World Building: Phases of the moon

I love the night sky. A lot of the scenes in my Meniscus stories happen at night, so I often mention the appearance of the moons (there are two moons on Meniscus). When I am revising/editing, this means I have to keep track of the days (sun-reels) that have passed and what phase the moon is in.

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xolar system
Here it is, planet Meniscus, second rock from the suns!

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To keep track of the phases of my Meniscus moons (called Cardoth grill’en and Cardoth roe) I have prepared a guide to phases of the moon. Warning, these phases are not the same as the progression of phases of Earth’s moon. For example, the moons on Meniscus move differently and so the waxing and waning occur in a different order (on Earth, the moon starts with the new moon waxing [growing] to a sickle moon as a left facing bracket and ends with the waning sickle moon as a right facing bracket; on Meniscus, the waxing and waning slivers are right and left-facing).

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Numbers on my moon chart stand for the number of days passing.

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Diagram of Earth’s Moon Phases:

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Moon_Phase_Diagram_for_Simple_English_Wikipedia

(Source: By Andonee – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38635547 )

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People have been drawing the phases of the moon for centuries. Here are some of Galileo Galilei’s sketches of the moon:

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Source: The phases of the Moon’, drawing by Galileo Galilei, 1616, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org

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For any world building, I find tables to be very helpful during the editing phase. A Chapter by Chapter record of settings, actions, point of view, characters, passage of time,  moon phases … status of water supplies, state of healing, or anything else pertinent to the story can help resolve issues and prevent reader confusion/frustration.

An example of a simple table from part of one of my stories:

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Ch Setting Action Point of View Characters Day # Moon Phase
42 Limestone caves in The Fault Odymn runs to build her muscle and finds Rafters Odymn Odymn Day 26 waning gibbous moon
43 City of Prell Slain tells others he is leaving for north Slain Daniel, Belnar, Vicki, Madoline, Kathryn Day 27
44 Themble Woods Odymn starts her program of parkour Odymn Odymn Day 31 waning quarter moon
45 Village of Themble Hill Belnar and Vicki arrive at Themble Hill Odymn Odymn Day 32

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All my best,

Alexandra (a.k.a. Jane)

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Writing Science Fiction: symbols

The use of symbols is a key element in creative writing.

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Symbols are settings, objects, characters or events containing layers of meaning. Beneath any literal meanings are figurative meanings that imbue the symbol with depth and significance. A common symbol encountered in literature is the ‘owl’. On one level, the owl is a feathered creature with big eyes and amazing head-turning capability; on another, figurative level, the owl is symbolic of wisdom.

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my only photo of an owl … snowy owl on the Grand Lake Meadows, December 2013

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Mention an object once and it’s a prop, sometimes with associations. Mention it twice and the reader remembers the first mention, loaded with its connotations and denotations. Mention it three times and the associations can scream, suggest elements of plot. The object has become a symbol.

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The use of symbols deepens meanings and helps the plot reverberate throughout the writing.

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In the book I am currently revising (Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod, publication date July, 2019) my male character Rist wears gloves when he is with other people. Mentioned once, they are part of his wardrobe. Mentioned twice, the gloves are associated with his inability to touch the woman he loves. Mentioned more often, those gloves are a symbol of his separation from anyone he cares about. Even when other characters wear gloves, the reader is reminded of this separation, and all the associated history.

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'hammock'
Rist, alone, wears no gloves

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When I wrote the first draft of this book, gloves had no role in the story. As often happens, the symbol, the wearing of gloves, solved a plot problem. Once I had added the gloves, their mention had strategic importance. I also realized that gloves had already been included in the plot, in an entirely unrelated way. Once the gloves became a symbol of one character’s separation from others, their further mention built on the idea of separation and lack of understanding between cultures.

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Symbols operate like mini sub-plots throughout story.  These mini-plots echo the main plot, and, during the story, the objects change in a way that illuminates it.  The mini-plots also tend to occur in three ‘beats’, providing a beginning, middle and end.  For example, gloves are at first worn in every circumstance; when they are occasionally removed, risks are taken; later, when the gloves are removed forever, intimacy can grow between characters.

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To strengthen the use of symbols in my work, I use tables. Once I have decided which symbols will be important to my story, I build a table of symbols and note where the symbols are mentioned (the three beats) and what mini-plot is suggested. Gaps in the table suggest possible revisions.

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Object Symbol Key Occurrences

(Chapter Number)

Mini-plot
gloves separation 7 42 65 Rist must wear gloves to avoid transfer of elements of body chemistry to other people; removing the gloves represents a step in committing to Tagret.
bell home 4 29 63 the dinner bell is introduced in Meniscus: Karst Topography (September, 2018) as a symbol of missing loved ones. In Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod, bell ringing is the first warning the Village is in peril; later, the ring of the bell is a sign community members will return.
kettle family 5 33 58 the cooking kettle was introduced in Meniscus: South from Sintha and has accompanied my characters on their various adventures. When tragedy occurs, a search for the kettle is representative of a search for a missing child; when the kettle is found, there is hope for the restoration of family.

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Symbols seem to take on exaggerated importance in science fiction. Perhaps this is because of the association with fantasy where objects often have magical significance. Fantasy and science fiction plots often involve the ‘quest’ for a significant object. Although I am sure other story-telling includes powerful symbols (for example, the ‘car’ in The Great Gatsby, symbolic of wealth), science fiction and fantasy genres are particularly proud of theirs (for example, the ‘One Ring’ in Lord of the Rings). All the more reason to embed symbols with maximum significance and meaning.

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All my best!

Alexandra

(a.k.a.Jane)

Writing a science fiction series: building recurring ideas from book to book

I like to view Series as one longer story, told in parts. Although each book may have its own story and character arcs, there is continuity between books. Books in the series may share characters, settings, world view, spiritual beliefs, mythologies, principles of chemistry, biology and physics and so on.

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Books in a series may also build, from book to book, on ideas not explored fully in earlier books.

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Examples from my own books about adventures on the planet Meniscus include the story of Belnar’s missing tooth.

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'Belnar' paperback

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Belnar is a Slain, a genetically modified Human. Like other Slain, Belnar has exceptional endurance and strength, has unusual physical features such as nictitating eyelids, and uses electricity for protection and weaponry. Belnar also has a personality different from other Slain – he is brash, a joker, self-serving, irreverent and aggressive. In an encounter with another Slain, Belnar loses his front incisor. A small physical defect causes him to have pronunciation problems but he uses the defect to advantage, mostly to make himself seem more charming.

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Although not critical to any particular story, Belnar’s tooth (or lack of tooth) recurs, story after story.

Crossing The Churn – Odymn finds Belnar’s tooth in a packet of Daniel’s contract trophies

'a trophy for every contract'

South from Sintha – Odymn and Daniel release Belnar from the island where he is a captive and the story of the tooth’s loss is described

Winter by the Water-climb – mentioned as a physical feature

The Village at Themble Hill – the missing tooth and the whistle in his speech help Belnar make friends with an alien child

Karst Topography – Belnar gets a dental implant in Prell to make Vicki like him

Encounter with the Emenpod – Belnar gets in a fight with another Slain and loses his brand new tooth

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'the Slains battle'

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A small idea, the story of a tooth, but recurring ideas serve a few purposes in a book series:

  1. The missing tooth is a symbol of Belnar’s edgy personality,
  2. The missing tooth is a metaphor for recurring problems that never seem to be resolved
  3. Readers familiar with the series watch for recurring ideas and feel an ‘insider’ connection
  4. Later stories in the series may seize on a well-developed idea with ‘history’ and use such an idea as a plot focus.

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Who knows the future of Belnar’s missing tooth? At this point in the writing of the series, it remains an idea rife with possibilities.

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If you are writing a series, do you introduce recurring ideas to serve story-building purposes?

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All my best,

Alexandra

Picking a character name

At the launch of my new book Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill a member of the audience asked “How does a writer choose character names?”

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Although the question could apply to any genre, my answer was specific to my science fiction writing. I think of a name fairly quickly and, unless there is a compelling reason to reject the name, I usually keep it. Once I have written a bit of action and dialogue, done a character sketch and drawn my character portrait, I cannot change the name or I experience a sort of writer/character dissociation.

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The Slain … his name, Daniel, is not known until Book 2

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Some of my characters have ordinary names — Daniel, Vicki, Kathryn. I  choose the names of characters from cultures-not-my-own by looking at lists of popular names for specific years in the country of origin. My Asian character Ning and my Indian character Aisha got their names in this way.

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Aisha paperback.jpg

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I also have alien characters and put lots of thought into these names. My Argenops (gentle furry folk) have names like Wen-le-gone, Gar-le-gnoss and Ban-le-kin. The Gel-heads (transparent green humanoids) tend to have names beginning with ‘W’ — Waglan, Wenda and Wrall. Dock-winders have complex names of no particular pattern — Dressor, Bar’ma, Garg and Don’est. Human characters with Gel-head names (Sen-eth, Fell-eth) have an ‘-eth’ added to the name since ‘eth’ is the alien word for Earth.

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The book I am writing at present has a character with an odd name — Rist. The name is a shortened form of Tristan, but Rist suits him. I did not want to ‘mystic’ him by calling him Rhyst. However, his name means some phrases are unlikely to be written — “Rist’s wrist” or even “Rist’s hand”.

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Rist paperback.jpg

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I have a few thoughts on choosing names that may help other writers:

  1. Try to choose names scattered through the alphabet. I once read a book with a Mary, a Marie, a Michael and a Mark. I referred back to the front of the book so much, the cover fell off. The ultimate similar-name novel has to be Wuthering Heights — Cathy and Catherine left me too confused to really love the book.
  2. If you select a strange name for a character, make it pronounceable and try to have it make sense to the reader. For example, my main female character is called Odymn. She explains to the Slain that her father named her for the rare earth metal Neodymium because it was the colour of her hair (red). This will help the reader remember a strange name.'Odymn'.jpg
  3. Hesitate before naming a character after a well-known character in another story. When I named a new character Tagret, I considered if it was too close to the Game of Thrones character Ygritt or the Harry Potter character Hagrid. I would not call a character Luke (Skywalker) or Leia.Tagret paperback2018.jpg
  4. Consider the meaning of the name. Some readers are attuned to this. Many common names have a biblical origin and an associated story. My Slain’s name is Daniel and the image of a good man in a den of lions comes to mind when I see his name. Darth Vader’, which means ‘dark father’ in German, was an obvious spoiler for the reveal that Darth is Luke’s father.
  5. Think before naming a character after someone you know well. I named a minor character in my stories after a friend I like well. However I wonder if my friend may feel uncomfortable about this. At least, the character I named Zachary is a good guy, through and through!

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Character names matter. My favourite book is by Daphne Du Maurier. Strange that in a book called Rebecca, the main female character is not named (Rebecca is the name of Max De Winter’s first wife). In the book, the main character’s husband says,

You have a very lovely and unusual name.

My father was a lovely and unusual man.

A point among many to make me love this book!

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I hope you have fun naming your characters and find helpful ideas in the thoughts above!

My best always,

Alexandra

World-building: Invasive species

On Earth, in real life, careless actions often result in displacement of native vegetation by alien or exotic plants. Invasive plant species significantly modify the ecosystems they colonize. On Earth, in Canada, we have the examples (among many) of Wild Parsnip, Purple Loosestrife, Common Tansy and Garlic Mustard. For information on these invasive species, see the Nature Conservancy’s Invasive Species Guide.

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Common tansy is a pretty plant but is considered invasive in parts of Canada

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In my books about the planet Meniscus, invasive species make up a significant part of the vegetation.  As the result of Dock-winder visits to Earth, the planet Meniscus is plagued by several invasive plants. When the Dock-winders return to Meniscus after their visits to Earth, they bring back, either accidentally or deliberately, vegetation not native to their own planet.

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Adding these species to my list of plants on Meniscus has been an enjoyable part of world-building. I like to think nasty aliens like the Dock-winders will eventually have to suffer the effects of their carelessness as invasive species modify the ecosystems of their planet.

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In my books, you will find unfamiliar plants like ransindyne, spenel and zill. You will also find some plants native to Earth.

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Banyan:  On Earth, Banyan is native to India and occurs worldwide in tropical and semi-tropical zones. Banyan begins its life as an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another living plant. The host plant is often ‘strangled’ by the Banyan.  Older Banyan trees have vigorous aerial roots and one tree can spread to create a whole grove of trees.

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On Meniscus, Banyan were introduced by the Dock-winders as a decorative tree. The tablith, a large Meniscus bird, collects bits of Banyan as nest-building material. Seedings sprout in the nests and gradually spread into the native forests. By the Earth year 2023, Banyan has become the main species of the En’ast Wood and a major component of the Sintha and Themble Woods. My character Daniel, the Slain, has tended a giant banyan and built his home of ‘Rafters’ by careful pruning of the aerial root system.

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Glasswort: On Earth, Glasswort or Salicornia grows mainly in coastal areas. It is a small plant adapted to life in a saline environment. It often grows in salt marsh. Glasswort’s leaves are reduced and modified, so the plant has a tubular translucent appearance. The plant is very salty in taste and can be used raw as a salad green.

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Since the salt mineral is rare on Meniscus, Dock-winders have harvested plants in intertidal areas of Earth as a source of salt. Glasswort, included in these harvests, has escaped to live along the ‘Churn’ and ‘Vastness’ areas of Meniscus. Odymn, a major character in my books, collects Glasswort from the wild to use as nibbling food and to flavour stews.

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Tussilago: Tussilago or Coltsfoot is a charming yellow flower that grows along the roadsides in eastern Canada. It is one of the first flowers to bloom in spring and looks a bit like a Dandelion without its leaves. Coltsfoot has anti-inflammatory properties and was used by settlers to make a cough remedy.

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When the Dock-winders visited Earth, they collected whole transport trucks of produce. During collection, the transports often crashed and plowed up roadside soil and vegetation. Seedlings and seeds of Tussilago travelled to Meniscus along with the produce trailers. Once on Meniscus, they quickly colonized areas of disturbed ground. Edward, the Human Doctor in my series, knows a bit about herbal medicine, and uses Tussilago as a cough medicine since Human pharmaceuticals are rare on Meniscus.

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Don’t be like the Dock-winders! Don’t spread invasive species. Don’t plant invasive species in your garden and don’t inadvertently transplant species by moving untreated soil from place to place. Follow suggested methods of controlling and eradicating these species.

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I hope you enjoy reading my books and keep an eye out for these species in the Meniscus landscape!

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All my best,

Alexandra

 

 

 

 

vanilla and cinnamon – aromatics and aldehydes: five ways to describe smells in your writing

If you build a world in science fiction, describing the world should involve all the senses. Of the five senses, I find sights and sounds the easiest to describe. Smells, touch and taste are more difficult. Especially in my early drafts, aromas, tactile sensations and tastes are often missing.

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Including smells in my writing is much more than writing “the market smelled like boiling cabbage.” The range of methods and words to describe smell is full of possibilities.

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Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.

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I don’t want a story stinky with description of smells, so, in the story I am working on, I chose five places and three characters to understand in terms of their olfactory landscape.

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The challenge is to describe these places and characters in ways to bring the reader into the experience. This can be done in several ways. The writer can describe smells in terms of:

  1. Parts of speech: verbs (waft, distract, permeate, intrude, bake, fry, rot, burn), nouns (wisp, aroma, odour, pocket, fragrance, stench, stink, smell), and adjectives (moody, acrid, crisp, earthy, shrill, putrid, rancid, salty, sharp, repulsive, spicy, stale, aromatic, fetid, loamy);
  2. The classes of odours (camphoraceous, musky, floral, pungent, ethereal, minty, putrid, almond, aromatic and aniseed);
  3. The chemistry of smells: the interesting words of chemistry might not suit every story, but occasionally, used from the point of view of a character who is a chemist or a perfumer, occasional use of a chemistry term might fit. We have the smells of human waste such as butyric acid (vomit), hydrogen sulphide ( rotten eggs), valeric acid ( rancid food), and ammonia (urine). Nutty smells like popped corn, baking bread and coffee are the product of alkylprazines. Bananas and wintergreen result from esters, and chemicals of cinnamon, wintergreen and vanilla are aromatics. One of my first labs in university chemistry taught me how to extract limonene, the terpene of citrus fruit peel.
  4. Experiences connected to smells, especially universal experience. Smoky smells of fire, pungent smells of drying autumn leaves, the revolting smell of sour milk, and acrid smells of a skunk’s spray are experiences common to many readers.
  5. Characteristics not usually assigned to smell: dark or bright, lite or heavy, sharp or dull, crisp or soft, creamy or brittle, soft or hard.

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If I ‘climb inside’ my landscape, I can describe the smells of a space using the five sources listed above. Then, as I encounter the landscape in my story, I have a ready-made list of odours.

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The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells : the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp.

The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells: the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp could be used to describe the smells of this space.

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The method above can be used to describe tastes encountered in the story, or touches and sounds.

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All my best,

(have fun with your writing)

Alexandra

 

series complications – time-lines

I have published four books in my science fiction series Meniscus. The fifth book (Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill) will be released on April 14, 2018. I have four other books in DRAFT. Keeping them straight has become a bit of a nightmare!

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'Odymn falls' final
in ‘The Town at Themble Hill’, Odymn breaks her leg … not a happy time for a girl who loves to run in the Themble Woods …

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The planet Meniscus, with its interesting landscape and biology, suggests many possible adventures. A while ago, I began to think about a ‘spin-off’ featuring the stories of different main characters. I also wanted to include characters from the first books, to give them more background and a better chance to ‘speak’.

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To weave the stories together, I realised I would need to create a time-line for my books. This would help me to situate the new characters in time and avoid character collisions. I did not want characters who were supposed to be in Prell to show up in Sintha. I did not want dead characters to live after their demise.

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The time-line shows the books in the series, the number of days covered in each book, the seasons and the years. The first eight books are consecutive, flowing from one to the other.

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time line

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In my next book, I want to introduce some of the Human recruits to the Village at Themble Hill and tell about them when they were still captives of the Gel-heads. So I knew the next book would start before the end of book Four and continue until the beginning of Book Six when Don’est’s continuous, banshee scream splits the air of the Themble.

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'Don'est'paperback
Why is Don’est screaming? You’ll have to wait until Book Six, ‘Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod’, to find out!

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Plotting the time-lines helped me know what characters I could include, the seasonal components of the setting and how to merge the stories.  It also suggested to me that I should re-number Meniscus Six, Seven and Eight to better reflect the time-line.

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time line 2

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If you are writing a series, I suggest you add time-lines to your process. Think of your story in terms of time. Determine how many days pass during the story. Plot the sequence of your stories with respect to one-another. This will help you to avoid inconsistencies and incongruencies.  It will also help you be accurate if your setting has a seasonal component.

If you are dealing with time-travel, causality and paradoxes, considering time-lines is essential!

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Hope this helps you with the writing of your series!

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All my best,

Alexandra