burning alive. A creature who bruises the floor / ceiling it walks upon. A husband who is obsessed with the smell of his wife's blood. A creature that spits out paralytic webbing to capture its prey. A monster that buries its prey alive before returning to feed. A prophet who is doomed to never be believed and takes out her frustrations by foretelling fates that *must* be heeded.

A shapeshifter steals the identity of those whose lives it desires. A body swapper takes over your body and life and leaves you in an inferior form. A creature so desperate for love that mere skin contact ensorcels you. Contagious paranoia like a disease vector. Rage as a virus. Lust as a poison that is sold by a sorceror as a love potion and that forces nymphomania on the drinker. A creature whose body is composed entirely of angles that just don't add up. An ancient being injured by light / darkness that enslaves its victims by making them thirst for its bile / blood / urine.


Hmm, and those are just a few off the top of my head. Anyone got any other words to add to the list? Any other thoughts on the process?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

PSYCHOLOGY: Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference theory is a really good one for understanding how some people short circuit reality and come up with new and intriguing ways of looking at the facts. This theory was initially developed by Chris Argyris, I think, and later presented in a book by Peter Senge called 'The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization'. Let's look at how this might affect a character.

So what is this theory about? Basically, it's a ladder.

Real Data & Experience -> Selected Data & Experience -> Affixed Meaning -> Assumptions -> Conclusions -> Beliefs -> Actions.

You begin at the bottom with the actual facts at your character's disposal which are the Real Data & Experience. For example, a noise in the basement at night. This is a true fact. You did hear something.

Of course, rather than pay attention to a whole host of factors (that might reveal the fact you locked your dog in the basement), you choose instead to wittle away the facts until you have a set of Selected Data & Experience which you pay attention to. It's dark. There's a noise in the basement. You just watched a horror movie where a monster ate someone in the basement.

Then we Affix Meaning, such as night time = a time of murderers and monsters. Basements are a place where murders happen. Noises that waken home owners have ominous significance.

We develop a few Assumptions, therefore, anyone who goes into the basement at night after being alerted by a noise will be killed brutally, or at least raped.

We come to a Conclusion, thus, if I go into the basement, I won't be coming out alive.

And finally develop a Belief, oh god, I'm going to die tonight. I'm not safe in my own home.

The Belief then informs our Actions. I'm going to ring the police, the neighbors, and my husband who works the night shift.

Then, by taking that Action, I gain new Real Data & Experience as the police find my dog trapped in the basement and chasing a rat.

Of course, one could argue that it's our Beliefs that influence which data we select. Someone who believes that crime doesn't occur in their town might happily explore the basement and ignore the fact that the front door is unlocked. As could someone who's used to finding their husband tinkering about in the basement and is used to strange sounds at all times of the night.

Still, it's a good structure to think about when your characters are reacting to things. It's especially helpful for those plotters who sit at the drawing board and go: Well, I need my character to go and do this. What would make that a rational response? Tinker with their beliefs, past experiences, and present data available to them, and that'll help make their responses seem more reasonable.

Happy writing!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Writing Exercise: Character Identifiers

A good article in Mystery Writers is Murder suggests figuring some identifiers to make it easier to recognise your secondary characters. It might be an eccentric piece of clothing, a remarkable feature, or some strange habit but it should be memorable enough to implant the character in the reader's mind and later help them remember that character

So, as my belated writing exercise, I will do just that. I'll do it with some characters from my novel for the brainxercise.

Lirrian is a fairly major secondary character so she more has a style of identifiers rather than a single one. She's bratty. She's the girl who might say hello by putting her hands over your eyes or giving you a pinch (at least while younger). She's surprisingly cocky with her friends and will say what she thinks (though isn't dumb enough to do that to authority figures). So the sort of identifiers I use with her are things that are high energy, sometimes abrupt speech, and teasing. Yeah, with her it's not as straight-forward but she's on so many pages in that book that I'd be really shocked if a reader didn't remember her.

Ongar is a bit of an enigma, even to me. He's a manly man so he attempts to be macho as much as he can but he also comes from a culture that's more effusive and romantic so he comes up with these terrible poems and likes to think he's a really dry wit. He's also a nay-sayer and doesn't like taking risks. So anything showing superficial machismo, lame attempts at being romantic or at least sexual (cor, look at her), and nay-saying anything risky would be identifiers for him.

Kyliam is a bit more straightforward. He doesn't say much as he can't speak their language but he can be quite expressive in smiles so it often ends up being adjective-smile or more specific synonym of smile like 'grin' or even the the opposite of a smile - wince. He's also the calm and forgiving one.

Gerran is high energy as well but that's because he's an anxious person. Funnily enough, as he starts coming out of his shell he becomes less risk averse. He speaks poshly, formally, and somewhat pompously and reads like a character from an Enyd Blyton novel. Really, its his speech mannerisms and his cocky-cowardice that are my identifiers for him.

Hmm, these aren't great examples because they're all the more important characters who get so much air-time that the quirks vanish. Let's try the three possible fathers.

Gelebourne is a large man and I emphasize his muscles, his size, and his predatory nature. I sort of see him as a big, dangerous animal and I emphasize the boom in his voice and the way his weight creaks the stage floor and things like that.

Carrius is showier. He's all languid movements and deceptive smiles / frowns / winces. Everything is for show. The whole world is a stage. I often have to spend more time describing his gestures and I think that's his main identifier. Writing them out also makes the gestures seem longer and slower ... which they are. So if I write about Carrius bursting into a room through the double doors, keeping his hands on the handles, and lowering his head so that his hair falls artfully across his face ... you know which brother it is.

Alberic has a military background and it shows. Everything he says is measured, though gentle, and he has a very straight back. Everything has to be just-so. There's certainly a degree of precision about his movements. He also dodges all talk with an emotional content. Funnily enough, his precise nature (and his glasses) make him come off as a bit geeky. I simplify matters to identify him. He sits with his knees tucked together. He stands straight with his hands clasped behind his back.

Hmm, writing this out has certainly assisted me in figuring out what makes each character so unique. Why don't you write up one of yours and share it with us in the comments section?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

WORTHY LINK: Blending world building

TalkToYoUniverse has a really good piece of advice in this article on how you should put your world descriptions and exposition into the background by really emphasizing the viewpoint character's perspective. Filter it all through the lens of the viewpoint character, in other words. In a fantasy novel, I could look over at a clock and let people know that there are clocks. The world description would be in the foreground and readers might notice how obvious it is and how it stands out. Or I could look at the clock and feel rushed, feel bored, note how its hanging from the wall crookedly, running out of batteries, winding down, or even remember my now dead parents. All of that would put the viewpoint character in the foreground where they belong and slip the same piece of exposition into the background.

Very cool article! Not to mention the fact that she is analysing the first scene from reader-submitted novels and revealing the information that a reader might latch onto about the world. Take a read. It's a really excellent idea for a blog and one I'm tempted to poach simply because it'd help me figure out how to slip in the myriad of details that distinguish my fantasy setting from the generic one.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

RANT: Oh, you Crazy Middle Sections

Well, it's official ... I'm editing the middle part of the novel that I've edited for ages and guess what I found? I need to remove a character. *sigh* The character was pretty cool and her entry was awesome and foreboding but, really? She didn't *need* to be there. No one would notice if she had never arrived. She doesn't really impact on the novel or help the protagonist grow and change and it all just sort of bogs it all down to throw an additional character in the mix when we know so little about the existing ones. So, out she's got to go. Which is great, because it saves me some words - hopefully enough to spend on really amping up the confrontation between a father and son in the story that didn't get enough screen time in the earlier editions.

Of course, the irritating part is ... having to make such a major change at this late stage of the game suggests I'm not as close to the editing finishing line as I originally thought. This was meant to be a line-check, not a major re-write! On the plus side, her impact was so minimal that simple deletions and basic re-writing should be all that's needed. My concern is just that if this thing slipped through, what else did?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

RESEARCH: Carola Wetlands

I have a peculiar fascination with understanding the local environment for my stories. A great number of fantasy novels have the environment as scenery and moody set-pieces. Many of them describe the environment in beautiful and haunting ways but there's very little depth behind it. No sense of an ecology. Now, whether ecology is more important than story-appropriate scenery is a matter for debate. I'm not arguing one way or the other. I just like trying to set up the environment so it makes sense. It helps that since I'm using Australian flora and fauna I get to learn more about my own country.

Of course, the biggest problem with naming the flora in your country is that you can either make up names for all the flowers (which can often end up irritating the reader) or risk giving flowers names that might annoy purists because, after all, why does this fantasy world have eucalypts or elms or pines, anyway? I've noticed over the years that many animals and plants mentioned are generically American / English. I think one of the primary reasons why a lot of readers tend toward the generic with their plants is the risk of naming flowers that the readers can't visualise. If you say, white rose, I know what you're talking about. If I talk about pigweed, will you?

I've found the way around this is to pick plants that have very evocative names. Sure, if I write 'pigweed', odds are you'll imagine a very different plant to the reality but it's a name that does at least conjure up an image. It's better than samphire which, despite being prolific in certain Realms areas, really does require its own description. Or worse, the Latin name for something.

So here's some adapted research (research turned toward world building and has already been fantasised):

The Regency Capital is located within the on a floodplain of the lower River Stafford lying 5km south of a major wetland – Carola Wetlands. The Carola Wetlands segment of the lower River Stafford floodplain consists of the main river channels and a diversity of wetland habitats including a series of creeks, channels, lagoons, billabongs, swamps, and lakes. Between the water-bodies are extensive areas of low-lying floodplain that are flooded during high river levels with receding floodwaters being retained in temporary wetlands. The Carola wetlands supports many aquatic fauna and waterbirds, some of which are migratory and also provides important habitat for many terrestrial fauna species, including refuge for wildlife during the dry season.

The floodplain supports extensive stands of river red gum and black box woodlands (both harder to visualise - would require description). There are fringing reeds and sedges (easy to visualise), Herbland (more a category of flora), Samphire Shrublands, saltbush shrublands, and Lignum Shrublands (all free require description). The fringing reeds are Common reed and Spiny sedge (easy to visualise even if the image evoked is wrong). Submerged vegetation include ribbonweeds and red milfoil (second one would be tricky to visualise but is easier in context with ribbonweeds).

The birds include White Egrets, Glossy Ibis, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Red-necked stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Greenshank, Caspian Tern. Regend parrots breed in hollows or Vier red gum, Musk duck, blue-billed duck, freckled duck, glossy ibis, banded stilt, square-tailed kite, peregrine falcon, white-bellied sea-eagle, blue-faced honeyeater, striped honey-eater, and the restless flycatcher.
Many of these you can visualise because the first word is generally a description and the second word is a category of bird you've heard before - honeyeater, eagle, duck. The last one sounds like an insect.

Southern bell frog in the large wetlands. Yabbies are best in the warmer months and often caught in backwaters and in deep water. Hoop nets are relatively inexpensive and suit most conditions. Hmm, do you foreignors know what a yabby is?

Animals include common brushtail possum, feathertailed glider, broad-shell turtle, eastern tiger snake, carpet python, lace monitor, mussles. There are also feral goats, pigs, and rabbits making themselves at home after a few hundred years of habitation.

Rare plants: Dainty maiden-hair, swamp daisy, black-fruit daisy, water star-wort, pale flax-lily, small-flower beetle-grass, pale-fruit cherry, purple love-grass, hooked needlewood, nutty club-rush, creeping boobialla, jagged bitter-cress. Tee hee, I like this range of choices. They're all very evocative. I particularly like the creeping boobialla and jagged bitter-cress.

Fish include the Murray cod, silver perch, freshwater catfish, golden perch, bony herring, Australian smelt, Murray rainbowfish, flat-head gudgeon, dwarf flat-headed gudgeon, unspected hardyhead, murray hardyhead, and redfin perch.
This is more useful when it comes to describing food. The trouble is I don't eat fish so I can't describe their flavor properly.

The landscape overlays a series of horizontal sedimentary formations ranging from sandstones to limestone over which lies sands ranging from fine to coarse sands. Soil type changes greatly over the landscape with the ancestral floodplain being dominated by both neutral and alkaline grey self-mulching cracking clays, neutral brown siliceous sands and neutral firm grey siliceous sands. The highland buffer zone soils consist of alkaline red calcareous earths, alkaline friable red duplex soils and neutral brownish sands.
I have an obsession with geology. I'm not incredibly well-versed in the science but I do love rock samples and the strange patterning.

So, what do you think? Am I over-thinking it?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

DIAGNOSTIC: Examining Robin Hobb's 'Rain Wild Chronicles'

First, I'll tell you what this isn't. It's not a review of the book. I liked it. Don't get me wrong. I had to return it to the library half-read as someone else had booked it but I went and got it back in the end. Still, I don't really think you need yet another actual review of a book. I think what you want to know is about how a story does something really right or really wrong. In this instance, I want to talk about something Robin Hobb did really well (and generally does well - check out the Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Chronicles to see examples).

The Rain Wild Chronicles is an interesting exercise in writing a drama set in a fantasy setting without recourse to battles and frequent set-piece events. There's a group of very well-drawn individuals on a barge setting out to guide a group of disabled dragons to the legendary city of Kelsingra. There's a few set-piece events, such as gallators (poisonous alligators) and floods, but really they're just there to provide additional conflict to the group. Robin Hobb certainly doesn't rely on that sort of external conflict to keep the novel going. Instead, it's that internal and interpersonal conflict which can be enflamed by the odd external set-piece event that really drives the novel.

How does she do it?

Well-developed personalities ensure that certain clashes will be inevitable. Robin Hobb does her best to drive such characters together to ensure the clashes happen. Characters who can't get along are kept in close proximity by the claustrophobic environments of the barge and small boats and this environmental constraint heats things up. She's not timid about their reactions, either. Even if the reaction is unpleasant. Even if it's unkind and cruel and shows the bad side of a character, she will hold to it if it is something the character is likely to do. Part of the chronicle's charm is simply watching how the various characters tangle and untangle themselves. Its a character study and a sociological study rolled into one and the unpredictability of it all is what keeps reader interest. Who will react to that? How will they react to that? Where is this going? The actual destination, Kelsingra, falls into the background as a legendary McGuffin while the humans and dragons' personalities take center stage.

How do you do it?

It seems like she puts a lot of thought into the various ways a character might react, in order to find the reaction that rings true the most (and provides for an additional layer of conflict or resolution of conflict). Now, whether you're an outliner or a guess-writer (I'm the latter), odds are that you've found it difficult to create character reactions that really zing. I mean, normally the first reaction we grasp if the expected one and that can fall a little flat when the characters' quirks could take the reaction in a whole new and interesting way. I think I've said it somewhere on this blog before: When your character encounters something important, brainstorm a list of possible reactions and pick one of the least expected yet in character option that works for you. Just by brainstorming, you'll open your mind to unlimited possibilities.

Another technique is to create a web of personalities. Put a name in the middle of a page and then draw radiating spikes. At the end of each spike, put each other character. Then write along the spike the feelings one character has for the other. Or you could create a mind map of conflict, using multiple radiating spikes to really explore the various conflicts surrounding a character.

A third technique is to list each character's name and brainstorm a list of secrets, pet peeves, goals, and motivations. Just see what the list says and then prune a few of the options or take a look at what you've written to see if you could make it a little more complex. For example, if one character's goal is to be respected, then they'll probably get along more with someone who gives them compliments than someone who points out all their failings. However, what if it was the other way around? What if the character needs to know they're respected, and so appreciates someone who is so forthright and grudging with compliments that each compliment must be earned. Someone who compliments them often might be thought insincere - even if the complimenter is telling the truth. i.e. "Of course my father says I'm a good guy, he's a push over. My grandfather, on the other hand, always tells it like it is.... He's the one worth talking to."

Hope that's helpful!

Before you leave, do any of you have any additional ideas, tricks and methods to deepen the character interplay so that even their simple reactions to each other are enough to keep us interested?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Research: Mining in the Victorian Era

I'm at the very start of researching mining for my next story and I thought I'd put up the information I've found in case anyone else is interested. I picked the Victorian Era and coal mining for ease of research though I'm going to have to sculpt and adapt the information to better suit the setting I'm using. Oh well! A writer always has to start somewhere.

Early coal extraction methods
Before we start, here's a little information on early coal extraction methods. It began with coal that lay on the surface or close to it and miners used drift mining (using a near horizontal passage in the mine), bell pits (basically, a hole slowly excavated outwards and with the coal transported out of the shaft by winch and bucket), and small scale shaft mining (like a bell pit with extraction working out from a central shaft and/or through extracting small sections / rooms of coal and leaving pillars behind to support the roofs). In the 17th century, mining techniques were improved through the use of test boring (drilling down to sample what lies beneath the surface) and mines could be drained by chain pumps driven by water wheels.

Victorian Era Mining Techniques
Wooden pit props were now used to support the roof. Fires were burned, originally, to create air currents and circulate air but later replaced by fans driven by steam engines. Special lamps, the Davy lamp and Geordie lamp, allowed any gass to burnt harmlessly within the lamp - though they gave very poor illumination. Improved techniques allowed for deeper mining with shafts being drilled for hundreds of feet below the surface. Room and pillar mining was still sometimes used with a network of rooms being cut out of the coal seam while leaving behind pillars of coal to keep up the roof. Of course, these pillars can make up to 40% of the coal seam. Blast mining involved using explosives to break up coal seams, then gathering up the coal and removing it.

Mining legislation and coal use.
People began using coke in 1709 to replace wood and charcoal. In 1786, coal started being used for lighting. Children used to work in the coal minds but in 1842, The Mines Act forbade the mining industry from employing anyone, boys or girls, under the age of ten years old for underground mine work. Inspectors were required to enforce the Mines Act, inspect mines, and file reports on the conditions and safety inside the mine sites in 1850. In 1872, further regulations were enforced with the Coal Mines Regulating Act insisting on additional and well-integrated safety measures.

Dangers with mining
The three most visible dangers in working in a coal mine were coal-dust inhalation, cave-ins, and even explosions. Coal dust and carbon monoxide, a toxic gas, could cause lung damage and even asphyxiation. Mine wall failures. Vehicle accidents with those little metal cars (must find out what they're called) running into people. Build ups of hazardous gases are known as damps. Here are some examples: Black Damp (carbon dioxide / nitrogen mix - formed by corrosion in enclosed spaces which take oxygen out of the air - can cause suffocation); After damp (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen - formed after a mine explosion); Fire damp (mostly methane - flammable); Stink Damp (hydrogen sulphide gas - can explode); White Damp (carbon monoxide - toxic even at low levels).

Mining Positions
There were a number of different positions in the coal industry and many worked outside the mine. Coal porters, trimmers, and waggoners were used to transport the coal. When children were allowed to work in mines, they were sent down to haul up loads of coal from crammed passages. Often accidents would occur when children lost hold of mine carts causing them to run over them.

In Summary
Well, that's a big hunk of information and that's just a quickly researched overview. What comes now will be a lot of reading books, watching videos, and searching the internet to expand my knowledge of certain issues and confirm research so far found. Then I'll have to take the information gleaned and feed it through my setting's socio-cultural shredder as certain details have to be changed to better reflect the technologies and cultural values of my fantasy world.