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Researching a Novel: Into the Abyss

July 29th, 2015

crater at nightIt glows by night, filling the air with a blood-red cloud.

By day, its rising steam billows dull gray from an active crater. Either way, it’s a wonder to behold, a doorway to a hot spot of subterranean fires that recalls the opening lines from Canto Three of Dante’s Inferno:

Only those elements time cannot wear
Were made before me. Beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

smoking crater (2)The Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has been active at the Halema’uma’u Crater since 1955. It’s the volcano responsible for nearly taking out the village of Pahoa back in October. Situated over the volcanic hot spot responsible for forming all of the Hawaiian Islands, it remains one of the most consistently active volcanic sites in the world. And since volcanoes feature prominently in my current writing project, I was keen on getting a firsthand look at the monster and its surrounding terrain.

three guides even smallerDante had the poet Virgil to guide him on his journey. As both Dante’s soul mate and long-term resident of the Inferno, Virgil was well suited for showing a novice around the wonders of the dolorous abyss.

For my trip, I had three guides (see left): information-specialist Ginny Connolly, award-winning travel writer Brandon Wilson, and long-term Hawaii resident John Connolly. Wife, friend, and brother — a perfect trinity to keep me on the straight road to enlightenment.

51X2iyPCaUL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award, which is given each year by the Society of American Travel Writers, Brandon Wilson currently makes his home in Volcano Village, a few miles east of the active crater. You can read more about him at his Amazon page and at his website. A seasoned traveler and fine storyteller, Brandon led the way through the rain forest surrounding Kilauea Iki (south of the active crater), then down a steep mountain pass and out onto an expanse of hardened lava where steam rose from vents in rocky fissures. It was like stepping onto the surface of an alien world.

Afterward, Brandon led us back out through the rain forest and into a cylindrical cavern (below left) that once served as a conduit for flowing lava. Molded with organic curves reminiscent of the Queen Alien’s lair in James Cameron’s Aliens, the tube stretches deep beneath a volcanic mountain, through darkness and back into leafy sunlight.

volcano tubePuddles dot its floor while thready roots from the forest above dangle overhead like living stalactites. My notes on the place will certainly come in handy as I expand the climax of “The Others,” which takes place in the underground lair of creatures called “the fang-claws.”

Interestingly, the lava tube also brought to mind the underground passageway that Professor Challenger visits in my story “King of the Moon” from the newly released Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places.

ChallengerTime and again, whether presenting  wonders that informed new projects or recalled previous ones, these travels around the Hawaiian islands proved time and again that the connection between life and art flows both ways.

This post is part two of a series about researching a novel based on the previously published stories “Daughters of Prime” and “The Others.” You can find the first installment here. For the next, we’ll take a look at Mauna Kea — the tallest mountain in the United States and possibly (depending on how you measure) the entire planet. I have some photos that compare it to the Amazonian plateau that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. It’s pretty cool stuff. I should have it ready in a day or two.

Until then . . . scop on!

Image Credits:
Kilauea Volcano by night. *
Kilauea Volcano by day.*
Three guides.*
Yak Butter Blues copyright © 2013 by Brandon Wilson.
Inside the Nāhuku Lava Tube.*
Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places copyright © 2015 Edge SF & Fantasy.
*Photos copyright © 2015 by The 21st-Century Scop.

Researching a Novel: My Lost World

July 27th, 2015

mylostworld2-compressed (2)Rain forests, deserts, volcanic mountains, green-sand beaches. They’re all part of the alien landscape of a novel project that links and expands my novelettes “Daughters of Prime” and “The Others” (both of which originally appeared in F&SF). Since the alien setting will feature ever-more prominently in the book-length version, I figured it would be a good idea to experience such landscapes first hand.

lost-world-pterosaurFortunately, I was able to find everything I needed in some remote corners of the Hawaiian islands. Who says research is boring?

Coincidentally, my trip coincided with the Canadian release of the print edition of Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places, a book that depicts the continuing adventures of George Edward Challenger — a character who is no stranger to wild and alien landscapes. My story in the book is “King of the Moon,” and during my travels I visited terrains that resembled places in that story. I’ll share those photos in a future post.

In addition to its well-known tourist destinations, Hawaii boasts a variety of uninhabited and underdeveloped locations. Among them are the micro-islands of Mokolua, Mokolea, Popoia and some 30 others that are now designated as Sea-Bird Sanctuaries. Landing on them requires a permit and a considerable amount of rowing, but the coast and effort are worth it.

rocky pool on flat islandPopoia Island, also known as Flat Island for a shape reminiscent of the table-top plateau of Challenger’s Lost World (above right), is four acres of rock overgrown with a carpet of coastal plants. Its terrain is remarkably varied, with sandy beaches, overhanging cliffs (above left), and rocky pools (left).  There’s precious little shade, for human’s at least. For avian inhabitants, the eroded rocks offer an abundance of bird-size caves for nesting.

The OthersIn addition to birds, the rocks and surrounding waters are home to black periwinkle snails (pipipi) and cephalopods (he’e) — smaller versions of the mollusks that inhabit the alien planet of the Daughters of Prime stories. Indeed, an illustration from the Russian edition of “The Others” (“другие” in Russian) features these creatures in border designs framing the story’s central character. It was fun seeing these creatures depicted so accurately when the translation appeared, but it was even more rewarding to learn that smaller versions of them inhabit the miniature lost world of Flat Island. 

I have more pictures and impressions to share. Indeed, I plan to spend the rest of the summer sorting the wealth of photographs and notes generated during the trip.

In my next post, we’ll descend into the crater of a volcano. Until then . . . scop on!

Image Credits:
The 21st-Century Scop on Popoia Island.*
The Amazon Plateau from Harry O. Hoyt’s film The Lost World, 1925.
Rock Pool on Popoia Island.*
Cara Gamma (from “The Others”), illustration from Elsi (Если) Magazine, Dec. 2009.
*Copyright © 2015, The 21st-Century Scop.



Airships and Sherlock Holmes

October 22nd, 2011

The master sleuth and Master of the World.

What’s not to love?

The World Fantasy Convention has just released its program schedule for 2011, one that offers an impressive blend of topics centering on this year’s theme: Sailing the Seas of Imagination.

At the con, I’ll be joining a discussion about airships and reading from my latest Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Executioner.”

First up, I’ll be joining  Jetse de Vries, Eric Flint, Charles Gannon, and Cliff Winnig for a panel titled “To Sail Above the Clouds: Airships.” Here’s the description:

With Steampunk’s popularity, airships are rising too. Sometimes they’re treated just like sailing ships. (Airship pirates!). Sometimes more like trains or planes. What is unique about this form of transportation that’s grabbed the attention of Steampunk? What has literature done with it and what does literature get wrong and right? (Friday 2:00 PM)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about airships, working on a new story tentatively titled “Zeppelin to the Moon,” which brings together Professor Challenger (The Lost World), Mr. Bedford (First Men in the Moon), and Count von Zeppelin (the renowned airship designer) on a mission to rescue the inventor of cavorite from the clutches of the Grand Lunar. Sound interesting?

 “To Sail Above the Clouds” will mark my second appearance on a steampunk-themed panel this year. The first was two months ago when I joined my good friends Paul Genesse, Anton Strout, Gregory Wilson, and Maurice Broaddus at GenCon for a presentation titled “Make it Steamy: A Look at the Steampunk Genre.” That event really packed them in, with nearly 100 people in attendance. One of the highlights was Maurice’s account of his forthcoming “steampunk story with all black characters.” It’s title: Pimp My Airship. Looking forward to that one!

Paul and I also got the chance to reminisce about works that introduced us to the tropes of steampunk. His was the Ray Harryhausen 1961 film Mysterious Island (soon to be released in a limited-edition Blu-Ray  from Twilight Time). Mine was Karl Zerman’s 1958 Vynález zkázy, released in the States as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. I remember catching that one at a drive-in near Philadelphia. The world has never been the same.

Also on the bill at this year’s World Fantasy will be a Saturday night book launch and party hosted by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.  This will be the big debut for Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes, the third in the critically-acclaimed series of anthologies edited by Charles Prepolec and J. R. Campbell. I understand that Paul Kane will also be there, reading from his entry “The Greatest Mystery” – one of the anthology’s standout horror stories.

And of course, as always, there will be the WFC mass-autograph session on Friday night, where I’ll be looking forward to meeting old friends, making new ones, and signing copies of Gaslight Arcanum, as well as Veins, Vipers, Visions, and last year’s collection This Way to Egress. (All titles will be available in the dealers room.) I also hope to have some preview material for the forthcoming Voices: Tales of Horror, which Fantasist Enterprises will be releasing later this year.

If you’re one of the thousand or so people lucky enough to be attending this year’s World Fantasy Convention (memberships sold out last winter, making this year’s con one of the hottest tickets around), I’ll look forward to seeing you there.

Oh yes, and did I mention Neil Gaiman is this year’s Guest of Honor? Should be a good time.

Whether you’re attending or not, please consider leaving a comment below. I’m particularly interested in hearing about when you first encountered the wonders of steampunk.

Perhaps it was Mysterious Island or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, or maybe it was with more recent works, ones actually published under the steampunk banner. Either way, feel free to chime in.