Creating this story was a lot of fun. It’s set in the Darkover universe. I thought to myself, what’s the one thing that will really upset a Comyn lord? Answer: a woman who knows how to use a sword. Enter Nakatomi Madoka, born in the Japanese enclave on Samarra, one of the moons of Darkover. Madoka hires out as a mercenary to Gavin Alton, a Comyn lord who is up to something he doesn’t want other Comyn to hear about. This shady business involves the first matrix crystal discovered on Darkover in a very long time. The power it contains is worth killing for. Madoka must move fast and strike hard to make sure she’s not the one who ends up dead.
I love this cover art so much I plan to have it made into a T shirt. Come see me at BayCon 2023! I’ll be wearing the T shirt there!
When I set out to write The Wheel of Misfortune (Best Indie Speculative Fiction, Volume One), I asked myself what if one of the spirits of Japanese folklore who punish the wicked came after Dr. Harrington? How could the hero of my Kyoto Steampunk series possibly be wicked? This was a great opportunity to explore the early days of Dr. Harrington’s career as a member of the Royal College of Physicians. A serious error in judgment comes back to haunt Dr. Harrington ten years later in the form of the wanyudo, the Soul Eater.
Some people think plotting your story before writing it takes all the spontaneity and adventure out of the process. I disagree. I need at least some idea of where I want to go, if only for that day’s writing. I need a target to focus my aim and build momentum. There’s still a whole lot of adventure to be had just getting from one end to the other in a single scene.
When I began writing fiction, the how-to book that gave me the best advice suggested completing a first draft, then literally cutting apart and pasting together chunks of text. That seems ridiculous now in the age of Scrivener and Evernote. I’m a hands-on kind of person. Crafting provides me with much-needed occupational therapy. This tendency has led me to rely on scene cards for building plots for my longer projects.
Time This can be the century, the year, the season, the hour, whatever you need.
Place Where does this scene occur? You can be as general as galaxy or as specific as a patch of sand on the beach.
Point Of View (POV) Which character’s head is the reader inside? Change of time and/or place requires a scene break. The same is true for a change of POV.
Goal What does the POV want to accomplish during this scene? This can also be whatever the POV wants to avoid doing.
Opposition What prevents the POV from achieving the scene goal? Another character? A natural disaster?
Inciting Incident This is also referred to as the Problem Situation, the change in the POV’s life that sets the story in motion.
Resolution How does the scene end? Is the goal achieved?
Disaster This is one word for the end of scene hook, the twist that raises the stakes and heightens tension and suspense. This is what will keep your reader turning pages.
I find using 4 x 6 notecards gives me the most flexibility when it comes to lining up scenes in different ways. Wondering where to put that exposition? Trying to figure out where a flashback won’t ruin your pace? Scene cards are your friend. Scrivener provides something similar, but I can tolerate only so much screen time. Notecards don’t put you at risk for the dangers of digital eyestrain.
It’s OK if you can’t fill in all the info on every card right away. Story ideas evolve. That’s part of the fun, and another big advantage of scene cards. You can create several variations on the same scene card. Play around with the possibilities. Be sure to keep the cards you don’t use. You never know when those ideas might come in handy!
#NaNoWriMo2022 is coming. 50,000 words in just thirty days. I am an eight year veteran of NaNoWriMo, and I still find the prospect of writing 1,667 words a day quite intimidating. I have number of works-in-progress underway, but this year I choose to start a new novel project. Where do I start?
For me it’s all about the characters. I have written plot-driven stories. (As a matter of fact, I found out just yesterday my latest plot-driven short story has been accepted by an anthology!) When I start a story, I tend to start in the middle of an argument between one main character and the antagonist or a minor character who gets chewed up and spat out. Open with conflict. Show the reader why the main character’s life has just been drastically complicated by the problem situation.
“The only good writing is intuitive writing. It would be a big bore if you knew where it was going. It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘DON’T THINK!’” Ray Bradbury
They key to writing from the heart of your character is to know what that character wants. Sometimes it’s more useful to know what the character does not want. People tend to make more of an effort to avoid something that will cause them pain, whether physical or emotional.
What’s ironic about this is how struggle makes a good story. The survival instinct might compel your main character to avoid what hurts. That’s sensible, but it makes boring reading. Throw your characters into the deep end and make them figure out how to swim. Characters have to learn something in the course of their character arcs. They have to change. If the main character is still the same person at the end of the story, that can be done to good effect, but most readers want to see that character fight hard, fight smart, risk everything, and win. That creates a satisfying reading experience.
Think of your character as a piece of iron hot from the forge. You put that red hot iron on the anvil and you beat on it until it takes on the shape of the tool you need. A wrought iron candle holder. A horseshoe. A sword. Beat on that character. Raise the stakes. Make it hurt. Heat and pressure will turn a lump of molten metal into a work of art.
I am delighted to announce that I will be appearing in person at BayCon 2022! It’s been a long three years. I can’t wait to participate in these panels. BayCon has some really exciting programming this year!
New work suggests there’s a correlation between Autism Spectrum Disorder and Transgender/Nonbinary flavors of gender. But correlation is not causation. So is a link? And it now looks like female autistics are massively underdiagnosed, so what does that mean for nonbinary folks who may need help with ‘subclinical’ ASD issues? What about ADHD? Is there another link there that’s been overlooked?
Lillian Csernica (Sense of Wonder Press), Pat MacEwen (M), John Blaker
Exotic locales challenge writers to get readers up to speed while keeping the story going. What weird settings have our panelists used and how did they solve the problem—well enough for the editor to buy, anyway.
Jay Hartlove (JayWrites Productions), C. Sanford Lowe (C Sanford Lowe) (M), Lillian Csernica (Sense of Wonder Press)
Come find me at BayCon and get a sticker for your badge!
I enjoy writing by hand. I keep a personal journal along with writing first drafts in my work notebook. As satisfying as this is, there are two drawbacks to this approach. First, if I’m doing a timed free writing session where the goal is to blow past the internal editor, I often can’t read my own handwriting afterward. Second, I then have to spend the time typing in all those pages. That makes a drastic difference in terms of getting stories polished and out to market.
Last week I decided to plow through all the notebooks I’ve been piling up. That meant organizing the ideas and random scenes and large chunks of developing stories. I was delighted to discover quite a few I’d forgotten about writing. This prompted me to indulge in two of my favorite activities: shopping at the Dollar Tree and buying office supplies. Here’s the new binder for the various bits and pieces related to my Kyoto Steampunk stories.
I’ve got more stacks of notebooks to go through. That means more binders, more dividers, and the hunt for more stickers and whatnot to do the decorating. Dollar Tree, here I come!
“A person attracted to that which is foreign, especially to foreign peoples, manners, or cultures.” YourDictionary.com
In Kyoto you will find 400 shrines and 1600 temples. Of the many larger and more famous temples, Kiyomizu-dera is truly one of a kind. If I had to name just one single reason for going to Kyoto, I would say I had to visit Kiyomizu-dera. This was the number one item on my bucket list. Thanks to my husband’s kindness and generosity, this dream came true.
I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, and I’ve written about many of them. This is the first time I have deliberately gone to visit a location where I have already set four short stories. My steampunk short fiction, which appears in 12 Hours Later and the forthcoming 30 Days After, centers around Kiyomizu-dera. If there’s such a thing as a literary pilgrimage, I made one, and it stands out as one of the highlights of my strange and adventuresome life.
The Pure Water Temple stands halfway up Mt. Otowa, near the Otowa Falls. Primarily a shrine to Kannon (aka Kwan Yin), the Goddess of Mercy, the main hall is home to the Eleven-Headed and Thousand-Armed Kannon Boddhisatva. There’s a lot to know about Kiyomizu-dera. Please follow the links to discover fascinating facts about this temple and Kyoto itself, both ancient and modern.
There must have been hundreds of people visiting the temple the day Pat and I were there. People were dressed in traditional kimono or yukata, modern street wear, or school uniforms. When a tour group of high school boys passed by, a dozen manga sprang to mind.
The best times of the year to visit Kiyomizu-dera are springtime for the cherry blossoms and autumn for the maple leaves. Few things are more beautiful to me than the sight of late afternoon sunshine seen through the red leaves of a Japanese maple.
Here I stand on the veranda overlooking a thirteen meter drop. Known as the Stage, the veranda is built from over four hundred cypress boards. The Stage contains not a single nail. Wooden pegs were used instead.
In “A Demon in the Noonday Sun,” this is the spot where Dr. Harrington must protect the Abbot against the anger of Amatsu Mikaboshi, the Japanese god of chaos. The Abbot is sitting in a steampunk wheelchair at the time. Amatsu Mikaboshi keeps blasting it with black fire. Poor Dr. Harrington, a scientist to the bone, has to make a rather sudden adjustment to the reality of Japanese gods and monsters!
This is the view of the Stage from the opposite direction. I stood at the corner on the center left.
There are several shrines on the temple grounds. This is an excellent example of a shrine to Inari, god of rice/wealth. I love those fox figurines. Strangely enough, I could not find a shop that sold them.
Kiyomizu-dera is known for its shrine to Okuninushi, the god of romance and matchmaking. The statue of him makes him look like a tough samurai. Standing beside him is a rabbit that could give the one in “Donnie Darko” a run for its money. The rabbit holds a haraegushi, a “lightning staff” decorated with those paper zigzags called shide.
Now for the rather chilling part of this expedition. The sign below explains the history of the god whose name is never spoken, the one who will punish playboys and heartbreakers. A wronged woman can take a straw figure that represents the man who hurt her and nail it to the cypress tree behind this particular shrine. The god-with-no-name will then bring down some hard karma on the man responsible.
Note, please, that the second thing to scare me in the Haunted House at Toei Kyoto Studio Park was a falling tree. Pat told me later she noticed it was a cypress with a straw figure nailed to it. We didn’t understand that at the time. Now we do!
The ema plaques below give one insight into the hopes and dreams of many people. I was surprised to discover some of them had English writing on them, not just kanji. Pilgrims come to Kiyomizu-dera from all over the world. Most of the plaques we saw had a sheep on them. Still not sure what that was all about.
Here are the three waterfalls that grant particular blessings. On the far right, wisdom. In the center, long life. On the left, success in scholarship. I meant to drink from the water of longevity. Turns out I drank the water for wisdom instead. I suspect that’s probably what I really need!
Soon it was time to head back down the mountain. This took us back along the Sannen-zaka, a narrow lane lined with shops selling maneki neko, fans, mochi, dango, all sorts of postcards and cell phone charms and the items pilgrims might need such as prayer beads.
I bought a hat embroidered with a battle between the God of Wind and the God of Lightning. Pat found a number of items on her souvenir wish list. If you love shopping, you simply must visit the Sannen-zaka. We also enjoyed a singular snack: pickled cucumber on a stick. Legend has it that cucumbers are the favorite food of Japan’s most famous monster from folklore, the kappa. I have to say the giant pickle on a stick was crunchy and refreshing, right up until the moment when I bit into the stick.
In Writing Open the Mind, author Andy Couturier describes how asymmetry can help the reader participate in our writing, creating a fresh and dynamic experience. “Since each combination of these dissimilar parts suggests its own meaning, its own interest and power, asymmetry in visual art or in writing encourages participation by the viewer or reader in the fertile process of creation. In a sense, writing asymmetrically is generous, because it gives the reader many different ways to understand, instead of insisting on one, that is only our own.”
I keep all the fortunes I get from fortune cookies. My friends and family know I do this, so they tend to give me theirs as well. Over the years I’ve collected at least two glass jars full of fortunes. I decided to experiment with “writing asymmetrically” by pulling out a dozen fortunes and setting them aside without reading them. I wrote out twelve questions, just going with whatever popped into mind, then printed out that page. I cut up the questions into twelve strips of paper and mixed them up, setting them aside face down in one pile beside the fortunes already waiting in the other pile. I chose a question and typed it in, then chose an answer and typed that below the question. The results can be used for writing prompts, scene dialogue, a personal journal entry, etc.
Q: What makes life worth living?
A: A goal is a dream with a deadline.
(Sound advice. Failing to plan is planning to fail.)
Q: Who knows the secret of eternal youth?
A: You will soon be crossing desert sands for a fun vacation.
(Why does this make me think of Las Vegas or Palm Springs?)
Q: What advice would you give to your granddaughter?
A: Look closely at your surroundings.
(Furniture? Objet d’art? Choosing the most worthy granddaughter?)
Q: How do you solve the problem of time travel?
A: Good fortune is always on your side.
(So you’ll have a good time wherever you go!)
Q: Where can you find true Paradise on earth?
A: You are always welcome in any gathering.
Q: What did the monkey say to the banana?
A: Look for the dream that keeps coming back. It is your destiny.
(I’m guessing the monkey dreams about really big bananas.)
Q: How do you bring a smile to the sourest face?
A: You must learn to broaden your horizons, day by day.
(Some people bring happiness by arriving, others by departing.)
Q: I’ve lost my car keys and I have no money. Now what?
A: You are a lover of words.
(Talk your way out of that one!)
Q: How does one restore lost innocence?
A: An unexpected payment is coming your way.
(If money can’t buy happiness, it certainly can’t restore lost innocence!)
Q: Why are word problems always so confusing?
A: Laughter shall fuel your spirit’s engine.
(My teacher tended to laugh at a lot of my answers, that’s for sure.)
Q: Why are we told there are always more fish in the sea?
A: Little brooks make great rivers.
(This pairing was an accident, I swear.)
Q: What do you get if you cross a rhino with a stapler?
A: Follow your instincts when making decisions.
(First, don’t cross a rhino. Second, don’t do it with a stapler!)
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, I worked at the Southern Renaissance Pleasure Faire, aka the Agoura Ren Faire. There’s nothing like wearing Elizabethan costuming every weekend in ninety to a hundred degree heat while trying to talk people into buying the kind of elaborate jewelry they’d wear once or twice, not counting Halloween. That was during the day. At night, after closing, Ren Faire belonged to the workers.
During one of the evening gatherings, I learned how to play Spark in the Dark. I recommend playing it outside, on a summer night, under a sky glimmering with thousands of stars.
Spark in the Dark:
1. It takes two people.
2. One roll of wintergreen Lifesavers. Only wintergreen will work.
3. You can play the game outdoors at night, or in a dark room.
4. Each player puts one Lifesaver between their back molars. Hold it lightly in place. Keep the lips open so each player can see into the other person’s mouth.
5. On the agreed upon signal, both players bite down on the Lifesavers.
Lexico.com defines quandary as “A state of perplexity or uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation.” This is a perfect description of the difficulties I’ve faced when trying to balance a career as a professional writer with being the mother of two special needs boys.
In 1993 I joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association as an Active Member. In 1998 my older boy Michael came into the world at only 23 weeks. That he survived the next three and a half months in the hospital is nothing short of miraculous. The writing I accomplished during that time consisted mainly of the notes I kept in pretty hardback journals, documenting Michael’s growth, his tiny but meaningful milestones, the tests and surgeries and growing list of medications. Once Michael was allowed to come home, life became crowded with doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions. I tried to make the best use of the time available, editing manuscripts while in transit to the various appointments.
In 1998 John came along. Now I had two babies to care for. At that time it was just me while my husband was at work during the day. This is when I developed the habit of writing at night after the boys were asleep. Not the best plan when I wasn’t getting much sleep anyway. John was getting better and better at climbing out of his crib. At age two Michael developed seizure disorder, so I lived with one ear listening for any strange sound that might indicate John had escaped or Michael might be in distress. It’s very difficult to achieve the state of creative trance necessary for writing when one’s attention is constantly divided.
When Michael turned three and was eligible for the Early Start program, one of the benefits was nursing care. Thanks to the RNs who helped out and the support of my family, I wrote Ship Of Dreams. Getting that manuscript research took two solid years, then writing it meant daily labor. I suffered a disk crash that cost me two months’ work. (Words of wisdom: “Finish it!” and “Back it up!”) I found a literary agent who sold the book to a publisher. I’d been having some success with selling short stories and writing nonfiction pieces.
This might sound wonderful, and it was, but it meant struggling against my own fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and what I later learned were the symptoms of PTSD. When your brain already feels like dead coral, it’s almost impossible to summon up the energy needed to string words together. By that I meant just making sense when you’re talking to another person, never mind the effort required for creative writing. How was I going to keep writing? How was I going to complete projects, edit them, and do the marketing work?
There have been many times when I’ve wanted to “do it later.” As many wise people have said, later never comes. Today is tomorrow. I asked myself, “How badly do you want this? How badly do you want to work toward a Hugo, a Nebula, a World Fantasy Award?” The answers to those questions drove me to find ways to do the work even while attending doctor appointments, during hospital stays for Michael, and then facing John’s difficulties.
John had been hitting all the developmental milestones up until age four. We knew he had speech delay. The speech therapist was the first one to suggest we get John evaluated by a neurologist. The neurologist diagnosed John with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. At that time I knew nothing about “autism” other than the really drastic examples most people think of when they heard that word. Mind you, this was twenty years ago when a lot less was known about neurodiversity. I was in shock, frightened, depressed, and overwhelmed. Managing Michael’s care was already a complex challenge. Now John’s doctor and therapist appointments would have to be shoehorned into an already tight schedule. How on earth was I going to maintain a writing career when I couldn’t even manage a regular night’s sleep?
So I learned how to write whenever I had a few minutes. Free writing. Word sprints. Call it what you will. These bursts of writing are manageable, fun, and can be fit into a car ride, sitting in a waiting room, while having a meal in the hospital cafeteria. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s not easy, but practice promotes adaptation. I’ve written a total of seven novels and quite a few short stories. Now that some family issues and the first shock of the pandemic have settled down somewhat, I hope to move forward with editing and polishing these novels.
Living in today’s world makes it even harder to maintain a creative life. So many of us have had to take on the role of caregiver to a family member. Believe me when I tell you it’s essential to carve out some time for yourself, and for your creative work. Somewhere in your waking hours there will be fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, maybe even a whole hour. Use it. Sit down and take a good look at your daily schedule. You may find you have more time than you realize, it’s just a matter of making choices about what you spend that time doing.
I grew up on ghost stories, monster movies, Halloween celebrations, and books about folkloric beliefs all over the world. A cynical person might say all that would leave me predisposed to believe in the phenomenon I’m about to describe. I’d like to think all that research left me with the ability to separate what’s real from what’s only make-believe. My aunts and uncles talked about family ghosts with a mixture of pride and apprehension. However many ancestral ghosts might be haunting Daddy’s branches of the family tree, I defy them all to match the power of pure aggravation caused by my mother’s personal poltergeist.
Ever since I was a little girl, I can remember scenes of panic as my mother rushed around looking for whatever she’d lost that time. Just as we were about to leave for some big event such as a wedding or graduation, Mom couldn’t find her car keys. Didn’t know where she’d put her glasses. The paper with the directions on it had been right there a minute ago. She’d run all over the house looking in some of the unlikeliest places, coming up empty every time. Just when she was about to lose it completely, she’d check her purse or coat pocket or glove compartment or wherever she’d looked first, and there the item would be. Mom had simply overlooked it in her hurry the first time, right? That’s what my brother, my sister and I thought, but things began to happen that made that explanation less and less believable.
The smart thing to do when Mom was in one of her “Where did I put that?” panics was to stay out of the way. After my brother and sister moved out of the house, I’d be the only witness to Mom swearing up and down she felt like somebody was hiding whatever she was looking for and doing it on purpose. Wasn’t me, that’s for sure, because I was in as much of a hurry as she was to get to whatever special event was happening that time. Since I’m an observant person, I’d keep an eye on the items Mom lost most frequently: keys, glasses, purse, wallet, directions, and any special gifts we’d be taking along. Because I kept a close eye on these items, they often did not go missing at all. And then I hit that awkward stage between ten and thirteen.
Some paranormal investigators believe the physical and psychological upheaval of adolescence has a corresponding psychic turbulence that might manifest as psychokinetic activity. Poltergeist activity has been shown to occur most often in locations where a prepubescent or pubescent child of either gender is present. If the child is removed from the location where the poltergeist activity is taking place, does the activity stop? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. As technology continues to develop, investigators get closer and closer to their goal of solid empirical evidence.
So who was causing the problem of the disappearing objects? Was it the poltergeist, some mischievous spirit who just happened to decide my mother made a good target? Was it Mom, running around like a chicken with its head cut off so much that she’d put something down and forget where she left it, so it seemed to vanish? Or was I the cause, directly or indirectly? I never hid anything of my mother’s, and especially not on a day when we needed to get somewhere on time. Did the stress Mom worked up over getting ready for a special event attract the poltergeist? Did all that uproar trigger the response in me that brought on the seemingly poltergeist-based phenomena? Or did the poltergeist come first and get us all wound up and nervous so we created a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Here comes the part that really freaked me out. There were a number of times when I watched my mother put an item into her purse or pocket, her closet or a drawer. Later on when she’d need that item, she’d call me over to look in the exact place she’d put it, and it simply wasn’t there! It’s not like Mom had reason to suddenly move the object, changing the pocket or drawer. Even the possibility of something falling out of her coat pockets was rather remote because my mother favored coats with deep pockets to prevent this exact problem. The point here is as long as my mother had been the one to put the object in its “safe place,” there was a definite risk of the poltergeist making it disappear. If Mom gave the object to me to put on the dinner table or out to the trunk of the car, then we stood a good chance of finding it where I’d put it. My teenage years with my mother were full of all kinds of stress, money and hormones and attitude and the fallout from the divorce. One of the few areas where she did have faith in me was her belief that I had some kind of ability to make the poltergeist back off.
Unless, of course, Mom was behind it all, making those items appear and disappear. Was Mom having a good time, getting her laughs making me believe there was a poltergeist in the house?
I don’t think so. I really can’t believe Mom would have put that kind of effort into a prank that went on for years, a prank that resulted in her stressing out a lot more than I ever did.
So the question remains. What kept making all those items appear and disappear?
I'm a professional writer living in Northern California with my husband and two sons. Fantasy in various forms is my reading and writing pleasure. I'm a history buff, a Japanophile, and I love to learn about language(s). I enjoy making jewelry, using natural materials such as wood, bone, semiprecious stones, and seashells. I collect bookmarks and wind chimes.