Sunday, October 31, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Craigslist Camel & Other Stories

I spent Friday and most of Saturday (curse you, middle-aged lack of stamina!) at the Camel Clinic, and returned with an embarrassment of riches. Not only are the character of Sheikh and his relationship to other characters coming together in my head, I've got a big bundle of ideas to take straight to the garage sale. It's like one of those boxes with "everything in this box $1" written on it in black Magic Marker.

First of all, the clinic was held at Lightning Ranch, operated by Bill Rivers, an animal trainer who regularly works in the entertainment industry. Due to a recent injury, Bill was not supposed to be participating fully this weekend, leaving most of the work for Doug Baum, who runs the Texas Camel Corps, and Jim Hale, of the American Camel Company, both of whom work with camels every day. Doug is what you might call a camel historian as well as a trainer and trail guide, and Jim also makes and designs equipment. Each of them not only has a fund of practical information, but can act as a deep well of stories. Any enterprising non-fiction writer (which alas I am not) would have come to this clinic prepared to set up interviews and left it equipped with material with which to pitch any number of articles to a wide variety of markets.

Camel trail rides, desert expeditions, tourist ranches that double as animal training facilities, and the animal handling layer of a movie set are also dandy settings for novels. Want a closed setting for a murder mystery? Take your cast on a wilderness trek, disable your characters' communication equipment with some weather, and let your murderer strike in the middle of a storm! Want a modern middle school character with a convincing set of survival skills? Raise her on a ranch like this. Want a glamorous opposites-attract romance premise? How about the ambitious actress and the cowboy who's supposed to train her to ride camels, horses, and water buffalo convincingly?

Second, each and every participant had an individual reason to be there and a situation that could be exploited in fiction. A pair of missionaries preparing to work in North Africa; an animal trainer who wanted giraffes but settled for camels; a local rancher and his granddaughter; a nine-year-old girl with a baby camel she wanted to train to carry her camping gear and pull a cart; a team of animal pros who wanted to do more with their Nativity Scene camel. (If you're on Facebook - I'm not - see if you can find the page for the adventures of Wilson the Water Buffalo.)

The most pitchready story, however, is that of Jerry and Cactus. Jerry had gotten interested in camels, handled other people's in various contexts, and when he was sure this was what he wanted to do, bought one on Craigslist.

Are you thinking "live-action Disney movie?" Of course you are. Only in the Disney movie, Jerry's story would be spliced with that of Olivia of the baby camel and maybe the grandfather/granddaughter team. And there'd be a villain somewhere, who probably wanted to put Cactus down or exploit him or something.

Cactus turned out to be a huge, vocal gelding whose previous owner warned that he kicked, and who could put in an impressive display of head-weaving and teeth baring when asked to do anything. Jerry, not certain how to proceed, had gone three weeks without working him or interacting except through a fence. (Also; really nasty cud breath. I don't think cud breath is nice at any time, but none of the other camels made me back up by breathing on me.)

As it developed, Cactus works fine once he gets it into his head that Jerry wants to work him, only he's a grumbler and feels like he has to whine and complain about everything. Based on his behavior, before the end of Friday I'd decided that he used to be a fairground camel, who gave camel rides and posed for pictures, probably working many years with an old man, now dead. This man's heirs (I make them out to be his brother's or sister's grandchildren, who barely knew him as the family maverick - see how easy it is to generate a family history out of a little camel body language?) didn't know what to do with him and weren't interested in finding out, so they let him eat his head off in a stall while they found a sucker, and took the first offer. They wouldn't have abused him, but they didn't love him or understand that he was bored and lonely rather than mean, and unless his original master died right in front of him he wouldn't have understood what happened to his old work partner; so of course they didn't get along.

Cactus was a character; but so was Zeke the baby, who had to put everything in his mouth. So was Butter the Nativity camel, who liked being the center of attention and would stretch herself out to act as a backrest. So was Mongo the Bactrian, who yelped like a chihuahua when taught to kneel (koosh). Butter and Zeke are both eminently suitable protagonists for picture books. Cactus is more complex and probably needs a whole novel to develop.

And that's even before you get to the people's stories!

I hope to have pictures later. One of these days I'll get a digital camera (but then the battery will always be run down).

Thursday, October 28, 2010


You only have to do a little research to realize that modern medical science does not understand and is not properly investigating insomnia. All the advice we are given is bad. It does not work. It is given to us by people who never have trouble sleeping unless there's a direct, specific cause, and think that means they know how to sleep and they can teach us those of us who are awake at one in the morning and two in the morning and three in the morning against our will when we are too freaking tired to accomplish anything, and can't catch up the sleep in the daytime, and know this could go on arbitrarily for days on end.

This is like people who can see the normal visible spectrum assuming they can teach someone who's red and green colorblind to tell the difference between sage and rose.

No crisis yet, but the only thing that ever works for me is, I must work harder. I must write and I must do housework and I must assemble everything I need for the camel workshop, even though I'm dizzy and I know I'll have to caffeinate just to do the camel workshop at all, which means I can't expect to sleep this weekend.

(And anybody who wants to tell me that's a self-fulfilling prophecy can go boil his head. I bet you think people decide to be poor and dyslexia is just laziness, too.)

Fortunately, since I've been doing this my whole life, the same experience that leads me to know what to expect leads me to be pretty sure that I can alleviate the problem somewhat with work and that I have the necessary personal resources to do so if I don't rush myself.

Getting older has its advantages.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Progress, and the Lack Thereof

Yesterday, I wrote a necessary conversation justifying an action, a dangerous and indeed foolhardy action, that Di is determined to make and which renders the rest of the plot probable.

I also tried to fix the neck band on a blouse. This operation, tricky in and of itself, has been twice interrupted by machine malfunctions, and when I finally thought I had it, I discovered unacceptably big sewn-in wrinkles. So I took out the bad part and tried to fix it, several times. I got bored of ripping out stitches so I put in my Sims 2 disk and played while ripping; then I'd go back and sew some more and realize that nope, still didn't work. So I was ripping more than I was sewing, and soon I was fed up and playing more than I was ripping, and then a friend came over. So I ripped the whole thing apart and ironed it all flat and made an appointment with myself to take it from the top at one o'clock today.

This morning I wrote a few paragraphs beyond that necessary conversation, paced, stared off the balcony, went downstairs for water, let the cat out, thought perhaps Len should have bought a gun for Hebe and Di which she'd then have to teach them to use, decided to go back and put that in its proper place, had second thoughts, left the laptop so long it went into sleep mode; and finally came in here and started doing internet stuff. I know what needs to happen, I just don't have it all lined up in my head. And I keep distracting myself with less important, easier stuff.

Just like I know how that neck band is supposed to work, but can't make it lie straight. Yet.

It would be easy to think of yesterday afternoon's and this morning's work periods as wasted time, but it isn't true. Sometimes you have to rip out more than you sew and sometimes you have to unwrite as much as you write. Your intention is being channeled through your conscious mind and your hands, but their ability to fulfill your intention is imperfect. So of course you have to do, and do over, and make false starts, and stare off the edge of the balcony and realize you're thinking about your game instead of your story, and wonder if there's a connection or you're being lazy, and get a drink and start over.

As ye sew, so shall ye rip.

(But sometimes, you should give your husband the game disks and tell him to hide them for a week. Writing was easier when all the distractions aren't right there in the tool you're using.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: So You Think You Can LARP

A couple of opportunities to pass on. Next Friday and Saturday, I will be in Pipe Creek learning more about camels, and you could be, too. Although the website says "preregister," there's no form to fill out and Doug Baum says it's okay to just show up, though it's not a bad idea to call ahead so they have an idea who's coming. (I still need to do that.) Also, call with questions. Bill Rivers, the person running it, is traveling and doesn't keep up with his e-mail too well.

On Saturday, November 6, a local LARP group will be hosting a Zombie game, for which my friend Wendy will be doing the makeup. This will be a one-off game and I will not be attending because dashing through the woods shooting Nerf guns isn't my favorite kind of role-play, but as an introduction to the concepts and a way to work off your kid's energy and desire to fire Nerf guns it should do well.

Let's say you go to the Zombie LARP, and you have a great time. You're likely to come away feeling pumped, reviewing the dramatic moments and the unexpected developments that occurred as a result of someone pulling off (or not!) a difficult maneuver, or realizing that a certain rule could be exploited in a way the organizers hadn't planned. Maybe you had the pleasure of dragging somebody with you who didn't really want to do it, but then got into it and became a star player, or discovers a hidden talent, demonstrating an arc of character development before your eyes. Maybe you were thrown into play with a group of total strangers, some of whom dressed or looked or sounded like people you would normally avoid, but under the stress of hunting zombies together you left all that behind and formed mutual bonds that change the way you look at folks who dress/look/sound like that in the future. Or maybe star player among the zombies, who performs so well you walk up to him afterward to congratulate him for his acting skill, will turn out to be a troubled or handicapped kid, who has found in the LARP a group of people who don't define him by his problems.

And, being a writer, you think: "This is what I want to write about! There's a story in this day!" But then you sit down to write fiction based on it, and it just doesn't work.

That's because you're writing from life, and life has no plot and no protagonist. Even though the game itself had a plot, more or less, it did not unfold as planned. You wouldn't have come away so pumped if it had. An RPG and a story are both fictions, but their chief pleasures do not derive from the same source. A story imposes order on the chaos of life; satisfaction lies in the experience of structure and meaning unattainable in the real world. An RPG imposes the rich human chaos of choice and chance onto the mechanics of the game; satisfaction lies in the interplay between physical reality (whether the fall of the dice or the player's capacity to outrun or outshoot an antagonist) and abstract, comprehensible rules.

It follows that, if you want to turn your LARP experience into a story, you need to isolate the meaning you found in that experience, and create the fictional structure that will highlight it. If you liked the thrill of hunting zombies, you should probably go with a straight action story, creating a protagonist out of bits and pieces of the real players and tweaking the real events to fit the story as it develops. If bonding with the other players was the highlight for you, that's the place to start; but you don't want to model the characters too closely on the people who were there, because thinking about them reading their own portraits will inhibit you. Bear in mind that you bonded with those people at two levels: you were all yourselves, but you all also had roles in the game. The guy whose character ruthlessly cut your character's throat when you were infected in-game may be unable to kill a bug in real life. In order to write a good story about a team bonding under pressure, you'll need to understand each member of the team better than you will ever know any real person, much less anybody you've only met when you were both playing somebody else!

So to that extent making a story out of a game is no different from making a story out of any experience. If the story you wind up with remains structured around the gaming experience once you've worked out all that, another question arises: Who is the audience? How much do they need to know about gaming in general, and the game system being used in particular, in order to enjoy the story?

If real game mechanics and rules are important to the development of the plot, how does that affect its publishing potential? It is possible that, if you use a real, copyrighted system in structuring your story, the holder of the copyright will have a viable economic interest in your work. Game companies are publishing companies, and some of them publish fiction, but they don't function like publishers: they function like toy manufacturers. You don't want to go to all the work of making a story, and then find that, though the story itself is yours, only one company is legally capable of publishing it! If you want to write for gaming companies, you'll be dealing with work for hire contracts; and if you go work-for-hire, you want your contract negotiated and all your parameters in hand before you commit a word to paper. Anything else is bad business.

Fortunately, once you've started playing with plots and characters, playing with underlying mechanics and tweaking settings so that they're not restricted by trademark will probably be simple enough. If the story winds up being about characters playing in a LARP, all you have to do is give their system a fictional name and change some details. Readers will not care to be overloaded with nitpicky detail about rules that aren't essential to the plot. The only difficulty I can see is if your cast includes a Rules Lawyer, someone who understands and manipulates the specific rules of specific games to his advantage; in which case, you should get a real Rules Lawyer to help work out some new rules.

But the result will be a specific kind of story that appeals to a specific audience, one that is less outcast than it used to be, but still struggles with its status outside the mainstream of society. How well do you know that audience? Will you be able to reach a sufficient number of them to repay the effort you put into that story? To what degree can you expect to appeal to non-LARPers without alienating this core audience?

Art for art's sake is all very well, but you'll never fulfill your own potential if you don't engage with exterior questions like these as part of the process.

In the meantime - game on!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Painting Windowsills

Our house is old. A hundred years old last April. Fortunately it has good bones and has stood up under years of neglect and remuddling - including ours. There isn't a windowsill in the house that hasn't needed touching up for the last ten years.

When I first quit the soul-sucking day job, the plan was that I would start with cleaning and organizing and work my way up to doing the kinds of odd jobs that are simple enough even I am up for them. This was interrupted by Health Crap, for quite awhile, and now that I'm feeling better most of the time, I'm finding it hard to get my head back into the game. I can get myself to clean, and sew, and run errands in the afternoon; but the big jobs around the house remain untackled. I felt as if sickness had turned me lazy. This is not part of my self image.

So yesterday I decided that I would paint some windowsills. Nothing ambitious. Just the two in the kitchen. We had sandpaper, white paint left over from the porch, brushes, paint thinner, old sheets to put down, masking tape, face masks; and if I were fussy, I wouldn't have put up with big bare patches on my windowsills for ten years, would I?

But it soon became evident that my head wasn't in it; that I simply wasn't prepared to take a long Len-like look at every problem that arose and figure out how to solve it, however long that took, whatever I had to do about it. Yesterday I sanded but didn't prime the window on the stairs that's so handy for the cats (they don't have to jump - just walk from stair to window to countertop to sink and demand their runny water) and the result is barely noticeable. So today I sanded, and primed, and stirred the paint better when I did the window over the sink.

But I didn't do what was necessary to deal with the big peeling parts at the top of the window that I'd need to stand on the twelve-foot ladder and lean over the sink to work on. I never figured out a way around my inability to open this window because I can't get leverage on it the width of the sink away. And I couldn't find the scraper, wasn't prepared to do a really thorough sanding without a power sander, and realized I'm really lousy at cleaning brushes. So really all you can say about the result is that the wood is less badly protected than it was before. It doesn't actually look that much better.

So I did a half-assed job. It's not precisely true that I didn't care; but I didn't care enough about the result to go all out for it, and I got the result I earned. As I feel better and better, I'll get my head in the place where I can do this stuff right, or - I won't, and we'll have to spend money. After we pay off the work on the back porch which presently looms. If my husband, the only other person with a real right to care, doesn't find this state of affairs acceptable, he's as capable of getting his head into that space as I am, and more capable of doing the work (hey, he can at least open that window).

I'm certainly not going to gripe to people who have their heads in that space and are handy around the house about how hard painting windows is, or how they should give me a break, or ask them to admire half-assed work.

A lot of people approach writing like I approach windowsills, and that's cool. As long as they know they're doing it, and accept it about themselves, and don't clutter up the slushpile with it giving the rest of us unagented authors a bad name.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Over the Hump

I spent a lot of time staring at the computer yesterday morning. Most of last week, actually.

See, I'm at the turn of the book. For various reasons, the action has to stop for most of a month while everybody gets into mental and physical position for the endgame. So I have this long flabby Überchapter crammed full of conversations and geographical and chronological markers, descriptions that are mostly there to keep me oriented, and details that need to be covered, most of which will be cut and most of the rest of which will be relocated during the first revision, or the second at latest. All my books seem to have a point at which this happens, and it's not the most efficient part of my process but it's there, I can live with it.

All that got cleared up Friday, and over the weekend I was supposed to have my backbrain working on a real chapter to write on Monday, in which Len runs into the person with the information that allows her to realize that she doesn't, in fact, have any idea what's going on. But this weekend we had a game, for which I had to level two characters (twice!); and we were supposed to go to a Frightful Food Feast, so I had to make a Quiche from Yuggoth; but it was canceled due to health crap while I was making the pie shell, so I had to worry about a friend; plus (this is embarrassing) my backbrain was getting all 'shippy* about a couple of my Sims2 characters instead of doing its job. So I sat down Monday morning and realized I didn't have any clear idea of how and why Len even met Luke Parry, much less became convinced that he wasn't the villain of the piece.

I did, however, thanks to the timeline and that sprawling Überchapter, know when and where, so I started with that and kept putting down whatever crud I could think of, and backing up over it, and going forward again, until finally one of Parry's many creditors came weaving drunkenly down the street and tried to beat a non-existent twenty dollars out of him and solved my problem. I wrapped up for the day knowing what the next sentence would be, and today I went back over the mess from yesterday tidying up after myself, and wrote the next chapter properly, the way chapters should be written.

It's not exactly all downhill from here, even in the drafting phase; but I am over the hump now. The story is more than half drafted, the plot and characters are in their proper places, and I have a sense of a meaningful milestone being past. This is a good feeling; one I couldn't have if I'd insisted on either the Überchapter or Monday's work being fit to be seen. After all, I control who sees my story when. Nobody has to be offended by the sight of it half-shaved, covered in cold cream, and in curlers except me. Perfectionists don't finish things.

*The term 'shippy is short for relationshippy, a fandom term for the state of being invested in the imaginary romance of imaginary people; usually applied to series television in which the imaginary romance is either unrealized or counterindicated. So whereas many people, during the TV run of The X-Files, were, for reasonable cause,'shippy for Mulder and Scully, they coexisted with 'shippers who preferred to project their romantic fantasies onto Scully and Skinner, Mulder and Skinner, or even Mulder and Krycek, despite the difficulty of squaring these pairings with the existing text. One does not write slash where one is not 'shippy.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Those First 50 pages

When people ask me how long I've been writing, my standard answer is: "When I was six. I tried before then, but nobody else could read it."

By the time I was in junior high (that's middle school for those who organize their schools differently), I had stacks of notebook paper all over my room with the beginnings of stories. Horse stories. Adventure stories. Mysteries. Historicals. High fantasy. I filled notebooks with isolated scenes from the middles of stories I didn't know the rest of. I filled folders full of notes, poetry, and maps of world-building. Every time I read a book that made an impression on me (which was maybe two or three times a week, more in summer) I wanted to write a book in response to it. Sometimes I wanted to riff off a movie or TV show, though I'd never heard of fanfic and almost never used the original characters. I was twelve when I started my Tolkien rip-off, fourteen when I finished it; and during the course of those two years I probably started two dozen other books. One writing book I read during this time claimed that all writers have the first 50 pages of at least one novel in a desk drawer. I believed it. Some of mine went more than 50 pages, but many never got past the first chapter, page, or even paragraph.

The paper stacks in my adult study are of a different type nowadays, and I've gotten good at not starting anything that isn't "ripe." But my WordPerfect (Word sucks. I won't use it.) file trees include "dormant" folders where I stick books, short stories, and whatever that were started and not finished. A lot of them date from the soul-sucking day job, when I would have to look busy, had done all the work, and had a reason not to work on my current project; either I was focused on revision, or needed access to something not available, or was between projects and keeping the wheels spinning while I figured out what to work on next.

The process of beginning an abortive book is simple: You sit down with an idea you don't know much about, or a blank mind, and you start writing. Often I'm starting with a character and a situation. An 11-year-old girl dresses for her first day at a new school and puts on a white t-shirt with a red-and-blue logo: "Stacy Stillman, Future President." A teen-ager, with the back of her neck coated in sticky black drawing salve to get a head on a boil - dubbed "the zit that wouldn't die" - so it can be lanced, gets on a city bus instead of the school bus, because the world would end if Certain People saw her that way. A nine-year-old reads to her little sister from her first novel while waiting for the bus. A fifth-grader comes home to a locked door. I have no idea who these people are, or what's going to happen to them, so I type to find out.

Obviously, some of these become garage sale ideas; but some of them sit around in a file folder or a hard drive for awhile, and become stories. The lesbian western was one chapter in Len's voice for years. I didn't have time to do the research to find out what happened to her once she dressed in her brother's clothes and left home even though Maudie Perkins wouldn't go with her, until recently. Last year I finished a book that I started in 1996; it was too short for a novel and too long for a short story, and I finally realized that what I had been treating as a finished story was really only setting up the real problem, completed it, and now The Astral Palace is out there trolling for agents. I'm not ready to put The Autobiographical First Novel of Annie Smoot into the garage sale, because even though I have no idea how to articulate, much less solve, Annie's core problem, I love the way she interacts with her little sister and find her Mary Sue story funny. I might even find out what's going on with Stacy Stillman and the Loner's Club one day.

It's easy to see a 50-page drawer manuscript as a waste of time, but you really should read through them every once in awhile. We get so tied up in writing and submitting and revising and researching and producing and critiquing that we get exhausted by our own processes. Sometimes you need a quiet mental cul-de-sac in which to hear your own voice. Yeah, a lot of them will seem silly, or pointless, or self-indulgent, but listen. Isn't that your key strength appearing in them over and over? You knack with dialog, your ability to delineate an entire complex character in a single phrase, your subtle humor? Maybe you don't have drawer manuscripts per se; maybe you have dozens of outlines of plots that, though they fit together like puzzle pieces, exceeded your capacity to flesh out economically. Still, isn't the plot itself a thing of beauty?

How did you ever lose faith in yourself, when even your cast-offs contain bright gleaming gems like that?

What's in your dormant file?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love, not Romance

So I sat down to rewrite the Helotes scene in the lesbian western, in accordance with my new information, and instead I spent the entire morning staring at maps and thinking about Love. This made for a disappointing word count, but since the love story - or rather, the story of how Len and Di get to the point of being able to have a love story - is an integral part of the book, and I've neglected it in my quest for historical accuracy, I can't accuse myself of wasting the time.

I am not a romance reader, except in the strict critical sense in which "romance" is used to indicate a story in which incident is emphasized over character. In this sense, "Jack the Giant Killer" is a romance because Jack undergoes lots of interesting adventures, but no character growth to speak of. I can read critical-sense romance all day, but I was once left alone in a parking lot for half an hour on a rainy day with a grocery sack full of Harlequins, and I couldn't get past the first paragraph on any of them. I like books, like the Vorkosigan saga, in which love relationships are an integral and important part of the protagonist's life, but one reason I prefer young adult to adult literature is that adult literature tends to be much less subtle and realistic about those relationships.

My ideal of a literary romance is Muggles and Mingy in Carol Kendall's wonderful The Gammage Cup. If you haven't read this (not nearly enough people have), I cannot recommend it too strongly. The plot and its themes of rebellion, conformity, freedom, and heroism play out with domestic Muggles and grouchy Mingy providing the practical guidance their more conventionally heroic friends require. In the last chapter, Muggles - in the middle of hospital duty - says to him: "You haven't a thing to do. And you'd better come back here and let me dress your foot properly. And so as not to waste your cantankerous time, I'll tell you right out that if you want a wife, I'm it!" Only then did it dawn on me (the first time I read this, when I was 12) that from Mingy's first appearance in Muggles's house - complaining about frivolous public spending, letting Muggles feed him, warning her about impending social upheaval, engaging in surreptitious charity, and mending her rickety stool - Kendall was prepping us to accept this unromantic couple as a couple. The young, artistic, charismatic pair, Curley Green and Gummy, are taken for granted. Of course they get married. But Muggles and Mingy provide all the chemistry.

I reread that book five times the first time I had it checked out of the library, and I don't know how many times since. I think I see how she did it. But can I do it? Especially given that Di and Len are nothing like these two, or like me and Damon. (Hmmm...Damon and Mingy have a number of traits in common, come to think of it.) Plus, Len is telling the story in first person, so I can't do that back-and-forth scene thing like when Mingy is captured by the bad guys and Muggles is under siege. Too bad; I'm pretty good at the back-and-forth scene thing.

Perhaps Jane Eyre, which I have been reading and re-reading almost as long, is a better model. First person, and secrets, and lots of Victorian dancing around the sexual tension, which naturally produces more of it; also, more humor than most people acknowledge.

It discourages me, the number of people who read Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen's body of work, and other novels of character with strong love elements, as if they had no more depth or emotional realism than a shopping bag full of Harlequins. And I know that this is egocentric favoring of my own reading over those of others, but I'm am convinced in my heart that nobody who came out of Little Women wishing Jo had married Laurie has experienced the full potential of that crucial work.

One of the things literature, and media in general, does is give the inexperienced a script to follow when encountering a common situation for the first time. How well we succeed in the hard labor of happiness depends largely, I have found, on our ability to adapt when these scripts clash with experience. Literature is full of good scripts, but under Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crud), bad scripts outnumber them; and it is possible for the prepared mind to take a good script and read it into a bad one.

Charlotte Bronte, writing from the heart of the patriarchy, wrote a script that subverted the dominance/submission model provided to her by her society, creating a sexually-charged equality between the governess and her "master;" but romantic emphasis on the "Alpha Male" has skewed many readings of this book over the years. And the Alpha Male script, face it, is not a practical one that will lead to happiness. The women I know who insist on using it in real life don't prosper, not least because it's an onerous role to foist on one's partner.

By definition, the lesbian western can have no Alpha Males; but the script in Di's hands assumes one, and she doesn't want him. Len has written herself out of society's script for her and doesn't know how to write herself into anybody else's, so she assumes she can't have what she wants. Once I get them to the point of exchanging secrets, the answer to their problems will be as obvious to them as to me; but how do I lead up to that exchange in a way that persuades the reader they'd do it? And how do I make the reader (most of whom will be straight) fall in love with Di as the reader of Jane Eyre inevitably does with Rochester?

And where do the Cave brothers fit into all this?

No wonder I haven't been thinking about this. Compared to the love story, the action plot will be a piece of cake.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Freedom Day, Pride Week

(Please note that I wrote this post yesterday, and in the middle of it my internet went belly-up. So pretend the date on it is October 12. It kind of matters.)

Columbus Day is a problematical holiday for anyone conversant in American history, but October 12 is a big day for me on the calendar of personal holidays, as October 12, 2007 was my last day at a soul-sucking day job, ever. Life since then has not gone the way I anticipated, primarily due to ubiquitous health crap, but at least I live my own life and my own choices every day. And isn't that what happiness is?

This week, as I learned Monday from my morning DJ (Hot Mustard at KSYM, the local college station), is Gay Pride Week at the local community college, though you can't tell from looking at their monthly calendar. It kicked off with events for National Coming Out Day. The LBGT group spokesman Mustard interviewed spoke about planned events, and also passed on to listeners "the best advice he ever got," which was, roughly, not to come out to anybody until you were secure enough to deal with the consequences. Start with those you can trust and move to those you aren't positive will reject you only when you're strong enough to take the rejection. You have to be out to yourself before you can be out to the world.

It bugs me that such a process as "coming out" is even necessary in our society. If there's one class of information that's personal and shouldn't matter to anyone not directly involved, it's how we define ourselves sexually! You shouldn't have to worry about the consequences of holding hands in public. But we live in an imperfect world, and until people stop beating up on folks on suspicion of having the "wrong" definition, until the consequences of honesty become less dire, I guess we're stuck with it.

Personally, I've self-identified as bi for years, but it's mostly been irrelevant, as the only girl I could have been serious about was too busy experimenting with who she was to be serious back, and when I walked into love (there was no falling involved, believe me!) it happened to be with a man. Like Aral Vorkosigan, I used to be bi; now I'm monogamous; and who cares? What I write matters. Everything else is of limited interest.

Recent events in the lives of other people have caused me to review my choices this past week, and on the whole the only one I regret was ever taking a soul-sucking day job in the first place. Happiness is hard work, but nothing rewards the effort more.

Happy Freedom Day, y'all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Fun with First Lines

Some of these are lines I wrote down while brainstorming; some come from unpublished stories. Or poems. Or just scribbled down in the middle of a page of research notes. Or drafts of talks/blog posts/entries. All of them feel like they're going somewhere, but I don't know where it is.

If you're into exercises, pick one and write on it. Or, just identify which line should begin what kind of writing.

And if you think: "This is silly, nobody can work with this, none of this is useful," remember Tolkien didn't know what a hobbit was when he wrote, in an empty blue book at exam time: "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."

1. "You are so not getting away with this!"
2. The worst of it was, Megrim wasn't even human.
3. Once upon a time, a poor rocket scientist lived in a bungalow with his five cats.
4. Sam Houston is a pivotal figure in American history whose name is not even pronounced correctly in New York.
5. Whether the mammoth or the ground sloth is the scariest-looking mammalian herbivore to ever roam the plains is a matter open for debate.
6. Cement is fragile, when compared to grass.
7. Time's up.
8. I was out of town when it happened, and she wasn't at the funeral, so the first time I saw April after Dave died was at Carol and Les's wedding.
9. Avery honked his horn.
10. "I'll beat you up," said DeeAnn.
11. By the end of the second day of high school, signs for the freshman dance papered the halls.
12. Time stopped at three A.M.
13. Grandma said there was no such things as monsters, but Amanda knew that one lived in the basement.
14. A house on the edge of town stood empty, run down, but the right size for a lone woman and a cat.
15. Jim Seagram drove to work savoring his future.
16. You know what to do if you can't take the heat.
17. My house was built in 1910.
18. Atheism and theism are equally unfalsifiable.
19. Tomorrow will be better.
20. San Antonio may be described as the biggest one-horse town in the world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

And Even More Research Trips

Last Friday I met Cynthia Leal Massey for a tour of 1865 Helotes. The lady at Stellar's Books had given me her contact information when she sold me Helotes: Where the Hill Country Begins, and I'd e-mailed her asking for assistance getting what I need for the scene in Len's story that takes place there. She generously offered to take me around and explain things in person, because it is all pretty confusing.

We met in front of Floore's Country Store and went over maps on their back patio. She has a friend whose passion is figuring out local historical geography, who provided her with copies of relevant maps and census records. I love the way research people love to share!

After going over the maps and giving Cynthia an idea of what the scene needs to accomplish, we hit the road. Although the place called Helotes dates back to 1858, the oldest house in the "Old Helotes" that you see when you pull off Bandera Road onto Old Bandera Road dates to 1881. Prior to that the Helotes community consisted of scattered ranches and small home businesses, most notably the blacksmith shop that later became a post office. The stage stopped in Helotes as early as 1858, but it's not clear exactly where or what the relationship between the stop and the stage company was. At any rate, in spring 1865, the stage, like all other regular business in western Texas, was suspended; but the blacksmith's was recognized as the place it stopped for maintenance, water, and a change of horses when it was running, and would also have been a landmark and a necessity for people coming in, as Len, Cave, and the bushwhackers come in, from the rocky hills to the west.

The blacksmith's/stagecoach stop grew organically, like most frontier homes. In the beginning, you threw up a basic shelter to meet your minimum needs so you'd have shelter while getting your garden, ranch, and workshops under way. As your economy and your family expanded your needs, you expanded your house. Therefore, the original building is a subset of the current residence, currently on private property. The gate was open, but Cynthia couldn't raise the owners on the phone so we only did a drive-by; and she gave me their contact information so that if I felt a need for a closer look I could ask for one.

Cynthia did her best to show me the configuration of the road at that time, but since "road" is at best a generous term for the ungraded route you could get a wheeled vehicle over in those days, every modern improvement to the roadways has changed the routes used, and modern subdivision have been platted without reference to the original roads, it was uphill work. Moreover, all the historical accounts agree that the present cover of cedar and mesquite brush did not exist prior to the early 20th century, let alone all the houses, fences, windbreaks, etc. of modern residential development. Routes that Len will experience as clear lines of sight are a muddle on the ground today, and even with a map it's hard to puzzle out exactly what was happening, apart from a general tendency of the road to follow the watersheds. She did show me one gravel passage that her cartographer friend believes is an original piece of stagecoach road.

We then went out Scenic Loop Road (old Marnoch Road) to see the two-story Marnoch Mansion - again from the road, as it is a residence. It is well off Len's most probable route, but in those days would have been visible as a landmark for miles. Built in 1858 by a Scottish Naval surgeon, it's a showplace of imported architectural details that was built to house a large family and withstand Indian attack. Unlike modern rural residences, it was not built on the hill, but down near the creek.

We drove around Grey Forest, talking about caves and cliffs, and then out to see the ruins of the Zepeda house, the ranch Len would likely come to first if she rejoins the Bandera Road where I think she does. The Zepedas knew their stonework: the remains include a beautiful arch. (Pictures not processed yet; I so need to get a digital camera.) And she told me stories, lots of stories, the kinds of stories that historians always have at their tongues' tips, primed to spill out at sight of a relevant landmark. Murders, massacres, dance halls, graveyards, bandits, draft dodging, all the color and texture that lies underneath even the chain stores and McMansions lining our highways, if we only go looking for it.

So that was Friday. As if that weren't enough, Saturday was the Val Verde Archeology Fair and the camels. Three hours out, three hours back. The friends we were going to go there with had to cancel at the last minute, but we did all right by ourselves. The fair had a good turn-out, and I got to show Damon the pretty backlots that lurk off the highway in small Texas towns. I hadn't been to Del Rio but once, when I was in elementary school, and then it was only passing through to take my grandparents to Mexico, but I felt at home there in the unexpected way you do when you come to a place that resembles one of the towns of your childhood. The quality of the air and the light, the configuration of the neighborhoods, the particular ethnic distribution of the faces, the floral and faunal (especially avian) assemblages, even the way the streets were named: All familiar.

But that was incidental. I came to learn about camels, and I did. Doug Baum answered all my questions and asked me questions in turn. Sonja Shell, another writer there to learn about camels, got out her folding wheel and made yarn from camel hair. I decided I need to go to the Texas Camel Corps's workshop in Pipe Creek. I've worked out much better how the cliff scene will have to work, and certain of Sheikh's scenes will have to be substantially reworked, but a little more direct experience will be all to the good. Did you know that when camels lie down air circulates under their bellies? Don't you wish you could do that?

Also - caracara on the way out, roadrunner on the way home.

I'm still, alas, paying for all this overstimulation and for drinking regular tea instead of decaf two days in a row; but we all make sacrifices for our art, right?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Skeletons in the Cave

Friday and Saturday I took more research trips, but Sunday is reserved for the Garage Sale, so let it suffice to say that taking my speed two days in a row has proven to be well worth the inevitable caffeine hangover today, not to mention the six-hour round trip to Del Rio. The Val Verde County Archeology Fair had relatively little archeology alongside quite a lot of history - did you know they have Rip Ford's own flag on display there? Wow!

Anyway, I picked up a rumor; and it will seem to you also to be a no-brainer, an idea anybody, even a non-writer, would recognize as a potential story. A person I wouldn't know again if he bit me told me that a friend of his he didn't name, at a time he didn't specify, was working as a cowboy for a man with a ranch not far (on a scale not defined) from the site of the Battle/Massacre of the Nueces. In a cave on this ranch, he found skeletons. He was intensely curious about them, but as the cave is on private property belonging to his then employer, he did nothing about them.

As Texas readers probably know, the Battle/Massacre of the Nueces is a notorious and fraught incident in 1862 in which a party of "German" military-age men, with a variety of reasons to get out of Texas, were hunted down by a party of Confederate troops. The Germans fought (hence, Battle) and were defeated. Some escaped, some were killed, and of those captured, many were, ahem, summarily executed. (Hence, Massacre. Oddly, I think I am now the first to suggest that "lynched" is a better term. See "fraught" in the first sentence.) "German" did not necessarily mean to a nineteenth-century Texan what it means to a modern American, hence the quotes; but the term is good enough for now.

As I said - the discovery of skeletons in a cave near the site of such an event is a story idea so obvious anyone could recognize it as such; but this obviousness is deceptive. The person passing on the rumor himself brought up the mystery of the identity of the skeletons: Germans or Indians? Other possibilities include settlers, travelers, crime victims, and modern lost hikers. The cowboy witness could probably provide details that would narrow the classification, but since this is a rumor we have endless freedom to speculate.

But we also have another mystery here. The cowboy could not satisfy his curiosity about the skeletons because they were on private land; but if he's going around talking about them, he must have reported them to the property owner. Who wouldn't? And if such a discovery was reported to the owner, why did he not himself follow up? The first thing most of us would do, after such a report, would be to pick up the phone and call the relevant criminal authority; a sizable majority of those who did not do so would ride out to take a look for themselves, and then do so.

And this is where the writer starts earning her pay, because this is where you start making characters and determining what the story is. What reasons might there be not to call the authorities? Is the property owner a murderer who thought his crime was safe from discovery in that cave? Does he have something else out there he doesn't want authorities to see? Does he - like many rural property owners in Texas - have a prejudice against the intellectual investigation of historical and archeological sites and fear loss of control of his land? An archeological dig can in fact be pretty disruptive. Though in Texas, at least, a land owner's least valid objection will trump anyone else's most legitimate interest, you wouldn't know it to hear many people talk; and eminent domain can do some pretty-high-handed things, even here. Perhaps he's paranoid, or perhaps there are local conditions that make not reporting skeletons which appear to him old enough (or thinks he can identify by context well enough) not to be relevant to any modern crime. Perhaps he's protecting an ancestor's part in a shameful incident from public knowledge; or perhaps he fears what would be discovered about his ancestors if the remains are subject to forensic analysis.

The vagueness of the initial stimulus to the imagination leaves plenty of room for the imagination to function. The difference between a wannabe writer and a writer is, that the wannabe either lacks the imagination to think of possibilities beyond the first suggested to him and runs with a story full of assumptions, cliches, and bad history; or falters, bewildered, unable to choose among a bewildering variety of possibilities.

A non-fiction writer, of course, tries to solve the mystery using the academic and journalistic toolset - interviews, document searches, lead-following. A fiction writer decides what kind of story she wants to make, weeds out the possibilities that don't suit that story, and does the research that will support the endeavor to write that story. I write for young people, so I might go right back to the cowboy discoverer and transform him into a party of exploring children, or into the property owner's oldest son out riding with his girlfriend, or maybe -- ooh, this is an exciting thought, a teen-age illegal immigrant hiding from murderous coyotes, or merely from immigration officials. There's a person with a motive not to report them for you! But where does that lead? An immigrant wouldn't know about the Battle/Massacre, but will interpret them in his own fashion, and where is the story that stems from that interpretation?

Tony Hillerman could have done a lot with this core idea, dealing as he did with the confluence of living culture, academia, history, archeology, and crime. I am attracted to the idea of the ranch family, proud of their history and perhaps feeling embattled in the face of modern economic, ecologic, and political developments, fearing to learn too much about the history of their legendary founding father, and yet desperately needing to know what the skeletons could tell them about him and his circumstances. A Disney exec might see a handy framework for a save-the-family-ranch plot. A mystery? A thriller? A fantastic magical realist exploration of the psychogeography of the West? A straightforward Western with an ethnic German twist? A journalistic investigation?

We all start at the same trailhead, but the trail we follow will be different for each of us.

And this is why no real working author is afraid that her ideas will be stolen! It's not only unnecessary; it's not possible. Every idea that enters our heads changes and becomes ours. It doesn't matter who else's head it lives in, too.