Novel-Writing in the Arctic

My title is disingenuous, because I didn’t do any novel-writing in the Arctic. However, I thought and plotted and observed and learned with intensity, such that in the two months since my return, I’ve written an entire third of the new novel that was my primary Arctic project. This writing pace is unheard of for me. It’s partly because I’ve had some clearheadedness lately, unrelated to the Arctic. But it’s also largely because I got so much hands-on experience on the ship!

Since most of my work in the Arctic was happening in my head and my heart, it’s not going to be possible to show the entire process in pictures. But I can share some of the experiences that helped me make progress.

My novel takes place partly on a tall ship, where my main character is learning a lot about the work the sailors are doing.

Therefore, it helped me to learn to haul lines, and to watch others do so. (On a ship, ropes are called lines. It takes 60-ish lines to operate the rigging on the Antigua!)

(The Antigua is a barquentine. That’s a tall ship with three or more masts that has square sails on its foremast and fore-and-aft rigged sails [sails that stretch from front to back] on its other masts. This sail configuration gives it power and maneuverability, but also makes it possible to be operated by a small crew.)

On the occasions when we could turn the engine off and just sail… I was SO HAPPY. These were my favorite moments of the entire trip, which is saying an awful lot. It was silent, and graceful, and our movement felt so good in the water. It taught me a lot about my character and how she feels, too. 

The main character in my novel spends time lying inside a rowboat on deck, watching the sailors raise and lower the sails. So I did the same, curling up in one of the Zodiacs :o).

Photo by Dawn Jackson.

I did a lot of thinking and observing from that position. The masts swung back and forth above me as we moved through the waves and I got a lot of ideas! I also had the best views.

My main character also climbs the mast. So… in the picture below, our captain, Mario, gives me help and support as I make my first attempt.

John Hirsch took this picture, and the further-back one below, because I shoved my iPhone at him before I started :o)

Barbara Liles took this picture. As I climbed, the ship was moving through ice.

I’m on the right in this photo.

 Climbing was a thrill. Each time I tried it, I got up further. I knew it was safe, because I always wore a halter, but the ship was moving a lot and it was very, very cold up there, and sometimes slippery… and the places where your hands and feet went were not always intuitive… I learned a lot about my character’s experience from that experience.

By the way, it’s probably time for me to introduce our sailing crew — our captain, Mario; first mate, Marijn, and second mate, Annet! I’ll have more to say about them in future blog posts. They kept us safe, taught us so much, and were so patient whenever we “helped”!

That’s it for today’s Arctic chapter, but there’s more to come. Hope you’re all having a cozy December. :o)

Starcom: Nexus, and What It’s Like to Live with an Indie Game Developer

Today Kevin’s game, Starcom: Nexus, releases in Early Access on Steam. It’s a thing of beauty, and also a lot of fun. If you like games that take you into outer space where you get to explore mysterious worlds, build a powerful ship, and explode bad guys, you should buy it, and play it, and let your gamer friends know about it. Yes, I’m biased, but reviewers and streamers  – who are not his spouse  – also love it :o). (FYI those last two links go to youtube streaming vids.)


Conversation at the dinner table:

Kevin: How was your day?

Me: Okay, I guess. I still can’t figure out how to get this girl to accidentally set her house on fire, then cause an explosion and get stuck in a window grille.

Kevin: I believe in you.

Me: Thank you. How was your day?

Kevin: Okay. When my enemy ships get within a certain distance of each other, they spontaneously explode.

Me: Oh!

Kevin: It’s not supposed to happen. It’s a bug.

Me: Oh.

Kevin: I can’t figure it out.

Me: I believe in you!


There are a lot of similarities between the work Kevin and I do. We both create complicated worlds with characters and plots. We’re both entertainers.

Meet your commander.

We have some processes in common: for example, we both study the books/games we love, then try to learn from them. We both think about the things we don’t like in other books/games, then try to come up with alternatives we prefer. We both know how to wear the creator hat; then switch to the reader/gamer hat, reading/playing our own project with a critical eye; then go back to the creator hat to fix what isn’t working. We’re both extremely familiar with the phenomenon wherein you change one little thing, then a ripple effect passes through the entire work, complicating/breaking things in ways you didn’t anticipate.

Meet the Ulooquo, an underwater alien race.

We can also get similarly overwhelmed by our own projects. I’ve talked a lot on the blog about how a book has many parts, and writing a book involves many jobs. Well, a game has SO many parts. It has music and art, visual effects, numerous interfaces, plot and character, mysteries and rewards. It must be able to support and absorb the choices of individual gamers, over which the creator has no control. It has SO many (literally) moving parts!

We also both work by ourselves for years on self-directed projects… then put our creations out into the world, hoping they’ll find the people who will love them.

These similarities are deep. They help us to understand each other’s frustrations and joys, and support each other meaningfully. This is awesome. However, I want to talk a little bit about the differences, which are many.

For example, in my writing career, I have an agent. She connects me to an editor who helps me craft the right words. Then, my editor works with my publisher to create a beautiful physical book, publicize and market that book, and sell that book for me.

An indie game developer, on the other hand, does everything himself, in an extremely saturated market with a lot of roadblocks. He can hire other people to help. Kevin hired a composer and an artist, to help him with his music and his characters (like the Commander and the Ulooquo above). He hired a marketing consultant to do a few things too. But he worked closely with those people, because he knew exactly what he wanted. And everything else has been the work of his own hands. He’s done SO much marketing and publicity work on his own that’s made me appreciate my own marketing and publicity departments even more than I did before. Self-promotion in a saturated market is really, really hard. It’s also stressful for a guy who happens to be humble and was raised with the good-old New England ethos of not bragging about himself :o).

Here’s another big difference: Kevin can release his game while it’s still in production, then use the feedback from early players to shape it and make it better. He can write code into the game that allows him to see how long players play; where they decide to drop out of the game; which options are being chosen more often than others. (He receives this information anonymously, in case you’re starting to worry that he can actually tell what you’re doing inside his game!) As a writer, I definitely don’t know where someone decides to abandon my book. Nor do I want to know, because once people are reading my book, it’s final! If everyone is bailing at a certain point, there’s nothing I can do about it. The words in my book are not going to change. Kevin’s game is more of a living, growing creature, even after it releases, and based on player reactions.

Another big difference is that while I am a wordsmith, Kevin is a programmer. A lot of the time, when I step into his office, he’s working with programming language on his many screens, and I don’t understand the smallest bit of it. My readers read my actual words. His gamers play a game built on a framework of programming that looks and feels very different from the actual game. He also works with a lot of complicated software (like, for 3D modeling) and does a lot of math. He uses trigonometry to [I just asked him to explain it and he said something about spaceships shooting at each other, vectors, and cosines. ???]. I can come home and tell him practically everything I struggled with at work that day. A lot of what he does is too technical for me to understand—though he is really good at creating analogies and explaining things to me when I ask (and when I’m not rushing to finish a blog post!).

Another difference is that he is a visual artist. For example, he created Entarq’s Citadel below, which is one of the worlds his gamers get to explore.

Here’s another.

Another difference:  I can do my work anywhere. All I need is my notebook and a pen. Kevin needs his fancy computer and his big monitors. So he works from home. Home office and self-employed means he’s working most of the time. Most mornings, he’s working by the time I get out of bed. By the time I leave for my office, he’s put hours in. I come home and he’s making me dinner; after dinner, he works for a few more hours. I go away on trips without him; he works while I’m gone! I always thought I worked really hard. I have a new standard now.

And now his work has created this beautiful, fun game that’s getting really positive attention from gamers and streamers :o). Today, you can buy it in Early Access, and become one of the players who contributes to what it will ultimately become.

And that’s my little explanation of what it’s like to live with an indie game developer. Check out the links if you’re interested! The trailer is below.

The Arctic Circle: A hike from Lloyds Hotel to Lilliehöökbreen

Here is our trip log from Sunday, October 7:

Sunday 07.10 – Day 7

Lloyds Hotel – Lilliehöökbreen – North

-3/4°C Celsius, almost no wind in the morning, clear sky, beautiful sunrise. More wind in the evening going from WNW 2, to N 2-3 and later NW 4.

09:30 – Morning landing Lloyds hotel – Hike to Lilliehöökbreen.

11:15 – Anchor up Lloyds Hotel.

13:30 – Anchor down Lilliehöökbreen.

14:30 – Hikers back on board (Piet still smiling).

16:30 – Afternoon zodiac cruises Lilliehöökbreen.

19:00 – Going North.

Our leader, Sarah Gerats, kept this log for us throughout the trip… And October 7 was one of my favorite days. I woke that morning and, as happened most mornings, came out on deck to a view I’d never seen before.

If you take a close look at the middle of this picture — maybe click on it to make it bigger and more detailed — you might see an orange rectangle. This is a hut that’s been decorated and painted orange. It’s called Lloyds Hotel, and it is definitely the fanciest hut on Spitsbergen — though maybe more of a tourist destination then a destination for any anyone actually seeking shelter. You can read more about its history here.

We climbed aboard the zodiacs and crossed onto land to visit it.

I, for one, was less interested in the evidence of human activity inside the hut, and more interested in the COMPLETELY GINORMOUS polar bear prints outside the hut. They were fresh, for this was new snow.

This sight — evidence of a polar bear (or three or four) recently shuffling through — was quite common on our journey.

This time we got a special treat: evidence that it had lain down and rolled around :o)

I think it’s time to introduce you to our wonderful, kickass guides, who always knew how to read the prints in the snow. Emma, Sarah, Åshild, and Kristin were our guides and guards, our organizers, our friends, our helpers, and our protectors. Any time we went on land, they were there with rifles, ensuring our safety in the land of polar bears.They had so much to share about the landscape, the environment, the animals, the history. They were wonderful storytellers and guides! And of course, Nemo was very, um, helpful as well. :o)

After exploring Lloyd’s Hotel, we split into two groups. Some stayed put, working or enjoying the scenery, then returning to the ship. The rest of us set off on an 8km (5 mi) hike across the base of the fjord where we’d landed. See the little arrow I drew on the map below? That shows where we hiked, in this northwestern section of Spitsbergen.

Click here to check this out on Google Maps and see more details about where we were.

As we moved away from shore, we saw the Antigua sail off — abandoning us! Not really. The ship was circling the fjord to pick us up on the other side. Even knowing that, though, it was strange to see her go.

We hiked through spectacular terrain. Click on any of these to make them bigger and more focused.

The snow was pretty deep, but also very, very dry. It made for easier hiking than a snow-free terrain, for we were on a rocky moraine of loose stones much of the time. The snow evened out the terrain for us.

The sun was low behind us for the entire hike. If you see the sun in a picture, I’m looking back.

Our way was mostly flat, but every once in a while, we climbed a steep hill. The light was brilliant, everything white and blue! And lavender, pink, gray, if you looked closer.

At one point, Nemo was sorely tempted by this duck, who taunted him as he tried to walk out onto the thin ice and grab it. Sarah, Nemo’s person, could not get him to desist. So we all took a little break and enjoyed resting, eating snacks, and watching the show :o). (The duck was fine. The duck was in charge the whole time really.)

Our path skirted the frozen edges of two beautiful lakes, this one crossed with the tracks of an Arctic fox.

I included the picture below because in the foreground, you can see what I mean about the terrain of loose stones. It’s exactly the same backdrop as above, actually, but I’m standing at a higher point, so the sun is more visible.

Near the end of our hike, we climbed a steep ridge…

And there below us was another fjord, a glacier, and, waiting for us, the Antigua. Such a beautiful sight on a freezing day, after a long walk. I stood and stared, breathing fresh air, for a long time. As I watched, I heard her anchor fall — a familiar metallic clicking that was SO much louder on our ridge, echoing around the fjord, than it ever was from inside the ship.

And that was our hike from Lloyds Hotel to Lilliehöökbreen! If you’re curious about the place in the log where it says “Piet still smiling,” well, you may remember from a previous post that Piet was our chef. And we got home very late for lunch :o). But he fed us a delicious feast anyway.

I’ll post another adventure soon! Maybe those zodiac cruises mentioned in the log, or maybe an explanation of some of our exciting activities on deck.

A Wedding Gift for the Jane Readers Among You :o)

I have another post of Arctic pics lined up, but I wanted to change to the subject for a moment to something closer to home. Here’s something we received from some of my dear people at Penguin after we got married.

 Umbrellas, magical worlds, and joint adventures! My editor, Kathy Dawson, found the card, and my artist and mapmaker for Bitterblue and Jane, Unlimited, Ian Schoenherr, revised it :o). Jane, Unlimited readers will hopefully understand why.

My mouth fell open when I saw it, and I promptly burst into tears. Thank you to those involved — you know who you are :o).

More soon!

The Arctic Circle: Inside the Antigua

You might be wondering what it was like to live inside a ship for two weeks as we explored western Spitsbergen. For a sense of our day-to-day inside lives, here are some pictures from inside the Antigua. Please keep in mind that it was HARD to take these particular shots, because all the spaces are small and strangely-shaped, no space on a ship is designed for easy photographing, and also, the ship is never, ever still. It’s tricky to take in-focus pictures when the floor is moving!

See the door in the middle of this picture, with the circular window? Let’s step inside.

First thing you encounter is the Very Narrow Corridor With Too Many Boots. In the picture below, it is way more tidy than normal. We didn’t wear our outside shoes inside the Antigua, so every time you stepped in or out, you did the awkward and time-consuming boot-transition thing.

To the right are teeny bathrooms and the door to the engine room; to the left is the entrance to the kitchen, shown below. I didn’t want to go in there and take pictures, because people were working hard in there, making our delicious meals. So I took this weird snap from the doorway.

Now let’s walk straight ahead. To the left is the stairway down to our living quarters, but we’re going straight on into what was the heart of the ship for me — the lounge.

This is where we ate our meals and had social time. (The ship was fully heated inside.) Some people tried to work here sometimes, but in reality there was no practical work space for artists on the ship. We made do.

The lounge had a left table, a right table, and a higher, back table. The booth seats are so comfy, and were the scenes of many naps :o). Especially when the ship was moving so much that it was hard to keep upright.

The lounge includes this teeny, beautiful bar, with a service window into the kitchen.

The pole below is in fact one of the masts…

but we knew it as our notice board :o).

This is Janine climbing into a hole in the floor of the lounge, under some of the seats, to retrieve some of the food. Everything under your feet in a ship is a storage space, an outlet to the water system, or something!

Our food was delicious, warm, and plentiful at every single meal. Good thing, because we were spending hours outside every day — sometimes 8-10 hours — in below-freezing temperatures, so we were burning a lot of calories and needed a LOT of fuel. Here’s some birthday cake.

Our chef, Piet, was a genius, and the kitchen staff beyond wonderful. No meal was ever repeated. We ate stews, pastas, foods of many cuisines, delectable desserts. Sometimes our guides would tell us to eat a good dinner, but not too much, because it would likely be rough later, and I would stuff myself full anyway, because it was too delicious not to :o).
Here are the beautiful people who kept us so well fed.

And now, ready to go downstairs?

The stairs were really narrow, and in a moving ship, you quickly learned to cling to the banister.

Welcome to our corridor, which I always found to be a little redrum, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes you’d arrive in the corridor and the rug would be up, the floor open and a man sticking out. I think there were water pipes down there or something. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture!
My cabin, which I shared with my lovely roommate Dawn Jackson, was HUGE. Others had bunk beds in a veritable closet. We lucked out.
We kept it very tidy, as you can see. My bed is on the left.

In our defense re: the clutter, we were on the run practically every moment of every day (more about that in a later post). We did what we could :o).

In the picture, below, the head is behind the wall with the blue coat. I didn’t take a picture of it. It was a tiny room with a toilet and shower.

Dawn could peek out through her porthole from her bed :o).

The picture below was from a day when we were full sailing (no engine, just sails) and the water was sloshing all the way up to our portholes. This was NOT an easy picture to take — the floor was moving so much and it was hard not to fall over! I tried to wait until we were in the very trough of a wave, then snap the picture in that instant of lull, before the ship jumped up again.

So, that’s pretty much our living space inside the ship. There are other interior spaces in the Antigua — like the wheelhouse, for example, shown here from the outside…

But that was the space of the crew, staff, and guides, in addition to the ship’s most important passenger, Nemo…

So I didn’t take pictures in there. But I’ll be telling you more about our crew and guides, and more about life on and off the Antigua…

very soon!

The Arctic Circle: A few landscapes to set the mood!

In the coming weeks, I want to blog about a typical day on board; tell little stories of routines and big stories of adventures, in pictures; introduce you to some of the characters from my journey; familiarize you with the beautiful Antigua; and talk a little about my writing work on board.

I want to start, though, with a simple series of landscape photos, just to give a sense of atmosphere. For two weeks, with the exception of one day when we docked at the research station in Ny-Ålesund, we were alone on both land and sea. At the beginning of our trip, on October 1, we had about 10 and a half hours of daylight. As the trip progressed, we began to lose daylight steeply, as much as 40 minutes per day, such that when we returned to Longyearbyen on October 15, we had about 6 and a half hours of daylight. Can you imagine such a change, over the course of two weeks?

It made for some dramatic and moody skies.

Notice, in these pictures, how often my camera would reach for the Antigua in the distance :o). While I took these pictures, I was cold, in a remote and vast place where wind and ice were the only sounds. Often I was on land, a Zodiac-ride away from the ship, for hours. The Antigua in the distance meant warmth and home.

I’ll start with the map of our route around the western and northwestern coast of Spitsbergen. I won’t be identifying locations in this post — forgive me, but it would add a couple of hours to this posting, and I don’t have that tonight — but I do want you to have a general idea of where we were. Please do click on the pictures to embiggen and also see them in higher resolution/better quality. These pictures are insufficient to express the range of what we saw — but I will fill that out more in coming posts!

Hopefully, if you embiggen this, you’ll be able to make out our route, numbered along the black line.
A day of still waters.

One of many glaciers, glowing blue.

Artists dotting the landscape.

Sailing through sea ice in the north.

The sun was always low.

Ridges, glacier, ice, snow.



Clouds creating a matching formation with the peaks below.

Not much light, on one of the short days near the end of the trip.

The Antigua is tiny in this picture, can you find her?

More coming soon! :o)

The Arctic Circle: The Journey Begins!

On a cold morning on the last day of September, we flew into Spitsbergen, the western-most island of the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. We were having rare sunny weather, so the pilot changed course a bit to give those of us on the right side of the plane a beautiful Svalbardian view.

We landed in the town of Longyearbyen, which is one of the few permanently populated places in Svalbard.

The moon you can see, big in that sky, was a permanent fixture for the first week of our journey. It never set, it just circled the sky, always low and big against the horizon. Then, with the new moon, it set — and never came back again.

Our time in Longyearbyen was brief, but I did manage to pop over to the library :o).

The next morning, with our suitcases in hand and a stomach full of nerves, we went to the pier to board our new home, the Antigua.

Personally, I thought she looked pretty small for 40+ people. And for two weeks on the Arctic Ocean. And for not puking the entire time. What was I thinking? I kept repeating to myself. How am I going to do this? Why did I think this was a good idea? Is it a bad sign that I already feel queasy? I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine! I’m going to die! I open myself to this adventure, goddammit!

(At least I’m not kitesurfing on a freezing cold day in the Arctic Ocean, like that bozo!) 

It was a rough few hours on the ship. I was anxious; I felt seasick. I kept crashing into things and spilling things. It was SO COLD, especially after the sun set, but once we were moving, I needed to stay out on deck in order to keep from puking. Then I puked anyway. It was not fun. I was scared. What if this was how I was going to feel for the next two weeks?

I stumbled and bumbled down to my cabin, put my head on my rocking pillow, and took a long nap. When I woke up, around 10pm, I didn’t know it at the time, but I woke to a new state of being. I never got sick on the trip again.

That night, feeling world’s better, I went to the kitchen and begged some food. A kind person warmed some up for me and I carried it out on deck, where I ate under the stars, surrounded by the noise of moving water. A bit later, I saw the northern lights for the first time in my life. I went on to see them so many times, on so many nights, that I lost count. I saw them from the deck of the Antigua, this beautiful ship that I grew to adore, and loved to call my home.

I’ve decided to post pictures from my trip, divided into themes. I haven’t chosen all my themes yet or gotten particularly organized. But over the next few weeks, come here to learn about a number of things, including

new landscapes,

new discoveries,

new activities,

new perspectives,

and new friends.

Stay tuned!

Jane Sin Límites

I’ve just gotten home and am going through my mail. It’s a day for unpacking, organizing, trying to remember and reinstate my routines, and figuring out which way is up. I like days like this. They’re cozy and slow, and I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself. Especially since I handed in a draft right before I left, I have the added pleasure of deciding what I’m writing next. This thing that I probably should work on, or that thing that’s knocking on my door, begging to be worked on? And, now that Arctic Trip Prep is no longer my biggest extracurricular activity, I finally get to dive into some other projects that have been on hold. You know your life has opened up a little when you’re actually looking forward to tasks like choosing new health insurance now that you’re married, and figuring out whether you need to keep paying for long-term disability insurance. Sigh.

This morning, I find myself spending some time with my favorite piece of mail — the Spanish version of Jane, Unlimited, published for Mexico, Central and South America by V&R Editoras.

This edition contains some lovely design details! The designers, artists, and editors did some very clever and nice things with the umbrella metaphor — closed umbrellas, open umbrellas, depending on what part of the book you’re in. Here’s the title page:

The table of contents:

The beginning of the first, “closed” part:

Here’s the attractive design on the first page of each section:

Every single page of the book has an umbrella at the bottom! Be still my beating heart. And a key-like shape between parts:

Now we reach the end of the first section and enter the part of the book where the “umbrella opens” into all the different simultaneously-occurring stories:

More design as Jane decides:

The subsequent sections of the book are marked with an open umbrella:

And here are the parts of the umbrella at the end:

I am delighted. Thank you to my Spanish-edition team, which includes Marcela Luza, Marianela Acuña, Melisa Corbetto, Erika Wrede, Julián Balangero, Luis Tinoco, translator Graciela S. Romero, and many others whose names aren’t listed inside the edition. I am so happy!

Arctic stuff soon :o). And actually, these pictures look a little foggy to me — I may need to clean some salty, foggy, misty layers of grime from my iPhone. So much to do. Taking my time.

Be well, readers.

Just Checking in from Oslo

Dear Readers,

Just wanted to report that I’m back in Oslo, after 2+ spectacular weeks of sailing around the western and northwestern coast of Spitsbergen, Svalbard, in the tall ship Antigua, with a group of wonderful artists, guides, and crew. I have many, many pictures to post and stories to tell, but I’m not home yet, and it’ll be a few days until I get organized. Here are a couple just to start things off :o). I can’t wait to share more!


Kim Mirus, one of my sailing companions and an extraordinary weaver, took this photo. That’s Antigua in the background.

And I took this panorama with my iPhone… it makes the ship look very bendy :o). Click to embiggen.

Arctic Prep

Today I handed in a draft of a new book to my editor. Feels good.

Next thing on my agenda: Prepping for my artist residency on a tall ship in the Arctic! I leave next week. Here’s the situation:

No problem, right? I’ll pack this weekend and have a few days next week for the last-minute scramble as I suddenly remember a whole slew of things I need to do before I fly to Svalbard. While I’m aboard the ship, I won’t be able to blog, but I’ll be storing up pictures and stories to share for when I get back. And that’s the news from here. Oh, also, this blog post is dedicated to the Cleveland Browns. :o)