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Sunday, December 12, 2010

writing: San Francisco, cities, and another report from LOSCON, 2010

I'm in San Francisco this week,and what a joy! To be in the heart of the city for an entire week!

What is it about cities that compels the imagination? Outlying rural or suburban areas exhibit certain regular patterns of not only peaceful patterns of travel, but also of behavior. A city seems to be filled with chaotic babble, and frenetic jostling. Tall buildings and narrow streets lend an aura of mystery - of nooks and crannies to the setting. As if secrets can be kept. Secrets that would be all exposed in a rural or suburban setting.

This brings to mind a panel that I visited a few weekends ago at LOSCON, the convention of literary science fiction and fantasy. I wrote about the panel Is Steampunk Anachronistic? a few days ago. This panel was called Mean Streets as a Setting for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The first thing everyone wanted to know was -- how can you have 'mean streets' in a fantasy? Isn't the point to have a 'fantastic' or magical setting? Why would you need 'mean' streets?

The answer, of course, is to create authenticity for an imaginary place.

The panel brought up two environments - the 'classic' fantasy city/setting vs a real city setting such as London or Chicago (either present or past). Examples of classic fantasy cities include: Oz; Courasant (Star Wars); Mos Eisley (also from Star Wars); Metropolis (Superman); Gotham City (Batman); Gondor (Lord of the Rings). Only a few of these 'classic' cities feel like real cities.

One panelist mentioned that even as a kid, he knew that 'Oz' was not a real city. Why? Because there was no one around to pick up the trash. Who ran the fire department? Munchkinland was more 'real' than OZ because you had a sense that there were different normal/routine functions that were being taken care of. Likewise, Mos Eisley is a 'real' city, while Courasant is not.

Why would Marvel Comics put Spiderman in a real New York City rather than either a Metropolis-like city or a Gotham-like city? Because it adds the extra spice of authenticity that neither one of the other analogs possess.

One panelist mentioned that the best depiction of Rome is in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum- the movie. They had found a set that had already been used for a big Rome movie, and they added a lot of garbage to it - pigs running loose and unsavory types loitering around. These elements added to or implied a 'functionality' aspect of city life that is often missing.

That's not to say that a city is about garbage and pigs and unsavory types. A friend who was with me at the convention pointed out that cities are inspiring and wonderful and hopeful places. This should not be overlooked just to incorporate an underbelly to the setting.

The best answer came from Cecil B. DeMille, movie maker from the classic period of the 1940-1960s. He was once asked what his extras were doing, and replied that each one had a story for what they were doing in each scene. The extras! They had made up a little story. For example, one person was on her way to have the heel of her shoe fixed at the local department store in the scene. She even had a shoe with a broken heel in her handbag. The reporter was astonished at this level of detail that the great DeMille demanded even from the extras. But the result in every scene was a setting that felt 'lived in.'

Tomorrow I'm going to breakfast at a little hole in the wall breakfast place on Market Street in San Francisco. The last time I was there, a suite of construction workers (who'd already been at work a couple of hours before this breakfast jaunt) stood in line behind me. More city people on their way to work will be there. And as mundane as it seems, for those few moments I'll feel like part of a community, living and sharing the same experiences; comfortable as an old pair of boots. What a joy!

Free the Princess: On the Problem of Steampunk as "Window Dressing"

Free the Princess: On the Problem of Steampunk as "Window Dressing"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

writing & science: Deux et Machina and the Dawn of the Cambrian era

Hi everyone!

I wrote a little story this month for the online science fiction magazine: i09


Last month i09 called for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. i09 believes that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth's history.

This is a great start. I agree with the magazine that a good way to lay the groundwork for progress against environmental disasters is stories that make people think. I decided to do a story from the deep past of Earth's history, drawing on some knowledge I have as a planetary scientist.

In Earth's history, science tells us there have been three great environmental disasters - the disaster that precipitated the formation of the eucaryotic cell, the lime disaster, and the rise of Oxygen. This story is a light-hearted (hopefully) look at the response of a bunch of jelly-fish when called upon to take personal action to mitigate the lime disaster.

The story is pretty heavy with biological 'buzz' words. A brief glossary is included at the end of the story. What happened, to the best of our knowledge, is this:

600 million years ago vast amounts of calcium carbonate (sort of like bicarbonate of soda, but with calcium) began to precipitate spontaneously out of the sea. The crisis was caused by carbon saturation of the sea water – carbon dioxide passing through the water in the presence of calcium, reacted to form calcium carbonate, or lime. Resultant encrustations, or pile up of the solid precipitate to form a crust, constituted a hazard for life in the ocean.

In response, the biota developed a range of potent chemical inhibitors, including a mucus that inhibited calcification. The same anti-calcifying mucus that protected the soft tissues from encrustation helped skeleton formation by keeping calcium crystallization organized. Thus, with strong intervention by organisms, the production of limestone in the open sea, and therefore a key part of the carbon cycle, was brought under biological control at a critical juncture in evolution – just before the start of the Cambrian biological explosion.

The story is told 'steampunk' style. Steampunk is a send-up of the Victorian era. It is sometimes called 'retro-futuristic' because it looks back, but with a modern twist. Examples include The Wild Wild West, the movie & tv show. Steampunk is from the era of Jules Verne, where there were mad scientists, ladies with parasols, adventurers with goggles on, and an inquisitive desire to solve problems mechanically (see my blog post from earlier today.)

In this story I also built in a little spoof of the movie A Clockwork Orange (since steampunk as a general rule has a fascination with clocks and gears - the technology of that period - and the title included a reference to clockwork). I called the story A Clockwork Lime: How the World got Stuck with Lime-repellant Mucus 500 million years ago – or The Strange Tale of the Original Carbon Problem

What's interesting to me is that a writer is not supposed to resort to 'Deus ex machina,' or as someone recently blogged, putting the onus on God, as a plot device, to solve a problem. Any miracles must arise from the guts of the story. As a writer, I didn't violate this rule; I invoked a mad scientist to solve the problem. But in real life, there was no mad scientist.

Writing: Award Winner!

I have won my first award! The Versatile Blogger Award. Oh yeah, Oh yeah. And my synopsis for People of the Lie just won second place in the MERWA contest!!

One of my favorite bloggers tagged me for this. I'm so honored, because I adore this writer - solely from her blogs. Haven't picked up her books yet, but am intrigued by those published by Siren publishing: Captured, Daughters of Persephone, and All Four One. Her name is Julia Rachel Barrett.

From what I can figure out, the history of this award is as follows: BLHMistress over at Book Lover’s Hideaway awarded it to The Creative Well who awarded it to Sugar Beats Books who in turn awarded it to Julia Rachel Barrett. Thanks Julia for awarding it to me!

As a 'taggie' I must do the following:
1) Share 7 things about myself. (LOL)
2) Pass this award on to 15 other bloggers recently discovered. (cool)
3) Notifiy the recipients. (You know who you are)
4) Link the blogger who gave this award. (see shout-out above!)

Here're seven things about myself that I don't advertise to everyone (Oops!):
1. Now that I am a scientist, I hardly ever read science fiction (gotta change that!).
2. One of my favorite bucket-list things was going to fashion week in New York with my sister (the fashion reporter), and pretending to be a journalist so as to see the fashions.
3. Another one of my favorite bucket-list things was going to Centre Court Wimbledon.
4. I am a huge Jane Austen geek.
5. One of my favorite movies is Bambi II (because Patrick Stewart is the Great Prince!).
6. I never listen to my own voice on the voice-mail nor watch myself if I'm on TV.
7. My biggest high in this life (besides being a scientist) is galloping a horse through the forest and taking jumps.

Now for the 15. Fifteen is a lot, but believe it or not, I've gotten familiar with the blog-o-sphere, and some of these spots are fast becoming my favorites!

  • Preternatura! (Suzanne Johnson)
  • One Writer's Way (Beth Rissel)
  • Writerly So (Deanna Cameron)
  • Planet Furaha (speculative biology) (Gert van Dijk)
  • Paranormality (Lynda Hilburn)
  • Rosalie Lario (Rosalie Lario)
  • Suzanne Lazear (Suzanne Lazear)
  • Around the Writer's Block (Nina Pierce)
  • The Steampunk Writers Guild (Lia Keyes)
  • Reading the Past (Sarah Johnson)
  • Silver Goggles
  • Archeologist's Guide to the Galaxy
  • writing: Steampunk Panel Report from LOSCON, 2010

    LOSCON is a science fiction and fantasy convention that took place at the LA airport Marriott hotel the week of Thanksgiving. There were quite a few panels on Steampunk. I went to this one:

    Title of session: Is Steampunk Anachronistic?

    generic answer from the whole panel: Yes!

    Question - is it even possible? giant airships? corsets outside of your dress?

    The panel seemed to agree that steampunk was more a style than a specific code
    or lexicon for writing a book. But there can be disconnects in which the
    anachronisms are more egegious than at other times. In particular the panel
    felt that historical or technical anachronisms were much more acceptable than
    behavioral anachronisms. And that comedy made the anachronisms more acceptable
    than in other forms of literature.

    Examples cited by the panel for disconnects included (a) in Wild Wild West, the
    movie with Will Smith (an African American in the title role), that as soon as
    the movie brought up the civil war, and that the civil war was fought for the
    reasons it was fought for, then the movie did not work anymore. [And the panel
    made lots of jokes about giant mechanical spiders]. Also Wild Wild West, the
    movie, had a fully integrated Chinese female character who the panel called into
    question after the civil war reference. (b) in Pirates of the Caribbean, where
    the female character asks someone on the beach 'Are you OK?' Or another movie
    about Easter Island in which one survivor tells another 'OK, let's focus...' (c)
    The Great Race was cited as a really bad anachronism.

    Don't take 21rst century characters and dress them in period costume and call
    it steampunk.

    The panel said that an author needs to have some sort of 'cover' for their
    anachronism -- it need be no longer than a single sentence long, but it must
    exist or the reader will think it is an 'imaginary' story. You need to be like
    a fraudulent policeman, who at least presents a fake badge to simulate a
    reality. Anachronism can come along if the author is sloppy about their 'cover'

    These comments begged two questions -- (1) if you have period characters, and
    stick to it, how do you appeal to 21rst century sympathies? (2) Can you have
    Steampunk at all if you get rid of all the anachronisms? the panel's response:
    Leviathan is an excellent example of a steampunk story that does not make use of
    20th century characterizations. also, just as there is a certain degree of
    'accepted' science in comic books - Kryptonite, and the very fact that Superman
    is in most respects 'Human' -- so there is a certain acceptance of anachronsim
    in steampunk. The trick is to keep/make it credible/consistent; to stretch the
    reader's gullibility without making it an alternate history (which is a
    different genre).

    Anachronisms in costume: Victorian clothing was very restrictive, but an
    Adventurous, pragmatic female protagonist would abandon certain clothing. so
    some of the clothing choices can be made consistent with character.

    There were lots of other interesting comments, but I found this one to be a take
    away from the session - that Americans are fixated on How Things Work. And in
    contemporary life we are moving away from being able to obviously 'see' the
    working mechanisms of things. Take the iPhone. It has a touchpad, and how it
    works is largely invisible. The automobile that you might have been able to fix
    yourself 20-30 year ago, is now only diagnosable with a computer. So steampunk
    might be thought of as a harkening back to a time when the mechanisms were more
    tangible and accessible to the average person.

    Also - there's a steampunk Star Trek on Youtube

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Preternatura: Revising 101: My Top Tips

    Preternatura: Revising 101: My Top Tips: "I have a confession to make. I find writing painful. Birthing words is hard labor.  But I LOVE revising. Am I weird, or do others of you fe..."

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    Preternatura: What Editors Do, and What Editors Don't

    Preternatura: What Editors Do, and What Editors Don't: "Okay, this is my opinion, based on my experiences--and your mileage may vary. But in the course of talking to writers and editors and bloggi..."

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    Castles & Guns: Guest Blogger Suzanne Lazear

    Castles & Guns: Guest Blogger Suzanne Lazear: "It’s Not Just Gadgets and Goggles: Elements of a Steampunk Novel Steampunk has become quite the buzzword. As a Steampunk writer and book b..."

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    The Mary Sue In Us All

    The Mary Sue In Us All

    Reading: Review of Connie Willis' All Clear

    Brilliant, thought provoking depiction of WWII

    As you know, I'm a big fan of Connie Willis.  It took her 8 years to come up with another in her installment about the timetravelers from Oxford, 2060. [other installments include: The Doomsday Book  -n one of my favorite books of all time, and Firewatch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog.]

    It's taken me a week to sort out the (what might seem like a) mass of confusion that is the combined novel 'Blackout' and 'All Clear'.  These are not separate, but one continuous novel - somewhat like Lord of the Rings.  One complete story told over more than one book.  The first confusion for the unfamiliar reader of All Clear is that it starts at the beginning. The story begins in Blackout.

    As announced in the book jacket, the premise of the story is that historians going back to study WWII have discovered that their actions have altered the past somehow, in violation of the tenets of timetravel (which inherently prevent that from happening), and that the accumulated changes may result in a drastically altered future (in which, obviously, time travel doesnt 'exist) - hence the concern over the fact that their 'drops' (portals between past and future) won't open.

    The premise begs the question of a neatly tied up ending.  How can we get to the future that we know, in which Hitler lost the war, when all these events have been corrupted?  We can't expect the fictional characters to go out and kill the very people that in the course of the story they've saved (out of basic Human kindness)?

    The story begs, in fact, for something to be altered.  And the story is about the heroism of the ordinary individual in war, and involves the (fictional) logistics of 'timetravel.'  The story focusses on three characters from the future, who have to do something to save their future.  The first book, Blackout, illustrates the character of these three.  Mike Davies is a resourceful guy, who leaps into the mix, and is somewhat controlling.  When, in the first book he tells his companions that they must stick together at all costs, he realizes the greater implications of that statement - that he has to somehow stick their present to their (and humanities) future as he understands it.  Eileen is stuck with two horrible children who test the patience of every single person the come in contact with.  Polly is the intellect of the group (she makes for a horrible shopgirl - grins.).  She's obviously an Oxford educated graduate student, no matter her disguise!  She fits in the least.

    Another confusing part is, as they all say, 'this is timetravel'  The future people should just show up whenever they want to extract them.  But this is a false premise, as it is revealed that any time someone shows up at a particular time, they cannot return, else the time paradox is invoked (where you can't meet yourself in the past without one of you being destroyed). This introduces the concept of a 'deadline.'  Characters (including rescuers) who are in a situation once, cannot go back to that exact time.

    So what seem at first like long drawn-out scenes actually include people from the future who are looking for them, or people who have lived long enough through the disaster to encounter someone they know at a different entry point into the past.  You have to have both books in front of you and go back and forth, as the narrative covers a span of many years!

    There are also two interesting allegories in the text.  Both are about paintings.  In one, Faulknor is tying two boats together (past and future?); in the other, called The Light of the World, Christ is knocking on a closed door (the portal to the future? the human heart?). And Willis asks, in the text, that kindness and goodness have to count for something?

    For the mathematicians among us, the story illustrates interesting aspects of chaos theory.  Also the whole premise of the 4th dimension (time): does 'time' as an entity do what it needs to do to guarantee the future?  Is it 'chaos' the way things unfold, or a deliberate, intellectual continuum?  The constant missed opportunities or coincidences - are these just annoying aspects of the book, or a comment on the physics of time?

    It's a great duo of books, in spite of some confusion.  At bottom it's an incredibly vivid depiction of WWII. And in the end it makes you think hard about the kind of love and sacrifice that the war extracted from everyone.

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Building Paranormal Worlds isn't Rocket Science. Or is it?

    I saw this on another blog, and thought I'd add my $00.02.

    Writers of speculative fiction strive to create rich worlds of the fantastic, but believable. The closer you stay within the boundaries set by the laws of physics, the more believable your worlds will be. You can always bend the rules a little. 

    You want to write a fantasy, paranormal or a SciFi novel -- do you need to go out and get a degree in quantum physics or a working knowledge of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, or James Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory? Your story has a space ship. Hmmm. Do you need to understand rocket propulsion or try to come up with a possible futuristic method to make your rocket go fast? Adding SCIENCE to you spec fiction will make it believable, right? Isaac Asimov did it. 
    How much science to do you need? Quantum physics talks about the origin of matter (extremely over simplified). Is the fundamental particle of matter the atom? Or is matter infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller bits? And then there’s the String Theory. It states that the fundamental particles are tiny vibrating strings. There are at least five different theories on this, and the ‘M’-Theory or Membrane theory and the mathematics needed to prove these theories are either so complex that hardly anyone understands them or the mathematics haven’t even been developed yet!

    Yikes! Do you really want to get that geeky in your story? Forget about it. Technical details are fine, but don't go overboard. Your readers’ eyes will glaze over.

    Well ... here's my comment:
    I do think an author should do their homework - just as you would if you were writing an historical, steampunk, or creating a contemporary setting in a city like Los Angeles. All readers like to learn a little something. Taking a science fact, and making it relevant is your job as a writer. And especially if you have a little science fiction in your story, you should make an attempt to know/learn something relevant from the world of computers, IT, informatics, engines, and/or something technical! Even mathematical analysis of the stock market unite some contemporary ideas that are important to 'get.' [see The Quants, but Scott Petersen, for example]. It adds credibility to what you're writing, and grounds it. No need to get carried away, of course!

    I recommend the following books for writers on cosmology, physics, and contemporary (relevant) math who seek to create new worlds of fiction, and the author of the above mentioned blog recommended the bottom two: 
    • Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel [Michio Kaku (Author)]
    • PSIence: How New Discoveries in Quantum Physics and New Science May Explain the Existence of Paranormal Phenomena [Marie D. Jones (Author)]
    • The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It [Scott Patterson (Author)]
    •  “Quantum, A Guide for the Perplexed” by Jim Al-Khalili. 
    • Patterns In The Void” by Sten F. Odenwald

    I don't make these recommendations lightly. I think both of top two authors go a long way toward making (selected) science concepts accessible to the average person. Scott Patersons book is a little dense for me, but I still have it on my list of resource books - trying to get the jargon right, and understand a little more math!

    Thoughts?  Anyone else with good books to recommend?

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    science: NASA's Seven Wonders!

    I was privileged to hear Dr. Jim Green of NASA headquarters speak today at the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences meeting.  He's the guy in charge of the planetary program at NASA.  He talked about the wonders of the solar system, in the same vein as the standard 'Wonders of the Ancient World ...'  Here's Jim's Magnificent Seven:

    1. the planet Mercury.  We knew Mercury was dense (not 'dense' in that writerly way! but dense the way a golf ball is more substantial than a ping-pong ball).  I always thought that was because Mercury had a really big core of iron, but Jim said today new measurements show it might be because Merury is really 'compressed' - like it got put into one of those squeezes in the junk yard.
    2. The Moon!  Like what could be new about our own moon when there are so many cool (ha ha) moons out there around Jupiter and Saturn?  Jim showed us a nifty geologic map of the back-side of the Moon.  We usually don't get to see that side, because the Moon spins just fast enough to keep the same side facing us every night.
    3. Mars and water.  It really has it, it really can be found not to far below the surface.  There are even glacier-sized regions under the surface at mid-latitudes (the equivalent of where we live in California).  I knew about the little dots of surface ice they'd seen come and go in selected images, but didn't realize so much of it had been found.  What a cool result from those miraculous rovers! How this opens up our ways of thinking about the planet Mars!
    4. Mars and the methane-thing.  methane is a gas that is produced in both biological ways (think cows and pigs and horses, Oh My!), and naturally in abiotic processes.  So they've begun to map methane on Mars (who'd have thought), and see now a seasonal variation.  It is by no means a statement that cows and pigs and horses are responsible.  If anything it would be some sort of bacteria.  But just the fact that this is up for discussion is one of the wonders of the science of this decade.  I agree with Jim there.
    5. Jupiter's moon Europa.  This is an old story.  We heard more about the potential for the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) - to be joint between NASA and ESA - at the meeting this week.  Nonetheless, it seems appropriate that Europa is still on a list of the seven wonders, with its sub-surface ocean! (discovered in the last decade by the Galileo mission).
    6. Saturn's moon Titan and the lakes of methane. For decades after the Voyager mission to Saturn, where we really ddi't understand what we were looking at when we got that little fuzzy orange dot of Titan (one of the largest moons - larger than the planet Mercury), we speculated and speculated about what the surface was like.  Pictures are still a mystery with lots of unexplained features.  But we now understand that some of what we are looking at are lakes and lakes and lakes.
    7. Saturn's moon Titan and the rain of methane in the southern hemisphere - so reminiscent of Earth, and perhaps early Earth.  Titan doesn't have many clouds, and certainly doesn't have weather like we know it on Earth.  Nonetheless, rain is something that happens rarely in the solar system.  And Titan, with its 'reducing' egosystem (abiotic), gives us so much to think about in terms of chemical cycling, and what the earliest Earth might have been like (earliest Earth was 'reducing' too, not oxidizing like it is now).
    thanks Jim for sharing these insights with us!  Jim also said that next year there will be three (3!) NASA launches of new planetary missions.  As I say all the time, it is an exciting time to be a scientist!

    Sunday, October 3, 2010

    On Writing Party Scenes, and The Great Gatsby

    I never got The Great Gatsby.  Once, a writing teacher said the greatest party scene every written was in The Great Gatsby, and that I should study it if I wanted a perfect example of how to ‘show’ high society at play.  All I remembered from reading that party scene was a bunch of people ‘telling’ themselves, and us in the process, about how mysterious Gatsby was.  And so I didn’t think it was such a revealing scene after all.

    I preferred Jane Austen for party scenes.  I liked the quiet gentility of the party at the Cole’s house in Emma, for example.  All the preparations that went into it, the timing of selected invitations (when Emma hadn’t received hers, though the Weston’s and Knightly’s had received theirs), the appropriateness of when guests arrived (during the afternoon, or only in time for dinner); the arrangements that went into comfort for old Mister Woodhouse.  Or the ball at Netherfields arranged by Mr. Bingley.

    Austen gives us a party in which the gossip is about characters we already know.  We care, when Darcy and Bingley’s sisters show up, because we’ve seen them before.

    This weekend I read a wonderful piece in the Word Craft section of The Wall Street Journal (Oct 2, 2010) by Blake Bailey on a ‘truly seeing eye.’ Bailey walks us through the Gatsby party scene again, with an eye for the revealing details that Fitzgerald used to make what might have been a still life into an action scene. 

    Details about the caterers, and the manner in which the turkey was presented; the number of cars in the driveway, and the swimmers out on the beach, these all paint a quite different picture in that scene to me now.  The details also convey a sense of the 1920’s – the way the ladies lounged on the divans, or even that they would consider swimming at a summer party at all. The fact that one old gentleman was passed out in the driveway in a drunken stupor, and that another character had gambled away his fortune.

    I’ve had a huge party scene in almost every book I’ve written, and struggled with crowd control, dialog, and the general throughput, in each one.  In real life, social ‘circles’ themselves, and how the dynamics of a social circle play out in the few hours of a party can be the stuff of drama. Each party has its little disappointments and triumphs – the kind of thing you and your girlfriends would go to a diner and hash out before going home and to bed after a great party.

    The difference I suppose is that the party scene in Gatsby is supposed to reflect upon the character of Gatsby. While the party scenes of Austen were about the proprieties of life in the late 18th century, about country civilities and what those decorums said about the social status of the partiers.

    I can see now, given these two examples, how one might construct a party scene, not by ‘showing’ all the details of the event, including the small talk and every little introduction, but ‘telling’ what a party and the social protocols signify in the context of one’s story.  Unless every character is already defined in the story (as with Austen), a party scene requires a narrator.  In Gatsby, the narrator was Nick Carraway (the reporter and friend, who makes the observant commentary that allows the reader to interpret all the details).

    Parties, musical entertainment, elements of ‘style,’ – presenting one’s self to the world, and sporting events, these are the components of ‘living’ – the things that we enjoy about our lives (or maybe that I enjoy about my life).  So for me, writing a party scene is an important way of conveying the social lives of my characters.  But getting it right has always been tricky.

    Thoughts?  Other Examples?

    Next I’d like to discuss how to write about sports in a way that conveys sports’ essential fascination in real life (because of its unpredictable nature – the very opposite of what is true about sports in fiction).

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    Davis Cup History for Bleacher Report

    I'm a great tennis fan.  Here's an article I submitted to the Bleacher Report - part of a series on great men of tennis:

    Dwight Davis: Politician, Diplomat, and Tennis Star

    (Correspondent) on October 1, 2010

    Let’s see, Secretary of War? Or famous tennis star?  Hmmm … Which career path to choose?  How about ... both?!
    Not many tennis stars go to college.  John McEnroe, who is famously known for attending Stanford, only attended the university for a single semester.  John Isner, a current tennis star, is the only one in the top 50 to obtain a degree (at the University of Georgia) before starting his ATP career.
    Like John Isner, Dwight Davis was a collegiate tennis singles champion.  He played for Harvard University in 1899. The closest he came to a singles title was runner up in the US Championships in 1898.  A lefty, Davis made a name for himself in doubles.  While at Harvard he also went out for baseball and played on the sophomore football team.
    Quite a few US politicians were collegiate, or even professional athletes, before embarking on a life of public service, among them: President Gerald R. Ford, and Senator Jack Kemp.  Dwight Davis can be counted among these public figures.  Davis would serve the U.S. as secretary of war from 1925-1929 under President Calvin Coolidge.
    Being from an upper-class family, Davis would have seen his college career not as a stepping stone to sports immortality, but as a nice hobby. Nonetheless, in spite of his dearth of singles titles Davis, like Frenchman Rene LaCoste 30 years later, was not only a winner but also a technical innovator.  He would become a key mover and creator in the sport.
    At the turn of the twentieth century, tennis was played in society clubs, and also in the street.  To distinguish society tennis from that in the street, club tennis was known as ‘Lawn Tennis.’  An iconoclastic visual of the times comes from the musical ‘Ragtime,’ which depicts turn-of the century upper-class types in the opening vignette as ‘fellows with tennis balls.’ In 1902, the look would have included straw hats, slacks, and afternoon tea.  Dwight Davis would have fit perfectly into this visual.

    Harvard University was the Nick Bollettierri’s of the time, with 30 courts, and the top players of the time, practicing and innovating the sport.  Dwight Davis’ peers at the time were (with delightful, turn-of the century names): Holcombe Ward, Malcolm Whitman, Beals Wright, Leo Ware, and William Clothier (US singles champion in 1906). The period 1898-1906 has been called the first golden age of American lawn tennis (the second golden age being 1915-1930 with Bill Tilden and Bill Johnson.)
    Among innovations in the sport coming from these players: a special top-spin slice serve that after bouncing would break rightward in the direction of a right-hander’s backhand, created by Holcombe Ward and Dwight Davis to defeat Malcolm Whitman.  All three players would later serve as the original members of the US Davis Cup squad.  The innovation was at first called the American Twist Serve, but now is simply called a ‘kick’ serve and used mostly on second serves.
    Perhaps the most exquisite contribution Dwight Davis made to the sport was his willingness to, and ability to commit the resources to, the creation of a competition, one of the most formidable international competitions in any sport outside of the Olympic movement, known originally as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, which was later renamed the Davis Cup in his honor.
    Tennis has ancient origins – stretching some say back to the Egyptians – but the modern game began to take shape in France and England, as well as the US, in the timeframe after the US civil war.  It was in this timeframe (1877) that the first championships were held at Wimbledon.

    The International Lawn Tennis Challenge (Davis Cup), issued in 1899 by four members of the Harvard tennis team, was conceived for the purpose of a single tennis squad (Harvard) to challenge the British to a tennis competition. Dwight Davis designed the tournament format and commissioned from his own funds an exquisite solid sterling silver trophy (Dwight’s Pot) from Shreve, Crump & Low, a popular silver-casting outfit in Boston that makes trophies to this day!
    Ironically for someone who would go on to serve as Secretary of War, Davis was stalwart in his vision for the competition, and for the compelling international nature of tennis. As innovative as they were, and as deep in talent at Harvard, Davis and his peers would read articles from London about the level of play in the United States.  Among the comments: America had good players, but they didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘fine points’ of the game and, besides, their backhands were weak.  Davis and his contemporaries, eager to prove the manner in which their innovations had caused the sport to progress, issued a challenge to their British counterparts, and devised the team format to illustrate the depth and breadth of any given countries skills at the sport.  Like the modern Olympics, which were re-conceived in the same timeframe, the Davis Cup was seen as a unifying influence, one that fostered international cooperation and understanding by focusing on the technical achievements of sportsmen.
    It was perhaps his prowess at doubles, where team-work is key, that led Davis to experiment with the team format.  In this, the Davis Cup, as a sporting event, differs from the tennis majors, which can also be seen as international events in their modern incarnation, but in which each individual’s technical skills are the lynchpin of their success.

    The first Davis Cup competition was held Feb. 9, 1900. By 1904 the French were included, by 1906 the Australians were included, and the list of participants, and the ends of the earth to which the players were willing to travel for competition, quickly multiplied.  The desire on the part of some countries to capture the Davis Cup, and the lengths to which they went to win it, are the stuff of legend and history.  We will visit some of that history with the discussion of Rene LaCoste and the rest of the Four Mousequetaries later in this series, for by now Davis Cup competition is firmly entrenched in tennis lore.
    Davis remained dedicated to the principles of Davis Cup competition for his entire life. Davis is recorded as saying that his vision for the Cup must not be forgotten, “It is meant to travel. Its appearance in any country brings a flock of exterior implications very beneficial to sporting unity in the tennis world.”

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    Here's to New York!

    The major tennis season recently finished with the US Open, held in Flushing Meadows, NYC.  While I love the tennis, and have a major crush on Rafael Nadal, today I just want to write about ESPNs coverage, and the wonderful world of New York that they captured in many subtle ways in the broadcast.
    Here's a beautiful shot of one of the bridges (the 59th St. Bridge?).  The ESPN broadcast captured lovely images of New York at different times of day, each and every day of the fortnight.  And what is more, the narration by selected 'voices' of New York added an extra  vibrancy to the ambiance of the television event.  My favorite one is actually from last year, when Kim Cattral opined that Juan Martin Del Potro - the eventual winner and a shy 20-year old athlete from Argentina, should 'show us your dark side!'  (smiles).  This year it was a 20 second piece in which a couple of roller-skating kids said to the camera '... it's up to You!' - in an allusion to the song made famous by Frank Sinatra, among others.  The images, the humor, and the jazz soundtrack are my lasting impressions of the event and the city, that will stay with me for months to come.