Category Archives: Contemplation

Gudrun’s Postcards: A Little Girl’s Life and Death in a Bygone Era

In 1915, my great aunt Gudrun died of type 1 diabetes at the age of ten or eleven. It was one of those family health tidbits to mention to the doctor and little more. Insulin injections weren’t developed until 1922; before that, the disease was a death sentence.

A few weeks ago, I got to see Gudrun’s postcards. They were passed down through the family, but I had never seen them before.

The oldest postcards go back to 1909 or so, when Gudrun would have been 4 or 5. They’re from her sisters, who worked in big city Minneapolis, or her school mates. Many of them are undated and probably delivered by hand, as they have no stamps or postmarks. Many of the dates on the postmarked cards aren’t legible.

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Dear School mate. How are you. I am ok. We all have bad colds. Baby is learning to walk. From [unreadable] Larson.

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“Hello Gudrun–Are you taking good care of Mabel [my grandmother, who was an infant]? Agnes has got a good place assist with house work. The lady Mrs Baxter knows Mrs. Moore so well have been neighbors. Gets $3.00 a week. I was to get $5.00 but if I could do it but I ain’t going to kill myself for money am looking for another place now. Write soon. It’s kind of cold up there and [indecipherable]”-Unsigned, probably a sister in Minneapolis.

The last postcards are postmarked around Christmas 1914. I haven’t been able to find records of when Gudrun died, just that the year was 1915. Many of the postcards ask after Gudrun’s health, even well before she would have been ill. Health comes up in many of the postcards between six and seven year olds. Health was different in that era. One of Gudrun’s sisters would die from pneumonia a few years later as a high schooler. [Correction: the girl who died from pneumonia was my grandfather’s sister. One of Gudrun’s sisters died of an ear infection in the 1930s.] One of her brothers later died from an infected cut.

Postcards seem like they were routinely exchanged between young children. The spelling and handwriting on many of the cards is very young. Mail and trinkets of the greater world were probably a huge thrill in rural Readstown, Wisconsin, a town of 515 in 1910. Gudrun lived on a farm, and probably most of her classmates did too. Because many of the cards are undated, it’s hard to establish a time line. Did her classmates write more to her as she became ill? They sent cards for every holiday. There are birthday cards, Valentine’s cards, Thanksgiving cards, Easter cards, New Years cards, and Halloween cards. Many are un-themed. Sometimes a little friend sent a holiday card at an odd time, apologizing that it was the only card they could find.

We don’t know how long Gudrun was ill before she succumbed. Online resources suggest children lived from a few weeks up to a year. Around the time of Gudrun’s illness, doctors began to advocate a starvation treatment to reduce sugar levels and prolong life. In rural Wisconsin, Gudrun probably didn’t follow such a course of treatment, but maybe the general concept was present. Since ancient times, diabetes had been described for the sugary taste it gave to a victim’s urine, so the connection to sugar was well-known.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Gudrun. We don’t have any of the cards she sent. All of her correspondents and siblings are long dead. I look at her and wonder about her and what her life was like. The postcard designs are an insight into Gudrun’s era as well. Some feature Norwegian; she probably spoke some. The handwriting is exclusively in English. All but two or three feature illustrations rather than photos. Some have metallic foil and embossing. Some have half tone designs. I picked a few of my favorites.

Gudrun died over 70 years before I was born. What a wonderful record of her community and family and friendships this collection of cards is. Her life and death over a hundred years ago feels real through it.

 

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Vironevaeh: 19 years of love

Like so many of us sci-fi-ers, I grew up on science fiction television. I remember watching Star Trek Next Generation in a high chair, and later I watched Babylon 5 and Voyager. I feared the space under the bed because my brother told me it contained a black hole. I drew aliens, made up planets, and wrote in codes. Once a friend cut the bridge of my nose with a hardcover book during horseplay, and I was delighted to declare myself Bajoran.

In 5th grade, we had the city project; we had to invent a city, describe its economy, design a model of it, and write a small essay. It was my catalyst. I created a city called Vironevaeh, set on a distant planet, colonized by humans from Earth in the distant future. My languages, my maps, my characters, my aliens now had a focal point.

That was 19 years ago. Once a year, I like to look back and celebrate all the fun I’ve had since. Dreaming about world building made me look at our own world in odd ways.

For now, Vironevaeh is just my little place. Maybe someday it will be something different, but more than anything, I love the journey.

Trips down memory lane

Below are a pair of landscapes, one from years ago and one from last year. My longing to depict Vironevaeh forced me to draw for a purpose. The pencil drawings was one of my first landscapes ever. The poster was an homage, and and another experiment in new territory: art nouveau and posters.

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Maps

Maps are a simple staple of scifi and fantasy, but drawing maps made me ask a lot of questions. What kinds of geology could happen on a planet that could still sustain humanoid life? Or non-humanoid? Where should lakes, mountains, deserts, and oceans be in a realistic environment? What kinds of names would places have? What names would be linguistically compatible? What kind of linguistic range could I expect on a planet–how much would it vary in a place with a global culture versus one with regional cultures? What kind of stories would I tell about the people on such planets based on the map, and for the people whose stories I had already imagined, what kinds of maps would that require? Maps seem dry and factual on the surface, but I found myself asking a million such second-level questions. I love maps.

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Storytelling

Vironevaeh filled me with stories, but I struggled to express them as I felt them. I have written my stories so many ways. Nowhere is that more rapidly evident than in my portraits. Below are four portraits of a character over six or so years. I had to learn to get the details right and be honest with myself where it wasn’t right. As ever, it’s a work in progress.

Places for the people

Maps and people weren’t the end, I wanted to know how the streets looked. That’s really hard! There’s architecture and materials, and then there’s imagining the landscape and how such things would fit in. I studied pictures of streets from around the world. I find this aspect the most challenging, but maybe also the most rewarding.

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Stories of a new world

As I told stories about a new world, I wondered about their stories. And when I told them, I found that they fit everywhere. How many references to the garden of Gethsemane exist in western literature? A new place would have new Gethsemanes. Below are two images from mythology about a mouse, and new people finding that mouse in new constellations.

It’s never the end. Next year I’ll have new thoughts to share. Every year I am a new person, and Vironevaeh is a new place.

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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Heroes, Villains, Anti-Heroes, and Sadsacks

Heroes and villains populate our fiction and our imaginations: Batman and the joker, cops and robbers, the Allies and the Nazis. Not every central character fits the standard hero or the standard villain, though; the anti-hero shows up too, with the BBC’s Sherlock or Yossarian from Catch-22.

Last weekend at Ravencon, I went to a panel called “writing believable villains” with T. Eric Bakutis, Tim Burke, Andy Beane, Kate Paulk and Gregory Smith. One of the panelists briefly summarized anti-heroes and villains: the anti-hero does the right thing for the wrong reason, and the villain does the wrong thing for the right reason.

That is, the anti-hero does things we would consider good, but not for altruistic reasons. Han Solo transports Luke and Obi-Wan from Tatooine because he is paid, not because he is trying to help them or take a stand against the Empire. Conversely, a satisfying villain does things we consider bad, but motivated by ethics or values of his own. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does horrible things, motivated by her belief in order and conformity. The villain in the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, is motivated by his obsession with M.

We often disagree with the villain’s ethics, but they are present, and can make them even more dangerous. Hitler wasn’t so damaging because he wanted to kill millions of people; he was dangerous because the mythos he used to support that goal drew others in.

Clearly, then, the hero is a character who does the right things for the right reasons, like Luke Skywalker or Superman or Frodo. The boundaries between each character type is complex, and these categories are more food for discussion than iron-clad designations. One story’s hero is another’s villain.

Still, I thought that the anti-hero/villain comparison above invited a fourth category: the sadsack. The sadsack does the wrong things for the wrong reasons. We are emotionally compelled to root against the sadsack, and feel a sense of satisfaction when they fail or face justice. A lot of newer characters fall in this mold for me: basically every character from “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia”, Lester Nygaard in the new “Fargo” TV series, as well as the main character in “Being John Malkovich.”

What do you think? What are some other examples of good villains, anti-heroes, and sadsacks?

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A Weekend at Ravencon

This weekend I went to my first science fiction convention, Ravencon in Richmond, and what a weekend it was.

The weekend started with a bang when our hotel had a fire alarm during a tornado warning. The hotel staff tried to gather us into a large glass atrium. As a Midwesterner, I refused indignantly.

I heard Elizabeth Bear read from her One-Eyed Jack book set in Las Vegas. I took Allen Wold‘s fiction writing glass and got so excited I could hardly calm down to write a hundred words for him. I went to two Jonah Knight concerts featuring scifi/fantasy acoustic guitar songs. I was also intrigued by authors R. S. Belcher, T. Eric Bakutis, and Lana Krumwiede.

So basically, I met a ton of people, had a great time, and feel quite motivated and inspired regarding science fiction. When I got back last night with a throbbing headache, I managed to bang out a first draft of a story about a pool that’s possessed by a spirit. It’s a bit incoherent, but it’s spontaneous and joyful, and I don’t sit down and write 2600 words as much as I should.

Still exhausted today, and it’s raining, which feels like nature’s way of telling me to take it easy. Will do, nature, will do. So that’s all I can manage to say today, but what a weekend.

(Oh, and check out my story “Ephemerality” at The Colored Lens about a girl who ages very quickly who falls in love with a boy who doesn’t. This one is my favorite story I’ve published thus far.)

Happy 17th Anniversary, Vironevaeh!

Tomorrow is April 15th, 17 years since I did a project about a city named Vironevaeh, chock full of V’s and vowels, because why not? Somehow it never went away, and seventeen years later, it’s hard to imagine life without it. When people ask me what color the sky is in my world, I say purple; it used to be turquoise, but I thought that a white sun was more likely to diffract into the purple frequency range. That’s… usually where those conversations end.

Since the 16th anniversary, I’ve earned my PhD. I’ve started another Vironevaehn history project, and I’ve published my first story set in the Vironevaehn universe. I’ve written drafts for two different novels set in the universe.

But today, I thought I’d post a blast from years farther past. In 8th grade, I wrote my first Vironevaehn book. It was just by hand, and without much planning or forethought, half of it scribbled down during orchestra while my friends patiently ignored my rantings. But I filled a whole notebook with it. 14 years later, that book is one of my most valued possessions. Here I am with it today, and there I was with it 14 years ago, in a Polaroid taken as just another offhand idea.

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Create something today, even if it’s silly. The only folly is not trying.

Today I sold my first story

Today I sold my first fiction story. It’s hard to express my thoughts and feelings. I will keep working hard, and I will eventually sell more, but today I am elated.

Below are some musings and reflections on what led me to today’s achievement. This is hardly to say that I am an expert after a single publication; it’s a list of things I think I did right that might be useful ideas for others. I have read many tips on getting published from experts. They doubtless have more experience than me, but they got published when the industry was really different. They have had years to gain some distance from the hard emotions associated with the process.

  • I learned to finish projects. I used to be good at big ideas and poor at execution. I made grand plans and I never finished anything. I dreamed but I didn’t labor. I credit grad school and aging for teaching me to finish and work on the long scale. The Fairy Tales collection featured on the side of this page was the first big project I finished; it took about a year.
  • I exposed my work. For some people, this is easy. It was very hard for me. To me, exposing my work involves more than having others read my work–it’s about hearing what they say about it. Unlike engineering, writing is subjective (which is terrifying!). If enough people say it’s bad, they’re likely right. As a first step, I started this blog, slightly over a year ago. Then I joined a local writing group.
  • I accepted critique. This is related to the point above. Of course I think my work is good, but sometimes it just isn’t. If one reader didn’t get the joke, maybe they’re a little dense. If several didn’t, the joke wasn’t properly conveyed. I’ve met a lot of other aspiring writers who are uncomfortable with this fact. It’s very hard. I wrote in a vacuum for years; sometimes I got it wrong. I got great critique at critters.org.
  • I wrote regularly. For the first several months of this blog, I posted three times a week. Three times a week I had to say something (semi) coherent. My writing group has a monthly theme, and I made myself write something every month. It wasn’t always good, but that was good motivation. Recently I’ve been writing at least one writing prompt a week and posting it here. This month I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo.
  • I submitted. And I submitted and I submitted. Stories are rejected for tons of reasons; inadequacy is just the tip. Many places accept only 1% of what they get. Some places only publish half a dozen stories a year. Some places are vague about what they are looking for (in my experience, beware the “we never get enough of x” statement). Sometimes they already have a story about a cat, or a story where the protagonist is disappointed, or a horror story, or an intimate first person story. Any of the above are reasons to get rejected. My story got rejected three times before it got accepted; it was the 32nd thing I submitted since the end of June. My favorite story has been rejected 8 times so far. Others in my writing group have excellent work that they have submitted and have had rejected. And then they stopped.
  • I researched those markets. I read what they said about themselves. I used places like The Submission Grinder and Duotrope to find out their response times. A lot of my rejections have come from sending pieces to unsuitable markets–it’s hard, but I got better at it.

But mostly, I am so happy. I worked hard and got very frustrated sometimes. This post is as much to motivate myself as anything, since the journey is hardly begun. I hope it will be useful to others as well.