Tuesday, July 29, 2008

NASA celebrates its 50th Aniversary

For the benefit of all—NASA motto

In honor of NASA’s 50th anniversary, I wanted to post some awesome pictures of our Planet Earth as seen through the perspective of our astronauts and give you a summary history of this worthwhile program. I must confess that since I was a little girl I was fascinated by space and wanted to explore it as an astronaut. I seriously thought for a while that I would train to be one. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, except in my imagination and in my writing (see my upcoming book, Splintered Universe, which features a whole universe of space travel and adventure).
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, pronounced /ˈnæsə/) is an agency of the United States government, responsible for the nation's public space program. NASA was established on July 29, 1958, by the National Aeronautics and Space Act.
In addition to the space program, NASA also conducts long-term civilian and military aerospace research.

Monday, July 28, 2008

America, You’re Beautiful!—Part 3: Murdo, SD

Fresh from the funk and culture of Louisville, KY, I continued my search for “genuine America” as I headed back west along the Interstate 90—and found it in the lazy town of Murdo in South Dakota. Located 173 miles east of Rapid City and Sturgis, the site of an annual motorcycle rally (August 4-10, 2008) that draws participants from all over the world, Murdo is nothing to look at, really, but I desperately needed to stop and rest for the night. The bright yellow sign of the Super 8 Motel beckoned and I decided to try it. Not only was the Super 8 too expensive for my now slim pocket book but I decided that the place lacked character, like all the handy chain hotels along the interstates. The receptionist politely directed me down the town’s business road and I encountered the charming Sioux Motel, with its original sign that featured a Sioux Indian with full headdress. Now, this was more like it…

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Culprit Responsible for Global Toxic Algal Blooms Found

At last the mystery is solved to what causes toxic blue-green blooms in freshwater that yearly kill thousands of aquatic organisms and make people sick.

In a previous post of mine, entitled “Runaway Toxic Microorganisms”, I introduced you to algal blooms and one of algae's infamous celebrities, Fireweed, a particularly nasty and prolific blue-green alga that pesters the Australian coastline and causes a nasty sickness to humans who come into contact with it.

Thanks to Sean Yeoman’s Consulting who brought my attention to a recent article in the Victoria Times Colonist by Ed Struzik (July 22, 2008), entitled “Scientists solve riddle of toxic algae blooms”, I came across the work of a limnologist-colleague of mine, David Schindler of the University of Alberta. According to the article, after 37-years of experimentation on Lake 227, a small pristine lake in the Experimental Lakes region of northern Ontario, Schindler’s team was able to pin down which chemical nutrients were key to triggering blue-green algal blooms.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Star Wars, Our 20th Century Myth

Over thirty years after the first Star Wars motion picture blasted its way through our movie screens May 25, 1977, the saga continues to live strongly in literature and cinema. To date, six films and three animated series for television were made, with a live-action series and a 3D CGI animated series in pre-production as well as a 3D CGI full-length theatrical movie, The Clone Wars, scheduled for U.S. release on August 15, 2008. The six films alone have generated over $4.3 billion in revenue to date, making them the third highest grossing film series.

Although the current Star Wars New Jedi Order series (its 27th and last installment released in spring of 2004) leaves much to be desired from a literary standpoint, loyal fans of the Star Wars phenomenon, including, alas, yours truly, have persisted with the series, helping it maintain a place in the New York Times Bestsellers list. How did this come to be? Why do we read on despite our better judgement about literature and art? To understand the enduring success of a shallow plot-driven adventure series is to understand the basis for its creation: the original Star Wars concept as realized by George Lucus. The answer lies in one word: myth.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

America, You’re Beautiful!—Part 2: Louisville, KY

During my stay in Louisville, I drove into the Highlands—an area near downtown Louisville marked by a ridge of land between the middle and south forks of Beargrass Creek—and found myself walking the eclectic commercial stretch of Bardstown Road from Market Street near what’s known as the Cherokee Triangle to Taylorsville Road.
Bardstown Road is one of the most unique shopping districts in Jefferson Country, and features some of Louisville's finest dining establishments, along with the best antique shopping and people watching in the country. Known variously as “punk street” and “Restaurant Row” for its copious nightclubs, pubs and eateries, Bardstown Road is a mixture of artistic, organic, punk and yuppie influences. I saw nothing ordinary here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Nina's American Book Tour: Louisville, Kentucky

Yesterday, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent some time in the Hurstbourne Barnes & Noble bookstore, signing copies of Darwin's Paradox. Get 'em while they're hot and newly autographed, folks!

When I first got into Louisville, I wasn't sure how to pronounce the name. The standard English pronunciation is "looeeville" (referring to King Louis XVI, for whom the city is named), which is often utilized by political leaders and the media. But most native residents pronounce the city's name "looavul"— often this degrades further to "luvul". The name is often pronounced far back in the mouth, in the top of the throat.
Located in north-central Kentucky close to the Indiana border, Louisville is Kentucky's largest city. It is ranked as either the 17th or 27th largest city in the United States depending on how the population is calculated. Louisville is famous as the home of "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports": the Kentucky Derby, the widely watched first race of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.

Although Louisville is situated in a Southern state, it is influenced by both Midwestern and Southern culture, and is commonly referred to as either the northernmost Southern city or the southernmost Northern city in the United States.

Louisville was the site of many important innovations through history. Notable residents include inventor Thomas Edison, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, newscaster Diane Sawyer, and writers Hunter S. Thompson and Sue Grafton. Notable events include the first public viewing place of Edison's light bulb, the first library open to African Americans in the South, and medical advances including the first human hand transplant, the first self-contained artificial heart transplant, and the development site of the first cervical cancer vaccine.

Louisville had one of the largest slave trades in the United States before the Civil War and much of the city's initial growth is attributed to that trade. During the Civil War Louisville became a major stronghold of Union forces, which kept Kentucky firmly in the Union. It was the center of planning, supplies, recruiting and transportation for numerous campaigns. Despite being surrounded by skirmishes and battles, Louisville itself was never attacked. After 1865, returning Confederate veterans took control of the city, leading to the jibe that Louisville joined the Confederacy after the war was over.
The first Kentucky Derby was held on May 17, 1875, at the Louisville Jockey Club track and 10,000 spectators came to watch Aristides win the race.

On March 27, 1890 the city was devastated and downtown nearly destroyed when an F4 tornado tore through the city at 8:30 pm as part of the Mid-Mississippi Valley Tornado Outbreak of March 1890. An estimated 74 to 120 people were killed. The city quickly recovered and signs of the tornado were nearly totally absent within a year.

In late January and February of 1937, a month of heavy rain in which 19" fell prompted what became remembered as the "Great Flood of '37". The flood submerged about 70% of the city, power was lost, and it forced the evacuation of 175,000 residents, and also led to fundamental changes in where residents bought houses. Today, the city is protected by numerous flood walls.

Louisville is one cool town! You folks rock! Oh, and: "Louisville, keep it weird!" More in a future post (I met some VERY interesting people, especially at my favorite place, Starbucks!). If you missed my previous post on my "great American journey", part one of a series entitled "America, You're Beautiful!" go here. Well, next is Columbus, Ohio...

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Novelist: He said, She said, Using Dialogue

One of the most important devices to spice up narrative and increase pace is the use of dialogue. There’s a reason for this: we read dialogue more quickly; it’s written in more fluid, conversational English; it tends to create more white space on a page with less dense text, more pleasing to the reader’s eye. Dialogue is action. It gets readers involved.

Good dialogue neither exactly mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor on the other extreme does it proselytize or educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle.

While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten us to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

Below, I provide a few tips when using dialogue in your story.

  • Show, don’t tell: a common error of beginning writers is to use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes you as a novice. For instance, avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. Which brings us to the next point.
  • Have your characters talk to each other, not to the reader: for instance, “Hello, John, you loser drunk and wayward son of the most feared gangster in town!” could be improved to, “You stink like a distillery, John! Wait ‘til papa’s thugs find you!”
  • Avoid adverbs: e.g., he said dramatically, she said pleadingly; instead look for better ways to express the way they said it with actual dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use adverbs (I believe J.K. Rowling is notorious for this), just use them sparingly and judiciously.
  • Avoid tag lines that repeat what the dialogue already tells the reader: e.g., “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Do you have a dog?” she asked.
  • He said, she said: reduce tag lines where possible and keep them simple by using “said”; another sign of a novice is the overuse of words other than said (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred, etc.). While these can add spice, keep them for special places as they are noticed by the reader and will distract otherwise.
  • Pay consistent attention to a character’s “voice”: each character has a way of speaking that identifies them as a certain type of person. This can be used to identify class, education, culture, ethnicity, proclivities, etc. For instance one character might use Oxford English and another might swear every third word.
  • Use speech signatures: pick out particular word phrases for characters that can be their own and can be identified with them. If they have additional metaphoric meaning to the story, even better. For instance, I know a person who always adds “Don’t you think?” to almost everything they say. This says something about how that person… well, thinks… I knew another person who always added “Do you see?” at the end of their phrase. Again rather revealing.
  • Intersperse dialogue with good descriptive narrative: don’t forget to keep the reader plugged into the setting. Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are having this great conversation. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.”
  • Contradict dialogue with narrative: when dialogue contradicts body language or other narrative cues about the speaker, this adds an element of compelling tension and heightens reader excitement while telling them something important. Here are a few examples:

    “How’d it go?”
    “Great,” he lied.

    “I feel so much better now,” she said, jaw clenched.
    “It’s okay; I believe you.” His heart slammed.

    Well, you get the picture, anyway. Hope this helps. Keep writing!
This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate) 2009. It is also part of a workshop series I give throughout North America and Europe called The Writer's Toolkit. "The Writer's Toolkit" will be available for purchase in summer of 2010. 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

When Paramount Pictures released the retro science-fiction adventure film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, September of 2004, it had been much anticipated since June when it was first intended to hit theatres. Was the delay, due to director, Kerry Conran’s additional tweaking of this virtually total CGI movie, worth it? You bet your MAC IIci it was!

Sky Captain was a debut not only for its director. It was also the first motion picture done entirely with no sets, locations or props. The actors were real but everything from 1930-style city scapes to exploding zeppelins and flying robots were digitally rendered. “A lot of filmmakers would find it limiting, but I find it strangely liberating,” said Conran in an interview with Frank Rose in Wired Magazine. Actor, Gwyneth Paltrow, however had another take on working in the computerized blue-screen void: “You get a little nuts in that blue,” said Paltrow. “I started to feel like, if I ever see this color again, I’m going to kill myself.”

Thursday, July 3, 2008

America, You’re Beautiful!--Part 1: the Journey

My impressions of America are as varied as its people and its land, a major factor in one’s culture. As an ecologist, I was fascinated with this aspect while I traveled across the United States through several very different environments, including the wet coastal forests of Washington, white pine forests and taiga of Idaho and the prairie deserts and chaparrals of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota then the farming country and prairie grasslands of Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana and Kansas on through to the temperate broadleaf deciduous forests of Kentucky. My fascination with road trips comes with my love of travelling (you can see all the places I’ve traveled to on my Facebook profile. Those of you who know me personally and/or have kept up with my blog posts, know that I recently went to Paris to research my current historical fantasy. Of course, I flew there.

Road trips, however, are a destination themselves. Each mode of travel has its particular magic and its own “crystal ball” or window for the curious traveler. I walked in Paris. Years before, I walked much of southern England, which was a great way to experience the details of its fractal terrain, foot by foot (pardon the pun; couldn’t help it), through all one’s senses.

Travelling by car offered me yet another perspective, that of “relationship” in a vast land of contrast and differences.