Sunday, August 15, 2010


Back during the Year from Hell, I spent a certain amount of time developing a community called Away. Nobody ever went there on purpose. You took a wrong turn, at a time when you didn't have any place good to go anyway, your vehicle broke down, and there you were, stranded.

The point of view characters were the children of a woman in the middle of a crisis - their mother broke down at the same time as the car, and the kids had to cope. The side of the road has ripe berries. The younger girl meets a woman who is getting too old to manage her house and suggests that they can stay with her and help with upkeep rather than paying rent. The diner wants a waitress and takes the older girl for the job.

The population, economy, and culture of the town are odd. Everybody is friendly, but nobody is gregarious. The place is off the grid, and though many people have generators none of them have phones or computers. The food served at the cafe is produced locally. Most people garden, hunt, or forage in the surrounding countryside. Many of them seem out of touch with modern life, exhibiting and sharing outmoded skills and ways of speech. Nobody except children exhibits any curiosity about the outside world. Many of the locals seem to exist in a dreamy state of passivity, with any direction imposed by the more active members of the community, who are cheerful, productive, and endlessly patient. The girls find themselves unobtrusively supported on all sides as they take care of their mother, who gradually improves in this peaceful, undemanding atmosphere. The whole place is like a giant emotional swimming pool with enough people on hand to notice when anyone loses buoyancy.

Some of the people in Away are still recovering from PTSD contracted during the Civil War, or possibly the Mexican or Indian wars. It's a pocket dimension that can only be found by people who need it. Aging slows down there (less for children), and basic needs are easier to cover. So broken people have the time they need to mend - all the time in the world.

I could sort of see the shape that the story would take, with the mother improving, but not as fast as the older daughter would need her to; the girls discovering the nature of Away gradually; and the mother and younger daughter eventually reaching the point at which, though not ready to leave themselves, they can watch her get into the car (which a local has taught her to repair) and drive away from them into the wider world.

But all I ever did with it was world-building, notes and maps and house plans, working out who the people in town were and what eras they came from and why they had retreated here. I never resolved some of the practical problems (where does the oldest daughter fill up the tank to drive the car out?) or even gave the protagonists names. This was during the period when I felt that I ought to be able to write and was pressuring myself to do so, and I realized that the basic concept of the story was my brain's way of telling myself to back off.

I couldn't have a novel-worthy conflict take place in Away. The whole point of the place was that it deflected conflicts and relieved pressures, stripped life down to the point that the people who needed to be there, the broken people and the people who were breaking trying to hold those people together, could deal with what they needed to deal with. Maybe a profound, lyrical, insightful book could be written about such a place - but I guarantee you it can't be written by someone who stands in need of one at the time of writing! Even now, I think, I'm dragging the weight of the Year from Hell around with me too much to find the still, strong place from which such a book might be written. Maybe when I'm 90.

In case I don't live to be 90, here you go. At least making the house plans was fun.

Friday, August 13, 2010

How to Write When You Can't

This is the most basic skill a writer needs. Write in your head. All the time.

Write your story while you do laundry and dishes and clean the catboxes. Write during routine tasks at the soul-sucking day job. Write while nodding and saying "oh, dear" to your neighbor's 18th recital of how the grocery clerk was rude to her. That way, when you get the chance to write, you can do it.

Even when the chance is a 15-minute coffee break at the soul-sucking day job. Even when the chance is five minutes between getting the baby down for the nap and the toddler having an emergency. Even when the chance is a glorious free morning in which you are brain-dead because you haven't slept in three days and the new medicine is making you stupid and nauseated and you can't think a new thought to save your life.

It'll all be lined up in your head ready to go. Trust me. But you have to make a habit of it. That pump has to stay primed.

Oh, and past a certain point it's counterproductive to do it while waiting to go to sleep at night. If you can't turn your brain off, though, writing your story is a better rut to run down than global warming, overpopulation, war, death, what the boss meant by that odd remark, the state of your finances, that pain in your knee, or the fact that you can't sleep.

Learn this while you're young, and it will not desert you. All my books have been written this way, one way or another.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Key to Convincing Characters

The town I live in is prettier than other people's towns, and the man I'm married to is handsomer than other people's husbands. If the world functions as it should, though, those other people disagree with me!

Today is Damon's birthday. We spent the morning doing the Riverwalk with his parents, met my Reverend Mom for lunch at a Mexican restaurant where his Mom remembered really liking a shrimp dish (and couldn't remember what it was called), and now we're resting up for the blueberry-apple pie I made him in lieu of a cake.

Riverwalking is not actually much of his idea of a good time, but the chief thing for him is to be with the people he loves, so this is how it panned out. I used to get frustrated with him because I always have something I want to be seeing or doing or learning and when I got to feeling I was dragging him all over the place and never letting him do what he wanted to do, he never had anything he particularly wanted to do. I was even the motivating force behind our getting back into gaming 13 years ago, though he does more than his fair share of the work that supports it. But that's the way he is. He's not an instigator. He's an enabler. Somebody else says: "We should do this" and he says: "Okay, this is how to make that happen; I've set this up for you, when do you want to do that thing?"

Over and over and over, I meet people who cannot conceive that other people are not like themselves. You like this food rather than that, that activity rather than this one, interpret this narrative that way? Nonsense! You can't possibly! Such people are bigots, and bigotry is a just as wrong, whether the topic at issue is a book or a belief or a sexual preference.

But there are even more people who cannot conceive that a writer can invent someone who is not like herself; who is amazed that I wrote about a teen-ager who enjoyed the opportunity to drive a Corvette before I learned to drive, or about a child who enjoyed raw tomatoes though I don't care for them; who reacts to every word out of a character's mouth as if it must be the opinion of the author (even when that character is the villain and the hero's actions directly contradict him).

On the contrary. The key to writing a realistic, three-dimensional character is to set aside who you are, access who that character is, and let him be himself; just like you do for the people you love. You wouldn't insist that your husband not eat tomatoes just because you can't stand them; you don't (I hope!) gag your in-laws when they express opinions on child-rearing or politics or whatever that differ from yours. Imaginary people don't deserve as much from us as real ones do, but if we want them to seem real, it behooves us to treat them with the same respect we grant to real ones.

Okay, that's enough writerly wisdom for one day. I have a husband to spoil, if he'll let me.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Western Gothic

So Damon got a copy of The Castle of Wolfenbach for his birthday - guaranteed horrid by Isabella Thorpe, and she wasn't kidding around: apparently central Europe in the early 19th century was sufficiently lawless that the natural response of an honest person finding one woman with her throat slit and another missing was to conceal the corpse in a trunk and not alert any authorities. And reading it reminded me of a story I blocked out during some idle time at a temp job in the mid-90s.

At that time, I had been reading J. Sheridan LeFanu's Uncle Silas, which somebody or other described as the most frightening book in English literature or something like that. But I remember feeling that the heroine had access to resources she wasn't exploiting due to artificial limits in her world view. Most of Uncle Silas's power over her was due to isolation; most of her isolation was due, not to the absence of people, but to a mutual assumption that the people around her weren't really there. She also was helpless in ways that seemed to me unnecessary.

This is often my reaction when confronted with a vulnerable 19th century British heroine. We are so used to modern Gothics, in which our own sensibilities are reflected back in time via spunky heroines, that when we read the authentic originals the feminine upper middle-class ideal of the British 19th century - trapped in a straitjacket of social convention and without many essential life skills, like cooking and cleaning - we are apt to want to slap them more than to commiserate with their helplessness.

American heroines of the same vintage do not suffer from the same contrast. Though contemporary authors often complain of the deficiency in household education of the young American woman, their outlook on life is much more aggressive, and their social milieu is such that, when an author wants to isolate one, she can be removed right away from all human contact and thrown on her own resources in fact, rather than merely being taken to a "lonely" manor where the only faces she sees are those of servants and "rustics," on whom she depends for her daily necessities without ever attempting to befriend. (The heroine of Castle of Wolfenbach is at least grateful to a faithful servant, but she can't sleep in a cottager's bed and it never occurs to her that she should learn to cook.)

So I plotted out an extended Gothic parody in which an Uncle Silas-like figure lures the orphan daughter of an estranged son and heir back to England. The time is post Civil War, so she's feeling a financial obligation to get what she can out of her father's legacy for her mother and little brothers and sisters; and she stymies her villainous uncle at every turn by taking an interest in the wrong things. A debut in society is stressful and sinful (all that dancing and card-playing!), but she takes a lively interest in the sheep, horse breeding, and farming operations. The local tenants and managers, though disconcerted by her at first, are hardly likely to be indifferent to a potential heir who wants to learn from them rather then just extract money from them; though any of them who are mismanaging or corrupt will soon be put in an awkward position with her evil uncle. She has an understanding with a young man back home, so the romantic candidate her uncle puts forward doesn't stand a chance. When sinister servants try to intimidate her, she threatens to have them fired and does for herself. And the familiarity with basic mechanics and firearms she developed in the course of helping her mother run the ranch during the War is of signal assistance to her in circumventing the nefarious death and rape traps her uncle puts her into when he realizes he can't control her by the social means he intended. In the end she'll work out that he was lying to her about what the will says and find that the terms give her power over him (otherwise he'd hardly be so hot to manipulate and put her out of the way), and use it.

The heroine's name was Beulah, because it was the least romantic one I could think of.

The trouble with this story, of course, is that done properly it would be a lot of work, very long, and appeal to a narrow audience; a kind of extended fanfic for a genre rather than a specific work. Time and energy are finite.

The closest I ever came to writing this was The Light in the Tower at Mulder Manor, which I need to dig out and make available in its entirety for the delectation of the sort of people who like this sort of thing - a fanfic I did years ago for the AOL x-phile boards, the first paragraph of each chapter of the X-files triple-decker Gothic novel, which I justified to myself as an exercise in being funny on purpose and writing to an audience, but also allowed me to write lines like "He said her name as if sucking an orange" and glorious run-on polysyllabic sentences like "Certainly not from her previous employer, who was still wroth as a result of her thrusting his grown son into the fishpond -- despite the fact that she had at once extricated him from that predicament; and, indeed, it was the young man's own cephalopodian tendencies which had suggested the fishpond to Dana as the proper habitation of his person."

Now, of course, we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and steampunk, and I have once again dallied behind the curve where I might have leapt ahead of it. Oh, well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Task

So this morning I'm lightheaded and a little nauseated, couldn't sleep last night, the people who are my best bets for answering lingering questions about the history of Medina County haven't returned my phone calls, it's too hot to catch up on housework, visitors coming on Saturday, and I'm suddenly aware of how little I know about camels - but -

But I can feel the story. She's growing. She's moving. She's kicking. When I sit down to write, even when I'm stupid from lack of sleep, even when I can't string the words together to evoke the details, I know where it's going and how it's developing, what happens here and how Len feels about it, how Di reacts to that. My conscious brain is often stymied but my subconscious brain is busily doing its job. So instead of writing into a blank space I'm writing up to a point and then tabbing over to do a websearch on camel harness, reading Twelfth Night (of course Len bought Twelfth Night at Gamble's Bookstore; whatever made me think she'd pick up Byron?) at lunch, roughing out the scene so I can come back to it when I'm smarter.

I'm not sure at what point I stopped researching and started writing. But it feels good.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fearless Fandom; or Weary Post-Concert Nattering On

I have legitimate bloggable thoughts engendered by the Melissa Etheridge concert I went to last night, but a concert in Austin on Monday on the heels of archeology at Gault on Saturday has left me mind-numbingly tired (we got home at one this morning and I normally turn into a pumpkin around ten) and - though I try to tone it down - I am a serious raving Etheridge fangirl, so bear with me.

We bought our tickets through the fan club, with the result that for astoundingly little money we wound up within 20 feet of the stage in direct line with the central microphone. So that feeling I always get sooner or later in a Melissa concert that she has just looked straight into my eyes and sung directly to me, may have not been an illusion at one point last night. The first time it happened was the first time we went to one of her concerts (not the first time we "saw" her live - that was in the Alamodome when she opened for the Eagles, and we were impressed enough despite the dreadful acoustics and the impossibility of seeing her from the nosebleed seats we were in to jump on the chance when she came to the Municipal Auditorium), while our friend J was dying. We'd been going to treat him, but he had his heart attack before we got the tickets and was still dying when the time came. So I was a little detached from events and didn't get on my feet, not even for "Bring Me Some Water," or "Similar Features," not even for "I'm the Only One," not even for "Like the Way I Do." But I did participate in the near-riot of footstamping that brought her back out for a third encore, and then she looked straight at me and threw out a lasso of notes that belonged on a mandolin and before she even started singing "Maggie May," without any idea how I got there, I was on my feet.

And I never have really sat down for her since. One of my major coping strategies for the Year from Hell was to have Melissa on heavy rotation on the media player at the soul-sucking dayjob and in the CD player in the car; and one of the thoughts in the back of my brain last night was that while we had our Year from Hell she was in chemo.

I think she would be proud of that if she knew, and justly so. But the connection I feel here, though real enough in one way, in another way is what another woman whose assistance I rely on in hard times, Louisa May Alcott, would call a castle in the air. Maybe Melissa became conscious of me as an individual in the third row for, oh, a note or two last night; but the connection between artist and audience is not between individuals, but between the originator of the art, on the one side, and those who continue it, on the other. The artist puts the art out there - music, lyric, story, dialog, light, shade, color - and the audience puts it to whatever use suits us.

When an artist and an audience are in synch - as we always seem to be at Melissa concerts - the result is art amplified, made greater than the artist can manage alone. When the audience is artist - and all artists are audiences - you get imitation, and influence, and sometimes an effect like the reflection of light from mirror to mirror to mirror till something entirely new becomes illumined, which is what happened when Melissa covered "Piece of My Heart" at the Grammies and turned the great anthem of love and loyalty gone toxic into a song of triumph over cancer. I love covers because of this potential for surprise and repurposing. (Listen to Dolly Parton's cover of "Stairway to Heaven" sometime.)

The transformative uses of audiences can be powerful; or they can be trivial; or they can be dangerous. That's how you get both Woodstock and Altamont. For that matter, it's how you get Freedom Rides and Nuremburg Rallies, for political leaders are tapping into the same vein. I am too tired to articulate this notion coherently, but at a behavioral level entertainers and politicians, fans and followers, are functionally the same.

Painters and writers, thank goodness, who don't have to be in touch with their followers as directly, are spared some of the side effects. There are reasons musicians, politicians, and actors are famous for substance abuse and unstable home lives. "You're the only relationship I have that makes sense," Melissa said to us last night; and I hate that this is probably true and is probably a direct result of the qualities that I value most in her. Who, after all, can long maintain a relationship with someone who routinely creates intense personal connections with a thousand screaming fans at a time?

The price of stardom is a high one, higher than I would be willing pay, so it is good that I will never owe it. The height of my own ambition is one I can never, by its nature, know I have achieved. I want someone to find something I wrote, and read it, and have a thought I could not have had, and which she could not have had without reading what I wrote. The thought doesn't have to be one I approve of, or comprehend. This can happen any number of times, but it only has to happen once to justify my existence. And it can happen any time. A year ago. Fifty, a hundred years after I die.

That's how art works. Many, many people have done this for me. Some people I can repay by paying for books and tracks and tickets, buying their merchandise, standing up at their concerts, waiting in line at their signings, commenting on their blogs. Others, I can only pay forward, as best I can.

I had a lot of other related thoughts as we drove home through the dark last night, but now that the caffeine and adrenaline have worn off, that'll do.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Rolling Down the Highway

I took U.S. Highway 281 up to Gault yesterday. It's shorter to go via IH 35, but driving through Austin, Parking Lot of the Hills, during rush hour (about 3-7 PM on Fridays) cancels out that benefit. Plus, on 281, so far, no outlet malls; though it is surely only a matter of time. US 281 between San Antonio and Burnet is the stretch of road where I hit my stride as a long-distance driver, as opposed to passenger, and found what pleasure may be derived from blasting past pleasant scenery without having leisure to look at it. I advise stocking lots of 70s pop/rock in your music system, especially southern bands. They nail the necessary relaxed, yet urgent, rhythms.

What this means is that on 281 I am sharing the road with two kinds of people - locals, and folks in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B. I haven't been driving long in the grand scheme of things, but I've been a long-distance passenger my whole life, and I have good rural driving manners. I strive to stay within 5 mph of the speed limit. I pass slower traffic with plenty of room, and if not passing I keep to the right. On a two-lane highway with a shoulder, if someone comes up behind who is going faster than me, I drive on the shoulder till he can get by me; when tractors, trailers, or pony carts do that for me I wave at them.

One particular stretch of 281 has no shoulders and is too hilly to allow using the oncoming lane for passing very often. The climbing lanes on the steeper hills are the only good opportunities. Which is why it was so disturbing to encounter so many drivers who tore along at a steady rate sufficiently above the speed limit that by the time I saw them I barely had time to get out of their way (and I was having a hard time keeping it down to a legal 70 most of the way). On one occasion, when I was wondering just as I reached the climbing lane why the person hauling the extra-wide trailer who was holding me at 60 wasn't getting over so I could get past him, we were both passed on the right by someone I hadn't seen coming, who almost had to have gone off the pavement in preference to slowing down. Some of the people doing this were hauling things; most were in silver or pale blue SUVs.

This sort of behavior is so stupid, so dangerous, and so obnoxious that it's hard to imagine a motive for it; but that's a challenge, and it's a really long drive even with the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Lynryd Skynyrd working with you. I wrote the lesbian western in my head a lot of the way, but I needed variety and a garage sale idea, so I kept going back to the speed demons in the SUVs. Sometimes in rural areas you get speed demons in pickups, locals who know the roads and the cops, often teen-agers blowing off stored energy; but these shiny SUVs said "new subdivision" to me. I imagined bored newly-legal teens with too much vehicle and too little direction, in a hurry to get to Austin on a Friday night, assuming that their reflexes were up to handling any challenge.

And then I thought of those street racing movies I see trailers for sometimes. They are very much not my kind of thing - the generic title my husband gives them is Bored in 60 Seconds - but as far as I can tell there's usually some kind of rivalry and a heterosexual "love" story based on who can get away with driving the stupidest and endangering the most innocent bystanders and cops. Someone who liked that kind of movie could write a kick-ass parody (parodies should always be written from deep and abiding love) set on US 281.

The ideal thing, I think, would be a storyline with rival subcultures of reckless drivers, the Rednecks and the New Money. There's got to be a better term for the New Money - what do Rednecks call these people? Yuppies is such an 80s term. The Redneck cars don't look like much, but they are supported by loving, skilled shade tree mechanics who can pull off absurd feats of mechanical legerdemain under the battered old hoods. They know the terrain and they are not about to let a bunch of interlopers from those ugly houses on what used to be Old Man Hosmer's place and is now Designer Oaks Subdivision take over their roads. The New Money have neither taste nor sense, but they do have rampant senses of entitlement and trust fund money. You could throw in a Romeo-and-Juliet storyline with a Redneck girl and a New Money boy courting each other by one-upping each other's vehicular upgrades. You could probably do a really funny scene with a jet engine in a John Deere. Dan Ackroyd could play the sheriff.

If I wrote this it would turn nasty. I've come a long way since I learned to drive five years ago, but I'm constantly aware that every time I get on the road I'm sitting on a deadly weapon. Every time I return from a trip without killing anybody I feel triumphant. So people who treat them as toys, or who get on the road and act as though they are the only ones on it who matter, make me angry. I scowl after them and imagine that they condemn immigrants for not waiting 20 years to get a legal visa but would themselves rather risk the lives of everyone around them and break state and federal laws rather than take ten minutes rather than five getting to town. I want to put a sign in lights on Moby's bumper that says "Excuse me for going the speed limit." (A bumper sticker won't do; the target audience is going too fast to notice bumper stickers.) When I watch a movie with a car chase in it I am worried about the people in the overturned and smashed-up cars and bored by the choreography of the chase. It took me 20 years to understand the car chase parodies in The Blues Brothers, and I still enjoy them less than anything else in the movie.

But other people obviously like this stuff, so one of them can have this notion cheap.