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Poison 101 at LTUE 2020

About a million years ago (actually it was the early 1990s), I worked as an environmental analytical chemist for the State of Idaho. Technically, we were the forensic lab for the Department of Environmental Quality, but we also consulted on criminal cases—the state police’s forensic lab was in the basement for the first few years I worked there.

After I left that job due to certain health effects, I started noticing this weird thing in books, movies, and other entertainment.

People were not portraying poisoning correctly. And over the years it didn’t get any better. So in the early 2000s, I wrote a workshop to teach people the biochemistry of poison, hence Poison 101.

I gave this workshop in my local area for several years, and even at the RWA National convention in 2005 and the Emerald City Writers Conference a few years after that. However, it’s been at least a decade since I last gave it, and the recordings are no longer available.

And then RED 2 did the stupid-stupid-stupid 5-second thing with a knockout drug in 2013. This. Does. Not. Happen. Le Sigh. For dog’s sake, the Bulgarians injected writer Georgi Markov with ricin in 1978 and it took him four horrible days to die. Four. Days. May he rest in peace.

So. It is time for this workshop to be presented again.

On February 14, 2020, at 6 p.m., Poison 101 will be presented at the Life, The Universe, and Everything conference in Provo, Utah. If you’d like to attend, here’s the website: https://www.ltue.net

If my workshop is chosen for video recording, you might be able to find it on the LTUE YouTube channel later. If this happens, I’ll post a link to it.

National Novel Writing Month Projects, Maybe

Last week I wrote five longhand pages on the first draft of Beta Tested (or whatever the title ends up being), my first work on Beta Tanaka’s story since August.

I had no idea my subconscious mind was so stubborn. Don’t go there, for that way madness lies, bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah. Conscious mind, yes, but apparently it goes all the way through.

So now that the characters are actually working again and I have a few ideas to fill the gaping plot holes, I think I’ll be working on the book during November, possibly as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short; NaNo for shorter).

Or not, because there’s this other story that keeps floating into my head when I’m trying to go to sleep at night. It’s the tale of Lord and Lady Danbury, coming up on their 10th anniversary when it comes out she wasn’t quite of the age of consent at their marriage of convenience.

Yeah. Another historical, when I vowed I would never write a historical because there’s so much research to do it properly.

Speaking of research, did you know the age of consent in England was 12 until 1875? 12! And I found that out accidently while watching something on the War of the Roses. Gah!

But…maybe I’ll work on that during NaNo too, just to get them out of my head. Maybe. I still have two days to decide, right?

And whatever I decide, I’ve broken the block. Onward….

Best Laid Plans

I was supposed to have a first draft of Beta Tanaka’s story finished this week. I don’t have it finished.

I am…disappointed with myself. Not punch-in-the-code-to-make-my-head-explode disappointed (Fifth Element reference for those of you who aren’t old like me), but not entirely sanguine either.

I could give reasons—there are always reasons, from sleep issues to new medications to new routines. (I’m now the only lap for two housecats and I can only be that lap from 5-10 p.m. The pressure!)

But the truth is, and always has been, you make time for the things that are important to you. I need to look at my priorities and decide if I want to get this story told this year. I only have three months left to make that happen.

And of course I want to get it down on virtual paper this year, before the details start to fade from memory. It’s a good story. Beta and Danae save the Dozen Worlds and find a way to overcome the obstacles to their relationship at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to find out how that happens?

So now that September has evaporated (September?! What happened to April!?), it’s time to pull up my big girl yoga pants and get some words down. In the right order.

See you soon, hopefully with a finished first draft.

As my penance, here’s a photo of me on lap duty, while trying to work out a troublesome plot point.

Stuart the lap cat

Corgi Problems

This is my dog Smokey. He’s a Welsh Corgi (purebred, but that was kind of an accident). A family who had raised him from a puppy was selling him because they had leased a house with hardwood floors, and the landlord didn’t want indoor dogs on the hardwood floors.

Let that sink in, and you’ll realize why I ended up with a purebred corgi. They were selling a family member for someone else’s convenience, but the two outside hunting dogs (the husband’s dogs) got to stay.

To quote Miss Scarlet of the movie Clue, “Flames. Flames shot out of my head….” Of course, Smokey had to be rescued from that situation. The labradors kept outside did too, but I didn’t have that option.

And Hank, who had always loved small dogs, thought Smokey was the best present ever. Corgis are really medium-sized dogs with achondroplasia dwarfism, but it was close enough for Hank.

Now, corgis are shepherds. And nobody told them they’re supposed to be little dogs (or if they did the corgis didn’t listen). So Smokey has the attitude of a police dog when it comes to doorbells, strangers, and perimeter patrol. And it really bothers him when the cats mess with him—they’re about the same height, but they’re cats. “It’s like being told to move along by a civilian, Chief. It’s not respecting the badge.”

But aside from just being a corgi (stubborn, protective, adorable), he has a bad habit of snacking out of litterboxes. I know—euw. We still don’t have all the furnishings in the mountain house, so there are two litterboxes within his reach. And Spooky Man isn’t good at policing his, ah, activities.

Yesterday, Smokey made himself sick enough that Spooky Man couldn’t drive to town for our wedding anniversary and to pick up his medications (Spooky Man’s, Smokey doesn’t take any medications).

Naughty corgi. But I can’t stay annoyed with that face. Sigh.

So I’m losing another weekend to a long-ish drive into the mountains, but I get to have my anniversary dinner in a trendy tourist spot, so it’s all good. And I can figure out a way to keep Smokey out of trouble while I’m there.

Then…back to the word mines.

A Quick Public Service Announcement

If you ever read something I’ve written and have constructive feedback, please feel free to let me know! I edit as thoroughly as I can, but after so many repetitions through the material, the brain starts to make it look like what it’s supposed to regardless of whether it actually does.

Something like that happened recently with The Unique Solution — which had been edited, critique-partner read, beta-read, and edited some more before it was published, with a certain plot element repeated thirty pages apart. Head, meet desk. Repeat.

Thank you Lieselotte, for noticing and saying something. You rock!

Comments and constructive criticism gratefully received at valmroberts (at) gmail (dot) com.

Hey, and if you feel like saying something nice, I’m up for that too.

News from the Word Mine

House purchase accomplished. Furniture purchase accomplished. Now I am back to the word mine, hard at work on about four projects.

First Working Title: Finding the Briar Rose

Set in the Human Diaspora universe. The story of Dane and Aurora Avondale’s courtship; he wakes her up from a century of cryosleep. He’s kidnapped by Saurians (friendly-ish aliens who evolved from their version of dinosaurs). He prevents the kidnappers from killing her after she nearly fights them off.

It is a Sleeping Beauty trope, but it’s Sleeping Beauty done properly. She wakes up with this guy kissing her and punches him, as one does in the real world. Eventually, Aurora kills the evil fairy in dragon form Saurian queen to free Dane, then takes over as regent for the late queen’s offspring that he saved when they were eggs. Hey, the kids didn’t do anything wrong.

I’m having trouble with the middle bit, where they discover they have far more in common than not, and the irritation turns to attraction. Apparently stubborn people live in my subconscious.

Second Working Title: Beta Testing

Set in the Dozen Worlds universe. The story of how Beta Tanaka and Danae Childress re-establish contact with Earth while overcoming their own relationship problems (he’s a customer-relations ninja for the Hauptmann Group, flitting around the Dozen Worlds fixing things; she’s a stay-at-home Zonan art expert–which makes for a really long-distance relationship). Oh, and did I mention alien cephalopoids (evil squids) might be coming to kill them all? Still fighting with this story, so the plot’s a bit murky yet.

Third Working Title: A Married Woman

Set in Regency England. Michael and Elizabeth, Lord and Lady Danbury, are coming up on their tenth anniversary…he was “blackmailed” into a marriage of convenience by her seedy father right before he leaves to be a field surgeon on the Peninsula. They discover she wasn’t quite 12 (who makes 12 the age of consent?!?—England until 1875! Gah!) at the ceremony.

A lot of living has happened since that wedding—both his older brothers died four years ago and he’s now heir to the big title—and he’s fallen in love with her, but she’s not so sure about trying the vows again. I never planned to write even one historical, but this is the second set of characters that refuse to get out of my head, so I’m writing it. FYI, Michael shows up at the end of A Ruined Woman as the physician for the duel.

Fourth Working Title: Temptation of Tetsuo or The Hitsugaya Harridan

Set in the Dozen Worlds universe. If you’ve read The Nobinata Gambit, you know a bit about Tetsuo Nobinata and Yuki Hitsugaya. This is their courtship—alpha male imperial warlord and alpha female survivor of sexual violence. And I’m still plotting it so that’s about all I know right now, but I do know that her strength and resilience is one of the things he finds highly attractive.

I also know Tetsuo is a great fighter but not so smooth with the ladies, and his awkwardness, and to some extent vulnerability, is something she finds attractive about him.

I’ll try to surface about once a week and think of something interesting to type, but…yeah. Those are pretty much the rest of my year if I can keep from getting distracted again. Wish me luck. And let me know if you come up with better titles, because I struggle with them.

Remembering the Moon Landing

Do you remember where you were when the first humans landed on the moon? I was in my parents’ living room, watching CBS on a black-and-white television at oh-dark-thirty. I had just turned five earlier in the month (which tells you how old I am now if you do the math).

You might not have existed yet (I’m getting pretty old), but those were exciting times. Except…we didn’t have the video, so we really only got half the story.

The footage of the LM descending, with its foot visible through the window, makes me hold my breath every time I see it, but we didn’t see that at the time. That camera had to come back to Earth and have the film developed.

And now, knowing that (a) the onboard computer was overloading so they had to land manually, (b) the original landing area was full of boulders that would have destroyed the LM, and (c) they had 17 seconds of fuel left when they finally set down, the story is even more intense.

You’d never be able to tell how fraught the situation was from those calm voices we were hearing at the time. Even reporting how little fuel was left or the error codes on the computer, they didn’t sound like they knew they had a pretty good chance of dying, although I understand (now) Commander Armstrong’s heart was beating like a hummingbird’s.

I just need to say here, he was a very, very, very good pilot. I’m sure Aldrin and Collins were also very very good pilots (they wouldn’t have been there otherwise), but that landing is proof that Armstrong had Mad Skilz-with-a-capital-M-capital-S.

I’ve been a passenger in a small aircraft landing on some questionable surfaces (dad was a pilot and we went into Idaho wilderness areas once or twice), and, well, I’ll say it again. That footage makes me hold my breath every time I see it, and I’ve been watching it almost obsessively for the last week or two every time someone else shows it on one of the 50th anniversary shows.

First Man On The Moon, yeah, but that was opening a door and climbing down a ladder. The landing was where Neil Armstrong-the-legend was made. We simply didn’t know that until later.

There are so many story lessons in the Apollo 11 moon landing. Raising the stakes for the hero, putting him up a tree and throwing rocks at him, taking away supports to force him to solve the problem on his own. Making use of the fact that he’s a [bleep!]ing fantastic pilot. That might be why it’s so compelling 50 years later. For once, reality makes a great story.

And the story is also making use of what isn’t said. There’s a pause after the telemetry says the Eagle has touched down before the famous announcement. You know, we all know, that Armstrong and Aldrin were looking at each other thinking, “Holy [bleep!], we did it. We’re sitting on the moon!” during that silence.

Much like when Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (and I had to look up his name, which is a shame) turned to each other and said, reportedly almost in chorus, “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be!” after landing an Airbus 320 on the Hudson River.

Neil Gaiman tells a story of being at a function and standing in the corner next to Neil Armstrong (both introverts, so of course they were standing in the corner). Armstrong said to Gaiman (paraphrasing), “I’m not sure I belong here. These people have all created things. I just went where they sent me.” Gaiman said he reminded Armstrong that he had been sent to the moon.

If I had been there, I might have been able to remind him that he made the whole billions-of-dollars mission work with that landing. But that would be a different story.

The Real Estate Transaction

I warned you this house purchase was going to occupy my attention this month, didn’t I? Well, we’ve secured all the necessary documents (one of them three times), acquired a VA appraisal, inspected a house, a well, and a septic system, and we’re on track for loan approval by Friday and closing next week.

If everything goes according to plan, this time next Tuesday I will be signing several inches of documents in McCall, Idaho (a somewhat touristy mountain town that hugs the south end of Payette Lake and abuts Ponderosa State Park). That’s not where the house is located, but it is where the title company has an office.

Then I will begin the process of moving Spooky Man to his beloved mountains and cleaning old, unnecessary stuff out of the city house without a retired spouse underfoot. There’s also a lot of mountain driving in my future, but it will give me plenty of time to work out plot and character issues.

I’m a bit frustrated with my current work in progress (WIP), because I don’t have a character arc for the heroine. And I’m being distracted by the house thing, so I don’t have enough brain left over to dig into her problems. Luckily, after next week the distraction should be over.

Then, Miz Danae, you and I need to have a heart-to-heart talk that I’m not sure either of us is really going to enjoy. Fair warning my dear, I’m going to push you so far out of your comfort zone you might never fit back in it. Sincerely, Your Author.

Thanks,
Val

So we bought a cabin

Just after I got the manuscript uploaded for the paperback copy of Strike Force Cyber Warriors, Spooky Man and I made an offer on a house in the mountains, a couple of hours north of the city. He will be living there most of the time while I stay in the valley for my job and commute on the weekends.

It’s a nice house, bigger than our place in the city, and with no questionable neighbors within fifteen feet of either side. Also, it has been eating all of my attention for the last week and a half, and will probably continue to do so until the keys are handed over at the end of this month.

I’m still working on Finding the Briar Rose, but slowly. I’m also working on the story of “Testing Beta” (my working title), the third story in the Dozen Worlds series. And some other stories that are percolating, just…slowly at the moment.

And pricing things like washer/dryer sets. Great googly moogly, they’ve gotten expensive! On the other hand, my current in-town washer is olive green and almost as old as I am, so it’s pretty obvious I don’t have much experience with large appliance shopping. Wish me luck.

I’m also having a birthday this month, which is always nice and a good reason to list the things for which one is grateful—my health, my family (Spooky Man and the furbabies in the innermost circle), my friends, my work, both in the day job and in my writer cave…there’s a lot to be grateful for. It’s going to be a happy birthday this year.

And in the meantime, I need to split up Beta and Danae, so I can bring them back together to defend their piece of space against whatever made Earth cut them off so long ago. Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah.

World-building for fun and profit

This is a reprint of an article I wrote last month for my local romance writers’ newsletter, so it’s mostly for writers.

Worldbuilding is the gentle art of making stuff up to create a believable reality that isn’t necessarily the one we live in. You might think, “Oh, I write contemporary small-town romance, I don’t need worldbuilding.” Unless you want to annoy real people in a real small town, you need world building.

It begins with reality and then turns left once in a while where reality turns right. How far left is up to you. In the early aughts, I wrote a (very bad) ghost-story novel. Most of it was set in a Queen-Anne style house in Seattle (allegedly), but part of it was set in the small town of Ahsahta, Idaho.

Now there is no Ahsahta, Idaho—there’s an Ahsahka, but that’s not my town. My town was a combination of Horseshoe Bend, Cascade, and a little bit of McCall. A mountain town, not too far from the capital city, with a good airport and some empty commercial buildings. A little down on its luck but scrappy. The name is from Ahsahta Press at Boise State University (yes, with the blue Astroturf and also a remarkably good English department), which at one time claimed it was a Native American name for mountain sheep.

It’s only in one or two scenes, but I knew exactly what downtown looked like and could have drawn you a map, compete with a few house and storefront elevations, because I realized this small town was a setting I could use again, and it would become a nice little theme connecting stories in a series. Of course, I haven’t written another book in Ahsahta (yet), but I know it’s there.

Place is only one aspect of world building, though. Culture (religion, race relations, economics, etc.) is another big one. In Blade’s Edge, I made a point of the technological society being metric, polytheistic and patriarchal while the non-technological society used Imperial units, worshiped a single (female) deity, and inherited from mother to daughter.

In another series I’m working on, I had to think about capitalism after humans leave Earth. Heavy, deep stuff. What I came up with—the “cartel” system—was a combination of multinational corporations and constitutional monarchies of a sort. Different than what we have now, but…based on what we have now.

Consider HP, one of my inspirations—I’ve never been an HP employee, but I’ve worked there on six different occasions in the past thirty years. And it has two name lines: Hewlett and Packard.

And yet another aspect you need to look at is language. Since I write science fiction romance, one of the things I was poked about early on was swearing, which I found puzzling. They weren’t upset because there was swearing, but they didn’t like the actual words used.

Now, I’ve always figured language evolves, so whatever you’re reading from a thousand or 1,500 years in the future is translated into current dialect, even if it’s set in the same “language.” But once I went through the process of deciding what would be bad, really bad, and the equivalent of the f-bomb to people who routinely traveled in space (rip, rust, and dust), I stopped getting the dings.

So world building can be as small as a word or two, or as big as a new socio-economic system. Now go make up things to bring your worlds to life.

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