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New Short Story on Horror Addicts #82

September 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Horror maven Emerian Rich has included my short story “Anticipation” in her online radio show Horror Addicts #82. Thanks Emz!
http://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/horror-addicts-082-laurence-simon-100-word-story-showcase/

Categories: Writing

Playing with History

September 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Wherein a thriller writer borrows some tools from his friends who write historical fiction

Writers of historical fiction know they need to withstand the scrutiny of history buffs who have collectively spent far more time than the author digging up the details that fill in the book’s background. What may not be so obvious is how writers of fiction placed in the recent past face the same issue, and from a much wider audience. If you place a story five years in the past, nearly all of your readers will recall what the world looked like then, so you had better get it right.

One of the things I like most about well told thrillers is the possibility that the story actually happened while no one was watching. The Andromeda Strain, The Bourne Identity, and The DaVinci Code (to cite three different genres of thriller) could all have happened, because by the end of the story, the heroes have mitigated any disaster that would have changed the world and been noticed by the rest of us. Any newsworthy events during the stories are plausibly absorbed by the normal flow of news.

Getting the details right for a particular time period can also mean learning how things worked “back then.” Some thriller writers have developed specialized knowledge and only play in those sandboxes they know well. Only avid military buffs are going to fact check Clive Cussler, and only medical professionals are going to nitpick Robin Cook.

I create settings for my urban fantasy thrillers by drawing connections between seemingly disparate elements in our real world. Our world is full of mysterious, scary stuff. In The Chosen I connected Sammael with Exodus, and Egypt with Voodoo. In Daughter Cell I connect fugu with zombies, and genetic manipulation with Chi gong and the soul. By connecting these scary dots, I show them to be not just isolated cases, which reveals the world to be a much more terrifying place. This world, our world, the world in which I want the reader to wonder if the story could have happened.

The Chosen

In The Chosen I have several big, scary things happen that could have slipped into the cracks of real history. The nuclear attack off the coast of Georgia is averted. The British Navy would have retrieved their deactivated missile later without anyone ever knowing (or left it there to rot – an apparently common practice). The break in at the British Museum, the blast on the Khartoum train, the fire in the Cairo office building, the bomb on the plane to Haiti, are all mundane daily violence in a violent, complacent world. Who can say these things didn’t really happen in early 2001?

The Chosen takes place in 2001 between January 26 and April 8, the first day of Passover. I don’t have to remind you that history took an abrupt downward turn on September 11, 2001. In the book I make reference to the religious paranoia surrounding the turn of the millennium, which occurred on January 1, 2001.

You will recall the world held its breath on January 1, 2000 to see if all the clocks in all the computers would crash. The magnitude of this potential disaster eclipsed the actual millennium turn a year later. I was writing this book all through the 1990’s, and I had picked these dates for my brush with apocalypse some time before the date arrived.

After 9/11, I was really glad I had picked Spring 2001, since there are so many things in the book that could not happen as I described them since the world’s War on Terror began. The heightened security in places like airports and museums is the principal difference. As clever as Silas and Joseph are in the book, I would have had a lot more work on my hands making it believable to break into the British Museum or to plant bombs on an airplane at Miami International Airport.

The book also takes place in areas of rapid change. Egypt, Palestine, the Sudan and Haiti have all undergone many changes in the last decade. Having picked a specific time frame, I could research and get the details right about what was going on in these places at that time. A few months earlier or later, and these places would look different. Such are the travails of placing a story in the real world.

Another big change right around this period was the world’s embrace of cell phone technology. Silas avoids using cell phones because he says his unnamed enemy might be able to intercept such messages. When Joseph summons him in Egypt, Silas steps to a pay phone, but in fact “calls” Joseph using a magic mirror. Charles uses his cell phone in Washington, but it is then disabled in the sea off Haiti. I am always aware of how authors use the technology of their period of their stories. Cell technology can greatly speed up the information flow between characters, and therefore move the story along quicker. I think I struck the right balance in telling this tale.

Daughter Cell

The fun continues in the sequel. Daughter Cell takes place in June and July of 2005, with story events set in motion in January 2005. The story does not globe trot as much as The Chosen, with locations confined to Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea. Consumer technology plays a bigger role, with communications between the characters driving the story.

By 2005 cell phones were quite commonplace in Asia. Much of Asia does not have landlines, so this area of the world adopted cell technology early on. Phones in 2005 were still just phones. Texting was still largely confined to pagers. Urban Asians had developed abbreviated language codes that allowed them to use pagers for texting even before the devices had alphanumeric capability. Laptops were cutting edge. Wireless internet did not exist. DSL was about as fast as you could get. At one point in the story a businessman who is used to having the best tech speaks disparagingly of a four megabyte photo file he downloaded via email in five minutes.

Indeed our technology has come a long way in seven years. But readers remember, so writers have to get it right.

Since Daughter Cell is a medical mystery that turns on cutting edge science, I had to get my science straight. Moreover, I had to get the science straight for the exact time I placed the story. A few months later and the knowledge of the day would be different. So I dug up a lot of articles. I also had to add lead times, since the new discoveries of today don’t make it into the scientific literature for a year, and don’t get covered by the popular press for two to more years after the discovery is first made. After I was done fitting the science into my science fiction, I realized I needed to fact check. So I enlisted a cancer researcher and a critical care nurse to edit the first draft. I also included my usual posse of reviewers which includes an English professor, a religious scholar, and an independent film producer. Changes were made, and I am now willing to defend my telling of the tale.

Isis Rising

I will have caught up to current time and technology in the third and final book in this series, Isis Rising, which takes place in 2013 or 2014. The story does not rely on consumer electronics or Mideast politics or leading edge science, or any other area of rapid change. In fact, the story hinges mostly on ancient legends and how people are invested in their versions of history. Being a research hound, I will certainly be digging into those legends up to my dirty elbows. I just don’t think I will need to hit a moving target in history with this one, as I had to do with the first two.

You write best what you know. So you have to know what things were like and how things worked in the time of your story. Sometimes you can get away with generalizing to a particular decade, while other times you need to do the research and pin details down to the actual year. The bottom line is, unless your story is set in the nebulous “now” with no dates, plan of taking the time to do the research to get the details right.

Reprinted in part from How the World Has Changed on http://jaywrites.com/world-changed.html

Categories: Writing

World Peace Day

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Back in 1981, the United Nations established the 3rd Friday in September as International Peace Day. It gained recognition in 2001 when the UN was set to open its yearly session on September 11, which of course had its own surprises. Since then it has come to be known unofficially as World Peace Day.

Separate from the UN’s designation, in 2007 I wrote this piece to try out the idea of setting a goal that people everywhere could get behind. Here it is for your consideration on World Peace Day 2012.

9/3/07

Here is the hypothetical press release for an activist pacifist organization I once considered starting.

WORLD PEACE DAY

Dedicated to the proposition that we as a species are capable of overcoming our aggressive tendencies and can solve our differences in non violent ways. Our goal is nothing less than the achievement of a full day, within the next ten years, when no one is harmed by violence at the hand of another on planet Earth.

Not Just Pacifism – A Goal

Pacifism is the belief that no problem is best solved by violence, that indeed violence solves nothing and only leads to more violence. But such a lofty philosophy does not give the individual a goal to strive toward. Humans need goals if they are to overcome the habits and distractions of daily life. And daily life on Earth is unfortunately filled with violence.

Whether you believe we evolved from a competitive, carnivorous jungle, or whether you believe God gave mankind the right to dominate his environment, too little has been included in our heritage to remind us that violence is supposed to be the absolute last resort in resolving any conflict.

We believe the answer is to give each person a role in achieving a planet-wide goal. If each person stops and considers an alternative to violence each time the temptation arises, then there will come a day when all of us will have a peaceful day, on the same day. Once such a day occurs, we will forever be able to look back and say, “We did it once, we can do it again!”

Our Plan

We are a non-profit company organized under the United States tax laws for educational ventures. All donations to our effort are tax deductible to U.S. tax payers.

Our objective is to spread our message by whatever means we can. Initially we are selling bumper stickers and buying Internet advertising space. As we grow, we will be able to use more effective means of getting out the word. People the world over can’t consider their role in achieving World Peace Day unless they know such a movement exists.

To verify the achievement of our goal. we will be contacting every news agency we can, the planet over, putting them on alert to contact us if a day comes where they can find no act of violence. When we verify that such a day has occurred, we will issue a press release for those same news agencies to spread the good news that our goal has been reached.

The Achievability of World Peace Day

To be sure, such a grassroots effort runs counter to enormous forces that promote violence. The ATF estimates there are 40 million guns in the hands of private citizens in the United States alone. There are hundreds of millions of guns in the hands of standing armies and police forces around the world. This does not include the weapons belonging to guerrilla and revolutionary forces, let alone guns owned by private individuals. And by no means do we want to limit our goal to only gun violence.

On the other hand, if you were to tell the man on the street in the war-weary 1960’s that by the year 2000, there would be no declared wars between any two nations on Earth, he would consider you a wild optimist. But in fact, due to the steady efforts of visionary national leaders, there was a point in early 2000 when all of the conflicts, everywhere on Earth, were civil wars within national borders.

The evening news is filled with stories of homicides and war casualties, but that’s only lethal violence. One could compile police reports and extrapolate statistics for non-lethal yet still criminal violence. This would surely be an order of magnitude larger than lethal violence. And then there is the unreported and non-criminal violence that can happen in any of our lives. Let’s face it, even if the streets of our neighborhoods are not filled with mayhem, we are a violent species.

One might argue that raising awareness among those of us who are not violent will not halt the aggression of those of us who are. This argument also assumes such a common goal cannot make it into the minds of military leaders and criminals who live by the sword. But grassroots movements, once started, know no such bounds. If it becomes important to the non-violent majority, our message can be brought to bear on those who reach too quickly and easily to violence.

We hope to also tap into nationalist spirit, starting with countries that are not at war. Countries whose leaders take up our call could compete with one another in achieving a day of complete peace within their borders.

In the Meantime

Until we achieve our goal of a worldwide day of peace, we will consider our efforts worthwhile if our goal helps anyone stop their raised hand. We have faith in our fellow man that if he stops to wonder how reaching for a violent solution worsens the world and moves us all further from the peaceful world we want, then he will think of another solution to his problems. If you too have such faith in the inherent goodness of man, then please join us.

The Slogans

WORLD PEACE DAY – WHY NOT TODAY?

DOING MY PART TO ACHIEVE WORLD PEACE DAY

WORLD PEACE DAY – ONLY YOU CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN

WORLD PEACE DAY – TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE HISTORY

Categories: Politics

AWESOME

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Psychologists consider awe to be a separate emotion, with its own features that differentiate it from say, happiness. I had always considered awe to be more of a physical condition than an emotion, like being excited or surprised. Upon reflection, it makes more sense to think of it as an emotion, since it is a state of mind that flavors your current experience. Awe has a two pronged definition. It is brought on by exposure to something more than what was expected, either bigger, louder, more complex, more beautiful, more of something than you thought it would have. And secondly, and most critically, it moves you to change your mind.

This last piece is called mental accommodation. After experiencing the awesome thing, your mind adjusts the scale of your world view to accommodate the existence of the awesome thing. After the experience, you know that there are such fill-in-the-blank things in the world. Thankfully this does not mean you need ever greater stimulation to achieve awe. Your first kiss may have taken your breath away, but that does not mean there won’t be future kisses that will do the same.

The mental accommodation that comes with awe turns out to do something that can take people years of practice to achieve by purposeful means. It makes you live entirely in the moment. During the act of recalibrating your world view to cope with being overwhelmed, you cannot think about anything else. And living entirely in the moment has a profoundly positive impact on how you perceive time.*

There are other states of mind that also completely focus the mind, like meditation, hypnosis, and terror.

Mystics, shrinks and rollercoaster designers have known something about this kind of focus for ages. After an experience of total focus, the world seems less pressured, you feel like you have more time to do what you need to do. The change in time perception is significant and can be measured. More importantly, with this perceived additional time, stress dissipates, patience increases, and behaviors that are squeezed out by feeling rushed suddenly become easier. These neglected behaviors include such life improving things as time spent with loved ones and time given helping others.

You may think the euphoria you feel after being scared senseless is just being glad to have survived. This does not explain why many people actually love this sensation, and actively seek thrills. These folks love life as much as the rest of us and are not trying to endanger themselves. They get a high from it that adrenaline does not explain. I postulate this high leads to the same kind of tension relief as turning off your cell phone and handing yourself over to a masseur for an hour. The massage coaxes you by physical stimulation to abandon your cares and feel like you’ve got time to relax. 

Time, of course, marches on at the same pace no matter how you feel about it. On the other hand, we live entirely subjective lives, and our perception of time is much more important to us than its actual rate of passing. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to do what you need to do, then you are going to resent the things you need to do, the people you are doing them for, and the shortcuts you take to get it all done. The clock itself seems to move faster. Living a very busy life where you feel this way most of the time will change how you see the passage of time.

A friend who lived a “Type-A’ life once gave a speech about how long it takes to do a particular activity. She made everyone in the audience promise to not look at their watches, and had everyone mentally measure one minute. Her intention was to show that a minute is actually quite a bit of time and you can do a lot in one minute. She also mentally counted it out, and then called what she thought was one minute. She in fact called it sooner than anyone else in the room at 45 seconds.

Religions think so highly of the benefits of awe they have attributed their kind of awe to divine intervention. The Christian Holy Ghost/Spirit is a personification to explain the sensation of being visited by something bigger and more holy than yourself when you are awestruck by the beauty/size/complexity/mercy of the world. The “Peace of God” that follows a visitation of the Holy Spirit is the sense of time slowing down that comes from awe. I am not questioning the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Who am I to say religious awe isn’t sent from Heaven (albeit assisted by church smells and bells designed to illicit awe)? What I am saying is the results are not unexpected given what we know of how awe works.

Eastern philosophies insist that the secret of happiness is to live in the moment. Buddhism in particular teaches to not filter your perception of the world through preconceived notions and to only see the world as it actually is. Seeing the world as it actually is, in all its glory, would be pretty awe inspiring. The moment when a practitioner manages to finally break down the sense of self and completely open up to the reality of the world is probably the ultimate awesome experience. It is said that time becomes meaningless, focus is complete, even death has no hold, in this enlightened state. The sense of having all the time in the world shows up in remarkable feats. For example, someone in satori mediation cannot be startled.

So if awe is so good for us, then why do we seem to lose the sensitivity to be awestruck as we get older? Children are awestruck by things all the time, because everything is new to them. Their minds have to recalibrate continuously as they learn about the world around them. Once you have seen enough of the world, though, and your mind grasps how big and wonderful it all is, even if you love how big and wonderful it all is, you just can’t get all that excited about it anymore. Surprise is an integral part of awe.

The word “awesome” is currently being overused in popular culture to mean anything exceptional. On the other hand, notice who is using it – youth. Youth are growing up with the Internet and smart phones and movies filled with CGI, and all kinds of genuinely awesome stuff. They still do awe. And they love it.

One way to let yourself be awestruck is to put yourself in situations where you are more likely to experience things that are more awesome than you expect. Travel is good for this. I once spent two days in the French Quarter of New Orleans before I looked up and realized the balconies of all the buildings are made of iron, and that I had been walking around with thousands of tons of iron over my head and not realized it. I had a rather large moment of awe. So much so that at the time, years ago, before I had any of this figured out, I thought we needed a measure of existential weight, a unit of measure to be able to compare the awesomeness of different experiences. I coined the term Cubic Geronimo (G3 for short), from the battle cry and how this quantity felt like it occupied space.

The problem with quantifying awe is its subjectivity. Having a unit of measure might be convenient but only if the parties can agree on relative scale. Such a ranking would be molded by a person’s life experience. One person might say that seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is 10 G3, while someone else with more life experience might only rate it a 6. How much your mind has to shift to accommodate the discovery of the awesome thing determines how deeply you experience awe. An experience that completely messes with your mind, like having a Moses-like visitation with God that leaves you gibbering for days, that would score in the millions of Cubic Geronimos. Think Dave at the end of 2001.

I don’t think we need more and greater stimulation to recapture the awe we had so much more often when we were young. Beauty and elegance and complexity can also inspire awe. So can uniqueness of the experience. Remember the first kiss I spoke of earlier. Some of us had a spectacular first kiss that set a high water mark for the rest of our lives. Others of us had an awkward, regrettable first kiss that hardly scored on the G3 scale at all. The good news is, we don’t get to intellectually compare experiences and decide when we are going to be awestruck.

On the other hand, we can decide whether we will be jaded and shielded from being impressed by anything, or open, flexible and vulnerable to being taken by awe. The key is humility. There is a Chinese proverb of a Zen master who offers to pour his student a cup of tea, even though the student’s cup is already full. The master pours anyway, and the cup overflows. When the student objects, the master points out that before the master can pour anything in, the student must first empty his cup to make room. If we walk around thinking we’ve got it all figured out, we will not have any room in our cups to accept any new experiences that may inspire us to awe.

As self-aware, survival-evolved creatures, it is human nature to assemble a world view that satisfies our need to know where we fit into the world. Knowing what is black and what is white and where the grey areas are is part of who we are. Of course, this painting is exactly what the Buddhists tell us is the source of all suffering, and exactly what Jesus told us to avoid when he said don’t judge and let God judge instead. But we do it anyway because it seems like a survival skill to know friend from foe and where you stand.

The trick is to build your world view up to the point where you feel comfortable, but stop before you seal yourself off from the wonders that surround you.

We can all use less pressure in our lives. You can’t easily rearrange your life to eliminate things that put pressure on you. What if instead you could ease your perception of the flow of time so you felt like you have time enough to conduct your life without the pressure? Letting yourself be awestruck once in a while seems to have this effect.

Try it. It’ll be awesome.

 

* “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” (Forthcoming in Psychological Science)

Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker

http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/TimeandAwe2012_workingpaper.pdf

Categories: Religion
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