Sunday, February 28, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Robin Hood and the Templars of Doom!

I wish I could claim credit, but "Robin Hood and the Templars of Doom" isn't my idea; it's the title of the cover story for Fortean Times #259 (which I got this week, after everybody in England had received #260). Another great article title this issue: "Lost Graffitti of the Templars." Well, I think they're great; although Templars have become a cliche among people who want to give a psuedomystical and psuedohistorical tone to their derivative psuedoFortean TV shows and movies without doing any research.

So I'm going to say up front: If you don't want to do the research, stay away from this week's sale idea, because you'll spoil it. It comes to you straight from the FT cover story, and it's something there's no possibility of my doing, but it could be a good novel, or series of novels, of the Reimagining Stories Everybody Knows genre.

The author of the article, John Paul Davis, examines the earliest ballads - in which Robin is a yeoman, not an outlawed earl, and his king is Edward, not Richard/John - for clues to who, if anyone, he might have been. He starts with figuring out which Edward, to place him in time, and then studies behavioral cues. Did you know (I did, because I went through a Robin Hood phase in junior high) that Robin and his Merry Men particularly venerated the Virgin Mary and were sworn to protect women? If you want to know the whole argument you'll have to get yourself a copy of #259, or his book Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar, but the crux is, he thinks that the Templars in England, forewarned of the action against their order on the Continent, had time to disperse and hide among the general population or live in outlawry in the woods. Given that they were a monastic order as well as knights, with all the vows and discipline of both sets of people, a group of them banding together in the forest and doing their best to fulfill their vows even in outlawry is not only possible, but probable.

Remember, the Pope wasn't infallible in those days. (And even today, he's only supposed to be infallible on certain subjects.) Religion was as much about politics as religion. At one time, there were two popes. In Galileo's correspondence with his daughter, a nun, we are treated to the picture of her and her cloistered sisters rooting for him to win his little dispute with the Pope over which heavenly body circled which, cheering when he won a point and grieving when the Pope retaliated. In the ballads, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are both actively religious and frequently at odds with church authorities. He even dies at the hands of an abbess, who pretends to help him and instead bleeds him to death.

I don't know if it's true. I don't care. But I can see the big thick paperback novels ranged on the shelf, can't you? The cover design would include some clever amalgamation of arrow and Templar cross.

Good books can be written using the Templar material. Catherine Jinks proved it in Pagan's Crusade. Just stay away from Rosslyn Chapel and do it properly, okay?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Projecting Embarrassment into the Future!

It occurred to me almost as soon as I made that last post that it's not the first thing I want an agent or editor who happens to google my name today to see, so while lunch is cooking let's get something less whiny up top. And the first thing that occurs to me, because of the era I'm currently most involved in researching is a question I ask myself periodically:

What opinion or behavior that I am currently squeamish about discussing openly will my theoretical biographer (Um - we all have imaginary biographers following us around, right? Even Virginia Woolf did - I think it's in Jacob's Room.) feel entitled to poke around in, and frustrated that I didn't talk about it more?

Conversely, what opinion or behavior that I currently take for granted will that same biographer feel a need to suppress, excuse, or explore as a pathology?

I first thought of this when I was in high school and Madeleine Stern started digging up and publishing my idol Louisa May Alcott's "Jo" stories, the thrillers she later chastised herself (through Jo) for writing, but loved to write nonetheless. There's drug use in those. There's a major squicky passage in one with the young narrator leaning on her uncle's knee and smoking a cigarette. By modern YA standards it's pretty tame but to those of us raised on Little Women it's a shock. Especially when we learn that the drug passages were based on reality; which is not the thing she herself was uncomfortable about. Opium was an abusable medicine, not a controlled substance. People gave opium to babies. I think laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol!?!) is used by characters in the canonical Alcott YA stories.

These days I read a lot of things that make me remember that. In nineteenth century Texas, no one would fess up to being an abolitionist, any more than a modern Texan would express approval for child molestation or terrorism. Even if you had the guts to be a Unionist, you'd disown abolition. Sam Houston, for one, was a slave-holding Unionist. (I almost went on a long disquistion about it, but I can do that later.) And I get to write sympathetic characters who fit within this mileu, oh joy. Early 20th-century historians from the South have a disturbing tendency to root for the Confederacy in studying the era; and if anyone isn't a racist he tends to be po'faced and apologetic about it.

This creates an ugly problem for later readers, who may be willing to admit that racism existed back then, but hate to accuse any individual of it. So they ignore it, or make excuses, or try to turn blatant and obvious racism into nothing of the sort.

But that's not productive, is it? Because once you do that with blatant and obvious racism you keep doing it to the subtler and more insidious racism of the modern day. It's more productive to face facts, and asking myself that biographer question makes it easier for me. I can easily imagine a biographer gleefully talking about - well, I'm not going to tell you! - and being evasive about my caffeine dependence, or making excuses for my use of internal combustion engines.

So hey - you - whoever you are - You don't have to tell me what your biographer won't be embarrassd about, but won't you think about and maybe say something about what will embarrass him? Or her? Or whatever the pronoun will be in a hundred years? It's a liberating exercise. I promise.

Oh, well

This was supposed to be query week. The goal was six queries to agents. (Why six? At the SCBWI conference in Austin Nathan Bransford said to have six "or as many as you feel comfortable with" queries out to agents at one time; and it was a goal.) I got out three. Today I got out none, just noodled around putting roadblocks in my own way.

Why do we do this crud to ourselves? Why is the fear of trying and failing, some days, so much worse than the certainty of not-trying and failing? Especially when the potential rewards are so great?

And why, on the other side, do so many people have so much confidence and so little knowledge that they spam agents and publishers randomly with queries, without even checking to see what that agent or publisher wants to see?

Is there no happy medium and can't I get to that place, where I can get over myself and do what I need to do without making such a huge production out of it? I mean, sheesh, it's just a freaking business letter! If I had a character who waffled this much, I'd drop her story like a hot potato because it'd never go anywhere.

Why am I blogging about the fear of querying instead of querying, or researching agents, or at least mopping the kitchen, cleaning up that back corner by the shed that's all weeds and fallen branches, or putting pockets on my husband's jacket, which would be productive even if it doesn't advance my career?

Monday. I'll do great things on Monday. After all (cue up GWTW music and the wind machine) Monday is another day.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Bear with me here for a bit.

I have 2 new dresses hanging in my closet. I think they make me look purdy. On the first one, I had not quite as much fabric as the pattern said I needed for the view I'd chosen, and I was matching stripes for the first time ever, so I was hyper-alert when cutting. I called my Reverend Mom twice, pinned and repinned, smoothed and resmoothed. The result is near as nothing perfect, though I had to redo one of the sideseams about five times to get the pocket right. On the second one, I had enough fabric and I figured I knew how to do it, so I relaxed, and made a cutting mistake that left me with insufficient material for the bodice, and the fabric wasn't available anymore. So I did the bodice and sleeves in white, with the cuffs in the same bright orange-red-green-with-gold-curlicues fabric as the skirt, and a little embroidery at the neckline, and I think this is better anyway. Less overwhelming. Monday I stitched the hems on both, wasting a couple of yards of the orange thread because, though I know how to wind a bobbin, I kept doing it wrong. So, like the pockets, I did it again and again and again until I did it right.

It was like writing a book; except I don't follow a pattern when writing a book. At least, not anymore. I've been dealing with stories so long that I don't need one, any more than a fashion designer, or one of those people who make all their own clothes and draft their own patterns from scratch, needs to review how to make a dart. But I bet they still make occasional cutting errors, or can't seem to get the bobbin wound once in awhile.

The thing people lose track of, or never notice to begin with, is that all human endeavors have an underlying unity. Making a dress is like telling a story is like building a house is like baking a cake is like playing a game is like programming a computer is like raising a kid is like fighting a war. Depending on our interests and aptitudes, we may feel that we are good at one of these things, competent at others, and hopeless at others; but the underlying process is the same.

I think it's an evolutionary thing, like anatomy. An anatomist can take a bird skeleton and a human skeleton and an elephant skeleton and show you how to match up the bones and how each species has adapted the underlying structure to different needs and uses. Creativity, learning, and skill are part of our mental anatomy. No matter what we apply them to, the basic functioning is similar.

No matter how good we become, we will always make mistakes, and no matter how inept we think we are, we can learn enough to get by on if we let ourselves. The difference between a good writer and a bad one is less talent and more willingness to judge some passage or plot inadequate and redo it.

And "inadequate" is relative. My hems do not meet professional standards. The dress I described above as "near as nothing perfect" would not be good enough to put on a runway model or sell in a store. The story your kid loves to hear you tell may not, if written down, be good enough to publish; your presentation of it may not be good enough to take on the road. So what? Do the meals you cook have to be restaurant quality? Because you're the best basketball player at your local pickup games, do you feel ready to challenge Tim Duncan? You don't have to be able to do something at a professional level in order for it to be worthwhile.

Since I started sewing, I've started noticing clothes. I never did before. A lot of people don't, I think, looking around me; not even people who are paid to do so. Actors and actresses are dressed by professional costumers, yet they appear on screen in clothes that don't fit, with standing wrinkles in places where the outfit should have been altered. It's not as painful to me as reading a book full of grammatical errors, flabby prose, plot holes, and lazy characterization; but that's because books are my profession and clothes aren't. I wouldn't know a good basektball player from a bad one, because I hate team sports.

You can apply all this to your own life and activities however seems best to you. I just thought I'd point it out.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Headlines! Hobbits descended from Habilis!

Well, maybe. I thought I was reasonably alert to , but this idea has been going around for awhile. A recent article in the UK newspaper The Guardian takes its sweet time (don't journalist classes teach the writing of leads anymore?) getting to the point, and when I did a search for more I kept getting year-old links, so maybe everybody knew about this but me; but H. Floresiensis, probably the coolest fossil ever found anywhere, resembles H. Habilis and australopithecine fossils that have not been found outside of Africa more than it does H. erectus, heidelbergensis, and other species that we already knew had left the Mother Continent. Which would be pretty freaky.

I notice that some of the people quoted in the Guardian article are trying to come up with scenarios where Big Bad Destructive H. Sapiens (oooh, we're so butch) could have been responsible for the hobbit extinction, rather than the more obvious "volcanic eruption" scenario. Humans aren't that special and we need to get over ourselves, guys.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Destiny Sucks!

We went to see the movie adaptation of The Lightning Thief last Sunday, forewarned by a report that the director had based the movie on his reading of the back of the paperback. This is standard for movies made from books, so I tried to suppress my irritation at the aging of the characters and the omission of all clues to the metaplot for the series, all the politics and most of the cool details of life at Camp Half-Blood, and two-thirds of the characters. (That's a rough guesstimate; I have not in fact done the math.) My husband, despite my assurances that this is less of a problem in the books, made no attempt whatsoever to suppress his irritation at yet another fantasy about a Chosen One.

He keeps watching and reading fantasy, but that particular cliché gets on his nerves something awful. The Chosen One doesn't get any choices, but he also doesn't have to do The Work. Not the big prestigious work of whatever destiny he's Chosen for, but the drudge work, the daily grind of training, learning, getting experience, and earning respect. You're the Chosen One so you're stronger, faster, better and everybody acknowledges this. You win dominance fights with folks who have trained their whole lives, 24 hours after you first manifest your Special Snowflake Powers, and they become your loyal sidekicks. The Good Guys give you respect on a silver platter and the Bad Guys are jealous. Prophecies that reference you come true regardless of what you do. The Big Bad End Guy never makes any progress against you, either because he's too stupid to recognize you or because you're so darn special you defeat all his cat's paws. He always sends cat's paws instead of trying to squash you like a bug himself, even when there's no overwhelming plot reason for him not to do so.

And who Chose this guy, anyway? I'm an agnostic and believe that stuff happens because of the complex interactions of contingency, chemistry, biology, physics, and free will. My husband is a Christian and believes that God set up the world, gave us free will, and sent us forth to do the best we can - or not, as we choose. We both know from experience how badly bad choices can mess things up for everybody, how powerful good choices can be, and how often "good" and "bad" aren't moral decisions, but practical ones. There is no place in either worldview for some mysterious background power that gets to decide for us what we will and will not do.

When he complains about this stuff I always assure him that someday I will write a story in which the Chosen One gets annihilated in the first chapter, and the Mighty Essential Quest has to be carried out by somebody, or a team of somebodies, who steps up to the plate and defeats the BBEG because hey, it's better to go down fighting impossible odds than to give up. The prophecies go unfulfilled or are turned on their heads. People you root for die horribly, the Unchosen Hero makes meaningful sacrifices, bad choices have bad consequences, every inch of ground is sweated over, and in the end the survivors are faced with a mess to clean up rather than a sunrise; but the BBEG is gone, the apocalypse or whatever is averted, and everything that is, is so because people exercised their free will.

The trouble is, I seldom feel like writing high fantasy these days, and I haven't had any specific sparks for situations or characters that make me want to get past the abstract concept. And it strikes me that as many high fantasy stories as use the Chosen One trope, there should be lots of room for stories that subvert it. I can even think of one, though it doesn't structure itself in direct opposition to the cliché in the way I'm contemplating: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud. Dear God, that third book has a killer ending! And in Lois McMaster Bujold's theological thrillers set in the country of Chalion, she sets up the interaction of divine will and free will with a masterful hand. Even in the Percy Jackson books, it's made clear that more than one person can fulfill the prophecy. The more people look for the possibilities in the trope, rather than blindly following the path it lays down, the better.

It'd make a good campaign concept, too - the adventuring party is at best the second-string backup to the original Chosen One, alive now because they sneaked out to attend a kegger at the Rolling Pig Tavern on the night the BBEG launched a full-out attack on Chosen One HQ and wiped out the Chosen One, his sidekicks, and his mentors.

Inside every cliché lurks a good story. Part of our job is to turn it inside out, and look.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Day at the Dig

I'm a week late with the account of what it's like to go on an archeological dig, and you won't get the semi-obligatory pictures because I have no means to take them. (When they make an app that lets the things be used as binoculars, that's when I get a mobile phone.) You'll have to settle for my verbal artistry.

Because the site is between three and four hours away from my house, I drove up the night before and, in deference to the freezing temperatures, stayed at a hotel in the nearest town with a hotel. Glad I was to have done it, too, when after my breakfast of homemade muffins and hot tea brewed in my room, I dragged my picnic basket, cooler, giant Thermos, and backpack down to the car and found poor Moby Dick the Great White Car coated in frost. Moby is an afternoon person and doesn't like to start on the best of mornings; on a day like that, he'd as soon stall out in an intersection as not if he thinks I've rushed him, so I turned him on and let him warm up while I used the badge from a convention I attended in August (it pays to not clean out the car!) to scrape the windows. We got underway around 6:30 and drove the, whatever it is, 30 or 40 miles to the site at a liesurely pace through the fog. I always forget, between trips, how long the road is, but I didn't miss any of my turnings.

For most of the way I had a truck behind me, which I hoped was associated with the site, as I didn't have the code to open the main gate. (Access to all archeological sites has to be controlled due to the danger of looting and vandalism. I'm allowed to camp on the site, but the campsite is not near the dig area and no one wanders around there alone.) I pulled off at the old ranch house associated with the property and sure enough, saw the truck turn in at the gated drive, so I put Moby back into gear and followed her through. It turned out to be Nancy Littlefield, the volunteer coordinator. We drove down the long drive, past another, manual gate intended to keep the longhorns in check, and parked at the metal barn perched at the brink of the creek bottoms.

It's been a long time since I was here, and that was in summer. Since then they've cleared a lot of brush, and the track that was a steep alternative to the flooded-out easy way down, fresh-cut with a Bobcat the first time I visited the site in 2007, looked like a full-fledged country road. Not only that, Nancy told me to load my stuff (yes, it is a lot, but I can't eat granola bars like normal people) onto the Gault Kart. This is a golf cart they bought on e-bay to accommodate an elderly visitor with mobility problems, painted with its name and the Gault symbol (a Texas flag with a Clovis point instead of the star). We rode down into the creek bottoms in style.

The current dig is on the far side of the creek, which you cross on a pipe bridge, in the broad open area where, years ago, you could pay $0.50 to dig up as many "arrowheads" as you cared to walk away with. So rich is this site that this concentrated looting did not by any means exhaust it; in fact, the current project - to punch down through the disturbed layers to the undisturbed ones and dig meticulously to bedrock, thus determining exactly how long humans have utilized the site and expanding our knowledge of the earliest peopling of Texas -- has been considerably delayed by the finding of unexpected unlooted levels of the Archaic periods. On the one hand, these are interesting in their own right; on the other hand the grant money they're working with is for digging the mysterious Pleistocene layers, so the need is to blitz through the Archaic stuff as fast as possible without mucking the job up - everything needs to be curated and recorded so it can be analyzed later. They can't just mine the 11,000-15,000 year old layers, as that wouldn't be safe, or secure. And, oh yes, the grant money runs out this year. Hence the need for unpaid, unskilled labor like me.

The open units (unit being the term for "100 cm x 100 cm square hole in the ground") are covered by a Weatherport, an enormous tent shaped like a Quonsett hut. We unzipped the doors and entered, getting out of the wind but not out of the cold. Nancy got all the paperwork and equipment organized and I went around uncovering the units she told me to. The heavy clay of the site shrinks and swells and cracks a lot in response to weather, so the sides of the units tend to crack, crumble, and leak dirt and embedded rocks. To prevent contamination and confusion, all the units are covered with ground cloth when not being dug. One of the units had a big surveying-tape X on it, with the words "DON'T STEP HERE OR YOU DIE" on them; these were to prevent damage to an interesting find that had been made at the end of the last working day.

Soon the other volunteers arrived, all of them younger than me (though I've worked with plenty of fellow middle-aged ladies here), and grad student Steve and Nancy began talking about his death threat-inducing find - a piece of flat bone in an Archaic unit, much larger than the bone usually found at the site (the soil tends to eat bone up) that appeared to be segmented. Cinda Timperley, the paleontologist, wasn't available to size it up at a glance as she usually did, so Steve and Nancy were saying what it looked like: turtle, only not really, and nine-banded armadillo - which would have revolutionized our understanding of something, because the nine-banded armadillo only came to Texas in 1921. (Yeah, hard to believe, but true.)

Steve set about the nitpicky job of clearing away more dirt without damaging the bone, which is hard to do. At a certain level of fragility, you can cause a bone in this soil to disintegrate by poking the ground with a chopstick too near and too vigorously. The other two volunteers were working a deeper Archaic unit, on the other side of the "witness column" (a pillar of undug units left standing to demonstrate the stratigraphy, leave something for more advanced archeologists to dig 20 years from now, and drip dirt onto the cloths covering the surrounding units) and I never did see what they were working on.

I was not given anything so delicate to do, and with good reason. As someone who, though not a novice, has not got a lot of experience, I got one of the upper levels, already partially dug and mapped by another person, to finish up - dig it down to the desired level, finish mapping, curate any artifacts found, set the labeled bucket aside for screening. To assist me in this I had access to a laser level to tell me how deep below the surface I was and a handy 100 cm x 100 cm frame subdivided into 20 cm squares. So, still freezing and wishing I'd gotten more hot tea, I set to puzzling out what the person who'd opened this unit had done with the map (I'm spacially challenged), figuring out when the laser level was upright (and my balance problems can make it hard to tell straight from crooked), and scraping away at the dirt with a trowel, whisk broom, and chopsticks.

Dr. Mike Collins arrived before the fog burned off and was taken straight down to see the bone. Mike has been doing this for a long, long time and can tell what a lot of things are at a glance. He got down and peered at the myster bone and said: "That's not natural." "Not natural" is not a term of opprobrium in archeology; it means People Did This and transformed the bone from a bone into an artifact. Someone, thousands of years ago, had incised a crisscross pattern of lines on a flat piece of bone, a scapula, he thought.

Now, Gault has produced a number of incised stones, but incised bone is a unprecedented at this location, so this was thrilling. Pictures had to be made and the bone prepared for removal to a lab for study, and these were not things to do casually. It would fall to pieces if touched, and would have to be hardened, so Mike, Nancy, and Steve talked about what we had on hand and how to go about hardening it; and Mike took the pictures, though his hands kept shaking with cold and he couldn't get the generator started to power the spotlight, so Steve had to stand a reflector up to catch enough light for a good picture. Another bone next to it looked like an intact joint and had to be treated similarly; though, as Steve uncovered more of it, it became clear that this pieces was peculiar in its own right. The apparent joint was a break, but the bone was flat and came to a point. Nobody speculated about what, if anything, that meant. It could just be a broken bone.

So we dug, and talked about things like crappy day jobs, incised bone, how much education each of us had (neither Nancy nor I has a degree), the proper way to address someone with a Ph.D. (they don't like being called doctor) and why you shouldn't listen to music when out here alone. The danger from humans, though alas never absent in this world, is minimal; but weather can come up suddenly, and the site is roamed by bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and the longhorns. You do not want to be bopping along to the beat and not notice that you are annoying the longhorns. Nancy has been trapped by rising flood waters before. "Be aware of your surroundings" is just as important in the country as in the city.

Dr. Clark Werneke came through with a scheduled tour. I forget Clark's title, but he's basically Mike's second-in-command and he does a lot of education and outreach. I don't think I ever heard who the tour consisted of, who had organized it, but about 30 people, including children, came out in the cold to see the site and have it explained to them. I think a few of them bought t-shirts and hats. We kept on doing what we were doing while they came through and Clark explained what was going on. Mike told them about the bone. It's nice when something new and spectacular is on hand to show the tourists. There almost always is at this site. (I kind of like tour days and field schools. It means they pay to bring Porta-Potties in. Otherwise, it's primitive camping all the way.)

After Clark returned from sending the tour upon its way we broke for lunch. The fog was all gone and we were warm enough to take off our gloves to eat without suffering. Lunch is a good time on a dig, because the people with the good stories aren't distracted from telling them. My low-sodium diet prompted Clark to reminisce about digging in the Mayan jungle (where you want lots of sodium); something already recalled to him when he was asked a question about conflicts with local Indian groups. This hasn't arisen at Gault, so far, partly because no human remains have been recovered and partly because no tribe in particular lays claim to this area. The tribes that lived in Central Texas in historical times were recent arrivals; forensic archeology would have to be done on any human remains to even find out who has a right to object to their being studied. Besides, the difficulty of working with native tribes is exagerrated in the public mind by the tendency of the press to report bad news. Kennewick Man was poorly handled by pretty much everybody involved; but who has heard of the remains found in On Your Knees Cave, and the cooperation of tribal members and archeologists to study and preserve them? But the question brought to mind the Mayan experience, because the Mayans he worked with would get annoyed when the tourists asked: "So what happened to the mysterious Mayans? Where did they disappear?" They didn't; Mayans live and work in the same areas they used to when the site he worked on was a city.

After lunch we all resumed work, and Dr. Collins had another couple of people to walk through; a separate deal from the tour. I wasn't paying attention to who they were or why they didn't come on the tour, because that isn't my business and because the Gault School is always educating everybody they can. In my experience, archeologists are all big geeks who are eager to share their enthusiasm with anyone who will sit still and look. They'll look at your rocks, they'll answer your questions, they'll tell you all about the rocks and the science and the history, and they'll slap a trowel in your hand or put you at a screen and tell you what to look for if you show the slightest inclination to do any work.

The unit I was working on contained mostly large chunks of rock, most of it limestone and some of it burned, and a few small flakes of chert. It's very close to the surface, part of what is called the "burned midden," where historic and prehistoric inhabitants dumped their trash and possibly already pretty well turned over during the site's pay-to-dig days back in the 20s. In short, not very interesting. I found my own sliver of bone, which I recognized by its color, shape, and texture. The first few times you dig, screen, or sort you have a hard time telling bone from limestone, but I've gotten reasonably good at it even as little of this work as I've managed to do. Once mapped, the big chunks of rock could be removed and added to the berm protecting the site from raging floodwaters, except for a couple Mike wanted left intact to drill. Some new technique enables labs to examine the magnetism of rocks and determine how they were moved around. I'm not sure what that tells you in a midden, but I'm not the one who can look at incised bone and see that the markings aren't natural, either.

I closed out the unit around 3:00 - i.e., had it down to where it was supposed to be, mapped, notes made, and paperwork wrapped up - and Nancy asked me to go around cleaning out the open units of loose dirt and starting to shut them down. Steve finished up what he needed/could do with his bones and we replaced the cover and the death threat.

One of Mike's guests teaches 7th grade, so I showed her the copy of 11,000 I keep in the car and gave her my card. Maybe I'll get a school visit out of this. Maybe I won't.

The day had warmed up enough to leave the gloves off and unbutoon my sweater, but not been wet so I didn't have to change into the spare clothes I'd brought. I left the site around 5 and got home before 9, fending off starvation on the way by eating trail mix. My knees hurt, my back hurt, and I was tired to the bone for three days.

But I'm okay with that. I got to see the incised bone. And that's cool.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mystery of the Missing Week; plus, the answer at last

Okay, so, it looks like I flaked out there for a whole week, but I did not; our motherboard did. I got back as soon as I could - before I reloaded our programs, even. It was a major inconvenience for my cat Thai, let me tell you - a week is a long time to go without proper laptime.

So now, is there any way to make the answer to the question I left us with last Thursday worth the wait? Probably not, so I'll just out with it:

I go to Gault, interrupting everything else I have to do, increasing my aches and pains, depriving my husband of the car, and getting filthy to a degree that most modern people can't even imagine, because I'm going to write another Pleistocene book. Someday. Don't know when, don't know what kind, don't know what it's about apart from the Pleistocene - but I know if I don't lay the groundwork, keep my brain primed with archeology and maintain the contacts I've made, now, it won't ever happen, or won't be as good when it does happen.

Not that there aren't plenty of other reasons, too. Archeology is fascinating by nature and I've yet to meet someone practicing it - avocationally or professionally - who wasn't eager to share their hard-earned knowledge and enthusiasm. I don't think I've ever had a day of digging, or a day in the lab, where somebody didn't find something cool, or tell a fascinating story, or teach me something I couldn't have learned from a book because it has to do with the heft and weight and smell and temperature of experience.

The difference between me and somebody who doesn't get ideas is, that I don't have a downtime. I'm always in active research mode. Going out and doing things related to the interest you want to write about is the single best way to generate the story. I ought to be generating short pieces, too, non-fiction articles on avocational archeology and maybe now I seem to have my health crud under control I'll finally get that done. Maybe, since the site has suddenly started yielding unexpected treasures from the Archaic period, I'll find a story about that in my head, too - no telling.

But not if I don't get out there and dig.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Too Much to Do!

Cyn told me to get on JacketFlap, so I did because Cyn's advice is always worth taking if you can. But as for actually going to JacketFlap and using all its resources - well, I haven't done it today because there's too much else to do!

I want to make a blog post because if I don't keep in the habit of doing it regularly it'll die and be pointless.

I have to prep for my weekend trip to work at the Gault archeological site. It's several counties north of here, so I usually drive up the day before and camp at the site - but it's supposed to be 30 degrees tomorrow night and I don't have a camp stove that can be trusted to start in the morning. It's one thing to do without your morning hot tea in July, and even on some mornings in February, but this won't be among them. So I'll be spending the night at a hotel in Georgetown (this is cheaper than buying a reliable stove, given that I have friends who are going to be passing their old one on to me soon), which lessens the prep I'll have to do - don't have to dig out the camping gear or pack as much food. But food I must have, because if I don't eat properly bizarre things happen that no one wants to deal with; and the number of restaurants in Georgetown that can feed a hypoglocemic vegetarian on a low-sodium diet properly is, let me count them, none. So the banana-raisin muffins just came out of the oven and the bread is rising, and I've been to the grocery store for apples, and I have plenty of my super deluxe no-sodium homemade trail mix, and I think that's under control. Now I just have to plan the trip. I normally drive up 281 to avoid Austin traffic and come up on the site from the west, but staying in Georgetown means going slap through Austin on I35, a route that must be timed perfectly or I'll be sitting between and high above the Capitol and the University for an hour.

I need to put together queries for the agents and editors who were at the conference, criminy, two weeks ago. Relax, they're not going anywhere, and most of my manuscripts are still in "waiting for rejection" mode from other editors. But I have one manuscript which isn't being shopped anywhere and is just for hooking an agent, and I want to have all my ducks in a row and get the perfect manuscript to each editor as soon as it becomes available. These conference windows don't stay open forever and it doesn't do to muck them up.

The lesbian western cries out unto me to be researched. Since something has screwed up the search functions on the computer so that I can't follow search links, I can't use the index on the Southwestern Historical Quarterly site, but have to go through the table of contents systematically looking for relevant stuff; fruitful, but laborious. I think I have 70 years left on that project, assuming my husband's weekend virus hunt (which will keep him amused while he's trapped at home during my archeological foray) doesn't clear up the problem. I've been meaning to contact county historical societies for months.

I have two fan letters I should answer.

In the game room hangs a beautiful dress (my first attempt to match stripes and I nailed it) that only needs to be hemmed, another is cut out and the bodice put together, I have fabric for two lovely sundresses, and two cheap patterns I bought so I could learn to make slacks and blouses whisper to me that if I want to wear slacks that fit next winter now is the time to start. Fortunately, I have spent most of my life with no time to sew, so I've learned to not care how I look and should be able to ignore those siren calls for days at a time.

But the housework needs doing whether I have time for it or not and I'm not caught up after the week off sick.

So why on earth, with this pile of stuff to do right here at home, am I running off to dig in the cold?

This post is already too long, so I'll tell you tomorrow. Can you stand the suspense?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In Special Collections

I finally got back to Trinity University library yesterday. The last time I tried to go was the day of the hard freeze and the temporary death of Moby Dick, the Great White Car. Although it's theoretically possible to ride my bike to Trinity, it's farther than I've ridden since I was in junior high, and the weather hasn't been conducive to it. But now I have the car back and, although I technically should have been prepping queries for the SCBWI Austin agents and editors, I decided I wanted to go to the library.

First I finished what I'd started last time I was there, when I ran out of money photocopying the pages of Vinton Lee James's Frontier and Pioneer: Recollections of Early Days in San Antonio and Western Texas in which he describes postwar San Antonio, so I'll have them to refer to. (I still need to get a map). I'd made a note of which pages I needed, so that didn't take long. Then I went to Special Collections to read Amasa Clark's Reminiscences of a Centenarian.

Special Collections at Trinity is a large comfortable room like a library in a stately house, with locked bookcases, tables, a cozy arrangement of chairs and sofas in front of a fireplace with a floral arrangement in it, and a huge Mannerist tapestry on one wall, depicting an American Indian noble with a crown of feathers and a pet gator, or possibly Komodo dragon. I had to surrender my ID and use only pencils in making notes, and the book wasn't where it was supposed to be so the student at the desk wound up calling the retired research librarian who has the place memorized for help locating it.

Clark is refreshingly detailed in his recollections of the Civil War era compared to most people - which still leaves out a lot of what I wanted to know. He was injured in a robbery in 1857 and claims to have still been recovering in 1861; otherwise, he says, he probably would have joined the Union army, though really he didn't want to fight either his neighbors or "the flag" that he fought under in the Mexican War. This makes him sympathetic to the victims of the political violences he recounts, both military actions against groups of men attempting to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army by heading for Mexico. He describes with certitude and circumstantial detail the robbery and lynching of eight draft evaders by soldiers from Camp Verde, but this creates a puzzle for the researcher.

Per Clark, the men surrendered peaceably on being assured of a fair court martial, that when the arresting party made camp some of the men suggested that they proceed with the hangings; that those who objected to this proceeding left in order not to witness it; that the officer in charge was not among those who left; that one of the men was shot with a gun that still had the ramrod in it; that the boy with the eight men was spared but no one knows what became of him (there's a central character for a historical YA if you like); that the men were hung one at a time with a hair rope, strangled, then cut down with the noose still around the neck and the next one hoisted; that the officer and soldiers were indicted after the war but never brought to trial.

Now, the ramrod was still in the body of one of the men when Joeseph Poor, on his way to visit a neighbor, stumbled upon it, mistook the ramrod for an arrow, and ran to warn of an Indian raid. The posse that he collected found the remains and presumably reconstructed the method of execution by examining the evidence. Clark doesn't say that he witnessed any of this, but names the people who examined and buried the bodies. Presumably everyone in Bandera County knew pretty much everything this party of men observed and accepted the conclusions they drew. But what is the source of the information about the surrender, the dispute over whether or not to summarily hang them, and the boy being "let go" rather escaping? How much of this is speculation? How much is derived from the testimony of members of the military unit who left rather than participating in the hanging? Was any of this information divulged under oath when the indictment was made after the war?

These questions are not answered, or even addressed, either in this volume (edited by his daughter-in-law) or in the Pioneer History of Bandera County written by Clark's friend, J. Marvin Hunter. It is possible that later research will turn up other versions of the story, or more source information, or even the documents connected with the indictment. It's possible I will always wonder. For purposes of my story, it's enough that this is a version which my heroines will be familiar with, and believe; if I need to, I can have one of them wonder the same things I wonder, but since this all happened in 1863 and my story is set in 1865, it probably won't come up.

Same thing with the discrepancy between Clark's version of the fate of Bill Hurt, one of the men suspected of the attack on him, and that given by Mr. John Dobbin in William Corner's San Antonio de Bexar (1890), which I also saw in a facsimile edition yesterday. Clark, Hurt's victim, was presumably still being nursed back to health when Hurt died of excessive numbers of gunshot wounds in the streets of San Antonio, but he would have been very much interested in the news and would have repeated the story numerous times between 1857 and the late 20s, when his daughter-in-law was taking down his reminiscences. Mr. Dobbin was in town during the event and talks like an eyewitness when he recounts the story for Corner in 1889 or 90. He doesn't mention the crime for which Hurt was wanted, Clark doesn't describe the tactical situation of the Vigilance Committee's ambush of him; the overlap of names in the two accounts is minimal. I am happy I don't have to choose between the accounts for this particular story. If I were writing a different book, I might have had my work cut out reconciling them!

Corner's book is an excellent one, but a source of frustration for me. It's a guidebook for visitors, which made it perfect for Switching Well (in which a girl from 1991 swaps places with a girl from 1891), but Corner in his historical overviews and recordings of the oral history of old-timers treats the eighteenth century and the 30s and 40s as the most interesting periods. When introducing the reminiscences of Dr. George Cupples, he taunts me by referring to the story Cupples could tell of his "recollections of the know-nothing movement here, of the great war and of the famous Vigilance Committee troubles. But as Mr Kipling would say -- that's another story." Yes, and it's a story I want, thank you very much! Perhaps Corner took that oral history in another publication that hasn't turned up in my researches yet, or perhaps he let the opportunity slip. Somebody, sometime, should have recorded the history of the Vigilance Committee.

But if I ever find it, it will have many of the same faults and virtues as the accounts I read yesterday. That's the deal with research. People write history for the reasons that suit them, not for the reasons that suit me. It's my job to hold these fragmentary names and events in my head, ready to pounce on the clues casually dropped by folks interested in something else and put them all together until I know enough to write my story.

I have this advantage over the professional historian: What I can't find out, I am at liberty to make up, within certain parameters. It is only my own preference for fitting my made up stuff as seamlessly as possible into what really happened that keeps me on the trail at this point. I know enough to plot the book and with a little bit of physical exploration of locations I'm about ready to write it. But I will feel better if I know about the Vigilance Committee, if I have eliminated all possibility of putting my characters in places where they should witness or participate in an event, and don't, or of misrepresenting a real person - whether well-known historical figure or not.

When I was young, I assumed that all authors researched like this and that the way they depicted real people was based on more than their imagination. Now I know better; but I don't want to mislead the kids who don't know better yet.

Besides, someone out there knows more about this stuff than I do; that person is part of the natural audience for the intended book. I don't want a scathing letter explaining where I went wrong!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hey, I Got Interviewed!

Moss Green Books, a UK-based bookstore, contacted me and wanted to do an interview for their site, so I said sure. Why they want someone with no British editions I'm not clear, but I'll take being wanted by whoever will want me, and maybe they can launch demand or something. I'd love to have a British edition. So far there's just the Italian Switching Well.

They do several interviews a week so scroll down a bit, see if one of your favorites is on there, and who sounds interesting that you've never heard of.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Make Your Own Metaphor

One thing my head cold accomplished: the local birds have gotten used to the suet cake. I was too sick to venture out in the rain for three days in a row, so the peanutbutter and sunflower didn't get renewed, seeds and insects were at a premium, and the suet they had previously shied off from began to look pretty good. Now the sparrows are mobbing the cage feeder even when there's still peanutbutter left. I'll have to buy more of them at a time.

Too bad it's mostly house sparrows, non-native "trash birds" that don't need any help. I want to feed the warblers, wrens, titmice, housefinches, and woodpeckers. But I understand they're on the decline in their native land of Great Britain, so I can't grudge them too hard. (Someone should fund a catch-and-transport program, returning house sparrows to Britain, where they belong.)

There's bound to be some analogy here for writing, or life, or something, but I have a lot of housework to catch up on so I'll leave you to work it out yourselves.

Idea Garage Sale: I Dream of TV

Inspiration strikes in my dreams again. Get this: Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation) is an uptight vampire who was alive not too long before. He has a teen-age son (not cast) and has just married free spirit Lauren Graham (Lorelei Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls). The kid isn't into any of it, but his dad's dead during the day so he and the new wife are stuck dealing with the daylight world; then when he wakes up, the vampire has to deal with whatever they've been doing during the day. This is a dramedy, with plenty of fast-talking from Graham, teen-age rebellion from the son, and deadpan coping from Stewart. Last night their vacation home was nearly attacked by a mob, which later delivered a giant floral arrangement by way of apology, and Lauren committed Stewart to doing things he would be more comfortable not doing for some community organization's (a church? Not sure) annual carnival.

Admit it, you've seen worse concepts succeed on TV.

It's true of any kind of writing that the people who don't do it have no idea how tough it is to go from concept to finished product; but I think screenwriting is the absolute hardest, both for the screenwriters to do, and for the outsiders to comprehend. So much in series television depends on getting the right actors and the right scripts to make appealing characters that people want to sit with week after week; and that can't be done in high concept. So many individuals and corporations are involved in every aspect of the process, and so little about it is within the writer's control - I couldn't do it. No way, no how. And not just because you almost have to live in LA to get started.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Okay, Conference Report

And I'm back, clearheaded and ready to overachieve. But first, let's talk about conferences.

When we last left our story, I had wiped myself out going to a one-day SCBWI conference in Austin. I bought two books, both signed; met one Newbery honoree; remet a few people; did not introduce myself to a single agent or editor; forgot my crappy-looking business cards; ate a lunch that probably had more sodium in it than my doctor wants me to eat (most meals cooked by other people do); ate trail mix for supper; and wiped myself out for a week. But it was worth it.


Well, let's see. All the speakers were excellent. Although a lot of SCBWI programming is focused on the author who wants to break in rather than the author who has an existing career, and some of what I heard is what you hear at every conference, none of the speakers bored me. My favorite talk was the one by Marla Frazee,, even though, or perhaps because, I'm not and never can be a picture book author and don't know anything about art, not even what I like. Yeah, I think that's a "because." I understand how stories work. I do not understand how art works, so everything she said was new. Will I ever use that new knowledge? What does "use" mean? Maybe I'll never need to understand how artists think for a story, but understanding visual art better is a good in itself.

All of the agents and editors I avoided meeting are accepting manuscripts from conference attendees, met or not, for awhile (time varies). All that information is in my packet (which was, thank goodness, closed when the cat got sick on it, so everything is still legible). My husband, looking this information over, found it discouraging, focusing more on how to go about submitting than on what to submit. But that's okay, because I was able to size up each of them during their talks, and having a set of instructions for submission is a tried-and-true way to weed out the wannabes who aren't putting in their best effort without having to read their not-ready-for-prime time submissions. Editors and agents don't come to conferences if they aren't looking for new work and clients. My chance with them is as good as anybody's there.

As good as? Seriously? I was in an overcrowded venue with two Newbery honorees (Kirby Larson and Jacqueline Kelly), a Sibert honoree (Chris Barton), a double Caldecotter in Marla Frazee - and I think I have the same shot at acceptance as them?

Yeah. I do. And that's not vanity. The degree of excess self-esteem I have may be measured by the number of editors and agents I have ever deliberately walked up to at a conference and introduced myself to (zero), even when I'm well. I am nothing special; my books are pretty good. I prefer to present my books before I present myself. This strikes me as reasonable. The numerous authors who haven't sold any books have as good a chance as I do, also; a dozen publications and a school award don't make me better than them. When I am among authors, I am among my peers, not my competitors and not a range of my superiors and inferiors. There is no hierarchy.

(Well, okay, most of us are inferior to Diana Wynne Jones, but I'm talking about ordinary mortals here. And I could probably even speak to DWJ without stammering much. As good a shot at representation or publication, though? No way.)

Industry Internet Goddess and all-around great person Cyn Smith, when she saw me at lunch, threw her arms around me and cried: "Peni! Penipenipeni!" That was worth the trip right there. She tried to persuade me to go up to the editors (everybody underestimates my conviction that I'll make a bad first impression) by saying if she were them, she would be excited to meet me. I don't know where I get off not believing Cyn, but I seem to be physically incapable of it on this point. But I like seeing her, and she was sitting with Jacqueline Kelly and Varian Johnson, so I got to talk to them, and to Cyn's husband Greg. And a couple of people from San Antonio who I don't see often because I don't often go to local meetings were there, Heather Powers and Catherine Stier.

Talking to other authors, to people who have the same priorities and problems and can either advise you about what to expect, or benefit from your own experience; that's a big, big reason for going to conferences. Writers live in their heads a lot; and when we don't, we live in a world of people who aren't looking for the story elements and character arcs in real life, people who have no idea what it's like to have a book in your head and midwife it out where it can be seen. If we hang out together too much, we talk about it instead of doing it; but if we never see each other, we get tired and lonesome and discouraged. It's worth a conference fee and a drive to shake off that feeling, talk face to face with kindred spirits, and get a free pass for a couple of "no unagented submissions" and "referral only" obstacles.

And if I gave anybody my cold while doing that, my apologies.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Not a conference report

I do not regret going to Austin SCBWI's Destination Publication conference with a head cold, as the speakers were all good, I got to see friends and meet Newbery honor medalist Jacqueline Kelly, and it's always good to hang out with other writers. I think I deployed enough hand sanitizer that I didn't infect anybody. I didn't introduce myself to any of the speakers because I didn't want them to remember me as That Red-Nosed Incoherent Lady. It was past nine by the time I got home, and I spent all Sunday in bed under the close medical supervision of my cats. Today I'm moving around more, but am still not coherent and the nose could still light Santa's way through a peasoup fog.

So instead of blogging properly I'm going to encourage you to read this recent blog post by Cyntha Cotten and reflect upon the importance of brainstorming with friends and losing your inhibitions in order to create.

Then I may go crawl back under the cats. Gimme a couple of days and I'll be interesting, or at least informative, or at least writing connectedly, again.