Friday, December 27, 2013

Ten Goals for the New Year

I saw a friend in Facebook with some interesting goals for the New Year, so I thought I might make up a few. One of his was to get one of those Shriner cars with a helicopter blade on top. He can't afford one, so he was planning the theoretical heist. I helped. (Writers can do that without getting arrested.) I pointed out that right in the confusion before or after a parade was the best time. A clown costume could get him in and out without suspicion. Of course, then he had to add "Learn to ride a unicycle" to his goals. Small price to pay for a dream.
Here's what I came up with, in no particular order. I'll consider myself successful if I accomplish half, in addition to what life throws at me every day, but I'll still try for all ten.

  1. Write three more books: hopefully a young adult fantasy, the finale of my Jezebel series, and something brand new. The new is always the hardest, more dangerous, and most exciting.
  2. Get my son through hip surgery safely and with decent grades and happy, which is why I aimed for only three books not four like normal. He's going to be in a wheelchair for six weeks. We're not sure when it's going to be scheduled yet. I think we've had three rounds of X-rays, a computer gait analysis, and a CT scan so far.
  3. Improve my hit ratio with books. Only about half hit the top 100 lists and pay for themselves. About a sixth don't even sell copies every month on Amazon. This means getting feedback from a content editor early so I can change stories if one isn't likely to pan out. It may also mean paying for more marketing.
  4. Sign up for new health insurance. My two-year HP retirement benefits run out at the end of August. I can either pay for double coverage starting in March or pay the full amount to continue HP coverage for four months. Obamacare makes it possible for independent writers to see doctors!
  5. Read four new authors. This is harder than it sounds. With my glasses problems, I only read about 20 a year and most of those are from old favorites or shared with my family. I want to start with the author of "Fight Club", Chuck Palahniuk. Since my early sci-fi has been compared to the Canadian Cory Doctorow, I thought I should find out why.
  6. Create my first audio book (while the kids are at school). It takes about two hours of total silence to generate one hour of story. I even bought the equipment for it already, and Tammy has volunteered to do women's voices. I should do so soon to ride the current wave, but I want to have quality. I also want to make all that time count. Part of me wants to advertise "Foundation for the Lost" to increase its popularity. Another part wants to do Jezebel to boost my biggest money earner and the one most likely to be purchased.
  7. Finish importing all my cassette tapes from the 80s into itunes, including converting the .wav files to mp3 for the first ten albums I did. Twice in the last year, I wanted to listen to a given song while writing a particular scene. However, this is tedious. I'll need to download new software and buy a tape player that doesn't hiss. Then I need to spend hours editing the albums into songs with Audacity.
  8. Buy albums from four new artists. Again, difficult. I have about 4000 tunes in my collection, 980 in my current writing playlist. However, I don't want to become a barnacle and become stuck in the 90s.
  9. Surprise my wife with a romantic gesture once a season. This is difficult because she doesn't like me to kill plants unnecessarily, and we don't have family nearby to watch the kids. She knows me well enough that this is even harder. I also admit to being a complacent. This means I have to make it a point to put forth the effort. She's worth itl.
  10. Apply to teach at the local college. After the surgery but before signing up for insurance for next year. Notice this is pretty low on my priorities. As a retiree, any task that takes over 20 minutes of work I don't enjoy goes to the "later" pile. Hmm. That list it pretty long now. I could be an instructor for math or computers, but secretly hope to teach writing. This won't happen, which is another reason it's on the bottom. It's a scientific fact that only three people in any math class actually want to be there.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Family Film Reminders

I recently spent two full days dubbing five years of microcassettes onto DVD for my Dad's Christmas gift. Watching my children again reminded me of many things I had forgotten.

  1. Young children are incredibly enthusiastic. When my son opened his third birthday presents, everything was the best, and he was so grateful. That excitement didn't begin to diminish until his first school bus ride at age five.
  2. Bath time was play time. They seemed to have more toys in the tub than the rest of the house. I was particularly fond of the rubber ducky cover for the spigot.
  3. My daughter loved to dance, even as a baby. She would bop to the rhythm of a basketball or 80s music. Dancing with the Stars awed her.
  4. Firsts are fantastic: walking up a staircase, playing in snow, building a block tower taller than yourself, or climbing a ladder to your fort with your loyal puppy.
  5. Jumping is fun: leaves, sofas, trampolines, or your new big-boy/girl bed.
  6. Newborns have a different cry for each thing they need and train parents to tell them apart. One of them is "I dropped my binkie". We often referred to Mean Mr. Gravity, a young child's nemesis.
  7. Spontaneous laughter is contagious. Giggles that well up from a child spread to everyone. Anything can start it, from a feather duster sword fight to a belly zerbert. My daughter had several laughs as well. My favorite was on we called the pirate laugh.
  8. Children are kind and believe easily. I played with my kids with a cat puppet and a doctor kit. They talked to the puppet as if it were real, calming its fears and making sure it was healthy. Imagination is contagious as well.
  9. School holiday presentation are an hour of sitting for five minutes of your child. Everyone has a moment, but you have to be present to win. Meanwhile, cheer for everyone else's moment. My son was so proud of winning best costume as a penguin that he wore the same outfit for the next five Halloweens. Tammy eventually had to make him a bigger one.
  10. My wife, when I managed to catch her on camera, was really cute. I could see her glow whenever the kids ran up to her for a hug or she handed out a Christmas present. I'm really lucky.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book 4 of Jezebel Released: Approaching Oblivion

I'm really excited by the release of the latest in the Jezebel's Ladder series. Last one, Sanctuary, hit a top hundred Amazon sci-fi list after the first week. Approaching Oblivion hit three lists on day three. Thanks so much to people who continue to read. I tried to pack Oblivion with drama, humor, science, and action. Enjoy.

Book five should be the finale in the series. I'll probably open with a couple childhood scenes on the spaceship. Then the astronauts go back to a strange and potentially hostile Earth. There will be a lot of discussion about companies copyrighting human genetic enhancements. I'll also have fun with media as a tool for social change. I may even have male on the cover for the first time. (Someone wanted me to put Herk in a Hawaiian shirt on this cover)

The main character so far is Stu. He will feel like a demigod in the starship, but be a fish out of water on Earth. After having a long crush on Mira, he's going to fall head over heels for the aura of his primary opponent for control over the incredibly powerful Fortune Enterprises--Mira's biological daughter. She starts out mildly evil, but there will be enough hit squads and double-crosses that she'll figure out old-fashioned Stu is the only one she can trust. I'll have fun with parents being almost the same ages as their children due to space travel.

Right now, two stories are wrestling in my head. While I'm brainstorming Jez 5, I am also writing section 1 of the YA fantasy "Behind the Walls of Sleep"--Winter. It's flowing well, and I've had the idea lodged in my brain for over 30 years. Maybe getting the first 17K words to a content editor in the next week or so will help me decide which novel to focus on for my St. Patrick's Day cover and line edit slots.

Monday, November 25, 2013

New Short Story Collection--Epic Fails

I had a lot of fun writing these between books.

Eight epic fantasy stories that have a common theme—failure. Sometimes dark but often funny, these tales paint other worlds where things didn’t work out the way the main character planned.
  • A Lesson in Summoning—an apprentice learns how summon Shrong demons.
  • A Boy with No Name on a Horse Called Spot—a young man must earn his adult name.
  • Cheating Death—an untrustworthy Greek wizard finds a way to live forever.
  • The Loneliness Drug—a new drug hits the market with side effects.
  • Of Mycenaean Men: an ancient foible—a Monty Pythonesque spoof of the Odyssey.
  • Native Intelligence—a teenaged Indian learns magic from his grandfather.
  • Agents of Fortune—an Appalachian witch helps people by listening to the right voice.
  • Zaboath Must Die—a post-apocalypse where one person’s heaven is another’s hell.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Random Sequencing

I just finished two books and am still in the edit process for one. Now is the time in the cycle to start something new. Have you ever wanted to see inside the head of a writer as he develops a story idea from scratch? It’s a process I refer to a random sequencing. The only comparisons I can use are outlining an invisible person using a ping pong ball in a tornado or panning for gold in a canoe. In days of listening to music and musing, I get maybe one nugget. It takes at least three compatible puzzle pieces to make a novel. Directing the process is worse than herding cats. I want my muse to develop my budding story “Behind the Walls of Sleep.” Before I can write past the fifth chapter, I need to finish building the world. From experience, this can take six to eight weeks, with no guarantee of outcome. The last time I tried to finish this story, the idea for “Jezebel’s Ladder” intruded.

Day 1

I try to develop the mechanics of the dream world. I get two single-spaced pages about rules for goblins. Wizards treat them like trash but they’re really important lesser faerie. To keep them from tunneling into your stronghold, there are four methods: stone slabs, renewing magic wards daily, pockets of nightmare in your basement, or hiring a dim goblin to be your janitor—he’ll keep the others out with goblin hospitality rules.

Day 2

Flesh in the dream world is the same as spirit here. I talk with a zen master character about what the dirt in Astra is made of. He says the same thing as here: crushed mountains, dead things, manure, insects, worms, and microorganisms you can’t see. These all have analogues in the dream world. What’s the bottom layer? Adam or a giant turtle. I Google fairy rings as gates and boundaries. Today is only one page of notes. This is frustrating so I concentrate on the details about the goblins. I decide they could be Japanese bakemono.

Day 3

I look into bakemono and feel a resonance for the part where they are yokai who can transform. In this case, the one in the tavern in town is a giant rat. Oni with an iron club is also an interesting concept I’d like to use--similar to double Varja. I research Shintoism next. The barriers between the mundane and sacred space are the most interesting.

Day 4

I decide that my fantasy stories don’t sell nearly as well as my science fiction. I have NO idea whether I can pull of YA literature and have been advised to stick to my strengths by colleagues. Okay. Let’s try to direct the muse to a well-constructed science fiction world where I can establish a series. My first two ideas only cover half a page and they are superhero driven. Those don’t sell well, and they are more fantasy. The third starts interestingly enough with the recent destructive “asteroid” in Russia being an emissary from another world—one of their royals. Common enough, but in this story, we kill him pretty quickly. Scientists gleefully examining his craft and body for new technology discover a signal being transmitted. A fugitive from the galactic empire on Earth tells us that this is the destruct button. We just declared war on the empire. Our only hope is to send out two missions: one to hide the seeds of our race in the galaxy hub, and the other to a prison world on the edge of the blight. If we can convince the royal imprisoned there to help us before the fleet crosses the blight, we have a slim chance. Either way, it will be a war against species extermination. Only a small minority of humans have the mutation that can survive the imperfect jump drive we cobble together on hollowed asteroids of our own. Some volunteer, but mutations with ANY criminal record are drafted by the UN to fight for us. Lots of exploration and meeting odd aliens. This space opera also verges on comic book. I did similar things for role playing campaigns—not mainstream enough.

Day 5

I run with the genetic idea. I also like the idea of one-word titles to sum up the concept. The core McGuffin in the series will be a technique, available to any billion-dollar mega-corporation or government, to splice specific minor progressive DNA changes onto an embryo. They have very little idea what we’re doing, but it works through trial and error. The company that discovers a key sequence gets to copyright it for 50 years. Monsanto does this with plants now, and there are companies trying to do it with adult DNA of people they’ve tested. There have been a number of stories about trying to make the smartest/strongest person, but this will be about the wild west era before it is mainstream. Think of the race for the gene sequences to make newborns immune to AIDs or cancer. The effects can only be realized in the next generation. Since children have no rights, the parents have to sign the agreements. In exchange, the children are cared for in communal daycares (crèches). The desirable ones are educated for free and given limited use of their own DNA in exchange for corporate loyalty. Think of people like iphones—locked into one carrier, useless for any other vendor or if you fail to make regular payments. Governments like this arrangement because it lowers crime rates and population growth while raising taxes. It will need to be set somewhere with lax human rights and big problems. 3D printers should also feature prominently in this world.
Let’s explore what we can do with this groundwork and one interesting word.


This story is about a boy who was part of a batch of 100 trying to achieve a specific mix. The indicator of splicing success (glowing skin patch, eye color, etc) didn’t manifest, and he’s literally stamped as a reject. He’s raised in a crèche with 20 other rejects, many of whom don’t live long because the trait they are hunting is on a very narrow isthmus. His own mother refuses to visit him when she finds out he’s a reject. Instead, he bonds to one of the nannies and is the only one of his class to reach eighteen alive. He can solve genius level problems but takes longer than genius time. He’s a further disappointment and washes out of the scholarship program. From there, he signs an extension of his “mineral rights” to the company in exchange for college. At age 30, he still looks 20 and wants to date. To have access to his own reproductive organs, he has to get the device implanted in him “unlocked”. The corporate rights expired but they still refuse to release him. He has to find a lawyer to take his case for free/cheap. A woman with a maternal streak and bio-rights issues of her own takes the case. Perhaps he reminds her of a politician or philosopher long dead. Once she unlocks him, they have a brief affair, and as payment she collects her offspring with desired traits. Back at the corporate labs they discover he not only lived longer than all the rejects, but he lived longer than all the members of the near success group. Since he was never completely sequenced and his samples were discarded with forfeit of rights, the company is now hunting him. In the end, the lawyer claims first rights to his DNA sequence. Consider right of first refusal in contract. 


This is a beautiful word referring to the propensity for the next generation cell copy to degrade just a little. It causes aging and eventually mutation and death. This is our built-in self-destruct mechanism as a species. What if someone constructed a DNA sequence that copied true—it would be the next best thing to immortality.


The ultimate in self-gratification—a photo of yourself taken by you. Cloning is illegal, but if you find someone close enough, you can print-slice a very close image. This is ideal for organ transplants and more often: young blood. Getting regular infusions of blood and marrow from your younger self can help a person live twenty to forty years longer. Of course, they younger you might have something to say about his process...especially if there are coldblooded as you are.


In a rare genetic condition, non-identical twins in the womb fuse into one person—a chimera. These two sets of DNA can compliment each other or fight. The dynamic system is fluid and ever changing.


Conway’s Game of Life evolves as DNA computers become a reality. Viruses and bacteria join the model in our systems. The human body solves colds and infections every year. Complex problems can be cracked by setting up a person to live the problem to its conclusion. Not all problems are solvable in 70 years and sometimes the experiment is disrupted by external factors. Touching other humans changes the equations and microorganisms are exchanged. What happens when someone “solves” a big problem? We have to bring the answer back to the lab.

Next Step

Ideas won’t stop gushing. Now I need to do the hard work and build this world a layer at a time. Instead, last night, I get a dream about a whole new fantasy magic system where sound is the source of creation. Tuning forks, fairies, and angels feature. One character explains to me that angels were formed when God said “Let there be light”—resonance effects and wave interference patterns, standing waves and superstrings. Wait... change the channel back one!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cover Reveal: Approaching Oblivion

Whenever Renee sends me a new cover, it's like Christmas. Here is book four in the Jezebel series--Approaching Oblivion. Target release is mid November. With eight chapters to write, I haven't crafted the pitch yet, but here's a teaser:
The aliens who gave Earth so many gifts are termed "the Magi". Approaching Oblivion starts where Sanctuary left off, planning the trip to their final test. Such journeys take months or years, not minutes. Locating and finding how to aid the aborigines will take even longer. Their target is Oblivion B4, the fourth moon of the a gas giant similar to Jupiter. The moon has a maze of cracks on the surface where life flourishes, earning it the name Labyrinth. In addition to the technical preparation required for first contact, we follow Yuki as she replaces an arm, Yvette through a rape court martial, and Mercy through her high-risk pregnancy. Together the women come to the conclusion that the Magi are not as benevolent as they seem. Magi interference seems to repeatedly sabotage their efforts, and more Magi tech must be mastered before they can land. More than one maze needs to be threaded if they're going to succeed in their mission and return to Earth.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Next Project

I'm at the phase where I'm planning the cover for "Approaching Oblivion" (Jezebel 4) and estimate a month till this project reaches completion. What's next? My next book will not be “River of Sorrows/ Ryoku 3” or book 5 of Jezebel. I need to start something new, with potential. Here are a number of possible books I’ve already started.
1: “Beyond the walls of sleep”, my YA fantasy about the magic possible in dreams. Daniel learns to teleport. The adventure bleeds over into real life when Daniel crosses the Circle of Deception and gets drawn into a gang war.
2: novelization of my short story “A Lesson in Summoning”, which traces Burl from apprenticeship through master wizard. Lots of demonology and humor.
3: a short story collection called “Epic Fails” – all epic fantasy stories where someone screws up royally. This one probably won’t sell much but would be a way to share my shorter fiction.
4: “Starfish Chronicles” A D&D story about a group of teens from an orphanage, refugees from a city destroyed by black magic. Working for a powerful wizard, they go back to recover personal mementos, treasure, and clues as to how it happened. Together, they raid giants’ cloud cities and dungeons. The wizard gives each of them a gift. Over time, some become rulers in the new land and others fall apart. The ageless jester is the only survivor. Eventually, he passes the torch to the new generation.
5: “Meta Games” YA fantasy. A young man enters a magical tournament held every seven years in order to find his missing father. Very similar to Talisman game where each player has a role with advantages and disadvantages. The winning team gets a wish.
6: “Zaboath Must Die” A post apocalypse Sci Fi story where a cult survives in an undersea UN Haven. What happens when zealots inherit the Earth? Even then, someone has to be a scapegoat.
7: or I could take a month and brainstorm something new.

The problem is, my fantasy doesn’t seem to sell or rank as well as my sci fi, and my muse has been leaning that way. So much of the epic fantasy on Amazon feels low quality and redundant to me. The contemporary fantasy feels better depending on the author. Why would I write it if I wouldn't read it? 

So far, two friends independently placed their vote for Zaboath. The story is about closing down a cult society that abuses its members. Anger smolders in the main character, Neelam, until the final confrontation. I have fun building the subculture. The slang for money, for example, it tox--both for money talks and toxic, root of all evil. People cast out are lost spirits and the chosen can't talk to them. The leader controls the society through taboo and access to purified water. All in all, a very dark place.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Readability Level

My son recently did a school project for the Lexile reading level for his summer reading list. Scholastic and Barnes & Noble have search engines to help your children find books by grade level. My 11 year old son is reading 10th-11th grade books by this measure, but popular books are more like 7 to 8. Breaking Dawn was 6th grade, Percy Jackson was 7th grade, and Hunger Games/Harry Potter is 8th.

The grade level was pretty simple, I remember hand-computing the Gunning reading level for English class. Basically, the more big words you use, the higher the grade level. My teacher told me that for adult fiction, I should aim for the eighth grade. As I don't want to churn my own butter, I found several websites to compute these values for me. Most only work for 10 or 50 thousand characters and aren't very accurate or fast. The one I liked best was the Flesch-Kincaid level at

I ran all my stories through and hit my goal. Reading ease is a score between 0 and 100 which gets higher the easier it is to read. You loose points for too many syllables per word or too many words per sentence. The target for "standard" is about 60-70 for a thirteen to fifteen year old. At 90, an eleven year old could read it in a comic. Below 30, only grad students and lawyers should brave it. My fiction over the years has shifted only slightly from 58 a decade ago to 62 from this year. Approaching Oblivion is still a raw draft without excess adverbs clipped, and such.

Flesch-Kincaid grade level reading ease
Approaching Oblivion 8 59
Clean and Floss 7 62
Contagion of the Gods 8 60
Doors to Eternity 8 58
Dreams of the Fallen 7 60
Empress of Dreams 7 60
Foundation for the Lost 7 61
Jezebel's Ladder 7 60
Redemption of Mata Hari 7 62
Sanctuary 8 58
Scarab 8 58
Sirius Academy 7 61

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Books to Read Aloud

My wife and I have read to each other for years, character voices and all. Since our core interests diverge a little we decided to stick to mystery or YA fantasy. Quite often we read them on long trips, like the drive from Texas to Ohio and back. Here are a few of our favorites over the years.

  1. Harry Potter series
  2. Sue Grafton's ABC series
  3. Twilight
  4. Hunger Games
  5. Vampire Academy series
  6. Julie Garwood's Buchanan crime series
  7. Nora Roberts crime romances like Northern Lights and Witness (although we've had to switch to books on iPod for these in front of the kids).

Since our children listen now, too, and both are avid readers (ages 9 and 11), we have included them in the reading. The trick is finding something for both boys and girls. Aside from the obvious repeat of Harry Potter, I recommend:

  1. Percy Jackson series 1: is a winner for boys, but
  2. Percy Jackson series 2 with Roman gods: is a winner for girls, too.
  3. Sisters Grimm books by Michael Buckley are hilarious, as are moments of
  4. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
  5. Fablehaven has a few plot contrivances, but the kids don't care.
  6. Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who series (if you have any animals)
  7. Shakespeare plays like Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.
We only show them the movie after we finish the book. In addition to helping them enjoy reading, they do better in English/Reading classes. Both my children are also lectors at church.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

vacation 17 - Ireland

We skipped most of Northern Ireland because the rental car place took so long. There were no posted limits, but that's okay because our speedometer was in km not miles. We just took the road called "the North" until we hit the shore, and followed the coast west and south till Galway. The park land was gorgeous, lots of really narrow roads and green hills. Driving on the left didn't bother us a much as the fact that the roads weren't a uniform width. The M and N roads weren't bad. On the R roads, the yellow line was right on the edge and sometimes disappeared into the potholes.
On our drive, we saw a lot of sheep with castles or boats in the background. Then we turned into the center to see Bunratty. For all its fascinating history, we spent more time in the gift shop.

Really old, crumbling castles like Cashel are on rocks that are fun to climb. But watch out for the broken beer bottles everywhere. Here, we all tried a Guiness at the local pub. Emily said, "Tastes like chocolate." She made the barkeep spit out his drink laughing. "You'll have to watch that one," he warned.
Waterford Crystal was a fascinating tour, the kids' favorite in Ireland. They show the entire process from glowing liquid to the finished etchings. It was a bit pricey, though, for company PR. I was nervous about getting to Dublin in time to drop off the rental. It worked out well, as Tammy and I got to walk back to the hotel alone, hand in hand.
Dublin was equal parts churches and pubs. The churches closed at 5, and the dress code changed drastically. Food was interesting here. I liked the Guiness pie, Irish stew made with dark sauce. We went on the Guiness tour and the kids had fun seeing the hops, barley, and old style barrel making. After the process and ads, Mom got to learn how to pour a pint, and we took a lot of photos from the seventh floor.
On the last day, they closed Dublin Castle for EU meetings, so we had to take our kids to the prison to play. Tammy and I learned a lot of history. The kids like shutting the cage doors on each other.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Oblivion--Gifts to the Stone Age

I'm having fun building the world for my fourth book in the Jezebel series, Oblivion. The heroes have to study an alien stone age race and give them exactly 27 ideas that can help them achieve the next level. Before the heroes can decide the perfect gifts, they have to study the aliens for years. The first step is observation and recording. The linguist uses this data to form an alphabet and a dictionary. Eventually, we want the little green men (LGMs) to learn this alphabet so earthlings can write down the ideas. The first idea is expressed as a verbal/pictorial concept. We show them all the letters in the alphabet by using all of them in a sentence like the old typewriter test "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog," with illustration above each word.

The world generates action. From this concept, I ask myself what the first meeting would be like? Given Murphy's Law, the contact would be before we're entirely ready, say at the 5000 word daily vocabulary level. A scout sent out to get more speech samples breaks her leg and needs help getting back to the shuttle. How does she communicate? With today's speech recognition and Google translation technology, we could rig a headset that listens to the English and broadcasts in LGM (Lou's voice). The microphone picks up LGM and translates it back to English (Mercy's voice). Even as the human speaks, the translator mangles it twice. For example "civilization," becomes "all who bury their own butt output."

The heroine picks a trader to help her because he's one of the few who travels, and he will barter. Because they're not allowed to be seen by the aliens, we'll have a visual obscuring device I'll call a shimmer field that can temporarily blind the natives if they look directly into it. Between her complaints about the person who did the shoddy translations and explanation about why the native can't look at her, she inadvertently creates a mythology for all future contact.

The word for writing on wood or stone is "tictic" because that's the sound the chalk makes when you mark something. It's used almost exclusively for hash-mark counts of agricultural items in a delivery. The example gets mangled, and the sentence begins "lazy fox". The word for the new alphabet invention is therefore equivalent to "tictic-lah-zay".

It turns out that the "trader" is swapping narcotic chew to farmers and slaves--because they don't want to actually work for a living. The drug traffickers take on the collective title "the lazy foxes" to accentuate their cleverness and freedom. So we accidentally give literacy to rebel drug lords who feel compelled to mark buildings with graffiti to spread language like a virus. Any graffiti artists discovered are publicly executed by the slave lords. Thus, even one idea causes a near collapse of the society they were sent to uplift.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Chapter 1 of Behind the Walls of Sleep, Revised

I did post a while back From Inspiration to Perspiration on building a book from a scene idea. This is a follow up.

Once all the brainstorming has reached critical mass, I throw out the sketch first chapter, which reads like Raymond Chandler, not a YA fantasy novel. For that, I need to pull kids in with things they care about. The camera has to follow the main character from the start, not an old, ex-cop. I decided to use an event from my own adolescence to open. Furthermore, Daniel needs to hear the initial explanations from a friend near his own age, so I bring the thief, Astrofeld, in a few chapters early. Here we have the revised version.

Flying Practice

At sixteen, Daniel relied on dreams to escape. In this dream, he relived a summer visit to his grandmother in Pennsylvania. Though it wasn’t family he remembered—she had died soon after. With joy, Daniel recalled the brick-paved hills of the fading railroad town. The weather was breezy, and the upturned silver of the leaf bottoms said a storm was on its way. His gray windbreaker rippled like a living thing. It was a perfect time for flying practice.
Starting at the top of the roller-coaster-shaped hill, he ran downward as fast as possible, arms behind him, stretching the windbreaker like wings. His sneakers slapped the bricks in a pit-pat rhythm. Soon, all he could hear was the wind whooshing past his ears and the sound of his heartbeat. If he could reduce the resistance, he might be able to leave the ground. Folding his arms back like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he accelerated more. Now his steps bounced, and his momentum was barely under control. He only needed to go a little faster.
Unfortunately, he ran out of hill. To brake before he hit the cross street, his sneakers had to slap the bricks so hard his feet stung. He was panting heavily and sweating from the failed effort. The sky darkened, and the wind whistled louder; however, Daniel didn’t give up. This time, he knew the stronger wind could lift him up. He turned around, stepped over the curb onto the sidewalk, and trudged up the endless series of cement steps.
By the time he reached the top, the sky was completely dark. He would have to walk down the back alley to Grandma’s before rain drenched him. He pulled up the hood on his windbreaker, and nearby thunder threatened to deafen him.
As the last echo rolled away, Daniel noticed something odd—his windbreaker was now an army-green serape held shut by some sort of Celtic-knotwork clasp. Next, he determined that the houses on the left of the stair were gone. Instead, he was on flat ground, at the edge of a cliff. There may have been some crude farm outbuildings ahead, but it was too dark to tell without streetlights. The only things that had remained the same were the stairs and the storm.
Dreams changed that way sometimes. I lost control. As long as there aren’t any cars, I’m safe. When he tried to take a step, however, someone grabbed him from behind, pulling him up short. “Whoa! You don’t want to go through that again.”
“Huh?” Daniel asked, turning to see who had joined him. The short boy in the black Jedi cloak sounded like a leprechaun. “What are you, ten?”
“Seventeen,” said the leprechaun, offended. The kid was pale and even his nose was thin, just the right size to get stuffed in a locker. “Hey, you’re not Charlie anymore.”
“My name’s Daniel.”
“You must be Charlie’s replacement,” the older but wiser boy noted. “Call me Astrofeld.” The other boy stuck out his right hand to shake, but his other hand went along for the ride.
Squinting at the shackles on the leprechaun’s wrists, Daniel asked, “Why are you handcuffed?”
“A misunderstanding,” the short teen insisted. “But we’re friends, right? I mean, I saved your life.”
“From what?” Daniel glanced at the other side of the step towards a shimmering puddle that reflected the purple-tinged lightning overhead. “And who’s Charlie?”
Astrofeld snorted. “Observe.” He dipped the chain connecting his shackles into the puddle. The metal link in the center turned transparent, swelled like an iridescent soap bubble, and popped. “That is what happened to Charlie. He knew his defensive spells. His cloak protected him from just about everything, except from below. He vanished. A few seconds later, after a huge thunderclap, you show up.”
A dozen questions clamoured in Daniel’s head, but he couldn’t decide which to ask first.
Astrofeld jerked as a drop of rain seared his cloak like acid. “Ack! Run for it.”
The short teen bolted for shelter, and Daniel followed, dodging the puddles. It was like a game of ‘don’t step of the crack’ in a minefield. Out of breath, the he pressed against a set of swinging double doors he’d seen in old western movies. The sign above the doors read ‘Goodforwhat Ales.’ Since the doors were barred, the saloon appeared to be closed for the night.
Astrofeld said, “Be right back.” Then the tiny boy wiggled under the doors that extended lower than a bathroom stall.
Moments later, the doors unlatched and swung open. Daniel stared at the interior as Astrofeld lit an oil lamp. The ten round tables in the tavern were all made from thick, rough-hewn oak and the décor was an odd mixture of late medieval and early Amish. The walls were decorated with shields, dartboards, and what might have been bowling trophies.
“We should be safe in here for a while,” said Astrofeld, grabbing a mug from behind the bar. “In weather like this, nobody in Shambly Town is going to set foot outside their hovels to investigate.” Without the hood, his pointed ears were visible—more like a cat’s than an elf’s.
As his bizarre, new friend poured something from the tap, Daniel had a seat at the closest table and decided on his first question. “Am I dead?”
Astrofeld pointed his thumb to a bucket in the corner. “Do you think they mop the floors in purgatory?”
Daniel shrugged. “People pay in different ways. Folks do what they know, and some people may feel the need to scrub a few stains.”
“No. You’re in what you might call a different state of being.”
“Not Kansas,” said Daniel, and both young men laughed.
After he tipped the excess foam off his brew, Astrofeld said, “You’re in Astra, a place where our kind gathers.”
Daniel only echoed the last words. “Our kind?”
The short boy took a deep drag on the mug and coughed. “Hold the clasp on your cloak and tell me what you see.”
Daniel did as he asked. The clasp wove together at least four brass snake. As he stared, the serpent bodies loosen and started to slide against each other like a puzzle. In his head, he almost completed the solution to open the clasp, when Astrofeld interrupted. “Good, it accepts you as its new owner, and the cloak will protect you. Until you learn the rules, your unconscious will also protect you in indirect ways. When this happens, it will usually look like freak luck. Regardless, you need to hire a magic teacher as soon as possible.”
With the cloak opened, Daniel could see his plaid flannel pajama pants and night shirt underneath. He could also see the fabric of the cloak ripple and reweave like the snakes to fit the dimensions of his body. “This is some dream.”
“Even dogs dream. Astra isn’t simple rapid-eye movement—it’s an energy level, a shared experience that only one person in ten million can achieve.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. “So you’re real?”
“Define real. If you mean from the same waking world, then yes.”
“Why is this stuff so old fashioned?”
“It takes the dreamlands a little while to catch up because everyone has to agree to it or something. I’m not good with theory.” Astrofeld swallowed more brew and stomped his foot till the burning subsided. “Smooth.”
“That stuff is going to stunt your growth.”
The kid made a rude gesture back as he wandered into the main room of the tavern. “I have a defective pituitary gland. My parents stunted my growth...for religious reasons.” His voice was beginning to slur.
“Because the growth hormones are made from dead people?”
“Nah, they fixed that years ago. They want my faith to make me taller. Hell, I shouldn’t tell you that. Please don’t tell anyone, and I won’t squawk about where you arrived.”
“Sure. Why would that matter?”
Astrofeld set down the half-empty mug at Daniel’s table. “Because if someone could track me down in the waking realm, I’d be dead. I’ve robbed a lot of powerful people. To be safe, you should never tell anyone else personal details. That’s why I use my favorite D&D character’s name. In the other world, never let your picture appear in the newspaper or on the news, or someone might recognize you.”
“I meant the stairs. Why would anyone care?”
“That’s your rebirth spot.” The thief peeked through a crack in the swinging doors. “The next dream you have, reappearing at your last exit point is easiest. But if anyone ever locks you in a jail cell, for instance, then you can head back to your step. When you return there, you’ll give up whatever you were carrying, plus some accumulated energy, but it’ll be worth it.”
“Like a Nintendo game.”
“If someone knows your rebirth spot, they can own you. Astra’s not a game, so don’t tell anyone about it...or me.”
“Yeah. If I did that, my social worker would make me attend therapy sessions twice a week.”
“So you’ve been to Juvenile Hall, too? Cool—” Suddenly, the thief’s eyes darted to a door beside the bar. A click sounded, and the oak door creaked open. Daniel saw a burly man in a smock creep through holding a crossbow.
When Daniel turned his head to ask his friend what to do, the thief was long gone.
All he could do was smile at the tip of the crossbow that pointed at his nose. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Charlie’s replacement.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Maps for Sanctuary Spaceship

Here are the schematics for the interior of the biosphere in book 3 of Jezebel's Ladder--Sanctuary. The book is in the final stages of polishing, and the beta-readers voted that pictures would help their enjoyment. The square box in the lower left is a hectare, the base unit of metric land area, 100 meters x 100 meters.

My pencil sketches were far to detailed to show up well on an ereader screen, and the fonts had to be pretty big. So I compromised--I tried to label everything mentioned in the story but just give the flavor of everything else. That way, the reader is free to imagine other details.

I drew the precision work-- the sphere and sunlight windows-- in a CAD program my wife uses for quilting. Unfortunately, the quality degraded when I had to write it as a JPG to import it into Profantasy CC3. With the mapping software, I added terrain, rivers, labels, and lakes. On my first attempt, I printed the result from Profantasy and saved it as a JPG...of the same name as the background. Everything came out like double vision. I had to scrap it and draw the maps over again. The shading for the water was added in MS Paint.

Because Kindle Paperwhite has problems with maps, I reduced the resolution to 50K for the ebook version. The paperback should still be at maximum quality.

I have a third diagram for the entry/dock area but I'm not sure it will add anything other than more delivery fees.

Monday, July 8, 2013

vacation 14: London

Buckingham Palace was closed for tours until July, but as we walked through the park, we heard the royal guards playing music--New York, New York. It was surreal.
After taking all the usual tourist photos, Ben Ben, phone booths, etc, we took them again from the air via London Eye. The line was over an hour long and they sent us all away due to a malfunction. You can pay another $75 to jump the line, or you can just come back the next day 15 minutes before they open. Ferris wheel ride lasts about 25 minutes. Honestly, it was exciting until the apex, and then I was depressed the whole way down, knowing the ride was almost over. (no Freudian comments) The giant penguin sits in front of the aquarium by the Eye.


The kids let me pick an adventure meal place, and I chose the Japanese restaurant Wagamama, which I'm told translates "naughty child." It was tasty, and every extra menu risk we took worked out. The licorice mint tea hit the spot, and the plum wine with sparkling water was a steal at 3Pounds . The kids liked the frothy milk with cocoa so much we ate there again on day 3.

The next big event was watching "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Globe Theater. Because we bought the last four seats, the kids and Tammy sat on the top floor while I sat on the first...behind a pillar. I was eventually able to join them after the intermission when the ladies who prevent people from changing seats during the show (England's version of a professional shoosher) went home to bed. Oberon and Puck were hugely entertaining, performing acrobatics, tumbling, and sleight of hand. They performed a wordless song at the end that was eerie.


We went to the British Museum to hit the highlights: Easter Island statue, jade dragons, Assyrian sphinxes, Rosetta Stone, etc. The kids took a lot of photos, but the big hit was an art exhibit with two panels:one containing every medication the average man in England took over his lifespan, and the other for a woman. It was a long strip, and a little scary. On the way there, we hit a used bookstore and added further weight to our suitcases.

Of course, no tour of London is complete without the crown jewel, the Tower of London. The yeoman warder this time was just okay and the crowds were larger than normal due to being a weekend. However, everyone drooled over the gems and jewelry. We went through that area twice. It drizzled that day, and when we went to Trafalgar again, it pours buckets so hard our pants were soaked through despite the ponchos. District line was closed near Earl's Court that weekend, and the bums living in the tunnels told people which routes to take.

The only stressful part about London was getting the heck out. When I was bargain hunting for tickets months ago, I mistakenly thought that London Gatwick was actually IN the London area, not an hour car ride away. Because of the train closure, getting to Gatwick meant riding Circle line to Picadilly line two stops, humping all 7 bags up steps, riding Picadilly 5 stops to Victoria Station by 8. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth so much at night from the worry. I decided to pay 20 Pounds for the short cab ride instead. Then we were to ride the Gatwick Express train (39 pounds). I had the clerk at the hotel call the cab for us--he called an 8 seater Mercedes with a flat rate of 28 pounds, which he didn't tell me until we were on the road. I didn't want to risk being late, so I ate the loss. I'm glad I did because we had only 25 minutes of buffer, but I'm pretty sure the clerk got a kickback. Realistically, the bank would've screwed me for about the same markup for the unused currency. They don't even accept coins, only paper.

Vacation 13: Paris

We took a pleasant subway ride to the Eiffel tower. The wait was long at every phase: tickets, security, elevator to deck 1, elevator to upper deck, and elevator down. Fortunately, we had our raincoats. Again, people were packed hip to hip and both signs and the PA warned people that there are pickpockets behind you as you enjoy the view. To help pass the time, we packed our own picnic lunch and found a nice bench by the down elevators to eat it on.

That afternoon, we went to the Louvre a day early because there was a train strike on and I worried about making it on time to the station for the trip to London tomorrow at 2:45. I didn't know whether the kids would want to stay for 1 hour or 8, so this gave us flexibility.

The entrance under the pyramid is overwhelming. We wanted to start with the Mona Lisa and had to visit information several times over the course of our stay. To get to the portraits in that wing, you have to maze through ancient sculptures, past Winged Victory, down endless halls with ceilings painted nicer than the modern art on the walls.

The Mona Lisa shared her cyclopean room with the Wedding Feast of Cana. Again, pick pockets and tour groups were everywhere. Pierce and I stood back and examined the Wedding Feast while Tammy and Emily moved to take photos of the smiling lady. There painting wasn't historically or ethnically accurate in any way. I'm not an art historian, but its sole virtue in my mind was its enormous size.

Back in the sculpture area, I was disappointed how many of the 40 foot rooms had nothing of merit. One had chipped blocks of broken statues with no recognizable features. The stolen art of several continents from one of the world's greatest empires, and this is what you bring to the table? We did find an AC vent, though, a must have after walking several miles in these crowds.

 After the statues in the Vatican, most of these were dull repeats. I did, however, love the Caryatid columns, and the beautiful sculpture of Psyche and Eros (steamy).

Pierce and I were done and sat on window seat whenever possible, but Emily and Tammy really enjoyed Napolean's apartments. Lavish room after room of beds, salons, and fine dining. I got to hear what the alarms sound like when one of the women near us leaned on the table to get a better photo. No one came to investigate.

Lastly, we walked up the Champs Elysses and ate at a pastry shop called Angelinas, each picking our own $10 dessert--caramel almond, berry cream, chocolate, ... ahh. Everyone shared. That's what I want to remember about Paris.

After viewing the Arch again from the safety of the sidewalk, we took the subway back to the hotel and ate at Quick Burger, next to McDonalds.

The next morning, we popped in to Notre Dame to catch its 850th anniversary--during which they added a grand stand and gift shops but closed all public toilets. Blessedly, this was my only flareup of IBS during the trip. I took lots of pills, didn't eat vegetables or drink much pop, and took very small meals more often. TRY not eating onions in French or Italian restaurants. Lines for toilets at gift shops went out the door and they charged 50 cents at the till for the wait. I gave my change to the kids to get a souvenir coin while I ran into a restaurant. They also wanted to charge 50 cents at the stall, but refused to give change to tourists. Eventually, a kind woman customer saw my obvious discomfort and asked for a free token for herself. I still had to wait for a woman who commandeered (commodeered?) the men's toilet, because the women's room had a line.

The last stop of the city was the church of Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmarche. It was a relatively long ride, walk, and climb up over a hundred steps. I worried about check out time of noon and the train the whole time. The clerk told us to relax and take our time. We waltzed
through customs at the train station with relative ease after filling out several unexpected forms. They actually ask you if you're a terrorist or carrying contraband. I had to explain how I could possibly be retired at my age to the officer and hand out some cards.

My admitted paranoia made us wait in the lounge for an hour before boarding, but I prefer this to missing the train and having to buy the tickets again. This wait gave Emily a chance to charge her DS by the courtesy desk and me an opportunity to buy some British pounds. Strange that as a member of the EU, England still seems to still do everything its own way.

vacation 12: Versailles

We arrived in Versailles late on purpose to get the after 4 price. I think the two of us got in for 12 Euros. A man who was leaving as we came in liked our family shirts and gave us a priority pass--it skipped us to the head of the long line, for which we were grateful. You can't appreciate the sheer monumental scale of this palace unless you've been inside. Napoleon had nothing on Louis for overcompensating. Wow. Everything had to be colossal. The hall of mirrors is 41 feet tall and 239 feet long. "Normal" rooms might be half that height. It was thoroughly impractical and designed to awe.
Having said this, the glitz on every surface and masterpieces on every ceiling wore thin fast. My wife and daughter loved photographing the fancy beds. Everybody seemed photograph everything--no one would believe it existed unless it was on the memory card. Frequently, we would offer to take a couple's photo posing together, and they would reciprocate by taking a shot of our whole family. One gentleman, however, held out his iphone, struck a Benetton model pose, and snapped his own picture in front of the chapel. Thanks to technology, we could all do that now. We don't need anyone else for this form of gratification.

The crowds were truly insane. The 40 foot wide room was roped off so that the tourists could only stand in the first 13 feet. When a tour group leader strode by with umbrella raised high, it was like a flash flood. You couldn't move. When three groups hit at once, I had to shove my way over to little Emily lest she be carried away. A few times, her arm got stretched or I had to pick her up.

We didn't get to see Marie's cute peasant village. At 20 till 6, the guards blocking the garden told us we wouldn't make it there in time and to please leave. No problem, we'll get to the hotel early and relax. We could spend our 19th wedding anniversary having a meal in romantic Paris.

Hah! Never drive in Paris. I'm not kidding. This is a photo of the 5 layer traffic circle around Arch du Triumph in rush hour (courtesy of our TomTom GPS). Following that is a photo of my wife and the sweet rental car it took us 4 harrowing hours to return: one hour to get to the north train station, one hour to fill up with gas...We had to ask for instructions to a gas station from the locals because the GPS was wrong and they hide them. There isn't necessarily a station, just a pump at the curb that you pull into that spot to use. God bless the honesty and English of the Indian community in Paris, because I left my wallet on the counter at Elan gas while getting instructions to Hertz. Then we spent over an hour trying unsuccessfully to find the right secret parking garage under the Japanese restaurant--the one under the Louvre only has key drop off and Hertz is the only car company not in the other two. When I check my wallet to pay for the unwanted garage I find in terror that my wallet is missing. We race back to the gas station, which is now closed. Worried, we drive back to the train station, and a female Hertz clerk FORCED me to spend fifteen minutes waiting in line for them to give us a map while Tammy is parking illegally in in the taxi lane. Every other car agency offered me (incorrect) maps of their locations with no wait. When I arrive at the taxi stand with the nice clerk from Hertz, I have to wait another thirty minutes for my wife to make it back to the hotel to find me after the taxis/hotel gave her an incorrect map and demanded she move. Then we wait another half hour for paperwork. The punchline--the poor owner of the gas station has been to Hertz twice to return my wallet, but had to go home because it was so late. I think we ate leftover peanut butter sandwiches at 10:30 or so for supper.

The next day was stress free by comparison--no car. I walked to the gas station before 8 to get my wallet, and they were already open and hard at work. They wouldn't take money as thanks, so I gave Cecile the copy of "Foundation for the Lost" from my suitcase.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Vacation 11: Loire Valley Chateaus

Few words this post--mostly pictures.
Chambord is an architectural masterpiece, and not a bad hunting shack. The double helix stair case was pure genius. Even the firedrake family crests were a hit with the kids. My only two complaints about this day were: a) the toll was 50 Euros and the machines won't take 50 Euro bills, which meant we had no change or small bills left. b) the parking lot wouldn't take our credit card, only coins at a booth 10 minutes away.


Dinner by the pool was risotto and roast duck. The next day, we went to a lot of little summer cottages. Yawn. The GPS took us through every little town instead of the freeway. Often the 30 km/hr towns hate the traffic so much, they put planters in the road so only one car can pass at a time. At one point we went through a one-lane forest road before the GPS gave up! The other winner was Chenonceau. Ooo. Not only passed from mistress to queen, but it was a hospital and underground railroad during the wars. Plenty of photo ops inside, too.

vacation 10: Bavaria

We had a 1:55 tour scheduled for Neuschwanstein, Ludwig's castle in Bavaria. They wanted us there by one to pick up the tickets. Despite congestion at the toll plaza, construction, and slow moving vehicles on narrow Alpine roads, Tammy got us there just after one. We parked at one of the well-advertised parking areas I followed the signs at a run to pick up the tickets. Then we found out why they wanted us there an hour in advance: the buses run late and it's about a 30 minute fitness hike to the top of the hill where the castle is. We jogged in, panting, with almost 5 minutes to spare. Tammy wanted to take photos of the exterior beforehand, but I didn't want to miss our slot.

The tour was fascinating, but again--no photos allowed. Really? They let Wim Venders film the place for a 3D tour in the Gabriel Knight video game, which featured Ludwig as a werewolf.
One of the guys from Iowa kept asking if Ludwig was really crazy. I explained that the king was gay, not intending to produce an heir, and starting on his fourth(?) flamboyant castle after burning through 500 years worth of royal savings. The tour took less time than the round trip walk. We spent longer in the two gift shops: postcards, swan knick knacks, knights, and princess figurines.
Then we hiked to Mary's bridge over the chasm above the castle. Breath-taking views but so windy I thought we were going to lose a kid over the side. The cataract below us literally made a corkscrew shape. We took a tons of photos of these incredible vistas, and then set about documenting the exterior of the castle itself.
Because of it would take us an extra hour on twisty Austrian roads, and we hadn't allotted time for bridge and gift shop, we skipped Linderhoff, as it only  imitated Versailles and we were going to the real thing in a few days. Plus, the castles tend to be expensive. We ate German fare at a local restaurant. Because Tammy had a caterpillar still moving in her salad, the waiter treated us to a yummy Austrian apple dessert. I don't think I've heard the kids laugh that much in years.
Most Germans seemed to speak English as a second language, and the autobahn was free! Tammy reached 170 km/hr while I napped. We used the "spare" time that night to wash clothes in Munich. One of my favorite moments in the trip was when I struggled to ask the janitor at the laundromat how to pay for the machines in my pitiful German. When I berated myself in frustration, the Ugandan perked up. "Thank goodness you speak English," he said. "My German is not too good."

The next morning, we drove to Dachau. I include no photos because so many people died there, it's really a big grave. We unintentionally took the two mile Remembrance walk because it was the only labelled thing near the information building. We should've taken a map first. Our feet were tired when we actually returned for the bunk houses. The new, super-sized gas chambers were the most dramatic exhibit.
From there, we drove to Bingem-am-Rhine so we could visit the river where our family took its name. A cabinet maker came over to Philadelphia about 8 generations ago, and my Grandparents still spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. I touched the water and so did the kids. There were swans, grapes, and castles everywhere. The local bike path was under a meter of water as many German towns flooded this summer. We chatted with some natives in English and got directions to a local food place they recommended. Even though we had planned to drive to Koblenz and through the Luxemborg mountains, I had my doubts about how much scenery we'd see from the road or how well we could navigate in the dark. Since this was my tourist site request, we skipped the second town and went to our hotel just over the border in France.

The Formula 1 chain is clean, small, and dirt cheap--30 Euros a night per room. We had to get two rooms, because in France, anyone over the age of 4 counts as an adult. The toilets and showers are down the hall, and the beds are queen on bottom with a bunk over top. But I've lived in worse dorms. When you just want to crash for the night, it's fine.

vacation 9: Venice

Venice was beautiful and just a little sad, like visiting with a very old entertainer who used to be famous. I kept hearing about how often the city floods and how many pickpockets there are in San Marco--another church plagued by tourists and their predators. We parked in Mestre on the other side of the water and rode the train in for 1.4 euros each. It's dirty cheap and comfortable because every train bound to Venice stops there first. We chatted gratefully with other English speakers each direction.

The water buses are packed, but we were always first on to the second boat. We bought two one-way tickets for much less than a 4 hour pass. However, I picked the wrong direction (not the Grand Canal way) and we got the long tour of the cruise ship terminals, etc.

Emily posed by the Bridge of Sighs, used to transport prisoners to be judged. The Doge's palace, though pricey, had a lot of cool decor. Though we weren't supposed to take photos there either, people used their iphones and ipads with impunity. Pierce liked the medieval arms and armor displays near the end of the tour. My one regret was that they wouldn't let you sit down anywhere, and it was a long tour.

Weirdest was the mix of modern flavor. The courtyard had a definite Renaissance feel, whereas the clocks and council chambers could have been from the senate building today. The clocks with Roman numerals used IIII instead of IV. Also ironic, they seemed most often used the Arabic numbering system of their military opponents. Their rulership seemed enlightened and tolerant, but they had secret branches of the government. Some of the daggers in the armory were specifically designed for assassins. I wonder if people will see the same contradictions in our culture when they tour our ruins.
We stayed in Florence instead of Rome last night specifically to give us more leisure to explore Venice. However, by the time we finished the Doge palace, the church was closed, and we could only pose by the lion statues. A crowd of girls from a US school loved our matching shirts (several times people took photos of us), and ahhed when we told them our shirts matched the day we met. The walk to Rialto Bridge through the narrow maze of streets was pleasant, cool, and well-labelled. Emily enjoyed shopping for pretty fans. Tammy liked the carnival masks and bought several small ones as souvenirs. Despite the numerous shops and crowds that clog the bridge, we were able to take photos and find the boat bus docks easily. The ride back to Mestre that evening was relaxing, and we left to reach our hotel on the border by Austria before dark.

A tale of two hotels

Last night, we slept just outside Florence in a "three star" hotel from Excellent called the Albatross. This might have been a 3 star in 1960, but no one has done repair work on it since. The still use old metal keys that twist three times. It was hard to find as large trees obscure the building and the sign. Vans from a local business take all the best parking. The soccer field behind it keeps you awake till 11:30. Mosquitoes are everywhere, and the water-stained walls are still smeared with red and black streaks. The windows that keep the heat in don't keep the bloodsuckers or noise out. There is no TV or air conditioning to drone out the crowds. The mattresses are 2 inch foam from a dorm room. An octopus with everything but the locked fridge dangles from the socket hanging limply from the wall. The towels were as thin as sack cloth. You have two minutes to use the poorly shower before it floods the bathroom. Unfortunately, the free shampoo you just used is burning your eyes like napalm and you don't notice this until it's too late. I will say that the women working the breakfast area were very nice and gave us extra pastries for the children to eat later on the road.
 By contrast, the Mercure in Rovereto was a modern dream: WIFI, AC, working everything, clearly visible just off the highway, and only few euros more because we requested a family room. There was also no add-on city tax like elsewhere (usually a couple euros per star of the hotel per person). This room was double the normal size and had a divider that could be pulled to separate us from the sleeping kids, who had their own light switch. These were the best accommodations of the trip so far! When I told the kids that I had pre-paid another one like this in Tours, but with a pool, Dad was a hero. Given a choice between booking discounted from the Accor website or from and aggregator again, I would go out of my way to choose Accor when roughly the same price. In London, they were about twice the price of the little hotel we picked for that three days, but on the road, they offered the most bang for the buck.