Plot Drivers

Several years ago, I worked at a place where we had a whiteboard on which people would post questions or challenges. Anyone could answer in response. The prompts ranged from the mundane (what song makes you happiest?) to the practical (what are you bringing to the potluck?) to the philosophical (how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?). By far the question that prompted the most answers in my time was one of my own: What was your most memorable car and why?

I had been reminiscing about the many colorful vehicles of my past and wondering if other people had similar stories. The answers covered the board, after which enterprising souls answered on paper and taped the answers on the wall. The final result went from as high as most could reach right down to the floor and filled the sides of the wall panel.If ever anyone wanted a topic for a book, this appears to be a strong contender. Everyone seems to have a story they would like to tell on this topic.

Cars have characters all their own to be sure. They do not have to be as active as Christine or the Love Bug to be prominent in our life stories and in our fiction. They can just be as temperamental as the cars in James Thurber’s short stories or as talented as the ones in the Harry Potter and James Bond serials. Or they can just be there as catalysts (the car crash that led to…etc.).

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about a related matter lately, namely what your car says about you (and, accordingly, what car your character should drive). Cars played a key role in my mystery work Soleville, mainly as a marker for the changing lifestyle of the hero, whose sudden promotion obliges him to step up in the automobile world and into unfamiliar territory. For me, the necessary research was an engaging foray into an imaginary world where my car-buying budget was well beyond my real-life means. It was fun and slightly addictive.

Back in the real world and limited by a middle class bank account, my spouse and I just purchased two new-to-us used cars after similar (but far more constrained) research. Most of the people I know clucked approvingly at the choices we made but the response I received from one person who’s known me for years surprised me: “You never struck me as THOSE kind of people.” Since then, a couple of my husband’s male acquaintances greeted his arrival in one of the cars with the remark “Now THAT is a car.” It might interest them to know, both cars were love at first drive for my husband, though not necessarily at first sight. One he dismissed at first with the remark, “Looks like a hearse.” The other he seemed too disengaged from for a comment. The same man dismissed one of the cars we test drove with a curt, “This just isn’t me.”

We didn’t intend to make any kind of statement with our purchases but car choices do say something, even if it’s only “I was in a hurry and didn’t have a lot of money” (exhibit A: the Geo Metro we once owned). You might ask what kind of person drives a jacked-up red pickup that hangs on your bumper and peels off indignantly when in fact you are going the speed limit (no, really, I want this guys’ plate number so I can turn him in)? Or who drives a blue Buick sedan about 10 MPH below the limit (All right, that would have been my mother)? Or who is that in the black van with the tinted windows (Truly, we don’t want to know)? Or who buys a car that matches their wild pantsuit (see Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety)?

Our expectations can be so raised by vehicles that there is a comic effect when the driver pops out and is a different person than we’d come to believe was behind the wheel. Maybe the jacked-up red truck is driven by a wizened old priest? Could it be the Buick is driven by a 7-foot professional wrestler? The black van, for that matter, might just be operated by a kindergarten teacher. Seeing my husband hop out of our black Volvo Cross Country had, I guess, a different effect than seeing him rise out of the white Prius (to those who knew the beat up old Subaru Forester he used to drag down the logging roads). Perhaps that was all my commentator meant: two people who drove the same old shabby colorful cars for so long do look out of place in newer vehicles. Still, can’t the padre drive a little slower?

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More Horrible News

No, it’s not Donald Trump winning the presidency. My only comment on that is related to a post on another blog where I noted that Rachel Maddow sarcastically exhorted our governor to “stay classy” but my advice is for him to “stay funny.” Someday historians will unearth articles about Paul LePage and Donald Trump and conclude they are fiction of a dark humor type, because in the abstract they can sound very much as if someone made them up. I have no doubt Mr. Trump will be entertaining as president and hopefully it will be in a good way.

Mention of Mr. LePage brings me to Maine’s best-known horror writer (heck, best-known writer, period), Stephen King who tweeted a super-flash fiction story that went: “Once upon a time, there was a man named Donald Trump and he ran for president. Some people wanted him to win.” Some of those people were probably comedians and late-night show hosts.

I am more interested in what Time magazine published last week in their innocence of the pending dramatic twist in the election. Never mind the cover story or various editorials. My eye fell hard on their ‘chartoon’ entitled “Horror-Movie Plot Generator.” Besides the fact that this piece is a few weeks too late for Halloween (but just in time for, well, election day), I was struck by the inclusion of this item in the “contextual” column: In Maine.

I don’t know if we Maineiacs should be honored or insulted by such a mention. This is the only specific place name on the list. It may be a tip of the hat to Mr. King and/or the many stories he has written that take place in Maine. It may be wise-acre homage to our governor. It might just be a random whim. It’s just interesting that someone thinking very hard for at least 20 seconds thought of this as one of the most recognizably scary places, right up there with “a hospital,” “an old house,” and “the woods.”

Anyway, at least now you have another helpful tool to get you out of that rut and start writing about…Newlyweds in space butchered by an ancient evil thing…

A Little Talking-To About Hyphens

In another post, I noted that lost commas can be the root of drama. From this post about how lack of a hyphen nearly cost a job, we learn how still another bit of punctuation can be a make-or-break force.

I won’t take the conversation any further, except to recommend this “well-intentioned rant on hyphens” by the good people at The Atlantic. I’m exhausted from battling with them in a draft given to me by a colleague where the hyphens had migrated from their necessary places to forbidden territory. For example, “follow up,” which is a (sort of) verb, got turned into “follow-up,” which is a (sort of) noun, and vice-versa. (NOTE: the last reminds me of my husband’s story of working for a boss who ordered him to “not visa-verse things.”) At least like my Northeastern US-born husband and his “conservation of R’s” (saying “cah” for car and then  “dramar” for “drama”), the writer lost no hyphens.

The best advice comes from The Atlantic article: before you slap a hyphen in place, check whether it’s advisable to use one.

Of Two Minds

As if my brain didn’t hurt enough from spending hours at work learning about how medical claims get paid and then recorded in the accounting system, I learned this morning that Schrodinger’s Cat is (was? will be?) more complex than we all thought. I keep a copy of a Dilbert cartoon about this on on my fridge as an homage to my physics loving progeny. In the strip, the evil HR director, Catbert, introduces the new staff member, a cat that used to work for a Dr. Schrodinger who let him go before an experiment was done, thus leaving him both dead and alive. Dilbert asks if that means he’s a zombie, to which the cat replies, “I have half a mind to be offended.”

In the new twist to the cat’s story, it has been determined that the cat can be dead and alive in two different places and that acting on one of the cats will cause the same outcome or reaction for the other. For example, tickle the cat…well, first you put on gloves, I guess…and it laughs or bites someone in both places…heavy gloves are needed. This concept was taken a step further by physicists applying it to photons in the lab.  I can see where if I went beyond writing space operas and actually wanted to put the effort into writing actual science fiction or more robust fantasy, this could be a very useful concept. With it, I could feed both my cats at once remotely. Everybody wins.

P.S. I re-released and rededicated the most recent volume of my “Startrail” space opera in honor of Prince, who inspired one of the characters back when I wrote the first story that would eventually become the first book.

 

Purrfect Love Gone Wrong

You think the Jarndyce lawsuit in Dickens’ Bleak House was long and excruciating?  Maine papers and other papers around the world have chronicled another suit in which one party is a veritable flock of cats. As USA Today noted, “No, this is not the plot of The Aristocats…”

In short, an elderly cat lover left a tidy fortune to the care of a group of rescued cats via her trusted housekeeper. Since the woman’s death several years ago, lawsuits have swirled about attempting to dislodge the money from the housekeeper and turn it over to a squad of volunteers who feed, pet, and clean up after the cats. Snug in their own little trailer, the cats only know that they are safe and warm.  The cat ladies maintain them by turning over a chunk of their social security checks each month. Now the town has lent a hand to their mission with a portion of the budget and fans are stepping up as well through a “Go Fund Me” page.

Just Another Martian Monday

In my local paper this morning, the regular naturalist writer, who covers everything from snails to supernovas, posted a piece on how time works on Mars.  According to this article, there are authors who (unlike me) have written about Mars without glossing over the issue of how one manages the disjoint between Mission Control time on Earth and another planet with different lengths of day, month, and year (as well as two moons). In particular, he cites a thoughtful time-keeping tweak proposed by Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars to help Mars-base staff stay in sync.

When NASA finally does get us onto Mars, they may well look to fiction as their model, in the same way Star Trek probably paved the way for Siri (though I am very disappointed with our web-conferencing tools at work for not looking anywhere near as cool or working as well as the ones on a show from over 40 years ago).

I am daily reminded of how disorienting time can get when reaching across time zones to meet with colleagues. One poor fellow staggered out of bed this morning for a meeting with us chipper East-coasters and at points seemed unable to remember what we were talking about. “Needs a gallon of coffee,” I texted a colleague just as our comrade muttered (unnecessarily), “Man, am I tired!”

Then there’s the clock in the common hall of our office complex. For a time it was stopped altogether but then began to run several hours off (ahead? behind?). Lately, it has been 55 minutes behind (I think) on average but sometimes less. I distract myself all the way to the door every morning wondering why no one can seem to get it running on regular Eastern Standard Earth time but I am no longer able to trust it if it does. Of course, I can just ask Siri, I suppose (thanks, again, to fiction writers).

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.