Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Goodbye Sutton's Bay, Hello Stars

For a few months now, I felt like my blog design needed some work. I loved my picture of the beach in Sutton's Bay, Michigan (you should go there if you ever have the chance!). But it did make for kind of a busy look.



My problem is that I'm not a very visual person. Design and I just don't mix.

And then I noticed a tweet from Operation Awesome, a website with resources for writers, interviews and writing contests (highly recommended!).


Most importantly, I saw the tweet at exactly the perfect time—meaning I was fast enough to win!

Leandra Wallace from Operation Awesome created a new header for me, and I changed the rest of the blog design to match. I'm pretty happy with the new clean look. And the sci-fi geek in me loves the stars!

So, thank you, Operation Awesome and Leandra Wallace!

PS - if you'd like to win a graphic from Leandra, I heard she might do another giveaway in the future. Follow them on Twitter to keep an eye out for the next contest! 
Operation Awesome on Twitter
Leandra Wallace on Twitter

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sundays in Germany - A Love/Hate Relationship

The past two weeks have been sunny with just the right amount of rain, so the hedge next to my parking spot has exploded with growth. Add to that a fully packed calendar, and I haven't had time to trim it. Two days ago, one of my kids could barely get in the car.  Yikes.

image by Wayne Stadler via Flickr - not an actual picture of the state of my yard ;-)
Today is Sunday—the first day I had time get out the hedge clippers.

BUT—today is Sunday, and I live in Germany.

It probably depends on where you live in Germany, but where I live, Sunday is quiet time. Seriously, quiet, like to the point of having to pay a fine if you're reported for doing something loud like mowing your lawn. In addition, there's no shopping (stores are all closed on Sundays!). No washing or vacuuming the car. No repairs around the house.

On the one hand, this forced quiet time can be nice. At least once a week, you're guaranteed a day of downtime. Take a bike ride to a biergarten. Drink coffee and eat cake with friends. Maybe go out to a matinee with the kids.

On the other hand, it means any work you need to do on a weekend all has to be done on Saturday. Grocery store aisles are packed, store parking lots are even worse. Then there's mowing the lawn and trimming the yard, fixing the bike, washing the windows, etc. All packed in on Saturday.

A lot of farmers live in the village where my husband grew up, and if a person rides by on a tractor on Sunday, you can bet someone in the family will go to the window to identify who dared to do that. One of my neighbors said she's been chastised by others in the neighborhood for doing yard work on a Sunday.

So here's me, an expat with this knowledge, standing in front of my overgrown hedge on Sunday. I know next week will be hectic once again, so I went ahead and trimmed the shrubbery (with manual clippers! I wouldn't dare use electric ones!). In the twenty minutes it took to do that, no less than five neighbors walked or drove by my house and eyed my quiet, yet verboten work. No one said anything. And I kept it short.

So that was my Sunday, living dangerously during quiet time.

Bonus pic: proof that using Sunday for coffee and cake can be worthwhile :-)


All pics by me or my family if not otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 1, 2017

My First Maibaum (Maypole)

Happy Labor Day! 
Or Happy May Day!  
Or happy whatever other holiday you celebrate on May 1! (according to this link, May 1 is very popular as a holiday worldwide)

2017 seems to be the year to catch up with German traditions I've missed. Back in January, it was molybdomancy. Yesterday, I watched a Maibaum (maypole) being erected.

The Maibaum (maypole), decorated and ready to be set up.

The maypole is put up on the last day of April (or on May 1, depending on the region) and is a symbol of the beginning of spring. There are a lot of stories as to the origin of the maypole tradition. Most cite Germanic rites and forest gods. 

Four groups push up the maypole, using tree trunks called Schwalben. Here's the first group.

So yesterday I watched one being erected for the first time. It was a big deal in my in-laws village. About thirty men were needed to erect it. It was hard work—my husband ended up with scraped and bleeding hands. I also learned that erecting the Maibaum is a guys-only thing.  ¯\_()_/¯ Anyway, all total probably 100 people attended. Not bad for a village of 280 people. Besides the fun of watching the maypole, you could buy beer, soft drinks and bratwurst.

The second group joins.

As for the maypole itself, different areas in Germany use different types of trees, often birch or spruce. Some strip the trunk and decorate it, and some leave the tree as it is naturally. Other areas of Bavaria tend to decorate in blue and white, whereas we in Franconia use red and white.

With each additional group, the maypole is pushed higher. Here, the third group has joined with their Schwalben.

I've been told that the size of the tree doesn't matter, but when we drove through a neighboring village and saw how short their maypole was, we may have chuckled and called it a Bonsai Maibaum.  ;-)

Now all four groups are working on it.

How can you make a maypole even more fun? By stealing it! Seriously, stealing the maypole is a popular tradition, so often a few guys camp out next to the tree to guard it. If someone does manage to get away with it, they demand ransom–usually beer and food—before they'll give it back. And no, I have no idea how you'd steal something that big.

The maypole is so tall, I accidentally cut off the top when taking the picture!

The funniest examples I heard of stealing a maypole were:
- the people who used a helicopter to steal one from the Zugspitze mountain.
Done!

There are a lot of different maypole traditions around Germany. If you know of any (also from other countries!), I'd love to read them in the comments!


all pictures by me

Monday, January 9, 2017

Molybdomancy

I have no idea how I've escaped this German tradition so long, but for the first time ever, on New Year's Eve, I poured lead to predict how the new year will go.

What is this cool word Molybdomancy? And how does that work?

Molybdomancy is Bleigießen in German. Still not helpful? How about Lead* Pouring?

Here's how it works. You buy a Lead Pouring kit, which consists of small shapes made of lead** (which my husband says is most likely actually tin) and a spoon. You don't want to use your own spoon because it turns black with soot.


Light a candle, place a piece of lead on it and hold it over the flame until it looks like the liquid metal of a T-1000.

When it's melted, carefully pour it into a container of water. Be sure to hold it very close to the surface of the water before pouring because it can spatter (we ended up with lead flecks all over the table in one case).

The melted lead hardens immediately in the cold water.

But how does this help predict how the new year will go?

Look at the shape of the cooled lead. Hold a light behind it and check the shadow it throws on the wall. Then compare the shadow to the handy-dandy list of highly scientific translations provided with the Lead Pouring kit.
The shapes my family made.
My shape looked suspiciously like a teardrop to me, but since that wasn't one of the options (thank God, because it sounds like a year full of sorrow!), my friend suggested the shadow was the shape of a bottle. Perfect! A bottle means a year with good friends.

Just for fun, here are a few other shapes you might get (or hopefully not), and their meanings:
Tree – Fulfillment of wishes
Egg – An addition to the family
Antlers – Bad luck in love
Any number – good luck in the lottery
Hedgehog – Jealousy
Moon – High honor
Cross – A bad time to have an affair
Palm Tree – A good business year
Coffin – A death
Shoe – A happy life
Cup – Avoid alcohol
Pipe – Joy

Have you ever poured lead for New Years? What did you think about it?


*I realize molybdenum and lead are different elements, but that's how the internet translated it for me.

**The package said the metal should not be put in the mouth, must be kept away from food and beverages, and should be handled as "problematic waste," so I'm thinking it's really lead. Not sure I want to do this again.


All pictures taken by me.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

What Should I Write Next?

image by haraldr via Flickr
When I first started writing, my brain was bursting with stories to be told. I never had to worry about what to write next—I had to hurry up and finish the manuscript I was working on so I could dive head first into the next shiny, new world.

Jump to today: I've just sent my current WIP to my critique partners. So now's the perfect time to start lining up what I want to work on next. But whether it's having written eight manuscripts or the personal stress of the past two years or just learning more about what works and what doesn't, I'm kind of stuck.

So I thought I'd share my methods for finding a new story to work on.

The first thing is my "story ideas" Word document. I've been jotting down ideas here for years. When I reviewed it yesterday, I was delighted to see the single paragraph description for the story that got me my agent.

 
Here's the final pitch, if you're wondering how the original idea metamorphosed into a full-fledged novel-length story.

Some of the ideas in my story idea file are interesting, but none bowled me over with that must-have impulse, so I tried another method. I cut scratch paper (recycle/reuse!) into pieces and jotted down topics that were on my mind, whether they're from the news today like health insurance, propaganda, and civil disobedience or items that strike my fancy like magic forests, bio technology, or secret societies.

 
Then I started grouping the cards. Which ideas could turn into a story? Which card group ignites that spark in my mind?

I'm still working on this, but I just had another idea, and that is to combine the two methods. Take a line from my story idea list and see which cards would work well with it.

Once I know the general premise of my story, it's on to creating long lists of What If questions to detail it out. I'd planned on providing a picture of a What If list, but ithat would be too spoilery. ;-)

If you're a writer, what method do you use to come up with story ideas?


all pictures by me unless otherwise specified

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Personal Top Five in 2016

Honestly, almost no one I know loved 2016. From deaths of famous and beloved people, to an election that deepened the already existing wedge between people in America, to scenes of suffering around the world, many of us will be glad to leave this year behind in hopes that next year will be better.

But not everything was horrible and it's important to remember that. So here are my personal Top Five Great Things from 2016:

1. Last year around this time, I blogged about my hopes for 2016. The most important one came true: a family member with a years-long illness is doing much, much better. This alone was enough to save the year for me.


3. We adopted this adorable little guy from a shelter! Thanks to him, I get exercise in all kinds of weather. Plus he's a very talented cuddler.


4. I pulled myself out of a writing slump, and my current work in progress will be ready to send to critique partners within days.

5. In the spring, the family and I had a quick trip to the Bonn/Cologne area. She here, here and here for some fun pictures! A few months later, we enjoyed our summer vacation in the beautiful Bavarian Forest.

How about you? What wonderfulness came out of 2016 for you personally?


Bonus picture: surprising view on my walk with the dog when I took a path I'd never been on last week. Yes, that's a skull.

All images by me.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Advent Calendar 2016 - Christmas on a Wet Spaceship

It's the end of November, which means it's time for an advent calendar in story form again!

Starting on Dec 1, feel free to read some each day to your kids, pets, spouse or just enjoy it yourself. Distract yourself, and it will be Christmas in no time.

Don't know what an advent calendar is? I tell you all about them here.
If you'd like to see what our calendar looks like (hint: there are socks), look here.
And if this year's science fiction Christmas story just isn't doing it for you, you could select a different one from a previous year—they're all listed here.

image by Robert Günther via Flickr

And now, without further ado, I hope you enjoy...


CHRISTMAS ON A WET SPACESHIP
I love this title :-)

DECEMBER 1

According to the captain, if the spaceship continued to have no technical problems, Lissy and her big brother Zane would be back on Earth in time to celebrate New Year's Day 2575. They had just over a week to go. Which brought a big problem to Lissy's attention. Tomorrow was Christmas. And her parents said it was absolutely impossible to celebrate Christmas on this wet spaceship.


DECEMBER 2

Some spaceships were wet and some were dry and some were half and half. This one was, oh about 95% wet. Lissy and Zane's parents had been on a diplomatic mission to the water planet Marina for the past four years. Now, the four of them were the only human passengers on this ship. Since humans can't breathe underwater, a small cabin had been dried up for them. The rest of the ship, like Marina itself, was flooded with water for the Mariners aboard, all 180 of them. A huge window separated the two sections of the ship, but allowed the passengers to greet each other.


DECEMBER 3

"Why can't we have Christmas on the spaceship?" asked Lissy after dinner, as they watched the Mariners swim up and down and back and forth.

Zane bumped her with his shoulder and waved to one of his friends swimming by. "You've asked that 300 times."

"I have not!" She bumped back.

"You have too!"

"Kids, enough," said Lissy's mom, before the fight could escalate further. "We'll have a nice Christmas celebration after we reach Earth. Grandma and Grandpa have invited us. They already sent pictures of their beautiful tree."


DECEMBER 4

"See?" Lissy's mom said. She held up a tablet with a picture of a tall fir tree, sparkling with white Christmas lights and glittery ornaments. In front of the tree stood their grandpa, stuffing a humongous bite of whipped cream-topped pumpkin pie into his mouth.

Zane sighed with longing. "Pie..." They hadn't eaten pie in four years.

"Pie..." Lissy echoed.

"Pie..." said Lissy's dad, his voice breaking.

"Oh, you guys." Their mom huffed and rolled her eyes. "It's not long now."


DECEMBER 5

For Lissy, a week after Christmas was much too long to wait. "But it's Christmas tomorrow. The real Christmas. Why can't we celebrate?"

"Why?" asked Lissy's mom. "How about"—she began counting on her fingers—"1. no decorations, 2. no tree, 3. nothing but freeze dried rations in tin foil, and we're down to the ones everyone has refused to eat for the past three months, 4. no presents, and 5. most importantly, no family or friends."

That was a lot of good reasons. And sometimes having a mom who was very organized was a pain.


DECEMBER 6

That night, Lissy lay in bed listening to the constant hum of the ship. She leaned over the side of her bunk and whispered to Zane, whose bed was below hers, "Zane, I know what mom said, but I think we should still celebrate. Let's organize all the stuff for Christmas tomorrow."

"What? Shut up and let me sleep."

"I mean it," she said. "Just because we can't have a fancy Christmas doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate it at all."

For a moment, Zane was silent, then he said, "I hate to admit it, but I think you're right."

A flame of excitement ignited in Lissy's chest. "So you'll help me?"


DECEMBER 7

"Yeah, I'll help you. Now be quiet so I can sleep."

Lissy lay back on her pillow with a smile. Now they only needed to come up with a plan.

Bright and early the next morning, Lissy jumped out of bed. It was Christmas morning! The tiny room she shared with Zane only had enough space for their bunk beds and a small dresser with their clothes. Lissy dressed, waited impatiently for Zane to start moving, then finally gave up and poked him in the nose until he groaned.

"What's that for?" he snarled at her, swatting at her hand.


DECEMBER 8

There was no time to lose. "Number one on the list was 'no decorations.'"

Zane groaned again, but he climbed out of bed and threw on his clothes. "Decorations...we'll have to make do with something we already own." From his drawer, he pulled out a handful of colored pencils left over from when they were in their dry apartment on Marina. Since they didn't have any paper, Lissy thought they were kind of useless.

"I'll make a star." Zane said. He cut long strips of tape and stuck the pencils together until he had a six-pointed star.


DECEMBER 9

"Wow!" Lissy said, as he started making a second one. Now it was her turn. She rummaged through all of the drawers, pulling out every article of red or green clothing she could find. Then she braided them together. "Look, I made garland!"

Zane nodded in approval. They decided to surprise their parents, so Lissy hid the decorations under her blanket. They'd bring them out later, when everything was ready.


DECEMBER 10

"What was number two on Mom's list?" Zane asked.

"A tree," Lissy said.

"Hmm." Zane looked at Lissy uncertainly. She looked back at him. They were in the middle of space. How in the universe were they going to find a tree?

"How about we stack some chairs on top of each other? And drape your garland on it?" he asked.

Lissy's lips curled downward. "Even with garland, a stack of chairs isn't the right shape. Chairs just aren't very Christmasy."

"Yeah," he agreed. "I know."


DECEMBER 11

"Too bad we can't get one of those monster-sized pyramid kelp plants from the Mariners," Lissy said. "They may need to live underwater, but at least they're alive and big and green."

Zane nodded, but then he sat up straighter. "Wait. We don't have to actually get one out here where it's dry. We can move a table next to the big window. Then we only have to ask one of the Mariners to bring it to their side of the window where we can see it."

"That's a great idea!" Lissy said.


DECEMBER 12

"I'll go ask Mina if she can arrange for it." Mina was Lissy's friend. They spent hours dancing together on either side of the window or sometimes playing computer games.

"While you're gone, I'll work on number three: food. I'll bring everything left in here, then we can sort it out together."

Lissy went to the hall and put in a ship call to her friend. It took her a little while to explain the concept of a Christmas tree, but Mina agreed right away to get some helpers and move one of the nine-foot pyramid kelps to the window.


DECEMBER 13

By the time Lissy skipped back into the bedroom, Zane was just tossing a final armful of rectangular silver packets onto the floor. "There are 52 meals left. The four of us only need 28 if the trip goes smoothly, so we can use extra for the feast if we like."

Lissy plopped down next to him, and they began sorting. Yum went on the left, yuck went on the right. Zane shoved three packets of liver to the right. Lissy pushed a lone macaroni and cheese to the left.


DECEMBER 14

And so they went on and on until they had six packets on the Yum side and all the rest on the Yuck side.

"Dad doesn't mind liver," Zane said.

Lissy pushed one silver packet to the left. "At least he'll have more to choose from," she said.

"Okay, so the food's all set. We just have to wait until later to rehydrate them."

"Yep. That means we're ready for number four on Mom's list. Presents."


DECEMBER 15

For a moment, excitement sent their hearts pattering. Presents! But both kids remained silent as they realized they had nothing to give. There was no such thing as a store on the ship, and garbage was recycled immediately, so they couldn't even use old wrappers and paper to draw a picture or make a craft.

"I just don't know," said Lissy with a sigh. "I can't think of even one thing we could give Mom and Dad."

"Me neither. We'll just have to keep working on it. Let's skip to number five," suggested Zane. "Family and friends."


DECEMBER 16

"That's not so bad," Lissy said. "We're already here. And we can turn on the picture of Grandpa! The one where he's eating the pumpkin pie."

"Pie..." said Zane, with longing in his voice. "Too bad there's no freeze dried pumpkin pie."

Lissy chuckled. "Hey, I can ask Mina if she wants to come. If we're eating by the window, the Mariners will see us anyway. And Mom and Dad both like all three of Mina's mothers."


DECEMBER 17

"Great idea! I'll ask Izza if she'll come too." At least five times a day, Zane and Izza raced each other the length of the window. With Izza's powerful tail, she almost always won. Lissy suspected Izza let Zane make it to the finish line first occasionally so he wouldn't feel so bad. "Maybe Izza could bring her moms also."

"Yeah! Then we'll have family and friends!"

Hours later, Zane and Lissy dragged a table and four chairs out in front of the window. Zane propped the picture of Grandpa up against the glass.


DECEMBER 18

Lissy strung up her garland around the handrails on the wall opposite the window. Zane hung his pencil stars in front of the garland.  In a flash, they rehydrated the food and warmed it up.

The Christmas kelp wasn't set up yet, but the kids knew from experience if they didn't eat right away, the food would turn to gelatinous mush. They weren't about to ruin their last yummy meals.

"Mom, Dad!" Zane called into their bedroom, where both lay down reading. "We have something special to show you!"


DECEMBER 19

Lissy's mom and dad laughed at the creaks in their bones as they stood up. But when they entered the hall in front of the window to the Mariners, their eyes went round and their jaws dropped.

"I made the garland!" Lissy called.

"And I made the stars!" said Zane. "We both got the food ready."

Beyond the window, there was suddenly a flutter of flowing leaves and swishing tails as four Mariners swooped in with the huge green kelp. And someone had even draped reddish brown seaweed garland around it.


DECEMBER 20

"A Christmas tree!" breathed Lissy's mom. Her eyes got a little misty.

"You guys arranged all this?" asked their dad. He gave them each a pat on the back.

The two kids beamed. "And Izza and Mina's moms are here too." On the other side of the glass, the eight Mariners floated back and forth, waving little pieces of kelp. Maybe they thought they were like little Christmas trees. "Hello, human friends! Thank you for inviting us to celebrate your holiday with you!" they called through the loudspeakers.

Zane gave them a thumbs up, and Izza returned the gesture.

"Oh no! I forgot about food for the Mariners," Lissy said.


DECEMBER 21

"Don't worry. We brought our own snacks," said Mina. She distributed little shiny pink things Lissy didn't recognize to the other Mariners.

In her years on Marina, Lissy had learned that it was sometimes better not to know what they were eating, so she just said, "Great!"

As the Mariners gnawed on their pink treats, Lissy and her family sat down and dug into the last yummy packets of food. Considering how they'd eat only from the Yuck Pile the next few days, today's meal was a real treat. When they were done, Zane cleared his throat.

"Now is normally time for presents," he said.


DECEMBER 22

Zane's eyes darted back and forth as he struggled to come up with something, and fast. "I know! My present for you is"—he made a drumroll sound with his fingers on the table—"my jokes!"

"Oh, that's wonderful," Lissy's mom said.

"Okay," Zane said. "First one. What do snowmen like to do during the holidays?"

The Mariners looked perplexed, but Lissy's dad said, "I don't know. What?"

"Chill out!"

Before the three other humans could stop laughing, Zane asked, "What do you call Santa when he stands still?"

Lissy's mom shook her head and shrugged.

"Santa Pause!"

Lissy laughed, "What a great idea, Zane!" she cried. But her palms were beginning to sweat, because she still didn't know what present she could give.


DECEMBER 23

"All right," Zane said. "One last joke. What do you get if you cross a bell and a skunk?"

Lissy's dad held up his hand. "Wait, I know this!" He opened his mouth, but a couple of blinks later, he said, "Um, um, okay, I guess I don't know it."

Zane raised his eyebrows. "Jingle smells!"

Everyone clapped for Zane, even the Mariners, although Lissy was pretty sure they didn't get any of the jokes. Human and Mariner humor didn't translate well.

Lissy's mom and dad looked to her. It was her turn to give a present. It should be something festive and Christmasy. Something she didn't need anything for but herself—just like Zane and his jokes.


DECEMBER 24

Lissy had it! She'd sing for them. The Mariners loved singing too, so hopefully they'd enjoy it also. First Lissy performed Silent Night. When she started Frosty the Snowman, her entire family sang along. Finally, she began one last, special song: Oh, Christmas Kelp—instead of Oh, Christmas Tree—and that made everyone laugh.

The Mariners wiggled their little kelp pieces and called "Merry Christmas!" Lissy and her family waved and called "Merry Christmas to you!" back to them. The evening wound down as the Mariners swam-danced in front of the window, as a kind of present to Lissy and her family.  Everyone thanked each other, over and over.

That night, as Lissy's parents tucked them into bed, they all agreed that this Christmas in the 95% wet spaceship was the most special, most memorable Christmas they'd probably ever have.

---

I hope you enjoyed this year's Christmas story! In case you're looking for more, I found Zane's jokes on these two websites: