The Horrifyingly Compelling Sulfur Pools of Yellowstone, and Another Cover Draft

Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the borders of Idaho and Montana but is mostly in Wyoming, is famously on top of an underground “supervolcano.” The volcanism in the area leads to the phenomenon that Yellowstone might be most famous for, namely Old Faithful geyser and many smaller and less faithful geysers.

Yellowstone also boasts these surreal-looking mineral pools. The edges are white, crusty mineral deposits similar to Tolkien’s descriptions of Mordor. The colors within the water come from heat-loving bacteria. Different microbes thrive at different temperatures, and they are responsible for the range of reds, oranges, and yellows before the water becomes clear and hence blue.

These pools are dangerous. They look appealing, but the heat will quickly kill any human or dog foolish enough to jump into one. There have been tragic cases at the park. Some people have survived their burns and others haven’t. To make matters worse, the ground around the pools can be fragile although it appears solid. The park has put up boardwalks studded with signs imploring people to stay on the paths and keep control of their children. Even the bison sometimes break through.

The landscape around these pools is not particularly beautiful, but it is interesting, even alien. I happen to have at least one pleasant association with the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone. It was there that my now-husband first blurted out that he loved me.

However, in my book The Strange Land, my characters’ encounter with these pools did not go so well.

The strange land of the title is not Yellowstone National Park. It is another volcanic region, the area now known as Kamchatka. Kamchatka also has sulfurous pools. Behold:

For my second draft for a cover of The Strange Land, I thought about featuring one of these pools, with the volcano in the background:

I’m not sure how I feel about this cover painting. For one thing, there’s a lot going on in it. I’m not sure it has enough focus. For another, it’s kind of hard to believe. The colorful pool, the colorful vegetation, the white mineral deposits: all of them are well attested, but they look kind of … made up? I’m not even sure it would be clear what the pool is, to a viewer who wasn’t already familiar with Yellowstone.

I’m thinking perhaps I need to re-do this picture with a darker sky and with slightly more muted colors in the pool. You know, tone it down from real life to make it more believable.

For reference, the previous cover draft for the same book was this:

A Shot of Courage

A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!

So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.

Jesus, in Matthew 10:24 – 27

Let’s Be A Little More Creative with Our Theories

Louisiana woman planted mysterious seeds before she heard the warning not to

All across the nation, people have been receiving unsolicited packets of seeds in the mail. Some people, like this woman, planted them because she had previously ordered seeds and didn’t realize this wasn’t her order.

The seeds are often shipped from China. Theories are that they could be a marketing ploy or an attempt to sabotage U.S. plants by sending invasive exotics.

Invasive exotic plants, that is.

I have a different theory.

The reason you should never plant unsolicited seeds, nor ever put them in water, is that they might contain … pod people. Obviously.

I think we all need to brush up on our science fiction.

I’m Late to This Party

Apparently, based on the YouTube comments, the following song has been out for six months. I just discovered it last week, playing the country station on my car radio while running errands, and it quickly became my theme song for the week.

It’s just so doggoned unifying.

Also, I like the phrase “one big …”, as in an earlier Andrew Klavan quote, “It was like the whole country was one big series of bad choices.”

And though this song is upbeat, there is a certain insight to calling life “one big country song,” because country as a genre can be pretty tragic. You know what they say: if you play a country song backwards, you get your wife back, you get your truck back, you get your dog back …

Anyway, enjoy!

The “Never Have I Ever” Tag for Writers

How appropriate that just as I am starting to do a bunch of posts about publishing, the orangutan librarian should tag me with this bunch of questions about the writing process! The original idea was created by the Long Voyage- so definitely check out the original here!

This tag asks writers about whether they have ever engaged in a number of (mostly disreputable) behaviors. The headings will say the behavior, and then I’ll comment about whether it applies to me.

Never Have I Ever …

. . . started a novel that I did not finish.

I have started, and not finished, a number of novels. You know that whole idea that an artist can create a complete work in his or her head and then it’s irrelevant whether they ever put it on paper or canvas or whatever? That’s baloney. The actual process of enfleshing the work forces you to include so much more detail than you do in your head when you see the end from the beginning.

. . . written a story completely by hand.

(gets dreamy look)

As teenagers, my BFF and I used to write stories together. We would pass a notebook back and forth. Each of us controlled certain characters. We would write notes to each other and argue with each other in the margins.

My parts of those particular stories were the worst tripe ever written. We all have to write our awful tripe on the way to becoming writers.

. . . changed tenses midway through a story.

What?

. . . not researched anything before starting a story.

It’s never possible to do enough research.

But the experts don’t agree.

Also, if you research too long, you can end up talking yourself out of the premise for your story, at which point you’ve ripped out its heart.

So far, my stories have been inspired by cool theories (“research”) about the ancient world. So, I take the premise from the research. (See the ‘ancient world’ tag on my blog for all the stuff that interests me.) I have, so far, avoided setting my stories in really well-documented periods of ancient history (such as Rome) because of the sheer amount of research that would be required so as not to make glaring errors about the details of daily life.

Anyway, see the Bibliography page of this blog for a constantly slightly outdated, constantly growing tally of my sources.

. . . changed my protagonist’s name halfway through a draft.

I like stories that feature someone assimilating to a foreign culture. A total or partial name change is often part of this. So my protagonist Nimri starts out being called Nimri, which is basically Sumerian, but as they get to know him, the people around him eventually start calling him Nirri and that’s how he finishes the story. This is kind of an inconvenient feature, actually, because it makes it difficult to refer to him in summaries.

As for changing a name completely, just for the heck of it, I haven’t done so yet. But Find & Replace will make it easy to do if someone ever comes to me and says, “This name means [dirty word] in [major world language].”

. . . written a story in a month or less.

Short stories, yes.

. . . fallen asleep while writing.

What?

. . . corrected someone’s grammar irl / online.

Scene: Husband and I have been married less than a year, visiting a friend of his.

Friend: I need to go get some groceries. [Names several cleaning supplies, none of which are edible]

Me: Those things are not normally included in the core definition of ‘groceries.’

Friend: Well, excuuuuse me!

Me: (laughing) You are talking to a linguist.

Friend: That’s not the word that I thought of.

. . . yelled in all caps at myself in the middle of a novel.

No.

. . . used “I’m writing” as an excuse.

More like finding other tasks as an excuse not to write.

. . . killed a character who was based on someone I know in real life.

Mmm sooo …. I used to create characters based on my crushes and then kill them off. Yes, I was a sick puppy. Putting the best possible construction on it, I had figured out that killing off a character was the most poignant thing you can do in a story and I was overusing that tool sort of like a kid constantly dropping a new vocabulary word.

. . . used pop culture references in a story.

I avoid these because I am certain to use them clumsily, plus they will soon become dated. It’s part of the reason that my novels are set in the distant past, and that I may never try a “contemporary” novel.

. . . written between the hours of 1am and 6am.

Only at university, when finishing a paper due the next day. (Fun fact: if I stay up all night, I throw up!)

. . . drank an entire pot of coffee while writing.

While writing papers in college, yes, remembering that my “pot” only made two or three cups at a time. Also, vending machine brownies. Good times!

. . . written down dreams to use in potential novels.

Only once, age eleven.

. . . published an unedited story on the internet / Wattpad / blog.

No, but I have turned in a crummy first draft of a devotional essay to a church magazine. I believe the editor used his discretion and didn’t run it.

. . . procrastinated homework because I wanted to write.

Well, this gets into the whole topic of my work habits, which I’d rather not discuss …

. . . typed so long that my wrists hurt.

Not that I recall. I tend to take pauses for thinking.

. . . spilled a drink on my laptop while writing.

No, but that’s probably just dumb luck. I don’t take care of my equipment nearly as well as I should.

. . . forgotten to save my work / draft.

No, and I have even been known to send copies of Word documents to relatives so that copies exist out there in case my house burns down.

. . . finished a novel.

Two and counting.

. . . laughed like an evil villain while writing a scene.

… Um … I don’t think so? Not aware of the sounds I make while writing. Possibly grunts.

. . . cried while writing a scene.

Even in real life I am more likely to cry when angry, frustrated, or humiliated, rather than when sad. I’m not sure what that says about me. Nothing good, probably.

But I have certainly given myself the sads with my writing.

. . . created maps of my fictional worlds.

. . . researched something shady for a novel.

Giants and chimeras in history

horrible pagan practices of the ancient world

abusive husbands

what happens when a person falls into a super-hot sulpherous pool, as at Yellowstone National Park

All equally terrifying.

Now, Your Turn

In the comments section, tell me all your writerly habits! Or, judge mine!

Silver Sagebrush

Our Idaho Wildflower of the Week.

Here is a piece of silver sagebrush growing out of the midst of a juniper bush. You can see more of them in the background.

Here is what they look like in the aggregate. As you can see, we have the classic dusty road, barb-wire fence, and a behind it a meadow of sage stretching off into a vivid blue sky. This little stretch of sage and lava rock is a short walk from my house. Around it are cultivated fields.

We have a number of silvery plants here in Idaho. Besides silver sage, which grows everywhere, and our old friend Lamb’s Quarter, wherever there is water we have Russian olive trees. They are almost exactly the same silvery-sagey-grey color. Both plants give off a pleasant smell. The sage brush smells spicy and resiny, and the Russian olives have an extraordinarily fresh smell that is almost like a drink of water as it wafts towards you on a hot day. Between the two of them, this place smells terrific any time there is enough moisture in the air to carry the scents to us on the wind.

Silver Sage is not the only kind of sagebrush, far from it. According to the guidebook Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers,

Silver sagebrush is well adapted to the wildfires that have swept its habitat for thousands of years. When burned to the ground it simply resprouts from surviving buds on horizontal stems below the soil surface. In contrast, big sagebrush is more often killed by fire, relying on seed to recolonize the burned area. Silver sagebrush was first described to botanical science by Frederick Pursh in 1814, from an October 1804 collection made by Meriwether Lewis near the mouth of the Cheyenne River, in present-day South Dakota.

page 192

Cover Draft for The Strange Land

One early fantasy series that I read was The Belgariad by David Eddings. Here are the covers as they looked on the series when I had it.

As you can see, the titles are all on theme by being about chess (“pawn,” “queen,” “gambit,” etc.). The covers are all similar, but each cover has a slightly different color scheme to vary your reading experience: mustard, green, rust, blue (harder to see in this image), grey. After all, you’re going to be looking at that cover for a while, as long as you are reading the book and carrying it around. It will form part of the visual landscape of your life. Also, and this isn’t obvious unless you’ve read the series, the color and general look of each cover matches the country to which the adventurers travel in that volume.

Last week, I unveiled my draft for the cover of my book The Long Guest. With the help of blog commenters, the font that we settled on for the title (at least for now) was Goblin Hand:

Now here is the draft for the second book in the series. I’ve kept the font and general title layout, but the color scheme is colder because, after all, we are going to Alaska.

Feedback please.

Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?