Spring has Sprung

It’s officially spring. The bulbs are starting to bloom, the grass is trying to turn green, and two robins had such fun that I had to refill the bird bath. But don’t even think about tomatoes yet. It’s not safe to put out tomato plants until after the mesquite blooms.  Everyone knows this.


Fiction Research

Fiction is all made-up stories, as everyone knows. So why am I surrounded by research books? (Besides being CDO [that’s OCD but properly alphabetized] and Odd). Because I can’t, just can’t, leave things half-done, even in a made-up world.

Orson Scott Card’s book on writing science fiction makes a good point about “bolognium.” You can only serve readers one slice before you start straining their beliefs. In other words, if you have Faster Than Light transport, say, that depends on a new type of physics, that’s fine and you can do some handwavium without upsetting readers. But if you need a second major chunk of imaginary technology, or psychic powers, or a species of walking and talking plants that depend on infrared radiation rather than photosynthesis or chemosynthesis, then you’d better be prepared to do some serious explaining and some basic research. Historical fiction and alternate history are no different.

Randall Garret’s Lord Darcy fantasies are a good example. He reset the clock and the world by having Richard III decide to stay home and start a family, thus assuring the survival of the Angevin Empire into the (mostly) 19th Century. In that world, magic is a tool used for all sorts of things, and no reader would bat an eye. That first change told everyone that “OK, different world with different rules.”

Although set on a colony world (ColPlat XI, or Solana if you read the sales brochures), the Colplatschki stories include alternate history elements. And “real” history elements. Because I am a historian by trade, I could not just write the original story without some background research, especially not once I realized that the “one-off short story” had become a novel. So I loaded up on history of the analogous time on Earth, along with several works about logistics and early modern militaries. That research helped give the world more depth, and added details and complications for my characters.

Without going into too many spoilers [can you have a spoiler for a book that has not even been started yet? Anyway,] water supplies and plumbing play major roles in the next two Colplatschki books. The Babenburg family were civil engineers who made good, as Elizabeth of Starland explains. But just what kind of civil engineering? And what water system could last for 400+/- years, how would it be maintained without high-tech tools, and what problems would you face? Where does the electricity for those lightening bulbs around the courtyard of the palace come from? How do you supply clean water for a city of, oh, 35,000 people and get rid of the waste, without drinking from the Donau Novi?

Those questions play major roles in the next two books (Circuits and Crises and There is a Fountain). As a result, in addition to reading about the development and politics of the Hapsburg Empire (Jean Berénger’s book, among others, for those who are curious), I now have a book on medieval water systems, one on Roman water systems, and the absolutely magnificent Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World propped up against the side of my desk. Don’t worry, I’ll try to avoid Weber-esque info dumps. But engineering is fascinating, and I suspect I’ll end up with a few short stories to go with the books. I’ve read a fair amount about more modern water systems and sanitation, so the “language” is not new, but the mechanics are. At least, new to me.

My goal is not to bore readers to death. My goal is to have a rich background and a believable scenario, so that I can slip in a little bolognium without pushing readers out of the story. But I can’t be happy until I get the facts right, so readers won’t recoil and say “Hey! Your gravity flow water system goes uphill and there’s no sewage disposal. What else did you screw up?”

And yes, I’m a historian. If it doesn’t have footnotes and citations, it didn’t happen. 😉

SpellCheck 1: Translator 0

I have done some translation and interpretation over the years, and I sympathize when good translation goes bad. “There but for the grace” and so on. That said . . .

I skimmed through one of those glossy, small tourist guides to Germany the other day. It’s a nice little book in that it covers more than just Frankfurt, Berlin and Bavaria, and the text and captions are pretty decent. But one paragraph sent me into a fit of laughter, because I knew exactly what had happened. The topic was the farming products of the Black Forest and adjacent Rhine Valley. The list of crops included “emmer, unicorn, and spelt.”  The grain is Einkorn, a type of wheat. Something (or someone) read it as Einhorn, or “unicorn.” And either no-one double-checked the translation, or the translator had been ordered not to amend or correct the original manuscript.

So, alas, no fields of wildflowers and unicorns blow in the breezes off the western slopes of the Black Forest.

Choral Magic

I love singing classical* choral music, and music that refers back to classical themes. (OK, vocal jazz fans, throw the produce now if you want.) About ten years ago, I made the musical acquaintance of a composer named Morten Lauridsen and fell in love. The semi-pro chorus I sang with did his “Magnum Mysterium” as part of a Christmas concert. I’m not certain if his setting or de Victoria’s setting (1572) move me more. I’ve done both, and they are quite different treatments of the same text, with equal beauty and power.

Two years later the same chorus did Lauridsen’s cantata, “Lux Aeterna.” The central movement, “O Nata Lux” moved me to tears. The simplicity of the initial line shifts into a flowing, soaring harmonic pattern that resolves again into a gentle close that matches the text beautifully. The entire cantata flows well, even the parts that are fiendishly tricky to get the pitches to lock. (The opening two pages of the second movement are a capella and in tight dissonances that require the singer to memorize the pitches and aim for the correct dissonant, slightly sour, sound.) The first and fifth movements mirror each other, using different text to open and close the entire composition. Continue reading

Cat Among Dragons Update

The cover art for Hubris is almost finished. Barring bad 2d6 life rolls, Hubris: Rebirth of the Azdhagi will be available for purchase Wednesday, March 27, if not sooner.

Two little genes can destroy an empire.


Maker Seeri promised to create the perfect super soldier: strong, fast, telepathic, and endothermic. Three generations later, the survival of the Azdhag Empire, and perhaps of the Azdhag species, depends on six Azdhagi and an undersized True-dragon barkeeper.

 Lord Kirlin’s disapproval of genetic technology rivals his disgust with Lord Tarkeela. Tarkeela thinks the Pack Lords deserve the disaster they created. Tarkeela’s ears on the street, the story-catcher Cheerka, suspects the Makers and Pack-Lords know more than they admit about the surge in dead and dying juniors. When the truth boils out of hiding, Pack Lords and commoners must hunt together, reunifying the Azdhag Pack before all hell breaks loose and hubris becomes nemesis.

Colplatschki Series

The world’s longest short story may be getting even longer. I’m considering two more novellas/books, one about the founding of the Babenburg family (just before and after the Great Fires) and one to bridge between Circuits and Crises and Elizabeth of Starland. Let’s just say that Matthias Corvinus showed up yesterday afternoon and wanted to know when I intended to start writing.

A Sufficiency of Saints

The settlers, or Landers, brought several religions with them to Colplat XI. Of those faiths (or lack of faith), two figure prominently in the books of the Colplatschki Chronicles: the worship of Godown, and of Selkow. Over the centuries, Godown’s followers developed a canon of saints, patrons and intercessors who attend to the needs of the faithful.

In many ways, saints are the face of Godown for the average believer. Godown has no image, and His symbol is an abstract design. In the beginning Godown had no sex, but that changed over the years between the Great Fires and the compilation of the Holy Writ as the Christian traditions blended with Judaism, strongly influenced by humans’  habit of  assigning sexes to things. The war with the Turkowi and their goddess Selkow strengthened the tendency for believers to think of Godown as without form or face but still male. By now the clergy do not fight it, referring to Godown as “He” right along with everyone else. Even with that change, the majority of Godown’s followers find comfort in having a face and name to look to in times of trouble, and saints fill that niche.

Continue reading