Tuesday, March 30, 2021

My Mind Has Twisted Corners

"Your mind has some twisted corners," my aunt told me after reading an epic fantasy novel I wrote and published (recently re-titled and re-released as Sword and Gauntlets). It was an observation, not a criticism. It doesn't take a reader long to come across some of these twisted corners. Early in the novel, the sorcerer Raethir Del fuses a hunter with a deerskin as part of a process of recharging his arcane powers. When one of the protagonists, Enkinor, becomes trapped by Raethir Del in the Dreamtunnel, his initial dreams feel like the most horrible of nightmares. 
What is the inspiration for those twisted corners? That's hard for me to say. But here are some examples of inspiration for settings and the villain in the novel:
  • Lake Cinnaril is based on Center Hill Lake in Middle Tennessee
  • the peak upon which Visylon takes the Sword of Helsinlae was inspired by the Chimney Tops, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • the tree growing from Helsinlae's grave was inspired by the grave of a relative who died in 1866 in Jackson County, Tennessee
  • the waterfall in front of the Lair of Ualdrar is based on Fall Creek Falls, near Spencer, Tennessee
  • the shapeshifting sorcerer, Raethir Del, was inspired by the wizard on the cover of Uriah Heep's album titled Demons and Wizards
  • the underground lake in the Lair of Ualdrar is based on the Lost Sea in Sweetwater, Tennessee
Recently I was surprised to discover my Pinterest account and its contents are still online. I've not used the account for a couple of years because, after the publication of an earlier incarnation of Sword and Gauntlets, I shifted my attention to finishing my books about the American Civil War, as well as my recently released anthology, The Trail Behind Me.

When I was actively building my collection of art and photos in Pinterest, my purpose was to capture images that might inspire my efforts at worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is the term describing how a writer fleshes out an imaginary world. It can include everything from politics, geography, religion, science, sociology, and warfare, to clothing and customs. There is even a magazine devoted to worldbuilding.

I group my images in Pinterest boards with these titles:

arms and armor
fortifications and ruins
horses and their riders
masks and other decorations
models for characters
pathways and portals
    steps and stairs
    paths and trails
sorcery and shamanism
storyline triggers
warriors and fighters
women and swords
women and water

Here is a draft of the beginning of a story inspired by a random selection of images from my "storyline triggers," "attire," and "creatures" boards:

A column of knights threads its way through a forest. Afternoon sunlight penetrates the bare woods but does little to lift the mood of the warriors. Shadows fall across their snowy path. One knight has dismounted and leads the others. The sound of their horses is dampened by the snow.

The leading knight, Renault, is intrigued by a black figure he's been watching as they approach. The person stands on the path, clearly waiting for them. As the knights get closer, Renault's keen eyes make out black leather armor, black cape and cowl, a black scarf covering the bottom of the person's face. And a black sword at the stranger's side. Renault is not overly concerned. The black-clad figure is outnumbered. Any sign of hostility on the part of the stranger would be a foolish and fatal mistake. As Renault approaches, he sees the person's eyes and realizes it is a woman who waits for them. Her hand rests on the hilt of her sword. If she is the only one they face, his men need not fear. But Renault has not survived to this age without being cautious.

"Renault!" shouts one of the knights, and points in a different direction. There is a splash of crimson, the color of a winter cardinal. It is another woman, this one mounted, some distance off the path. Her red cloak covers her head. There are no weapons visible. She is not armored but there are large, filigreed shoulder pieces securing her cloak to her shoulders. A long staff with a matching filigreed head is sheathed next to the woman's saddle. Renault is certain she is of high position, maybe even royalty. He looks back to the armored and cowled woman standing in their path, raising his hand to signal his troops to stop.

"There are wolves ahead," says the black-robed woman.

"Thank you for the warning," says Renault. He smiles, gesturing to the men behind him. "We are prepared. Strong bows and sharp arrows will keep them at bay."

"It is not the wolves you should fear. They are being herded this way by something you would be wise to avoid."

If you'd like me to continue this story, leave a comment for me below!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Rock Music and the Element of Surprise

My latest book, The Trail Behind Me, includes a short memoir titled, "Embracing the Element of Surprise." In it, I give several examples from my youth, growing up in Florida and exploring the wild with my friends, where surprise found us and made our experiences more exciting and memorable.

The element of surprise in music can do the same thing.

When I was going to college in South Florida, eons ago, a band named McKendree Spring gave us a concert one evening. I had no idea what kind of music they played, but it didn't matter. It was the end of a balmy spring day and it felt good just to sit out on the lawn, in front of the stage, and experience something new. 

In addition to a number of original songs, McKendree Spring played a cover of "Down by the River" by Neil Young. The first verse was played in much the same style as Neil Young had played it, but when they came to the chorus, they let loose. Fortissimo! Power chords! I was floored. It was totally unexpected. The surprise was exciting. They were loud, and tight, and sounded like The Who had just come on stage for the chorus. Just as exciting was the transition back to the melodic second verse, mezzo-forte.

Since that time, I've come to appreciate a lot of rock music that begins with a soft, melodic intro that changes, with maybe little warning, into something pulsing with volume and energy. (Some classify these songs as power ballads.) 

Styx performed several songs like this, including "Lady" (1973), "Suite Madame Blue" (1975), and "Come Sail Away" (1977). Grand Funk did this with a short intro to "Sin's a Good Man's Brother" from the album Closer to Home (1970). And there are many others, including "Glory of the Empire" (2005) by the Norwegian progressive rock band, Circus Maximus. "The Shadow Hunter" (2004) by the Brazilian prog rock band Angra begins with a lively Spanish (Portuguese) guitar and some castanets and up-tempo percussion before (at 0:45) bursting with power chords. 

The intros for songs like these are frequently performed on piano or acoustic guitar before electric guitars, bass, and percussion come in with a bang. Certainly, the more you listen to one of these songs, the less the surprise, but even when you expect the shift from "light" to "heavy," it can send a thrill down your spine.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Little Girl and a Great Big Bomb

Once upon a time, two stern-looking military police knocked on the door of my grandparents' house. Their visit was ominous. They had questions about something my mother, age ten, had said on the school bus about blowing up her school.

In this day and age, comments of that kind would certainly be noticed and followed up on.

Now imagine that comment being made in 1944 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where research on the atomic bomb was taking place under strict secrecy.

Secret work

Mom had been miffed with one of her schoolteachers. Her comment on the school bus was only an offhand remark and an angry wish. But you don't talk about explosions if your father (my grandfather, Grady Webb) is working at a secret facility building the most powerful weapon the world had yet to see.

Grady, like everyone else he worked alongside, did not know the true purpose of the Oak Ridge facility. He was a millwright, tasked with keeping machinery working, even if he had no knowledge of the final product of all that machinery. Every morning, though, as he and the others entered the factory, guards would wave Geiger counters up and down each arm and leg, head and chest. Few of them knew what a Geiger counter was. If anyone's radiation exposure was too high, they were reassigned to another part of the facility.

Mom got off with a stern warning. In time, my grandparents would better understand why these officials came to their door. Grady discovered, on a tragic day in early August 1945, the role Oak Ridge had played in bringing an end to World War II. He was not a government employee but instead worked for one of the contractors responsible for maintaining the facility, Carbide & Carbon Chemical Corporation (later known as Union Carbide). After the war he was presented with a certificate for contributing to the Manhattan Project.

Recognition for contributing to the end of World War II

"United States of America, War Department, Army Service Forces - Corps of Engineers, Manhattan District -

"This is to certify that Grady W. Webb, Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corp., has participated in work essential to the production of the Atomic Bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II. This certificate is awarded in appreciation of effective service."

The certificate was signed by Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, and dated 6 August 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, at Hiroshima.

There are important ethical questions regarding the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II. Was this use of the atomic bomb necessary, or was it avoidable? I am not a scholar of World War II history, so I can't really take a side. But it does cause some real cognitive dissonance. I am proud of my grandfather for his contribution to the end of a terrible war, and at the same time, I lament that this contribution and the work of thousands of other people led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.

Comic relief

I hope you can forgive me for ending this post on a lighter note: I'm grateful my mother was not jailed for "subversive" childhood comments. And that her most serious offense over her long life was nothing worse than backing out of her driveway into a parked police car. ("But he shouldn't have parked there!")

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

"A Blind Dog in a Meat House," or: Bibliophilia and Difficult Decisions

The philosopher Erasmus if often quoted as having said, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes." Though my personal library includes over 300 e-books and over 700 physical books, I have managed to not wind up starving and half-naked.

It seems like I've been eating books as long as I've been eating food. But it was not until I was in high school that I started tracking books I've read. March 8 of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of keeping a record of the books I have "eaten." This record clearly shows a case of bibliophilia, if not bibliomania. I inherited the genetic predisposition for this, as did our daughter Kendra.

Decisions, decisions ...

Choosing a major in college wasn't easy. I was interested in too many things. Likewise, my interest in books is broad (despite my father's early criticism for reading too much sci-fi and fantasy as a teenager, something for which he apologized many years later). I walk into a bookstore, or log on to Amazon, and I feel like the proverbial "blind dog in a meat house." Everything looks interesting. What is a bibliomaniac to do?

1. I can't afford to buy every book I want to read. (Frequenting library book-sales and second-hand stores helps, but see #3 and #4 below.)

2. I can't always find the books I want at the library, and when I do, I can't always read them before they're due back, because I multitask my reading, reading a handful of books in parallel. (My wife: "How can you keep them all straight?" Me: "It's no different than watching several TV shows at the same time.")

3. I don't have infinite space to shelve every physical book I purchase. (But e-books are easy to forget about, lost in cyberspace.)

4. I don't have the time and energy to read every book I'd like to.

Prioritization sucks.

So many books, so little time ...

Fifty years into tracking my reading, I see how very difficult it would be to summarize the thousands of books I've read.* I've read non-fiction and fiction of virtually every genre (though I'm not sure I've read a romance novel yet - unless The Bridges of Madison County qualifies).  I've read infamously long books as well as short books that are hardly more than a literary swallow for someone who eats books.  There are few books I've reread, primarily because there are always so many other books waiting to be read I can't spare the time on rereading.  There are books that I'm happy to talk about with other people, and books that are so personal to me I can't comfortably talk about them.

And yet, I can't be sated. I'm still hungry for more books. That's why I wind up buying books faster than I can read them. It's a sickness!

I've begun to worry a bit, now that I'm older, how many more books I can read before I die. Under certain assumptions, I may finish another thousand books before my time comes. I don't mean to be morbid. My problem is, I'm rapidly approaching the point when I will have more physical and electronic books in my collection than I can possibly finish. As my mother would say, "Horrors!"

If anyone knows a creative solution to these challenges, please share it!

And finally, we all should remember ...

"We're all what we read to a very considerable degree." **

* If you are interested in seeing my list, you can find it on my Goodreads account.
** David McCullough, "The Love of Learning," an address to the Boston College graduating class of 2008. In: McCullough, David. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Pyramids and Good Nutrition: Food and Information

Many of us love to eat information as much as we love to eat food. But are we eating the right kinds of information?

Eating Nutritious Food on the Road to Good Health

Remember the "food pyramid"? It was a visual depiction of a nutritious diet, based on food groups like meat, poultry, vegetables, fruit, etc. 

Imagine picking up a worn copy of a book at your local library's annual book sale, a book that purports to tell you how you should change your diet, based on the food pyramid, so you can live a healthier, more productive life. The book is only 180 pages long, so it should be an easy-enough read. But when you get home and thumb through this book, you realize the 180 pages include 30 pages of endnotes, index, and scripture references. That means the author must get his or her point across in 150 pages. Undeterred, you begin reading, only to discover the first fifty of the 150 pages of text explain what you already know: you need to choose what you eat more wisely if you're going to be healthy. The next ninety pages explain the food groups in the food pyramid. And the remaining ten pages tell you what results you will see from following a better diet.

This is what The Wisdom Pyramid by Brett McCracken is like.

Eating Nutritious Information on the Road to Wisdom

"Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World" is an enticing subtitle for McCracken's book. Our souls all need special care when we get so much information from the world that is true, partly true, or false. (The need for a term like "post-truth" disturbs me on several levels.) The author sets up a pyramid like the food pyramid to illustrate the importance of each "information group" to reaching actual God's-honest wisdom. I like the basic premise. I like the analogy between the food pyramid and the author's Wisdom Pyramid. 

But ... do I really need to slog through fifty pages of The Wisdom Pyramid to see why a more nutritious information diet will make me wiser? And why put off describing what a healthy wisdom lifestyle looks like till the end of the book? 

I believe it would've been much better to begin with a picture of a nutritious wisdom lifestyle. If I follow certain principles, what will that lifestyle look like, and why should I desire it? After that, I would succinctly explain the challenges we face every day in managing our information consumption, as well as the steps necessary to achieve a better diet. This last part is the meat of the book, and more words should be used there than in any other part of the book.

There are important messages in this book. But the way the problems and the solutions were presented didn't work for me.

Food pyramid graphic from http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/Fpyr/pyramid.gif, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=680809