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Posts by Margaret Ball

Where did it all start?

It all started with Aunt Alesia and the Balas rubies, and that dance at the Austrian embassy in Paris.

Purists would go farther back, maybe as far back as the day a couple of years ago when I was concentrating really hard on the Axiom of Choice and accidentally selected several objects out of my kid brother’s miscellaneous collections of plastic junk. Without touching them. You could make a case that it all started there. Read more

Tripping over the tropes

After doing the usual minuet to get An Annoyance of Grackles live on Kindle and almost-there on Createspace, I’ve taken a couple of days off to be shamelessly frivolous. I indulged in Dorothy Grant’s new book, Shattered after Midnight – there’s a review here – and watched a DVD I’ve been hoarding of the operetta Countess Maritza all the way through, sung in German with English subtitles. I was sort of familiar with the operetta — a CD of highlights is among the music I like to listen to while writing the Applied Topology series, light and frothy —  but I’ve never been able to follow the plot summaries in English.

Now I know why. The thing is as close as you can get to being entirely plot-free. It was like being served something covered with whipped cream for dessert, plunging your fork into the whipped cream and diving down to reach… more whipped cream. I got the feeling that the librettists couldn’t bear to let their characters suffer; no sooner would a problem be revealed than a new deus ex machina would come onstage to fix it.

And the most annoying non-plot bit concerned Baron Kálmán Zsupán.  Read more

Planting rocks for fun and profit

One of the minor pleasures of writing is setting up your major characters to have not just rocks thrown at them, but a major rock slide. Metaphorically speaking.

And for maximum impact, you want the reader to say not “Where the hell did those rocks come from?” but, “Oh, of course that was going to happen, I should have seen it coming.”

For that, you need to keep the reader aware of these stresses and hot buttons that make your characters particularly likely to walk under that cliff, and the clues that tell them the cliff is dangerously unstable. It’s the difference between having your character knocked out by a random rock slide, and having him knocked out by a rock slide in a place clearly labeled Fallen Rock Zone. After he’s made his speech about how modern civil engineers never, ever make a road cut that leaves unstable masses above the road.

Okay, now to specifics.

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Why you shouldn’t read reviews

“I feel my very existence threatened,” the Sila said.

Mr. M. cast a sardonic eye on the space she claimed to occupy. “How is that new? You’re only a shadow of smokeless flame anyway.”

“I can manifest myself to mortals,” she snapped, rapidly flashing into view as a beautiful almost-human woman, a serpent with flames flickering along its scales, and a cloud of blue smoke. “And at least I’m not limited to one form. Don’t you ever get tired of slithering around as a metal snake attached to an ugly turtle head?”

“They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground, They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound,” Mr. M. quoted, loftily ignoring the insult.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Is there an Arabic speaker on the blog?

That’s a serious question. You see, for the next book in the Pocketful of Stars series I’m positing a terrorist splinter group that has split off from Al-Shabaab and is based on one of the offshore islands of the Swahili coast. If necessary I can give it a Swahili name, but the fact is that Arabic has more prestige in Swahili culture even though hardly anybody actually speaks the language. And after a few days of tinkering I have reluctantly concluded that one year of intensive Arabic many, many years ago is not going to suffice for making sure up an authentic name, at least if I want to get fancier than “al-[Arabic word].” So… anybody want to help?

This question is only one of the many ways I’ve found to spend too much time on research. It started with reading up on Swahili beliefs in djinn and demons. That’s one aspect of Swahili culture I know nothing about firsthand, because in my time on the coast I found it politic to stay far, far away from discussions about these matters. It was an earlier and less technology-oriented age (no cell phones, and my tape recorder was the size of a shoebox) and I had enough trouble already with people muttering about jinni and shaitani when they heard their voices coming out of the shoebox.

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Person Problems

What do you do when a new character starts talking to you?

You transcribe, of course, and thank the Muse politely and hope this state of affairs will continue.

However, when the character starts by telling you her name – and it happens to be the name of the Greek Muse of Comedy – don’t be too surprised if she finds it screamingly funny to get you five chapters deep into a story told in first person and then to point out that she didn’t actually witness certain crucial scenes and what are you going to do about that?

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The Internet of All Your Stuff

 

The other day Peter blogged about the immense vulnerability created by the Internet of Things. His comments have given me to think about the connections that crawl spider-like over our entire landscape, both physical and mental, and the weaknesses they expose.

Our privacy is being eroded at a rate that would have appalled Winston Smith.

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