Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Donald Firesmith: Research for Writing Fiction

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For the last three years, I have been writing a series of modern paranormal fantasy, apocalyptic science fiction, action and adventure novels. Specifically, I have completed Hell Holes: What Lurks Below and Hell Holes: Demons on the Dalton, and I am currently writing Hell Holes: To Hell and Back. Now you might think that research is only needed for writing non-fiction, and that it is not necessary for writing fantasy and science fiction where we have the freedom to “make things up out of whole cloth”. After all, these genres often involve the development of completely imaginary worlds, such as vaguely medieval for fantasy or the far future for science fiction.
However, I find that performing a significant amount of research brings three major benefits:
  1. When writing speculative fiction, keeping the mundane (i.e., real) aspects of the book highly realistic makes the fantastic (i.e., unreal) parts, which requires the reader to suspend disbelief, more believable.
  2. Ensuring that the real aspects of the book have high fidelity to reality means that readers familiar with those topics will not be jarred out of their reading enjoyment by inconsistencies between the book and their personal experience.
  3. Finally, I often find that understanding some topic mentioned in the book suggests interesting additions and changes to the plot and the characters’ actions.
Thus, I find myself constantly performing research while writing my books. For example, my Hell Holes series takes place in northern and central Alaska. The first book is set in Alaska’s North Slope with its barren tundra and ground frozen with permafrost. Given the book’s plot, I needed to know what it was like to camp out on the tundra and how long the days are that far north in the middle of August when the book takes place. The last third of the book takes place in Pump Station 2, a dormant oil pumping station along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, so I needed to know what it was like. As the name implies, the second book takes place along the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Deadhorse and at Eielson Air Force Base. That meant that I needed to research the Dalton Highway including what it is like to drive on and what the major places are along its length that might affect the story. Finally, the military is a significant part of the second book, which meant learning about the relevant military vehicles and the locations at the Air Force base where parts of the book take place.

Luckily, we live in a time in which research is remarkably easy, especially when compared to when I first started writing some fifty years ago. Back then, I was largely restricted to relying on the local library and looking up things in books using the card catalog to find things. Today, the first and primary tool of choice is Google. I use basic Google to learn textual facts, Google Images to learn what things look like, Google Videos to see how tasks are performed and hear what things sound like, and Google Maps to see where things are, and Google Maps Street View to see what places look like. For example, when I was writing Hell Holes: Demons on the Dalton, I used Google Maps Street View to drive the same parts of the Dalton Highway as the characters in the book.

My second main source of information were my subject matter experts. This included a geology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and two former members of the military including a former pilot of the type of helicopter used in the book and a former Marine Corp Lieutenant Colonel. The base historian at Eielson AFB was also extremely helpful. These experts saved me from several serious mistakes. They also made several suggestions that made the military parts of the book more interesting as well as more accurate.

While the first Hell Holes book was written from the first person point of view of a male character, the second book was written from the point of view of a strong female character. To prepare for this change, I spent about nine months reading nothing but paranormal fantasy books having strong female lead characters and written by female authors. This led me to several observations. Female authors typically spend considerably more time describing characters including what they look like and what they wear. They also tend to spend more time addressing how their lead character feels rather than just what they think. By keeping these and other observations in mind, I was able to write a second book that one of the reviewers noted: “it’s amazing that a book written by the same author (Donald Firesmith) can fool one into thinking that it’s written by a completely different person. Such is the strength of the writing that the new “author” (Dr. Menendez) shines through and her personality and writing style is quite different to that of the other journal’s surrogate author, her fictional husband.” Rather than skill, I primarily credit this positive review to the research I performed into the difference between paranormal fantasy books written by male and female authors.

Finally, nothing quite equals personal experience. Last summer, I traveled to Alaska to see several places in the book series first hand. I spent an entire day at Eielson Air Force Base touring all of the major locations in books two and three. I also rented a car and spent another day driving up the Dalton Highway to the Yukon River, which included the site of one of the major scenes in book 2. I also toured the University of Alaska, where book 1 begins. Finally, I took a tour of a pair of U.S. Army managed tunnels into the permafrost, where I learned several interesting things I would not have discover otherwise: (1) that permafrost smells remarkably like dirty gym socks and (2) that when the ice sublimes, it leaves behind a superfine layer of brownish dust that will float in the air when disturbed.

In conclusion, I find that research can be a critically important part of writing modern, paranormal, science fiction and fantasy. In addition to making your writing more realistic, it makes your book’s fantastic events and your character’s strange abilities more believable. It can be a source of story ideas, and it can also be both very interesting and fun. Currently, I am researching small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and variable-yield, thermonuclear weapons for Hell Holes: To Hell and Back. I can hardly wait to learn what the next topic I will be researching.

About Hell Holes: When hundreds of huge holes mysteriously appear overnight in the frozen tundra north of the Arctic Circle, they threaten financial and environmental catastrophe should any more open up under the Trans-Alaska Pipeline or any of the many oil wells and smaller pipelines that feed it. An oil company sends a scientific team to investigate. But when the geologist, his climatologist wife, two of their graduate students, a local newspaper reporter, an oil company representative, and a field biologist arrive at one of the holes, they discover a far worse danger lurks below, one that threatens to destroy all of humanity when it emerges, forcing the survivors to flee south towards Fairbanks.

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Hosted by: Ultimate Fantasy Book Tours
Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Hell-Holes-What-Lurks-Below-ebook/dp/B012IUE14U
Itunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/hell-holes-what-lurks-below/id1076804292
Booklife: http://booklife.com/project/hell-holes-what-lurks-below-12402
Indigo: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/hell-holes-what-lurks-below/9781310431210-item.html
Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/608355
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Author Bio: A geek by day, Donald Firesmith works as a system and software engineer helping the US Government acquire large, complex software-intensive systems. In this guise, he has authored seven technical books, written numerous software- and system-related articles and papers, and spoken at more conferences than he can possibly remember. He's also proud to have been named a Distinguished Engineer by the Association of Computing Machinery, although his pride is tempered somewhat by his fear that the term "distinguished" makes him sound like a graybeard academic rather than an active engineer whose beard is still slightly more red than gray. By night and on weekends, his alter ego writes modern paranormal fantasy, apocalyptic science fiction, action and adventure novels and relaxes by handcrafting magic wands from various magical woods and mystical gemstones. His first foray into fiction is the book Magical Wands: A Cornucopia of Wand Lore written under the pen name Wolfrick Ignatius Feuerschmied. He lives in Crafton, Pennsylvania with his wife Becky, and his son Dane, and varying numbers of dogs, cats, and birds. His magical wands and autographed copies of his books are available from the Firesmith’s Wand Shoppe at: http://magicalwandshoppe.com.

Visit him at: amazonfacebooktwitter

Website: http://donaldfiresmith.com

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Life Imitating Art

Most of my mental energy this year has been spent trying not to be outsourced finishing my first novel with Gwen Mayo. It's an amusing little story about two retired WWI nurses trying to keep their elderly uncle out of prison - or, worse, a coffin.

Cucumber gimlet at the Vinoy.
The novel takes place in Florida during the 1920's, so Prohibition is a major issue for one of the nurses. Teddy Lawless was caught in the trenches during a poison gas attack, and her lungs were damaged. Since then, she's taken daily doses of liquor for her cough. Medicinal alcohol is perfectly legal; she has a prescription from her physician. But Teddy really likes her medicine, and the allotted daily dose just isn't enough. She likes a good party, too, so she's met some very interesting people in her pursuit of good health.

Which puts me in an interesting position: I don't drink, but I'm writing a lush tippler. Once this book gets out there, and everyone discovers how good it is, readers will make assumptions about me based on Teddy. Gabriel Iglesias, also known as "Fluffy", talks about chocolate cake, so people bring him chocolate cake. I'm picturing myself surrounded by bottles (to be honest, I'd rather have the cake).

Secret exit not shown.

So, I've been trying various cocktails, trying to find one I can tolerate. I can deal with pina coladas (well, weak ones), but they weren't invented yet.So, I've been trying drinks that come closer to the recipes of the 1920s.

Experiment 1: We visited the Jungle Prada Tavern, better known in the 1920s as The Gangplank, a nightclub supposedly owned by Al Capone.

The pub food was great, but the drink I tried was far too strong for my dainty palate (the same one I eat Cheetos with). This was one of the milder rum drinks, plus I told the waitress to only put in half the booze they would normally use. I'm sure they did, but I felt my tastebuds shrink from the shock. Better luck next time, I told myself.

Experiment 2: We visited the Vinoy, which is a grand hotel in the old style. It also existed in 1926 St. Petersburg. This time, I experimented with gin. It was a common ingredient in the cocktails of that time. I tried the cucumber gimlet, which included Hendrick's Gin. The cucumber slice garnish was nice, but the drink tasted like medicine. Some research on the Hendrick's web site told me why: while the main flavors are supposed to be cucumber and rose petals (!), there were several infused botanicals I recognized from my days of imbibing herbal medicines. None of them tasted good.

I haven't decided what to try for Experiment 3. Maybe I'll just tell people I'm in recovery, and hope they'll take me at my word.

Available January 16th!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cindy Koepp: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology: Prosthetics

One of my favorite TV shows is The Six Million Dollar Man.
(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071054 )

Yep. Vintage, but fun.

In The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve has prosthetic limbs (and an eye) after a crash that left him nearly dead. These nuclear-powered prosthetics look and feel like his original biologic limbs, but they’re much stronger.

https://www.amazon.com/Remnant-Stars-Cindy-Koepp-ebook/dp/B008LIRDEE In Remnant in the Stars, Major Kirsten Abbott ends up with a prosthetic forearm after she ejected from her crippled Pulsar light fighter and was hit by debris when it blew up. Unlike the 1974 TV show, Kirsten’s arm doesn’t cooperate with her, and it doesn’t feel like her own arm. Had it worked properly, it would have been a reasonable replacement, allowing her to move and act as if she hadn’t lost her forearm in the battle.

Our current prosthetics aren’t nearly as advanced as Kirsten’s arm, let alone The Six Million Dollar Man, but they’ve advanced beyond three-prong pincers and the like.

One recent innovation is ReWalk. This is similar to some of the powered armor suits being developed by the military, but it’s in no danger of turning someone into Iron Man. The ReWalk exoskeleton helps people with hip, knee, and spinal injuries to walk, climb stairs, and stand. It’s intended to help people with spinal cord injuries walk again.

Unfortunately, ReWalk is heavy, roughly 50 pounds. People using ReWalk need a walker or crutches to keep stable, so users need to have reasonable upper body strength.

Here, check this out to see how it works:



Another similar product is Ekso Bionics’ eLEGs (Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System). It also weighs in at about 45 pounds and requires crutches for stability.

Here it is in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyOVYHoPopM

There is a military version called HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier). It does not require crutches to keep the person steady, but then it’s intended, not for paraplegics, but for soldiers to help them carry greater loads in adverse conditions.

Watch this for more details:


Other companies are focusing on prosthetic arms and hands, some of which are very well-articulated.

Advanced Arm Dynamics is one of those companies. They have developed hands that can pick up small things like coins and dice. The one demonstrated in this video can be programmed using a smart phone.

Steeper has BeBionic, an articulated hand that has 14 grip patterns. Me? I didn’t realize there were 14 ways I could grip something, but the video on the page shows all 14 of them. One I wouldn’t have thought of was the Mouse Grip.

Here’s a video of a gent showing a prosthetic BeBionic forearm.



When I originally wrote Remnant in the Stars, the advances shown in these videos didn’t exist yet. Although the technology available today isn’t nearly what Kirsten has in the tale, I don’t doubt that our science will catch up long before the timeline of the story in few hundred years.

https://www.facebook.com/KoeppCOriginally from Michigan, Cindy Koepp has a degree in Wildlife Sciences and teaching certification in Elementary Education from rival universities. After teaching for fourteen years, she pursued a master’s degree in Adult Learning with a specialization in Training and Performance Improvement. Cindy has five published science fiction and fantasy novels, a serial published online, short stories in five anthologies, and a few self-published teacher resource books. When she isn’t reading or writing, Cindy spends time whistling with a crazy African Grey. Cindy is currently working as an optician in Iowa and as an editor with PDMI Publishing and Barking Rain Press.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review: Penpal

Penpal Penpal by Dathan Auerbach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because I'd heard several of the stories on CreepsMcPasta, and they stood out from the other creepypasta I'd listened to. The stories were disturbing and didn't rely on gore to generate fear. They relied on the listener's imagination.
In this collection, the author has expanded on his original narratives and added some more material to bring the overall story arc to a conclusion. Expanding the previous stories wasn't a good idea; it consisted of adding meaningless text that turned a group of slightly rambling childhood tales into ones that wandered too far afield. Execution can be learned with practice, though; I still wanted to see where the author took things.
The emotional impact these stories have stem from reading the child's view of the incidents that happen to him, his friends, and his pet, but filtering them through an adult perspective. The childhood the unnamed character has the sort of details you would see in any child's life, at least one of an earlier generation. Today's parents wouldn't let their children wander as far afield as our young hero, but I remember having those freedoms myself... perhaps that's why this story worked for me. The kid could have easily been a child of the 1970s or 80s, which the use of Polaroids seemed to imply. The type of phones he and his friends used as teenagers, though, would be a little ahead of their time in that case.
So, we have a collection of stalkerish memories, presented in nonchronological order, with important details left out. Very much like memories in real life. Even with the big reveal at the end, there are still questions the reader, and the character, have. But it works; the reader is left with disturbing emotions. Perhaps it works because the details are missing, and, once again, it is up to the reader's imagination to fill them in.


View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review: End of Watch

End of Watch End of Watch by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finders Keepers, the second book in King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, was nominally the sequel to Mr. Mercedes. Certainly it is the sequel in the Bill Hodges timeline. End of Watch, however, is the true sequel to Mr. Mercedes, and the ending of Bill’s story.

End of Watch reunites the Mr. Mercedes team – Bill Hodges, retired cop, Holly Gibney, computer whiz with OCD, and Jerome Robinson, high school student now attending college – against Brady Hartsfield, the man who brought them together. The first book of the series was a straight-up thriller; this book travels firmly into the author’s home territory. Our pal Brady received brain damage at the end of the first novel that should have put him in nursing care for life, but a neurologist decides that he wants to try an experimental treatment on the hush-hush with the crippled spree killer. Now Brady’s body is still a wreck, but he has new psychic abilities. They let him drive people to suicide, and he relishes it.

Bill and Holly are still running their "not-a-detective-agency" detective agency, and Bill is called to consult on one of the suicide cases because of its ties to the Mr. Mercedes case. He quickly scents Brady's involvement, because he has always believed that Brady was faking mental incapacity. He pursues his suspicion aggressively, but Bill has a problem: he's dying of cancer. During his pursuit, he uses increasingly ineffective pain pills to keep going, and he lies to Holly about his health. Naturally, she is too smart and learns the truth, but she can either help him stop Brady or walk away. Jerome joins them when his sister nearly dies by Brady's mental pushing. The trio are pushed to their limits as they chase a man who can kill without touching, and flee from body to body.

King handles the action with his usual skill, but his gift has always been in characterization. His heroes read like real people, from their frailties to their taste in food, and they age and face new issues as King does. He's also begun to add new viewpoints from characters who are not like himself. In the first novel, Holly Gibney starts as a meek and neurotic woman still under her mother's thumb. She becomes integral in solving the Mr. Mercedes case and is the one who physically brings Brady down. In End of Watch, she still has her nervous tics, but she has pushed through them to run a successful business with Bill. She is a full partner in the investigation, and King tells the story sometimes from her viewpoint. At the end of the third novel, we see that with or without Bill, Holly is strong enough to make her way.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Under the Radar

This has been a very quiet year for us in terms of announcements about the books we've published or stories we've written. We've been dealing with home repairs (free air conditioning should be a constitutional right in Florida), getting involved with our new Sisters in Crime chapter, and facing our first official hurricane in the Sunshine State. You can assume from this post that we survived Hermine. It was odd, though, to get time off for bad weather in the summer.

Oh, and we had a vacation. A real vacation, the first in several years that was longer than a three-day weekend. Gwen cooked many lovely things, we swam daily, and we also got to read for pleasure, something that we don't get to do as often as we'd like.
During this quiet summer, though, after the release of Strangely Funny III, Gwen and I were very busy, but not so you'd notice on our business page. We were finishing our first novel together. You're probably wondering how we accomplished that: she's a plotter who writes very serious, often dark, mysteries set in the 1870s; I'm a snarker with a short attention span, and most of my stories are set in the present day. I think you'll like our compromise: a mystery set during the 1920s Florida land boom. It has poison, car chases, mobsters, and some serious hangovers. Oh, and one Gertrude Stein book.

Murder on the Mullet Express will be coming out in early 2017.


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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Guest Post: L Andrew Cooper - Jane Austen, Revulsion, and Revolution

Chances are, you won’t look at the intestines on the cover of my new collection of horror stories, Peritoneum, and think, “This guy has read every Jane Austen novel at least twice!” While I suppose Northanger Abbey should be my favorite, on some days it’s Sense and Sensibility. Austen was doing a lot of her best writing in the 1790s, which was when some of the most important early horror novels were written. Austen’s marriageable women characters seem to be in mortal danger, but their danger is murky. Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, Austen’s contemporary, like Austen’s phenomenally successful “domestic novelist” predecessor Samuel Richardson, made the danger much clearer: women of certain classes who lacked the protection of men were under constant threat of rape. In such an unbalanced society, even the most trivial-seeming social interactions had extreme stakes. A simple tea could make your heart jump out of your chest.
Ladies dreamt of Pemberley, and meanwhile, the French mounted heads on spikes. The 1700s were not tame or polite. Google the paintings of William Hogarth, or read the Marquis de Sade. It was a time of revolutionary extremes.
For the Peritoneum epigraph, I chose a quote from 1700s-superstar Jonathan Swift. A line from Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” A classic Swiftian bit of ironic understatement, it’s also a really gory joke. Swift uses the joke to thoughtful ends, and one of his points is this: probing beneath the surface of things, for reasons and truths, might produce ugliness instead of answers. That’s a bracing bit of wisdom from a time known as “The Age of Reason.” But when the alternative to Pemberley might be rape, women might very well feel unsafe in their skin. Austen kept the skin on, but she showed its vulnerability. Our reasons for feeling unsafe in our skin in the 2000s are different. Sexual violence remains real enough, but we have a different brand of social unbalance. We’re scared of terrorists and mass shootings and viruses and politicians and scientists, but the ugliness is still in our guts, ready to alter our persons for the worse. Ours is a time of revolutionary extremes.
Nowadays Jane Austen gets marketed with zombies and sea monsters. We don’t seem to be in a subtle, skin-on mood, which is fine with me (cf my book cover, which I adore), although I have to admit I prefer my Austen the old way. I’m not advocating for a return to Austen’s indirect manner of suggesting the horrors beneath the skin during her high-stakes ballroom soirees, nor do I think we ought to flay all the people all the time to accommodate twenty-first-century extremism. I’m saying that the 1700s, in Austen’s politeness and Swift’s abattoirs, gave us what we need for our times: both skin-on and skin-off techniques for exploring revolutionary ugliness. Austen and Swift didn’t take anything for granted. She kept the skin on because she wrote about society’s surfaces, their fragility, commenting on how she maneuvered her little brush on two little inches of delicate ivory. While Austen’s writing is as controlled as her heroines must be to survive the gauntlet of courtship, Swift’s is wild and digressive, as chaotic as a flaying, as his satirical work is itself a flaying of society to expose the guts unsusceptible to control. To explore their worlds’ revolting undersides, Austen and Swift wrote in revolutionary ways. Understated or uproarious, dancing or flayed, the characters writers suspend before readers contain glorious imperfections, the exposure of which can tantalize and horrify. The 1700s gave us blueprints for exposure. It’s time we followed them to destinations fit for modern revolt.



L. Andrew Cooper scribbles horror: novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines as well as anthologies of experimental shorts Leaping at Thorns (2014 /2016) and Peritoneum (2016). He also co-edited the anthology Imagination Reimagined (2014). His book Dario Argento (2012) examines the maestro’s movies from the 70s to the present. Cooper’s other works on horror include his non-fiction study Gothic Realities (2010), a co-edited textbook, Monsters (2012), and recent essays that discuss 2012’s Cabin in the Woods (2014) and 2010’s A Serbian Film (2015). His B.A. is from Harvard, Ph.D. from Princeton. Louisville locals might recognize him from his year-long stint as WDRB-TV’s “movie guy.” Find him at amazon.com/author/landrewcooper, facebook.com/landrewcooper, and landrewcooper.com.

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