Monday, August 27, 2012

Summer is over and gone...

The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.”

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
   ~Charlotte's Web (The Crickets)

That bit out of Charlotte's Web has always stuck with me. It's my first thought when I hear August's crickets chirping to the night. I'm listening to them now, that twinkling sound; that glorious chorus punctuated by the bzzt-bzzt-bzzt and click-click-tick of katydids joining in. It brings me such joy, contentment; and melancholy.

Summer is over and gone, over and gone...

Long ago summers of green ghost and States and staying out until the ungodly hour of nine o'clock. We were such hooligans, running the suburban streets until such an hour. What were our parents thinking? Magical summer. Anything was possible.We were young and wild and freer than we'd ever be again. We were good and stupid and kind and mean. We were kids for whom summer ended exactly on Labor Day, heralded by cricketsong.

Summer is over and gone, over and gone...

I remember, straddling my Baracuda 3-speed bicycle, curls sweat-plastered to my face, ready to race my brother's best friend (who I had a not-so-secret crush on.) Playing cards clothes-pinned to my spokes, basket on the handlebars--and fringe. I was ready. My brother had a cap gun, to make it official and all; bang! I pedaled with everything I had, but my not-so-secret crush was bigger and his bike was a ten-speed. He won. Chivalry among children does not exist.

Summer is over and gone, over and gone...

I remember picking mulberries. I liked them slightly less than ripe: deep red at the bottom, kind of pink at the top. That sour tang, that burst of sweet. We ate them straight off the tree. No pesticides, no fertilizer to worry about. Pop-pop-pop, in they went. What we couldn't eat, we baked into pies or smooshed on one another. Strategically. Not quite in naughty spots, but close enough to giggle over.

Summer is over and gone, over and gone...

I remember walking to the Milk Jug to buy ice cream with my brothers and sister, running through the sprinkler, rolling down the hill. We built a fort out of the crates (real wooden ones) our new washer and dryer and refrigerator came in. Being inside was like crawling into an oven. (What were our parents thinking??) Labor Day approached, and the church bazaar my parents helped to run. The last big bang before school and homework and getting to bed on time. My dad always ran the basketball hoop game. "Hit the road, kid, you're bothering me!" was his favorite line, said with a smile and a quarter slipped into my sticky palm--no matter how many times I came back begging. I always played HON on the wheel. It only cost about a million dollars in quarters to win the bedspread doll I'd coveted all week long.

Summer is over and gone, over and gone...

But not really. Never really. It lives through autumn and winter and spring. It did then. It does now. It lives through the years, waiting. For cricketsong to bring it to life. For the smile. For the breath of life blown into it, just for a moment.

What summer memories do you have to share? Any one (or three!) will do.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What I Did This Summer

 A scene from my summer adventures
in the high Talamanca of Costa Rica.
If I had any lingering doubts about summer drawing to a close, they were obliterated this past week in back-to-back faculty and staff meetings at Avila.  Classes start on Wednesday, and though my week of meetings has left me in a rather unpleasant mood, I'm looking forward to seeing my students and getting started with fall semester.

I was trying to think of what to write on HoF this week, when I remembered that way back when I was in grade school, our first homework assignment often consisted of an essay about what we did over the summer.  Wow, those were painful to write.  Even on the few occasions that I actually had something interesting to say.  Now, having graded a fair number of student essays over the years, I wonder just how painful they were for my teachers to read. 

In any case, that little memory sparked the idea for this week's post.  Don't worry!  I won't subject you to an essay about what I did over the summer.  Though I do have interesting stories to tell, and if you want to read more about my adventures as a field ecologist in the rain forests of Central America, I invite you to visit my blog for Eolyn

What I will do on HoF is share with you a product of the summer:  an audio recording of an excerpt from the near-final (I hope!) draft of High Maga, the companion novel to Eolyn.

Those of you who read Eolyn will recognize only two characters in this scene:  Eolyn, and the South Woods.  There is a third character, Sir Borten, a loyal knight of King Akmael, who appeared in Eolyn, but his role was minor enough that few probably remember him.  Everyone else is new:  Delric, also a knight of the King, and two of Eolyn's young students in magic, Melanie and Sirena. 

A disclaimer before you listen to the recording, and an apology.  The disclaimer is that the manuscript has yet to undergo an editor's redpen, so what you hear may be significantly altered -- or even deleted -- before the novel goes to press. 

My apology?  Well, I've been getting over a very bad cold, so that might affect the quality of my reading. 

'Nuf said.  Here's the recording, and when you're done listening (or even if you decide not to listen), I'd love to hear about what you did over the summer, too.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, August 13, 2012

Writing Female Characters

Please welcome our August guest, Jim C. Hines, author of the Goblin Quest books and the Princess series, "often described as a blend of Grimm's Fairy Tales with Charlie's Angels" ( He is an outspoken advocate of women's issues on his blog, where he addresses a variety of topics from rape awareness to depictions of women in cover art. His most recent novel, Libriomancer, debuted August 7th. 

First of all, my thanks to Kim for the invitation to do a little guest babbling! Kim suggested I could talk about “the perspective of a man who writes women characters well.” (Thank you!) So I figured I’d share the secret.

Ultimately, I think this is the key to learning how to write female characters, and I’m going to share it with you all.

Here it is. The big important secret that, unfortunately, some of us still struggle with. Are you ready?

Women are people.

Shocking, right? But I think some writers tend to forget this point, or even worse, never learned it. Sometimes women are nothing but trophies to be won, the hero’s prize after a valiant quest. (This is one of several reasons I can’t stand most of the original Sleeping Beauty stories.) Alternately, women can be used to motivate the hero. “Women in Refrigerators” is a good example of this syndrome. (Google it if you’re not familiar with the phrase.)

I do think we’ve gotten better over the years. Heck, these days you can find all sorts of Strong Women Characters™ in urban fantasy and elsewhere. Yet, as I read these stories, I can’t help noticing how often the Strong Woman Character™ falls into a particular, somewhat narrow definition: tough, cynical, sexy, and physically kick-ass. And don’t get me started on the cover art and poses.

Now, I happen to like kick-ass heroines. I was a big fan of Buffy and Faith. I enjoy watching Black Widow hold her own against the bad guys, or reading about women taking on vampires, werewolves, demons, and whatever other monsters have come along to threaten them.

But that can’t be all there is. If the only significant female character is the Strong Woman Character™, then that’s a problem. If she’s the only character getting any time in the stories, then we’re not really reading about women. We’re reading about one particular subtype of woman, while erasing all the rest.

I remember the first time someone said they thought the strongest female character in my book Goblin Hero wasn’t the goblin wizard-in-training, nor was she the goblin chef with a spoon that could crack skulls; the strongest character was Grell, an elderly goblin who hobbled about on two wooden canes. In terms of combat, she was pretty much the least capable of defending herself (with the possible exception of Braf, who was just as likely to incapacitate himself in a nose-picking accident).

But she was smart, she was cranky, and she was perfectly capable of manipulating the other goblins into getting killed instead of her. She was a fun character to write, in part because I wasn’t trying to fit her into a narrowly-defined subcategory.

Janet Kagan wrote great female characters, because they were characters first and foremost. They were people, fully-developed with their own quirks and strengths and fears. They were real. The fact that they were female was a part of who they were as characters, but it didn’t define them. They were individuals with their own stories.

I’ve talked to a number of new writers who struggle with how to write female characters. Or non-white characters. Or LGBT characters. I struggled myself when I was starting out. The problem is when we try to define the characters by that one dimension. That approach, shocking as this may sound, leads to one-dimensional, stereotypical characters.
Women are people. You’d be amazed how much better a story gets when the author treats them that way.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Modern Heroes

Like much of the world, I’ve been caught up in the excitement of the summer Olympics. When I was a child, I wanted to be Mary Lou Retton, springing off the vault to victorious gold. I also toyed with the idea of becoming an Olympic swimmer or diver, perhaps even a synchronized swimmer. Naturally, during the winter Olympics, figure skating was my dream event. Let’s forget for a moment that I hated P.E. and most of my recreational activities were…uh…reading.

Kirani James brings home Grenada's first ever gold medal.
Now that I have composted those dreams to nourish others, I find that I watch the competitions for different reasons. Rather than look at them as “how tos” or as tools of inspiration, I am most interested in the stories behind the athletes. Where did they come from? How did they get to the Olympics? What sacrifices were made? Are they realizing their dreams, or going home crushed? Why do they succeed at those events? What qualities and characters make them who they are, and what do we see in them that drives us to watch, to cheer them one, to feel genuine empathy when they lose?

The answers to those questions provide endless opportunities for writers. Commentators and critics, both professional and armchair, can pick away at body types or hair, but ultimately, those athletes are playing and performing their hearts out at the end of a long road that included hard, physical work, mental toughness, trying, failing, trying again, failing again, injury, dedication, determination, personal and financial obstacles, conditioning… and the list goes on.  

Gabby Douglas left her home and family to train in  Iowa.
If we look closely enough, we discover that their stories follow the classic hero’s journey. A talent discovered. An athlete mentored, trained as far as he or she can go, only to be forced to leave that mentor, and sometimes home and family, to take his or her skills to the next level. The athlete, like the hero, faces obstacles to be overcome; is tested, sometimes multiple times, and must face the consequences of failure before he or she can claim victory.

These are our modern heroes. Our warriors. They wear our colors and fight for our honor. In a world that is rather bleak at times, where so many are losing homes and jobs, scrounging pennies to put food on the table, the Olympic warriors still give us hope. Just like our sword or magic-wielding heroes in fantasy, they stand for what is good and right, and we can’t help but admire them. They shine a little light of peace into our tumultuous world, and show us that for many, the impossible can become possible.

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius.
As I prepare to outline the third book of my series at the end of this summer, I’m going to have many of these athletes and their stories on my mind, particularly the qualities and characteristics that drive them to accomplish amazing feats. Are they perfect? No. I’m sure some of them are assholes or kick puppies in their spare time. But for now, I’m going to admire their almost superhuman strength, endurance, and determination to overcome and pretend that the world is a little better this month for having the Olympics in it once again. And then I'm going to use their examples to flesh out my characters so that my heroes ring true to readers.

~Kim Vandervort