Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Christmas Spirit

I know, I know, I've been a very bad person and haven't posted to my blog in a while. But I have an excuse (besides hurricane Irene, which is also a good excuse and I'm using it). I've been working frantically on a new holiday mystery novella called "Christmas Spirit". In fact, I'm getting ready to send it to my editor tomorrow (phew).

And right now, I'm trying to decide about a cover. Here is one candidate. It's actually very good about capturing the feel of the book because Eve, the poor heroine, has to plow through the snow with her mother and maid in tow when their carriage breaks down. And when they come to a house, they discover that the owner has been murdered! In fact, he was found with his throat cut just moments before Eve and her mother (and maid, let's not forget the maid) arrive.


Was it the ghostly apparition they glimpsed as they struggled through the snow? Or was it the guests, Mr. Danby and his father, Lord Wolverton? Or Anatoly, the flamboyant cook?

Will Eve and her mother survive long enough to find out?

Who can say, but stay tuned for more info about "Christmas Spirit" as we get closer and closer to a release date (hopefully, sometime in November).

Here is another cover option (to the left).

Let me know which one you like better. I can use all the opinions I can get. I have no clue.

Then, I'll be hard at work on the next Pru and Knighton mystery, which follows up their story from "The Vital Principle". Pru has found another dead body and this time, the victim is related to her and she's convinced he did not commit suicide as everyone else claims. She's sure it's murder and asks Knighton for his assistance in proving it. I've got the first two chapters written, but haven't even settled on a title, yet.

Some of you who also read paranormals will be interested to know that I've also submitted "A Fall of Silver" to The Wild Rose Press. Wish me luck. That will be the second book, following hard on the heels of "Vampire Protector". If that submission goes well, I'll be working on the third manuscript, tentatively entitled "Smoke" and featuring the redoubtable Theresa Blackstone, who had guest appearances in both "Vampire Protector" and "A Fall of Silver".

Lots of irons in various fires. Despite that, I'm going to desperately try to do better about keeping the old blog going.

In the meantime, let me know what you're up to now that the weather is starting to cool down.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dragged into the 21st Century

Media in the 21st Century
This is a little "off topic" because generally, I like to talk about books: writing books, reading books, new authors, etc. But I love gadgets (I have another life as an Enterprise Admin in the world of computers) and we wanted to have a little more choice on television. I was seduced into getting NetFlix from a freebie offer and while it was okay, it the time lags in getting DVDs meant that I often asked for a movie or TV show that I ended up not watching for weeks. I'd lose interest or be busy or...

So we wanted to be able to stream video so we could watch what we wanted, when we wanted.

We got a few inexpensive gadgest and now, we can stream video to our TV. I thought maybe other folks might find this interesting or helpful.

Our first challenge was the fact that I'm just about as cheap as they come. If something ain't broke, it doesn't get replaced.

The second challenge was: we live in an old log home (i.e. cabin) and our DSL internet connection goes to my home office, upstairs. You can see from the picture that I've got "quite the little network" going already. However, our television is downstairs. Despite what all the wireless manufacturers try to tell you, wireless signals do not like solid log walls. We couldn't get a wireless signal downstairs to save our lives. I did run a CAT-5 cable from my office, through our bedroom, and down to my husband's home office, but despite having repeaters and whatnot, we couldn't get a signal to our living room to save our lives.

So, streaming video was just not in the picture.
Until now.

Browsing around Amazon, I came upon PowerLine devices that use the house electrical wiring as psuedo-Ethernet wiring. And most devices were within my price range, i.e. under $100. I thought, well, heck, why not try it? I did some research and ended up picking a middle-of-the-road device, figuring it had the best performance-to-price ratio.

The NetGear Powerline AV200 is about as simple as they come. It's basically two little white boxes with LED lights to tell you what's going one.

You plug one directly into an electrical outlet near your Internet access point (in my case, in my home office). You run a CAT-5 (ethernet) cable from the PowerLine to your switch, hub or router (whatever you're using to connect to the Internet).

You plug the second one directly into an electrical outlet near the device you want to connect to the Internet. You run a CAT-5 (ethernet) cable from the PowerLine to your device.

One note: you need to make sure you do have a free electrical outlet. You can't use an extension cord or powerstrip. So we did have to move some things around and get a new powerstrip to free a nearby electrical outlet.

We did this we were shocked when it actually worked! Especially considering that our house was built in the early 70's and nothing is standard in it. I honestly didn't think it was going to work.

Next step: a device that can stream video.

Once we got a way to connect a device to the Internet, we needed a device. One that could connect to the Internet. See, I told you I'm really cheap and none of our current equipment was new enough to have any Internet connectivity built in. So again, I raced back to Amazon and nosed around.

The little ROKU looked just about right and was within my price range (under $100) so I got one of those. And was seduced again, this time into getting Amazon Prime which offers free, 2-day shipping and free video streaming. :)

We got the ROKU XDS. It's just a little box with a remote control. I was really torn between this and the GoogleTV device, because the GoogleTV has a keyboard which is nice for poking in titles you want to search for, but...I'm a cheapskate.

The ROKU was just as easy to set up--I plugged it into the TV using an HDMI cord (I purchased that separately). I plugged it into the PowerLine. Then I went through a few setup steps to tell NetFlix and Amazon that I had this nifty little box to stream video. There were a lot of other services, e.g. HULUPlus, etc, but I figured NetFlix and Amazon were enough. (I'd eventually like to get down to one service, but right now those two compliment each other pretty well.)

Now, we can stream video from either NetFlix or Amazon. When you select something, there is a slight delay as it initially buffers your selection. This generally runs a minute or less. After that, it's just like watching "real TV". There are no delays, no jerkiness. You can get HD if your television is capable of it (ours is so we do use that). Both NetFlix and Amazon have search boxes that pop up a small alphabet matrix and you can "type" in letters by selecting them with the ROKU remote. It's less kludgy than it sounds and since it starts search with the very first letter you enter, I've generally been able to find what I want within the first couple of letters.

My only real complaint is that there is less of a selection of shows available for streaming than on DVD. NetFlix: The newest shows come first on DVD with Netflix. You have to wait for them to be available with NetFlix streaming and some are never available. But there is a good selection of "Midsomer Murders" and "Kolchak, The Night Stalker" TV programs, so I'll probably keep NetFlix as a streaming-only option.

Amazon: With AmazonPrime, the selection is limited and tends to run to older movies (either really old, or from the 70's, 80's, 90's with sporadic ones from this century). But since it's part of their "free w-day shipping" it's a nice feature since we buy a lot from Amazon. My husband likes Amazon because he got to stream/watch a few Marx brothers movies. The selection of TV shows is somewhat limited, generally just one or two episodes instead of an entire season. However, you can get new movies on a "pay-for-view" basis that lets you "rent" for two days during which you can watch it until you're sick of it. I was also able to watch some "Murdock Mysteries" TV shows, although I had to pay for them.

I briefly looked at some of the other services, e.g. HULUPlus, but I figured that paying for NetFlix and AmazonPrime was sufficient. (I warned you I was cheap, right?) At one time, I was wondering if we could shut off our satellite subscription and just go with streaming video, but there are too many things we like to watch, e.g. Weather, Fox News and O'Reilly, that are just easier via the satellite.

If you need to create an Internet access point in your house but can't drill holes to run cables and wireless doesn't work for you, I would definitely recommend looking at a PowerLine product. You don't have to use the devices I used: I only included them because they worked for me and they are good examples of how you can get streaming video for under $200.

Good luck--I'm off to watch a few episodes of the original "Star Trek"--on streaming video!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guest Author: Marian Allen

The talented science fiction writer, Marian Allen, agreed to join us and I'm so glad she did. She's written a great new book, Force of Habit, as well as a short story, By the Book. I'm a huge fan of the original Star Trek television show (although I'd like to claim that I was too young to see the episodes when they originally aired, LOL) and Marian has woven a story that will delight fans of that series.
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Thanks for having me today, Amy! I love talking story. :)

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky and now live in rural Indiana. For as long as I can remember, I've loved telling and being told stories. When, at the age of about six, I was informed that somebody got paid for writing all those books and movies and television shows, I abandoned my previous ambition (beachcomber), and became a writer.

On Aliens and Alley Jammers
One of the eternal questions, right up there with, "Which came first: the chicken or the egg?" is, "Are you a plotter or a pantser?" Sometimes the answer isn't that easy.

When I wrote my upcoming novel, FORCE OF HABIT, I began with a short story I had written by the seat of my pants. It was a take-off of the original Star Trek show, with the elements and characters of the show in the background and the action carried by original characters (and Tetra Petrie, who was created by my long-time friend C. Jane Peyton).

As a farce, the story moved so far from the original tone of the show, it wasn't difficult to move it to a totally original work, and this was where the plotting and planning came into the picture.

I had already created an alien world for the action and peopled it with a police force and a planetary governing body representing the various types of interests. My main characters were original, although Tetra was Vulcan. Or was she half-Vulcan? There seemed to be a lot of that going around in fan fiction. The villains, of course, were Klingons.

That wouldn't do. Tetra became an amphibious humanoid from the water planet Gilhoo. Spock became her brother, Quatro, and moved from the background to the middle ground. The Klingons became the Stokk: smooth customers with violence as part of their courtesy. Since mistaken identity was the pivot of the plot, I gave the Stokk brightly colored skin and hair so that people with skin and hair tones within a wide range of similarity are hard for them to tell apart.

I planned to just change the names of the rest of the television show's characters, but a strange thing happened: they became themselves. As the framework of the story was expanded to the size of a novel, all the characters stopped being tweaks of other people's characters and took on their own personalities, flaws, strengths, attitudes and abilities. They changed gender. They changed species. Since they weren't under contract and didn't have any fans, they faded into the background if I didn't need them.

And, somewhere along the line, alley jammers got into the picture. In the first scene of the book, one of the Stokk is accused of starting a rumor that an eating establishment is using alley jammers in its cuisine. That was supposed to be a one-time reference, but the name stuck in my head. In another scene, a character taking a short cut through back ways and byways pulls an alley jammer out of his pocket. At the end, Bel, my main character, ends up with a pink alley jammer as a pet.

I ran a contest last year to promote my previous novel (a fantasy, and unconnected with this book), EEL'S REVERENCE. One of the prizes was choice of name in a story I proposed to write promoting FORCE OF HABIT. That story, "By the Book", is set on the world of FORCE OF HABIT and features one of the characters. It's free at Smashwords.

I'm running a similar contest this year. Details are at my blog.

FORCE OF HABIT is also available at Kindle and the NookBook store.

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Thank you, Marian!
Live Long and Prosper!