Climate change threatens NASA

NASA’s decision to put its facilities on oceanfront property is proving foolhardy in this era of Climate Change.

Are You the Character?


Creating characters happens in many ways. Some authors choose a friend or acquaintance at random and then embellish or exaggerate their attributes. Other writers imagine someone they’ve always wanted to know—or be in love with–and away they go with the character of their dreams.

In a book I recently read, a literary mystery by Randall Silvis named  Two Days Gone, the writer offers up a successful novelist and teacher, I can’t quote the entire section, but there are some fascinating bits in the professor’s words to his students about creating characters. First he tells them to watch people, listen to them, and watch fo rthe gestures that may hint at underlying character traits.

“Next”,’ he writes, “you must learn to translate this observational skill from real people to your characters. You have to come to know you character inside and out, know their history, her childhood, all the traumas and triumphs that made her who she is at the moment the story begins. Only the can you become that character as she takes those choices that will propel the story forward. You, the author, sitting there in your comfortable chair, typing away, must simultaneously be the character…Because only by becoming that character can you know with an authenticity how she will react to those situations. And only then will she be a credible, believable character. Only then will she be real.”

This character writing as a person telling us how to write a character is a weird thing to read, but it does have a lot of wisdom in it . Watching and internalizing quirks you see in people all around you is vital to get away from the same old suburbanite tooling along a nicely manicured suburban highway. Mimickng the way teenagers talk is the best way to put a character on the page who sounds like a true sixteen-year old. But getting inside the character’s head to the point that the character is you, or you are the character seems like bad advice to me. Because then you have a new problem; characters are all the same because they share your thoughts and traumas. Who wants that?

There also is the problem of multiple characters, especially if you have a manuscript where two (or more) characters share the spotlight. With the advice given by the “novelist and writing teacher,’ there would be not much difference between your characters. No conflict.That would lead to a dull read.

I know what Silva is trying to get at. Too many writers are far too lazy in their creations. They will often take a cardboard character, an Indian chief or a bejeweled socialite, toss them into the first draft, and then never try to deepen, or re-mold the character.  You simply have to avoid that. Each pass the writer takes with a draft should make the characters more like real people. But like you? No.

I have to admit that this is the first time I ever saw writing advice in the midst of a murder mystery, and Silva does a fine job with creating his novelist character—who might have murdered his entire family, or maybe is the sweet guy he seems to be who’s being framed.

I know there are lists they hand out to beginning writers that ask, what is the character’s favorite ice cream flavor, who is their idol, where could they live if they could chose anywhere. I never took these lists seriously, because all of my characters ended up liking carmel ice cream, loved Jesus, and wanted to live on a tropical island. It’s just boring trivia.

The best way to create  character is to create someone you meet by chance in your imagination, learn about them, and by the final draft they will have become your best friend. (And that somewhat includes the antagonist, who should be interesting enough to have reasons for his or her bizarre goals.)

But what could be more boring than reading a book about you?

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New Planets, New Fiction


(Picture from NASA)

Now that scientists have found seven new planets that might possibly harbor life orbiting a star, Trappist -1, that is “only” 40 light years (or 235 trillion miles) away, science fiction buffs are enthused about new worlds to write about. It doesn’t really take actual new worlds for fiction writers to create whole new societies and species—they’ve been doing that quite nicely with their own imaginations for years. But how nice it is to have actual planets that really exist on which to base speculative fiction. It gives the writing a ring of authority.

One of the nice things about the Trappist-1 discovery is that there isn’t just one planet to study, but a whole host of seven new worlds. One or more of these planets could revolve in just the right temperature range for oceans of water to exist, which most scientists think is essential for any kind of life like ours.

“I think we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there,” Amaury H. M. J. Triaud, and astronomer at the University of Cambridge, England, told the New York Times.

Right now, telescopes on the ground and at the Hubble Space Telescopes in orbit are able to find some of the molecules in the atmosphere of the seven new plants. Later, the James Webb Space Telescope (to be launched next year) will be able to judge infrared wavelengths of light.

All this study will help in the search for life. And even if the planets don’t have life, they will provide new clues about what keeps life from evolving on different worlds.

No matter what the scientists find, fiction writers will have all kinds of fun developing life and societies for the new planets. The worlds orbit  and ulltra-cool dwarf star, which is much different than our own. It has only one-twelfth the mass of the sun and a surface temperature of 4,150 Fahrenheit, much cooler than the 10,000 degrees of our own sun. How will that affect the type of aliens that could live there? Maybe they are furry and have blubber to retain heat. Or maybe they are just smaller, in context with the sun the live under.

Another interesting thing is that the planets are relatively close to each other and are pulled close to the star. Could this mean a civilization develops that is multi-planetary in nature, with denizens hopping from planet to planet with ease?

Writers will be watching the developments of Trappist-1. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first Trappist-1 novels start appearing in the next few years.

I, who don’t write science-fiction but sometimes enjoy it, couldn’t be more excited about this discovery. It means a great deal for our general knowledge of the universe, and for literary art.

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The Long and the Short of Stories

I am asked constantly, “How does a writer get published?” Besides the obvious answer “Write well,” I often tell a tale of how the most determined writers get to their goal.

There are two important ways that writers can become published, and they seem almost diametrically opposed.
One way is to accrue a good-sized collection of short stories that the author has published in literary journals from around the country (and even abroad). The more published stories the author has, the better he or she looks to a literary agent or publisher looking at the material.

This is certainly the long road to getting published, because the rejection rate of literary magazines is phenomenal. In the old days, writers would wait anxiously for their Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) to see if it contained an acceptance or rejection. I remember going to the mailbox and pulling out those poor, thin little SASEs—thin because they almost always contained a terse rejection, written on a small piece of paper. Reason: “does not fit our needs at this time.” Now. submissions are be email, and the magazines don’t answer at all.

Rarely, an agent or agency staffer would ask for a re-write or for some other examples of the author’s work. This usually left the writer crying tears of joy, for someone actually read their story well enough to make a comment about it. Once in a great while the work would be accepted, and then the envelope would be thick and full of contracts that the writer had to sign. I only got one of those and it was so long ago that I forgot what journal accepted the story.

The idea here is that if you had enough stories published by such well-known journals as The Kenyon Review, Granta, and The New Yorker (!), and agent will take the writer on to produce novels, that, they both hope will sell well.

The other road to getting published is less touted by the schools offers Master of Fine Arts degrees, but it often produces faster results. The writer toils on a novel straight from the beginning, mainly because he or she doesn’t have much interest in short stories. The novel is tossed around writers groups, home reading groups and is sent out to minor publishers, gaining comments along the way. Almost always the novel is not accepted at any publishing house, but it can be read and remembered by members of the publishers and editors at various writing establishments, who often share material between them selves.
The author can self-publish, which doesn’t guarantee much money or readership, but can land the book in the right hands. This is the route I took. I wrote a couple more manuscripts and sent them out to higher-level agents, hoping they’d take a chance on me. None of them did.

But then a miracle happened. One of the publishers who had read my self-published novel remembered it and liked the style. We worked on a science-fiction book together where I was the ghost writer and he came up with the plot. It was never published, but our relationship was tight. When he decided to start his own publishing company, he wrote me and asked for a manuscript to publish. While I was trying to figure out if this was a joke or not, I finally took him at his word and The God’s Wife, an novel about ancient Egypt, was published by Fiction Studio Publishing (now the Story Plant). My publisher is and was the wonderful Lou Aronica.

I’m not saying this happens every day. But novelists who stick to novels instead of goofing around with short stories they really don’t like, often have what it takes to push through to success.

And so, now, I’ve taken a fresh new look at short stories and what they can offer (usually a jumping off point for new novel, for me). My second short story will appear in A Dozen Truths: 12 Works of Fiction. This is the March 14, 2017, Kindle edition and can be pre-ordered at Amazon at this link; A paperback book is also in the works.

So, it can go both ways: short story writers can become novelists and novelists can start writing short stories, The important thing is to write what you love the most. Sincerity just can’t be faked.

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Bringing the holidays to the page (or not)

Not very many fiction writers make Christmas (or Hanukkah) the center setting of their novels. There was only one Charles Dickens and his “A Christmas Carol.” Few writers have even tried to surpass it. The holidays as a theme is usually used for marketing purposes in series detective novels, romances, even those strange hybrids, the cat mysteries (cozy whodunits featuring cats that help solve crimes). Most writers creating literary fiction or even thrillers and pot-boilers stay far away from the cheer and festivity of Christmas.

Some people don’t bring up cold weather at all. I, definitely a summer person, don’t like writing about snow and wind chills, even when that’s what I have swirling around me.tumblr_nrunr1vW2K1u7wocpo1_500 Yet I did bring characters together to Chicago in January in Dateline: Atlantis, freezing up the California-bred characters nicely before sending everyone off to Florida and the Caribbean. Christmas was never mentioned. There was a family dinner in that novel that could have doubled for Thanksgiving, but I never mentioned the holiday. I wasn’t trying to get readers in cheery, cozy mood, because a murder happened while the characters dined.

As much as I hate cold and frostbite, some writers seem to revel in it. Many writers of crime fiction love to make their detectives wade through snowdrifts five feet high, suffer in stakeouts in sub-zero weather, and struggle to hold a gun while wearing two layers of gloves. Hats off  (and quickly on again) to Libby Hellman and Sara Paretsky for making Chicago look so bad, but a perfect place for criminal mayhem.

Writer Stuart Dybek, another Chicagoan, once write a short story called “Cordoba” about a man who hails a cab in a blinding snowstorm. The cabby has the name of woman that he’s in love with.  He hasn’t met only gotten her phone number, but he’s in heaven,  Somehow, Dybek makes the snowscape sexy as the cabby goes on about all the pleasures he’ll soon be experiencing in his new girlfriend’s apartment. That is is he has the guts to call her. Then just as things seem perfect for the cabby, he loses the woman’s phone number and blames his fare for stealing it.  The customer doesn’t have the number but knows murderous lust when he sees it and dives out of the car into the snow. The storm gets worse and the cab gets stuck. The patron makes a hasty exit. At the end of the story, which I heard Dybek read to a group of authors, the customer finds the phone number stuck to his scarf. On a whim, he calls the woman. It’s just a luscious piece of work, even if it makes Chicago look like a horrible place to live. (I’ll write about that another time, but Chicago in spring, summer and fall is quite cosmopolitan and offers great entertainment.)

But Christmas? Well, there are the aforementioned series fiction styles which have a Christmas theme once in a while. There’s The Grinch That Stole Christmas (a true classic) by the late Dr. Seuss, The Christmas Box  by Richard Paul Evans (which I have never read) and the wonderful children’s classic, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. But nothing earth-shattering comes to mind.

Christmas is a day to take part in and enjoy and not to write about.









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Bad guys, devils, and villains

A few years ago, a writer I know once gave me advice that I never pondered before.

“From the bad guy’s point of view, he’s doing the right and logical thing,” she said. “He doesn’t think of himself as a villain.”

She was quite right. I thought back to all the good books I had read, and in every case, no matter how reprehensible the antagonist was, he or she always had the opinion that she was right. Take the Harry Potter books for example. Snape, the teacher the kids all hate at Hogwart’s Academy seems as if he’s just there to make the kids feel total agony. But, as we find out through the long series, he just feels that he is a superior teacher and is trying to impart his extraordinary knowledge to students who don’t appreciate him. When you look at it this way, Snape no longer looks like a cartoon character, but a real person with problems and worries of his own.

When I wrote my first novel, Excited Light (self-published), I kept that advice in mind as I constructed a plot with an antagonist who is a womanizer and cheat. I put myself in his shoes as I wrote the book, remembering that this man saw himself as a handsome, talented newspaper editor whose career had taken a wrong turn. He looked at women as people who would salve his wounded ego, even though he never followed through on the promises he made to them.

For my novels at the Story Plant, each time I created a villain, I’d take some time to look at things from their perspective. I got some great positive reviews, some focusing on how good the “evil” character was. The mother character in The God’s Wife seems like a shrill, unpleasant harridan. However, she is merely trying to smooth the rites of succession for the all-important God’s Wife of Amun position in Ancient Egypt.

For “Dateline: Atlantis” I even sent the ms. to someone who had lived in England to make sure I got the language correct.tumblr_nrunr1vW2K1u7wocpo1_500

I based this bad guy on a real person (who was not remotely English) and tried to make the narcissism ring true. After all, he thought he was a talented and famous museum director who could do no wrong. He even justified murder as being something he had to do in the name of science.

I’ve read some books in which the antagonist is just a plain jerk and I never felt the sense that I was seeing what was under his skin. Then there are books that have no villain at all. It’s just the main character battling against a prevailing and unpopular idea. I wouldn’t suggest doing a book this way. You need conflict to really make a book come alive, and without a villain, there’s really not much tension to propel the reader forward.

Right now, I’m working on a book in which the antagonist has just appeared and I am trying mightily to figure out what her motivation is. I’m even considering doing a chapter just on her and her thoughts. I may never use that chapter, but it will help me from letting her become a caricature instead of a character.

Try looking at your own writing and see if the villain, or forces of evil, have a tale of their own to tell. It might be just the thing to liven up a moribund manuscript.













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Dying stars may shine on new life

Fantastic Worlds

Astronomers who have been looking for possibly inhabited planets almost always look in the “Goldilocks” zone of a star. That is the area where the conditions are most Earthlike—temperature enough to host liquid water, which is considered essential for any type of life to grow.

However, new research published in Astrophysical Journal  suggest that they ought to be looking in some unexpected places. There is a better chance that life will show up on planets that are near aging, red giant stars. These stars, which are starting to go through the ending cycles of a sun’s life, have expanded greatly and may be warming planets that had been cold for billions of years.

Astronomer usually look at middle-aged stars like our own, trying to find planets that are in just the right spot for life to develop. But there aren’t many planets that we have found that fit the specifications, so it might make more sense to also look at planets circling “senior” stars. Suns that are about twice the age of our own could be radiating heat out to once-frigid planet, defrosting oceans, and finding new life or old eco-systems that come back to life under the changing conditions.

Right now, nearly two dozen aging stars are within 100 light years of our own solar system.

“I hope that this will actually spark an effort by people who look for planets to also look at these old stars now,” Lisa Kaltnegger, astronomy professor and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, told “Because if you could find signatures of life on such and evolved planet—a de-frozen planet—it could tell you how (life) got started on the surface, and that would be an amazing part of the story.”

After our own sun expands to become a red giant (in a few billion years, so don’t panic), it will incinerate Mercury and Venus and Earth and Mars will be fried wastelands. But Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune may warm up enough to sustain life.

For fantasy and science fiction writers, finding new inhabited planets could spark whole new series of books: the Un-Frozen Worlds. That’s the fun of fiction, every new little quirk that scientists discover can bring all kinds of inspiration to writers.



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A universe full of black holes

Fantastic World

Scientists are discovering that there are far more black holes in space than we ever thought possible. A new study in Nature magazine predicts hundreds of black hole coming into existence each year. These new black holes are visible through the second generation of gravitational wave directors, according to website

When the first colliding black holes were discovered this year, they were discovered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. The colliding black holes offered proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Now, we are finding that there are colliding black holes happening all over space.


Richard O’Shaughnessy, assistant professor of RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences, told the website “The universe isn’t the same everywhere. Some places produce many more binary black holes than others.”

For the most part black holes are massive stars that collapse into themselves and become negative gravity fields. But pairs of them are extremely rare. However the black holes O’Shaughnessy predicts that we are going to be seeing more and more binary and twinned black holes in the future.

“(We) are not going to see 1,000 black holes like these every year, but many of them will be better and even more exciting because we have a better instrument—better glasses to view them with and better techniques,’ the scientist said.

So, the universe could be filled with black holes. Whether any of these offer any opportunity for time travel is still unanswered. But the more the black holes, the more science fiction will play with the possibilities.

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The Woman Who Became Pharaoh

Fantastic World

Intricately carved stone blocks have been found depicting Queen Hatshepsut on Egypt’s Elephantine Island, far to the south of most Egyptian capitals. They provide insights to the early reign of this formerly over-looked ruler, whom some elements of Egyptian society tried to hide. That’s because Queen Hatshepsut, who was a regent for her nephew Thutmoses III, took on the robes of the pharaoh for herself.

It was more than a little unusual for a woman to serve as pharaoh (Nefertiti worked as a co-ruler with her husband Akhenaten), and probably the public rebelled. But there have been many statues (most broken up and used as fill for other structures) that show Hatshepsut depicted as a woman. The Elephantine sculptures show her as female, which was the way she was depicted early in her reign.

The first female pharaoh ruled from from 1473 B.C. to 1458 B.C. as a female. Later in her reign, the queen was depicted as a male. They even placed the pharaoh’s false beard on her feminine chin. She was one of the most prolific builders of the pharaoh. She erected and renovated many shrines and temples to the gods. Her Memorial temple still draws crowds today. But the smaller building on Elephantine Island shows how widely the planned buildings were.

The Elephantine Island structure was a way station for a ceremonial barque dedicated to the god Khnum.

No one knows what happened to Hatshepsut when she disappeared from history. Some think her jealous nephew had her killed. Certainly he is blamed for defacing her image and royal cartouche throughout Egypt. Still, many departures of Hatshepsut as a man exist throughout Egypt thanks to archeologist and restorers throughout the world.

It goes to show that when you create something marvelous, as Hatshepsut did with her buildings, people are going to remember you male or female.

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To dream, perchance to write

Plenty of people don’t pay any attention to dreams. Dreams to them are nighttime entertainment to ponder a second or two and then be forgotten. Some others take dreams way too seriously and believe that they foretell the future (I’d personally say only one in 500 dreams has anything to say about what we are going to do in the waking world.) Others just forget about dreams the minute they wake up and claim they don’t dream. Psychologists say everyone dreams at night, and these often can be recovered in hypnosis.

Writers who ignore dreams do so at their peril. Because what’s just weird and amusing to most people can be rich fodder for stories, characters, and even plot lines. I go over my dreams when I wake up in the middle of the night, just to see if there is any useable material there. (No, I don’t write them down, and I should, but I’m just too darn tired. I can’t read the handwriting in the morning.) At awakening, I do the same thing and pay special attention when a similar dream seemed to be playing over continuously during the night. Those mean something, even if I’m not sure what.


I long ago got rid of those books that are supposed to explain dreams to you. They explain common symbols that are significant to a wide group of people, but don’t have much to say about my own dreams. I look for similarities to my life, a character who remains memorable long after the dream is over, and, of course, the landscape of dreams—in cosmic, space-like settings, in a house, deep within a cave. All of this can spark a story idea.

I once had an idea for a short story and went to bed imagining the characters, then what their dialog might be, and I gave it a hazy plot as I was drifting off. That germ of a story took off in dreamworld. When I woke up, I had the entire story ready. I got out my computer, started typing—and with just a few revisions—had that short story nailed down in about two hours. I read it over a couple days later and decided to send it out to the little literary magazines that publish these things. Indeed, it was published in a journal called Folio. Since I hadn’t been lucky selling my novel ideas to anyone at this time, this publication meant a lot to me. And it gave me an enhanced appreciation for dreams.

Now when I’m stuck on a plot point, or just can’t make a character interesting enough, I “sleep on it.” And most times it really works. Even if I only get a couple usable sentences from my subconscious, it’s usually enough to send me off into a new and more fulfilling direction.

I’m convinced that not enough writers pay attention to their reveries and they could greatly improve their work if they’d just pay attention to the mind’s night-time wanderings.

I once talked to a writer who said he often pulled all-nighters just to get his word count up.

“No!” I said. “You are sabotaging yourself. You’re probably losing some great ideas by not dreaming, and word counts are meaningless if they really don’t have anything new or daring to say. “ (I’m really against the daily word count method of writing. It makes what should be inspired work feel dull.)

He was a bit shocked and I don’t know if he changed his ways. But I told him all-nighters are for term papers (and he was long beyond that). Sleep is for writers.

I’m happy to report that my work-in-progress is replete with dream material, some of it remembered from long ago, some of it new. And it’s making the writing feel more inventive. The words just flow. Am I keeping it all? Well, when it’s time for the second draft, we’ll see if some of this is extraneous. But right now my best advice to all you fledging writers out there is to turn off the late-night news (it just repeats anyway), get some sack time, and see if you don’t start coming up with some dreamy fiction.


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The Phantom Ponytail

Fantastic World

Back in 1839, some workmen struck a lead box and dug it up. It turned out to be a coffin—for a head of hair, minus the head. At first the workers threw the hair away until some thought it should be examined. The workers were mystified that there was no skull, just hair. Yet the long hair, done up in a plait, was resting on an oak “pillow.” They assumed it was a head of female hair—although hairstyles have changed through the ages and it easily could have been a man’s coif. Because the hair was found at Romsey Abbey in Southhampton, England, many thought it was the hair of an abbess or a saint.

Young Jamie  Cameron, 23, and archeological scientist saw the head of hair when he was a child.

“I thought one day when I’m grown up I might be in a position to be able to try and work out who this person might have been,” he told the BBC. And just so, after studying at Cambridge and Oxford, he is trying to answer that question.

Dressed in a full body suit worn by forensic police officers, Cameron opened the display case at the Abbey, took the hair and cut off a small sample. Then he passed it to a team of archeological  scientists at Oxford’s “Relics Cluster.” They carry out tests on all sorts of ancient objects, including hair.

The scientists put the hair swatch in an oven-like machine for gas chromatography mass spectrometry. Then the respective molecules were shown on a graph.
Dr. Thibault Deviese, a worker at the research lab for archeology, said that it looks like there was pine resin in the hair, which Cameron says may have come from overseas. Radio-carbon dating suggested a time in the mid to late Saxon era, Cameron said.

The result showed that the person almost certainly died between the years 895 and 1045. They also discovered from the proteins in the hair that the person dined on fish.

Many people would like to think it is St. Ethelfaeda, a local saint, said one of the researchers. But test results haven’t revealed much more. Cameron, however, thinks it is possible to do more intricate DNA analysis in the future.

But the question remains: who wore the phantom ponytail?

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