Showing posts with label science-y metaphors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science-y metaphors. Show all posts

Monday, May 13, 2013

Creative Cartography

When I was a little girl, the first fictional map that took hold of my imagination was that of Neverland on the inside covers of my Peter Pan book.  All of the illustrations in that book are beautiful oil paintings - full of color and life from the veins in Tinkerbell's wings to the curl of Captain Hook's moustache.  The map, too, was created on the same medium and brought to life an island of coves and mountains, Indian camps and homes underground.  Here was Neverland in full relief, suddenly a real place.  Of course it was real.

I suppose it was no coincidence that maps began to show up in my writing.  From middle school into high school I spent a lot of time on that rudimentry program known as "Paint" in order to create the island-continents of the planet where my characters were from... ironically "Eiresta."  Once I painstakingly traced the contours of Ireland and England onto tissue paper and broke them up into smaller islands to form those continents.  Silly?  Maybe, but at the time I felt it was important.  I needed to map what I was seeing in my head, to make tangible the little backstories that were a heritage for my pseudo-quasi Celtic creations. 

In high school I lived, read, breathed, ate and dreamed Star Wars, which means that my little creative writing projects inevitably took that shape.  Inspired further by J.R.R. Tolkein's maps of Middle Earth, the map-obsession continued.  Imagine my delight when I discovered galactic maps of the Star Wars universe inside the novels I read.  Finally, I knew where Tatooine and Dagobah were in relation to Coruscant (or the Imperial City) and Alderaan!  This map was handwritten, imaginative, pretty.  It did not attempt to calculate light-years or the three-dimension distance each star had to one another.  It was art, not science - simple and beautiful.  Naturally, I had to add a few worlds into the mix:

My addendums are fairly obvious: they are written neatly on little scraps of paper and pasted carefully onto the map, tucked into corners between stars and across the spine of the page.  At the top right was Ceilte, Nabbeor and the starless Rift which served as a no-man's land between peaceful worlds and evil Euronia (which even the Empire was keen to avoid).  I could see it: pieces of the massive puzzle finally in place.

Years after leaving the Star Wars galaxy, I found myself writing a novel which took place much closer to home in North Yorkshire, Great Britain.  While I did, of course, study maps of northern England, I mapped something that came directly out of my writing - a piece of the moors that was entirely my own fairy land.  I created it because my characters drew it themselves, tracking their own footsteps through a childhood playground, through barrows that were supposed to be haunted, passed ruined abbeys to a mysterious coil of rock they called Adrian's Pass after a legendary monk.

I drew this by hand, and it was such fun imagining the terrain, the twists and turns and slopes my characters had to traverse.  Bleak Point was a memorial to people who had disappeared on Adrian's Moor.  Where the ridges begin to grow, the fog thickens giving way to visions of demons who look like Benedictine monks.  Rose Cottage (added later) was a dilapidated house the characters found and made into getaway accessible only on foot. 

Which brings us back to space.  Waterwill and its in-development sequel have their earliest roots in that old Star Wars project of mine.  Nowadays these stars (if they existed, that is) might be visible from Earth.  I'm envisioning a cosmopolis over five hundred years in the future where humans have expanded their horizons to other worlds.  A cosmopolitan "nexus" has formed around a new star, 61 Virginis.  It is called the Virgo Nexus because of this capitol.  It is almost twenty-eight light-years away from where the worlds around good ol' Sol (our Sun) continue to thrive.  Below are two maps-in-progress.  Though Waterwill is complete, I have gone back to reevaluate the (very) approximate distances between the stars and expand on the worlds between Virgo and Sol for the sequel.  I am finding this extremely frustrating.

This map contains a few "familiar" stars: Alpha Centauri, Altair, Vega, Arcturus, Sirius, Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, Denebola, 55 Cancri, Castor, Pollux and Formalhaut.   I am trying to combine the fictional elements with the real stars, creating a sort of bridge between our home (Sol) and the Virgo Nexus.  The map above is supposed to be a "side-view"; the map below an "above view."

Like I said, this is a work in progress.  I've been working from several "star maps" from the internet, some helpful, some confusing.  I realized I am doing something here that I've never attempted before: that merging of fact with fiction.  The problem with these maps is that they represent two-dimensional thinking instead of three.  For example, Epsilon Eridani might be ten light-years from Sol or Earth, but it's at a diagonal away and below instead of simply ten light-years to the right.  On a 2D map, this diagonal would not properly register the distance... unless I got fancy with dotted lines and angles.  Last week, while I was away from the blog, I was busy pulling my hair out over the difficulty of showing distances as well as depths.  I was afraid of what mathematically-inclined people would say... how astronomers might snort at my imaginative calculations... how other science-fiction writers must have an easier (if not smarter) time of it than I do.

And then I realized "Hey!  This supposed to be art, not science!" Why did Star Wars appeal to me so much in the first place?  Because it wasn't concerned with the mind-twisting principles of relativity or a tangible explantion of hyperspace... or how the heck they actually have the capability of flying clear across a galaxy in a week's time (or less).  In Star Wars, these things simply were; no explanation necessary or required.  While my novels take place in Sol's interstellar backyard (or is it front yard?), and require a little more explanation as to how the vast distance is/was conquered by humanity, I simply see no reason to worry about whether or not Vega and Formalhaut are actually in their correct positions.  What matters is that they are part of the picture, part of that corridor between Virgo and home. 

And that's what I hope the maps, in whatever state of evolution, can show: pieces of the puzzle coming together to create a tangible world.  Everything else is just details: time, relativity, hyperspace. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cosmic Inspiration

I have been organizing my "Cosmic Notes" this week to refresh my memory on stars and planets and black holes.  For a non-scientist and one who is notoriously mathematically challenged, this is actually quite an interesting project.  I've begun studying maps of the closest neighboring stars to our solar system and envisioning a map between our "neighborhood" and the star systems that create the backdrop and setting for my novel(s). 

Everytime I go back "into" space I am fascinated by the possibilities.  This time around I'm learning about the habitable zone (the distance from a star that is neither too hot nor too cold, like Earth), the Heliopause, binary stars and pulsars.  More on these and other delightful things later this week.  For now, I wanted to share with you a link to Robert Krulwich's blog on the NPR site.  By some mad coincidence, he and I have both noted something very strange about the formation of our solar system. Compared to other systems under study, ours is quite atypical - our planets don't line up like those of other stars, we only have one sun, etc.  It makes me think of our knowledge of the universe is still quite limited, still Earth-centric, and still has room to grow.  Space is so weird.  Here's the link.   

Also, here's an interactive video called 100,000 Stars, a sweeping demonstration of our solar system, its star-neighbors and where we are located in the Milky Way.  Fascinating, breathtaking stuff.  Enjoy.

100,000 Stars

100,000 Stars infographic

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Quicksilver Month

Adventures in Logophilia, Day 203:


Anything mercurial is characterized by the rapid or unpredictable changeableness of one's mood.  It also might mean something is more directly related to the element, the planet, or the mythological messenger god.  Sometimes all of these at once.  The general adjective and the element are no doubt named for the god Mercury's ability to change places so quickly.  The element was once called quicksilver, because it looks like moving, living, moody silver. 

Quicksilver by Keith Moseley at flickr

Mercurial seems to best describe April 2013, half-spent as it is.  Living in the middle of the continent, we've seen March and April change their moods frequently from calm, halcyon days to blustry wintry ones.  Snow and rain have been competing for territory this week, leaving us in a state of jaded confusion: I thought we were done with winter!  Look, there are flowers!  It shouldn't be snowing when there are flowers!  What is wrong with this world?  Global warming!  Well, I say.  At least it's wet.  Perhaps we've finally begun to turn this neverending drought around.

I'm not a climatologist, and this is not a science blog, although I can say our fears about weather, climate and our inability to properly harness them make for great science fiction.  Spring has a temper in general: it has good days and bad days: the lion and the lamb; blizzards, tornadoes and thunderstorms; sunshine, daffodils and birdsong.  This month is absolutely and indeniably alive.  I'm sure February is mighty jealous.  And May will be especially glorious when all calms down!

Mercury Bronze 1570 van der Schardt 4
Mercury by Mary Harrsch

Monday, April 8, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 197:


Virga is a mass of streaks, wisps or stripes of rain appearing to hang underneath a cloud, but evaporating before reaching the ground.  This is the Latin word for "rod" or "stripe."  While out and about yesterday, I saw many a virga looming overhead, an eerie, ghostly premonition of the thunderstorms that would arrive later in the night.  Weather, in case you couldn't tell, fascinates me in its changeability - the mood swings of the region, the continent and the world.  There is still so little we know about the workings of the atmosphere; imagination will always fill in the gaps of our knowledge.

Virgas by Francois Roche

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Whale Song on the Plains

Stories come from the strangest of combination of places, events and people.  They hit me over the head sometimes as I'm walking - often times quite actually because my head is usual off pondering in the clouds.  This is a wild circle of thought that occurred to me this week:

Tornado Sirens

It is early spring and they've begun testing the tornado sirens in our city, as they do most places with a tornado warning system.  The siren blares out in thick waves of sound - not merely loud but inescapable.  This is sound you can feel rattling the pavement beneath your feet, shaking your ribcage, startling the air, stopping your heart.  You are breathing in that sound.  Unlike the eardrum-cracking call of ambulances and police cruisers, it does not fade away as trouble races down the center lane.  Growing up in Nebraska, this is typical of the spring and summer months - the worry that sudden disaster may be hurtling nearby. 

Nebraska Tornado
by Anthony Woods

Sirens and Whales

When I was a little girl standing my grandparents' driveway  I remember asking my mother what that horrible drone was.  She said it was a whale, perhaps out of sarcasm.  (She might have actually said "dying whale" but I doubt she would have been that mean.)  I was a gullible imaginative child and wanted to see this whale, marvelling at the idea there was an actual whale somewhere in our landlocked state.  As we drove home, I had a vivid picture in my head of a whale lying out on the plains somewhere... not exactly making the connection that if, by some strange set of events, a whale was lying out in the middle of Nebraska, it would be a very sad story.

Whale Fluke 6 October 2012, Gloucester, Mass.


Whales in Nebraska

The closest whales have come to Nebraska was the in the Cretaceous Period when a great north-south swath of the continent was a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic.  The "whales" were plesiosaurs (probably smaller than modern whales) - head of a brontosaurus and sea turtle flippers. 

By Dee Jay Morris

A Sea in Nebraska

Then it strikes me that Nebraska geology and paleontology is rich.  We had a sea!  We were underwater!  Okay, "we" weren't but the land that became our state (and Kansas, South and North Dakota, Minnesota and Texas) was underwater.  Comparing that reality to our current drought, the heat, the snow storms, the farmland, the ranches, the bison herds, the sand dunes... wow!  This storyteller is struck by the malleability of the earth beneath our feet, the fact that some day Nebraska may not look like it does now.  I don't know what the projections indicate for our geologic future, but if the Rockies continue to grow, so might our Plains.  This might become a desert or a marshland.  Someday Nebraska may have native camels (yes, camels) or saber-toothed cats (the descendents of our urban ferals?), bear dogs or a new breed of bison.  Or will there be a sea big enough for humpbacks and dolphins to swim down to greet us?

The Golden Sea
by Petter Sandell

And there will probably be tornadoes spilling across whatever version of the Plains comes to pass.  Will the whales warn us with their song? 

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 172:


to insert a day into a calendar, or to insert between or among already existing layers or elements.  Every four years we intercalate February 29, otherwise known as Leap Day.

Day 60
Matt Preston

I've always had this strange fantasy of mixing up the months which contain 30 days with the those containing 31 days.  It would be an easy mistake to make, wouldn't it?  I don't know much about our calendar and why certain months were given a certain number of days to total out to 365 or 366.  I imagine that if we had to insert another day into our calendar to, say, balance out dramatic changes in time, adding days to November, February, April, June and September would be an easy change.  There's a science fiction story brewing here.  I just know it.  Dibs!

Friday, February 15, 2013

To Osculate

Adventures in Logophilia, Day 157:

osculate (v)

To kiss (mathematically).  This is a geometry term used when a pair of curves or surfaces touch on a common tangent.  Using the word as "kiss" has a humorous context, but I'd imagine it would be perfect to describe two science scholars in love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 155:


Broken down, the word means "beside the moon." This is a bright spot formed in the sky like a parahelion, a sun dog, only a paraselene is formed by moonlight.  This is also known as a mock moon or, yes, a moon dog.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Luciferin (j)

Adventures in Logophilia, Day 148:

luciferin (n)

Luciferin is the natural substance present in certain organisms that produce heatless light upon oxidation - like fireflies.  This is from the Latin word "lucifer" meaning "light-bearing," and, yes, is also the name of the Devil.  Ironic, no?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Homunculus (j)

Adventures in Logophilia - Day 144:


Homunculus was the post-modern (17th century) term for a microscopic but fully formed being which would develop into a fetus.  Sort of a baby-seed.  The word more generally indicates a very small human or humanoid creature. 

Monday, December 31, 2012

Hermetic (j)

Day 110 of Adventures in Logophilia.


Hermetic means "airtight", difficult or impossible for one of ordinary knowledge to comprehend, and "resistant to outside forces."  In other words, like a hermit.  

Does this sound familiar to you, fellow writers?  When in the midst of crafting our respective universes, whether we're in a quiet space or a noisy high-traffic area, we are shutting ourselves off from the world in order to properly interact with new inner worlds.  There will be minor instances of leakage (more inwards than outwards), but for the most part, these worlds are self contained until they're ready to be released.  Like an egg hatching or a can opening.

This puts me in mind of Schrodinger's cat, a quantam mechanics gedankenexperiment (thought experiment) of the 1930s.  Put a cat in a sealed box with a radioactive atom and a poison.  Is the cat alive or dead?  The thought is that the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the cat is actually observed - the mechanism being tripped and the cat dead.  This was not a serious experiment, by the way.  It was never meant to be carried out, but was rather a discussion point Dr. Schrodinger had with his intellectual contemporaries on quantam physics, Einstein being one of them.  From a creative standpoint, we as writers are a bit like Schrodinger's poor (albeit metaphorical) cat; the outside world has no idea what is going on inside our box (our hermetically-sealed creative world) until the box is forced open or... the cat itself comes out.  I'm not saying "Stay in your box!  Be a hermit!  Reject all social interacts!"  In fact, I see this as a natural state, when we're in the midst of our craft; a story or a novel will incubate as a mystery until it comes out into the world, and all bets are off.  Stephen King uses the phrase "keeping the door shut" until a story is ready for an audience.  Until then, embrace the hermitage.  And afterwards, find your friends in the world and make them wonder what you're up to the rest of the day!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

AIL Day 92: gedankenexperiment

Today's strange, strange adventure in logophilia is


That's a thing?  Yes, indeed it is!  A gedankexperiment (literally "thought experiment") is an experiment only able to carried out in thought.  This was a term invented by Albert Einstein as he conceptualized the theory of relativity... which is only a theory and essentially can't be proven or disproven.  

This has shown me another sciencey metaphor for writing.  Here goes.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.  Ahem.  When I'm beginning the first draft of a new project - no matter what it is - I tend to create the story in my head.  Because I am a visual person, I like seeing my characters in situations, solving new problems, jumping over hurdles, battling demons, falling in love, etc.  This is particularly true when I am at the YMCA on the elliptical or walking around downtown on my breaks from work.  The images flood me, and I'm swept away. 

But as a writer, the images are really only experiments, ideas thrown together in a sort of tantalizing display.  Each possible story thread follows me, tugging me and trying to convince me that it is the thread I should choose.  It is like the quote I posted recently from Umberto Eco: "All the stories I would like to write persecute me... it seems as if they are around me, like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me 'Sir, write me, I am beautiful.'" Because I can't make up my mind, I'll choose several different ideas and fly with them... wondering which idea is THE idea that will grow into the novel.  Meanwhile, as the "book" becomes the winter's next great blockbuster-in-my-head, the novel itself is nothing but a blank sheet.  Or an unsaved MS Word document.

In other words, a novel or story isn't exactly the unprovable theory, only truly tangible in the mind, but it is tempting, for me at least, to let it remain unprovable by continuing these pre-writing experiments.  The only way I will truly know where the novel is going, what is happening the characters, what they want out of life, etc is to write the story, and pull them out of the clouds and onto the paper and form them in words.  Trial and error.  Letting the images achieve tangibility on the page. 

So, note to self: your story is not the theory of relativity, but the only way to prove it to yourself is to remove it from your head and put it on the page.  Remember that gedankexperiments do not need very much work at all, but they're hard to explain and read aloud to people.  Yes, it's scary to write that naked, awful draft of that tentative story, but it will be worth it! 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

AIL Day 91: orrery

Today's adventure in logophilia is


An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, or of the sun, earth and moon, used to represent their relative positions and motions.  Sort of a solar-system mobile.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

AIL Day 65: dreamwork (j)

Today's word is


Yes, it is a word, not merely the name of a successful studio of animated films.  Dreamwork is the process by which the unconscious mind alters the manifest content of dreams in order to conceal their real meaning from the dreamer.  Ah, yes.  I do this all the time, and not just in my sleep.  This might be why I space out and forget where I am in the universe half the time.  Art and writing are partially written by the unconscious mind.  Fact.  In fact, the unconscious is in charge... I'm going to stop myself before this metaphor completely takes me hostage. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

AIL Day 64: apogee (j)

Today's word is


Apogee (noun) is the point of the moon's orbit which is farthest from the earth, or (a rarer occurrence) the point of the Earth's orbit that is farthest from the sun.  This is the direct opposite of perigee, which is the orbital point nearest to the Earth or the sun. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Synopsis Metaphor (jillian)

A metaphor for you...

This is how I've come to think of writing synopses and queries: writing a synopsis is like orbiting the earth whereas writing a novel is being on the ground, engaging in the world. (Pretend that my pattern of orbit on the left actually makes sense.) When you orbit a planet, you take in a very general view, but no less breathtaking angle, of the Earth.  When you're actually writing a novel, you are inside and very intimately involved with the details.  So actually, writing a synopsis or the actual the novel comes down to a matter of angles and viewpoints, a telescope or a microscope.  Suddenly everything about this process becomes less daunting if I look at this way.  I'm orbiting.  It may not be fun, but it's a good skill to have, a good exercise to use in the aftermath of a year and a half of work.  What does my novel look like from a distance?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 38: chimera (jillian)

Today's word is...



A chimera (noun and sometimes capitalized) is a fire-breathing she-monster from Greek mythology with a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail.  Chimera has come to describe any imaginary hybrid monster.  Chimera is also one of my favorite metaphors describing a illusion, vision or an unfathomable, soul-shaking nightmare.  In biology and genetics, the term refers to an individual made of unmatching genetic material; in theory what might happen if an embryo sometime in the early stages of division absorbs another "sibling" embryo. One also thinks of chimeras in regards to conjoined human twins or a cat born with two heads - phenomena stranger than fiction.  If that's not an image for Halloween, I don't know what is.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 6: Nephology (Jillian)

Today's word is...

Nephology (noun) is the study or contemplation of clouds.

Yes, there is a sophisticated study-name for something we wouldn't think of. Cloud studies. That's a thing?  Apparently.  When I was in college and had to take a science glass (the second worst thing for an English major to have to do.  The first thing is math.) I chose the most elementary meterology class for the credit.  The most fun I got out of it (if fun there was) was the names of clouds, and what sort of weather they indicate.  I couldn't tell you much about that these days, but the names follow me.  It isn't prophecy, but it's the shape of things.  And it's always a lot of fun to discover a wealth of synonyms and alternative names for clouds instead of, well, clouds.

This fluffy formation here is your basic breed of cumulus.  The weather must have been excellent the day I took this picture from my dorm room five years ago.  Cumulus clouds develop 2000m above the surface of the earth - in other words, relatively low in the Earth's atmosphere.

Cirrus clouds are clouds formed at 6000m in the atmosphere from tiny ice particals.  I always think of them as the brush strokes of God, but I could be overly sentimental. 
We have several different layers of clouds here as they gather over campus (see the stadium?).  You can see the cumulus gathering into cumulnonimbus (gathering into a storm) with those low-lying nimbostratus clouds darkening the sky.  Stratus clouds are thick strata.  Cumulus are more often than not fluffy.

In this picture are contrails (yes, the exhaust trails left behind by airplanes are considered clouds), a little cirrus, and what appears to be (from my layman's eye) a smudge of middle-level clouds called altostratus.

This last picture is an awesome sampling of a cumulonimbus, also known as an anvil head or a thunderhead, rising over the bluffs of Fort Robinson, Nebraska.  There be a storm a coming!  These cumulonimbus clouds are the ones that produce lightning and thunder, rise all the way into the atmosphere and could spawn heaps of trouble, such as hail and tornadoes.

These are just a few of the many different species of clouds.  I find them thought-provoking and perhaps a little prophetic when I am out and about during the day.  It takes one silly writer out of herself, to look up and see something brewing up above.  There is never a dull moment in this sky.


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