History & the Condescension of the Living

I have been extraordinarily busy this last week, unpacking from a move, writing a lot of guest blogs and Q&As for the upcoming release of my book–exactly one week away–and it is a busy, exciting time. I have worked for a long time on a novel trilogy set in Russia during the Second World War and I remembered, albeit too late, that on the night of June 21-22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the mass invasion of the Soviet Union (France had officially surrendered on the same day–June 21, 1940–the year before). That was a long time ago–72 years, if my math is correct–and very few people who were old enough to remember that terrible day are still with us. Hitler’s armies nearly overran the Soviet Union that summer, reaching the very gates of Leningrad and Moscow; they marched to the Caucasus in the south, and were finally stopped, overextended and surrounded, at Stalingrad on the Volga in the winter of 1942-43. Tens of millions of Russians died in in those years, in the life-or-death struggle they remember as the Great Patriotic War.

Operation Barbarossa 1941 German Panzers in Russia

Operation Barbarossa 1941 German Panzers in Russia

I have studied this conflict, researching the Great Patriotic War in order to present the stories of the people (characters) involved. I have read many memoirs and letters, and there is an idea one book presented which has always stuck with me: the arrogant condescension of the living. We (the living, at the moment) immediately assume that somehow we are more alive than those who lived long ago. That is largely due to the fragmentary nature of our connection to the past, especially once you start looking at societies more than 200 years old. It is difficult to imagine flesh on ancient bones scattered in collapsed tombs, to mine emotion out of stone inscriptions or put ourselves at a family breakfast table in 13th century France. But we cannot possibly be more “alive” than they were, of course. Yes, we are currently alive and they are dead, but our lifespan is little more than a blink in the passage of time. Could we feel more love than an ancient Greek mother cradling her newborn did? Can we be prouder of our son’s accomplishments than an ancient Aboriginal father once was? Can we feel fear more intensely than a Tommy at the Somme? Impossible. Yet, when we think of them, they often present cold, expressionless faces peering back at us from the mists of the past. Their monuments–the sphinx, Stonehenge, Angkor Wat–can all seem grand but empty, as if built by armies of nameless, faceless, ghosts.

Their lives are lost to us–unlike Alexander and Napoleon, they left no personal mark, no legacy–and they are therefore meaningless to us, their lives dissolved away without bang or whimper.

But they were alive. Just as alive as we are now, breathing the same (or similar) air. How do we connect to them? We carry their genetic legacy in our bodies and brains, in our hair and eyes and in our brain chemicals–we are a DNA milkshake concocted by thousands of ancestors. How do we connect to them?–this is where we discover one of the magical functions of art. Great nonfiction books can get us closer to the lives of dead, exploring clues and facts. The ancient Greek mother made a bracelet for her child. The Aboriginal father mixed red pigment and water into paint and pressed his hand, along with his son’s, on the underside of a huge rock. The Tommy at the Somme wrote a letter to his parents every day he was in the trenches. Great fiction, however, can put us in their shoes, breathing the same breath, loving the same loves, puffing up with the same pride, gasping in the same terror in the mud.

Great fiction can pierce the mists of history. Great fiction can crack the condescension of the living and bring the dead to us, alive.

The Paperback TARDIS: Reading Transports You

The Paperback TARDIS: Reading Transports You

The Fantastical Mr. Flip’s Memorial Scholarship

The Bellingham Steampunk Society needs your help.  They lost a 10 year old member, Caleb “Flip” Kors, to a terrible accident not long ago and they have named their steampunk festival, The Fantastical Mr. Flip’s Carnival of Wonders & Curiosities, after him.

Mr Flip calebKors-720x405

The Fantastical Mr. Flip’s celebrates steampunk makers, authors, musicians and artists, and helps raise funds for the Caleb Kors Memorial Scholarship.  Please stop by their website and consider making a donation.  You get gifts!

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-fantastical-mr-flip-s-carnival-of-wonders-curiosities

 

Write About What You DON’T Know

I love to write, but I am wary of the old saying: “write what you know.”  Wow, that would sure limit steampunk, fantasy and all fiction.  Most people immediately recognize that writing and imagination suffer when hemmed in by an absolute adherence to our own mostly-boring lives and experiences.  Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning is not the stuff of a great book, but tossed into the imagination of a great writer, exploring the translucent shades of life and character infused in the act of drinking that cup of coffee, it can be–but the writer must leave the world of easy, mundane fact and plunge headlong into the gray unknown in order to find it.

I love this popularly readjusted version of the aforementioned saying: “write about what you don’t know.”

When I write, a huge part of the joy involves the research (which does get tedious, and threatens to be never ending) I need to do to establish the setting of my story. This is more necessary in the historical fiction genre than in speculative fiction, but I did have to learn about a slew of topics in order to present my steampunk world effectively (even if I choose to ignore the facts on occasion, which the subgenre allows (my brutally overloaded zeppelin does need to defy all physics and laws of gravity and lift to fly, and fly fast, you see)–but whatever set of new rules you invent for your world, you had better damn well stick to them). I studied zeppelins, hydrogen, static equilibrium, steam engines, turbines, gunpowder, 18th Century muzzle-loading cannons, the Victorian/Edwardian era culture and clothing, the Great War, the British empire, bustles, John Bull top hats, airspeed, empennage, baggywrinkle and the Coriolis effect. Granted, I write about things I am interested in, so the histories and British empire parts come easy, but much of it is new to me, especially the science. Two of my three main characters are female (and one is a female half-Martian, to boot) and calculating the thoughts and feelings of the opposite sex is an adventure. ADVENTURE is the word. As I embark on every new book, it is an adventure. It is all new to me, and that is what makes all the of the work, all of the hours of isolation, FUN. And, hopefully, I make it possible for the reader to participate the adventure and the FUN.

Sebastian Faulks summed up this sentiment nicely and gives good advice to carry along the road to getting published: “Write about what you DON’T know.  Research.  Invent.  Write about people of other ages, sexes, nationalities and periods in history.  Then find a book you think is similar to yours.  Write to the author care of the publisher and find out who their agent is (this info is usually on the author’s website these days).  Good luck.”

Steampunk Fairy

Who is the steampunk Tinkerbell above?  She has obviously dropped in on a convention.  I don’t know who she is, where she came from or much about fairies.  I don’t know what the story is here, but what a great story.  I want to know the story, and do the research to find out what it might be.  What a fun adventure in the offing!  (I actually don’t know where this picture–posted on Pinterest–was taken or who is in it, but I love the costume).

Coffee Mug O Imagination

Coffee Mug O Imagination

Here is the coffee–what would Joseph Conrad do with this?

 

INVICTUS on Father’s Day

In honor of Father’s day and my wonderful dad, I’d like to publish one of his favorite poems (and, as inherited, now one of my favorites) below, one which he still keeps at his desk.  William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote the well-known verses, and they are a powerful harbor where one can reconnect with the steel in their soul when the difficulties of life seem insurmountable.

INVICTUS

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the Shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

As a young man who had survived an impoverished childhood, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. He later underwent a series of painful surgeries, first to amputate one leg below the knee and then to salvage the remaining foot. He wrote “Invictus” (then untitled) in 1888, while in hospital. Henley went on to live an active life until his death at age 53. (Wikipedia)

The memory of Henley (a descendant of Joseph Wharton) and his life is invested in world literature and film far more deeply that I had first suspected. Robert Louis Stevenson reported that his character of Long John Silver from Treasure Island was inspired by his real-life friend, Henley. J.M. Barrie immortalized Henley’s sickly daughter, Margaret, as Wendy in Peter Pan. In the film Casablanca, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) quotes the last two lines of “Invictus” to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), when describing his power over the town.