I had a pretty frustrating storm chase today – just a quick one in between work I’m doing on a video project, a book edit and photo shoots – as I tried to intercept a beautiful shelf cloud ahead of a line of severe storms. I just couldn’t get in front of it in position to take a good photo and ended up driving in a huge circle in Brevard County, Florida, in intense rain and wind. My persistence paid off in a slightly less spectacular but moody photo of the tail end of the shelf, near the southern end of Patrick Air Force Base. See the rest of the photos here.
There’s a swans’ nest in nearby Viera, Florida, that has had spectators gawking for weeks. Its enormous size and spectacular and doting parents were plenty of attraction, until the baby swans were hatched on Friday.
Swans mate for life, barring disaster, and these parents seemed at least as devoted as all the fans crowding around the bank of the retention pond with their cameras and cell phones. Of course, one idiot drove by today screaming “F*** swans,” but there’s no accounting for poor taste. The swans were tolerant of their fan club, though one informed participant warned us that they have teeth in those elegant beaks, and a bite can be quite painful.
As you might guess, the three-day-old cygnets are adorable. Still, their neighbor, a great blue heron, was not impressed. You’ll see him lurking in the photos I shot.
Click on thumbnails to see larger images or start a short slide show:
It felt good to slap the dash-cam mount on the dashboard, pop in a video camera and go on a real storm chase today, in the middle of a tornado watch, no less. I ran out in such a hurry that I will have to reconfigure the dash-cam mount later, but that’s OK. There was a line of intense, tornado-warned storms rampaging across central Florida with a distinct bow on radar, and I got in the way of one of the warned circulations on S.R. 520 northwest of Cocoa and south of 528. I’ve seen plenty of gust fronts, but this one had an amazing leading edge that created a tornado-like optical illusion for a few moments. It’s too bad I was in heavy rain at the time, or I would have had more photos of it, but I got a few, and they’re in my Sky Diary storm-chasing report for March 29. There’s also a video, which I have posted here, too.
Late last March, I got to chase a great squall line event, too. These kinds of Florida storms are good warm-ups for my Tornado Alley trip, when I get to learn all over again how to juggle cameras, radar, navigation and driving while trying to capture the storms of the Great Plains. I expect to head out in May and will be posting regular updates. I’m happy to note that I’m again among several storm chasers with whom Midland is partnering to show off the capabilities of its cameras. New this year is the XTC-400 HD Wearable Video Camera. I’m looking forward to trying it out, hopefully on a mothership supercell! Wide-angle lenses do amazing things to mothership supercells.
It’s Severe Weather Awareness Week in Florida, but regardless of where you live, weather awareness is best achieved through one little piece of hardware: a NOAA weather radio. You can get them in all kinds of forms — portable, desktop, alarm clock. I have one in my car as part of the CB radio I use sometimes when chasing storms. I even have a weather radio app on my phone. The most important function of a weather radio is the ability to sound an alarm when the National Weather Service issues a warning, so you’ll always know if a tornado or severe storm is headed your way.
The radios broadcast local weather from the NWS all day long, not just warnings, but an alert tone is sounded when warnings are issued. Even when the radio is off, if set correctly, the alert will sound. Some radios can be programmed so they sound an alert only for your area and not other counties in the forecast area (look for S.A.M.E. or Specific Area Message Encoding in the product description). A small investment in a weather radio can keep you and your family safe.
Midland makes several models of weather radio and sent me its ER300 for review. This portable radio’s multiple functionality appeals to my love of gadgets. First, it’s light (just a pound) and fairly small, with a handle, though it won’t fit in most pockets. It’s a natural companion for the beach or any outdoor activity as well as for emergencies.
The ER300 can be powered by AA batteries or its lithium ion battery, which can be charged via the included mini USB cable or — handy in a power outage — via its built-in solar panel or by turning the fold-out crank. Midland sells an AC adapter for the USB cable for $19.99, but these days, you can get a similar adapter just about anywhere if you don’t already have one. Once charged, the radio offers up to 25 hours of use. (By the way, the quick-start instructions say to plug in the battery, and that’s meant literally — the battery’s attached wire must be plugged into the receptacle in the battery compartment. I realized this after a fair amount of pointless cranking, but hey, it was good exercise.)
There are more goodies: a built-in LED flashlight with a dim, bright or flashing SOS setting, AM/FM radio in addition to weather radio, a clock display, and an ultrasonic dog whistle. The latter didn’t get a blink from my lazy Cavaliers, but it could theoretically help alert search and rescue dogs in the worst kind of emergency. There’s a headphone jack, too. (Addendum 2/27: I got to hear the weather alert during our state tornado drill, and there’s no way you can miss it! It sounds like a series of incoming torpedoes.)
Once the radio is charged, the USB ports can be used to power your tablet or cell phone — again, a handy feature if your power is out for a while. We could’ve used something like this in the onslaught of 2004 hurricanes, when our electricity was out for days.
I found the push-button controls fairly easy to use, though you’ll want to read at least the quick-start guide. The retractable antenna should be extended for best reception. The radio retails for $79.99. If cost is a concern, you can get a weather radio for a lot less (e.g. Midland’s HH50 Pocket Weather Alert Radio for $24.99). It’s worth it. It can save your life.
What: ER300 Emergency Crank Weather Alert Radio
Features: Weather radio with alert; AM/FM radio; multiple ways to power it, including crank, solar, USB and AA batteries; LED light/beacon; supersonic dog whistle; clock; headphone jack
In the box: radio with rechargeable battery; USB charging cable; owner’s manual
Retail cost: $79.99
I always want to be better, and I am never satisfied that I’m where I should be in anything, especially in my passions – photography and writing. Storm photography, especially, always leaves room for improvement. If the photo in itself is great, it might have been shot from a better angle, at a different time, or on a different storm. Because in storm chasing, the first rule is location, location, location. The second is timing. You can be a technically great photographer (I’m still working on that, too) and never be a great storm photographer if you can’t get into the right place at the right time.
In 2013, I saw a lot of extreme weather, most of it packed into less than three weeks during my annual whirlwind tour of Tornado Alley. Yet I still curse myself for not being in better position on some of the storms I saw and for missing others. Such is always the way of the perfectionist; that drive is a blessing and a curse, since perfection is never possible, except, perhaps, in the sweeping curves of a supercell at sunset. I’ll leave perfection to nature and post my imperfections right here.
I’ve been neglecting my blog. I’ve been consumed with several projects, including editing two books – it’s so exciting to work with other writers as an editor. That’s how I started my career in journalism, as a copy editor. It always seemed like something I could do while I wrote other things, and I did, though I eventually became a reporter (and videographer and photographer). I’m also working on the third Storm Seekers novel, Zap Bang.
But in the meantime, I’m scheduling events for 2014. Come see me at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science on Jan. 12 at 2 p.m. I’ll be sharing stories, videos and photographs from my 17 years of chasing storms in Tornado Alley and Florida.
Happy holidays, everyone. (Oh, yeah, and if you need a gift or a good read for that new Kindle or tablet, won’t you consider Funnel Vision and Tornado Pinball?)
I have several events coming up, and I hope you can join me to talk about storms and books!
On Sunday, Nov. 10, I’ll sign books at a party marking the launch of a new storm photography exhibit. It will include photos from this year’s chaotic storm season. The party is 2-5 p.m. at Rocket City Retro Mid-Century Modern Furniture & Design, 331 King St., in Cocoa Village. The free event will feature wine, hors d’oeuvres and storm videos in addition to photography of tornadoes, lightning and severe weather, displayed amid Rocket City Retro’s stylish furnishings and gifts from the 1950s to the 1970s. My photos will be on display through Nov. 30.
I’ll also be at the Meet the Authors Book Fair Nov. 23-24 at Eau Gallie Civic Center, which happens in conjunction with ArtWorks. I’ll be signing “Funnel Vision” and “Tornado Pinball,” the first two storm-chasing adventures in the Storm Seekers Series.
Also catch my storm photography Dec. 2-31 at the Cocoa Beach Library, 550 N. Brevard Ave. In a free library talk on Dec. 4 at 6:30 p.m., I will discuss what it takes to shoot great storm and lightning photos, drawing on 17 years of experience chasing storms in Tornado Alley and Florida. And I’ll sign books, in case you haven’t picked up yours yet.
See you out there!
This is not a book-review blog, as a rule, but when the folks at Simon & Schuster asked if I’d like to take a peek at Michael Farris Smith’s novel of meteorological calamity, “Rivers,” I couldn’t resist. I’m sure they didn’t ask me because of my brilliant literary insights. I’d guess it’s because I’m a storm chaser and weather geek. But before I talk about the weather, I have to address the story — especially because the storms are really secondary to the characters.
“Rivers” follows in the steps of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” if incrementally less grim and less spare. In a near future when the United States government has written off the Gulf Coast as a hurricane-blasted wasteland, Cohen is a builder who’s decided to stay behind among the survivalists, the desperate, and the treasure hunters digging for troves of cash they think were buried by the fleeing casinos. We soon find out why: He’s still dealing with a storm-precipitated personal tragedy, and his home is the last vestige of his happy life.
Cohen lives an isolated existence made less lonely by a stray dog and horse and punctuated only by supply runs. But what’s left below The Line is certainly no Walden Pond, no place for quiet contemplation as nature reclaims the land. It’s more like the zombie apocalypse without the zombies. It’s a place of redneck primitivism, woman-enslaving cults and mercenaries who shoot first and ask questions later as one devastating storm after another rakes the tattered lowlands. When a generous impulse jeopardizes Cohen’s bulwarks against the chaos, he’s forced to confront the worst elements of this world and his own demons, choose alliances and try to find his way out.
Smith’s sentences stretch out like Cohen’s dreary days, in a loping, run-on, hypnotic rhythm. The author shifts point of view between characters with a sometimes irritating fluidity. His flashbacks feel more conventional, with more orderly paragraphs that reflect Cohen’s then-contented days at home and on an enchanting vacation in Venice with his wife among the “rivers” there.
Smith writes of one of Cohen’s moments of despair:
He felt as if he were sitting at the end of the world, in a place that the light had long ago abandoned and undiscovered creatures moved about in the black using their instincts to feed off one another. Somewhere unknown to man and unsafe for man and forgotten by the one who had created it. He was going to die in this place and it wrecked his spirit at first but then this became an apathetic notion. He didn’t know what there was to live for. And he didn’t know what there was to die for. Only that he would die in this forgotten place and be a part of its unaccounted history.
The water ran down his head and face and arms and legs. Under his skin. In his bones.
The “rivers” on the Gulf Coast seem ever-expanding in this apparent global-warming-caused disaster, though climate change is merely implied by the fact of the storms. The storms themselves seem to be, technically speaking, hurricanes that come every few days, though their behavior is at times unusual for tropical systems (pardon me while the weather geek has her say). Warm-core tropical systems rarely leave people cold or bombard them with massive hailstones. But maybe this crazy weather is beyond our ken as we try to foresee a future that eludes even the climate scientists.
What’s more important in the confines of the novel is that the untamed and relentless storms are reflected in the ragtag, ruthless humans living in their domain, and it will take an extraordinary person to rise above the madness. The plot is almost as unruly as the weather, but in the last fifty pages it presses the accelerator and drives hard to the end.
Will you like “Rivers”? “Like” isn’t really the term one applies to apocalyptic novels, but readers drawn to desperate, poignant survival literature may admire it. If you’re looking for a story about meteorological carnage, “Rivers” is a lot more, and a lot less in the weather department, as the storms only set the stage for the human drama. This isn’t storm porn. And on a personal note, I never like seeing animals in peril, even in a “literary” novel.
That said, I found the novel interesting and ultimately compelling, particularly in its forceful climax. I appreciated that, like the weather, it kept me guessing. Like a brutal storm, “Rivers” will test you — and it might make you think twice about buying waterfront property.
Writers are pretty good at anguishing over stuff, and I’ve been anguishing over what makes a book successful. I have two novels out there, and a third on the way, but sales are slow. There’s no lack of advice and paid schemes aimed at authors who want to live the dream and make a lot of money, but is that the only measure of success?
Certainly, selling a lot of books is some measure of success, and since I don’t sell a lot (“yet,” she said hopefully), I haven’t met that bar.
Success could and should also be about writing a great book, whether it’s fiction, poetry or nonfiction. This quality is more difficult to measure, though reviews or a fan following might help convince you that you’ve achieved it.
Lastly, do you like your own book? Writers are a self-critical bunch, or at least the best ones are, and so they may be more likely to beat themselves up over their flaws. If you can see flaws, chances are you have some perspective on your work. And in spite of those flaws, if you still like your work, if it satisfies you at some basic level, then you probably are a success, even if it’s only in your home office.
Those who are simply out to sell books, which is what we are told over and over again we must do as professional writers (professional = paid), seem to take different tracks to achieve their goals. And since (a) I want to write to please myself but (b) I’d also like to sell some books, I’ve been wondering if selling books has to mean, in some sense, selling one’s soul.
I love Pixel of Ink and check out the free e-books it mentions every day. I even download and read some of them. But despite its diverse highlights, sometimes I think I’m reading the same description over and over. I don’t care how hot young-adult fiction is; when the summaries are interchangeable, either there’s an appalling lack of originality, or people are writing to a formula to sell books. They go something like this: “When 16/17/18-year-old Jane discovered she had hidden powers to fly/move stuff/read minds/time travel/talk with fairies, she never counted on learning about them with hunky teenage alien/sorcerer/telepath/angel/vampire Joe, her secret protector. Together they must save the world/fight the totalitarian dystopian government/hide their superpowers while they go to high school.” Hey, I get it. Young people (especially young women) want stuff to read that they can relate to, and we all like a good escape.
As a girl, I devoured Trixie Belden detective stories and mysteries by Phyllis A. Whitney and other books starring young women, and I enjoyed them. (This was in the Pre-Twilight Era.) But by high school, I was reading a lot of different stuff, some crappy, some brilliant, and I appreciated an author that had respect for my brain. I think it’s great if young readers consume everything to sharpen their critical acumen, but as a writer, I’d like to feed them well. Some books transcend their genre and sell a lot because they’re genuinely good (“The Hunger Games,” for instance). But I’m depressed by the amount of stuff that’s more derivative than daring.
I wonder sometimes if I could write in one of these genres deemed “hot,” maybe under a pen name. Maybe I should sell out, join the crowd – not that there’s a guarantee I’d sell books then, either. And you have a point if you say, no, you should just write a really good book that will sell because it’s really good, no matter what the subject matter; make your own trend. But, let’s face it, books have a leg up when they’re in a marketable genre, and a leap up if they seem to be kind of the same as something else that was already popular. Some literary agents say you shouldn’t write to a trend, because by the time your book is out, the trend may have changed. That advice doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone, and my general impression is that many agents and publishers are fond of proven sellers, not iconoclastic new voices. After all, publishing is a business, and art is its increasingly rare offspring. (Gwen Stephens shares one agent’s perspective on writing to trends here.)
If you had any doubt about marketing that capitalizes on previous successes, look at book covers. Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books retweeted a great image of a cover today (as spotted by @helen_machness) that shows hands holding a rose, “Twilight”-style, but with wrists bound, to make it clear it’s in the sexy-book-dominant-guy category. That’s in case the title, “The Diary of a Submissive,” didn’t give you a clue. It’s one thing to trade on the conventions of your genre for your book cover; it’s quite another to rip them off. I did a quick check online and found three different covers for this book (marketed as memoir) by Sophie Morgan; two were in shades of gray. Or should that be Shades of Grey?
I enjoy well-written genre books. And I might even write a mystery or a romance or a young-adult fantasy someday. But I don’t want to do it just because I think it will sell, especially if the formula involves a passive female creature whose one goal in life is to be noticed by a man. We deserve better as writers and as readers. Success may be elusive on every level, but perhaps we can start by finding it in the obscurity of our home office, writing stories from the heart.
The blue moon – the full moon on August 20 – was a magical photographic opportunity for me. I was able to shoot a lightning storm with the full moon overhead, from the beautiful vantage point of Cocoa, Florida, looking east over the Indian River Lagoon. I’ve photographed not-so-great shots of the moon with a thunderstorm before, but nothing like this. Better yet, there were multiple shots, though the one shown here is definitely my favorite.