Sunday, August 31, 2014

Final Cover


Here is my beautiful final cover by illustrator Kaleo Welborn.

The first time I saw it I was like, "Wow, I really have a book now." Kaleo really went above and beyond my expectations, creating this photo realistic of my main character Sylvie. I love the embroidery on the coat and the mother-of-pearl buttons, both of which plays a key role in the story.

The Changelings will be available on January 2, 2015. More details to come.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Travelogue: 3 Mile Hike. Again.

What: Family Walk
Where: Fort Sill, Oklahoma
When: Saturday, August 9, 2014

It's the same track of land that, two days earlier, had reduced our puppies to panting fluffballs. But the setting sun has softened the land. Yellow grasses blends with the green, and shadows stretch luxuriantly over the hills. Though the humidity remains, the temperature has cooled to just bearable.

Same course, different mindset.
The whole family is together: Mom, Dad, me, my sister Jaime, my brother Tyler, his wife Shantel, their baby Tyson in his new red stroller, and puppies Bella, Mia, and Lincoln. I'm feeling mellow and in no mood to race.

But Tyler is. He steals Mia from me and makes her run with him. Some how her chunky little legs keep up with his long strides. They go off the road, down the pokey grass, and toward the dried creek. Jaime and Lincoln follow their trail. Bella wants to run with them, but she's stuck with me and I hold her back.
Jungle gym equipment sits at intervals along the roads with signage to explain how to exercise. My brother, fitness buff that he is, decides to do the sit ups, pull ups, and whatever crazy aerobics the signs advises him to do. I'm not really paying attention. The sun is setting, and its orange glow highlights every seed pod in the wheat grass.


The sky grows indigo, and a big full moon hangs in the sky. The man in the moon looks sad. Puppies, water bottles, and baby are getting shuffled. Tyson toddles and I end up pushing an empty stroller. Shantel takes her dogs off their leash, despite my many protests that its illegal.

Tyler gets bored of running the normal way and starts jogging backwards. "It's good for the calves." Shantel complains that she's tired. Tyler says we can get 59 cent slushies after we finish, and that cheers her, so that by the end of the hike, she's running with him.

Near the car, I hear a good deal of chattering from one of the trees. Everyone says its birds, but they have a strange way of flapping and I swear I their wings are made of diaphanous skin, not feathers. I say they're bats. But everyone is too busy loading pooped out puppies and fussy baby into the cars to care.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Travelogue: Museum of the Great Plains

What: Museum of the Great Plains
Where: Lawton, Oklahoma
When: Friday, August 8, 2014

We haven't even parked, and I can see this place is infested with prairie dogs. They look like gophers and act like meerkats, with sentries standing straight up on mounds of dirt and guarding over the others. Naturally I want to take a picture, but as soon as I creep close, the sentry begins to chirp.

"Chip, chip, chip."
Prairie Dogs
It sounds more like the call of a bird than a rodent. I focus my zoom, and the prairie dog crouches low in its burrow. His alarm becomes more fast-paced and frantic.

"Chip chip chip!"

Finally, it just up and dives into its hole. I look for a new prairie dogs to photograph and find they're gone.

In addition to prairie dogs, the Museum of the Great Plains has a fort and an old-fashioned train and a gift shop with apple basil jelly and "rattlesnake eggs." There's also a science center with a bed of nails you can lie on as metal spikes lift you into the air. (It doesn't hurt.) My mom and dad and brother decide play around in this section but I choose to edjamacate myself and stuff, so I go through the displays and actually read the signs.

Cowboy

"There is a feeling of people, the lack of people, the want for people, the desire for no people. I want to draw the horizons into my soul and have them bounce around so much that they expand my horizons and I become unfettered. This is a metaphysical land."

I stare at Peter Miller's black and white photographs of grassless badlands, chisel-faced cowboys, old houses, organic farmers, fields of sunflowers, and storm clouds. I've absorbed these kinds of images of course, but glossier, air-brushed, and stuck on political brochures. But this feels more like real America to me.

"The winter wind is so strong that the snow can blow sideways for 3 days before it grabs onto the ground. ...There is not much difference from being in the Plains or on the seas during a gale. On the Plains you may freeze to death and on the sea you may drown."

The quotes beneath the photos make me wonder if he's been there, if he's experienced these kinds of storms. I imagine him loading his camera into the back of his truck and just driving from place to place, photographing whatever catches his eyes, interviewing ordinary folks, and wandering through the heartland like some kind of modern day cowboy.

(Examples of the work can be found here)

Indians

The buckskin dress is ornamented with elk teeth, porcupine quills, and fringe. And while these may be objects native to the plains, the brightly-colored beads, metal tinkling coins, and cowry shells are not.

Buckskin Dress
This dress is symbolic of our image of American Indians, yet embedded in it are objects of foreign trade. I don't know why this should be surprising, but it is. For some reason, I seem to think of Native Americans as being insulated from the white man's culture. The romantic image is, I suppose, a peaceful people who live entirely off the land.

But then I see a display on how Plains Indians used guns. Oh yes, they had access to firearms. "Guns introduced in the 17th century [before America was even thinking about becoming its own country] had a far-reaching effect on culture. Firearms increased hunting effectiveness and gave power over foes." This resulted in an intensification of tribal warfare.

Makes sense. If you're going to war, you want to make sure you have the best weapons. Guns so permeated Native American culture that in the Blackfoot language the word for honor was "Namachkami," or "a gun taken." The downside of this, however, was that it fostered dependence on the Europeans, who provided the guns.

They traded animal skins to get their weapons. Beaver pelts were all the rage until the 1830s and then the fashion turned to Buffalo robes. This particularly suited the Plains Indians, who held a monopoly over the tanned hides until the 1870s. In addition to guns, they traded these skins for Venetian glass beads, Chinese vermillion (which they used to paint their face), French-style axes, metal arm bands, wool blankets, and top hats. Truly, they had an international culture.

All this makes me think of the ways in which we integrate foreign objects into the heart of our culture. How many of our national symbols, so dearly treasured, are really our own?

Buffalo

The 1870s were a bad decade for the Plains Indians' buffalo skin trade. Not only did the Americans bust open their monopoly, they nearly exterminated their supply.

I knew, of course, since grade school that Americans recklessly over-hunted thundering herds of buffalo to a mere handful. But I always thought this was the work some crazed gun nuts shooting buffalo off a train for the sheer hell of it. Like when I played Oregon Trail and killed six buffalo, just to hear their bodies thump on the grass.

Poor Buffalo
But, no, it turns out there was a much more practical reason for killing buffalo. Money.

"When I went into business," wrote Anonymous Man on the wall display, "I sat down and figured I was indeed one of fortunes children." The numbers bore out.

20,000,000 buffalo roaming the plain
$3 per skin
$60,000,000 out there for the taking
25 cents to purchase cartridge
12 times return on investment
100 kills a day
$300 in gross profit or $200 in net profit

He concluded that a hard-killing man could make $6000 a month "or three times what was paid, it seems to me, the president of the United States, and a hundred times what a man with a good job in the (18)70s could be expected to earn."

Hell, a hundred and fifty years into the future, and I think $6000 a month sounds good.

This is the dark side of capitalism. What incentive is there to plan for the future when every buffalo you don't kill goes into your competitor's hands? As a result, by the 1880s the plains were littered with carcasses and a lucrative new field had opened: bone collector.

One ton of buffalo bones would pay $15. Trains would haul the skeletons east, and factories would assemble them into buttons, combs, glue, fertilizer, tooth brushes, and dice. And, somehow, bones were also used for refining sugar.

So no one can say that folks back then didn't know how to recycle.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Travelogue: Puppy Races

What: Three Mile Hike
Where: Fort Sill, Oklahoma
When: Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Contestants


Bella

AKA: "Bella-pie," "Bella Button"
Breed: Jack Russell Terrier/ Chihuahua
Age: 3 Years Old
Weight: Moderately Fat
Specialty: Leg Nester
Handler: Irene (Mom)



Mia

AKA: "Mufkin," "Chunky Monkey"
Breed: BostonTerrier/ Chihuahua
Age: 2 Years Old
Weight: Very Fat
Specialty: Ferocious Eater
Handler: Becky (Me)


Lincoln

AKA: "Lincoln-berry," "Mr. Logs"
Breed: Toy Poodle/ ???
Age: Almost 1
Weight: Scrawny
Specialty: Pack Leader
Handler: Jaime (Sister)



The Track

Three winding miles of asphalt road with bridges, hills, and construction work. A few spread out oak trees provide poor cover amid the relentless grass. Facing 100 degree heat and humidity, almost no shade, and limited water, can three energetic puppies complete the course? Or will they fall victim to the harshness of nature?



And They're Off!

Right out the gate, Mia decides to lighten the load, and we lose valuable seconds while I wrestle with the plastic bag. But she's off again. Her feet go patter-patter on the asphalt. We take the lead. Lincoln comes up behind us. We pass him. He passes us. We're right on each other's heals.

Bella begins to snort and huff. She's down and out and resting in Mom's arms.


We break in the shade of an oak and Jaime pours the dogs. Mia doesn't want to drink. The heat is immense. Lincoln starts to tucker out. Will he make it? No. Jaime swoops in to pick him up. And its Mia, fat sturdy Mia, who crosses the bridge independent of human assistance. Look at her, waddling like a champion.



And They're Out!

But the heat takes its toll. Mia's tongue lolls out, and she pants and pants. We're veering off course. No, Mia. She throws in the shade and refuses to budge. Bella and Lincoln, well-rested now, trot on past her. Get up Mia. We're almost to the halfway point.

She gets up and slowly patters down the road.

I believe in you Mia. You're a strong puppy. You don't need to be carried like those wimps!

Or maybe you do. Mia plops down on the hot road and pants so hard spittle froths from her teeth. I pick her up and walk her to the shade. There she drinks copious amounts of water.


We think the dogs are well-rested and can complete the course. We're wrong. Barely an eighth of a mile and Mia keeps stopping for breaks. The judges consult. Ladies and gentlemen, the race has been called off due to extreme weather conditions. We will have to resume this race at a later date.

Dad (yes, he was here, supervising the whole race) and Jaime walk ahead to pick up the car. Mom and I shade the puppies under a concrete shelter. Mia gobbles down the last of the water and flops on her side with all the majesty of a humpback whale breaching the surface of the ocean.


Commentary

The crucial mistake happened before the race even took place. Originally, the hike was scheduled for the morning. But constant delays and the inability to get it together caused the whole party to leave the house at almost noon, the hottest and bleakest hour of the day. Inadequate water supplies added to the troubles. In the future, such mistakes will have to be corrected if the puppies have any hopes of completing their circuit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Travelogue: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

What: Wichita Mountains Nature Refuge 
Where: Oklahoma
When: Wednesday, August 6, 2015

There's not too much to do on base. My brother disappears early in the morning for work, while my sister-in-law runs a daycare in the house. So us visiting relatives (including Lincoln) jump into the car and drive for the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, not a half hour away.


Clumps of russet stone, splotched white with vulture droppings, "rises from the plains like a great bison emerging from the earth." It forms a decent-sized hill. The view is beautiful from here, and I spy juniper trees and sunflowers and purple thistle all mixed up in the ankle-high grass. A clump of bright blue flowers match my shirt. What are they? Bluebells? Indigo? I'm not familiar with the flora around here.


Maybe a trip to the Visitor's Center will help.

Along the way, I stare at long-horn cattle out the window. They're one of the four big herd animals in the refuge, along with elk, deer, and, of course, bison. I don't see elk or deer but I think I spot some bison. It's just a flash of two black wooly heads, but I count it as a buffalo sighting.


The mountains end before we get to the visitor's center and now we're in full on prairie: long grasses, short grasses, waving like a sea and pleasantly green. As I step into the grass, no fewer than three grasshoppers bounce away. Another step. Boing, boing boing. Off they go. Some have speckled orange wings. They're trying to disguise themselves as butterflies!

At the Visitor's Center, I learn that rock lands, prairies, oak woodlands, and water overflows form "a patchwork quilt" of landscape. Each type of land is recreated inside the building, complete with stuffed animals: a lizard basking on a rock, a beaver underwater, and a fox hungrily staring down a prairie dog. However, I'm soon distracted by real animals. Swallows dart back and forth just outside the glass window. My sister points out their nests in the rafters.

Since we've only visited two of the four landscapes, it's time to pile back inside the car. Oak woodlands are colloquially known as "cast iron forests" for their toughens. Hearty men that came before us have sliced through them, and we drive thoughtlessly through them on our way to a hiking ground.


We find an abandoned visitor's center where the picked-clean carcass of some large animal is sprawled on the dirt. Nearby a half-brown, half-green Collard lizard chomps on a bug. With all the sobriety appropriate to the scene, I lift up the skull and place it over my face.

"Who's that pokemon?" 



"It's Cubone"

The cicadas are noisy. They are chirping/ droning/ shaking like some giant rattlesnake curled up in the branches of the trees. We hike past bushes filled with some kind of dried up blackberry and find our way to the final environment: the wetlands.

Brown weeds growing underneath the surface of the pond give the water a murky pallor.  I see lilly pads, but no frogs.

"Snake!" Jaime points.

Dark curves sidewinds through the water. The snake disappears into the depths.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Travelogue: En Route to Oklahoma, Day 2

What: Car Ride to Oklahoma
Where: New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma
When: Monday, August 4, 2014

New Mexico

Fresh Belgian waffles! It's part of the hotel's free continental breakfast, though you have to make it yourself. I pump out the pre-made batter and pour it on the round waffle iron, flip it over, and wait for the button to beep. I pry off crisp waffle with a plastic fork.

Coffee's a bit weak. We hunt down a Starbucks.

Rain sends us on our way, but I'm busy reading When I look up again, the skies are blue.
Blue skies and sunflowers
Round verdant bushes mottle gentle hills, like spots on a dog's belly. Small wild sunflowers clump the edges of the road. I spot a grazing beast. "Cow," I cry, but it turns out to be a horse, and the whole car laughs. Later, I do see cows, glossy and healthy and black.

Another rest stop. Sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias wave in the breeze. Low white wildflowers and clumps of tiny yellow daisies dot the grass. Anthills abound. As I take photos of a creek behind barbed wire fence, I spy small bunny sitting on a dirt trail, just a few yards away.

Bunny!
I stalk it with my camera. My dad walks up, and I motion for him to keep quiet. He suddenly points to a second rabbit. And a third! They all dash behind the barbed wire fence.

Texas

We pass into Texas some time while I'm reading. The mountain have vanished and the land is flat.

A group of houses catch my eye. They have the orderly, cookie-cutter look of any suburb, but I see no fences or walls, no curbs, no sidewalk, and few roads. It looks as though someone just transplanted a neighborhood onto the farmland. It makes me think about how artificial the landscape of California is, how used to this I am.

Dad points out dying cities. Behind their sturdy brick facade, popular in the days of the old West, the buildings lie dormant. We drive past city blocks with more dead stores than living.
Rest Stop
We eat lunch at a rest stop with shade structures that form the shape of a train.

Oklahoma

The ground takes on a reddish hue. I see lines of dirt between neat rows of green vegetables: farmland. Lots of wide open spaces. It's all starting to look the same.

Guess its time to read again.

And suddenly we're there.

We're in a lively town with plenty of restaurants, some chain, some one-of-a-kind. "Get your IDs," Dad says, and I'm momentarily distracted trying to pry my driver's license out of my wallet. At the gate of Fort Sill, we have our IDs scanned and pass on through.

We park at a two-story, yellow stucco house with white wood trim. My brother, Tyler, comes out. We step inside to see my sister-in-law, Shantel; my nephew, Tyson; and two fat yipping lap dogs.

Tyson's so happy to see us!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Travelogue: En Route to Oklahoma, Day 1

What: Car Ride to Oklahoma
Where: California, Arizona, New Mexico
When: Sunday, August 3, 2014

California

We leave the house at little after 4:00 AM, squished in my parent's Prius. My long-legged dad drives. I, the shorter sibling, sit behind him. My sister, Jaime, sits behind my mom. Jaime has brought her white fluffy toy poodle Lincoln, and his carrier is taking up the entire middle seat. I lean against it, and try to go back to sleep.  Not easy. My bulky black purse, computer, and writing materials are jammed against my legs. I can't stretch an inch.

I doze anyway.
The sun rises, and the mountains take on a misty, purplish hue. We're in the Mojave Desert. The land is flat and brown and crowded with spiny bushes and clumps of yellow grass. No Joshua Trees. No cactus, either. Jaime says we can't be in Arizona yet, because there are no cactus. It's overcast. A light rain spits droplets over the window.


Misty Mojave
We stop at a rest stop. The damp of rain brings out the thick smell of sweet herbs. According to the sign, "strong-smelling creosote bushes and bursage" can be found in the desert. Are those the spiny bushes I saw? Lincoln-puppy sniffs around. We eat a breakfast of cold bagels, cream cheese pastries, and Pop Tarts.

Rain patters and pours. It quickly ends. Mist wraps the mountains like a white smoke so that only their dim outlines are visible.

Arizona

I fall asleep.

When I pry my lids open, nothing's much changed. Still desert. Still no cactus. Land's a bit greener. Do I detect willow trees? Lincoln licks my fingers through the cage. Think I'll nod off again.

Zzzz...

Now it's really raining. The rain blasts the car like a dust storm and makes silvery streaks upon the black asphalt. We're high in the mountains, surrounded by dark green conifer forests. Have I missed the cactus entirely?


Where are the cactus?
The mountains come and go. When the land flattens, a soft-looking yellow grass covers the ground. Black cows and a calf chew the grass. Railroad tracks run parallel to the road. An old-fashioned train flashes past the window. It feels like the old West.

More mountains, more forests.

Suddenly, the trees end. Short yellow wildflowers cover a long field, like a patch of sunshine fallen to earth.

The ground starts turning red. We must be getting close to Flagstaff.

Getting hungry.

We fill up for gas. Mom suggests we make sandwiches and eat in the car. The rain dashes hard around us. We huddle around the gas station canopy. Dad works the pump. I try to make a ham sandwich in the trunk, balancing pieces of bread on the luggage. Mustard spills out in a blob. This isn't working. We get back in the car and search for a rest stop.

What luck. The rain lets up right as we find one.
Puddles at a Rest Stop

Red rocks surround our picnic table, made all the brighter and more beautiful because of the rain. Pebbles crunch underfoot. Mom sets down the ice chest, and Jaime walks Lincoln. I climb the rocks. Shallow puddles on the rocks look like mirrors.

New Mexico

Around 2:00 PM, we enter "the land of enchantment." Window Rock offers us our first view of New Mexico. It's a red mesa with green bushes in a horizontal stripe pattern. "Like a rainbow," Dad says, albeit one with only 2 colors. Across the way, a sign advertises "Cliff Dwellings." Fake-looking teepees have been set up on top of the red rocks.

Land of Enchantment
We come to a rest stop at Manuelito. The cliffs are now white, though still vaguely striped. I take a picture of them between barbed wire fence. Rain drops sit in the grey-green leaves of a hearty tree. There's a strong herby scent in the air.  Mint? No. Too medicinal. I don't like it.

The round, red-bricked visitor's center houses a video of hot air balloon festivals, Navajo paintings, a cut out of Billy the Kid, an Area 51 alien, and a miniature pueblo--but mostly it houses rows and rows of glossy brochures. As I come out of the bathroom, a lady at a desk hands me a booklet of New Mexico attractions. A minute later, Jaime receives a second copy.

Back in the car, I become engrossed in a book.

I think I see a flash of lightning.


What do Californians know about storms?
Weird black funnel clouds brew in the distance. We're not in tornado territory, are we? Jaime experienced a tornado and said that the sky turned green. I keep my eyes on the clouds, but it goes back to normal.

We reach our hotel in Albuquerque around 4:00. The rain torments us one last time as we bring in our luggage. Lincoln runs around our hotel room. He's happy we're all in one place, so he can protect us. Silly dog doesn't know he weighs 14 pounds and has teeth the size of rice grains.
Lincoln thinks he's tough.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Weekly Update: 8-22-14

Tonight I went to Brea Fest, our local summer festival, which featured stands of food, live music, and, most importantly of all, a big used book sale at the library. :) Wandering around in the warm August night brought me back to my time in Japan. It was just about thew time all the cities had their annual Hanabi Matsuri or firework festival.

All the young people would come out in droves, dressed up in yukatas (a type of light, cheap summer kimono). Heck, even I went out in a yukata in my little pack of gaijin (foriegners). We'd follow the crowd to rows of food stands, and I'd buy okonomiyaki (savory pancake), yakisoba (fried noodles), sticks of grilled meat, and melon-flavored shaved ice with condensed milk on top. I rememver the fireworks coming one at a time. BOOM (one, two, three), BOOM (one, two, three) BOOM--on and on for a half hour.

Good times.

Exciting news about The Changelings.

My illustrator, Kaleo Welborn, has told me that my cover is done, so I'll meet him on Saturday to pick it up. In addition, my editor Debra Young has just given me my corrections of the middle section and Michael Boyd,  one of my sister's high school friends, agreed to make a map for my book.

Networking. Who'd have thought I'd be able to pull it off.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review: The Program

Title: The Program
Author: Suzanne Young
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi, Romance, YA

Summary

No one knows why teen suicide has suddenly become an epidemic, but with 1 out of every 3 teenagers killing themselves, adults are desperate for a solution. To them, the program seems heaven-sent. By carefully removing all dangerous memories, doctors can ensure a 100% survival rate for teens who finish.

But 17-year-old Sloane Barstow isn't buying it. The people who return from the program are empty, their minds filled with holes, their pasts stolen. Sloane won't risk forgetting her boyfriend James, the person who saved her after her brother's tragic death. But when depression tears Sloane and James apart, they have no choice but to enter the program. Can their love survive when their memories are gone?

Review

I bought this book because my sister came close to suicide and had to be temporarily institutionalized. She's better now, but the topic still cuts me. I suppose I wanted some insights, and speculative fiction was easier for me to digest than, say, a memoir. As it happened, while I was reading, I learned that comedian Robin Williams took his life, so I  think this is an important topic we need to discuss.

Okay, getting off my soapbox now. Onto the book.

The Program isn't really about how depression affects an individual, but rather, how society responds to people with depression. Every morning, Sloane and her fellow students are scrutinized for any sign of unhappiness. They have to lie to the adults and put on a happy act. If they show any weakness, they'll be yanked from their friends and have their core identity shattered. Many would rather die--and do. Which begs the question: is the program saving teens or driving them to suicide?

Unsurprisingly, The Program isn't a light-hearted romp. The first third of the book, in particular, is filled with tragedy and angst. The only break from the depression comes from the romance between Sloane and James, and their relationship is passionate, moody, and intense. The doctors call them co-dependent, and I'm not sure I disagree.

Sometimes it was hard for me to suspend my disbelief. Sloane's world doesn't seem much different from the world we live in today, except for the suicide epidemic and the memory-erasing drugs. But what caused the epidemic? And how did such technology come to exist? Also, the book never explains the correlation between erasing memories and curing depression. Depression isn't just feeling sad because something bad happened. It's a constant state of unhappiness, often triggered by nothing.

Besides this, my sister pointed out that security at the institution was dismal. (We were both stuck in the car, and I was giving her the play-by-play.)

As the book progressed, it became less about depression and more about the romance. Flashbacks fill us in on every major point in Sloane and James' relationship. These flashbacks are well-written and play a crucial role in the plot. But they weren't my particular cup of tea. I preferred the speculative elements.

On the whole, I found The Program to be well-crafted and thoughtful, with enough suspense and drama to keep me reading. Like any good dystopian fiction, it made me think about the kind of society I want to live in. I commend Suzanne Young's bravery for choosing to tackle such a controversial and emotionally-draining topic.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Progress on the Cover

Every third Saturday, I meet with the Brea Library Writer's Club at a local bakery called I Kneed Love. We brainstorm ideas, show off our latest writing project, and just hang out. This week, I wasn't able to make it due to house-sitting duties in Victorville. So, in honor of the club, I wanted to show off the latest version of my cover by Kaleo Welborn, my illustrator and one of the founding members of the club.
 
Here's the old version:
 
 
And here's the latest version:
 

 
The detail is just incredible. It's practically photo realistic, and I love the embroidery on the collar. Now, for those of you missing the castle, don't worry, it's coming. I'd also like to play with the font a bit, too. But even as a work-in-progress, I'm amazed how nice and professional it looks. Great job Kaleo!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Weekly Update: 8-15-14

It took all of Monday and most of Tuesday, but my family returned from Oklahoma safely back to California.

Now, you'd think some 18 hours of being wedged into the backseat of the car would be an enormous time suck, but it was probably the most productive part of my week. During those two days, I beta read Michelle Knowlden's latest Abishag novel, typed a critique for my OC Writer's Club, brainstormed interview questions for my Pubslush account, and read and wrote a review of Suzanne Young's The Program. It seems that being stuck with no TV and no Internet boosts focus.

(By the way, I'll post a review on The Program next Sunday and blog about my travels in Oklahoma the week after that. I wish I could be more timely, but I still use paper and pencil and a non-phone digital camera, which means that it takes forever to assemble my travel narratives.)

Almost immediately upon our return, my parents and sister skipped off to Illinois, leaving me to house-sit, dog-sit, and turtle-sit. I've been editing The Changelings and working on my Pubslush account. It's sort of a rough transitional week, but soon I'll be back in Brea, able to settle in.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Travelogue: Getty Villa

Where: Getty Villa, Los Angeles
When: Saturday, July 26, 2014

Introduction

Don't get me wrong, I love museums. I'd visit the Getty any day, just 'cause. But when I discovered they were having a special exhibition on Byzantine art running through the summer (ends on August 25th), I was determined to go see it. After all, my Three Floating Coffins novel ostensibly takes place in a fantasy version of Byzantine Greece. This could be "research."

But before I could research Byzantium, first I had to research The Getty.  The art collection started by J. Paul Getty is so big it needs two separate complexes to house it: The Getty Center and The Getty Villa. Both museums are free, but charge $15 parking per car. The Getty Villa also requires tickets. These are free. You can reserve them online and print them at home, which is what I did.

I invited fellow writers Debra and Michelle, but Michelle had an Alaska trip (grr!!!), so her friend Ken stepped in. My aunt made up the fourth member of our party. On Friday, I baked butterscotch chip cookies and packed water bottles. At 8:00 AM Saturday morning, we crowded into the Ken's car and braved the LA highways in our quest for art.  

(Please Note: I'm not an expert on anything. I'm just a curious soul listening to tour guides, reading signs, and making up conjunctures in my head.)

Building

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius exploded. That day, the city of Pompei was in the middle of celebrating a feast to Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanos. Well, they must have offended him pretty badly, for he showered the city with ash, killing everyone inside, but perfectly preserving their homes. The neighboring city of Herculaneum met a similar fate the very next day.

It's this second, less famous (but equally smothered) city that J. Paul Getty went poking around in when he decided that his red-roofed ranch house was no longer suitable for his growing art collection. He dug up a Roman manor called Villa dei Pampiri but decided that excavating it was too much hassle. Instead, he recreated it best he could in the hills of Malibu. The museum and garden is sunken, so as to represent the excavation site. Striped gray stone resemble the original layers the archeologists had to dig through in order to find the villa.

Not that I notice. It's just after 10:00, and I'm at the cafe, drinking coffee, skimming through pamphlets and trying to decide which tour to go on. I've come for the Byzantine art, but it's my first time at the Getty, and there's no reason not to soak up as much as possible. My aunt and I decide to go on a garden tour. Ken wants to go on a tour of the Main Collection and Debra decides to browse. We will meet for lunch at 12:00.

The garden tour begins at 11:00. That gives me a good hour to kill.

The entrance is decorated with the white Corinthian columns and red-tiled roof one might expect from a Roman Villa. Less expected, but more interesting are the painted ceilings: red roses, yellow daisies, and white lilies floating within a pale blue circle. These pastel colors and painted ceilings will become a theme. The so-called "dining room" has cornucopias and grapes, while the ordinary walkways boast blue panels with yellow flowers.
Corinthian Columns and Yellow Flowered Ceiling
I step inside. My map informs me that this is the atrium, the main public room in a Roman house. A man informs me that food and drinks are strictly prohibited. I stare at the black and white mosaic floors and the lion heads surrounding a skylight, or compluvium, as my map calls it. There's an impluvium, or sunken fountain, just underneath the skylight, to collect rainwater. On an ordinary day, the sound of trickling would soothe a tourist. Except that California's in the middle of a drought and the fountain's been drained to conserve water. Still, the black statues at each corner of the basin are kind of cool.

I had planned to stride from room to room, as leisurely as any Roman Emperor, but unfortunately, my time is cut short when my camera dies and I have to beg my aunt's phone as a replacement. I glance at a few displays, while furtively checking my cell phone clock every few minutes.

Creepy Bust of a Young Girl
There's a creepy bust of a young girl. Her skin and hair are waxy black, and her thin tight curls remind me of pencil shavings, too fine and rigid to ever have been hair. Her eyes are white and inlaid with glass. They stare out in horror, as though her soul has been cursed to reside forever in this prison.

It's cool.


Garden

So I'm a bit of a mess. I've come as a scholar, and I'm trying to juggle a yellow notepad, a pen, a camera phone, and a portable listening device. The little green box clips to my pants. A plug-in earpiece amplifies the voice of the tour guide, so she doesn't have to shout and we don't have to crowd around her. 

California has a Mediterranean climate, she tells us, which means that plants that grow in Greece and Italy, will grow just as well here. As we walk through the herb garden, she  proceeds to throw out the names of the trees: olive, fig, plum, pomegranate, peach, pear, and citron. (The citrone currently looks like an avocado and smells like a cucumber but will one day resemble an orange and lemon mix.) I'd like her to tell us more than just names. I know that olives were sacred to the goddess Athena and important as a food and fuel source, and I know that pomegranates played an important role in the myth of Persepone's abduction. I'd like to hear stories like that.

Carp pool in herb garden
But no, we whip through the herb garden, faster than I can scribble notes. We pass a sad plot of dried-out wheat and patches of marjoram, thyme, oregano, and lavender. There are trellises of fat, tempting Cabernet grapes. The guide tells us she sampled some, and they were sour. She plucks a green fuzzy leaf called Lamb's Ear and lets us rub the fuzz between our fingers. Romans use to pack these with salve and stick them on wounds--the band-aids of their day, I imagine.

The Romans were big on mastering nature and imposing order on the world, which is how they got such roads and aqueducts. They were equally strict on their gardens. The herb garden is a grid of rectangles, three rows wide, with fountains in the middle, for beauty and irrigation. (Some even have been allowed to keep their water. Makes it easier for the carp.) For such a practical thing as a herb garden, I don't mind. But as we come to the vast Outer Peristyle, the "show-off garden," I find the order a bit tiresome. 

Outer Peristyle Fountain
A wealthy Roman would bring his guests to the Outer Peristyle, for pleasant walks and conversation. On one side of the path lies a long pool with statues sunbathing along the edges. On the other side sits busts of famous philosophers and great men--a conversation piece that the host could use to show off his knowledge. They'd pass under grape trellises and around blocks of carefully manicured flowers, hedges, and bay trees. 

This is what we do, minus (in my case) the leisure and pleasant conversation. I'm trying to take pictures on the phone and getting annoyed with having to re-type my aunt's password every few minutes. We go up the right side of the pool and keep going straight to the Inner Peristyle, leaving the whole left side unexplored. Not that it matters. Custom dictates gardens must be symmetrical, one side mirroring the other

The smaller, more private Inner Peristyle, strikes me as more interesting, for a couple reason. First, one of the creepy black fountain maidens has been stolen, ruining the perfect symmetry. Second, several birds chirp and dart about the four perfectly round trees that stand at each corner. This adds charm and surprise that the grander garden lacked.

Mosaic in East Garden
Last is the small East Garden, for family use only. I don't notice any relentless symmetry, because I'm too busy staring at a colorful mosaic arch with twin white masks on either side. Then the guide casually mentions the strawberry tree, and I'm all over it. It's the most peculiar-looking fruit I've seen: yellow-orange puffballs that remind me of Nerf toys. The guide says it's edible and, if enough sugar is added, can pass for a decent jam. I wonder if modern strawberries were domesticated from these paltry fruits.

Fruit of a Strawberry Tree
Lunch

It's noon. Time to meet up with Ken and Debra and exchange notes.

I'm tired of the juggling act. Thus far, I've barely even stepped foot in the museum itself.  I'm resolved. After lunch, I'm going straight to the Byzantine exhibition, no more tours, no more delays. It's time to focus on why I came here.

Peasant's bread and pizza
We eat outdoors and the waiter brings our food. I dine on a thick, chewy peasant's bread with an apricot-peach spread. It's the kind of thing I imagine a Roman might eat. But I'm pretty sure they wouldn't eat my Margherita pizza, if for no reason than tomatoes came to Italy from the New World.


Church

Rome fell. That's what the historians say. Problem is, the people living at the time didn't realize this. Emperor Constantine thought that by moving the capital to the city of Byzantium (present day Istanbul, Turkey), he was ensuring Rome's continuation, not starting a whole new Empire.

When I step foot into the Byzantine exhibition (no pictures allowed!), I see signs of this transition. The room is painted in bright classical blues with white accents. I see Romanesque busts and inlaid chests of Bellerophon slaying the chimera. The plaque I read explains that between 4th-6th centuries a hybrid of pagan-Christian beliefs permeated the culture.


Roman Bust.
This hybridization is best displayed by a plain marble slab chiseled with leaves and a flower: the gravestone of Athenodora. "The earth received and now owns this young mother, while her children crave for milk," the inscription sadly states. A cross before her name indicates she was Christian but her name ("lover of Athena") and her education were pagan.

By the next room, I'm definitely in Byzantine territory. The walls are red with dark brown panelling. The first thing I see is a photograph of the insides of the Monastery of Hosios Loukas (1000-1025 AD), tall enough to take up most of the wall. Domes painted with religious imagery spark my imagination.
Icon of St. Michael. From sign.
When people think of the Byzantine art, they think of two things: icons and mosiacs. A portrait of the Virgin Mary and child combines both. Bits dull blue glass make up her robe, peach rock chips her face, and gold-plated tesserae her halo. Time has cracked the mosaic, splitting the mother's face and the child's hand. I can see the red wood underneath, where the tiles were laid.

Another icon shows a red-clothed Virgin Mary gazing at the angel in the corner with a "grief-stricken visage," as though suddenly overcome with a premonition of her boy's death. Meanwhile the tiny, odd-looking Christ baby makes a peace sign. On a communal cloth, an older Christ holds an urn while two silver seraphim stand as guard. (These seraphim are literally nothing but interlocking wings.) This is an example of a woven icon. Down the hall good old Bellerophon has been replaced by a curly-headed Saint George who slew dragon in place of a chimera.

I see jewelry and chandeliers and tiled bathing floors and many more things. I cannot write down everything, but I feel satisfied. My goal was to see the exhibition and now I have: a fleeting glimpse of life in another age.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Weekly Update: 8-8-14

Give me a good book and a long stretch of time, and almost nothing will stop me from reading it. This talent comes in especially useful during long car trips, like the one I was on last Sunday. There I sat, wedged in like a canned sardine between my sister's dog carrier and my dad's driver seat, with 1,000 miles between Victorville, CA and Fort Sill, OK.

So I read Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Now, I'm in Oklahoma, in brother's army-issued house, enjoying proper air-conditioning for the first time in years. Tomorrow is my nephew Tyson's birthday. He'll be 1-year-old. While waiting down the big event, I've seen the sights, walked the dogs, and played imaginary games with my sister-in-law's daycare children. I do get at least part of the evening to write, but I can barely keep up with my blogging, let alone do any proper writing. It's taken me hours to write this new travel entry about my trip to the Getty. And somtimes I wonder if its worth it. Maybe my time is better spent elsewhere.

Then again, this is vacation. How much can I concentrate with a squealing baby and no less than three tiny dog's mewling for attention?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Character Archetypes: Trickster

Lately, I've been playing with an idea for a girl who uses a magical ring to change her appearance and lead a double life. Diamond, as I call her, likes to be at times beautiful, at times plain, at times rich, at times poor, at times the center of attention, at times practically invisible. She uses these dual roles to get what she wants. She's a trickster.

Which got me thinking. What is a trickster? What makes them tick? How do they pull off their mad plans and what roles can they take in the story?

Definition

"A trickster is a character who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior. The Trickster openly questions and mocks authority, encourages impulse and enthusiasm, seeks out new ideas and experiences, destroys convention and complacency, and promotes chaos and unrest." So sayeth TV Tropes, my authority on archetypes.

Put another way, a trickster is the polar opposite of your typical law-abiding hero. He trades relatability for unpredictability. You might not approve of what a trickster does, but darned if hhe doesn't make things interesting. And therein lies both the risk and reward of writing one. You may have to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in order to give the character life.

Characters In-Depth

I want to look at what makes other trickster characters tick. T.V. tropes offers a wonderful list of examples, but for my intents and purposes, I want to study tricksters I know very well, so I've chosen one trickster I watch every Sunday and another I wrote an awesome fanfiction about.

Rumpelstiltskin (Once Upon a Time--TV series)

In a show chock full of magicians, Rumplestiltskin is arguably the most powerful of all. Though he's known as "The Dark One," he's not really into taking over the world or committing acts of genocide. Instead he watches on the sidelines, offering deals to heroes and villains alike. If you need something, he'll give it to you... but often at a price.

The deals are the source of his trickster power. Every single one is made to his benefit and few are what they seem. Sometimes, Rumpelstiltskin seems to promise one thing, only to deliver something else. Sometimes he asks for small tokens in return for powerful magic: name, a cloak, a strand of hair. They will be important later on. Rumpelstiltskin works the long game like no one else in the show. It took him several hundred years to put his grand scheme into action, but he did succeed.

Nabiki Tendo (Ranma 1/2Anime/ Manga)

Almost everyone in Ranma 1/2 is a rock-splitting, high-flying super martial artists, half the characters are cursed, and the rest are more than willing to use magic objects lying around for their own nefarious purpose. (It should be noted, this is a comedy, so said purpose includes anything from growing hair to making someone fall in love.)  In this world, Nabiki Tendo is an anomaly. She doesn't fight or dabble with magic. Yet, when something stands between her and money, she will destroy heaven and earth and poor hero Ranma to get it.

Whereas everyone else uses physical force, only Nabiki relies on manipulation to get her way. She blackmails, spills secrets, sells things the heroes might want. To keep from getting hurt, she plays up her own weakness and her strategic position as the sister of Ranma's girlfriend. Nabiki knows Ranma will be obliged to save her from the chaos, even if she's the one who created it. If worse comes to worse, she'll whip out the crocodile tears, pretending she's hopeless in love or wounded by the hero's actions. Then, as he stands paralyzed, she'll strike like a viper, wheeling and dealing not two feet behind his back.

Personality Traits

Deceptive

All tricksters lie. If they don't fib outright, they tell half-truths or leave out important information. It's impossible to play tricks without deception. But aside from that, this may have a defensive purpose. They know the power of getting inside someone's head; they don't want that to happen to them. So they feign indifference about the things they care about, mask anger with a smile, and lie about their motives. Some may go all out and pretend to be crazy. They want to seem unpredictable, as that is their greatest asset.

Student of Psychology

Tricksters are smart. Not in a memorize-the-Internet way or a make-robot-out-of-soupcan way. Their power derives from psychology. They can predict how people will react. This isn't done by reading books, but by going out and studying them. The trickster doesn't hide out in a tower, he interacts with the masses. And if he finds a special subject of particular interest, you can be sure he will unwrap their loves, desires, weaknesses, and philosophy on life.

Master of Planning and of Improv

Tricksters can draw up insanely complicated plans and abandon them in an instant. Maybe they say that everything is going to plan. Maybe they say they have no plan at all. These are lies. Think of any prank or surprise party you've pulled off. You need to figure out what you want to do and how to pull it off. So you plan. But something goes wrong. So you improvise. Tricksters must do both, and do them so well it comes off as effortless.

Playful

Tricksters generally don't take themselves too seriously, and ultimately, this is their saving grace. An evil mastermind will pull off a complicated schemes in hopes of ruling the world. Tricksters usually settle for a few bucks, a shiny object, and maybe some amusement. Even dangerous tricksters tend to be witty, charming, and amusing. They force you to like them--perhaps their greatest trick of all.

How to Play a Trick

The Motive

Why are they playing the trick? That's the first thing a writer must consider. Reasons can range from great to petty: trying to prove a point, trying to win a bet, boredom, money, a valuable object, love, greed, vengeance, justice, freedom. They may, of course, say they want one thing (like money) but really want something else (like vengeance). Or their motive may evolve alongside the prank.

The Victim

Who are they playing the trick on? Bear in mind, the choice of victim may shine a light on the trickster's psyche. Does he chose people he admires or loathes? Does he pick easy marks or go for a challenge? Even if he chooses at random, he may adjust the trick according to the person.

The Set Up

You cannot just pull off a trick in a void. You need to make sure the circumstances are just right. In The Dark Knight, the Joker had to carefully cultivate an atmosphere of terror. In Ocean's Eleven, Danny Ocean had to make sure he had the right people in the right spot at the right time. Costumes are dawned, mirrors polished, smoke blown. Even magicians aren't exempt. They may be able to wave their hands and come up with any scenario they want, but first they need to think up that scenario. Weirdly enough, the more powerful the being, the more they relies on rules and limits. A trick is only fun if you can get the hero to play along.

The Test (Optional)

If the trickster doesn't know their mark very well, and if they are a relatively normal person (not an immortal god), it might behove them to set up a little test in order to gauge their victims reaction. For example, in my fanfiction, I Want a Refund, Nabiki's trick relied on her victim carrying enough about her to fight for her honor. To test this out, she had him walk her home from school. Little tests like this are a good way to foster trickster-victim interaction and make the audience wonder what's to come.

The Strike

This is where things go boom.

Now tricks can take many forms, but its usually vital for the trickster to insert himself in the action. No sitting in a tower for him.  First of all, the trickster knows the trick won't go off without his involvement. Second, this is where the fun is.

The Counter Strike

Tricks don't go as planned. Any simple thing might go wrong. The victim may fight back. A good trickster will roll with the punches.

The Getaway (Optional)

The problem with tricks is that, even if you succeed, you will end up with a huge mess and perhaps a mob of angry people. This is a good time for the trickster to make a graceful getaway, far from the chaos and the consequences.

The Lesson

Tricks are a psychological experiment. You mess with people in order to see how they'll react. If the victim is wise, he will learn something from the trick. The process may also change the trickster.

Final Thoughts

Tricksters work especially well as wild card supporting characters in long running series. Their personality adds spice and they can cause the hero plenty of stress without doing him much harm. Tricksters can be good or bad, helpful or bothersome. They can switch sides on a whim.

The question, for me, is can they work as main characters? I think so, but they may be trickier (ha) than a regular hero. The fun of a trickster is their lack of inhibition. Heroes get saddled with the weight of expectation: upholding morals, saving the world, etc. One way of balancing this is creating a secondary character who can act as the pillar of respectability, freeing the trickster to act as they want.

Another problem is the actual trick. A trickster must be like a magician, misdirecting the audience all the way until the end. Having a trickster as a point of view character risks giving up the goat too soon. However, a writer can get around this by judiciously cutting scenes or setting up the trickster as an unreliable narrator. It's a delicate art to leave out important information without annoying the reader, but it can be done.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Weekly Update: 8-2-14

Tonight the humidity broke and rain pattered down. 

I'm in Victorville, in my old family home. There are suitcases everywhere. Tomorrow, we leave at the crack of dawn to make for Oklahoma in order to visit my brother, my sister-in-law, and my baby nephew who's just about to turn one. The rain is a wild card. Will we drive away from a summer storm or head straight into one? Will we encounter lightning, thunder, or tornadoes?

This trip to Oklahoma has been haunting my mind. Once I leave, who knows what I'll be able to accomplish?  This week was my last chance to get it together, and I failed miserably. I had trouble just keeping up with my normal chores: editing The Changelings, writing Three Floating Coffins, blogging, cleaning, cooking, writing critiques, coloring cards, volunteering, answering email. Squished into the week was a trip to Griffith Park and a meeting of the Brea Library Writer's Club. 

By the time I get home, half of August will be gone.

I still have so much to do to meet my summer goals.

But the time to fret and fuss is over. Nothing I can do, but take a deep breath and see where the next week rolls me. Pack the suitcases into the car. Listen to the rain. Feel the cool breeze blow through the windows.

Whether the skies are clear or stormy, off I go.