Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Anniversary of Mt St Helens

On May 18, 1980, a second earthquake, of magnitude 5.1, triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain. It was the largest known debris avalanche in recorded history. The magma in St. Helens burst forth into a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles (600 km2).

Yeah, I remember that well! I hadn’t remembered the details, though.

The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged over 200 homes, 185 miles (298 km) of highway and 15 miles (24 km) of railways.

83-year-old Harry R. Truman, who had lived near the mountain for 54 years, became famous when he decided not to evacuate before the impending eruption, despite repeated pleas by local authorities. His body was never found after the eruption.

Another victim of the eruption was 30-year-old volcanologist David A. Johnston, who was stationed on the nearby Coldwater Ridge. Moments before his position was hit by the pyroclastic flow, Johnston radioed his famous last words: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” Johnston’s body was never found.

I remember the images of the ash piling up, and the devastation around the volcano.

Here’s a video of today’s important ongoing volcanic event: one of the Kilauea eruptions

Around 2,000 people have evacuated the surrounding area. Lava leaking from the fissures has destroyed at least 26 homes and 10 other structures, according to the Associated Press.

Pretty alarming. Good luck to everyone near the Hawaiian volcanoes!

Here’s a post from The Washington Post about the Yellowstone supervolcano:

Yellowstone is capable of eruptions thousands of times more violent than the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980. The northern Rockies would be buried in multiple feet of ash. Ash would rain on almost everyone in the United States. It’d be a bad day.

Yeesh. It certainly would.

Intellectual humility is called for here: No one can say with great confidence how much magma it takes to trigger a caldera-forming eruption.

There’s the most important sentence in the article. What the past few years have shown us for sure — drawing on astronomical discoveries as well as terrestrial — is that we don’t understand as much about planetary science as we thought.

This eruption isn’t what I would pick if I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic novel — partly because it’s been done. Mike Mullen did it in his Ashfall trilogy (has anybody read that? I wonder if I should try it?). And Harry Turtledove did it in his imaginatively titled Supervolcano Eruption. (I’m not likely to try that one as I don’t really like Turtledove’s writing.)

Anyway, I’d rather use a major earthquake along the Cascadia fault.

No shortage of geological disasters that are not only possible, but certain to happen eventually …

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Armor in a secondary world

Here’s a post by Marie Brennan at Book View Cafe: New Worlds: Armor

Mind you, not all armor is made of steel. But leather armor isn’t really what games would like you to believe: while leather has been used in many parts of armor-making, as a backing for rigid pieces or a connector between different parts of the armor, on its own, it isn’t actually much use as protection. It works reasonably well against incidental dangers — that’s why motorcyclists often wear it — but even in hardened form, a deliberate attack can too easily cut right through it. Still better than nothing, of course, and the same is true of wooden armor, or the linothorax of ancient Greece. But on the whole, metal was historically your best bet for protection, whether it was bronze, iron, or steel….

Now, as it happens, I was just looking at historical types of non-metal armor because the world of my current WIP is metal-poor, or at least iron-poor.

Did you know it’s possible to make relatively effective armor out of paper? Paper armor may or may not have really been an important thing, but isn’t that a neat concept? If it was used at all, it may have been injected with shellac of some kind.

I bet you can think of one potential issue with paper armor, though:

One problem that they noted with this idea is that the paper armor rapidly disintegrated when it got wet or if it was subjected to repeated blows. This suggests that paper armor, if used, would have been limited to situations where the armor getting wet or being used excessively would have been unlikely.

So I reluctantly gave up on the idea. My setting is very SE Asian in climate, so rain is not going to be infrequent. No paper armor for me, no matter how cool it might be.

Lamellar armor — plates of metal or other materials laced together — was often used, and offers a lot of design options. Apparently this kind of armor was often lacquered to weatherproof it, or just for decoration, which is cool right there. Even more important, the plates could be made of lots of different things — leather, horn, bone, stone (stone? But it’s on the list).

I like the horn option. That sounds neat and lends itself to good visual images.

According to this Wikipedia article: Japanese lamellar armour was made from hundreds or even thousands of individual leather (rawhide) or iron scales or lamellae known as kozane, that were lacquered and laced together into armour strips. This was a very time consuming process.

Yes, pretty sure different styles of lamellar armor are going to appear in my current WIP… probably types made to be cooler to wear! It seems to me that sheer guts and a desire not to get stabbed are not going to protect you from heatstroke in a tropical environment!

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Building a secondary world with idiom

So, I just finished Frederica by Georgette Heyer, which I liked a lot, of course. A bit different from her usual, what with the teenage boys and the occasional wild adventure they bring to the story, along with the more customary slow-building romance between Alverstroke and Frederica. I grant, I don’t quite understand why Frederica and others did not consider the handsome but dim Endymion anything but an obviously good match for the beautiful but dim Charis; I had to take this on faith since to me they seemed imminently well suited right from the start.

Anyway, for some reason, this was the Heyer novel where I especially noticed the unfamiliar idioms so frequently employed. Some paragraphs consisted almost entirely of idiom. For example:

Alverstroke, said Mr Peplow, was a noted amateur of the Fancy: none of your moulders, but a boxer of excellent science, who was said to display to great advantage, and was always ready to take the lead in milling. A Corinthian? No: Mr Peplow, frowning over it, did not think that his lordship belonged to that, or any other, set. He was certainly a top-sawyer, and a first-rate fiddler: might be said, in fact, to cap the globe at most other forms of sport; he was extremely elegant, too: trim as a trencher, one might say; but in an unobtrusive style of his own which never included the very latest quirks of fashion.

Moulders, excellent science, milling, Corinthian, top-sawyer, first-rate fiddler, cap the globe, trim as a trencher! Eight idiomatic words or phrases in a single paragraph! How do you suppose this compares with the average Regency? Of course not every paragraph is like this, but I bet very few Regency authors could get away with this high a proportion of idiom.

Perhaps in smaller quantities, idiom, slang, cant phrases, and figures of speech can do a lot of heavy lifting in building a secondary world, which is after all pretty much a category that includes historical novels, as the past is a foreign country. As far as I’m concerned, coming up with idiomatic and slang phrases and figures of speech is really hard. You know how you will sit and stare at your screen while trying to come up with yet another character name? (If you’re a writer, you know this feeling well, I bet.) Well, it’s just like that for me when I’m trying to come up with slang that is not too similar to any modern American idiom, sounds right for a particular world, yet remains intelligible to the reader. I must admit, I feel pretty good if I can come up with four or five slang phrases or figures of speech for a whole novel, never mind packing eight such phrases into a single paragraph.

I can think of a couple authors who are better at this than I am, though. It must be a knack, like coming up with witty one-liners or being able to just start speaking or writing in iambic pentameter. Plus I imagine from time to time a writer just stares at the screen A LOT as she comes up with enough idiom to suit the world she is building.

1. CJC. For example, in the Heavy Time duology. That’s by no means my favorite of hers; in fact it’s near the bottom. But she gives her unpleasantly gritty, claustrophobic, near-dystopic world a lot of flavor with the language the characters use. A lot of it is work-related slang: Bird watched doubtfully as Ben punched up the zone schema, pointed on the screen to the ’driver ship and its fire-path to the Well. Some of it is pure slang: Brut bad luck. Or He was drunk. Gone out. Everyone knew that. Some of it is based on foreign language phrases absorbed into the language: And brut put, I don’t like this ‘partner’ talk and I sincerely don’t like Bird close with this jeune fils . . . Check out the novy chelovek. . . . Do you want to know quelqu’ shoze?

2. Eluki bes Shahar. Another SF example with amazing use of slang and idiom.

I was minding my own business in beautiful downside Wanderweb, having just managed to mislay my cargo for the right price. My nighttime man had talked me into bootlegging again, and damnsilly stuff it was too, either maintenance manuals or philosophy texts, I never did figure out which … so I was making my way around wondertown, free, female, and a damnsight over the age of reason, when I saw this greenie right in front of me in the street. He was definitely a toff, and no stardancer – you never saw such clothes outside of a hollycast. He was lit up like Dreamstreet at night and wearing enough heat to stock a good-sized Imperial Armory besides. And this being scenic Wanderweb, land of enchantment, there were six of K’Jarn’s Werewolves and K’Jarn himself facing him. I was of the opinion – then – that he couldn’t do them before they opened him up, so, fancy-free, I opened my mouth.

“Good morning, thou nobly-born K’Jarn. Airt hiert out to do wetwork these days or just to roll glitterborn for kicks, hey?”

This is a wonderful book, and it’s the language and voice that make it. If you’ve never read it, you should see if you can find a copy. I will add: the first time I read the whole trilogy, I wasn’t crazy about how it ended. The ending did grow on me later, though.

3. L. Shelby in her Across the Jade Sea trilogy.
I’m sorry I got my feet mixed up.
Brighter than a bean in a bucket.
They went gleeful on me.
Trying to force the truth into their heads leaves me flatter than paper.

My favorite is “Brighter than a bean in a bucket.” Sure, that makes no sense. Neither does “Trim as a trencher.” The point is, if you’re at all accustomed to running into Regency slang, then Shelby’s slang has exactly the same feel to it.

It’s gotta be a natural knack. Wish I had it, because it’s one more way to add depth to your worldbuilding.

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Homo naledi

Remember that find a few years ago, fourteen complete specimens of a previously unknown hominid species, named Homo naledi? The ones found in the cave that you had to creep through a ten-inch-diameter passage to get to?

If you don’t remember, here is the excellent National Geographic article about the find. Click through and read the whole thing if you haven’t yet. Great story about an amazing find.

Here, from that article, is a summary of the characteristics of H naledi:

Click on the image to blow it up.

Now, I wouldn’t consider this definitive — so much in paleontology is subject to revision — but if you’ve been following along, you may have run into one of the articles about the age of the fossils. They seem to be much, much younger than immediately assumed — like 200,000 to 300,000 years old. This means that this species may have overlapped with ours. Here is a good article at New Scientist about that.

Now, here’s a new article at Ars Technica about the brain of H naledi.

Homo naledi’s brain may have been small, but it looked surprisingly similar to ours, according to a new study that suggests that structure may have come before size in the evolution of hominin brains.

Measurements of skull fragments indicate that Homo naledi’s brain was about the same size as that of an Australopithecine—the genus of primates that lived in Africa 2 to 4 million years ago and may be among our early ancestors. Yet the diminutive species was present in Africa long after the Homo lineage appeared and may have overlapped with modern humans. So how it fits into our family tree is not clear.

A new study reveals that, despite the size, Homo naledi’s brain looked quite different from Australopithecus’ and much more like ours, at least in some very important areas.

Very cool stuff!

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Five books with kickass moms

By a complete coincidence, this post by Aidan Moher at tor.com happens to be a great companion to the previous Book Riot post about dads in Romance.

Five books with kickass moms

Several years ago, I became a parent. The birth of my child was a transformative experience, and, since then, I’ve been drawn to stories about parents — their relationships with their children, the way parenthood affects their decisions, the endless possibilities for familial relationships.

Speaking as a non-parent, while I’m sure the birth of your child does re-orient everything in your life, but lots of us non-parents also are drawn to stories featuring parents, in the same way that those of us not involved in a romantic relationship may enjoy reading romances. Just thought I’d mention that.


Today, I’m going to look at four fantasy novels and one series that feature kickass/brilliant/funny/interesting moms. They all have different roles—live in societies with varying expectations—but one thing is consistent: they’re brave, impressive, and they have huge impacts on the world around them. They send ripples through the lives of those they touch — they’re powerful, and it’s difficult not to feel inspired by their actions, or awed by their courage. Some hit like a boulder, others as delicately as the breath of a butterfly’s passing, but the world in their wake is always changed.

Cool topic! Whom does Moher pick out for his list?

1. Jenny Waynest from Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Great choice! Wonderful choice! I love this book and I love Jenny, and also this novel could be used for a list of great fathers because John Aversin is also very cool.

2. Ezarit in Updraft by Fran Wilde. I must confess I could not get into this book. I had no problem with the mother, but the daughter — the protagonist — is suuuuuch a twit. I couldn’t stand her. No doubt she improves over the course of the book, but I fear I will never know.

3. Jendara in Skinwalkers by Wendy N. Wagner. I haven’t read this one.

4. Lovyan in Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr. Nor this one.

5. Clara Kalliam in The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham. Now there’s an interesting choice!

She is not a viewpoint character, and, aside from her husband’s impressions, readers do not get a glimpse at her true wile and courage until the rug is pulled out from under her.

Her fall from grace as a result is swift, but there’s a terrific resilience in Clara as she discovers that though her traditional place of authority has been stripped from her, a truer power has replaced it: freedom. Where some of the other women on this list often match their male counterparts blow-for-blow in physical prowess and martial proficiency, Clara is untrained as a fighter, and possess no aptitude for weapons or fighting. Instead, she manipulates the flow of power around her through social machinations, keen spywork, and bold political alliances.

Gosh. Maybe I’ll pick up the second book of this series after all.

Who’s your favorite mother in SFF?

For my pick … I think it’s hard to beat Cordelia in the Vorkosigan series. Plus she definitely fits the kickass category. especially given that shopping trip she made to the capital that time.

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Advice for fathers in romance novels

Over at Book Riot, this clever post from Jessica Plummer: Advice for fathers in romance novels.

I’ve read a fair number of historical romance novels in my day, and though the genre has a wider range than its detractors would have us believe, there’s one thing that remains by and large consistent throughout: 90% of the main characters’ fathers suck eggs. Whether distant and cold, wildly irresponsible, or flat-out abusive, romance novel dads are by and large the absolute pits.

I probably haven’t read nearly as many romance novels as Plummer, but YES! And it’s too bad.

I’ve read three novels by Carla Kelly, for example, all of which were good and one of which was truly outstanding (Softly Falling). Now that I think of it, I must buy some more of her books. But my point at the moment is, the father was pretty awful in all three of them. The father in Softly Falling got a redemptive character arc, which is one reason I liked that one the best. In the other two, the father was fairly awful.

Jessica Plummer’s post is great fun and you should definitely read it. I hate to pull out all the best bits, but I can’t resist sharing her first tidbit of advice for fathers:

Don’t raise your highly sensitive child on a dilapidated estate on a remote, howling moor, constantly reminding them of your family’s past glory while the house falls to pieces around your ears.

Advice to live by!

Now, where can we find some great fathers in romance novels?

I’m reading a Georgette Heyer novel right now. This particular book has no important fathers on stage, but I can think of others of hers where the father is very important and not a “complete and utter jag” as Plummer says. For example, the father in The Devil’s Cub, and again, the father in Cotillion. In the latter book, the father is not as important, but he is a presence in the novel and he’s obviously a good father. I liked him and wouldn’t have minded seeing more of him on stage.

Who else writes good fathers into their romance novels? Seriously, I’d like to know. I can think of quite a few good brothers and a handful of good mothers, but not many good fathers; no doubt a trend exacerbated because many romances, especially historical romances, start off with the father’s death causing all kinds of problems for the remaining family.

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One space or two?

You’ve probably heard about this study that attempted to examine the readability of text written with two spaces after each period rather than one. Of course people do like to exaggerate the findings of any study; whether those findings warrant much rational attention is a separate question.

Things to notice about this study:

The study used a monospaced font, thus exaggerating the difference between one space and two.

The readability of text improved with the use of two spaces after periods, but only for people who themselves type with two spaces after a period, and only by 3%.

Using two vs one space did not have a significant impact on comprehension of the text.

The actual study, as opposed to everyone’s reactions to it, can be found here.

Now, I personally don’t find this a topic worth getting all het up about. I don’t understand why people have such vehement opinions about the two space / one space question. For example, this:

I find two spaces after a period unsettling, like seeing a person who never blinks or still has their phone’s keyboard sound effects on. I plan to teach my kids never to reply to messages from people who put two spaces after a period. I want this study’s conclusion to be untrue—to uncover some error in the methodology, or some scandal that discredits the researchers or the university or the entire field of psychophysics.

I like that paragraph a lot; it made me smile. But it just seems so strange to pick this particular hill as one to die on.

All over the blogosphere, I see people are declaiming about the unaesthetic, unappealing visual quality of text with two spaces after the period. Gosh, they must have had a tough time reading all that ugly print twenty years ago. Oh, wait, I bet it never crossed their minds to care one way or the other at the time.

Adding a stronger visual cue that tells the reader “Here is the end of this sentence” seems like it would obviously increase reading speed. I’m surprised the effect was only 3% and only for subjects who normally type with two spaces. I wonder if you tried this again with older people rather than college students as subjects? Older people are probably more used to two spaces and also on average probably have worse eyesight, so how about that?

On the other hand … I type with one space after periods now. This is because a couple years ago I quit using my right thumb to type at all, because of the tendinitis issue with that thumb, so it seemed practical to go to one space just in case the change spared my left thumb some stress. I don’t really need tendinitis problems with both thumbs. That would be super-inconvenient.

Visually … I just don’t find that it makes much difference. Two spaces don’t bother me. One space is fine. I don’t care. If I pick up an old book, this is not something I even notice, much less worry about.

Am I unique? Please tell me that out there in the wide world, there are other readers who are baffled about this particular war.

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SFF Adaptations That Would Be Amazing

At tor.com, this post from Foz Meadows: 5 Potentially Amazing SFF Adaptations That Need To Happen

I know your first response!

SO MANY CHOICES HERE. Yes, absolutely, I bet we could all come up with 100 books / novellas that would be fantastic as tv shows or miniseries or movies. Let’s first see what Foz Meadows picks …

1. PERN! Okay, yes, that would be delightful. Who doesn’t love telepathic dragons? The plotting gets unbelievable in places, but hey, for movies, that’s totally par for the course.

Meadows goes further and makes some very interesting, detailed suggestions:

A Bioware-style RPG based around fighting Thread. The concept of Impressing a dragon, with all the different colour and gender combinations available, is perfectly suited to giving a custom character different narrative options, regardless of whether who you Impressed was decided by a random dice-roll, your resting place on a sliding scale determined by prior in-game actions, or a simple player’s choice. As in Dragon Age: Origins, players could choose from a series of backgrounds with alternate entry points into the same story depending on whether their protagonist comes from Hall, Hold or Weyr. The overarching plot could centre on a mix of Hold/Hall politics and the search for ancient technological artefacts, with bonus sidequests about running various missions, recruiting potential riders, Harper Hall spying and collecting/apportioning fire lizard eggs. Dragon powers like timing it and going Between could work as in-game combat abilities, while romance options could be intertwined with—though not wholly dependent on—dragon pairings. …

Interesting! I never think of game options, but a game based on Pern sounds great.

2. Court of Fives by Kate Elliot. Fine, I don’t know, I haven’t read it. I’d be pleased to see JARAN made into a movie, though.

3. Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series. I guess? I read the first couple, but if I were going for an UF series, this is not the one I’d vote for.

4. Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace. OOOH! JUMPS UP AND DOWN! Yes, this would be great.

Archivist Wasp is the perfect length for film, and premised on the sort of compelling, dystopian uncertainty about what’s happening now and why things broke that worked for All You Need is Kill (filmed as Edge of Tomorrow/Live. Die. Repeat.) and I Am Legend. In fact, you could arguably pitch it as a blend of the best elements of those two stories, with just a pinch of (seemingly) magic. In a harsh, barren future, Wasp is forced to capture ghosts to try and question them about what happened to the world—a largely futile task, as most ghosts are incoherent. But when one ghost proves stronger, fiercer, and more lucid than the others, going so far as to ask Wasp’s help in finding his companion, Wasp follows him out of her body and into the world of dead. Aided by her access to his disintegrating memories of what happened before—flashbacks of an unknown time that steadily lead them onwards—Wasp comes to question everything she’s ever been taught about the world that remains and her bloody, brutal place within it.

5. The Beka Cooper trilogy, by Tamora Pierce. Another jumping-up-and-down moment, but not as excitedly because I don’t want to wear myself out. This is a long trilogy, by far my favorite of Tamora Pierce’s books

[T]he idea of a feudal police drama with magic, with each season built around the events of a given book, is appealing as hell. There’s a reason urban fantasy adapts so well to TV, when the people in charge understand its peculiarities: the procedural elements translate well to an episodic format, while the worldbuilding provides extra narrative avenues as the story progresses, and used together, the two things pull in harmony.

Okay, so, that’s three enthusiastic YES THIS responses from me, one sure-but-how-bout-something-different, and one meh, whatever. Not bad, actually!

You all know what one work I would most like to see turned into a miniseries or movie, right?

Yes, The Death of the Necromancer.

What one work would you most like to see translated into tv, movies, or games?

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Brilliant! This is a step toward the future I can really get behind.

A stealthy Harvard startup wants to reverse aging in dogs, and humans could be next

Here’s the brilliant part:

“Dogs are a market in and of themselves,” Church said during an event in Boston last week. “It’s not just a big organism close to humans. It’s something people will pay for, and the FDA process is much faster. We’ll do dog trials, and that’ll be a product, and that’ll pay for scaling up in human trials.”

Of course this guy is perfectly right. Of course the idea that pet owners will gladly pay to extend the lifespans of their pets is totally, completely, 100% obvious, but people miss obvious truths all the time. Deliberately aiming at the pet-owner demographic in order to pay for extended research on the reversal of human aging … brilliant.

And as a side effect of pursuing human longevity, we get to (potentially) extend the lifetimes of our pets! Talk about a win/win scenario.

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