The Blessing and Curse of Research and Inspiration

The more you practice creativity, the more you realize the blessing and curse of research and inspiration. It happened again while I was planning and writing my Fellowship Dystopia series. When we left Miranda at the end of My Soul to Keep, she had sworn off shooting to kill and taken to the water to help rescue fugitives from the tyranny of the Fellowship. So I had an obvious place to start book two… on the water. But the inspiration for her yacht, the Lady Angelfish, came from writing a completely different book. 

Blessing and Curse

The blessing and a curse, research and inspiration come hand-in-hand for me. I can dive Marianas Trench deep down some of those research rabbit holes. When I do that, I lose time… days and days… All right, not days, but I definitely lose hours.  

Some of you may have read a sneak peek at another novel I’ve started, Paladina. I needed information about life in Greece told from both natives and non-natives. While researching that, I came across blogs and vlogs of expats living on boats as they explored life outside the U.S. Life abroad and aboard a boat fascinated me. Their blogs gave lots of details about the benefits and challenges of that life. Their vlogs added to those details.

The Great Loop

I ate up those blogs about life on boats, and that led to a revelation. I discovered that there are boaters who take a year-long epic boating adventure in the U.S. They call it the “Great Loop.” 

The Great Loop is the name of a continuous waterway that allows boaters to explore Eastern North America using the Atlantic and Gulf Inter Coastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland. Anyone who completes the journey becomes an official ‘Looper.’ Boaters can travel all or part of it.  

The blessing and curse of inspiration hit me when I saw this map of the Great Loop that show the primary and longest route in purple that travels from the great lakes down the Mississippi to the gulf, around florida and up the east coast to the hudson then the great lakes again and a shorter version in green that avoids the Hudson and half the Mississippi.

Research Stretched into Inspiration

You know, with a name like Looper, I was hooked (wordplay intended.) I didn’t know it then, but that the blessing and curse of research and inspiration had hit me for a book I hadn’t even outlined yet. That rabbit’s hole took me on vicarious journeys via blogs and vlogs. Some shook loose memories of short boating trips I took as a kid. And boy, some of those blogs and vlogs were super educational. 

A Little More Research

I learned about locks and I learned the rules of boating etiquette. Previous to my research, I hadn’t thought about who policed the waterways. I learned that, too. (Do you know which U.S. Agency patrols our inland waterways?) I used as much real detail as I could. 

I also researched what size and type of boats travel the Great Loop. Then, I had to factor in the alternate world of the Fellowship Dystopia and determine what Miranda’s boat looked like. Fortunately, there are a ton of online marinas that sell boats with lots and lots of pictures and details. At the time, sYs International Yacht Sales had exactly what I had hoped to find.

Here are a couple more of the photographs I used to help me plan Miranda’s yacht. Some of these details appear in If I Should Die. But for the story, Miranda’s boat has more interior space and a few special features. 

If I Should Die

Image of the cover of If I Should Die on the paperback cover and the ebook on a smart phone. In the background are the red and yellow flames of an explosion.

If I Should Die, is book two of the Fellowship Dystopia, now available for pre-order on AmazonKOBO, and Barnes & Noble. But the clock is ticking on the pre-order period. Order your copy now.

The protagonists from My Soul to Keep, Miranda and Beryl, return two years after their battles in book one. Although the rebels didn’t uproot the tyrannical Fellowship Council, Miranda kept her promise to herself and hadn’t picked up a gun to shoot another person. She’s piloting the Lady Angelfish through the inland waterways of the U.S. and rescuing fugitives from the Fellowship. She never expected to have to make a choice between sister and brother, peace and war.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a taste of locations and characters from book two. You can read If I Should Die as a stand-alone novel, but you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve read My Soul to Keep.

Research and Inspiration

No matter how much research I did, I could not get my poor brain to remember nautical terms. In early drafts, I used port and starboard as if they were interchangeable. SIGH. Inspiration doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it. To avoid confusion, I kept a cheat sheet beside me during revisions.

If you are a Looper, and you read If I Should Die, know that the book takes place on a very small portion of the Great Loop. I hope I did enough research I didn’t make any glaring errors, but whatever errors I made were mine and mine alone. 

A writer’s life isn’t a comic book. We don’t get cartoon bubbles of lightbulbs above our heads. But we have the blessing and curse of research and inspiration being linked. Linked and a possible “waste of time.” A waste of time that often brings inspiration. 

Had you heard about the Great Loop before? Are you a Looper? Even if you aren’t a Looper, I’d love to hear about your boating or inspiration experiences.

The Key to Surviving Space Radiation?

What do The Andromeda Strain, Project Hail Mary, and extremophiles have in common? If you answered survival, you’d be partly correct. The results of an experiment on the International Space Station may be the key to surviving space radiation. Or is it proof that life can (has) spread through the universe?

Image of the international space station in the blackness of space radiation with the blue arc of Earth beneath it

Radiation in Space

We’ve all heard about it. Scientists have studied its effects on meteors and rockets and astronauts for years.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field; particles shot into space during solar flares (solar particle events); and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system.

NASA

This is of particular concern when astronauts travel beyond low Earth orbit. Space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases. On a trip to and from Mars, astronauts will endure at least fourteen months of radiation exposure. Depending on their mission, it may be many months more. Space radiation is of increasing concern here on Earth as the protective layers of atmosphere above us grow thinner.

Starting the Experiment

In 2015, the robotic arm on the International Space Station mounted three boxes of balls of extremophiles on a handrail. They stayed there, 250 miles above Earth, soaking up all forms of space radiation. They also endured the vacuum of space and extreme temperature swings as the station rotated in and out of the sunlight.

What are extremophiles?

Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme conditions, such as in a hot spring or an ice cap or an under sea volcanic vent.

In the late 1960s, a microbiologist named Tom Brock discovered and identified the first extremophile in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone. Since Brock and his colleague identified the microorganism, more and more extremophiles have been discovered. Microbiologists and astrobiologists have studied the organisms ever since. They estimate extremophiles have lived on Earth for more than forty million years. 

The Experiment

Three panels of the bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans, arrived on the space station via a SpaceX rocket. 

According to smithsonianmag.com each panel contained two small aluminum plates dotted with twenty shallow wells for different-sized masses of bacteria. The largest of the masses, or balls, of bacteria was thinner than a millimeter.

They positioned one panel pointed down toward the International Space Station; the other pointed out toward the cosmos. Astronauts collected one panel after it was in place for a year and sent it back to Earth for study. They colleced the second panel and sent back after two years’ exposure. They collected the third panel at the end of the third year and sent it to Earth.

The results showed the outer layers of the balls, or masses, of bacteria died and while those inside survived. 

How’d The Cells Survive?

Image of the Milky Way looks like a "cloud" of stars, a highway across the night sky and it's hard to imagine how much space radiation is up there.

The articles I read implied the cells balled up into layers as a protective mechanism, an instinct, so to speak. In addition, this particular bacteria carries up to ten copies of their DNA (humans carry two). Having more DNA means they can churn out more of the proteins that repair cells damaged by radiation. 

What is the Meaning of This?

This finding suggests that life could transport between planets on a meteor or other space debris. Some speculate that it hints at the origin of life on Earth. Others speculate it could mean life transferred from Mars to Earth or other planets. 

Astrobiologists and microbiologist identified the parts of the bacteria’s genes that create the radiation-repairing proteins. Other scientists have identified various parts of human DNA that change due to living in space (in part due to astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space). 

The scientists don’t have all the answers yet. But they may have found the key to surviving space radiation making long-term space flights safer. Will it mean they trigger human genes to produce those radiation-damage repairing proteins? Or will they manipulate human genes to be more like the extremophiles and create a being suited for space travel similar to what happens in Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Imagine you’re an astronaut and going to Mars is all you ever wanted to do. Would you allow scientists to turn you into an extremophile?

Image Credits

Top image NASA/Roscosmos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Image: by James Wheeler from Pixabay

The Man in the High Castle, a Review

Amazon Prime Video version

The Man in the High Castle is a book written by Phillip K. Dick and a television series (2015-2019) now on Amazon Prime Video. It is an American Dystopian alternate history thriller.  I’ve avoided reading the novel because it reportedly is similar to what I write and I didn’t want to inadvertently copy PKD’s work. After finishing If I Should Die, I took an opportunity to watch the series. I’m told the show is only loosely based on the novel. In this review I tried to keep spoilers at a minimum, but there is at least one. You may wish to skip that clearly marked section. 

Image shows a view of The Statue of Liberty and the New York Skyline. The statue wears a red Nazi sash and instead of a torch her upheld hand is in a German salute. The cover is an Amazon Original, The Man in the HIgh Castle.

The Set Up 

In The Man in the High Castle’s world, Giuseppe Zangara assassinated the United States President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. That sets up a situation where Axis Powers won World War III. Including Washington D.C. being turned into “The District of Contamination” by a Nazi atomic bomb.  

An aging Hitler still runs the Reich which rules Europe west of the Urals and the continent of Africa. It also occupies the portion of the United States that lies to the east of the Rocky Mountains, an area called the Greater Nazi Reich (GNR). Japan rules Asia and the section of the United States west of the Rockies, the Japanese Pacific States. The Rockies are a neutral zone. 

Image of the United States of America shows the eastern portion of the US in Red with the German cross over it. The rockies are gray, indicating the neutral zone. And everything west of the Rockies has a Rising Sun indicating the Japanese Pacific States as described in The Man from the HIgh Castle.

The story takes place in 1962 in locations in the United States and Germany. Former Americans in German and Japanese territories are attempting to adjust to their status as citizens of occupied territories as are the Occupiers who are all very far from their homes and bases of support.

The Plot

A major thread throughout the television program  (SPOILER ALERT) is the existence of reels of film that show an untold variety of outcomes of the war on parallel worlds. In some of the films the U.S. is victorious. In other films the outcomes are much worse than our story’s world. Some characters wish to protect and hide the films. They believe the information could help them free themselves from their occupation. Others characters want to destroy the films. And the Nazis scientists are experimenting with a way to move between the worlds. (END SPOILER ALERT).

There are many plot holes, impossible, and improbable situations. Once I got past the my mindset that the occupation of the U.S. couldn’t have happened in the way the story says, few of the holes and improbabilities bothered me. 

Be aware that there are cultural and historical  inaccuracies that could detract from your enjoyment if they are part of your mindset or culture. 

The Pacing and Sets

Overall, the story pacing held my interest. There is plenty of action and intrigue and danger. Warning: there are explosions and violent deaths, in my opinion they were handled pretty well. But if violence isn’t your thing, this isn’t the show for you.

The settings ranged from stark to opulent. Both the pacing and the sets (locations) worked well for me.

The Characters

The book cover for The Man in the High Castle has a female standing profile in the center with a Japanese man and a man in the uniform of a Reich officer flanking her. Behind them are two flags that represent the two occupied territories of the former United States of America.
The Man in the High Castle is available as an ebook, paperback, and audio book on Amazon and other retailers.

 The characters are diverse. There are multiple factions from underground rebels who seek to restore American freedom to former Americans being assimilated into their occupiers’ cultures. There are opportunists and there are sympathizers. Some have very clear loyalties. Some appear to switch sides. And some play all sides against each other. 

In this televised series, there are several interesting and strong female characters. And you know I liked that. 

What fascinated me the most about this show were the characters. Loyalties were divided, often within families. Betrayals and reversals and reversals of reversals happened. There were characters I grew to love who spiraled destructively and characters I hated that I grew to understand. For me, this is great story telling. 

The Man in the High Castle

The show was dropped by Amazon Prime after four seasons. I imagine production costs were reason enough but according to some sources there were “creative differences” also. 

I made a purposeful decision to not read the book before writing My Soul to Keep. Will I read the book? Absolutely, but I’ll still wait until after I’ve finished the Fellowship Dystopia series. There are enough similarities between the two stories that I don’t want to risk confusing myself. Do I think having watched the show will alter how I approach the third book in the series? I doubt it. In my opinion, there’s a huge difference between the foreign occupation in The Man in the High Castle and a take over from within like the one in the Fellowship Dystopia.

Also there’s a big difference between writing for television and writing a book. Besides with two books written, I’m pretty deeply immersed in the world of the Fellowship. Some of the critiques of the televised series will influence me in that I’ll try to avoid similar inaccuracies.

Do I recommend watching the show? If you love thrilling, alternate history with a science fictional bent…you will be hooked by the televised series of The Man in the High Castle.

Have you watched The Man in the High Castle? What did you think?

Image Credit: Middle image is by RedFoxJinx, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One Plotting Tool for All

I’m on Writer’s in the Storm Blog today, talking about my favorite plotting tool. Link is at the end of this excerpt.

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help writers regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

Image of the top several pieces of paper wadded up into balls near a notebook of blank lined paper, you need one plotting tool to get started.

Where Do You Start?

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

What is Plot?

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. SwainDonald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk—the story sentence.

What is The Story Sentence?

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now…

Find this familiar? I wrote about it back in 2018. I’ve learned more about The Sentence that I share in this post. Visit WritersintheStormBlog to read all about it.

Image Credits

Top image by by Markus Winkler from Pixabay 

Inspiration is Fickle and Lazy

Are you a creative waiting for inspiration to arrive? Most likely you’re out of luck. Inspiration is fickle and lazy. It is far more reliable and rises to the occasion when you exercise it every day.

Image of a person sitting on the end of a wall, a shadow against the dusk or sunrise--waiting but inspiration is lazy and fickle

Why Waiting Doesn’t Work

Inspiration isn’t a spontaneous burst of an exciting original idea. Nor does inspiration mean you immediately get up and take action and create something. We can’t go out to the garden and pick the latest ripe fruits of inspiration. And there’s no department at the hardware store where you can pick up a batch of inspiration. 

Why do we think that inspiration comes through inactivity? It probably goes back in history. The Greeks had their muses to pray to and get inspiration from. Perhaps it goes back to cave men’s tall tales told around the campfire. I think it comes from the emotional response we often have when we see an original idea displayed as a completed project. We think, wow, I would never have thought of that. With that thought, we transform the work the maker put into that creation into something mythic. Inspiration like that becomes an unattainable goal only reached by some sort of magic. 

There are lots of writers who tell us inspiration is spontaneous, it comes without intention, and it’s transcendent. Well, yes, and no. Inspiration appears to be spontaneous when you don’t pay attention to how your creative brain works. In other words, you don’t know where that idea came from or why. Often, inspiration comes without intention, in that you hadn’t thought of that approach or idea before. And it can be transcendent.

Unfortunately, when you sit and wait for inspiration, it rarely happens. Inspiration is fickle and lazy unless you set up the right environment for it.

It isn’t Biological

Unlike hunger, inspiration isn’t a biological need. If you don’t eat, you get hungry. If you ignore that need, your hunger gets stronger and stronger and stronger until all you can think about is getting food. You go long enough without food and you’ll die. But when inspiration doesn’t happen spontaneously, there are no signals from your body that you are missing it. There’s no biological need to find it. Some say this is because inspiration isn’t natural. I say it’s because inspiration is lazy. It comes from our subconscious mind. And our subconscious mind only allocates the amount of energy needed to reach a goal (whether that’s a goal we’ve chosen or it’s a subconscious choice.)

Inspiration and Excitement aren’t Enough

We’ve all gotten an idea, gotten excited about it, maybe planned out all the steps to take it from idea to completed project. Then, the excitement passes and somehow we never get around to doing anything more about that idea. Why do we do that? 

Excitement isn’t motivation. According to Merriam-Webster, when something excites us it is “a call to activity” or it arouses “an emotional response,” it “energizes.” But excitement’s energy is limited. 

So, waiting around for inspiration—you aren’t putting any energy into it. It’s doubtful you’ll get energy or inspiration out. Waiting for inspiration your motivation, your drive is to maintain the wait. And wait.

Instead of waiting, rewire your brain and your habits to encourage and be ready for inspiration.

How Inspiration Works

According toThe scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities,” by Victoria C. Oleynick, et al., “Inspiration is a motivational state that compels individuals to bring ideas to fruition.” I disagree. Inspiration can happen without the motivation to complete the project. 

Motivation is a stimulus, or influence, or incentive, or drive. When you combine the proper motivation with your inspiration, that incentive or drive keeps you going to complete the project. If you have a deep desire to be creative, that’s at least part of your motivation and where I think the study got confused.

I think this short video gives a much better explanation of how inspiration works.

So if you feel uninspired, how do you wake up your fickle and lazy inspirational muscles? 

ReWire Your Brain

Stop thinking that inspiration is out of your control. There are ways you can cultivate inspiration and if you’re ready, you can pluck ideas like fruit off a tree.

Nurturing Environment

Instead of creating an environment that waits and hopes for inspiration, set up a nurturing environment where inspiration can grow. Make certain your work area is pleasant, well lit, and has bits of inspiration around you. Bits of inspiration? You know, that piece of art that wows you or the photo that reminds you of a time great inspiration. Music, or figurines or toys or books, can be inspirational. Give it some thought. Maybe you’re inspired by a crowded and cozy office with overstuffed furniture. Or you might find a minimalist office to be best for you. Some studies suggest that the color blue inspires creativity . Maybe you find a rainbow of colors to be more inspirational. 

Mindful Observation

Be mindful—everywhere and all the time. Observe people and creators and nature… By being mindful of what is happening, what sensory details exist, you’ll start noticing things you’ve never noticed before. You may have to practice. Go to a park, a museum, a coffee shop and take five minutes to be mindful. Don’t take notes during those five minutes, just be present. Take it all in. After the five minutes, record what you noticed. Writing it down or sketching it helps solidify the practice. It makes it easier to do the next time… and you’ll get better at noticing random details. Inspiration thrives on random details. 

Recharge Your Curiosity

Did I mention inspiration thrives on details? Give yourself permission to do a deep dive into something that sparks your curiosity. Did you ever wonder how they make boards bend for curves or what some foreign country was like? Indulge your curiosity. Build your sense of wonder. I wonder if… If you are like me and can get lost following detail after detail like Alice followed the White Rabbit, use a timer to limit your “lost” time. True, the bit you indulge learning about today may not be today’s inspirational moment, but it’ll be sitting in that subconscious mind of yours waiting for the right mash up that will spark the next idea.

Practice Pie-in-the-Sky Thinking

Set time aside to dream the impossible. Consider even the most outlandish ideas. Force your lazy inspirational muscles to stretch and come up with new ways of thinking. The fantastic will open you up to possibilities. At first, this might feel as if you are wasting time. Don’t give in to the logical brain. Let that creative, imaginative, subconscious feed you crazy ideas. This teaches your subconscious that it can mash together things your logical brain wouldn’t dare. Record your crazy ideas. You never know when that crazy idea crashes into another and becomes the best inspiration you’ve ever had.

Find the Practice that Works

Image of the outline of a profile person's head with the brain and spinal cord outlined inside...off to the right the index finger of a right hand sends a jolt of electricity to the brain because inspiration is lazy and fickle but you can make it work for you.

What you find inspirational won’t be exactly like what I find inspirational. I offered 13 ideas on how to be more imaginative in a previous post. Repeat after me. Inspiration is fickle and lazy, so I make it work for me.

What’s your best mind-hack to rediscover your inspiration?

Image Credits

Top image by Avi Chomotovski from Pixabay 

Last image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay