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Viewing Blog: Peni Griffin - Idea Garage Sale, Most Recent at Top
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The cliche question all authors hate - "Where do you get your ideas?" The idea is the easy part. The idea is so easy to get, you can't give them away. I'm here to give them away, to share them, and invite you to recognize yours. We're all creative. Not all of us pay attention.
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1. Idea Garage Sale: General Thoughts for Spring

So, zombies are a thing lately (I don't know why; it never has made sense to me, but trends don't have to). Where's the zombie Easter story? It's a natural, isn't it - the dead rising and all that?

And why is Easter not more of a story holiday, anyhow? Easter stories don't have nearly the cultural footprint that Christmas ones do; and yet they're similar in a lot of ways. Both are about renewal - the return of the sun at solstice, the coming of spring. Both support huge commercial industries and amazingly tacky, color-coordinated decor, though Easter isn't quite as relentlessly consumerist. (Yet.) Both are Christian holy days onto which are grafted semi-pagan pop cultural icons. Both are huge days for church attendance by people who don't normally go. Both have parallels in other religions. Both are part of the one big overarching holy story, about the cycle of life and death.

The plot has a lot of relevance even when you strip out the Christian symbolism, and it's all very dramatic. Christmas is the beginning, Good Friday is the climax, and Easter is the happy ending.

Beginnings are easy. We all have dozens of beginnings in our file cabinets. Beginnings don't take you anywhere if you don't press on. We need the climax. We want our happy endings.

So where are the stories in which Easter/spring are explicitly tied to, say recovery from grief or catastrophe? Ordinary poor couples with ordinary babies are routinely made to stand in for the holy family in Christmas stories (especially on TV). If we re-enact the birth constantly, why do we not re-enact the death and resurrection? People don't literally come back from the dead, but - people come back from the brink of death, and from symbolic deaths; people work through the stages of grief and come out of mourning; relationships and careers and nations die and are reborn, transformed, every day.

Where's the divorce Easter story?

Where's the attempted suicide returning to the land of the living, slow agonizing step by slow agonizing step, into a hard-won happiness as fragile as an egg or a flower?

Where's the transplant patient coming to terms with the fact that if someone else, someone at least as worthy and loved, had not died, he would not be living to be wheeled into church on Easter morning?

What happens to all those poor TV babies born when their parents get stranded in December - are they well-fed and cared-for in April? Do they grow up groaning under and rebelling against the symbolic weight of their births?

What about the arc of poor Judas, who chose the villain's path, repented, despaired, and didn't stick things out till the happy ending? It has always seemed to me that if we don't parse out Judas's arc, we miss the part most relevant to most people's daily lives.

Christmas is meaningless without Good Friday. Good Friday, without Easter, is too bitter to bear. And the only way to get to Easter is to grit your teeth and get through Good Friday.

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2. Discovery Trunk

So The University of Iowa has an archeological tumbler, and it also has a “Discovery Trunk” program which sends trunks full of educational materials to schools that request them, which it promotes on its tumbler, which I follow. And today they highlight the one about what Iowa was like 13,000 years ago and guess whose book is in there? Along with probiscidean teeth and atlatl darts and flint tools and oh my.

These trunks are loaners, but I doubt they only have one of each kind, so maybe this use will even translate into money at some point, though I’m not holding my breath about that.

So even if I never sell another book, this is a thing that happened.

Since I spent most of the morning with my head in my hands in front of a screen, eventually completing a single page, and begin to suspect that, though I'm writing a story I can write, I'm trying to do it in a way that I can't, this was well-timed.

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3. Old School

I'm gonna have to go longhand. I've tried and tried and I cannot sort out this plot problem in type. I need illegible scribbles, a notebook, and curling up in a chair.

I wonder if anyone understands the neuroscience behind this? It's not as if I can't think while typing - I do it all the time. It's a certain kind of thinking I can't do without a pen in my hand.

And yeah, it sorta does have to be a pen... Read the rest of this post

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4. Idea Garage Sale: Beyond Biracial

So, yesterday was weird in various ways too tedious to relate, and tomorrow is Tax Day so be sure to get your estimated payment in, and the garage sale opens off schedule but that's the breaks, what're we gonna put out for sale today? Wait, there was a news story yesterday - ah, yes, here we go: Neanderthals and humans definitely interbred, and the offspring were not mules, because we're still carrying their DNA, it's absolutely positively true this time, we're sure this time.

One thing this means is, that Neanderthals were a race of humans, not a species; or, more biologically accurately, I suppose, homo sapiens and Neanderthals were both subspecies. Which is like a race except that it has an actual biological meaning, unlike "race," which is a categorization fiction which people take far too seriously and turn into a social reality to justify doing terrible things to each other.

And you're way ahead of me, picturing the ways this can be used to write allegories and satires and fables projecting modern racial prejudice into the past and tell stories about racial tension while not having to deal with any race that isn't white, and isn't that a relief? (Pulls self back from precipice of a rant.)

But let's stop a minute and really think about it. If humans and Neanderthals interbred sufficiently often that 20% of of the modern human genome is descended from Neanderthals, then that implies either a large area of overlap geographically and socially - perhaps (since there weren't any towns yet) mixed clans, or Neanderthal/cishuman networks - or a few Neanderthal/cishuman couples with large, successful families.

So, if we ask ourselves my favorite story generation question - what would really happen? - we do not necessarily come up with anything that looks like the familiar outcast/socially marginalized/fighting for justice miscegenation narrative.

Maybe the populations we would call Neanderthal and human would not recognize themselves as distinct in any significant way?

Maybe Neanderthal/human marriages were deliberate sociopolitical arrangements intended to create a caste of special people - shamans, perhaps; long-distance traders; mediators between populations, assumed to be able to bridge differences by carrying the representative features of each?

Maybe certain clans of humans specialized in long-distance trading and casually bred with all the populations within their trading territories?

Maybe the intermarriage occurred in areas where both Neanderthals and modern humans were so thin on the ground that they were beginning to suffer the effects of inbreeding, and the hybrid vigor of the bispecies children revitalized both groups, or made a third, distinct group that outcompeted both sets of their cousins?

Ultimately, the stories we modern humans tell must, if they are to achieve any currency in the marketplace of the mind, relate to Us, to modern humans and the ways we interact with the world and ourselves. But this doesn't have to mean projecting our bitterest problems all the way into our prehistory. Because how productive is that? Doesn't that confirm these things as inevitable, condemn us to resigning ourselves to the Way Things Are because if they've been around since the beginning we can't possibly hope to solve them now?

It can mean projecting different ways of organizing our world so as to reimagine them without our bitterest problems? To do an end run around them? To imagine different human possibilities, and sets of problems?

To free ourselves up to recategorize ourselves, and get down to the real universals?

This is all airy-fairy theme stuff, I'm afraid. But anybody who knuckles down and does the research, consciously unlatching the well-worn paths of thought as they learn more and more and more about Ice Age Europe and the world where two human subspecies came together, and made babies, will, I think, find plenty of specifics to work with to make a new, rich world.

Because reality is like that, and will expand your fiction (rather than limiting it) if you let it.

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5. TLA

It is always a good idea to go to industry conventions when they occur near you. So, as usual, I went to the Texas Library Association's convention, on an Exhibits-only pass.

I met friends, I couldn't buy enough books, I saw all the exhibits, I ate trail mix because there's never food I can eat at these things, I did not have enough money to buy the books I wanted to, and my feet hurt all the way up to my lower back.

Hardly anybody had catalogs at their booths this year. They must all be online.

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6. Idea Garage Sale: Graphic Novels of the Ancients

So for various reasons I couldn't get my act together this morning and then we had to go to the game and I came home feeling crappy (and not just because the stupid module we're running drains our characters' stats every time we turn around, though that did not help; seriously, if you ever play Carrion Crown, make sure you get a fully-loaded Wand of Restoration before going to visit Schloss Caradoc), and I was thinking maybe I would blow off the garage sale today.

And then I saw character sketches for the Epic of Gilgamesh on my tumblr dash.

And now I want to read that comic, and also graphic novels of all the undeservedly obscure mythic epics that are awesome but nobody reads. And you know what else would make great comics? Coyote and Rabbit stories. Monster Killer. The Song of Roland. Reynard the Fox. The Kalevala. Eric Shanower already did the Iliad, so don't bother going there.

I mean, why go to me for ideas when there's a whole world of myth and folklore out there, most of it untapped? And all of it highly visual.

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7. Don't Tell Me You Haven't

So, if you sit down to write ten pages and reach a certain point, and write all morning, and produce two pages, which don't contain anything you intended to go onto the ten pages and wind up somewhere else entirely, does it still count as an accomplishment?


Because what's the alternative? Beating yourself up about it? That's no good!

Nobody cares how uneven the process was when holding the finished product in their hands. However you get to the finished product, that's the right way to work.

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8. The Main Event and the Side Trip

My primary goal is to tell stories.

Given the reality of modern life, I have always framed my goal as "writing stories and selling them for money." Which I have not been able to do for much too long a time. It can be hard to sit down and write the story, knowing how hard it will be to send it out and out and out, to try to sell it to agents or editors or anybody, before it will ever see a reader, and the reader is the point, because you're not telling a story in any meaningful way if nobody hears it.

I often reflect (when I see, for example a fine actor stuck with an awful script) that I am fortunate that my vocation is one I can do without anyone's permission. I can write whether I sell anything or not; I can keep up the attempt to sell for the remainder of my life and as long as I don't stop publication will remain a possibility; if I died tomorrow, all the stories I have sitting unsold on my hard drive could still be sold next week, or the year after, or ten years down the line, or be uncovered by archeologists teasing data out of outmoded systems and published for the edification and delight of generations yet unborn. That sort of thing has happened, and does happen, and will happen - though not necessarily to me. While an actor who was born to play Jane Eyre must be in the right place at the right time to be cast when she is somewhere within spitting distance of the right age to do it, or she will never play Jane Eyre and may well be remembered, if at all, as "the girl in that Tampax commercial" or as the eternal best friend or as the queen of her local dinner theater. Compared to performers, I have all kinds of control over my artistic output.

This reflection is less comforting on some days than on others.

But I do have a secondary artistic goal, which I have only gradually come to recognize as a motivator as great as the prime storytelling urge. I have a thesis to prove: That as human beings, we are all creative, if we allow ourselves to be. This is a goal which, by its nature, I cannot accomplish by myself. All that tossing off an idea a week proves is that I can do it. It's up to other people to see me do it, and see how I do it, and realize that they can do it, and finally take their own ideas and do something with them.

Whatever it is that they are equipped and prepared to do.

I wish, in short, to empower people, and inspire them to find their own creativity - as all the authors I've read in my life empowered me to do. And I do sometimes find out I did this with one of the books. I remember one school visit seeing a board game, made as a class project, based on Switching Well. Kids draw pictures illustrating their favorite books; sometimes I get to see one of mine. Sometimes I'll hear incidentally of kids who tried something one of my characters did; or of a teacher who incorporated searching for locations from Switching Well into a trip to downtown San Antonio. This sort of thing doesn't pay the bills, but is more of a visceral thrill than getting a check. It feeds a different part of the self. One, frankly, that is normally kept hungry.

The urge to empower creativity in others was a major motivator behind making Widespot (that, and playing with a different storytelling medium at a time when I couldn't reliably handle text): I wanted to see what people would do with the characters and situations I handed them. I was mostly thinking about how they'd play out the storylines in their different games, looking forward to seeing how they'd resolve the immediate dilemmas I handed them, and then the secondary consequence of it further down the line - the genetic bottleneck resulting from the Hart family's breeding simultaneously into every other family in that tiny, tiny town.

But they do a lot more than that. My chief playtester designs clothes for the characters, as well as expanding their backstories. One player, who writes quite well, started documenting her game in illustrated story format on her Live Journal, developing the characters as richly and individually as anyone could ask. Furthermore, when she decided she needed family pictures, she went to considerable trouble to create them - pictures of a dead character, of a teen character as a toddler, an old character in his prime, adults in their teens. Another, whose creative urge is to build worlds, remade the entire neighborhood as a Stone Age settlement! These are all things I could never do, which would never have occurred to me, which now exist because of me. Hardly earthshaking - but real.

Real enough to tide me over, to get me through the days when the idea of sending yet another query to yet another agent makes me want to scream and tear my heart out; through the days when solving the plot problem seems, not impossible, but not worth the effort because at the moment I can't believe I can ever get another book through the publishing process.

Which is the moral of the story. Primary goals, by their nature, are big and elusive and time consuming. You have to work on them constantly. But you have a right to nourishment; and secondary goals may be more achievable, short term. They're worth making a side trip or two for, as long as you don't lose sight of your primary goal.

And you should check your goals occasionally. Because sometimes you haven't stated your primary goal correctly. But that's another topic for another day.

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9. Idea Garage Sale: Real and Fictional Alaskas

Today's garage sale is easy, since this is the anniversary of the purchase of Alaska - $7.2 million dollars given for an enormous chunk of land the purchasing entity didn't know how to use or control, from a government entity that didn't use or control it.

Russians did use Alaska, of course, but the land area was largely irrelevant to them. Private citizens profited from the cold, rich waters around Alaska. But the people who lived there, and whose ancestors had lived there for longer than any American at that time guessed, are the only ones who could be said to own any of it.

It would take someone better acquainted with them than me to sort out the reality of the places we lump together and call Alaska, dividing it off from other circumpolar places of which, in a very real sense, it is a part. Just as, when we look at the American Southwest, it only takes a slight adjustment of the eye to see that South Texas and Northern Mexico have a unity not acknowledged by political geography, we can look down at the top of the globe and see that Alaska, much of Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and much of Russia make a coherent whole, and can also be divided into a number of distinct but related cultural areas, independent of the influential fictions of States and Nations. The $7.2 million dollars was an exchange at the fictional level (money being exactly as fictional as nations, and providing a fair barometer of how well the fiction of an individual nation is faring at any given point in time), so it's not that surprising that it seemed a worthwhile deal in the abstract, map-driven plane of deal-making, as opposed to the practical day-to-day reality that named the place "Seward's Folly."

A century and a half later, it's easy (given appropriate research) to look back and spin alternate twentieth-century histories out of notions like "what if Russia still controlled Alaska in 1963?" or "What if Canada had bought it instead?"

Alternatively - and fruitfully, particularly, for Alaskan natives - far too few of the stories of the intersection between the real "Alaska" and the overlay of its imperialist fiction counterpart have been told, and even fewer have attracted as much notice as they deserve. A book like My Name is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson, was a finalist for the National Book Award, yet I bet you've never heard of it. Which of course discourages people from writing such books, which is a damn shame. Especially for the non-white natives of Alaska who are discouraged from reading when they don't find themselves reflected in the books they can find, but that's another rant.

And finally, and what interests me particularly as someone who loves books that grow out of research and imaginative engagement with facts, it seems to me that the circumpolar regions provide a place for a creative exploration of the intersection between daily reality and overlying fictions. What if the people who really own a place, the folks who live there and understand its hardships and resources, are able to find a way to retain control of it? What if, in 1963, neither Russia, nor the US, nor any other overwhelming fiction of statehood has any recognized claim to that area, but the people who live there do?

Or what if there's a Circumpolar Nation, made up of all those cultures bonding together at the abstract government level?

This is one for people who live in Alaska to sort out.

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10. Idea Garage Sale: Threat Assessment

Some days you're wiped for no particular reason and just not feeling it. And that's all right - nobody can be "on" 24/7, 52/365.

But the whole point of this blog is that ideas are easy. And sometimes, you do in fact have to perform, whether you're "on" or not. So let's see how I do starting from a place of "meh, I'm crashing."

I bet there's something in Fortean Times. But that's a bit of a crutch, isn't it? Not that there's anything wrong with a crutch, used properly - great things, crutches, when your legs aren't reliable. But if used in the wrong way, you make your problem worse instead of better; curl your whole body around the problem point until your whole body is a problem, instead of reducing the weakness to its smallest possible area and strengthening the adjacent muscles. It's possible I go to FT sometimes when I could do better by going to my own life.

Okay, what's the last serious conversation I had?

That would be the one about dealing with threats, last night. Specifically, girls dealing with threats from other girls.

Because girls are freaking scary. We don't have rules about aggression (except for the one that boys and authority figures must be kept in the dark about our capacity for it), and when your average woman gets into an altercation she is no more to be restrained by considerations about fighting "fair" than a cat is. Because fighting "fair" means "fighting in a way designed to sort out who is physically superior" and the heck with that. By the time a girl's in a physical altercation, she's past all considerations of "fair."

The conversation featured two true personal stories of physical threat. My friend T's story involved the time a bunch of girls who did not live near her got off at her bus stop, followed her, and surrounded her. So T wrapped her book bag (she'd just come from the library) around her arm, wound up, smashed the ringleader's face hard enough to take her down, and went on her way.

My story involved the repercussions of the only time I was ever not the worst performer in a team game. In women's basketball, if you're guarding, you don't have to catch, dribble, shoot, or even touch a ball; you just have to keep between one person and the ball, within a narrowly defined space. All guarding requires is mental focus, patience, and stamina - all of which I had (unlike the hand-eye coordination, muscular strength, etc. etc. ad nauseum amen which I did not have). Which meant that even good players would find themselves failing when pitted against the acknowledged Worst in Class . And somehow (I'll never know whether this was an aggressive move on the part of the team captain I wound up with, because I wasn't paying attention enough - I was just trying to survive to the end of the period and go do something real) I wound up on the same girl several days in a row. A girl who, if I recall correctly, didn't have much going for her except that she was good at team sports, an extremely high-status occupation in our shared regional culture. So one day after a game that I suppose must have been particularly frustrating for her, she walked up to me, took hold of my upper arm, put her face up next to mine, and informed me that she was going to beat me up.

I blinked at her and responded: "Go ahead. I can't stop you." And she walked away and never threatened me again, instead devising a strategy that worked against me - namely, standing still on the court till I got bored, lost focus, and she could get around me when I looked inward for something interesting to pay attention to.

(Men I tell this story to are always incredulous. Sometimes they tell me that this could not possibly work. And of course it wouldn't work in an exactly similar situation with guys - because the stakes would have been different.)

At first glance, our responses to these situations seem to be impossible to reconcile, but T and I agree that they were alike in that we both responded without conscious thought. T did not think about using her bookbag as a weapon - she just did it. I did not think about surrendering - I just did it. If we'd had to consciously think about how to respond we probably would have been paralyzed, but we went with our guts and our guts had, in each case, recognized the underlying motivations of the threats and enabled us to respond appropriately.

T, as a loner, had been identified by a pack as a weak animal, game for hunting. Packs seek victims - taking them down bonds the members together and reinforces internal and external hierarchies. She demonstrated that she was not victim material and could take down the alpha, and they backed off to look for easier prey. I, on the other hand, was the acknowledged omega in a shared, but temporary, hierarchy; I was nobody in gym class, beneath contempt - and I was fine with that, for a certain value of fine, because gym class was irrelevant to my real life. So it must have been beyond humiliating for this girl to find me suddenly stealing status from her - as well as interfering with her enjoyment of the game, which any gamer knows derives from an equal contest within a framework of equitable rules. Being paired with an inferior who nevertheless beats you - no wonder she wanted to hit me! By acknowledging my physical inferiority I handed her status back to, reminded her that I was by no means a worthy opponent, and also possibly gave her space in which to realize that the consequences of beating up a passive little white girl (yes, this was a cross-racial incident)who couldn't hit back effectively, and couldn't be forced to try, were likely to outweigh the satisfaction of seeing me bleed.

T and I were both lucky in that we were capable of the correct responses, too. It would be problematic in the extreme for me to physically take down anybody even with a full bookbag; while T, though loner enough to be identified by a pack as a potential victim, did have a stake in her school's hierarchy system, which I never had.

And here is where we get down to the story idea. Both of these stories are incomplete. They belong in a larger narrative dealing with aggression, social hierarchies, status, and physical threat.

So now we start asking, What if?

What if I'm in T's place, or she's in mine? What do our guts tell us, then?

What if T and I are the same person, faced with both these threats, and others - negotiating a high-threat environment that presents a new challenge nearly every day? And by high-threat environment, I don't mean a "bad neighborhood;" I mean the real, soul-crushing threats that nice neighborhoods pose to nice girls. The threats that authorities consistently fail to recognize as serious. Given that each threat poses a different problem that requires a different solution, how does she get through each school day, and how does this affect her strategy in the wider world?

What if the racial element is highlighted - and reversed? What if the physically incompetent girl is also a member of a lower-caste race? Physical helplessness is a white female prerogative - a low status one, but a real one. That's an issue worth exploring.

What if girls did have fair fight rules? That implies an entirely different surrounding society.

What if boys don't? Ditto.

What if a girl tries to implement a male strategy or a boy tries to implement a female one?

What if the protagonist is intersex or transgender? How does that change available strategies? Does it change the nature of the threats? (I posit that it would; and that a bullying story centered on such a character would pack quite a wallop and highlight a lot of gendered issues that tend to get overlooked.)

What if?

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11. When you can't decide...

Risk it.

Sometimes, you're looking at guidelines and you think, Maybe this story I wrote awhile back would do for them. Or, maybe it wouldn't.

So, your reread the story. And it's better than you remembered; but you're still not sure, even after running a polishing cloth over it again while thinking about those guidelines. Okay, it's fantasy but it's subtle; okay, it's a YA but it's a youngish (or oldish) YA; okay, it's women's fiction but...

So you reread the guidelines, and this part over here makes you excited and that part over there is discouraging, and you've heard a rumor about this editor, but nothing in the guidelines or your knowledge base about the market absolutely precludes the story you have in hand.

Then you send it. Because you can't sell it if you don't send it. And if they don't like it, what's one more rejection, really? Especially when this is one time when you know "wasn't a good match" probably is the real reason for the rejection, so you won't go examining the rejection with a magnifying glass, inventing implications about how your work sucks and you should go dig ditches. (And you need to get over doing that, by the way. There's a thousand and five reasons to reject a manuscript, only one of which is "it stinks.") But if it does sell - well, that's a triumph as well as money, isn't it? The cost/benefit analysis works here.

I'm assuming, of course, that the story is good; that you have read the guidelines more than once; and that you are facing a true point of ambiguity, not a limitation that makes no sense to you. If you think your time travel story is fantasy because time travel is not scientifically plausible, but the editor thinks it's science fiction because the time travel goes to the future, that's a legitimate difference of opinion and you learned something about that editor for the cost of the time it took to submit. If you think your 3,500 word story is perfect for a project with a 3,000 word limit, and send it without cutting 500 words, that's a waste of your time and hope, because the person sorting through the slushpile (or, in this day and age, the slush e-mail address) looking for the inappropriate submissions that don't have to be read because they didn't follow the guidelines won't care what genre it is when she sees the word count.

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12. Idea Garage Sale: Modern Megafauna

Today is Game with People Day, and today we play Cavemaster. I am about equal parts excited and apprehensive; as should be any person who tries to play a Pleistocene game with me.

People exist in this world who are doing practical work to restore the lost world of the Pleistocene. I've probably mentioned this here before, because reintroduction of megafauna and the return of mammoths, giant sloths, short-faced bears, et al., is naturally an attractive notion to me. I don't necessarily think such things are doable, or wise; but a project like the Pleistocene Park, dealing with the restoration of an ecosystem with the assistance of existing, rather than extinct, species has the potential to be fruitful in a lot of ways, and I'm all for it.

But the Idea Garage Sale isn't about practical plans; it's about spinning stories. And thinking about the Pleistocene, and Pleistocene Park, and megafauna, and so on, pulls me in a number of directions.

The first, of course, is backwards. The surface of possible stories set in the Pleistocene has barely been scratched, and I'm puzzled at myself that I haven't started my second one yet.

The second is forwards. Suppose megafauna and their ecosystems can be restored; and suppose that circumstances of human society allow them to be restored (which I am far from sure is the case) - how extensive can the restoration be? Are we talking one megapark in Siberia, tourism to which causes an unexpected economic boom? A few small patchy islands of pseudo-ecology run as theme parks in the most affluent nations? Modern technological society collapsing in on itself and providing room for the megafauna to reassert themselves from the small, tentative starts a few hyperspecialized scientists gave them?

And then there's sideways - alternate universes in which the end-of-Pleistocene megafaunal extinction did not occur. Aurochs still roam Europe; different species of probiscidea grace each continent, along with hundreds of dependent species (consider the insect life that mammoth dung could harbor!) and predators. Since in historical times industrialized hunting, farming, transportation, and harvesting of raw materials have been the chief culprits in major reductions in biodiversity, the implications for human history are numerous even if we assume that the end-of-Pleistocene extinctions weren't humanity's fault.

Jefferson had a reasonable expectation that the Lewis and Clark expedition might have encountered mammoths. What if they had?

What if the "Save the Woolly Mammoth" shirt I'm wearing now were a legitimate political slogan shirt rather than a joke?

How is African slavery different, if the economy enslaving the Africans is based on growing cotton in mastodon country? Could you grow cotton at an industrial scale in mastodon country?

How would the Spanish Civil War have been different if the Running of Bulls in Pamplona is a running of aurochs, with all the differences in circumstance that entails?

How is the history of the Iroquois Nation different on a continent that never had to do without horses, in which the top predator other than man is the short-faced bear? Or perhaps the American lion?

How does the timber industry accommodate the reality of the giant beaver?
I don't know about you, but my world-building disease is paralyzed by the sheer richness of the possibilities.

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13. Not How I Roll, But...

I've always, always, always had to do things chronologically in the first draft, no bouncing around.

But this time, apparently, I have to bounce around. In time, in character, in emphasis. In everything. Between stuff I might theoretically get paid for and stuff no one will ever see but me (unless I become the subject of graduate work which isn't very likely and no one expects it) and stuff that may or may not ever even be relevant. It's not how I work.

But it is this time. And something vaguely story-shaped emerges from the mess.

And isn't some of this a substitute for piles of research, in a way? Since I can't research this one? Aren't I doing research in my own head?

We'll see, I reckon. In any case I don't seem capable of doing anything else, so - ride it out.

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14. Idea Garage Sale: The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

It's been awhile since I engaged with the MG side of my brain, which is where I always used to live, so let's step back there a minute.

The principle of ditching the parents to give kids more agency in stories is time-honored, and a good one. How you go about ditching the parents is a creative decision with a large impact on the presentation of the core story. Parents who are absent due to family crisis demand a different sort of story than parents who are absent or childlike due to idiosyncrasy.

Let's go with idiosyncrasy. The parents are mad scientists and have developed a statis chamber which is ready for human testing. The testing process goes wrong, probably due to familial chaos intruding on the basement lab. Preferably, this will be the fault of the child protagonist, and the funnier the sequence is, the better. I bet it involves undisciplined pets, younger siblings, and some activity that the protagonist feels is unreasonably restricted by fussy parental rules. (Why shouldn't the toddler ride the goat? The goat doesn't mind and the toddler loves it.) In any case, the result is that the parents are both in stasis at the same time for an extended period - say, all summer break.

Because of their particular lifestyle, no other adult particularly expects to see them during this period, so the protagonist anticipates no difficulty covering up the family's unsupervised state. She (or he; I generally prefer female protagonists so let's go with she; in fact, let's call her Mirasol just to make things easy) even looks forward to her parents returning from stasis and seeing how much better she ran things in their absence than they ever do. She already does all the work around here anyway! Paying bills in these days of online banking requires only a low-level degree of hacking that a perspicacious seventh-grader may well be up for, especially if her eccentric mad scientist parents have found it convenient to let her know a couple of passwords, possibly absent-mindedly revealing their own in the process of helping her set up her own.

Of course it isn't as simple as that.

Much as we all enjoy the Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson/Little House on the Prairie idea of families or individuals as independent economic units, it never works that way. No one is self-sufficient. No one. Even hermits require mail service. The anchorite on top of a rock who never speaks to anybody needs an active community below that sends food up to him. I may make my own clothes but I don't make my own thread or weave my own fabric and even if I did, I would still need to get the wool or cotton or whatever to make them. Specialization lies at the root of civilization - the more time you have to spend on survival, the less time you have for art, for conversation, for play - for life as you prefer to live it, so you specialize in something that enables you to acquire everything else in exchange.

Marisol's workload will vary depending on the composition of her family and its specific requirements. If it's just her, the toddler, and the goat then she cannot get any help from within the family. If she has a sibling close in age to herself then help will be available, but at the cost of a time-consuming power struggle. No brother or sister ever tired of saying: "You're not the boss of me," and without an acknowledged authority to mediate Marisol may be surprised at just how exhausting it is to make other people do even what is in their own best interests. This will start at the level of familiar-as-dirt disputes over dishwashing and bedtimes, but should in the spirit of the premise escalate to bigger, more absurd disputes over such matters as which lies to tell which grown-ups, how the escape-proof goat pen should be constructed, and whether or not it's an acceptable use of funds to hire a pavilion for a birthday party and invite the entire fifth grade (minus mortal enemies).

Marisol will at some point have to recruit someone outside the immediate family into the secret. This cannot be anyone whose authority she can be forced to recognize, but should be someone with whom she is on more or less equal terms, such as her best friend. Secrets are harder to keep the more people share them, and this initial sharing in order to get help could escalate quickly. If the secret is uncovered by someone who does not have her best interests at heart - the aforesaid mortal enemy, or even someone with a separate problem that can be solved by blackmailing Marisol into some action she would normally refuse to take, such as allowing a runaway teen to live in the basement - then we get an escalation of tension, which will probably require her to bring in more allies and create ever more complicated situations.

And all the time the deadline is looming - Mom and Dad will come out of stasis on Labor Day, at which time the house must be more or less in order and the results of their work on the stasis chamber ready to present to whoever is financing it (because even mad scientists need grant money these days).

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15. An Internet Prayer

(I direct this to my higher self but if you’re not agnostic feel free to adapt for whatever.)

Grant me the serenity to accept myself the way I am,
to extend the same courtesy to everyone else (even the jerkwads),
to stand up for my rights with generosity and humor,
and the wisdom to check my privilege.

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16. Idea Garage Sale: The Devil Kid

So this month's Fortean Times, that neverfailing font of inspiration, contains a two-page article on "The Devil Kid of Newburg," which turns out to be a report of a newspaper hoax that went viral in 1888. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and what the internet does now merely duplicates what newspapers and word of mouth used to do. Basically, a joker at the Cleveland Plain Dealer made up a story about a woman who gave birth to a child with bright red skin, horns, and a tail, and caused a media sensation, as well as a host of people claiming that they (or their friend, or their friend's friend, or their friend's friend's brother's mother-in-law's doctor, or some equally unimpeachable source) had seen "it."

In all the quotations in the article, the supposed baby is referred to as "it," and spoken of as being necessarily evil and frightening; even though the commonly-accepted reason for the set of deformities was the belief that the mother had seen a play featuring a costumed devil character, been frightened by it, and imprinted her fear in tangible form on the baby - a theory of the causes of deformity of considerable antiquity. Which is hardly the baby's fault.

The description given in the paper by the imaginary nurse present at the imaginary birth is initially pathetic rather than frightening: "It was all coiled up in a sort of ball and looked red, like a big bunch of flesh...I supposed the child was dead - it seemed to be only a ball of flesh." At least, the impression on me was strong enough that I recoiled from the nurse, rather than the baby, when she said it made her sick, and the subsequent description of how it uncoiled itself in a flash of blue fire, smell of brimstone, etc. did not counterbalance my disgust at the nurse's response to the birth being disgust rather than compassion.

Of course it hardly matters how I feel about a fictional nurse in such an ephemeral story - except that it isn't an ephemeral story at all, as Jane Addams discovered some years later, when rumor had a similar baby being sheltered at Hull House, and people pestered the life out the staff trying to get in to see (again) "it." Addams being Addams, she profited from this, not monetarily, but intellectually and spiritually, trying to understand the appeal of the story for those who demanded to see the supposedly hidden Devil Baby, and drawing some interesting conclusions. The link is directly to an article by her that appeared in the Atlantic in 1916 and I recommend it to the thoughtful reader.

With no such wise student of humanity to engage with the story at the Plain Dealer, we are left with the unedifying spectacle of vicious, vulgar ableism in its presentation, and the reflection that at least it wasn't a true story; no child with red hair, horns, hooves, and the rest of it ever had to try to grow up with such nasty people staring at, judging, and objectifying him or her. No real person had to carry the moral and social weight of such a morally-charged deformity.

Did they?

What if someone had?

What if the Newburg baby - or the Hull House baby, who would at least have had Miss Addams in his or her corner - really had been born? No supernatural powers (no room for Hellboy in this notion); no brimstone; just little horns and a twitchety tail and red skin?

What happens to that child, in the real world?

Note that (unless we go with hooflike feet) none of the conditions marking this as a "devil baby" are in and of themselves disabling. Horns don't impede when walking up stairs; red skin doesn't affect how big a load you can carry or how fast you can learn a new skill; a tail may even improve one's balance and improve performance of some physical tasks. Yet I suspect she would have trouble, as an adult, finding employment; and would have had difficulty getting an education.

But then, a lot of conditions which are widely recognized as disabling are only so because they don't match assumptions about how the world is supposed to be configured. A few mechanical adjustments, ramps instead of steps or equipment that can easily be adjusted for height and so on, wipe out many disabilities quickly and easily and let's not get started on that rant.

Would someone recognizable as a "devil baby" have any choice but to grow up to behave either anti-socially (being treated as evil by everyone makes it nearly impossible, and not at all rewarding, to be good) or pathologically saintlike? What coping mechanisms could she develop? How would she spend her time? What would she want versus what she would be able to get?

Does it make a noticeable difference when and where she is born? A "devil baby" born in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it appears, would have been exhibited for cash. Would one born earlier or in a different context have been murdered at birth? Would not one born today be subjected to extensive and medically unnecessary plastic surgery?

This could be satire, with a devilish-looking baby insouciantly exposing the moral poverty of those around her. This could be tragedy in ways I hardly need to spell out to you. You would win my undying admiration if you could convincingly make a it a feel-good movie, without a bunch of Disney sentiment (oh, Lord, wouldn't the Disney character of this be cute as a button, once you got used to him?), because peculiar-looking people need happy endings, too.

Especially happy endings which don't remove the peculiar appearance. Ugly is in the heart of the beholder and recognizing and gaining power over that, rather than adapting one's own appearance to suit the standards of the ugly at heart, is part and parcel of a happy ending for such a person.

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...does the villain not want Pelin to talk to Lady Pommeroy because she can't control that?

Or do I just not want to write that scene because I don't know what Pommy has to say?

(Also, should next week be the one I whip that story about the emotional garbage collectors into actual publishable shape, or should I keep hammering at this?)

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18. Andre Norton Nominees, 2014

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Indigo)
When We Wake, Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin; Little, Brown)
Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson (Grand Central)
The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
Hero, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)
September Girls, Bennett Madison (Harper Teen)
A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty (Levine)

And of these, I have read exactly none. Well, I know what my next civic duty is - tracking them down and reading them. Voting closes March 30, so there's time pressure.

Oh, and the other Nebula nominees were announced, too; but this is the only category I care about.

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19. Idea Garage Sale: Genderswapping the Oldies

We're all genre-savvy and sophisticated these days. We know the rules, we understand the games, there is nothing new under the sun. We can let ourselves get bored, or we can play with it. Our choice.

I've seen a post going the rounds on tumblr (unfortunately I can't trace it back to the original publication, because it's not cited on the tumblr post everybody's reblogging - get your act together, y'all!) about what happens when a script is performed with all the actors reading women's roles and all the actress's reading men's roles. (The guys start whining about how much their parts suck, that's what.)

I look at this and I see several creative opportunities. One, of course, is to stage or rewrite some classic work, genderswapped. Otherwise, play it straight. How is Pride and Prejudice different if Elizabeth Bennet is rich and proud, Fitzwilliam Darcy poor and prejudiced; or if Georgette Wickham is a woman with a past and Charlie Bennet and George Darcy are naive boys? How do we feel about Edwina Rochester keeping her mad husband in the attic and John Eyre returning to her after she's lied to him and very nearly entangled him in a crime? What sort of an America produces a male Scarlett O'Hara and a female Rhett Butler? If the protagonist and title character in The Devil Wears Prada are male, how do we react to them?

Another possibility is to be meta about it, and write a story about the process of pulling the genderflip. It is not unusual for acting groups, from high school drama to community theater, to have more female than male participants; so isn't this a logical way to address a shortage? What if a high school puts on a genderswapped production of Macbeth, for example? The guys would have nothing to whine about, because the scant female roles in that are doozies; but they also put the whole question of gender power and politics on the line. I have faith that high school girls who can pull off Macbeth, MacDuff, Malcolm, and Banquo can be found in most drama departments; but the high school guys who can play Lady Macbeth and the witches? Who can get their macho attitudes and privileged assumptions under control enough? What if the drama department's Stereotypically Required Gay Guy gets the part - can he resist the urge to camp it up? What does the principal say? How about the parents and the booster clubs? What if the reason the school play can't get guys is that the football coach won a turf war in a small school with limited resources? What if the Drama Club is one bad night away from being cut altogether?

That'd be interesting. I'd read that.

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20. Side Trip's Over

Well, that was enlightening. Two non-chapters, one about fifteen pages, one fifty pages, double-spaced, which felt like practically nothing written each day and even the bits that might get copy-pasted into the story at key points when he starts getting his memory back will have to be rewritten from his POV. And what's the end result?

I don't know. Way too far from the end.

But some things I had assumed happened, didn't, so I'll have to rewrite those references. And some things that hadn't occurred to me at all happened. And the Duke and Lady Pommeroy have a very different sort of relationship than I assumed, and then General Cascip kind of blindsided me but that's all right, I have a good trajectory now...Plus lots of names and ages and relationships and wow, big brother has a girlfriend, who knew? Not me; and not, haha, the villain so her oversights are piling up and will crush her, crush her eventually! Because every mistaken assumption she makes is a weak point in the memory spell.

And the core truth of Pelin's emotional arc took me to a place I don't want to go but always knew I'd have to. I've danced around the edges of this so many times. Is this the time it takes and I really work through it?

Don't know. Too soon yet.

This is why authors make crappy dinner companions, y'all. Our heads are crammed with this cryptic stuff that no one else has enough inside knowledge to discuss, until the book's finished, at which point we've moved on.

(Looks around, sees neglected stuff piled up, sighs, goes to lunch.)

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21. The Difference between Pro and Amateur

People who don't write for a living have odd ideas about editors.

I run into this in fandom all the time. People who are talented and do good work, and people who are not talented and do crap work, alike, recoil from the idea of editing, much less the process. Criticism is just hurtful, meaning either that the work is no good or that the critic is stupid and doesn't understand it.

This places people who occupy editorial spaces in fandom - the monitors of fanfiction websites, for instance, or those hosting custom content for games - in an awkward position. I was recently asked to contribute a sim to a Sims2 fan-based project, and the moderator not only asked permission to run the transgender sim I submitted past a trans* simmer for comment, but was apologetic and embarrassed about asking for changes based on her input. Yet this was only a mild and necessary form of editing, applying creative teamwork to the problems raised by attempting to have a transgender sim at all. (I love this game, but the gender binary assumptions in the coding are rigid.) By contrast with the long editorial letters, manuscripts full of sticky notes, e-mail disputes, and repeated rewrites I expect when preparing a book for publication, the exchange was brief and untroublesome.

I have never dealt with a difficult editor (though I've heard horror stories); yet I've variously cut a book by about a quarter of its length, rewritten an ending five times and cried every time, dug my heels in the sand and refused to budge on one point and given up without a murmur on a dozen others in the same work, gone back for more research, dropped chapters, added chapters, and changed viewpoints in response to editorial input. Sometimes the editor knew better than me and sometimes she did not. In all cases, she brought a pair of fresh eyes and was a great help in presenting the story's best possible face to the world. My name is the one on the work; but the end result owes a great deal to the editor, and each of these books belongs to the editor as well as to me. They have a stake in it, a right to share pride when it does well in the marketplace and disappointment when it does not. And this relationship with the editor holds over into my non-professional creative life, too. My chief playtester for Widespot made significant contributions to its final form; and I could not act as game master to a table top RPG without the assistance of other members of the group helping me out with the math and their grasp of mechanical points of the game in a crunch.

The isolation and autonomy that so many amateurs and fans treat as normal seems alien, cold, unreasonable, and both arrogant and insecure to me. To assume that your work is inviolable and can benefit from no one's advice is arrogant; to be too sensitive to hear and benefit from advice is to be too insecure to improve. The work has its own integrity, separate from the worker's ego, and though the worker is the final arbiter of what is and is not good for it, she does not always, or even often, have all the tools or information necessary to make it the best it can be until she gets input from others.

This is separate from the relationship between creator and audience, though the line gets blurry. An editor is generally a part of the audience at whom a book is aimed; they would not do the job so effectively if they were not.

Many creators who aspire to nothing beyond fannish accomplishments have professional attitudes; yet it is not the norm, and editors in fannish contexts have their work cut out and often seem to doubt that they have any right to do their jobs. It is not often that the opposite is true; that amateur attitudes enter the professional world. I would say that a lot of the time, when you run across someone who produces publishable work and does not publish professionally, the problem is not in the existence of unreasonable barriers to professional publication (as many self-publishers loftily assume), but in the creator's assumption that he should not have to deal with those barriers, that his work has an inviolable right to acceptance by virtue of existence.

Sure, traditional publishing has its weak spots. The marketplace is heavily biased toward certain demographics, labors under some unwarranted assumptions, and requires a lot of shaking up. But the editorial process itself? That's as valid as it gets. That's basic. Without it, publication cannot achieve its full potential. And the rest is just the way the world is. We must all make battering rams of our heads to make our way sometimes.

If you think like an amateur, you will remain an amateur. If you think like a pro, and behave like a pro, you will eventually produce pro-quality work.

Whatever work it may be that you do.

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22. Idea Garage Sale: Post-Valentine's Day Sale

I don't read romances, though I like a love story in with my other kind of story as much as the next person (and spend a surprising amount of time dating my sims), but that doesn't mean I can't come up with romance story ideas, so in the wake of V-Day let's spit a few out. I leave it to the genre aficianados out there to determine whether they're viable in the market place, or have been done to death.

1) A workplace Valentine; a florist and a chocolatier who have to work punishingly long hours and are both exhausted and sick to death of traditional Valentine merchandise want to bring romance into (or back into) their lives together, so have to come up with non-traditional methods tailored to each other.

2) A retirement home Valentine: love is in the air among the widows and widowered, the sick and the well, the golden couples and the committed lifelong singles.

3) My nerdy Valentine. Damon gave me pink polyhedral dice. How do other people who fall well off the bell curve of marketed responses express their affection? To be played straight, not for laughs, because in the end, we're all nerds about something.

4) My incompatible Valentine. The bickering couple with gobs of chemistry find true love - with other people, split up, and become excellent friends.

5) My dystopian Valentine. The zombies are abroad, the economy has collapsed, starvation and worse stalks the land. Love is still essential - but is there any place for romance?

Ideas are easy. Writing is fun. Understanding the market, recognizing which ideas are worth cultivating when - that's hard!

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23. Tax Time Again

We go see the accountant tomorrow. How romantic. It took me all day to put my ledger in order.

That's about a half hour of math fleshed out with 3.5 hours of avoidance behavior. (Mornings don't count. Mornings are writing time, not bureaucracy time.)

I made a profit! Three figures! This is important since if you take too much of a loss too many years in a row you get downgraded to "hobbyist" and lose your status.

There. If I can do taxes, you can too. Get started. And stop whining. Taxes pay for libraries! (Mind you, they don't pay enough for libraries...)

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24. Imperfection is Inspiration

So, we went with our friend W to see Knights of Badassdom, a horror comedy set at a LARP, last night, and on the whole liked it. Though far from perfect, it did capture a certain fannish feeling and left me missing my original gaming group, the guys I held hands with to keep from getting separated in the crowd at the first Star Trek movie, and hoping that they all got to see it, too. It was internally consistent and did not have me amusing myself with the desperate moviegoing games of "predict the upcoming plot development" or "predict the dialog." On the whole, it presents LARPers (at least, fantasy LARPers; the paintballers were dismissed as "rednecks" and shown as deliberate jackasses who were, in one case, even willing to abuse positions of public trust in order to ruin other people's fun) in a positive light. Most of the characters were more or less likeable. I don't think I've been in a movie during which the entire audience cheered wildly with one voice since the original Star Wars (which I saw when it came out), but it happened last night.

And may I just mention how awesome it is that one of the kings was in a wheel chair, the protagonist party's badass fighter was a little person, and one of the gamemaster's assistants was a practicing Jew never seen without his yarmulke; and that these things were all treated as ordinary and not worthy of remark or emphasis just like in real life?

Of course, this makes the movie's failure of the Bechdel Test even more annoying...

So now I settle in to another movie game - the Post-Viewing Rewrite. W stayed the night with us, so we spent a lot of breakfast discussing what would have been in the movie had we written it, and sorting out what bits probably were in it originally but got trimmed for length. (The movie is a good twenty minutes too short.) Don't worry, I don't intend to go on and on about it.

Suffice it to say that a movie W and I scripted on the same topic and with the same basic plot would have been structured very differently and had a much more interesting climactic battle set piece (without losing the Huge Moment of Awesome that prompted that all-audience cheer), by spending five minutes apiece earlier in the movie on establishing a small number of parties of secondary characters, showcasing their individual approaches to fantasy combat during the first day's quests, and then showing them using these same techniques - not to defeat the monster, but to slow it down and cover the escape of fellow-players who aren't equipped even to do that. A team which relies heavily on the use of shield-walls, for example, could bullrush it and knock it down (probably losing a man with each attack) or even pin it for a short period; while a party of wizards who have developed their aim, distance, and accuracy in throwing spell packets could annoy and distract it with hurled rocks and possibly other improvised weapons. Some rules lawyer would probably also start trying to work out what its weakness was, possibly raiding a well-stocked car or park maintenance facility in search of some suitable chemical vulnerability.

I have no doubt in my mind, by the way, that in real life this is indeed what would happen. Many LARPers are military or ex-military, and even among civilian LARPers the marine mentality is strong. An attacked LARP group would rapidly self-sort into "civilians" and "protectors," and the protectors would not think twice about risking their lives to fill that role.

The Post-Viewing Rewrite is, in my opinion, one of the benefits of the not-quite-successful work of art. I console myself with it sometimes when I feel I'm getting a little far from my areas of expertise. When I was researching The Music Thief, I was constantly conscious that I'm white as rice and had a lot of nerve writing a Hispanic protagonist, much less one interested in conjunto and Tejano music. But the book refused not to be written, the universe kept throwing research opportunities into my lap, the Hispanic people I discussed the work with ahead of time were all enthusiastic. And I figured, worst case scenario, some Hispanic child for whom "author" is an alien career goal thinks: "This is all wrong! When I write my book -"

And then write it. That would be well worth writing a flawed book in public. I would rather write a deeply imperfect book that prompts someone who might otherwise live and die without discovering her own creativity to write something better, than write a perfect book which leaves the audience feeling that there's no point trying, it's already been done, and done right.

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25. Idea Garage Sale: Carlota and Maximilian

Yesterday I had a child visitor and we agreed that this was a good opportunity to go to a museum. Her favorite local museum is the Witte, and when I looked, I saw that, though their big exhibit on extraterrestrial life won't open until the 22nd, they had smaller exhibits on magic lanterns and Maximilian and Carlota. This excited me.

My young friend is nine, so it didn't surprise me that she didn't know who Maximilian and Carlota were. My husband is from Georgia, a state with a history not much influenced by the history of Mexico, so it didn't surprise me too much that he didn't know who they were. But nobody else I've mentioned it to did, either; which is the sort of thing that makes you wander around muttering about educational systems and so on.

Because, holey cheese, Marie Antoinette is dull as dishwater compared to Carlota, and Madame Bovary's fantasy life (not to mention the lengths she'd go to in support of it) was banal. You could make a movie of this story that makes Gone with the Wind seem restrained, probable, and unproblematic.

The bare bones of the story are, that after gaining freedom from Spain, President Juarez of Mexico annoyed the French a great deal by repudiating the oppressive debt, mostly to French interests, in which the previous regime had mired the country. Sensing an opportunity, the most conservative (and richest) faction in Mexico persuaded Louis Napoleon that the people of Mexico would just love to have a European monarch. Since America was a bit too busy fighting its own Civil War to enforce the Monroe doctrine, Louis Napoleon arranged for the job to be given to his granddaughter and her husband, a Hapsburg who should be easily controllable. Under the impression that they were crossing the ocean to liberate a grateful populace from mob rule, Maximilian and Carlota went blithely off to become Emperor and Empress of Mexico, and spent a short time throwing lavish parties, supporting local industry, and attempting to implement what would, in fact, have been some pretty good reformations of economic and social life had they been able to implement any of them. President Juarez was a long way from out, the Mexican population were disinclined to trust a couple of conspicuously wealthy foreigners with absolute power, the conservative faction wanted figureheads rather than rulers, and Louis Napoleon was soon as badly annoyed with them as he was with the Juaristas.

The link above overlooks some of the most interesting angles of the story, brought out in the exhibit we saw yesterday. Like, the fact that Maximilian often retreated to a hacienda and left Carlota in charge; that Carlota called him a coward for considering abdication and made an eloquent speech about the duties of monarchs; that Maximilian spent a lot of time having his portrait made and also got one of his mistress in an attitude and costume intended to match one of his, while Carlota's portrait was knocked out by an inferior artist; that the sounds of battle could be heard over the music of some of their balls; that the battle commemorated today as Cinco de Mayo was a Juarista victory in these conflicts.

As is true of so much of Mexican history, it's hard to pick out any heroes who are not also villains, or villains who are not also heroes. As is true of so much of women's history, it is hard to find the real Carlota underneath the fantasies projected onto her. Did the stress of work and frustration at being refused aid by everyone who had gotten her into this mess really drive her mad, or was this a case of the twin patriarchal forces of government and medicine joining forces to silence a woman who was too vocal and capable for comfort? How much of her royal image - the loving wife, the benevolent beauty - a calculated effect? What was the deal with her husband's mistress? I couldn't help noticing that nowhere in the exhibit was there any sign of them producing a potential heir - and a good thing, too, but in the nineteenth century that begs a number of questions.

It is precisely these difficulties that give the story so much potential. No one could hope to produce the definitive fictional treatment. It would support an opera, an epic movie and even more epic mini-series, two or three conflicting novels. It's the kind of story that could be fruitfully revisited time and again, reinterpreted to address the concerns of different generations.

At least read the non-fiction book that just came out!

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