Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sacred Spaces

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Northwest Tucson, a facility founded by Catholics—at least in modern times. Before the Catholics came, the Hohokam people dwelt and prayed here.

You can see the evidence in the rugged mound of rocks beside a nearby wash. Etched into the stones are pictures of animals and people and even astronomical representations. It is thought that before a hunt, the symbol makers would carve these images and pray for a successful hunt.

It is a sacred place.

It reminded me of another sacred place I’ve visited: Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. Built in 1681, it was founded as a Puritan meeting house. Currently it is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. On the rear walls are plaques commemorating the ministers who served there, stretching back in time and history. In 1930, the original box pews were discovered and restored, replacing more ornate standard pews installed during Victorian times.

Worshiping at Old Ship, I could feel there was something different about this place. It’s hard to describe, but I had the sense that this was holy ground.

There are other places that must be holy ground. Mountains seem to be a place where it’s easier to connect to God. You probably know that Mount Sinai was where Moses received the Ten Commandments from Yahweh. But the Tohono O’odham, descendants of the Hohokam, know Baboquivari Peak is sacred. It is a place of spiritual power.

 I think Jerusalem must be holy ground. Why else would three major religions contest its ownership so bitterly?

And then there are stone circles, like Stonehenge. While most populous in the British Isles, there are others in other parts of the world. What would cause people to build these constructions, often requiring monumental tasks like transporting the stones hundreds of miles, other than something special about the places they were built?

I’m not sure what makes a place sacred. I can only imagine that it’s a place where the barrier between the physical and spiritual is thinner than in most of the world. I do believe in the spiritual. I also believe in science. Science is easier to prove. It has repeatable results. But it doesn’t explain all of existence. There is something else, something mystical, something sacred to which humans have been trying to connect throughout history. So they make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and gather at Stonehenge on the equinox, making that connection in sacred spaces.

Photos all taken by me at Picture Rocks.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rabbit Trails

Writers often talk about rabbit trails. In case you’re not familiar with them, rabbit trails tend to go off in random directions, like this sign, leading nowhere in particular even though they often provide entertaining tangents. Seat-of-the-pants writers, also known as “pantsers”, are more prone to do this than “plotters”, who plan out a story in advance, but plotters like myself aren’t immune. Even though I’ve got a clear outline of the basic structure of a novel before I start writing it, as I’m typing unexpected things are bound to happen. I’ll be describing a visit to a museum where a specific event is supposed to happen, when my character decides to pause to look at a painting. All of a sudden, the painting assumes much greater importance than I ever intended, and I’m off on exploring how the artist decided to paint that subject, what the circumstances were when he painted it, how it came to be hung on this wall, etc. If you’re having trouble visualizing how this goes, think of the painting in Titanic.

Now, sometimes these rabbit trails are pure gold. They take the story in wonderful new directions that are inspired. More often, they’re pleasant detours that never make it into the final version of the novel. They’re cut from the manuscript and, if the writer is smart, pasted into a new document as fodder for a future story where they’re no longer a diversion, but a key element in that story.

I’ve been experiencing rabbit trails of a different kind as I’m writing the third book in my Community of Faith mystery series. These rabbit trails writers call “research.”

In this novel, tentatively called Kill Them All, the victim is a contestant in a computer game contest. Obviously, the primary suspects are the other competitors. Faith, my amateur sleuth, is a web designer and self-confessed computer geek, so solving this particular crime is a natural for her.

The games in this contest are Interactive Fiction (IF) or, as they’re sometimes called, text adventures. This style of game is one of the oldest ever played on computers. The first game of this genre, usually called just “Adventure”, was written by Will Crowther in the 1970s. Versions were ported to almost every computer as soon as the computer became available. Programmers do that for fun. At the end of the decade, some MIT students founded Infocom to market a game called Zork, which was very similar to the original Adventure. Infocom developed over thirty of these games and was one of the most successful gaming companies of the time.

A variant of this idea are the Choose Your Own Adventure books that are popular with children. More recently, we have enhanced ebooks, which can have the same kind of interaction.

(If you need another example of rabbit trails, reread the previous two paragraphs.)

As it turns out, I became a programmer at the same time Interactive Fiction was the most popular type of computer game. I loved the Infocom games, even though the puzzles could be frustrating. Even after graphical adventures became more popular, IF still had a devoted following, especially among programmers. Several development systems were created to make programming the games easier. In the 1990s, I learned the basics of one of these systems, Inform, and tried creating my own games.

A long time has passed since I actually played a text adventure, and I knew I had to refresh my memory on how they worked. I own most of the Infocom games, which are transportable between systems because they’re basically text files, so all I needed to do was find an interpreter, which reads the game files and translates them into something you can play. I’ve switched from a PC to Mac, which meant that the interpreters I’d used in the past wouldn’t work. I found Gargoyle, figured out how to install it, then fired up Zork. At this point, I cheated. I remembered how difficult the puzzles could be, the mapping with pencil and graph paper to be able to retrace your steps, the number of saves and restores, and the hours it takes to solve one of the Infocom games without dying. So I also downloaded a walkthrough, a list of all the steps necessary to solve the game and win, rather than figuring it out for myself. I am supposed to be writing a novel, not playing games, you know!

Next step was creating a rudimentary game.

It’s been a over a decade since I last created a work of IF, so I knew there had to be changes. Which led me to the second research rabbit trail: game development systems. I learned there was a new kid on the block, Twine, and that Inform now was up to version 7, with a totally new interface and natural language syntax. If I was going to write scenes about programmers creating games in these systems, I had to download them and know enough about how they worked to make the scenes believable.

Which led to finding the documentation and tutorials on the web, printing out The Inform 7 Handbook, going through a PowerPoint presentation on Twine. In two hours, I was able to create a very simple Twine game. A game in Inform will take a bit longer, since it’s a richer and more complicated language. While I was able to do what I wanted in Twine on the fly, I knew that I’d need to have a plan before creating a game in Inform.

I think we’re up to rabbit trail number four: puzzles.

As I alluded to earlier in this post, winning an IF game largely consists of solving puzzles. A mystery is also a puzzle, or multiple puzzles. I like puzzles. I used to do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper on a daily basis. I’ve done Sudoku puzzles. I enjoy Will Shortz on NPR on Sunday mornings. But designing puzzles is tricky.

However, packrat that I am, in 2000, when I was still interested in creating IF, I collected a series of articles and blog posts on what makes a puzzle. Fortunately, I printed these out and put them in a looseleaf, because some of the web sites on which they originated no longer exist. And this week I pulled that looseleaf off the shelf and started reading as preparation for planning the game that Faith will create in the novel.

Of course, that led to looking up more current information on the web, finding books on Amazon (most of which are textbooks and too expensive, even in Kindle format, for me to buy), and wondering how I’m ever going to finish this novel if I keep having to learn new things.

Naturally, ninety percent or more of what I learn won’t be in the book. The story isn’t about how to create a computer game, but about the characters and their motives to murder the victim. Pages full of Faith writing the game would be as interesting as me describing myself writing this blog.

But I love writing programs, which is what creating games is. I do miss it since I retired. It's fun and I'm having a grand old time poking into this stuff. I think I might be part rabbit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's Finally Here!

I'm excited about this year's Tucson Festival of Books. For the first time in a long time, I'll be attending as a reader, a visitor, able to go to many of the presentations by my favorite authors instead of being tied to a booth for most of the day. Don't get me wrong; I love the Tucson chapter of Sisters in Crime. We have great members and great programs and I enjoy every month's meeting. But, for the past couple of years, I've been in charge of setting up our booth, making sure it's staffed at all times, and resolving problems as they arise.

It's meant missing most of the presentations, particularly those of famous authors, because I wasn't able to get in line early enough to get into them. And "load-in" times, the time you have to pull a vehicle onto the mall of the University of Arizona in order to unload all the materials for your booth, start very early. Much earlier than the time I'm usually getting out of bed. So I've taken a break this year to enjoy all that the festival has to offer.

And that's a lot. In addition to the authors and presentations, there are booths all along the mall for various organizations that are book-related. There's music, and activities for children, and the marvelous Science City, featuring science presentations from the U of A. And food. Food is very popular, so popular that they've set up two food courts instead of one this year.

Oh, and I will be at the Tucson Sisters in Crime booth for at least one hour. I'll be doing a

Book Signing, Saturday, March 14 from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM, Booth 231

If you're around, stop by and say hello!