Sunday, May 30, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: A New Concept in Adventure Modules

So, anybody out there who plays RPGs and has read my garage sale ideas for campaigns has probably recognized that my method of campaign planning is labor-intensive and not at all commercial. The reason I don't run these campaigns is that all that collaboration with the players involves infinite flexibility; and I can't be that flexible spontaneously. I have to overprepare and have all the stats, maps, and if:then statements worked out ahead of time. Then, during the game, I can react to what happens without referring to any of that.

During the shakedown period for D&D 3.0, back in 2000, I ran a one-off prison break scenario as a means to give people some experience with the new system before committing to a campaign. The PCs were imprisoned unjustly as a result of a disturbance during the escalation to civil war, and if they didn't escape before a certain point All Hell was going to break loose. I made a timeline of incidents that would proceed in the background until the PCs intersected with them and changed them. Once All Hell broke loose, I found myself tracking the actions of about six groups of people all over the city, in 15-minute increments, so that no matter what decisions they made or when they made them I'd have a guideline to what they'd find happening. Then the PCs escaped 24 hours before the criticial point and in the process released another prisoner who prevented the critical event that would have made everything so chaotic, and that work never saw the light of day.

I don't have time to do that sort of thing regularly, so for the most part I don't run games, but when, five years ago, it became desirable for me to do so, I ran adventure modules. In theory, adventure modules do all that overpreparation for you. The maps, NPCs, timelines, and developments are all worked out by the module writers. The time-consuming business of world-building is also performed commercially by game companies, publishing sometimes elaborate setting sourcebooks for places like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Harn, various historical periods, licensed fictional universes so you can roleplay in the worlds of your favorite TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Firefly) or novel (Harry Dresden, Miles Vorkosigan) series.* Good idea, right? Less work for GM, more revenue stream for the gaming company.

Except all modules need fixing.

I'm serious. I've never run a module that didn't require some fixing and fudging, that didn't leave huge gaps for me to fill in or present logical lapses for me to bridge. I've had to rewrite character stats because I knew my players would laugh at a fire-breathing ninja opponent; I've had to redraw maps because of architectural and geographical absurdity, and I've had to overhaul strategy because in dozens of playtests the creators never ran a party with a basic knowledge of seige engines or use of air power.

No adventure plan survives initial contact with the players, even when the GM knows the players; so modules written by total strangers have a strike against them from the start. Also, the two obvious ways to write a module - following a set storyline, and presenting a setting in which the players wander at will - lend themselves to the two campaign flaws I discussed last week, railroading and flopping. There has to be a better way.

Here's what I'd like to get in an adventure module:

A detailed setting, including things like weather and activity patterns (the business district of a town may be a very different place at different times of the day; an agricultural settlement may be sleepy or bustling depending on time of year) and large-scale maps, all with room in the margins for note-making and sufficient undefined space for the players to fit themselves into. I've never known a player who didn't get a kick out of finding his character's house on a map.

Optional rules covering the defects of the game system that are called into high relief by the setting. The shortcomings of D&D rules for water travel, for instance, become glaringly obvious in any adventure setting with rivers. Shocking numbers of players I meet online don't care and are happy to use the rules as written; but every group I've ever played with that comes up against such a defect has stopped cold until the group's "game mechanic(s)" (like "shade tree mechanics only with rule sets; they're usually also computer programmers) devise a more realistic rule. I would really, really like the builders of an adventure module to recognize this problem and have the more realistic rule set available for use right out of the box.

An introductory scenario suitable for any set of PCs and designed to simplify a realistic party formation. (It's a cliche of adventuring parties that the members all answer ads, or meet in a tavern and become best buds; let's have something more organic than that here.)

Placed within the scenario, multiple adventure hooks, all mutually exclusive. The players can pick up any one of them (or, in the case of some contrary groups, none) and follow it through a typical adventure scenario, at the end of which will be another hook, and so on. I think three is a reasonable number; say, one lower, one middle, and one upper class hook; or one intellectual, one combat-heavy, and one social; each should be distinctive and designed to appeal to different styles of play.

The unchosen scenarios should have "default" developments - since the PCs don't intervene, the situations and characters in those scenarios will have their effect on the setting, which will in turn affect the lives of the PCs. The consequences of each unchosen adventure will be written into the adventure paths of the chosen one, so that if the party chooses a combat-heavy path, they'll be finishing their campaign against the evil warlord in the middle of a revolution fomented in the social path and a crime wave resulting from no one stopping the rise of the Mob in the mystery path. Once the original path is completed, the players may choose to tackle the other problems - which have grown in magnitude as the players have grown in power. The party that wouldn't commit to an adventure path will be wandering around creating their own adventures in the detailed setting against the backdrop of the developments of all three ignored scenarios.

Practically speaking, players will sometimes opt to change paths mid-stream, but there's no way to anticipate when or how. For this reason, and also because the players are bound to come up with unanticipated actions, the scenario and setting should be designed with plenty of space for customization - wide margins and page backs intended to be used for in-game notes, spare character sheets, editable maps, and so on. In this modern age, there'd be a good response to custom "campaign tracker" software designed to make it easy to add comments to maps, alter NPC character sheets, change stats(in case the players decide to fortify an inn, say, or somebody marries the ruler's son), and so on.

You could even design Tournament Modules - modules intended to be played at conventions within a set period of time - in which three GMs at three different tables would run all three scenarios simultaneously, periodically letting their different groups interact directly. It'd be hard to set up, but it'd be a big hit when it worked.

If anybody wants to pay me to set up a sample module along these lines, I'm available. But it would take more entrepreneurial spirit than I have, not to mention better persuasion skills, to convince any existing game companies to invest in this idea when the modules they have keep selling. Besides, I don't want to work for a game company. Game content freelance contracts are insane by the standards of the rest of publishing. I think I'd be in violation of most of them by having this blog in the first place. And as for founding my own game company and producing the idea on my own - Dammit Jim, I'm a novelist, not a capitalist!

But I will totally try out any modules anybody produces along these lines.

*Excuse me for blowing off getting links to these setting books; the internet is being stupid today and I don't have patience to fool with it.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Natural History Across Time

You can't just research one thing at a time. It's not possible.

I spent yesterday at the Castroville Public Library looking at the local history reference materials in the break room next to the hamster. I started with Medina County History, Vol. I (Vol. II is still in production) and am going through systematically, skimming for certain dates and types of data. In an aside in the article on Freemasonry, Mr. Yancy Russell informed me that the town of Quihi was named after the "white-necked Mexican eagle," by which I presumed he meant the caracara, and wondered who called it a quihi. In the Quihi article by Josie Rothe Finger, she claims that the area supported a large number of distinctive birds. "Popularly known as the Mexican eagle, it was a large brown bird with white feathers on tail and tips of wings." The Indians called it Keechee. The Mexicans spelled this "Quichi." The Germans who founded the town chopped out the c when they came to spell it.

Although I wouldn't have used either description (as far as I'm concerned, the caracara is the bird of prey it's easy to confuse with the black-crowned night heron), when I compare the combined descriptions to the caracara, I find that the field marks are accurate as far as they go. They omit the red face and dark crest, but at any distance, and especially when flying, the white throat, tail, and wingtips ("white at all four corners", per Peterson) are diagnostic. So I have added to my vocabulary of regional bird monikers, and note the reliability of old-timers describing nature without optics or field guides.

Then I ate my lunch outside in the arbor behind the building, and read A Texas Pioneer, by August Santleben. Santleben has only one chapter on the Civil War, but his account of his postwar life hauling freight between Texas and Mexico is intrinsically interesting. Here I read the following description of the fauna of Mesa de Vidaurri in northern Mexico:

Cinnamon and common black bears, tigers, panthers, and Mexican lions were common and dangerous; other animals also were numerous, including the mountain sheep of Mexico that have immense horns that serve to protect them when forced by danger to jump down precipices. On such occasions their bodies and limbs are drawn into a lump and they fall without injury on their enormous curved horns, which throw them a somersault before landing them on their feet.


Santleben doesn't claim to have witnessed this astonishing feat, and to be fair animals are adapted to their environments in so many surprising ways that this means of descending a hill can be placed in a context so as to look plausible. I can even imagine somebody once seeing a bighorn come a cropper and, by freak accident, somersault on his horns and depart without injury. But I can't help thinking somebody, probably one of the locals, was drawing the longbow for Santleben's benefit.

The cinnamon bear, as you probably know, is a color morph or a subspecies (depending on whether you're a lumper or a splitter) of the American black bear. The word "tiger" used by an English speaker in the Southwestern US or in Mexico usually refers to the jaguar, colloquially called "el tigre." The terms "panther" and "Mexican lion" are used interchangeably in America, along with painter, puma, cougar, catamount, sneak cat, mountain devil (screamer, or demon), king cat, and a few dozen other names, for that wonderfully successful American big cat, felis concolor. The difference in nomenclature may, or may not, indicate recognition of two different subspecies with overlapping territory in the region. Another possibility is that the tendency to call melanistic spotted cats "panthers" dates back to the 19th century, and use of the term indicates a population of black jaguars on the mesa.

This sort of confusion is only to be expected, and gets worse the closer the source is to the Old Country. In Castroville, Texas 1844-1899, Illustrated by 3 Pioneer Families, the Pichots, Pingevotes, & Ihnkens, Yvonne Chandler Ludwig remarks on the odd creatures the earliest Castro Colonists, fresh off the boat from Alsace, claim to have seen in the western Texas prairie: tigers (jaguars), lobsters (crawdads, I expect), "golden-necked starlings" (an interesting puzzle, that - yellow-breasted chat? One of the orioles? A yellow-headed blackbird way further east then he is nowadays?), and cobras (don't look at me; I got nothing). People don't like being around things with no names, and if nobody's around to tell them "oh, that's a thrush" they'll take a salient feature and slap a description or a familiar name on it, creating the American "robin" on the basis of a red breast and confusing future generations of Americans reading British-illustrated editions of The Secret Garden.

This is the kind of thing you have to be aware of when you're a researcher. It's part of the interest. A little distracting, sure. But who knows what dramatic uses I might have for a melanistic jaguar in a story someday? When I might need a character with a vast supply of prank stories he can use to bait tourists? Where I might run across the reference that solves the "golden-necked starling" mystery? A little distraction is good for you.

(She says, having not gotten halfway through transcribing her notes. Back to work.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


If you're like me, you don't notice the things people put in their blog margins much, and often don't even see them because of reading indirectly, through JacketFlap or the reader on your blog server or whatever. But you can always click the link to look at the site (and a lot of readers have line limits and will cut off my ridiculously long posts mid-word anyway), and I just added a couple of things, so I thought I'd go over what I've put around my edges, and why. If you read to the end, you might learn something relevant to your interests.

The "about me" and "If you want to know more" links are self-explanatory. The primary reason I have a blog is so that agents, editors, and research contacts will have something dynamic to see when they google my name (I know I do it to them and assume they do it to me), so I want easy access to information about me for their convenience. And if somebody's come here casually by googling something else, or gets intrigued by some topic I'm nattering on about, it only seems polite to put in some links to areas of interest. I've found that arranging the blog list by "most recently updated" allows me to keep up with more blogs, as I can see which ones have updated since I last looked at them, so that one's primarily for my own use; but I try not to include blogs that don't discuss writing or research topics. This is the public face here; you don't need to know which of my personal friends have blogs.

"The Reciprocal List" is a recent addition I feel I should call attention to. Recently Katie Davis contacted her online writing communities with a cross-linking project: She would collect the names and URLs of volunteers, and we would all pledge to post the entire list on our sites. Some search engines still use programming that privileges sites with lots of links over sites with fewer links, and since we're all in the young people's literature industry people who were interested in one of our sites seemed likely to be interested in all of us, if they could only find us. So here it is. Some of these people I consider my friends, some I have met once or twice, and some I only know through the linking.

Everybody has the utility features, tags and archives and RSS feed. I added the Native Youth widget because the more people visit Cyn's site, the better for them. But scroll down past all that, all the way to the bottom. I've got another widget down there that was too wide to fit in the margin, soliciting subscribers to pledge money toward the publication of Skin Horse, Vol. II. You'll notice that the project is more than fully funded. It was fully funded within 24 hours of first solicitation. So what is the point of the widget?

Well - I like Skin Horse, for one thing. It's not a children's comic, though it references a lot of children's literature. The current storyline is "Brave Little Toasters" and yes, the strip's title is an allusion to The Velveteen Rabbit. But I like a lot of webcomics that aren't linked here because they're not relevant enough. You don't need me to help you find LOLcats. It's what the widget is for that I think a certain segment of the kidlit-blog-reading public might care about.

Skin Horse is published online through Web Comics Nation, one of several venues the artist, Shaenon Garrity, has used in the past. Web comics are typically free to the world, with donation buttons and merchandise (the creators hope) paying the bills and occasionally squeezing out a profit. Periodically, with her most popular strips (first Narbonic, now Skin Horse), she self-publishes a collection of a year's worth of strips, along with bonus material, and hopes she makes enough to turn a profit. Skin Horse is produced with a co-creator, Jeffery Channing Wells, so presumably they split the expenses and share the profits. This time they are using Kickstarter, a company which collects pre-orders from customers and prints the book if/when the expenses of doing so are met in this way. Credit card information is collected through Amazon (which already has most of the potential audience's credit card information anyway) and if the book never meets its expenses, the book is never printed, and the pledged amount is never charged. Different levels of pledges are allowed for; by promising to pay $20 I get a .pdf in case I ever get an e-reader and my dead-tree copy signed and sketched, but any fan rabid and fanatical enough to pay $500 also gets an unpublished prose story and original art.

This is a return to and an improvement on the old-fashioned subscription model of publishing. When John James Audubon wanted to publish Birds of America, with expensive color plates big enough to squeeze a whooping crane onto them life-sized, no regular publisher would touch such a risky money-pit of a project, so he went around to individuals and institutions collecting subscriptions from people - cash now, book later. Many scientific publications were published by subscription in the 19th century, and it was a risk for everybody because only cash transactions were possible. I have a lot of reservations about the way credit and capital are handled in the digital age, but the Kickstarter version of publication-by-subscription is a much better deal made possible by modern ways of handling money. The advantages accrue to everybody and the risks are much reduced.

Is this the future of self-publishing? I'm inclined to think it ought to be, at least for commercial projects, and it's a good alternative for niche publications like local history projects and fund-raising cookbooks. The lagniappe-for-big-spenders is obviously drawn from the world of charity premiums, where you can join NPR or the Universal Do-Gooder Society at different levels and receive different donated "pledge gifts," but original art and an exclusive prose story beat tote bags and coffee cups as incentives!

And whereas a naive person self-publishing in hopes of turning his unsaleable manuscript into a runaway bestseller is likely to lose a lot of money on his way to wisdom in traditional set-ups, the necessity of gathering pledges will provide a sobering lesson in the need to do good work, understand publicity, and build a fan-base at a relatively low cost.

Garrity and Wells have spent years putting in the labor of producing good comics - sound plots, funny gags, engaging characters, expressive art - and nurturing relationships with fans, and are rewarded by meeting their publishing costs within 24 hours of announcing the imminent publication of Vol. II. I don't know whether they've ever tried to interest a traditional publisher or a syndicate; I don't know if the fan base is large enough to make it worth a traditional publisher's while. I don't know what unrealistic daydreams they may have set aside, or how this model would work for anyone who reads this blog and is considering self-publishing as a career move. It's just one more element to the changing world of publishing, and I thought I'd draw attention to it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Feudal Reconstruction

All this reading about the Civil War and Reconstruction had made me realize how rich an environment history would be for a campaign. All those internal conflicts, all those impossible decisions, all that rabidity, all that intimacy among people with opposing interests, all those ad-hoc alliances, all those Indians and bushwhackers and vigilance committees. Routine trading with the enemy because the enemy had what you needed and needed what you had; besides, the trading relationships you had before the war didn't go away when your state took a political position diametrically opposed to his state's. Slaves who ran the plantations while their masters (often their blood relatives) were away, and were - not exactly rewarded for their selflessness, which was probably also self-interest - afterward. No matter what your opinion might be or who you were, it could get you killed if you spoke the wrong word to the wrong person, and the wrong person could be anybody, the wrong word could be any word.

However interesting all this is, even 150 years on the issues are too raw and controversial to make for comfortable roleplaying. At least one thing I said in that last paragraph probably made you uncomfortable, if you're American; I wouldn't venture to guess which sentence bothered you, but I'm sure every sentence would bother somebody. We have all been taught a lot of nonsense about the Civil War and most of us have an emotional investment in some bit of that nonsense, even if we can be objective about the rest of it. The urge to simplify history into good guys vs. bad guys expresses in the typical RPG as a structure which makes good vs. evil struggles almost mandatory; and that doesn't model the real situation well. Even in a group like ours, which deals better with moral ambiguity than most groups and has evolved a strategy for negotiating alignment disagreements (the most potentially savage disagreements in role-playing, because they touch so closely on real-life morality), is not necessarily going to enjoy role-playing in a situation this close to home.

The simplest way to deal with this is to change the setting to a generic medieval fantasy one. Almost any system will do, though it wouldn't surprise me to find that the Harn setting had already done most of the work for you. You design an isolated small political unit - ideally a single manor or barony. The country has recently gone through a succession (as opposed to secession!) crisis, in which the side the lord of the manor or baron lost. The campaign locale is isolated from the main field of battle, but has suffered economically and lost a lot of able-bodied men. Also, its isolation has tended to attract deserters during the war and disaffected knights who refuse to accept the new status quo, both of whom set up as roving bandits in the greenwood.

In order for this to work to defuse emotional investment in the issues involved, both the claims should have been about equally good. Because of the way feudal obligations are set up, probably the lord didn't care about the rights or wrongs of the succession claim, but followed the lead of his liege. As far as he was concerned, the issues weren't political, but personal. Others in his area of responsibility might feel differently. This lord was killed in battle, and he leaves a widow and at least one daughter (no sons). The person who killed him in battle has also died, leaving two sons.

The new king (or queen, whatever; new monarch anyway) decides that the minimally disruptive way to deal with this territory and reward faithful service is to marry the lord's daughter to the second son of the man who killed him. This son, who would otherwise be landless, is to move in, pacify the region, and make everything hunky-dory again.

Having mapped the immediate area in some detail - bare minimum, the central estate, supporting peasant village, and enough greenwood and rugged hills to shelter the bandits - and the surrounding area more vaguely, defined the feudal relationships of the inhabitants to eachother and the outside world, and given names and some general stats, but no personality or alignment, to some prominent NPCs (possibly only the new monarch) the DM would then present the situation to the players and tell them to make a character, any character, to fit into this mileu. This should be done as a group project. If somebody wants to play the widow, the forcibly affianced daughter, the imposed lord, a bandit leader, any of the on-site characters who would normally be NPCs setting the tone for the campaign, let them. They can even define some NPCs in relation to themselves - for instance, "I want to play the widow, and the daughter isn't old enough to be married yet, so I'm acting as regent for her." The only limitation should be that all the players agree on how and why their characters will naturally work together as a party for similar goals.

In my experience, failure to reach such an agreement is the #1 cause of party conflict. That one guy who just has to play a Babylonian in a Celtic campaign, but would immediately design a Celtic character if you changed to a Babylonian campaign, has to be required to address this issue up front or you'll be dealing with that instead of playing most of the time. It's all right to play an outsider, and the source literature most of us draw on often has outsiders as protagonists; but a role-playing game is based on the party, not the individual. It's the player's responsibility, not the game master's, to provide a motivation for the outsider to participate.

The players will of course be full of questions about these key NPCs, insisting that they can't make their characters without this knowledge; but, until the characters are made, this knowledge will not exist. For maximum comfort of play, the players will be the ones setting the primary conflict and the degree of moral realism they want to deal with.

The barony might be a hotbed of rebellion, the widow and daughter and their steward evil schemers, in league with the bandits. This is the scenario to choose if the players have decided to be the new lord and his entourage, a shining band of paladins bringing relief and order to an overtaxed and oppressed peasantry who have suffered too long. In which case, that forced marriage poses a pretty problem to the player who volunteered to play the new lord. Your first adventure problem stands before you: How will the players deal with the plot to murder the new lord on his wedding day and frame an innocent, loyal man? And by the way, how does he maintain a marriage and his legitimacy as ruler without violating his principles and becoming a rapist? (Hey, they asked for it. Don't play a paladin if you can't face up to the tough moral problems!)

The new king might be an evil tyrant, punishing the good and gentle people who opposed him with ruinous taxation, human rights violations, and cruel overlords reducing them all to slavery. This would be the natural result of the players deciding to play a Robin-Hood-style band of merry men; or any assortment of types who are characterized as loyal to the old regime and dedicated to resisting the new. If one of your players is all afire to play the widow or the daughter, in this scenario, she'll probably have a vision of how to do so that will set the tone for the whole campaign and lay the first adventure in your lap. Running away to the greenwood and forcing the new lord to assume control without the gloss of legitimacy, for example, only requires you to build the factors restraining her from doing so, with a view to rendering the rest of the party necessary to assist her.

I can most readily imagine my own group creating a conglomerate party from both sides of the conflict: A noble squire personally sworn to the new lord, the son or daughter of the widow's personal bodyguard, an ambitious peasant with a useful set of skills, a minor religious personage attached to either the household or the entourage (most medieval RPGs have healing tied to religious professions), maybe even a bandit come in from the cold. They would leave the new lord, the widow, and the bride alone to be NPCs, and in this case, though you could make the widow a resentful schemer who can't forgive her new son-in-law, the most reasonable character to give the Lord and Lady is that of two people determined to set aside their differences (after all, the Lord didn't kill the father personally and it was an honorable death) and restore law and order. The party would then be a deliberately-chosen coalition intended to act as troubleshooters and sent off on missions.

Monsters, unruly neighboring lords, unreconstructed outlaws, scheming courtiers, rebellious peasants (with and without legitimate gripes), and opportunistic carpetbaggers undermining the new lord's policies would be the primary foes. Your bandit-come-in-from-the-cold might create a Big Bad as part of his backstory in the form of a bandit leader he ran away from, determined to set up his own fiefdom here on the fringes of civilization, to include the target locale. Your squire might know things about the new king that the new lord doesn't want to believe because his moral standards are higher than the king's.

The GM should, in fact, encourage the players to create backstories with story hooks in them; and should, once provided with them, use them. Even if the hook is not one that appeals to you at first. You don't, after all, have to use it in the way the player is trying to manipulate you into using it! This is true regardless of the campaign.

This concept, like the Small Boat Campaign, would require a lot of flexibility on the GM's part and maturity on the parts of the players. But any good game does. The two most common kinds of unsatisfactory campaigns are the Railroad Plot (the GM has overdetermined what should happen and the players have limited freedom) and Total Plotlessness (the players have unlimited freedom but no goals). In both, the players' choices are meaningless.

Novels and role-playing games are different in a lot of important ways: the team-as-protagonist is difficult-to-impossible in novels, but necessary in RPGs; knowing where your story is going is necessary in novels but almost impossible, without railroading, in RPGs (and decreases the fun; the best moment in any game is the moment when the players come out of left field with a solution the GM would never have thought of in a million years); RPGs reproduce the texture of real life while novels streamline it; and so on. But they are alike in this.

The characters' choices must have meaning, or the whole thing is pointless.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

CSI: Medina

So yesterday I wrote the scene where Len finds the body, and today was supposed to be the day that I organized the next phase of research - picked the next specific queries I needed to answer, used the contacts I've gotten to find them out - and, oh yeah, worked on the tax ledger. That's one of those jobs like putting away the laundry that's easier to put off than do until one day you turn around and say: "This is ridiculous" and just do it.

However, first I had to be chauffeur at my husband's eye appointment, followed by getting comics. He had to have the drops in his eyes and the eye doctor isn't on a bus route. (I mean, c'mon, that should be a no-brainer - you shouldn't blind somebody and then turn him loose on the road.) In the waiting room I read Gary Paulson's Woods Runner, which has technical information inserted between the chapters, like how a Brown Bess musket worked. I won't spoil the story for you, but at one point I thought: "Oh, rats, what about rigor? She can't get him onto Bean at all if he's stiff."

So after we got home I hit the books. We have shocking numbers of books on forensics and true crime. To be fair, not nearly as many as we have on Forteana or history or archeology; but more than we have on architecture or engineering. Way more than we have on heraldry. About as many as we have on cooking and gardening. And of course it overlaps with the medical stuff.

We buy non-fiction based partly on interest, but also partly on the "hey, we know nothing about this" factor. Cheesemaking? Sure. Weapons of ancient Japan? Why not? The history of glassblowing? Cool. Between the role-playing games and the novel writing, we never know when we're going to need to look something up.

But even we don't have books on everything. That's why I'm picking our friends' brains. B can tell me everything I need to know about guns more efficiently than I can hunt down this information, in which I have little intrinsic interest. W has spent a good chunk of her life around horses and can keep me from making Bean into Superpony. If I need to actually fire a Henry rifle or ride over rough terrain (I hope not) they can set me up, and I'm hoping to coax them into vetting portions of the finished manuscript for Gross Ignorance. B has already given me a primer on what evidence a gunfight conducted primarily with cap-and-ball firearms would leave at the scene (not much, it turns out - no casings to eject and the balls malform and break up so you hardly ever find them).

What writers who don't have gaming groups and indiscriminate book-buying habits do, I have no idea. I spent most of the afternoon reworking the chapter and it's much better now. A little grosser; a little more immediate; a little more interesting. I don't think I've given Len any more clues than she should have gotten, or let her (or Bean) behave better than they would have.

At this stage, it doesn't have to be brillian writing. I'm just glad to have the draft down.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Metaphors only go so far

I can go on at length about the ways in which sewing and writing are alike; or gardening and writing; or cooking. All are creative. All involve extensive periods of drudge work and apparent negative progress. All can be done professionally or as a hobby, to formula or idiosyncratically. All have rules that, once you understand them, you can decide to break.

But you know how sewing isn't like writing? I get to decide when I'm done, and then I can use the result. Making my first pair of slacks was tough, and they aren't perfect; but when that cool front came in, I wore them. I cobbled together a blouse out of red and blue remnants, realized that required a white skirt, made the skirt, put star-shaped buttons on the blouse, and now I'm ready for the Fourth of July. Nobody can tell me to go back and fix this or that if I've decided the outfit's good enough. I don't have to submit it, collect rejections, review and tweak it every six months or so, unpick the waistband because an editor thinks it might wear better with a dart in the back, try out three or four different styles of button, and then get rejected anyway until I give up and it's packed away in a drawer, never to see the light of day.

And cooking isn't like writing, because not only do I get to sit down and eat the result without consulting anybody (whether or not my husband or the gaming group, my usual cooking audience, cares for it) but because if I mess it up there's no fixing it. Scorched rice stays scorched. I can't fix it by deleting the brown bits and adding some sauce. If I want rice, I eat it with that smoky aftertaste or I start again from scratch in a new saucepan.

And gardening isn't like writing because - well, for one thing, because I'm not remotely good at it. But even there, once in awhile, the jasmine blooms, I rake out some edible potatoes, and the mint doesn't entirely die back in the drought. But revision is a much, much bigger deal in gardening than in writing; and although adverbs sometimes grow all over a manuscript like rye grass, getting them out doesn't blister my hands.

Results. I'll take them where I can get them.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Time Gypsies

I want a good, reliable, low-impact method of time travel.

Yesterday I drove up to Belton to get my signed copy of Clovis Archeology, watch a presentation on big game hunting among the plains cultures, and schmooze other archeology fans. I was coming out of the restroom, planning to leave, when I saw a poster for the musical Hair, the cast recording of which happens to be in Moby's CD changer right now, and thus discovered that the West Gallery was hosting a display devoted to the year 1968. So I popped in and looked around.

I was all of 7 and living in small-town Iowa in 1968, so from one point of view I missed a lot of it. But of what year is this not true? If we have time we have no money, if we have money we no energy; our freedom is circumscribed in different ways at different times of our lives, and the opportunities of which we can realistically take advantage are limited by choice as well as distance, alertness, and responsibility. I wouldn't have worn a mini-skirt if I'd been old enough; but the postcards advertising the various gigs of musicians scattered about the displays made me sigh for chances that will never come again. Who knew Chuck Berry and Steve Miller ever played together? And it probably cost - what, five dollars? Less? - to get into the venue!

Sure, I'd visit the Pleistocene and Civil War Texas and, if possible, warn certain people of certain things; but I'd also see in their prime the artists I missed, or never got to see till age began to take an audible toll - Aretha Franklin when she could dance "Dr. Feelgood" without losing her breath, Gordon Lightfoot before the years stripped layers from his voice, the Supremes before Diana Ross took off, Buddy Holly (speaking of warnings; but he wouldn't listen to me, why should he?). I might or might not go to Woodstock, but the question with the Beatles is not Whether but Which Performance?

That's probably why the title "Time Gypsies" appeals to me. I envision a society of people with caravans that travel the time roads; tied to earth but not to the solar cycle. They would interact with hundreds of different time periods during their own lifetimes; not freely, no, but their opportunities and regrets would be different from those of us tied to linear time. Children would be given names inspired by the particular period they were born in. My protagonists would be male/female twins named Mac and PC; PC would tell people her name was short for Pamela Christine or Prudence Charity or whatever, as appropriate to when she was at the moment. They would vacation on beaches not yet approached by homo erectus as it spread across the globe; do menial labor in Babylon in exchange for small coins that could be traded for a period of luxury in 20th century New York; possibly they would collect unfortunates lost in the cracks of history. Maybe not all the Jews who vanished without a trace in Europe from 1933 to 1945 went into the furnace; maybe Virginia Dare was rescued from whatever fate befell Roanoke colony.

As a vehicle for wish fulfillment, this premise is a gold mine. As a viable novel, not so much. There'd have to be a sizable community of these people, at least 200; or they'd have to recruit new genetic material from around the timeline to prevent inbreeding. Their vehicles and other tech would have to be able to blend in with any time period. They'd have to carry a wide variety of outfits (interdimensional closet space); and they'd have to have a reason for being who and what they were. What is their economic base? What life goals does this lifestyle serve? Most of all, what do Mac and PC want, that this lifestyle doesn't provide?

I could go a number of ways on this. I absolutely refuse to have one of those time travel set-ups in which history is "supposed" to happen a certain way and the people who can move in time manipulate the fabric to put it "right." History, the way I experience it, is a vast complex interaction of physical laws, contingency, accident, and free will. The notion that one track of history is "right" (ours; with all its genocides, petty stupid wars, industrial pollution, unsustainable agriculture, and so on) but can be messed up and corrected by small actions of individuals is self-contradictory at best, morally revolting at worst.

Maybe the Time Gypsies are parasites leeching off the energy and innovation of linear time; and Mac and PC are the ones who realize that something's wrong with that paradigm, that it's unsustainable. Maybe one of them gets stranded because the time roads can be ridden but not steered, or they learn that some underlying principle of their tech is wrong and this has bad effects on - somebody. Maybe there's two sets of Time Gypsies with opposing goals, and their conflict plays out in the fields of linear time, to everyone's detriment.

I don't know. None of it seems to work somehow. But if I ever see a book with this title, I will pick it up. 'Cause it's a great title!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Location Scout #3: Castroville

Ever since I realized the part played by cotton speculators in the lesbian western I've known that part of my story would have to be set there. Not until yesterday did I realize how hard it would be not to set half the book there.

My Reverend Mom lives in Medina County, further west than my characters have any reason to go during the course of the plot (AFAIK!), so I met her in Houston Square and we walked around a bit. The original plan was to do the Historic Walking Tour, but we quickly realized the limitations of the tour for my purposes. We spent quite a bit of the morning at the Landmark Inn, in Len's day a gristmill, general store, and residence occupied by John and Rowena Vance, a couple not without prominence in San Antonio history, too. Between us, and with the assistance of the locals and the signage (though the signage has some problems; according to one historical marker, Henri Castro died in 1861; to another, in 1865) we figured out how the San Antonio Road ran, where Len would have come into town from Geronimo, and which places she would visit once she got there. Rev. Mom also helped me work out how Len gets the corpse onto Bean in the first place - the practicality of that part bothered her a lot.

Yes, writing is a solitary profession and can lead you to neglect your family; but it's good to talk through difficulties with someone else once in awhile. Usually my husband gets stuck with this part, but it's good to spread the intellectual puzzlement around.

After a picnic down by the dam (also attended by ants and a tiny empidonax flycatcher), Mom decided she'd done all she could, so I walked her back to Houston Square and started again, making notes about the original priest's house, the Catholic church (annoyingly, the first and third ones still stand, but only a photograph of the one Len saw remains), and the course of the roads before starting the tour again. I was delightfully hung up at the Old Alsatian Steakhouse, where the owners (of the restaurant, not the property) were happy to sort out for me which part of the building was standing when and to show me the barbeque pit that's going to be an archeological site next month.

By 3:00 in the afternoon, my notebook and the booklet with the walking tour map in it were both scribbled up with illegible notes, my feet were sore, my water was almost gone, I was cross-eyed from looking at early Castroville architecture, I had names and even e-mail addresses for people I need to talk to, and I knew where and when the next Conservation Society meeting was, should I decide to crash it. I think I sat for a half an hour on the bench in front of Tour House #31, Hans Meat Market, which wasn't even relevant since it wasn't built till 1910; but it has a view of the saloon across from the courthouse where Len will go to report the crime and also happened to be where my feet gave out. I was only halfway through the tour sites on the north side of the highway - for now, at least, the only ones beside the Landmark Inn that matter - but I'd come to the end of my ability.

Well, almost. I realized, looking through the places I'd managed to miss even though I'd walked right by them, that a Certain Person would be well-known at the Tarde Hotel, if it was in fact operating as a hotel at that time. And why wouldn't it be? Frederick Law Olmstead had declared it the best hotel he stayed in during his travels through Texas in the mid-50s, and the Mexican traffic would have been heavy enough to support any number of hotels, assuming that military personnel, merchants, and officials accompanied the actual cotton trains (which presumably camped on the edge of town) in anything like a reasonable proportion. So I managed to stagger by for a look at it before returning to Moby, locating a convenience store, renewing my fluids, and leaving town.

I will go back and intend to take my husband at least once. I owe it to the Old Alsatian Steakhouse to bring them some business and need to speak to them again. Possibly this weekend, though I'm also supposed to go to Belton on Saturday, where Mike Collins of Gault is having a signing for his new book. Clovis Technology , by Bruce Bradley, Michael B Collins, & Andrew Hemmings, is a technical work, but if you're into that kind of thing, the signing's 2:00 to 4:00 PM Saturday, May 15, at the Bell County Museum in Belton. I may have to ditch Pleistocene archeology for Civil War archeology in June, if I can get in with that dig; but that doesn't excuse my falling behind!

Once again I have more things to do than I am physically capable of doing. Crashing that Conservation Society meeting would have made contacts of the sort I'm going to need in order to find out what I need to know; but I would have had to stay late in Castroville and was not at all sure I could make a good first impression. So I decided against it. Now I have to follow up those leads, organize my notes, plan the Belton trip - and oh, yes, clean my house, cook my low-sodium meals, feed birds and cats and husband, keep on the right side of code compliance in my - ahem - wildscaped yard, update this blog, and make some headway on the, um, six sewing projects I want to do before August.

I didn't do any of that this morning. I wrote on the story. Because everything else is organized around that, and if I lose sight of the needs of the story, I'll be spinning my wheels and wearing myself out to no purpose.

Sometimes I compare myself with the truly dedicated people who have made the great contributions to art, science, and various other passions, and feel how little I measure up. But that only makes me more tired, just when I ought to feel energized. Much better to take half an hour off to let the brain unsnarl, and then pick a job and get back to work.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Querying the History of Feet

Yesterday I was busy writing and going to the library; today I was busy going back to Castroville. I am much too tired to write about that now. But my feet hurt just from walking around town in SAS shoes, and I find myself pondering this question:

So, after she wangles the corpse over the back of her pony Bean, Len will pretty much have to walk to Castroville. Even if she picks up a cart from one of the families living between the crime scene and the San Antonio Road (which is far from a given), it'll probably be a small one she has to lead, not a big one she can ride. So what is she wearing on her feet, and in what ways will they be excruciatingly painful when she rides up to the door of the gristmill with her grisly load?

At the moment I think her choices are mocassins and wooden-soled shoes like the ones I saw at the Frontier Times Museum. Mocassins would be marginally better as long as she didn't put her foot wrong on a rock and bruise it, because wooden soles don't flex; but she was expecting to ride all her long distances and I'm not sure a mocassin is suitable for long rides with stirrups. Cowboy boots have highish heels for a reason, after all.

I have a horse-knowledgeable friend about whom I will consult on this and all other questions related to Bean, but I'm not at all sure she'd know the answer to this one.

And yes, this will keep me awake tonight. That and the caffeine I drank to get me through today. And the buzzing of unprocessed data overload. A researcher's life is a hard one, but I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, Fred.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Married to a Contactee

Although the first UFO abduction was documented in 1966 by John G. Fuller in The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours "Aboard a Flying Saucer," concerning the Betty and Barney Hill case, as long ago as the early 80s the big names in UFOology were still contactees - people who claimed direct contact with "space brothers" bringing messages of peace, love, and how we better shape up or ship out. Folks like George Adamski and Billy Meier met tall, slender aliens who resembled Tolkien elves, received messages, wrote books, took UFO pictures, and acted a lot like gurus.

The trip to Medina Lake jogged my memory of a book I considered writing way back in those days, before anal probes and therapy and little gray aliens with big eyes. I had been reading a book about Billy Meier, and how his UFO photos, contact stories, and non-profit foundation changed his lifestyle. Sorry, but that's what I chiefly remember! He attracted followers who filled his home, and his wife was placed under a lot of stress - I particularly remember one scene where she had a strong hysterical episode and was taken care of by one of the followers, with whom she had no common language. Money came in via the UFOs; but I was struck by how isolated, silent, bewildered, and marginalized this woman was in the midst of all this fuss. Did she believe her husband? The overwhelming impression I was getting is that he was faking for profit, but that he hadn't confided in her; that in fact he seldom told her anything. And when we went to visit one of my husband's co-workers on Medina Lake, I found myself looking at the setting for this novel.

It was a brilliant psychological thriller, if I say so myself - at least the shining perfect version in my head was. You'd have a standard working class Texas family living, not on the expensive waterfront, but in one of the small communities fringing the lake. Like my husband's co-worker, the family would own a small former vacation cottage, in need of a great deal of work to make it comfortable year round. If I recall correctly, this cottage had no insulation; windows opened by being pushed straight up into the wall above them; and space was at such a premium that one child essentially slept in a closet, with her clothes hanging above her. Unlike the co-worker, however, my characters would not be getting by.

The husband would be suffering from some disability and the wife would be working too hard to bring in less money than they needed to cover medical bills (no insurance!) and fix the house. They would be under tremendous financial pressure and desperate for a way out. The husband would spend more and more time out of the house; and one day would start bringing home UFO pictures and strange stories. He'd publish these and, with some canny publicity, become one of the contactee gurus, complete with book, news interviews, followers showing up on the doorstep, fame, suspicion, and fortune.

The POV character would be the wife. The husband always tells her the same stories he tells everyone else. The money is good, he's always been a good husband, and she loves him - she has to believe him. Yet, the stories are so far outside her experience she can't wrap her mind around them, and she never quite manages to see a UFO or an alien for herself - she finds believing him impossible. Strangers fill her house, making work for her and interfering with her children; strangers build a new room for her daughter, load her husband with enough money to get out of debt, tell her he's brilliant. He evades confrontation and behaves as if the most bizarre events are normal as a walk in the park. He develops relationships with female followers that seem closer than his with her; yet if he's lying, he's probably lying to them even more. Over time she will find evidence that he's faking, but he has a plausible explanation for everything and acts bewildered and hurt when she questions him. Is he crazy? Is she? What is all of this doing to her children?

One of the characters would be an investigator with whom she gets closer as the rift with her husband widens, but she was not going to cheat on her husband. The investigator would show her evidence - models perhaps - that would convince her that her husband was lying to her; but in the climax, a flood he predicted and in which he behaves heroically, alternate explanations for the evidence would arise, and the husband would disappear, permanently, leaving her more financially secure, and less certain of what was real and what wasn't than ever. The ending would make readers across America throw their books across the room in disgust, but they'd never be able to shake it.

I didn't write this for a number of reasons. At the time I conceived it, I could tell it was way too ambitious. For one thing, I wasn't even married yet (my husband and I were together five years before we did that). Though I had once been involved with a man I realized afterward was an habitual liar, who made unprovable claims every bit as weird and grandiose as the husband in this book, I knew enough to know that marriage is different, especially once you have kids, and that I would be dealing with complex, intense emotions that were way outside my experience.

The motivation to believe unbelievable things said by certain people is powerful, whether that person is spouse, parent, lover, or mentor. That was the idea that interested me most - the faith we invest in other human beings, and how far that can be tested before we break. It would be 20 years before I could approach this matter as more than an intellectual exercise; and in the meantime, I discovered that this isn't my sort of book. It would have to be dense, psychological, dark, and intense. Worst, it would be an adult book. All the concerns in it are adult concerns. The necessary style and approach to character would be suitable for adults, not children or teen-agers. I don't even read these books anymore. I sure wouldn't know how to peddle it. I could easily spend two years of my life writing this and never circulate it because the idea of breaking into the adult novel market didn't appeal to me.

I suppose I could rework the story from the POV of one of the children, but I find I can't get into it. The thing is, the wife's story is the specific one that attracted me. The children would be under tremendous strain for similar reasons; but ultimately they aren't responsible for their father or the financial well-being of the family. Their mother is. And whereas the kids have no choice about being the children of their parents, their mother gets up every morning and chooses anew whether to remain her husband's spouse.

We all have our limitations. I believe I know mine.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Location Scout #2: Medina County

Almost as soon as I get past the shadow of the I-35 heading south and west of downtown I begin to feel the sky opening up into the South Texas plain. It's hard to judge how far west the city extended in the days I'm thinking of. It's tempting to cut off the town at the present interstate highways running down either side of it, 10/35 on the west and 37 on the east. Mauermann's map encourages me to do so, extending only as far as Pecan in the east and with Laredo the last named street to the west; but since historically these areas are the "black" and "Mexican" parts of town, respectively, and since numerous important sites are indicated off the edges of the map, I'm disinclined to take it at face value. The area west of San Fernando, per one source, was called "Laredito" during the relevant period; and west of Laredo Mauermann shows two distinct streets (modern Santa Rosa and San Saba, I think), numerous tracks, clusters of buildings, the "Dutch windmill," and the plain where Gen. Sheridan reviewed troops. My 1852 plat map also lays out much of the area inside modern Loop 410, with small townlots not giving way to larger lots till west of Alazan Creek. My impression is that the town became less townlike and more villagelike out this way, and that I should mentally replace the present lively cultural life represented by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the giant votive candle with an equally lively suburban life of market gardens, jacales, and a working class that (if we may believe all the accounts of nightly fandangos from this period) also knew how to party hard.

Anyway, I was going somewhere with this, and that's Castroville. The Old Castroville Road loses its identity and merges with U.S. Hwy. 90 at Callaghan Road, within site of Wilford Hall, the tallest portion of Lackland AFB, and it doesn't take long after that to feel that you've "left town." The south side doesn't sprawl nearly as much as the north side (which is a shame, because there's less aquifer to interfere with out there) and though technically you're not out of town till you pass 1604, functionally the border is still 410. This is rolling prairie, not rolling hills, and its beauties require a more trained and subtle eye willing to see a good long way. I like it, myself. The flowers were overwhelmingly yellow and the sky was overwhelmingly blue.

Although technically Castroville was an information stop to get local maps and information to assist me in getting as close as possible to the old Mormon settlement shown on my mid-19th-century county map, I spent a lot more time there than I meant to. Medina County presents a more diffuse historical presence to the visitor than Bandera did - not that local history isn't being done, or that tourist interest is not sought, but that it has no central depository and no single figure that automatically draws the eye. The online presence is negligible, and has no central building. I've received no reply from the first e-mail I sent and the Chamber of Commerce had no contact information to give me. The historical walking tour is on my List of Things to Do, and if I spent too long at Koenig Park blame the barred owls (two of them!) that all by themselves made the day worthwhile. The librarian with the son in Mico and the Chamber of Commerce maps agreed that getting around the west side of Lake Medina was not practical, but were a big help in sorting out what series of county roads to follow.

To approximate the route to the Mormon settlement, take 471 north from Castroville. This is open prairie, with a fringe of hills cutting off the far distance to the west. At Rio Medina, turn west to cross the river on 2676. This bend is shown clearly on the 19th-century map and I presume the river at this point is fordable, but the bridge feels so high above the river and I had already spent so much more time than I intended that I didn't get a good look at. I did not stop in Rio Medina on the way up; and on the way back the "lady who knows," Bonnie Jaks, wasn't at the general store, so I'm still not sure whether Len would meet any real people on her way through here; however, I'll find out.

The Medina River at this point is a boundary line - once across it, you're in the Hill Country. Turn north again at the first right turn you come to. This is CR 271 and will be your lifeline. The road is narrow, with a marge of wildflowers - Indian blanket mostly right now - and then cedar/live oak scrub with some mesquite. The open sky prairie is gone, and I'm afraid I didn't see as much as Len did, because Moby, unlike Len's faithful steed Bean, cannot be trusted not to go off the road while I'm figuring out what the understory plants are. If you want to stop you generally have to block a gate across a private drive or road or crush some wildflowers. The road winds more than it appears to on the map; and Mico is less obvious.

When the dam was constructed in 1912, it drowned not only the Mormon Settlement, but the road to it. As near as I can tell, present-day 151 was the Castroville Road down from Bandera; it vanishes on the north side of the lake now into a maze of private roads. Its nearest heirs on the south side of the lake are the complex, twisty network of 260, 264, and 271. In 1936, a historical marker for the settlement, under the name of "Mountain Valley" (not to be confused with modern Mountain Valley Ranch) was erected on the dam; however, Homeland Security has closed the dam and you can't see even the historical marker anymore. Although the marker claims the settlement was abandoned in 1858, I've seen other information indicating that it had people in it who needed relocating in 1912. The nice Mr. Wilburn I ran across in front of the Mico Volunteer Fire Department gave me the phone number of the man organizing the centenniel, so maybe I'll be able to find out! (Their web page calendar is blank, but their fund raising barbeque is Saturday, May 8th, so if you're in the neighborhood, consider showing up.)

I began to feel discouraged poking around back there. I ate lunch in a turnaround on CR 271 because all the lakefront recreational areas on the south side of the lake are privately owned. I only had $16 on me, and entrance fees based on the assumption that you and a carful of kids are going to hike, boat, fish, swim, picnic, and generally raise cain on the property all afternoon were too rich for my blood. What started out as a massive irrigation project has turned into a recreation lake and a flash point for property rights and public access disputes.

I don't blame the proprietors for my lowered mood. Everyone I spoke to was as friendly and helpful as I could wish. This isn't like the hotels on South Padre Island cutting the locals out of beachfront for the sake of rich tourists; or even the gated community syndrome of rich folks buying up all the pretty and shutting the riffraff out, though such people exist. Locals trying to support a rural lifestyle by making rural pursuits available to citydwellers would be fools to charge less than they can get or make exceptions for researchers who just need a quiet spot to eat trail mix and make notes on floral and faunal assemblages. The only state park on the lake is in Lakehills, on the Bandera County side of the lake, and as state parks go it's nothing to write home about, at least not when the water's down and, as I was, you're too tired to explore properly. (There was supposed to be a $10 use fee even there, but I didn't see anybody to pay, so I didn't.)

The discouragement was the result of a number of factors - frustration at not being able to peel back the present and see the past underneath; the balance-challenged prairie native's unease at having all her lines of sight cut off by graded roads, hills, and second-growth brush; and my natural afternoon crash. But I realized, sitting at a picnic table and wondering if the relief of getting into the water with the frolicking dogs would be worth the effort of finding a place to change into my suit, that my discouragement is a road into Len's head. She wouldn't be crossing this terrain alone (except for Bean) in the first place if she weren't in deepest black teen-age despair. So I thought about that for awhile, and made notes. Mountain Valley to her would feel like the Valley of Doom. And then, on the wind, the letters blowing into her hand, Di's voice in the silent paper; and the echoing directionless shots, and the vultures circling.

So I headed back the way I had come - it would have been shorter to go up to 16, but that wasn't the point of this trip, and I wanted to stop in Rio Medina. Along a stretch of 271, I had noticed different flowers among the Indian blankets, flowers I haven't seen anywhere else so far, of a deep wine color, and when I started coming to them again I stopped to take a closer look. They're poppy mallow, or wine cups. And as I studied them, and tried to decide if the drive I was blocking was ever used, I heard a deep "chup chup chup" across the road. So I crossed. And there they were. The vultures.

Black vultures, which are expanding their range and I suspect will have to be displaced by turkey vultures in the story. I didn't have my camera on me and they flew off, chup chup chup with their ponderous black wings, but first they told me clear as can be: the body's here, among the winecups. And Len, gathering as many of his daughter's scattered letters as she can, comes out of her own blackness to resume the duties of humanity, hard as they are.

I didn't take a picture because I know how it would turn out, the birds all flown, just an open space in the brush with a mesquite tree. It didn't look like this back then, anyway. Livestock has been run up here; people have tried to make their living off this land; it would have been a more open and a more mature vegetation and I'll have to do the best I can with it. Since that moment of certainty I've been awake half the night working out what problems this site solves and which new ones it creates. But I'm not going to argue with vultures.

Half a mile later a roadrunner let me see him scamper along the roadside. I project my feelings onto nature and give meaning to birds. The barred owls in the morning were a promise; the vultures fulfilled it; and the roadrunner confirmed it. Knowing that the birds didn't notice me and couldn't care less if I ever write a story or not doesn't change that. Meaning is a human construct.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reference photos

Not surprisingly, the pictures from my research trip are mostly crud. I'm not a skilled photographer, and I was using a disposable camera because if I use my husband's 35 mm I always expose the film taking it out. It's one of the many talents I can count on but can't get paid for.

However, here's a picture of Polly's Chapel, with Moby in the foreground as a size reference:

Also, the front view of the old house on Cypress and 11th, from the middle of what would have been the residents's great view, came out reasonably well:

The Civil War rag doll, who doesn't have a thing to do with my story that I know of. I just like dolls.

I took a picture of the millstone mantelpiece, but it has a big black shadow in one corner. It's the only one like that on the roll, which isn't bad for me. I'm not sure why I can't get all obsessively perfectionist about photographs like I do about other things, but it saves time that I don't.

Tomorrow I take Old Castroville Road out to Medina County and go looking for the Mormon settlement, presently under Medina Lake. It turns out that the nearest approximation I can manage to the route Len and Di would have taken is complicated - Commerce, to Frio, to Old Castroville Road, which eventually peters out into Highway 90, which as near as I can make out follows the correct route, or anyway close enough for government work. Due to the efficiency with which I overprepared last week, I hardly had to do any overpreparation today; though now I think of it, I still need to print out the list of historical markers. So off I go to do that.

Monday, May 3, 2010

News! Footprints on the Ceiling

A picnicking family in Africa discovered fossil hyena footprints on the ceiling of a cave. The article, oddly, does not address the most urgent question: How did a hyena walk on the ceiling?!
Ancient Animal Tracks found near Nahoon's Bat Cave

Also, woolly mammoth blood reconstituted and found to contain genetic anti-freeze.

And some extremely interesting observational work with albatrosses in Hawai'i keeps coming against human desires for the scientists to observe what ought to happen according to whatever agenda the human has. Why is it so hard for laymen to accept that scientists are observing reality to develop and test notions of how it works, not trying to force a moral judgement onto it? The love that daren't squawk its name.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Idea Garage Sale Interlude: Clio Wants You!

The theoretical person out there in the blogosphere who's been reading all these excessively long posts and anticipating the next one probably thinks she knows what's coming today, more or less, and is wondering which of the tempting side trails I ran across in Bandera I'm going to wander down today. The romantic history of Annie Schickenden and her shawl? The action/adventure/spiritual journey of Policarpo Rodriguez? The time portal in the old house that would overlook the Medina River if the trees weren't in the way? The possibility for a thrilling detective series centering on a small-town museum docent?

Okay, that last one is close.

Tossing ideas out onto the ether for anybody to pick up if they want to is fun, but I'm under no illusion that anyone will ever use them for anything more than a writing exercise, and I thought now would be a good time to take a moment and address underlying processes for the benefit of a particular segment of the writing community.

Unless participation was limited in some way, every writing conference, class, or group I've ever attended, in person or online, has included a few examples of the tentative amateur; the person who is still wondering where ideas come from, who has a sense of a creative urge without any clear idea of what to do with it, and who has at best a vague notion of what constitutes The Writing Life, but is usually sure that there is a standard Writing Life to which they might aspire. They usually assume that they're supposed to be writing novels and that publication is the big shiny goal at the end of the road. They might be very young and experimenting with their self-image, or retired and looking to cultivate neglected talents; either way, they haven't yet grasped the amount of work involved and are usually still looking for the secret formula or the set of rules that will get them what they want.

Some of these people will become perpetual wannabes or drift away to some other hobby because they are interested in the trappings, not in writing itself. Most of the rest will knuckle down and join the mainstream of the profession - award winners, mid-list authors, bestsellers, and a strong substratum of people who, despite all the hard work, talent, dedication, and business savvy anyone could ask of them, never quite get where they want to go. Some will remain lifelong hobby writers, content to evade the agony of the publication search and write poetry for their grandchildren; some will become editors or agents or publicists instead; some will find their niche and set up shop there happily; some will die still floundering.

Of these outcomes, only perpetual wannabeism and floundering are truly bad outcomes; though those among us who produce publishable work, shop the hell out of it, and still can't land a contract may feel that I dismiss the frustration of their situation too easily. (I don't; but am defining this not as an "outcome" but as "process" - a new day may be around the corner for any of us, and that's why we keep stuff in the mail.) So the idea up for sale today is not a story idea per se, but a lifestyle one; a suggestion for those who know they have potential but don't know what it is.

History has a muse. It is as much an art as poetry or fiction; it uses many of the same mental muscles; it requires similar writing skills and benefits from similar creative talents; its roads also lead to publication; and Clio, the muse of history, works and plays well all her sisters. Her raw material is everywhere. Though the academic discipline of history dominates its expression, it has plenty of room for the avocational amateur. J. Marvin Hunter did not work out of a university, but his work is essential for anyone researching his particular area of Texas - like me - and both the museum and the Frontier Times magazine he founded made history accessible to laypeople.

The fact is that many of the urges that lead people into experimenting with writing can be satisfied by working on local history - or on geneology - or on weekend archeology - or on nature study - or on any kind of public outreach. And you stand an excellent chance of doing tangible good in the world by putting some energy into these tasks. A family historian in Germany, Ilse Wurster, found letters from a Texas branch of her family, and the book on which she collaborated with Texas relatives, Die Kettner Briefe/Die Kettner Letters turns out to contain the answers to questions concerning what happened in Fredericksburg during 1864 that I had resigned myself to never getting. Similar gaps might be filled in the history of New York City if anybody ever transcribes that diary. Consider the role played by the geneologist in the drama of Susan Taylor Brown's discovery of her father's second family - a drama which would never have begun if Susan hadn't challenged herself to write poetry in public on her blog, by the way.

You may think there's no such drama lurking in your mundane little town, or that the history of your area is thoroughly understood and has no hidden crannies; but you'd be wrong. Somewhere within fifty miles of you is an untranscribed diary; is a record that will connect two disparate people or events in a network of narrative; is an old person with memories about to be lost to the ages for lack of someone to ask questions; is an artifact or a fossil or a building that needs you to discover its importance. If you don't see these things, it's because you're not looking.

Once you've uncovered a true-life story, you have a lot of options - far more than the authors of fiction. Local history is the quintessential niche market. Depending on the nature of your material, you may see your name attached to a brochure published in association with the local newspaper or to a book with a major house. Certain small presses specialize in local-interest publications, and self-publishing should not be dismissed out of hand. Die Kettner Briefe is a publication, but the San Antonio Central Library has a copy for the Texana room. As a commercial venture it's a mug's game; but money is not the only way to measure success.

Maybe you're positive that this isn't enough for you. Maybe you know in your heart that "novelist" is what you need to be, what you will be - as soon as you find the story that presently eludes you. That's fine. What are you doing to hunt that idea down? Where are you looking? And what are you doing with your liesure time that will encourage it to come find you? If you're not writing anyway, why not volunteer at the old folks' home and encourage them to tell their stories? Why not take on the project the head of the local historical society can't get time for? Where do you think all those historical novels out there come from?

"Not a historical novelist!" You protest. "I want to write fantasy blockbusters!" Then you should be reading them; and you should have noticed how ubiquitous and tiresome the generic medieval fantasy world is, how exciting it feels to pick up a book like Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, or Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife and see something that resembles an American historical backdrop. Maybe you've noticed how much the history and folklore of Britain have informed British fantasy. I'll tell you a secret - your neighborhood has history and folklore too!

Or maybe you want to write a modern detective series. Count up in your head the number of mysteries you've read that incorporated some specialized subculture into their background, and in particular into the character of their detective. Wouldn't an amateur historian or a geneologist make a great amateur sleuth? And how would you write convincingly about that subculture if you weren't a part of it? Isn't there a lot of potential for nitty-gritty crime novels in the sordid scandals of your city's past? What about that story you used to scare each other with in high school, the one about the unsolved murder in that dark and spooky house? Is there any truth to that?

Nobody's going to hand you The Perfect Idea. You'll have to dig for it and be ready to know it when you find it. You may as well do something useful while looking for it.

And if in the process you find that your vocation isn't for writing, but for something else - that's a win for you, too.