Today’s Art (31st January 2019)

Thanks to being a bit more awake than I was when I made yesterday’s painting, this digitally-edited painting (which is also based on yet another photo of Westbrook that I took during the snow last March, just around the corner from the area in this painting) turned out better than I’d expected 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Westbrook – Gateway” By C. A. Brown

Top Ten Articles – January 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month and I thought that I’d do my usual thing of collecting links to my ten favourite articles about writing fiction, making art etc.. that I’ve posted here this month. As usual, I’ll include a couple of honourable mentions too.

All in all, this month’s articles turned out reasonably well. Although I’m still trying to post a book review every 2-4 days, so there are less instructional articles as a result (I don’t know when the next book review will be though, since the book I’m reading at the time of writing [“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson] isn’t exactly a quick read, plus it’s been a while since my last “Doom II” level review too), quite a few of my articles turned out reasonably well.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – January 2019:

– “Four Tips For Writing Daily Short Stories
– “Why Traditional Art Skills Still Matter – A Ramble
– “Two Basic Tips For Adding Some Nostalgia To Your Stories
– “Three Tips For Building A “Buffer” Of Stories, Comics, Articles etc.. To Post Online (If You’ve Already Started Posting Stuff)
– “Two Sneaky Ways To Be An Inspired Artist Again
– “Two Better Alternatives To Writing Fan Fiction
– “Four Random Tips For Writing Stories Set In 1990s America
– “Three Clever Hidden Tricks That Writers Use
– “Four Better Alternatives To Rotating First-Person Narration
– “Three Basic Tips For Writing Vampire Stories

Honourable Mentions:

– “Five Things I’ve Learnt From Getting Back Into Reading Regularly
– “Three More Tips For Reading More This Year

Today’s Art (30th January 2019)

Well, this is another digitally-edited painting based on another photo I took in Westbrook during the snow last March (and the pub in this photo was the initial inspiration for part of this short story). However, since I was tired when I made this painting, it really didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Westbrook – Pub In The Snow” By C. A. Brown

Four Random Tips For Writing Stories Set In 1990s America

One of the interesting things I noticed when I was writing daily short stories last spring was the fact that I started writing a few stories set in 1990s America, like this horror story, this comedy story and the sequel to it.

This was something that I’d wanted to do back in February 2017, but just didn’t know how to – so, back then, I took the easy option and wrote five stories set in late 1990s Britain instead (even though I’d previously made a comic set in 1990s America, I just couldn’t work out how to write stories about it back then).

So, since I seemed to have gained a bit more wisdom and/or confidence about writing stories set in a decade I can only vaguely remember and a country I’ve never been to, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write stories set in 1990s America. Needless to say, these tips shouldn’t be considered expert advice or anything, but they might be a useful starting point if you’ve never tried to write anything in this genre before.

1) Do your research (and think like a critic): One of the things that helped me to write stories set in 1990s America last spring was the fact that, several months earlier, I went through a phase of watching Hollywood movies from the 1990s and watching/rewatching various TV shows from 1990s America. A while later, I also went through a phase of listening to more punk music from 1990s America than usual too. But, unlike previous times where I’ve done this, I also did something a bit different.

Unlike just watching and listening for entertainment like I might have done a few years ago, I needed to find some way of justifying all of the time I’d sunk into them. So, I started looking at them in a more critical way – so that I could write reviews and/or analysis articles for this site. What this meant is that I had to look for things that they all had in common with each other, I needed to find ways to describe what set them apart from more modern stuff etc…

And, all of this meant that I got a bit of an education about what makes 1990s America so distinctive. So, my advice would be to think like a critic whilst researching 1990s America. Look for what different things from the decade have in common (eg: visually, tonally, thematically etc..) and it will give you a lot of pointers for writing stories in this genre.

2) Optimism and cynicism: I’ve mentioned this many times before, but one of the things that sets the 1990s – especially in America- apart from other decades is the feeling of optimism. This is because it was the decade after the end of the Cold War and before 9/11. It was a decade where there seemed to be no major threats and that things could only get better.

If you don’t believe me, watch some Hollywood action/thriller movies from the time – the storylines are often hilariously silly or innocently generic, because the writers couldn’t just look to the headlines for inspiration. They actually had to use their imaginations to come up with fictional threats and horrors because things were relatively peaceful at the time. So, 1990s America had a bit more of an innocent and optimistic attitude. If you need further confirmation of this, watch the first season of “The West Wing” and ask yourself if anyone in America would make an uplifting political drama like that these days.

All of this cheerful optimism was, of course, counterpointed by the famous cynicism of the 1990s. Seriously, it’s one of the defining traits of 1990s America. Whether it is punk songs with depressing lyrics, a gloomier focus on more mundane problems (eg: crime, the environment, poverty etc..), sarcastic dialogue in movies, “gritty” comic books, “edgy” videogames or other such things, 1990s America is this wonderfully paradoxical balance between optimism and a more innocent form of cynicism.

3) Traditions: Although the world wide web was certainly around in 1990s America, it was still a “new” thing and not the ubiquitous thing it is these days. As such, there seems to be a slightly more “traditional” atmosphere to 1990s America. At least according to my research anyway.

For example, shopping centres (or “malls”) were apparently still popular meeting places and/or places to spend a few hours. Likewise, although VHS tapes (and, later, DVDs) existed in 1990s America, cinemas seemed to be a bit more popular back then. Popular culture was more heavily controlled by a few film studios and TV stations. Plus, of course, social media wasn’t really a “thing” back then, so groups of friends etc.. tended to be a little bit more varied in terms of opinions and personalities (which allows for all sorts of amusing “odd couple” style stories).

Likewise, just like twenty/thirtysomethings these days get nostalgic about the 1990s (like in this article), the older creative people who were making a lot of the popular films, TV shows etc.. in 1990s America were of course nostalgic about the 1950s-70s.

As such, things set in 1990s America will often have a slightly interesting contrast between modernity and a more rose-tinted “old” version of America. Look at the 1950s-influenced costume designs in seasons 1&2 of “Twin Peaks”, the vaguely 1970s-style newspaper office in all four seasons of “Lois & Clark” etc.. for examples of this.

4) It’s not that long ago:
Simply put, although there are differences between the 1990s and the present day, it’s still only 20-30 years difference. So, for the most part, your “1990s America” stories don’t have to be that different to more modern stories that are set in America.

Just remember that mobile phones were less popular in the 1990s, remember that the internet was less of a “thing”, remember to add a few 1990s pop culture references etc… and then just tell a slightly more “timeless” story that could theoretically happen at any point in the mid-late 20th or early 21st century.

After all, a lot of 1990s movies, a lot of 1990s novels etc.. are still very watchable and/or readable these days because they’re still relatively recent. For example, “The Matrix” was released in 1999 and it still looks relatively futuristic. Or, G.R.R Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones” was first published in 1996 and it was still easily adapted into a TV show in the early 2010s.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (29th January 2019)

This is a digitally-edited painting that is based on another photo of Westbrook (near Cowplain) that I took during a snowstorm there early last March – and, yes, this might turn into a small art series.

Anyway, this painting is based on an archway near Westbrook shops that always reminds me of the 1990s for some reason. As a bit of trivia, the location for this old “1990s horror movie”-style painting painting of mine was based on a video rental shop that used to be near this archway.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Westbrook – Arch” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Aliens: Alien Harvest” By Robert Sheckley (Novel)

Well, after reading S.D.Perry’s excellent “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, I was in the mood for another “Aliens” novel. And, after looking online, I found a couple of old second-hand omnibuses going cheap.

Once they arrived, I tried to work out which novel to read first and then I noticed that one of the novels – “Alien Harvest” from 1995 – was written by none other than Robert Sheckley.

I remembered his name because the very first book review ever posted on this blog (way back in 2013) was of one of his “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” novels that I read after being curious about all of the one-star reviews it had got online. Since I enjoyed that novel and since I wanted to read something by an author I hadn’t read in a while, I decided to read “Alien Harvest”.

So, let’s take a look at “Alien Harvest”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Alien Harvest” I read.

“Alien Harvest” begins in a dystopian future where Earth is in the later stages of recovering from an attack by ferocious alien creatures. Famed roboticist Dr. Stan Myakovsky is having a bad day. Not only has his spaceship been reposessed by a court order, but a visit to the doctor reveals that he is suffering from a terminal case of melanoma. The doctor offers him some illegal narcotics, made from alien secretions, to ease the pain – but points out that the disease has progressed to an incurable level.

As Stan sits around at home and begins to feel sorry for himself, there is a knock on the door. The mysterious visitor turns out to be an expert thief called Julia Lish who needs Stan’s expertise with robotics to pull off the heist of the century. Since Stan has got nothing to lose and since the heist will be a way to get back at his hated rivals in the BioPharm corporation, Stan agrees. After all, how difficult can a daring raid on an illegal secretion-harvesting operation on an alien-infested planet be?

One of the first things that I will say about “Alien Harvest” is that it is absolutely excellent, but it is also a very different novel to what I had expected.

If you’re expecting a relentlessly gruesome sci-fi horror novel, then you’re going to be in for a shock. This novel is many things – a brilliant piece of old-school science fiction, a gripping thriller, a drama, a bit of a comedy and a gloriously mischievous heist story – but it isn’t really that much of a horror novel. Even so, it is absolutely awesome 🙂

One of the best ways to describe this novel is that it’s kind of like a quirky 1950s/60s-style sci-fi novel (think Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick etc..) but with a few brilliant hints of cynical “1980s cyberpunk”-style dystopian grittiness too (eg: in addition to the dystopian Earth locations, the early meetings between Stan and Julia are vaguely reminiscent of both the first meeting of Case and Molly in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the friendship between Pris and J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner).

This novel also has an absolutely brilliant three-act structure too. The first third or so of the novel is a gloriously slick 1960s-style caper story involving daring heists, criminal plotting, glamourous gambling dens and other such things. The second third of the story is a good slice of traditional space-based sci-fi drama. The final third is a little bit more of a horror/action thriller story, with some drama elements.

Although some readers may find this structure a little bit unusual or slightly slow-paced in parts, it works absolutely brilliantly and each segment of the novel segues into the next one perfectly.

In addition to this, this novel has personality 🙂 Although it is set in the universe of the “Alien” films, it is as fresh and different as a totally original novel would be. Not only does this novel have a gloriously quirky and nerdy sense of humour (eg: one of the characters is a surprisingly eloquent robotic alien called Norbert, there’s a Data-like android called Gill etc..), but the “world” of the story is also described in a brilliant way too. In addition to this, there is actual characterisation in this novel 🙂

Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 All of them come across as three-dimensional, albeit stylised, people who all have personalities, emotions, history, flaws and quirks. Yes, they all fit into the archetypes you’d expect (eg: genius scientist, master criminal, washed-up spaceship captain etc..) but they are all clearly shown to be interesting, unique people. Seriously, for a novel in this franchise, I was surprised at how much humanity it had.

Interestingly, most of what makes this novel so compelling is just good old-fashioned drama and storytelling. Yes, there are a few brief action-based scenes and a few brief moments of grisly horror but, for the most part, this novel is a cross between an old-school adventure yarn and a drama. There are perilous missions, mysterious locations, complex relationships, daring gambits, treacherous mutinies and other such things. All with lashings of gloriously nerdy old-school science fiction too 🙂

In terms of length, this novel is a little under 300 pages in length. Although the slightly slower pace in some scenes and the slightly more descriptive narration makes the story feel about 50-70 pages longer than this, the story never really feels particularly bloated. In other words, the story is well-suited to the length and never outstays it’s welcome.

As for of how this 24 year old novel has aged, it has aged in a really interesting way. Although the (mostly) third-person narration is still very readable these days, the fact that the novel almost seems more like a 1980s-influenced version of a classic 1950s-60s sci-fi novel gives it a wonderfully “retro” quality. It seems both very old and fairly modern at the same time. Not only that, the excellent characterisation means that the story’s human drama is pretty much timeless. Plus, although there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments, there’s nothing seriously eyebrow-raising here. So, on the whole, the novel has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. It goes beyond being a mere sci-fi movie spin-off novel to being very much it’s own thing. If you like very slightly nerdy old-school sci-fi, if you like slick heist thrillers, if you like daring adventure or if you just like compelling human drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂 Yes, you might be a little disappointed if you’re expecting a splatterpunk-style horror story, but everything else about this novel more than makes up for the slight paucity of horror.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.