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Researching a Novel:
Lost Worlds above the Clouds

August 1st, 2015

tallest mountains 2 cropped (2)It was a dull gray landscape, and as I gradually deciphered the details of it I realized that it represented a long and enormously high line of cliffs exactly like an immense cataract seen in the distance, with a sloping, tree-clad plain in the foreground. 

That’s George Edward Challenger describing the Amazonian plateau in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and it’s a description that came to mind when I got my first look at Mauna Kea — the tallest mountain in Hawaii and (arguably) in the world.

mount roraima

My photo above shows Mauna Kea in the foreground with Hawaii’s second tallest peak, Mauna Loa, in the distance behind it.

Towering over 13,000 feet above sea level, the peaks are nearly half as tall as Mount Everest, but if measured from the ocean floor (the true base of each of these volcanic mountains), they measure over 33,000 feet, making them the tallest mountains on the planet.

lostworld12In comparison, the real-world mountain that inspired Doyle’s The Lost World (Mount Roraima in eastern Venezuela, above right), measures a little over 9,000 feet, but the wonder of it has less to do with height than the grandeur of its vertical cliffs and the possibilities of what might lie hidden in such a remote location.

In fiction, facts are the springboard for possibility.


The isolated summit of a high mountain also plays a role in my current project, the book-length expansion of the “Daughters of Prime” stories. In those stories, an exploratory mission establishes an observation post on a high cliff only to discover that the site is revered as sacred by the creatures of the valley.

Coincidentally, travel writer Brandon Wilson has informed me of an ongoing conflict between an observatory atop Mount Kea and some island residents who feel that the presence of a science installation violates the sacredness of the mountain. You can read more about that controversy here.

Once again, the road between fact and fiction runs both ways.

rainforestThis post is part three of a series of thoughts that come to mind as I sort through photographs and notes from my research trip to the Hawaiian Islands. You can find the first two posts here and here.

Along the way, I’ve also been commenting on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the new book Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places — a book that I just happened to be reading during my travels. (Coincidence? You decide.)

For the next installment, we’ll travel through some rainforests and consider an eco-friendly way to avoid getting tangled in dense undergrowth. No machetes needed.

Until then . . . scop on!

Image Credits:
The cloud-rimmed summit of Mauna Kea.* 
The cloud-rimmed summit of Mount Roraima from
Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger from a poster for The Lost World, 1925.
“Navigator on the Observatory,” Copyright © 2013 Herbert K. Kane.
The forest primeval.*
*Photos copyright © 2015 by The 21st-Century Scop.

Monster Wrangled!

June 23rd, 2012

Mission accomplished . . . but of course I had expert help from the fourteen talented writers who attended the presentation.

Together, we considered how to effectively present strange creatures in genre fiction. With a nod to Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, the discussion explored how some of the most effective monster scenes in science fiction, fantasy, and horror basically employ three elements:

1. the sense of anticipation
2. the appearance of something terrible or wondrous (sometimes both)
3. a dramatic payoff (what Priest’s novel refers to as the prestige).

That last step is important. It’s not enough to have the creature appear and chew the scenery. Instead, the most successful monster scenes present something new and unexpected, as do the vampire scenes in Bob Leman’s excellent (albeit relatively obscure) “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M,” which served as one of our examples during the discussion.

We also deconstructed Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven” (in which the monsters never actually appear) and Bob Leman’s “Window” (in which they do). The discussion seemed to go well, and in the end I sense that I learned as much as my students. A great way to spend a Thursday afternoon at Seton Hill!

The next day, with the monsters successfully wrangled, I visited the alumni writers retreat, aka “In Your Write Mind” (which runs concurrently with the university’s graduate writing program) for a survey on Genre Conventions. As I often do at such events, I began by providing each attendee with a 3×5 index card for submitting questions and comments. In this case, I also asked for recommendations of conventions not covered in my presentation.

Here are a few of the comments and recommendations that I received:

“Don’t forget about Killercon! This year it’s September 20-23 in Las Vegas [featuring] Bill Nolan, Kelley Armstrong, Jack Ketchum, Don D’Aurua, and Brian Keene.”

Yes! Thanks for the reminder. I’ve heard good things about Killercom.

SCBWI – Summer & Winter Cons.”

This one’s new to me, but it looks like a must for people interested in children’s books.

Love is Murder (held in Chicago around Valentine’s Day). Cost is approximately $200 – $250. The focus is on mystery/thriller but also includes paranormal, suspense, pulp, near-future thrillers, master classes, and manuscript critiques.”

I must check this one out!

And here are a few of the questions submitted (along with some quick answers):

“How far away is too far [to go to attend a con]?”

With air travel and ticket pricing being what it is these days, distance isn’t really much of an impediment. Indeed, I found that some of my longer trips have actually been far more affordable than the close ones. The ticket prices for my last three trips from Pennsylvania to the west coast (San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Jose) were better than half the price of my upcoming trip to Toronto for World Fantasy. I also find that I can get a lot of work done on planes and in airports, so the time in transit isn’t really lost. In all, I think it comes down to the event itself and not how far away it is. If it looks worthwhile, go for it.

“Is the western genre being absorbed into science fiction? Can science fiction and horror be blended as well?”

I don’t really see sf taking over the western. True, both deal with new frontiers, but – with the exception of western steampunk (The Wild Wild West, for example) – I don’t really see one taking over the other.

The dividing lines between horror and sf tend to be quite permeable, as can be seen in works such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven,” and Bob Leman’s “Window” – all stories that we considered in Monster Wrangling (see above).  For this reason, if you are interested in horror, you might consider checking out WorldCon, where the programming usually contains a few horror-related discussions.

“Many writers are introverts – how do you break out at cons?”

The people you want to meet and work with are almost certainly introverts as well. They probably spend most of their time reading books and sitting in front of their computers. They’re attending the con to meet people like themselves . . . and you are one of them.  I find that keeping that in mind helps. Perhaps it will work for you as well.

Right now, I need to get away from this computer and attend a book signing sponsored by the alumni at SHU. Hope to see some of you there!

As always, feel free to post comments, corrections, or questions below. Don’t be an introvert. I’d love to hear from you.

“Dramatize it! Dramatize it!”

January 18th, 2012

In my previous post I promised to spend time responding to questions submitted during my most recent presentation on “The Art of Revision” at Seton Hill University. If you want to know more about the backstory, please take a look at that previous post, otherwise . . . read on!

The next question in my stack is one that we did not get to during the residency:

How do you go about writing a story in which the main character is unaware of a major plot point that the reader needs to know about?

This need to know issue can be tricky, for although writers should fully understand the forces at work on their characters and the worlds they inhabit, the best stories are often those that dramatize compelling action without explaining why they happen.

By dramatizing, the writer is better able to more accurately evoke the mysteries and ambiguities of life.  Think about it? Aren’t the most interesting experiences the ones we figure out for ourselves, where we learn about people by observing their behavior, where we develop a sense of a place by moving through it – exploring and interacting? We should expect no less from our fiction.

Hemingway said it best in his essay “The Art of the Short Story”:

“If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.”

Of course, Hemingway didn’t write science fiction. He didn’t build worlds, but he nevertheless had a knack for making the landscapes of Europe and Africa accessible to American readers who had never been. He did so by dramatizing the interactions of interesting characters within those landscapes, conveying a sense of how things work by showing them at work. Science fiction writers do this all the time, using a technique called in-clueing (which I believe was coined by Jo Walton).

The trick, then, is not to explain . . . but to not explain.

Work out the backstory thoroughly for yourself, then dramatize it . . . and trust the reader to get it.

Do you agree? Have anything to add? What to ask a follow-up question?

The comment box is open.