Liz Vogel might be one of the few authors who can install new light fixtures in your house—and write a great science fiction story afterward. We asked Liz a number of questions about her process and inspirations, and learned about the importance of history, how to deal with writers block, and the author’s love of DOS-based word processors. Her story “Dix Dayton and the Miners from Mars” appears in [our January/February issue, on sale now!]
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate?
LV: I often get ideas for character names when I’m driving—place names, road signs, etc. So Dix Dayton is named after an expressway exit and a trucking company. As soon as I had the name, I thought, hmm, he sounds like the sort of character you’d find in the mid-century “consensus future” SF of Heinlein and Niven and Poul Anderson—a real old-school jet-jockey. He floated around in the back of my head for a while, and then I was looking at one of those calendars of classic-style travel posters for places in the solar system and thought, why not write a Dix story for each month? It didn’t quite work out that way, but the Neptune one kicked off Dix’s first adventure, “Dix Dayton, Jet Jockey.” I wanted to do Mars next, but the logistics of getting Dix and his little ship from the asteroid belt to Mars proved challenging—so why not bring a little bit of Mars to Dix? So “Dix Dayton and the Miner from Mars” was born. To be honest, I mostly wrote it so I could use the magnetic poker table.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
LV: I enjoy the full range of science fiction as a reader, but I don’t often write the kind of hard SF that Analog is known for. So when “Dix Dayton, Jet Jockey” turned out to fit that mold, I thought “Hey, why not give it a shot?” I was surprised and delighted to get the acceptance—and a bit flummoxed, since I was on vacation in London at the time and barely checking email. And once Analog had published the first Dix story, it seemed only natural to give them a shot at the sequel.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
LV: In general, I try to stay away from current events as much as possible; it just raises my blood pressure to no good purpose. To me fiction, especially science fiction, is an opportunity to get away from current events and the aggravations of the everyday world. To explore what the world could be, not just navel-gaze at what it is. Maybe that makes me old-fashioned, but I think we need more of that—more possibilities, more directions we could go.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
LV: The trouble with “writers’ block” is that all sorts of writing difficulties get stuffed in under that label, and then it becomes this whole big Thing that the writer is helpless in the face of. I find it’s more useful to think in terms of “getting stuck,” and then ask “Why are you stuck?” Maybe you’re dealing with some major stress in your life. Maybe you don’t know what happens next, or you need to do some research for the next scene. Maybe it’s a nice day and you want to go play in the sunshine. Diagnosis is key, because the solution to one kind of stuck won’t help another, and may make it worse. If the problem is that you want to go play, the solution is to sit your butt in the chair and make some words. (And then go play, because play’s important, too.) If the problem is that the story needs to percolate a bit longer, bulling ahead will likely only get you more stuck, whereas going out to play and letting your back-brain do its thing may be just the ticket. The first step in fixing any kind of problem is to identify what the problem actually is.
To me fiction, especially science fiction, is an opportunity to get away from current events and the aggravations of the everyday world. To explore what the world could be, not just navel-gaze at what it is.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
LV: I’m querying a novel, which is a space opera full of ninjas and grues and a cyborg platypus, laced with alliteration and jokes about collective nouns. And I’m working on the sequel, which is tragically lacking in cyborg platypodes but does have flying ferrets.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
LV: It’s sheer technobabble, but I want impossibly compact folding technology. A full set of armor that expands from a bracelet? A car that folds down into a briefcase? Sign me up!
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
LV: My advice is, don’t pay too much attention to advice. There’s a lot of how-to-write advice out there, and all too often it’s the way that one particular author works, which since it works for them, they’ve decided must be the way everybody else should work, too. Think of advice as tools for your toolbox; by all means, try out the promising ones if you get stuck, but if a tool isn’t working for you, toss it back in the box and try something else. If you’re a devoted reader—and what writer isn’t?—you know what a good story looks like. Trust that.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
LV: I started college in the physics program, with every intention of going on to develop spaceship drives. Unfortunately, calculus and I didn’t get on at all well, and I ended up with a history degree. Which to me isn’t as big a shift as it sounds: if physics is how the universe works, history (which includes economics, sociology, and psychology, if you do it right) is how people work. It’s still figuring out how the world got to be the way it is, and where it might be going—just on a different level. I still love science, and while I’m no expert, I know enough to know how to look up what I don’t know—at least enough to hang a story on it. And people plus the universe equals stories if anything does, so here we are.
AE: What’s a talent or hobby of yours that people are surprised by?
LV: My library colleagues were surprised that I do my own household electrical work—and other DIY, but many people find electrical especially intimidating. Actually, wiring a socket or installing a light fixture is pretty easy. And kind of fun. Just remember that electrical testers exist to die so you don’t have to, and you’re good to go. People who know me a little better and know I’m comfortable with a wrench or a saw are very surprised when I show up with a plate of fancy decorated sugar cookies.
AE: What’s the weirdest thing in your writing space?
LV: Probably the computer! I do most of my writing in a really old DOS-based word processor, and I prefer the feel of the keyboards on laptops from the era when DOS-based word processors were still a thing. I even still use 3.5″ diskettes, given the option. So I’m perpetually scrounging friends’ closets for that ancient laptop that they don’t want to throw away because it still works, but that’s far too old for them to have any use for. I certainly can write with modern hardware and software (I believe a writer should be able to write anywhere), but what we shall charitably call the retro approach is the most comfortable for me. And sure, I could put everything on a single USB drive—but having everything I’ve ever written fit on something half the size of my finger is just depressing.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
LV: I don’t have much of an online presence, because I’ve been too busy running Narrativity: A Convention for Story (https://www.narrativity.fun/). But you can find me and a bunch of nifty people there.