Fun Bunny off to see the water!

This was a spontaneous bit of fun I did when I went to the farmer’s market in Old Town, Alexandria. It’s right near the waterfront, so I wandered down.

It was about 7:30 in the morning and the sun was just coming up. I got this shot of the Potomac River.

Potomac River as the sun comes up.  Ducks swim in the water.

I like visiting this area because it’s a mix of both history and the new. This used be a major shipping port in the 1700s. George Washington stopped here on his way from Mount Vernon to Washington, DC.

It was at least several days to travel. Now it takes probably 20-30 minutes, depending on the traffic.

Just up the street is a tavern where people stayed. The tavern made me realize that in many fantasy novels, the writers don’t really have a sense of what the size of one of these places are. It’s pretty small, and you shared rooms with other travelers.

George Washington’s townhouse (a replica) is a few blocks away. There’s also an actual cobblestone street. Very hard to walk on.

I actually like the feel of this area so much I’ve used it as a setting in several stories:

  • Nothing Town,
  • Ambush Cargo
  • Tidying Magic, which is coming out in an upcoming pirate anthology. Ghosts, pirates, and tidying. That’s the Writing Nerd!

Circling back to the farmer’s market, I came across this oddity:

Statue of man hanging from straps over base it was removed from.

It looks like the city was restoring the base, but seeing the statue suspended like that was very odd, to say the least!

Research when something doesn’t exist

This was an interesting question that came over one of the writing lists I’m on. I write fantasy and science, so some of the elements don’t actually exist, or isn’t possible for me to see it. How to do research then?

What I do is take other similar things and make the connection from that.

For a fantasy that was set in an abandoned town, I used the ghost town of Bodie as a basis. I’d never been there, but I had grown up in California, so I was already familiar with the landscape. I looked at photos of Bodie, which are eerie and scary.

Then, for the place the character lived, I went to Fort Ward. That’s a local historical site. It’s an intact Civil War fort. There’s also a mock up of an officer’s hut. I saw things like how the officers strung rope across corners and then hung clothes from them. I also stood next to a barrel and compared my height to it.

For a science fiction story with a UFO, the problem, of course, is that I’ve never seen a UFO, except in the movies. I don’t want to use movies as a basis for any kind of research, because this is my story, not someone else’s movie.

The connection became jets.

A few weeks ago, the Blue Angels were doing a photo shoot, so we had several flyovers. The first time they flew over, I heard the sounds of the jets roaring in my direction. By the time I realized what it was and got to the window, the sound was moving away. No sign of them!

The second time I heard it, I got to the window just in time to see them flying off. That’s how fast they were, so a UFO would be that fast.

Then there’s Theodore Roosevelt Island. That’s a park in a tributary of the Potomac River. A lot of joggers like to go there because it has a lot of paths, trees, water. Really pretty.

Theodore Roosevelt Island surrounded by the Potomac River
The green stuff on the water looked like it was some kind of algae. We don’t usually get that growing unless there’s been no rain for a while, which has been the case.

It’s also on the flight path at Reagan Airport, about 7 miles away. That’s spitting distance for a plane. So when the planes are overhead, they are low.

So that experience becomes the UFO.

And think about writers like Robert Heinlein, who wrote about space travel before we had actually traveled in space.

Old Writing Habits Die Hard

I’ve been working on a steampunk fantasy short story this week. Steampunk is kind of like what Wild, Wild West or The Adventures of Briscoe County was. It’s set in the age of invention, where inventions could be fun and creative, all with a bit of rebellion wrapped in.

However, I don’t play well with historical. I’ve never enjoyed research.

Part of the problem is how history and research was taught in school. It was a list of facts that could be put on a test. I’m better at big picture than details, so I never did well with remembering obscure facts. The other part of the problem is how writers sometimes treat it: as if they were being graded. They have to research every single detail to make sure that the 1% of the audience who might know that fact won’t call them out as being wrong.

But I was reading Lessons of a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell, and he said the following:

“The point is, research should be considered a reward and not a penance that you have to go through before you start writing.”

That made me think about if I could feel like it was less of homework in school. The truth is that it may always be something that I may never enjoy much.

But that’s how the steampunk story came in. I’ve been having a terrible time getting setting into the story at all, and that’s something that separates the pro writers from the beginners.

Steampunk fantasy is all about setting, so it would really push my learning curve.

The idea came out of a book I was reading on the construction of the Washington Monument. I’ve been exploring books to see what era or type of books will interest me, since it will help my writing overall.

Wasn’t thinking about the story at all when I was reading.

Then I saw an anthology call and thought it might work.

The story is called Stain of Ghost.

My approach was to take a single historical event and keep it in one place. That way I can focus on just a small piece of the time and work at getting the setting and the story to work together.

But took a lot longer than expected. I felt like was remapping myself. I kept looking at the random parts of the story and thinking:

“It’s not coming together. It’s nothing coming together.”

There were six scenes. I tried writing the first two scenes, and it was all over the place while I tried to figure out how to get the historical setting in without getting me overwhelmed by the history.   Then I wrote Scene 4, where I needed setting, not history, and something went “Click.”

I tossed about 1K for the first scenes and started those scenes over again. This time, I had gone out to Fort Washington that Saturday, and it was foggy out on the river. So I started with fog on the Potomac as well as something a coworker said to me about March (“She’s a cranky month.”). Suddenly I had three scenes done, looked at the fourth.

Wait? Was I almost done?

It sneaked up on me and was done.

Furlough Wanderings: Old Towne Alexandria Photos

With the furlough kicking in last week, I have an extra day off each week.  While I could make a case for staying in and writing all day, I also don’t want to be cooped up all day.  So I thought I would use the time to do onsite research for future stories.  I’m a lazy researcher — I’m not going to spend tons of time digging out every fact, but I want to get a feel enough that I can convey that in my story’s setting.

The first place I visited was Old Towne, Alexandria, VA.  I selected this location because I did have a story already in mind, though it will also need research in two other areas as well.  It was also raining that day, and I thought that would be a good time to see how it would be different.

This is the wharf.  It’s quite shocking to see this after reading what it was like in George Washington’s day.  This was a major international port.  Tobacco was brought here from England and Scotland, and there was a lot of activity.  This area was also considered the place to be seen. George Washington was known to frequent the area, especially given the fact that his house was only eight miles away.

Sometime in the 1800s, silt filled in the area, and the trade vanished.

Alexandria Wharf on the Potomac River with a flock of ducks
Looks like the rain drew the ducks. There were lots of mallards.

The wharves were also much further back.  I always park in the Lee Street parking, and that’s about where the old wharf was located.  Sometime around the early 1800s, the city built up the wharves to where they are now. I took this photo from near there, and as you can see, it’s pretty far to the water.  You can’t even see the water!

When the Potomac River floods, this area also floods.  The water creeps right up this street.  Guess it’s trying to regain what man filled in!

Store fronts on King Street
King Street goes all the way down to the water.

I’ll have to go back on another trip and explore some of the sites.  But I picked up a lot of information I can use in the story.  It’s going to be my first science fiction story, for an anthology that takes military science fiction.  Honestly, military and technology … yeah, that would work.

How to find details for a story when you’re not good at them

Sunlight showing through the trees
The trees hadn’t quite bloomed when I visited Mason Neck Park for research.

I admit it.  I’m terrible with details. 

I can look at a place, see all the details, come back, and not remember a single one of them.  They all merge with the big picture.  So all the things I see at the beach turns into beach, sand, and water, and I forget about a bunch of stuff I did see.

So I’ve learned these three work arounds:

1. Ask questions about the place

No matter the location, I ask questions about specifics.  If we’re in the woods, then the questions might be:

  • What kind of trees are here?
  • What kind of birds live in these woods?
  • What sounds do they make?

Which leads to the second workaround:

2. Take notes live at the site

Visit the location with a notebook and write down everything.  I went to Mason Neck Park, which is located on Pohick Bay and noted all kinds of things:

  • Flies buzzing past.
  • Warmth of sun
  • Long ago fallen tree being gnawed away

Mason Neck Park was a substitution.  I couldn’t go to the actual location of the setting, which is in Hawaii, so I had to make do.  Woods are pretty universal in how to they operate.  I’m planning on going to Virginia Beach for the beach experience (yes, pictures!).

After I get back, I pretty them up in notes.  I plan to do these trips at different times of the year, since Spring is different than Winter.

3. Research

The library is my friend for looking up specific names of plants.  I usually just make a note in the manuscript with something like:

(Name of tree) towered overhead.

Then I can hit the library once I have enough details to research, preferably ones in the same detail family.

I’ve mentioned some of the things I do in passing and have had people pop up in surprise and say, “That’s what I do!”  So we’re not alone.  If you have trouble with details, what do you do?

Related Posts:

Went to Intervention — No, It’s a Con, Not What You Just Thought

It’s a science fiction con.  It stands for Inter(net) (Con)vention.  This one was within driving distance for me along the George Washington Parkway. If you’re not familiar with Washington, DC, that’s a very scenic road that follows the Potomac River.  This is is a photo:

Tree on the right frames a scenic view of the Potomac River below.

It should be gorgeous once the trees begin to change color.  No pics from the con this time though.  The con simply didn’t have much in the way of photo ops.  No action workshops (darn!  I was looking for another action demo), and very little cosplay.  I saw only one person in full costume, though horns were popular.  Do you think I ought to get horns since Halloween is coming up?  Ooh, ooh — maybe alien antennas.

I did raid the dealer’s room for a few more t-shirts …

A t-shirt that says, "We are the Book.  You will Be assimilated" and showing a book and a Kindle.  A t-shirt showing a spaghetti monster and saying "My God can Beat Up Your God," and a t-shirt of Mr. Peanut Steampunked.

Overall, I was not impressed with the con.  It was sparsely attended and seemed poorly organized. The first workshop I went to did not bode well.  “Writing a Fantasy Novel” was a given about the subject matter. Four comic book artists showed up for the panel.  Two of them didn’t even know the name of the workshop and spent time complaining about being there.  One lost interest midway through and started sketching a picture for an auction in a hour that he should have done before he got to the con.  I spent $40 for this?

The other two workshops I attended were much more interesting, but they were also the only ones I found of any interest.  One was “Blogging for Fun and Profit” with Mark Blum and Mike Fenn.  I wasn’t too sure what I was going to get since on the last one I attended it was apparent none of the writers knew what they were talking about.  As it turned out, there was a lot of good information.  The message that resonated for me was on how to market you blog.  Some of the things they mentioned:

  • Put out cards with the blog name and site address at cons.  I had a “Do-oh!” moment on this one.  I have Moo cards and haven’t been doing that at any of the cons.  I did have some with me, but I realized there was a small problem — I’d left off that I was a writer.  So I’ll get that fixed in time for the next con.
  • Write your blog name on your con badge.  Yup, we all hauled off our badges and added the name right there.
  • And the final note, which is that you can’t be afraid to promote yourself.  The hardest thing about being an introvert is that it’s very difficult for me to even think of stuff like that.  With the Moo cards, I was always thinking that I needed a book published.

Despite this great workshop, I couldn’t help noticing that almost none of the panelists really promoted themselves.  They mentioned they had an online comic strip, but didn’t provide paper samples or even a card with a link on it.  Maybe that was a symptom of the entire problem with the con?

The best workshop was “It’s About the Villain.”  The panelists were Michael Terracciano (did villain imitations), Eric Kimball, A.J. Rosa, and Elaine Corvidae (the only person in costume).  They had a blast and had the audience really laughing.  Yes, we do enjoy our villains.  Some highlights, since villains are always fun:

  • Good guys are defined as much by their villains as they are by their deeds.  Or, by any other name, make the villain a strong character.
  • A villain can be terrifying if you can’t reason with them (given we recently had a tiger attack on the news, I thought about a tiger.  You can’t reason with a tiger.  He just thinks you’re lunch, or whatever meal he’s missing).
  • If readers love a villain, give him a moment to be awesome before he’s defeated.  The example given was Boba Fett from Star Wars.  A lot of fans really liked the character, but he went out without much fanfare.

But Michael Terracciano was adamant that hero-villain team ups were a really bad idea.  So what do you think?  Should villains and heroes ever work together?

Linda Adams, Soldier, Storyteller

Starting November 4, I will doing a month-long session on Forward Motion on “Basic Training of Military Culture.”  The lesson plan for the course is posted here.  I promise that I will promote myself for this!

Adventures on the Potomac River

A ship with two open decks is docked at the Alexandria wharf.

Being on a boat conjures up images of going on an adventure to a strange and exotic place like Indiana Jones.  As a child, my grandfather went to Korea on the ships of the early 1900s with names like Empress of Australia and the Empress of Asia.  His father was the first missionary there, so it was truly an adventure!

For me, it was a 40 minute cruise from Alexandria, Virginia, around the Potomac River on the Admiral Tild.  Getting on a boat made me nervous.  When I was in the Girl Scouts, I took the Catalina Flyer.  The boat rocked so much that I got sea sick.  All I could do was sit on the stairs and try not to throw up.  So I kept my fingers crossed.  Exploring is no fun if you’re turning green (aliens don’t count).

The day started out hot, layered with humidity.  The sweat stayed on my skin, and I kept feeling the tickle of drops running down my shins.  Even the ducks near the wharf weren’t motivated to do much beside float — until the two kids with bread came along.  The 5-year old hurled half a heel into the water and started a duck war.  Every duck for himself!

Ducks on the surface of the river go after pieces of bread.

A breeze from the water carried the briny smell of the river but didn’t do much to cool me down.  So I melted while I waited to board the boat.  This Indian boy of about seven tried to take my picture.  Didn’t bother me, but his father chided him, telling him to ask permission first.  Instead, the boy took a picture of his father.

The boat consisted of two decks.  A curving, steep staircase went up to the second deck.  That probably had the better view, but I thought the lower deck would be cooler.  So did grandparents with their grandchildren.  The Indian family went on the top deck.  As I sat down on one of the bench seats, vibration from the engine came up at me through the deck and into the seat.

The captain gave us our safety briefing and pointed out the locations of the tiny bathrooms, opening one up to show us.  I think he was trying to discourage anyone from using them except in an emergency.  I think I would have turned into a pretzel inside.

Shot of the captain's wheel and the two very small restrooms on either side.

The captain gave long pull on the horn.  No one was going to miss that we were leaving the dock!  As we did a 180 degree turn,  my sinuses lurched sickingly, and I hope this wasn’t a sign of things to come.  It turned out that I was okay as long as I didn’t stand up and move around too much.  The vibration changed to a steady rumble and we were off on our adventure.

Tree-lined riverbank with trees sprawled in the water.

This looked like damage from the recent storm — a lot of trees were ripped apart and tossed aside as if they were discarded paper.

The underside of the Woodrow Wilson drawbridge, with curving arches of concrete.

The underside of the Woodrow Wilson drawbridge.  As we passed under it, we could hear the ghostly whistle of traffic speeding across it.

Maryland shoreline showing a distant bridge

The bridge marks the unofficial border between Virginia and Maryland.  There’s a lagoon on the other side where the military trained frogmen.  Frogmen were the early version of the Navy SEALS.  Isn’t that cool?

What looks like the wooden legs of an old pier in the middle of the water, with green bushes growing out of it

I thought these were the wreckage of an old pier, but they were used to tie up boats.  It was strange seeing this burst of green out in the middle of the water.

A distant view of the Capitol dome.

And where would a trip on the Potomac be without the Capitol?  If you’re having trouble spotting it, it’s on the right third of the photo.

All that humidity may turn into a thunderstorm later today.  If you were on the boat and a thunderstorm hit, what would you do?  What kind of adventure would it take you on?

Read my flash fiction story The Librarian at the Writer Unboxed’s 7 Sizzling Sundays of Flash Fiction!