Tag: Writing

Winter is Coming

Winter is Coming

Okay, I know that line has been taken, but it seems that winter is a theme running through my writing these days. I recently finished a new alternative history mystery novel, (as yet unpublished—still at first reader stage) that arose out of a writing workshop I attended on the Oregon Coast. It is set in what is Kyrgyzstan in our world. Okay, okay. I can hear you now. KYRGYZSTAN? Where the heck is Kyrgyzstan?

Think north of Afghanistan in and around the Tian Shan and Allay mountains.

It’s a small, ex-Soviet Union country—one of the ‘stans’.

My story grew out of an exercise at a Historical, Time Travel, and Alternate History workshop presided over by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, author of such wonderful time travel novels as Snipers. She asked us to take an event out of the wonderful non-fiction book The Great Upheaval, and use that as a jumping off point for an alternate history story. The short story that arose presumes that history diverged way back in the late-1700s at the time of Catherine the Great, or Yekaterina as I call her. It was around the same time as the American and French revolutions when Catherine was the great Tsarina of the Russian people. She was an interesting lady who wasn’t even Russian by birth, but she married the Tsar and then usurped his throne. Like I said, interesting lady.

In her younger years Catherine was tempted by the influence of the great statesmen and philosophers of her day to consider democracy for her people, but eventually decided that it wouldn’t work—for Russian peasants. Instead she went to war against the Ottoman Empire. In our world she won her battles because the Ottoman Empire was waning.

But what if Catherine’s depredations (and they were vicious) woke the Ottomans up? What if the Ottomans found their strength again and took the battle to Catherine and the Russians? The Russians were stretched by conflicts on their northern and southern borders and with Poland.

Because the Ottomans won (in my version of history), it led to a world very unlike this one. It led much sooner to the end of the French Revolution so that Napoleon never became emperor and never ruled. As a result, the French government never supported the fledgling United States in their great democratic experiment, and that led to Great Britain taking over most of North America.

At least in my made-up world.

In the novel that grew out of the short story, a rag-tag group of Russian refugees escaped the Ottoman juggernaut and now live in a small country called Fergana. Fergana lies caught like the gristle in a joint between the two behemoths of the Chinese and Ottoman Empires. In the late fall of a modern day New Moscow a young girl is found dead in a city park. Thus begins my new novel, After Yekaterina. It’s late October and the first snow is threatening as Detektiv Alexander Kazakov stands over her body.

That is how I came up with my latest mystery series. And now, as I start the second novel in the series, the autumn ocean storms are settling in over my home, but in Fergana it is deepest January and the long winter has arrived.

My goodness I like this writing thing.

The Care and Feeding of Birds… and Novels

The Care and Feeding of Birds… and Novels

I put up a new birdfeeder the other day. It’s not the feeder oriented toward small birds like rosy and gold finches or chickadees. This one is solid wood, with a solid tray and a wooden roof that I inherited from my parents’ house. I decided to throw it up on my back deck as a way to get rid of some bird feed that I had had left at my house.

The first day a few little birds fluttered over from my other feeder to try it out. This carried on for a few days, but they clearly preferred my tube feeder with the chopped sunflower seed. I waited anxiously to see whether anyone would like the plain bird seed, peanuts and sunflower seeds in their shells. About three days in suddenly I had a vivid blue visitor—a cocky Stellar Jay. Not long afterwards there was a second—a youngster who kept bugging his mother to feed him even though he was perfectly capable of feeding himself. These two kept the feeder busy, taking turns feeding and teasing my Bengal cats in the process.

Two weeks later the population of Stellar Jays has doubled with four of the forward little fellows coming in to feed. They also take great pleasure in teasing the cats by hopping right up to my sliding screen doors. There are also two or three flickers that come in to feed as well as the usual mix of smaller birds. It’s kitty T.V.

The process of building a population of bird neighbors got me thinking about the care and feeding of novels—mainly because this spring and summer life has kept me from being able to write as much as I would like to. It got me thinking about how the kernel of an idea for a novel is a lot like putting out a birdfeeder.

Writing a novel requires the same faith as putting up that bird feeder, but instead of waiting for the birds, as a writer I’m waiting for the visitations of ideas. When I first put fingers to keyboards to start a new novel, it’s like hanging out the birdfeeder. There are tempting ideas there, there may even be ideas about the characters you intend to include, but the reality is something else. The core of the idea is there, but finding the other ideas that make a novel a novel is another matter altogether. After all, a bird feeder without birds isn’t much of anything at all and a novel without layers of ideas is at most a short story.

In the best of cases, new ideas come as you write. They really do seem to flutter down of their own accord, attracted by your initial idea—some even strut onstage cockily much like a Stellar Jay. The best of them you never see coming, leading to a veritable Eureka moment. The ideas that surprise the writer are my favorite kind and are usually the situations or reversals of fortunes that please readers the most, too. They are the ideas I strive to find in my stories, but in truth I think the ideas find me.

This year my creative process seems to have been dampened by dealing with too many family issues. It feels like my bird feeder is empty. And yet…

I wrote a short story the other day (good or bad, who knows) and I saw a pileated woodpecker for the first time since I moved into this home 18 months ago. My plan for this challenging time is to gradually get back into writing and to blog about the process.

And I will remember my bird feeder metaphor. If I start the novel, the big ideas will come.

Wish me luck.

Back to Burma (Myanmar)

Back to Burma (Myanmar)

I traveled to Myanmar (Burma) in 1997 while I was living and working in Thailand. At the time, the country was still mostly closed to foreigners. Only select parts of the country were open. During my month ‘in-country’ (the maximum the visa allowed) I conducted research on the Burmese puppet troupes and stayed at small guesthouses for a better chance of meeting local people. Unfailingly, everyone I met was giving of their time, knowledge and their kindness.

That began my love affair with Burma. (You can read more about my travels here.)

Since then I’ve written a number of novels set in Burma, including the modern, paranormal romance Shades of Moonlight.

In April 2017 Guardbridge Books published Death By Effigy, the first in my historical Aung and Yamin Fantasy Mystery series, in which an aging puppet singer and a mischievous puppet, must solve the murder of the king of the puppets or risk the destruction of the entire troupe.

I’m pleased to announce that the second in the series, A Death In Passing, has just been released, continuing the trials and tribulations of Aung, the puppet singer, with his troublesome assistant, Yamin, as they try to solve the murder of Burma’s most powerful spirit dancer.

In all of these books I’ve attempted to be true to the country’s culture and to accurately present the wonderful nature-magic systems (with a few embellishments). Burma seems to be in my blood and I envision more novels set in this wonderful and varied country. Whether historical or modern novels, I hope to capture the country’s magic for readers.

If you’ve traveled in Burma, I’d love to hear how I did.

A BookBlast Sale!

A BookBlast Sale!

Terra Incognita is being promoted through BookBlast today (Here) and is available for $0.99 on Amazon through this weekend.

Here’s the blurb:

Terra Vargas lives on an Earth shattered by climate change in a city threatened by fierce marauders—the deepee—who destroyed her family. When a young man, Ravi Sanghera, arrives with a destiny of his own—to rid the earth of the “Destroyer of World”, Terra learns she inherited powers she neither understands nor wants—powers that might contain the secret to preserving or destroying the only home she knows.

Now Ravi faces a terrible choice, follow his vision and kill Terra… Or abandon the reason he traveled halfway around the shattered planet, and help her stop the deepee.

The answer lies in their future, but first they must survive.

Happy reading!

Great Expectations: Cats and Readers

Great Expectations: Cats and Readers

Kayaking the west coast. (1996) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This past week I was supposed to be on the coast of Oregon with a group of writers learning about marketing books to bookstores. I was really looking forward to the trip and being with a group of great friends. I had everything packed and ready to be loaded into my car. My cats were primed and ready to for the trip. (They always travel with me, and the hotel where I stay at has known these boys since they were babies—it’s like a second home).

Then Ben, the larger of the two boys got sick and not just throwing up, but a total shut down. He quit eating (a VERY big thing for this guy) and drinking and became very quiet and cooperative. Now you have to know Ben. This is a cat that pulls paintings off walls and statues off shelves just to get your attention. When he took a downturn I ended up taking him to the emergency veterinarian. The next day more vets and more bills and at that point the I was still holding up hope that he might recover and I might still head to my course a day late.

Not to be.

Ben.

More tests, more bills and by this point I was administering subcutaneous fluids twice a day, force feeding three times and day and wrestling pills down his throat twice a day. It’s a wonder he’s still speaking to me. How do you spell stress?

The point I’m making here is that all my expectations were dashed and so I had to totally regroup and refocus myself from a week that I had booked off from work to a week working and caring for sick cats (yes, Ben’s brother got the same bug). It was jarring. It was unpleasant not least because I had a sick cat, but also because I wasn’t doing what my mind had expected. I raise this because it brought home something important writers need to think about, which is reader expectation.

Reader expectation is what the reader is expecting to experience in a book. For instance, if J.R.R. Tolkien had written a shoot-‘em-up Science Fiction book as a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings, think about how disappointed the Lord of the Rings fan would have been when they bought the book. Same goes for the reader who picks up a book that has a cover and blurb that looks like a suspense story, but when they get reading they find it’s women’s fiction. Or the reader whose book spends an immense amount of time early on lovingly describing the gun the hero owns, but by the end of the book the gun has never been used or even appeared in the story again. Each of these authors has violated reader expectations.

Shiva trying to catch a fly in Oregon.

A few days ago I was talking with a writer friend of mine. He was bummed out because his editor at a New York publisher had turned down book two of his two book contract and my friend couldn’t understand what that had happened. In discussion with the writer he advised that book one was a lavish fantasy involving the Jewish kabala. Book two was a comedic superhero novel. Anyone see a problem here? Apparently his editor did, because the publishing house had ‘bought’ my friend as an author of lavish Jewish fantasies, but his second novel failed to deliver this in every respect. The publishing house likely turned the book down out of concern for reader expectations. Basically my writer friend was asking to his readers to give up the expectations he had created through his first book and start all over again. I suggest that readers don’t like to do this anymore than I wanted to give up my week in Oregon.

In all of these cases the author failed to meet reader expectations and as a result the reader would have as dissatisfying an experience as I have had this week. Yes, the book(s) may still have been well written. My writer friends second book was undoubtedly wonderful (he’s a great writer), but it wasn’t what the publisher was banking on the reader wanting. He should have written another Jewish fantasy. He should have written under a different name for the superhero novel. Not that all our books have to be the same, but if we want to establish a career as a writer, we need to establish a brand. We might have several brands for different kinds of books written under different  names. For instance my romance novels are under Karen L. McKee, while my fantasy/SF is written under Karen L. Abrahamson. It helps reader know what they are getting and this helps meet reader expectation.

So as writers we need to make sure that we don’t put our readers through the experience I’ve had this week. With two sick cats, I definitely didn’t get what I’d thought I bought when I booked the week off.

(and in case you were interested, the boys are both on the mend.

The boys.
“A Good Traveler (or writer) has no Fixed Plans…”

“A Good Traveler (or writer) has no Fixed Plans…”

Porter on the Camino Inca. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I purchased a lovely journal the other day. Though it’s not specifically a travel journal it certainly could be, because all of the quotes in the book relate to travelling, but when I read the complete quote by Lao-Tzu, all I could think of was its applicability to writing. The quote goes thus:

‘A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.’

As someone who loves to travel, this quote provides a cautionary tale, because it warns that if you focus always on the destination you miss a lot along the way. Personally, I prefer to meander from place to place because you never know when you are going to find some better place to go than the place you intended. If you are always focused on heading somewhere, you have a much greater chance of missing where you are. As the Buddhists suggest, mindfulness of where we are, rather than worrying about the future  (or where we are going) brings much more happiness than the rush, rush, rush of hurried travel. It’s for that reason that I don’t take bus tours. The tours point out what they think you want to know, not what you can really learn just by being there.

Yukon path, (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But Lao-Tzu’s quote applies equally to writing. The writer who spends all his/her time solely focused on completing a project isn’t really giving themselves the opportunity to enjoy the project. I’m not saying that you should fool around and never finish, I’m suggesting that you should enjoy the process, no matter how difficult it is, and—just like the traveler who takes the time to meander you don’t need to be so end-driven that you can’t enjoy the little sidepaths that your muse sends you down.

I guess what I’m talking about is allowing the story to carry you along, just like the road can. You don’t have to know where you are going exactly, though you may have a vague idea that you would like things to end in a certain way. Some of my best days of writing are when I have allowed the story to carry me away from the story I had intended—those are the mornings I get up and rush to get writing again because I want to know what happens next. The funny thing is that if you allow the little digressions and flashes of insight to lead you, often the ending will turn out to be some place better than what you envisioned. Believe me, if the ending surprises you, it’s going to surprise and charm your reader, too.

So as a recovering ‘plotter’ of novels I think all novelist should allow themselves the freedom to step off the path they are following to explore the new world they’ve created. They might just find it’s bigger and better than they ever imagined.

Angkor Wat reflections. (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Knowing Where We Are in the World – and in Story

Knowing Where We Are in the World – and in Story

Cypress tree, Northern Everglades (2012) Photo (C) Karen Abrahamson

I’m currently working on two pieces of writing. One is the third novel in the Terra Trilogy and the other is the third installment of the Ice Dragon Series of short stories. Working on these two projects has made me question how I know where I’m going and how do I know where I am in relation to everything else in both these stories. It brings to mind the question of how we know, in our real life, where we are in relation to the rest of the world.

In this day of GPS and mapquest etc. this might seem like a very easy question to answer, but it wasn’t always this way, just like I wasn’t always able to have a sense of where I am in a story. Yes, surveyors took it upon themselves to survey the world. Countries (and scientists) agreed on the prime meridian that impacts all our time zones. But the 20th century has primarily been concerned with improving the precision of mapping and in particular with ensuring the pinpointing of places on the map in relationship to the rest of the world. The US Geological Survey was involved in this through most of the 20th century.

Waterlilies, Northern Everglades (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Why is this important? Well, think about it. Without standard understanding of how everything relates to everything else, weird things happen, like bridges getting built from each shore that don’t meet in the middle, or highways that have weird jogs in them because the measurements allowed the two ends to miss each other. It might not be important to you, but the cost overruns of such mistakes make having a common context for measuring everything important because it stops these types of things from happening.

In North America, the result of the surveying is those nice little brass discs (known as monuments) set in concrete or rock dotting the landscape . Each of these little brass discs serves as a known point for all subsequent surveying in the area. How did they know the individual location of these monuments? They took meticulous measures of distance through triangulation surveys and also measured the azimuth—the direction of Polaris—to set each monument’s position.

Throughout America, broad swaths of land were surveyed independently to create grids of known locations. They measured locations not only horizontally across the landscape, but also vertically, in relation to sea level, but the challenge was knowing that all these grids fit together. The result was the selection of a single monument at a ranch in central Kansas, Meades Ranch, as point zero for all grids across the country. Meades was chosen because it sat centrally in the US and it lay close to the crossing of two major survey lines across the US – one from Canada to Mexico and the other from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, today Meades Ranch has been superseded by global positioning that uses the center of the earth as the central point of reference.

Airboat docked in the Northern Everglades. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The use of that central point for mapping draws me back to my thoughts on plotting a novel or story. I once heard the wonderful writer, Nancy Kress, talk about plotting. Now I don’t know how you feel about plotting—some people are all for detailed plotting of everything in a novel, while others prefer to fly by the seat of their pants (Pansters) and write into the mist of their imagination. Nancy Kress seemed to offer a third alternative that didn’t hold a writer’s imagination down, but also gave some structure to writers so that all that lovely mist didn’t turn into a dense blinding fog. Ms. Kress suggested that writers need to write down what they think is going to happen in the novel. Just brainstorm them out. Ask yourself what is the beginning (the inciting event) and what is the midpoint (quiet often a reversal of some sort), and how do you think the story will end (the climax)? Once you have those key points identified, you can easily place them on a plot line and them locate all your other plot ideas on either side of the midpoint—a lot like being able to measure your location from Meades Ranch.

 

 

 

Rhumb Lines, Novel Writing and How to get from point A to Point B

Rhumb Lines, Novel Writing and How to get from point A to Point B

Dhow in coastal waters off Zanzibar Island (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m in the midst of a year of writing sequels. Actually it may take two or three years to get through all the sequels needed for my current novels. As I have already mentioned on this blog I’ve found writing my first sequel a bit of a challenge even though I knew where I was going. It seemed that I kept straying off course.

This puts me in mind of the challenges mariners had back before Gerard Mercator created his famous projection in 1569. A projection is a way of taking three dimensional landforms off of a globe and placing them onto a flat surface (a map) while retaining relative conformity of shape and relation between the landforms. What Mercator did was take meridians of latitude and longitude and make them all aim straight north-south or east-west creating 90 degree angles at each intersection. Sure it expanded the landforms closer to the poles, but it also gave mariners a means of plotting courses over long distances.

Picture this overlaid on top of a typical world map with latitude and longitude laid out.

You see, prior to Mercator, mariners shared two fears – bad weather and getting lost. (Actually I share their fears, the latter most particularly when I’m writing.) In the years before Mercator’s projection, mariners had generally confined their sailing to the Mediterranean and coastal waters. The transatlantic voyages to America were done by the stars, but there were no helpful portolano (mariners maps using compass roses to show sailing routes) of the great oceans. Mercator’s grid made sailing the open ocean as easy as sailing the coasts because it gave sailors a means to chart a straight line (a rhumb line) from Point A to Point B across the ocean. From this they could plan their headings and make their voyages.

Of course sailing the distance from Cape Town to New York is about as huge an endeavor as writing a novel (or a sequel) from page one to the end and neither route actually takes a straight line. Sailors travelling that distance recognized that they didn’t travel a flat earth, they travelled a globe and so they added to their calculations, the curve of a great circle that was the largest circle they could draw through a sphere and this route showed the actual shortest distance between two points. Sailors then chose their routes by drawing straight chart lines between the great circle and rhumb line that allowed them to approximate the great circle along the route.

Tall ship off Portuguese coast (2006) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This seems a lot like the process I use when I’m writing. I know where I start and I know where I want to finish (most of the time). The writing process then becomes one of deciding how far to travel from the rhumb line (the plot or the backbone) of the story, for it seems to me that novels have great circles, too. These are the themes you are writing about and you don’t want to allow your plots to take over, so that your story is nothing but plot, but neither do you want your subplots to take you so far out of your way that the story no longer fits within its themes. And that’s where sailing and writing diverge in their process. Sailors use the great circles and rhumb lines to plot their course and they follow it from Point A to Point B. A writer, on the other hand, will use them to plan their novel or their series of novels, but also to look behind and check whether they have wandered too far off course to get to their final destination. This is the challenge in sequels: viewing the second or third book as just one of the charted lines between the rhumb and the great circle, building its way to the ultimate end of the voyage.

 

 

What’s in a Map? Aboriginal Maps and Writer’s Dreams

What’s in a Map? Aboriginal Maps and Writer’s Dreams

A Huaca, or sacred stone, in the landscape of the Peruvian Altiplano (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Last night I received an article from my local Romance Writers of America chapter about world building for writers and how making a map of a location can help to create your story and your plot. I got thinking about this and how it relates to human history. In particular I got to thinking about how some anthropologists and historians have drawn a line in the sand (the 15th Century) about when true maps came into existence. (See my last post here.) But it got me wondering whether they were short-sighted in their definition.

The authors of this theory have said that prior to the 15th century while people might have made maps, they largely weren’t made for the same purpose of orienting the landscape like maps are used for today. They talked about how maps of older civilizations presented a cosmology, not a spatial map, or were used to show relationships, which could as easily be represented in text or the spoken word. This, they posited, means that earlier map-like creations are not true maps. Whether they are wrong or right is a matter of some debate.

Trail along the Camino Inca, the path to Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A case in point is Native American cartography. The literature about Native American maps is challenged by the fact that not only is it hard to find maps from pre-European contact (birch bark and leather just don’t stand up to five hundred years of colonization), but most of the records of native maps are colored by the perspectives of those who collected the map. The few maps that do exist require the reader to think of maps in more than one way. For example, records of a Virginian Algonquin map collected by John Smith in 1624 (while he was a prisoner), show a cosmological view of the world, but also a spatial linking of places. The map shows three concentric circles around a fire, with the first circle being a circle of meal representing the Algonquin Territory, the second being an inner circle of corn representing North America, and the third circle of corn representing the edge of the supposedly circular world. To try to understand John Smith’s origins from beyond North America, the Algonquin created a thatched stick island between circle two and three. Clearly this shows a sense of spatial distribution, even if it is not based on any scale a western European would use.

The ruins of Saqcsaywaman, Cusco, once part of the center of the Inca world. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Another interesting ‘map’ was a gesture used by a Native American Elder to describe the location of his town. The elder held his forefinger and thumb like a not-quite-closed-looped ‘okay’ symbol. The location of his town was between the unclosed tips of the finger and thumb, with Quebec, Montreal, New York, Boston and Halifax all located along the knuckles and joints of the rest of that looped finger set. This again clearly places the Native American town in relation to the major cities. So the question may not be whether Native American’s had maps, but whether they recorded their map information in a different way. Native American communities and living accommodations like the Navajo Hogan, the Pawnee earth lodge and even some longhouses could be said to be map-like in their structural symbolism of the concept of the sky dome or celestial vault providing shelter for a two dimensional geography with the four directions spreading out from a pivotal centre of the house. It might not be written on a piece of paper, but clearly there is a sense of direction and relationship to place within their sacred geography.

Finally, Petroglyphs, a primary source of pre-contact information about Native American culture, have also yielded examples of what could be maps, though there continues to be some debate. Some appear to show river routes and tributaries along with trails. Still other stone paintings appear to represent drive fences (fences used to drive prey animals into capture areas) complete with pictures of the animals that resided in the area.

Across the world we look for the sublime meaning of everything. Prayer flags, Tibetan area of Northern India, (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Which brings me back to the RWA article. It spoke about how, for a writer, a map can help you to give a greater sense of place to your writing. The writer will know where the towns and roads and lakes and mountains are in relationship to where the character is. But drawing a map can help the writer to also learn something beyond thethe lay of the land. A writer’s map can help you to understand what monsters live in what areas, what territory belongs to the enemy and what resources there are to harvest, along with your character’s place in the world. This leaves me to think the Native Americans understood modern (writerly) mapping better than the anthropologists and historians think they did, and that the modern writer’s map is based in something much deeper and perhaps more linked to the notion of a sacred human landscape. Both look for something more than just scaled lines on a page to find our way through either our imagination or the world.

 

 

Recent Fantasy

Available HERE $1.99

Available HERE $2.99

Recent Mystery

Available HERE,
$1.99

Available HERE,
$1.99

Available HERE,
$2.99

Recent Romance


Available HERE, $2.99