May 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
No, not the kid from the Little Rascals. Or the Eddie Murphy impression from SNL.
When describing the overall look of the chaparral, people often use the word “scrub”, meaning the low, bushy types of plants that make the mountains look as if they are covered with fur. California buckwheat is one of those plants that help to give chaparral that “scrubby” look, since it is everywhere here.
Not too tall, not too short, a buckwheat bush will usually hit between a person’s shoulders and knees in height. It has short, spiny, evergreen leaves, and is one of the few plants that people will leave behind here when they’re clearing brush.
Best of all, it has small ivory flowers that slowly move from pink, to coral, to a deep brick red as we move from spring to winter. Buckwheat doesn’t need its leaves to signal the season’s change–its flowers do that instead.
If you’d like to see some nicer pictures than mine, check out this link.
(The nursery linked there specializes in California native plants, so if you’re looking for drought tolerant plants that will do well in Southern California, give them a look!)
May 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Yesterday, I finished my second full length novel!
Well, to be honest, finished is maybe kind of too strong. When I write first drafts, they are very terrible–it’s really only dialogue and telling at this point. I force my characters to run the course of the plot so that I can figure out how they should be reacting, how to layer their characters–I use the first draft to get to know my characters. Then on rewrites, I put them more fully down on the page. Or at least I try to.
Right now, this is really more of a 50,000 word outline. Half of it I wrote on a iPad mini keyboard, which ends up looking I dictated it to my four year old to type, given my lack of typing skills on even a full sized keyboard. I have a huge TBR pile for research on this to get through now, and I let this book simmer in my brain for a bit while I read those, and then I’ll go back to season it properly in revisions.
So what’s next? Well, I’m beginning to revise the first novella I wrote and I think I’ll start on the next novella I have planned for this series. A writer’s work is never done, but I wouldn’t have it any other way….
May 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My first experiment in homesteading–or at least the DIY spirit of homesteading–was with cloth diapers. Now, I had absolutely no experience with cloth diapering before that. It’s very popular now (I think Amalah’s series on cloth diapering is now longer than the Wheel of Time series), but I can certainly see why previous generations left cloth diapering behind–imagine having to wash out diapers by hand. Now imagine that your baby has a stomach bug. Yeah.
But we were determined to try it, even before our first little one came along. So we signed up for a diaper service, which was bliss. You toss the dirty diapers into the bag (no rinsing!), they take them away and bring you new, clean diapers. It was so lazy, I didn’t even have to leave my house to get diapers.
Then we moved, and I no longer had to share a washer and dryer with four other families, so the justification for a diaper service was a little thin. I decided to buy some prefolds and start washing them myself. I’m not going to lie, I was nervous with that first wash, mostly because we were living in my father-in-law’s house and if something went wrong, I wasn’t sure how I would explain how I basically turned the washing machine into a toddler toilet.
But! Everything went perfectly. And now I love cloth diapering. (And it does not turn the washing machine into a toilet. There are many other sites that can explain the mechanics of it.)
My great-grandmother might not have loved cloth diapering for many reasons though. She no doubt had to sew her own diapers–I order mine on the internet and they are made in India. She probably had to wash them by hand–I have a washing machine, although I do line dry them. And I always have the choice to throw on a disposable if I’m feeling really lazy, and she didn’t. So no doubt she would have a good chuckle if she could hear me raving about the cloth diapers.
But one thing we probably could agree on? How adorable the diaper covers are. Remember those disposables printed to look like jeans from a few years back? Cloth diaper mamas have been putting crazy stuff on their babies’ butts for years. You can even get diaper covers printed with skulls and crossbones and call your baby The Dread Pirate Butt (if you are so inclined, not that I ever would embarrass my children like that).
And I think there’s nothing cuter than a line of diapers hanging to dry in front of a country house. Reusable baby poop rags as home decor? Now that’s lazy.
April 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Homesteading, which was all the rage in the late 1800s, is now back in style! Much like fashions from the 80s, it’s time has come again.
Well, not actual, traditional homesteading, where the government gives you 160 acres if you can sit your butt on it for five years, a la Little House on the Prairie. That kind of homesteading ended in the 1970s. I knew this before I wrote this post, because my husband and I actually looked into it, thinking that we could get some free land from the government. We couldn’t.
Modern homesteading now refers to the trend of living off the land, as much or as little as you want to. Composting, vegetable gardening, grey water recycling, raising your own meat are all part of modern homesteading. The ideal is to get to the point where you are completely off the grid and self sufficient, but of course, that takes years to achieve, and might in the end put you into “crazy survivalist” mode, rather than “self sufficient homesteader” mode.
My husband and I got interested in homesteading back when we were living in San Francisco, which is maybe almost the worst place to do it. There’s very little open space there, and sunshine is more of a myth than a reality. But still, we poured over The Backyard Homestead and dreamed of setting up our own little homestead one day. (Also, that book is awesome. It doesn’t go into great depth, but as an overview of what you can do, it’s invaluable.)
In the end, we did get our homestead, three sunshiny acres to do whatever we pleased with. Now I still have visions of us being completely self sufficient one day, the husband, kids, dogs, and I living out some pioneer dream straight out of a country song. But there’s one small problem with this:
I’m kind of lazy.
I mean, I can hold down a job, and I got a Ph.D., which isn’t for the faint of heart, but when it comes to the kind of life my great-great-grandmother led, well, I’ll take some technology, thank you. So this series will be about my attempts to do it myself, but by taking shortcuts that would have my great-great-grandma laughing at my attempts to “rough it”.
How does this relate to my writing? Well, I’ve set my series in the same time period that my great-great-grandmother was living in. So many of the things I’ll be describing would also be done by my characters on a day to day basis. So if you’d like to get a little better idea of what life was like in the 1890s and laugh at me in the process, feel free to follow along.
April 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ve decided that this will be the end of The Science of Writing series for my blog. The idea for this series came about when I was debating in my head what aspects of my scientific career had helped me with my writing. (I have quite a bit of time during the day to argue with myself, and as a scientist, I need someone to argue with!) It was a way for me to work through what I had learned as a scientist and what I was learning as a writer–what I am still learning, in fact–how to respond to criticism and reviews, how to tighten and cut until only the essentials are left, the importance of precision in word choice, and polishing every aspect of your work until you are as near to perfection as is possible in this imperfect world.
However, the more I thought on it, the more I debated with myself, I realized that it’s all been said before. Any aspect of writing that I can speak to, that I want to speak to, has already been addressed somewhere out there. The world does not need another how to write series out there on the webs, forever saved by Google’s data empire. Especially a series from a noob.
In the past few weeks, there’s been a series of articles on Slate about the value of getting a PhD. Even though I would go through it all again to obtain my PhD, I found myself agreeing with the article that said that it was a waste of time and would turn you into a wreck of a human being. The academic system tends to view all those who do not grab the brass ring of a tenured professorship as waste, as failures in the great machine churning out data, papers, grants, and all the rest of it. And that’s a shame.
Of course, Slate also ran a piece defending the idea of spending all those years toiling away in your own nearsighted speciality to get that terminal degree. The author argued that working at your PhD taught you to commit to your ideas, which people don’t do enough outside of the ivory tower.
I don’t buy the idea that people in general don’t commit to their ideas; I can think of a dozen instances of people fiercely committing to their ideas just in the last hour on my Facebook feed.
No, the real benefit of completing a PhD is learning how to DEFEND your ideas. You learn how to think about ideas, how to marshal evidence in support of your conclusions, how to express your ideas in the most elegant, succinct, and convincing way.
In other words, a PhD is a strength training program for the mind.
But what does that have to do with writing?
As I continue this process of becoming a writer, I find that writing is, at its heart, about defending your story.
Anyone can make up stories; in fact, my four year old is doing it right now. A writer is a special class of imaginative fibber–one who asks others to spend time and money on their stories. And as a writer, you need to be ready to defend that story, to justify the investment of time and money you’re asking the reader to put in. That means that your plot has no holes, your characters are worth the emotional investment of the reader, your grammar won’t make a reader’s eyes cross, your typos have been eradicated, and more. As a writer, I recognize that all of that is a lot of work. But it’s necessary if you want to defend your story, just as necessary as statistics and background reading are to a scientist. It’s not always fun (in fact, it’s usually deadly dull), but you have to do it if you want to defend your ideas.
The same goes for writers. Every story requires some deadly dull work sometimes, in order to render it defendable. Of course, this also applies to your research (particularly if you’re a historical author) and your characterizations. The debate on how accurate you need to be in your historical is not one I want to rehash here, but the issue of characterization is one I want to touch on. if you haven’t thought over every one of your character’s actions and their motivation for doing so, how are you going to defend your story? Your character’s actions make the story, especially in a romance. if you haven’t properly laid the evidence for why a character reacts as they do, you’re not defending your story.
All of this defending can take a long time, both of ideas and of stories. My PhD took seven years to complete, and not every experiment I did even made it into my thesis. And that doesn’t even count the decades of research done by others that formed the background for my work. My first novel is probably going to take about two and half years from first word written until now, when I’m finally getting ready to start querying it. Many scenes aren’t going to make it into the finished draft, and quite a bit of the research I did won’t be mentioned at all in the book. But it was all necessary, every bit of it, for me to properly defend this story. To believe that it is worth someone’s time, and perhaps one day, even worth someone’s money.
January 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Coyotes have been a part of the legends of the West ever since man began creating stories about this region. In Native American stories, the coyote is often portrayed as a trickster, and you could say he’s played the ultimate trick by surviving–and thriving–in humanized environment. You could call him the ultimate adapter, since he’s one of the few native animals that thrive in a urban or suburban environment.
Of course, coyotes still prefer open space, and we see them often around here–and not just at night. We’ve seen them on early morning runs, melting into the mist as soon as we get close, and even in the middle of the day, jogging through the vineyards. At first glance they may look like a shaggy, long legged mutt, but once you get closer, there’s no mistaking it for any kind of domestic dog. They look very much like smaller, leaner wolves–if you can watch them long enough to get a good look, since they tend to be very shy of humans.
There’s certainly plenty of rabbits and squirrels around here to keep them fed and of course they won’t hesitate to grab a cat or a dog if they can. We’re always careful to bring in our dogs at night, since we’ve heard stories of lone coyotes luring out dogs so that the entire pack can bring it down once it’s out in the open. Of course, that ingenuity in eating what ever they can has helped them be so successful in the face of increasing human encroachment.
One night we heard what must have been the entire coyote population of this area calling to one another. A coyote call starts as something like a dog’s howl, before twisting into a thing like a child’s cry. If there was ever a call to make ice run down your spine, it’s the call of a coyote. That night we heard dozens of them, calling to each other across miles, their unseen packs encircling us on all sides. Then the dogs started up, barking impotently behind their fences at their wild cousins’ freedom, And still the coyotes went on.
Then just as quickly as they started, they stopped, once more becoming the silent, unseen presence all around us, their calls a reminder that for every coyote we happened to glance, there were dozens more that we’d never see, only hear in the dark of the night.
January 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
So, I’ve blathered on about what a scientist does, but now we can get into the nitty gritty of the science of writing. And we’re going to start with something that is fundamental to writing, and that is storytelling. Storytelling is everything in fiction writing. Readers will forgive all manner of writing sins if you tell them a riproaring story. And if you don’t have a great yarn at the center of your novel? Well, a reader isn’t likely to stick around, no matter how gifted a stylist you are.
Now here’s a little secret about science: it is also all about storytelling.
But, you say, science is just a dry recitation of facts? Isn’t it?
Nope. In science, we use those dry facts to tell a story, but a story is still at the heart of what we do. Take, for example, the hormone insulin. I imagine that most of you know it for it’s role in diabetes. Insulin tells the body to take up sugar from the blood, either to burn for fuel or to store for later and in certain forms of diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin.
Pretty dry, right?
But there’s a wealth of stories we could chose to tell about insulin.
One story could be about how insulin signals to individual cells to tell them to take up sugar. Insulin does this by activating what we call signaling cascades in the cell. Signaling cascades are at the heart of how cells communicate with each other and how they regulate their own internal processes, so we could use the story of insulin signaling at the cellular level to illustrate a universal principle of how cells work and how they communicate with one another.
We could also move the story from the small scale of individual cells to the larger scale of organ systems. Insulin is released into the bloodstream, allowing it to signal to nearly every organ in the body. It tells the liver to store the sugar, it signals to fat cells to store lipids, it signals to the stomach, it even signals to the brain. So we could also use the story of insulin signaling at the organismal level to provide examples of how organs can signal to one another across the entire body. (Which could also be called the story of the endocrine system.)
Finally, we can even use insulin to tell a historical story. Insulin was the very first protein to ever be fully sequenced, meaning that the sequence of amino acids (protein building blocks) was decoded. In other words, the amino acid “spelling” of insulin was determined. Using the story of the sequencing of insulin, you could show how far science has come since then, and the advances that have come out of not only protein sequencing, but also DNA sequencing.
For any of these stories we choose to write about insulin, we need facts in order to tell them. But what facts we need depends greatly on which story we choose to tell. For a scientist, that means deciding which story they’d like to tell (or to put it another way, what questions they’d like to answer), deciding which facts are needed to tell that story, and then designing experiements to get those facts. Telling a story of how insulin talks to the liver is going to require very different facts than the story of how insulin signals to neurons.
But how does all this relate to writing?
A good story requires evidence. What I mean by that, is for every action you have your characters doing, you need to give evidence for why they might do that. You need to convince the reader, that based on what you’ve told them about the character, this is what they would do in response to the black moment, this is how they complete their arc, this is how they get their happy ending.
Evidence includes backstory, charaterization, and even historical accuracy. If a Regency miss has been a wallflower for 200+ pages, then suddenly decides to become a can can dancer because she realized the virtues of female empowerment–well, no one’s buying that. I realize this example is a little extreme, but one question that I constantly ask myself as I write is “Did I provide the evidence beforehand for what my characters are about to do?”. Is it accurate historically, does it accord with what my characters have said and done in the previous pages, and most importantly, will the reader believe it? And depending on what trope is at the heart of your story, you’ll need to tailor the evidence you give to fit that trope. Or turn it on it’s head, if that’s your style.
Science is all about marshaling facts in order to convince a bunch of skeptics that you’re right.
Writing is all about marshaling words and character actions in order to convince readers they should keep on going.
I think that this is at the heart of reviewer complaints about uneven characterization or characters that act in unbelievable ways. You have to put in the evidence if you want readers to buy into your characters’ actions. You need that evidence to tell your story, whether it’s fiction or science. (Or science fiction.)