Sunday, May 18, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Home, Secret Home

So I was sitting here thinking about today's Garage Sale, and everything I came up with seemed like a variation on a theme, or possibly something I'd offered up before, and I was seriously considering just not doing it today. So I clicked over to another tab and read newsgroups, and found someone mystified by a sporadically damp place inside his garage. A particular spot on the concrete slab forms puddles periodically, but it's not directly correlated with rainfall and he can't find a source of drip. So it was suggested that maybe he was looking in the wrong direction, that the water might be coming in laterally, or even from below. Concrete looks solid, but if you break a piece you can see that it's porous. Murderers have found to their distress that concrete does not necessarily mask what it was poured to hide.

And I suddenly remembered the time I was dismantling the woodshed that was on our property once, including taking apart and moving the woodpile, and how I started finding bits of trash that made me nervous, that started the story generator in my head suggesting that I was shortly going to find human bones or a mummified cat or an enigmatic artifact, relic of some deep-buried crime or at least guilty secret.

What I found was decayed Christmas wreaths, but that's not the point.

When I was in middle school I realized that an awful lot of books started with moving into a new home, and that this was always a much more fruitful process in books than in real life. (Air Force brat. I felt like I'd moved a lot and was an expert.) New homes in books had mysteries, ghosts, hidden treasures! They had not, as all the homes I moved into had, been emptied down to their bones, recently painted and sheetrocked, and all their secrets hauled off in a dumpster. They were not, as most of the homes being moved into at any given time in the late 20th century were, brand-new builds on land that had previously been a ranch or hunting lease or orchard or farm.

But what if it's a secret that the management company selling the place wouldn't find in its clean-and-spiff-up, or its new build; or that even belonged to someone within that company or on a work crew, who chose this place to bury it, in hope of - what?

What kind of secret would depend on the target audience and genre. A brand new garage with an old body under it is a natural jumping-off point for a murder mystery, but in real life it would be a police case, and for a book we want something of personal resonance to the homeowner and her family. So that takes us straight to "ghost," and the problem of learning who the ghost is, and how to put it to rest, without having any control of the evidence or any pull with the police.

"The Clue in the Woodpile" is a good solid middle-grade mystery title, and I couldn't swear to you there isn't a Nancy Drew called that - a lockbox full of odd, not obviously significant objects and messages in cipher.

Maybe you're taking down a stone wall and find a "post office" used by children in pre-internet days to communicate when they couldn't get together reliably. What could have been left so long that could still affect you today?

This is all vague, but the impact of the hook requires specific, evocative items. So you look at your environment and its history. Who used this land? Who passed through it? What history lies unacknowledged beneath your feet? And what consequences does the secret have in this place, today?

Almost any piece of land in the world can be a murder dump site; but say you go with that. There's murders, and there's murders. Do you live in an area where lynching and private justice were respectable within living memory? Could a crime, uncovered now, of which you yourself are innocent, undermine your own claim on a property, or undermine family dynamics that seem solid and essential?

Are you in a former war zone?

Are you sure you're not? Indian wars, range wars, the war on drugs: they all leave their traces; they all have their mysteries, their secrets, their espionage, and their treachery.

And those are just the realistic options! Allow in ghosts, offended nature spirits, local legends and magical traditions (you do too have a magical tradition, even if you only call it "superstition" or "religion"), and think about all that could have been hidden, or what could have been taken and be trying to get back -

Yeah, there's no place like home. Maybe it's time to research your property and see what stories are lurking there.

Maybe next week I'll tell you about mine.

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