Friday, October 24, 2014

EXTRA - Book Review - Titanium Texicans

 I enjoy taking time away from writing to see what other authors are doing, and when stumbling across a good read, it's only right to share.

Alan Black, Titanium Texicans, (2014) 

Kindle Books
(ISBN 978-1500639181)

Science Fiction author, Alan Black, has done another credible job spinning a Young Adult tale in outer space, Titanium Texicans (2014). However, don't let that last phrase, “outer space,” be a turn-off. This is not a story with weird creatures and fantastic places with unpronounceable names. This is a solid story of a mid-teen's coming of age in short two years.

There are certain elements that successful Young Adult stores contain: an orphan who must contend with an adult world, and an antagonist who gets in the way (in this case two on different power trips). The protagonist must overcome challenges to achieve a goal, meet, lose, and win a girl, and somehow come out on top. Titanium Texicans certainly delivers.

In addition, Alan Black has chosen to tell this tale using two ethnic groups of earth people seldom heard from, the Scots and Texicans. If an author doesn't understand these two cultures, the story will fall flat on it's proverbial face.

Texicans are a very diverse ethnic group. The first immigrants to the area we now call Texas were from Spain (not Mexico) who began arriving in the 1600's. They were joined by a massive immigration of Europeans in the 1700's. These people joined together to defeat the Mexican army in an 18-minute battle to win independence from Mexico in 1836 before joining the United States. My youngest son's very best friend's ancestors settled in now southern Texas in the late 1600's. His dad, a good friend, speaks Spanish (not Mexican), and Johnny struggles with the language having grown up in northern Nevada. Over the centuries the Spanish arm of Texicans has become increasingly mis-labeled as Mexicans. Mr. Black skates close to this trap without falling into that pit.

The other group, the Scots, he has pretty well nailed. These hardworking, industrious folk are clannish. (No pun intended). They are a proud, close-knit, tight-lipped, independent, suspicious of government, education-oriented people, and in no way related to the English. My own paternal line traces back to when the Celts migrated from central and southern Europe. My maternal side is German Celts who didn't migrate. I know these people. I grew up with these attitudes. Mr. Black seems to understand them and depicts these traits nicely through his protagonist, Tasso Menzies.

Tasso is orphaned, betrayed by an uncle, has serious anger issues, and consigned to a family-oriented, Spanish Texicans space-freighter of humongous dimensions. In the next two, rocky years he overcomes personal problems because of his Scottish upbringing and the gentle caring of most of the crew. While his goal is to return to reclaim a starvation farm, fate sets his feet on a much different path.

For this reader, Titanium Texicans became one of those enjoyable, hard-to-put-down reads well worth the time.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Preparation – The Click of a Mouse

Fifty-five years ago I began serious writing using a pencil and then a Royal typewriter. There were other essential tools, too; a dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia. There is (and always has been) a bookshelf within easy reach. Looking there as this is written I see my original Webster's New World Dictionary © 1955 and Roget's Thesaurus in Dictionary Form © 1961. Companion references regarding the art of writing fill much of that shelf. Above that are two shelves of historical and scientific references mostly from a lifetime of study in history and archaeology – things that are not available online.

When a writer's imagination is sparked, the first thing that should occur is jotting down an outline or synopsis of what the story is about, giving it a beginning and and end. That in turn suggests what research is necessary.

Several years ago I penned a story that involved the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. The Jemez Mountains west of Sante Fe became the local. The Internet has become the Library of Alexandria in our time and provided a wealth of information about this area in the form of text and pictures. There was also some about the Pueblo people. As in all good references there will be a bibliography at the end pointing to other sources, but I felt the need to visit the area to  drive/walk the land and speak/observe people. Of particular importance was their religion. Problem! Much of their practices are considered sacred and they simply DO NOT discuss it.

Not discouraged, I returned to the Internet (and thank you Google for digitalizing books written in the mid to late 1800's) which provided insight into what I wanted. No, there wasn't the detail I wanted, but coupled with a background in archaeology and religion and noticing some correlations, I indulged in speculation and a bit of fantasy to produce a story with a realistic ring. (Perhaps too realistic because a couple of contacts in New Mexico wanted to know how I found out what went on in the kivas.)

However, a writer should be careful about inundating the reader with too much fact. Present enough to give an authentic flavor. In preparing a series on piracy in the early 1600's, this was not the swashbuckling idiocy of Jack Sparrow, walk the plank, and “avast there.” It was a whole lot more interesting. Columbus came to the New World and introduced slavery, disease, and decimation of the native populace. There were two types of natives – one would embrace you as a friend and invite you TO dinner, while the other cut to the quick and have you FOR dinner. Pirates were ruthless, yet there was a human. Historical events in Europe and the New World occurred to effect and encourage events in the setting (the Caribbean Islands). Sailing in a 100-foot, leaky boat was not a pleasure cruise. What a wonderful palette with which to work.

As an example, I became peripherally involved in the research for James A. Michener's tale, Centennial (1974). Here's a description as found online:

(Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, /w/index.php?title=Centennial_(novel)&oldid=621515363). 

Centennial is a novel by American author James A. Michener, published in 1974.

 “Centennial traces the history of the plains of northeast Colorado from prehistory until the early 1970s. Geographic details about the fictional town of Centennial and its surroundings indicate that the region is in modern-day Weld County. Since the novel was written, the Denver suburb of Centennial has been incorporated, although its location in Arapahoe County is far from Michener's fictional town of the same name. Much of his book was based on the Weld County town of Greeley.

“Many episodes in the book are loosely based on actual historical events in eastern Colorado and southeast Wyoming, which for novelistic reasons are brought to a single locale. For example, "The Massacre" is based on the Sand Creek Massacre which took place in Kiowa County, Colorado in 1864. Other parts of the book are loosely based on a family from Sterling in Logan County.”

Don't think for a minute that the research for this novel was done overnight or entirely by Mr. Michener. However, there are very important things to note about what and how he used the research which is a good example of how to pull things together within the framework of a story.

The beauty about writing today is that it's all there – literally at our fingertips – as we write: our research notes, dictionary, thesaurus, references. If more detail about a person, place, or thing seems necessary as we write it is simple to make a note and research it later or switch to another working window, quickly look it up or reach to the bookshelf for the printed reference. (Yes, that is contrary to what others will say, but if you have the ability to hold the current story thought or have good notes/outline, go for it. More than once I have had an “Oh, really?” moment and immediately changed directions thus saving a lot of re-writing later.) Of course, if the information does not seem available, perhaps it's time to take a “vacation.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Method Acting and Writing

Recently a niece who is a developing author and artists posted this on FaceBook:

"Writing this novel is an interesting adventure. I'm getting to know these characters as they grow and change. Today as I was writing a particular scene I felt like I was there like I was feeling everything. It's a strange surreal thing. I wonder if that's how actors feel when they are really into a scene."

Pumping my fist and shouting, "YES!" I could not have been happier for her. Like many folks trying their hand at writing, she has not really had much writing instruction, but she is working at it, and this is a great discovery.

In the dramatic arts there is a style called "Method Acting," which seems to be going out of vogue. This technique is where actors and actresses absorb the thoughts and feelings and apply personal experiences to develop life-like performances. We are talking "A-list" performers here: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rod Steigher, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp -- the impressive list goes on as does the memory of their works.

As a recent example, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have spent a full year reading and thinking about nothing else except Abraham Lincoln as preparation for Steven Speilberg's, "Lincoln." When he stepped before the cameras he was no longer Daniel Day-Lewis. He WAS Lincoln. 

Acting and writing have at their core -- telling a story. It's hard to exaggerate the impact of Method Acting. It has given us a legacy full of good works, but above all it gave us sincerity and emotional truth. And therein tells the success of a writer's work. The reply to my niece's observation was:

"If the character feels pain, so do you. If they laugh, you laugh. If they cry, you cry. You must feel what every character feels or the writing becomes flat. You created these folk and just because you've put them out for everyone to see doesn't mean they leave you. They are you."

Our desire as writers is to draw the reader into the story and there are techniques to get them interested, but at the heart, we want the reader (and they want this, too) to become a part of the story. Writers should describe the feelings and emotions of a scene so that the reader applies their feelings and and emotions.

It is not unusual that as I write a scene to find myself emotionally involved. If anyone were to be looking over my shoulder, they might think I've lost it.

In one novel my young protagonist is an orphan (his father is dead and mother is gallivanting around the world as part of her tourist business). He lives with an aunt whom he adores. One day he finds her dead. Shock, denial, fear of the future; he can't cry until a surrogate father sits with him before the funeral. Peers taught this young man that men don't cry until he sees this man, "the strongest man he knew," begin to cry. (My apologies, but that scene was so emotionally powerful it still affects me.) As the adventure progresses he experiences a lot of feelings -- joy, wonder, fear, bravado, and love.

Now, there is a sizeable difference in ages between this author and my niece, almost fifty years, so my reservoir of experiences is much greater, but even in twenty-plus years she has experiences on which to draw and flesh out characters. So, if a character is angry, pull out the anger as you've experienced it. If they are frustrated and cry, you cry. If they are exuberant, you laugh. Why? Because that character is you. It doesn't matter what part they play.

I suppose you can call this Method Writing.