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Storytime

James and the Giant Peach — cover from the Scented Peach edition 2018.

I am absolutely loving Taika Waititi’s (and celebrities) reading of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.

James and the Giant Peach, episode one.

If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor. Watch it. It’s awesome.

I’ve seen three episodes so far, and the fourth has just been posted.

James and the Giant Peach, episode two.

It’s part of a charity to raise money for Partners in Health. You can catch it on YouTube as they put it up.

I’m off to watch episode four.

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Ghost phone

Old rusty classic soviet yellow telephone booth in Pripyat city, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

Our internet package comes with a landline.  We last used the landline when Mum was alive she liked the phone because she found it easier to use than a mobile.  After she died (two-and-a-half years ago) we left it on.

When Sherylyn started working from home she needed a power point to plug in her work headset.  On her side of the office there weren’t many power points, so we decided to unplug the phone that connects to the landline.  The only calls we ever got on it were marketing calls.

About four weeks into work-from-home we started getting ghost calls on the phone.

It’s still unplugged.  Any battery backup should have been well and truly depleted by now. But three or four times a week the phone rings.

The phone itself, which showed the time and the caller on a small screen, is dead. You pick up the receiver and there’s nothing on the other end.  No dial tone, no caller, nothing.  Exactly what you would expect from a phone that was no longer plugged in.

But still it rings.

I suspect there’s a rational scientific explanation.  Like, we didn’t disconnect the line and there’s enough power coming through the line to make it ring, or we have so much wi-fi and Bluetooth around the house that some other signal is interfering.  But it’s weird all the same.

And it’s spawned so many story ideas from both of us.  Who know a phone ringing when it shouldn’t could generate so many ideas.  You won’t get them in the near future, but one day, if you’re reading one of our stories and a phone rings when it couldn’t possibly have, you’ll know where the idea came from.

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Looking forward to weekends

I always think of Mozart when I think of synaesthesia—Mozart saw colours in music—so when I went looking for images for this blog, I searched on colour. I found this image, which has absolutely nothing to do with synaesthesia, but I found it striking anyway.

I’m starting to get used to working from home, finding I really love it.  Except for the lack of exercise, of course.  But I found myself sitting in the study/not-study (it’s what used to be the study and will be again, but right now it’s the lounge room), looking outside at the liquid amber, with the sun lighting the leaves and realising that I hadn’t sat in that room in daylight and looked out like that in years.  There’s work, and on the weekend there was shopping, and other things to do, and by the time you get home again—especially on these short autumn days—the sun is gone and it’s getting dark, and you’re thinking about dinner, and you’re lucky if you even open the blinds to see the garden at all.

These beautiful autumn days are something to enjoy and I’m glad I have the opportunity to see them.

Why I’m in the study/not-study, by the way, is because of my work Mac.  Which is a good little workhorse for most of what I want it to do, but it has a weakness.  Dead spots.  I have a fast internet service—fast for Australia, anyway—and pretty much every device except the Mac can go anywhere in the house and run at 40 mbps.  My PC, my Go, the iPhone (through wifi), and the iPad.  The Mac, however, is particular where you put it.  It runs at a paltry 0.2 mbps in the kitchen, for example, and anything from 6mbps to 20mbps in other parts of the house.  Fussy isn’t in it.

One place it does like is the study/not study.

Maybe it likes the view, too.

How are you going?

Despite enjoying my work from home, I’m still working long hours and I find I look forward to the weekends more than I ever did. Which is strange, given the rhythm of the days and how some people might say that the weekends aren’t that much different to the weekdays. They are, believe me, they are.  You can sleep in.

And you can read books.  Lots and lots of books.  Which I have been doing.  Rather than writing, sigh, but last week a whole lot of books I’d pre-ordered all arrived, and so I gulped through them. Murderbot, mmmh.  So good to give our favourite AI a whole novel to breathe in.  Suzanne Palmer’s second Fergus Fergusson, and … and … so many.  I’ve read most of them now, so there’s no excuse not to get back to writing.

Another book I read this week (not part of the big haul) was Steve Margolis’s The Toaster Oven Mocks Me, which was a quick read about living with synaesthesia. (US spelling drops the first a.) It was fascinating.

Synaesthesia is a condition where one sense is stimulated, but two senses respond.

Steve Margolis, My Toaster Oven Mocks Me.

Ean Lambert, our protagonist in the Linesman books, has synaesthesia.  Margolis gives great first-hand detail of what it is like to have synaesthesia and how it makes life difficult at times.  He also talks about when he lost it—which I didn’t realise could happen.

We need more of these.

As writers, we can read scientific books to research a topic, but real, first-hand experience written in the manner of Margolis’s book, is invaluable.

Here’s a TedMed talk about synaesthesia.

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Week seven

Week seven of social distancing and we’re settling into a routine. The routine is basically get up, shower, breakfast (porridge or toast, depending on how long we slept in), work, cook dinner, read a book, go to bed. If we get up early enough there’s a pre-breakfast walk around the block, but it’s too dark after work to go walking.

It’s funny how some habits, like the above, are easy to form and others, like exercising, are hard.

Our heating bill will be gigantic this winter. The heater is on all the time.

How are you going?

Microsoft finally decided that two spaces after a sentence was an error. Or at least, it did for a week or two but now my Word has stopped putting little error marks at the end of every sentence. I’m not sure how, or what, but it was there, and then it wasn’t.

I know one space is the norm nowadays, but I started learning to type on a typewriter back when two spaces were necessary to set the sentences apart from each other. Nowadays, modern word processors space the sentences automatically. I’m not fussed which I use, as there is always search and replace. 

I didn’t realise the number of characters after a period was something you could set in Word. (If you ever need to do this: File > Options > Proofing > Writing style Grammar settings button > Punctuation conventions.)

Another grammatical thing that has changed since I learned it (at school) is that here in Australia the norm for talking marks in novels is now single quotes. ‘Which can lead to some weird punctuation,’ she says, ‘because you’ll often have contractions in the sentence as well.’

I prefer to use double quotes for talking. Partly because that’s still the US norm and we write for US markets. If I have to I can always search and replace on the quotes in the last edit. Believe me, it’s so much easier to replace double quotes with single ones, than it is to do it the other way around, because of the aforesaid contractions.

Anyway, back to the Microsoft one space/two spaces after the sentence. The error disappeared after a couple of weeks so I don’t know if it was reset or something. I’m happy it’s gone, and I know how to reset it now, so if they put it back, I’ll know what to do.

By the way Microsoft, I love Word dearly, but I’m not happy about you deleting all my keyboard shortcuts. Not just on the main PC, but also on the laptop and on the work computer. It took a lot of work to put them back.

Ah, well. Software upgrades. Don’t we love them.

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Introducing Captain Kari Wang and Radko

A reader of our books recently contacted us, and in passing mentioned they named their chickens after characters in books they read.  Not only that, they have a chicken named Captain Kari Wang (aka Captain), and one named Radko.

We had to write back and ask for photos.

So here they are—and thank you McKenzie for allowing us to use them.

Captain Kari Wang (photo copyright McKenzie Cullen)

“Captain Kari Wang is a cream crested legbar and will lay blue eggs when she’s old enough (she’s only 3.5 months old).”

Radko (image copyright McKenzie Cullen)

“Radko is the grey one. She’s an Andalusian and will lay white eggs (she’s 3 months old).”

Now, I just want to know the names of all the other other chickens.

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Unconscious themes

Lockdown update

Sherylyn is on the engagement committee at her work. It’s a group that works to keep members of her team cohesive and engaged, no easy matter when you’re in a scheduled environment. Harder still when you’re in a scheduled environment and working from home.

Just before she started working from home, she bought a box of chocolates as a prize for one of the competitions they are running. It’s nothing fancy, just a nice, big, family-size box of Cadbury’s favourites. I’m trying to convince her we should eat these and buy another pack closer to the time she goes back to work. After all, we wouldn’t them to go stale, would we?

Some people are so hard to convince.

How is your lockdown going? Hope you’re keeping sane and safe.

The best thing about ours so far is not having to commute. The worst, the lack of exercise. Even without the chocolate I am noticeably stacking on the weight. Not writing much either, which is sad. The silly thing with writing is that come midnight I can sit down at my computer and start writing. Except … I have to get up in the morning and work, so I can’t write for long.

And I’m really starting to crave a visit to McDonalds. Just so I can sit there and drink coffee in the sun and relax.

Onto other things

I was reading today about June Almeida, who discovered coronaviruses back in the fifties or sixties, but got little recognition for it initially. Reviewers thought the images were just poor-quality pictures of influenza particles (Sydney Combs, She discovered coronaviruses decades ago—but got little recognition in NationalGeographic.com). It wasn’t until 1964 that a doctor who was researching the common cold sent Almeida samples in the hope that her microscope technique might help identify them. Almeida recognised the virus from her earlier work.

We don’t write novels with deliberate themes, but one unconscious theme we have, or a ‘big idea’ if you prefer, is how so many scientific breakthroughs are known about, and then forgotten.

The lines, in the Linesman series, for example.  When the books started, Gila Havortian knew a lot more about lines than anyone in Ean’s time, and humans didn’t know much about the lines anyway. Everything they learned was trial and error, and much of it was wrong. Imagine how different line training would be if, early on, instead of assuming that line ability started at one and continued on until you couldn’t manipulate the lines any more, someone chose to test line capability all the way to level ten every time. Maybe someone did put that forward, but they got ignored because of the theories of the time.

In Stars Uncharted Nika Rik Terri starts off thinking that Gino Giwari is a competent technician and nothing else, but by the end of the book she’s convinced he’s one of the greatest modders in known history.

History is full of people whose scientific genius has been ignored.

Gregor Mendell had his work on genetics criticised at the time he presented it in 1866. It was ignored afterwards and only cited three times in the next thirty-five years. It wasn’t until 1900 that Mendel’s work was rediscovered. (Mendel had died in 1884.)  He’s now considered the father of genetics.

What about Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that doctors washing their hands between patients reduced mortality, and whose theory was rejected, even though mortality rates where he worked dropped form around 20% to less than 2%.

Or Ludwig Boltzmann, who came up with a model that explained and predicted the properties of atoms. Unfortunately, this was against accepted scientific practise of the time, so his theory was disdained. (At least until Ernest Rutherford discovered the atom, thus proving Boltzmann’s theory.)

And this is not even talking about the female scientists, although they were just as likely to make momentous discoveries and have someone else take the credit for it. Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Who knows what else has been discovered and ignored?

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I skip the boring bits

How is your social distancing going?

If we ignore the big issues, like not being able to go anywhere, and the general craziness of what’s happening, so far the hardest thing about the enforced isolation for me is remembering when to put the bins out.

Bin night is Thursday night, which I’d normally remember because it’s the day before Friday (last workday of the week, hooray) but because we’re at home all day, every day, I’m losing track of the days. Not only that, our little two-person bin, which we normally don’t fill, gets full.  We’ve already forgotten one week, which meant that the following week the bin was almost overflowing.  Thank you, garbage collectors, for still working.

I’ve not set a reminder on my phone.

I read somewhere that people should write down how it is for them in this time of pandemic and send it to the archives.  Not sure which archives, but it would be an amazing thing for a scholar of the future. One thing that is so hard to glean from historical records is how normal people lived through times of crises because often the records are newspapers and reports and government records, rather than everyday life.

Anyway, on to other things.

I convinced Sherylyn to read T. Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace* the other day.  “It’s great,” I said. “Lots of repartee between the characters, emotional support, and other things. And you’ll love Bishop Beartongue.”

Partway through the book Sherylyn said, “You like this book. All they do is think about each other.” (It is a romance.)

“I’d forgotten those parts,” I said.  “I don’t read those bits.”

“But it’s half the book!”

“Ah, I skip those bits.”

Sherylyn did agree, that in between the parts where the two protagonists kept thinking about how much they like each other, the book is a lot of fun, and the characters are great. (Especially Bishop Beartongue.)  But it is only half the book.

I confess, I skip a lot of the romance in books.  Sex scenes, especially. You write a sex scene then I’m not your audience.  I’m there for the story and they get in the way, so I skim them at best.  That doesn’t mean to say I won’t read your book. I will.  I’ll just likely skip those particular scenes.  And I won’t even remember they’re in the book when I’ve finished reading it.

Having said that, I do like a good romance.  The romances I love are the unstated ones. Like Wei Wuxian and Lang Wangji in The Untamed. The tv show, not the original novel, where you knew how they felt about each other, but tv show never explicitly spelt it out for censorship reasons.  Where you know how people feel about each other in everything they say and do, even when it’s not romantic.

Those, to me, are the best romances.

Stay safe. Stay sane. Stay healthy.

* I do like this book, by the way, and recommend it if you like fantasy romance. It’s fun.

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In media res

We survived another week in isolation. How did you go?

Sherylyn and I both worked from home this week. At least Sherylyn ‘finishes’ work when she logs off. I finish when I’m done. I admit I am envious. I know I said last week I was going to take it easier this week. Unfortunately, this week was worse. I haven’t had a chance to look at our latest work-progress. Worse, I only went outside about two days. So far this week I’m already excelling in comparison. One day, one super-easy stretching from YouTube and one walk around the block.

I expect may writers will try their hand at pandemic books over the next couple of years. I’m not sure I could read them, it’s a little too close to the truth. Maybe I could read one about smugglers doing a run to get medical supplies to hospitals. Fighting against corrupt officials, gangs, even the army trying to come in and take it off them.

Maybe not. Roger Zelazny did this in Damnation Alley fifty years ago.

That’s how l like my dystopia. As science fiction.

Although, to be honest, it has been pointed out that through all ages, there has generally always been people somewhere in the world living in what we would consider dystopia.

On Friday night I went looking for books to read, and I hit a streak of them—three of them in a row—which all started the same. Books I had on the Kindle that we hadn’t looked at before, all by different authors.

Each one of them started with the protagonist supposedly in the middle of the action. One was in the middle of robbing a house, one waiting for an attack, the third in the middle of robbing a warehouse.

As an aside, thieves as protagonists are so common now the book has to work a lot harder to keep my interest in those first few pages. (Cate Glass’s An Illusion of Thieves, did work hard, and I loved it.)

The protagonists in all three books spent a lot of time thinking, describing themselves and their surroundings, and giving backstory. Believe me, if I’m in the middle of a stakeout, I’m not thinking about my long, chestnut tresses. Expect, perhaps, to think maybe I should cut it short because it keeps getting in the way. And to be honest, how many of you think about what colour your hair is (unless you’re worried about the grey and realise you need to go to the hairdresser)? Especially in the middle of a job.

Writing advice tells you to start the story in media res—in the middle of the story. And these authors started their story in the middle of something, kind of, but nothing happened. Not for pages. By that time I’d given up.

I decided to try out a variation of a combined slush pile/page 99 test on Sherylyn.

“Would you read on?” I asked and read out the first page of the novel.

No for the first, no for the second, no for the third. “Boring, all of them.”

After that I looked around to see what else we had.

I started with books we already have on Kindle.

Patricia Briggs’ Moon Called, the first Mercy Thompson book.

“Would you read on?” I asked.

The answer was a definite yes, although Sherylyn said the story sounded familiar. (It was. The only Mercy Thompson story she hasn’t read yet is the new one, but she’d read this a while ago.) We read on.

Next we tried a book I knew she hadn’t read.

T. Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace.

“Yes, I’d read on.”

Jackson Ford’s The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind.

“Yes. I’d read on.”

After that I looked around Amazon to see what I might choose and found an early Patricia Briggs. Dragon Bone. At first glance this story sounded a lot like those we’d rejected earlier. It started with some description, a bit of history, and a protagonist whose hair colour we know by the end of paragraph two.

“Read on,” Sherylyn says, and I did. I read all the way to the end of the extract, and then I bought the book. I stayed up that night reading it, and into the following day. When I’d finished, I bought the second.

It passed the read-on test.


Take care, everyone. Look after yourself.

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Finally back on line

We’re finally back on line after some technical issues where the site kept bringing up an error and I couldn’t even log on from the back end to investigate the error. We ended up backing up everything, and reinstalling, then reinstating the whole site.

Which worked, kind of, except that we lost all the book data, we’re using the default styles, the contact form isn’t working yet, we don’t have a front page. We’ll fix these over the next couple of days.

It could have been worse. Bear with us in the interim please.