Those who enjoy scuba diving (or who, like me as a kid, had watched Commander Cousteau’s documentaries) know that before going back to the surface, you have to make mandatory decompression stops to allow the molecules of nitrogen/ helium who had taken refuge in your tissus under high pressure to leave your body, via your exhaled air.
Otherwise, the nitrogen can decide to turn back into gas while it is still lodged in your veins and your cells, and it would not be a pretty sight. Decompression sickness is as dangerous as its opposite, the deep nitrogen narcosis which develops sneakily if you spend a too long time at 100 feet deep.
Diving in deep water
For me, writing feels like diving into deep water.
Except that my decompression breaks are in the opposite direction! It takes me a long time to reach the level of concentration deep enought to penetrate a story. Levels of ‘compression’ or concentration…
My first level takes about 45 minutes to an hour. I go over what I wrote the day before to get the story and its atmosphere back inside my head; I check notions, places, etc. If I write 100 words in that period, that’s normal.
At the second level, which takes me about an hour to reach, I am entering the story at 300-400 words per hour.
At the third level, everything becomes magical: my fingers hug the keyboard and the ideas are transmuted into words without my having to stop. I feel like the story is writing itself, and I’m approaching 600-800 words an hour.
If I keep this on without interruption, I reach my fourth level of concentration: the story tumbles like an avalanche in my head, fingers and words roll like marbles on a flat table. It is paradise. I smash through the 1000 words per hour wall. Often, this happens in the evening, when I have a deadline approaching.
BUT… I do not descend to this 4th level often.
On the other hand, to go up to the surface, there is no need for decompression stops. Any distraction can yank me up in a jiffy. The phone, someone calling me, or the family member.
As soon as my enthusiastic husband comes to tell me about a techno gadget he saw on the Internet or heard about on the radio, poof! immediate surfacing.
If the conversation is less than a minute or two, and if I don’t have to think to answer any complex questions, I can dive back in and get through my ‘focus’ levels pretty quickly.
Alas, this is rarely the case.
Another condition favors my rapid return to the depths: the certainty that I will NOT be disturbed again in the next few minutes!
So, after 5 or 10 minutes that ate my concentration. And, when the interruption ends, I have to dive back in and redo my stops. And, often, barely submerged, of course, it’s already supper time…
Confession of an unfocused writer
I created this article from a recent writing mishap.
Here I was, happily tapping on a wonderful science fiction story set in Antarctica, pom-pom-pom… when all of a sudden, a flawed scientific detail jumps out at me. Have I correctly calculated the position of the sun below the horizon during the southern polar night? Have I checked the right calendar for the current polar night?
Rising to the surface, opening the Internet, checking the info, then letting yourself drift on the Wikipedia sites, drift farther on the Scott-Amundsen station site, watching the web cam (it’s cold here, but not as cold as in the South Pole)… And, I came to my senses with the crucial realization of having wasted my time. It internally annoys me.
On the heels of that realization came another torment: should I change an explanatory paragraph to place it closer to the opening of the short-story? My words are so tightly knit together that moving one paragraph or one word requires rewriting several others, before and after. And so, I paddled on the surface to juggle these paragraphs.
Finally, after trying to dive back, I decided to go for a walk outside to clear my mind, and come back at another time. I told myself that it’s still warmer here (in Canada, Ontario) than at the South Pole…
TL;DR: Writing is like diving, but with the “concentration” stops going down instead of up.
Michèle Laframboise is a Canadian SF writer, with more than 60 stories published. Her most recent story, October’s Feast, is available in the Asimov’s SF Magazine. She is a fair low-level athlete runner, a lousy gardener, and avid birder. More on her official website here.
I was picking at the stubborn ice in the garage entrance. Again.
My shovel made such a racket that I was certain the whole neighborhood had heard. At least, those neighbors who didn’t go out for work, which was, a lot of ’em this peculiar, cursed year. The current temperature danced around a balmy zero Celsius, but the wind had frozen everything hard.
If, at least, the Sun had spared some if its heat for the fissured blacktop of the entrance, the ice would have melted by itself. Alas, a bunch of gray clouds had been squatting the whole sky all day.
I hated it when winter couldn’t decide, once and for all, between staying over or under the freezing temperatures. One day, snow to our knees, the following day, it all melted into slush puddles; then the following night created uneven ice patches everywhere. Add the sidewalks to that equation, their broken slabs a danger for any walkers, hidden under the layer of pristine snow, and that’s southern Lake Ontario for you.
As my nice neighbors’ car entrance was a slippery incline, the risk of a bad concussion was multiplied tenfold. Hence me, hacking the ice like a mad woman, the metal reverberations grating my ears, the vibration stunning my wrists even if I wore padded mittens.
For now, the wind factor was chilling the sweat channel pouring over my spinal column. Swerving around the buildings, the wind surged from every direction, surprising me. I should have covered myself better than a sweater and padded vest, but too many layers only made me sweat more.
If only the darn winter could make up its mind! That dance around the zero was driving me nuts, besides wearing down the asphalt. And my patience…
At this hour, I should be cooking the no meat turkey, mashing the potatoes, finishing the chocolate cake that would only be a pale reflection of the one my grandmother made. And I had to set the table to greet the husband and son coming back from their own errands. And choose the best plates, those perched on the high-altitude cupboard shelf.
But the thought of my neighbor, not much older than I was but with her hip broken in a bad fall, prodded me on. Her husband’s sore back and weak heart prohibited him from any undue exertion, like shoveling dense snow. I was in good shape, relatively speaking, of course, so I toiled for them.
Of course, it was stupid of me to risk a heart attack to de-ice a car entrance.
Evening fell too fast, giving birth to a colored rivalry of Christmas lights, enhanced by technical prowess. I felt a pinch of envy regarding this prodigality, but those lights offered a gift of beauty to any passerby.
The world was so dark, so hard. Those constellations of blue, green and white lamps warmed up my soul. I paused, the echo of my last shovel hack sounding for long seconds. A fragile bubble of silence expended over the deserted street.
My breath created soft clouds of condensation that dissipated too fast.
The silence, in a city, was something to cherish. I listened for the chatter of chickadees, the angry twip of a house sparrow, the tiny crack of the hardened snow under the paws of a cat, or the light bounces of a scurrying rabbit.
But the only sound I heard was the dry crinkle of an envelope under my boot. Untouched, unopened, escaped from the recycling van with the complicity of the wind. On its face, printed Christmas ornaments and holly leaves, framing a too familiar message: give generously!
In my humble opinion, printing Give generously! or urgent!!! We need you! with an excess of exclamation points, constituted a strategical error. Most of those envelopes landed directly in the recycling basket.
I didn’t want to cast the first rock at my neighbors. But since charity organizations had taken to systematically share our address lists, it was twenty, thirty Give generously envelopes that fell in my mailbox, just because I, once, forgot to tick the microscopic square hidden in a small fonts paragraph.
This accrued pressure had caused a mild case of giving fatigue.
My thoughts turned darker. Yes, give generously, while tycoons and bankers fired men and women or conspired to shrink their worker’s rents, inflating their own wealth!
And those same ultra-rich would put one hand over their heart at charity galas, while the other slipped gifts in politicians’ pockets, garnered further tax breaks with legal tricks, accruing the burden for all others. (And then the politicians opened their hands and told the populace, “See, we do not have money…”)
Strangled by all those speculators, what would be left of this famous middle class that shrank and shrank? Donations dropped year after year, even with the added promise of an anonymous donator doubling or tripling the given amount. So many of us toiled at two or three jobs to make ends meet, conscious to be at one illness, one accident, one job loss from homelessness…
Clanggg! I hit the blue-brown ice with a vindictive zeal.
The shovel broke a layer of ice that would have felled my fragile neighbors. Smashing the ice was as difficult as weeding the garden. In summer, I struggled to unearth the deep roots of invading plants instead of just pulling the heads off. Battling the roots of corruption was as difficult; many politicians pulling off some scapegoat from their hat and going on as before.
Under the thin ice, another envelope winked at me. All red, with the same holly leaves and Christmas tree ornaments, but bearing a different message. Flash sale, Find your gifts here, 50% on everything…
The other face of the holidays, where stores and banks and insurance agents offered pre-approved credit cards with incredible rates… Those two injunctions fought for my mind space.
Buy, buy, buy!
Give, give, give!
Buy or give, but never disturb the generous speculators who congratulated themselves with champagne at Davos while pouring crocodile tears over the climatic crisis brought by their own profitable actions.
So be it.
This year, I had decided to forego the shopping and give all that I could: clothes, food, kitchen items, books to nourish the dreams…
A low drone rose.
I thought it was the car of a neighbor returning from a job that might evaporate next year, in another reorganization. Then I heard distant bells tingling under the loud clangs of my shovel. Under the tingling bells, a chorus of voices sang, soft like the abating wind. Were there still people singing carols?
For a moment, magic bathed my soul.
Then a familiar rumble of a diesel engine cut through the magical moment.
The beams of two spotlights swept the sidewalk that I was furiously hacking. I turned around, sweating and out of breath, my palms aching from the shocks, intent on spilling out my consumer/donator frustrations.
The chorus I had heard a moment before was flowing from the driver window of a huge eighteen-wheeler, pulling a semi-trailer. The trailer’s side was marked with an unfamiliar logo with holly leaves and one round tree ornament. Such a mastodon should never have been able to engage in our narrow, curved residential street! Neither should have it been able to ground to a halt without a loud hiss of brakes.
A ginger cookies scent titillated my nose, along with a waft of warm air from the open window. The left elbow of the driver jutted out, wrapped in candy-red, shiny coat.
A bearded face leaned out of the window, the lower edge encrusted with ice crystals that fell as his arm brushed over them. The soft singing was still pouring out, probably from a high-quality radio system, because the voices were so clean it sounded like an entire choir had been squeezed inside the truck’s cabin.
“Excuse me,” the driver said, “I’m kind of lost.”
His gravelly voice betrayed an age in the advanced seventies, confirmed by the beard, whitened by worries.
Another elder who had lost his pension and had been forced to work as long as he had some strength remaining.
No, it was his way that he had lost. And, as like most truckers, he was ‘on the clock’. I put my bad mood in my pocket, with the envelopes, and planted the shovel like a flag into a precarious snowbank.
“Where are you going?” I asked, my voice raspy with the cold.
The driver turned to cut his engines, gaining my silent approval. The rumble of diesel died out like an organ endnote. He scratched his head under the rim of his knitted cap. Red like the anorak.
“Well,” he said, “it’s a bit complicated, since my GPS has retired…”
“Retired? He’s luckier than I am!”
Oops! I had talked without thinking. The paper tip of my bad mood’s viper tongue peeked from my pocket.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m a little like you, a freelance artist living day-to-day, so there’s no retirement package for me.”
“Oh,” he said.
He smiled, and that changed his physiognomy.
I mean, the guy didn’t have that perfect Colgate smile, whiter than white, over gums redder than his anorak. His teeth showed some wear and tear, toned to a soft ivory taint like an elephant’s defense. However, there was a light in his smile that rose to his eyes, their irises the pale blue of the ice, when free of impurities.
And this warmth, this light, evaporated the worries in my head, the magnates of this world receding into nothingness. I didn’t feel the cold sweat channel in my back, either.
It was at this moment that I noticed he had addressed me in my native French, despite my living in an overly English neighborhood in the Toronto area. How could he have guessed my proud Franco Ontarian culture?
“What brand is your GPS?” I asked. “A Garmin, a Tom-Tom?”
“It’s a Rudolph-2.”
“I’m not familiar with that brand.”
“Well, the first was the best, but since he retired…”
He had spoken on such a good-natured way that I almost didn’t notice the incongruity of a GPS going into retirement. I thought that poor trucker must have been so lonely on the long roads, that he spoke to his equipment. So, I asked him a good-natured question.
“And what are you transporting?”
His arm wove toward the back of the truck.
“Gifts,” he said.
As the single syllable left his fleshy lips, a warm scent of chocolate cake tickled my nose. I felt myself shrinking into a smaller me, transported in a familiar kitchen, as my grandmother was pulling from the oven a magnificent cake. Her mittened hands deposited the dessert on a pad on the countertop. Then she would spread her special cacao icing, a glory as each bite melted in the mouth, and place a little maraschino cherry at the center.
How I missed my grandmother!
I came back to the present with a start. If the bearded trucker carried food…
“Nothing perishable, I hope?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it will keep. I’m delivering everything this night.”
In certain stories or movies, there are moments when snotty critics qualified a character as genre blind.
For instance, you watch a movie with a bunch of teens in a haunted house, and the leader brilliantly decides, “let’s split up to cover more ground.” Of course, that was a staple of countless horror movies, like the young woman stuck in a mansion as Victorian as empty, who hears a noise coming from the cellar and goes down there to investigate the source, alone with her skimpy night robe…
That kind of genre-blind, of cognitive dissonance, was on me now. My brain had not connected all the dots yet, still rattled by the solicitation envelopes in my pocket.
So, I addressed the bearded man, hedging my bets.
“So, you’re a kind of Santa Claus,” I said.
I added my best ivory-toothed smile, the fruit of my privileged access to dental care.
At that moment, a concert of tweets and chirps rose in my back. Turning, I discovered a whole gallery of birds, the dream of any ornithologist doing the Christmas bird count.
Cardinals redder than red, with their more discrete dames, their plumage a beige and soft red. Cheerful black-headed chickadees, Black-eyed Juncos, with their best gray and white tuxedos, blue jays harping, and others that my eye couldn’t identify. Among them, a lone peregrine falcon perched on a branch, surprisingly indifferent to all those little meals chirping under its claws.
I was afraid that the truck would dematerialize like in the tales when I turned back.
But no, the driver was still there, one hand on the wheel, his kind eyes contemplating the bird assembly. Maybe I was mistaken, and it was St-Francis of Assisi hiding under this beard.
Really, I would be fine with that.
“Yes,” he admitted. “And I must deliver at a series of addresses.”
He foraged on the passenger seat and grabbed a pack of old matrix print paper. There must have been a hundred pages, all perforated on the sides. I glanced at the top address.
I felt a weird let down feeling. Then, I shook it off like snow from my boots. What was I griping for? Living in a fair neighborhood, in a country at peace?
A light bulb flickered in my mind: the first line was the address of a distribution center of food and clothes in my city. Because of the elite’s neglect or indifference, more families struggled to make ends meet, and donations were dropping. No wonder Santa Claus had changed his routes tonight.
Under the first address, I recognized others: a refuge for the street kids, a safe house for women and children in danger, a halfway house for ex-prisoners. I did not know the other places, but, flipping the accordion-linked pages, I could see area codes in Cyrillic characters, Chinese ideograms…
A gulf of gratitude filled me, warm as hot fudge poured from the pan. I clapped my hands in delight.
“Oh, I see what you’re doing, it’s, it’s fantastic! Thank you, thank you!”
He seemed happy from my reaction, and the birds tweeted louder.
“Yes,” he said, “and Mother Claus had even given me the locations of hidden political prisoners camps.”
That last bit saddened me. Long ago, I had sent a box of children’s shoes to an organism in Afghanistan. The box never got there. Lost in transit…
“The jailors will keep the gifts for themselves,” I said, my voice heavy.
That didn’t seem to bother him, no more than the time zones and Earth’s circumference.
“It will be a delicate affair, young girl, but for a guy who had slipped into millions of houses by chimneys or windows in a single night, no problemo!”
His young girl passed on me like a balm, because it was sincere. The good grandfather perceived me as the child I had been, as I was still inside.
However, there was just one little detail at odds with my ecological conscience. The gas-gurgling truck.
“Wouldn’t it be less polluting to drop your gifts from your sleigh, with the flying reindeers?”
There, he burst into a hearty laugh. Not the fabled ho-ho-ho, but a joyous wah-ha-ha-ha!
“A truck is less conspicuous. Especially with all those drones firing on everything, even the birds! As for the gas, the elves have produced a biofuel.”
He restarted the engine. I could smell a sharp scent of ginger coming out. He winked.
So, stepping on the foothold, I gave him the directions to get out of the street, and to reinitialize his GPS. His eyes perked up when the little red sleigh icon blinked on his screen. A powerful Ha! escaped in the night.
“I thank you, young girl. Do you want something in exchange?”
I considered the flock of birds happily hopping by, and breathed in the odor of grandma’s chocolate cake and ginger breads, all coming from the exhaust tubes.
One writer, on the verge of dying, had said that his most marvelous discovery had been to know that he already possessed everything he needed to be happy.
A roof over my head, a family to cherish, a work I loved.
“You just gave me my gift,” I said, tears in my eyes. “I don’t need anything else.”
“Well, it has been a pleasure to talk with you. Embrace your loved ones for me.”
And, just like that, the gift truck rumbled on, leaving its good smell of ginger and chocolate behind. I followed it with my eyes until the taillights were gone.
I stood, unmoving, savoring the moment under the stars that shone without concurrence from the Moon. Then, the to-do list raised its ugly head in my mind.
Ice to break; meal to prepare; table to set.
My hand reached for the shovel’s handle.
And froze there.
Under my feet, the concrete slab was as dry as in July. The ice had evaporated on the sidewalk, so nobody would slip and get a hip fracture. On the street, and on the driveways near me, the black top had been regenerated, all cracks gone from its smooth finish. Nice of Santa, to think of the municipalities crushed under debts, putting back repairs.
Thank you, I thought.
You’re welcome, a voice answered in my head, just as a snowflake tickled my nose.
Snow was falling, big fluffy tufts, magical, as they only covered the lawns and gardens by now empty of birds. I put back the shovel inside our empty garage and headed for the front door.
As soon as I pushed it open, a flurry of good smells greeted me. Mashed potatoes, vegetables, tofu turkey with cranberries…
To my surprise, the table had been set.
With the best plates, those that usually waited on the high-altitude shelf, disposed on the clean fabric with their attending cutlery. It was as if a fairy—or Mother Claus?—had prepared this feast.
I was tempted to cry out You shouldn’t have done this!
But I didn’t.
Because, at that moment, I saw—and it drew tears from my eyes—what occupied the center of the table: a wide, generous china plate, the edge ornate with holly leaves (real, fresh ones) and small golden marbles.
And, on this round throne, a cake, worthy of my grandmother’s best art, covered with a thick layer of chocolate fudge icing, sending up a warm scent of cacao. On its top, a small round cherry sat, like a tiny Christmas ornament.
May you all live and give in this Holiday Season !
(c) Michèle Laframboise 2021
Enjoyed this tale? At the time I actually wrote it, Serge Bouchard, a dear friend of all poets, who had been a trucker, had just left us. So the generous character in the truck would look a bit like him.
Whatever is the flavor of your life and your deep-rooted beliefs, the shorter days leading to the holidays often coincides with difficult situations, forcing hard decisions.
It is a time when the heart may feel the relentless pressure of the exterior world, and also experiments inner turmoils of its own. No wonder, then, that so many striving souls lack confidence! When everything darkens, I crave for the oldest of pick-me-up, a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.
I love chocolate (I know, not original since I share this taste with hundreds of million of people). Dark chocolate, artisan-made chocolate, ethical… and also, hot chocolate, at certain times. For me, hot chocolate reminds me of the scout camps, when we doled out the evening collations to the cubs after a long day of activities.
I rarely drink while reading a book, because I might get drops on the pages. But yes, on rare occasions I have enjoyed the treat of reading on a good chair, with the cup of chocolate nearby.
As the Holiday Season is upon us, I put out my first collection in paper and ebook, 5 Chocolate-Rich Holiday Storiespublished by Echofictions. Those new, upbeat stories include three sweet romances set in the Holiday period, and they’re best enjoyed with a cup of chocolate or your favorite treat!
Any strong, researched plot I build looks as fragile as a house of cards in my mind. This is how I feel when writing a novel, a short-story, anything, in any genre including romance and science fiction.
And this happens to me even when I plan my stories in advance. The carefully-laid plan goes by the window after a certain point in the writing. And for my very first writing endeavour, I had bought into the “not writing a line before the plan is perfect” and followed by “show your work-in-progress to everyone (and get their advice)” to “rewrite ad nauseam until its polished and smooth.”
I found out that I am closer to a pulp writer than a once-every-ten-years literary author. So I write mostly by the seat of my skirt those days, going back if a nifty details grabs my attention.
My scientific self vs my story-telling self
And it doesn’t help that I am a SF writer who likes baking hard and crunchy SF stories. Sometimes I even overcooked them, making them so hard nobody could access its softer heart!
My scientific upbringing and formation in geography and engineering (even if I didn’t make a career in those fields) had left me with a reflex to check my premises and promise to my readers. I’m a nit-picker. I like flying off on the wings of pure fancy, but at a point my basic knowledge of sciences trips me.
Of course, I could stay in the fancy realm and ignore the science and call my story science-fantasy, where the ships engine screech like mad demons in the vaccuum of space.
Moreover, at any point in time, even the most concrete-hard SF story will be caught up by real science advances (e.g. lab-grown meat or gravity waves). The most I can do about a nagging detail is making a check in my paper books and on the web. If I have to research for more than one hour, without finding anything regarding this devilish detail, I leave it in the story.
Ta. Catch me if you can!
Melting chocolate fudge or rock-hard cocoa?
For me, some details are almost impossible to ignore. Like when you read a contemporary police procedural novel and your detective picks up various things around a body, with his bare hands! Unless it is set in a past era, everyone knows about prints, and now DNA! The same goes for your cat burglar who handles art items without gloves.
Some basics in science fiction are difficult to ignore, like the sound of ships in vacuum. I believe in making as much research as necessary for the story to hold together and not crumble, but if you are not a NASA rocket specialist, or a military strategist, it’s no biggie. Keep the very basic and improvise (ahem, build up) from there. I did read some hard-candied fiction by authors who have a professionnal background, but I do not expect to imitate them!
As one writer told me, you make your science as palatable as you like, whether soft, chocolate fudge that melts in the mouth, or hard 80% cocoa chocolate bar that defies the teeth! Telling stories should feel fun, not like dragging a chain and 100-kg ball behind oneself.
And you have all kind of readers from wide-eyed children to glazed adults, and the whole spectrum between. Some might prefer the melting in the mouth parts. The characters of the story will bear the weight of the plot, and the emotional/personal impact of the situation at hand (or at tentacle) will nab your reader.
Writing is not a straight line
Do I go back and change things? You bet!
And generally, many of those details are about the characters interacting with their environment. I tend to follow the rule of three mentions, adding at least two instances of the details, so it sticks in the reader’s mind. For instance, in my novel Paloma’s Secret, one of the teenagers had a favorite and fun catchphrase, that I only found out about in the last chapters. So I went back and change the dialogue to add the catchphrase in the first chapters.
Do I write in order from word one and not stopping to the end? Nope. I have novels that begun with one impressive scene, plus the prequel and consequences woven out of the strong scene. Or a novel is a tiny seed that grows and grows.
For the first time, fearless Amanda Byrd must mind her turbulent grand-niece while on a special birding excursion, on the day of the SuperBowl.
Our sharp-eyed guide pointed silently towards one of the husky, snow-powdered spruce branches. There, its mottled cream and caramel-brown plumage almost invisible against the tree background, its pale heart-shaped face marked with the dark marbles of its eyes, was a discreet nocturnal bird doing its best to avoid the sharp daylight.
You rarely got to see a Barred owl from such a close distance, in a cold February afternoon, a meager dozen feet from the trail our small gaggle of birders was following. I didn’t even need my 8×42 Bushnell binoculars to take in its 22-inch long body from head to tail. I felt I could just stretch an arm to brush the fine down on its roundish head.
Well, not that I would do such an impolite gesture in front of my small niece. But my sister’s first grandchild had no such qualms herself.
“Hooo, hooo!” Mona said, her bright red mittens cupped in front of her mask, her brown eyes full of glee.
The owl’s neck moved like a tank turret to investigate the disturbance, one abyssally-dark eye blinking under a fluffy cream eyelid.
Most owls had gaudy-colored irises, orange or gold, framing round pupils; Barred owls had obsidian eyes, like black glass, the irises indistinct. Owl’s eyes were not slitted like cats’ to minimize incoming light, so the nocturnal bird protected its sensitive retinas.
Its downy eyelids, lowered at half-mast, gave him a perpetual air of either wisdom or sleepy annoyance.
Some owls’ tufted feathers reached out in points, like the Great horned owl, but this owl’s tapered along the round head.
When the owl’s head moved, Mona hooted happily.
“He looks like caramel ice cream with nuts!”
Count on children in the dead of winter to talk about ice cream, I thought, shivering.
The bird’s colors rather reminded me of an ill-fitting wool pull one of my own “aunties” had knitted for me (forgetting that teenage years were also growing up years) with a pattern of creamy whites and spatter of light brown stitches, at odds with the gaudy colors the sixties era favored.
I wore it for a time, to please my aunt, and as a camouflage to observe birds, Eventually, the mites found it. My mother unraveled the pull and knitted a warm scarf with it. Now that scarf, decades later, I wore in my winter bird watching, those muted hues being less aggressive.
I breathed in the cold air through the scarf and my thin face mask. The low temperatures prevented me from getting the scents of pine and fresh snow, but the odor of old wool impregnated with my mom’s patience remained present. I wore a heavier daypack with a thermos and collation.
But at least, it was a rewarding activity to go birding on the ‘Superb-Owl’ Sunday, as birders called this day. The name had been coined by a passionate birder in the 90s, and since then, many bird-lovers found out, in cities and woods alike, how quiet that peculiar Sunday was. The usual troves of weekend hikers also dried out on that day.
At this moment, my nephew, along with half the United States population, was lounging on his living room couch watching football players as colored as birds disputing a spectacular waste of money. (I’m told the commercial spots alone cost several millions.)
Meaning that, on Superbowl day, our small group of dedicated birders had the huge park near Albany, NY – and all its birds– to ourselves.
Including our own elusive, superb owls.
That is, if one of us did not scare said birds away with her bubbling enthusiasm.
I am researching for a SF novel in preparation (the specifics I keep to myself for now) and, one interesting site after one fascinating site, found out that time compressed itself and most of the afternoon had fled down the rabbit hole!
I do not know if my scientific formation aggravates this time-sink habit. I hold a Master degree in geography, and so many aspect of macro-ecology do hold my interests!
Plus, even the very day-to-day concerns penetrates my Serious Writer mode. From the over-usage of single-used plastics that keep turning up in the remotest places or the oceans, to the waste of my own pens and stylus, to the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count, and my own, heart-warming geek love Valentine day short-story…
So, all those tiny bits cluttered like a planet aggregation process, dissolving my focus. Already 16h00?
As I mentioned previously, most of what I ‘m noting right now won’t ever make it to the novel you’ll read somewhere in the next year. Some of those, if I can’t place it in the novel, will turn up, greatly compressed, in one or two exploratory short-stories, set in the same universe.
What I will NOT do is integrating all that painstaking-ly gathered tidbits into the novel itself, under the form of some extra-large infodump, (or a rather lengthy explanation by a secondary character that will get killed in the next chapter).
Research as an iceberg
See research as the hidden part of the iceberg. What floats if what the reader experiences. If you tried to pull more of the iceberg over the water level, like I did in my first books (fortunately Daniel Sernine, my editor of the time, detected it) you would end up with an indigestible lump of details that weights down the storytelling.
Yes, I was one of those very interested in sharing all those cute details!
Yes it is soooo tempting to have your characters stop on a ridge and describe the wondrous landscape in excruciating details, over two or four pages! It is more palatable if the description is shorter, and punchy, like this one from a WIP:
The dunes went on and on, a pale sandbox barely contained by a row of angry mountains, each chipped and corroded summit vying for predominance.
Most of the research iceberg must stay invisible!
Solution is not dilution!
To keep our focus, it’s good to set limits, to avoid diluting our attention.
One solution in time management is to do the research after you complete writing a certain set number of words for the day. This is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s method to limit the time spent in research. She also manage to get her research done before writing the novel, while she’s finishing the previous book.
Not the way of Dean Wesley Smith, who does his research as he writes, because some cool factoids will influence the story telling. I know it happened to a short-story I was researching for.
One obvious solution is to restrain the time passed on the social platforms. Or retire completely from social media in a period of rush. Julie E. Czerneda mentions it.
My own is setting a timer. Sometimes the amount of time is not enough and I prolong the time. Still work to do.
Or I use this experience to write a blog entry.
TL;DR : I lost time surfing the web for my research. Some remedies may apply
You know this famous joke about the guy who paint all the floor … to get caught in a corner, surrounded by a freshly applied layer of paint?
I do not know if you are like me, but there isn’t one story where I did not commit this blunder in writing… Even when I had a plan!
Last time, I was so hesitant that I missed a contest. It was a historical fantasy thing that worked perfectly … as long as I did not notice a 5-year gap in the dates!
A head-banging puzzle!
It was terrible conundrum, a head-banging puzzle: either I changed the date and the age of the main character, and the plot fell flat. Or I kept the factual error by arbitrarily changing the year, and it was a great story. (The story being in submission, I do not speak more about it).
I should have done more research. The mistake would have jumped in the face and it would have given another story.
I am happily preparing a series of historical mysteries following Domus Justice. (published in Fiction River 27, edited by the talented Kris Kathryn Rusch) I realized that — I who adore the antique period – I took liberties with the plans of the Domus (house) in question. Moreover, it was not clear where were the toilets, hum!
So, in the subsequent stories, after serious re-study of the plans, I saw that I misplaced the altar of Lares, in a corner of the back garden. Heaven what to do? See this Wikipedia entry for a layout.
In this case, I decided not to change anything in my text about this site … and to pay more attention next time!
In establishing your historical setting, you have to “do your homework”! But be careful not to stretch this search time indefinitely …
Following the right tracks!
I’m also wading into writing a crime novel (technically, a mystery). I found out that I sent my shy heroine twice to the same place. It allowed me to insert a beautiful sequence in the center of the novel … And to advance the investigation because she discovers a special clue.
But, what my heroine already knows when coming back to this place breaks some of the reveal progression, the tension. In addition, I have a bad tendency to multiply the oppositions when only one could do the trick. In short, have I put too much, diluting the danger?
Ah, la, la … I’m not out of the woods!
In a detective novel / polar / suspense where all the details must converge towards a strong resolution, painting myself in a corner (whereas I made a plan, I recall it!) led to a catastrophe. I got embroiled in my tracks, adding motive over motive for my villain, to be certain that the assassin had a strong incentive to act!
I have not solved this problem yet, so I’m working on another creation while letting my creative subconscious search for a viable solution.
When was the last time you “wrote yourself in a corner”?
My latest opus, White Valentine, a foray into the sweet Romance realm, comes in time for Groundhog Day.
A big fantasy geek summons his courage for a blind date, only to be fooled by his GPS and locked out of his snowed in car. Being no elfin warrior, Nick plods on in the rapidly piling snow.
Delilah gazes at the snowstorm raging outside her window, not a princess either with the scar marring her face, her hopes wilting. Then she must leave her post to rescue her nice landlady from an ambitious nephew.
Will this snowfall doom their Valentine date?
A funny short-story dedicated to my author and mentor Kris Kathryn Rusch, who taught me how writing in various genres can be son fun! I met her at the recent Master Business Workshop in Oregon.
And yes, this is my first romance short story, in the spirit of the eponymous romantic movie Groundhog Day, so close to Valentine Day! But don’t take 12,395 days (Phil reliving Groundhog Day estimations according to movie buffs) to appreciate those who live near you!
Order it in advance on the usual suspects (Kobo, Amazon, D2D…) or go directly to the universal link here!