Tuesday, June 29, 2010

All Generalizations are False

One morning while driving to Castroville I passed a truck on the side of the road. Three or four miles later I passed a middle-aged white man in a gimme cap and jeans, carrying something in one hand and his other hand extended with his thumb out. I damn near pulled over, but during the crucial moment I thought: "If I were his daughter, wife, mother, sister, and I stopped to pick up a hitcher while I was alone, he'd kick my butt."

I didn't feel good about it, but out of respect for his presumed feelings on the matter I went on by and he kept trudging. I hope one of the construction crews I passed that morning stopped for him. Assuming, as I do, that the truck was his, he'd already walked a lot farther than he should have had to - a lot farther than I would have had to. I know this because I've been stranded before. In Texas, anyway, and among Texans, middle-aged white women practically have rescue-on-demand as a class feature (to put it in gaming terms).

I like to think that, for almost any other conglomeration of features, I would have stopped. It seems only fair, since people will stop for me; and certain types of people are statistically far less likely to be rescued. A Mexican woman with kids in tow on Highway 90 will probably be picked up by the first Mexican driver to come along; but a black person of any age or gender is almost certainly going to be stuck, and I hope I'd have the decency to recognize this in time. But people seldom hitch these days: because cultural paranoia both stops people like me from picking them up, for fear that they might be rapists and serial killers, and leads potential hitchers to expect a high risk that anyone who did pick them up was a serial killer or rapist. Since I seldom have the opportunity to pick up a hitcher, my database for predicting my own behavior is inadequate. I don't know what I'd do in any given situation until I do it. Nobody does.

So how does this gel with my confident assumption that a man I'd never met, of whom I caught a glimpse breezing by at 70 MPH, would disapprove of my stopping to rescue him? If I don't know what I'd do, how can I be so sure how he'd feel? Isn't it wrong to operate on stereotypes like that?

Well - sure. But I defy you to learn anything without generalizing from past experience, or to have repeated experiences and not generalize from them. We sort things into categories for handy reference so we can make quick judgements when we need to. That rattling noise you hear may not be a rattlesnake, but if it is, freezing in position while you get more facts could save your life. If in your experience gimme caps, trucks, and middle-aged white faces are packaged with a certain set of attitudes and behaviors, adapting your own behavior to take those into account is reasonable and will save you the trouble of reanalyzing your deameanor towards every new middle-aged white face you see. For that matter, you're using generalizations even to recognize sex, age, color, vehicle, and headgear as important features in an encounter. And you can't talk about good, evil, war, peace, health, illness, literature, or the weather without generalizing. The capacity to do so is a basic component of the mechanics of human intelligence.

I've talked about this a little before when I talked about how genre is a fantasy. It's bad to mistake the map for the territory; but if you don't have the map, you can't negotiate the territory. I love the paradox I used for the post title, because like any good paradox it's true. It works. Any social acumen I possess, any capacity I have to work out a rational course of action, any ability I have to create believable three-dimensional characters, depends on my keeping that principle in mind.

At worst, stereotypes aren't based on real experience, but are projections of one's fears, faults, and worst impulses. I could trot out any number of examples, but that would make people angry (and by people I mean me). But stereotypes can also be subverted and turned to positive uses, making the people to whom they apply more familiar and less frightening. The tendency of minorities to embrace negative steretypes of themselves for humorous purposes is brilliant tactics, a kind of cultural judo, though it can be embarrassing or disempowering at certain stages of the acculturation process. And for a writer, starting with a stereotype and finding the human being inside is a good characterization trick to have in the bag.

But a generalization is not a universally applicable truth. In order to be useful, you have to be able to come down to specifics. It's counterproductive to keep looking for rattlesnakes in New York City every time you hear a rattle. I'm entitled to initiate contact, or not, with a person based on how the last 100 middle-aged white men in gimme caps treated me, but once we're in contact, if this one treats me differently, I need to react to him, not to the last 100.

The only person we ever kicked out of our gaming group had one image of me, and another of my husband. Holding a fruitful conversation with him became impossible when I was always responded to as some shining persecuted angel of patience, regardless of what I said, and Damon was always responded to as an arrogant amoral cad, regardless of what he did, in game or out. That was an extreme case; but people do this to each other all the time. I don't think I've ever seen a flamewar that didn't start with one person doing this to another.

We can't, alas, stop other people from doing this to us. But we can, and should, and must, strive to keep ourselves from doing it to them. Whether "they" are real people, or historical figures, or characters.

I think I should have stopped for him.

(And now for something completely different: Origami that folds itself! How cool is that?)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Somebody Else's Title

A few years ago my husband and I were in Austin - I don't remember if this was in conjunction with a writing event or Melissa Etheridge's last tour - and he wanted to eat at Clarence Stubbs's Barbeque Restaurant. This is my fault because I'm the one who introduced him to Stubbs's sauce (the trick to finding good commercial barbeque sauce is simple: examine the ingrediant list. If it contains the words "high fructose corn syrup," don't get it.). He doesn't often get to eat at barbeque restaurants with me because they're such a waste of time for vegetarians, but I can eat anywhere that serves a baked potato and I'm usually the one choosing the restaurant in Austin, so we went.

Stubbs's has a stage in the basement and is one of a number of establishments that hosts a Gospel Brunch on Sunday mornings. We weren't there for that, but the restrooms are also downstairs, so I went down and saw the stage. It's a nice rustic-looking venue; no idea what the acoustics are like. And in the stall I read the words: "I am an athiest at the Gospel Brunch."

Which is a perfect title. For a memoir. For someone in the music industry (probably Our Lady J); or someone who has done her best to pursue her own identity while not cutting herself off from the family and friends whose identities are publicly perceived as inimical to hers; or for the person who wrote those words. Who, if you run across this - c'mon, write it already!

Except she was probably 18 when she wrote the graffito and too young for memoir. Twenty, thirty, fifty years from now, though, she has the title all ready to go.

It is not unusual for writers to have to deflect people who approach them to "collaborate;" who, by "collaborate" do not mean "we write the story together" but "I give you the idea, you do all the work, and we split the profits 50/50." Anybody who has read a few of these garage sales understands now why this doesn't work. We all have to work out our own ideas and don't have time or energy to deal with anybody else's. But when you're in idea generation mode all the time, tripping over them every time you go to the restroom, some of the ideas you have aren't your own.

I'm not in the music industry. I'm not an athiest - and "agnostic at the Gospel Brunch" doesn't have anything like as good a ring. I can't imagine I'd ever write a memoir. A life spent reading, writing, and doing house and yardwork isn't memoir material. So this is somebody else's title and I can't do anything with it, but pass it on and hope the person who belongs to picks it up eventually.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Essence of Summer

Once I faced up to the fact that vertigo was kicking my butt and I was neither smart nor steady enough to do anything useful, I made the most of it and spent some long June afternoons indulging in the prime luxury of summer: Reading true ghost stories on the balcony, with a cold drink.

Once upon a time a bag of chips would have been included in that luxury, and I would have had the option of caffeine in the drink; but the hot sun and the cold drink and the true stories of weirdness are good enough. Plus, of course, cats, one in the lap and one following the shade across the porch.

I have always craved the weird and been more or less afraid of the dark. If I confine my reading of ghost stories and so on to the sunny hours, I spend fewer of the dark ones lying awake dreading the presences I cannot see. I derive considerable pleasure from bungee jumping (mentally) through a universe vast enough that my finite human mind is under no obligation to understand all of it, contemplating mysterious appearances and disappearances, apparitions, poltergeists, sourceless voices, animals displaced in time or space, all the apparently impossible experiences of ordinary people. I hate being scared.

Most literary supernatural tales focus too much on instilling fear and use too many of the old gothic trappings to satisfy me. It always seemed to me grossly unfair that the really pretty houses, with the towers and bay windows and gingerbread and so on (I love a frilly building) in fiction were so often unliveable due to ghosts; and also that, unlike in real life, the residents of ordinary ranch houses never had anything interesting happen to them. This was a large part of the motivation behind The Ghost Sitter - to put a fictional ghost into a house that the individuals making up my audience were likely to live in.

In fact, I wanted to write a ghost story that took the assumptions of modern ghost theory and put them to good use; one that read like fiction, but satisfied the same itch as true ones. Closure, but not too many answers.

True weird stories seldom have neat resolutions, but they often open up vistas of possibility. And they are just as likely to happen in full summer sunlight as in the wet, cold, windy, dreary wuthering heights of tradition. When those mainstay authors of my childhood, Susy Smith and Hans Holzer, tracked down ghosts, they were as likely to manifest on sunny porches, in busy warehouses, in new houses with Florida rooms as in atmospheric theaters or spooky old houses. Fairies dance and girls perform divinations on Midsummer Night. Brownies did housework. Poltergeists throw stones and break dishes in broad daylight. People see water monsters and Bigfoot on their summer vacations. The most long-lasting, bizarre, and witnessed haunting in American history, the Bell Witch, took place in the sunny hills of Tennessee. And I eat it all up with a spoon.

Even when we approach the literary tradition, the cold misty Halloweeny setting isn't as prevalent as the stereotypes would have us think. Every ghost story J. Frank Dobie ever told is saturated with the dry, hot air of Texas and northern Mexico. One of the spookiest, most atmospheric fictions ever penned is called "August Heat." (It is also a model of concision. Poe would weep to find himself surpassed like this.) "The Willows", by Algernon Blackwood, and "They," by Rudyard Kipling, are both summer stories, and though Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's much-anthologized "A Pair of Hands" is told in front of a fireplace, it happens amid the blossoms of banksia, clematis, and honeysuckle.

But nothing scratches that particular summer-time, porch-reading, cat-basking, salt-craving, cold-drinking itch like a good compilation of unexplained happenings in real life. Charles Fort, Rupert Gould, Martin Gardner, Frank Edwards, John Keel, I don't care who wrote it or what his take is on it. If it's about ghosts, fairies, monsters, poltergeists, or just the flat-out bizarre, and it's about real events, I'm there. It is thanks to this indiscriminate reading habit that I have any critical sense at all, for these people seldom agreed with each other, are not always reliable, and do not always tell you when they're joking or have a vested interest. (For the perfect Fortean read, I give you The Mothman Prophecies , by John Keel. Not the movie, though.) The same data can be interpreted as proof of any number of things depending on your starting premises. Believers in a phenomenon might be too quick to accept a hoax, but a skeptic of the same phenomenon can tie the evidence into knots in order to find one.

And where do I stand? Why, I believe - in ghosts and fairies and poltergeists and any number of things; but I don't know what any of them are. I don't care, either. All I want is the story.

If someone tells me he's seen the apparition of a girl in a full skirt and a sunbonnet on the patio at the Old Alsatian, it is not for me to argue with him, though I don't believe any girl is buried there. (That slab was in all probability removed from the cookhouse, built in 1856, when Mr. Belcher repaired the back wall and dumped stones and stucco along the fence line.) It might be one of the Karle girls, or one of their friends, returning to a happy place; it might be something masquerading as one; it might be something the human eye can't interpret that the brain turned into a pioneer girl in order to interpret it into something.

I don't mind not knowing. I like it. As long as it's honest not-knowing, not laziness and failing to do the research. Not knowing is where curiosity, research, and storymaking start.

Speaking of laziness - I need a new cold drink.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Filling in the Blanks: An Idea Garage Sale Interlude

It is a truth not at all universally acknowledged that scientists and historians, when interpreting data, are making stories every bit as much as novelists are.

The big difference between a theory or hypothesis and a story is that a story is entitled to bridge gaps and fill in story holes with invention; whereas the most a theory or hypothesis is allowed to do is to point out a hole and offer suggestions for where to look and what to do in order to fill it. If these suggestions are investigated and pan out, this is called "successful prediction" and the hypothesis is strengthened; if investigation contradicts the hypothesis, the hypothesis is discarded or changed, as appropriate.

A fiction writer can, up to a certain point, change her story to accommodate new information, too, but once she's published she's locked in for the duration. Jean Auel, for example, is now stuck with inarticulate Neanderthals even though evidence uncovered since the first publication of Clan of the Cave Bear indicates that they would have had a full range of phonics available to them.

I do not, at the moment, have all the available data behind the site of the dig just completed at the Old Alsatian Steakhouse site in Castroville, but based on the data I have - consisting of local tradition, US Army reports, and the parts of the dig I witnessed - this is what went down.

In April of 1861, due to the secession of Texas from the Union, all units of the US Army were recalled from the frontier. Ben McCulloch, with dubious authority, corralled General Twiggs of the San Antonio garrison and persuaded him to surrender. His men were variously imprisoned or inducted into the Confederate Army (more or less) and their equipment confiscated. When Robert E. Lee came through town on his way to report to Washington, McCulloch demanded his surrender, too, but Lee declared that, though he had not yet decided where his duty lay, he knew he owned none to "any rebel government of Texas" and refused. His luggage was confiscated, and was still in San Antonio when the war ended.

The garrisons of the distant frontier forts Quitman, Davis, and Bliss were still en route to civilization in early May. When they reached Castroville - which, despite the presence of a castle of the Knights of the Golden Circle, voted overwhelmingly against secession - they were warned of a force being sent out to meet them from San Antonio. The force arrayed against them was variously reported as somewhere between 1500 and 1700 (the offical count was 1370) and included cavalry and artillery to the tune of six field pieces. The full force of the US Army at the time of leaving the frontier was 320, including 12 musicians. The meeting of these two forces at San Lucas Springs 15 miles west of San Antonio on May 9 was not so much a battle as a surrender, since by then the Union force had been reduced to 270 by "sickness, desertion, and stragglers...who remained at Castroville from drunkenness and other causes." (All this is according to the official report.)

At some point in the process of straggling and getting drunk in one of Castroville's 30+ liquor-providing establishments, some contingent of the US forces got into conversation with one of Karle family, Unionists who had recently purchased a property on the corner of Houston Square from the equally Unionist Widow Krust on condition that they build her a little house in the rear of the property and rent it to her at a dollar a year. Ben McCulloch was confiscating all the US Army-owned equipment he could get his hands on for the Confederacy. To prevent this, Mr. Karle offered his property as a dump site for anything the people he was talking to wished to get rid of. The soldiers took him up on this offer, unlimbered their trenching tools, and dug a deep, narrow pit on the east side of his smokehouse.

According to local story, these soldiers wished to take their chances heading north on their own, so they would have counted in the official report as deserters, though they were motivated by a desire to evade capture and report for duty with the nearest Union forces. Based on the number of mule bits found, all jumbled together, and the quantity of black leather, at least one of them was a mule driver. At least four people dumped their sabre belts, and one officer knew about the plan, because the leather holster of his sidearm wound up in the pit; though in the absence of an officer named in the report as a deserter I conclude that he gave the sidearm to one of the deserters, wished him well, and returned to his duty station. Mr. Karle donated some meat from the cookhouse (possibly fearing that the soldiers would break in and help themselves if he didn't), and they ate and drank as they dug, dozens of wine and beer bottles finding their way into the pit. Perhaps Mr. Karle, originally planning to do a kindness to one or two people, grew fearful as more men showed up - so many, and so drunk, and him with children in the house! An infection of fear spread through the soldiers as their alcohol intake increased, so that they dumped armloads of harness and belts willy-nilly till, perhaps, dawn approached. The soldiers covered the hole, but the disturbance of the ground was visible, so the Karles, along with Frau Krust, piled trash on top of it as the men lurched away.

The spot became the household's regular dumping spot for all manner of trash until garbage service was introduced in the 20th century. Once or twice, before the construction of Medina Dam upstream changed the flood zones, it was inundated. The cookhouse deteriorated and underwent repair, fences came and went, tenants came and went.

In the early 21st century, Ken Smith rented a portion of the property from Don Belcher, the current owner, for a restaurant, and undertook extensive renovations to the portion of the sprawling structure (comprised of four different houses) containing the restaurant space. Belcher agreed to the construction of a barbeque pit by the old cookhouse, and his son participated in part of the work. Belcher Jr. knew the trash pit contained interesting junk, as he had once found a US Army belt buckle out there, and worn it for some years. Sure enough, he and his fellow workers pulled out lots of bottles (some of which they smashed for the fun of it), belt buckles, a huge interlocking mass of mule bits, a leather holster, and another belt buckle, before Arlene Smith asked them to stop. As a member of the local historical society, she knew an archeological site when she saw one, but it took her most of a year to find an archeologist who was interested. At last she did, and the TAS field school was the result.

We never found what we most wanted - the insignia of the 8th infantry, which would have confirmed the identity of the people doing the dumping - unless it turned up in the last bucket of the last day, the one I was too dizzy to attend. Everything we found was consistent with the story I told here, but a number of different interpretations are also possible. Maybe the Karles didn't volunteer. Maybe they were intimidated by drunken ruffians intent on escape, or maybe the drunken ruffians dug the pit by night without consulting them, or maybe the drunks broke into the smokehouse and littered the property with their cast-offs, leaving the Karles to dig the pit in order to hide the material and avoid the condemnation of their few, but triumphant, secessionist neighbors. Maybe the material doesn't date from this period at all, though since Castroville was never a military station it's hard to match any other event with the distinctive army gear found. (All those mule bits!) Maybe there was more than one deposition of army gear, or it was moved to this location from another one at some point - with so many artifacts coming out of an unstratified pile of barbeque pit spoil, the available stratigraphy doesn't prove much.

As a novelist, I can pick a story and run with it. As a historian or scientist, I would have to acknowledge lots of alternative scenarios and try to suggest further action that could give us more information. In this case, a painstaking document search (including perusal of private sources from the time, such as letters and diaries) and digging up even more of the yard and or digging deeper are almost the only options.

If you go to the Old Alsatian (and I recommend it - they accommodate dietary restrictions and the food is wonderful) and ask Ken or Arlene or a random server, they will happily tell you their version of the above story, which will differ from mine in many respects because they are not me. They will also, with varying degrees of prompting, tell you another story, one the historians and archeologists won't, about the daughter of the Karle family who died in 1856 at the age of 16, was buried in the yard, and now haunts the dining patio. They might even tell you that the dig turned up part of her gravestone.

This last detail is not true. While moving the rock fence, field school members found a slab of native limestone with a broken edge and the numbers "56" carved into it, but the carving is far too casual for a gravestone and by 1856 the cemetery at Cross Hill was well-established. There would have been no reason for the good Catholic Karles (remember that rosary? And the property is cattycorner from the church) to bury a daughter in the yard.

Unless she was a suicide and the priest refused to bury her in sacred ground; as I thought, but did not say. I would never slander the memory of these people, whose family still live in the vicinity and of whom I have heard nothing negative, by openly positing such a thing. But if I were writing a story, and I weren't using Castroville but an analog small town, and I needed a grave in the yard - well, that would be different.

When telling a story, you do what's good for the story. Facts are useful servants but a bad master to a storyteller, and as long as that's clear in everyone's head, no harm is done. Nor should we blame the Smiths if the stories they tell their patrons polish the rough edges and fill in the holes of the messy, incomplete truth. A historic restaurant without a ghost, especially in an area with a high tourist traffic, is at a commercial disadvantage; and one with a ghost moving bottles or appearing as an apparition without any explanatory tale attached is not much better off.

Stories. We all make them, and we all use approximately the same methods to do so, whether as historians, as novelists, or as contributors to the oral tradition. The difference lies in the use to which we put the stories and the degree to which we lock them into final form. History and the oral tradition are fluid and can be adjusted with the discovery of new facts or (in the case of oral tradition) new motives in telling the tale. Only fiction has a point at which it is locked in; in which case, you'd better tell it well enough that the audience that now has better information is willing to set that information aside and believe in your story for the time it takes to read it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

TAS Field School, Day 6; and Happy Juneteenth!

First of all - if you don't know what Juneteenth is, stop a minute and feel happy anyway. June 19 is the day Federal troops arrived at Galveston and said "Yes, we will enforce the Emancipation Proclamation so let those people go already."

They then proceeded to muck things up in various ways, but at least the black population of the south wasn't stuck in neutral anymore. It was seriously argued right up to this day that the Federal government couldn't possibly, really, truly, no way, end slavery; they'd just curtail it or confine it or or or something that keeps our poor delicate white backs out of the cotton patch. A year later it was still being argued that "free" didn't have to mean "full citizen," either, and of course it didn't - "free" white women couldn't vote in most US elections, and though most pre-war feminists were also more or less abolitionist, the decision to extend the franchise to black men and not to women of any description split the cause of civil rights in ways it still hasn't recovered from.

But anyway. For some reason I had my dates out of step all week. I kept thinking that the last day of the field school was the 17th and that was good because my husband Damon needed the car on the 18th, when I should have been thinking the 18th and 19th respectively. It turned out to be just as well, though, because yesterday I had vertigo something awful and would have wrecked Moby on the way to the Castroville. So I can't report yet (I hope to hear) what turned up on the last day. On the next to the last day my balance was already going off, so rather than getting to dig up the unit I'd been sitting on - and which turned up lots of metal, bottles, leather, and a big batch of bone (causing us all to picture the 8th Infantry having a barbeque as they dumped their gear) - I started on a unit up top with Claire. My balance was already going off, so I screened a lot more than I dug. People with inner ear problems shouldn't have their heads lower than their butts.

The Civil War era stuff was all deep, of course. Our surface-level unit was a bit of a formality. Pits have to be wider at the top than at the bottom for safety's sake, and the only directly relevant information we were going to get from the surface would be a sense of just how disturbed this trash pit was, how big it was at different times, and what different uses might have gone into it. If we find Civil War stuff at level 3, for example, when the main bulk is at level 8, we know that either there were two episodes of deposition of Civil War material or somebody before us has disturbed the Civil War strata, either shoving some of the artifacts down or bringing some of them up.

But the question you're asking of a site right now isn't the only question that could be asked of it - that's why "irrelevant" material is still curated, waiting for someone to come along asking other questions. And one of the satisfactions of archeology is to dig up artifacts that make you feel close to the inhabitants. Clair uncovered a button, a barrel hoop, hundreds of nails both round (modern) and square (19th-century), and a curling iron.

The curling iron illustrated one of the great truths of archeology - one person's mystery is another person's familiar household implement. Jesi, the crew chief who dug with Claire while I was screening, turned up what he at first thought was a burst metal pipe, but it had something riveted to it and, on examination, the apparent bursting was two pieces that fit together, a round pipe fitting into a half-pipe and rusted together. Claire knew it immediately for a curling iron, and when I saw it end-on I recognized it, too - as did every other woman on the site that day. The men didn't even know what a curling iron is.

This, as well as the need for man-hours of labor, is why archeology is done in teams. Nobody can know everything (though an experienced person can know a hell of a lot within his area of expertise). I knew enough to recognize herbivore molars attached to a jaw when they turned up in the screen, but Jesi, whose folks are from cow country, recognized them as calf. One person can identify spent .22 cartridges, another knows the difference between a steelie marble and round shot, somebody knows blackletter German or the proper terms for buttons or the difference between a horseshoe and a muleshoe or the dates of local flood events and how far they extended. Yes, you can look things up, but that takes awhile. Lynn had a lot of hard copy data on US Army equipment and insignia, but at the time I left the dig no one had identified the wing brooch, which looked like insignia to us.

I'm still tired, so tune in tomorrow (or Monday if I crash again) to find out what this dig was all about and get the lowdown on the ghost.

Meanwhile, here's a picture of the crew that was still here when the picture was taken on - Thursday? Friday? It all runs together in my head. Some faces are missing because the participants fluctuated from day to day. By missing Friday I probably got left out of a picture and missed the lunch the owners of the Old Alsatian were talking about hosting for us (and it would have been wonderful, too).

Lynn Yakubik, primary investigator, is center front. I'm at the right at the end with my water bottle, and Claire Younkin is standing behind me. I hope I'm still doing this stuff when I'm 84 like her! Jesi is the young guy behind her on the end of the last row, and I'm already beginning to forget the names of everybody else.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

TAS Field School, Day 5

It wasn't Level 4, it was Level 5. I suck at tracking numbers. And the mass of leather hanging at the edge of the pit disintegrated under even finger-screening, but we have a lot of leather so that's all right. It had done its job. When we shovel-skimmed Unit 5 down to 80 centimeters below surface, you could clearly see where the edge of the original trash pit was - we'd been digging, probably, in the spoil of that pit - on the north end, and the shovel test started turning up leather and rusty metal again.

We now have a terraced pit with enough room to work the floor, which we swept so Lynn could take an overview and decide where to dig. I think she said we'd checkerboard 4 units but I was pretty punchy by the end of the day and might be wrong.

I am so tired I had to rest all afternoon to have the strength to form these sentences. Major caffeination tomorrow morning, or I'll just be in the way.

Tomorrow is the last day. Everybody knows the best stuff comes out on the last day.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

TAS Field School, Days 3 & 4

Yesterday was the day the business of rising and setting with the sun and working all morning caught up with me. I was too zonked to think, much less post coherently. So today I took my speed - as my husband calls the morning cup of fully caffeinated tea in which I normally cannot indulge if I hope to sleep - and as a result I'm fit to report.

Not that there's much to report. We have six units open and all have been relatively disappointing after the heady first day's screening. I've been kneeling in the future barbeque pit scraping nearly-sterile (except for ants, hackberry roots, and such) dirt and reflecting that either only a handful of men ditched their military equipment here, or I'm kneeling on a gold mine. And I got some evidence to back me up this morning when I found another couple of those rivets-with-leather and familiar-looking corroded plain buckles that were so abundant in "the pile," right on the edge of the south wall, which is also the north side of the pit. There's a corroded bone (probably a ham or beef shoulder blade) right at level and some color changes in the dirt indicative of rust and leather. When I tried brushing the dirt away from the bone, a piece of it broke away from the wall and some leather-and-rivet jumped out from below it. If anything cool is to be found in Unit 5, Level 4 - opened bright and early tomorrow - is where it will be found. At some point tomorrow or Thursday the bottom of the pit will be shovel tested - i.e. a limited area dug straight down - to check the gold mine hypothesis.

I've also meta woman who gave me the phone number of someone in the Quihi Historical Society and took me to a place where I saw a blackpoll warbler (life bird!), so I personally am ahead for the week even if we've found all there is to find.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Settings + TAS Field School, Day 2

Today we finished screening "the pile" and started actual digging. Cool finds to emerge from the pile: a glass marble and something the same size that might be round shot; the face of the pipe bowl from yesterday; a black bead; a portion of a china doll face (small, probably a 3" - 5" Frozen Charlotte or a penny doll); more buttons; and the star of the show, half a dozen carved wooden beads still strung on a brass wire, probably part of a rosary.

We have six units adjacent to the future BBQ pit. I stand in the pit and work on Unit 5. Unit 6 went down "to level" (10 cm below the surface) but Claire Younkin and I worked a little slower. This is typical and though it is possible to go too slow in a dig you should remind yourself, when you see someone else appearing to accomplish more, that it's not a race. A less-experienced digger who hasn't got the hang of trowel movement, a touch of arthritis, a site that is more complex or has more roots or is crumbling away and has to be supported - all kinds of things can slow you down. We aren't expecting much of the top level. Units 5 and 6 form the back of a former trash heap and abut the property line, from which a fence and a loose stone wall were removed to make room for us, so we found fence elements, baling wire, a plastic and a metal rod, screws, and some sort of machinery, a handle or a cog, that turned on a square axle and can probably be identified in the lab. And more glass. Lots of glass. The glass at this site, at least certain kinds, is going to be measured by weight, not per piece.

Screening the pile, we continued to find lots of bones, big and small - chicken and possibly other fowl, the broken ends of long bones of all sizes, ribs, and amorphous lumps of spongy inner bone with all the solid cortex eroded away. Early in the day, one of the people who wasn't at this site yesterday found a bone and asked about it. (To a first-day person, in any enterprise, the second-day person is an authority. This can be a heavy responsibility.) I explained about the smokehouse and said to dump it in the current field sack as it wasn't being curated separately. He said: "Even if it's a human bone?"

I answered: "If it's a human bone you yell out 'stop.' That's a game-changer."

He was joking, but the thing is, every episode of the TV show Bones begins with a similar scene - people going about their business and suddenly, shockingly, coming across a body in an unexpected context. A fresh body would transform the archeological dig into a crime scene; an in situ grave would change the entire nature of the dig; and an in situ grave of a certain vintage would become both a crime scene and an archeological dig.

It is a fact of literature that certain genres are as much about the setting and atmosphere as they are about plot and character. This is absolutely true of the mystery! This is not to say that the plot need not be clever or the character appealing, but do we not pick up a Jane Marple mystery desiring to visit St. Mary Mead and visit with her over knitting as much as desiring to have our brains tied in knots? Do we not choose to read about Sherrif Dan Rhodes for the appeal of his small Texas town and pawky humor, Phillip Marlowe to visit those mean streets, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee to feel like insiders in the Checkerboard and the Big Rez?

A TAS field school would be a wonderful setting for a mystery. Every archeologist is a detective to a certain extent, and the relationships that develop at such annual events, plus the extensive supply of amateurs, professionals, students, children, teens, parents, locals, and landowners provide a dynamic cast of characters to fill roles as amateur detectives, snoopy sidekicks, comic relief, villains, suspects, victims, red herrings - anybody and anything you need. Once you decided to use the field school, you wouldn't even need a body. The mystery could be a disappearance, a series of theft, the identity of the looters cherry-picking the site overnight despite increasingly jacked-up security. You're spoilt for choice.

I often start a story like this, and the problem is to narrow the field. Before you can write the story, you have to decide which story you're going to tell. So ask yourself questions about what you want to do. What possibilities excite you most? To what audience do you wish to appeal? Do you want a short story or a novel, a series or a stand-alone? The answers to those questions will eliminate big swatches of possibility.

For instance, if you're writing a middle-grade mystery, the mystery absolutely must be solved by the protagonist child, so you need to choose a mystery that your audience will accept a child can solve. This is less restrictive than it sounds, because 11-year-old children are willing to believe an 11-year-old child can solve problems that an adult would consider it improper for one to even know about. If you're writing for adults and want to create a romantic crimefighting duo good for several books, maybe you'd have the new sherrif in town solving the mystery with one of the archeologists involved in the field school, striking sparks of sexual tension and sharing expertise.

Heck, this setting would probably be good for a romantic novel, though I never read those and wouldn't know. And archeological digs are such convenient launchpads for time travel stories that I've done it twice, myself. You could write a farce riffing off the social dynamic created by so many strangers, friends, and acquaintances camping together for a week with a common purpose. I'd kind of like to read a two-tiered historical novel/mystery in which the body is found and the mystery of who-this-person-is-and-how-did-he-die is worked on in the modern day and the story of the person the body belonged to is told in alternate chapters, each chapter illuminating the characters and events in the adjacent chapters. (Yeah, yeah, big bite to chew - remember, your reach should exceed your grasp, or what's a heaven for?)

Like some of these ideas but aren't comfortable with TAS field schools? What's comfortable to you? Scout camp and conventions and recreationist groups offer many similar possibilities - cf Mary Monica Pulver's SCA classic, Murder at the War. Not all members of the Society of Creative Anachronism routinely read mysteries; but I never met one that wouldn't read Murder at the War, because it enters into a world and a cast of characters that is personal to them. They want to see if they recognize anyone, if the author has treated the subculture fairly, to laugh at the in-jokes and check for accuracy.

Thousands of people attend field schools and volunteer digs like this every year. All of them are literate. I just thought I'd mention that.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

TAS Field School, Day 1

I am a little wiped and my feet hurt, and I almost certainly will be too tired to pick a garage sale idea tomorrow, but I thought I'd note down today's highlights.

Under Lynn Yakubik, of the Center for Archeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio, we spent the day screening the spoil pile that accumulated between the point that the Smiths, of the Old Alsatian Restaurant, started digging their barbeque pit and the point at which they realized they needed to stop and call in the archeologist. One of the crew chiefs and a volunteer did a preliminary profile of the pit while everybody else screened for "Field Sack #1." By the end of the day we were up to Field Sack 1-32 or thereabouts - somebody may have logged in a sack or two after the last one I saw. Because this was all disturbed dirt there was no point trying to track it too closely. We weren't going to get any information from the position of any object.

We did, however, find cool stuff. Numerous bottles, both ceramic and glass, in various states of shatter, some with the features that should make them identifiable with certain time periods or tasks - at least one bottle of blueing, lots of ginger beer and wine bottles, and "J. Hos...tomach" in clear glass. Lots and lots and lots of broken window glass from a known source, so much that we were told to not collect glass fragments smaller than a quarter or a 50-cent piece. (The majority of the volunteers here were old enough to know how big a 50-cent piece was; the younger contingent stayed in Hondo for the prehistoric Indian dig.) Some large ceramics, some more delicate ceramics, one flint scraper, and plenty of rusty metal - chains, nails, mule bits, barrel hoops, and less recognizable rusty lumps. I personally probably curated a bunch of old twigs, because at this level of corrosion it's hard to tell a nail from a clay-clodded twig. Shell, ceramic, and bone buttons; but none of the metal U.S. Army buttons we hoped to find. The screening table I shared with Judy Wayland and Charles Locke produced quite a bit of black leather, much of it in association with metal bits, mostly rivets but some buckles or links. It looked like harness to me, but we don't decide that, the lab people do. We also found part of a broken pipe. And quite a bit of bone - the site was adjacent to a smokehouse, after all.

The big finds for today were two intact US Army belt buckles, with some black leather attached, consistent with sabre belts of the 1851 issue; and a small metal comb for holding the hair in place, with about half the teeth intact and an embossed design. I should remember the names of the people who found those, but I'm blanking. I'll get people more firmly attached to their names tomorrow.

It was different from Gault in some ways (indoor plumbing, dry screening, glass and metal, different priorities in the curation) but alike in the most important ones. Lots of artifacts even in the relatively disappointing buckets, for one. And a lot of nice people working together and geeking out over cool finds, for another.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Brevity is relative

No insomnia last night, so I must be writing effectively. Lots to do, however, so let's make this a short post. (Is that mocking laughter I hear in the background?)

And what's shorter than news links? Here's a contest for the truly nerdy among us: write a fanfic of 500-2000 words explaining how an Orc-John-Scalzi came to be pursued by Wil Wheaton in a clown sweater, with a lance, riding on the back of a unikittehpeg (that's a flying kitten with a single horn in its forehead, in case you aren't nerdy enough). Yes, there's a picture. It's all based on the picture. Prize is publication at ten cents per word and a bunch of books from Subterranean Press. Proceeds from the chapbook in which your story is published will go toward curing lupus. Did you know Louisa May Alcott had lupus? That's why she died so young. That, and relentless overwork. It's a sucky disease. I have no affiliation with any of these people and I'm probably physically incapable of writing a story in less than 2000 words, so I'm just passing word along.

Also passed along, Do Not Wear Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men in jaguar country! It attracts them. Who knew that overpriced "designer" (yeah, I'm sure Calvin Klein personally learned chemistry to develop this odor in his basement lab, right next to the sewing machine) fragrances could be a boon to science?

Meanwhile, the importance of cleaning your workspace regularly and examining papers before throwing them out is highlighted in a story about a teacher who found a document from 1792 in a pile of old textbooks.

But, to remind us that we're all fiddling while Rome burns, we learn that snake populations are crashing and no one knows why. What, you don't like snakes? Lets see how you feel about them after rats eat up all your corn! Predators get a bad rap. When the snakes are all gone, no unikittehpeg is going to swoop in and save us from the rampaging order rodentia.

There. That's short, by my standards. I may post on Sunday, or I may be too tired from archeology to do anything else, in which case, see you after the 17th! (Or, no, wait, I can't see any of you. You'll see me.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Insomnia has Repercussions

Insomnia has set in, so I've put research on hold for awhile. My insomnia is a direct result of the brain not shutting off and the brain not shutting off is a direct result of having too much in it, so I have to write a certain amount out before I can expect to sleep again.

The trouble is that I need to answer certain research questions, or be sure they have no answers, before I write the next bit. So I skipped to a bit I knew enough to write. This is not my normal way to proceed, on anything. If I don't do things systematically I don't get them done at all. Besides, as I write my way through a plot elements, characters, and themes emerge organically. I have no idea how this change in procedure is going to affect that.

However, I'm going to be at the historical portion of this year's TAS field school dig starting 7 AM on the 12th. I must be rested and properly overprepared for that. So writing ahead is my only option. And after all, it's not unusual for one of those elements, characters, or themes to emerge later in a book than it should have, and require me to fold back the story and make room for it in an earlier scene.

I've worked out the progress of the plot and have the firmest bits marked on the timeline - which is another new elements. It's not unusual, in the revision process, to have to work out a timeline to make sure events are consistent with one another, but I've never had to do one ahead of time before. I have things like historical events, phases of the moon, holidays, days of the week, and chores traditionally associated with each day plotted in black, all the way back to the year of Len's birth, and the story events are in red. I may have to plot the actions of Bad Guys in blue, but it hasn't come to that yet.

I'm pretty fussy about research details but I've never felt the need for this degree of structure in the process before; not even in the time travel story that I told in objective chronological order back in the 80s. (No, you can't see it - not enough of it survives. But I did have a complete manuscript at one point - when I start on an impractical idea, I carry it through, goldurn it!) The difference is the necessity to intersect with real people. It doesn't make any sense to make an imaginary analog to Castroville just so I don't have to worry about who Len reports the murder to or whether I'm putting a bandit lair on somebody's great-grandpa's land. And the whole concept of the story hinges on its happening during this particular chaotic historical interval, the small personal concerns of Len and Di playing out during this period when no one was in charge, when we'd lost but Texas hadn't surrendered, when no one knew what "free" meant. The excess rigor in the research is necessary to render the chaos tangible.

It also frees me up to be looser in the actual writing, however. I've had to work out the plot in more detail than I normally would; which means I can move to any point in it and be reasonably sure I know what's going on and won't have to rewrite the whole thing later because of elements discovered when writing the preceding scene. I'll have to watch my transitions with special care, and I'll almost certainly have to rewrite some dialog and introspections; but that's just revision. I can do that.

Thinking about this new method of writing has also made me realize a basic conflict between Len's and Di's world views. Di is a planner. She doesn't like to make a move until she knows the next three moves after that. Len doesn't plan until a contingency arises; but she's always alert to pounce on the contingency, and she assumes that because she has to do something, she can. As a result - Di worries and Len doesn't; Di is a pessimist, Len an optimist. Since it looks like the plot is going to have to resolve in even fewer days than I originally planned on, it's important for me to set the tone of that conflict from the moment Len first sets eyes on her and has to explain that her father is dead. I normally write like Len. This book, I'll have to write like Di. But I'm writing from Len's point of view.

It's kind of exciting. I wonder how I'll do! And if I can do enough of it to get rested before the next infodump starts on the 12th.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Escape through the Drainage Ditches

Our friend J ate too much fatty food. One day when he'd crashed at our house overnight and I was cooking bacon for breakfast, I remarked on how odd it was that bacon should taste so good when it was really nothing but pure fat. He said: "Oh, puh-leeze. If it weren't for fat we'd all be vegetarians." And he's right - it was an attempt at a low-fat diet that demonstrated to me that I don't like meat, only meat fat, so I stopped eating both.

Another of his life-changing pearls of wisdom occurred when we were discussing backstories on role-playing characters, and I remarked that I thought communes intended to cut the members off from imperfect modern society (such as the all-women enclave my witch secret agent had once lived in) were cowardly, and he said: "So who says everybody has to be brave all the time? Sometimes you have to be cowardly for awhile."

He had a contagious laugh as big as the house, and once fell off the couch laughing at a Saturday Night Live sketch that conflated the starship Enterprise with the Love Boat. You didn't even have to know what he was laughing at to join in. He did character sketches of role-playing characters full of life and movement, but never would finish a drawing for fear of messing up what he had done right. I think he may have been a little in love with my husband but that didn't translate into resentment of me. He once saved my character in a Call of Cthulhu game by running forward to catch me as I fell from the second story onto marble steps below, tripping over his bunny slippers, and providing a soft landing.

When he was a kid in Houston he was beat up a lot. The bullies in his life were intent enough on hurting him that they would lie in wait for him after school, so he learned to use the system of drainage easements between his home and school to evade them. He knew every in and out, every back yard, every culvert, every concrete-lined ditch and seasonal creek. And he would pretend to be using this knowledge to lead children to safety, escaping the monsters or the Nazis or the zombies.

Being who I am, when he told me about this I started expanding it. I posited an alternate dimension corresponding to Houston at several points, negotiable by the drainage ditches; and the protagonist would be a boy who learned to travel between the worlds and used his knowledge to help the Good Guys in their resistance to the Bad Guys in Charge. J asked if there would be a prince to rescue and fall in love with and I said sure. We worked out a lot of the details, which grow hazy for me now, and J said: "I like this story. You should write this story."

While we were making characters for him to DM in an all-dwarf campaign, and planning for the three of us to go to a Melissa Etheridge concert at the Auditorium, he had three heart attacks in quick succession, had quadruple-bypass surgery, lingered in a half-conscious state with a tube in his neck in the ICU for a month, and died. He was 28.

That was in June, 1995. And I haven't been able to write his story or give him his prince and all that's left of him is some unfinished sketches in a couple of sketchbooks that we kept back when his family came. I can't even remember what we decided about how the story should go. How lame a friend am I to forget something like that?

I want him to come back and run the dwarf campaign, and learn not to be afraid to finish a drawing so we can do the story together as a graphic novel. That would cool.

Because sometimes I miss him bad.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Do I Stay or Do I Go?

I never did get to Castroville Tuesday; or yesterday, either. I'm still deciding whether I can go today. The reasons I didn't, a different one for each day, should be done with, but they lurk at the back of my morning. Either could rear up and cut me off at any time. Sometime in the next half-hour I'll have to make a commitment, either to staying or to going, and I'm in suspense to see which it will be. If I don't go to Castroville I'll either draft a query or spend all day helping somebody move, unless the world starts spinning, in which case all bets are off.

I quit the soul-sucking day job ostensibly to have control of my own time, but of course I don't. Nobody does. A friend needed help on Tuesday - I cannot control when my friends need help. I can, and on occasion do, say no to them; but if you only say yes to someone when it's convenient, and never volunteer without being asked, that person isn't your friend in any sense I recognize. Health stuff happened yesterday. If I could control health stuff, I'd eliminate it from my life entirely.

Making schedules and plans never works for me long-term. I can't even outline a novel properly. I make lists of events that have to happen to get from the situation at the beginning to the ending I envision - I don't start writing till I have an ending - and I write from one to the next. I usually need three scenes to set up and react to each item on the list; more than that, I'm overwriting and putting in too much detail, less and the story logic breaks down. But sometimes by scene I mean scene and sometimes by scene I mean chapter. I think it's like surfing or horseback riding (not that I ever do either). You can pick your wave but you can't control it; you can guide your horse but in rough terrain or a fog you'd be a fool to try. Wave or horse or story - you have to trust them to carry you, or you're coming off.

I could go on for a long time about how the harder you try to control your life or the people around you or the work you do, the less of what you want you're going to get. I could even get off on a rant about how that's what makes a day job soul-sucking and how the more rules a business has the lower the quality of work done. But I need to put my lunch together as if I'm taking it to Castroville and after that I think I'll know whether I'm going or not, so take all that as read.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Circle of One's Own

I failed my saving throw (as us gaming geeks say) several times when we stopped at a Megabookstore Saturday to pick up a series book my husband had accidentally skipped over (this is a major catastrophe that must be addressed as soon as realized) and once was for the trade paperback of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, in which they solicited stories from the Nerdiest Authors They Know. Cyn and Greg Leitich-Smith are in it, and recognizable, on the cover (though Greg is mostly recognizable because he's standing next to Cyn; the pixel-doll format in which the authors are depicted has a uniform height requirement that necessarily compresses him).

I enjoyed it, though I have to say there are surprising lacunae. A LARP story, good, but no Society for Creative Anachronism? Most of the authors cite D&D as part of their geek cred in the bios, but there's no actual D&D story and other tabletop games might as well not exist. Almost everybody plays something online but nobody is depicted kicking back with the obscure board games. Is Rocky Horror fandom set during the heyday truly geeky enough to count? (Now, if it's actively pursued into the 21st century, sure.) Not one Lovecraft or Douglas Adams reference? And so on. I'm sure the editors expect to get this sort of nitpicky criticism, given the target audience, and submit that it is, at one level, the most appropriate possible response.

Of course what really bothers me (in a rolling-my-eyes-at-myself way) is that I have more geek cred than some of these authors. Okay, Lisa Yee cutting class to go the library is impressive, and Cassandra Clare wrote the LOTR Very Secret Diaries, which are referenced in the Munchkin game, which is serious points. But -- I address my husband by his SCA name (Damon; his other name is Michael and it doesn't suit him). I wrote my Tolkien rip-off before Star Wars was invented. I started playing AD&D the week the first Dungeon Master's Guide was published, I still have that and my first character sheet (stained with the blood of somebody else's Big Red), and I attended my first tournament game running a 102-degree fever. Do any of them have dedicated game rooms containing the complete run of Dragon Magazine? Did any of them attend Star Trek: The Movie on opening night and link hands with their gaming group to keep from being separated in the crush? Did any of them make a point of attending all the really bad fantasy movies that came out in the early 80s en masse with the gaming group, in hope that one of them, eventually, would not suck, and see the least sucky elements appear in the game the very next day? Do any of them use phrases like "made/failed my saving throw" and "facing the peril" in everyday discourse, or keep track of how many levels they have attained in a particular skill set? I think not!

But I failed the big requirement for being invited into the anthology - even though we have one pair of mutual friends in Cyn and Greg, I'm not sufficiently integrated into the social network of YA writers to know Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, and therefore was not one of "the geekiest writers they knew." And that's my doing. I don't integrate into social networks well. This is perhaps the geekiest thing about me. I was a geek before geeks had cliques, and I've never actually gotten into a clique in my life.

No, my current gaming group isn't one, because cliques are defined as subsets of larger social sets, such as schools or SCA baronies. If there's a Knights of the Dinner Table style gaming subculture in San Antonio, we're not hooked into that, either.

I've always had a vague longing after the mutually supportive literary circles I read about in the bios of other writers - the Lovecraft Circle, the Romantics, the Inklings, that extended gay writing family that Christopher Isherwood takes for granted in this autobiographical works (and they're all autobiographical). Vague, because when faced with opportunities to step up and be part of one I've never quite been able to do it. I don't go to SCBWI meetings unless there's a topic I know will be of particular interest to me. I've never been to an SFWA meeting in my life and I don't attend cons regularly. There's a "third monday" social meetup for writers in San Antonio, but I don't even know how to find out who's hosting it in any given week - though I know people who attend and I could find out. I don't go to Audubon Society or Sierra Club meetings, either, and though I've shown up at war protests nobody at them ever learned my name. I've even missed opportunities to hook up with old gaming buddies. Any time I'm faced with the opportunity to walk into a group that ought to accept me I can't shake the uneasy sense that "they" don't really want me there, unless I have a specific reason to be there. And I always have enough to do at home that I can find a reason to keep to myself.

The overwhelming theme in Geektastic is not gaming, or dressing up, or absorption in science, math, literature, or what have you. It's alienation vs. belonging, finding your subculture or remaining on the fringes. It's about love and loneliness and the personal connections that will make you feel that you're okay being who you are as opposed to the ones that only place more pressure on you to be who the group defines you as. And you know what? We're all looking for those connections.

I don't think one person in a thousand ever feels they get fully hooked in to a circle of friends. I don't think one person in a million has reasonable standards for how that should feel. And I'm not the one who can wrap up that need and make anybody feel better about having it in a sentence at the end of a blog post.

Certainly not this close to library opening time when I don't even have my lunch put together. Castroville Library opens in less than 40 minutes!