Tag Archives: seasons

651. Beyond the Toyshop Window

It’s classic, the scene of Tiny Tim and his sister looking through the toy shop window while waiting for Bob Cratchit. The world is cold behind them, but inside it a wonderland for children.

You’ll find this in most movie versions of A Christmas Carol. There is even a scene early in Tim Allen’s Santa Clause which is quick homage, with elves hidden among the children. I don’t think that scene ever appeared in the book. I’m not going to swear to it. I’ve read the book many times, and I don’t have time now to prove it to myself, but I’m pretty sure.

The first time I saw that scene in the 1970 movie musical Scrooge, it hit me hard. I wanted to know what else was going on in that toy shop. I wanted to know who ran it, and who made the toys. They couldn’t have been made by the silly proprietor in the movie. Their maker had to have a story to tell — or a story for me to tell.

I was particularly taken by the toy strong man, who eventually appears in critical scenes in Like Clockwork.

So . . . I wanted the builder to be highly intelligent and troubled. I named him Snap early on, with no idea why; then I had to scramble for a reason later in the process. I decided he should be a clock maker; now, why was he making toys instead? He had been cast out, of course, but from where and by whom? I had no idea when I started writing.

I wrote the first chapter and it fell out like water from a tap, including the name of the toy shop, which became the name of the book. Like Clockwork would start out as the story of a toymaker in a clockwork world. It smelled like steampunk, but I found out later that it was a pure time travel story.

At the end of the first chapter Snap turned around and there stood Balfour.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson is one of my favorite authors, and Kidnapped, the story of David Balfour, ranks right up there with A Wizard of Earthsea and The Old Man and the Sea as one of my three favorite books. As soon as my Balfour appeared unexpectedly on that London street, I knew that he was an avatar of RLS, but I made sure Balfour himself didn’t know it for quite a while.

Do you want to know where Like Clockwork came from? Other than from an image out of the movie Scrooge, and a lifetime of living, imaginatively, in Dickensian London, the answer is — out of left field. It has been a long time since a book has so completely written itself, chapter by chapter, line by line, with little foreknowledge on my part.

There is an exception to that. The ending came early and largely complete, but filling in the parts between was largely sans outline, sans planning, and sans any kind of reason. That may be part of why I like it so well.

Then Chapter 26, titled 62 – 54 = 9, which was the seventh chapter in my screwed up table of contents, fell out onto the screen. The opening sentence read, “Hemmings was a computer.” I didn’t see him coming at all. I just thought I needed a Babbage to balance the Great Clock. I had no idea how much it and Hemmings were going to take over.

It’s been fun. Throughout the novel there are little pieces of cultural reference and homages, sometimes humorous and almost always hidden. Scrooge himself is almost completely absent, except in feel, until near the end of the novel when he appears briefly in a cameo under an assumed name.

=============

Now that Snap had taken Pakrat with him, and Eve had sent a message that she would be gone today, Pilar was left alone with Lithbeth. She bundled her into a jacket, locked the toy store behind them, and set out to shop. They wandered the streets as if on holiday, talking with the cart vendors, and occasionally buying potatoes or onions. Lithbeth’s eyes were everywhere; she was almost never on the streets in the middle of the day, and things looked different in the strong, filtered light.

Through the grimy windows of an ancient building, Lithbeth saw a small man on a high stool, pen in hand, marking something in a thick ledger. His quick, bright eyes caught her as she passed, and he sent her a smile. She waved back, but then the Ogre came.

He was no larger than the other man, but powerful in his anger. He began to berate the clerk, and Lithbeth turned her face away.

Pilar put a hand on Lithbeth’s shoulder and said, “It’s best not to look into that window. It only makes old Countinghouse treat his clerk even worse than usual.”

“Why does he do that?”

Pilar shook her head. “Some men are like that,” she said. “A master can make his servant’s life a joy or a misery even in small things.”

“Snap would never do that.”

“No, he would not,” Pilar said, and felt a brief moment of peace. Snap would never do that.

=============

Of course, like Scrooge, Countinghouse has to have his come-to-Jesus moment. It comes on almost the last page of the novel.

=============

Dickens stopped dead in the street. The old scarecrow Countinghouse stopped likewise, and cringed at the sight of him, feeling a premonition of things to come.

“Who are you?” Dickens asked, in a voice firm with purpose.

“Countinghouse, not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is my business. Mankind is my business, but you in particular are my business. And you only call yourself Countinghouse because you have forgotten your name.”

“If I have forgotten it, let it remain forgotten.”

“There has been enough of forgetting. It is time to remember. You and I have much business together.”

=============

Poor old codger, people just won’t leave him alone.

650. My Friend Charles

When I was a junior in high school, I was force-fed Great Expectations and it was the most excruciatingly boring experience of my young life. It put me off Dickens for years.

Then I started seeing adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television every Christmas. That led me to read the book itself, and it was even better than the movies. That led me to his other four Christmas books and they were also wonderful.

Maybe this Dickens fellow could write after all.

Somewhere in there, fully a decade before I became a writer, I started to want to write a Christmas book. That’s hard in a world where every other writer has the same idea. You see them on every book rack, paperback equivalents of made-for-TV movies, all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? Really, they have nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t keep them from being competition.

No one is every going to match A Christmas Carol, but to sit on the same shelf any book would have to meet a certain level of gravitas. And it can’t be a grumpy old guy who finds redemption; once Dickens got through with his version of that story, every other one would be pastiche.

Ultimately, I found my story, although I have not yet written it. In Philadelphia, in 1790, during the brief period that it was the American capital, Ethan Gunn, a merchant seaman, returns from a year’s long journey to find that his wife has died in his absence. His children were taken in by his brother, living inland, where they died in a house fire. (Or so he is told.)

It is Christmas time and the poor of Philadelphia are in great need. Gunn has money from his voyage, but he counts it as nothing compared to the loss of his family. Through a friend he contributes to those in need, giving us access to a series of brief views of the lives of a series of minor characters.

Gunn himself gains nothing from his charity, because he is not giving of himself. His only ties to humanity are his friend, and a seemingly orphaned girl he has rescued from a shipwreck and taken under his wing. She is of about the same age as his lost children; in trying to ease her grief at losing her parents he comes to love her.

Every scene of a poor family rescued from the brink by Gunn’s aid only drives him closer to despair. The seemingly final blow comes when the parents of the girl he has befriended turn out to have also been saved, and are looking for her. He faces his demons when he considers hiding her away to keep her for himself, then relents, and finally gives away the only thing that has real meaning for him.

Whereupon his own children turn out to have been living with a Moravian family after escaping from the house fire, and are reunited with him.

It’s the unwritten books that will haunt you.

Incidentally, Gunn’s daughter becomes the mother of Titus Young. See 636. Half Breeds, Various.

*            *            *

Like Clockwork, which I finished about nine months ago, also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol. It isn’t a Christmas book, but it is Dickensian, and it owes it’s origin to a scene in Scrooge, the musical adaptation. I’ll tell you more about it on Wednesday.

Like Clockwork isn’t really my Christmas book but it is as close as I have come so far. It’s out looking for a publisher right now. Maybe by next Christmas you can see for yourselves.

648. Limits of Accuracy

The Limits of Accuracy
in World Building

I’m sitting here on October 15th with half a dozen files open on my computer, calculator at the ready, and a page of scratched calculations. I’ve been world building again.

In full disclosure, my last math class was college calculus and I don’t remember much of that. I’m no astrophysicist. I know that because I bought a book on orbital mechanics in hopes of cribbing a few formulas to use in my writing. It didn’t take long to realize that I was out of my element.

My primary source of world building math has always been How to Build a Planet by Poul Anderson. I have kept a xerox copy on hand since I first used it while writing Jandrax back in the seventies of last century/millenium.

Don’t bother to google it. There are so many resources available for world building on the internet today that it gets pushed to a back page. I don’t use the new stuff myself; it looks like a black hole you could fall into and never escape. World building can easily eat up all the time available for writing. Besides, there is a limit to the accuracy we need.

When I set up the solar system around Sirius, a long time ago, I popped in a few inner planets, more or less following Bode’s discredited law, and set their distances after calculating i, luminosity, for the most important planet.

Sirius A, for the record, has about twice Sol’s mass and produces about 23 times its radiation. I calculated the distances from it to where there would be a luminosity of 75% of Earth’s, 100% of Earth’s, and 125% of Earth’s, then dropped Stormking into the middle of that range. That gave me an orbit roughly the equivalent of Jupiter’s, so I took the length of Jupiter’s year and called that the length of Stormking’s year.

That was good enough for then, but not now that I’m actually writing. I have political exiles on Stormking (which has a Uranian tilt) who have to walk for their lives, continuously, to stay in the middle of that planet’s temperature extremes. I have to know the real length of the year on a planet that distance from Sirius, to see how far I have to make them walk.

The exiles have to proceed southward for most of a half a year, rest for a few weeks, then turn north again, forever. It provides all kinds of plot possibilities, but I owe it to the reader to get my figures straight.

Sirius is a double star, and that other star provides complications I can only approximate. Since I began seriously contemplating returning to Dreamsinger, I came to realize that the perihelion of Sirius B would, on some orbits, coincide with Stormking’s position on its orbit in a way that would cause a superheated event. Big trouble for the exiles; great opportunities for the puppet master. (That would be me.) I can’t calculate how often this will happen or how severe it will be, given my skills, so that will be a hole in my accuracy.

I moved the orbit of Stormking out to the 75% luminosity distance of 828 million kilometers to make my exiles slightly more likely to survive, and calculated the year length (in Earth days) from that, using formulae I don’t totally understand, and came up with 4493 Earth days. That is fairly close to my ballpark estimate of 4335, which is Jupiter’s year in Earth days.

Why do all this? Partly it is because you have to consider your audience. If you try to write hard science fiction, set around known stars, a few of your readers will be scientists, and a much larger number will be people who wanted to be scientists, or at least love science. You have an obligation to them not to do something dumb.

Actually, a lot of science fiction writers are scientists or engineers, and can easily do the math I struggle with. I admire them, but I don’t feel inferior to them. I got here by a different route and I know things they don’t know. In all likelihood, you know things I don’t know. It all comes out even in the end, or at least even enough that we can all share the same fraternity of people who enjoy science fiction.

Careful world building is a rule of the game. You wouldn’t play chess with two white queens. You wouldn’t write a western where Wyatt Earp carries a luger instead of a Buntline special. You might, however, give Earp a luger if you were writing steampunk. Different games, different rules. If you take the science out of hard science fiction, all you have left is . . . basically nothing.

Nevertheless, there are limits. I am not good enough at calculating orbits to know for certain what Sirius B would do to my scenario, but I know what has to happen in the story, and by God that’s what is going to happen, no matter what physics says. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Now it you will excuse me, I have three other planets to calculate, so my people can follow reasonable orbits traveling between them. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself.

You know, sometimes I do miss warp drive. Punch a button, and there you are at Vulcan. It would be so easy.

647. A Prayer For Those Who Need it

A Prayer for Those Who Need It

Dear God,

We thank you for the food before us
We thank you for those who grew the food
We thank you for those who keep us safe
We thank you for our freedom,
         and for our Constitution.

Forgive us for the ways in which we have failed you
          by failing our fellow man.

Help us reunite the families we have separated
Help us succor the allies we have abandoned
Help us accept our own children,
          born beyond the border,
          but ours since childhood
Help us to accept the refugees,
          crying out just beyond the wall
Help us to free those incarcerated
          guilty of believing
          that we would give them
          the refuge we had promised.

Help us to see clearly,
          all the ways that we have failed you
          by failing our fellow men.

And forgive this nation.
          God knows we need it.

646. Stinky Boy and his Cousin

Attribution of pictures is below.

I’ve met a couple of new friends lately.

(Actually this post is a month out of date. It was originally scheduled for October 16, but was displaced by a tribute to Alexi Leonov.)

This has nothing to do with writing, just with the life of a writer up here in the foothills. Over the years I’ve had plenty of wild visitors. By visitors I don’t mean the nuthatches, jays, and woodpeckers who live here all the time; nor the northern flickers (we call them 747 birds because of their size) and rufous-sided towhees who winter over. I also don’t include the turkey vultures who are always overhead.

I do count the great blue heron who came walking by one day. There’s nothing like a six foot blue bird slurping down a gopher to get your attention.

We’ve had coyotes running through our property many times. On two occasions they crawled under bushes in the yard to die. One was a youngster, probably hit by a car. The other was a ragged oldster at the end of his days. Those are the events that bring a settling of dozens of the vultures.

I don’t blame the oldster for picking our place as his last rest. We don’t have dogs to harass, we have lots of shade, and we keep basins of water available through the yearly seven month drought. We can’t stand the thought of a thirsty animal.

We have raccoons, although we rarely see them. Some mornings one of the water basins will be solid mud, and we know they’ve been by to drink and wash their food. Three times we’ve been visited by the neighborhood bobcat, but our elevation is a bit low for mountain lions. I’m all right with that. Bobcats don’t eat people; mountain lions occasionally do.

We have ducks and geese flying by and small hawks and owls living in our trees. Big red-tailed hawks and an occasional bald eagle cruise overhead with the ubiquitous vultures. And of course, bats come out by night.

Deer come by from time to time and eat our tomato crop. We were even visited once by the Christmas Pig. That was a 300 pound escaped porker who passed by one December 25th.

We have a flock of turkeys who come by two or three times a week in winter. I haven’t seen them for months, but they are about due to return. (And here they are, a week after I wrote that.)

I’ve mentioned most of our normal visitors before. Recently we’ve had two new ones. The first announced his presence several nights a week for a month or so, sending us an odoriferous wake-up call through the open window. We knew we had him before we saw him. I was walking back to the house at dusk one evening when I almost stepped on him. He looked up quizzically and I retreated.

Then for a few weeks, he showed up in the daytime. Who knew that a skunk is one of nature’s most beautiful creatures? I haven’t seen him for a while now and I miss him, odor notwithstanding.

Then, on the last day of September, Stinky Boy’s cousin showed up.

Now I know a badger is not a biological cousin of a skunk, but they share a striped face and that’s close enough for me.

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife saw him for full-faced positive identification. By the time I got there, all I saw was wide brown, furry butt disappearing at high speed into the distance.

So close, and yet so far.

The skunk photo is in public domain, the badger photo is via GNU. Both critters avoided my camera when they came to visit. Actually the skunk was in plain sight, but I didn’t dare get close enough for a good shot. You know, friendly fire.

634.1 Critter Count

I have a post about two new critters who came to visit, called Stinky Boy and his Cousin. It was supposed to be posted yesterday, but the tribute to Alexi Leonov pushed it forward to the Monday before Thanksgiving.

As I was writing that post, I was a little uneasy. It ended up mentioning a large cadre of critters. Even though I made it clear that many only came by once in more than a decade, I still wondered if some readers would imagine that I live in a virtual zoo, instead of normal foothills full of sweet but ordinary creatures, and more rarely visited by the exotic.

Then today happened.

We went out early by car to watch a cattle drive which happens twice a year, going to the high country in spring and back down to the foothills in the fall. The critter count included cows, horses, dogs, and cowboys, but they don’t really count because they are all domesticated. Except the cowboys.

Driving back to my house, I had to brake for quail flying across the road. Driving on down toward the valley afterward, we had to dodge a tarantula crossing the road —

“Why did the tarantula cross the road? Mating season.”

— then passed a flock of turkeys in a neighbor’s yard. Still less than two miles from home I saw an egret standing at the edge of the lake waiting for a fish. Yesterday at the same spot I saw a flock of geese floating on the water.

A moment later a vulture swooped down. For a moment we were bracing for a collision but he was only interested in a piece of road kill in the ditch.

Okay, you’re right. I do live in a zoo.

The Gods of Wind and Air 9

5.

When the pot is broken on the hearth
       and the fire is out;
and the cold, north dragon wind
       is riding on the clouds.

When there’s howling in the smokehole
       and snuffling at the door;
when that beast is storm and darkness,
       and endless, biting cold.

Then the gods of wind and air
       demand their portion.

He stood under the fury of her countenance; not brave, not bowing, not defiant, not cringing. Numb.

She looked long upon him, and then was gone.

The wind still howled. The snow still swirled, but less fiercely because he had reached the edge of the valley and the beginning of the forest. He even knew where he was, or thought he did. If his strength held out, he could reach his hartwa in an hour.

And once there, he and his wife and child would die together, for there was nothing left in him.

He started forward, stumbled and fell. Something lay beneath the snow, frozen hard, and it had tripped him up. He moved past it, still intent on his goal, but there was just one spark left — hope perhaps, or maybe only curiosity. He brushed aside a bit of snow and found coarse hair. He dug deeper, faster, and exposed the carcass of a deer, wolf-killed, much mangled and partially eaten. On a day in spring, he would not have touched it. Now he ran his hands over the frozen body and tears came to his eyes.

#             #             #

When he had dragged the frozen carcass home, built a fire and made a stew to feed them all, Pellan settled in under the furs with his wife and child. The chill took a long time to leave him. Sleep tried to claim him, but he fought back because he wanted to stay awake long enough to savor this feeling of safety and repletion. These moments didn’t come often between first snow and final melt.

Gods, he thought — real or not, we need them. Poor men especially need them when the Lord and his soldiers, and his tax collectors and the priests, all stand with their hands out. When the crops fail, and the cow dies, and the woman is sick. When there is no food in the larder and only a whistle of wind where the chimney fire belongs, men need to believe that someone still cares.

And some men, pushed even harder than that, need gods to blame and gods to hate. When they are forced back up against death, left with no hope — when it would be easier to give up than to live — that’s when a certain kind of man needs his gods more than ever. He needs to curse them, to revile them, to scream at them when the night and hunger and cold and storm come all at once. He needs to hate them for what they are doing to him, whether he believes in them or not — to hate them so badly that he will walk barefoot through hell before he will let them see him fall.

Sometimes that hatred is all that keeps a man alive. So, thank you, Gods. But don’t get cocky. This mood won’t last long.

finis