Characters Are What They Eat

As the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.” My post’s title though refers less to nutrition than what you can reveal about a character through scenes set at mealtimes. I thought about this last week while revising the story “Jump Point Blockade” for my collection-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. During the story, Captain Firebrandt shares bobotie with Suki, the woman he’s building a relationship with. Bobotie is a South African dish that shares characteristics of a meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and a curry. We decided to try our hand at making it this weekend. Here’s the result.

We picked a recipe from a South African site based on the author’s family recipe. If you want to try your hand at bobotie, here’s the recipe we used: http://www.getaway.co.za/food/recipes-food/traditional-south-african-bobotie-recipe/.

Part of the reason for the choice is that this version didn’t include nuts at cook time, since our daughters are nut-allergic. Different recipes call for different types of nuts. We went with cashews to serve with our version, but almonds and pine nuts also seem to be common choices. We also used a homemade apple and pear chutney in the mix. Finally, just a note that the recipe specifies “sultanas” over raisins. It turns out that most raisins sold in the United States are, in fact, sultana raisins.

Firebrandt is South African because I created him during the time apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. He came from a culture where his ancestors had been part of an oppressive regime and he wanted no part of belonging to one himself. What’s more South Africa is one of the few countries to have developed nuclear weapons, but voluntarily destroyed them. I see the elimination of nuclear weapons as one of the necessary paths forward for the human race. In my head, Firebrandt has always spoken with a South African accent and having him share bobotie with a friend was a way to show that on the page.

Scenes including mealtimes not only reveal what people eat, but their accepted manners while eating. How strongly they adhere to meal customs can tell you much about a character, no matter what those customs are. If someone cares a lot about protocol, they might adhere strongly to custom. Other characters might care more about conversation. Some characters might reveal themselves to be completely uncouth at the dinner table. How hosts react to good and bad manners can also be revealing.

One of the challenges in Firebrandt’s Legacy is that I wrote many of the chapters as stand-alone short stories. It could be that when I’m finished collecting the stories and read them as a whole, I might find that I’ve overused the number of times my characters have shared meals. If that’s the case, I’ll need to cut a few of them and share only those that are the most revealing and most interesting.

I invite you to share some adventures, and perhaps a few meals, with the crew of the pirate ship Legacy. I’m posting a new chapter each month. So far, most of the chapters have been revisions of stories that have appeared far and wide in the small press and aren’t always easy to find. I’m nearing a point where most of the stories will be new and unpublished. You can read these stories for just a dollar a month. Of course, this helps me fund other projects as well, such as my recent publication of The Solar Sea. This leads to surprise bonus rewards. I just gave all my wonderful patrons a free ebook copy of the new novel. (If you join my Patreon page now, you can still pick up a copy!) Click the button below to read the first chapter for free and learn how to support this fun project.

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Sailing the Solar Sea

The Planetary Society was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980 as a voice in support of planetary exploration. I was in high school at the time and joined soon after it was founded. I remember an article in the society’s magazine The Planetary Report that discussed solar sails as vehicles for planetary exploration. The idea immediately grabbed me and I had an idea for a book about astronauts who traveled aboard a solar sail and made a sort of grand tour of the solar system much as NASA’s Voyager space craft was doing at the time. The novel was to be called Sailors on the Solar Sea. It took over twenty-five years for me to see a draft through to completion and the novel was finally published in 2009 with a shortened title: The Solar Sea. Now in 2018, I’m pleased to announce the release of the second, updated edition.

In the novel, whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

I started the novel soon after my mom bought me my first typewriter. It was a Smith-Corona electric and man that thing was nice. I remember sitting down for a couple of hours every weekend and savoring the hum of the typewriter and the tap-tapping as the ball hit the ribbon. I carefully saved those pages for many years. Jonathan Jefferson goes all the way back to the beginning. Natalie Freeman started as Nathaniel Freeman. I remember finding those early pages sometime in the early 1990s and feeling like there wasn’t enough of a plot to preserve, so I tossed the whole thing out. Around 2000, I made another attempt at the novel. I think I only succeeded in hammering out four chapters. That’s when Myra Lee and the whales came into the story. I grew up in Southern California and visited Marineland as a kid. My first job in astronomy was on Nantucket Island. Long before Captain Kirk saved the whales in Star Trek IV, I’ve been captivated by the idea of whale intelligence.

In 2007, Jacqueline Druga-Johnston, who was then the owner of LBF Books, challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month. I looked at what I had written before and didn’t like the direction I had been going with The Solar Sea, tossed that draft aside, and made a third go at it. In 2007, my youngest daughter was just getting ready to start Kindergarten. I wrote the novel in the evenings after the kids went to bed. I succeeded in writing 50,000 words in a month and felt satisfied that I had, essentially, a complete story. I took the next three months and revised the novel, adding about 13,000 more words and then submitted it to LBF for publication. The novel was published in early 2009. In the subsequent years, LBF was acquired by Lachesis Publishing.

The novel is set in the near future, less than a hundred years hence. Despite that, the novel has mostly aged well and not become too dated, though there were a couple of places where I saw time rapidly encroaching on the novel. Also, in the years since the novel’s release, I’ve continued to learn more about solar sails and realized I could do better. Lachesis, for their own business reasons, didn’t want to invest in a new edition, so when the contract came up for renewal in 2017, I requested a reversion of the rights. The upshot is that I’m proud to announce the release of the newest edition this week.

Although the new edition has been re-edited, I haven’t introduced any new plot points. Readers of the first edition should recognize it as the same novel with just a few updates to the science and technology. One nice new feature is that I worked with artist Laura Givens to create diagrams of the Solar Sail Aristarchus for the book.

Print copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Ebook copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

March Madness

No, this isn’t a post about basketball. It’s more a look back at the first two weeks of the month, which have felt more than a little crazy and hectic. I spent the first weekend of the month at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios, which was, as always, a great experience. Panels went well and we sold a lot of books. I then went home for a day, unpacked from the convention, and repacked for the Tucson Festival of Books and a shift at Kitt Peak. I spent the next three days at Kitt Peak, then went down to the Tucson Festival of Books where I had more awesome panels, albeit fewer book sales, returned to Kitt Peak for a night and a half of work, then finally returned home.

Since returning home, I’ve been proofreading some projects that I’ll talk about in more detail in the coming weeks, restocking books for El Paso Comic Con, and doing a little work around the house. One nice thing about how my schedule has worked out this month is that I’m off work for the week of my daughter’s spring break. So, we’ll be taking a short trip to spend a little time together, see some sights, and visit friends around New Mexico.

Juggling all these events, projects, and even my two careers in the last two weeks has certainly brought to mind the aphorism “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” I don’t know how lamb-like the end of the month will be, but I hope it’ll be a little quieter than the beginning. Of course, all these projects also make me feel “mad as a March hare” at times.

In keeping with the season, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon this week. In the movie, Toshiro Mifune turns in a delightfully manic performance which reminded me more than a little of his work in Seven Samurai. It was also a delight to see Takashi Shimura, who would also go on to play in both Seven Samurai and Godzilla. My reason for watching the film is that my friend Eric Schumacher was recently in a film called Tombstone Rashomon which tells the story of the gunfight of O.K. Corral from the eyes of several witnesses, much like the original Rashomon. Eric played Doc Holliday. A picture of him in the role on my wall has been serving as an inspiration for the Doc Holliday scenes in my forthcoming novel Owl Riders.

Although Owl Riders isn’t yet available, the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea is set to release on the first day of spring, March 21. You can get a sneak peak and preorder the ebook today at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/

Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

TusCon 44

Next weekend, I’ll be at TusCon 44 which is being held from November 10-12 at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona. Timothy Zahn is the Author Guest of Honor, Theresa Mather is the Artist Guest of Honor, Melinda M. Snodgrass is the Media Guest of Honor, Geoff Notkin is the Toastmaster, Madame Askew is the Mistress of Chaos, Hal and Dee Astell are the Fan Guests of Honor. For more information about the convention visit http://www.tusconscificon.com

This year, all of my panels are on Saturday, November 11, but as you’ll see, it’s a busy schedule! I will be at TusCon all weekend and Hadrosaur Productions will be in the dealer’s room. Here’s my event schedule:

Saturday, November 11

  • 12pm-1pm – Autographing – Canyon Theater Foyer. I’ll be signing autographs alongside Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Marsheilla Rockwell, Rick Cook, and Dr. David Williams.

  • 2pm-3pm – The Astronomer’s Crypt: Making a Book and a Trailer – Panel Room 2 (Pima B). Filmmaker Eric Schumacher and I will debut our short film which presents a scene from my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our goal with this project is to make something that goes beyond the ordinary book trailer and actually brings you inside the world of the book. We’ll discuss how we made the trailer and, if you’re an author, we’ll show you how we can help you get more eyes on your book.
  • 4pm-5pm – Publishing in 2017 – The Options, the Opportunities, the Pitfalls – Ballroom (Sabino). There’s the big press, the small press, the self press, the no press. What to do what to do? On the panel with me are Ron Collins, Julie Verley, Cynthia Ward, Beth Meacham, and Catherine Wells.
  • 5pm-6pm – The Snowball Effect: How to pick up steam on the way to making a low-budget film – Panel Room 1 (Pima A). I’ll join director Marty Ketola, actor Eric Schumacher, and actor Geoff Notkin to discuss the making of the indie film Revenge of Zoe in which screenwriter Billy Shaw must face his inner demons while convincing comic book store owners John and Pete to help him write a sequel to his greatest work; a movie about comic book super heroine Fren-Zee.
  • 7pm-8pm – Why Do Adults Like Young Adult Fiction? – Ballroom (Sabino). What are adults finding in the “kids” shelves that they’re not find in the rest of the bookstore? On the panel with me are Linda Addison, Mary Fan, Jim Doty, Jill Knowles, and Beth Meacham.

Also, I’m planning my annual shared birthday celebration with fellow longtime TusCon dealer Marty Massoglia on Saturday night after all the panels. Check with us at the convention for details. We might even go back in time on Friday night to TusCon 43 to have the party we missed last year!

When Research Derails Your Plot

Before I sit down to write one of my novels, I like to plot them out. These days my plots are fairly detailed with a sentence or two about every scene I plan to write. This helps to guide my research so I learn what I need to know before I start writing the novel. Despite that, details sometimes slip through the cracks.

For example, I’m currently working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. The historical Wyatt Earp is an important side character. In one scene, a character wants to buy Wyatt a drink. Now, I’ve watched many western movies featuring Wyatt Earp and he’s often shown in a saloon, playing faro or poker. In my research, I found this to be reasonably accurate, so it seemed fair to assume that Wyatt was a drinking man.

I thought it would be fun to add a little authenticity to the story and have the character buy Wyatt not just any drink, but his favorite drink. Wyatt Earp’s life is so well documented, I thought it might be possible to find out what he liked to drink. As it turns out, I did indeed find out. Wyatt Earp didn’t drink alcohol at all!

At this point, I faced two choices. The first, and perhaps most controversial would be to declare that in this alternate history Wyatt does drink. I’d argue this is actually a fair choice, but if you do go this route, you should do even more research to understand why Wyatt Earp didn’t drink and decide what circumstances in your alternate world would make him a drinking man. While you might not dwell on that choice in the story, you probably should say a few words about it. I would only recommend considering this route if major plot points down the road required that Wyatt Earp be a drinker for some reason and pulling that element out of the story would make it fall down like the proverbial house of cards.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a professional scientist. All my training is built around the idea that if I do research and find something that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions, I have to accept that finding. Between that inclination and the fact that Wyatt Earp having a shot of whiskey, scotch or anything else was simply not critical to the story in its own right, I did a little more research. I discovered that Wyatt Earp was a big fan of ice cream and ice cream parlors were just starting to spring up in the old west of the 1880s.

Returning to my novel, I used this bit of trivia to create a minor plot complication for my character who had to scramble to find Wyatt’s favorite ice cream parlor to continue his plans. It adds an interesting moment to the story, as well as a little bit of fun, historical trivia.

For me, this is one of the most fun parts of writing the Clockwork Legion novels. I get to learn about history and figure out how that history is changed by the world-altering events I’ve proposed. Conversely, I figure out what things would be constants in this new world and how that affects the story I want to tell.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me on this thrilling ride through history. The links below will take you to my pages about the books where you can find out how to purchase, read sample chapters, see book trailers and more. Also, note the first two books are available as audio books as well as print and ebooks.

Revision Hell

This past week, I’ve been reading and revising my rough draft of Owl Riders, getting in shape for beta readers and ultimately getting it ready to submit to my publisher. Despite the post’s title, the process hasn’t been hellish, but it does eat time. Owl Riders is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series and the fun of this process is that I enjoy playing in this world. It’s because I enjoy it that I feel I have a responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible.

I’m a believer that to succeed in writing, you need to sit down and write. As with my other recent novels, I wrote Owl Riders on my weeks off from my observatory job. Typically, I managed two chapters every other week. I didn’t worry too much about getting just the right words the first time through. I wrote from an outline to keep me on track and help me know where I was in the story, but I didn’t worry too much about tracking details. So my job this time around is to assure continuity, make sure I didn’t repeat facts I already conveyed in earlier chapters, and improve the prose so I tell the story in the best way possible.

To do this, I employ a three-prong approach for each chapter. First, I make a pass through the printed manuscript, rereading and making changes. I also make notes of facts I should remember for later chapters. Some of these facts are just matters of maintaining consistency of small details through the novel. Some of these facts are things I’d forgotten I highlighted, but are fun to revisit later in the novel as the characters have grown. I recently acquired a copy of Scrivener, the book writing software from Literature and Latte. It’s been a great help keeping those notes handy so I can check them as needed.

My second pass through each chapter uses a technique highlighted in the book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, which I’ve mentioned in other posts. My publisher also recommends following the book’s approach before submission. In short, the book highlights several common overused words (the infamous adverbs, the verb “to be”) and filler words (things like “of,” “about,” and “by”) that are all too easy to drop in your manuscript when you’re writing. The idea is to search for these words and then evaluate the phrase where it occurs and decide if you could find a better way to say it. I tend to catch a lot of this in the first pass, but searching always highlights more of these. The important thing about Ken Rand’s technique is that he doesn’t say you must make changes when you find these things. He just suggests evaluating the sentence and seeing if you can say it better. I usually make several revisions in this pass.

My third pass is to read each chapter aloud. This helps me smooth out prose from the first two passes, helps me to hear where I may have repeated phrases, and I often catch important elements I either cut or never wrote in the first place.

At this point, I’m about halfway through the revision pass. I hope to get more work done during my next break from the observatory. In this fourth novel, the Apaches have built battle wagons and they’ve carved out a land claim in Southern Arizona. Ramon is pulled into the conflict. Meanwhile, the man Fatemeh was once betrothed to in Persia seeks retribution for her decision to run away. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first three novels in the series. The links below will take you to pages with more information and purchase links. All of the books are available in print and as ebooks. The first two novels are also available from Audible as audio books!