Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Long Dark - building a habitable planet

Almost a year ago, I talked about the unusual world setting of The Long Dark. This is a world with a roughly 90 degree axial tilt - so it’s effectively spinning on its side compared to the plane of its orbit.

The most obvious characteristic of such a world is its extreme seasons. Other than a narrow strip around the equator, everywhere will experience midnight sun and some day-long darkness. The closer you get to the poles, the longer those periods of perpetual day and night become.

The strangest points on the surface are the poles themselves. At midsummer, the sun will be stationary, directly overhead. Expect it to get very hot! As the days proceed, the sun will start to move in small circles, gradually getting wider and wider and closer to the horizon. When you reach the equinox, the sun will hug the horizon, then dip below, and you then have half a year of complete darkness. This is “the Long Dark” of the book’s title.

This extreme light/dark cycle was really the foundation for the story, but there are other important features I wanted to bring together, which meant some research to build a credible and consistent world.

When I first came up with the idea, I pictured the world circling a white dwarf. I don’t know why, but that was my mental image. As I developed the setting, though, I realized I wanted this world to have a very long year. I wanted my colonists to have several Earth years of “summer” in one hemisphere, before they had to migrate across the equator and set up camp in the other hemisphere.

This meant it had to be orbiting far out compared to Earth’s orbit, yet still warm enough at that distance to support liquid water and life. A white dwarf was not going to give me the conditions I needed.

I had an idea for how to resolve this, but no idea whether it was workable. I was delighted when some reading from a number of sources suggested I was on the right track.

In a few billion years, our own sun is expected to go through a red giant phase. It will expand to swallow the orbits of the inner planets, maybe even Earth’s. This led me to two very important realizations:

First, in this phase the “Goldilocks zone” will push outwards to cover the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. The “Goldilocks zone” is what astronomers refer to as the habitable zone, where liquid water should be able to exist on a planet’s surface. Right now, anywhere beyond Mars is too cold, but when the sun expands, the frozen outer reaches of the solar system will get a lot more toasty.

The second note is that if this is the evolution of our sun, then a red giant like this must be roughly the same mass. This means planets’ orbital periods will be comparable to those of our own solar system for a given distance out. And somewhere around the orbit of Saturn gave me the length of year that I was aiming for!

Right there, I had a long orbit that lay in the habitable zone. My white dwarf became a red giant.

I’m sure there are other scenarios that would give me the right combination of conditions, but this one simply resonated with me. It also provided other useful features that I’ll talk about in future posts.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Worldbuilding The Long Dark

One of the guilty pleasures of speculative fiction is the opportunity to imagine whole other worlds, and then bring them to life on the page.

There are some aspects of worldbuilding that I like to treat as a pastime in their own right in parallel to the actual writing. I wrote a whole series of posts about the massive drawing project for Admiral George Leonard, from The Ashes of Home.

That project was self-indulgent relaxation for me. It goes light years beyond the handful of rough sketches that I actually needed for the purposes of the story. In fact, the novels I’ve written so far have been fairly light on true worldbuilding.

The Shayla stories are set thousands of years in the future. There’s space travel and advanced tech, ships and planets for story settings, but strip out those elements and the world she inhabits is firmly rooted in current and past Earthly cultures. Worldbuilding largely consisted of placing a filter over the world we know, and deciding which features to amplify and which to fade out.

When it came to Tiamat’s Nest, I was starting even closer to home. Earth, later this century, but changed by a shifting climate and the ravages of conflicts and migrations as a vastly diminished population makes a new life in the new habitable zones.

Writing The Long Dark is presenting an entirely new challenge for me. Here, I’m starting out with a planet similar in size and temperature to Earth, but vastly different in most other respects. It supports non-Earthly life - a first for me - but humans can’t survive unprotected out in the open. In fact, their entire way of life is different from anything we know.

So, I’m having to go back to the drawing board and question just about every aspect of life that we take for granted. Of course, for simplicity and sanity, there has to be an undercurrent of familiarity, but I still have to look for hidden assumptions and bring them out into the open to see if the environment might drive a different set of norms that will play into the story somehow. I can’t simply transplant “small town England” onto alien soil and hope for it to make sense.

As a result, I’m expecting the first draft to take longer than usual, to leave me more time to mull over worldbuilding aspects as I go. Having said that, the last couple of months have been more productive than I expected and, for now at least, the words are flowing well.

Ha! I’ve probably jinxed it now!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The mundane life of a British spy

Any time I set off for the shops, I wonder what kind of experience it’s going to be this time. It seems usually to be either everything’s a breeze, or what seems like a simple task turns into an exercise in frustration. Not much in between. I bet James Bond never had to put up with such mundane nonsense  :)

The latter seems especially to apply when I’m looking for parts to repair or replace something around the house. This morning I had an unusually long list of stops to make. The usual groceries to get, plus a trip to the bank and the liquor store ... all routine and mundane ... but on top of that, a replacement light fitting and a collar to finish off where the stove pipe from our wood stove goes through the wall. Should be routine, but my spidey senses start tingling in anticipation of frustrations ahead!

In the end, this morning was a bizarre rollercoaster of plusses and minuses. Not the usual all-or-nothing.

First stop, liquor store. An essential component of grocery shopping, though admittedly neither of us drink a fraction of what we used to. This is more or less a once-a-month trip and easy-peasy.

Then on to a large hardware store. Light fittings ... not much of a selection, but all I need is functional. Find a ceiling fitting the right size. Success.

Look for a collar for the stove pipe. All sorts of pipes, angles, adapters ... everything but a collar. Ask one of the staff who confirms they don’t stock them. He was good enough to concede that this is an odd omission, and directed me to a store downtown. Frustration.

Never mind, that was just a chance addition to my list anyway, not the most important item. But just on the off-chance I stop off at a smaller hardware store on my way. Find the right aisle ... look on the shelf ... Yes! That looks like what I want. A couple of flat packages on the shelf. Success!

Oops! Spoke too soon. I realize what I’ve picked up is a cover plate to blank off an unused flue hole, not a collar with a hole for the pipe to run through. Frustration.

Ask a storeman just on the off-chance, and he checks the shelf. The second bag, that I’d assumed was identical to what I’d examined, turned out to be what I wanted after all. Success!

On to groceries. Boy, was the store busy today. And they’ve clogged many of the aisles with stacks of extra merchandise making it even more difficult to navigate. This is normally an easy mission, but today was a real slog. And, despite the obvious crowding, some people seemed to make it their mission to see how awkwardly they could place their carts for maximum obstruction. One woman managed to single-handedly block the entire aisle with cart alongside her while she perused the shelf like she had all the time in the world, utterly oblivious to the people either side trying to get past. Frustration!

But at the checkout, I was pleasantly surprised by an unusually low bill this week. Success.

I even managed to fit the collar onto the stovepipe without too much difficulty. I think I’ll leave the light fitting for another day  :)

I guess, as long as the frustrations get balanced by positives, so I finish on a good note, I can declare “mission accomplished” for one day.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Writing insecurities

I know a lot of bloggers who take part in the monthly Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which sparks some fabulous discussions because
(a) writers as a whole seem to be beset by loads of insecurities,
and (b) writers are incredibly supportive of each other.

Although I lurk on the fringes of these monthly discussions, I’ve never actually joined in the bloghop because, on the whole, I don’t feel a lot of insecurity as a writer. Frustration, yes. Longing for steadier sales, yes. Blockages when the ideas aren’t there and the words won’t flow, yes. Insecurity? Not so much.

I guess I’m either lucky or just plain weird.

But there is one kind of insecurity that hits me hard from time to time while I’m in the thick of drafting a new novel: Is this boring? Will it hold anyone’s interest?

I find this kind of angst strikes when I’m on a good streak, when I’ve spent some time hammering out words. I suspect it’s some kind of word fatigue, because usually, when I set the chapter aside for a while and come back to it later, I take renewed interest in it.  

It’s not just chapters, either. This can happen with the whole novel. When I first started work on Tiamat’s Nest, I got some way in then hit this slump big time. I had to set it to one side for two-and-a-half years before I could pick it up again.

This kinda makes sense because I do fatigue easily. I work best in brief sprints of maybe half an hour at a time, regardless of how many or how few words I write in that time. I then need to take a breather, and usually need to do something unrelated for a while. If I spend too much time in a day writing, then my energy and productivity often drops off drastically and the anxiety sets in.

That’s OK while my writing time is restricted to a few brief opportunities around work and family, but can get frustrating when I have whole days with no other significant commitments - ideal writing time, you’d think. But making productive use of it can be a challenge.

So, now I’m in the early stages of a new novel and progress is good - ahead of the target I set myself back in July, and words are mostly flowing well. I’m currently following one major thread of the story through a series of scenes, but there are times when I come to it and think are we still here? I’ve been at this so long, surely events have moved on by now? This easily slides into - this must be moving too slowly. People aren’t going to read this.

I have to remind myself that time is misleading. A scene that took hours to write might only take a few minutes to read. And I’ve spent so many waking hours envisaging what’s going on before setting it down on paper, I’m already familiar with it and know what happens next. A reader will be coming at it fresh. It will all be new.

It will hold their attention.

Won’t it?

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