Tomes 2010: Geology on the Road

I didn’t mean for this installment to be travel-themed.  It’s just how we ended up.  There are two odd men out, so I suppose there’ll be variety for the sake thereof and all that.  Besides, the travel theme goes well with Silver Fox’s meme.  So why the hell not?

And so, without further ado, our final Tomes 2010!

Geology of the North York Moors

You may notice this isn’t accompanied by a book cover image.  Best I can do for a link for ye is to direct you to where I filched the picture, which discusses some o’ the geology, at least.  This tiny little book is one of those delightful bookstore finds.  My copy is vintage ’79, and must have been picked up by vacationing Americans.  It’s a quick, simple guide to one of the most interesting national parks in England.  If you can lay your hands upon a copy, do, but be warned: it will make you want to spend an outrageous amount of money to hop a plane for Great Britain.  At least you’ll have clear diagrams and succinct but solid text to help you find the best geology available.

Hiking Guide to Washington’s Geology

I picked this up at Mount Rainier, and it’s been my constant companion since.  It’s had horrible things done to its cover from being in the same bag as a hand sample of sandstone, but it’s soldiered through.  There are 56 hikes in here.  You’ll want to do them all.

It covers eight regions: the Coast Ranges, the Puget Lowland and San Juan Islands, the North Cascades, the South Cascades, the Columbia Basin, the Okanogan Highlands and Rocky Mountains (yes, Washington has Rockies!), the Blue Mountains, and the Four Corners.  No, Washington does not have a Four Corners region in the sense that four states meet in a corner, but it’s roughly rectangular, so that last bit covers all four corners.  The hikes are awesome.  Don’t quibble.

The trails are clearly described, so well done that even amateurs like me can figure out what they’re looking at.  Nearly everything intelligent I ever say about Washington state geology from now on will be on account of this book.  Just so’s you know.

Hiking Oregon’s Geology

This book was written by Ellen Morris Bishop.  That should be all I have to say about that.

What, you want me to sell you on this book?

Fine, then.  90 geological hikes.  Covers the Klamath Mountains and the Southernmost Coast, the Coast Range and Central-Northern Oregon Coast, the Willamette Valley, the Columbia River Gorge, the Cascades, the Deschutes Basin, the High Lava Plains, the Basin and Range, the Owyhees, the Blue Mountains and the Columbia Plateau.  Is that enough for you?  It should be.

And did I mention Ellen Morris Bishop?

If you don’t know her, go read In Search of Ancient Oregon.  Then you’ll know why I say, ’nuff said.

Geology of the North Cascades

This is the perfect blend of information and travel guide.  The first several chapters give an overview of the geology of the region.  This is no simple matter.  The North Cascades are a crazy-quilt of exotic terranes, plutons, oceanic sediments and seafloor, all scrambled and mixed up any-old-how by the vagaries of a subduction zone, then topped off with a bunch of young volcanics.  But after reading the first half of the book, you’ll have an excellent idea of which bits are where and why.

Then the second half of the book will take you on a long ramble through them.  There are 154 notes on geologic points of interest.  That means roughly 154 places I want to visit this summer, and I’m not looking forward to trying to whittle them down to a manageable handful!  Plus, there’s a recipe for roast chicken.  But it’s not just any ol’ recipe.  It’s one you can make and bake right in the Great Fill.  Yes, you will be burying chicken in old debris flows and baking it right inside the geology.  Is that not teh awesome?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  And no other book I’ve ever seen on geology has ever offered anything like it.

Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings

You may think that a book on Japanese architecture from 1885 would be dead boring.  In this book’s case, you would be wrong.

Soooo very wrong.

Not only is it richly illustrated with a great many beautiful engravings, not only is the prose clear and the descriptions of even the most fiddly bits of architecture and house construction concise and easy to follow, not only does it range from design to construction to decor, it takes many hysterically funny side trips.  Mr. Morse, you see, had a rather jaundiced view of American habits, and he wasn’t afraid to spend several pages bashing them.  He had a caustic wit.  He had a keen sense of timing and effect, and understood that sometimes a diatribe requires detail, and sometimes the detail is best left to the readers’ imaginations.

Two examples will suffice.  Here, on page 172, he compares Japan’s carpenters to America’s:

It is a remarkable fact, and one well worth calling attention to, that in the smaller towns and villages, in regions far apart, there seems to be artistic workmen capable of designing and executing these graceful and artistic carvings, – for such they certainly are….  I do not mean to imply by this general statement that good workmen in Japan are not drawn to larger cities for employment, but rather that the smaller towns and villages everywhere are not destitute of such a class, and that the distribution of such artisans is far more wide and general than with us.  And how different such conditions are with us may be seen in the fact that there are hundreds of towns and thousands of villages in our country where the carpenter is just capable of making a shelter from the weather; and if he attempts to beautify it – but we will not awaken the recollection of those startling horrors of petticoat scallops fringing the eaves and every opening, and rendered, if possible, more hideous by the painter.

That, my darlings, puts me in mind of Jerome K. Jerome’s remarkable ability to say ten thousand things with just a few choice words.

Here, on page 117, Mr. Morse goes after American interior decorating atrocities:

If a foreigner is not satisfied with the severe simplicity, and what might at first strike him as a meagreness, in the appointments of a Japanese house, and is nevertheless a man of taste, he is compelled to admit that its paucity of furniture and carpets spares one the misery of certain painful feelings that incongruities always produce.  He recalls with satisfaction certain works on household art, in which it is maintained that a table carved with cherubs beneath, against whose absurd contours one knocks his legs, is an abomination; and that carpets which have depicted upon them winged angels, lions, or tigers, – or, worse still, a simpering and reddened maiden being made love to by an equally ruddy shepherd, – are hardly the proper surfaces to tread upon with comfort, though one may take a certain grim delight in wiping his soiled boots upon them.  In the Japanese house the traveller is at least not exasperated with such a medley of dreadful things; he is certainly spared the pains the “civilized” styles of appointing and furnishing often produce.  Mr. Lowell truthfully remarks on “the waste and aimlessness of our American luxury, which is an abject enslavement to tawdry upholstery.”
We are digressing, however.

Such digressions season the book throughout, and have turned it from mere tome on foreign architecture into a delightful exploration of different cultural worlds.  There’s a good reason why this book is still in print and available 135 years after its birth.  I’ve spent nearly a year reading this book, dipping in to it a few pages at a time, savoring it for as long as I can, because I’m sure I’ll never read another book on architecture this good ever again.

Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings

I’ve read translations of the Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho), seen programs on Miyamoto Musashi, and read the works of other martial artists, but this is the first time I’ve read a translation of Musashi’s work and a history of his life by an actual martial artist.  Kenji Tokitsu does a wonderful job rendering Musashi as a human being, which is difficult, considering the man is a bloody legend.

And, for the first time, I’ve read a translation of the Gorin no sho that actually made sense.  That’s no mean feat!  Musashi wasn’t writing for novices, he was writing for people he’d already taught.  Most translators render the words without meaning.  Kenjii renders not only the words, but the concepts behind them, in a beautifully clear translation with extensive notes.  And he leads up to that translation by exploring Musashi’s life, his development as a martial artist, and the Japan he lived in. 

This book also includes some of Musashi’s lesser-known works, which helps complete the picture.  And, speaking of pictures, there are beautiful color plates of Musashi’s art work – he wasn’t just a martial artist, but a supremely gifted painter and calligrapher.

Musashi’s legendary status is well-deserved.  This book honors that, but also shows him as what he was: a human being.  And it’s written by a man who knows his stuff: how to translate, how to write, and how to think and act like a martial artist.  It’s rare to get hold of a book in English that combines all three.  This is one, and I’m very grateful he wrote it.

And that, my darlings, is that: the final set of Tomes 2010.  64 books, 12 months.  Stay tuned for Tomes 2011, which shall no doubt be as varied and filled with startling, cherished finds.  Happy reading!

Tomes 2010: Geology on the Road

2010 Year O' Travels, or D'oh, Shit, Another Meme!

Silver Fox, once again, has tagged absolutely everybody for a meme.  And, since it gives me fodder and a chance to put up pretty pitchoors, why the hell not?

In years past, this meme would’ve been dead easy: twelve months of “Ummm…. nowhere.”  I didn’t tend to get out much.  Then I met my intrepid companion, who endures any number of inane schemes, and off we’ve gone.  But I’ll have to get a bit creative with the winter months.

Ready?  Let’s go!


I went to other worlds!  Winter writing season, y’see.  Furthest I got from home was in my own mind, where I kicked around Athesea for a bit and did some desultory world-building.


Look, Ma!  I can escape the Muse, flee the house, and go see Epica!

Okay, so I only made it so far as downtown Seattle, but that’s an epic* journey during the winter writing season, lemme tell ya.

*No pun was actually intended.  No, seriously. 


Other worlds!  Thrills!  Chills!  Carpal Tunnel!  Woot!  As far as leaving the house, about the most exciting it got was the grocery store.  And the Home Depot.  Betcha didn’t know there’s good geology to be found at the Home Depot, didya?

***Update*** Oh, right, the squirrel.  How could I forget the Burien Squirrel?!


I escaped the Muse and went to see ginormous rhodies down in Federal Way.  Made friends with a White-Barked Himalayan Birch.  Ah, spring!


Gearing up toward the summer adventuring season.   I gently slipped free from the Muse for an afternoon by telling her we had to do downtown Seattle for “research purposes.”  Same for Madrona Park on a lovely early summer day.  Bonds duly loosened, my intrepid companion and I then managed to bugger off to eastern Washington for two blissful days of superb geology and waterfalls with butterflies.

Upon our return, we took a side trip down the fossil freeway.

And that pretty much finished May, and put paid to the last few days of the winter writing season.  Summer adventuring season, here we go!


Lessee… we started out with the Seattle Art Museum, where I saw amazing art that included some geology, acquired superpowers (thanks to our own George W.) and made friends with stone camels


Shortly thereafter, we buggered off for the first real ramble I’ve ever taken through Oregon, where there were rose gardens and incredible coastal geology and more incredible coastal geology and got pretty pitchoors and saw the Columbia River Gorge for the first time, although I haven’t written that bit up yet.
 Then we had the Museum of Flight and Lincoln Park.

Which was more than enough adventuring for June, but we only stopped because we ran out of June.


We solved the mystery of the Mukilteo Lighthouse, and I got some super-spiffy photo sequences of waves breaking with Mt. Baker in the background.

Then we engaged in a lot of sea mammal molestation at the Seattle Aquarium, and by that, I do mean a lot.  Ha ha!  I got to see the octopus before PeeZee did!  Nyah-nyah!

Not content with mere sea mammal molestation, we branched out at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and molested regular mammals, along with a sea mammal molestation reprise, capped by an evening at the beach.

 And I got to see PeeZee and Ophelia!  Woot!


It was all about the mountains, baby, yeah!  First, we headed up Mount Rainier for a walk in the clouds:

And then came our big trip to the Olympics.  ZOMG.

I shared some preliminary geological findings, outtakes, and more outtakes, and I’ve still got 10 tons of photos left to blog!  So much nummy geology!


Last month o’ the summer season, which meant I had to milk it.  I started out with a quick jaunt to the scientific wonderland that is Seward Park, and visited a quite-lovely fault scarp.  Enjoyed some quiet time by a glacially-carved lake, as well:

And then it was off to Lockwood in Oregon, where I killded my car dead, but with Suzanne selflessly running rescue missions and my insurance company’s eager assistance, we managed to salvage the trip.  I love them all more than I can possibly convey (and let’s not forget my intrepid companion, who wouldn’t let a little thing like my totaling the car stop us).  So we got up to Mary’s Peak, which has some of the most astounding geology I’ve ever seen, and we made it down the coast, which I haven’t written up yet, but will knock your socks off when I do.


Winter wasn’t coming, so we went to Discovery Park, where we found the lighthouse gleaming and the bluff looming.

And as summer gasped its last gasp, we visited St. Edwards State Park, where I did a little geology without help of geologist or book.  Guess all that geo-travel taught me something!

And that was that.  Summer all gone.


The start of the winter writing season, and I’m off to Xtalea once again.  There’s nothing like building a world to help you understand this one!


Blind fucking Guardian:

And a Chinese fucking Elvis. Furthest from home I’ve managed to get IRL.  Far enough for now, innit?

It’s been an eventful year, and next year’s shaping up to be more eventful still.  Looks like we’ll be revisiting this meme come a year from now.  In the meantime, if you haven’t written your travels up yet, and you feel like revisiting your adventures near and far, feel free to consider yourself tagged!

2010 Year O' Travels, or D'oh, Shit, Another Meme!

Two Must-Reads You May Not Have Read

Whelp, Christmas is over.  We’ve got a bit o’ breathing room before New Year’s.  Time now to catch up on some of that great stuff you put off.

Brian Switek’s got 6 Strange Fossils That Enlightened Evolutionary Scientists.  It’s Brian, so I don’t have to tell you how awesome it is.  Just get yer arse over there and read it if you haven’t already.

And Bora’s got an epic-length (by blogging standards) exploration of science and journalism that will probably tell you quite a lot you didn’t already know.  And you’ll be surprised by just how much the 19th and 21st Centuries have in common:

Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

The whole thing’s well worth your time.  So I won’t detain you here any longer.  Go.  Read.  Enlighten!

Two Must-Reads You May Not Have Read

The Quote Detective

I love language, and what can be done with a well-turned phrase: metaphor, simile, analogy, a quip and a quote.  I love how language can evoke and expand.  And when something so good comes along that people feel compelled to pass it along, I love finding out where it came from.

That’s not always easy to do. Things change in the retelling.  Origins get misty.  That was the case with the widely quoted and misquoted description of the Basin and Range as “an army of caterpillars marching northward toward out of Mexico.”  It’s been repeated in a variety of ways in a plethora of sources.  But who said it first?  Who looked at those wriggling mountain ranges and thought, “Hmmm, caterpillars!”?

Thanks to Silver Fox and her fellow investigators, now we know.  But this isn’t just the story of a quote, but how the combined power of Google, Twitter, and a determined social network can uncover the 124 year-old truth in a day.

Go.  Read.  Delight!

The Quote Detective

Dana's Dojo: Keeping Up Appearances

Today in the Dojo: Untangling the thorny problem of describing characters’ physical appearances.

Clothes and manners do not make the man; but, when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.
-Henry Ward Beecher

I’m afraid we’re about to get snowed under by albinos.  It’s almost a foregone conclusion: you get a wildly successful book including characters with unusual physical traits, and it seems that a billion other authors think that was the golden key to bestsellerdom.  People want albinos – or sparkling vampires, or boys with scars on their foreheads, or…

Well, it’s a load of bunk, of course.  An intriguing physical characteristic will not compensate for awful characterization and a worse plot.  This is not Hollywood, folks.  We can’t say our character looks just like Brad Pitt or Catherine Zeta-Jones and expect the readers to come flocking in.  Granted, there are probably a few sad readers out there who will say, “Oh, look – an albino!” or whatever flavor-of-the-month, and buy your book on the strength of that alone – it’s a funny old world – but there aren’t enough of those to push strong sales.

Since that’s the case, we’re left in a bit of a dilemma.  Should we describe our characters physically, or leave it up to the reader?  Does every main character need a standout physical trait?  How much is too much – or too little?

I shall attempt an answer. 


You are not going to get a definitive answer in the writers’ books.  Instead, you will get controversy.  You have in one camp those who believe that no main character is complete without some outrageous physical characteristic that caricature artists would scream with glee upon seeing, and who also maintain that every character must be described down to the diameter and exact tint of their navel hair.  You have in the other camp those who insist that physical description is a stumbling block to reader identification and must not, under any circumstances, be attempted.  They might grudgingly allow you to pin a general age and a vague ethnic identity on your characters, but otherwise, all must be left up to the reader.

There is a third camp that shrugs, says “Do whatever seems right, man,” and wanders off for coffee.  They are of little help, but at least they’re peaceful.

The camps can be safely ignored.  It’s the readers who matter – after all, they’re the ones shelling out the bucks that will keep you fed while scribbling.  So what do they think?

Some readers are ardent camp followers, with the same level of fanaticism evinced by World Cup fans.  The average reader, if aware of the war at all, looks upon the two camps in utter confusion.  “I don’t care about navel hair, it’s TMI, really, but still….  I want to know what people look like” seems to be the general consensus.

I know because when I was running my early efforts past test readers, their most frequent complaint was that they didn’t know what the characters looked like.  They wanted to know.  It wasn’t enough for them to have formed their own mental image of the character in question.  If it was a third person story, they most certainly wanted a physical description beyond “It’s a she, and she’s got brown hair.”  They wanted details.  In first person stories, that didn’t seem as big a complaint, but they were always happy to have a handle on appearance.

No one ever asked me for an albino, or a boy with a scar, or anything else in the way of standout physical detail, but there’s a reason those details are popular.  We shall get to that in a moment.


And good riddance.

So now, let’s talk a bit about physical description in general, because without it, your character with the standout physical detail ends up being a featureless blob with a standout physical detail standing out like a tumor, with very nearly the same result.  And when all you see is a single feature, brilliant characterization will not prevent the reader from recalling your well-rounded character as “That guy with the tumor on his nose.”

A good physical description of your character has a lot going for it.  Your reader will have something concrete to associate the character with, instead of relying on abstracts that might be harder for them to associate with the right character.  It’s like a scrapbook, helping to contain all of those thoughts, impressions, opinions, and actions that go into a character. 

Description is useful as a means of instant identification: there’s a redhead headed our way, must be Molly – that sort of thing.  That’s especially useful when you’re writing in close third-person and the narrator doesn’t know who Molly is.  But the reader does, and it delights them to know something the narrator doesn’t.

It also makes the reader feel closer to the character.  It creates an intimate, face-to-face relationship.  Vision (for those of us who are sighted) is an important part of our relations with other people.  Your readers want that kind of intimacy with your characters.  They want a picture.  A picture makes the person real.

That means that a physical description of your characters can also make your world seem more real, your story more complete.  If you know what the characters look like and pass that knowledge on to your reader, there’s a subconscious idea that if you know what these people look like, they must be real, and if they’re real, they’re moving in a real world. 

Physical description can enhance reader love or hate at a glance.  We love beautiful people and hate ugly ones, generally speaking.  We really hate beautiful people gone bad (although we’re conflicted because we’re attracted to them) and love ugly folks all the more if they’re constantly struggling to show their beauty at heart (although we’re conflicted because we’re still repulsed by their appearance).  Never underestimate the power of appearance to affect the way your readers feel about your characters.

Which leads nicely to the cautions, beginning with what I just said: physical description can enhance reader love or hate at a glance.  It’s quite the double-edged sword.  When deciding how you’re going to describe a character, you have to be fully aware that you could be unintentionally turning a reader away.  Those melting brown eyes might remind a reader of the melting brown eyes that just dumped her in a restaurant; that vivid red hair might remind a reader of the vivacious redhead who just broke his winning streak at the table tennis tournament.  If you are relying on physical beauty or ugliness to define your character as a hero or villain, you’re in trouble.  You’re also in a bit of the deep and sticky if you choose to cast a monstrously ugly person as hero or gorgeous person as villain.  That can backfire.  Be very aware of how people respond to physical beauty or repulsiveness before you start the purple prose.

Physical description can also get in the way of the reader forming their own mental image of the character.  In the absence of description, readers will start filling in the blanks themselves.  They’re going to get a nasty shock if the person they’ve comfortably decided must look like Brad Pitt turns out to look like Rodney Dangerfield on page 110.  And even if you described your character as a Rodney sort up front, they might still insist on having him look like Brad and get jolted every time you contradict them.  Accept that it could happen with some readers.

The worst danger, however, is that physical description will lead to Lazy Author Syndrome, in which the author substitutes a catalog of physical descriptors for characterization.  I touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating: physical description tells us nothing about the character other than what they look like.  It shouldn’t stand in for all of the other areas of characterization, or you are going to end up with stereotypes, caricatures – not characters.

And if you have a book populated by thinly disguised Angelina Jolies, Brad Pitts, Catherine Zeta-Joneses, and Christian Bales, you’re going to look rather cheesey.  So will they.  Same thing goes for a book of midgets, lepers, supermodels, fat folk, skinny folk, or any other sort of folk that you’re identifying mainly by exaggerated appearance.  Unless you’re writing parody, resist the urge to fill your book with odd-looking or physically perfect specimens.

In fact, with physical description, you should probably stick with the averages: a few standouts, but the majority are going to be regular Joes and Janes, neither gorgeous nor disgusting, neither perfect nor disfigured.  I’ve noticed that books where everybody stands out get pretty cluttered and unreadable about the tenth character. 

When describing a character physically, avoid comparing them baldly to the current heartthrob on the silver screen.  Yes, your character might look exactly like George Clooney in your own mind.  That’s great for you.  For your reader’s sake, stick with the salt-and-pepper hair, white, physically healthy forty-year-old sort of description.  That covers a wide range of folks, even though it’s narrow enough for them to get the picture, and then they’ll have enough detail to build an image of their own that is most likely going to be based on someone they know and love.

It’s up to you whether you’re going to go for a sketch or a portrait, of course, but I do advise leaving just enough ambiguity for the reader to form their own conclusions.  Readers seem to like that.  They want a framework on which to hang their own ideas of beauty or repulsiveness.  They don’t need the exact image stuffed down their throats.

So now that we’ve covered that a bit, time for that bugaboo, the standout physical detail.

Thinking back on the many books I’ve read, it seems that many of the characters who have captivated me have a standout physical detail: Drizzt do’Urden’s lavender eyes, Mat Cauthon’s hanging scar, Harry Potter’s lightning-bolt scar, Agnes Nitt’s extraordinary bulk… you get the idea.  But a good number of my favorite characters stand out not because of an eye-catching feature, but who they are.  Sam Vimes is about as ordinary as Everyman gets – it’s his attitude that arrests the attention.  Same thing with so many of the first-person narrators I’ve loved.  I couldn’t tell you what these people look like.  Asked to identify them in a lineup, I’d be lost.  But they stand out with extraordinary clarity in my mind.

This begs the question: is a standout physical detail genius or needless?

I told you I’d get to the reasons why a standout physical detail is a good idea.  They are thus:

a.  It makes the character stand out above the pack.

b.  It gives the reader a visual hook for that character.

c.  It’s useful shorthand for referring back to that character.

d.  Done right, it defines and characterizes that character.

A good standout physical detail will fit the character.  It grows from who the character is, not the author’s need to create the next Harry Potter.  Let’s take Agnes N
itt.  I’m relatively sure that Terry Pratchett did not sit down at his computer one day and say to himself, “I really need to include a morbidly obese person in this novel.”  If he did, it’s not evident.  Agnes being that drastically overweight is just her.  It affects her whole life, her relationships with other characters, her view of herself, and drives the story to a large (honestly, no pun intended) degree.  And I know that J.K. Rowling didn’t think to herself, “This boy wizard of mine is great, but he needs a gimmick…  I know!  A scar!”  She saw him that way from the start: a boy with messy hair and a lightning shaped scar.  The story of how he got that scar became the story of who and what he was, and what his world is like. 

Are you noticing a trend?  You should.  Good standout physical details are part and parcel of the story, not imposed as an afterthought because the author wanted to spice things up.  Originality comes from the character, not the detail.  If it’s imposed by the author, the standout physical detail quickly degrades to the rankest cheese.

Standout physical details should impact the story.  If you chose to make your character an amputee for the sake of originality, then showcase that amputation when it’s convenient and otherwise forget it exists, you’re doing the story and the character a disservice.  A missing limb, an odd scar, lavender eyes, they all affect the character and those around him or her.  Maybe your amputee gets along fine and never misses his or her limb, in fact doesn’t think much of it unless he’s tying his shoes, that’s great – but if the new people he meets don’t think much of it either, you’re in trouble.  Think of how Harry’s scar affects his life.  It means he’s got to keep it hidden or he’s instantly identifiable.  There’s a whole history contained in that scar that he doesn’t like to remember.  It drives the story.  It has to, just as Agnes Nitt’s weight affects her story, and our own physical quirks affect ours.  Understand that anyone with a standout physical detail is going to stand out, and explore how that impacts the story.

If the standout physical detail is part of your whole character’s physical and personality profile, it will seem less like a gimmick and become simply their crowning detail.  This is why I spent so much time earlier on physical description in general.  If you’re going to include a standout physical detail, make it part of the whole person, not in itself the whole person.

Now, I just know you’re going to ask me, “How do I chose a standout physical detail for my characters?”  My advice is, don’t.  Don’t set out at the beginning to create one.  Just see the whole character, and if something pops, use it.  Otherwise, you’ll end up imposing something on a character who doesn’t have it, doesn’t want it, and will fight you on it to the bitter end, with the result that the standout physical detail that seemed so clever at the outset ends up looking like the author’s cheap attempt at attention mongering.

Characters don’t have to have some outrageous physical characteristic to make them memorable.  If nothing presents itself, focus your energies on their interior life, their attitude, their relations with other people, hobbies, habits, or hygeine.  Look for their standout traits elsewhere.  Don’t plead with them to become quadruple amputees just because that would give the story something unique and of “human interest” that would look great on promo materials and makes for a handy sound bite.


All right.  You’ve decided (or your character’s grudgingly admitted) that there’s a standout physical detail in the offing, and yes, you should probably also let the reader know what this bloke or blokette looks like.  Here’s some guidelines for getting it in there without driving the reader nuts.

1.  Do it early, before the reader has cemented their own image.

2.  Get the standout physical detail and a general sketch bunged in before you go for a finely detailed portrait.  Start small and build works as well here as it does for great drama.

3.  Don’t stop the story for a physical inventory.  Introduce the details a little bit at a time, preferably while also doing other things like furthering the plot, setting, theme, and so forth.  Get your character away from mirrors, pools of water, and any other reflective surfaces you’re tempted to make them linger over in order to get the description in all at once.

4.  Don’t harp on the subject.  Once you’ve established the standout physical detail (and other physical characteristics), don’t bring them up every other paragraph thereafter.  Only mention them when they become important to the story, or when the character is likely to notice them, or other characters notice them.  Speaking of which…

5.  Make sure other characters notice them.  Don’t leave your reader wondering if they’re all blind or the author’s stupid.  If you’re putting in a standout physical detail, it had better affect everybody to at least some degree, especially the character involved.

Right.  That about does it.  You should have all the tools you need to avoid cheese and write better-than-average descriptions.  You should have no albinos (unless your book is entitled The Secret Life of Albinos).  Your standout physical detail is growing, perhaps literally, from your character, not coming down from God on High (otherwise known as You, the Author).  You’re fully aware that all physical detail is just a portion of what makes a character a unique entity.  You’re set.

Now go make your characters stand out.

Dana's Dojo: Keeping Up Appearances

Some Beautiful Bits

It’s the Monday after a holiday, and we all know what that means: bleh.  So I figured you could all use a little beauty in your lives.

Back in November, Jessica Ball at Magma Cum Laude had a lovely post up on the Eternal Flame Waterfall. Our own George W. recently sent me this Earth Science Picture of the Day, giving us another view of that gorgeous, unique fall:

How awesome is that, right? 

Here’s another something awesome – Brian Romans got a glorious view of Niagara Falls on Christmas Eve:

Of course, there’s a lot of hydrology in the way of the geology, there.  Callan Bentley found some shots taken in a brief time when that wasn’t an issue:

How cool is that?  More here.

Right, then.  Now you’re fortified with some beautiful things.  Now you can go forth and conquer the universe – or at least, have another caffeinated beverage. 

Some Beautiful Bits

Christmas Rocks

In more ways than one.  For instance, I’m not at work.  Woot!

By the time you read this, it’ll be Boxing Day, so Happy Boxing Day!  That holiday always confused me as a kid.  I had no idea why there would be a special holiday for beating people up.  Then I found out it was an extra holiday lucky people in Britain and other such countries celebrated that had nothing to do with boxing, and I think this is where my anglophile tendencies began, because who wouldn’t want an extra holiday right after Christmas?  Even if it did have a funny name.

In fact, it seems no one’s quite sure why it’s actually called Boxing Day.  Who cares?  There’s sales on – reason enough to celebrate!

We have rather more luck with Christmas, where the name is obvious and the seasonal celebrations easily traceable.  Hudson Valley Geologist Steve Schimmrich has a good primer up on all that.  And Doctor Science points out that no, in fact, Christ is not the “reason for the season,” as so many fundies like to pretend (h/t).  And it wasn’t a foundational holiday for early Americans, either.  Our own national hero George Washington saw it as a prime time to launch a sneak attack, as the colonists who would become Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas but Germans did.  Isn’t there something in Sun Tzu about taking advantage of enemies’ hangovers?  I’m sure there must be.

Retailers would have us believe it’s all about buying shit, and giving and receiving gifties is awesome, but Doctor Science has some of the other reasons us secular types enjoy a good midwinter celebration:

To have a green tree in the house, filled with light, in the darkest and coldest time of year, as we feel the year turn from old to new — how can that not be numinous? When we decorate with green branches and red berries, this isn’t from Christian iconography —

“I remember hearing,” said Susan distantly, “that the idea of the Hogfather wearing a red and white outfit was invented quite recently.” NO. IT WAS REMEMBERED.

(from Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett). The rising of the sun and the running of the deer, seeing our families and having enough to eat: all of these things are worth celebrating. Such celebrations don’t have to be either secular or religious, in the usual sense: they are pagan in the sense of “rustic, countrified, what the common people do”. Human, in other words. 

Good reasons all.  And I’m not fussed about what our midwinter celebrations are called.  “Christmas” is a decent enough shorthand for all those midwinter celebrations.  But next year, I might start popping off with “Happy Boxing Day!” just to see how many Americans have no idea what I’m talking about.

But all of that’s just a long lead-up to what we’re really here for: the presents!  And thanks to our geobloggers, Christmas this year rocks!

Follow me after the jump for ye delights.

Let’s start with a sing-song, shall we?  Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous was kind enough not to actually sing the 12 Geological Days of Christmas, but he’s got the lyrics and we can carry the tune:

The words below are sung to the obvious tune, and (mostly) just about scans – although my festive gift to you is not to post anything resembling audio of me trying to sing it myself.

On the 1st day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

On the 2nd day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:
2 concordant zircons
…and an APWP.

Enjoy all twelve!

And here’s another traditional carol, courtesy of Lockwood: “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie:”

Now we’ve got the music going, we can haz gifties!

Silver Fox sends us Xmas Greetings from Nevada:

Many more pretty pitchoors where that came from, o’ course!

Garry Hayes sends us a postcard from the edge!  The Christmas Gift: Storm Passes in the Grand Canyon.

Mmmm, home!  Love the stormlight in Arizona.  Love love love!

Erik Klemetti gave us his gift early.  Dr. Adam Kent answers your questions about Mt. Hood (and more):

Afters months of waiting, I have finally been able to get my act together enough to post the answers to questions you posed to Dr. Adam Kent. If you remember back to the beginning of the fall, Dr. Kent and his colleagues published a paper in Nature Geosciences about the nature of magma mixing and eruptions at Mt. Hood in Oregon. You sent in questions and now you get some answers. Enjoy!

Suvrat Kher has Recommended Holiday Reading:

A passage from Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

(And yes, I’m gonna be mean and make you go to the link for your giftie!  Those of you who haven’t read the book yet may want to reconsider after reading it – I had no idea Krakatoa had so much to offer, and I’ve been eyeballing it for years now!  Might be getting meself a little Boxing Day giftie, in fact…)

Finally, we come to the huge package that’s been looming under the tree.  You know, the one that screams ZOMG OPEN MEEE!!! but everybody’s made you save for last because it’s that freakin’ awesome.  Callan Bentley went out and got us a fantastic Serpentite and Melange!

That is an AMAZING thing to see — tectonically-rounded blocks of serpentinite, surrounded by a sheared-out, foliated paste of crushed serpentinite. That is a serpentinite mélange. Look at the way the foliation wraps around these lone survivors, like native prairie grasses swishing around the last two bison in South Dakota:

There are so many drop-dead gorgeous photos in there, so much astounding geology, I didn’t even know what to filch.  Twas the bison simile that did it!  ZOMG, Callan, thankyouthankyouTHANKYOU!

And thank all of you: my wonderful geobloggers, my science and political and melange bloggers, my Tweeps, my friends, family, and cat, and you, my dear, my cherished, my raison d’etre readers!  I love you all to pieces.  Happy hollydaze to you!

Christmas Rocks


Merry Kittehmas!  Or Cephalopodmas or Squidmas – really, you can choose any animal you like!

Gifts May Be Late – Kitteh’s Got Dem

This was the scene as I tried to wrap and pack my parents’ Christmas gifts.  She’s sleeping on the shot glasses.  How that can be comfortable, I don’t know and don’t necessarily want to ask.

Eventually wrestled them away.  But I’ve had to leave the green tissue, which she decided the instant I removed it from the box was the most awesome Christmas gift my mother’s ever sent her.

I Got Paper!  Ana Box!

She is, at this moment, sleeping on the green tissue once again.  Eventually, my living room is going to be filled with tissue, boxes, and other odd bits of packing material that my feline has decided make her life worth living.

So this is Kittehmas.  Ai hopes u can haz wunderfull wun!


A Special Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais

Happy Yule, my darlings!  Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstice, or whatever other midwinter festival, I hope you’re having a blast.

And here, courtesy of Ricky Gervais, is a nice bit of ammunition for all of those relations who might be giving you guff for being an atheist at this time o’ year (h/t):

Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution – a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us – with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

Haven’t lacked in the reasons for living department myself.  If I want transcendence, I can wander off into the mountains and soak some right up.  A nice waterfall’s quite enough cathedral for me.  Communing with the universe via Hubble isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon, either.  Crack open a book on science, and I have all of the wonder I need to sustain my soul for a good long while.

And I do believe that’s where all of those friends and relatives who give us atheists the old pitying stare and the firm lecture have an abject failure of imagination: they can’t imagine how a universe without god can possibly be enough.  I say the universe doesn’t need a god.  Gods are surplus to requirements.  It’s already got an embarrassment of riches.  Gods just get in the way.  The stories about them are fun, true, and I do enjoy a good myth, but as an explanation for how the universe really works, myths are poor substitutes for the real truth.  I’ve never yet come across a myth that astonishes me half so much as what physics has revealed.  The natural wonders around me don’t need a god to make them wonderful: geology, chemistry, physics and biology have done a good enough job of that – far better, in fact.  The stuff we humans make up isn’t a patch on the breadth, depth, and astonishing underlying simplicity of reality.  

As a bonus, science doesn’t require me to go sit in a church on Sunday mornings and condemn the unbelievers to hell.

For some people, I suppose, the world is not enough.  Something in their wiring requires a deity to make them feel like their life has meaning.  Sometimes, I wish I understood why.  I used to, until I gave up on the god thing and realized how very unnecessary that had been.  I suppose I used to have the same fear of falling that so many others do – felt if I didn’t have a god there whipping me, I might stray from the straight and narrow.  But morality hasn’t been a problem.  The opposite, in fact.  Morality’s easier when it just comes down to us.  We’ve got to treat each other well, help each other out, because we’re all we’ve got.  There’s no one coming down from Calvary to save us.  We’ve got to do it ourselves.  So unfold the hands, roll up the sleeves, and get to work.

We haven’t got dominion over the Earth.  We’re residents, and if we tear the place up, well, we haven’t got anywhere else to go, so best take care of it.  That includes our fellow creatures, who support our lives here in ways we’re only just beginning to understand.  Ecology is a crazily interconnected thing.  If you think that story about a missing horseshoe nail causing a war to be lost is a good proverb about the importance of the small details, well, you might want to have a look at what happens when something so seemingly inconsequential as an insect is removed from the food web.  Even bacteria matter far more than we might have cared to admit. 

Thing is, I can see those things, now that I’m not worried about the afterlife and all.  Far from contracting, my worldview has expanded since getting rid of gods.  Anyone else experienced the same thing?  Anyone else found a universe of possibility opening up before them once they’d taken the god-goggles off?  Wonderful, isn’t it?

And like Ricky said, I no longer need a reason for my existence.  I know, roughly, why I’m here: there’s a whole story of evolution and reproductive biology behind that, a history of contingency and coincidence and one damned thing after another that led to the person typing this.  I don’t need any more reason than that.  It doesn’t concern me.  It’s an inane question, really, asking why I exist and not some other combination of genetic material, what reason I was put on this earth – I’ve come to find out that not everything needs the kind of reason religious people mean.  I’m here.  The important question is, what am I going to do now I’m here?  And that I get to decide for myself.  There’s no one set path I must follow.  I can explore, let my imagination lead me around by the nose, let curiosity drag me from one adventure to the next, without ever worrying whether it’s the right thing to do.  “An it harm none, do what ye will.”  I have filched that from Wicca and live by it daily, happily.

Do I feel like I’m missing something?  Yes, all the time.  I’m missing those years I wasted chasing after religion when I could have been chasing after science instead.  Aside from that, no.  There are no gaping holes left in my life, no god-shaped gap demanding to be filled.  I can’t even imagine wanting a god to worship anymore.  I’m filled to overflowing with the wonders of the universe: there’s no more I desire.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  A bank account full enough to live off of for the rest of my life wouldn’t go amiss.  More time to explore the universe, then, you see!  But that’s just a fancy, nothing more.

So sorry to disappoint those fundies who love to dream and tell tall stories about those sad, crying, empty atheists who sit around miserable and alone at Christmas.  The reality’s quite different.  Oh, chances are, I am alone – but that’s not because I’m an atheist, it’s because I’m a writer whose family lives out of state, and hence I can plead inability to get time off work and money for travel in order to squeeze out a little extra time with ye olde scribbling.  Blissful, that.  So yes, fundies, there’s one consolation for you: I’m alone.  But sad, crying and empty, I am not.  How can I be?  There’s too much wonder in the world for me to ever be miserable for long.

My darlings, atheists and believers and all in between, I do hope you’re putting this holiday to great good use.  There’s food, family, friends, fun and loot to be had.  Whatever your reason for the season, just pause for a moment to reflect on how many reasons we have for living.  There are so many, great and small, that we’d be here well into the new year before I got done listing them all.

Here’s to you, and here’s to life, and here’s to another shopping season successfully survived!

A Special Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais