A Hero for Our Time(‘)s

I knew when I read about this masked vigilante who removes superfluous apostrophes from signs, that he should be recognized in a post on this site. The story also contains several hopeful pleas from ordinary civilians regarding other offending signs that have assaulted them (including some that do not involve punctuation errors). I personally wince but turn away from such mistakes on hand-made signs and in emails but take umbrage with professionally made signs and advertising materials that don’t understand how plurals actually work in English. If one pays for a job, one should be able to expect that the job will be done with competence. As for the authors of ‘free puppy’s’, I absolve you.


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.



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…

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.

Write in the Place Where You Live

I was hard at work in a local coffee house, elbow deep in paper festooned with red pen marks. A lady from a nearby table leaned over and asked what I was doing. When I told her I was working on a novel, she chirped, “Oh! What is it about?” I described the plot and setting and then answered her follow-up question: “What’s your working title?”

Almost before the entire title was out of my mouth, the woman’s companion cut me off with the remark, “You’re not supposed to TELL people your working title.” The woman leaned back and shook her head at me. She said in a despairing voice, “I don’t KNOW about Maine writers who write about other places.” Her companion added “I’ve LIVED in the place where your novel is set.” The lady added, “He’s a professional writer, you know.”

I did not have the opportunity to explain that I’ve traveled in my book’s setting and lived in similar places, giving me my own experience of that setting (i.e. I’m not “making up” everything I describe). The pair lost interest in me and my book after their pronunciations, closing the topic with a soft murmur from the woman, repeating my working title and promising, “I’ll watch for it.” The last utterance is a roundabout way of saying I can count these guys out as readers, since if they “watch for my book” under the working title (which I’ve since changed twice), they won’t be finding anything I wrote. POSTSCRIPT: Having crossed paths with the couple again, I am certain now that they won’t be among my fans. The man said a very brief “hi” and looked away and the woman merely gave me the panicked ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look to which I have become accustomed when people discover that I write (see the post Snakes Alive).

The topic of working titles and etiquette around them could be a post all by itself. Instead I prefer to ponder the question of why anyone should write about any place other than their home. Some sages tell us we should “write what we know.” Others have noted that if that were a rule we would have no fantasy, little science fiction, not much in the way of adventure, and, I suspect, a lot less romance (good-bye to both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray). The vast majority of my Smashwords catalog would be wiped out, excepting maybe a couple short stories and, perhaps, my gentle romance parody set in Jackson, Wyoming, where I lived for a summer. The short story, ‘Learning to Shine,’ stolen from a friend’s childhood memories would be iffy.

The lady’s concern about my setting is voiced in such a way that it presumes I had a real choice. In fact, ideas will come to me in situ, asking to be written in a place that I can fully picture. Once in a great while, I can perform a transplant but the risks are the same as if I were dealing with live hearts. Once in a while, I drop one and it splatters. As many have pointed out, settings are characters in themselves (Google “setting as character” for many useful tips on the subject). One does not deal with settings lightly.

It’s not that Maine is a terrible setting. Literature set in Maine is a genre unto itself and writers ooze out of every nook and cranny in the state. Much of Stephen King’s work is set here in the fictional Castle Rock and other such towns. Although the movie was filmed in New Hampshire, On Golden Pond is set here, very close to where I live now and where the author once lived. For that matter, Empire Falls, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, was partially filmed in my town on a street I often pass. These two depictions of life in Maine couldn’t be more different and yet both are true to the place I know. So is The Beans of Egypt Maine, a different vision yet. I can recognize King’s characters (until they sprout scales, fangs, and fur) in my daily life (usually buying a carton of cigarettes and two cases of beer at the local convenience store in line ahead of me).

I have a lot of affection for Maine. It just does not always happen to be what calls to me when I sit down to write. I am not deliberately spurning my home state. I simply have to follow the path the story has taken. I’d rather take the advice of another professional writer from Maine, Stephen King (see the Plumbers in Space post) and write what I want (or what is wanted by the story), than let random coffee shop patrons dictate my actions. Besides, my book wouldn’t have it any other way.

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.