NaNoWriMo-ish

November is the National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. During the month, many authors endeavor to write 50,000 words. While that won’t count as a complete novel for most publishers these days, it’s a large chunk of a novel. To reach 50,000 words in one month, you have to write about 1,667 words per day. You can even sign up to participate at nanowrimo.org and to find tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help you succeed. My daughter has signed up and participated for the last couple of years. Although I didn’t officially sign up to participate in NaNoWriMo, I wrote two novels as NaNoWriMo challenges when LBF Books was publishing my novels.

The Solar Sea

The first of my NaNoWriMo novels was The Solar Sea, which I wrote in 2004. This is a novel I’d tried to write twice before, but abandoned both times partway through. The first time I abandoned the novel, it was because I was a young writer who lacked the discipline to see the story through. The second time, I had a sense of the plot, but hadn’t really nailed down the themes I wanted to explore. Between that and not being really certain what I audience I was writing for, the novel bogged itself down. In 2004, I had two young daughters who I wanted to excite about math and science. That and the 50,000-word goal of NaNoWriMo encouraged me to write The Solar Sea as an adventure story primarily for a young adult audience. I calculated my daily word goal and set myself a time to write each day after my daughters went to bed. Once I got into the routine, I found I could meet my writing goals pretty well each day. It taught me the value of writing each day at a set schedule. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Dragon’s Fall:
Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires

I wrote my second NaNoWriMo novel in 2005. This was intended to be a prequel to my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order which had recently been published by LBF. In this case, I knew 50,000 words would only be a little more than half the novel. When I wrote The Solar Sea, I had a clear idea of the plot and I had been thinking about certain story elements for almost fifteen years before I started NaNoWriMo. When I wrote Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, I had a one-page synopsis. So, my 50,000 words were much more stream-of-consciousness than The Solar Sea. At the end of the month, I really liked the beginning of what I wrote, but felt the stuff I wrote at the end of the month lacked focus. Still, this gave me a solid core that I could work on and develop. It took about two years, but the novel did take shape. I added a few chapters before the original opening and then tightened the latter sections and added a solid ending. This experience helped me see that I could be disciplined while writing by the seat of my pants, and I was ultimately happy with my tale of three vampires who come form a band of mercenaries. You can learn more about Dragon’s Fall at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

This year, NaNoWriMo occurred right as Kitt Peak National Observatory reopened from being shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo this year. That said, I was given the assignment of writing a novella in early September. At the time, I knew Kitt Peak would likely reopen around mid-October to early November, so I wanted to get as much of the novella written as possible before work resumed and I had to settle into a regular work routine at the observatory again. To accomplish the task, I used the skills I had gained in NaNoWriMo. In this case, I wrote a detailed outline and I set myself a clear word-count goal for each day. Even though I had an outline, my characters did their own thing at parts of the story and I did have to re-outline, but I’m used to this. I managed to finish my novella by the time I returned to work at Kitt Peak. I have since turned it in to the publisher who assigned me the project. Just this past week, the publisher sent me the contract for the story. I’ll share more details about this novella soon.

Although I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo this month, I did assign myself the project of writing my first comic book script. In honor of being NaNoWriMo, it’s an adaptation of one of the scenes from Dragon’s Fall. I’m currently working with an artist to bring “Guinevere and the Stranger” to life and hope we’ll have something to show off by spring 2021.

Magic, Science, and Vampires

The first time I remember hearing about nanotechnology or nanites was in 1989 in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Evolution.” At the time, I was in graduate school at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology working on a way to use an automated telescope to search for dwarf novae. In the episode, nanites were presented as tiny, self-replicating robots used to repair damaged human cells. It was an interesting idea, but one that seemed very science fictional even to me who was working in the field of robotics. My office at the time was on the fourth floor of a building called Workman Center, which I show below. This was actually the tallest building in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. I had this office by virtue of needing access to microwave transmitters and receivers on the tower that communicated with our automated telescope.

Workman Center as it appeared in the 1980s.

Over the next few years, I encountered nanites in other science fictional venues. One was the fine novel Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams where aristocrats use nanites to build their dreams. Another was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they’re deliberately presented as a deus ex machina. In all cases, nanites seemed like a concept representing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”

I first began to understand the real scientific basis behind nanotechnology in the early 2000s when I learned that nanites would likely not be literal robots, but as self-replicating chemicals that could carry instructions like DNA. The idea was exciting and I could definitely see how such chemicals could have the medical applications imagined in Star Trek in the 1980s. I could also see how such chemicals might be tailored to attack certain metals and armor. This gave me the idea that they might start being used in weapons research. As it turns out, New Mexico Tech is the home of an explosives research laboratory which has been featured several times in the Mythbusters TV series.

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Back when I worked in Workman Tower on that robotic telescope, my graduate advisor was a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He got his start there in the 1950s, working on the H-bomb project under Edward Teller. Another professor had been a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who ran the Manhattan Project. Of course, I was familiar with Oppenheimer’s famous paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita where he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Taking all these ideas and putting them together led me to create the physicist Jane Heckman from Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Oppenheimer’s quote brought to mind the history of New Mexico and the little town of Socorro where I lived. Socorro was one of the first places Spanish settlers established a mission when they came into the land that would be the modern United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what if one of those conquistadors who came with the missionaries still lived in the area. If he was a vampire, he would be the embodiment of the phrase, “I am become death.” Jane meeting the vampire Rudolfo became a way for a modern physicist to confront the idea of the death she created by making weapons. By the time I wrote all this, the Workman Center I had an office in had been torn down and rebuilt. Here’s what the new version looks like:

Workman Center Today

This is the building as I describe it in the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Throughout the novel, I continue to explore the idea of science so advanced it begins to look like magic. Jane working with nanites for simple destructive reasons becomes a way to make it seem more likely that someone might use nanites to reprogram cells in human beings. While I can see some wondrous potential in that idea, I can also see the potential for things to go horrifyingly wrong.

You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

The City of Crosses

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

I’ve told the origin story of my novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, numerous times. In short, it got its start in early 2000 during a conversation with a fellow author. We began to imagine what a vampire would make of Las Cruces, which is Spanish for “the crosses.” Soon after that discussion, a title popped into my mind, “Vampire in the City of Crosses.” That title demanded an exploration of vampires and their relationship to crosses.

Over the years in movies and books, vampires have had many different reactions to crosses. In Hammer Studio’s Dracula films, Peter Cushing could practically grab any two sticks and put them together into a cross form, which would make Christopher Lee cower in fear. Some books I’ve read have suggested that vampires are repelled by any faith. Crosses then serve as a focal point for Christian faith. In the great Doctor Who vampire story, “The Curse of Fenric,” a Soviet agent repels vampires with a hammer and sickle! Then there’s Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire who declares his fondness for crosses. So I wanted to explore this idea of vampires and crosses.

When I moved to Las Cruces in the mid-1990s, Main Street stopped at downtown. Traffic had been routed to two side streets and a pedestrian mall had been installed. Unfortunately, once that had been done, most of the businesses moved away to other parts of town. The only reason to go to the mall at the time was to visit an amazing used bookstore called COAS or the farmer’s and craft market held on weekends. That said, the place where traffic was diverted had three flower beds in the form of giant crosses. Here they are in a photo courtesy courtesy fellow Las Cruces author David G. Thomas.

David G. Thomas has several other photos of downtown from this period in the post https://lascrucesblog.com/history/2007/las-cruces-worst-mistake/

If you’re at all interested in the history of Southern New Mexico, where people like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett lived, it’s well worth reading David’s blog at https://lascrucesblog.com

I don’t want to throw out any spoilers, but while the vampire Daniel learned there’s a good reason to be cautious around crosses in the story “Vampire in the City of Crosses,” I had to send him on a longer quest to learn why they have those properties. After his encounter with the cross, the vampire Mercy resuscitates Daniel at a nearby memorial, commemorating the Don Juan de Oñate’s entrance into New Mexico. I picked the location because both the vampires Mercy and Rudolfo actually would have experienced the events the memorial commemorated. The memorial has since been moved, but here’s what it looked like in the early 2000s when we took a friend to see it.

At the time, the memorial sat next to an abandoned theater, which serves as a lair for a family of vampires in the novel. Today, the Rio Grande Theater is a nice venue for plays and performances, but at the time of the story, it was gutted on the inside and boarded up on the outside. Here’s the memorial next to the theater.

The work on the theater was on-again, off-again over the years as funding came and went. I met a worker at the time, who told me whenever he was in there, he could imagine spectral eyes watching him from the balcony. Here’s the boarded up front of the theater as it appeared at the time of the novel.

If you’d like to delve into the world of the Scarlet Order Vampires, this is a great month to do so. The novel is the featured selection of the Vampyre Library Book Club. The club is all online at Facebook and you can join at https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. If you want to learn more about the novel, visit: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html.

Virtual October

October has been a busy month filled with virtual events. I visited the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club and discussed my novella Revolution of Air and Rust about a week ago. Then, I spent much of this past weekend attending and presenting panels for Denver’s MileHiCon. Like most events in 2020, it was held virtually. While many events I’ve attended have been free, this one had a paid membership option, which allowed attendees to interact with people live as panels were presented. In the case of pre-recorded panels, panelists were often available to answer questions on Discord or the MileHiCon website. My reading for MileHiCon was from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust. I read the chapter where Pancho Villa attempts to raid a United States military camp in Chihuahua, Mexico, but then finds himself transported to another world.

Now that you’ve seen the reading, you may be interested to watch the virtual book club meeting where we discuss the book. This video is hosted at Facebook, but you do not need to be logged into see it.

Although there was a paid membership option, MileHiCon has generously placed most of the panels and presentations online at YouTube, so you can watch them, as with my reading above. This gives you a unique opportunity to watch the panels even if you couldn’t attend them as they premiered. You can find the presentations and panels at YouTube’s MileHiCon 52 virtual channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Jb4d-cTGK9VkHoAEhePjw/videos

Before the convention, I recorded a presentation about Kitt Peak’s NEID Spectrograph which will be used to look for Earthlike planets around sunlike stars. Of course, when I proposed this presentation back in the spring, I fully expected we would have been observing and would have had results to share. I didn’t expect that we would just now be getting ready to return to observations. Still, I give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the spectrograph, describe how it works, and share some of the interesting results from NASA’s TESS mission.

In addition to my presentation, I participated in a panel discussion about “The Year in Science” with Ka Chun Yu, Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, and Courtney Willis. Most of us on the panel were physical scientists, with two of us being astronomers, so we started out with a heavy emphasis on astronomy, but Will McCarthy steered the discussion to the year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the effort taken to defeat it and how we’ve learned to work in this year.

I encourage you to go over to the MileHiCon YouTube channel and check out many of the other presentation. You’ll find readings by people like Connie Willis, David Boop, Carrie Vaughn, Walter Jon Williams, Carol Berg, and S.M. Stirling. You’ll find even more science panels and panels discussing science fiction and fantasy writing.

As it turns out, I wrapped up the weekend with a couple additional virtual events. I discovered that YouTube streamed a recording of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds over the weekend. I’m a fan of the album, but this was the first time I actually got to see the entire stage performance. Unfortunately, the performance was only available for a limited time and it’s been taken down, but I was glad for the opportunity to watch. Also, I attended a nice interview with Charlaine Harris conducted by Steven Foley of the Vampyre Library Book Club in New Orleans. This interview is still available, but you have to be a member of the club to watch. Fortunately, membership is free and you can join at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/663608917753704/. My novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order is the featured book at the club for November, so if you join now, you can participate in my interview at the end of next month.

MileHiCon 52

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had many fewer posts about conventions I’d be attending than normal. Some conventions have simply postponed and a few have gone to a limited virtual presence. MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado will be hosting a rather full slate of virtual programming this year from October 23-25. Because of that, you will need to pay to attend, but it is a reduced fee. If you’ve ever wanted to attend a MileHiCon before and travel or time was a limitation, this is a great chance to see what it’s like! You can get the full details and register at: https://milehicon.org/

MileHiCon goes virtual in 2020!

This year, MileHiCon has an exciting slate of authors and artists. The Artist Guest of Honor is a gentleman whose art I have hanging in my office, Alan Pollack. He’s done many covers, but I really love the cover he’d done for omnibus Ride the Star Winds published by Baen Books, which collects several of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories. When Robert E. Vardeman sent me a cover quote for Firebrandt’s Legacy comparing my work to Chandler’s, I decided to celebrate by reaching out to Pollack to see if I could purchase a print of the cover. He happily obliged. I’m sorry I won’t get to meet him in person, but do hope to tune into some of his events.

Virtual MileHiCon also has no less than three author guests of honor: Cory Doctorow, Mur Lafferty, and Rebecca Roanhorse. I’ve read works by all of them that I admire. I’m sure the guests of honor will make MileHiCon well worth the price of admission, but if you’re not convinced there are even more great authors and artists who will be giving presentations, readings, and participating on panels. Among them are two of my cover artists, Laura Givens and Chaz Kemp. Also there will be David Boop, editor of Straight Outta Tombstone and Straight Outta Deadwood. Ian Tregillis, James Van Pelt, Maggie Bonham, and S.M. Stirling will be among the other authors in attendance.

My schedule at the convention is somewhat light, but that was by design. Kitt Peak National Observatory has entered phase 1 of restarting operations and I wasn’t certain whether I’d be able to be available, even virtually, except for pre-recorded events. It now looks like my group will start returning to the mountain the week of October 26, but that’s still subject to change, depending on how engineering tasks go between now and then. At any rate, my schedule for the convention is as follows:

Friday, October 23

12:30pm – Steampunk and Alternate History Reading – I will join Ian Tregillis and Ted Weber to read from our steampunk and alternate history works. I’ll share a chapter from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust.

1:00pm – “To See” New Earths – I will take a look behind the scenes at Kitt Peak’s NEID spectrograph which has been installed at the WIYN telescope and will search for and follow up on observations of exoplanets. I also discuss how the project will help to support NASA’s ongoing TESS mission which is finding exciting new worlds.

Saturday, October 24

1:30pm – The Year in Science – I will join Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, Ka Chin Yu, and Courtney Willis to discuss some of the highlights and discoveries from this year in science. I’m sure we’ll also be discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted scientific research.

I hope you’ll join us for Virtual MileHiCon. I’ll be “live” at the “Year in Science” panel. The others are pre-recorded, but I’ll attempt to be live to answer any questions that may come up at the time.

Doctor Who’s Tenth Anniversary

I didn’t discover Doctor Who by finding it on television. I discovered it on the pages of a magazine. During my middle and high school years, I was an avid reader of Starlog Magazine, which covered science fiction media. One issue had a photo of a young blond-haired man dressed in a sweater, jacket, striped pants and a Panama hat and declared this man would be taking over the part of the Doctor in the series, Doctor Who, which had been running for nearly twenty years. Of course, this was the announcement that Peter Davison would be playing the fifth Doctor. It really piqued my curiosity how an actor could step into the lead role of a series after someone else had played that part. It would be like someone besides Leonard Nimoy playing Spock in Star Trek. My young mind couldn’t imagine it! I looked for Doctor Who, but discovered it wasn’t available on Los Angeles television at the time.

I finally saw my first episode of the series on a summer vacation to my uncle’s house in Florida. It was on at something like 6am on a Saturday morning, but I set my alarm and watched it. I was treated to the serial “The Robots of Death” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. From then on, I was hooked, though I wouldn’t be able to watch regularly until my senior year of high school when the Los Angeles public television station finally started carrying the show. They started with “The Five Doctors,” which introduced me to all the people who had played the part so far including that blond-haired chap who had piqued my interest. I kept watching when I went to college and was especially delighted when the Albuquerque PBS station started playing older episodes of Doctor Who. They went back to Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. I would sit enraptured on Saturday afternoons in a darkened room in the college’s “canteen” watching each episode in turn. Season ten stood out in particular. It started with the tenth-anniversary special which first aired in 1973 called “The Three Doctors,” then went on to bring back the Master, and the Daleks, and wrapped up with an emotional final episode. I was delighted to find this season now exists in its entirety on Blu-ray.

Doctor Who Season Ten Collection

I’ve long been impressed with the treatment the BBC has given the DVD and Blu-ray releases of Doctor Who. Like the season twenty-six pack I discussed a few weeks ago, the season ten set is chock full of special features. Some gave me insight into the writers and producers. Some gave me insights into how the effects were created. Yes, the special effects in this era of Doctor Who could be pretty cheezy, but it was impressive to learn they not only had a limited budget, but very little time to make their effects. Season ten introduced the “color separation overlay” process to Doctor Who, more familiar today as the blue screen or green screen process. This was early days of the process and while sometimes they used it to great effect, sometimes it just didn’t work.

That said, it’s never been the effects that attracted me to Doctor Who. The power of the series is in the writing, enhanced by actors who really loved their parts and did everything they could to sell the stories. Jon Pertwee, who played the Doctor, was famous for his comedy roles, but played the Doctor very straight. Of course, in his ruffled shirt and smoking jacket, he comes off as something of a flamboyant James Bond with an aversion to guns, but he pulls it off and fits in very nicely with the 70s aesthetic. Katie Manning plays his assistant, Jo Grant. By season ten, she’d come into her own and never feared going where she thought she should go. Doctor Who’s women of this era often have a reputation for being helpless and screaming, but I was surprised to go back and find Jo really never screamed and never was helpless. She could be klutzy at times, but she was stronger than I remembered.

This is the first season where I can remember something of a story arc. It’s not very strong, but there’s a running story about the Doctor trying to get to a planet called Metebelis III, which finally pays off in the season’s final episode. Also, the writers clearly know Jo will be leaving at the end of the season, so they start giving us clues in earlier episodes. I remembered being really moved when Jo left the Doctor at the end of “The Green Death” and was surprised to find the emotional power was still there, which was a combination of good writing and great acting. The season opener, which was the first time earlier Doctors came back in one episode was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, due to health concerns, the first Doctor, William Hartnell, had little more than a cameo, but it was great that he had one last outing. Patrick Troughton stepped into the role as though he’d never left it.

If you’re a classic Doctor Who fan, I highly recommend these Blu-ray sets. You will get a lot of behind-the-scenes information and nice presentation of the episodes. If you only know the series from its revival in 2005 to the present, these sets are a great way to look back at the older episodes and get a sense of where the series came from.

Revisiting the Revolution

Back in 2012, after the release of my novel Owl Dance and while I was still in the early planning stages of the sequel, Lightning Wolves, author Robert E. Vardeman asked if I would like to contribute a novella to a series he was assembling. The series was called “The Empires of Steam and Rust” and it was set in an alternate 1915. Queen Victoria was still on the throne and growing younger. Teddy Roosevelt was still president of the United States and growing an empire. The Russian Revolution had failed and the Czar was still in power. The Meiji Restoration had not happened and there were still samurai in Japan. Bob had already written a novella in the series about an adventurer and an aeronaut who travel into a world where all metals have turned to rust. The novella also featured Albert Einstein’s scheming brother, Ernst, as an antagonist. Stephen D. Sullivan had written a novella set in the Russia of this world.

While seeking inspiration for a story, I happened on a photo of Pancho Villa in a pith helmet dated March 1916. At that moment, I knew I needed to write the story of the Mexican Revolution as it happened in this world. Bob had provided a detailed bible for this world. One notable aspect of the world was that while airships existed, airplanes had not yet been invented. What’s more, the American Expeditionary Force’s real life incursion into Mexico in 1915 was the first American military action to utilize airplanes. That gave me the story. What if the Americans had airships, but Pancho Villa discovered airplanes in another world and brought them to his?

While researching this story, author Jeffrey J. Mariotte invited me to participate in an author event being held in Douglas, Arizona at the Gadsden Hotel. Douglas sits right on the Mexican border and Pancho Villa had been a guest at the hotel along with General John J. Pershing. In fact, the two dined together at the hotel restaurant. The Gadsden Hotel is one of the biggest buildings in town. You can’t miss it and I decided I should find a way to use it in the story.

The Hotel Gadsden in Douglas, Arizona

The hotel has a beautiful lobby where I set some of the novel’s action.

Lobby of the Hotel Gadsden

That amazing, marble staircase in the center of the photo has two chips in it. There’s a story that the chips came about because Pancho Villa rode his horse up the staircase. Again, that was a real life event too good not to use. I have a scene where Pancho Villa rides full tilt at the hotel, hollers to open the door and rides right into the lobby and up the stairs to wake his men. In the photo below, my daughters and I are sitting on the steps by the chips said to have been made by Villa’s horse. The chips are right by my feet.

Stairway at the Gadsden Hotel

Of course, while I was in the area, I also drove around some of the surrounding countryside. This was a story about Pancho Villa and air power. He had to hide his plane somewhere. I found the washes around had lot of growth and would provide good cover for whatever Villa planned to do from his headquarters in Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico.

Can you see the hidden airplane?

The Tucson Steampunk Society’s virtual book club has chosen Revolution of Air and Rust to be their selection this month. They will be discussing the book from 4:30-5:30 Mountain Standard Time (Remember, Arizona does not switch to Daylight Savings Time, so that’s 5:30-6:30pm if you’re on Daylight time) on Sunday, October 18. I’ll be on hand to discuss the book as well! You can get more information about how to join the discussion at the event’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/671206483480544

You can learn more about the book and find all the places it’s available by visiting http://davidleesummers.com/Air-and-Rust.html. There are also links to all the other books in the Empires of Steam and Rust series if you want to continue your explorations of this world.

The Judas Contract

My teenage years got off to a difficult start. I lost my dad to a heart attack when I was thirteen. By the time I reached my senior year of high school in 1984, I was pretty much done with being a teenager. This all goes to explain why it was that although I made regular visits to the comic shop and though some of my friends were loving a title called The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, I was pretty much focused on other longtime favorites. I didn’t really discover how much fun the Teen Titans could be until I stumbled on the anime-styled Teen Titans show which ran on Cartoon Network from 2003 to 2006. Even today, I gravitate more toward titles like Justice League Dark, which is what prompted me to pick up the recent Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, when I saw it in the store. The presentation of the Teen Titans in that movie made me curious about their earlier movie appearances, so I picked up the movie Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, which in turn took me back in time to 1984 to read the original graphic novel.

In The Judas Contract, the Teen Titans have a recent recruit named Terra. Most of them have grown to trust her and depend on her. Beast Boy may even be falling in love with her. However, it soon becomes apparent that Terra is not all that she seems. A hallmark of the graphic novel is that this is the point where Dick Grayson first decides to stop being Robin, the Boy Wonder and adopts the mantle of Nightwing, thus allowing Jason Todd to begin his tenure as Batman’s assistant.

It was interesting to compare the movie and graphic novel versions of the story. The movie foregoes the Nightwing story. In the movie, Dick Grayson is already Nightwing. Jason Todd is already dead and Damian Wayne is now Robin and already working with the Teen Titans. The movie starts with the Teen Titans up against a cult leader named Brother Blood. As the movie progresses, we find that the Titans’ longtime rival Deathstroke is working for the cult. In the graphic novel, the conflict with Brother Blood and the conflict with Deathstroke are two separate stories. I love the graphic novel because we get more of Deathstroke’s backstory and more of his connection to Terra. That said, the movie feels like a more rounded and complete story and it also better explores the romance between Nightwing and Starfire.

The movie also contained two episodes of the 2003-2006 Teen Titans series featuring Terra. Those were interesting enough that I went back and rewatched the whole Terra arc from the series’ second season. The Terra in the TV series proves to be quite different from the version in the graphic novel and the movie, but all three versions make an interesting exploration of the concept of betrayal.

I’ve long been fascinated by the character of Judas in the Bible. At the risk of going down a theological rabbit hole, Judas begs many questions. Was he inherently evil? If so, why did Jesus choose him to be an apostle? Just to betray him? Was Judas really a good man? Did he betray Jesus because of free will? In the three versions of The Judas Contract, we see three different interpretations of Terra, ranging from a good person led astray to a person who always was a psychopath. I won’t spoil the story by telling you which is which in case you haven’t delved into these stories and want to explore on your own.

In the story I’m writing, I’m confronting choices like this. Are the good guys what they seem? Are the antagonists really to blame for the events happening? As I reach a point about two-thirds of the way through the outline, I’m going back through and reading what I’ve written and deciding whether I forge ahead as I drafted the outline or if the characters are going to lead me in a new direction. Seeing a story like The Judas Contract explored well in three different ways does help me think about the possibilities. The important thing to remember, and the reason these stories are good, is that all the pieces were in place to tell you why the characters made the choices they did. The hints were there for those who pay attention. So if I do move in a different direction, I need to make sure I’ve also laid that groundwork.

All-Star Dialogue

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed my enjoyment of comics featuring the Justice Society of America. This was the first superhero team to appear in comics. The team made its debut in issue #3 of All-Star Comics in November 1940. I knew the book was created as a way to showcase those heroes who were not Batman and Superman, yet appeared in other titles published by DC Comics and its brother company All-American Comics. In the first Justice Society story, the society exists largely as a framing device. The heroes meet and each of them tells about a recent thrilling adventure. It’s less a team comic and more a way to introduce stories about each of the featured heroes. In the next issue, each hero still had standalone stories, but each story contributed to solving a bigger mystery.

So, what about All-Star Comics issues 1 and 2? These aren’t available digitally, so I had never read them. However, a few days ago, I discovered my local comic shop had a copy of DC’s Archive edition that collects the first two issues. It was even on sale. So, I ran over and picked up a copy.

As one might expect, the first two issues of All-Star Comics were simple anthology comics. They collected individual stories of heroes like the Golden Age Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, and the Spectre. Each hero had their own story and they didn’t meet. As with many Golden Age comics, the stories were simple, but they were fun. The stories were written and drawn by such people as Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, Sheldon Moldoff, and Gardner Fox, people who had a hand in the early days of Superman and Batman and would also help to usher in characters like the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash.

As it turns out, I rushed out to buy this book while working on a big writing project. I can’t say much about that project at this point, but I can tell you it’s set in 1942, right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It’s a time period I’m familiar with from the stories of my parents who were teenagers then. Truth be told, I bought the book as a little bit of fun distraction from work. One of the challenges of working at home during a pandemic is that you almost never leave the office!

That said, as I was reading the book, I came to realize it’s set just a little before the events of the story I’m working on. I should pay attention to people’s attitudes and how they speak. If you’re writing historical fiction, it can really help to read stuff written at the time your story is set. Watching movies of the period can help as well.

One of my favorite moments in this book was when they put in an editor’s note to explain what the FBI was. Although the FBI had already existed for several years, it had been a tiny department in Washington DC. It had just recently been expanded under President Roosevelt when the comic was new. More than once, when someone encountered something unusual, they described it as “queer.” It fits the dictionary definition perfectly well, but our modern ears tend to give the word a different meaning. Even Ultraman of the year 2240 is concerned about people being out of work and how a war in Europe will affect life at home. Of course, there’s also more than a little casual racism and sexism in some stories.

I won’t use everything I found in these stories, but the attitudes do reflect those of the period and help me to shape the way my characters speak. It reminds me of attitudes even progressive and forward-thinking people would have had to cope with. Words that are unusual to our modern ears should be used with care, but one or two sprinkled here or there can help transport a reader to a given era. You could do far worse when writing historical fiction to read a few comics of the period, if they existed. You might even have a little fun along the way.

Rhythms and Transitions in Writing

As I mentioned during Saturday’s blog post, I spent the summer in a particular daily rhythm, but now that we’re transitioning into autumn, I’m making some changes to my routine both because of external factors like the weather and also because of the projects I’m working on. One of the projects I’m working on is a new piece of writing. Another is revising a novel I first wrote twenty years ago.

Rhythm is something we associate primarily with song or music. However, it’s easy to see how it relates to writing when we think of structured writing such as formal poetry. The formal poem will have a meter and a rhyme scheme. When you read it aloud, you’ll hear the rhythm at work. You might deliberately break the meter or the rhyme scheme if you’re trying to jar the reader or make a point.

A manuscript on the screen marked up by my editor

When writing a story or a novel, words still have rhythm. Your goal is to put words together that flow one into the other until you have completed your thought. You can check whether your word rhythms work by reading your story aloud. That helps you hear whether your sentences are clunky or too repetitive.

When I was in elementary school, and first learned about paragraphs, they gave us a rigid definition. I was told a paragraph is five sentences. For a long time afterward, anytime I wrote a paragraph it was exactly five sentences. The reason the teacher told me that is that they didn’t want us to give up on an idea after only one or two sentences. They wanted us to practice putting sentences together and make sure we followed one coherent sentence with another.

That’s not really the way it works in fiction. You write out the bones of a thought in a sentence. You put some flesh on those bones in the next sentence. You might explore how they all function as a unit and the direction they’re moving.

Until something happens. That something breaks the rhythm and becomes a new paragraph. The transition is how one paragraph ends and the next begins. In the previous paragraph, we explored how to build a complete paragraph and this one talked about moving on to a new one.

Of course, transitions aren’t just from one paragraph to another. They happen at the end of a chapter and the beginning of the next. They also happen at scene breaks. Those are the places in a book where you might see a blank line between paragraphs and the point of view or setting shifts.

As a writer, I like exploring multiple points of view. When you see a scene from one character’s perspective and then move into another character’s perspective, the reader can gain new insights. That said, some editors I’ve worked with have suggested I can be a little too in love with multiple points of view and they have suggested that I reign in the number of point-of-view characters and scene shifts. This is one of the things I’m looking at with the twenty-year-old novel I’m delving into. There are some chapters with many scenes. The goal is to make sure each scene contributes to the story as a whole, that I transition cleanly from one scene to another, and that the scene is long enough that reader forms a complete picture and has an idea about how the scene relates to the rest of the book’s actions.

It’s all about finding a good rhythm.