31 January, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #30: OM NOM NOM!

My darlings, it's here.  The sideboard groans under deposits of geologic delights.  And I'd have a lot more to say about it, except I have this sudden and inexplicable urge to eat until I explode.

If all the participants wish to form a commune, I'll be happy to find us a place with an enormous kitchen!

And I do believe it may be time for us to stop considering how to bring the masses to science via brains and hearts and start considering stomachs instead....

GOP Priorities: Redefining Rape

Right, then, ladies.  The Cons in Congress, together with a handful of despicable Dems, have decided we must have rape babiesObserve:
Under this new bill, the only rape survivors who would be able to receive funding [for abortion] would be those who were able to prove that their rapes involved “force.” If your rapist drugged you, intoxicated you, or raped you while you were unconscious, you don’t get coverage. If your rapist used coercion, you don’t get coverage. If this is a case of statutory rape — that is, if you are a thirteen-year-old child, raped by someone outside of your family — you don’t get coverage. If you’re an incest survivor over the age of eighteen — if, say, years of abuse only culminated in a pregnancy after your nineteenth birthday — you just don’t get coverage. And if you live in a state that doesn’t distinguish “forcible rape” from “rape,” you might not qualify, meaning that no matter what the circumstances of your assault were, well, sorry: You might not get coverage.
I cannot begin to describe how angry these fucktards make me.  They won't understand, anyway.  Men can get raped, true - but they can never be impregnated by their attacker.  They don't have to face that particular hell.  And the chances of them being raped in the first place is so vanishingly small that they can't imagine the fear and the trauma women live with.

I would like to explain it to them.  I'd like to sit down in a room with all 173 co-sponsors and describe to them in minute detail everything that happened the morning I woke to a rapist at my door.  You know, it's been nearly twenty years, and I still get sick to my stomach, my hands still sweat and shake, thinking about it.  And I'm one of the lucky ones.  I wasn't physically scarred for life.  I didn't end up pregnant.

If I had, and if an abortion had been denied to me because I didn't fight hard enough, scream loud enough, risk my life adequately enough to satisfy the Cons in Congress, I can promise you something: I would've ended up killing myself if I couldn't abort that baby.  They can't understand, will obviously never understand, why many women wouldn't be able to face carrying their attacker's spawn to term.  Let me just put it this way: there are worse things than getting raped.  One of them is being denied any chance to regain some control over your own body afterward.  One of them is being forced to put your body through the further trauma of pregnancy and childbirth against your will.  And at that time, in the aftermath of the worst morning of my life, I wouldn't have had the mental strength to deal with it.  It was hard enough putting the shattered pieces back together without a swelling belly and constant reminders of the horror I'd gone through.

But they don't care about a woman's welfare.  Obviously not.  They have some fantasy about rape, which makes them just as despicable as the men who rape.  They think there's some kind of honor to be fought for, that a woman should do everything in her power to guard her virtue rather than survive, and if she doesn't, then she's a slut who deserves everything she gets.

I wish I could take them back in time.  I wish I could turn what's in my mind into a film, so I could walk them through the event.  I'd like to see their faces when they're faced with the reality of sexual violence.  I'd like them to have to walk in my mind.  And I'd like to pause every so often, and ask, "Did I fight enough here?  How about here?  Was that rape forcible enough, or was it too gentle to qualify as the kind of rape where a woman is granted an abortion?"

I'd like them to have to experience every emotion with me, both during the attack and in the months and years afterward.  I'd like them to know just what it is to have control and integrity ripped away from you.  I'd like them to walk that fine line, knowing that if you fight too hard, you're going to get yourself killed.  I'd like them to be there in my mind, the moment I realized I didn't have the physical strength to fight my attacker off, and that no one could hear me scream.  I'd like them to share that instant where panic and gut instinct turned into a cold calculation, where I decided it would be a better idea to live.

Do they think I made the wrong choice, choosing survival over a fight to the death?  Do they think that making the choice to survive means signing away your right to your remaining bodily integrity?  And would they still believe that were they forced to live it with me?

They believe abortion is murder, and yet each and every one of them, should you ask, would likely tell you that killing someone in self-defense is justifiable.  Let me try to explain something to them: getting rid of a clump of cells isn't murder, but let's play on their field a moment.  That clump of cells that could become a human being someday is an intruder.  It broke in, it wasn't invited, and it's stealing from me.  It could kill me.  It's certainly going to hurt me, both mentally and physically.  So if you believe some homicides are justified, why do you think it's not justifiable to kill that intruder?

They need to walk in my mind.  They need to watch the months it took, feel the force of will it took, to regain function again, to not hide in the house anymore, to learn how to cope with a terrible new reality.  I dropped out of school, because I wasn't capable of normal function for quite some time.  It took years before I could trust people again.  I still have bad moments.  But I'm nearly a whole human again.  I don't think I would've gotten there if I knew I'd been forced to bear my rapist's baby.  And I don't have words strong enough to describe the visceral reaction I have to the idea.  That would have given me a lifelong connection to my rapist.  That would have been a level of trauma beyond my imagination.  I know my mind well enough to know that bearing a rape baby at the age of 18 would have broken it.

Is that the price I'm supposed to pay for being attacked?  According to the Cons in Congress, it is.  It's my fault, you see.  I should've fought hard enough to keep from being impregnated or died in the attempt.  Nothing else will do.  They care more for a clump of cells than they do for a living, breathing, thinking and suffering woman.

But I don't think they've thought this through, and that's why I'd like them to experience what I did.  Because then, you see, they could imagine what it would be like if that had been their wife, or their daughter, or some other woman they may actually care about.  They may have to look at her a bit differently, and wonder if it's worth destroying her in order to force her to grow a clump of cells fertilized by a rapist.  They might have to ask themselves if they'd really want her rape to be so forcible that it could kill her before they'd allow her the choice of aborting that clump of cells before she gets traumatized all over again.

Because, you see, what the Cons in Congress are saying to women is that if we don't fight, if we don't drive our rapist to really hurt us, then we'd better be prepared to have a rape baby.  If we're strong enough and wise enough and lucky enough to survive, we're to be punished.  We're to have control and bodily integrity ripped away from us once more.  And if we want to avoid that second traumatization, we'd best escalate the situation.  There's only one way to respond to rape in their world: fight.  Even though fighting could get us seriously hurt or killed.

That's why, when I sit down in a room to describe what I went through in excruciating detail, I'd also want Robert K. Ressler, John Douglas, and Ann W. Burgess there.  Two of them are former FBI profilers, the other a forensic nurse.  They wrote a book called Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives.  They understand fully that a one-size-fits-all rape strategy would end in more seriously wounded and murdered women.  Let me direct your attention to the chapter for victims, wherein survival strategies are discussed:
When the amount of rage and aggression obviously exceed what is necessary to force compliance, a violent confrontative response on the part of the victim will generally increase the violence in the assault and place the victim at increased risk for serious physical injury.  Gratuitous violence on the part of the rapist places the victim in dangerous, volatile, and unpredictable situations.  For that reason, we recommend that the first response to violence not be violent.  If direct dialogue does not begin to neutralize the attacker (reduce the intensity of the aggression), then the victim will have no recourse but to employ any means available to object.  The offender believes that he is entitled to sex under any condition, and hence has a callous indifference to the comfort or welfare of the victim.  Both verbal resistance and nonconfrontative resistance strategies are appropriate.  Once it has been demonstrated that the rapist will likely use whatever force neccesary to gain victim compliance, confrontative physical resistance would be unwise unless the victim is confident that it will work.


If the attacker responds to victim physical confrontation with increased anger and/or violence, the victim should cease physical resistance.  If he responds by immediately ceasing his aggressive/violent behavior and is willing to engage the victim in conversation, he is also likely to be an exploitative rapist and the victim should use verbal strategies.


For the displaced-anger rapist, the victim is a substitute for and a symbol of the hated person(s) in his life.  The primary motive is to hurt and injure the victim.  Aggression may span a wide range from verbal abuse to brutal assault.  Continued physical confrontation, unless the victim is reasonably certain she will be able to incapacitate the attacker, may only justify the need to "punish" the victim and thus escalate the violence.

This is what the Cons in Congress want.  They want us, when confronted with a rapist, to have only one choice: escalate the violence.  Because, you see, if it wasn't violent enough, it wasn't a rape, and hence we are not victims who deserve the right and the funds to decide what to do with our bodies afterward, we're hussies who are supposed to live with the consequences of our "decision."  They want to teach little girls that they must fight to the death rather than do everything in their power to come out of a horrible situation reasonably whole, with a chance at a fairly normal life after.

They want us to ignore the sound survival strategies formulated by two FBI agents and a forensic nurse after years of study of violent offenders, because some of those strategies will lead to a not-so-forcible rape, which means the woman obviously didn't try hard enough to defend her virtue.

You know that I find most everything Cons believe and advocate for these days to be either stupid or despicable.  I make no secret of that opinion.  But some of their ideas are more odious than others.  This is one.  When they advocate disgusting legislation such as this, they become victimizers themselves, no less than the original rapist.

So, after I've had a chance to take them on a walk through my mind, I have one final question for them: How does it feel to join a rapist in victimizing a woman? 

If you find this all as disgusting as I do, take action.  And use the #dearjohn hashtag on Twitter to let John Boehner and all know what you think of them.

30 January, 2011

I Don't Get It. I Don't Understand.

Confession: I was, for a few brief months in my teens, a Bible-thumper.  So it may seem odd now that I can't get myself into the minds of believers.

I'd never been a religious kid, not particularly.  I had this nebulous idea that God existed and that he was good.  I prayed when things were beyond my control.  But we didn't go to church, and outside of the illustrated children's Bible I had, there wasn't a huge amount of God stuff around.  My parents believed, and my mother put me in a summer Bible camp once - maybe for religious instruction, maybe just because it was the best and only way to pawn me off on other people for a couple of hours so she could have some time for herself.  Considering she played Mom to the entire neighborhood, one can't blame her for needing a break.  And I learned how to glue Jesus to a wooden spoon, and stick him in a walnut shell, so it wasn't a complete waste.  One thing I do know, the people there didn't impress upon me the necessity of believing or going to Hell.  They gave me warm fuzzy feelings about Jesus and an indelible association between ancient Jewish carpenters and spoons.

29 January, 2011

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Muhammed Ali

It's just a job.  Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand.  I beat people up.

-Muhammed Ali

I trust everybody knows who Muhammed Ali is.  If not, click the link, and then you'll understand the quote, and why it's so damned funny.

I'm not a boxing fan meself, but I'm definitely a fan of anyone who can say that with a straight face.

28 January, 2011

ETEV Geo-Posts Lexicon Fixed

Right.  So, somehow, Blogger decided I wanted every single link broken on my ETEV Geo-Posts Lexicon.  I just spent the last hour telling it otherwise.

They worked when I tested them.  If they're not working when you try them, please bring your baseball bats and join me in a Blogger Bashing Party, wherein we will completely trash the post that Blogger hated so much.

Muchas gracias to Silver Fox for catching the problem!

Los Links 1/28

There's a theme emerging for the week: women in science blogging.  So we'll kick off with that, as it allows me to cede the floor to other, better bloggers.  Then we'll continue on with the flood of other things that caught my eye.  Do enjoy!
Women who write about science: "Being female just is what it is, and it happened to me when I was conceived. I had no control over it. But being a writer and a scientist? That took work. That took ambition. That took years."  (The Biology Files)
Of course scientists can communicate: "Once again, the allegation is to be the subject of discussions, this time at next month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. It can be found on Nature 's website, heard in research councils, it is even occasionally propagated by the public-engagement community, and sometimes endorsed by journalists. In response, I can only say bosh, balderdash and Bronowski, and follow with other intemperate expletives such as Haldane, Hawking and Huxley, Eddington and E. O. Wilson, not to mention, as if in a state of terminal exasperation, Dawkins!" (NatureNews) (h/t)
I've never been very good at hiding:  "I'm not so complacent. I shouldn't have to hide the fact that I am a woman just to be seen as a brilliant scientist or a great writer. And I am young and bull-headed and perhaps just naive enough not to hide. You might notice my looks first, but I'll be damned if you don't hear my words, too."  (Observations of a Nerd)
Hidden Women, Hidden Writers: "Look at the mass of discussion that was generated around ScienceOnline2011. A number of people brought up examples of great writers to emulate. Those lists all started, 'Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, (another male writer--Steve Silberman or David Dobbs or...well, you get the point).' Only after that point, if the list continues, do any female names appear. Rebecca frequently didn't make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first." (Almost Diamonds)
Hey You Men Who Yell “Nice Tits”: STFU: "Whose battle is it? Everyone’s I’d say. Wilcox’s post has already inspired a rich conversation in the comments, one taking alongside and entwined in many ways with the comments-conversation in Clancy’s post. About halfway down, my dear friend Steve Silberman lodged a quick comment but kept it brief, he said, because he didn’t want it to become too much a male conversation. I know what he means. Yet as I said in my own hurried (but long; I didn’t have time to write shorter) comments there, I think we men should engage here, if for nothing else than to tell their fellow men, when they are being titty idiots (titjiots? something), to STFU. Even if we don’t elaborate on STFU — maybe especially if we don’t elaborate on STFU — it might inspire some self-reflection. Or at least get them to STFU." (Neuron Culture)

Further discussion on this topic can be had at Outdoor Science.  And both Silver Fox and Ed Yong have some good lists of science bloggers who also happen to be women.

Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?  "Today, here at Esquire — and only at Esquire, because only Esquire has the guts to tell you this story — we're going to tell you about a man you need to know a little better, maybe a lot better: a man named Roger Ailes."  (Esquire)

Money, Power, Triangulation: "In these circumstances, the political incentives in a democratic society becomes how to package the policies in a way that appeals to the people but benefits the wealthy. The Republicans know how to do that. The Democrats not so much, although on the presidential level, they may have found a formula. But again, it's at the expense of liberalism in general which, if the president decides to engage on "entitlements", may also end any serious rationale for the Democratic party at all." (Hullabaloo)

Friday Fault Photo: Fairview Peak, NV, Fault Line: "Can't really say why I did this. I was just fascinated by the fact that you can take Google Earth, rotate the eye view to oblique and — especially after a visit to the area (early December) — can easily identify the fault scarp(s) in most places." (Looking for Detachment)

Volcanoes in Kamchatka I & Volcanoes in Kamchatka II: "This is why Earth scientists like satellite image.  You can obtain a lot of information about an isolated area like this relatively easily." (Hudson Valley Geologist)

Chemistry: this shit’s important: "Ammonia, NH3 (Fig. 3), is a fixed form of nitrogen. That means that its bonds are breakable, and it can react with other things. Generally, it’s used to make nitrates, NO3, which is used for both explosives and fertilizer. Natural forms of fixed nitrogen are rare, but it’s found in bat and bird poo, and saltpeter. These things were some seriously in demand fertilizers before the Haber-Bosch process was discovered. In fact, The Guano Islands Act of 1856 was passed so people could claim any uninhabited, poop-covered island they found as a US protectorate. Wars were fought over poo. Really. So when Haber found a way to finally make fixed nitrogen, it was quite a big deal."  (the bunsen boerner)

Stupid Protection Factor: "I need more stupidburn protection.

"There are massive flares of stupidity and hypocrisy emanating from the environs of Seattle in the wake of the Martin Gaskell affair." (Thoughts in a Haystack)

Substance over sweetness — another New Atheist critique gone askew: "Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn't. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it's animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it." (Pharyngula)

Surprised by the Degree of Surprise: "If Republicans didn't want a higher deficit, they shouldn't have fought so hard to make it worse. They had a choice -- expensive tax breaks or deficit reduction. They made their choice, were told what the consequences would be, and are now stunned by the realization that the rules of arithmetic haven't been suspended by the GOP's force of will." (The Washington Monthly)

Yellowstone addendum: When credibility counts: "I wrote earlier this week about the media and its treatment of Yellowstone caldera. Well, I tried to be calm about a post/video I saw earlier today on CNN's American Morning blog by Rebecca Hillman, but I don't think I can. Kiran Chetry decided to interview Michio Kaku, a noted physicist, about the caldera - specifically about the recent findings about the inflation. What happens next is one of the worst interviews about Yellowstone I've ever seen - and shows us what happens when you are lazy and don't get a real expert in the field." (Eruptions)

The making of an angular unconformity: Hutton’s unconformity at Siccar Point: "If you want to really get Deep Time, places like this are where you start. Once you understand that the vertical beds below the contact were originally horizontal, the vast amounts of time required to produce this structure leap right out at you from the outcrop.. It tells a geological story that began more than 400 million years ago with the deposition of the greywackes off an ancient coastline, and continues to the present day. So far there are six chapters, detailing folding and uplift during the creation of a mountain belt; the slow death of that mountain belt as wind and water ground it away; the formation of lakes and sand dunes on a warm, arid continent during the Devonian; a further, more gentle tectonic upheaval that led to the whole sequence being tilted; and finally, a further bout of erosion that has created the Siccar Point seen by Hutton, and tens of thousands of geologists and geology students since." (Highly Allochthonous)

Capadoccia 1: "Today, you get the first of several batches of photos dealing with one of the most magical places I’ve ever been, the Capadoccia region of Turkey." (Mountain Beltway)

27 January, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #30: Bake Sale Madness

Only for you lot would I whip out my long-neglected electric mixer and put my poor, long-suffering intrepid companion through an afternoon of baking, grumbling, decorating, more grumbling...  Damn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not a baker!

What I would've liked to end up with was a model of the Cascades in miniature.  What we've got is a generic sort of cirque glacier thingy.

Looking back on it, we should've done it with two cakes: a nice round stacked on top would've given me a better shot at mountains.  So it goes.  Use your imaginations.

Anyway.  We've got some features of a glacier going on.  I even annotated the photo for ye!

As you can see, we've got a wee little cirque glacier spilling down a (work with me, people!) mountainside.  It's in retreat!  You can tell because it's left behind a nice terminal moraine, which its outwash stream has breached.  This, along with the fact I didn't buy a lot of blue icing, explains why there's no lake piled up behind the moraine.

The stream itself is the typical braided type you so often see draining meltwater from glaciers.  I would've tried to mimic the milky appearance of rock flour in the water, but decided it wasn't worth the risk.  Besides, we wanted cake!

It was nearly impossible to photograph, so I haven't got a good example, but the bottom part of the glacier's created a nice, U-shaped valley, even.  And I'm sure you've noticed all the little brown flecks in the glacier.  Ice is covered in rockfall, y'see.  It's very dirty ice.  And very tasty, too!

Right, then.  That's it.  Mixer's being retired again.  And the next time we hold a bake sale, I'm going with my original idea - breccia.  Or possibly a nice tillite.

ETEV Geo-Posts Lexicon

Silver Fox posed me a question on Twitter that sent me on an hours-long gallop through ye olde blog:
You've been blogging for quite a while, when did you start doing rock posts and other related geo-type subjects?
I couldn't remember.  Been doing this since March of 2008, and it's almost 3,200 posts under the bridge since then.  I'd started with pollyticks mostly, along with a heaping helping of bashing on IDiots, and only gradually transitioned to the current mix.  And I have the attention span of a meth-addicted Jack Russell Terrier combined with the memory of a brain-damaged goldfish (I exaggerate only a little), so it's hard to cast my pathetic excuse for a mind back to those misty days of almost three years ago and remember just what the hell I was doing.  

I'm sunk if I ever get hauled in by the police, people.  They'll ask me what I was doing on the evening of X, and I'll have to say I've no idea.  They'll ask me if I ever met so-and-so, and I'll say no, and they'll whip out some incriminating photo showing me with X, and they won't believe me when I tell them I didn't remember X's name and have only a vague idea of the circumstances under which that photo was taken.  But I digress.  See: attn span of meth-addict JR above.

I took a gallop through my science-tagged posts in an attempt to answer Silver Fox's question, and having worked up some momentum, I took a run at the entire opus.  If you've ever wanted links to all of my geo-related posts, then this is the post for you!

If you want a sampling of all my science-related posts, simply click the "Science" tag at the end of this post, or find it in Labels in the sidebar.  Enjoy!

26 January, 2011

Oregon Geology Parte the Fifth: Land o' Lincoln (City)

You would think that, having spent the day driving down from Seattle, climbing to the tip-top of the Astoria Column for a panoramic look at the geology around the mouth of the Columbia River, exploring Ecola State Park, and wandering about Hug Point's geology both north and south until the tide chased us away, I'd be sleeping in a bit the next day.

You would be wrong.

I popped wide awake just around five in the morning.  Now, I could've tried to go back to sleep, or read a bit, but there was this ocean less than a mile away.  So out of bed I bounced, and promptly found out that the parking lots for the beaches don't open until 6 in the ay-em.


What to do but drive about aimlessly, and run into the reason why Lincoln City bears its name?

Lincoln Statue
Lincoln's actually the reason why Lincoln City's called Lincoln City, because the city's named after Lincoln County, and Lincoln County got its name from none other than Abraham Lincoln.  And the city shall always be called Lincoln City because of this statue.  The artist, Anna Hyatt Huntington, made that one of her conditions when she gave it to the city.

25 January, 2011

An Idiot Abroad: Not Just Americans Are Ugly

Ricky Gervais is a terrible, terrible friend.  He played a rather expensive practical joke on his friend Karl, and the result is An Idiot Abroad, a series in which a stay-at-home-Brit experiences the wonders of travel.

So far, I'm learning things.  I'm learning it's not just Americans who can be remarkably close-minded.  I'm learning there's virtually nothing you can't put on a stick and eat.  And I'm learning more about how fortune tellers suck in the gullible.  It seems to have quite a bit to do with scaring the bejezus out of them from the get-go.

It's hysterical.  I think I'll be watching the rest.

Dana's Dojo: Write What You Know - Or Can, At Least, Convincingly Fake

Today in the Dojo: Dana's Editorial on writing, research, and her personal preferences regarding authors who Really Know Their Shit

It has taken me years of struggle, hard work and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the art of writing to realize that it would take as many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence.
     -Isadora Duncan 

No fewer than two of my friends have taken me to task recently for devoting so much time to pure research.  "You'll never know everything, Dana" and "You've got to stop researching and just write at some point" are the common themes here.  And they're both right.  But there's good reason for devoting time to research, and for going in-depth with it.

So this article's for them.  And it's for all of you who get laughed at for engaging in Extreme Research.

The Primary Types of Authors

I've read a hell of a lot of books, and I've discerned broad patterns among writers.  There's the type who get all of their research done from movies and fiction books.  There's the type who have read a book or two on the subject and then relied on sheer imagination for the rest.  There's the kind who only Write What They Know, and gods forbid they should write anything outside of their own area of expertise.  And then there's the kind who research not only widely but deeply, and come across as experts on about thirty-seven disparate subjects.

Those last kind are the ones I'm trying to emulate.  And I have news for you.  They're not experts on every subject they sound expert in - they've just done enough research to sound like they are.  They know just a little bit more than the read-two-books types, and they know just enough to make the real experts smile proudly.  It's actually not that hard to get there.

Every writer has to make a decision about his or her work: how much research is necessary?  Great stories have been written by all the types, from the crassest "Hey, it worked in Star Trek" to the "I'm a theoretical physicist with a background in socio-psychology and honorary degrees in ten billion other subjects."  No amount of knowledge is going to save you if you aren't good at telling stories.  And any amount of ignorance is forgiven by the majority of the reading public if you tell a ripping good tale.

That being so, you may well ask why anyone wouldn't go for the soft option of watching a few movies and then faking it.  The answer is deeply personal.  And it has a lot to do with the way you want your writing to be viewed.

Big Mac or Filet Mignon?

I personally despise Big Macs.  I have several friends who would happily live on nothing else.  It's all a matter of taste.

So know your tastes.  If you adore books that tell a ripping good story without any concern for facts, you're probably not going to be one of those authors who obsesses over the veracity of every detail, nor should you be.  Make it all up and have a great good time doing it.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

I, however, have noticed a distinct pattern in my reading tastes: I gorge on books that are "true" in the sense that the author knew what they were talking about.  They didn't make things up whole cloth.  They extrapolated from a solid foundation of knowledge about the "real" world.  And when I find authors who play fast and loose with the facts, I can't stop reading their books fast enough.  It drives me crazy when I can tell that the author is basing his or her fantasy world on misunderstood rehashes of Tolkien, D&D, and the latest Hollywood offering on King Arthur.  I can't stand "science" fiction writers who wouldn't know an electron from a positron and yet based their entire story on what they believed to be the difference (and were dead wrong).  To me, this is no better than the infomercials selling ionized water claiming it will cure any ill.  Their science is faulty, therefore so is their premise, and the whole foundation of what they're trying to get me to buy in to is faulty.  I can tell when an author is blowing smoke up my ass, and I don't care how good the plot or characters are after that - they've lost me.

So I can't write the kind of story where I don't know as much as possible about my subject matter.  Just can't.  And I won't be limited to writing what I already know - who wants a fantasy about a woman who works in a call center and dreams about being a fantasy author?  That's all I know from firsthand experience.  Forget it.  So that means research and plenty of it.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors - Take Note

Another gripe I have is the plethora of crap on the shelves in my genre.  I refuse to be counted among the many who don't know what they're talking about, who decide that since they played D&D in high school they know everything there is to know about dragons, elves and wizards, and write accordingly. 

It's bad enough when you substitute fake knowledge for the real thing in fantasy - but when you're writing science fiction, it's deadly.  The fast way to the rejection pile is to write a science fiction story using no more science than you've picked up from two episodes of Nova. 

Editors see a billion submissions a year from people who don't know what they're talking about.  If you're going to write in these genres, do the work.  There's no excuse not to.

Knowledge is Beauty

I just love knowing things.  Nothing makes me happier than to find out things about things.  That's why I don't spend my nights watching the latest CSI rerun. 

You may think that research is a dread thing to be done only because you must, but knowing more about the subjects you're writing about make you appreciate the world more.  Did you know I used to hate science and math?  Well, then I had to get into those subjects in order to write science-based fantasy, and suddenly, I discovered their beauty.  It's not that dry crap you get in school.  Nothing is.  I've researched so many formerly-despised subjects now that I've lost count, but the more I know, the more things I love.  And the more interesting the world becomes.

So if you're going to do research, don't do it just for your books.  Do it for yourself.  Do it for the excuse to do crazy things you'd never in a million billion years do otherwise.  It's the best excuse ever: "Yeah, I had to take a Carribbean cruise for the book I'm writing" or "I had to buy this Prada handbag to really understand how my character relates to the finer things in life."  My gods, people, milk it!

And if you get published, some of this stuff actually becomes tax-deductable...

Knowledge Generates Ideas

The more I've learned, the more stories I've been able to tell.  Possibilities become endless when you know more than what you've learned from reading Harlequin Romances.  For instance, "Schroedinger's Bum."  I couldn't have written that story without my knowledge of quantum physics.  Because I know quantum physics, I had an original idea and got out a story in about two hours.

Not bad, eh?

I can't count the number of times I've been horribly blocked, and had new knowledge come to the rescue.  I get stuck by ignorance, unstuck by new knowledge.  And as for new story ideas, well.  Let's just say that the more I know, the more stuff I want to write, and most importantly can write.

Knowledge Keeps You Original

The more you know, the more unique ideas you can come up with.  A lot of people I talk to who want to write pitch me ideas that I've heard a thousand times before.  Then they go off and dig up a little background on their intended story subject, and each time they come back, what they've learned has led to a better, more original idea.

The same is true for me.  Back before I knew many things, all I could do was write an old, tired quest-type book.  Now that I know more things, I've been able to break free of that and come up with things I've never seen written before.  Ever.  And those whacky ideas work because they've sprung from things that existed in the real world.  They result from a synthesis of the oddball things I've researched - such as mythology, quantum physics, and fine art.  The more you know, the more you can mix-and-match for something totally fresh that at the same time sounds very real indeed.

Research Give You Something Useful to Do

We all get blocked.  We all have times when everything we write seems trite and contrived and more wooden than Pinnochio.  So instead of filling your time with picking lint out of your belly button or gambling your life away on PartyPoker.com, might as well do the research.  You'll get inspiration, and your stories will be all the better for it.

And remember that research also includes reading endless amounts of fiction.  Gotta research what's getting published these days.  It's hard work.  Honestly.  Nothing to do with lying around like a lazy sod drinking Coke and eating Cheetos until the belly explodes.  Not having any fun at all, no, sir...

Someday, the Research Must Take Back Seat

Alas, one cannot know everything, as my wise young friend has pointed out.  There comes a day when all this knowledge must be turned into immortal prose.  And so it's pretty silly to make it your goal to know absolutely everything about everything.

The trick is to do just enough research to have knowledge of a decent depth, adequate to your story's needs, and enough to fool a few random experts into thinking you actually know what you're talking about, and then just go for it.  Sure, you're going to come across some glaring areas of ignorance while you're writing.  Just like in housepainting, you'll have to do some touch-ups.  You've just got to accept that and get it done.

I've done that successfully with many, many short stories, and while the research for the novel's going to take far longer, I still have limits.  The research will end, and the writing will begin. 

If you're tempted to do endless research, set aside a good chunk of time to do your research in, do it, and then start writing.  That way you won't get trapped in the research-till-you're-too-old-to-write-the-damned-book pit.

And then enjoy all the people exclaiming about how you really know what you're talking about.

24 January, 2011

It's Not That Easy Addendum

Saw this at Digby's after I'd written the previous post:
All over TV today, I'm hearing the gasbags fret about the fact that Obama hasn't brought up gun control. It's a good question, but they know the answer to it very well: the Democrats have given up that issue, the only problem is that the Republicans refuse to accept their surrender. They have nothing more to say about it.

I'm more curious about why they aren't all over this:
Gov. Jan Brewer's plan to roll back state Medicaid coverage would leave thousands of Arizona's most mentally fragile without health care. 

An estimated 5,200 people diagnosed with a serious mental illness and thousands more who qualify for other behavioral-health services would be among 280,000 childless adults losing health-care coverage under the governor's plan.
But, Jan sez, she'll allocate $10 mil or so to cover psych meds.  Well, that's nice, Jan.  Too bad you're cutting out all the other services that go along with the meds.  You don't seem to realize that it's not just a matter of chucking pills down people's throats.  Meds have to be prescribed, they have to be monitored, they have to be adjusted, they stop working and have to be changed, above all they have to be taken.  Funny thing about mental illness, paranoid people often won't swallow the pills you hand them.

Without intensive monitoring, without counseling appointments, and without a support system that will help these poor ill people get well enough to achieve some level of function, you might as well be hosing them down with homeopathy for all the good it will do.

Just like with transplants, Jan Brewer doesn't get it.  Jan Brewer doesn't care.  That's the takeaway lesson here, people: do not get sick in Arizona, because Jan Brewer doesn't care if you suffer and die.  She and her merry band of fucktards do not believe the great state of Arizona needs to waste its money on you.

Suzanne left a comment on the last installment I want to make sure all of you see:
very well said dana. in the past, i've had to try to navigate the california mental health system for family and friends in addition to my experiences on the pd.

even before the draconian cuts that have happened in ca, the cops had to determine that the person was (1) a danger to themselves (suicidal); or (2) a danger to others (homicidal); or (3) gravely disabled (ie dementia/alzheimer) in order to place an involuntary 72 hour psychiatric hold. the patient would then be transported by ambulance to the county contracted mental health facility where the docs would either agree or disagree.

more times than i can recount, if ya didn't have good insurance, that 72 hour hold was ignored the patient would be discharged early -- many times later that same day.

it is heartbreaking what is happening to our safety net in the country.

its not that easy -- and it is being made harder and harder each and every day.
And that was in California, which according to some was a socialist paradise.

If you want to see what the Republican ideal of health care is, watch Arizona.  And consider carefully whether that's what you want for this country the next time you go to the ballot box.

It's Not That Easy

So David Dayen wrote this article right after the Giffords shooting, taking the WaPo out to the woodshed and administering some tough love for being such complete fuckwits.  You see, WaPo decided that since there's a law on the books in good ol' AZ saying crazy folk can be committed, all those people who didn't take advantage of the law to get Loughner off the streets before he put a bullet in a Congresswoman's head and killed a whole bunch of others have something to answer for:

According to the Washington Post, Arizona has a law on the books that enables anyone to identify a potential victim of mental illness, and remand them for treatment:
Under Arizona law, any one of Jared Lee Loughner’s classmates or teachers at Pima Community College so concerned about his increasingly bizarre behavior could have contacted local officials and asked that he be evaluated for mental illness and potentially committed for psychiatric treatment.

That, according to local mental health and law enforcement officials, never happened.
Ah, yes.  Good ol' Title 36.   Title 36, wot could've saved 'em all.

Let me tell you a little something about Title 36.  And it's gonna get personal.

23 January, 2011

Some Thoughts on Subduction, Science, and Denialists

What I was supposed to be doing today: cleaning house, working on research.

What I did: got sucked into a series of posts having fun at the expense of Expanding Earthers, who are just as pathetic as IDiots.

It all started with this tweet, which led to me reading three posts on subduction and the Cascadia subduction zone by Brian Romans, including comments.  The comments taught me that Expanding Earthers like to engage in all the usual IDiocy, namely quote mining, misinterpreting science, refusing to answer direct questions, refusing to provide any actual evidence and/or explain how their inane ideas fit the data, and when backed into a corner, move the goalposts, frantically start making shit up and/or resort to personal attacks before running away in a snit.  And let's not forget the ALL CAPS arguments.  For some reason, these people think ALL CAPS makes their contentions IRREFUTABLE.  Pathetic.

From there, I went on to a post that demolishes Expanding Earther dumbfuckery with one word: gravity

Now.  I'd like to make some observations for any passing Expanding Earthers:

1.  If you want to overturn existing scientific paradigms, you must present the data and evidence to do so.  No, I'm sorry - you're not going to understand that.  Let me try to put it in a format you can understand:

If you want scientists to take your Expanding Earth idea seriously, YOU must PRESENT DATA AND EVIDENCE in PEER-REVIEWED PUBLICATIONS.  It is YOUR JOB to PROVIDE EVIDENCE, because you are trying to overturn a body of scientific work that has already proven itself over and over and over and over and over again. 

Let's pretend for a moment that this is a jello wrestling match.  The current theory of plate tectonics has so much evidence and so much data backing it that, if evidence and data were jello, scientists would be able to bury you to a depth of roughly ten billion feet with it.  You, on the other hand, are holding an empty jello packet and trying to say you won.  It's just sad.

2.  For all those who like to play maverick and pretend there is some huge conspiracy preventing your EE bullshit from being taken seriously, you might want to consider how quickly scientists accepted plate tectonics when other scientists presented evidence proving it and supplied a mechanism showing how it would be possible. 

In fact, the plate tectonics revolution seems to be one of the most beautiful examples of how science works: first came the germ of an idea (continental drift), which wasn't accepted until a lot of hard work got done.  Scientists went out and did science.  Evidence piled up.  The idea got tweaked and modified into a theory (plate tectonics).  The theory turned out to explain a whole lot of disparate data that couldn't be explained before.  The underlying mechanism was found.  And before you knew it, viva la revolucion! 

All of this happened because the early plate tectonics folks actually went out and did science.  They didn't sit around sniveling that scientists wouldn't listen to them.  They didn't mine some quotes and call it a day.  They worked their asses off, knowing their ideas would live or die based on their results, that they had to present the evidence, that they had to do the science, that they might be wrong and had to be damned sure they were right before they could expect respect. 

3.  Ask yourself what's more likely: that the entire scientific establishment, from chemists to physicists to geologists to biologists to every other form of -ist, together with all of their journals, conferences, organizations, and so forth, are conspiring to conceal "the truth" you think is out there, or that you're a deluded nitwit?  Apply Occam's Razor.  And if you slice it on the "Everybody's conspiring!" side, please pin a badge to your chest that says "Certified Crank" so the rest of us don't have to waste our time with you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must get on with finding other ways to entertain myself, such as wondering if there are any Shrinking Earthers out there so that we can set up a cage match between them and the Expanders.  No jello wrestling, alas, as neither of them have got any jello.  Still, it'd be quite the sight to see.

Overdose of Cute, Plus Snow!

Some of you like cute kitteh photos.  Well, this post is for you.

My cat, who is spawn of Satan at the best of times and something Satan would flee from at the worst, has been overplaying the cute card over the past few weeks.  I believe she's plotting something.  Or perhaps she's just saying thanks for giving her a big ol' sheet o' paper for Xmas:

Nah.  Plot.

More disgusting cute after the fold, plus a rare glimpse of Seattle snow.

22 January, 2011

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Blaise Pascal

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

-Blaise Pascal

Despite sounding like a Gnu Atheist gigantidick, Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century mathematician and physicist whose name you should curse if you don't like getting injections, as he had a little something to do with the invention of syringes.  He's also the guy who came up with Pascal's Triangle, which is apparently important to mathematicians.

The above quote comes from his Pensées, in which he not only defended Christianity, but included his famous Wager.

21 January, 2011

Los Links 1/21

I'd write you an inspiring lead, and helpfully split this week's links into categories, and generally do more by way of saying "Go read all these and then some!" But my book on South China agriculture just came in, I've still got Krakatoa to finish, and a dream has sent me on a scramble through old photos, so this is all you get:

Go.  Read.

Dr. King's Nightmare: "It's the priorities MLK spoke of that I find interesting. In retrospect, he seems to have predicted the place we're in now - a nation diminished both economically and intellectually from what we were in his time. We've become more inclusive, but we're mostly more inclusive at the bottom 99% of our society. The ones who really count are what they've always been." (Slobber and Spittle)
At Least He's Honest: "These people don't believe that America is a country. They don't believe that it is an American value, across all state lines and across all political divisions to ensure that children are not exploited. If Oklahoma wants to allow people to hire 10 year old children to make cheap consumer goods for whatever the market will pay, that's just the price we pay for freedom.

"Likewise, slavery. But we had that argument already. They lost." (Hullabaloo)

Battle Hymn Of The Republican: "I was just continuing to muse a bit over the fascinating change in rhetoric over the past week. The above verse is meant as an amalgam, not merely the obvious target. I remember Rush bloviating "talent on loan from God"; Beck gloating over the attendance at his rally, Billo's obsession with the numbers competition between himself and his MSNBC counterparts... WHen it suited their interest, they claimed tremendous influence. That influence, however, has the fascinating property of disappearing altogether when reality catches up to rhetoric." (The Digital Cuttlefish)
When Human Research Gets Inside Your Mind...:  "Early in the research career I began 11 years ago, I worked with a population of Vietnam War veterans with terminal lung disease.  They were incredibly sick, although still ambulatory and living independently, and we were trying a new medication to try to relieve some of their symptoms.  They visited my office every month for a year and would stay for 18 hours at a time.  None of them ever wanted to sit alone in our patient room with the comfortable couch, television, and fridge full of water and juice and snacks.  They wanted to sit with me in my office in the small wooden chair in the corner, and I accommodated them. Usually they would sit quietly, sipping decaf coffee and reading the paper or a book while I worked on my charts and entered my data.  Sometimes they would want to make small talk - tell me about the town's latest gossip, their children and grandchildren, or discuss the weather,  And sometimes, late at night, at the end of our time together, they would tell me about the things they had seen.  Things so sad and so horrific that those stories are blistered permanently inside of my mind. Knowing these things changed me.  I don't know that they made me better, but I know that they made me different inside.  I know now that there are things you can never forget.  But I also know that what are even more horrific, are the stories they couldn't bring themselves to tell me."  (On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess)

Helpless in the Face of Madness: "What is the matter with us? Are we really helpless in the face of the astounding toll that guns take on this society?
"More than 30,000 people die from gunfire every year. Another 66,000 or so are wounded, which means that nearly 100,000 men, women and children are shot in the United States annually. Have we really become so impotent as a society, so pathetically fearful in the face of the extremists, that we can’t even take the most modest of steps to begin curbing this horror?" (NYT)

How Plate Tectonics Became Accepted Science:  "'Most of the really great breakthroughs in science are unifications,' said Owen J. Gingerich, a science historian at Harvard. Newton’s laws of motion unified the sky and Earth as ruled by the same physics; that was radically different from the earlier Aristotelian concept, in which the two realms were separate. Einstein’s laws of relativity unified space and time.

“'Obviously, plate tectonics was an enormous unifying theory that began to make sense of disparate sorts of phenomena,' Dr. Gingerich said." (NYT Week in Review) (h/t)

How deep the Universe: "Now there you go. Did you see that? What I said? 'The nearby spiral…'. 'The galaxy is close to our own...'. But it isn’t." (Bad Astronomy)

Dysteleological Physicalism: "Ernst Haeckel coined the term 'dysteleology' to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. His primary concern was with biological evolution, but the conception goes deeper. Google returns no hits for the phrase 'dysteleological physicalism' (until now, I suppose). But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that."  (Cosmic Variance)

Palinspeak and Violence: "One of the constants in Sarah Palin's worldview is violence. You see it in her reality show where most wildlife is immediately identified as a threat to be guarded against or killed. You see it in her inflammatory language, and the ways in which she corrals supporters to sometimes shockingly violent threats. You see it even in completely innocuous Facebook postings on sports. Just check out this Palin stream-of-consciousness on, yes, March Madness..." (The Daily Dish)

"An armed society is a polite society":  "So how is the aphorism; 'An armed society is a polite society' supposed to work?  I often hear people use it who advocate universal access to firearms as a solution to social problems.  What form, exactly, would that politeness take?  And what would happen if it were violated?  What would the result be in very crowded places?  How would it work out for people who cannot conform socially? What about the exchange of ideas considered by some to be inherently rude?  How would social innovation ever take place? A bit of imagination is in order and for that we might turn to a very imaginative author." (Decrepit Old Fool)

The elephants in the room at ScienceOnline 2011: "Chris Mooney told us that we need ‘Deadly Ninjas of Science Communication’, Tom Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center said that he had been told by a Congressman that the debate over climate change was a ‘knife fight’, and Josh Rosenau drew some compelling parallels between the tactics and rhetoric employed by denialists and the creationist playbook. And yet, there was still a rather odd focus on the communication skills – or the implied lack thereof – of scientists as the reason that so many seem to think that the basic fact of anthropogenic climate change is still up for discussion. Sure, we can refine our message. But how effective is this in a media landscape, particularly in the US, where manufactured controversy abounds, and people who knowingly distort and misrepresent the science are happily given a megaphone? Our ninjas are going to need more than better framing in their toolkit of rhetorical jujitsu moves." (Highly Allochthonous)

Krugman Finally Has His 'Creationist Moment': "I've written many times that everything you need to know about movement conservatism can be understood by observing creationists (not surprising, since the theopolitical right is a major element of the conservative movement). I'm glad to see NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman has finally reached his 'creationist moment': the epiphany one realizes that, to creationists, words have no meaning, that they are not being honest." (Mike the Mad Biologist)

When my Inner Writer is stomping her foot in protest....: "I love writing. I really do. Editing, not so much. Background info....meh. But I love writing.

"And yet, there are days when I sit at my computer and open my WIP*, and all I can think is, 'Okay....now what?'" [What follows is damned good advice, and all writers should go read it.  Now, in fact.] (The Coffee-Stained Writer)

Flooding on the flanks of Mt. Hood: "It’s the middle of January. You’ve traveled to Oregon’s majestic Mount Hood for a weekend of skiing the snow- and glacier-covered slopes. On Saturday morning when you begin to head up the mountain from Portland, it’s warm and raining. 'No problem,' you think, 'it will be snowing at higher elevations.' (Thanks to generally decreasing temperature with increasing elevation, or the environmental lapse rate.) But it’s not. Instead, it is raining. Not just run-of-the-mill Oregon drizzle, either. It’s really raining hard. (Highly Allochthonous)

The Significance of a Symbolic Gesture: "With yesterday's vote, Republicans effectively told American families, 'We'll gut the health care system now, and maybe figure something else out later. In the meantime, good luck -- and don't get sick.' Those who find this compelling probably aren't paying close enough attention." (The Washington Monthly)

A Really Big Erratic White Rock in Jefferson County: "A few weeks back David Tucker posted a query regarding big erratics located within the Puget Sound area. He has done some nice write ups on our local glacial erratics including ones I would recommend. So it took me a few days to think of some. Some of my favorites are resting on the mud flats of Drayton Harbor southwest of Blaine, but an impressively large erratic is located north of Hood Head on the west shore of the upper Hood Canal. It is so big and prominent, you don't have to take a field trip to see it. You can see it using Google Maps or Bing Maps." (Reading the Washington Landscape)

20 January, 2011

So You Know Exactly How God Did It, Then?

You know, sometimes it seems like USA has come to stand for "United States of Appalling Ignorance."  A lot of people in this country need to read an improving book.  And I'm not talking about the Bible.  That one only seems to improve people's ability to be smug about their appalling ignorance.

MTHellfire found this bit of outstanding fuckwittery spouted by Bill O'Reilly and took him to the woodshed over it (h/t):
"Tide goes in and tide goes out...you can't explain that." Bill O'Reilly recently told Dave Silverman of American Atheists, during a recent airing on Fox News as they debated the integrity of religion.
After her head hit her desk, she went on to advise that, yes, actually, Billo, we can explain how the tide goes in and out.  I'd just like to add that Billo needs to avail himself of a book I recently read, Beyond the Moon.  We are so able to explain tides that entire pop sci books can be written on the subject.

MTHellfire went on to quote, in its full misspelled glory, a screed she'd been subjected to on Facebook, wherein the correspondent (and I use this term loosely) advised that the reason people don't trust scientists is that they can't explain where the first speck of dirt came from, but they can tell you how life was created.

Wrong wrong wrong, and not just because the original had enough grammatical errors to make an English teacher contemplate a home lobotomy in an effort to escape the pain.  Scientists can explain how life evolved.  They're not yet sure how it originated, but they've got some promising ideas.  They're pretty certain it did not include a large bearded deity poofing the whole thing into existence.

As far as the speck of dirt goes, any decent book on cosmology can clue you in.  Dirt is formed of elements.  Elements are forged in stars.  And so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.  So yes, Facebook babbler, scientists can explain where the first speck of dirt came from.  At length, and with equations, if you like.

But it's not like the "God did it" crowd is likely to listen to the evidence.  If they do, their eyes will all too likely glaze over, and they will take this as a sign: they cannot understand it, therefore scientists don't really understand it, ergo Jesus!  So let me just turn this around a bit.  I like turning tables.  It adds interest to a room.

Here's my reply to the "Scientists can't explain every single detail exactly, so God, so there!" crowd:

Do you know every last detail of how, precisely, God created the universe?  I mean, precisely how he spoke the whole thing into existence?  The complete and excruciating details of how, exactly, God did it, from the first photon to the last squidgy bit on Eve?


Deary me.  Guess I'll have to just stick with science, then.

19 January, 2011

Oregon Geology Parte the Fourth: Hug Yer Geology South

We've had an eventful first day in Oregon so far.  We saw the mouth of the mighty Columbia River at Astoria; watched the Columbia River Basalts plunge into the sea at Ecola State Park; and done a bit of desultory spelunking at the north side of Hug Point.  The sun's getting ready to sink into the sea past shattered sea stacks of brecciated basalt.

Grande Ronde Silhouette
And if we don't get our arses round Austin Point and back before high tide, we're going to be hugging something other than geology soon.  It's a mad scramble through a tangle of biology up to Highway 101 if you get stranded on the beach.  So let's get a move on.

18 January, 2011

Dana's Dojo: Extrapolation vs. Experience

Today in the Dojo: The secret to writing what you don't know.

"I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience."

For those who wonder how I spend most afternoons off, it involves the following: I plan to do many necessary things.  I sit down to check my email.  My cat crawls into my lap and curls up in excrutiatingly cute positions.  So the house goes uncleaned, the groceries unbought, and Dana unshowered until the cat finishes cuddling around five. 

I am chained to my computer by cute. 

So while I'm trapped, I write posts.  Such as this one.

Lest you think the above was just a thowaway paragraph merely All About Dana, look at it again.  Some of you may never have experienced the joys of a purring bundle of homicidal fur lying across your arms and gazing adoringly into your face.  Some of you may not even like it much.  But you can all imagine yourselves into my world, can't you?  You've cuddled with a friend, a lover, a child or perhaps a dog or ferret when you should be doing something else.  You've felt their warmth and breath against your stomach.  You've looked into each other's eyes and experienced an ineffible adoration while at the same time thinking in the far corner of your mind, "Damn it, I was supposed to be..."

Of course, your respective bundles of joy may not have been licking your arm with a sandpaper tongue, and for that you should be grateful.  However, the fact remains: you do not have to experience this precisely to imagine it.

Now let me turn it on its head: you don't have to experience it precisely to write it with authority.

Eh?  What's that?  You can write what you don't know?  Isn't that dead against all that write-what-you-know advice?


Let's be utterly realistic here: if we were confined to writing what we know, there would be no fantasy, science fiction, historicals, westerns, spy thrillers (the actual life of a spy is mostly dead boring), or about a billion other types of books currently populating bookstore shelves.  In one fell swoop, we destroy countless publishing categories with this rule.

To take it further, there would also be strict limitations on what kind of things the individual author could write.  I'll use myself as a sample case.  If I stayed true to the "write what I know" rule, I could only write about an aspiring author who works in a call center and doesn't get out much.  There's a bit of drama in there: mother has bipolar disorder and occasionally gets committed because of psychotic episodes when the meds quit working.  But she lives a couple thousand miles away, so it's all drama at second hand.  Dead boring.

I would be trapped in a single viewpoint: mine.  Single white female.  Smoker.  Worry wart.  Straight.  No major tragedies in life.  Even the Defining Crisis of becoming a statistic at the age of eighteen presented no more than some rethinking of assumptions about people and a very minor case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I overcame without shrinks or drugs because it really wasn't that horrid, comparitively speaking.  Pretty sad, isn't it? 

If I could only write What I Know, I couldn't write anything that I write now.  Not one single word. 

Take a moment and think about the kinds of things you would be forced to write if you could only write what you, yourself, have experienced firsthand.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.  Judge Judy is on, I can keep myself amused.


Scary, isn't it?

But there's hope.  We're not trapped by some idiot rule that says we can only Write What We Know.  Really.  We're not.  And I can prove it.  Another anecdote for you:

After my Defining Crisis, my father sat down with me one night and had A Talk.  He said, "You've always wanted to watch Full Metal Jacket with me.  I didn't think you could understand it.  You can understand it now.  You're a survivor, too."

Or words to that effect.  I really don't remember them specifically because my jaw was in the way.  Kinda hurts when it hits the floor that hard.  Here's a man who survived a year in Vietnam during the heavy fighting, who was afraid to take his boots off for three months because every time he did, his unit came under heavy mortar fire, who got shot in the jaw and took shrapnel in the leg that's still working its way out of his body, who lost most of the hearing in one ear because some idiot fired off a .45 in a tunnel thinking a shadow was Viet Cong, who spent Christmas that year pinned down under rifle fire running out of ammo, who still can't go to see the Wall because there are too many friends' names on it...  This man is now telling me that I can understand all of the pain and fear and rage and anguish because I spent one hour one morning wondering if I was going to get killed with a dull kitchen knife.  He equates this to a year of getting shot at in a jungle.  The hell?

Well, I didn't argue the point.  I wanted to see Full Metal Jacket with my dad because he'd told me that this was the only movie about Vietnam that really captured what it was like.  Maybe I'd know by the end of the movie why my situation matched his.  So we watched.  And I was even more perplexed.  How the hell could he possibly think that my situation had been even a fraction of his?

Well, he was right.  He knew that because I'd experienced a credible threat to my life, lived however briefly under the fear of permanent mutilation, and then had to come back with the determination that this would not define or destroy me, that I could understand Vietnam in a way I couldn't have before.  I could imagine my way in.

Extrapolation, my darlings.  It's our most powerful tool.

A lot of writers seem to fall prey to the idea that if one hasn't experienced something, one can't write truthfully about it.  "I can't write war because I'm not a soldier."  "I can't write from a woman's viewpoint because I'm a man."  "I can't write gay because I'm straight."  And on and on.  Some writers buy into this so strongly that they never step out of their own heads.  You can tell these writers.  One aspect of their story is drawn in sweeping detail and throbs with authority, and everything else that had to be there is dead wood.  Stereotypes.  Cutouts.  They never learn the power of extrapolation.

We're not going to do that, are we?  We're going to learn the power.  We're going to let go of our limitations.

It starts from what we do know and have experienced.  Unless you've lived your life in a sensory deprivation tank, you've experienced things: love, hate, fear, relief, sorrow, joy...  need I continue?  You're human.  You know what these things are.  You've been through them.  It's just a matter of degree.

Another anecdote, this one brief: on the first day of Abnormal Psychology, our instructor told us that by the end of the course, we'd believe we had every disorder in the book.  You don't, he assured us, most of you are perfectly normal.  Most of us?  Just most?  You're all human, he said, blythely ignoring the nervous looks as we wondered which ones had the real psychoses.  Humans feel all of these things.  What makes it abnormal is the degree

I learned that day that I could understand any psychological disorder in that book, simply because I'm a human being and have felt all of these things to a much lesser degree.  Instead of saying "I can't imagine what it would be like to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder," I could say, "I've been pretty self-centered at times.  How did that feel?  Now, intensify that feeling until..."

No, I couldn't write a character with Narcissistic Personality Disorder with absolute authenticity, but if I did my research and drew on my own wells of experience, I could get pretty damned close.  And what's authenticity, anyway?  Put a dozen people suffering from the disorder in a room and they'll all disagree on what's authentic experience anyway.  Everybody's different.  No one description of what it's like will ever please all those who know.  But get enough of it right, and they'll fill in the rest.

Personal Experience + Research x A Lot of Imagination2 = Authentic Enough, Damn It!

Remember that all we're really needing to do is put forth a reasonable facsimilie of the way things are.  We want the nitty-gritty details that simulate the truth.  But we can get them from other sources than having done it ourselves.

The equation is so simple.  You've got a situation: a cop pinned down under gunfire.  You're no cop.  You've never crouched behind a car while people shoot at you and your colleague lies dead beside you.  How can you write this?

Personal experience.  You've felt fear before, raw, clammy fear.  You've been angry.  You've been in situations you weren't sure you could get out of.  Sure, maybe it was just a bad blind date, and it was more tragicomedy than anything else, but those emotions were there.  Go back to them.  Draw on them.  Ask yourself: How much more intense would this be if I were trapped behind a car next to a dead guy while people shoot at me?

Okay.  Now comes the research: You've hopefully watched some cop shows.  If not, COPS is on at least one channel most nights.  Read a book or dozen about police officers.  I'm not talking fiction, I'm talking real life journalism stuff.  Got friends who are cops?  Great!  Get 'em talking.  Now you're ready to ask yourself: how would someone with this training and this mentality deal with these emotions, all of that fear and grief and rage? 

Now you're ready to imagine.  Go ahead.  Live the scene.  If you have to go outside and kneel behind your car in the blazing hot sun of the afternoon and point your finger and yell "Bang!" while neighbors gawp, do it.  Ignore them when they dial 911 and have the people in white coats come for you.  All you have to tell the shrinks is that you're writing a book.  They'll leave you alone.  The point is, you do whatever you have to do to get yourself into this person's head without actually going out and joining the police academy.

All right?  I said imagination squared up there, for those of you observant enough to notice the superscript 2.  Here's where you square: remember that episode of COPS you were watching?  What detail in the midst of the chaos really stood out?  Use it, or something like it.  When I wrote the above scene, it was a broken tail light and a person's reflection in a pool of blood.  Since there was a pool of blood, I remembered what my blood smells and tastes and feels like.  We've all bled.  Imagine that to the power of 10.  Now you know what it's like to glance over to see if anything else is coming at you, or maybe somebody shouted, or something else drew your attention for a fraction of a second away from the spot from whence the bullets are coming - anyway, you know what it's like to glance over, and see shards of tail light gleaming in the sun, and your reflection in a pool of blood.  You know what it feels like to have that blood seeping into the knee of your uniform.  You know what it smells like.  And you know the emotions involved, and you know what's going through this person's mind, because you let yourself become the conduit for your character's experience.

What did Glynis say?  "I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience."

If you open yourself to these people, if you use every bit of knowledge and experience you have to understand them, they'll speak through you.  They'll present themselves, often to the extent that you'll look back later and wonder where the hell that came from, because that wasn't me talking there.  I've never done that!


A friend of mine wrote a story about a Vietnam vet who goes to the Wall and can't go up to it.  A man approached him later and asked him when he'd done his tour, and which war it had been.  "Huh?" says the author.  "Dude, I'm nineteen - I've never served in the military!"  "But this was exactly what it's like!" the vet said.  "How did you know?"

He knew because he'd read an article about the Wall opening in Washington, and he knew a little bit about Vietnam from other people, and he'd just put himself in there.  He walked toward the wall with the character, and stopped dead, and couldn't go on, and it was an absolutely authentic experience because, young and innocent as he was, he'd dealt with loss enough to extrapolate.  I can tell you it was eerie.  He read the story to me, and I knew he'd gotten it right, because he'd captured everything my dad had ever said or done regarding the War and the Wall.

See?  No need for the author to go live in a jungle shooting at people and being shot at for a year.  He was able to write something absolutely authentic anyway, because the character had been there, and he let the character tell him how it was. 

So use the equation: Personal Experience + Research x A Lot of Imagination2, get out of your characters' way when they tell you how something is, and just write it down.  You'll get it right.  If not, you'll go back and experience something (like walking a labyrinth) and do a bit more research (like on sleep deprivation, starvation and sunstroke) and imagine more, and get it right next go round.

Never let anyone tell you that you can only write what you know, that you can only authentically speak about things you yourself have personally experienced.  That's just not true.  If you do enough of the necessary work, the rest is just a matter of extrapolation, and if you can't extrapolate with confidence you either need to practice or quit writing.

Right?  Right. 

So go.  Extrapolate.  Speak beyond the bounds of personal experience.