Friday, October 24, 2014

How tall is the tree that my character climbs?

How tall is the tree that my character climbs?

Okay, I don’t always give away how I research my novels, but you know what? When I have a character whose key act is to climb a very tall tree in British Columbia, Canada (near Lillooet, if you must know), I can’t just make up the species and height of the tree. Well, some authors would, but I take pride in doing research to keep my stories as authentic as fiction can be.

And this morning, while researching how tall the tree is that my character climbs, I found a very cool website:

So, given the region in which I’ve chosen to set my current novel-in-progress, and the info on this big-tree website, I get to choose from an Engelmann spruce, white-bark pine, western white pine, black cotton wood or subalpine fir. And these measure anywhere from 14 meters (46 feet) in height to 56 meters (184 feet) in height. (The circumferences are pretty impressive, too: 3 to 5 meters, or 10 to 16 feet). If I want to, I can also quote the diameter and crown spread (hmmm, the latter might be important if a character climbs the tree to HIDE in the crown spread, right?).

Regarding the diameter, for it to have any meaning in my story, I need to measure a person’s outspread-arms span, and then figure out how many people it would take to circle the tree. That’s your math challenge for the day.

In other words, I don’t have to make things up, or become a grade-B author by mentioning a tree species that doesn't actually exist in the region, or a height that is unrealistic for a species. Nor do I have to contact a forester or drive to the forest and climb a tree with a measuring tape. (I actually did climb a tree two days ago, but that was to get my kitten down, a whole other story.)

What did we do before the Web? Thanks, Big Tree index.

P.S. The tallest tree currently alive and well in British Columbia is a 127-meter (417 foot) fir. Long may it live. And if you’re not good at picturing measurements, that means the height of a 40-story building. Whoa! Would my character actually climb that?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The wingsuit jumper: too extreme for me

My husband and I spent the past three days in Yosemite National Park, California. We enjoyed perfect weather, stunning sights and a fun time hiking and sightseeing.

One of the more interesting moments was picking up a hitchhiker I will refer to as “Batman.” He was on his way up one of the mountains to jump off it – in a wingsuit. 

Now, I’ve written about a lot of extreme sports, but this one kind of ratchets up the definition of the phrase. It’s similar to basejumping, which is parachuting from a fixed structure or cliff. Except that wingsuiters wear a special outfit that creates a surface area by way of fabric under the arms and between the legs, not unlike the wings of a flying squirrel or bat. They also wear special parachute equipment they deploy to control the descent path after leaping.

Okay, but here’s the deal, according to our Batman hitchhiker. Although basejumping and hang gliding are legal in Yosemite Park (with restrictions), wingsuiting is not. The sport is legal throughout Europe, but anyone who hones their skills there and then eyes Yosemite Park or any other North American boulder that seems to invite leaping off it, has to worry big-time about detection and arrest. Therefore, they tend to jump only moments before dark, and land in far less open spaces than they would be able to in Europe, or than they would prefer to aim for if the sport were legal. In other words, to escape getting caught, they take on even more danger than the sport (which carries something like a 2% death rate) offers on its own. And if they upload videos of their activities, it can lead to arrest.

Imagine our Batman friend standing poised on a cliff hundreds of feet off the ground, waiting patiently for the sun to set. His eye is on a tiny clearing he hopes will be just large enough to not mess him up. His reward for pulling off the jump, stuffing his suit in his backpack and disappearing before park rangers arrive? “Zen-like moments” where all thoughts but the flight take over, and furthering his abilities within his chosen sport. That’s what he told us. I’d add a third: the ability to live another day.

Now, I’m not going to get involved in a discussion on whether wingsuit jumping should or shouldn’t be legal or enforced. But I will say that this is one sport I won’t be writing a novel about. Maybe it will become safer as more people get into it, equipment evolves and districts declare it legal. (I’d argue that hang-gliding went through that evolution.) And certainly, one person’s extreme sport is another’s safe, fun activity.

But in writing about so-called extreme sports, my goals have always been to:
1.     encourage teens (esp. boys) to read
2.     encourage them to get involved with sports, especially outdoors
3.     inform them about these sports
4.     promote the safety aspect within these sports as far as possible

Given the illegality of this sport in North America, it’s pretty hard to emphasize any safety aspect, which is rather hard to hone in on compared with others sports I’ve written about, anyway. So, I’ll pass. At the same time, I wish nothing but good luck to Batman and his compatriots. May they enjoy safe rides as long as they choose to pursue their passion.

Here’s a legal jump:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Immersed in canyoning

A few weeks ago I blogged about the new sport featured in my novel-in-progress:

As research for what my characters get up to, I'm currently "immersed" in researching canyoning. So here's another video on this extreme (and extremely interesting) activity, which mixes caving, rappelling (climbing down waterfalls and canyon walls) and swimming whitewater currents. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Best of books, worst of times

[The sixth in my stories-behind-writing-the-books, which I offer intermittently here on my blog.]

Vertical Limits may be the most popular book in my "Take it to the Extreme" series of 10 teen sports novels, but writing it was so painful that I will never be able to regard it as my personal favorite.

I’d written only the first two chapters when I suffered a back injury from a fall unrelated to sports, which all but halted the book altogether.

To finish it by deadline, I literally suspended my laptop above me and wrote while lying flat on my back. I also used software to dictate parts of it. The irony of writing a book on extreme rock climbing while in this condition was not lost on me.

Fortunately, I had already outlined and researched the book. Better yet, I was working with a sympathetic climbing expert. 

Other anecdotes about writing Vertical Limits:
  • This sixth "Take it to the Extreme" book was supposed to be the last in the series, but my publisher asked if I’d be willing to extend the series to 10 books, which I did. :)
  • My editor was so shocked by the extreme climbing portrayed in this story that she initially balked at accepting it. Only when I informed her that I’d worked with several climbing experts (and paid out of my own money to have the editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal read it before I submitted it to her) did she relent. I learned later that she has a fear of heights, just like my character Peter.
  • To write the chapter where Peter visits a hypnotist to get over his fear of heights, I actually paid to go to a hypnotist (where I pretended to have a fear of heights). The hypnotist actually referred to “past life modalities,” and much of what the hypnotist says in Vertical Limits was taken from my actual session. Of course, the hypnotist didn’t know I was using her to write a chapter, but she got her fee, I got my chapter and my character Peter got over his fear of heights, so everyone was happy!
  • The runaway girl in the story, Katja, was inspired by a teen girl I met who, like Katja, nursed her cancer-ridden mother almost singlehandedly for months until her mother passed away.
  • In Acknowledgments, I thank Shaun Evans, a climber whose real-life escapades with climbing cranes in an industrial yard inspired my characters doing the same. By the way, my main character Jake took his last name, Evans, from Shaun and his brother David (who was in the kayak club for teens that I ran at the time).
  • It took me many years to recover from the back damage done by the fall (the one that so complicated the writing of Vertical Limits). It pretty much ended my kayaking days, but thankfully, I’ve managed to continue writing.
To order Vertical Limits:

Friday, October 10, 2014

Parent University (because kids don't come with directions)

Raise your hand if you felt stumped or overwhelmed when you arrived home from the hospital with baby in arms. Of course we all did: They don't come with directions!

But until this week, I for one had never heard of Parent University, a concept involving seminars and conferences for parents. (Google turns up 167,000,000 references to the term.)

I'm not sure when the first one came to be, or who came up with the clever name, but at the moment, Parent Universities exist (unrelated to one another as far as I can tell) in Savannah, Minneapolis, New Haven, Boston, Chicago, Fresno, Tampa, Scottsdale, Reno and a whole lot of other USA places. (Comment here if you know of more.)

I get my first initiation at one tomorrow, here in Castro Valley, California where I am visiting. I'll be manning a table and passing out tips on raising reluctant learners, as well as selling my books, including Jump-Starting Boys:

Parent University, Castro Valley Adult & Career Education
3rd Annual Parenting Conference
Strategies and Resources for Raising Successful Children
Castro Valley Adult and Career Center
4430 Alma Ave.
Castro Valley, CA 94546
(510) 886-1000

Hats off to all who organize and participate in these educational efforts. As parents, we need all the help we can get!

Monday, October 6, 2014

San Francisco Bay Area talks

I’m currently in the San Francisco Bay Area, and offering a FREE one-hour presentation for parents of boys at a number of libraries. 

The talk is based on my book, Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life ( 

Catch my presentation on any of the following dates at any of the following venues:

Saturday, October 11, 2014, from 10:15 to 11:30 a.m.

Note: I am not giving my presentation at this conference, but I will be offering free handouts with tips for raising boys, chatting with anyone who wants to stop by my table, and selling and autographing my books.

Parent University, Castro Valley Adult & Career Education
3rd Annual Parenting Conference
Strategies and Resources for Raising Successful Children
Castro Valley Adult and Career Center
4430 Alma Ave.
Castro Valley, CA 94546
(510) 886-1000

Wednesday, October 29, from 7-8 p.m.
Dublin Library
200 Civic Plaza, Dublin, CA 94568
(925) 803-7252

Saturday, November 1, from 11 a.m.-12 noon
Castro Valley Library
3600 Norbridge Ave., Castro Valley, CA 94546


Monday, November 3, from 6-7 p.m.
Oakland Public Library/Brookfield Branch
9255 Edes Ave., Oakland, CA  94603
(510) 615-5725

Thursday, November 6, from 6:30-8p.m.
Orinda Library
26 Orinda Way, Orinda, CA

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Berkeley or bust

I'm on a road trip from Vancouver, Canada to Berkeley, California, where I'll be for almost eight weeks (due to my husband's work). Our new kitten, named Fresca, is in tow! Shortly I'll be listing the libraries at which I'll be speaking in the Bay Area. Stay tuned!