“Crash-Site” wins the 2019 Readers’ Choice Award, plus some words on research

A couple news items to start the August update: I was notified a few days ago that I sold my story “Tunnels” to Third Flatiron’s Longevity-themed anthology. Readers may recall how my June blog post referenced a new story idea that occurred to me as a result of my involuntary sleepover at Chicago O’Hare airport. That little seed grew into “Tunnels”: the tale of an immortal man from 15th century Venice and his heartbreaking experiences over the centuries. The editor called it a “touching and hopeful story.”

See? Not everything I write is grimdark.

On that same note, I also sold my sci-fi tribute to Agatha Christie, entitled “Death on the Nefertem Express”, to Fantasy & Science Fiction. This will mark my fifth appearance in the prestigious and historic magazine, and should be a lot of fun: this is another Jolene Fort mystery, who readers may remember from my Galaxy’s Edge story “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates.” A luxury train on another world has just been sabotaged, and it’s up to Jolene to figure things out before it’s too late…

And one more news item, right at the tail-end of August: at DragonCon just an hour ago, my novelette “Crash-Site” was honored as the 2019 Readers’ Choice Award winner from The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF Volume 5. I am so grateful to everyone who voted for my story. Special thanks to Charlie Finlay, who was first to publish it in Fantasy & Science Fiction, to David Afsharirad for selecting it for inclusion in The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF, and to Baen Books for publishing this exquisite series which I have been enjoying since the very first installment, and am honored to be a part of its futuristic family.

August turned out pretty well.

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Every writer has at least one thorn-in-the-side story that seems to defy completion. I’ve got a couple, and for two years the most notorious of these literary Gordian Knots continued to defy and evade and fight me until, just two weeks ago, it achieved a state I’d begun to doubt was possible:

Completion.

I’d struggled, writing and rewriting, editing, slashing, carving out new directions that had come to cold dead-ends. Then in July, I embarked on what would become–to my goddam surprise–the final edit. The pieces came together, I buffed out the rough edges, and then I found myself placing a period at the end of the final sentence. And submitting it for publishing consideration.

This story resulted from a random night of dim sum and watching Iron Monkey with friends. And no, the story has nothing whatsoever to do with either dim sum or Yuen Woo-ping’s 1993 masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema (I’m not being even a little facetious here — if you haven’t seen it, you need to. Like, now. You may have thought your life was complete, but it isn’t.)

During the evening, as my friends and I prepared to dine on excellent food and a deliriously entertaining film, the gathering’s host introduced me to his new girlfriend. I asked her what she did for a living. “I’m an archaeologist,” she said.

One of the habits I most strongly encourage in any writer is to do research for what they’re writing, and to compile that research in a commonplace book. “Research” doesn’t just mean a few minutes on Google, but actually visiting libraries and, whenever possible, talking to real live human experts. Generally speaking, people love to chat about what they do. Over the years, I’ve interviewed police officers, linguists, historians, train conductors, doctors, engineers, physicists, politicians, and more. Suddenly, I had a chance to interview an archaeologist!

I didn’t even have a story in mind at the time, but that didn’t matter. I asked her if she might let me interrogate her on the details of being an archaeologist, and she happily agreed. At the very least, it would be illuminating on a subject I’d long been fascinated with. At best, it might provide fertile fodder for a story I might one day write.

I keep several commonplace books, all of which as dreamcatchers and repositories and sketchpads for research, ideas, and random notes. I scribble down the odd idea, or a snippet of dialogue overheard on a subway, or a piece of description that occurs while watching raindrops create perfect Archimedean circles on a pond. And of course, for interviews I conduct.

My friendly neighborhood archaeologist graciously indulged my questions, and I proceeded to fill several pages of my commonplace book with knowledge I’d never considered before. In a few weeks, a story began to gestate from those pages. (The fact that it took two years to complete is entirely on me.)

By the way, I discourage writers from doing research during the process of a creating first draft. Writing first drafts is challenging enough, with all the Persons from Porlock that can come along to distract you (especially that archdemon infernal machine we innocently dub a smartphone.) Research should be done before you start, and then again at later draft stages to layer in the details. In fact, I’ve developed a system where I’ll start research for my next project during my off-hours from the current one; softening the beachhead for the next story I intend to write.

And hell, even if a story doesn’t come out of such an inquiry or online reading or library jaunt, it, it’s nice to be able to learn more about the world. It’s the difference between seeing “trees” in the woods, and being able to pick out white birch, blue spruce, red maple, and evergreens… along with understanding that a forest is more than a pastel background, but a vibrant and fascinating (and often creepy) ecology.) As writers, detail enriches our writing. As human beings, details enrich our experience of life.

If I do sell the story, I’ll link back here.

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