A Midsummer stroll

A Midsummer stroll

Taking a Midsummer stroll

…to my local grocery store, and then looping back long the highway.

Stream at MidsummerHaving visions of grime, graffiti, and optional gore? Yeah, not so much. This is one of the many reasons I landed in Canada fifteen years back and I’m still here. Spring in BC is when everything with roots makes like a triffid and grows like mad, and today, at the official transition from spring into summer, it’s warm, slightly rainy, and the paths are surrounded in every shade of green. That, and all the little streams have plenty of water.

My path followed this stream for quite a long way, punctuated by occasional happy dogs, and my turn beside the  highway included a patch of purple flowers. One of my other favourite trails in the area is lined in buttercups, which are one of the few flowers I actually know the name of.

One of the other nice things about this area is that mid-morning on a showery Sunday it is quite possible to walk for an hour and encounter only about five other people. This is just as well, as it seems that everyone has decided that physical distancing is far too difficult, and no one has a clue how long two metres is anyway. Much easier just to wear a mask under your chin and do what you want.

Between family and work drama, it’s been an interesting few weeks, and having crawled out from under my cats, I found myself in need of some perspective (sounds better than ‘I got up cranky AF’). Because of that, and because lockdown hasn’t been good for my non-existent exercise routine, I headed out for a walk. I’d say ‘I headed out for a walk in the forest’ but that’s the main option in this area (did I mention the phrase ‘things growing like hell’?), and hopefully the photos add any missing context.

Holiday plans

Despite the fact that I’ve been working from home since mid-March (which has been fantastic, and I wish I thought this meant my office was actually going to update their remote work policy once the crisis is over), I’m looking forwards to a few days off at the end of next week, even though what I’m actually going to do, as non-essential travel is still discouraged (in a very polite and Canadian manner) in the province, is sit on my ass in my apartment and read a bunch of new books I’ve laid in for said time off.

Honestly, three months into lockdown, and having not actually been outside Vancouver since autumn 2018, I do hope that at some point in the foreseeable future I will be able to at least take a trip to the Island for a change of scene without endangering myself or anyone else. However, despite the number of ‘ooh, look, VACAY AT LAST!!’ photos growing on social media, I’m not yet at the stage of cabin fever where ‘fuckitol’ looks like a good prescription, so books, cats, and tea stash it is. With some luck I’ll even get some more editing done.

Creek and flowersAlso, if we’re being honest, there’s a lot of worse spots to be stuck for the long term than Vancouver. Even the scabbiest parts of the city that I’ve come across are still pretty liveable, and where I’ve wound up is very far from a scabby bit. I really can walk to the store via a trail that could be the wilds of planet XZ472 in StarGate (and may have been, since most of StarGate was filmed in BC…), and there are a lot of other, even nicer, trails around.

Plus, my cats very much approve of this lockdown thing, and people working from home. It means their human is around pretty much full time in case of boredom, hunger, or a need for belly-rubs.

If you want to see (a lot of) photos of cats and how we spend our time in lockdown, my ‘author’ Instagram is a must-have resource, and you can follow me here: https://www.instagram.com/j_c_steel/

Writing to escape

Writing to escape

Meeting the voices in my head

I’d started telling myself stories as as a way of escaping whatever actual events I didn’t want to be part of by the age of five. 

Don’t get the idea from this that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, I lived on a yacht that was variously in the Caribbean and southern Europe, I was home-schooled, I had my own dinghy, there was a cat and dog on the boat who respectively made sure I behaved and led me into trouble. However, as my parents were from the WWII generation, they saw absolutely no reason why, for example, I shouldn’t be perfectly capable of using a knife and fork and eating with my mouth closed by age three. They also thought, as an aspiring human, I should be able to sit quietly and at least not snore out loud when they had adult guests over. Quite reasonable, and I’d fucking love it if more parents today applied at least the same behavioural standards to their offspring in public as they do to their dogs. My eardrums would be a lot happier, not to mention enjoyment of restaurant meals uninterrupted by views of semi-masticated globs being spat back onto tables.

However, as there are few things more boring than to listen to a conversation that you can’t join, because, well, either the topic bores the pants off you or because most adults have issues talking to five year olds in anything other than “Is that your teddy, dear? How wonderful!”, I learnt the joys of escapism early. It probably helped that due to that homeschooling, I could read crap (“Peter and Jane saw a BUTTERFLY!!!!”) by the time I hit my third birthday, and actual books of some interest by the time I was five.

By the time I was five, I had an imaginary friend. My imaginary friend would discuss shit that interested us, like exactly what that thing on the bottom of the harbour might actually be, and just how much light refraction might be throwing off our guesses at how deep it was. My imaginary friend had other friends, most of whom I never really got to know very well. Not to mention a horse. A really big horse that would kick the crap out of people it didn’t like. (Yeah, I know, I lived on a boat. I didn’t get within thirty metres of a horse until I was ten or eleven. Don’t ask why a horse.)

Nowhere to go

Sadly, no good thing lasts forever, and by age thirteen, the boat had been sold, and I was in the middle of nowhere, France, about three months from being shipped off to boarding school. (The Famous Five has a lot to answer for.) I didn’t have any particular objections to learning to gravel patios and put up screening walls, and I already knew how to paint. There certainly wasn’t much else to do – no water, no dinghies, no beaches, no deserted islands that I was allowed to just row to and wander all over until Dad leant on the foghorn and scared all the pelicans out of the trees to call me back.

That autumn led to boarding school, in northern England, amid three hundred or so teenagers. This was in the mid-90s, and I’d never heard of Oasis. I didn’t care if my jeans were Levi, not that I got to wear jeans very often: ‘home clothes’ were treats reserved for weekends, after Saturday morning school and afternoon activities. Going into town (after school and activities), was permitted at age thirteen and up, provided you could scrape together two other people to go with (oh, ha).

Writing to escape

Luckily, my imaginary friend had been fleshed out a lot in the years between five and thirteen. She lived on a different planet. She was in training for some kind of special ops unit (did I mention that this school was a Quaker school? I was a great culture fit.) She could fly spaceships. About the only point of commonality was that we both lived in highly-regulated environments and held a very low opinion of those controlling our lives.

My imaginary friend was the mainstay that mostly kept me from resorting to some of the more popular coping mechanisms at the school, such as petty shop-lifting, alcohol, self harm, bulimia and/or anorexia, etc. Writing to escape started happening after about my first year, when someone pretty much told me to write it down already so they could read the stories.

I started in a tiny notebook I’d picked up somewhere, smaller than my hand. By the middle of the next year, I was writing on the pages in my school binders, and not at all coincidentally, doing better in class (my brain switches off fast when I’m bored, and listening to the same thing repeated ten different ways for the folks in the back reading much-fingered copies of ‘J17’ magazine was, well, boring). I wrote five novels in class in a little under three years (and, yes, smart-arse, I did pass my exams, with good grades, even) before I finally escaped to the wilds of Wales and university, and by that point, the habit of writing to escape was pretty firmly fixed.

Some twenty years later, and under substantially less pressure, I actually find that I need to consciously make time and space for writing. It is a pressure valve, and when there’s no pressure, well, less writing happens. Because I do enjoy having a ticket off-world almost whenever I can muster the concentration, it does still happen, but I’m unlikely to ever transform into one of those writers who churns out a book every couple of months – even if I could afford to not work 40 hours a week, 49 weeks a year. Nothing sucks the joy out of it quite so much as writing because  I have to write, rather than because I feel like writing (Nanowrimo 2014 taught me that while I can do it, it isn’t fun, and I end up with a hurrah’s nest of unedited crap I still haven’t dared open up to see if several years of editing could turn the “write first! Never edit as you write!” approach into a readable novel).

To sum up a very long and rambly post, most people read if they feel like escapism, which I also do. It’s just that, as the voices in my head never shut up anyway, I also write to escape. Also, because the voices in my head are of such very long standing, I actually have an incredible bonus as an author. I don’t need pages and pages of notes on planetary culture and character backstories. It’s all right there for the asking.

The litter box inspires me

The litter box inspires me

…and when I say the litter box inspires me, I mean it inspires me to do almost anything else.

This weekend it’s been inspiring me to go way outside my comfort (and competency) zone, and make some promo graphics for the Cortii series, as well as Death is for the Living. Overall, and especially compared with the first batch, which I mostly knocked together in PowerPoint, I’m fairly happy with these, although you will see why I mostly stick with the writing and leave the graphic design to them as didn’t fail art classes on several continents.

Currently I’m using the free version of Canva, which, while irritating in that most options are paid, and if you pay for a pro graphic, you get exactly one use of it, is still better and more flexible than what I was using.

So, without further ado, here are some of the graphics you may see popping up in my social media! (Cat-box inspired…)

Through the HostageWhile at some point I do plan to save up for a do-over on the cover of Through the Hostage, particularly the figure and the title font, I do love the backdrop the cover designer found, and it is actually a different section of that backdrop that I’m using as the setting for this Twitter image.

Lesley-Ann Brandt as Mazikeen, Lucifer

 

The elevator line, for those who’ve read Through the Hostage, can be squarely blamed on Senja Ventiva, Cortiora of As’ra’tan. While I haven’t, and probably won’t, scour image sites for models of how I think the Cortiian characters look, because I prefer to leave readers their own impressions, someone did challenge me once to one of those “who would play your characters if Hollywood made the movie” games, and Lesley-Ann Brandt in the first few episodes of ‘Lucifer‘ was the best match for Senja as I see her that I’ve ever come across.

Fighting ShadowsFighting Shadows is also up at some point for a cover re-do. This one I’m actually very fond of the initial title font, but the background image doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, even though I do love the dramatics and the camera flare. To date, it’s also one of the only storylines where you see the whole of Wildcat Cortia acting in one of the ‘bread-and-butter’ roles for Cortiian units – advance infiltration and shock troops, both areas in which the Federated Planets alliance troops are shockingly (aha) bad.

Lucy Liu in Elementary

 

I’ve never found that perfect actress to play Khyria. As several book reviewers have pointed out in varying degrees of shock, she’s female, and she doesn’t feature in one of the approved female positions in a plot, by which I mean mostly between the hero and a mattress. Because of that predominant lack of women in similar roles, I’m still looking. I wouldn’t turn down Lucy Liu, in the unlikely event that the Cortii series ever got picked up as a major event by the film-making industry, but it’s far from an exact match.

Elemental Affinity promoAside from the title font, which looks more thriller than sci-fi to me, I really do like the cover for Elemental Affinity. The cover designer took my few lines of ‘these are some of the settings, this is basically what the book’s about’ and came up with something that matches the White Mountains fort very closely.

Liam Neeson

 

I have no idea who might be suitable to play Cahan, Lord Warleader of the Golden Valleys, but I do have a potential suspect for the captain of his guard, Warron. Warron shows up as a secondary character in Elemental Affinity, Elemental Conflict, and in the Unaltered novella, and is basically responsible for making sure his lord remains mostly unperforated, a role he shares in Elemental Affinity with Khyria.

Elemental Conflict promoAnd I really do love the cover for Elemental Conflict. I don’t like the title font for a sci-fi series, but the cover image is perfect and I will fight to keep it. It was also the one where I probably cam closest to driving my long-suffering cover designer nuts, but then again, he does say ‘unlimited revisions’ in the website…

Kyle Schmid in CSI Miami

 

I have been looking for that perfect actor to play Anst an Nabat, who comes into the forefront of the series in Elemental Conflict. I haven’t seen a perfect match yet in terms of ‘if Hollywood picked up the series and money was no object’ but Kyle Schmid might be closer than some.

 

Unaltered promoAnd finally, Unaltered, the Cortii series novella I had no intention of writing until I found myself unable to concentrate on the shit I was supposed to be doing for two months straight, and on which I then wrote at least one 6,000 word day… This cover is from Covers by Robin, and it’s one of my favourites.

Irin Seviki

 

Also, since before coming across Covers by Robin I was getting desperate enough to consider trying to learn to use Gimp sufficiently well to pull my own cover together (don’t do this, really, it’s a job for an expert), I did actually spend some irritating hours scouring sites for an image I could accept for Irin Seviki, and this was the best I found.

And of course the boxset, which is also designed by Covers by Robin, which I grabbed for my post header. One day I hope print on demand will get to the point where I can actually bring out a serious boxset that looks like that, but for the time being the boxset is e-book only and due to the strain on my very limited supply of patience posed by interior formatting for multiple different platforms, it’s currently also my only Kindle Unlimited offering.

Etymology Excavation: quarantine

Etymology Excavation: quarantine

Etymology excavation: Quarantine

Quarantine as we know it today comes from the C15th Venetian word ‘quarantena’, and meant ‘forty’. Forty days was the required isolation period for ships before they were allowed to off-load in Venice or ports controlled by Venice during the outbreak of the Black Plague.

Essentially, if no one showed any signs of any infectious diseases after that 40-day period, Venetian officials would give them their certificate and let them disembark. If infection broke out, it would run its course shipboard, and any survivors who made it 40 days from the end of the outbreak with no further signs were then considered clear.

Even today, ships waiting for Customs clearance in a new harbour will fly a solid yellow flag (the ‘Q’ flag), which is basically a self-declaration that they have no infectious diseases aboard and are safe for Customs agents to board and clear. A ‘Yellow Jack’ flag, with alternating black and yellow quarters, means the opposite – the ship has an infection aboard and is under quarantine.

Venice was not the first example of an established quarantine system. There are documented examples of it going back as far as the 7th or 8th centuries in India and the Middle East. A lot of these earlier quarantine systems were fairly ruthless in their application, and more or less consisted of running the sick or those suspected of being sick out of town to live or die well away from other people.

The root of the word ‘quarantena’ goes back even further, to Proto-Indo-European ‘kwetwer’, or ‘four’, with offshoots in languages from French to Gaelic to Persian to Latin.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

It’s not my job to educate you

It’s not my job to educate you

It’s not my job to educate you

…we’ve all seen that somewhere. And no, if you aren’t drawing a teaching salary, it isn’t your ‘job’.

My concern is that people asking for information is coming dangerously close to being seen as ‘entitlement’: as in, if you weren’t you and didn’t have the contextual awareness of a rock you should already know all this. Stop making me explain things you should know to you.

I get it. I’ve lived it all my life. It’s really annoying when people ask you about stuff you know and they don’t just to understand what the hell you’re talking about when that ‘stuff’ is every day for you. On the other hand, if you want people to understand, even if it isn’t your job, I put it to you that throwing a hissy fit about how it isn’t your job to educate people may not be the best possible alternative.

My context is that I come from somewhere no one’s ever heard of and my environment growing up was one that almost no one has. If someone wanders up to me to introduce themselves and asks me that innocent little question about where I’m from, I can either lie or get myself involved in educating them.

Since my school years, I’ve never been comfortable having this discussion. This means that while, no, it may not lose me a job or get me stoned in the street, about every other time I meet someone new I get to choose between lying or enjoying a nice bout of social anxiety and a rash of bad memories. And then, after that, I get to educate them.

This is how it tends to go.

Stranger: “Oh hey, hi, I’m so-and-so, nice to meet you!”

Me: *Oh, Jesus, should’ve ducked behind the buffet* “Hi, nice to meet you so-and so.”

S: “Hey, cute accent! Where are you from?”

Me: *ohshitohshit here we go again* “Oh, thanks! I’m from Gibraltar.”

S: “Gibraltar! That’s in Australia, right?”

Me: *argh* “No, it’s a British territory in the south of Spain. You might have heard of the Strait of Gibraltar, joins the Atlantic and the Mediterranean?”

S: “That’s so cool! Did you grow up there?”

Me: *oh god, now we’re for it* “No, my parents travelled a lot.”

S: “Oh, cool! So I guess you’ve got great  frequent flyer perks?”

Me: *please kill me* “Uh, no, we lived on a boat.”

S: *really gets their extrovert happy on* “A boat?!?!”

…and so on.

There is actually a Facebook group called “Yes, I’m from Gibraltar; no, I can’t be arsed to tell you where it is”, and I didn’t start it, which means that yes, I do absolutely ‘get’ not wanting to have to explain your personal context to other people. So, apparently, does almost everyone else from my country who’s ever left it.

However, if I’m speaking to someone who isn’t well-travelled, which a lot of people aren’t, or aren’t well-educated on non-*wherever* geography, which is most people, I can explain, or I can be an arsehole. The latter certainly comes easier, but is it really fair to blame some random person for not knowing something that’s every day life for me and not to them?

I can certainly walk off when they start asking stupid questions about boats, too, but again, is it really fair to expect that they should know? And if they don’t, which is, again, most people, then I can either explain, and they’ll go away better informed if not any wiser. And then, next time they meet some random weirdo who’s sailed, they’ll know that yes, such people exist, and that conversation will go easier. Not for me, of course, but for the next poor sod who shares any part of my personal context.

Is there a huge difference between someone asking for information and someone asking because they’re trying to get at you?

Yes, of course there is, and those people are at least partly why I hate having these conversations. Being ‘different’ is just tons of fucking fun with a cherry onna top in some situations.

However, I’m a firm supporter of giving people at least a sentence to hang themselves in. I’ll absolutely be an arsehole to someone out looking for a rise. Someone who’s merely trying to ameliorate their ignorance by asking someone else who’s just admitted to being a source of first-hand information, that I’ll hesitate to do unless I’m having a really awesomely foul day.

In other words, my attitude is indeed entirely dependent on you. It’s not my job to educate you, but if I want you better-informed it may be in my best interests, or if not mine, the next poor schmuck’s, to do so.

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