Research is a Chain Reaction

Sometimes research is easy:  What’s the population of Springfield, Missouri?  Or the average high temperature of Mesa, Arizona in October?  One question, one answer.

More often, at least for me, research is a chain reaction.

Question:  Where is the Rosario Mine in Honduras?  I’m curious because my grandfather, on a steamer from Panama to San Francisco, wrote about ta “Secretary of the Rosario Mining Company 5000 ft. up in the Honduras Mountains, who came four days on mule back and twenty miles in an open boat to take our steamer.”  So exactly where is the mine?

I found Rosario Mine–Internet research is great!–but where there used to be the mine, there is La Tigra National Park, so I search that.  Do they have tigers there?  Not exactly.   It is named after the female puma, which is called la tigra, and yes, las tigras do live there–at least a few of them.  Also, the mountain where the mine, and now the park, are located, is called La Tigra.

Now I want a photo of that animal.  I search “puma, Honduras” and discover that “The Puma Energy brand is the leading oil products brand in Honduras.”  Scratch that.  Add “animal” to search.

Pumas are called, according to that site, “cougars, panthers, and mountain lions.”  Not tigers.  Are there tigers in Central America?

  1.  There is a “Tigers” soccer team:  “While many fans in Nuevo Leon are dreaming of a 2017 Liga MX Apertura final between Tigres and local-rival Monterrey, each side still has semifinal series to navigate.”
  2. There is El Tigre Island, on the Pacific side of Central America, which my grandfather sailed past in 1914 and mentioned in his journal.

True tigers live only in Asia

That last site, All about Wildlife, seems like an excellent reference and the photographs distract me from the gold and silver mined at Rosario where you would now take a hike instead of digging a tunnel in La Tigra Mountain.  I’ll take a break from my Panama book writing and learn about exotic animals for a while.

You see what I mean by a chain reaction?

John Scalzi–Science Fiction and Good Advice

The author of Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi, wrote a column, “Ten Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing.”
He speaks to me, first:

“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t go out of my way to use current slang and such; there’s very little more pathetic than a 36-year-old man dropping slang to prove he’s hip to the kids.

What may be more pathetic is a grandmother doing the same.  Some of the fictitious characters I write about do “drop slang”–or worse.  Nate and Derek use words I won’t either speak or print myself, but I wouldn’t be fair to them if I cleaned up their language.

Knowing you’ve got years to grow and learn means you’ve got the time to take risks and explore and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t … It’s time to gain the life experience that will feed your writing. It’s time you need to write — and time you need to not write and to give your brain a break … And it’s the time you need to screw up, make mistakes, learn from them and move on.

I’m Not Going to Tell You to Get Good Grades, but, You Know, Try To Pay Attention.  High school is often asinine and lame — I’m not telling you anything you don’t know here — but on the other hand it’s a place where you’re actually encouraged to do two things that are a writer’s bread and butter: to observe and to comment … and as a result, you might learn something, which is always a nice bonus for your day. School is a resource; use it.

(Also, for the love of all that is holy, please please please pay attention in your English composition class. You should know English language grammar for roughly the same reason you should know road rules before you go driving: It avoids nasty pile-ups later.)
John Scalzi

Zoe’s Tale is part of the Old Man’s War series, but it’s a good read by itself, and was nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy.  If you are a science fiction fan, you may want to check out John Scalzi’s “Whatever” site, especially the “Big Idea” category.

Oldest Computer—The Antikythera Mechanism

"The first computer" found in shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera
  • Antikythera is the Greek island near where it was found.
  • It predicted lunar and solar eclipses, held a calendar, and signaled the next Olympic Games.
  • When scientists studied the device with x-rays, they discovered you could use it to track the sun, moon, and planets.
  • CT scans—the same procedure that might tell your doctor whether your appendix needs to come out–revealed tiny writing engraved on its parts, not exactly a built-in instruction manual, more like parts labels, but important clues to where it might have been made and what it was supposed to do—enough for scholars now to understand at least some of the workings.
"The first computer" found in shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera
The Antikythera mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0.

The Antikythera Mechanism was found with a 2000-year-old wrecked ship in 1902.  It’s the only one found, but perhaps something similar will turn up elsewhere to answer questions about when it was made, who made it, and did anyone, a thousand years ago, build anything like it?

This model of the Mechanism, built by science modeler Massimo Mogi Vicentini, is an attempt to show what its insides might have looked like 2000 years ago:

Mogi Vicentini via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5


Identifying Friends

Derek’s best friend is Andy.  Andy’s parents never minded feeding Derek when he showed up at mealtime, but Andy’s dad hasn’t ever invited Derek to join them on a hunting trip. When they were in fourth grade, Andy helped Derek sneak in through his bedroom window, and that’s how Derek (and then Nate) got chicken pox.

I thought at first that Nate’s best friend was Russell, but when I realized Russ isn’t dependable enough to be a true friend, I found Hiram, known to his buddies as “Hi Ho Silver” because his last name is Silberman.  One year Hi and Nate got into trouble setting up a haunted house for Halloween.  When I  find out what happened, I’ll write that story.

A chance to talk about Three Tales!

This could be the first time in my life that I’ve looked forward to talking in public!

Tomorrow I participate in a Writers’ Club panel at the Hesperia, CA library.  Four of us who published a first book within the last year will be on a panel, talking about the challenges of publishing, problems solved, how we reached this point, or anything else asked by the moderator or audience, which I expect will be small.

The best part of it is the opportunity to hear what my fellow panelists have to say.

Locating the Story

Every story has a place, a setting.

Rex Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, lives in a luxurious brownstone on West 35th Street in New York, although I’ve never been there and can’t tell you whether West 35th Street has, or once had, luxurious brownstones.

Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series takes place on Pern, a planet so well described you may feel you actually live there.  When I first read it, I almost started searching the sky for dragons and dragon riders.  You may feel that way about The Hunger Games.

Mitford, North Carolina, is a completely mapped town you’d expect to find on a State map, but the Mitford books are fiction.  Mitford is the setting for Jan Caron’s stories about Father Tim, the boy Dooley, the dog Barnabas…

I either choose places I know for my fiction, or I do extensive research with maps, photos, and reading what others have written about that place.

You could find where Derek and Nate live by studying the text for nearby towns which I name, but there’s a reason why their home towns are not named.  I may use maps of the areas and actual street names (how many towns have Fourth Street or Maple Street?), but you won’t find the Bradford’s farmhouse or barns by following Derek’s path to town, and the layout of the high school, while I could draw you a diagram, won’t match the building you would see. There is a park with a pond where Derek hides when he skips school, but I’m not sure about the cattails that screen him from the street.  I start with a template based on a place I know, or knew in the years in which the story is set, but the story constructs the town.

The sort of residential street where my characters Kate and Willard live.
Willard and Kate live on this street, but I know–don’t ask me how–that their home has white siding, brick facing around the front door, and blue shutters. This might be one of their neighbors.