Hornblower and the Hotspur

Hornbower and the Hotspur

For background for my sea story I’m reading Hornblower and the Hotspur by C. S. Forester.  The Hornblower series is set in the Napoleonic Wars, some eighty years after the period of my story. The characters are decidedly not pirates.  They’re the Royal Navy side of my tale.  For the pirate side I will read other books.

I read the Forester books to glean the nautical terms, the commands, the ship handling and the battle scenes which would have been very similar to the 1720’s when mine is set.

Apropos to children and sea stories, this series was among my father’s favorites.  He started reading them in 1937 at age 34, when the first two were published.  The last was written in the late ’60s.  Lord Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar, was a boyhood hero of my dad’s.  Clearly he was influenced as a child by sea stories. His youth was at the time when Teddy Roosevelt and the emergence of American sea power were in vogue. You can see his stalwart nature and his passion for the navy in this precious portrait of Judge Wilmer Brady Hunt, my dad, when he was, as he would say, still in short pants.

Judge as a Tike

A few lines from my current project.

Pettiprig's Stern

Admiral Squeamish Pettiprig raised an eyebrow. “My three ships can certainly sink Darkrunner’s one,” he said.

“But what if he’s with Nell Flanders?” Roderick asked wagging a finger at the admiral.

Pettiprig shrunk back for a moment before steeling himself once again. “I have good intelligence,” he replied. “That she’s careened her ship on the beach at Flamingo Petite.”

Minutes later Pettiprig’s flotilla sailed off in a rush to Port Left with Foppy Sniggers, who no one noticed lay unconscious on the floor of the wine locker.

Clouds of anger

Trojan Horse

The full title of Homer’s epic poem is The Iliad: The Wrath of Achilles. It is an apt title for its books cover only the period of Achilles’ anger – not the journey to Troy nor its destruction. It occurred to me yesterday, as I navigate my own journey, that the failure of the Greeks to take Troy in a month was less the efforts of the Trojans than the Greeks to appease their own emotions. They spent ten years of slaughter, posturing and fighting amongst themselves before they finally admitted what they should have known from the beginning: They simply could not breach the city wall. They didn’t have the technology. The Spartans couldn’t take Athens until they had built a navy to capture the city by sea.
It wasn’t until the Greeks’s will was broken at Troy on the anvil of their own vanity and rage, and all hope had vanished that the mind of Odysseus, the wily, was clear enough to devise his plan of building the giant horse and hiding its greatest warriors inside. The Greeks could have easily done this following their first defeat.  But pride and determination – qualities we ourselves revere – kept them from grasping the futility of their tactics.
How often is it that our willful denial negates our best efforts? How many times do we throw ourselves against walls instead of clearing our head of roiling emotions? And to turn the argument over and look at a word we think of as positive: How often is unmindful hope our undoing?

Character determines wardrobe

A writer’s blog should include an occasional quote. Here’s mine today:

When my granddaughter Erin was three, her grandmother gave her three dresses on one day.

She liked the dresses so much she wore all three for three days, including to bed.

Erin is five now.  She has, shall I say, an extensive wardrobe. Everything she wears is chosen with complete authority.  Any suggestion by others is met with a polite but firm dismissal. 

This morning her dad is bringing her to Seattle to attend our longstanding Superbowl party.  As she was getting dressed – in something festive I’m sure, she turned to her dad and said, “How come grandpa changes his clothes, but he always looks the same?”

friendships and wormholes

Ordinary life is linear.  

Walk into an old workplace, and you are struck by the ocean of time and experience that separates your old life from your new. 

Seeing a dear friend again, however, is like entering a portal – a wormhole if you will – directly into the past bypassing the distraction of other memories.

The integrity of the work

A writer – any artist or craftsman, really – has a relationship with his work.   The work is dependent on that relationship.  If the artist foresakes the integrity of that bond, the work suffers.  For this reason, never take your criticism out on the work, but on your own efforts to create it.  Never think to youself, This statement is inferior, but I can fix it.  Instead, think, I can show the truth of this more truly.

Names: What’s the big deal?

Name GraphicTo name someone or something in literature is to give it breath.  To write “The woman in the white suit” is one thing. To write “Emily Johnston, the woman in the white suit” is quite another. A woman is a part of the plot.   Emily is part of the story.  Both may have lines, but only Emily is likely to have a history, even if it’s a brief one.

The names themselves are often important.   A name is the first gift a person receives.  They are intentional labels that speak of the culture and the temperament and aspirations of the family.   Emily is tender.    Paul is strong.   Elizabeth is nobel.  Names evoke the spirit of another.  Nicknames are given to and usually accepted by people whose qualities are representative of their qualities – unless they are ironic, like a “Shorty” for a tall man.

For writers thought should be given before awards a name.   The named person plumps a story and adds complexity.   Emily has importance.   A character too richly drawn may turn the reader’s eye from the main story.  Too few characters can make the tale thinly drawn.  

Success comes down to the writer’s craft.   Hemingway did quite well with one character in “The Old Man and the Sea.”   Dickens and Tolstoy used dozens with clear success.    There is no right number.   Just remember, writers, that a character is a guest in your work who must be provided for and attended to.

Outlining my story

Cafe standard - working on a better outlineLast week the outline to my new novel was a mare’s nest of plot threads. Or perhaps a bridge to nowhere would be a better metaphor.   The SCBWI conference., notably Steven Malk’s talk, has energized me to do a better job. 

One problem I’ve had historically with this process is my anxiety over the word outline.  The term denotes an empty shape.  A hollow thing.  It connotes the tedious list my dreary teachers and professors forced me to write.

My process in this past week was to simplify and focus the plot.   It was drowning in recursive complications.  After ripping out the unwanted text, the storyline now has loads of room to roll out an organic sequence of events with believable character development.

Then I began to write, not a list, but a warm narrative of the action.  Though I laid the plot points out in chronological order, I composed them from the edges toward the center, leaving open spaces to be filled in as a write the text itself.  From this narrative I should be able to create a bulleted list to make even the most stern professor proud.

The real and the imagined

The Inventors’ Daughter series is filled with real and imagined characters. Many of those in the first book are drawn from people I know. 

The phenomenon is something like people from Kansas appearing in the Land of Oz. My Dr. Cadeus Vulpine, for instance, is a shifty version of my friends Bret and Roy. Both are witty, articulate and precise men who are great fun to talk to. Both are race car drivers coincidentally. Saffron Chilliwack is an expansive, fulminating and bracing woman not unlike my writer friend Joy Laughter. (Yes, that is her real name.) Hildegard Becker (Mom) is a concoction of my aritist mother, a pinch of my sisters and a sprinkle of my friend Hilary, a very nice, real-life scientist.


Dad and Uncle Charles, the two brothers in The Inventors’ Daughter, were created from a pair of real brothers. The men have been estranged since their turbulent adolescence when the older brother broke with his father and lived among the winds. Like Charles, he coiled himself in the mystique of music. For decades he lived in Charleston and New Orleans composing and performing in night clubs and on the streets. And like my Charles Spotsworth, he becomes conflicted by a vagabond’s need of the road and the yearning for intimacy that age laid upon him.

My Gerald Spotsworth character owes his nature to the younger of the real-life pair. Perhaps reacting to the tumult around him, he found comfort in the order of mathematics. Unlike his older brother, he went to college where he did very well indeed. He taught high school math, wrote educational books for children and programs for mathematical calculations for scientists.  Later in life, he made a career of supporting large business computers.  He too is a musician.  I believe this musical thread precedes the brothers’ troubles, and I hope that someday it serves as a bridge to rebuild their relationship upon.

Let me say that I wasn’t aware I was writing about the brothers until the novel was over half-finished. I’m not sure the characters would have worked so well with the story if I tried to force the real events into it.

I suppose I was drawn to pick their story because I have an older brother who is a scientist. He and I are musicians as well.  Except for a rough spot in adolescence when he and our father were very cross with one another, we were steady friends, and are to this day.  We talk on the phone every week, and every year we get together for several days and reprise our old repetoire.  You can see how powerful a family’s history can be.

My inspiration for the new novel The Timearang Pirates is a marvelous woman and her three daughters whose home is a boat they sail among the Pacific ports of North America.  Did I mention my mother was an artist?  I have not forgotten the many times she packed me, a paint box and an easel around the Western United States in a station wagon.  More on that later.

ten day immersion vacation

It’s good to be me.

I’m currently in the middle of a ten day immersion vacation to plot out my new novel Timearang Pirates.  I get up at 5:30 AM. By 6:15 I’m being served the world’s best double-tall split-shot Americano by Corrine or Precious at a cozy Fremont cafe on the shore of the ship canal a mile north of the Seattle Space Needle. I take my seat at my favorite table and work on my story until about 9:30, have some breakfast and go to the gym.  

After a shower, I read source material before and at lunch.  Next, I’m off to the library for two or three more hours of writing.  A couple of late afternoons, I watched relevant films: Master and Commander and The New World.  Around five o’clock I venture out for my last espresso of the day with my friends before returning home for dinner. 

Quelle vie, non?

My Fremont friends Corinne and Precious

My best critics – Mr. Williamson’s fifth-grade readers group

My best critics

Soon after completing the inital draft of The Inventors’ Daughter– my first children’s novel – I met a conscientious and amiable teacher named Brian Williamson.  We bumped into one another where I meet most of my friends, in a coffee shop in my neighborhood. When I mentioned the manuscript, he asked if a segment of his fifth-grade class could read the book and give me their opinions. I was thrilled. Here was the perfect readers group for a book aimed at 9 to 12 year-olds.

Six weeks later Brian and his students ate our brown-bag lunches around a venerable, well-worn work table in the school’s art room.  As you can see from the photo, the students were a fun, lively lot.  But as the discussion of the book moved around the table, I could see that they were intelligent and focused as well. From some, the remarks flowed freely. A few needed a bit of encouragement from Brian. But in no time, they too were giving me valuable commentaries on what they found funny, exciting or confusing.  

The gratifying thing for me and Brian was that all of the students read the entire manuscript judiciously.   And from their comments, I’m certain that I got more from these bright kids than I would have received from a my own writers’ group, however well-meaning, who would have been trying to second-guess my actual audience.

Two comments stood out in particular: 

One girl said twice – with deep sincerity – that “the story must flow.”  Other’s nodded.  It was then I realized that, having been accustomed to writing screenplays which are scenic in nature, I had not acquired the skill of writing the smooth, corherent monologue that is the narrative of a novel.  Scripts are shocks of dialog and an sparce, choppy narrative written for a host of artistic and technical people searching for their own assignments detailed within its text.  A novel is something else altogether.

My second revalation was that some things were unclear to my readers.  In an effort to conceal the skeleton of the mystery on which my plot hangs, my story had murky spots.   A rule I learned in the University of Washington literary fiction program is that you must never describe something as “indescribable.”  It is the duty of the writer to describe a character’s perception of anything – even a phantom.

With those two gems, I returned to my story and did my best to polish the manuscript into something my audience could understand and enjoy.  My special thanks to Mr. Williamson’s readers’ group.

sailing ships and time travel

Sea Ocean BooksIn preparation for writing Timearang Pirates* I’m doing research on the age of sail and the physics of time.

I’m reading Master and Commander for the dialect and vocabulary. Patrick O’Brian was a very good writer with a slavish devotion to naval history, architecture and customs. Though the period of his story is both two hundred years behind and a hundred years ahead of my story, still his work is invaluable to me.

I’ve recently finished Under the Black Flag, a comprehensive history of the Age of Pirates by David Cordingly. It is the pirate lover’s bible and is well thought of by everyone I meet who knows the subject well. (And believe me when I say I know a few pirates here in Seattle.)

I’ve just bought The Charting of the Oceans: Ten Centuries of Maritime Maps by Peter Whitfield from Sea Ocean Books, a wonderful bookstore on the north shore of Lake Union here in Seattle. For anyone looking for books relating to the sea I heartily recommend this source. The owner is fastidious in keeping his stacks jammed with well-tended books and, being a retired sailor, is extremely knowledgeable. The Charting of the Oceans presents dozens of handsome representations of historic charts and has much to say about the history of the documents. I believe they will help me as a primary source for cartography and navigation, though some of my settings are not actually found on your globe.
Sea Ocean Books

About a month ago I bought a 1939 edition of the Sea Scout Manual from Amazon.com. In the second novel my main character Erin Isabelle Becker-Spotsworth must know how to sail. In the first chapter I plan to have her and some of her friends learning to do so from Erin’s inventor father. They will sail through Comet Bay off Star Island in a sloop in a stiff wind, foretelling the adventures that await our protagonist under the canvas on the high seas in the Seventeenth Century. The Sea Scout manual is a bit dated but dated in the precise way I want. There is something 40’s and ’50s about the first book and this one too. In The Inventors’ Daughter there’s a pinch of Roger Rabbit and Sam Spade about some of the characters despite the modern inventions. The series is in its way noir. Despite Erin’s best efforts to fight crime and injustice, Dream City – past and present – is a dangerous world. The scout manual was a gateway to that era and a pitch-perfect primer for young sailors, as it is still today. If I’ve learned anything from my research it is that tradition is everthing on the sea.

In my research of time and time travel I am concurrently, I am reading A Briefer History of Time by (of course) Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow). I’ve read several books on Einstein’s theories, quantum and string theory and the physics of time and space but none so elegant and intelligible as this. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to better understand relativity and other currently held theories of universal physics.

I have also recently read a number of children’s fantasy books including the Harry Potter series, Wave Traveller, Hugo Cabret, the Lemony Snicket novels, Harriet the Spy, and re-reading Treasure Island and my favorite sea story, The Odyssey, which though not a children’s book is a fabulous yarn that (to dangle a participle) I hope my story bears some infinitesimal resemblance to.

Tales of the Inventors’ Daughter

The Inventors' Daughter WebsiteI decided over the weekend to rename my recently completed novel The Inventor’s Daughter.  The original title was Erin Isabelle and the Wicked Uncle, which gave rise to questions regarding the uncle’s variety of wickedness.  I consequently renamed the story Erin Isabelle and the Bandit Uncle since that accurately described the aforementioned’s profession. 

Before the manuscript was properly polished, a very generous and helpful contact at Random House suggested the title might be a bit long.  But as I worked through the manuscript, I couldn’t think of anything better.  And I was rather attached, as people are, to their own ideas. 

It was not until I designed the blog for the series (ErinIsabelle.wordpress.com), that a solution was forced upon me by a gaping text box asking me what my blog was about. I responded in a moment of clarity.  In that instant it seemed obvious that the series was about the plight of … the inventor’s daughter.

 The phrase naturally brought to mind a singularly perfect story and title: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which in three words describes not only the profession of the main character, but his predicament as well.  How does a person audacious enough to take on such an position come to equal or best his mentor?

Are not inventors the sorcerers of the modern world?  In the ancient world where few were educated, the word sorcererwas often infused with an air of the malevolence of a tyrant.  People then and now were naturally suspicious of that which they do not understand.  In our more democratic where education is relatively plentiful, we defuse our sorcerer characters with humor.   The word “inventor” connotes abstract,  well-meaning curiosities dislocated from the world of business and money.   But their intellectual intensity and the purity of their curiosity also make them dangerous.   Witness Dr. Felix Hoenikker, Kurt Vonnegut’s character in Cat’s Cradle who in an idle moment creates the dreaded ice-nine which could crystallize all of the water in the world.

What then would the life of inventor’s daughter be like – one who has not only one such parent, but two?  Were she like them, probably not much but add to the excitement and danger.  But what if she was an intelligent, but normal girl named Erin Isabelle Becker-Spotsworth?  Well, you’ll just have to read the story to find out.

A slim note about the sources of this story.  My sister Lalu, whose name I use in the story, read me delightful parables of wickedness when I was very young.  Those tales are the origins of the noir characters of Wicked Uncle Charles and the Men With Bulldog tattoos who run through the manuscript.  Secondly, our mother was a poet, painter, sculptor, etc. who stood just a little bit off third base.  To all who knew her well, she was a wonderful woman who, because of her intense imagination, bore careful watching on occassion.  Living and especially travelling with her when I was a child was always … interesting, and is to be the source of another book I intend to write someday.