Sunday, January 10, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: 20th Century House

Yesterday was my Reverend Mom's birthday. She's not all that old, but she used to live in an old-fashioned setting - rural Iowa in the first half of the 20th century - and she remembers a lot of things that, to my generation, belong much further back in the old days than she does. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and remembers a house without indoor plumbing. She's great to go antiquing with because you can pick up the mysterious implement or point in wonder at the bizarre farm equipment, and she says: "Oh, Ed had one of those. You put the corn in here and turn this crank and the kernels come out there and the cobs come out here." We lived in her and Dad's hometown while my father was in 'Nam, and would visit the farm where she grew up, which had a new house on it. She had a picture of the old one and we could compare; and every time we go back to visit she'll track landmarks that have vanished or are still usable, point out where something used to be, or where somebody used to do something.

During the long, long, long cross-country drives we used to take when we moved, she wouldn't let us read because reading in the car made her sick and she assumed we would, too. This forced us to look at the landscape, and she'd point out abandoned farms, wondering aloud who had lived there, why they'd left. We also stopped at historical markers to stretch our legs - here, in the middle of nowhere, the James Brothers robbed a stagecoach, Lewis and Clark crossed a river, a missionary preached the first sermon in the state, a hunter killed the last bison in the county, a grist mill served a hundred-mile radius and has since left behind only a weedy foundation, someone you never heard of changed history without knowing it.

All this has developed in me the habit of looking at a place and trying to see down into the layers of time that presently cover it. The ease with which this can be done in San Antonio is one of the things I love about it. Many people who visit the Alamo are disappointed because it's right downtown, incorporated into it, its main area a public square with stoplights and snack carts, its historical monument area a quiet oasis into which you can look from the windows of neighboring hotels. For those of us who live here that's one of the great things about it, though. It's right here where we can get at it. History is not set apart from the present. All of downtown is haunted - by Mission Indians and 20th-century murder victims as well as by Alamo defenders. Buildings are preserved, destroyed, added to, put to new uses, willy-nilly, all eras dancing cheek-to-cheek, fighting for dominance and none of them winning. When I want to travel to a distant time here, as long as it's not too distant (the Ice Age preserved no memoirs), I can dig around the local libraries find somebody's memoirs of the appropriate period, privately printed for the family or collected in a retrospective booklet. This building was here and that was there; I remember when the ice factory opened, when the gas lights were turned on, when they tore down Veramendi Palace or the old Bat Cave, which is where this thing is now. And the thing referenced isn't there anymore, either, or exists transformed so that when I go and look I look through the layers and get double-vision, like those transparent sheets you used to get in encyclopedias, showing the different stages of building the Louvre or the different systems in the human body overlaid on each other in different colors as you put different pages down.

I want to write a series that is like that for a house. One house, built in 1901 for a young couple. The first book would be written in 1901 from the POV of a ten-year-old girl, the little sister of the hired girl who comes in to sub for her sick sister so the family won't lose the job; the second book in 1911 from the POV of a ten-year-old girl who was born in the first book; the third book in 1921, when a relative orphaned by the war and the Spanish Influenza is staying with the family; the fourth one in 1931 when the young couple of the first book have fallen on hard times and taken in boarders; and so on and on, one small snippet of each decade of the 20th century experienced by a succession of ten-year-old girls. The house will get sold; the neighborhood will get rundown and then gentrified; the main character of one book will appear in a cameo in another, and the changes in the house, the culture, the time will overlie eachother and the reader will see how it all fits together.

I'd have to write ten books all in a lump; they'd have to be plotted so that each could be read independently and in any order but would reward those who read them all; I'd have to research the heck out of them; and - here's the rub - I'd have to sell it before I could write it. Theoretically, I know that's possible, but the idea of learning to do it with this particular concept freezes me like a rabbit hypnotized by a weasel. I'm a crappy salesperson, and I'd have to get a publisher excited enough to commit to ten books in which the main character is a house. The whole point of the concept is lost if I have a major action hook to sell it on. It has to be a series of domestic novels of everyday life, with crises involving mundane individual births and deaths, economic woes, sibling rivalries, and so on.

Yeah, I can write it well enough to make you like it. But can I write a query good enough to convince an editor to pay me to write it?

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