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.


  1. Having grown up around Texas ranchers, I'd say a fear of loss of control is the most likely of the reasons you've given. I've heard stories like this before, though nothing quite so interesting as this. In every case, the reason for keeping quiet was they didn't want to deal with all the potential disruption and loss of control of their land.

    One part of the disruption that can't be understated is that something like this brings visitors who end up calling you (sometimes at odd hours) or just showing up (at said odd hours) to bug you about going out to look at the site -- not to mention the occasional trespasser who doesn't bother asking. If the site is related to something like the Nueces massacre, it doesn't end because your grandkids will be getting historical/archeological tourists who want to see where they found the skeletons.

  2. I have a lot of sympathy for people with archeological sites who won't share them. The owners of Paint Rock are apparently prepared to act as tour guides and docents to their rock art, but there have to be times when it gets to be a pain; and if you have a site with mobile artifacts, if you can't get the legitimate archeologists out, there's a big risk of going out one morning and finding your entire back forty dug up by looters or all your cattle wandering the highway because some treasure seeker didn't close the gate after him. And there's always more important archeological sites than there are funds to dig them. If you're not prepared to take up avocational archeology yourself (quite a few people are) and don't already know somebody who can undertake to dig it, keeping mum till the right time comes is even the responsible thing to do. It preserves the site.

    I'd have to be really, really sure a set of human remains on my property was ancient before I didn't get somebody out to look at it, though!

  3. Or maybe the cowboy was telling a tall tale. Which doesn't matter either because you're right, the seed idea could produce any number of stories. I see a MG mystery: a kid (many a couple of kids) find the bones and then go about uncovering the who/what/when/where/why of their being in the cave.