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).

1 comment:

  1. Oh man, love those camels! You must have had a spectacular time. (I'm jealous!)