Thursday, April 28, 2011

(Dusting Off Hands)

That wasn't as bad as expected. About 90% of the work of getting stuff out of the back porch is done and very little of it will get in the way on a day-to-day basis. I didn't have to put anything in the attic, and we've had none of the nasty surprises that so often pop up when you move things that haven't been moved in years; no nests of anything, no unsuspected damage where the house has been eating itself alive behind a stack of heavy stuff, nothing mysteriously soaked, shredded, or faded. The job's not quite done, but the rest of it will barely be strenuous at all.

This is generally the way. If you're intimidated by a job, putting it off is the worst thing you can do. Tiptoe around it, and it gets bigger and bigger, harder and harder. Charge straight at it, and it turns out to be not that big a deal.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Clearing House

I need to finish the two skirts I have on hand, because I'm about to lose the use of my sewing room. Well, maybe not entirely; but starting Tuesday, and continuing through (God willin' and the creek don't rise) August, workmen will be gutting and fixing up the two-story enclosed back porch, part of which is adjacent to the game room where I do my sewing. The scrap bin and ironing board are out there, and I'll have to take down the table where Damon and I spread out projects, both sewing and gaming, so workmen can get back to the space.

So for the rest of the week I'll have to be sewing and moving things out of the porch instead of doing writing work. I don't mind as much as I should, because I really, really need to be getting stuff back in the mail, and I hate that. But I can't sell anything if I don't mail it. So instead of sabotaging my career and not doing it because of personal flaws, now I'll be sabotaging my career and not doing it because of more urgent practical stuff. (And last week it was health stuff, and the week before that...)

There's a limit to how often I can let myself get away with that kind of thing, but that's a subject for another day.

For now - sewing and moving stuff. Moving stuff will primarily be my job because I'm home all day, though there may be things so heavy in there that I need Damon's help with them. The space consists of a laundry room, two rooms which between them constitute a single inferior full bath, two sun porches with storage, and a ripped-out bathroom called "the pigeon room" due to the state of the ceiling, used as storage for things boxed up well enough that we're not worried about the nasty particulates sifting down from the attic.

For four months there'll be a dumpster in the driveway and a Portajohn adjacent to it. The neighbors will love that, I know. (Need to warn the guy next door.) I'll probably lose some plants permanently. We won't have a washer or dryer. The downstairs litter box will have to be in public space. The cats will be cranky. Boxes of books, camping equipment, toolboxes, the ironing board, the sunflower seed bin, and I don't know what all will be stacked in the shed, attic, front porch, and various rooms depending on how vulnerable they are to weather and how often we need to use them. And we'll be in debt for more than the market price of the house when we bought it. If Damon dies during the mortgage period, I'm completely screwed. (Dammit, I need to start earning again so I would be less completely screwed, because people do die. And here I am not mailing things out.)

But at the end of all this - again, God willin' and the creek don't rise - we'll have a sound back porch for the first time since we moved in, with two and a half baths, laundry upstairs rather than down in a sun porch which is also a functional craft room, a mud room with a mop sink, several features (like windows, a transom, an exterior light) restored to functionality, a screen door, and a comfortable sun room with attractive storage space of larger capacity than the jerry-rigged stuff we have now.

Chaos always precedes creation. The only way to find out whether the result is worth the hassle is to pitch yourself into the hassle and come out the other side.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Name Games

This was a gaming character; but the solution applies across media.

I knew her role. I knew, roughly, who she was. Seventeen, affluent and ashamed of it, a wannabe witch, with a part-time job at the occult bookstore and a notebook full of bad poetry. I knew her stats. I couldn't see her face or hear her voice. I didn't know her name, only that she uses a nickname instead.

So I called M, who makes his living writing names in gold wire. He's the best he is at what he does. Weird spellings? Hyphens? No problem. Diacritical markings? Apostrophes? No extra charge. Arabic, Cyrillic, Kanja? Give him a model and a little extra time. Rings, bracelets, necklaces, anklets, 12-karat gold filled, guaranteed not to turn or tarnish for the lifetime of the wearer.

For over 30 years now he's been tracking fashions in American nomenclature, far more thoroughly than the Social Security Office. Social Security will only tell you how popular a name is. M can tell you whether it's used by upwardly mobile blacks, downwardly mobile whites, third-generation Mexican Americans, first-generation Ethiopians, Houston families who bleed oil, fantasy geeks, or radical Mormons. He can tell you how old the kid who wears it should be and what societal freight it loads upon their shoulders, and how it varies with the different spellings.

He listened to what I had to say, and said: "Haley, either spelling. Brittany - Amber is a little old - the old standards, Mary Susan Jane - If you named her Haley her mother could call her Halo!"

"And she wants people to call her Comet," I said.

And there she was, using different colored contacts to disguise her blue eyes, dying her baby-blonde hair red with orange tips and completely failing to bring off the comet effect, ditching the car she got for her 16th birthday and the laptop and the Ipod in order to ride a secondhand bike to the bookstore and write her poetry (really, really bad poetry; I'll have to write some) in a composition book. Upside down.

Sometimes, it's really that easy.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Matter of the Pleistocene

And by "matter" I mean subject, as in "the matter of Britain," which is the Arthur legend, which has a lot less scope than the Pleistocene.

I went to Dr. Bradley's lecture on the Solutrean Hypothesis on Friday and I'm sold. The Americas were populated from two directions along similar ice fronts in the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans; and this was not immigration, but migration, a maritime culture summering on continents and working the ice sheets in the winter. The Solutreans, hailing from the Bay of Biscay, appear to have gotten here earlier, but their descendants didn't survive as long as those of the Beringians, hailing from northeastern Asia.

Sometimes it makes me dizzy, thinking of the vast well of stories underlying history. We have been human for over 100,000 years even if you restrict the term to homo sapiens. For all that time we have been inventive, practical, improvident, irrational, emotional, political, cruel, compassionate, social, self-absorbed, and most of all, creative, just as we have been for the last six thousand or so years; yet look how shallow is the depth, and how patchy the coverage, of history found in our historical fiction!

We have written about feudal Europe, Victorian England, Victorian America, 20th century Europe and European America, to the point of satiety. Vikings and Romans and Egyptians make a pretty good showing. After that, the statistics drop off rapidly. Jean Auel and I are not the only ones who've written about the Pleistocene, but compared to the categories listed Pleistocene-based fiction makes a pathetically small showing, and the geographical range for this period (which embraces about 90,000 years of that 100,000) is even smaller. The painted caves of southwestern Europe have inspired more people than Catal Huyuk or the Venus of Wllendorf; what sense does that make? Presumably there's historical fiction I'm not familiar with in other languages beefing up the record for Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, and the Pacific islands; but I bet a survey of that literature would exhibit similar concentrations of attention on certain times and places at the expense of other, equally intriguing, ones.

It's not that one time or place is intrinsically more interesting than another. Every place and every time is interesting if you approach it correctly.

It's not that one time or place is easier to research than another, because very often the historical fiction we have doesn't rely on research anyway. Sad, but true. I acknowledge the necessity of nudging real people and places around occasionally in order to make room for the fictional characters; but some authors of "historicals" deliberately don't do primary research because they don't want their imaginations constrained! I won't name names because it's rude to spit on people in public; but anybody who has done research and then read related fiction knows the kind of historical fantasia I'm talking about. I don't know why some of these people don't just write secondary world fantasy and be done with it.

A subjective sense of aesthetic appeal is part of the problem. Look at how much fantasy fiction bases itself in the same historical times and places! Even science fiction is not immune, with their Roman-based Galactic Empires and their spaceships full of white folks. But a lot of that, I submit, is not so much "aesthetic appeal" as it is "aesthetic habit." We gravitate toward the familiar.

And then we complain that we're bored.

The solution to that is under our feet. Look at where you are. Dive into it. Go past the stories everybody tells. People have lived in the San Antonio area for 11,000 years or more, most of them dense with human drama; yet the only story most folks know about it is the story of 13 days in 1836, and most people know inferior versions of that story, lacking context and some of the richest, darkest moral ambiguity you'll ever find.

Great Auks, prior to their being hunted to extinction (they were an excellent food source), migrated yearly from southwestern Europe to North Carolina. During the height of the Pleistocene, the resource-rich edge of the glacial ice stretched from southwestern Europe to Newfoundland. Fish, seals, birds, and men exploited that environment.

Any environment rich enough in resources to be exploited by human beings is rich enough to be exploited by novelists.

Your home is just the same. Use it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Problem with Spring

The problem with spring is the opposite of creative block.

It is that it is a peculiarity of my physiology that the more beautiful the weather the less I am able to get out in it.

It is that I hunker down inside my head, detached from everything, fascinated by things going on inside that spinning globe which are unsaleable and almost unshareable.

It is that exteriorizing any thought becomes uncomfortable.

It is that I lose discipline and waste the days that I can work trying to get it back.

It is that I have no deadline to structure the effort and create urgency.

It is that the grass has overnight become too long to mow and I can't tell burdock from sunflower.

It is that the huge drama I make out of every little thing becomes tiresome and I would rather not trouble anyone else with it.

But in time I'll get over it and do what I'm supposed to. I always do.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Musical Interlude: Filk

With apologies to Eric Clapton:

When you're lying in bed and you can't feel your head -
When the day's just begun and you're already done -
She no lie, she no lie, she no lie -

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Disconnected Thoughts

I'm buzzing and crashing and typing around Thai as she washes my hands at the same time this afternoon, so do not expect a prodigy.

Thought one: Oh, boy, a 10th follower. After my usual custom (I expect people with 200 or 11,015 or 33,000 followers are a lot more blase about it) I clicked the picture to get to the profile and found two sites I can't read for beans.
Why this person wishes to follow me, I have no idea. But lookit all the pretty pictures! It's something to do with architecture, or maybe architectural details. And who am I to look a gift follower in the mouth? Welcome aboard, whoever you are.

Thought two: Self-discovery time. I'm weirded out by this and it'll take a bit of background. Those of you who've read my books may have noticed that I have some structural quirks, like alternating viewpoint between chapters, and that when magic exists its constrained tightly by rules, which the characters figure out to the best of their ability. This is one of the pleasures of fiction for me. Narrative imposes order on the chaos of life and gives it a structural consistency that the real world has no business with.

Those of you who game with me may have noticed that game rules function the same way. I rely on those around me to keep of how they work, using them as the framework from which to hang story and on which to build characters. Unlike the game mechanics and rules lawyers of the world, I don't pounce on new supplements and alternate rules because I don't need them. As long as I'm playing my character and can succeed or fail as a result of my own choices, nothing else matters. Expanded and alternate rules only confuse me.

I would have said that I was the same way about the limited number of computer games I play. I have been saying that I am very conservative about downloading hacks and game mods because I don't know how they're going to interact with my game and I can't fix it if it glitches and in general such things don't add enough to be worth the risk. But --

I discovered that a Sims2 feature I would like a great deal exists in an expansion pack which I do not wish to have, as its entire theme screams "time sink you wouldn't enjoy." I was told that a downloadable fan-created code modification would provide the same feature without all the stuff I don't want. Yet I found myself considering installing the expansion pack I don't want in preference to the modification.

Now, it's true that programs and machines that work fine for other people don't necessarily work for me. I can't count the number of times I've been told by tech people that I didn't have a problem I was indeed having, because that problem as described was impossible. They keep telling me that until I sit them down in my chair, turn my back on them, and tell them exactly what is happening as it happens, at which point they stop writing me off as an idiot and get interested. Since I'd never be able to get a knowledgeable game tech to sit in my chair, this is a good reason to avoid using a bunch of hacks, cheats, and modifications the way some players do in hope of building The Perfect Game.

But this is a single, apparently simple, modification. All I should have to do is back up my game, install the modification, and remove it and reload the backup if a problem arises. Since I don't have any other modifications, and I back up the game regularly, and the impossible glitch thing doesn't happen all the time, just enough for me to be sure it's a real phenomenon, doing this is a low risk.

So the only reason to want to spend money on an expansion pack I don't want in preference to taking that low risk must be, that there is something important to my enjoyment of the game to knowing that I am getting what I want from it within the context of the original rules set.

What the larger implications of this self-discovery may be, or if there are any, I have no idea.

However, it goes to show that, even 50 years of vigorous introspection isn't enough for us to know ourselves entire. So how much hope have we of knowing those around us?

Therefore, let us be gentle with one another.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Pleistocene Adventure, an Irwin Allen Production

It was pointed out to me in the comments that the catastrophic landscape changes that occurred at the end of the Pleistocene are perfectly good stories to be found in geology, and this is true. The geology of the Channeled Scablands of the Columbia River Basin is dramatic enough for any adventure novelist, and if you're willing to get your scientific data all tangled up in religious arguments you can follow some pretty dramatic byways concerning the question of whether or not there was ever a Black Sea flood and, if so, whether or not it was the source material for the Mediterranean flood tradition most Americans know best as the Genesis Flood. When I researched the end of the Ice Age for 11,000 Years Lost, reading about the repeated formation and breaking of ice dams on the edges of glacial lakes, causing periodic catastrophic landscape changes, intrigued me.

For a time I thought obsessively about such a catastrophe as the starting point for an RPG campaign. Mentally, I built a campaign setting, composed of riverine grassland, hills/mountains, and the oceanic edge. Each setting contains a distinct society of hunter/gatherers, with trade and genetic connections to each of the other societies, each specializing in the skills necessary to exploit each habitat, each dependent on trade connections with the others to get necessary resources and desirable luxuries.

The oceanic edge culture specializes in maritime skills: they live primarily off foods gained from the sea; are expert boat builders; understand wind, currents, and navigation; use bone and shell extensively; and are highly mobile. They know the coasts and islands of their region intimately, but the interior is a mystery to them.

The riverine culture is more sedentary, moving camp with the seasons and exploiting different resources at different times of year: they specialize in basketry and fabric crafts, trapping, exploitation of plants, and the use of nets, with big game hunting as a seasonal group occupation. They know the drainage areas of the rivers intimately and probably have invented ceramics, though they don't make pots, and horticulture, though they mostly seed an area in one season, go away, and come back to harvest it later.

The upland culture specializes in lithic and wood technologies, hunts big game year-round, exploits plants seasonally, and understands more about minerals than both other cultures put together.

Once a year, in spring, these cultures come together in the valley of the biggest local river for an enormous trade fair. The maritime culture takes small boats upriver carrying salt, seashells, and the skins of sea otters and seals; the upland culture follows the drainages into the valley bearing tool stones, ochre, and the skins of megafauna; the riverine peoples bring out their basketry, river otter and raccoon skins, and feather work. Probably they all have medicinal substances that the others can't get; probably they also trade around nuts, dried fish, dried fruit, and grains. In addition to trade, of course, there's games, courting, dancing, courting, storytelling, courting, feuding, courting, conflict resolution, courting, and probably mass hunts, bake-offs, weddings, and divorces.

As a DM, I'd give this brief cultural outline to the players and tell them to choose a culture and make a character from it. Each culture would have a set of skills unique to it, and a knowledge base and geographical/social map of the world differing from those of the others. Female characters would have different skill sets than male characters. Someone who came up with a plausible culture-overlapping character concept (say a Riverine woman who married a Maritime man and went to live with his people; or a shaman called by the spirits to wander the three parts of the world) would have to work with the DM to build someone balanced and in keeping with the concept. Each player may also create a secondary, less competent, character dependent on the first, like a younger sibling or a child, but this is not required.

The last requirement is that the player must produce a plausible reason why this character, with the dependent if appropriate, is not actually down in the river valley on the Day the World Ends. Because, having created this campaign setting, the first thing the DM must do is destroy it when the ice dam breaks and a glacial lake the size of the Dead Sea comes pouring down the main river valley in a wall of water that sweeps all before it.

The PCs, and their dependents, witness this catastrophe, but cannot prevent or ameliorate it. It's like 9/11, only there's no one to blame and far fewer survivors; plus, the geography of all three known regions changes drastically. Because this happens in spring, plant and animal resources are both affected for the rest of the year. The campaign consists of the survivors coming together and pooling their resources, figuring out where to go, what to do, and how to survive the coming year in this lonely new world. Do they go up and down the coast looking for the extent of the damage and unaffected populations? Do they scavenge their dead? Do they strike inland because 2/3 of them are Uplanders and they hope the normal world still exists on the high ground? Do the characters all pull in different directions because the logical next step looks different depending on which culture each came from? What happens when they meet intact tribes - do they have to prove themselves trustworthy? Are they shunned as unlucky?

As usual, this campaign idea is way too work-intensive for me to carry out. In addition to my usual problem of wanting the players set their own agenda, with which I would then have to scramble to keep up, I'd be limited by the existing game systems. Most RPGs, focused as they are on "interesting times" and wanting to provide adventure, excitement, and rewards, suffer from power creep. Ordinary daily challenges like finding food and keeping healthy tend to be hand-waved because they're boring. Also, even the most dangerous normal animals aren't real threats to most RPG characters. It doesn't help that the people who write the stats for most gaming bestiaries apparently never saw an animal in their lives, and don't understand why, for example, a hippo is the most dangerous animal on the planet; or how the saber-tooth adaptation works; or the difference between a Dire Wolf and a wolf. All this sort of thing would be crucial to a Pleistocene survival game.

I would probably have to invent a gaming system with mechanics simple enough for me to use them, which nevertheless rendered foraging for berries, fishing, exploring new terrain, and building boats as interesting as a head-on confrontation with a mammoth and interpersonal combat. And "I" in that sentence would probably have to mean "Damon and the other person in our group who is truly enamored of game mechanics for their own sake."

So, no, not happening.

The same set-up could lead off a kick-ass set of blockbuster novels that would appeal to the same public as Jean Auel's Earth's Children; but since I couldn't set it in Texas (no glacial lakes!) it's a lead pipe cinch I won't write it.

Too bad.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Upcoming Events, Literary and Archeological

I've got to sort out which of these I'll go to.

April 9-10
4th Annual Old World Stone Carving and Art Show
The vineyard at Florence (near Gault). See some of the oldest stonecarving in America while modern carvers do their stuff. Sheesh, that's soon! If I'm going I'd better decide this weekend.
For information:

April 12-15
Texas Library Association Convention, Austin
I always go to this when it's in town, and if I had a book to promote going would be a no-brainer, but this year...probably not.

April 15 1 PM
Dr. Bruce Bradley Texas State University Evans 114
“Aukward Proposal: The Origin of Clovis Culture."
I probably will go to this one - close by, big authority, subject of considerable interest, curiosity what Auks have to do with Clovis. It happens on tax day but I've been there, done that, spent the refund fixing Moby, ha.

April 22 2PM
Dr. Darrin Lowery Texas State University Evans 311
“Understanding Human Antiquity via Quaternary Geology and Geoarchaeology: A Chesapeake Bay Case Study“
Chesapeake Bay, huh. Geology, huh. On the other hand - there's no characters in geology, which makes it hard for me to take an interest. On the other hand, my most vivid research experience happened when I was reading about the geoarcheology of the Blackwater Draw site and found myself looking down through the page at a marsh swarming with birds on whom soggy Clovis people were sneaking up with nets. Plus, I know zip about Chesapeake Bay archeology, so it'd all be new.

May 7, Site Cleanup Volunteer and BBQ Day at Gault
I need to e-mail Nancy and sign up for this. Of course the barbeque does me no good, but I can eat my low-sodium vegetarian food and sit with people and listen to the archeologists and soak up atmosphere. I don't get to Gault often enough.

May 28 1 PM
Salado Public Library
Dr. Clark Wernecke will speak about the Gault Site
I can probably skip this. I've heard Clark talk about Gault more than any other single person, I think.

June 11 8:30 PM
Reynolds Creek Park Amphitheatre Waco.
Learn about the peopling of the Americas in an outdoor amphitheater on the shores of Lake Waco.
On the one hand, Jerusalem-on-the-Brazos is a fair drive away and I've heard Clark on this topic many times. On the other hand - excuse to go birding. Hmmm...I haven't been birding all year so far...

June 10-12, Austin
Writer's League of Texas Agents Conference
I need to meet and schmooze agents, but money's tight and we might or might not be in the middle of fixing the back of the house. Is meeting the agents and editors who'll be there worth the ticket price plus hotel, plus depriving Damon of the use of Moby? It's better to stay at the hotel than commute to a friend's house for events like this. I need to study up and make up my mind before the cheaper rates expire.

June 14 7PM
Sierra Club Austin Scholz Beer Garden, Austin
General meeting open to the public. Dr. Wernecke will discuss theories of the
peopling of the Americas.
Clark again; but closer, and he's almost bound to skew it a little differently for the Sierra Club.