Boxes

Religions put gods in boxes.

Governments put people in boxes.

Economics charges the gods and people for the boxes they’re forced to live in.

Education tells people that gods don’t exist, and that boxes are good places for people to live.

Entertainment paints the same picture on the inside of the box every week, and sells the same popcorn as last week, too.

News media tells the people they should want out of that box, and get into this prepared box over here.

Medicine gives people pills to mediate claustrophobia caused by living in boxes, but those pills cause anxiety, depression, and tumors, which require more pills to mediate.

Lawyers sue people for poking air holes in their boxes.

Science spends years studying the boxes, and then decrees they are made of cardboard, but not the same cardboard that was identified by that group of scientists ten years ago.

Music sings sad songs about people living in boxes, but then gets angry when the people sing those songs to themselves.

The Internet stirs things up by convincing people that all their box problems are caused by that bunch living in those boxes over there, so they should scream even louder and with less manners.

And this is called Society.

The true goal of life is to get out of the box, and ignore those who tell you to otherwise.

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Sex in Fantasy

Writing about sex in a fantasy novel is difficult!

Oh, it isn’t writing the scene. I prefer a behind-closed-doors approach anyway. The reader knows what is about to happen and what just did. The difficulty lies in using the word sex.

Throughout most of its history, the word sex was used the same way we use gender. You’ve heard the phrase, “Woman is the fairer sex.” It derives from the Latin word sexus, which in turn is derived from seco, meaning half. The male sex is the masculine half of the human species. The first recorded usage of the word sex to mean intercourse was in 1929, by D.H. Lawrence. That was only 87 years ago. Writers of urban fantasy can use the word sex all they wish. For those of us who write in older eras, and even marginally try to remain faithful to word usage throughout the ages, that presents a problem.

I can see it now:

“I had sex with Sir Galahad,” Guinevere said.

“You what?” Arthur asked. “What did you do to him, turn him into a woman? You had sex with him? What does that even mean!”

The same problem exists with sexual and sexuality. My era is equivalent to our late Dark Ages, roughly 1050. I can get away with a few anachronisms, since it isn’t our world, but that’s stretching literary license beyond the breaking point. So, what do I do?

In A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin cuts to the chase and calls it fucking. That actually works. The word fuck does not derive from any acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King or Full Ultimate Carnal Knowledge. Linguists aren’t certain if the original word was Old German or Old Scandinavian, but it descends from the Saxon era word fek, which simply meant sexual intercourse. The reason it is considered vulgar is the conquering Normans considered all Saxon words vulgar. The sense of vulgarity extends into our modern age.

I can’t do that. I am too much of a romantic, and value the esoteric and emotional sides of sex, to ever employ what I see as a slang term for it.

Other writers avoid the need for a word altogether. I’ve only read the first two books in the Sword of Truth series, but Terry Goodkind doesn’t mention it by name. The reader is fully aware of what has happened or what is about to happen. If he mentions it at all, he calls it mating.

That also works, but it’s a bit cold to me. It also evokes the idea of sex for procreation instead of for pleasure or love.

The words intercourse and copulation are way too French. They’re also too prudish for my tastes.

Well, I found a solution. Two of them, actually. First, I borrowed a phrase from the Bible. If you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you’ve no doubt read a line like “He lay with her.” We still use it, as in “Man, I got laid last night.” I use it as, “You expect me to be lain?” Second, I created the word bedpleasure to describe the general act. It has a nice Old English ring to it. With both, the reader has a pretty good idea of what I mean.

As for sexual and sexuality, I use the word sensual. That may be skirting close to the edge by employing a French word, but I feel I can get away with it.

Along the same lines, I caught myself having a character who has just been bashed in the head, shout “Fuck!”

No, he would not!

If a blacksmith of 1050 dropped an anvil on his foot and shouted “Fuck!” all his apprentices would look around the smithy and say, “What, with a horse?”

He also wouldn’t exclaim “Shit!’ either. His apprentices would say, “We don’t have to go.” That word is also not an acronym. It does not mean Store High In Transit or any such thing. It is derived from the Old English word scitan (later pronounced shite), meaning dung. It’s roots are similar to the roots of the modern German word Scheisse. It, too, was considered vulgar by the Normans solely because the Saxons said it.

In that case, a simple “Damnation!” does the job. It has a quaint ring to it.

A Tale of Two Cats

The Sunday before Labor Day, 2005.

The world reeled in the slowly diminishing wake of the water demon, Katrina. Refugees from the monster’s wrath still huddled in motels, libraries, college dorms, and even parks in the Fort Worth, Texas area. They had nowhere else to go. They also huddled in pet stores, at least those fortunate enough to have been found by someone and shoved with wet fur into the canine-feline pipeline of safety that hurried them from New Orleans and out to new homes. They called her Mardi Gras.

The 21st Century was heralded as a golden age, a time when science and reason combined to give humanity its best era. Instead, it saw war, famine, soaring heat, and general malaise. Mass murder and genuine anarchy plagued the United States. The most civilized nation on Earth sank in the mire of superstition as fearmongering manipulators turned the face of God into the mask of hatred, anger, and fear. It was as if the 21st Century reverted into a fossil fuel powered version of the 13th. Nowhere was this as acute as in the hearts of Texans who still feared the sight of a black cat. They called her Patience.

Like so many other ladies of the night in New Orleans, she had no parents, no pedigree, and no known name. She was a mongrel, half Maine Coon and half something else. She was a torbie, a tortoiseshell-tabby, representing all the colors of all the cats, with white feet. She weighed ten pounds, all of it muscle earned from hunting and fighting. The tip of her right ear was rounded from a fight, while a notch from another marked her left ear. She hunted with a ferocity that made mountain lions look like pets, anchoring her back feet to the ground and stretching her long body out to grab her prey, then forcing it to the ground. Hunting was not sport to her. It was survival. At some point, she spent time with a Vodun. At another, time in a bordello. An older man was kind to her. A woman beat her. They called her Mardi Gras.

With a pedigree and a known birth date (April 26, 2004), she should have been a perfect little princess, the kind to sit in a woman’s lap and purr. A solid black Maine Coon with eyes like emeralds, she begged to be picked up and cuddled. Yet, something went wrong. Perhaps it was her tiny weight, only six pounds. Perhaps it was as simple as her color. She was a black cat in a part of the world that still wanted to burn witches. Someone struck her in the face, drawing her pupil deep into the iris of her right eye. Someone else kicked her and broke her hip, leaving her with a limp. Then, she became pregnant, and like so many other pregnant teenagers in Texas, she was abandoned to fend for herself. Someone thought she belonged in prison, and tossed her into an animal shelter. They called her Patience.

Whoever she was, whoever she knew, whatever kindness had been afforded her, whatever abuse, all ended when Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans on August 28, 2005. At least, the humans were kind enough to grab her and shove her into a crate. They dumped her in a dog pound in Lafayette as they ran from the monster of wind and water. They never returned to get her. They called her Mardi Gras.

Plague swept through the cat side of the shelter in Texas. Because she was pregnant, they moved her to the dog side. She huddled down and gave birth in a cage, surrounded by growls and barks and howls. People fell in love with her kittens. They all found homes. She found neither love nor a home. She was a black cat, and a witch’s familiar. She was evil! Visitors took her children, thumped their Bibles, and left her alone in a sea of dogs. They called her Patience.

She lay on her side in a small cage. At least, it was an air conditioned room and no one hit her. All around her lay other cages with other cats from her home town. She did not know their names. She no longer knew her own. They called her Mardi Gras.

The cages all full with refugees from some storm she heard about on television, she hunkered down in the cat carrier in a shopping basket. No one would ever see her here. She was a black cat, in a dark box, in a shopping cart, in the back side of a pet store. She was alone. At least, the dogs stopped barking. They called her Patience.

Labor day weekend, 2005. It was time to bring a cat back into our home, a year after our seventeen year old Maine Coon tom, Flint, died of old age and diabetes. A home without a cat is a silent home. Instead of buying a purebred, we decided to adopt one from a shelter. We drove to the Petsmart in North Richland Hills, a kind store that offered floor space to the Kool Kats Feline Rescue Society. That day, they took up a third of the store with cats rescued from the wrath of Katrina.

We talked to the director of the society. Trish told her that we had recently lost Flint, and mentioned that he was a black Maine Coon. The director said, “Come with me. I have someone to show you.” While Trish walked away, I wandered down the aisle of Katrina kitties. They looked so lost, so forlorn. Their whole world had been turned upside down and inside out. Then, I saw her. The tag on her cage read Mardi Gras.

The director led Trish to the wall of the store. A carrier sat in a shopping basket. Trish looked down into the carrier. At first, she saw nothing. Then, she saw two green orbs. Then, she saw her. The tag on her carrier read Patience.

I didn’t want a torbie. I liked bold markings on a cat. Yet, I couldn’t step away from this one. She looked heartbroken, laying on her side. She looked abandoned. I opened the cage and set my hand on her side. At first, she didn’t do anything. Then, she purred. Her purring grew stronger, and louder, then it felt as if she shook the whole cage. She stood up, looked at me with the saddest, yet most hopeful, eyes I’ve ever seen. Then, she nipped my wedding ring, and refused to let go. I fell in love. They called her Mardi Gras.

Trish slipped her hands around the tiny ball of fur in the back of the carrier and pulled her out. She was so little! She was so light! Trish held her to her chest. She cuddled close and purred. She closed her eyes. Then, she grabbed Trish’s arm with her paws and held on. She looked up at Trish with an expression that said, take me home? Trish fell in love. They called her Patience.

I wanted Mardi Gras. Trish wanted Patience. We could only afford one. We reversed ourselves. I held Patience while Trish stroked Mardi Gras. I admitted that Patience was the sweetest cat I’d ever held. Trish admitted that Mardi Gras was almost aggressive in her affection and needed a good home. However, we could only afford one.

“If you take one, I’ll give you the other for free,” the director said.

They called her Mardi Gras. We named her Belladonna, for the wife of the X-Man, Gambit.

They called her Patience. We named her Raven, for the Teen Titan.

The wrath of nature and the superstitions of backwards people led two homeless cats to be in the same store at the same time. On that day, two people decided to open up their empty house after suffering the loss of their friend. Four lives intertwined in a suburban shopping center. Forces outside their control led those lives to be in that store on the Sunday before Labor Day. Yet, a force within their control, and outside the control of others, empowered them. The four chose each other, using love and acceptance to reduce the anger of a storm and the fear of the superstitious to mere footnotes on the emotional scale.

Love and acceptance are tangible. They walk on silent furred feet. We named them Belladonna and Raven.

The Felines

=====

Reposted from September 1, 2013.

Author’s footnote: How do we know about their pasts?

We know about Raven because the director of Kool Kats told us. She saw the pedigree, heard the stories from the animal shelter, and knew that people avoided her because she was a black cat. We can see her eye, and an xray revealed the broken hip.

We interpret Belladonna’s past from her actions. She loves me, and adored my white haired father. So, an older man must have been kind to her. Yet, it took her a long time to warm up to Trish, and still acts nervous around women. Someone beat her. She often wears an expression that screams “Please don’t hit me.” She rubs up against me, especially in bed, and cuddles with me for an hour until her thick hair gets too hot. Then, she sleeps at my feet. Whenever we pick her up, however, she freezes, screams, and has an asthmatic attack. As for the bordello, well … ever make love with a cat sleeping between your legs? She also watches us whenever we break out the candles and herbs, with a look that says “You amateurs!” A few years back, Anthony Bourdain visited New Orleans for his show No Reservations. Belladonna sat watching the entire episode. She knew the accents.

Two Thousand Words Per Day

Stephen King once said that a writer should write 2,000 words per day, if he’s a serious writer.

I scoffed at that. It seemed like such a small number, such an underwhelming goal. After all, I can amass 10,000 words in one day.

When I feel like it, that is. I don’t often feel like it. That word count burns me out after about two weeks. Then, I go for months without typing a single word. It also leaves no room for other important things in my life, such as eating lunch. Novels are not written in such a way.

Novels are written through steady and deliberate progress. It may not look like much on any given day, but slow and measured is how some writers become prolific authors. Ian Fleming wrote the thirteen James Bond novels (as well as a collection of short stories, a travelogue, and Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang) in as many years by writing only one hour every morning, but doing so every day. Kim Harrison wrote the thirteen book Rachel Hunter series within ten years, by writing a little bit each day. It’s how Charlaine Harris wrote not only the thirteen books of the Sookie Stackhouse series, but also the eight in the Aurora Teagarden series, the five Lily Bards, and the four Harper Connelly mysteries. That is a total of thirty novels, all since 1990. George R. R. Martin is not known as the world’s fastest writer, but he writes tomes — tomes, I tell you, tomes — all while advising a major television show, serving as editor for various anthologies, and appearing at most major conventions. He does it all by writing something every day. There is no denying that Stephen King is one of the most famous and most published writers alive. He reached that level by following his own advice, writing 2,000 words in the morning on new Novel C, revising older Novel A in the afternoon, and leaving completed Novel B “baking” in a drawer for six months.

I’ve been writing as a hare, when it’s the tortoises who do all the publishing.

I am taking another hard look at Stephen King’s guideline. It seems to be the cure for my troubles.

There is much to recommend it. Two thousand words per day is about two to three hours of work. That leaves plenty of time during the day for meditation, yoga, weight lifting, going for long walks, and doing other important things like eating lunch. It allows time to revise the writing from yesterday. It also leaves time to work on my 3D art. All before my wife comes home, when I can spend time with her or read instead of working on art or revisions. I can have a life and a healthy one at that.

When one looks at averages, 2,000 words is a considerable amount. It’s eight pages, double spaced, twelve point type; the typical format most writers use for drafts. The average blog post is 1,000 words (this one measures 1,100). The typical short story is 5,000, while novel chapters usually number around 7,500 words. So, in one day, I could write two blog posts, almost half a short story, or a fifth of a chapter.

With five work days in one week, that’s 10,000 words per week. In terms of ink, that’s forty pages, ten blog posts, two short stories, or a chapter and a piece.

Let’s go further. There are 52 weeks in one year. Assuming a few weeks off for holidays and vacations, plus days when depression strikes or the brick factory next door reminds me that I have sinuses, I’ll give an average of 46 weeks for writing.

At the rate of 2,000 words per day, and 10,000 words per week, that’s 460,000 words in one calendar year.

You just arched an eyebrow.

How does that compare into books?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s entire Lord of the Rings trilogy averages 455,000 words. Itty bitty The Hobbit is only 95,000.

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, is 248,000 words.

The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, stands at 265,000 words.

Pawn of Prophecy, the beginning book in David Edding’s Belgariad (itself part of a much larger multi-series epic narrative), measures a tidy 104,000 words.

Terry Pratchett was somewhat Hemingwayesque. His first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, comes in at only 73,000 words.

Robert Jordan’s Lord of Chaos, the longest of the Wheel of Time novels, is 389,000 words.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling, the longest in that series, is 257,000 words, while The Philosopher’s Stone, the shortest, is 77,000.

Wizard’s First Rule, the opening book in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth saga, is 315,000 words.

That’s the fantasy genre, known for its bloated volumes. What about mainstream literature? Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the gargantuan chart topper at 587,000. Margaret Mitchell came close, but no cigar for Rhett, with the 418,000 word length Gone with the Wind. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove measures 365,000 words. Herman Melville averaged 206,000 with Moby Dick, while John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath seems puny at 165,000 words. Harper Lee filled To Kill a Mockingbird with 100,000 words, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tiny The Great Gatsby contains a mere 47,000. Ernest Hemingway’s spare The Old Man and the Sea is technically a novella at 26,000 words.

At the pace of 2,000 words per day, the only novel I named that could not theoretically be written within one year is War and Peace, but a tremendous dent could be put into it.

That changes things, doesn’t it.

I like novels in the 110,000 word range. In hardback form, that’s easy to hold. In paperback form, the print is larger. So, using Stephen King’s method, with my preferred novel length, I could write four novels in one year. I don’t know of any writer who is that prolific, including Mr. King. Given my penchant for heavy revisions, at that pace, two novels per year is not unreasonable. That’s a heck of a lot better than what I’ve been accomplishing.

I’m going to experiment with the remainder of 2015. We have 18 weeks remaining to us. Give time off for the various holidays, that’s 15 weeks. Or, in Stephen King’s word count plan, 150,000 words. At that rate, I can finish the first draft of the already started A Path of Stones, and plunge well into the first draft of The Fires of Tallenburgh Hall. Considering that The Valley of the Mystic Moon (book one) is already finished, the opening trilogy of The Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven should be nearing completion by January 1.

That would be a wonderful way to greet 2016.

One Thousand Words Plus One Thousand Pictures

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then what happens when a wordslinger makes pictures? He does what I’m thinking about doing.

I am considering writing and illustrating a graphic novel!

Of course, I’ll use 3D renders for the illustration. That is how Aura Lockhaven was born, way back in 2010. Besides, my drawing skills are less than primitive.

I’d love to use the Reality-Luxrender system, as it produces superior renders, but it is also slow. Slow, as in, it takes all blooming day for one action scene to finish. That doesn’t count time spent composing the scene, developing texture maps, recomposing the scene, cursing over a bad shadow, tweaking the texture maps, trying a different light placement for more drama, more cursing over a missed error in a pose, etc. At that glacial speed, I may finish one page every month. Not even a zen master has that type of patience.

However, with the pending release of Reality 4.1, that time will be greatly reduced. Reality 4.1, with its accompanying Luxrender 1.5, promises to deliver a proven speed increase of up to 600%, and I have the computational power to handle it. So, that all day render will now finish within an hour. That means, a 3D graphic novel is finally feasible.

For some time, I’ve considered making a few four to ten page stories to put on the website as gifts to the few fans I have, and a way to gain more fans for the soon (I hope) release of the Aura stories. Yet, I don’t want to make an Aura Lockhaven graphic novel prior to the release of her first three books. Spoilers, you know. So, who can be the subject?

The Sarethian Seven!

The Sarethian SevenLeft to right: Enorra, Noishante, Coravanne, Iryndelle, Lunambyra, Tannerra, and Yveramore. They’ve existed for a year and a half, and are just sitting around, sharpening their swords, eating me out of house and home, without any actual work to do. They’re rather bored. I really want to do something with them, because creating and naming them was some of the most fun I’ve had in a decade. So, why not feature the Seven in a graphic novel?

If you are not familiar with the Sarethian Seven, I invite you to visit this DeviantArt page, this other DeviantArt page, and this page from my blog archive.

Scantily clad, bad-ass, butt-kicking, head-bashing barbarian women! Shades of Frank Frazetta! Exotic locales! Gentlemen in distress! Haughty monarchs! Impudent wizards! Monsters oozing slime! Vile Evil Transgressors just begging for a good skull cleaving! Hot and cold running swords! Buckles swashed left and right! No anthropomorphic animal comic relief! What could be better?

Dinosaurs. Hmm …

Of course, the one overarching priority is that a graphic novel does not take precedence over the written Aura stories. I can be too easily distracted.

I plan to start with a small story. If it is successful (as in I like it), then I’ll use it as a prequel for something more elaborate. Their stories are already written in tale format. It won’t take much to grab a few from the middle of the book. The cool thing about the Sarethian Seven stories is that they are all tales Henry Lockhaven told his eight year old daughter, Aura. So, they are connected to the overall Auraverse.

I’m not sure if I’ll give this away, charge a subscription, beg for donations, or a mixture of all the above. Research needs to be done to see how to load the novel online, how to integrate it into the website, whether it should be downloadable or read online, black text on white voice bubble or white text on black, which fonts to use, white page background or black page background, how to realistically portray blood spatters in GIMP, etc. This will be a mature graphic novel. While there will be no sex, some nudity is required for a tale to work, there is a tremendous amount of violence, and the Seven are foul mouthed. So, do I need some form of certified age verification for this project, or is the “pinky promise” system I already have in place for the website’s art gallery sufficient?

I’m leaning toward the Japanese realism manga format (Koike and Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub), rather than the American (DC/Marvel) format. It offers more emotional punch. Although, I prefer the larger panels of the American format, and obviously, I’ll work left to right. If I’m not mistaken, Frank Miller walked the line between the two formats (Lone Wolf and Cub is one of his primary influences), so perhaps I should revisit his layout style. Then again, for sheer hit-me-in-the-testicles emotional power, nothing has topped Identity Crisis (DC, 2004), so a reread is in order, with an eye toward format. A reread of Dynamite’s Red Sonja series (especially the first years) is also in order. This also gives me a reason to thoroughly read and study BadDragon’s Androssian Prophecy, one of the best online graphic novels I’ve yet encountered.

At this moment, it’s just a probability, and of course, Reality 4.1 must be released first.

But I am preparing even now.

In looking at the Seven, I realized that with just a little tweaking, each corresponds to one of the seven chakras. Now, that is an interesting way to develop character personalities. They almost already fit the descriptions.

Crown Chakra, to Know: Lunambyra. As the sorceress, she’s the most spiritual of them.

Third Eye Chakra, to See: Coravanne. Her skills of observation and perception are uncanny.

Throat Chakra, to Speak: Noishante. She can charm anyone with her voice.

Heart Chakra, to Love: Enorra. She is the kindest of the Seven.

Solar Plexus Chakra, to Will: Iryndelle. She’s all will.

Sacral Chakra, to Feel: Tannerra. She is the most emotional fighter. It is also the creative center, so I will give Tannerra an eye and talent for fine art.

Root Chakra, to Be: Yveramore. She remains calm in any crisis.

Of course, they need flaws. Well, I have seven of them, so why not have each one embody, and have to fight, one of the Seven Deadly Sins?

Pride: Iryndelle. She can be imperious.

Wrath: The vile tempered Noishante.

Lust: Yveramore, who will hop into bed with anyone.

Sloth: Enorra, whose shyness can turn to apathy.

Gluttony: Lunambyra, who drinks too much.

Greed: Coravanne. She can let her purse overrule her brain.

Envy: Tannerra, who is still jealous of Iryndelle’s status as true royalty.

Even if I end up not writing and illustrating a graphic novel, this contemplation has allowed me to develop the Sarethian Seven, further moving them toward the front of my pending written catalog. Not bad for a weekend’s pipe dream.

Ah, Beltane! That Most Glorious of Days!

Happy and blessed Beltane to one and all! It is the First of May, also known as May Day. 

On some calendars, Beltane is the first day of summer, while on most, it is the mid-point of spring. Either way, it is the day that we wave farewell to the wan wisps of winter and salute the sultry sunshine of summer. From here, we romp toward solstice, the longest day of the year, and hope for a gentle season that does not turn the ground into the sun’s anvil and the sky into its forge. For our friends up north who endured one of the most snow-laden winters of recent memory, today is a day to truly celebrate.

Beltane 1

The world of the north (it is autumn in the southern hemisphere) has awoken from its snowy slumber. It is green and growing in ways forgotten during the short days of December, January, and February, yet hoped for in the tease of March and the promise of April. Trees are resplendent in their majestic cloaks of foliage. The air is filled with the peeping of sparrow chicks. Thick carpets of grass vie with clover and dandelion. Even we humans bud and bloom and leaf, turning winter dreams into summer realities.

Beltane 5

In days of ancient past, Beltane was the time when farmers in Britain moved their cattle and sheep from paddock to pasture, passing them between two bonfires for protection and blessing. We have no modern equivalent, unless it is to stand with our faces to the sun. With the threat of frost but memory, farmers of old rolled up their sleeves to plant wheat, barley, and corn. Tools sharpened in winter, they planned and prepared through blustery March and rainy April for this time. We may think of tomatoes, carrots, and roses.

Beltane 6

The First of May was the day the Fae came out to play —  not always a welcome thing — and the rains of April formed rings and lines of mushrooms, Fairy Rings and Elven Paths, to mark their way to our hearths. For us, that book lost in December mysteriously reappears in the bathroom.

Beltane 4

May Day was also the day (or night) of “greenwood marriages.” Lusty lovers full of naked abandon embraced in trysting beds of asters under bowers of oak. As Guinevere sang in Camelot, “It’s May, it’s May, the month of yes-you-may!” Given the abundance of ticks in woodlands of my part of the world, such nocturnal frolics are best left to the symbolism of wrapping a maypole.

Beltane 9

For us modern folk, Beltane is a day to look back at winter in gratitude for survival and knowledge gained. It is a day to jettison all the junk and dust and gunk and rust accumulated during the dark cold months. It is a time of both spring cleaning of the house and spring cleaning of the soul. While we may not plant wheat, we plant ideas and goals formed during winter, and such require soil clean and rich. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What potent blood hath modest May.”

Beltane 3

Beltane in Denton this year began with nuances usually ascribed to poets. Cardinals and mockingbirds greeted the rise of the sun in sweet serenade. I noticed that they put a little more exuberance into the throaty music, and added a few more trills at the end. When the sun arose, I expected Apollo to roar into the sky upon his chariot. Instead, the cool hues of violet and blue crept into the dark, slowly caressing the day awake. I suppose that’s fitting. The sun had no need to shake Texas awake this Beltane morn, when plants already did that for us. A wet and mild winter surrendered to a wet and mild spring. Never before have I seen Texas so lush and green. It is glorious.

Beltane 7

Our three tomatoes, planted off the patio just last week, have shaken off the shock of transplantation. They now stretch forth their limbs and embrace their supports, ready for the task of fruition. No doubt the potatoes stir within the warming soil, and soon will poke their heads above ground. This year’s morning glories are but sprouts, two leaves each. By the end of May, they will consume the fence. The morning hoard, grown weary of song, descended upon the feeder for breakfast; cardinals, doves, a whole slew of sparrows, and a rare cowbird. The chickadees and finches will not be far behind. They all have young to feed from my free-for-all smorgasbord of thistle, sunflower, and millet. I watched the neighbor walk to the bus. While she still wore a light jacket to ward off the lingering chill in the air, she walked with just a little more gusto in her step than last month. As the sun cleared the rooftops, it struck gleaming gossamer threads in the laurel beyond the window. Strong strands of snares set by a spider to catch emerging midges.

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Beltane seemed like a good day for a stroll through the park. I began with the concrete trail around the two lakes. They are but retention ponds for drainage, stocked with rainbow trout. That is my one question for Denton. Do fish native to clear mountain streams belong in prairie ponds? Be that as it may, several men sat upon coolers on the banks, fishing line languidly lazing in the lake. From their posture, they were more intent upon the tranquility of the day than catching anything. I passed joggers and walkers with dogs. We greeted each other, and on the opposite side of the lakes, greeted each other again.

Beltane 12

The park was a living tapestry of color, woven with threads of flowers. Should I compare it all to a bride walking down the aisle, the regalia of a king, or a painting by Monet? Solomon in all his glory, indeed! While flora is easy to stalk with camera, fauna is more troublesome. The great acrobats of scissor-tailed flycatcher and barn swallow were out in full squadrons, performing aerial stunts to make the Red Baron drown in envy. All but one were too fast for the finger upon the trigger of my camera.

Beltane 8

The ducks, however, cooperated. One mallard couple, grubbing in a puddle for insects and weeds, posed for their portrait. I thanked them and wished them a good day.

Beltane 16

A jogger passed me, wearing a blue tie-dyed tee shirt and orange plus-fours baggy enough for a circus clown. At least, his beard was trimmed. But today is the day of yes-you-may, and yes, he may indeed celebrate in style.

Beltane 10

On the backside of the far lake, I greeted the tall Texas cottonwood, and the trio of elderly mesquites. I passed through the grove of post oaks where my wife and I often sit to talk and watch the squirrels. This grove is young, curious, and full of mischief. In autumn, they like to drop acorns on us.

Beltane 11

Back at the parking lot, several school buses unloaded troops of sixth graders. Some wore blue tee shirts, others wore orange. The shirts read “Keep Calm and Fish.” All carried small coolers and fishing rods. A field trip to go fishing? Where was that when I was a child! Ah, but what a way to celebrate Beltane!

Beltane 17

Now, I reached the nature trail, and plunged into the forest. I know these trees: turkey, burr, white, and post oaks, laurels, cedars, and those I know but cannot name.

Beltane 15

At the heart of this forest lies a grove of thirteen oaken sentinels, tall trees full of days and wisdom. They speak to me, even if I cannot yet understand their language. Today, they lay thick in their leaves and the younglings growing at their feet. In years past, this did not happen until July. I wanted to stop to talk and take close up photographs, but a lone woman sat on the bench underneath them. I respected her privacy.

Beltane 14

The prickly pears were full and ripe with buds. Next week, they will erupt with desert roses. I passed through the most spectacular aroma. It belongs on my wife’s neck. Jasmine? Honeysuckle? A search of the woods did not reveal its source. Usually, I hear birds in this forest. Today, only one. The kinglet is the smallest bird in the woods of Denton, yet he is the loudest.

Beltane 18

All the while I walked, I also thought. There is nothing like a good stroll in nature to inspire reflection. Today was a good day to leave behind that which does not serve. I left behind in the forest four years of sitting on my butt and drinking beer, a habit that rendered me forty pounds overweight and suffering from a weakened heart. The oaks will turn that no longer wanted emotional trash into compost within hours. With that, I returned to my car, three and a half miles and two hours later, my shirt soaked and my feet begging me to go home. It was a good beginning. As I passed across a field of white clover, I wished the park a happy Beltane.

Beltane 2

May you have a wonderful Beltane, a very merry May, and a spring and summer full of personal blooms.

Now the bright morning-star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

 John Milton

“Song on a May Morning”

All photographs taken by Nathan Boutwell on May 1, 2015, at South Lakes Park in Denton, Texas.

A Tribute to Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard and I share a birthday. We also share a passion for fantasy stories. Although this is three days late, I thought it a perfect opportunity to pay tribute to one of my three icons.

To call Robert E. Howard an icon is an understatement. Like Frank Frazetta and J.R.R. Tolkien, he is the reason I write fantasy fiction today. Also, like Frazetta and Tolkien, I discovered Howard courtesy of a tenth grade English assignment. To read about that, check out my post on Frazetta.

For those of you who don’t know, Robert Howard created Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, and is credited with creating Red Sonja (although the Sonja we know is a composite of his characters Red Sonya and Black Agnes by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith). He is considered the father of barbarian and sword-and-sorcery fantasy. In a career spanning a brief decade, he published 800 stories, mostly in the pulp magazines of his time. Howard wrote in every genre of his day: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, adventure, horror, western (his personal favorite), and even contributed a few entries to his friend H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

As a writer of sword-and-sorcery stories, I see Howard not just as the founder of my sub-genre, but as someone whose character types are desperately needed in our jaded times. His protagonists were good guys and gals. They stood for something. They fought against overwhelming obstacles, sometimes within themselves, and often lost. But they kept trying. I emulate that basic archetype within my own stories. If I wanted to write about protagonists who were indiscernible from the antagonists, and acted with less moral certitude — in other words, the style that has overtaken the fantasy genre today — I would simply transcribe the evening news. That is not to say that Howard’s characters are nice. I would not want Solomon Kane for a next door neighbor!

Despite Hollywood’s portrayal, Conan was not just a slab of beef. He solved his problems more with his brains than his brawn. He feared only one thing — poets. He was a barbarian simply because he was an outsider to the various civilizations he visited. Yeah, I can relate to that.

My interest in Howard is much deeper than his stature as a writer and an icon in my craft. We share a number of eerie similarities.

We were both born on January 22. An Aquarian born on the cusp with Capricorn explains much.

He died in 1936, and I was born in 1963.

We are both only children.

We both suffer from chronic depression.

We are both notorious coffee addicts.

We both grew up and lived in small towns we despised, although I got out.

We both have overly protective mothers with too much of a Fundamentalist Christian bent.

We both revere the old Saxons, Celts, and Germans, and think “barbarians” are much better people than the so-called “civilized” folk.

There is a divot in my skull at about the spot where Howard placed the barrel of a pistol.

I now live 100 miles from his home in Texas.

It’s almost enough to make me believe in reincarnation, except for the differences. Howard shot himself at age 30. At age 52, I’m still going strong, despite days when the chronic depression becomes physically painful. He died an unmarried virgin. I just celebrated my 28th wedding anniversary, and no, we do not have a celibate marriage. He published 800 stories by his 30th year. I have … uh … one to my credit. Finally, why on this green Earth would I want to try it again! Besides, there have not been enough celebrities or people of fame throughout history to provide reincarnated souls for the sheer number of folk claiming to be them right now. Out there somewhere are probably at least twelve people claiming to have been Robert E. Howard. I will leave his reincarnation to the realm of Weird Tales, and to overdoses of mescaline.

The following photograph is still one of my favorites. It was taken on June 12, 2011.

Howards Desk

That is me, sitting in Robert E. Howard’s room in his house, now a museum in Cross Plains, Texas. The docent was kind enough to let me inside the roped off room, which was a rare opportunity. Sorry for the bluriness of the photograph. It was hard to focus my Nikon in that light. That is Howard’s desk, although not his typewriter. I swear, I could hear the tromp of Conan’s boots, see the sun glint off Red Sonja’s chain mail, and feel the righteous indignation of Solomon Kane in that room. Howard’s room had once been the sleeping porch, walled in by his father to give him his own bedroom. Howard wrote 800 short stories and one novel in this room. This proves that one can write anywhere, even in a space no larger than most apartment kitchens.

When we visited Howard’s grave in 2011, someone left a paperback book as tribute. It was a copy of Conan the Adventurer, the very book that started me on the path I now find myself. If we are still in Texas this coming June, we shall have to pay another visit to Robert E. Howard Days (Cross Plains’ annual celebration of his life), and visit his grave again. This time, I will leave my own tribute. Perhaps a coin. Perhaps a stone. Perhaps a small picture of Aura Lockhaven. Just a way of saying thank you to one of the three men who started it all for me.

The Misery of Non-Standard English (and the Lack Thereof)

Thanks to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I am at war with cliches. I’ve never much cared for them, but his character Shadow makes such a fuss out of cliches, and how much he hates them, that I began listening to myself. Oops. I use far too much non-standard English for someone who makes his living crafting words and who holds a master’s degree in creative writing. That led me to examine my written narrative, and try to eliminate as many cliches as possible. In the aftermath of that assault on my own grammar and sentence structure, a larger problem appeared.

Simply for the ease of discussing non-standard English, I want to separate it into four categories. There is a difference between these four subsets, and they are important, at least from a narrative point of view. These qualify as commonplaces, words or phrases that are immediately understood by an audience, so the speaker or writer does not have to launch into lengthy explanation. Unfortunately, some are so overused as to be annoying.

Colloquialism — The specific language of a region. Every region, some as small as urban neighborhoods, has its own words and phrases that help unite locals. I know Southern colloquialisms well. Who else says “that stinks worse than a skunk in heat” or “can’t beat that with a stick.” We all know to duck when we hear “Hold my beer and watch this.” Yes, it is said, and yes, it does result in carnage, bless their hearts.

Slang — The language of a specific group of people. High school students (of any generation), surfers, Star Wars geeks, evangelical Christians, neopagans, or any other group you can think of, have their own languages. The most famous is perhaps that of old jazz musicians, who gave us words like “cool,” “groovy,” and “man,” as in hey, man. The origin of the last one is fascinating. Louis Armstrong created it because, as a black man from New Orleans, he was fed up with being called “boy.” He began addressing his other fellow jazz players as “man” to build their self-esteem. These words often enter the popular culture and end up as everyone’s pet slang words. Eventually, we forget that they’re slang. Nifty, huh?

Jargon — The language of a profession. There probably isn’t much difference between slang and jargon, but I differentiate them for my own purposes. Slang seems to have cultural origins while jargon originates within an industry. For instance, the word hack means something completely different to a computer programmer at work than it does when he’s trimming the hedges at home. We think IT people play with animals when they mention gnus and pythons. My wife works for a law firm and sometimes I have to remind her that I don’t know a quid from a habeas. Speaking of jargon, I forced the English major term “commonplace” upon you, poor reader.

Cliches — Words or phrases that may have been slang or jargon or just popular, but are overused to the point of nauseating some of us. I think most are quotations from movies, television, and music, although they probably originate wherever they wish. When used in the proper context, and with the proper timing, such cliches can often add levity to a conversation, or serve as appropriate metaphors. Unfortunately, far too many are used simply because we are too lazy to form our own sentences. The ones guaranteed to set my teeth on edge are the all-too-popular-at-the-moment “thrown under the bus,” “I see what you did there,” and “because [insert favorite noun here].” That last one isn’t even a sentence fragment! “That’s what I’m talking about” is almost as annoying. At least “we’re talking [insert favorite subject here],” “alrighty then,” and “show me the money” have faded. Writers invoke their own cliches, often without realizing it. Just count the number of times George R. R. Martin writes “truth be told” in the course of A Song of Ice and Fire. These cliches are blatant. They can often be more insidious, however.

I’ve done my best to expunge popular cultural references from my vocabulary. I will never say “King Tut” and “T-Rex.” They are Tutankhamen and Tyrannosaurus Rex, a king and a predator worthy of their full names. However, despite my strident vendetta against cliches, far too may trite turns of phrases still exist in my speech and writing. An example is “splitting hairs.” Why can’t I say “there’s no difference?” Here’s another one to whet your appetite. “There’s something rotten in Denmark.” How would I know? I’ve never been to Denmark. Did you also catch the cliche in the sentence that preceded the comment about Denmark? I grew up with these words and phrases, and they stuck in my subconscious mind without permission. I say them without realizing just how overused they are.

To be fair to the four categories above, in the framework of the subject of writing, non-standard English can set a story in a time or place. If a story occurs in the 1920s, nothing establishes it better than the slang of the Jazz Age. If a story is set in the South, someone best say a colloquialism or two. Mechanics bowling in San Francisco should talk like mechanics from San Francisco, not lawyers from Boston playing golf. As I pointed out in the first paragraph, Neil Gaiman wrote an entire novel with cliches as a subtheme. Non-standard English also helps establish characterization; imagine dialogue between someone who uses standard English but peppered with colloquialism, another who invokes numerous movie quotations, and a third who uses words specific to the medical industry. That tells the reader quite a bit about the personalities of the characters.

Expunging colloquialisms, slang, jargon, and cliches from my writing has created an opposite, but defiantly unequal, problem. In fact, the aftermath may be worse. My narrative now sounds stilted and all too formal. As the story is set in the third person singular point of view, I am often in my protagonist’s head, revealing her thoughts and feelings. No twenty-one year old, at any time, has ever thought to herself in the language of a college professor giving a lecture on Kantian philosophy. I doubt if college professors think to themselves like college professors giving a lecture on Kantian philosophy. Real people just don’t do that. Why bother with “I am offended at the inferior quality of this tawdry morning” when “Today sucks” will suffice?

The solution is to restore colloquialism, slang, and jargon to the story, but not those of 21st Century America. I need to create them for 11th Century Ayrdland. My character, Aura Lockhaven, comes from a time when at least 90 percent of all culture was local. If such a thing as popular culture existed, it entered a village through the traveling minstrel, the parish priest, or someone returning from a visit to another village. The exceptions might be the priesthood and nobility, who had easier access to each other, although even that was limited to the speed of a horse over unpaved roads. Hence, Aura should invoke colloquialisms specific to her village and shire. That would just be natural for her. As an enchantress, she should spew jargon common to magicians in her order (they know what they mean and really don’t care if the alchemists understand or not). I will have to create these, of course, and a thorough perusal of Chaucer and Shakespeare ought to get the creative juices flowing (ARGH! I invoked another cliche!). Aura already has a verbal tick. A few more spread out among the characters, along with appropriate colloquialisms, slang, and jargon, and the story will sound like normal people engaged in normal thoughts and normal conversations.

I will need to remember to limit the use of non-standard English (non-standard Ayrdish?) to when I’m in Aura’s head, and not when I’m the raven perched on her shoulder taking notes. Even as the corvidal secretary, I need to remind myself to write a bit more lyrically, and save the highfalutin vocabulary for a treatise on Robert Howard in a formal journal.

I’m not sure what I will do if in the future, I’m in the local tavern for a beer and hear someone utter Aura’s verbal tick as part of a conversation. I reckon I’ll just roll my eyes and say, “Dog my cats.”

 

Those Crazy Ideas!

Writers of speculative fiction are often asked where they find their ideas. Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you where I found mine. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In my case, a picture may be worth 100,000 words.

At the moment, I have four series planned: The Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven, The Geilltiad, Tales of the Sarethian Seven, and one that I’m calling Jenny and Sam. Three of the four began as 3D art renders that I made for entirely different purposes.

Aura was the first, and she still reigns supreme as the queen of my fictional universe. She began as this:

Aura 2010 - 4

I called this one “Miss Barbarian, July, 2010.” Yep, she was supposed to be a centerfold from a barbarian magazine. Obviously, I did not know what I was doing with DAZ Studio at the time, because this render sucks. Yet, of all the ones I’ve done, this one is my favorite because of what happened immediately after it finished baking on screen. As I looked at it, I had this little mental conversation with myself:

“What makes a woman dance nude in a forest on fire?”

“Well, she’s an enchantress.”

“What does that mean!”

“She’s a sex magician.”

“Oh.”

It made perfect sense to me. Yes, I talk to myself. When I answer myself, wonderful things happen.

Within minutes, I named this enchantress Aura Lockhaven; Aura because it’s mysterious and ethereal, and Lockhaven for Loch Haven Park, one of my favorite places in Orlando. Within an hour, I began work on a graphic novel, which I ended up shelving a year later to concentrate on graduate school. That graphic novel provided the foundation for the written series that is underway. One and a half novels later, I have outlines for an additional ten stories, spanning Aura’s first years as an enchantress.

The Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven is based on this one primitive render. The render inspired the character. Once I had the character of Aura, I followed Stephen King’s method of throwing her into an interesting situation and listening to her tell me what she did from that point forward. Aura is still telling me about her adventures.

The Geilltiad is a trilogy that I plan as a spin-off of Aura to provide a backstory for her country. When I transferred Aura from England to the fictional country of Ayrdland, I lost all of that wonderful English history and myth. I had to write my own. Ayrdland was once the Island of Geilltia, and its fall to my version of the Romans is dark enough to warrant a tragic fantasy. It will be my tribute to George R. R. Martin: people will die. Of my four series, this is the only one that has any sort of traditional inspiration.

Like Aura, Tales of the Sarethian Seven began as a render, but this one was more involved and more advanced:

barbarian wall

I called it “Barbarian Wall.” The more I looked at it, the more I liked it. I fell in love with these four barbarian warrior women who protected a queen in a strange land. As a fan of The Magnificent Seven, I decided to add three more characters to the team of barbarians, resulting in “The Rat Hunt”:

rat hunt

For the heck of it, I sat down one morning to write the characters’ biographies, just in case I rendered a few more pictures. I spent more time creating their names than I did on any other project, save the creation of Ayrdland and the continent of Sareth. You can read about naming the Sarethian Seven here. One week later, I had an almost 200 page book of tales about their lives and adventures. I named it Tales of the Sarethian Seven.

I decided to place the Sarethian Seven in Aura’s world, but 1,000 years earlier. I wrote the stories as if told by Henry Lockhaven to his eight year old daughter Aura. The tales inspired her to keep trying when her world turned dark. Tales of the Sarethian Seven is on the shelf at the moment. When I need a break from my big projects, I write another tale. Eventually, I will publish it. I’m not sure if I’m going to leave it as a one volume collection of tales, or break a few out into novels.

The final series, which is filed under the working title of Jenny and Sam, had an even more bizarre origin. It, too, was inspired by a single 3D render:

leopard girl

This one is titled “Leopard Girl.” Originally, the character of Jane Syren (the woman in the render) was a model I developed solely to test different skin textures under different lighting conditions. One day, for a lark, I put her in the Jungle Girl outfit. The result left me howling, “She looks like something out of a B-movie!” Click! I added the temple setting, the giant python, and the gorilla with the machine gun. YES! It needed more, and the result can be seen in the final render above. I made it simply to do something funny. You can read the original concept here.

Once again, a story oozed out of the render. The render quickly became a publicity still from the B-movie Leopard Girl. Who were these people? Not the characters in the scene, but the actors playing the characters in the scene. Jane Syren proved to be the central character. I began writing what I thought was a tongue-in-cheek comedy, but Jane had other ideas. I listen to my characters; they know more about their stories than I do. So, Jane’s tale quickly evolved into a dark fantasy with shades of horror. I am writing the novelized movie script, as a pulp magazine series. It fits within the framework of the rest of the novel, as a story within a story. The main story is about latent hereditary witch Jenny (Jane’s real name), a shaman, a sorcerer, and a demon, all at odds with each other on location with the cast and crew of a movie. Yes, I am keeping the gorilla with the machine gun. As an homage to those wonderful drive-in popcorn movies of the 1950s, I’m calling this novel Leopard Girl. This is turning into an urban fantasy, if it can be called urban in rural Florida in 1957.

Leopard Girl has shot to the top of my project pile. Aura is still the queen of my characters, but I want to give her more time to tell me her story. I’m still not sure Jenny’s life warrants a series, although the character of Sam (the shaman) is my first male character interesting enough to carry his own story. We shall see.

I will not be creating any new original renders in the foreseeable future. I do not need a fifth series in my stack of projects! Instead, I will be “illustrating” the stories I have, mostly for the fun of it. That often helps me design a costume or check a character’s appearance based on how I wrote it. I will leave you with a render showing how that works. Besides, Aura insists. The following render is Aura’s portrait, based on how I describe her in the book. The costume isn’t accurate, but I have not learned the knack of designing clothes for 3D art. It’s close enough. Hey, Aura is an enchantress — she can get away with wearing that. She is a far cry from that original at the top of this post, both as a render and as a character.

aura for picture frame

All names, characters, situations, and artwork are copyright Nathan Boutwell. Don’t even think about it. I have lawyers.