Aphelion Editorial 051
The Senior Editor's usual drivel about whatever...
by Dan L. Hollifield
Hello and welcome!
Last month marked a first in my life, the first meteor shower
I ever set out to watch on purpose. I got out my lawn chair,
turned off my outside lighting, most of the inside lighting, and turned
on the radio in the shed in the back yard.
Ever have one of those days when something that you'd
often thought about as a "neat thing to do- One of these days..." turns
out to be the only thing that you're able to get right all day? I'd
read about the Perseid meteor shower, just like I'd read about
countless other meteor showers in my life, and thought "wouldn't it be
neat to stay up all night and see that?" Then I thought no more about
it for a week or so. Then came that Saturday when everything went
wrong. Everything I tried to do all day was a disaster. After cleaning
up several messes, both physical and typographical, and seeing the sun
about to go down, I gave up. I laid down on the couch and took a nap.
Probably the most intelligent thing that I'd done all day, at this
I woke up, confused and groggy, just after 11 PM. And
suddenly remembered the meteor shower that was going to start in one
hour. I fired up the computer and downloaded a star chart from the
Cosmiverse website. Once I had a printout, I took it outside to compare
with the night sky. Could I find my way? After all, I'm just a sci-fi
fan, not an astronomer. But as soon as I stepped out and looked, I knew
I was in for some kind of show. I looked to the west, and there was
Mars, flashing and gleaming like a topaz. I watched until Mars
retreated below the tree line of my back yard, then turned to the east.
Unknowingly, I was looking directly into the Perseid Radiant in the
northeastern sky as I took in the whole of the horizon. By the time the
moonrise began its first gleaming I had matched the printout with the
sky and seen 5 meteors. I occluded the moonrise using my house and
keeping to its shadow. I found that the meteors appeared all over the
sky rather than in clusters near the Radiant. I thought that might be
due to the half moon and the high whispy clouds, as well as light
pollution from the neighbor's over-bright security light. (Over a
quarter mile distant, and I can use it to see how to put my key in the
doorknob of my front door. Too bright for local astronomy.) As the
night progressed, I was able to see 25 or more meteoric streaks across
the night sky, 3 large, bright fireballs-- one of those was really big
--dozens of flashbulb-like bursts of light, and possibly another 30
streaks I caught just at the corner of my eye and turned too late to
By 4AM the moon was almost directly overhead. I could
look to the east and tell Saturn from Aldebaran as the star chart told
me their names. Aldebaran was kind of orange and twinkled, Saturn was
creamy white and didn't twinkle much at all. Orion, the only
constellation I can regularly pick out, also rose almost directly
beneath the moon. To Orion's north I could see what the chart told me
was Jupiter-- looking a little bluer than Saturn, then Venus rose,
bright white and glittering, a few minutes later and a bit more
When the meteors had slowed to more than half an hour
between streaks, I knew that it was time to go back indoors. It was
almost dawn, and I now had a memory that would last a lifetime. It
might not have been much as meteor showers go to anyone else, but to me
it was a first. Sure, I've seen meteors before, maybe 5 in my entire
life. But from midnight to 4 AM August 12th
2001, I added 50 or 60 more to that total. It was a glorious night, and
I owe it all to dumb luck. Murphy gave me a bad day and rewarded me
with a beautiful memory of the following night. All I had to do was
follow through on the coincidences and make the best of a bad
situation. From a day of crashing programs, burning lunch, rotting
vegetables, skinned knuckles, and aggravation came a night that was joy
and beauty and a memory of the wonder that we all take for granted. And
that is a sad statement for a sci-fi writer to make. To admit that I've
begun to take the beauty of the night sky for granted.
If I'd seen such sights as a child, I might have
become an astronomer instead of a dreamer and writer. (I'd like to have
a video tape of *that* timeline!)
Sure, we write stories that happen in far off solar
systems, but how many of us can take someone outside at night and point
to the star that we so glibly wrote about. How many of us
know where Alpha Centauri is in the night sky?
Aldebaran is where? Mars? Venus? Jupiter? Saturn?
Even Mercury can be seen with the naked eye.
Perhaps I have an unfair advantage in having spent
three quarters of my life out in the countryside, where light pollution
is far less and the stars blaze forth like gemstones strewn across the
black satin of the night sky. To look up on a cold winter night and see
Orion and know that the star in the upper left arm, above the Belt, is
Betelgeuse and famed Rigel is below the Belt and to the right. To
understand when someone I've read about names a star as the location of
that story. To write a story and be correct in stating that Betelgeuse
is red and Vega is blue-white and Altair rotates on its axis every 10
hours or so-- almost the same speed that Jupiter rotates. For the same
reason, their spin rate, they both are thicker through the equator than
through the poles. And you might want to ask yourself at this point,
"what is he getting at? What does this bulls**t actually mean?"
Add realism to your stories. A memory such as my night
among meteors can be mined for many different stories, for many
different reasons. Mix it with some facts, and the reader's willingness
to suspend disbelief will become easier. Mix metaphor with useful
facts, imagery and knowledge, poetry and accuracy. Shake well and your
concoction will become easier to swallow. Remember, if we can teach a
little bit without making it dull, don't we craft better stories? Not
only events from our own lives become useful plot elements, but things
we can explain, things we can show, things that invite wonder. Better
stories may be just a memory away, because being a writer can mean
giving of one's self in order to better tell the tale.
Live life! Everything that you are, everything that
you do, everything you can do, everything that you can teach, can all
find their way into the stories that you write. It can make them better
stories. Call that an excuse to enjoy life, if you need one. And
learning should be something to enjoy. So should teaching. Boy, now there
is a topic I'd like to see. "The Joy of Teaching" by-- Oh, there are a
few teachers in out midst. Maybe a guest editorial will happen one
month soon. --Whoever would like to write it. I've found that mixing in
elements from my own life, suitably disguised of course, I can add a
measure of believability to an otherwise ordinary tale. That's how my
gun collection wound up in "Saucerful of Secrets", how my motorcycle
wreck and the painting on my motorcycle jacket wound up in "Abducted!",
how my sword cane became part of "A Study in Alizarin Crimson", and how
my life at college, and after, turned into the Mare Inebrium series.
The truth is in the telling, and the telling is the tale. Fact,
"A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down."
Thanks for your time.
© 2001 Dan L. Hollifield
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