Thursday, April 29, 2010

Location Scout #1: Bandera

Mentally stripping away the changes wrought by the passage of time and the activities of humans is something I'm accustomed to doing by now, but there's no denying it's harder to do while driving than at any other time. So I pulled off onto the shoulder a couple of times, to birdwatch and make copious illegible notes (it'll be all right as long as I transcribe them soon enough) on soil characteristics, the succession of wildflowers, the smell of the air, insects and other fauna, and other things that my characters, picking their way down from the hills on horse and possibly camel-back, will have plenty of time to notice. I'll have to take care to remove some features - starlings and dandelions did not overrun the Texas countryside in 1864 - and add in others - the faunal assemblage would have been far more abundant, with butterflies rising at each step, and more diverse, including mustangs, bears, and panthers - but that's easy enough. The climate has also changed, but both 1863/64 and 2009/10 were unusually cold, long winters, and though we haven't had anything like the spring floods that hit the Hill Country and south Texas in late March 1864, I've been through enough floods to extrapolate.

From San Antonio proper to Helotes, the terrain beneath the asphalt and years of brush spread by domestic livestock and fire suppression is all open, rolling hills, at one time covered with rich nutritious mesquite grass and mottes of live oaks. Past Helotes, the Hill Country starts, high sculpted hills with cedar (as we call ash juniper) clinging to thin soil over limestone, cut by frequent creeks. The air, when you get far enough away from the internal combustion engine, has a distinct aroma, partly a generic "country" smell that anyone from Iowa would recognize, but with a spicy undertone that I don't think is the cedar, but might be. The term "spicy" is used by travel writers of the 19th century, too, so whatever generates it, it is native.

A picnic in Bandera's city park on the Medina River rewarded me with several cypresses plenty old enough to have been there when Len would have been. The bridge swallows in Bandera build rough pebbly nests not at all like the firm clay ones under San Antonio bridges, and I didn't see a single heron. Nor did I see any fish in the river, but one of the decaying cypresses had boards nailed on it that could most parsimoniously be explained as a seat for fishermen, and a dead alligator gar was washed up on a sandbank near the bridge, so I expect that was a function of the time of day.

The Frontier Times Museum has the virtues and the defects of the local museum. Founded as it was by J. Marvin Hunter, Bandera County's most dedicated historian and founding editor/publisher of Frontier Times, it is larger and more coherent than a lot of them, with a purpose-built building erected in 1930. History is literally built-in, with the fossil-studded central fireplace sporting a millwheel cemented into its mantelpiece: the very same millwheel that washed out of a mill on the Pedernales, that Mormon leader Lyman Wight saw in a vision and went out to retrieve. Not only that, but an Indian mano or grinding stone is inserted into the axle hole. Everybody in the county who had anything remotely interesting deposited it at the museum when they couldn't keep it anymore, from taxidermied animals to a huge collection of bells, from a comforter spun, dyed (with elderberries; a beautiful blue in a complex check pattern called "Snail Trail and Cat Track"), and woven at home to a shrunken head; from a Civil War era rag doll to a picture of John Wesley Hardin's corpse.

Therein, of course, lies the weakness; despite the general Western theme, a lot of "cabinet of curiosities" stuff (dressed fleas), exotic items, and personal-interest collections with little provenance are included. Not everything is labeled, and some of the labeling is inadequate, with "x number of years ago" and "very old" used instead of dates. The large collection of books is all under glass, which is just as well as most of them are falling apart; but that means if the title isn't clear and there's no label, or you can't tell which book a label refers to, you're out of luck. Still, it was possible to get a fair idea of what sort of books the pioneers of Bandera had available - lots of religious tracts, a tiny Iliad, Burns, McGuffey readers, arithmetic books developed in England and printed in New York, Luther Bibles and King James Bibles, Webster's Dictionary, a French book detailing the names, life stories, and associated flowers of each saint for each day of the year.

I saw first-issue Confederate money (I suspect that second issue money never made it as far as Bandera), shinplasters, and one-cent pieces from the 50s, but no Mexican gold or silver older than 1883. Oh, well, I can find books about that. Amasa Clark's camel-hair pillow is on display; so is the shawl which Annie Schickenden wore when she sang for the King and Queen of Prussia, and brought with her when she came to Texas in 1846. Where else would I see those?

I also brought in my Peterson and compared it to a taxidermy display of the birds of Mason County. (I guess there wasn't a Mason County museum when the person who stuffed these died and his grandchildren had to decide what to do with them; or maybe the taxidermist was a friend of Hunter's. You can't think to ask everything!) Now I know regional names for the lesser goldfinch (Mexican canary or Arkansas goldfinch), Bullock's oriole (Texas oriole), kestrel (blue darter sparrowhawk), and summer tanager (redbird). That Mexican canary answers a long-standing question. Wild-caught "canaries" used to be routinely sold in straw cages San Antonio markets, as pets, and I've always wondered what species this might be. So now I know!

Wonderful opportunities lie in the collection, as the staff will tell you. A diary sits in one case, written by some nameless person in New York in 1835-37. It was bought in an antique store in San Antonio in 1916, where it no doubt landed because it mentions the fall of the Alamo. I asked if it had ever been transcribed, and was told no, but not because they don't want it to be! Transcribing is hard, time-consuming work and volunteers can only do so much. If I ever write a story set in that time period, and no one has gotten to it, I may do it myself; until then, I can't spare the time from the rest of my life. She's hoping to lure a graduate student into the job.

The sole staff member on duty that day, whose name I'm afraid I never asked (she never asked mine either, but I don't think that makes us even because I doubt she's blogging about me), was extremely helpful. She took the rag doll, fragile as it was, out of its case to be photographed, and she knew where "the Slide-off" is - the hill where, do what they would, the shingle-makers who founded the town always lost the top of their load when they took their shingles in to San Antonio to sell. She also gave me directions to the oldest building in town, currently under renovation.

Huffmeyer's Store on Main claims to be the oldest, but it wasn't built until 1874, and a block beyond is 11th street, the actual first street in town. I took a picture of a real estate office which claimed to have been built in 1860 and operated as a home, store, school, and first bank in Bandera (banking was illegal in Texas until Reconstruction; this explains much of our economic history); but the oldest building in town stands at the corner of Cypress and 11th. It's a limestone building with a gallery, once covered with a coat of stucco, and currently in the revealing disarray of restoration. It looks to me as though its two rooms were built at two different times - the limestone blocks are different - and with the stucco mostly worn off and windows glassless you can see, even from the street, how the wooden frames were fitted and the windows arranged to catch the breeze. Across the street is a sharp drop-off into a lot full of trees and cedar waxwings; beyond that lot, I almost immediately came to the tourist cottages on the edge of the park where I picnicked. The builder chose the best spot in town - a view of what would have been the ford of the Medina, but well out of the flood plain. Our Texas summers would have been relieved by the position of the house and gallery relative to the prevailing breeze, while the northers would have been closed out with shutters and the thick stuccoed limestone blocks. Who needs central heat and air?

At the library, a beautiful well-designed building, they told me that the historical marker I'd failed to find as I came into town was Polly's Chapel, and it was well off the main road. I had turned back when I drove for a while on a road that got ever narrower, thinking I'd missed the marker and was heading into somebody's ranch; and they said you did feel that way getting there, and to just keep going. So on the way back I tried again.

If I had known in detail what the route was like, I probably wouldn't have gone; and wouldn't that have been a shame? If you are ever in the Bandera vicinity and want to visit Polly's Chapel, you should turn off at the Historical Marker sign, on Privilege Creek Road. Follow Privilege Creek Road, at 30 MPH or less, through all its many lane-and-a-half windings, being prepared to pull over and creep past any of the people who live back there on their way out. Be polite and wait your turn at the narrow bridge over Privilege Creek - watch for killdeer. Drive right on through the cattle guard at the sign that warns: "Loose livestock" and onto the gravel road. If you don't mind the dust you raise (the slower you go the less dust) this is a beautiful stretch of road, parallelling the creek, which at this point is lined on the opposite bank with steep limestone cliffs. The first fork you come to won't confuse you as it will have a sign saying "Polly's Chapel" pointing straight over the ford.

Yes, you will have to drive through Privilege Creek. Don't do this if the water is at all high! Moby has a low undercarriage, but we got through all right. On the other side you'll soon come to another cattle guard, and right past it there's another sign for the Chapel, pointing you to a two-rut road with a slight grade on one side and cedar and live oak scrub all around. If you meet somebody coming out, one of you will have to back up. That's all there is to it.

But the chapel clearing is beautiful and peaceful (except for the sound of destruction equipment beeping and roaring somewhere - the terrible thing is that the country is so beautiful, everybody wants to live there, but they can't live there without dragging the city after them), and the chapel itself is a tiny gem. Policarpo Rodriguez, one of the most interesting men to ever live in Bandera County, built it himself out of limestone blocks after he got religion of the Protestant kind in 1878. The date on the cornerstone is 1882, too late for me; but that's okay. It's in use today, with electricity, an acoustical tile ceiling, picnic tables, and a garden-shed-sized restroom building out back. Lots of tempting trails lead into the live oak/cedar brush, but I restrained myself and did a single circuit of the clearing. Most of the birds eluded me, as they always do in this sort of terrain; but that's all right. The birds are an excuse to go to places like this. One bird I thought was going to be a mocker showed me a head like a chickadee, then vanished, so that's my big birding mystery for the trip.

I saved one shot in the disposable camera (I'd have a digital one by now if I hadn't driven into that light pole) to take the view from the Slide-Off; but when I got there I didn't think it wise to stop. Another time, perhaps. After all, I might not even use this location.

Next week, if all goes well, I'll scout Medina County.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It is a fixed principle of mine that a sufficient amount of overpreparation guarantees a smoothly-running trip. That's why my backpack is already loaded with trail mix and apples, a notebook, printed notes, maps, walking shows, socks, binoculars, digital camera, a guidebook, and a bird book; why I baked two loaves of bread to be sure of having one decent low-sodium sandwich; why there's a bottle of water in the freezer this minute; why Moby (an old-fashioned car) has his CD changer filled with road music, mostly the 70s rock/pop that I find most conducive to a relaxed central Texas Drie, but also the essential Melissa Etheridge, who tends to pop up on random play at the very moment she's needed (I swear her cover of "Piece of My Heart" saved both our lives one time) to see me through tricky bits of driving. I'll probably lay my clothes out tonight to make it easier to get up in time to have breakfast and brew a big travel mug of tea, take my husband to work, and get on my way.

I've spent a good bit of the last two days working back and forth between maps, and been unable to determine exactly where people hit town coming in from Bandera. Fredericksburg Road and Castroville Road are indicated on the city maps, but though the mid-19th century county map shows Bandera Road going more or less straight into town, the scale on that one is too small to see where, and the city maps don't show anything. My working assumption is that some approximation of Fredericksburg Road/Culebra Road/Bandera Road defines the historic route, and that San Pedro Springs/Five Points would be the psychological equivalent of hitting Loop 1604 - not there yet, but close enough to count as "coming into town" rather than "going to town." I'm hoping to find something in Bandera that can tweak this for me.

Of course, I may decide Len comes into town via Castroville. I'll have to do this all over again for that trip. And if I decide that I need to camp overnight and ride horseback at Hill Country Natural Area to get a proper sense of how she experienced the terrain - the overpreparation I do for a camping trip is tiring to think about!

Feel free to make fun of me if you want. Overpreparation the day before puts me in a zen state on the day, and when unexpected things happen - when the car breaks down 50 miles from the middle of nowhere (I don't have a cell phone); when the librarian who organized the school visit goes into labor the day before my school visit and no one knows what's going on when I show up; when the players do something completely off-the-wall and the dice perform statistically improbable feats, sending the adventure careening off the map - I'll be able to cope. It never fails. If I haven't covered every possible base beforehand, it's even odds I'll fall apart.

Nobody wants me to fall apart. I'm a dangerous nuisance when shattered across the landscape.

News! Parking Teens Picked Up by UFO!

All I can say about this one is, great googly moogly.

UFO picks up Laconia, NH car with teens and drops 180 feet away. Physical evidence includes $5,000 worth of damage to the bottom of the car, divots from the pavement, and disappearing blood!

Less stunning, but still interesting: Did you know elephants are afraid of bees?
Elephants make alarm calls to warn of approaching bees

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Serial Dreaming

It's official: I can't stop doing this! I have no desire whatsoever to have new story ideas at this time. I want to get on with the lesbian western, finish the research and get into that comfortable chapter-a-day groove of creation. And I still have plenty of old ideas to put up at the garage sale. Last night before going to bed I briefly considered which one I should blog about today; and what do I do? Dream a trilogy!

It could be three books, three movies, three graphic novels, or a three-season television show with a high rate of character turnover. I'm not sure how it broke itself down into three distinct parts (I don't think I woke up in between them) or how it relates to the other dream content I recall, and the details have blurred under the onrush of necessary Sunday chores, but the rough outline is clear enough.

Part 1: A woman with supernatural powers is pursued by a group with similar powers. She fears them, is hostile to them; but she also fears her powers and what she might do to people with them. I don't think she was a vampire, but an authoritative middle-aged Suit in the pursuing group was; he had none of the sadomasochistic sex appeal of the modern literary vampire. (Hmmm...neither did the last vampire I dreamed and blogged about. This guy wasn't played by Patrick Stewart, though - he had hair.) When, after numerous action-packed adventures in which she manages to keep her moral compass, she is finally taken, she learns that she had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick about her pursuers. They are an agency whose job is to locate, evaluate, and recruit or restrain people with oddball powers. They have access to trainers, researchers, therapists, and other helpful resources. Since she has chosen the moral high ground time after time, she is offered an education and a job.

Part 2: After some lapse of time, the protagonist of Part 1 is leading her own team to contain an active threat, someone who has gone rogue from the agency. It wasn't clear to me why a more experienced leader didn't have this job, and the middle-aged vampire who became her mentor does not appear. You can always think of a good excuse for this kind of thing, though. She has to step into a leadership role, form a coherent team, outsmart someone who knows all the procedures and powers to be brought against him, and fight the bureaucracy on the side.

Part 3: The protagonist of the last two episodes and the middle-aged vampire are missing, teams are reshuffled, and strange orders are coming down from on high. The second-in-command from Part 2 (who resembles me; I was less of a spectator and more of a POV character in this part of the dream than in the first two) is not supposed to look for her, but of course does so anyway. Lethal force is authorized more than it used to be, team leaders are given much less autonomy in the field, narcs are planted in the teams, and supernatural people who in the past would have been recruited or considered so inconsequential as to require only casual monitoring are being confined. Solving the mystery of the disappearances also reveals a shift in the policies of the agency. It's warping from an agency that serves and protects to one that controls. The vampire leads some of the characters in going underground, while the protagonist determines to work within the organization to turn it away from the disastrous path it's on.

Obviously, this was setting up Part 4, but I woke up. The concept doesn't suck, but my husband reads this sort of thing a lot more than I do, and all the characters were adults. Besides which, I've already got a book to work on. Maybe it'll simmer and turn into something, but I doubt it. Certainly, I could have dozens of dreams containing story concepts as good or better by the time I felt able to focus on it.

All you have to do is prime the pump a bit. Once you have the habit, you have it, and can't turn it off.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Once more, into the breach

I'm mostly recovered now and trying to get focused on the next big phase of research: the Day Trip(s). (Though I also need to get some queries out again...sending queries is like sweeping; no matter how good a job you do, it'll need doing again.) I could research Civil War Texas for decades and not get done; but it's getting to be time to plot the story in detail and for that, I need to get away from the libraries and the computers and go out to look at things. The plot and the research are leading me inexorably toward Medina and Bandera counties as the necessary setting for certain crucial sequences; possibly, for the bulk of the book. I'd rather have it set in town, but some important things can't happen here.

I know that some people set books in places they've never set foot in, and for the life of me I can't understand how they do it. Maybe the left and right turns and the views from the heights and the particular quality of the light at certain times and seasons won't make it into the published book - but if I'm not anchored in all of that, I can't write the book at all.

I think this has its source in Air Force Bratism. Though, looking back on it, I didn't have as peripatetic a childhood as some people, at the time it felt like we moved a lot: the Rio Grande Valley where I was born, the San Antonio area, two places in Alaska, Iowa while my dad was in 'Nam, Maryland, and finally West Texas, before I came to San Antonio and felt like I was finally in a place I belonged. One of the methods my mom used to ease the transitions was to read up on an area before we moved there, and then to aggressively read the local literature when we arrived. We stopped and read historical markers, went to all the log cabins and pioneer villages and museums, toured the houses of local celebrities, and found out all the cool things there were to know. The better you know people and places, the better chance you have to love them; or at least to rub along with them in comfort.

So now I have to go look at Medina and Bandera counties. I'm trying to reduce the mileage Moby and I have to travel by hunting up local sources of information on the Civil War period beforehand, so I can make arrangements to view them, but it's uphill work. As I believe I've mentioned before, the Civil War was a sufficiently nasty time for community relationships in western Texas that nobody wanted to remember. Consider this quote from a postwar letter to a Northern cousin by a Castroville man:
"I had a store before the war & sold a good deal, but during the war, I stopped selling, for there was nothing but robbing, stealing, hanging, & killing, that no one was secure of his life if he was a Confederate, but now the war is over, & everything quite as before, & I mean to reopen the store again."
(TX 976.442. Castroville, Texas 1844-1899, Illustrated by 3 Pioneer Families, the Pichots, Pingevotes, & Ihnkens. Yvonne Chandler Ludwig, "Bonnie." )

If that doesn't say "interesting times," what does? But as for what specifically happened when, who robbed and murdered whom, and why - nothing to see here. Move along. I need to call Ms. Ludwig and see if she has anything more on the topic, but I'm not going to hold my breath. I suspect if she had more she'd have put it in.

The story occurs between Appommatox and the beginning of Reconstruction, so I need to get moving if I want to view the geography at the proper season. At the moment, I'm planning to drive out to Bandera one day next week, see the Frontier Times Museum and scout the geography, do a little birding and hope for a lucky break. If I get one, good. If I don't - well, I write the story anyway. Maybe I won't happen upon a piece of ground and realize: "Here, right here, she finds the body," or be told the local ghost story that ties in perfectly; but maybe I will. Maybe I'll see the bird that achieves metaphoric significance. Maybe I'll come back feeling that I'm no further ahead, and then next week gain the key piece of folklore that makes it all come together, but wouldn't recognize if I were never on the spot.

It sure won't happen if I don't give it a chance.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Kaleidoscopic Aftermath

TLA is only a memory - actually a shifting kaleidoscope of memories that are hard to sift through. Here's the sorts of memories that stand out for an author who is attending as a personal act, with no current book to promote and no particular agenda to pursue:

Kathleen Duey acting all overwhelmed that she was put on an all-star panel (the Tayshas author round-up) and me telling her emphatically (I was not yelling, don't believe what she tells you) that she's a National Book Award finalist and is finally among her peers; that in a line-up consisting of Kevin Brooks, Chris Crutcher, Matt de la Pena, Cory Doctorow, Kathleen Duey, and Shannon Hale, her name was far from the smallest one there.

I saw that Toni Buzzeo was signing so I crept up on the Upstart Booth, wondering whether she'd recognize my name or if I'd have to prompt her. She hasn't been on the mailing list where we met in years and I think I've only seen her face-to-face a couple of times. But she jumped up to hug me as soon as she saw me. I may have half-talked her into coming back. I hope so.

Standing in front of the regional SCBWI booth luring people to sign up for the raffle, holding my stack of speakers' booklets so they could use them as a table, and telling them about the booklets as they signed. They all took one - but will they use them? Time will tell...

Admiring the graphic album adaptation of Darwin's Origin of Species at the booth. The rep said they were free for librarians. I admitted sadly that I wasn't a librarian. She told me to take one anyway. It's gorgeous.

Standing in line an hour and a half for Gary Paulsen, reading Mudshark and listening to West Texas librarians discuss budget cuts in their systems, none of which seem to affect the admin side, only the teaching and library staffs. Then going to the next line, for Jacqueline Wilson, and getting through in five minutes. That must have been a novel experience for her! I hope the quality of fan she met made up for the quantity.

Going by the signing area during the Bluebonnet luncheon on the theory that the lines would be short. I was right! Joelle Jolivet had time to make elaborate drawings along with her signature as she signed Oops! and 365 Penguins.

The librarian from Laredo assuring the rep for Arte Publico Press that the sorts of books they produce are passionately wanted along the Rio Grande.

The D&D-playing kid who sold me a book at the Otter Creek Press table, which I would not have bought on my own because there's no point studying the list of self-publishing houses and I justify the books I buy here as market research. I ran into him again on Friday and he told me he'd found some D&D books. I hope he can get into a good group.

Realizing there were books behind the hand puppets at the Overlooked Books booth and having to break out the credit card.

Me, Christine Kohler, Kathleen Duey, and Dori Hillestad Butler sitting in the registration area after the exhibit hall closed gabbing. I gradually got time limits from everybody and herded them down the Riverwalk to eat at Acenar, where the dishes are just as pricey as at other restaurants, but you can get a perfectly good lunch off the appetizer menu. Christine and Dori knew each other online and Christine, Kathleen, and I all knew each other from before; I'm afraid we spent a lot of time gossiping about people she didn't know, which wasn't because she wasn't interesting.

Running into local SCBWI stalwarts Cyn and Greg, Maritha Burmeister, and Lupe Ruiz-Flores periodically. The line of librarians around the Simon and Schuster booth waiting for free display copies. Being first in line for Brian Yansky to sign arcs of Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences. Hearing the scoop on how nice Rick Riordan's mother is - she was at one of the cocktail parties. Seeing the line for Suzanne Collins an hour before she showed up and throwing in my hand. I heard they gave away wristbands and people ran to get them, but I didn't see that. I told a teen-age boy Kathleen was signing Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars right now and he immediately headed over to get them. Publishers pushing free chocolate. A bronze hippo bench. Library system reps wearing Fiesta paper flower wreaths.

Sore feet, full backpack, books by friends, books by strangers, everybody everywhere I turned completely into the books.

It's always the same. That's why I go, even in off-years when I have no books to promote, even when cash flow is poor, even when it pours down rain, even when I know I'll need three or four days to recover.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Heroic Guido Bros. & the Fairmount Hotel

I'm still recovering from TLA, but it's a matter of discipline to do an Idea Garage Sale on Sunday so here I am. This is part of my repertoire of downtown stories that I trot out when people come to town for events, the story of the Guido Brothers and the Fairmount Hotel. And I'm going to do it the way I do it on the tour, straight out of my head, factual fudging and all.

Once upon a time, developers bought up most of the land east of the Menger Hotel and west of the highway to build Rivercenter Mall. To make room, they tore down the existing buildings. However, one building, the long-empty Fairmount Hotel, was protected by historical statutes and the Conservation Society (known locally, with various degrees of admiration, affection, and irritation depending on circumstances, as The Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes. Though they no longer look as old to me as they once did, but that's neither here nor there.) They could not get permission to tear it down and they could not or would not incorporate it into the mall design. A buyer was found for the building, but the parties could not agree on a good way to preserve the Fairmount where it was and also build the mall. The only option was to move it.

This raised two problems. One, no one had ever moved a building the size of the Fairmount before; and two, to get to the new location, on the edge of La Villita and across from Hemisfair Park and the Convention Center, involved crossing at least two, maybe three, bridges over the Riverwalk. It was a massive job of engineering and few companies even bid the job - but Guido Brothers (yes, they've heard the jokes) stepped up to the plate.

They did a lot of math, reinforced the bridges, and took several days or weeks in preparation. When the big day came, the streets and relevant areas of the Riverwalk were closed. News cameras were everywhere, including the national news. Maybe some international, too, I don't remember, but probably. I was working downtown but I didn't get to see any of it; not willing to fight the crowds. It took all day long, easing the great bulk of hotel through the streets. But I remember this: As the hotel rolled majestically over each bridge, the senior Guido Brother stood beneath it, saying: "If it breaks through, I'd rather be down here than up there."

I tell this story a lot. I can sort of see the picture book in my mind's eye. Wouldn't it be a good one? The kind that inspires kids to become engineers? But it would have to end with the triumphant opening of the hotel, not with the punchline.

I'm not gonna write it. Picture books and non-fiction are not my genres. By the time I'd interviewed the principles, checked the quote (which is maybe less of a quote and more a summation of what people assumed to be his motivation), researched all the facts, and uncovered a couple of other anecdotes (because you always uncover more cool stuff when you research) it'd be too long for a picture book and the energy with which I tell it would be lost.

Telling a story in the oral tradition is one thing. You're in a dynamic relation with your audience and if you have to guess, fill in memory gaps, simplify complex politics, and generally pull the longbow on the fly to keep the story running without getting sidetracked, well, you do. When you put things down in cold print, you have time for accuracy; and because of this, people trust print. Most folks who aren't involved in producing printed text have this vague idea that somebody, somewhere, has the job of stopping writers from publishing inaccuracies. Especially in picture books, which are for children and, therefore, educational by default, right?

And if you're a Guido Brother and you're reading this - enjoy being a hero of legend, okay? Even if I never have bothered to learn your first names.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why You Want to Go to TLA

Maybe it's a long drive into San Antonio, you're at a stage of your career at which the whole schmooze librarians/collect catalogs/study the resources round seems less important than staying home with your butt in the chair writing, you've got a day job that's nothing to do with libraries and you'd have to justify taking a day off, it's supposed to rain some more today, your niece's birthday party is tonight; so you're thinking: "Naw, I don't want to go to TLA."

Yes, you do. Check out who's signing today:
Suzanne Collins - 10-12 in the Author Signing Area.
Chris Crutcher 10-11 in the Author Signing Area.
Kathleen Duey 10:30-12:30 in the Author Signing Area.
Shannon Hale 10-11 in the Author Signing Area. (She also signed yesterday.)
Gary Paulsen 2:30-4:00 in the Author Signing Area.
Liz Garton Scanlon 11-12 in Booth 1031, Simon & Schuster Children's
Cynthia Leitich-Smith 2-3 in the Author Signing Area.
Jacqueline Wilson 2-3 in the Author Signing Area.

Check out who you missed yesterday:
Karen Cushman
Kimberley Willis Holt
Ingrid Law
Rick Riordan

And that's only the ones I know will make most people in juvenile/YA lit squee; you may well have a favorite author in the schedule whom I skipped.

It's almost 8; Exhibit Hall opens at 9; I'm not dressed yet. If I want to catch everybody I want to catch I need to get going. So - see you there. (I'll be the one in the hat, the beautifully matched green stripes, and the big black backpack.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010


The Ides of April are upon us and I've let things get atop of me again. Here's what's happening today:

Last year's tax return due (did that in February, already got the refund - yay Block!);

First quarter estimated taxes due for us self-employed types (wrote the check two days ago, it's sitting in the mail slot waiting to go out; since I can't predict my income I take the money I made in the relevant months, divide by 3, donate 1/3 to the gummit and 2/3 to savings. This pretty much guarantees a refund rather than a nasty surprise at tax time.);

Manning the SCBWI booth, #2649 at TLA, 2-5:30 (printed the instructions, have backpack partially loaded);

Support Teen Literacy Day (Zoned completely on this one till Cyn mentioned it to me; however, looking at the SA Library Event Calendar, the Enchilada doesn't seem to be doing anything specific for it, either, so I refuse to feel bad);

Operation Teen Book Drop (Aagh! I've dropped the ball on this one, and no excuses. Technically it's not too late if I can get my act together. Perhaps if I drink more caffeine and clear my head - get thee behind me, Meniere's!); and

Getting together with friends at TLA. Often when there's a big convention in my town I'll do a lot of welcoming prep, take responsibility to coordinate everybody so we can meet at a specific place at a specific time - one year I even printed and distributed maps for my ALA company - but - not this year. The only person I've met so far is a friend of my husband's, for whom we acted as native guides Tuesday and Wednesday.

I'm a good native guide. She's writing a paper on O. Henry, so we took her to the O. Henry house. We took her to three restaurants (Twin Sisters, La Margarita, and The everlovin' amazing Cove) she probably couldn't have found on her own, took her to see some of the Missions and the egret rookery at OLLU, walked her all over downtown to show her selected highlights and get her as oriented as we could, brought her home to see my husband's Sherlock Holmes collection, and even managed to get her to Cheever's Books, though not to any of the other used bookstores on Broadway; all with a steady infodump on how various places were haunted, what happened to who where, what used to be here, what's going to be there, why I regard the Guido Brothers as heroic despite their being part of the overdevelopment of my beloved town, and all the other stuff that spontaneously spills out of me if you dare to accept my help. But that was two afternoons I didn't spend doing other stuff.

It's always like that. It's always going to be like that. More stuff should be done than anybody can actually do. So I chant my mantra - All I can do is the best I can do - and now I need to find my center and figure out what I can still do about Teen Book Drop (I don't feel good about leaving books lying around for people to find; it's supposed to rain all week - maybe the bus drivers would let me leave something on the wheel well? - and I don't think I have any backed paper to print the bookplates on) instead of fretting about how hard it all is. Then it'll be lunchtime and then time to head downtown, and no housework done, and I haven't had a moment to look at the historical maps on the CD I bought at the San José gift shop yesterday but - at least the birds are fed and the blog is posted, right?

And I'm only a little lightheaded. Nothing is spinning. Physical limitations suck.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Upcoming Events

Mid-April, the Month When Everything Happens. You won't see me at BEA, Bologna, or London Bookfair. Even if I had a book to promote, I'd be unlikely to have the sort of book that inspired publishers to cover expenses to go to such places, and besides, there's plenty going on right here in San Antonio. Everything's blooming or about to. Weather fronts are playing holy hell with my internal gyroscope. Fiesta starts this Friday, preceded by Fredstock, the live music festival hosted by the only real radio station in town (KSYM); but I'll barely be able to notice that because it's San Antonio's turn to host TLA!

Yes, for $20 plus round-trip bus fare of $2.20 per day (drive and park downtown? As if!) I can wander the floor, see what's coming out, snaffle up as many freebies as I can carry (and thanks to superior backpack design, I can carry quite a bit), discreetly schmooze the editors and marketing people and librarians, meet up with other authors, and generally overstimulate myself from Wednesday morning to Saturday noon, if I'm up to it all. I'm getting a bit of an early start, because an online friend of my husband's is coming in a day early and we'll be going downtown this afternoon to play native guide. On Thursday I'll be on the floor from 2:00 to 5:30, manning the SCBWI booth, #2649, so if you're in town, too, that's where to find me.

Despite our historical anti-intellectual track racord, Texas by virtue of its size is ridiculously influential in the American school market. A lot of publishers that would send only sales reps to most regional library conventions will spring to send editors and authors to TLA; and they're usually happy to come. After all, who wouldn't want to be in San Antonio in April! It was at TLA one year in the early '90s that I experienced what is probably my lifelong high point in terms of celebrity: a librarian I ran into at a booth looked at my name tag, did a double take, and informed me: "You wrote Switching Well!" Yes, I did, ma'am, and thank you for noticing.

Hey, I'm an author. I'll bask in any flickers of limelight I can.

SCBWI booth attendants will not be there to promote their own work, but to give out speaker booklets to interested parties and educate people about the resources SCBWI offers - to librarians and to writers. We are, however, holding a raffle of signed books by local authors and illustrators. Most of the booth attendants, naturally, are locals, but in addition to San Antonio authors we'll be representing, and represented by, people from Austin, the Brazos Valley, Houston, and North Texas.

If you've never done a TLA, my advice is to spend most of the day Friday working the dealer's floor systematically, entering raffles, collecting free catalogs, and making notes of the booths with the most interesting products. These will include not only books, but audiovisual resources, teaching aids, jewelry, toys, and librarian-themed clothing. Concessions are expensive and unhealthy, so carry a backpack with trailmix or something in it! Wear comfortable shoes. Keep purchases to a minimum. Then, come back Saturday morning and hit all your favorite publishing booths, because they'd rather give away their display copies than carry them back to New York!

See you there.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Enchantment Ave.

We have this class of silly and destructive people here in San Antonio called developers. Their job is to buy up agricultural or wilderness land, bulldoze off all the sorghum, grass, cedar, birds, mammals, etc., divide it up into winding inconvenient streets with ridiculous names, and build ugly houses that, in twenty years, will have already started to deteriorate into second class housing. But the developers don't care because they've long ago sold the lots and used the money to buy more land (preferably over the Aquifer, where they can pollute our drinking water and cause flooding by blocking the recharge processes with concrete). Yeah, I'm kind of down on the whole concept. But. The important thing here is the ridiculous street names.

Nowadays, the street names seem to be determined by a system. As far as I can tell, the developer has a list of street name words in his office - Vista, View, Valley, Ridge, Crest, and so on; and some kind of reference book which someone, I expect the secretary, lets fall open at a random page and sticks in a pin to choose a word. Or maybe it's a computer program these days. Whatever, the chosen word will be paired with all the standard street name words. The main entrance street into the neighborhood might be Whisper Lane, and all the streets branching off it will also be Whisper Something. Actually now I look at it the Whisper Group (yes, this is a real example) is more imaginative than most more recent subdivisions: no Whisper Vista, but Whisper Bow, Whisper Breeze, Whisper Fawn, Whisper Willow, Whisper Wood.

Anyway, these subdivisions tend to run to themes and some of the older ones aren't as bad, with straighter streets and less repetetive names. South of Windsor Park Mall, for instance, there's this cluster: King Arthur, Excalibur, Gawain, Crusade, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, Prince Valiant, Round Table, Mordred. That doesn't suck. My inner ten-year-old even thinks it's kind of cool.

I think it must have been about 15 years ago that it occured to me that one of these subdivisions could be turned into a decent venue for a certain subgenre of fantasy chapter book or MG novel. There's an organizing entity - a Psammead, a coin that grants half-wishes, a magical chemistry set or nanny or even a fruit pit - around which are organized a series of adventures. These discrete adventures may be regarded as short stories with shared characters, though they might occur over multiple chapters. The adventures usually end when the characters voluntarily sacrifice use of the entity in favor of some larger goal, but sometimes they've been working toward a larger goal all along, and sometimes the organizing entity just calls time, like Mary Poppins does.

Say there's an Enchantment Avenue. Some sort of trigger (I decided on a meteorite) enables a group of children(I had two families of two, a white military pair and a black home-schooled pair) to access places in thematic synch with the name of each street in the subdivision. Castle Street, Fairy Circle (don't tell me no developer would be that cutesy! I know better), Wizard's Tower Road, Unicorn Way.

I think I still have the draft I started of this in a file somewhere. It's hopeless. I still think the idea is viable, as far as it goes, but I immediately ran into a couple of problems.

First - I don't know if you've noticed this - I, um, I write long. At that time I'd accepted as part of my process that first I had to write down everything, and then I had to go back and cut out whatever detracted from the story. I'm not as bad now as I was then (is that screaming I hear in the background?), but writing long is a basic fact of my existence. At that time, I would write down a list of chapter headings to guide me through a story and keep it pointed toward its ending; and I took it for granted that every chapter heading represented three chapters of book. Enchantment Avenue was worse about this than anything I'd written since I was 14 and finished my Tolkien rip-off. I took too long getting my two families together; I spent too much time describing the castle; the action took forever to get to.

Second - I couldn't get a handle on how the two families related and what solving the challenges of the adventure together would do for them. The homeschoolers were more interesting than the military family; but the military family was the one with the problem I could articulate. And I couldn't make the adventures suggested by the street names tie in to either. One reason it took me so long to write anything was that I kept trying to explain these things to myself, and failing.

The first problem was soluble if I solved the second one; but I never did. I set this aside years ago, and have since grown past trying to write these kinds of stories.

That doesn't mean I have outgrown them - when someone else writes them. It's a classic form and when done well - The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones, for example; The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit, the grandmother of us all - they are things of beauty and a joy forever. But although I managed something resembling it once, in A Dig in Time, it doesn't come naturally to me. I'm a novelist. I should write novels, not short stories with a frame. Not even when the frame has a plot arc of its own.

Sometimes, we read a lot of books that follow a certain form or contain certain elements, and we internalize those forms and elements as rules. Like: Children's fantasy should consist of an interconnected series of adventures. They should involve magical journeys, quests, a cross magical entity, objects of power. There should be a family of five, or an interracial cast of friends, or one character who suffers a crisis of conscience and gets a big character arc, or a parent in danger, or -

All of these elements have worked in the past and they could work again. But the editors and agents have seen them before. Even at chapter-book level, so have a lot of the kids. If you're setting out to be compared to Diana Wynne Jones and E. Nesbit on their home turf, you better be on your best possible game. You won't do that by imitating the masters or by following rules, no matter how carefully you've figured them out by studying the work. But it doesn't hurt, in the privacy of the rough draft, to try out those rules and see if they apply to you. That's what drafts are for.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Appomattox Day

A hundred and forty-five years ago today, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. This is widely regarded as the end of the Civil War, or at least of the part that mattered, but I can't think of it that way. I'm from the Trans-Mississippi District, the red-headed stepchild of the Confederacy, whose top brass didn't surrender till June. General Kirby-Smith had been hemorrhaging men for months, and even early in the war had a hard time keeping his hands on his troops; the high command kept demanding that the states under his command send levies to fight east of the Mississippi, while the bureaucracy made no attempt to compensate the western frontier for the men it took. Indian defense was not a priority. Economic support of the families of conscripts - not a priority. Not even the improvement of infrastructure in order to transfer the relative abundance of resources from the west to the east was a priority.

Unlike other parts of the South, Texas never came close to starving, but our roads were in terrible shape, our harbors were blockaded, and our manufacturing facilities are exemplified by E. Krauskopf's percussion cap factory, which employed an assembly line consisting entirely of his daughters. Honest government officials (and they existed) were outnumbered and outgunned by the cotton speculators in the only industry that had a hope of rendering the Confederate States of America financially viable.

I finished the Semi-Weekly News reel yesterday. The latest paper (but not the last one on the reel, as they were microfilmed out of order) is for April 7, 1865. I need to cross reference this with the microfilms of the Newcomb Collection, to see if they have any missing dates. My head is clogged with tidbits and anecdotes, cryptic partial stories, mysteries and rumors. Cannons were fired in Texas for non-existent victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, for the capture of Baltimore and the burning of Washington, DC. The victories of General Tom Green, which feature not at all in most histories of the war, were celebrated in the Texas press (and the county I went to high school in was named after him). Inflation, corruption, extortion, and speculation are a constant concern in the pages of Mr. Finck's paper and of the Texas papers from which he reprints stories. "Have you ever seen a private or a non-commissioned officer dressed in government-supplied clothing?" asks the Freeman's Champion late in the war, returning yet again to the constant question: Why, when the government buys so much cotton, impresses so much cotton, ships so much cotton, is there never any government-owned cotton to speak of being loaded onto ships to make money for the government? The question was never answered to the satisfaction of the public.

Men died and women and children suffered obstensibly for a freedom that martial law on the one hand and lynch law on the other prevented them from having. Gen. Houston wrote to the governor objecting to martial law, but his letter was printed in the papers only after that law ended. Albert Pike spoke before Congress avering that personal freedom was even more important than the political freedom the war was supposedly fought for. But the contradiction of fighting for freedom and preserving slavery was never addressed. By anybody.

Thanks to all the reading I did beforehand, I was able to fill in some gaps and make note of names and events that might otherwise have passed me by, but though I have a sense that I could understand a great deal about the war if I could sort it all out, I'm reluctant to do so. My characters need to be a little confused, a little off-balance. Everybody was.

I know this much: the Civil War taught us lessons that we still have not learned. That we deliberately refrained from learning. It ended, sort of, and the Confederacy became, not history, but myth. Texas never surrendered, and the blood bath of the final ten years of rebellion is divided into two new myths - that of the evils of Radical Reconstruction and the nobility of the Old West. We still declare wars victorious before they're over; we still stand by and let speculators ruin our economy; we still shout for freedom in theory and fear to exercise it in practice.

And nothing I write is going to change that.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reflections on the To-do List

Not blogging much this morning as I have too much to do; so much I drank caffeinated tea to help me along. (My husband refers to this as "taking speed.") Maritha Burmeister is having a signing of her first-ever book, The Twelve Dog Days of Christmas in New York, at the Twig between 5 and 7 this evening, so I'll have to leave off reading old newspapers at the library to take either the ten or the nine bus out there; then I can take the 20, transfer at Five Points, and get home later than I usually like to be out. I turn into a pumpkin by 10 PM and late suppers are a bad idea for me.

Okay, I don't have to do that. But, though Maritha and I are hardly best friends, and picture books aren't an area I was ever big on even when I was small, I like her, it's her first book which is a big deal, and the little girls for whom I've been buying picture books are going to outgrow them soon so I better do this while I can. Besides, I want to live in a world in which people go out of their way to go to book signings, and it's my responsibility to myself to do it as often as possible. To myself, and to Maritha, who has worked hard for this day. I actually hope I don't have much of a chance to speak to her, because the only signings at which the author has plenty of downtown for conversation are the ones with no lines, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody!

What Thai did to the glass of tea this morning has rendered cleaning the study more urgent. I totally don't want to do this. The study is the most complex room in the house, and you can't even dust without making decisions about pieces of paper that wouldn't be lying around if anybody knew what to do with them. I've mopped up the worst of it, but that's only the beginning and we all know it.

And dammit, I want to at least get the blouse I'm working on back to where I thought I had it at lunchtime yesterday. I can't get over how much sewing resembles writing. Everything takes longer than you think it will, sometimes when you think you're almost done you blink and recognize what you did wrong so you have to rip out seams, sometimes you rip out the wrong seam, the workspace is always a shambles when you're done no matter how organized and tidy you thought you were being, when you get on a roll you work at it longer than you should, and no matter how much you want to move on to the next, new project if you want to get anything done you really need to finish up the thing you're working on, even though you've gotten to the boring part. (The sleeveless version of this blouse looked so simple, it should have been the ideal place to fuss with the darts...)

And OMG it's how did it get to be 10 AM? It's impossible, I tell you! So off I go.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Miscellaneous News

The Clovis Comet theory has been disproved - no it hasn't - is reasonable - no it isn't - explains a lot - doesn't make any sense. There's only one thing to do with a theory like that: get more data in order to revise it some more! An astronomer suggests that, while a single cometary impact is unlikely, the one that broke up to create the Taurid system could have showered us with lots of little bits of comet, which answers some objections, but not others. Such is science.
Was a Giant Comet Responsible for for a North American Catastrophe in 11,000 BC?

If you've been reading the Idea Garage Sale at all, I trust you don't need my help to see the potential in this headline: Teen Agers in Iowa Find Body on Egg Hunt

Or this one: Mayor Sends in Troops after April UFO Panic

Or in the poltergeist in the tire depot who leaves pre-WWII pennies lying around.

Or Family discovers ancient chapel hidden under their house. Classic!

And you just can't beat a good hominid skeleton, even if they do keep calling them "missing links," which is a silly name: Missing link between man and apes found in South Africa

Meanwhile, back in the fall of 1863, the Semi-Weekly News has been forced by paper shortages to reduce it's print to about six-point and its circulation to once per week. Mr. Potchiusky (husband of the Mrs. Potschiusky who would sell the services of her large Singer if anyone had fabric?) is called a liar for what he said about Mr. Herman Hesse in a notice he put up on "all the corners of the town;" a 12-year-old boy left his home to hunt for cattle and a week later is still gone; the auction house of Florian and Jefferson is holding a "receiver's sale" of the effects of "enemy aliens;" and a mass meeting and barbeque at San Pedro Springs has passed a number of resolutions against those who depreciate currency and don't give their all for the war effort. Their names and addresses will be published in the paper until they shape up; anybody who won't shape up will be the subject of a general meeting to determine what action to take against them. A resolution previously made to punish depreciators of currencey "to the last extremity" is reaffirmed. But the big story is government cotton - the government's been buying it, and shipping it, and yet never seems to have any to put on the ships in Brownsville. It's very mysterious and though Major Hart the cotton agent (who called on the editor to clear up some points, he having his HQ here in San Antonio) says his books are open to inspection Gen. Magruder is calling for informants instead of for an audit. I feel like someone trying to keep up with a soap opera by watching it in random five-minute stints two or three times a week.

Reading Old Maps

The Texana room at the Enchilada, where I'm reading the Civil War Semi-Weekly News, is closed on Mondays, so instead I walked across downtown (on the Riverwalk; not a hardship) to the San Antonio Conservation Society to raid their library for maps. I wasn't very hopeful about this, as I remembered from researching Switching Well that the yearly updating of city maps is a new thing and that the best I'd probably be able to do was get maps that bracketed my time; but in fact their catalog yielded quite a few possibilities.

Maps, like other research materials, are created for purposes not necessarily related to those of the individual researcher. One map I looked at showed few to no geographical features, but consisted entirely of the puzzle pieces of survey plats. A godsend for certain kinds of research; useless to me. One, combining data from an 1868, an 1899, and a 1965 map, was primarily intended to show the locations of vanished businesses and landmarks, such as the Bat Cave (as we called the insecure jail/courthouse of most of the 19th century) and Wm. Gamble's bookstore, in relation to the 20th-century downtown. So it'll be excellent for my location scouting, in one respect; but misleading in another, as it shows modern streets - notably Houston - that didn't exist in my time period, and limited in another, as it doesn't even show all of downtown. The map that shows me the mid-nineteenth century districts or wards of the city doesn't show all the street names. And so on.

The great find of the day was a 1924 blueprint copy of "The City of San Antonio, made in 1868 and 1869 by stepping by A.J. Mauermann." It's confusing at first, because he put east at the top; but once you get oriented this is the bomb! In addition to labeling the river, streets, acequias, and plazas, he's drawn in all the buildings, with the most important ones (churches, schools, gas factory, ice factory, mills, hotels, Ernst's Restaurant) labeled, and at least some of the footbridges. Apparently we had a "Dutch Windmill" back in the day. The flow of natural waterways is shown by arrows. Some of the streets are delineated with solid and some with dotted lines, and some with both, which I interpret to refer to the degree to which they are maintained. Best of all are the notations in what would otherwise be open space. "Mesquite." "Cotton Yard." "Cane for Fishing Poles." "Water Melon Field." "Here on this Plain Gen. Sheridan held a Review over 25,000 Cavalry Men to Go to Mexico 1865."

The entire town is not covered - I'll need to cross-reference this map with the one showing the wards - but Mr. Mauermann helpfully drew in arrows to the places he regarded as important. "On Sunday, to San Pedro Springs" (shown in an inset). To the Laurel Hills, to Jonas Beer Garden, to Dignowity Hill, to Powder House, to Cemetery. You can also see what roads would be taken out of town to get to various places - El Paso, Indianola, Seguin, Castroville - and thus, which is what I care about, which roads to take into town from these places.

I always long for overlay maps in these situations. You remember those diagrams of animals you used to find in biology and zoology books, with the outline of the frog or human or whatever on the paper page and a series of clear, stiff pages showing the circulatory system in red, the nerves in blue, the muscles in artistically striated pink, so you can lay them on top of one another in order to see the systems you're interested in relate to each other without interference from the others? Maps should be like that. I want to be able to see the whole city, 1865 in one view, 2010 in another, now all the buildings from this period, now let's look at the bridges, now I need the street names. Nobody makes these. I can't imagine why not (labor and expense being negligible concerns). You could do it digitally and it'd be so cool! Digitally you could blow it up to different scales, too, focus on a single street or the entire town or back up to Bexar County, each of the adjacent counties, now look at the geography, now see the names of propery owners...

Okay, so, I'll never get that. I'll either have to cross reference between maps constantly while writing, or do my own cobbled-together version, with mapping software if I can find one that does what I need or, more probably, hand drawn with numerous scale imperfections. I'm not good at translating what I see into what I draw, as anyone who's tried to read my maps of archeological units will concede. Like the song says, you can't always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you'll get what you need.

So thank you, Mr. Mauermann!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Big Birding Trip

What with one thing and another, my husband and I haven't been birding this year, till this morning, when we carried the binoculars and the bird book across town to Elmendorf Lake, where at this time of year if nothing else we're guaranteed to see the egret rookery island in full swing (snowy egrets, cattle egrets, great egrets, little blue herons, and cormorants. Last year there was also a tricolor heron). We also got first-of-the-year sightings for local regulars like coots and yellow-crowned night herons; were teased by warblers; could not be sure of identifying a flycatcher, and found a tree full of cedar waxwings. All of which makes me want to go research a YA book I never plan to write.

Birders have this concept of the Big Defined Period of Time, during which you travel around relentlessly seeing as many different bird species as possible. A Big Day birder or birding group might start by counting the species at your own feeder at the crack of dawn and end by owling fifty miles away at midnight, with a rigorously scheduled round of Best Birding Spots in between. Big Years are huge time and potential money commitments, with a competitive element between individuals, trips to remote areas like the Aleutians to get birds with restricted habitats, and a certain amount of "twitching" (tracking the Rare Bird Alerts and standing ready to drop everything and race to an opportunity). The concept can also be used for scientific work, as Cornell does. But anybody can declare a Big Time Period for themselves just for fun - a Big Hour during migration, a Big Week for your birthday, a Big Month for family vacation.

It's the sort of thing Nancy Drew would do, breaking a record and solving a mystery at the same time. It also provides a viable framework for a journey-of-self-discovery novel. Maybe the protagonist is a birding enthusiast taking the summer between high school and college to backpack around America on a Big Summer, and also to figure out - something. (If this idea appeals to you, be sure and read Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway, telling how he hitchhiked around America birdwatching in the 70s.) Maybe she's got a dedicated birder or ornithologist parent who has pulled her out of school to accompany her on a Big Year, probably in the wake of some big life transition moment like a divorce or beating cancer or something. I even have the beginnings of an elaborate plan for a Big Spring Break trip involving an RV full of Little Old Ladies, and one 17-year-old who is for some reason stuck riding herd on them all because they need someone able-bodied and she's supposed to be looking after her grandmother. The Little Old Ladies (at least three!) are determined to fulfill their plan of birding the entire Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail during migration. You could do something funny and touching with that.

I suppose it's possible this notion will simmer under the surface for a long time until I finally see what I need to see in order to make it work, but I doubt it. That journey-of-self-discovery thing isn't my style. I intended to make one, in adolescence, but I never did; possibly because all those road trips I made as a child took the edge off the fantasy. Traveling isn't romantic to me. It's exhausting and uncomfortable and there's never enough time to look around you. If you're with someone, your enthusiasms never quite mesh, or you get tired at different times, or one of you gets food poisoning; if you're alone, you're - well, you're alone, aren't you?

I have no character for this. I have no firm idea of what the journey is a metaphor for, or how to make the events of it resolve any personal question the protagonist is likely to have. And when I think about it, I quickly start planning, not the book, but the research trip.

That's what I really want to do - the dream of birding every site along all three Coastal Birding trails, camping along the way, during migration, is mine. And I know I'm not up to it. Birding is a crappy hobby for someone with Meniere's disease - all that moving your eyes rapidly to track the Little Brown Jobs through the trees, all that leaning over backward with binoculars at your eyes to trace the flight of the redtail, or maybe red-shouldered, hawk that just went over, all that tramping through brush and swamp and then not being able to renew your snacks at the convenience store on the highway because anything you bought there would have more sodium than you're supposed to have in a day - I'd give it up if I could but I can't so I won't, and I'll never do a Big Anything because I would get so very sick.

Writing a story about something you can't do is a legitimate artistic choice. I write time travel stories because I can't do that; I write about magic because I don't believe in it. But you have to have something in hand besides wish-fulfillment if you want to write a story anybody else can read. Character + conflict = plot. Nobody wants to read my fictional travelogues, not unless I've got something else going on. So until and unless I find the person who belongs in this story, I'm not investing any labor in it.

Which in a way is too bad, because a Big Week Vacation would be a lot more affordable if I could deduct it as research expenses.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's too nice a day to blog

Seriously. My pittosporum is blooming for the first time in the over 20 years since we moved into this house and I'm way behind on yardwork. Also, I have to go pick up Moby at the body shop this afternoon.

Also, I can't think of a good April Fool's post, mostly because I didn't think about April Fooling till this morning. So here's an e-mail I got from Bookview Cafe:

For Immediate Release

The Book View Cafe authors are delighted to welcome our newest author members...the Walking Dead!

With proven staying power, and back lists of books that have never gone away, awards too numerous to mention, these authors will re-energize and re-shape the cafe in ways never before imagined!

In honor of these new additions to the Cafe line up, the Cafe's front page ( will be dedicated to the finest work of these authors, newly returned to prominence and the surface of the earth.

"With the internet, print on demand and civilization-ending environmental catastrophy bringing so many exceptional authors back to life, as it were, we saw a real opportunity," said Sarah Zettel, Book View Cafe's Managing Director.

When asked why she decided to rise from the grave to join the ebook revolution and zombie apocolypse, Margaret Mitchell said, "I swore, as God is my witness, I would never go hungry again. With Google Maps to help me find the best concentrations of fresh brains, I can keep that promise."

"The fleeing populace is a moveable feast for a young zombie," adds Ernest Hemingway. "If we can use ebooks to help ensure they have short, happy lives, why the hell not?"

But, as always, it was the father of the modern English language who put it best. Said the Bard:


Meanwhile, Greenwillow is jazzing up its line for the new trend. I am of course anxious to read the great Diana Wynne Jones's The Afterlives of Christopher Chant.

Bye. I'm off to work in the front yard, where I can breathe pittosporum, the definitive fragrance of San Antonio spring!