Monthly Archives: July 2014

Writing prompt: Driftless

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Driftless” (If anyone’s curious, the driftless region is in Southwest Wisconsin. It is indeed full of valley and caves and unwashed hippies. And Holsteins.)

They call this region the Driftless region, a region around which the glaciers split so they didn’t drift the soil. It’s rough and wild, unlike everything else around. As a kid, I always assumed driftless refered to the quality of the region. It didn’t drift. Nothing changed. You came to the region and didn’t leave, and the less washed you were, the more likely you were to arrive.

But the geological reason made sense, too. Still, I wondered, how do glaciers just go about splitting? It seems like you’d need some force to split glaciers. We don’t have high mountains or great volcanos.

We also have a ton of caves around here. I started to wonder, between massive glaciers splitting and rendings in the Earth, well, was there something below? So I read what I could on Wikipedia and packed for a journey under the Driftless region.

I’m stuck down here now. I’m writing down why I came here, as if I don’t make it, hopefully these records do. Small bipedal creatures are running up to me and stealing food from my bag. At least, I think that’s what’s happening. I have no light, and they glow, and either this is a hallucination or I’m onto something really exciting. Either way, I’m not sure about the odds of my survival.


Playing with paint and color

For years, I’ve played with paint and markers and colored pencils. After taking tutorials this summer for Photoshop and illustrator, I was astonished at how much I learned in a short time, and how much I hadn’t known from years of aimless experimentation. I realized– I must have similar gaps and oversights in other self-taught areas.

So I am taking a watercolor painting class. I’ve learned a ton, had fun, and been inspired in other artistic endeavors as well. The excitement of this class has re-energized my work on a second set of fairy tales. And I just signed up for a pop-up book class in August!

Week 2: Painting with one color from a photograph. Focusing on value and texture and mark-making. Sometimes I’m afraid to take risks painting, where there isn’t an undo button and sometimes your choices just don’t look good. In these, I tried techniques involving gouging the paper, spattering the paint from the brush, and painting wet-in-wet.


Week 3: Still life. To start this painting, we painted the bright parts of the composition with a warm color (I chose the yellow on the tabletop though orange and red can be appropriate choices too) and the shadows with a cool color (a less intense version of the shadow under the bowl). Sunlight is warm compared to the cool shadows it casts, so painting these casts evoke such settings. Then the brighter colors go over these washes, with more illuminated regions taking warmer casts and more shadowed regions taking cooler casts.

fruit plate-small

Week 4: Still life (still in progress). In this painting, we chose another painting to emulate, and tried to style our still life after this painting. (I would post this image, but I really have no idea as to the copyright implications.) To emulate my choice, I 1) tried to keep objects as more simplified shapes rather than intricately detailed and 2) planned for certain regions to be brightly painted, and others to pull most of the paint off after I applied it. All the red in this image is bright as are the labels of the bottle and the box. The bottle glass and the bowl glass I washed out. To finish this piece, I still need to add a bit to the napkins and plate under the bowl. I want to do this with comparatively little paint, and to allow to the eye to fill in the negative space.

still life-small

Writing prompt: The enchanted dollhouse

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The enchanted dollhouse”

The attic, a place of gloom and terror that Lillian only went as a last resort to hide from chores, was the last place that Lillian expected to find a dollhouse. It was under a dusty old sheet, and when she pulled it off, she had the greatest sense of delight. The little dolls were tucked in their beds, and all the details were just so—victorian wallpaper, delicately carved stair railings, a tiny loaf of bread on the table. Lillian sat all the dolls at the kitchen table and arranged plates with forks and knives, and it was amazing.

Why hadn’t mom told her about the dollhouse? Well, sometimes mom was weird, so Lillian decided not to say anything about it after she came back down from the attic. All evening long, she wanted to go back up and play, but mom would ask questions.

The next afternoon, Lillian went straight to the attic after school, and straight to the dollhouse. Oddly, the dolls weren’t at the table, they were in bed again. Hmm, mom must have come up to play with it herself or something.

So Lillian asked her mother about the dollhouse when she returned from work.

“What dollhouse?” her mother said with intensity. She could be so weird.

“The one in the attic. The Victorian one. I found it yesterday.”

“You didn’t play with it, did you?” her mother’s face grew pale.

“Of course I did,” Lillian said. “Don’t worry, I was careful and I didn’t break anything.”

Her mother rushed out of the room. “Mom,” her mother said, “Lillian found the dollhouse. What do I do?”

Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d Road



Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d Road is a collection of  eight science fiction and fantasy stories celebrating the 5th anniversary of our SFF writing group. It’s now available for the kindle here.

All the contributors are local to central Virginia, with stories from tropical islands, snowy oblivions, the distant past and the distant future. The name for this volume honors the Three Notch’d Road, which runs through central Virginia and dates back at least 300 years.

So check it out! It’s the first anthology our group has produced, and we’re very excited and proud!


Writing prompt: add a cat to an existing universe

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Add a cat to an existing universe”

When the Founders left Earth, they brought a variety of animals, kept in suspended animation, for the founding of their eventual colony. Sheep, cows, horses, pigs, all the big animals that civilization used to get started, along with some smaller ones like chickens and dogs. The only animal out of suspension was Andine Kenda’s black cat Nyx. It prowled the hallways of the Neva, and it was clear that it owned that ship more than anyone.

The cat lived with Andine after Founding—in the city at first, and in Mt. Vit during the rains. After Andine was killed, she was taken back to the Neva, which then went to Naenia. Nyx refused to get off the ship on Naenia, and lived out her remaining 5 years as the terrifying spook of the ship. Stories recount engineers repairing parts of the ship encountering the black beast, and with the scratches to prove it.

Eventually all creatures slow, though. Her body was found, curled up as though sleeping, outside the room that was once Andine’s. In Vironeaveh, black cats are creatures of wonder and energy. On Naenia, they’re little demons that bring you bad luck.

(Just got back from vacation and with a cold, so this one was a struggle. But if I write now, I can always write, and that’s important!)

Kitties at the shelter

I volunteer at the SPCA. Once a week, I go socialize the adult cats. Just in our small community, there must be over 100 cats at our shelter.

I appreciate my own cats more after volunteering. The shelter is one of the nicest I know of, but it is still a stressful life for a cat. Cats are used to having space and a certain amount of solitude. The shelter is not this.

Each cat gets socialized each day. For most cats, this involves going out of the cage, but some are too fearful to come out. The most confident and at ease still only get out for six hours a day. At best, they spend 18 hours a day in a small cage, and the other six sharing a room with dozens of other cats, some of whom are hostile or fearful.

After spending time with these stressed cats, it is such a pleasure to come home to a cat whose belly I can rub, who purrs by the food dish, who begs by the front door. It’s a reminder of how much we improve their lives and how much they improve ours. I can come home and scoop up Belia if I had a frustrating day (if I’m willing to endure the whining). I can watch Erg jump five feet into the air, trying to rip the catnip from my hand. I can sit on the couch and whistle to Belia (and if I keep whistling it, receive a warning bite). We provide one another with constancy and rhythm and a companion.

We get to see the cats progress at the shelter. One cat tried to enter any open cage, even if it wasn’t her own, just to get off the floor; the next week she played with toys and explored for hours. A second cat no longer hisses at my ankles every time I pass. Another will finally come out of his cage. We get to see cats that were so shy open up and get adopted. Working just a little bit with the many personalities of cats makes me appreciate and admire teachers and people who work with troubled people. People are amazingly more complex, and the work all the more needed.

I’ve been taking pictures of some of the shelter kitties, to supplement pictures of my own kitties, to help with their adoption, and to practice photography. Take a look at some wonderful adult kitties. There are probably some awesome ones at your local shelter. With an adult cat, their personality is developed, whether it be lapcat or mouser or couch potato or shy sweetie. At our shelter, the volunteers know the animals, and this is probably the case in many places. Even if adoption isn’t in the cards, as it isn’t for me, take a look at some cats.

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Writing prompt: invasive species

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Invasive species”

Years ago, I watched time-lapse photography of plants growing. Plants move and respond to stimuli and avoid pain like animals, the narrator said. They just do it on a different time scale. That documentary made me wonder what the world seems like to a plant.

Reading the news the other day, that documentary came to mind. The tenta plant has been making its way up from Mexico. Here in the Shenandoah we knew we’d be safe; we have winters here after all. Plants adapt over time, but winter is a mighty thing.

Somehow, the tenta adapts faster. Scientists are fascinated by it the way they always are by hazardous things, like a kitten with a grenade. Some have compared it to reverse transcription viruses like HIV, somehow it has some ability to incorporate genetic attributes of other plants. Surrounded by winter-hardy plants, ten thousand of these plants could try ten thousand combinations.

There are indications of new traits to the plant, as it grows further into more densely settled regions. It was never an irritant like poison ivy, but now it is. Some have nettles.

I remember watching those vines frantically reach toward the light, in some way we can’t understand knowing and feeling what they wanted. Or the ficus tree, slowly growing the life out of its host. I couldn’t help but wonder if the tenta plant had such an awareness to accompany its novel new ability, and what that might hold for the future.

Books and pictures and programs

These last few weeks have been a whirlwind, so in departure from something more organized, I think I’ll just list off a few of my projects. Hopefully some of them will inspire you to something; at the very least, I know I can come back here when my own motivation wanes (it always does, it always will, we just have to learn to re-energize it).

  • In the last few months, I’ve assembled a science fiction and fantasy anthology for my writing group. I did all the formatting and editing and layout. Last night we had a binding party in which we put together several handmade copies. Soon it will be available for the kindle (after a little more work), but here are pictures of the first bound copy of Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d RoadSONY DSC SONY DSC
  • I’m taking a watercolor painting class through a local art community. Everything I know now I taught myself, and I’m sure there are new things I ought to learn. The next Zish and Argo will be even more beautiful.
  • I’m taking the plunge and going pro with my photography. Check out my new website
  • I’m learning database design, something I knew zero about before June. You can just pick up a new skill, if you give it time and realize that it will be a slog at times. I’m using this book by Michael Blaha, which as the name suggests, my dad wrote. Nearly 30 years of osmosis didn’t teach me anything, but two months with this book has been inspiringly instructive.
  • I’ve been learning the Adobe creative suite, using videos from I learned InDesign for the anthology pictured above. I learned a ton about Illustrator after being unable to make even the simplest graphics in it. Although I’ve been using Photoshop for years, I’ve learned more about it in the last month than I have in the last ten years. Immensely eye-opening.
  • I made the switch from Aperture (the mac photo-managing software) to LightRoom (the Adobe photo-managing software). LightRoom ties into creative suite better, and Mac is not supporting Aperture sufficiently anymore. And I’m using videos to speed my adaptation to LightRoom too.
  • I discovered a wikipedia for classical music whose copyright has lapsed. has sheet music for hundreds of composers for dozens of instruments. It even has some free recordings. I am working on learning Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore for piano, Grieg’s  Peer Gynt for piano, and Saint Saen’s Swan for viola. The only trouble is knowing which music you want!
  • I continue to work on short stories for my Clarion Write-a-thon goal. I’m on the second one, and I need to pick up the pace. Check out my profile page here.
  • And finally, I continue to work on my 100 scenes of Vironevaehn life. I’m up to 42 color illustrations.SONY DSC

Whew, that was a lot, and time to get back to it!

Writing prompt: world build for an in-progress work

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts. This prompt is related to the prompt “a door that goes anywhere“.

“World-build for an in-progress work, specifically for a magic system”

The main character’s parents have a door that goes anywhere. Through his childhood, the character didn’t know about this door, and he only found out about it by accident when he did. His parents are unhappy about him finding out. They didn’t want him to know because they didn’t want him to follow their footsteps and do what they did.

The door can go anywhere. The parents use this to gather scarce and special materials from all corners of the planet for special paintings that have magical properties. A portrait of a person with the right ingredients can improve their health or maybe their fertility. A different portrait can sabotage their health, or make the stressed or unlucky. Without the door, obtaining the right materials in the right purities would be nearly impossible, but it’s still quite hard as you must have been to the location before. The parents apprenticed to learn these locations and materials.

Naturally enough, there are people who use the paintings to control and harm people, and people who use the paintings to help and enrich people, and these two groups don’t like each other. The character’s parents are the nice group, but each group works hard to maintain the secrecy of their identity, since then the opposition could paint a portrait of them.

The paintings need not be only portraits. A painting of a volcano with the right ingredients might increase the likelihood of an eruption or a painting of a plane with the right ingredients might increase the likelihood of a smooth flight. A painting of locusts could either increase or decrease the likelihood of destruction by them.

The parents don’t want the character participating because the good side has been losing, and their own health has been sabotaged. The bad side has a sense of honor, and doesn’t generally attack unaffiliated people, but if the character were to become involved, his health and safety would be vulnerable.

Book Review: Color (Victoria Finlay 2002)

Rating: 3.5/5

Color by Victoria Finlay is about the history of various pigments and dyes. We learn about where and when colors arose and their influence on culture. This parts of the book devoted to color were totally and utterly fascinating, almost rapturous.

So why 3.5 stars? This book had two faces– one about the colors (which I loved), and another about the author’s travels to find these colors (which I didn’t love). I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to others. But I have little interest in reading more work by Finlay. The history of color is in itself compelling, at times in spite of Finlay.

The details of Finlay’s travels really don’t inform the main interest, the colors; they seem more to congratulate her for traveling so well. The travel descriptions are not brief, and are at times she romanticizes them to a nauseating degree. In Taliban Afghanistan, she remarks that burkas (the type where even the eyes are covered by lace) seem to increase flirting. Well, isn’t that just quaint and lovely, then? A large portion of the chapter about blacks involves Finlay “imagining” what a woman from a Greek myth might have done with various black pigments. It was useless and nonsensical, solely there to add artsiness without substance. In the chapter on orange, she travels to the city where Stradivarius and others made fine violins, and asks the natives how they managed to be such a center for fine instruments. “I don’t know,” replied the clerk at the tourist desk, people in the street, and I asked myself why they ought to know, and why their uncertainty was worthy of including in the book.

These bits I mention so annoy me because the subject is excellent, and otherwise the writing is good. I learned a whole new appreciation for my paintbox and the paintings at the art museum. Much of the book highlights the difficulty in obtaining permanent and good color. In the search for attractive, permanent colors, people traveled the world, poisoned themselves, invented absurd multistep processes, spied, and died in mines. All of this for color, something that is only there in the frequency of light reflected by these paints, something whose value is really a function of our eyes and brains rather than nature.

Lead white was the main white paint for many years. As you might imagine, it was toxin. But more, it can turn black in the presence of certain chemicals. Cochineal red, used in make-up and cherry coke, is made of crushed bugs. Before this red, brazilwood was a common source of red, the namesake of Brazil. Brazilwood is still considered the best wood for the bows of string instruments, though now it is terribly rare.

Gamboge yellow comes from one specific tree in Cambodia, though it takes a whole year to collect the sap. Brilliant arsenic-based Scheele’s green may have killed Napoleon, leaching from his wallpaper in the humid air of St. Helena. Most of the lapis lazuli, and ultramarine paint, in the world comes from one little valley in Afghanistan.

It takes 17 steps to dye something Turkey Red, and no small amount of espionage went into learning this process. Before this book, I had no appreciation for the difficulties and sophisticated chemistry of dyeing something. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer started first as dye works. Black was a very hard color to make; in order for the puritans to have their modest black clothes, pirates had to transport trees from halfway around the world.

There were two aspects to this book, a beautiful wonderful one that inspired my curiosity, and a self-indulgent, tedious one that made me roll my eyes. I would have liked there to be more chemistry, but I understand that this doesn’t enhance the joy for most people, and I don’t state this lack as a negative. I learned a lot from this book and learned to see colors in a new light, and in all likelihood, you would too.