Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

Aphelion Editorial 051

September 2001

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 point.

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 see much.

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 northerly.

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, fiction, fantasy...

"A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Thanks for your time.



2001 Dan L. Hollifield

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.