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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.

. . . next thing I knew, I was on the ground!

March 7th, 2013

Charlie-ChaplinIt’s been awhile since my last post. There are good reasons for that. I had some new stories to finish, and the new novel is still coming together. But the really big thing since my last post is dealing with the aftermath of a nasty fall I recently took while jogging. That’s what I want to talk about today.


I’ve always thought of myself as having a good sense of balance and decent reaction time, so when I saw that there was some ice on the ground a few weeks back, I figured it was no big deal.

I can handle this. I’m smarter than the ice. If I slip, I’ll react, catch myself, land safely.

Yeah, right.

I should have known better. I’ve heard stories of people slipping and falling over the years. One of them busted her wrist, another his face (a couple of teeth gone in a second). Both of them claimed they were chugging along, and the next thing they knew they were on the ground. I thought that was hyperbole, but it’s exactly the experience I had when I tried crossing a patch of snow only to discover it was covering a glassy patch of ice.

Fortunately, I got off easy. No broken wrists or teeth. No cracked skull or coccys. I landed on my ribs, got up, walked home, drove to the ER. Diagnosis? Rib fractured. Yeah, I got off easy. But agility and balance had nothing to do with how I landed, because honest to God, I did not know I had fallen until I was on the ground.

The experience left me with the urge to crunch some numbers, to resurrect what little I remember of calculus to determine why the fall seemed to happen so fast. Turns out (by my best estimates) that the fall took approximately ¼ second, or ½ second faster than the the average reaction time, or the time it took for my brain to realize my body was in trouble. Literally, I was on the ground before I knew it.

And how fast was I going? My math may be a little rusty, but I estimate that fall terminating at a speed of 16 ft/sec – or about 11 mph. (Car bumpers are built to withstand a 5 mph impact!)

Charlie Chaplin once said: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it!” Well, I’m not laughing. (It hurts to do that.) But reflecting on the details of the experience has given me a new respect for ice and the dangers of falling. I didn’t buy it when I heard those stories of how fast it happens. It sounded like exaggeration. The numbers prove otherwise.

Take my advice. If you see ice, hit the treadmill. That’s what I’ll be doing . . . just as soon as I finish healing.

Next up, I’d like to talk about a different kind of falling, the sinking feeling I got when I heard that one of my favorite bookstores — Between Books in Claymont, Delaware — will soon be closing its doors, forced out of business to make room for a rental company. (Sheesh!) I’d like to share some reflections about the store and what it has meant to me over the years. Look for that post soon. Until then . . . rock on!