Behind “Spider Dance”

“Spider Dance” wasn’t the story I set out to write when I decided to follow Nerelos (the main character from “Ley of the Minstrel”) into the lands of the Spider Lords. I had a vague idea of a bunch of evil spiders similar to Tolkien’s Shelob or Ungoliant. It was very, very vague.

Spiders. Hmm. Things I knew about spiders: they spin webs and they eat other bugs. Lots of eyes and legs. They can move fast and the stubby ones jump. A spider frightened Little Miss Muffet. An itsy-bitsy one climbed up a waterspout. I played with daddy-long-legs when I was a kid, and I still capture the occasional wolf spider in the house to set it free in the garden so it can eat other pestiferous bugs that annoy me.

Not enough to fill a story.

The trouble with research is that sometimes you find yourself fascinated by the subject totally aside from finding what you need to write a story.

My foray into arachnology left me amazed and humbled by the little creatures that inhabit our world. Did I think I had imagination? Hah — what a joke! One look at the anatomy of a spider, at the microscopic photographs of the tiniest hairs or the fangs on them boggled my mind. A table of spider silk’s tensile strength compared with other materials (such as rope, nylon, or steel) blew my feeble creativity away.

Things I now know about spiders:
Their blood is somewhat clear and faintly blue-tinted because it contains copper rather than iron as ours does.
They can regenerate body parts, even vital organs under some circumstances, during subsequent moultings.
Some spiders can rearrange their retinas as they look at different things.
Some have more intelligence than others. The little jumping spiders can change strategy when they are hunting according to what the prey is doing; sometimes they watch us, seemingly with interest.
There are pirate spiders that prey on other spiders by mimicking web-touching rituals of courtship or prey.
Some spiders fast for incredibly long periods prior to moulting.
Clean cobwebs can be used for impromptu bandages for cuts.
Spiders hear by interpreting air movement touching the complex hairs on their legs.
In some parts of the world, spiders are kept for the sport of spider fights.

The list goes on.

Think of it — real creatures stranger and more astounding than any fictional alien. We only notice them when they startle us or when we clean their abandoned webs from corners. I found myself reluctant to vilify them, to present them as nothing more than spawns of hell. It’s hard to do when research leads to respect.

Final note. In spite of all I learned, I didn’t rush out to purchase a pet tarantula. That will never happen. Probably.

“Ley of the Minstrel” and “Spider Dance” are available in my short story collection:
Leyfarers and Wayfarers http://tinyurl.com/n8svgxs

Advertisements

World-building: Musical Notes

 Comp-lute score close-up

The hunt is on. Somewhere in my files is the key to what notes on the bearing score I created mean. Notes on notes. Not how they work—that’s already in two published stories plus two more in progress set in the same milieu.

I love music, but my musical ability usually falls in the please-do-something-else-dear category. My only success is in learning to play a mountain dulcimer (a forgiving instrument for my limited repertoire) and a kalimba (ditto previous aside).

Otherwise…well, my singing voice has wonderful range—distressed cat yowl to grumpy bear growl—and probably qualifies as audio assault. Bam! The judge’s gavel echoes, and his sonorous, melodious voice pronounces the sentence: permanent house-arrest with duct tape for my mouth if I even attempt Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Relationships with most other musical instruments were brief and/or disheartening. Two months of accordion lessons ended when my dad got mumps and the teacher refused to return to our house. Guitar efforts took a lengthy hiatus when a chair leg impaled my guitar during a move. My teeth were too bad to continue clarinet lessons in 6th grade. I can annoy the dogs with my ocarina, but I’ve never advanced beyond an almost recognizable rendition of do-re-mi. And so on.

Still, the principles of music aren’t foreign to me, and time spent learning them wasn’t wasted.

Numerous authors incorporate music into their story worlds, whether this world (as in Anne Rice’s Violin or Elaine Bergstom’s Nocturne) or another milieu (J.R.R Tolkein’s Middle Earth, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern sub-series about Harper Hall, Louise Cooper’s Indigo series).

The writing books on worldbuilding have much to say about developing geography, history, religion, politics, but when it comes to culture, music rarely receives more than a paragraph or so (if any) about including it in a milieu. How strange is that? Consider how music is present in every aspect of our own lives even when it’s only somewhere in the background.

World-building notes now incorporate music as a major cultural aspect for any milieu I create.

Thus, in the pre-Scattering milieu of the AiFanir, melodies of harp-ships ring out across the oceans even as their notes serve as a type of sonar to judge water depths. Navigators on those ships plot bearings by music, and one learns to travel the bearing scores of leylines, a blend of music and pseudoscience.
My milieu of Kamanthia reveals musical similarities and differences as a character travels there. It also briefly explores non-human music (a stone creature singing?).

Music is in several of my stand-alone short stories, too.
The many voices in “Shell” are punctuated with snatches of sea shanties and ballads.
“Étude on the River” features the main character’s love of music and his concertina.
“Flipside” has a dj spinning strange but somehow familiar tunes.

I can’t make much music myself, but I can certainly write about it. And maybe make my worlds just a bit more well-rounded.

(Thinking about trying percussion. Bongo drums? Tambourine?…)

Leyfarers and Wayfarers is at \http://www.amazon.com/Leyfarers-Wayfarers-G-L-Francis/dp/0692336834/

Under Every Moon is at http://www.amazon.com/Under-Every-Moon-G-Francis/dp/0615870694/

Behind “Tools of the Trade”

DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve received emails asking about the history behind “Tools of the Trade”, my steampunk short story (from Leyfarers and Wayfarers) set in 1899 Kansas City, MO. When I created the story, I wanted as much historical accuracy as possible to make the Russian elf et al battling water demons more believable. Research was inevitable.
I’m answering the questions here, not really in any particular order.

Fiction: Sophie (the MC) and her brother Bruce were adopted as children and arrived in KC by train.
Fact: The Orphan Trains from the east coast carried hundreds of orphaned, abandoned, and parent-surrendered children west to be adopted. Some of their stories turned out well—the children were cherished and cared for by their adopted parents. Others didn’t fare so well, treated as little more than extra farm hands and servants.
Many of them processed through a church orphanage called “The Little Sisters of Mercy Asylum” in New York City. Nowadays, we often think of the word “asylum” in terms of mental institutions, but the broader meaning is a place of refuge, a shelter, a haven.

Fiction: One of the minor characters is taken to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City while another is taken to a children’s clinic.
Fact: This hospital did indeed exist back then but at that point, it was called All Saints Hospital (est. 1885). It didn’t actually change names to St. Luke’s Hospital until 1903, four years after this story takes place. The shift of time is creative license.
The other clinic mentioned was founded by one of two sisters (Dr. Alice Berry Graham and Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson) who set it up to help children of those too poor to afford medical treatment. At the time, women doctors weren’t common and there was some (a lot!) bias about hiring them to work in hospitals, another reason for founding their own. A few years later, that clinic became Children’s Mercy Hospital.

Fiction: The elf cauterizes a wound with an “untinned” brazing bit.
Fact: “Untinned” means that it hadn’t been covered with the solder mixture of tin and lead which helps transfer the bit’s heat so the solder will flow properly to make a good joint. Essentially, the elf is using the equivalent of a bare-metal branding iron to cauterize the wound.

Fiction: The elf has an instrument called a dioptra in his toolbox.
Fact: A dioptra is an astronomical as well as a surveying instrument. Its earliest use dates back to about the 3rd century B.C. for astronomy, but the armillary later became the more favored instrument — greater accuracy, more detail. For surveying, the dioptra was later replaced by the theodolite. Because the elf in the story has a traceable lineage going back several centuries, he’s also inherited tools & instruments (even obsolete ones) from his ancestors.

Fiction: Sophie thinks “Wake up, prince” as she kisses the elf to disrupt a demon’s hold over him.
Fact: The elf character isn’t a prince, nor is Sophie particularly infatuated with him at this point in the story. But published fairy tales had been around for quite a while, and Sophie would’ve been familiar with them. The Brothers Grimm published their first volume of collected fairy tales in 1812 and a second volume in 1815.
A book of era sketches and photos showed the location of a Kansas City outskirts shantytown where Russian immigrants lived and dreamt of continuing westward with one of the many wagon trains. Kazimir became a Russian elf, but the Grimm stories didn’t have Russian tales, so Sophie doesn’t know about the particular water demon she’s seen.

Fiction: Sophie, Bruce, and Kazimir set out from the Kansas City Yacht Club building to battle the water demons.
Fact: Learning of the KCYC’s existence actually triggered the idea for the story. I was researching railroads running through KC for another project and had picked up a thrift store book of old local photos and newspaper sketches. In it, a sketch of a building with the sign Kansas City Yacht Club caught my eye. After some archive digging, I found it really did exist and had a lively membership among the local boaters. They held regattas and fish fries, and they even bottled their own beer. There were a number of smaller clubs in and around the city, but the KCYC seemed to be the largest.
The Kansas City Yacht Club was just too cool not to include in the story!

Leyfarers and Wayfarers is at \http://www.amazon.com/Leyfarers-Wayfarers-G-L-Francis/dp/0692336834/

 

Permission Granted

Why do people so often cringe at the word “poetry”?

I have two opinions.

Opinion #1: at some point during education, too much analysis destroyed enjoyment and made poetry harder than it needed to be. What is the poet saying? What symbols did the poet employ? What is the deeeeeeep meaning of this poem? What form, what techniques did the poet use?

Or the psycho-lit question: what meaning does this have for you, the reader?
This one requires self-analysis—possibly for people too cheap or too broke to afford a shrink.

The lesson learned with the earliest nursery rhymes, then forgotten, then rediscovered is this: analysis isn’t always required to enjoy a poem.  It’s okay to like snapshot stories of words and the afterimages they leave or the way the arrangements roll off the tongue.

Maybe the poem does say something to me personally, lifts my spirits, or leaves a sense of wonder (or delicious chill) with the final lines. Maybe it lingers and surfaces for reflection when I do some other terminally boring activity. And/or maybe I enjoy it enough to memorize so I can revisit at will, any time I can’t have a book or e-reader in hand.

Opinion #2: a lot of poetry either doesn’t make sense at all or it’s the sense of the poet psychoanalyzing him/herself. Most confessional writing, including poems, bores the snot out of me. By the time I’ve wandered through someone’s self-absorption or self-flagellation, I no longer care whether the teakettle was copper, the pencil was a 2B stub, and the booze spilled on the floor. I’m glad I only had to plod/slog/trudge through 24 lines of it.
(Terribly unsophisticated of me, I know.)

So, I enjoy the challenge, the discipline of writing form poems, rhymed and unrhymed, as well as the liberty of free verse, of exploring new ways to express a moment or idea cleanly, crisply, creatively. I like poems that tell or suggest a micro-story (especially fantasy or science fiction).

My poetry collection, Under Every Moon, explores edges where the mundane and uncanny parallel or converge, where ordinary and extraordinary intersect, and where reality and fantasy sometimes collide. Hear the voice of sand, of birds, of the tarot’s charioteer, of the crone who spins and weaves dreams and nightmares. Feel the talismanic beat of a drum, heart, or hoof, or the clatter of dice. Discover a name, witness ghosts dancing, and learn secrets of the sea.

I pass along the permission I granted myself to simply enjoy poetry. With or without analysis.

Under Every Moon is at http://www.amazon.com/Under-Every-Moon-G-Francis/dp/0615870694/