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What We Keep

The Plot Hole

 

I have just finished going over a copy editor's suggestions, fixes, embarrassing errors caught, and changes to be argued with, regarding The Border Wolves, the new fourth volume of The Centurions (out in April!) and I am reminded of when my son was about five and I read him Make Way for Ducklings. That was when I realized that even classics are not immune to the dreaded plot hole.

 

     "Why would they go back to that island and raise the ducklings after Mrs. Mallard said it wasn't a good place because of all the bicycles?" my son inquired.

 

     "Oh, well, they've all hatched now," I said, trying to get on with it.

 

     "The bicycles are still there," he pointed out, relentlessly.

 

     "Well, it's a plot hole," I said, giving up, and explained that writers sometimes put things in their books that don't make sense. He was aghast at this, and then fascinated. "By mistake?" he asked. He apparently hadn't thought of authors as fallible before, an illusion I was sorry to dispel.

 

     The dreaded plot hole waits for us all. Sometimes it gets past editors too and is discovered only when the thing is in print. I made an error in Roman naming conventions in the first Centurions novel in 1981 and now I am stuck with it. The Border Wolves contains an attempt to explain it away in historically plausible terms but I wish I had caught it then.

 

     Sometimes it's a corner we paint ourselves into. My Aunt Anne wrote novels and short stories, and during the Depression, when money was short and pulp magazines prolific, thriller serials that routinely left her hero hanging from a cliff, metaphorical or otherwise. In the next episode he would cleverly extract himself and get on with it.

 

     Deadlines and the need for cash often spurred her to finish a chapter without quite knowing where the story was going from there. In one episode she allowed the villains to bind her hero with steel chains and throw him into a well, where she left him until next month's installment.

 

     Unfortunately, when the time came she couldn't come up with any even faintly plausible way to get him out again. She sat down at the typewriter and after chewing the ends off several pencils, typed: "With one burst of superhuman strength, Jack broke his bonds and shot to the top of the well."

 

     My Aunt Anne remains an example for us all.

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The West Warlock Time Capsule

My parents on New Year's Eve

 

It's one of those dreary, gray January days that inclines a person to pessimism. The air outside is dank, the yard is a muddy slough churned up by the dog who is now tracking it all over the house, which needs cleaning anyway, and where did all that detritus in the corners come from, a miserable drift of cat hair, cracker crumbs, and nameless substances.

 

And then the mail arrives, bringing with it not one but two of the coveted green envelopes, checks from the Writers Guild for residual payments on my late parents' screenplays, extracted from various production companies on my behalf according to the Guild contract in force at the time they were produced. These envelopes are like lottery tickets — occasionally they contain several hundred dollars, and once I got one for thirty cents. Today's haul is $3.20 and $17.30, both for reruns of old Alfred Hitchcock scripts on heaven knows what channel: "Back for Christmas," "Banquo's Chair," and the wonderfully titled "West Warlock Time Capsule."

 

This time there is something else in there. I shake the envelope and a little gray mist comes out, gray as the day outside but warm and friendly, like a gray cat. It resolves itself into a tiny black-and-white television through which my mother's image takes shape, sitting at her typewriter, with a basket on the floor beside her, and suddenly I am four years old again. The basket has toys, dime store selections from which I am allowed to choose one every half hour, and play with my mother for ten minutes, if I will then leave her alone to write for the other twenty. It is an excellent system, although it has occasionally appalled people I have told about it, either in the conviction that I was a cruelly neglected child bribed with cheap toys to lead a solitary life, or in horror at the thought of trying to write in twenty-minute chunks, interspersed with conversation with a four-year-old. It depends on who I am talking to.

 

I open the other envelope and my father is there too, apparently asleep in his recliner, in a pair of black pinhole glasses that make him look like a bug but which he believed strengthened his vision, and indeed that treatment did allow him to stop wearing glasses. He looked like a praying mantis in them, though. And he is not asleep, he is dictating to Mildred, his secretary, who typed his scripts.

 

I put the checks in my wallet for the next time that someone is going to the bank, or I get the energy to learn how to use the mobile deposit app, and the little televisions fade out too. But the day has picked up somehow, more than twenty dollars' worth.

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That Old Song

 

St. Helen's Bishopsgate, London

carved screen

 

This season of carols, I find it easy to get lost in that old music, and wish for the millionth time that I could sing.

 

I am almost, but not quite, tone deaf, with just enough ear to allow me to sing horrible, vaguely recognizable versions of songs I love. I always appreciate it when people sing in groups and I can sneak in quietly. I can actually get closer to the right note if I sing with someone, but not alas actually on it. My husband knows more weird old ballads, my favorite genre, than almost anyone else. His repertoire includes dismal train wreck songs ("murdered upon the railway and laid in a lonesome grave"), songs about seal lovers and cabin boys who turn out to be girls, and Hank Williams classics. And Christmas carols, oddly. He's not a fan of Christmas but even my Jewish husband gets caught up in their song, and surely we can agree on "O Come, O Come, Emanuel," a carol for all eventualities.

 

In my twenties I worked as a copywriter for a rock radio station and listened to Top 40 hits all day whether I wanted to or not. It was years after I quit that job before I could turn on the car radio, scarred by too many repeats of "Wildfire" and "Kung Fu Fighting." By night I hung out with boys who sang folk songs. Maybe that is the basis of my occasionally unfortunate susceptibility to guys who sing, including my husband, who is one of the fortunate instances. Another semi-serious crush was on a guy with an angel's voice who's now a priest. A Lutheran priest, I might add, I'm not that bad. He insisted that he could teach me to carry a tune, and he did get me closer, but the ear just wasn't there. It's like being color-blind maybe. You just don't have that fine tuning. Another was the kind of guy who leaves you wondering what in holy hell you thought you were doing, but oh, he could sing.

 

It was my husband who, in the long ago before we were married, introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers and to Richard Fariña and to folk music that went beyond the pop versions of the Kingston Trio. I read somewhere that you imprint on the music of your adolescence, and nothing else ever sounds as good to you. That would explain a lot.

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Just a Few Suggestions: A Post in Praise of Editors

 

My normal approach to revising a manuscript:

 

     Read editor's notes. They are lengthy.

     Stomp about swearing and listing the many ways the editor is Wrong.

     Read notes again.

     Decide that maybe a third of them are sort of reasonable and I can do those.

     Begin at beginning of notes, as that is the easiest way.

     Decide that more than I had thought are sensible, and a couple are brilliant.

     Find four to stand my ground on.

     Decide that maybe I should do one of those too, because it's not half bad.

     Decide that it's not half good either and I will revisit it.

     Write cogent summary in defense of not doing the other three.

     The fourth one now somehow looks much more intelligent than it did.

     Do that one too.

     Admire the difference all this has made to a previously lumpy manuscript.

     Decide that I am adamant on the last three.

     Send it all off and have a drink.

 

     All of which is to say that a good editor is a godsend, and should be rewarded in heaven with the pleasure of removing the extra apostrophes in all those damn Christmas cards from the Baxter's.

     If you are a writer, you know the value of a good editor, or you should. No one is the best eye on their own work. I have read too many self-published books lately that prove that, clogging an otherwise good novel with clunky syntax, erroneous word choice, and characters who vanish for no reason halfway through the book. Writers who get too famous for their own britches also do themselves no favors by deciding that they are too good to need an editor. I've read a bunch of those too.

     So this is my Christmas carol in praise of editors, having just completed the above process for a book that will be out this spring. Thank you, Kit Nevile of Canelo, long may you inhabit the right hand Markup column.

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It seemed like a good idea at the time...

"Are you sure about this?"

 

I think there may be an arm of fate or a discerning muse who, if a writer has been Good, will keep her from certain cliffs. Both my new books are sequels, of a sort, and were intended to have been written years ago, but set aside for various reasons. When I had the opportunity to finish them, I found that large chunks of both old plotlines were trite, implausible, and in one case historically impossible. I am grateful to whatever anti-muse kept me from writing them as-is all those years ago.

    

I had to re-read the previous books, of course, and did so with some trepidation, but apparently I was more restrained in those, or possibly had a good editor who said, "Good grief, think again," or words to that effect. For whatever reason, the old ones seemed to me to hold up, although I did want to make the kind of marginal notes that I am in the habit of jotting down for writing students. You know the kind of thing: "Stilted dialog."  "Overused analogy."  "Can you find a fresher image?"  "This sentence has escaped you entirely."

 

One thing this new venture into old projects has taught me is this: Never throw away that manuscript that no one wanted. You never know when someone will, and if there are excellent reasons why no one wanted it, you will most likely see them now and do something about that. I can't remember how often I thought about tossing those, clogging up the basement shelves in those wonderful sturdy cardboard boxes that typing paper used to come in, just right for a manuscript. I think maybe it was the boxes I didn't want to part with. You can't get them now and I guard my small hoard of them. So here's to the muse that put them on the shelf for my own good, and the goddess of office supplies who whispered in my ear, "You may want those boxes."

 

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Love & Dogs

Percy waiting for Felix to come home

 

In the aftermath of the Day of the Dead this weird warm November, all the dogs of my lifetime come drifting across my memories, perhaps lured by the heartening news that there will be dogs in the White House again. A friend has just adopted a dog, Sabina Beans, and I have been following her adventures on Facebook with joy because Sabina Beans is so clearly happy to be this friend's dog.

 

When something decides to love you, it's not a gift you can give back.

 

Percy was a rescue. We acquired him when our golden retriever died and we thought the pug, Gilly, would be lonesome with no one to boss around. He was three years old, had a mournful expression and a Hapsburg jaw and had never been neutered until the rescue people got him. He also had whipworms.

 

We took Gilly with us to pick him up in Virginia Beach, knowing that if we left her for three days and came home with another pug she would lose it entirely and pee on everything we owned. The hotel allowed "one small dog" so after we collected Percy we had to take them out for walks separately, on the theory that the desk clerks probably couldn't tell one pug from another. He seemed to like us and Gilly seemed to think that she had picked him out.

 

We brought him home, treated the whipworms, and began to discover that he had certain. . .peculiarities. He had clearly been weaned too soon and had a habit of sucking on the bedclothes, leaving rings of small tooth holes that eventually enlarged into one big one so that all our quilts looked as if giant moths had been at them.

 

Mainly he had a thing about people coming in the front door. Someone sometime had clearly come through a front door and done something bad, and he wasn't having it again. His strongest reaction was to men, but he would bite women's ankles as well when he felt like it. He would also bite them when they left, for good measure. He was better with men who were dog people, and he was fine with my husband's brother for some reason. We also discovered that if there was a large party (we held several gatherings every summer for the students and faculty in my graduate program) we could shut him upstairs until there were ten people or so in the house, and then he would be fine since there were so many he didn't know who to bite. And most of the students in my children's literature program were female, so that helped, as did liberal applications of dog biscuits. He did have a tendency to tree the male students until someone rescued them. When he bit an illustration professor we had to quit letting him socialize under any circumstances that might get me fired, or sued. So after that we would have to shut him upstairs, where he howled and moaned and shrieked and threw himself against the door.

 

When we had had him for about a year, our son moved back home. For the first month, Percy followed him around barking. Our bedrooms were opposite each other across the hall and at night any time that Felix got up, Percy would hurl himself off our bed and bark at him some more. This went on for about a month until we were all nuts, and then his magnetic poles reversed or something. One day Percy decided he was in love with Felix instead. He followed him everywhere, a one-pug motorcade, demanded to sleep in his bed (he moaned and whined outside the door if Felix tried not letting him in) and now lost it completely every time Felix left the house. He lay down by the front door alternately whining and producing a cross between a moan and a bellow that sounded like a lovelorn foghorn. If Felix left in the company of a female, Percy was particularly unstrung.

 

Just having Felix on the other side of any door that he couldn't go through was too much for Percy. He would sit outside the bathroom door and moan and fuss while Felix shaved or took a bath or anything else. I made it worse one night while Felix was bathing and Percy was gibbering outside the door and I was trying to sleep. I leapt out of bed, flung the bathroom door open, screamed "I can't stand this anymore!" and shoved Percy through it. Percy was a dog with whom it didn't take much to set a precedent. After that Felix had to keep a dog bed in the bathroom and take Percy with him, accompanied by muttering in my direction about whose fault that was.

 

Felix had not wanted a dog, and he particularly had not wanted Percy, who bit all his friends and behaved like a helicopter parent when he went out. But it's a funny thing about what happens when something loves you. It's hard not to love it back. When a dog insists on sleeping with you, and will go anywhere with you even if he knows it's to the vet, and clearly thinks you are his personal god, then something happens.  When he says, "I'm your dog," he is.

 

So Percy was Felix's dog, even if he belonged to us, sleeping in his laundry and on his bed, riding shotgun in the car to the Dairy Queen that Felix knew gave free dog treats, switching finally from walks to pottering around the dog park as he developed arthritis, Felix's self-selected dog  for the rest of his life, a dog who found love in middle age and stuck with it.

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Oh do you write?

The office assistants felt the third chapter was slow.

Also it needs more dogs.

 

These are the encounters that make writers morose at parties, in case you were wondering.

 

Person at Cocktail Party: You're a writer? I love books! I bet I've read yours! Tell me some of your books!

Author: They weren't best sellers exactly. You really may not have heard of them.

Person ACP (apparently under the impression that there are only about 50 books published each year): Oh I read all the time, I bet I have.

Author: Names most recent book, favorite book, and the one that sold the best.

Person ACP: Oh, I guess I haven't heard of you.

 

Person Who Has Read Your Book: I just loved it! Have you thought of making it into a movie?

Author (who like every other writer on the planet daydreams ferociously about this): Well, of course, but it's not that easy.

Person WHRYB: My cousin works in Hollywood. I'll give him your name. He'll just love it. (He's on the crew of a reality show.)

 

Person Who Is Very Busy: I would write a book myself, but I just don't have the time.

Author: It does take time.

Person WIVB: I have a terrific idea though. No one else has thought of it. I'll tell you my idea and you can write it and we'll share the money.

Author: I have lots of ideas myself. And books don't make much money.

Person WIVB: This one will. It's a great idea. (Proceeds to explain it at length while author looks for another drink.)

 

Person Who Has Just Finished Your Book: I really dislike books with swearing in them. Or drinking. Or adultery. Or spiders.

Author: Oh dear.

In some ways I'm with this latter group. I won't read a book where the dog dies. (Although I did just kill a horse.) I usually don't tell its author that over the shrimp toast.

 

I am aware that this makes me look like a grump. Put it down to my writing it on election day.

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The devil is in the details

Not a dog

 

Ever since I inadvertently put honeybees in the pre-Columbian southwest (they were a European import) and didn't realize my error until well after the book was in print, I have been an obsessive researcher of the kind of minutiae that, pre-internet, used to make authors throw up their hands and say "I don't care, it sounds logical and I'm putting it in," or scrap that lovely scene that relied on the presence of a piece of honeycomb. Did the Romans have window glass? (yes) Bound books? (only beginning with the late first century) Are marigolds a New World flower? (yes) Fly fishing in the Roman Empire? (only in the late second century)

 

I have never done anything as truly awful as the guy who thought prairie dogs were dogs and went on for pages about their big feet and floppy ears, but I have nightmares all the same. Even with the wonders of search engines you can spend hours when you are supposed to be writing chasing one fact for a two-sentence appearance in a 400 page book. This is known as verisimilitude, sense of place, and Some Kind of Disorder.

 

And then there's provenance. Not everyone on the Internet knows what they are talking about, believe it or not. If you are not willing to take the word of the first site you stumble on that Senator Mushrat is actually an alien lizard, then by all means apply that filter to your historical research. There's a lovely Facebook group where I glean a lot of interesting information, but the comments section inevitably bogs down in international squabbles over whose culture was better and thus who built whatever it was, not to mention the ongoing arguments about why Augustus could not have had blond hair (he probably did) and why an iron collar just the right size for a human neck, that says "I belong to Marcus Ginantonicus of the Sixth Legion, I have run away, please return," isn't a slave collar and must have been for a dog.

 

So much of what is accurate is counterintuitive, and so much that sounds right isn't. And there are so many fascinating things to investigate that aren't critical to your novel and actually fall into the category of Things That Are Interesting But Do Not Belong Here No Matter How Much You Like Them. It's so easy to spend a blissful two hours learning how sewage was disposed of and then realize that you have no place to put it that isn't utterly contrived, and the details are revolting anyway and emphatically not the ambience you are looking for. I have a little folder of these. One of these days someone is going to be appointed Aedile in charge of drains and I will be ready.

 

 

Photo credit: Joe Ravi

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The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead is nearly here. Ordinarily I would be getting out the decorations, bringing Catrina and El Jefe up from the cellar and dressing them in their party clothes. This year, no. No party and less incentive to decorate. The decorations are just fluff anyway; the heart of the Day of the Dead is the ofrenda, the altar with pictures of our lost loved ones, and little gifts for them to enjoy: gin and poker chips for my father, chocolate and a china dog for my mother, brandy for my father-in-law, and his slide rule from the corner cabinet in the living room.

 

There is something about late October that pulls the curtains apart and leaves us staring into mystery, more than a little afraid. The leaves whirl around our heads in a mindless dance, carried on a wind that electrifies the cats' fur so that they also run a little mad. No wonder so many different cultures marked this cross-quarter day, midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, as a hinge point in the year, when anything might visit from the other side.

 

The Day of the Dead has its origins among the Aztecs. It has some things in common with Celtic Samhain, that other end-of-October cross-quarter-day marker long ago coopted by the church to serve Christianity instead of the old gods. As on Samhain (pronounced sow-in) the veils between the worlds are thought to be thin and permeable, so that spirits may come drifting on the late October winds. At Samhain no one wants to meet them, and doors are closed and fires lit against anything riding that storm. But the Day of the Dead welcomes returning souls, says to them, "Come in, have a drink, smoke a cigar, remember how we still love you. You are our own. Who are you that we should fear you?"

 

So we'll set up the ofrenda, and maybe we'll put a picture of last year's party on it too, just to stay in touch. I've always thought of this party as a living entity, a hive spirit composed of the rotating cast of friends who come each year, bringing marigolds and bottles of wine and pictures of their own for remembrance. Then we'll stand on the front porch and admire the full moon and pay our respects to whatever comes to call.

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Twenty-first century thoughts in a first-century head

The Appian Way in 2020.

 

I've been thinking lately that one of the ongoing problems for a historical novelist is putting twenty-first-century thoughts in a first-century head.

 

The temptation is strong. After all, we want these people to seem sympathetic to a twenty-first century reader. And the reader wants them to be good people too. Thus the very bad review I once got on a romance website where a reader complained that Aphrodite kept sleeping with men who weren't her husband. But when a first-century hero lectures Augustus on abolishing arena games, you know that someone hasn't done their research.

 

The treatment of women and the practice of slavery are particularly thorny. Your first-century hero isn't going to be a feminist. And your first-century heroine is unlikely to be either. Does he beat his wife? No? Good. A lot of men did, and he probably disapproves but it won't occur to him to give women equal legal standing. Does the beaten wife put up with it? She probably has to, but she may well hate his guts. Some things aren't different. But she's not launching a crusade for women's rights. She may be wondering how to poison him.

 

Those arena games entertained the mob and the aristocracy alike. Only Seneca came close to condemning them and that only because they damaged a man's inner fiber, not because of their intrinsic cruelty. I've had to tread lightly with those, mostly for my own stomach's sake. I imagine there were many who didn't care for them, but none who suggested abolishing them. They may be an order of magnitude higher than dog fights and cockfights, if you count animals souls as always lesser, but certainly on a par with the gleeful, hungry crowds who watched lynchings not all that long ago, and would do it again if given the chance. The games trouble me the most of the things that fall into the Acceptable-then-but-now-oh-my-god category, more than slavery or the status of women.

 

But it is the issue of slavery that seems to be the hardest for modern readers, and you can't write about the ancient world and ignore it. A great part of the economy ran on slaves in that pre-industrial empire. Because the subject is so fraught with anger and guilt and willful ignorance in our current world, ancient world slavery is the subject of recurring comment wars on every social media platform where someone mentions it. An argument between an archaeologist and a poster who wanted to insist that an iron collar from a burial site was for a dog and not a slave went on for days. Yet ancient world slavery was a different institution from the horrors of American slavery. Most importantly to my mind, it was not race-based. You could be born of a slave mother, or become a slave because you were captured in a war, or fell into debt, or were sold by your parents. Not a happy life generally, but not dependent on your skin color. Slaves might be highly educated, the better to serve their masters.  Many tutors, secretaries, accountants and so on were slaves. Furthermore, a slave could buy their freedom, and many did, and numerous freedmen became wealthy and powerful. Your first-century hero is going to own slaves unless he is one himself, if he has any social standing and means at all. He is not going to ponder the injustice of slavery in general, although he may free some of his slaves for services rendered and dislike the master who mistreats his own.

 

Writing about the past requires an honesty, I think, that precludes trying to give people who lived two thousand years ago the sensibilities of the progressive first world of 2020. The best you can do is to realize that for your characters, the first century is what they have to work with. It is what they do with it that matters.

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