Making History

As a life-long fan of history and archaeology, I have been saddened to hear of great treasures torn asunder by war in the Middle East.  Some lesser-known treasures have suffered obliteration closer to home. I think of my visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an ancient city in the heart of the United States that was partly swallowed up by pavement.

It’s a time-honored tradition in a way, wiping out the memory of those who came before. You can see places on ancient monuments where later visitors worked to wipe out the names and images of others, whether it’s modern graffiti vandals etching over historical relics or Egyptian pharaohs knocking out the images of their predecessors. The value of history in teaching us about our nature and potential is part of what motivates those who destroy. They do not want us to share that knowledge and grow away from them.

Writers do their part in rescuing these vanishing scraps of heritage by documenting them in many ways. They can be the sources of both fiction and non-fiction material. Written works and pictures can draw attention to them and make the case for preservation.

I recently began participating in preservation itself by volunteering as an archival transcriptionist for my state archives.  My task is to take scanned documents and type their contents so that they can be searched by researchers. Among the benefits of doing this work is learning more about the language use of persons from another era, always a valuable body of knowledge for a writer. I also find that poring over words written in the past, often with pen strokes that preserve their gestures, is a moving experience.

While it’s true that my new sideline is yet another distraction (along with my art ventures) from actually writing my next book, I don’t see it as time wasted. I like to think that I am helping keep a few small pieces of our shared human story in hand.

 

 

A Picture’s Worth

Lately, the coffee shop crowd will greet me with, “How’s the book?” In fact, I have set aside my writing project for now to work on visual arts projects. Since some of my book covers have come from past art projects and working in another medium stimulates creativity in general, this does not feel like a bad trade. I have set up a new blog devoted to recovering old art projects and documenting new ones, as well as recording the results of my “haiku-a-day” project.

In reply to my admission, the writer among them grins and says knowingly, “Same with my book.” The implication is that I’ll never finish. With 18 books under my belt (some of which waited over a decade in an envelope in a closet to be published) I am neither worried nor hurried. My present book will get done when it and I are ready.

The Horrible Truth

Are you writing horror fiction? Before I renewed my acquaintance with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, I would have thought that was a no-brainer even Abby Normal could answer: Of course not. You’ll find nary a zombie and no trace of a hockey-mask wearing fiend hanging randy teens by their heels with meat hooks and firing up his chainsaw in any of my work.

There’s more to the case than buckets of blood and entrails though. In Danse Macabre, King describes his first personal taste of horror as having been subjected to the then-terrifying announcement that the Soviets had beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik. On the Horror Writers Association site, horror is defined in a post on the basics of horror fiction as a sensation of intense dread and fear, a common definition found in many corners of the web. The post also includes several other definitions, including “that which cannot be made safe.” The author remarks fondly on the classic anthology Prime Evil, which ranges from the-corner-of-your-eye-maybe-you’re-crazy-who-knows to knee-deep-in-blood types of stories, an excellent survey of the breadth of the genre and its sub-genres. The post goes on to lament that horror as we currently define it has slipped far away from the subtle and become dominated by gore.The subtler writers have gone underground so to speak, eschewing the “horror” label for “supernatural” or “fantastic.”

Teresa Hopper at Forward Motion, however, informs us that even if you are merely trying to cause chills for (let alone scare the wits out of) readers, you are writing horror. Stephen King may be better known for splatter but he also gave us The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, which relies solely on mundane but very real fears familiar to anyone living on the edge of the Maine woods (especially two days after the remains of a long-sought elderly through-hiker were confirmed found in a lonely ravine just off the Appalachian Trail). I am reminded of the movie Poltergeist, which featured plenty of traditional scares but also played on the more ordinary adult fears of property loss and injury to family. Fear is fear.

So where does that leave Abby Normal’s original shoot-from-the-hip conclusion? Do I actually write horror? At least one of my works, a short anthology, consists of stories filled with ghosts and shape shifters. I now admit that I meant to at least “cause chills,” which is plain enough from the YouTube trailer with its creepy tune imploring at the end “Where are you? You Gotta get Me Outta Here!”

At the time I posted it, I added keywords like “ghosts” and described the genre as “supernatural.” I avoided “horror” because I was concerned readers would be disappointed by the lack of plasma. I forgot what my mother once said about the old horror movies we all enjoyed growing up: “You could almost see the strings on the bats but they still scared us.” I spent Halloween watching an old favorite, the Boris Karloff version of “The Mummy.” It chilled without spilling a drop of blood in front of us because it obeyed all the rules of horror at their most basic.

P.S. If, like me, you are beginning to feel less afraid of horror (ironically), here are a few prompts to get started.

The Catfish Are Jumping And The Thumbs Are Up High

When NPR solemnly informed me this afternoon that self-published authors on Amazon in the Kindle Direct program were “catfishing” and “astroturfing,” I began to fret over whether that was me they were talking about. I’d heard both terms before but couldn’t remember exactly what they meant. My interest was further piqued by the announcement that there would be consequences and there were reporters and scholars fast on the heels of these scofflaws.

It turns out “catfishers” are people who pay poverty-stricken writers a little bit to slickly remount their stories and sell them under a pen name. After that, they apply “astroturf,” fake reviews (sometimes paid for, sometimes cajoled out of friends) that make the subject seem popular and desirable. They also dream up bios that make the fictional author seem like an expert in the subject and a genius in general. One catfisher covered in the story claimed his alter ego spoke fifteen languages. Catfished books can become bestsellers, thanks to the marketing genius of their creators. Real authors suffer as a result, losing sales to con artists who flood the market with books on subjects like weight loss and leave readers disillusioned and fed up.

One way to keep catfishers from manipulating your book buying choices is to carefully review the author’s background and also checkout other reviews written by positive reviewers (if all the reviews are glowingly positive, you may have some fakery going on, possibly for money). As for protecting yourself against these unscrupulous practices as an author, keep an eye on reviews and reporting suspicious entries. Of course, you should also try not to be so desperate that selling your goods to a catfisher sounds like a great source of cash.

Anyone who looks at my books on Amazon can satisfy themselves that I’m not pumping my brand up with hyperbole. One look at my bank account would confirm that.

Fanning the Flames

I recently learned that Kareem-Abdul Jabar has written a book starring the “lesser sibling” in the Holmes family, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. This reminded me of a couple other examples of formal fan fiction, the books As Time Goes By (which tells you what happened before and after the story depicted in the movie Casablanca), Wide Sargasso Sea (A back story for Jane Erye), and Wicked (the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West earned her title). There have been countless Pride and Prejudice riffs, from the silly (Pride and Predjudice and Zombies) to the serious (Death Comes to Pemberley). Meanwhile, there is a virtual universe of Star Wars follow-on books and internet postings that explore the further adventures of the core characters and the lives of the next generation of Solos and Skywalkers (yup, they’re strong in the force and sport names like “Ben”).

Then there is a more disguised type of fan fiction, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey which famously began life as an ode to Twilight but wandered far afield. I’ve even heard some of Shakespeare’s work described as a sort of fan fiction, demonstrating the bard’s interest in history and old legends as material. From there, one can also consider the Netflix series House of Cards, which boasts Macbeth and Richard III in its pedigree.

A friend who writes fan fiction focused on Stargate Atlantis expressed the concern that this form of writing is not considered very creative. However, Time magazine gave it a good-sized article bursting with if not admiration then broad acknowledgement that fan fiction has become a booming cottage industry. The books listed above (plus many others) show that it also has a solid place in literature.

Living authors who are the objects of fan fiction have disparate opinions on the subject of letting other writers take a swing at their characters. Anne Rice has gone on record as opposing the practice while J.K.Rowling seems to embrace it. George Lucas mostly welcomes it as well.

Having dabbled in my youth at Star Wars fan fiction (re-writing A New Hope from the point of view of Luke’s little-known tomboy cousin sidekick), I can appreciate the inspiration other writers’ work can give one. I’d be hypocritical if I insisted my own work is off limits for the same attention. In truth, I’d be just as fascinated to know what someone else found lurking in the undeveloped details of my writing as I was to find out why Rick was barred from going back to the United States. Fan fiction keeps a well-crafted character or setting alive and breathes more life into it.

If you are still wondering what to write about next, a small exercise in answering the question “What did my favorite obscure character do next?” might take you down a fruitful road less traveled.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Jabar wrote a piece for the September 27, 2015, Parade Magazine explaining why he chose Mycroft as a subject. Mycroft, it seems, presents an intriguing contrast to his brother’s emotional distance and Jabar wanted to explore the reasoning approach of a personality more inclined to empathy.

Inspired in the Worst Way

Hearing the solemn bell tolling for the 9/11 commemoration today made me suddenly recall that I wrote an essay about that day once. It was a wrenching experience for those of us old enough to remember it and one that still can get a group conversing. It’s not easy to turn that kind of anguish into art but it does a service to your psyche, to the cause of general knowledge, and, sometimes, to the hearts of others to try.

Here is what I made of that moment in its entirety:

Just a Movie

I never saw the planes crash into the towers until after it happened. I burst into the babysitter’s house and offered my apology for the unusual midday intrusion.

“Just had to come get him,” I said.

She stood with her bare feet spread apart in the middle of her living room, her long blond hair falling down her muscular back, a baby in her arms, entranced by the image on the widescreen television before her. The children normally stayed back in the parlor of the old farmhouse but some had strayed across the kitchen and stood watching as well. My son stood there too, blond curls rioting around his head. He was just a couple weeks from four and only a few days away from the early morning visit to the ER that would thankfully make us forget everything in the wide world for the weekend.

We reached one-third of the way home before the lump in my throat cleared enough for me to ask, “Son, were you scared by what you saw on that television?”

“It was just a movie,” he replied. “How can a movie scare you?”

For a long moment, I was sorely tempted to indulge myself in that logic. It did look just like something a special effects crew dreamed up. Maybe my son would be better off not knowing right now.

“It is real and true. They really did crash into the towers.”

“Oh. It was just an accident then.”

I thought so too at first. The first plane sounded like a colossal glitch. The second one told us there was a lot more than met the eye. We grown-ups tasted a lot of fear that day. Kids, like my son, who might experience outlandish terror at the sight of an open closet door at night, just shrugged. They would grow up with this story (assuming it was just the one feeble stroke of bizarre luck that a low-tech terrorist syndicate could muster). This would be to them as JFK’s death was to me, born a few weeks before it happened and unable to share in the stories people tell of that day.

For those of us who remember it, however, that day would be a touchstone. We would remember certain things about it with biting clarity. I remember the morning sky as the bluest I’d seen since the high desert. I actually thought, “What a great day!” Later, I thought “What a price you pay for such thoughts.” A deeper part of me just responded, “Jinxed you!”

The worst parts are those that cut close to the bone. I remember the sorrowful tone of the meeting moderator as she said, “Meeting adjourned due to national emergency. Make sure that’s in the minutes.” I recall the wild look in our director’s eye as she suddenly rose and reeled away from the table without a word. Later the word was passed that she had friends in the towers. I have a mental picture of my officemate and I desperately trying to get a radio signal in the musty old fortress of a building where we worked and finding the Internet too crammed with traffic to respond. I can easily return to the tension that rose in my veins as one of my workmates darted into the room declaring, “They’re going to bomb every fifteen minutes until they get what they want!” No one knew what that was or who they were. The thought popped into my head that if I could just hug my son and take him home, I would feel okay, no matter what else happened.

“I have to leave,” I said to my supervisor.

“Go if you like. Someone’s gotta stay,” she said, with a resigned sigh.

“This is a federal building, you know. It’s a target.”

“Whatever.”

She had a son too.

Looking out into my woods from my deck that afternoon, I thought it was like the ice storm that ravaged our property when my son was a baby. He would never know the trees that were felled and still lay crumpled on our land. He wouldn’t know the patches of forest across the state that got cleared out, making them tidy and ripe for building. He couldn’t relate to the sounds of the trees exploding under the weight of the ice with a gunshot-like report. I may never tell him how I cried when I poured out the frozen breast milk after the electricity had been gone for a few days. Anything but that! Now he wouldn’t know a world where you couldn’t imagine people crashing planes into busy cities. At least he’ll not remember the crazy, silly things that were done as a result, the peculiar expressions of hate and fear that blossomed in every place they threw things at people who “looked Muslim” or made people take off certain t-shirts.

He will, however, have to live with the security measures that day spawned.

Somebody finally made a movie about that day. The local movie critic remarked that he would never have gone to it if he weren’t paid to and was still tempted to walk out. It was not that it was a bad movie, just that it still hurt to look at it. There may be a day when 9/11 can become “just a movie” but, judging from my own repulsion and the way the mere mention of this day can still throw a conversation right off track, that day is not here.

No Time For Trolls

While the internet has given a new voice to many otherwise unseen writing talents, it has also…well, done the same for people who just like to say hurtful things to other people. Marina Shifrin wrote on her blog about how the underbelly of this revolution in publishing has caused some of those unseen talents to fade back into the woodwork. She includes in her post this plea to show some love to the writers you like out in cyberspace:

Now you promise me this: if you read something you love, then write something nice in the comments section. Fight the internet trolls who use hatred as their form of entertainment. If you don’t feel comfortable writing a public note, then send the writer a private message, most writers are pretty accessible if you do a little digging. Many nice, smart readers are being muted by sexually frustrated teenage (let’s face it, they’re most likely teenagers) assholes. Even good writers still get the occasional tweet, message, or email containing language that shatters their confidence to the core. Why are there more angry comments than encouraging ones?

All of us who post on the web have (sadly) had to deal with trolls and spam attacks. Some hurt more than others. I joined a “healing community” once while going through a rough patch only to have my post greeted with a reply that started “What the F— is wrong with you?” I promptly burst into tears, after which I wrote a sarcastic reply and quit the (not so healing) community. A more fragile person could (as Ms. Shifrin notes, imagining a suicidal Sylvia Plath facing a hostile remark) be catastrophically affected by such thoughtlessness.

Constructive criticism is all very well and good, and any mature writer would welcome it as useful, but destructive declarations do nothing but feed twisted egos.

If you read the post, be sure to take in the comments by a horde of interesting readers who help put the dark side in context. We can’t stop people from being devils but we can choose to be angels ourselves.