Novels: The Inside Scoop!
A novel is such a large, long-term project that it takes on a life of its own. During its pre-publication life, challenges, mistakes and ironies arise to create interesting and amusing anecdotes. These pages contain a few of those, along with some writing tips for hopeful novelists along the way.
Plato’s Labyrinth: Dinosaurs, Ancient Greeks and Time Travelers
The Setting Plato’s Labyrinth is a departure from my other novels. Those earlier works (On the Shores of Titan’s Farthest Sea, Europa’s Lost Expedition, and Lords of the Ice Moons) took place on Titan, Europa, and Enceladus (for the most part). I wanted to write something a bit more down-to-earth, so Plato’s Labyrinth unfolds in the sleepy college town of Fort Collins, Colorado. Caroline and I met in “The Fort” at Colorado State University, and the town’s tree-lined streets and picturesque “Old Town” sector—all framed by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains—make it an ideal setting for a story. Even in our retirement, we visit City Park and CSU’s beautiful campus when we can. Of course, our action moves from Colorado to New York to the ancient Aegean, hopping among several cultures and civilizations. Amazing what you can do with a little time on your hands!
Aside from Fort Collins, much of our action takes place in ancient Thera, now called Santorini. Local villages there were largely destroyed by a violent eruption of Thera, which is a volcanic island in the Greek isles. Entire buildings vanished under ash, and stairways and solid walls collapsed during associated earthquakes. The Science Plato’s Labyrinth is also a departure in terms of the science covered. While planetary science ruled the day in my other novels, Plato’s Labyrinth delves into ancient civilizations, the history of paleontology, and quantum physics.
Colorado is a fine place to study paleontology. The landscape here played an integral part in the “Bone Wars” that took place in the late nineteenth century, primarily between Yale and Princeton. These two universities vied for the greatest collection of dinosaur fossils; dig sites throughout Colorado yielded such creatures as Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and the ceratopsians (most famously Triceratops). Just north of here are the world-famous Como Bluff fossil beds in Wyoming.
As for quantum physics, Colorado hosts the Colorado School of Mines, a respected engineering college with studies that include theoretical physics, including research into the quantum realm. Hi tech has arrived in Colorado in spades, with aerospace (Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics), advanced energy (National Renewable Energy Lab) and other sciences.
Plato’s Labyrinth may be ordered from your local bookstore, or the links above!
It all began when . . .
On The Shores of Titan’s Farthest Sea
Europa’s Lost Expedition:
It’s a mystery!
I’ve long been a fan of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, ever since my uber-novel-reading wife (Caroline is a former librarian) got me hooked on the genre. When I set out to write a mystery on Europa, inspired by new data supporting possible eruptions there, my attention settled on Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. The story has all the classic features of a good tale of this type: a group of strangers thrust together in an alien environment, a murderer among them who must be identified, isolation at a remote location. It’s a perfect setup on a secluded island or on a distant moon of Jupiter. Christie’s story was first released in the US under the title Ten Little Indians, which was later changed for obvious reasons of respect to Native Americans. The book was originally titled Ni**er Island. At the time in England, the term “ni**er” was not seen as derogatory. Our language and sensitivities have evolved since then! I’m also intrigued by the history of war crimes in the Second World War, and the escape and eventual capture of many war criminals. This theme figures importantly in my book as well. Location, location, location
Europa itself is an important character in the play. With its deep oceans, the exotic moon is the poster child for places to search for life in the solar system. The moon has generated enough interest that NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Russian Space Agency (IKI) have all studied Europa as a possible destination for advanced orbiters or landers. But dear reader, just imagine what it would be like to stand there, gazing across a frozen landscape with only your space helmet visor between you and that alien world! Ever-present Jupiter, always looming large in its sky, would be an intimidating and inspiring sight. And if you’ve ever walked across a glacier, you know what astonishing and diverse forms ice textures and colors can take. Europa’s high radiation environment and bizarre terrain make finding a location for human outposts a bit difficult. I devised a working map showing the high radiation provinces (some areas of Europa are more sheltered from Jupiter’s deadly radiation than others). I put our outpost in a region that has not been imaged yet at high resolution. This gave me, as the author, a little more leeway in what I could envision happening in its neighborhood. I was on “thin ice” committing to active geyser activity on the ice moon, because the only data came from several Hubble Space Telescope observations, and many were skeptical. But as the book went to press, a new observation came in that seems to confirm the activity. Whew! The idea of a EuropaHenge came from discussions with Europa expert Robert Pappalardo at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While writing my non-fiction book Living Among Giants (Springer, 2015), Bob told me that if you stood at just the right location on Europa, you could tell what time it was just by charting Jupiter’s location on the horizon. This is because Jupiter librates (bobs around) in Europa’s sky as the little moon circles it. So thought Jupiter essentially stays in one spot because Europa keeps one face always toward the planet, it tends to wiggle around just a bit. One thing led to another, and the concept finally made it to print, both in the earlier non-fiction book and this novel. It’s a fun and intriguing idea, but these scientists tend to be creative people! Character and goal
The simplest distillation of fiction is to create a character that the reader cares about, and give him or her a specific, attainable goal (destroy the ring in Mt. Mordor). Story happens along the way when the character encounters road blocks to the goal. But in the case of Hadley Nobile, her goal is not immediately evident. This is common to mystery, but difficult for the author. Additionally, other characters may have goals that drive and motivate them. Poor Hadley is a flawed character. This is bad for her, but good for the narrative. (Macbeth’s foolish pride leads to the deaths of Duncan and, ultimately, of Banquo and the entire Macduff family; Achilles had his famous heel, his weakest spot.) There are things Hadley wants desperately to be, but she knows she hasn’t attained them yet. Those with whom she surrounds herself embody her yearnings. For example, Dakota represents the carefree individual freedom that Hadley wishes she had (although she imagines that her own responsibilities keep her from it). The scientist in her yearns to be more like Ted, who has arrived at a comfortable balance between the purely rational and the purely spiritual. Ted’s spirituality does not compromise his scientific paradigm or research in any way. There is tension in this, and tension leads to interesting character. In fact, Ted is a bit like the author who created him, at least in this way.