I Built New Steps

As my spring blogging frenzy ended*, I decided to tackle a home maintenance project that needed doing.

*Starting in March, I wrote 56 blog posts in 58 days for Lake of the Woods Ice Patrol.

I took several hundred aerial photographs and also received pictures from many other contributors. I edited and posted about 200 photos to document the lake’s spring thaw.

Ice Patrol hit new highs for numbers of visits, shattering the old mark of 10,000 visits in a week by hitting 14,000 and 16,000 in consecutive weeks.

This is more traffic than Timothy Gwyn Writes by several orders of magnitude, so thanks for visiting!

When we bought this house, it had crumbling concrete front steps. I jack-hammered them out long ago and replaced them with wooden steps. However, those  began to fail last year as rust weakened the little metal brackets that supported the treads.

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I made some temporary repairs last fall, but it was time for an overhaul. I figured a professional could do this in a weekend. I am not a pro, so I booked a week off work.

If I was going to do a major rebuild, I wanted to make one important design change. The old steps were steep, and one winter I took a nasty fall when they were icy. I wanted steps with big enough treads for secure footing. After much pondering, I decided the best way to achieve this was to raise the height of the landing. That way I could make the lower flight stretch out closer to the sidewalk, and the upper flight could keep the same run over a smaller rise.

The old landing sat directly on the concrete slab. Here you can see the frame of the new landing, raised about fifteen inches. This is now the fixed position from which the other stairs will rise to the front door and descend to the sidewalk. Because the sidewalk is steeply sloped, I don’t have to worry about getting the bottom step at the correct height, and there’s some wiggle room at the front door, too.

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I had to redo part of this because I forgot to double the joists on the two sides that would support the flights of steps, but it wasn’t hard to correct.

Next was decking the landing to make it easier to walk back and forth to where my stack of boards and saw were located.

To gap the boards, I used a fistful of shims, pushed in the same distance to get the spacing even. This works even if the old boards are a smidge out of square.

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Here’s the beefed up landing with the stringers for the lower flight attached. I used steel stringers because I could get the rise and run I wanted. Positioning and leveling the concrete paving slabs was simply a matter of being patient and picky. I have these qualities in abundance.

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The treads went on, and the lower flight became usable, allowing us to reach our back door from the street. I moved the mailbox back to its regular spot. But my week off was half over, and there was still lots to do.

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In the picture above, note the upper landing by the front door. It was worn, and I wanted to rebuild it before the upper flight went on, so that all the steps would be the same height.

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This shows the revised landing at the front door. It’s just quarter of an inch higher than the old one, but it’s also extended by several inches to mate up with the stringer for the upper flight of steps.

Decking the upper landing would be next. It’s wider than I thought, (either I forgot to measure it, or I didn’t remember it correctly) so I had to go back to the lumberyard for some longer 2×6’s.

I got the steps finished before my week off was over, but not the handrail, so I built the railing on the following weekend.

The old rail was awkward. Not only was it too low, the wide cap on top didn’t offer a secure grip. Inconveniently, the house siding was put on after the rail was attached, so I had to cut and patch some of the siding.

Here’s my design, with double board posts, a 2×4 cap, and a 2×6 railing to hold on to.

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I did this whole project with a hand-held Skil-saw. A miter saw or radial-arm saw would have made some of these angled cuts easier.

The picture above doesn’t really show the corner post. It’s built up, herringbone style, from different width boards.

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Because of the corner post’s doubled L-shaped cross section, and because the lower handrail is anchored to the massive wooden retaining wall near the sidewalk, the whole railing is extremely sturdy.

I’m happy to say the new steps really do feel easier and safer to climb, and I’m proud of how they look.

 

 

Taking a Course

I’ll be taking an online writing course this winter.  Odyssey is probably best known for their intense six-week summer workshops on writing science fiction, fantasy and horror, but they also offer online courses that don’t require you to take so much time off from your day job. In January of 2015, I took Jeanne Cavelos’ Showing vs. Telling and found it immensely useful in polishing the manuscript for Avians, so I’m coming back for more.

This winter, I’m enrolled in Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel with Barbara Ashford. My goal for this course is to get a better handle on Bandits, the sequel to Avians. The first draft is complete, with a coherent plot, but I’d like the characters to feel truer and more consistent, and for the story’s developments to feel more integrated.

It happens to work out well that the course begins while I’m on holidays, so that will help with the required reading. To my delight, The Hunger Games is the principal course reference. I loved this book when it came out—partly for the wrong reasons*—and I’m looking forward to picking it up and reading it again, with a more studious eye.

*at the time that Hunger Games came out, I was working on Avians, and I was troubled by the need to kill off a young character, but I felt that it was essential to show how much danger the heroines were in, and that the flying they did was so important that the deaths of teenagers were an acceptable price. Then I read Games, in which children are killed off by the dozen for entertainment, and I was, like, “Oh well, then, permission granted.”

Let me tell you a little about what these courses are like, in case you’re interested. There are four online sessions, conducted using your computer and webcam, spaced out at two-week intervals. In between lessons, there is homework. A lot of homework. The course guide, I think, says to allow a minimum of five hours a week to do the assignments. A swift writer might manage it in that, but it took me more like three times as long. Naturally, there are writing assignments, but there is also the requirement to thoroughly and professionally critique the work of your classmates. You upload your assignments and critiques as you complete them, and you read your classmate’s critiques of your own work between classes, too. And that’s on top of the reading list.

Since many of the students are of the mature/returning to education variety, there is an atmosphere of “I’m here to work hard so I get my money’s worth.” Incidentally, students enroll from all over the world, and some rearrange their schedules to attend class in the middle of the day, or night. I’m lucky to be only one time-zone away from the school.

Part of the course takes place while I will be on vacation in Mexico. That’s okay, it’s only for a week, and it falls between two of the online sessions. I write well there; it gives me something to do in the hours before Caroline gets up. (I’m an insanely early riser, usually getting up before 4:00am.) Last year I wrote in a grand resort’s all-night coffee bar, where I was always the only customer for the first hour or two. Actually, sometimes even the staff weren’t around, so I taught myself how to use their fancy coffee brewer. I read and critiqued a novel manuscript for a friend there, and I have fond memories of laughing out loud at the funny parts.

This year, we’ll be at Villas San Sebastian, a tiny property in Zihuatanejo with just a handful of suites, and I plan to do my writing homework on a little patio overlooking the pool.

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These pictures are from a visit in 2004. Note that my “office” will not look like this while I’m working, mainly because it will be dark at the time I’m writing. I’m pretty sure no-one will be tanning at five in the morning.

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Remind me to pack some ground coffee, in a sealed pack to go through customs, or I’ll have to go grocery shopping on day one.

The hardest part of the course for me will be later in January, when I’m back at work and not only doing my regular trips, but also fitting my annual flight training into my schedule. That involves at least twelve hours of ground school, plus two training flights that eat up most of a day each. Not looking forward to that workload so much, but I may be able to get some of the ground school or course homework done on the days when I’m sitting up north.

I’m excited to take a new approach to revising Bandits, and I’m really looking forward to meeting my classmates.

AVIANS is now an audiobook

The audiobook of Avians is finally here, and Grace Hood’s narration is excellent. I know because I proofed it on the way to Calgary this summer, in my spare hours there, and on the flight home. I’m sure the WestJet flight attendants thought I was the weirdest passenger, because whenever they’d offer me a drink or a snack, I’d have to pause my phone, wipe the tears from my eyes and take my earbuds out before answering.

Anyway, I figure the audiobook format is great for Avians, because the scenes are fairly short, so you can listen to one or two, or you can listen for an hour or more.

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Actually there’s nearly eleven hours of entertainment here, and apparently you can have it for free through Audible’s 30-day trial offer.

Links: Audible   Amazon   iTunes will be coming soon, and I’ll update when I have a link.

Oh, and if there’s anyone out there who reviews audiobooks, I’d love to hear from them, especially if they specialize in SF.

Fall Photographs

The seasons are changing, and here are a pair of recent photographs that show it. You can click on the pictures to see them in higher resolution.

 

Icy Pond

The little pond by the Sandy Nook trail on Tunnel Island froze over the other day. It’s in a shadowy hollow that makes it hard to get the morning light to shine on the ice, so my first batch of pictures were a bust; the ice was barely noticeable. An hour later, I passed by again, and by including the reflection on the small unfrozen portion of the pond I got the ice to stand out better.

Closer to home, Caroline spotted this magnificent fungus on one of the trees by our driveway. It’s bigger than both my fists.

Tree Fungus

I’m amazed at the macro capability of my smartphone’s camera, (a Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo, if you want to know).  I shoot mostly landscapes, where everything is in sharp focus, so it’s nice to see the limited depth of field come into play for a change.

If you know anything about tree fungus types, I’d love you to comment on this one.

A note on my photographic preferences: I prefer to show the world without people or their constructs. I try to avoid power lines, contrails and so on unless I’m specifically taking pictures of a bridge or something. The pond in the first picture is plagued by utility poles, so I did a lot of walking around to get a vantage I liked. Scrutinizing the fungus picture reveals the rooftop of one of my neighbour’s houses, but mercifully, it is so blurred as to be ambiguous.

As to the seasonal theme, I can’t resist bringing up my position that Kenora (and much of Canada, for that matter) doesn’t really have four seasons. We have two: the one when the temperature is above freezing, and the one when it isn’t. Sure, there are a couple of shoulder periods where the daily highs and lows straddle the line, but when it comes right down to it, the mean temperature is either one or the other.

It snowed a little last night—although nothing like as much as our first snowfall on October 10th—so I took down the Halloween decorations from our front steps, and put up the winter ones. I’m going for a walk soon, and I’ll be looking for beauty, but squinting grumpily.

Bigger Better Bookshelf

After I came home from When Words Collide, I had the remainder of the week off to unpack, do laundry, restock the fridge, and all that stuff that’s a giant hassle if you have to fit it in around a full schedule of work.

I also had a carpentry project in mind. My main bookshelf is an odd thing. It was built out of 2×8 planks, and it was originally a sort of room divider in the kitchen. Just over three feet wide, it reached from floor to ceiling, with a mixed layout of shelves. When we remodeled the kitchen, I moved it to the study and used it for books and stuff. As you can see, stuff fit better than books. Although it had a few spaces tall enough for an atlas, as a bookshelf, it wasn’t very deep.

I didn’t take a proper before picture. This was snapped after I began. The part that is stained is the original unit. Note the brackets fastening it to the wall.

The new part is framed in pale wood, fresh from the lumberyard. The second lumberyard. The first one didn’t have three ten-foot 2×8 planks that were straight with smooth edges. So that took all day. On the bright side, I paid less than $50 for the lumber, and about $20 for a pack of deck screws. Any other materials I used were leftovers from previous projects.

Large books hang over the edge of the original design, and many of the shelves are too low to hold books standing upright. So the next step was to take out all the small shelves. These were robustly attached with 4″ twist nails. A claw hammer wouldn’t do it. I had to loosen the nails by pounding with a massive steel mallet (and a scrap board), then lever them out with a pry bar.

So here’s the empty frame. You can see the row of holes in the bottom shelf for the dowels that will connect the new part to the old.

…and here it is with the new section stained and fastened on. I used a gel stain because I am bad with drips if I use a liquid. I do not own a table saw, so cutting the shelves to a consistent length took much measuring and clamping down of guides for the skill saw.

I do, however, own a dowel jig, a legacy from my father. The double-depth shelves are doweled together, including the bottom shelf, where the new wood meets the old. This helped with alignment. None of the planks are perfectly straight, but you can’t tell by eye.

Here it is with the four original full-width shelves reinstalled in the upper portion. Those are spaced at 10″ to hold hardcovers and trade paperbacks. On the new part, the bottom shelf is 16″ high for oversize books, then the next two up are 12″ for reference books and one of my surround-sound speakers. The shelves are now secured with 4″ deck screws, on account of I suck at driving nails.

This is the completed project, with books installed, plus a carbon monoxide detector. The revised layout gobbled up all the books from the old version, plus every book from a second bookshelf, and still has space for more.

It’s shimmed in one corner because the floor is not level. The whole thing is also secured to a wall stud with a sturdy bracket.

This bookshelf is much more rigid than any particle-board shelving unit. Those planks are strong enough for me to stand on; they will never sag. If you have a ton of books, shelves made from cheap but sturdy lumber might be the way to go.

Prose & Cons: WWC Sunday, then back to Broken Plate

Sunday was my busy day at When Words Collide: three hours of participation in a five-hour span.

I opened the day with a solo presentation on Aviation in World-Building at 10:00 AM. Since I’m a morning person, I was down at the meeting room at 8:30, making sure the flip-chart had paper and felt pens. Yes and no, but the hotel staff quickly delivered pens, and I was able to outline the whole presentation well ahead of time. See this previous post to get an idea what was on those sheets of paper. I’ll expand on one of my topics.

Here are some of the titles on my Sky-Fi reading list:

Cycle of Fire, by Hal Clement, 1957. Aliens use gliders to preserve precious books. Old-style pulp sci-fi.

Windhaven, by George R.R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle, 1981. Three novellas about a windy, watery world where the islands are connected by messengers who fly on wings made of irreplaceable spaceship salvage. Seminal.

Emergence, by David R. Palmer, 1984. Diary of a post-human girl who survives an apocalypse and sets off to find others of her kind by learning to fly an ultralight. Influential.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel, 2004. Young Adult. A cabin boy on an airship lofted by a magical gas is drawn into adventures with a rich passenger. Entertaining. There are two sequels, Skybreaker and Starclimber.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher, 2015. Airships augmented by power crystals fight a vicious trade war for powerful merchant families. Exciting and amusing. A sequel is expected soon.

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, by Jayne Barnard, 2015. Young Adult. Maddie is estranged from her family of Steamlords, but she gets swept up in the mysterious disappearance of an airship adventurer. Fun. There are two more books in the series already, and more coming.

Updraft, by Fran Wilde, 2015. Young Adult. Kirit wants to be a trader like her mother, flying from tower to tower on wings of bone and silk. Sinister politics intervene. Marvelous world-building. First of a series.

Icarus Down, by James Bow, 2016. Young Adult. Simon is a pilot, flying electric dragonfly ornithopters along the habitable canyons of his world, but he is grounded when he is injured in a terrible crash. Was it an accident? Big themes. Nominated for a Prix Aurora Award.

I did an enthusiastic presentation on this stuff and other aspects of how aviation fits in worldbuilding, for an engaged audience. I took further questions in the lobby area afterwards, and posed for a photo with a reader. I also sold a book, so I walked over with the buyer and personalized it for her at the dealership room.

After this, I got a break, so I went back to our room to eat left-over pizza. The tiny fridge had frozen it, and after microwaving, the pizza was chewy.

Then I had two hours of reading Live Action Slush, first in the Science Fiction category, and then Historic. The SF submissions weren’t as stellar as last year, but the Historic samples were epic. Ahem. Well, it’s true. One of the Historic pieces almost brought me to tears.

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Reading for Live Action Slush, Historic edition. Photo by B.A. Chemali.

This picture was taken by one of the submitting writers, who posted it on twitter, along with this comment: Thanks for such a fabulous read. You should definitely do audio books!

I don’t actually read with my eyes shut. I’m good, but I’m not that good. Two of the panel’s four  editors can be seen: Shirlee Smith Matheson, nearest me, and Tasha Alexander, Guest of Honour, at the left.

After so many hours on my feet, I didn’t have a lot of energy for anything else. I wandered the convention, greeting and chatting with friends and anyone else who couldn’t get away quickly.

Then I cashed out my book sales from Myth Hawker and picked up the copy of Brave New Girls: Tales of Heroines Who Hack that they’d been holding for me. I can’t wait to read it, the two previous BNG anthologies were good fun.

Dinner Debriefing: we went back to Broken Plate because Sunday is Pasta Night. We started by sharing a calamari salad. The pasta menu is not on their website, and I didn’t think to snap a picture of the card, but we had a beef dish on papardelle and a farfalle (I think) with a mushroom sauce. We shared because both were so good, and they made a wonderful combination. A bottle of Flechas De Los Andes Gran Malbec went beautifully with both. Caroline finished with Baklava, and I had the Semifredo with a coffee.

Prose & Cons: WWC Saturday and Another Dinner in Calgary

On Saturday, I had a second easy day at When Words Collide, so I picked a few sessions to attend: We’ve Been Edited, then World-Building: Your World is a Character, and Kaffeeklatsch with Dave Duncan before lunch, and You Oughta be in Audio in the afternoon. It’s possible to do back-to-back programming all day, but I don’t have that kind of stamina. I hadone time-slot where I had highlighted four different options on the schedule, because WWC puts together a lot of good stuff.

For lunch, I stuck to the sandwich and snack concession in the dealer room, and I ended up sitting with an old friend. She has positive things happening with a second book, but it’s too early to talk about it now.

Once again, it was the last event of my day that I enjoyed the most. Although Dawn Harvey and Nina Munteanu kept You Oughta be in Audio focused on the why and how of authors getting an audio-book version, and covered contract stuff like audio rights and payment options for engaging a professional reader, I learned that Dawn Harvey also offers courses for narrators that wish to turn pro. That would be me. I’ve been doing quite a few narrations for the AntiSF Radio Show, but I could use a little more info on the business and technical sides, so I might sign up if she puts a class on in Winnipeg.

Dinner Debriefing: Caroline and I headed out for Italian food at Toscana Italian Grill. That was a walk of twenty minutes or more, but the weather had cooled, and damper conditions had cleared out most of the forest fire smoke from the air. We split a Caesar salad, then Caroline had the Parma e Funghi stone-oven pizza while I chose the Veal Scallopini. I couldn’t decide whether I felt more like the Piccata or Funghi di Bosco option, but went with the mushroom option on Pietro’s recommendation, and didn’t regret it. We ordered wine by the glass, so that we could have different reds, and there was a good selection. Service was swift and the food was tasty. We took half the pizza back to our hotel- by taxi, because there had been a rainshower, and it looked like more might be on the way.

Would we go there again? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a longish walk. I liked the comprehensive Italian menu, but Caroline wasn’t wowed by the pizza. This is partly my fault; I make a wicked wild mushroom pizza. If you want the details on that, you’ll have to ask in the comments.