Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Genre Fantasy

During the Andre Norton Breakdown, I eliminated 2 nominees as for being for adults, one (with some agonizing) as being for children, and was ambivalent about how to categorize one other. So it's fair to ask what my rules are for classifying something as YA.

This may be the hardest call to make in all of literature, at least since the advent of the YA (as opposed to "teen books") concept. Back in the 90s I had an opportunity to ask a buyer for one of the megabookstores how she selected which book went into which section, and her response was "Trim size." In certain bookstores I routinely find paperback Diana Wynne Jones books in the "Fantasy" section among adult titles, and hardbacks (sometimes of the same books) in the "Juvenile" section. Agents and publishers and authors, when asked, tend to go with the age of the protagonist, the cut-off age at the lower end being usually thirteen or fourteen, and at the upper anywhere from 17 to 21. And then you go into the library and find Eleanor Updale's Montmorency books, with their protagonist who is an adult in all senses of the word on page one, book one, in the YA section; and you read them and agree that's where they belong.

This is an extension of a situation readers of fantasy and science fiction have been wrestling with for a long time. Once upon a time, back in the 70s, a prime reason I never stopped going to the children's section when I hit adulthood was that, at that time, if a book was fantasy and had no overt sexuality, librarians automatically shelved it among the children's books. I think the Gormenghast trilogy, which I read all the way through and disliked, was the only fantasy I ever found in the adult shelves. The adult half of the larger libraries had separate science fiction and mystery sections, where you could find much that I would these days class as YA, but Patricia McKillip and Tolkien were on the juvenile shelves - in hardback. Lin Carter was editing the Adult Fantasy line for Ballantine Books, which got fantasy into the spinner racks. Come to think of it, that's how I first got into the adult section - checking the spinner racks for those back-to-back Bs that spelled "fantasy" on that side of the wall.

As the 20th century wound down, this became less of a given; more and more often, the fantasy I found in the children's section of the library was in fact for children; and the "science fiction" sections in bookstores became "science fiction and fantasy" several years before the signs began reflecting the change. For awhile it was popular among the fen* to gripe about this lumping, but either I don't hang out in those circles anymore or most people have relaxed about the distinction between the two genres. The term "speculative fiction" has arisen to cover the editorial behind.

But when you get down to it, the difference is primarily about imagery. If the bearded wise man wears a lab coat, it's science fiction, even if there's no scientific justification for what he does. If he wears a robe, it's fantasy, even if the things he does are rooted in theoretical physics. If time travel is accomplished by machine, it's science fiction in spite of having some species of archaic sapiens in America; if by dreams, it's fantasy, even if the author has spent seven years researching the archeology, paleontology, and anthropology to get her Pleistocene setting into line with what is known. (Yeah, that'd annoy me if I let it.)

Anyway, all genres are like this. Some horror is fantasy, some science fiction, some realistic, some realistic except for an occult edge. Some romance is paranormal; some fantasy is romance; some adult fiction is YA and some YA is for children. Bambi was published in Europe as adult fiction - my 1929 Simon & Schuster edition has a foreword by John Galsworthy - and became a children's book in America because books with talking animals are for children. Even the lines between "true" and "made up" blur sometimes.

In fact, all categories are like this. Half to three-quarters of the definition arguments on this earth could be eliminated if we'd face up to this fact: A classification is not a real entity. It is a convenient way to talk about real entities that share certain qualities; but which classification an entity belongs in will shift depending on which qualities are regarded as important at a particular moment.

Consider my button accumulation. As I am not a dedicated seamstress, I don't have what I consider to be lots of buttons; but I have enough (mostly snipped frugally from old clothes) that, to save time when I need one, I decided I needed to divide them up. I realized when I dumped them out that I had a number of viable ways to categorize them, all of which would be useful in a different situation. Size? Number of holes? Color? Plastic and metal? Flat or hemispherical or funky shapes? If there's a "funky shapes" category, might it not include other kinds of fasteners, such as frogs or hooks-and-eyes, that I had assumed didn't belong in the same container as buttons?

A barn is a house, if one lives in it. If residence constitutes houseness, because style of architecture does not, then a bird's nest is a house: and human occupancy is not the standard to judge by, because we speak of dogs' houses; nor material, because we speak of snow houses of Eskimos -- or a shell is a house to a hermit crab -- or was to the mollusk that made it -- or things seemingly so positively different as the White House at Washington and a shell on the sea-shore are seen to be continuous.
(Charles Fort, Book of the Damned, Ch. 1)

People sometimes resent having this drawn to their attention, and most of the time it doesn't matter. But in the endless discussion of whether a book is YA or juvenile or adult, fantasy or science fiction or magical realism, it saves time to face up to it. The important thing is to send the manuscript to the agent who will believe in it and knows the editor who will like it at the house that will publish it, and locate the book in the part of the library, bookstore, or catalog where the person who will like to read it can find it. That's all that matters. Once you think of it in those terms, everything looks much simpler.

Not easier, necessarily. But simpler.

*"Fen" is the plural of "fan," as in "science fiction fen," in case you aren't of that subculture.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Vampire with Iron Teeth

The normal course of casual noodling around among Fortean sources led me to this story earlier this week: Child Vampire Hunters Sparked Comic Crackdown. It's a feature from the British press, basically advertizing a BBC program about the 1954 incident, to be broadcast on March 30. I presume it'll get to American cable in a year or so.

The core attractive element for the juvenile/YA writer is this: Hundreds of children aged from four to 14, some of them armed with knives and sharpened sticks, were patrolling inside the historic graveyard.

Their target? A 7-foot tall vampire with iron teeth that had already eaten two children. The police broke up the mob, but so convinced were these kids, not only of the vampire's existence, but of their responsibility to bring him down, that many of them sneaked back out that night and the following one to resume patrol.

Personally, I think that shows a lot of spunk. Kids who'd behave like that are kids who'd make great protagonists. However, the parents in the neighborhood were, understandably, more concerned with the possibility of their children mistaking each other for vampires in the dark. As an author, I can see how you could make a thriller out of events either way: a supernatural battle to which the adults are stubbornly oblivious, or would-be heroes wrongheadedly charging off into tragedy on a tide of emotion unchecked by facts.

No children were in fact missing, and it's not clear what started the rumor, which brings us to the other interesting facet of the tale. Although the local boogyman was known as the Iron Man (it was an iron-industry area, and an ironworks overlooked the graveyard) and there are iron-toothed monsters in the Bible and in a poem taught in local schools (text not given, and a quick google gives me no good candidates), parent groups seized on the ever-popular idea of blaming the media.

EC horror comics were hard to get and therefore highly desirable in the area, and in 1953 Dark Mysteries #15 featured a story titled "The Vampire with Iron Teeth." So, it must be all the fault of comics nobody had ever read acting on passively impressionable youngsters as if by magic instead of (heaven forfend!) actively imaginative youngsters creating a social phenomenon on their own. To anyone interested in censorship, moral panic, and mob action, the symmetry of the parents' charging after the imaginary Evil Brainwashing Comic Book in response to their children's charging after an imaginary Evil Bloodsucking Vampire is almost too perfect.

Possibly, what this needs is a book-length non-fiction treatment for the middle-school market. In fact, absolutely, someone should do that! But there's at least two or three other novels lurking in there, too. I'd have to change the setting, presumably to modern Texas, but perhaps it would work best as a period piece. I live, after all, in the home of the Moral Panic, but nobody wants to hear that about themselves. It can be safer to displace such behavior in time, into the days of McCarthyism and lynching when everyone is acknowledged to have behaved badly, but We Know Better Now. (No, we don't.)

How the story plays out depends a lot on who your protagonist is, whether there are or are not any missing children, and whether or not you want to use supernatural elements. Is there a real monster? Is there a human murderer? Is there a ringleader in the mob, perhaps a campfire storyteller whose creation runs away with him? How much of the mirrored cases of mass hysteria are based in sincere but wrongheaded emotional reaction and how much is a matter of conscious manipulation of media? How in control of their own actions are the characters?

I'm much too deep in other projects to deal with this embarrassment of riches right now. Feel free to take it on for me, and I promise to read what you come up with. You won't do it the way I would, but that's fine.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Andre Norton Breakdown, Pt. 2

So, research done, proceeding to evaluation. First, a quick review of what I'm reading for. A book could be the best book published last year and not fit award criteria. So, how is the Andre Norton Award defined?

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., (SFWA®) has created this new literary award to recognize outstanding science fiction and fantasy novels that are written for the young adult market. ... Any English-language book published as a young adult science fiction/fantasy novel is eligible, including graphic novels with no limit on word length or country of origin. Votes are cast by SFWA members in conjuction with the Nebula Awards.

Taking them in order read, how does each book match up?

Ash, by Malinda Lo. I read this months ago. It wasn't "just" a lesbian Cinderella, but what I chiefly remember is a dreamy familiarity. No crying, no laughing, no vivid images rising in my mind's eye. Shouldn't "outstanding" stick out in my head more?

Zoe's Tale, by John Scalzi - okay, it's science fiction, and it's not bad, for half a book. I kept thinking as I read it that I was missing chunks of story, and I was right. The other half is contained in The Last Colony, which was published in 2006. And you know what else? It doesn't qualify. It was not "written for the young adult market." It's part of a series written and marketed for adults; the author admits in the end matter that he wrote this book in response to disatisfaction with what had been the last book in that series; and though he does a good job of the YA narrator and should consider the market, that doesn't make it a YA book. No vote.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won a Newbery and was checked out with holds on it all over my library system, which is a good sign. And it is science fiction/fantasy - eventually. Most of the time it reads like a domestic novel, but it does deal with time travel from the point of view of someone in the past affected by a future time visitor, which gets her out of any need to explain the mechanism. It's full of clues and hints for the alert reader to pick up on, and I like that. It doesn't really tie my brain into a knot the way time travel stories should, though. And - you're going to think I'm a horrible nitpicker, but - I'm not sure it's YA. The age of the protagonists, the themes, and the style all say "MG" to me, as they did to the librarians who placed it in "juvenile." But as we all know, the boundaries between those two sections are fluid.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield. Cracking story, definitely SF/F (depending on exactly where you put his Weird Science steampunky tech), YA without question. Loses a point for not telling a full story, but since it's the first of a series that's not a big deal. I never felt that I was being shortchanged during the book.

Eyes Like Stars, by Lisa Mantchev. Fantasy, YA, another first in series, fun to read. I had problems with the worldbuilding that I could ignore while reading but that leaped out at me every time I put the book down. Where are the Players when not on call? Every play? Does that include the one-act plays we do in grade school, or the unproduced plays like Tolkien's "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm's Son?" Could you define the term more? Why does anybody come to this theater if you never do new productions? If the Players only play one role why aren't they identical to that role? These things bother me. No vote.

Hotel Under the Sand - Kage Baker. I love this book. I would have loved this book when I was nine, though I wouldn't have understood it as well. It's got themes you can grow into and it's funny and it's dramatic and you can read it more than one way and this is what it's all about, people. I'm tempted to vote for it just for the line "No bully is a match for a dreadful ghost, or for two determined ladies with a cannon." But. Criterion. No way in heck is this YA. This is a children's book. The protagonist is 9. The themes and the way they're presented are ideal to encounter in elemetary school and revisit throughout the rest of your life. It's the best of the lot and I wish it had gotten more notice (any notice) in the industry but the fluidity of the juvenile/YA boundary is not fluid enough to let me vote for it for a YA award. Dagnab it.

Ice, by Sarah Beth Durst. This, on the other hand, is as YA as they come. It's pretty hard to do the Psyche story (technically, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," but at the motif level it's all the same) without being YA. And it's good. The fact that I find the heroine annoying for most of the book doesn't change that. The only time I like her at all is when she's insisting on having her own work and figuring out how to make that fit her new lifestyle, which is sympathetic. But everything else about her grates so hard on my nerves I'm having trouble deciding whether the book itself is outstanding or merely good.

This left me with The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. As I mentioned, hate the title - it sounds, oh, what's the word? Cutesy? Phony? But I'm prejudiced by its only being available online - inconvenient to read and self-published! - so I shrug that off and dive in. Unfortunately, yesterday was a bad balance day. I felt crappy, my defenses were low, and by the third chapter I was hiding under the desk crying; "The adverbs! The adverbs! Oh, the horror!" I understand this has been picked up by Feivel and Friends, so maybe when it comes out as a book, having undergone an editing process and been purged of words like "rather" and "quite," it'll be readable, but right now it's like a rough draft of what a children's book is supposed to be, built on an inperceptive reading of late 19th-early 20th century British fantasy and played to the gallery. And, by the way, the author addresses her audience once, as adults, so I'm allowed to stop there and say she's disqualified herself for this award. Whew.

Used to, we were asked to rank each nominee, with points awarded for all the different rankings a book received and the winner having most points. This year, we're supposed to vote for only one, and it appears that the only book that qualifies about which I have no reservations is Leviathan. So that's that.

I'd have voted for Hotel Under the Sand if I could.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Andre Norton Breakdown

It's that time of year again and I'm within spitting distance of finishing my research on my vote for the Nebula Award, given every year by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Actually, I don't give two hoots about the Nebula itself most years; the Andre Norton Award for YA SF is almost always the only vote I cast. And that's plenty of work all on its own, because between my inability to keep up with my own field and the bizarro nature of the typical roster of nominees it's rare for me to have read any of them before the final ballot appears. I'm resolved to pay more attention this year, but I resolved that last year, too, and here we are.

The thing about the Andre Norton Award nominees is that, due probably to the way the nominations are made - with SFWA members who happen to think about it during the year nominating books that happen to impress them, and the ones that get the most nominations during that period making the final cut - and the nature of the SFWA membership, which is mostly authors of adult science fiction and fantasy, there isn't much overlap with the books that are buzzed, listed, and awarded in the YA industry. Most of the authors don't read YA on purpose, don't understand how it differs from juvenile or adult literature, and don't take it seriously. Many of them are trying to live down the dictum that "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve," rather than embracing it as they should. On the other hand, the YA they read and like isn't influenced by the librarians, school review sources, and social networks that drive the awards within the industry. So the fact that the list often seems like it came from a different universe isn't necessarily a bad thing. At least there's almost always something wonderful I might not have run across without it.

On the other hand, it's a fair amount of work. This year, of the nominees, I had read Malinda Lo's Ash at the time the nominees were announced in February. John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale was at the Enchilada, but hidden away in the adult SF section where the odds of my running across it were approximately nil. Others were also in the library system, but either checked out, in process, or on hold at the central location I can bus to, so I planned the most efficient route and drove to branches. I got lucky and found both of the most "mainstream" nominees, Scott Westerfield's Leviathan and Rebecca Stead's Newbery-winning When You Reach Me at the same library on the near southeast side. However, to get Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars I had to drive several miles north of beyond and get on the Death Loop among all the evil subdivisions.

Sarah Beth Durst's Ice and Kage Baker's Hotel Under the Sand weren't in the San Antonio Library System at all, but I have an indy bookstore and I'm not afraid to use it. My special order on those two came in last Saturday and I've read Hotel and am about halfway through Ice.

The last book isn't even a book. The Girl Who Navigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente is available online for "donations" and won't be a real book I can read on the balcony or in the bathroom until next year. Although I could have read it at any time during the past month, I resent this a lot and have put it off till last. Also, I hate the title. But I'm an honest voter and will get it done.

The deadline to vote is March 30. I'm probably the only one going to all this trouble for this particular award. The fact that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows beat out The True Meaning of Smek Day in 2007 is proof enough of that. (I promise you, if everybody who voted for Potter had read Smek Day, it would have been a landslide for the funny SF!) But I'm not responsible for them; I'm responsible for me.

So go read them all and on Thursday I'll come back and discuss each title. I'll be finishing Ice at lunch, probably, and that leaves plenty of time to read that online thing. If I can sit at the computer that long.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Story of George

A long time ago, when I was first starting to do school visits back in the mid-nineties, I was in front of a class of second graders. This is younger than I should really be talking to, but I think it was part of a festival, or maybe it was one of those times when the only way the school can do the visit is if you see a range of grades, I don't remember. With older kids I have a variety of presentations (fewer then than I do now), but with younger kids I tend to fall back on the presentation that works with everybody: How to Get an Idea.

Different people use the same basic concept, but in my version, I get a kid to flip a coin. Heads, our idea will center on a female; tails, on a male. (Yes, this is simplistic, but the visiting author is the wrong person to introduce the concept of intersex and transgender individuals to a second-grade class. Unless you're intersex or transgender yourself, of course, in which case congratulations on getting a school visit in our conservative educational system and I have no advice to give you.)

Call for ideas from the class. What is this character's name? What does he look like? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? You as temporary authority will get the final choice among the suggestions offered, so as to create a little coherence and avoid cliches, and will be able to gauge the overall character of the class. (Make sure you don't get the name of anybody who's in the actual class, by the way.) One class will come up with a flying dog superhero named Abracazam and another class will come up with an orphan illegal immigrant named Josefina, and your job is to roll with it. This particular class created George, a black second-grade nerd with thick glasses and suspenders, whose strengths were that he was smart and could program computers, but whose weaknesses were that he was short, a physical wimp, and shy.

I rely heavily on the formulation that a plot = character + conflict; or, as I put it to the second-graders, a story is about a person with a problem. So what problem should George have? A number of routine suggestions were made, but I kept pressing them for something a little more interesting. One kid said: "He gets beat up a lot." I said, yeah, that was a realistic problem, but if we go with that, we have to generate a villain, too. Who is it that's beating him up, and why? A flurry of suggestions came - the class bully, his big brother, a drug dealer - and then somebody said: "His little sister beats him up."

And I said "Oooooh."

I had to reject a couple of silly developments on this idea - the sister could not realistically be two years old - but once they got the idea the class was forthcoming. His sister was a year younger than him (I don't remember what they named her), but taller and stronger, and she pushed him around because she could. Well, you would, wouldn't you? At that age, the temptation would be irresistible. And poor George would be in a serious bind, because the one person in the world you cannot hit back is your little sister! And as for tattling, forget it - no one is going to admit to being physically bullied in this situation. He's going to have to outsmart her. But the obvious counterattacks - set her up to get into trouble; devise personal armor; set traps for her - are only going to escalate the tension. Setting her up makes her mad and increases the bullying; she'll find vulnerabilities in the armor. Ultimately they're going to have to come to terms and make a truce. You could introduce a common enemy against whom they have to gang up; or George could come up with a revenge trap so fiendish that it makes his sister cry and they both learn from the experience; or or or...

We did not generate an ending because we didn't have time, but also because I like to end this presentation by pointing out that every person in the room could leave the room and write the story of the characters and problem we'd just been discussing - and we'd all write a different story. My hope is that at least some of the kids will indeed sit down and finish on their own; and it gives the teacher a hook on which to hang extra credit if she wants to.

I never did anything with George, and I don't know whether this class did or not, but I treasure the memory of his creation and I think this is one of the more brilliant ideas I've ever been a part of, sparkly with possibilities. Why I don't write this story I couldn't tell you. Possibly it's too close to home, our family having been a pretty savage one on the sibling rivalry front. I've never done well when I tried to write a straight domestic novel.

So I share him with the world, both as a strong concept in his own right, and as an example of what ordinary people can come up with in less than an hour, if given the opportunity and a mental framework.

News of ill omen

Sid Fleischman died on St. Patrick's Day. I read about it yesterday morning at the School Library Journal site. He'd turned 90 the day before. I used to be able to say the names of all of McBroom's children, but now I'm not even sure if the word ends "andMelinda" or "andClarinda."

Yesterday was the equinox, and Dallas got 6" of snow. It was pretty chilly here, too, mostly because of high winds. Global warming - colder winters, hotter summers.

And Moby is running hot, so we'll have to take him to the car doctor after the body work is done and we can get his hood open. And I had no balance far too much of the past half week. I suspect balance issues had something to do with the accident, but I can't prove it one way or another.

So why do I feel optimistic right now? Partly because it's full-on spring here - the redbuds are on their way out, the banksia is blooming, and the oaks have shed their pollen and put out leaves. And partly because my online writing group has had a spate of sales lately. And partly, I suspect, because of things my chemicals are doing that have little or nothing to do with exterior stimuli.

Friday, March 19, 2010

News! Humans on Flores a Million Years Ago

Well, that's what the tools say. On the one hand, they've been disturbed; on the other hand, they were disturbed before the volcano put new rock on top of them. Note also the lack of correlation between human presence and animal extinction. This story gets better and better every time somebody puts a trowel in the ground.

Hobbit Island's Deeper History

And if you're wondering how those tools differ from rocks - go to a lab with lots of lithics and talk to the flintknapping guy. It takes practice, but natural breaks and worked surfaces are distinguishable, and a lot of experimental work has been done in this area - because flintknapping is fun and doesn't take a lot of specialist equipment, so you don't even need grant money to experiment.

Also, it appears that our brains function via the scientific method? That's counterintuitive, given how hard it is for people to grasp how the scientific method works in real life. Or maybe that's a result of poor science education? Or maybe the reporter is distorting what his interview subjects said? (They do that, you know.) "Less Effort to Register Predictable Images."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Medicinal Power of Libraries

I felt really crappy this morning; badly off balance. (Meniere's Disease. Basically, once in awhile I can't tell up from down. Big nuisance.) If I hadn't been way overdue to polish the dining room set (if I don't the warranty is voided; if I do, even cat scratches are covered) it would have been a sewing day, something I can do sitting down. Polishing the dining room was pretty much all I could do this morning and after lunch I felt lousy. So I did the only thing I could do.

I changed clothes, hopped on the bus, and went to the library.

The librarians had set out a couple of books for my husband, so I got those. I went to see if the sequel to The New Policeman was on the shelf (it was). I felt fine. I went upstairs, loaded the Semi-Weekly News into the microfilm reader with a little bit of fumbling, and I started reading newspaper. I put off getting to this part a long time because microfilm reading used to make me queasy, but it doesn't anymore. I worked till five and barely felt the time pass.

What causes this? Why is it that symptoms that normally floor me float away in a library? It's like the books set up an insulating field in which gravity is reinforced or something.

Fortunately, I'm not someone who has to understand something to take advantage of it. Read on!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hitting Milestones

Or, in this case, mile light poles. The clock radio didn't turn on this morning and the alarm cat didn't see fit to get us up till it was too late for my husband to catch the bus, so I took him in. After dropping him off, I turned the corner I always turn - and which I'm a little proud of my ability to turn, since Moby Dick has a turning radius the size of Kansas, yet on this turn I can always stay in my own lane - and my water bottle rolled out, thumped against my leg, and the reflexive flinch, to my surprise, extended to my arm, which kept turning us until we met the light pole.

No injuries, nobody behind me to be inconvenienced, as accidents go not a big deal. I even drove away, though without much clearance on the tire and the front passenger door won't open anymore. But it's my first accident ever. Unless you count that time I misjudged my distance from an SUV in the parking lot, which neither I nor the SUV's owner did - Moby is so low compared to his opponent on that occasion that they met at the tangent of two planes.

It ate up the rest of the day. I didn't eat breakfast till nine, by which time on a normal day I should have a load in the laundry, all my comics, blogs, and newsgroups read, and a room dusted and swept. No library in the afternoon, because I was waiting on the body shop, getting a damaged tire replaced, and so on. And now I find I'm all shaky and mood-swingy, which I didn't have time for before.

I'm sure there's a moral here somewhere. Or a metaphor. I don't know what it might be. So onto the compost heap of experience it goes, to rot down into something useful with every other milestone in my life.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Little Lucky Things

The dig was not an exciting place to be this weekend. I got to stay in the field house, which is a lot more comfortable than it was the last time I stayed there in 2007 or 8; it has beds now, the water was working, and I was able to have potatoes, eggs, and tea for breakfast, with plenty of time left to birdwatch my way down to the metal barn before anybody else showed up. I saw mostly little brown jobs, and a black vulture buzzed me. In a field near the road, a flock of groundhugging birds went after the morning insects; probably just grackles, but spectacular in silhouette with the morning sun turning their wings into silver scythes when they took their low, short flights.

The other volunteer who was supposed to be there had car trouble, so it was just me, Nancy Littlefield, and Mike Collins. During the last month, a field school from New Hampshire had cleared phenomenal amounts of dirt; so much that Mike spent a lot of his time clearing the sandy backfill that was packed over the deep pre-Clovis test hole in order to preserve it, so that the sand would again be below the level of the main surface. I was given a unit up high in one corner, in such a cramped position that Nancy suggested I clear it a quadrant at a time. Nancy had a specific unit she wanted to work on, but had to sort out something on another one first, which took her till past two. We all know how that goes. She expected to be there till dark.

Not much conversation went on, though Mike talked about a "dire wolf" jaw dated to 3000 YBP which, when he looked at it, was too small to be even a coyote; and also about coming upon a ten-year-old piece of his online that he couldn't remember writing. Mike and Nancy discussed an arrangement of large rocks over several units at the same level which Mike thought looked like "a prehistoric drainage ditch," probably natural; and Mike examined the two red soils uncovered at different levels, and decided that probably the upper one was the same as the lower one, used as backfill by a commercial archeologist who worked the site earlier last century. I got the northwest quadrant of my unit almost to the desired level, uncovering lots of broken flakes, limestone chunks, and some fragments of bone and bonelike rock; and got maybe a little less bad at using the laser level and mapping. Though my mapping will never be stellar. I was wiped by three, went back to the house, changed into clean clothes, and was about to hit the road when a couple of small yellow birds began to taunt me. I never did figure them out - almost as small as kinglets, but much too bright. I got home around 7.

So was it worth the long drive up from San Antonio - made longer by spring break traffic and having to come back (after finally getting as far as Guadalupe County after an hour and a half!) for my forgotten sleeping bag? Was it worth depriving my husband of the use of the car, falling behind on housework, and being wiped for two days afterward? After all, nothing particular happened.

Well, is it worth going birdwatching on a day when all you see is birds you've seen before in familiar settings? Is it worth gardening on the days when all you do is pull up the same old weeds and water the same plants? What is one meal of leftovers worth, one good morning/have a good day exchange with your spouse or child or parent, a game of Scrabble when no one bingoes or spells the really good words like quiz and axolotl?

Mundane repetition forms the texture of life. We write the stories about the big stuff that stands out from that background; but if all you know is the big moments, you don't know your subject.

Besides, you have to show up for a lot of little stuff in order to be on hand when the big things happen. Jane Yolen once told me that her husband was what is called a "lucky birder;" which meant that he was out with the binoculars every day, rain or shine, seeing the same birds over and over until the rarity came along.

And of what is this not so?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: "Dig," The Sitcom

I was too tired to type yesterday, and today I'm still a little wiped with a lot to do, so this week's sale idea is late and old. Back in 2008 the British members of a forum I go to, The Cabinet of Wonders, were griping about how monumentally bad a fantasy drama about archeologists called Bonekickers was. And I had this thought (yes, I'm cut and pasting directly from that two-year-old post; I'm that tired):

You know, if you're going to make a series about archeology, it needs to be a sitcom. No, I'm serious. Harlan Ellison once summed up the formula by saying: "Every sitcom is about a family in a house." Well, there you go - the family is the archeological team and the house is the dig site and lab. Conflict and humor are provided by all the things that routinely happen on digs - nonexistent budgets; academic rivalries, disputes, and hassles; unexpected discoveries; accidents; outsiders who don't understand what's going on but think they do. All sitcoms depend on the wit and attractiveness of the core family, so as long as you had strong characters in the roles it'd fly. If it looks like you're going to need a new season, you just find an unexpected layer under the site just as they were about to wrap up; if it looks like cancellation, you hit bedrock.

If I did scriptwriting, I would totally pitch this. You'd have the Patriarchal Old Archeologist who "owns" this dig and the "New Blood" with whom he's always at loggerheads, the eccentric who never leaves the microscope bench because there's so much use-wear analysis to do (or whatever labor-intensive thankless job the nature of the featured dig requires), the various specialists - including one who provides the romantic tension with the New Blood - and semiregulars in the person of the volunteers, the leader of a different nearby dig who is competing for resources, and of course the Evil Administrator who is always threatening to shut them down so the grant money can be used for something useful like the football team. Your sets would be the Lab, the Patriarch's Office, the Specimen Room, and the Dig, which is the only set that ever changes.

All you've got to do is fill in those details, and you're in. :)

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Inevitable Miscellaneous Post

The Center for Fortean Zoology, based in Britain, came to Texas to look for blue dogs, and I didn't hear about it till yesterday! Oh, well, they're only in East Texas so far. They're blogging about it. Apparently there's more to those "chupacabras" (as newspapers insist on calling them) than mangy coyotes. Though the one in Cuero totally was. I can't help thinking that every teenager in Cuero was rooting for it to be a cryptid so they'd have an excuse to change their high school mascot. The Cuero Chupacabras would be a much better team name than the Cuero Gobblers.

This morning I had one of those random flashes of brilliance that favor the prepared mind. My husband got up too late to make it to the bus, so I drove him to work. I criticized one person for passing me on the right when I was already going too fast in a school zone (not my fault; you have to ride the brakes on that hill to prevent it), and another for taking his little girl across the street in the middle of a block about fifteen feet from a crosswalk. Then I thought about how hard it is not to be judgemental, and about road rage, supposedly caused by the anonymity and power of being in a car; but I don't ever feel powerful in a car. (I only learned to drive five years ago next month.) Besides, we're constantly criticizing other people's behavior from the vantage of the car, whether we're angry or not. And I suddenly realized why we're so judgemental - because when you're driving, you have to be all up in everybody's business.

Walking or bussing, or even bike riding, your attention is confined to a small circle of space around you and so is mostly on your own business. The speed and power of a car, however, make it necessary to pay attention conditions in a huge radius, much of which involves observing the behavior of other people and trying to predict it. Everything they do has the potential to affect you, and might even involve you in injury, or in life-and-death decisions; even at 20 mph. That's a lot of stress.

See, deep psychological insights are as easy to have as story ideas.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Misanthropy 101

You know what I said awhile back about not judging people in history?

Am I inconsistent if I can't stop myself from being mad and disgusted at them?

As I read deeper and deeper into the Civil War via the Semi-Weekly News, with the purpose of getting into my heroines' heads, I find it harder rather than easier to keep my own standards out of the way of my reading eye.

Take the report of the Battle/Massacre of the Nueces, for example. To my relief, they did cover it, on August 25th - local censorship was not that bad. But it's got to be the oddest account of a battle I've ever read. The report, direct from "one of Captain Duff's Company who has been in pursuit of the enemy," is described as an account of "the battle in which Mr. Frank Robinson, of Uvalde, was killed, but was not." Presumably this refers to some rumor going around town in the days since the battle, now lost to history save, perhaps, the descendents of Mr. Frank Robinson of Uvalde. The names of the two of Duff's company who died instead of Mr. Robinson are given, followed by the names of 15 wounded. Of the "foul nest in the Mountains...more than half of them were left dead on the field and the remainder -----------------?"

Is this hinting at the murder of wounded? Am I paranoid, in the context of the rest of the paper at this time, to imagine a wink of approval behind it, expected to be shared with the readership? Possibly; possibly it is the strongest complaint the reporter felt able to make against the military's refusal to give him a more complete report. But the report continues for another paragraph, and I read on for clarification; only to be brought up short by a description of the pleasures and amusements of the trip for the soldiers - crystal streams teeming with fish, wild bee's honey hanging "geometricaly and lusciously" from projecting rocks. Can even the most partisan Confederate have regarded treating a military operation like a picnic as in good taste? ("Well, the fish and the honey tasted good," pointed out my friend Ben when I discussed it with him.)

That blank with the question mark haunts me. Elsewhere I have seen vague mention of protests in San Antonio over what happened on the Nueces, but if so they are invisible. That may be a result of martial law. Some kind of unrest is going on, and mention of some of it is acceptable to authorities, for the editor (Dr. Williams, now; E. Huston is long gone) openly threatens those who charge inflated prices with mob violence in the market, and owners of six-shooters and Bowie knives are encouraged to leave them at home.

In September, I read of a prisoner, a Unionist guerilla on the Rio Grande, who was kept 24 hours without water, lured outside by an apparently unguarded bucket, and shot "trying to escape." "Such is the fate of traitors."

"A Fiendish Outrage," reprinted from the Memphis Appeal, tells how Sherman refused to arrest a slave pursued for the rape and murder of a white woman. No reference to evidence on either side: the men in pursuit declare him guilty, Sherman replies that if so, they seek to punish him for crimes of which they are no less guilty. Child of the sixties that I am, I have to wonder: Is this the first instance of that hardy excuse for lynching? And did it not seem strange to the original audience to see such articles in the same paper as those extolling how happy blacks (usually "Negroes," but sometimes "darkies," "Africans," or just "slaves) are to be enslaved, how much better they are treated in the South than they are in the North, how loyal and funny they are?

Shock and horror are expressed at a rumor of a bounty on Rebel scalps around Denver; later in the same paper, on the same page, troops headed to oppose Federal forces on the coast are encouraged to take "a Lincoln scalp." Because what's wrong for them is okay for us. The position of the editor of the Houston Advocate, that martial law is too similar to occupation by the enemy and that the freedom the secessionists insist they are fighting for is lost as surely one way as the other, is disputed: "The freedom of the press of which he speaks, and of which our country has ever boasted, should not be interfered with; yet, no man should be allowed to utter such ideas as would subvert or tend to the subversion of the liberty which ensures the freedom of the press."

It's all so modern I could weep. That's the worst of it; how familiar it all sounds. The stories culled from Union papers, intended to show a) that Northerners are as racist as Southerners, so there; b) that they are all monsters of iniquity, longing to enslave the proud Southerner; and c) that most of them are against the war and would as soon let the Confederate States be as not. The coy coverage of violence, judicial and personal, lauded or condemned depending on who does it to whom. No doubt I'd read similar vile nonsense in the Union papers; just as I can hear it on the radio or read it on the internet or watch it on TV today. No wonder I'm a misanthrope.

It's not just the racism and the sectionalism. Between that 150 years difference and the attempt to focus tight into Di's point of view, I can see how the overwhelmingly white male middle-aged voice of Finck (Dr. Williams, too, soon disappears from the masthead, and Finck is left to soldier on with the paper alone) stands between me and my character. With the exception of a soldier's wife, reprinted from the Galveston News, who fought off a burglar with a stilletto and a pistol, women appear here only in two guises: ladies, and wives.

Ladies present flags to companies and write patriotic verse for the paper. Wives suffer without the support of their husbands. Hearing that three soldiers' wives have been seen butchering a cow in Atascosa County, their capability is not commended, but the "manliness" of the men of that county who are exempt from service is called into question. In February 1863, martial law being a thing of the past, the sentries in front of the arsenal order passersby to not walk on the sidewalk in front of it, and "It is trying to the patience of anyone, to see a lady ordered into the mud more than ankle deep." Yankee atrocities are always perpetrated upon ladies; appeals to compassion and charity always conjure up images of the impoverished wife.

And this is who Di is supposed to turn into; this person whose welfare is evoked so often; much like the welfare of the slave, for whose benefit slavery is, really. No, really. When a lady presents the Vigilance Committee with a flag, their leader goes on about that at length in a speech reprinted in full. Unlike Di, I'm familiar enough with the history of the women's movement to see how closely pro-slavery and anti-feminist rhetoric parallel eachother. Is it realistic for me to let her feel that?

Is it realistic to expect myself to be able to keep her from doing so, if it's not?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Digesting Old Newspapers

No library trip for me today; more queries to go out (I swear, everything about the writing career is easy and/or fun except keeping stuff in the mail and reading royalty statements), spring has arrived, and once again I need to prepare for weekend archeology. But I also need to mull over my approach to the newspapers.

I took so many notes I hurt my hands transcribing them on Friday - it is important to transcribe promptly while I can still remember enough to decipher my handwriting. (Oh, the publisher and proprietor is named Finck, not Finch. Early transcribing doesn't always work.) Yet I barely read up to November 62. It'll take me forever to go through the whole war at this rate, and I know I'm making notes that interest me, but won't interest the character I'm trying to get inside. This leads me to wonder if I'm not doing it backwards; if I shouldn't sit down at the microfilm reader and turn into Di, in order to focus my research more, instead of waiting for her to emerge from the infodumps as characters generally do. This would mean a certain amount of time alone with a notebook, working out what she would read and what she would skip.

And how far inside of Diana Bonvillain do I need to get, given that the book is first person with a strong narrative voice emanating from Eleanor "Len" Hausman? Len's voice is the springboard for the work. I started writing her one day when I had an idle hour at work, and wrote two solid (and excellent) chapters before running out of my knowledge of what she would experience. Di has her real self well-buried, carefully controlling who she appears to be to each person she meets, and it is only at the climax of the book that Len will penetrate down to her real self.

I think that answers the question. If I don't know Di's real self, the climax won't work. Well, that'll give my brain something to work on this afternoon as I perform necessary manual labor.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Ripping Off Headlines

I'm not a newshound by any stretch of the imagination. We don't take a paper, though we pick up the local alternative weekly; we hardly ever watch the news; and though he regularly listens to NPR the headlines my husband chose to call up on our Yahoo page are from The Onion. I have websites I go to for science and literary news, and other than that, my current events knowledge is random.

But I don't write thrillers. If I did, I'd be all on top of the news looking for the next book. Case in point: over in the mainstream news forum of the Fortean Times Message Board, I saw people discussing the "Bulger case." In a nutshell, in 1993, in Liverpool, two 10-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and killed a two-year old boy. I'd never heard of it, but you can imagine the publicity and strong feeling in Britain.

The case began being discussed again this week because one of the two perpetrators, released on probation with a new top-secret identity in 2001, violated the terms of his release and was returned to jail. Official information on what he'd done to break probation was not provided; which prompted one of those displays of watercooler invention that support my contention that everybody gets story ideas all the time. He'd contacted the family of the murdered boy; the family of the murdered boy tracked him down for payback; he'd fallen asleep on a friend's couch and didn't check in with his probation officer; he got in a drunken brawl with a co-worker; he's a junkie; he surfs the web for kiddie porn. A co-worker's husband on the force with contacts says this, someone who ought to know says that - you know the game.

Yes, game. A ghoulish game, but a human one; and one writers have to play. This one's a little outside my comfort zone, but Hobkin and Vikki Vanishes both began with news only a little less horrific than this. I'll tell you how that worked some other time. Right now, I'm looking at the branching roads that spread out from this particular horror, and here's how I parse it.

First of all - you commit a crime like this at age 10, you wake up every morning for the rest of your life as the person who committed this crime. I am naturally reminded of Nancy Werlin's The Killer's Cousin, which explores this reality.

The fact that two boys are in this situation is particularly fruitful for the YA thriller writer, as it automatically opens up the possibilities for character development. Whose ideas was it? Was this a twisted blood brotherhood rite, a case of a dominant personality and a subservient one feeding into each other, a bizarre outbreak of normal childish aggression? Do they blame each other? Support each other? Ignore each other? Is one repentant and one not? What about their families - is there a little brother who looked up to one, was either of them abused, were they spoiled rich kids? The anonymity of the two boys allows us to project our own fears, theories, and fictional purposes onto the blank canvas of official secrecy.

The water cooler gossip I saw reported on my message board exemplifies the rich selection of plots that can arise out of this situation. If the repentant one contacts the family to try and make amends, that's one story; if the family is hunting both down for revenge, that's a very different one. Drunken brawls, drug abuse, chaving at the restrictions of probation-based life all lead in different directions. And what's going on with the other one? Is he really making good; or is he the dominant, unrepentant one, minding his p's and q's in order to keep his indulgence of his evil impulses under police radar? Maybe the repentant one is framed by the unrepentant one because he realizes his old friend is up to his old tricks!

At this point, if you're thinking: "Ick, gross, shut up, these are real people you're talking about, what if the family of the murdered boy stumbles on this blog somehow?" well - so am I. If you want to rip your stories out of the headlines, and you have any sense of decency, I recommend you do this stage of the brainstorming process in the privacy of your head and your trusty notebooks, detaching your fiction from the fact as fast as possible. How Truman Capote could live with the idea of the families of the victims reading In Cold Blood I can't imagine. Invent your own details, change the setting, change up genders, mash this crime together with others, do everything you can to separate the reality from fact.

Exploiting the real pain of real people for entertainment is - ooh. No. How'd you like it if somebody did that to you? You'd hate it, that's what! You'd hate the author. You'd hate everybody who made the book a bestseller and a blockbuster movie. The fact that people are ghouls and eat this stuff up with a spoon is disgusting.

But it's real. So the thing to keep in mind when you're ripping off those headlines is: How do I do this in a way that isn't disgusting? How do I mine this horror for the urgent and important themes it contains; the questions of evil, responsibility, maturation, forgiveness, vengeance, endurance it raises, without falling into a morass of sensationalism? How would I want this story told, if it began with my own story?

And when you've figured that out, write the hell out of it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

I know a bestseller!

Cyn Smith's Eternal, about a vampire's guardian angel, debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List! Cyn is one of the biggest names in the YA blogosphere (have you not seen her site? Go see her site!), but I knew her when. I'm allowed to brag on her.

Interestingly, #10 is Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Why is that interesting? Because Cyn and Alexie are both American Indian, and this is probably the first time ever two American Indian authors have been on the bestseller list at the same time. And Cyn's book isn't even about being Indian. It's not so long ago that, if you had an active ethnic identity (unlike us generic white folks), your choice of subject matter was limited to those that us generic white folks would recognize as being relevant to that identity. This is proof that we can all write whatever is in us to write and that progress happens whether we notice it or not.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reading Old Newspapers

According to the newsletter I got from my local councilmember, March is Women's History Month. Pass it on.

So yesterday, in accordance with the promise I gave myself, I got dressed up in one of my pretty new dresses and headed downtown to the library and the microfilm reader in the Texana room. As far as I can tell, the only surviving local newspaper from the Civil War is the San Antonio Semi-Weekly News, E.G. Huston, editor; R. Finch, publisher and proprietor. On the one hand, this means I can reasonably expect to get through the whole war in a reasonable period of time; on the other hand, the San Antonio Semi-Weekly News is a crappy paper for what I want to know, which is what happened in San Antonio. Local news appears on page 2 (which soon becomes the last page; paper shortages threatened the publication as early as May 1862), distinguished by a bullet point shaped like a pointing hand, and seldom occupies as much as five column inches. The rest of the paper consists of news, well-laced with rumor, picked up from other papers; nationalist propaganda ditto; paid ads; miscellaneous filler ranging from poetry to domestic hints; and reprints of public proclamations, such as changes to the conscription rules, the declaration of martial law, and calls for volunteers.

This is the more frustrating as, having done a fair amount of more general research already, I catch the spoor of fascinating stories all over the paper. The first issue I looked at had a large ad for Gamble's Circulating Library, open all hours, getting "LARGE ADDITIONS" to its stock of history, biography, novels, essays, etc. at a rate of $0.50 per month or "a reasonable price" to borrow a single volume. Ad space seems to be sold in blocks of time, usually a month, so I wouldn't have thought anything of its disappearance had I not already read the transcript of Mr. Gamble's hearing before the military commission for distributing abolitionist literature.

Don't think too highly of him - the "abolitionist literature" consisted of a couple of books he hadn't read, one of them a religious tract with a chapter about the baptism of a slave and the other a British travel book which expresses sympathy for Indians. He mounted his own defense, and in his closing statement he points out (with justice) that these works are inadequate to convict him and that the provost marshall, having confiscated his entire stock, had plenty of time to come up with actual abolitionist books, had any existed. His defense includes statements such as "The Bible is the best pro-slavery book extant, the warrant which the Christian and Philanthropist has for this institution," and that the abolition sentiment found is trivial, incidental, and "so gross nauseous as to carry with them their own antidote." He was convicted.

Here's a tidbit from July, 1862 that would have been merely baffling had I come to this newspaper cold:
[quote]Who are they? A person who arrived here las Saturday, from Laredo, gives the information that when near old Fort Ewell, on the Nueces River, he met some 30 armed men on horseback, well-armed and equipped. Coming into hailing distance he accosted them, but could get no reply. He supposed they were bound westward. He met them at night, and thinks they were all Americans. Who are they? [/quote]

Mention of the Nueces added to the time of year answers the question for me: they are fleeing the martial law and conscription in the German-settled area around the Pedernales, and they will soon be overtaken, massacred, and the few survivors, plus their relations, dragged to San Antonio in chains. When the Texana room closed at five, I'd reached Monday, August 11, 1862; at which time the military commission had been sitting for over a month without rating a mention in the Semi-Weekly. The Massacre/Battle of the Nueces occurred on August 10, so perhaps there'll be a follow up; but since the straggling return - bearing smallpox - of Sibley's unsuccessful New Mexican expedition is noted only by a couple of lines, I'm not hopeful about it.

To be fair, the paper is only a semi-weekly with limited room, and one presumes that local news was circulating by word of mouth faster than Messrs. Finch and Huston could print it. Their subscribers may well have been better served by reprinting the war news than by repeating what they'd already learned by hanging out at the market two days ago. Also, they were laboring under censorship. Well before the declaration of martial law, in the opening days of succession, arbitrary and violent authority was exerted against the press when the Unionist Express offices were burned and the printing press dumped into the river by a paramilitary outfit led by no less a person than Ben McCullough (after whom a major local street is named).

But I'm also finding frustrating snippets like "We learn that the town of Bastrop was nearly consumed by a large fire lately." WHAT!? After the ads, in what is presumably the "Stop Press" section, we get a little more information: that "Wednesday night last" (this being the Thursday, July 10 issue) a hotel, a block of brick buildings, and ten stores had burned down, leaving only one store standing. Nothing else, no follow-up telling how the fire started or anything else about it in the Monday edition. I hope it was covered in the missing issues of the San Antonio Herald (the library has microfilms of the Herald, but not, as far as I've found so far, from the war years), because Bastrop is only 93 miles northeast San Antonio and many local people probably had family, friends, and business affairs concerned in it. Local murders and accidents are similarly given short shrift, with space taken up instead with dramatic accounts of burglary in Galveston, a young lady drowned in Clinton (north of Dallas), the mourning of Queen Victoria, the appearance of the acrobat Blondin in Liverpool, and (most annoying of all) the creative effusions of "Dr. Williams," who is to be commended for offering to treat the families of active servicemen for free but who I confess annoys me when he takes up whole column inches with his mediocre literary efforts, that could be used to tell me how those of my characters who sat out the war in San Antonio were faring.

The ads are good to me. A grocer announces that, due to the current "extraordinary" prices, he will stop dealing in produce except on consignment from the supplier (local farmers); but he will also distribute, at 6:00 A.M. Wednesday and Saturday, 50 loaves of bread "to all who may be in need." In January, Mrs. Potsschiusky advertises that she and "one of Singer's largest sewing machines" would sew for customers; she holds out for awhile but by July is no longer placing ads. Too bad; I was rooting for Mrs. P, but the lack of any industry, except cottage industry, for turning Texas's cotton and wool into fabric was doom for dressmakers. I wonder what growing girls did for stays in those days? By spring the dry goods stores are advertising for what they want more often than for what they have on offer. A small news item offers examples of the grocer's "extraordinary" prices - coffee and black pepper $1 per pound, tea $4 to $5 per pound, milk ten and a half cents per quart, soap (which is manufactured locally - Mr. S. Menger advertising for grease to produce it) a dollar a bar.

You may ask yourself: So what does any of this have to do with the lesbian western? Does she need the local papers if they don't give her local news and she knows more from other sources than they can tell her? What does she think she's going to find that she can use?

And the answer is: If I knew what I was going to use, I wouldn't have to read the whole run of the paper, would I?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Happy Texas Independence Day

Okay, I have queries out to four agents and it appears that's the most I can bring myself to do at one time. I also need to do some heavy thinking about where to send the happy family serial killer story next, and how to present it, and whether it needs, or I'm ready to give it, yet another overhaul; ditto the squirrel fairy tale. But not this week. I promised myself after I queried the agents I could go back to researching the lesbian western, and I'm going to.

It's good that I like researching, because I have to do it for everything. I can't always tell going into a story what the research will be, and in the early days I used to go in blind, but not anymore. I wish now I'd done more research before I put the baby bird in Otto from Otherwhere, and I should have seen the need to stop and read up on goats before I started Hobkin. I didn't really hit my stride till Switching Well, which is why that's such a good book to talk to seventh-graders about. In most schools, that's the year they have to do their first research papers, so I'm talking about sources, the library angel, the process of synthesis, and the wonderful moment it all comes together in my head at the same time that they're wondering grumpily why they have to do all this stuff anyway. I hope watching me geek out over the walk that allowed me to see modern San Antonio the way Ada saw it conveys to them that this sort of work is fun.

If nothing else, I love the shock and horror that appears on all the male faces in the room when I ask what you'd look for in an old newspaper, and some boy says "the sports page," and I reveal that newspapers didn't sports page in 1891 because pro sports hadn't been invented yet. At most you can find two column inches on the newly-created baseball clubs of the northeast. No basketball, no football, not enough news to fill a page. Suddenly they realize the truth of the saying: The past is another country.

Even my fantasy gets researched. The manuscript I'm trying to hook an agent with is a fantasy, set in working-class San Antonio. I don't move as much in these circles anymore, but I've known Wiccans and one guy who claimed to be a ceremonial magician (but he told me a lot of verifiable lies and the evidence suggests this was among them) who lived here. More ceremonial magicians are active in the 21st century than most people think, and many of them aren't liars at all. It's an interesting worldview. And why shouldn't their children be able to read a book in which the word "witch" means the same thing it means in their lives? The book contains bigger magic than anybody I've ever known claimed to be able to pull off, but I went to a lot of trouble to make sure it at least sounded plausible and used concepts that are used by modern magical practitioners. The principle is the same as I used writing The Ghost Sitter. Just because I don't believe in ghosts or magic doesn't exempt me from understanding how the people who do believe they work.

I'm a hyperrealist. That's why I love fantasy. The tension between these two modes provides a lot of my motive force. The truth of history is more interesting than the neat narrative myths we concoct about history. The reality of real-world magical practitioners is more interesting than the mainstream stereotypes of witches, demons, and rule-smashing power. Science is a process, bungee-jumping through the universe, far more exciting than popular notions of fact. People who live their religions are more complex than their own or their detractors' propaganda will allow. And so on.

Stories grow strong in the soil of real life.