Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Yearly Summary

I'm not a good record keeper, but during the year I keep my expense ledger for taxes, track where I send manuscripts when, and try to make a note in the back of my diary of each book read, movie seen in a theater, and species of bird seen. I'm not sure what the point of the diary notes is, as I don't have great faith in my accuracy and if I want to remember the name and author of a book I have to skim backward through diaries puzzling over my own handwriting. If I had a serious purpose I'd put this stuff in a database. I think it's all there because the diary, inefficient as it is for record-keeping purposes, represents the years of my life more than anything else does. On New Year's Eve I make a tally, as a rough guide to what I was thinking and doing during the year.

In 2008, I read 219 books, saw 18 theater movies, got approximately 70 bird species, prepped 5 books for submission, and drafted one. In 2009, if I finish the book I started last evening, I will have read 205 books, prepped one book for submission, not quite finished researching one, gone to a whopping 5 movies, and seen - my goodness - about 180 species! That will never be a precise number because every major birding trip and some casual sightings will always have question marks next to them. I will never be the kind of birder (is there such a thing?) who is always positive in her identifications and can always make them; also, since I traveled a bit and kept trip lists, I might have accidentally counted some species more than once.

I've been accustomed for a long time to say that I read between 200 and 300 books a year, and while this is still technically true it's clear that I don't read as many books as I used too. That doesn't necessarily mean my reading time has diminished. The list deals only in books I read all the way through, so books which I've mined extensively as research but didn't read cover-to-cover, books I read half-way and got fed up with or couldn't face the foreshadowed climax, magazines, journals, comics(except in bound collections), blogs, and internet communications aren't counted. Also, looking further back in the diaries makes it clear that the drop-off began when I quit the soul-sucking dayjob and no longer had the reading time built into that (riding the bus back and forth; walking to and from the restroom; taking the stairs up to the office - my weight ballooned, too, till I took it in hand). Plus, all those trips - New York, Tulsa, 2 trips to Austin, Atlanta, and two trips to the coast. Only Atlanta and New York were plane trips, with all their hours of reading time. Car trips are better for getting birds than books (though you can stop impulsively at bookstores and buy more, since you have a back seat to put them into).

We're told it's not quantity, but quality that counts. I'm not at all sure that's true; certainly not in the American economy, in which the volume of mediocre product has more influence than the price of superior product in the overall health of a market. I've always been an indiscriminate reader, partly on the theory that you have to read a lot of crud to appreciate the good stuff, but mostly because I have a low tolerance for boredom and reading anything is better than traversing a concrete-lined stairwell four times a day with nothing to read. My family's reading, and consequent borrowing and buying, habits have a direct impact on the San Antonio library system and a wide range of retail outlets, and an indirect impact on the literary economy and hence on my own potential to make a living at my profession.

If you want a library in your community, check books out of it. If you want to sell books, buy them. If you want to write them, read them.

I'm not reading too much. I'm setting a good example.

Happy New Year, y'all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A side trip in history

I'm frequently in the position of throwing up my hands and demanding what a poor fiction writer's supposed to do when the facts are so bizarre. While in the opening throes of my current research, in order to get a general overview of the period of interest I read the relevant portions of T.R. Fehrenbach's general account Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. And this is what we find:

See, crops were good in Texas throughout the war and although far and away the majority of able-bodied white men joined either the CSA or a frontier defense unit, the plantations of the Cotton Belt kept right on producing cotton under the aegis of lone white women and capable slaves, who despite white paranoia never took the logical course of rising up or escaping en masse to Mexico - which, to be fair, was having its own civil war at the time and may not have been a tempting prospect compared to the devil they knew. The Union Navy blockaded the Gulf of Mexico, but all these Southern belles had to do was ship their cotton overland (a considerable chore, as roads were universally terrible and our few navigable rivers all run west to east) and sell it in Mexico, from whence the purchaser (as likely to be the Union Army as anybody else, but as long as they paid in gold only the CSA government cared) could not be legally constrained from carrying it away as long as it wasn't in a ship flying the CSA flag. In time the state took over the cotton trade, to its considerable complication. The war caused a chronic draft animal shortage, so experimental camels confiscated from the U.S. Army at Camp Verde at the beginning of the war were used for hauling cotton. But that's not the weird thing.

I won't trouble you with all the geographical and military minutiae, but suffice to say that the Union Army succeeded in disrupting the Mexican cotton trade by occupying coastal positions near the Rio Grande. The charismatic Texan professional fighter and once-and-future Texas Ranger John Salmon "Rip" Ford, who had no Confederate Army rank and didn't get along with the generals supposedly protecting the border, raised the Cavalry of the West - a motley assortment composed mostly of boys too young and men too old for the current conscription laws - to protect the cotton trade and successfully bottled the Union up in an untenable position from which they could do no harm. At about the same time, the French were taking advantage of the chaos in Mexico to try to install Napoleonic relative Maximilian as Emperor. Ford - not a much-loved figure to anyone he could call a Mexican, but a pragmatist above all - generally dealt with whatever Mexican was in power in the region that concerned him in a diplomatic manner that got him what he wanted, backed up by the knowledge that he'd rather shoot a Mexican than get a disadvantageous deal from him. (This is me talking, not Fehrenbach.) Matamoros, the border town through which the cotton trade passed, was in Imperial hands at the beginning of 1865, and everybody was making a profit, except the Cavalry of the West, which had never seen a payday. So now we get to the weird part.

On March 6, 1865, the Union soldier-politician Lew Wallace, the later author of Ben Hur, appeared at Brazos de Santiago. General Wallace came to try to make a truce on the Rio Grande, with Lincoln's approval. Wallace had concocted a fantastic scheme of getting the Confederates to surrender and reenter the Union, and then joining their army with Juarez in Mexico. Together, this force would drive the French and Imperialists out. The Rio Grande still inspired wild dreams.
No kidding!

So on March 11, Wallace hosted a party for Ford, the real commander, and General Slaughter, the official commander, at Port Isabel (where I spent the weekend before commencing this research - oh, opportunity lost! What might I have found there, had I been looking?), with $600 worth of refreshments and a plan. Ford and Slaughter were both aware that, despite how well Texas was doing militarily, the CSA was on its last legs, and thought the idea worth considering; but their superior, Major General J.G. Walker, got wind of it and came down hard on Slaughter, the only one who could commit the Army to anything. Ford used to talk regretfully about the proposition afterward. He thought it could have worked, and anyway would have been more advantageous to Texas than going down with the Confederate ship proved to be.

A month later, Lee surrendered, but nobody knew that. In May, an ambitious young Union officer broke out and was roundly beaten at the Battle of Palmito Hill (per Fehrenbach; records of the cause of Palmito Hill are contradictory), the last battle of the Civil War and a Confederate victory, for all that was worth. A few days later, Ford received a flag of truce and a message conveying the news of the surrender. "Ford cursed violently for a spell, then began to laugh. He agreed, not to surrender, but to an exchange of courtesies." These courtesies involved a party at his house followed by a junket to Mexico to watch an Imperial military revue. General Slaughter refused to surrender, wanting to take the remains of his army across the border and join the Imperialists (against whom he'd been willing to form an alliance three months before, remember). He couldn't raise any enthusiasm for this idea among the (still unpaid) men.

Ford likewise turned down an Imperialist offer of lancers disguised as civlians to help him hold Matamoros's sister city of Brownsville, but General Slaughter made a deal to sell the Confederate artillery to them for 20,000 pesos in silver. He appears to have intended to keep the money, but Ford intercepted it, arresting Slaughter at gunpoint, and the troops in Brownsville, at least, finally got a payday. Slaughter then signed his command over to Ford, who dismissed the troops and carried his family across the border to Mexico, where he stayed until the terms of amnesty were declared in July and he went on home.

Why I think I need to invent anything when Texas history is right here, I'm not sure! None of this is directly relevant to my story, but realizing that the father of one of my characters was a cotton speculator gave me the first indication of how my plot would shape up, and the flexibility of loyalties on the Texas frontier is very relevant indeed. Since then I've learned a lot more about the cotton trade, and hence about Mr. Bonvillain's character, and why he left his daughter in San Antonio while he went to Mexico, and where he was when he died.

I'm long past reading general secondary histories for this project. As a rule, I am not fond of them. They tend to skim over the interesting bits in favor of faking neutrality - and they are never neutral. Even Texas history can be made to seem boring, if you leave out the stories. Give me a partial, prejudiced, honest historian who carries the ax he's grinding openly and tells interesting stories any day of the week over the stuffy textbook that hides its bias under a layer of dullness!

In archeology and paleontology, most of the interesting stuff is underground. Something has to draw attention to a site before it can be dug. Bones erode out of a stream bed; a field is known as a good place to collect "arrowheads" (which may really be lance points, or knives, or engravers); a construction crew finds jewelry in the treads of its earthmover. General histories show the surface scatter. Scholarship and primary sources provide the diggings; and then you interpret what you find in accordance with your own needs.

And in the course of that, you turn up stories like that of the Cavalry of the West, the author of Ben Hur, and the Mexican Civil War, that aren't what you need at all, and which you'd never dare to make up! Which is a good in itself, and needs no excuse.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Idea Garage Sale: Life Among the Carnivores

In 1998, I realized that I don't like meat, so I stopped eating it. I did not stop preparing it, as I was living at that time with two people who did like meat, one of whom would not eat crunchy vegetables and one of whom would not eat food while it was hot.

Not only did I start enjoying my food more (hot, crunchy vegetables! Yum!), I suddenly got healthier. It wasn't cutting out the meat per se that made the difference; it was the increase in fiber and nutrients and decrease in sodium that happened when I felt at liberty to cook food the way I prefer it, as fresh as possible. However, the degree of interpersonal conflict in my life rose. Where before I was only in the petty political struggles of a household - cook vs. dishwasher, dishwasher vs. dishwasher, consumer vs. cook, in all of which conflicts I, as sole cook, was invariably the loser - now I found myself constantly at loggerheads with society. People took offense at my vegetarianism no matter how little it impacted them, behaving as though my selection of one dish over another was a personal attack, assuming that I was attempting to one-up them in a kind of conspicuous moral consumption, and launching into scathing criticisms of positions I hadn't taken. Prospective hosts would apologize for not knowing what to feed me, and act surprised when I pointed out that most of what they ate wasn't meat, either, and I could dine well on what they considered to be side dishes.

So I started writing a book in my head, and have been writing it ever since. I call it Life Among the Carnivores, but the subtitle keeps changing. At the moment, it's something like Cooking, Housekeeping, and Hosting in the Real World. American schools don't teach nutrition well and don't discuss the micropolitics of food at all, so the emphasis would be on giving the reader - envisioned as a young adult on her own for the first time - the tools necessary to make the choices that suit her best and negotiate the irrational responses other people have to those choices.

Yeah, because there's nothing young adults love more than having a wise older adult pass on her hard-earned wisdom. :rolleyes:

Oh, sure, there is a need for such a book. Judging from the historical performance of advice books the need even translates into a market. But I'm not a professional nutritionist, or chef, or caterer, or even a home ec teacher. I have no platform on which to build this book.

That doesn't mean that, if I ever got this book out of my head and onto a page, it wouldn't be a good and useful book. But - in the real world of publishing - in order to sell it to other people as a good and useful book, I would have to spend time positioning myself as an expert and convincing people that they want to take my advice. I'd rather spend time writing fiction. Besides - alas - in the real world no one values my advice enough to make me think that any degree of positioning would profit me. Some of the things I want most desperately to be in the book, I haven't figured out how to do! My best efforts to make my dietary requirements easy and untroublesome keep failing on the rocks of other people's complete lack of desire to understand. One person who has been making a huge fuss every time in the past 11 years that there's been danger of her having to feed me, without actually taking any trouble to present me with edible food, asked me recently whether I would eat ox-tail! When I get enough wisdom to teach that person the definition of "vegetarian," or to handle my reaction to her effectively, I'll have enough wisdom to make the effort of producing and marketing Life Among the Carnivores.

But that's not happening, so I'm making the idea available cheap.

The book would have "The Cook's Bill of Rights" and "The Consumer's Bill of Rights" in it; but after 11 years I can only come up with one right each: The consumer has the right to palatable, healthy food, and The cook has the right not to have her dishes greeted with a suspicious glare, a couple of pokes, and the accusatory query "What is it?" in a tone indicating near-certainty that something poisonous lurks within this travesty of a meal. That comes down to trust, really. The cook must strive to be worthy of it (not just make a fuss) and the consumer must then give it; or the fabric of society breaks down.

I envision it as containing few or no recipes, only definitions and descriptions of the basic cooking techniques that are the building blocks of meals. If you know how to boil, broil, fry, sauté, braise, roast, bake, and make a sauce, and have some basic information about the properties of foods, as well as a sense of taste, you can improvise a meal whenever you need to out of whatever you have.

There'd also be all the nutritional information we need to make good decisions for our own particular livestyles; outlines of the various methods of cooking; discussions of why and under what conditions various extremes of diet (Vegan, omitting all animal products and the traditional Arctic diet, consisting almost entirely of animal products) are healthy; advice on hosting a diverse group of people; advice on being a guest with a dietary restriction (voluntary or otherwise); and an entire chapter, or possibly a subsection, on sharing space with other people, none of whom - I promise you - will have the same standards or goals as you. The reason I always lost those interpersonal conflicts mentioned earlier is that I thought the important thing was that the work got done, while the other people I lived with were arguing from the position that the important thing was who did it.

If I ever figure out how to ensure that everyone in an argument is in the same argument, I'll be sure and tell you. It would be a crime to charge for a breakthrough that vital to the history of the human race.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rereading A Christmas Carol - again

So yesterday I was feeling way too crappy to make decisions about where to send the two remaining books that need to go back into the mail (the demon lover story and the fluffy daydream romance that is so off-brand I don't know why I wrote it, much less why I believe in it so strongly), and today I'm overcaffeinating and had to bus downtown to take my husband the pills he forgot and I still have to make the pecan pie for the Christmas Eve dinner our best friend's new girlfriend is hostessing; and the cats don't want me to type; I've put on Melissa Etheridge's Christmas album; and I'm going to talk about Dickens.

I don't do Christmas, but I read A Christmas Carol every year about this time, and have pretty much done so since I was nine. It was among the first books I ever bought for myself, sixty cents from My Weekly Reader Book Club, when I was nine. I'm sure I was nine, although the handwritten address inside did not become ours till I was ten; I don't think I started putting my name and address in books till then, probably because I didn't start carrying them around with me till then. I associate the book with the classroom where I picked it up, the fourth-grade classroom in Maryland, winter of 1970; and this printing is dated October 1970, in confirmation. I didn't read that copy this year, though. My husband got me the Time-Life facsimile set of the Christmas books a few years ago, with the original illustrations. It's much sturdier, and I can still see my old purchase through the pages as I turn them.

One of the reasons to have these established media traditions - Christmas Carol in December, "Alice's Restaurant" at Thanksgiving, 1776 for Independence Day - is the way it puts us in touch with our old selves, layering one on top of the other, with the raw, half-comprehending perceptions of the original nine-year-old showing through the layers of age as I came to understand the text better and better. Although I now have less anachronistic images to call on, I like flashing back to my initial formulation of the Ghost of Christmas Present as a hippy, based on his long hair, bare feet and chest, and his greeting to Scrooge: "Come in and know me better, man." I still hear those words in that half-stoned hippy drawl, the holly wreath askew on his head, sizing up square, selfish, uptight Scrooge with genial skepticism that he can be reformed but game to give it a shot. I was a pretty square, uptight nine-year-old myself, but I wanted to be good, wanted to reform without knowing what was wrong, and I could tell the secret was in this book.

Much that confused me once, that I accepted on faith, I now have the facts and background to comprehend. I still don't know the story of St. Dunstan and the Evil Spirit, but I know that lobsters phosphoresce when they spoil (Marley's face in the knocker has a "dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark celler"). I know that most people in Victorian London didn't have ovens in their homes and had to pay for the baker to cook anything they couldn't accomplish on an open hearth, hence the Cratchits fetching the goose from the bakeshop; and the conversation Scrooge and Christmas Present have about people wanting to close the bakeshops on Sundays in his name refers to an early movement for what we in our day call "blue laws," requiring businesses to close on Sundays to keep the Sabbath "holy." I still can't quite picture the hearse going up the stairs broadwise. A lot of reading of 19th century literature finally resulted in my realizing that Scrooge's nephew's wife is sitting out the Blindman's Bluff game because she's pregnant, but I can't convince other people who aren't as well versed in Victorian delicacy. Never mind, I know it now, as surely as I know that Marley was dead, to begin with.

The virtues of Dickens's style are out of fashion, but oh, how I love his rolling, generous, liesurely, abundant sentences in this book; and how I loved them when I was nine, how they drew me into a sensuous bath of words! Nine-year-olds are supposed to have short attention spans and are assumed to have no appreciation for the tactile joys of style, but I did. Words lodged in my brain and became part of it: "Oh, he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" "I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere!" "The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" "O God, to hear the insect on the leaf pronounce upon the too much life among its hungry brothers in the dust!"

And images, piled up in my head like the oranges and apples in the fruit stands where Christmas Present took Scrooge, scattering drops from his torch as profligately as Dickens uses adjectives. Those half-closed shops, the onions like fat Spanish friars; the bleak moors around the house where the old man leads his family in old, old songs; the horny-handed lighthouse keepers and storm-tossed sailors; Mrs. Cratchit and her daughters brave with ribbons; Tucker chasing the plump sister; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, its kind hand trembling, dwindling into a bedpost; the Ghost of Christmas Past with its lighted belt accurately forecasting the visual effects Christmas lights decades before they existed; the Christmas turkey that never could have stood upon its legs without snapping them off like sticks of sealing wax; and, emerging disturbing and scary from under Christmas Present's festive robes, the boy Ignorance and the girl, Want.

I'm an agnostic. I stopped doing Christmas years ago. The whole business of presents stresses me out - I don't really like getting them, except when they are a surprise, a free and open indication that someone was thinking of me and saw something I might like, and I resent feeling that I have to buy them - and though I like decorating and baking and caroling and so on, as part of a group, no one else around me seems to, at least not enough to want to do them with me. I hate Christmas displays in stores and I hate the monotonous repetition of the same Christmas songs over and over on the radio; but I like to play the local college station, KSYM, when all the student DJs have gone home and some hardworking soul put together about 48 hours of Christmas music with no repeats, gospel choirs and Gene Autry, Cheech and Chong, obscure groups singing about Christmas on West Mistletoe (two blocks over from me! Yay!) and how Muhammed Ali taught the singer the meaning of Christmas. Celebration is good. And A Christmas Carol is wonderful.

A few years ago a friend of mine read it for the first time and e-mailed me about it, a little blown away, saying that it wasn't about Christmas at all, but about living your life. And that's exactly so. Scrooge, and Marley before him, aren't living. They have their heads down in their business, have let it eat their lives, and their crime is not so much being greedy as being miserable. They have lost their way as social animals.

We speak and act as if alienation were a modern invention. It's not. Christmas was commercialized long ago and the "old-fashioned Christsmas" of Dickens was never the norm. If it had been, he wouldn't have felt impelled to write the story.

Read it. Enjoy it. Get your head out of your troubles and enjoy yourself and others. If your own heart laughs, that will be quite enough for you.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Headlines! Modern human behavior pushed back!

Humans Got Organized Half a Million Years Early than We Thought

And bear in mind that this is only an "earliest known" date. This doesn't surprise me that much - newspapers are constantly expressing astonishment at how far back a development goes, how apelike early humans were, how humanlike apes are, and in general how unspecial our species is. In this case we have a 750,000-year-old Mideastern Acheulian site that is organized by activity - flintknapping here, fish processing there, nut roasting around the hearth. The article doesn't say which species is involved with the Acheulian tools, and that's the sort of thing I ought to know. I'm going to guess erectus. They were everywhere.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Research breakfast

I don't expect anybody to care about my personal life. This blog is an unashamed public persona, edited and approved by my inner censor, and matters that don't affect Peni the Author will be omitted. Except, you know, when I get really excited about a warbler on my suet block or something. I wouldn't want to appear before you as a two-dimensional character or anything.

So trust me, I have a good reason for telling you that I had fried cornmeal mush for breakfast.

The current Work in Progress is set in frontier Texas during the twitchy dying months of the Confederacy. Texas, which was not invaded and had access to Mexican ports, never suffered the food shortages that other states did. Townspeople grew a lot of their own food in their yards, even during peacetime (twenty years later, boarders at the Ursuline Academy in San Antonio were still being fed "convent stew," consisting of whatever the nuns pulled out of the garden that day cooked up in one pot), cattle and hogs that roamed unmarked were the property of whoever could catch them, boys could shoot small game like quail at the edge of town, and if your area didn't have a gristmill - and most areas in then Western Texas did, because we had quite a bit of water power in those days - you could grind your own if you had to. Texan cattle weren't great milk producers, but then Texan adults weren't great milk consumers, and if you had a good cow and were willing to churn a surplus of butter, townspeople were used to paying through the nose for it long before inflation set in. The only consumables I can find people complaining of running short on were salt and coffee. Not sugar, surprisingly.

Anyway, the default cereal throughout the south in those days was corn. It was versatile, easy to grow everywhere - unlike wheat, barley, rye, and rice, which are fussier plants - and it stored well. You could eat it fresh, feed it dried to your livestock, extract syrup from it, and make the ground meal into tortillas, bread, or mush depending on your resources. It's the perfect breading for frying fish and okra. It contains starch, protein, and sugars. Frederick Law Olmsted and his brother, when they toured Texas in the early '50s, griped about being fed with corn byproducts at every table they visited, but they were urban Yankee tourists raised on wheat.

I've often read references to fried corn mush as a standard breakfast dish - not just in the South, either. I've long been curious how you'd go about frying mush, and I figured the best way to find out was to try. So I made some polenta, which is an Italian and therefore classy word for corn mush, and fried it for breakfast a couple of days ago and today.

It's kind of like frying mashed potatoes. Since making potato cakes by frying leftover mashed potatoes was one of my mom's standard ways of using them up, this presented me with less of a learning curve than it would some people. The trick is to get the right amoung of liquid absorbed during the initial cooking, so that as it sits - don't even try to fry fresh polenta, or mashed potatoes - it solidifies enough not to crumble apart when you slice it or make it into a patty. Unfortunately, since I'm both vegetarian and on a low-sodium diet, I had to use unsalted butter instead of bacon grease or lard. This means I'm missing several elements of flavor. I've tried it twice now, once with molasses and once with honey, and overestimated the absorbency both times, so I had a messy plate and couldn't taste much but the syrup. But I could tell that this was a classic comfort food. Carbs, fat, sugar - what more do you want went you get up at dawn to do your chores, or sit up late alone fueling yourself for a life crisis?

Don't think that I've omitted my book research here. Though I followed the recommendation of my modern cookbooks to make the polenta, I grab up old household management books when I see them reprinted (which I don't, not often enough), and I turned to them to see how different the cooking resources of the past would make the experience. The word "mush" doesn't appear in the index of Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife (my Dover reprint is run off from the 1844 edition), and as far as I can tell she didn't discuss it under any other name either. It's not arranged for looking things up, not really. A recipe from The Capital Cookbook (the Sidney Johnston Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, 1899, excerpted in Keeping Hearth and Home in Old Texas, Carol Padgett, ed., 2001) is very similar to the modern one I used from the Moosewood Cookbook, except that whereas I used no salt at all, Mollie Katzen recommended 1/2 TSP for 1 & 1/2 cups cornmeal, and the Daughters of the Confederacy considered the correct proportions to be 1 TSP per cup. In this, if in nothing else, they agree with Yankee Fannie Farmer, whose 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook declares that "Boiling water and salt should always be added to cereals, allowing one teaspoon salt to one cup of cereal, -- boiled to soften cellulose and swell starch grains, salt to give flavor." (No wonder the Confederacy had a shortage!) She also says that meal should be cooked in a double boiler, and that the proper cooking time for a cup of "Indian meal" (by which she means cornmeal) is three hours! The Daughters of the Confederacy don't give any time frame, but tell you to put it on the back of the stove over moderate heat until it's "well done." To fry it up, put it in a square container (Ms. Farmer - "a greased one pound baking-powder box," Ms. Katzen uses a greased loaf pan; I used Tupperware and didn't grease it, which I'll correct next time) overnight, cut in thin slices, fry in fat of choice.

My characters probably use bacon grease or lard, which I'll never taste now; but my Rev. Mom used to save bacon grease to cook in, so I think I can imagine it well enough. They'll certainly feel a lack of salt more than I ever would have, even before I embarked on the low sodium diet. I thought moderns used way too much salt (and we do; read the sodium content of the next few boxes and cans you open), but that's mostly accidental. Our ancestors appear to have oversalted on purpose. But perhaps they needed it. I expect my heroines routinely use up more minerals tending livestock, confronting and avoiding bandits, cooking over wood stoves, and hauling water than I do with my daily routine.

So, after all that, what role will cornmeal mush play in the finished book? I have no idea. I haven't even finished plotting it yet. They may not eat it on stage at all. This was less about the food per se than it was about getting into their heads. A good historical novel is a time machine. The flavor and texture of daily life is not contained in the big dramatic incidents that make a plot, but in the little things we do from moment to moment. Food is the fuel of our lives. We eat for physical strength, but some of us - yeah, me - eat for emotional strength, too. Who prepares the food, how do we accept it, what went into getting it, and how do we feel at the end of the meal?

The Olmsteds were not grateful for the corn pone they received on their trek across Texas. They found it monotonous, longed for the wheat bread they'd been raised on in New York, and condemned those who lived on it as too lazy and shiftless to make real bread. If their hosts had gone north and been fed wheat bread, I wonder how they would have reacted? Not a research question to pursue right now. I'm having enough trouble with the handful of counties where the story is set. If eating fried mush will bring me into their heads, even a little, then that's what I'll do.

Now the big question is - have I the fortitude to experiment with burnt okra coffee?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Idea Garage Sale: The Small Boat Campaign

The Invader has conquered the keep on the coast. The Lord is dead and a new Lord sits on his chair. Similar scenes have been enacted up and down this coast, and sometimes the entire staff is massacred, but this Invader thinks there are people it's not worth soiling his hands with. Most of the inhabitants have accepted the new status quo (after all, how do you think the old Lord's ancestors got their position, picking daisies?), but a small handful of people, not worth fearing, have refused to swear fealty, and the Invader has placed them in a small boat with two oars, a keg of water, a box of food, and whatever they stood up in. Who are you? Why are you in the boat? What will you do now?

There's more than one way to tell a story. Remember when you were little, playing pretend games with your friends, making stories, and how they tended to break down because everyone wanted to be the hero? Well, back in the 70s that problem was solved with the invention of the Role-Playing Game, in which rules govern who can do what and one person - the Game Master, Referee, or whatever your system calls that role - adjudicates how the rules work, presents the problem, and runs the villains and minor characters. Everybody else gets to be a hero.

I love RPGs. They give me the chance to be someone besides me for a change and to collaborate with other creative minds, something I'm not normally good at. My basic social circle is my gaming group. Acting as Game Master with the use of published adventure scenarios (all of which needed heavy modification to accommodate our play style) was a big help in getting my creative muscles back into shape so I could write again after the Year from Hell. Now that I'm writing books again, I don't have time for it. Running a game is a labor-intensive, time-intensive amusement, and unless you get a job with a gaming company, which is way out of my ambition range, you don't get paid for it - except in the satisfaction of creating and running a game that your friends enjoy. In which case your reward is going to be more work.

The difference between a Campaign and a Novel is, that you as Game Master don't control the Campaign the way you as Author control a Novel. Yeah, as an author you often feel that the characters are running away with the story, that you are writing to find out what happens next, or that you are constrained by some exterior circumstance - your plot has to fit, geographically and chronologically, in the overall landscape of the contemporary world, or the Civil War, or the laws of physics. But all that happens between your own set of ears. You create all the characters and the plot proceeds in a way that makes sense to you.

This is not true in a role-playing game at all. It is a cliche of the genre that no scenario survives contact with the players. You think you've put in a big blinking neon sign pointing to your story, and they run off in a different direction after some little butterfly you tossed in for verisimilitude. You could try to force them back on track, but that tends to ruin the fun. Nobody likes a Railroad GM (a gamemaster whose story runs on tracks, and whose course cannot be altered by anything the players do). So - you let them go off after the butterfly and you run to catch up. You improvise. You toss them an easy puzzle, and they can't solve it; you set up an encounter you think hopelessly outmatches them and will end with them in the dungeons of the Bad Guy, where you can finally get back to your original plot, and they pull off some stunt that you could never have anticipated and wind up running the Bad Guy's show.

I may yet run the Small Boat Campaign, but feel free to take it over if you want. Depending on who is playing and the characters they produce, it could play out dozens of different ways. If the players decide that they are the original Lord's illegitimate half-brother, the nurse who has rescued the Lord's heir by claiming it's her own baby, the herald's apprentice, and a page boy who's father is a knight whose castle down the coast a way was conquered last week, they're going to want to go to an unfallen keep and devote the campaign to turning back the invader. If the players are a wandering bard who was only passing through, an unlanded knight who objects to the Invaders' religion but has no pre-existing loyalty, and a shipwrecked sailor, you might find them heading out in pursuit of rumors of the Isles of the Blessed and yourself running a campaign of exploration and derring-do. As GM, my job would be to pick a rule system, of which there are dozens, and create enough of a background for the players to make intelligent choices about who they want to be and what they want to do; then to fill in that background and create characters, cities, countries, and a world in response to the choices they make.

I won't be doing it any time soon, because I have books to write, and I don't have time to draw the campaign I started in the wake of The Year From Hell to a satisfactory conclusion. My players have considerable emotional investment in those characters and they deserve a good ending before I start something else. Also, making a campaign from scratch like that is just as much work as writing a book and I don't have energy to write two books at once, so I have to focus on the one that might someday result in income. But sometimes the campaign ideas bob up, so for what it's worth - there it is.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Make Your Own Metaphor

I just saw a warbler on my suet block!

I've been feeding birds for, oh, I don't remember how long. It took awhile for the birds to start coming to my sunflower feeder - I remember leaving little piles of them all over the yard, converging on the feeder. A few years ago I started putting peanutbutter on pine cones imported from my in-law's yard in Georgia. For the first year the peanutbutter would sit there and get rancid until the squirrels found it. Last year I'd occasionally see a bird peck at it but usually it was squirrels and the possum who lives in the attic - it was right outside the dining room window, so we'd see him come down. I was replacing pine cones every day or two because the squirrels would run off with it. I started using a suet block last year, too, but for the longest time no one would eat it.

This winter I hung the pine cone on the oak sapling next to the fence, across the sideyard from the feeder, and it only takes a few hours for it to be stripped of all peanutbutter. So I hung the suet feeder over there, too, and smeared peanutbutter on it to pass the idea along. I'm mostly feeding house sparrows, rock doves, and white-winged doves, alas, but we also have cardinals, jays, titmice, Carolina wrens, and a couple of nondescript little warblers that I can't ID because they don't hang around when their spring plumage comes in. And just now I looked out and one of the warblers was pecking at the suet block!

If you're a birder, you understand; if you're not, you think this is a stupid thing to blog about. So go on and make your own metaphor about the writing life or something. I'm sure there's one to be made. There always is. But I've got to go mop the floor now and then it's back to mailing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Projects, Jobs, and Interruptions

Quick heads up - Naked Science has a program about Lascaux this evening! It looks a little fringy (astronomy among the bulls? Seriously?), but still - squee! Check your local listings.

Anyway, I have a lot of things I need to do, but have to focus on one thing at a time in order to get it done. So I try to arrange my days to include a small handful of "jobs" - things like checking e-mail, sweeping, weeding - and work on one "project" - researching or writing or revising a book, sewing an outfit, planting a garden. On really good days I can keep up with my jobs while progressing with one housework and one writing project. On bad days, I have one interruption after another and don't do anything.

What's an interruption? The day job was an interruption. A 9-hour long interruption every freaking day. But I'm shed of that now and we won't think about it. The dishwasher blowing up, the phone ringing every five minutes from a call center, vertigo. The worst interruption ever was 2005. The Year from Hell, for everybody I knew. It took me two years to recover from that one, and I still feel it dragging behind me. Everyone was in crisis that year, no one had any spare energy, and who ever was in the least trouble at any given moment had to step up and shoulder some burden for one of the others. I held a house cleaning party and people came. One of us needed a loan and had no security; one of us wrote a check.

And the one good thing I brought with me out of that train wreck of a year was this: the wheel keeps turning if everybody turns it. Nowadays, if a job needs doing. I'm the one with control of my own schedule. I'm the one to do it. All my other projects will wait for me. So if any of my friends has a problem I can help with - feeding their cats, babysitting, being on call in case - that's not an interruption. That's a project, or a job, or it's just life.

You have to be a little selfish to write. I personally am a little anti-social. In some ways I'm not even a very good person. But you can't give up being human. We are social animals and supporting each other is what we do. I've known people (women especially but not exclusively) who gave up everything else they wanted in order to be the Supercaretaker, the one who is always there and always steps up to the plate, but I don't think that's good for us. We have a right to our own goals and our own purposes, and Supercaretaker has a hard time accepting help when she needs it. Supercaretaker would work herself to death and abandon all her other ambitions before admitting she needed help, or can't manage to give it this time.

This week my writing project is putting stuff back into the mail. I have six books to sell, five of which are making the rounds of publishers and one of which is dedicated to finding me an agent. This is the hardest part of the business for me. Something about getting the attention of a total stranger fills me with terror. The book is good, I know it is; but I become convinced that my personal shortcomings are so major they'll sink the book before it has a chance to strut its stuff. I have to personalize each query, revise and possibly rewrite from scratch every hook and synopsis, and usually wind up giving another polish to manuscripts I thought I was done with. That's after I comb all my market notes and research to decide who the next right person for this manuscript is. Each query takes me hours. I never have gotten the hang of spacing these out, and they tend to all get into the mail, and therefore to need to be sent out again, in clusters. Right now I have four to go. I'll be satisfied with myself if I select an editor and get a draft of my submission packet put together for one of them. For some reason I'm down right now, don't feel like the kind of person who ever sells a book or does anything useful ever again. But I'll do this anyway. Proposals don't mail themselves.

If there's one thing in the world I've learned doesn't matter, it's how I feel. Being in touch with my feelings doesn't get the work done. Indulging my ego doesn't get the work done. Talking about working doesn't get the work done. Only working gets the work done; and whether it's cleaning toilets, mailing manuscripts, or giving CPR, it's gotta be done.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Headlines! Baby Mammoth Tour!

Lubya the Frozen Baby Mammoth is going to tour the world! It doesn't mention coming anywhere near me, alas. I never got down to Houston to look at Lucy, so I reckon I'm not likely to make it to Chicago, either.

I'm not too sure about all this traveling fragile fossil specimens do. Anybody who's moved as much as I have knows how likely things are to be lost, or damaged, during the process. Still - baby mammoth. Use your best judgement.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Headlines! Those Confusing Megafauna!

I'm researching agents this afternoon, honest, but there's also this little article on how new data leave us just as confused as we were before about the megafaunal extinction: Lost Giants: Did Mammoths Vanish Before, During, and After Humans Arrived? We are, however, confused in a way that brings us closer to the truth than certainty would. The pond-fungus study described has also been declared incompatible with the Clovis Comet theory of megafaunal extinction. As usual I have quibbles with the way Clovis, overkill, and megafaunal extinction are discussed, but I'm not going to lay that on you right now.

I figure it's my job to keep y'all from falling behind on this stuff. This diversion has nothing to do with the mind-numbing panic that researching agents creates in me. Not one thing.

Opening Windows

First of all, Hi to anybody who came over here from Susan Taylor Brown's blog. This is one of the values of having friends - you start a blog, they tell their established readership that you exist before you start showing up on Google searches. Thanks, Susan!

Now, on to the regularly scheduled post. Tuesday, I've decided, is research posting day. This'll be easy for awhile, as I'm in active research mode, trying to get enough info together to nail down the plot of the WIP, whose working title, I'm afraid, is "the lesbian western." Yes, it's YA. Anyway, it's set in Texas in the crack between Appommatox (April 9) and Juneteenth(June 15) when Reconstruction Governor Hamilton arrived and officially implemented the Emancipation Proclamation. (Remember that date so you can celebrate with a barbeque.) The war was over in the East and in the West soldiers were deserting in droves, but it took General Kirby-Smith, nominally in charge of the Trans-Mississippi department, till June 2nd to surrender, and General Jo Shelby never surrendered at all, but led a long retreat down to Mexico (which had its own Civil War going on) trying to keep together enough die-hards to relaunch some miracle counteroffensive. Nobody could ever accuse the Confederate leadership of overburdening themselves with realistic goals.

This is a tough period to research. Newspapers were being printed when editors could get paper, which wasn't often - the San Antonio Herald was printed on wallpaper for awhile - and people who had kept diaries all through the war had run out of the wherewithal in fall of 1864. Historians deal either with the Civil War or with Reconstruction, and this chaotic transitional period is given short shrift in secondary sources. Memoirists skip over it entirely.

Actually, most Texas home front memoirists, at least from the frontier areas I'm interested in, skip the Civil War. Over and over I read paragraphs like: "Then secession came, and the war. It was an awful time. I hauled cotton to Mexico for the government. In 1868 -" and off we go again into stuff I can't use. This is because frontier Texas, never the most tranquil place, was plagued with paranoia, outlawry, and neighbor-on-neighbor violence on an appalling scale. The Confederate government made no attempt to protect the frontier from Indians, and a number of their most idiotic decisions (such as undermining their own currency by limiting the export of cotton, the only commodity they had to back it) played out in Texas and along the border. Men deserted and dodged conscription because they didn't want to leave their families vulnerable, because they didn't want to be Confederates, and because lynching Unionist neighbors was more profitable and less dangerous than joining the Army and being shipped out of state. Sorting out who did what thing to be ashamed of, or refrained from actions they could have been proud of, afterward, was just too painful. But my heroine's in the middle of this, and is making decisions based on first-hand knowledge of what was going on. I need to know details!

So I research every day, but keep encountering obstacles, in the form of canyons of missing information and resources. Books that I know exist I suddenly can't find and so on. I discovered that the first hundred years of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly is online, and beautifully indexed, so early last week I was looking under "B" - for Bandit, and also Bandera County. But it stopped working for some reason - and when this site crashes, it drags the whole internet down with it. It was too late in the day to bus down to the library and commence the newspaper search I've been putting off (microfilm makes me seasick, but I'll have to suck it up sooner or later), so I did a google-search on one of the few Evildoer Names I had - Waldrip. And I found this online essay: "True to the Union." It contained a lot more stories about specific incidents than other secondary sources I've read, but didn't have any source notes. So I e-mailed the author, who is local historical adult fiction novelist Celia Hayes, and she kindly linked me to "The Dogs of War Unleashed: The Devil Concealed in Men Unchained," by Joe Baulch, and it is the goods! Not only did I get more names and dates from it than I had from all my previous research, but the great-grandfather of a friend of mine is in the footnotes - in a completely unexpected context. So I printed out a copy for him and a copy for me.

Which reminds me, I need to get contact information from that friend to hook me into the local historical society network. Meanwhile, I was talking about this on my e-mail writing group and a friend of mine from there who actually belongs to the Texas Historical Association didn't know about the journal being online and she's thrilled. If the glitch on the site ever goes away, she'll have a wonderful time with it.

And the point is, writing is a solitary occupation, but it's not one you're doing alone. When the door of research shuts in your face, open a window. Talk to your neighbor that you've never talked to before. Share your blogs, share your links, share your stories. Talk about what you're doing, encourage others to talk about what they're doing. Other people can't solve your problems, but they can loan you the tool that enables you to solve them, or introduce you to the person who's solved a similar one. I suck at networking, and look how well I did last week!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dreaming at the Idea Garage Sale

Apparently, I had an idea in my sleep last night. I had a character, a college student, who budded off different personalities on a semivoluntary basis, kind of like role-playing characters, except they manifested physically; kind of like split personalities, except they acted simultaneously and didn't have to share a body. At one point, a clinically depressed persona contemplated uninventing herself.

So, dream inspiration, right? Mary Shelley took her Frankenstein nightmare, which barely had a concept in it, and made a classic, so I could do something with this, too. Well, maybe. Except the dream itself made me feel so bad I woke up in the middle of the night, depressed. It was like being trapped in a room with the TV blaring repeat episodes of a tedious show about unpleasant people. I can see, intellectually, that the concept has some potential, but I disliked the dream so much I don't want to think about it enough to realize that potential. Maybe, when the aftereffects have worn off, I'll do that. More likely, I'll forget all about it. After all, it has no potential for use in the current book project, which is a realistic historical novel, and I need to focus on that.

That's the way it is with dreams. We all have them, all night long, and sometimes we make brilliant connections, but almost all the time we lose the connection, and sometimes even the imagery, shortly after waking up. That probably means we don't need to access this stuff with our conscious mind. The conscious mind is not the be-all and end-all of our existence, and the subconscious has needs, too. Many people maintain that the conscious and subconscious can be trained to work together through the use of dream diaries and so on. Maybe so. It's never worked for me, but a lot of things don't work for me that work for other people. Like, coffee. Steak. High-heeled shoes.

So what are your great dream ideas; and can you do anything with them?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Another headline post

Nature story on human migration to Asia
Get it while it's hot; I don't think Nature keeps its stories available to non-subscribers for long. Basically, a huge genetic study, in which special pains were taken to get scientists in mutually hostile countries to work together, supports a mitochondrial-only study done awhile back in positing a single, large population event for Asia. The alternate theory, based on morphology (i.e., the way people look), is that distinct-looking populations in southeast Asia (Malaysian and Negrito) are remnants of an early migration pushed to the fringes by later migrations.
The new study, a five-year examination of variation at some 55,000 SNPs in 1928 individuals, found that Negrito populations had a high level of genetic overlap with other southeast Asia populations, suggesting a common ancestry. East Asians, the analysis suggests, share a large degree of common genetic background with southeast Asians but very little with central Asians, seeming to preclude a peopling of east Asia through a northern route via the Eurasian Steppes. And genetic variation within local populations decreased from southeast to northeast Asia. The two observations suggest that diverse peoples living in southeast Asia migrated northwards.

Genetic studies confuse me, because I don't know how to make story sense of them, but here it is for what it's worth.

Meanwhile, down in the Amazon basin, ancient civilizations are being revealed - alas, by massive modern deforestation.

I wish I could pass on more Bigfoot stories, but not today.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


So, anyway, as I say, and as I hope I'm demonstrating, ideas are easy to get. Those headlines I posted a few minutes ago just cry out "Hi, I'm a story!" - about the poor macaque raiding garbage and trying to survive the winter (where did he come from? How did he get there? Can he have a happy ending?), about Bigfoot hunting deer, or maybe a comedy of errors as human deerhunters are mistaken for Bigfoot. But how would you write these stories? Are they picture books? Mid-grade novels? Young adult? Graphic novel? Maybe a film? Mystery? Thriller? Nature? Horror? Tragedy? Comedy? What audience would you write the story for?

These are the kinds of questions that turn an idea into a project; and the project part is where most people fall down. "Oh, I wish I had time," people say; not realizing that the problem is not time but energy and desire. You put your energy where your desire is.

Yes, yes, you have a living to make, school to go to, kids to raise, a house to clean. But how much time do you really spend on those things? Isn't a lot of your day taken up with cruising the net, reading for fun, playing video games, and watching TV? Which is fine. But if you want to do something, you do it.

That's a little facile. I have had to face the fact that I want to do more things than I can physically do. But all the same, I can do a lot of things, even when I feel lousy. I always have a line-up of projects I want to do. This week's project is this blog, figuring out how it works, posting, all that. Plus I have a house guest part of the week. Plus I do the cooking and most of the cleaning; but I can't let that interfere with researching my next book project, and I really need to learn how to sew slacks because ready-to-wear ones never, ever fit right. (They pull down in the back. No one wants to see that! And it's cold.) So how do I make sure it all gets done?

For one thing, I know when to stop blogging about stuff, and go do it! I'll talk about this more next Thursday, God willing and the creek don't rise.


I have no intention of doing a daily news feature, but check it out: People are seeing Bigfoot in San Antonio! Loop 1604 and Highway 151 aren't what I call "in town," being out in the overdeveloped unsightly sprawl toward Sea World (which is better than building on the Aquifer Recharge Zone, but still, have you seen the ugly stuff they're building out there? Ugh.); but there's certainly no room for Bigfoot in town.
Local Bigfoot Story from WOAI

Reference is made to an ape filmed raiding a dumpster, which I saw on the news and it did indeed look pretty apelike. For context: Much nearer into town is the Southwest Research Foundation, which has a breeding population of apes for research purposes and was founded by oil millionaire Tom Slick, who also collected art and hunted for the Abominable Snowman. But they aren't missing any apes. However, it was too small to be a Bigfoot - except maybe a juvenile - and the lady they showed the footage too from the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation thought it looked like a macaque. If so, it may be dead by now - we've had two freezes since then.

Dumpster Ape Story

And while I'm posting links, here's a story from far afield and on a different interest track: a promising archeological site in Australia. The populating of Australia is of considerable interest, for its own sake and for its implications for other parts of the world, because there's no traces of any "land bridge" to Australia. It had to be reached by water transport, so they had to have had boats, even though later Australian culture was entirely land-bound. Direct traces of Pleistocene-age boats are unknown in the record and therefore archeologists are reluctant to factor them in - but waterways have been vitally important throughout history, and the presence or absence of a maritime adaptation makes a huge difference in the capacity of a culture to get around and exploit various resources. I am positive that the first Americans had a maritime culture; and some of the scarce early human remains in the Americas have common features with modern Australians; so discoveries in Australia can be relevant to interpreting the American record. It's going to take awhile to work it all out, though.
New Old Site in Australia

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Coolest Thing I Learned All Year

Though I am not systematically researching another Pleistocene book at the moment, I am indiscriminately reading everything on the topic that crosses my path. I own a few books on Pleistocene art, especially paleolithic cave art, which has fascinated people for decades. These paintings are so gorgeous, and mysterious, and just plain old, tucked away in limestone caves, most of which weren't visited at all between the time the paintings were made and the time they were rediscovered. People look at them and compare them to the oldest Europeon mythology we have, and draw conclusions, and argue.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by paleontologist Dale Guthrie (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Guthrie, who is a pretty big cheese among American Ice Age paleontologists, started looking at the art for clues as to how the animals he was interested in looked while living - coat colors and patterns, behavioral indications, that sort of thing. He found he could learn a lot of other things, too, and writes in great detail about that, but my favorite thing, the revolutionary idea, comes in Ch. 3, "Tracking Down the Pleistocene Artists: The Unemphasized Role of Children."

Most students of cave art have assumed that the artists were talented, specialized adults. After all, the Hall of the Bulls must have been painted by a master hand! But many caves contain art anybody could do - specifically, handprints, mostly made by placing the hand against the wall and blowing or spitting paint onto it, leaving a negative print. Guthrie did a statistical analysis, which he explains in detail, and found that most of the prints were probably left by teen-age boys, with most of the ones that weren't belonging to younger kids of indeterminate sex.

Now think about that. If we assume that the handprints are representative of people who visited the caves, then the cave art must have been mostly created by teen-age boys. Suddenly I picture groups of Paleolithic kids hanging out, exploring, finding their way into deep dark caves, and maybe making their secret hideout there for a season or two - just the way modern kids do. (Almost all the caves we know about were found by modern kids hanging out, exploring, by the way!) And they draw on the walls, because drawing on the walls is fun.

And what do they draw? Lots of things, but mostly:
Large charismatic prey animals (which Guthrie compares to sportscars and planes, such as modern boys are fond of drawing).
Large charismatic predators (which Guthrie compares to tanks and fighter planes, such as modern boys are fond of drawing).
And the naughty bits of women (a subject that never gets old).

These drawings survived, not because the artists took care to preserve them, but because they were in caves, protected from the elements. And many of these drawings are exceptionally beautiful, because creating beautiful art was a routine, not an exceptional, activity for the boys who made them. Presumably they made art all the time to get so good at it; and presumably their sisters, mothers, and fathers did so, too; but we don't get to see that art because it wasn't in caves and didn't get preserved. What masterpieces of leatherwork, basketry, bodypainting, and woodcarving have rotted away while the bulls sheltered in the caves?

If they can make wonderful ordinary art, we can too. They were fully modern humans. They had exactly the same potential we had; only they didn't assume (as we too often do; as so many students of the cave art have assumed) that Great Art was something only special people could do.

It may not be the key to understanding all Pleistocene art. But it's a pretty mind-blowing way to understand ourselves.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I can see it, sparkling and perfect in my head. It's got best-selling series written all over it. You take the premise that we all belong to networks of souls who interact from lifetime to lifetime until we've learned all we need to learn to achieve Nirvana or whatever (that bit's always been a little hazy to me), and you follow one such network throughout history in a series of blockbuster historical novels.

You start way back in prehistory; maybe in the late Pleistocene, maybe 150,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens first became an identifiable species, and you establish a set of characters and some basic relationships and issues. In each novel you resolve some issues and create others, mixing up the relationships, so that brothers and sisters in one life are parents and children in another, the uncle becomes the niece, and a romantic love which seems destined in Babylon would be inappropriate in pioneer Texas. People accumulate scars that recur over lifetimes, let their evil propensities triumph in one lifetime and overcome them in the next. The audience learns to recognize the same soul in different relationships and roots for them to make the right choices this time: "No, no, don't marry him - he's betrayed you in three different lifetimes already!"

You can't tell me this wouldn't rock, if done properly.

And there's the rub. To do this properly would be a lifelong commitment. Mountains of research, intricate planning, plots that tied up neatly over a single book interacting with giant overarching metaplots - I'd never be able to do anything else! And I'm really not the kind of person who writes family sagas. All that soap opera stuff would make me tired. But I'll read it if you'll write it.

To be fair, after I had this idea I ran across something very like it in the library. Suzanne Weyn did this premise in a single book, Reincarnation. I enjoyed it well enough, but - it's one book. And she didn't research hard enough! It's okay that she uses cave paintings in a way I don't think is accurate (there's plenty of room for honest disagreement on that topic), but, c'mon, none of the Salem witches burned and it happened in Salem Village not Salem Town for crying out loud! I mean, geez, how basic can you get?

Why, yes, I do nitpick and I'm not ashamed of it. I think it's more fun, and more moving, if fiction works with the available facts rather than ignoring them. It's not as if plenty of witch hunts with burning weren't available - it happened all over Europe. So what I want is not Ms. Weyn's book, though you should certainly read it if this idea intrigues you. After all, her take on the premise is superior to mine in that it exists, which trumps any nit I can pick.

What I want is the same idea on a vastly larger scale, vaster than I personally have the skills and energy to undertake, a masterpiece of planning and researching, with just the littlest bit of mysticism in it, not enough to make readers who aren't interested in reincarnation per se uncomfortable, but enough to make the premise feel organic. I can't do this. I doubt anybody can.

But isn't it a great idea?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Tentative Beginning

Apparently, it's Not Done anymore to buy books from nonbloggers. So here I am, fiddling with the software and figuring it out. The greatest sin, in this conext, is to be boring; but what have I got to say that is worth my diverting energy from my work and any portion of the public's coming back day after day? No one cares about my inner struggles or my daily routine, nor do I care to share such information with potential millions of strangers. In any case, my inner struggles and daily routine aren't so different from anybody else's. We separate Art from Life too much in our society. My knack for writing stories is no more nor less special and deserving of respect than somebody else's knack for plumbing.

Still, I have my enthusiasms, and I can write about them, I think - I hope - on a regular basis. Projects, research, the free play of ideas. It's not as if I'm not continually writing something in my head. Maybe it'll be some good to somebody.

The intended schedule is Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday. By Sunday, I think I'll have it together enough to set out the first offering in a planned Idea Garage Sale. Check back then, okay?