Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tag follow-up

When I tagged Stella Telleria recently, she responded admirably with seven great gadgets and then passed on a new challenge to four other bloggers. The challenge she set was so interesting that I couldn't resist posting my own list even though I don't need to.

So, here are my seven most fascinating characters. These are mostly drawn from Ghosts, because, unlike Jean Davis, I don't have a long list of stories to refer to.

1. Shayla Carver, badass assassin and thoroughly mixed-up kid, hell-bent on tit-for-tat revenge for the destruction of her home planet. In Ghosts she is working under so many layers of deception that she has to keep reminding herself who she is supposed to be at any given moment. And she doesn't always get it right. Luckily for the two billion people on the Imperial home world she is not quite as hardened as she likes to think. But it takes a while for the long-repressed voice of compassion to be heard. I like Shayla because she's fun to write about.

2. Mabbwendig ap Terlion, a.k.a. Mad Mabb. Head of the Imperial domestic household. A diminutive bully, she tries to make Shayla's life hell when she infiltrates the Imperial hierarchy. Although we only see her bullying side in Ghosts, when I started "interviewing" her (see here for a post on character interviews) I discovered that her real driver is a fanatical devotion to millennia of tradition, and a withering disdain for anyone who doesn't measure up to the highest standards of duty.

3. Fleur Trixmin, the Bitch in the Basement. Imperial Chief of Intelligence. Petite, elfin, playful as a cat with a mouse. Her superficially irreverent manner masks a psychopathic sadism. Favourite quote: "I've made grown men, battle-hardened soldiers, weep with nothing more than the raising of an eyebrow."

4. Ivan Skamensis, the Emperor's uncle. Sly political manipulator and powerful opponent, he favours Imperial rule in the tradition of his mother - "It takes strength, and an iron grip, to keep all those worlds under control." He is the one truly responsible, behind the scenes, for the destruction of Shayla's home many years ago. And, no, he didn't bat an eyelid at the thought of killing 100 million people. That was just another day in the business of government.

5. Finn Probey, master assassin for the Family Firenzi. When we first meet him he is undercover in a terrorist group as an unkempt and slightly comical mute called "Weasel". His part there is characterised by a hobbit's obsession with food, and a supernatural ability to "get the job done", whatever "the job" might be. Subsequently he mentors Shayla on the next stage of her mission, unaware of her personal agenda.

6. Tiamat, from Electrons' Breath, is an emergent machine intelligence lurking at the heart of the Internet. With all transportation, industrial plant, and farm machinery under computer control in the late 21st century, practically everything, even your apartment's air conditioning, has lethal potential in Tiamat's virtual hands. Although Tiamat is the antagonist in this story, she is not truly evil. She is simply doing what all forms of life do to survive and propagate - i.e. whatever it takes.

7. Charles Hawthorne, university professor from Electrons' Breath. Not exactly antisocial, he has a daughter and grandchild, but has little time for other people and doesn't suffer fools gladly. All he wants is a quiet life in academia and a future for his family in a world ravaged by climate change. Rarely travels and has a visceral revulsion of immersive online worlds. Both limitations are tested when he stumbles on the reality behind Tiamat and flees for his life.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

So this is why I'm not getting much writing done

A long weekend (Victoria Day in BC), and not a Guide or Cub camp in sight.


No! Ian, put away that laptop. There's too much else to do. Like...

Unload a trailer full of compost

Add plants (well, that is actually Ali's department)

And stones

And another little corner of paradise done. For now. OK, you need to use a bit of imagination because some of those plants will grow upwards, others will spread out. I expect the whole patch to look a lot different this time next year. And I'm not quite done yet because I have to build a big home-made sundial for that empty spot by the lawn. But that's just details. The hard work is finally done.

Now that's out the way, the pirate ship beckons.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tagged - seven awesome things

I've been tagged (again) by Jean Davis to ponder seven most interesting ways a character has died in a novel I've written or read.

Now, the way Jean worded this tag left me feeling duty-bound to find seven interesting deaths from my own world, given how overpopulated it is and how Shayla (amongst others) has been working hard to rectify that situation.

So here, from Ghosts of Innocence, in strict order of (dis)appearance, and ignoring ordinary boring deaths from simple stabbing or shooting or poisoning, I offer the following:

1. Lots of people: Crashing from space in a crippled starship.

2. "Tiger" and "Raven": Beheaded cleanly by a shimmerblade, which is a knife with a vibrating crytsalline edge that can shear effortlessly through anything short of military-grade vehicle armour. I don't think either of them knew what hit them. Final thoughts probably along the lines of "that's odd, why is the floor flying towards my face?"

3. Italo di Flavio of Tinturn: A scapegoat for the crashing starship episode, executed in public by being lowered into a circle of incandescent plasma.

4. Lord Jerve Jamboro: Trapped in the wreckage of his crashed airbike and eaten alive by a hunting pack of flightless, predatory birds. No sympathy there given that he had, not long previously, been directing same birds to hunt down fleeing prisoners.

5. Brandt Carver: Shot through the heart by his own sister, in order to spare him an agonising death when he is accidentally (and irreversibly) poisoned by one of Shayla's own darts.

And, just to show that the tradition endures, from chapter 1 of The Ashes of Home:

6. Assassin #1: In hand-to-hand combat with Shayla, hanging upside down from the eaves of a building in an artificial grav field, steps outside the field, loses his balance, and plunges to his death.

7. Assassin #2: Accidentally incinerated by her own thermal grenade while trying to take out Shayla. Silly woman, she should have known that was never going to end well.

Now I have to tag four people in turn. So...
Cathy Chance
Stella Telleria
Charmaine Clancy
Lexi Revellian

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to tell us about the seven most awesome gadgets or pieces of technology you've either written or read about. And Stella, no, foam missile guns don't count.

Have fun! And please accept my apologies if you've already been tagged with this one. I did look first, honest.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

'Tis the season to be camping

Spring is here.

I can tell.

Never mind the sunshine outside, the blossom on the trees, or the grass that needs mowing weekly. I can tell, because every other weekend on the calendar has some notation involving the word "camp". And the house is quiet.

With Megan in Guides and Matthew in Cubs, and Ali a leader in both units, that often leaves me to keep the home fires burning.

Two weeks ago, Ali and Matthew went to the Wolf Howl at Camp Barnard. About two hundred kids and half as many adults. That left Megan and me on our own, which was nice. We ate pizza and watched The Fifth Element. We took Gypsy for a leisurely walk in Butchart Gardens, rode the carousel, and treated ourselves to hot chocolate and chai latte at the cafe.

Ali returned earlier than expected on the Sunday, which was ominous. Both she and Matthew had run out of steam because throughout the non-stop-active weekend the organisers had chosen to skimp on the catering.

Food should account for most of the cost of a weekend like that. Camps I've been to have involved substantial quantities of tasty and filling meals and snacks. Not this time. Not only did they plan out a bare and unappetising menu, they stocked it with the cheapest bulk ingredients available (including carrots that were intended for animal feed), they watered down the dressings for salads and the syrup for the pancakes. And still they ran out of key items before serving everyone. Ali and Matthew went without soup one evening, and without sausages at breakfast.

Luckily they had a full Sunday roast to look forward to at home.

We were worried that might put Matthew off further camps, but, apart from hunger, he did enjoy himself. So he is back at Camp Barnard this weekend, just with his unit this time. And they do know how to look after themselves properly.

Meanwhile, Ali and Megan are over in Vancouver for the Memories and More rally to celebrate 100 years of Guiding.

We had to get up at five o'clock this morning so I could drive them to meet up with other units from the district, and with the coaches that would take them over on the ferry. Five o'clock? What kind of time is that? I guess this is payback for the early start I inflicted on them a few weeks ago for the TC10k.

So that leaves me entirely on my own for the day.

Did I get any writing done? Did I heck! Too much to do around the house. But it was an opportunity to choose a meal that doesn't normally take anyone else's fancy. So I sat down this evening to baked trout with peach and almond stuffing, saute potatoes, and a green salad. Mmmmm.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

In defence of my characters

Jean Davis occasionally teases me about the cast list for Ghosts of Innocence. I had some discussion about this topic with some fellow writers, and it also got me to pondering questions about what factors drive a writer to include or cut characters.

Here are my thoughts, not based on any scientific evidence let alone any pretence at writing credentials.

The generally-received wisdom is to limit your characters to those essential to the plot. Wherever possible, avoid introducing new characters unnecessarily (can an existing character fulfill the same purpose?) and do all you can to avoid naming unimportant characters.

All this is sound advice. It is truth but, in my opinion, not the whole truth. I believe there are other factors that come into play. Here are some that I've teased out.

Required for the character

What would my point-of-view character be aware of?

Some people pick up names like iron filings to a magnet. From snippets of overheard conversations, from name badges on uniforms, office doors... they can't help but get the life history of anyone they meet in five seconds flat. Is my main character like that? If I'm deep in their point of view, then that should reflect what they would notice.

Or maybe the situation they're in surrounds them with information about the people they're dealing with. Information that they can't help but be aware of.

Or I may want to reveal something more subtle about the character. In a scene from Ghosts, Shayla sits down to a meal with her new colleagues. She is introduced to everyone around the table, then she points out that the introductions omitted some important people in the room: the catering staff. This exchange is intended to reveal something of Shayla, or at least, of the person she is trying to impersonate.

In these situations, names are needed. Names of people who are otherwise unimportant, who will probably not be seen again for the rest of the story.

Required for authenticity

"Shayla, let me introduce you to the Captain, the Science Officer, and here is Anonymous Cannon Fodder who'll be killed off in chapter three."

Doesn't quite ring true, does it?

Natural dialogue often includes names, and if you're trying to keep dialogue sounding natural you're likely to brush up against that from time to time. Sure, you can do your best to sidestep the issue, but I have no qualms about dropping otherwise unimportant names into the mix if: (a) it would be the natural thing to do at that point (for example, someone calling out to a friend or colleague) and (b) the piece of dialogue itself is important, or is the cleanest way to convey something important.

Helps the flow

More of a technical requirement. If I have a character who I refer to several times in a scene but who is otherwise unimportant, I will certainly apply the minimalist principle to the best of my ability. But sometimes it just gets downright clunky to keep referring to "the communications clerk", so once in a while I'll just say "what the heck" and give them a name in order to clean up the text.

In all these situations, I still seek to avoid introducing characters or names without good cause, but there is another important limiting principle too: would my main character be reasonably expected to know their name? This is especially important in the last example. No matter how clunky the text may get, if I can't reasonably expect my character to know who that person is, then they will remain forever anonymous.

Builds the right atmosphere

I left this till last because it likely needs the most discussion.

What kind of setting and atmosphere am I trying to build here?

Pick up a few books and study them. Some stories are populous, some less so. Whether by design or by accident I think that says something about the world the characters inhabit. I've picked on a few categories here to explore this further...

Richly populated: To further the discussion in my writing group, I checked out the first of the Harry Potter books. I remember them as depicting a rich and highly populous world. I was not disappointed. I counted no fewer than fifty three named individuals before Harry had even set foot inside Hogwarts, and I knew there were plenty more to come. Many are "throwaways" of the kind I talked about earlier, but to me that is an essential part of building a richly social world.

Just to be clear about how I'm counting here, I'm including every name, even "characters" like the weatherman Jim McGuffin, and Ted the newsreader, Mrs. Figg, Petunia's friends Marge and Yvonne, and Dudley's gang, Piers, Dennis, Malcolm, and Gordon. My original post here was about the difficulty coming up with names. That still applies even for a throwaway name.

This clearly contravenes the rule about only naming important characters, but it does give the setting a very familiar and homely feel. It mirrors most peoples' experience, of being surrounded by circles of ever-more distant acquaintances.

Sparse: The other end of the spectrum. Some stories have only a few key characters. Some even only one or two. Adventurers in the wilderness are not likely to run into many people.

Socially isolated: The main character inhabits a populous world but is isolated from it. One way to show that isolation is to surround them with people, but keep them firmly anonymous. Sometimes the loneliest place in the world is in the middle of a crowd.

Another twist on that theme, I checked out the first book in the Ramses series. I thought that this too would be highly populated. It is, but for the most part only the central characters are actually named. As I skimmed the story, I realised that this gave me a strong impression of social segregation. Many of the individuals we meet, outside of Ramses' family and immediate friends (and significant adversaries), are kept firmly in their place by their anonymity.

This latter story is, in fact, a good example of the rule to only name the important characters. And I think it is a good example of the effects, intentional or otherwise, that applying this rule can have. In the case of the Ramses books I think it is perfectly appropriate. But that may not always be the case.

A learning point for me, here. Don't blindly apply a rule just because people are fond of quoting it. Think about how to use it. Think of how it will affect the writing. Remember - the only rule in writing is that there are no rules.

So, with a count of eighty named characters in my cast, was I really over the top?

Expressing my aims in the terms I've discussed here, I wanted to build a rich and populous world. In part, when Shayla infiltrated the Imperial hierarchy I wanted to try to recreate some sense of the bewilderment I felt when I first joined the BC public service. More importantly, I didn't want isolation for Shayla. Bringing her closer to all these people, bringing them out from the cloak of anonymity, was one way to show a growing intimacy with the world she was setting out to destroy. An intimacy that was to become her undoing, but ultimately her salvation.

I cast myself on the mercy of the court.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

(2005) Good times

May 2005

Dear Aunt Agatha,

Watch out! I think we are starting to embrace the Canadian lifestyle!

Ali went out and bought a monster barbecue. Propane powered and big enough to cater for half the neighbourhood.

Great idea! Only problem was getting the darned thing up onto the deck. Between the two of us we struggled to lift it just a couple of inches to free it from its packaging. How the heck were we going to get it up those stairs?

After a lot of head-scratching, and stripping off any removable weight, we unearthed a flat wooden door from the heap of junk in the carport and laid it on the stairs to make a ramp. With a lot of puffing and swearing we managed to roll it up the first flight to the front door, then a pause for breath before tackling the second flight inside up to the living room. From there, getting it onto the deck was easy, but I don't relish the thought of ever having to take it out again.

Since then we have been avidly barbecuing at every opportunity.

And we are now the proud owners of a coffee percolator. We've never had a problem with instant, but folks over here take their coffee very seriously.

And we have got the hot tub into commission. A lot of work clearing the surrounding jungle, laying a gravel surround with some beautiful stones inset, repairing even more rot in the decking, and painting the timber. This isn't an item that we'd ever have gone out of our way to acquire, but I guess we'll make use of it. The kids are enjoying it at least.

Hmm. How long before we start watching hockey, I wonder?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Guernsey revisited

This time last year I was getting ready for a visit back to Guernsey. My first foray out of Canada in nearly five years. In all that time, I never had any particular reason to want to travel, but the motivation for this trip as my parents' golden wedding anniversary.

All in all it was a good trip. Miraculously, all the travel plans worked out without a hitch, and it was great to reconnect with family and friends.

And, in the middle of a very tough year at work, it was a timely reminder of all the differences we've noted between our lives then and now, and of the reasons why I can put up with a lot for the sake of the benefits.

Even though I'd prepared myself, I found it hard to believe how small and crowded the island felt. It took me a while to get up the courage to drive myself around. Driving on the "wrong" side of the road wasn't an issue - I've never had much problem swapping sides other than a momentary confusion coming off the ferry from France one year - but the speed and density of traffic and narrowness of the roads was intimidating.

Then there was the pervasive attitude that fun can't possibly be had without copious quantities of alcohol. Something which we've both set aside since moving here. We've often commented, while joining in family barbecues or wiener roasts on the beach or a park, how any such occasion in years gone by wouldn't have felt complete without free-flowing beer and wine. We don't miss it. Even when we have friends around for an evening meal or summer barbecue now, a bottle or two of wine usually goes a long way.

However, the biggest difference was the one I felt on returning to Canada. I realised that while I was waiting in Gatwick for my flight it had seemed like everyone was wearing their smiles upside down. And nobody made eye contact or spoke to strangers except for the minimum necessary to conduct business. Back in Vancouver, things were back to normal.

The first sign was the smiling immigration official who asked to see my Permanent Resident card while I was waiting in line at passport control. It was quite a line up. As I had one of the newer-style cards would I like to try out the new computerised system they were piloting to process landing papers? Sure. We chatted about the system as she steered me through the not-so-user-friendly interface. And it saved me quite a wait, putting me into a special line up of just a handful of people.

I knew better than to try to be friendly to the customs official in the passport control booth, of course. They are notoriously surly the world over. Must be part of their training.

Once through, I went to the information desk to buy a coach ticket to the ferry. It was so nice to be treated like a person again, rather than just a mildly inconvenient customer, that I couldn't help remarking on it to the young lady serving me.

And then, while waiting for departure time, I wandered over to Tim Horton's. Then I knew I was home.
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