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What We Keep

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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De-bugging

There was an orb weaver's web in the herb pots this morning, strung between the mint and the lemon grass, and herself clinging to the zigzag lightning bolt than ran down the center of it. I applaud her efforts and those of her sisters, but perhaps not in my mint where I am bound to come upon her unexpectedly before morning coffee, which is when I wander about vaguely thinking of ways to fill in looming plot holes, or alternatively what to fix for dinner, which is occasionally the more pressing problem. So I hired the Husbandly Spider Removal Service to transfer her to the back forty under the willow tree. Nonetheless she is an elegant creature, all legs and black-and-yellow jacket, a predatory sleekness about her. It's been a strange season, bugwise. I found a large beetle in the bedclothes, which must have hitchhiked in on the dog. And the sunroom has been invaded by lizards, which strictly speaking aren't bugs, but have the buglike ability to materialize inside the house from heaven knows where.

     The natural world is flourishing while we have been hiding in our houses, and it probably wishes we would stay there. The garden had its loveliest spring this year when I couldn't invite anybody over to see it. Roses are like that, I suspect, and tend to be a little spiteful. The feral tomatoes, children of last year's crop, have sprung up everywhere, producing handfuls of tiny red fruit with wonderful flavor. Fred Undershed, the groundhog from next door, has eaten all the nasturtiums and gnaws the big tomatoes as they ripen. The sparrows have set up an entire bird village in the trumpet vine over the pergola, and the starlings line up at the birdbath, little towels under their arms, and splash all the water out with their mad flapping. None of them care that we are all afraid to come out of our own burrows.

     I suspect we had best remember that.

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By any other name

The rumors that Elvis is still alive have a little extra fascination for me currently, since I've been working on a book that includes the Nero Redivivus cult. Gullibility being nothing new, it was as dismayingly easy then as now to convince a group of people not adept at critical thought that a man who has been seen to die and be buried by several people has not actually died at all, and has been hiding in disguise all this time. The plebeians loved Nero since he was openhanded with them, and they strewed flowers on his tomb for years, so it isn't surprising that there were at least three manifestations of opportunists claiming to be Nero, tenuously based on resemblance to the late emperor and ability to play the lyre, in the twenty years after his suicide had forestalled an outright assassination.

     This book, a project I never expected, has reminded me once again why I love the Romans—they are so appallingly like us. Writing is a weird business, but since it's all I know how to do, I have made my living thereby all my life, in one way or another, either the doing or the teaching. Now, unexpectedly, the Romans have showed up again.

     My first novel, The Legions of the Mist, was set in Roman Britain, and my next three, The Centurions series, in Britain and Germany and Rome. Those were written for a book packager under the pseudonym of Damion Hunter, since the packager had been burned once by a writer who wrote a million-selling series under his own name and then got bored and quit. Any future series, it was decreed, went under pseudonyms so that other writers could be assigned. Alas, my series never even went to the contracted four books since the publisher was swallowed up by a different house which promptly killed all its current projects.

     Now a UK publisher, Canelo, has contacted me out of the blue and, hot damn, has republished those old Roman books, and even suggested I write new ones. I had got so tired of explaining, while I was writing things for the book packager, that all those names were really me, that I had sworn I wouldn't use a pseudonym again. Maddeningly, but fortuitously, we discovered that the old pseudonym has a small cult following among Roman reenactors and some recognition among Roman history buffs, and you don't want to waste that sort of thing. So we have compromised, and all my old Roman novels are out again as "Amanda Cockrell writing as Damion Hunter," which seems reasonable.

     Better yet, I have written a sequel to Legions, called The Wall at the End of the World, which is out now, and am writing that long-delayed fourth book in the Centurions series. I feel rather like Nero, except that I am actually me and definitely not dead.

 

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Thanksgiving

In junior high school we were made, every November, to write an essay on what exactly we were thankful for. This required careful tailoring, as you absolutely could not tell the truth and be thankful that [name redacted] who tripped you into a mud puddle had got a concussion that morning. Or that your [relationship redacted] who wet the bed wasn’t coming for Christmas after all and sleeping in your room. And particularly not that the headmaster had just missed catching you smoking pot behind the dining hall.

Instead there was a good deal of mush about being thankful for family, whether you were or not (I generally was but that sentiment lasted all year), and for the chance to do Good Works to Help the Poor.

Now that people who were idiots in junior high school generally aren’t anymore, or are in Texas, my relatives have bladder control, and I can misbehave in private, I find that I do have a list after all.

My niece who recently got her learner’s permit will be driving the family to Roanoke for Thanksgiving. I will be thankful when they get here.

I ordered four angel Christmas tree ornaments for presents and World Market sent me four knitted frog hats instead. I am thankful for the opportunity to show them to my husband and son, while saying brightly, “Look! I got us all matching hats for the holidays!” and see what they do.

I am thankful that my husband finally found something he actually wanted for his birthday, even if it was another dog. Who has an ear infection. (There is no free dog.) The vet gave him a prescription for Rusty, to take to our pharmacy, where they carefully labeled it “Rusty Dog Neuron (Canine)” just in case anyone thought that someone already afflicted with a last name like Neuron would name his kid Rusty Dog.

We were told that Rusty, having been abused early in life, did not bark because he had been beaten for it. We were also told that he was terrified of wearing a collar and of being up on the furniture. As I write, he is snoring on the bed in his new collar, and we heard a small woof at the postman the other day and another at the prospect of bites of a cheese sandwich. We are thankful that Rusty is getting his bark back. Read More 
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The Day of the Dead

It’s October again, and I start to think of the Ancestors, and those more recently lost, still beloved, still remembered.

The Day of the Dead is near, and I start thinking what they would like. Chocolate and gin for my mother. Bourbon for my father, and a good poker game with old pals. For my daughter, maybe the fourth pug we just adopted. The pugs are her fault, sort of. She longed for one and we finally gave in. We still have that one, elderly and imperious, and a bit deaf. The other three accreted somehow, so I’ll put their pictures and some dog biscuits on the altar for her, beside the miniature purse I bought at Target.

Time to bake, for the dead and for our friends, and the annual party we throw to remember our dead and theirs. Tamales, and empanadas, and Pan de Muertos and chocolate skulls, because the Day of the Dead isn’t a timid holiday. It’s the day we remember that we are all bones under the skin, all dancing into the next world.

The leaves are turning, scuttering across the yard with the wind behind them, and the borders between the worlds are transparent at this hinge point of the year. The kitchen is full of chilies, and beer to go with it while we stir. Coriander for healing, and cinnamon for love and lust. Chilies are a charm against spells, important when the doors stand open to other worlds, but also for fidelity.

We’ll fill vases with marigolds, little bright flowers of the dead, and calla lilies for the Virgin and for rebirth. We’ll unpack the sugar skulls and art accumulated through the years; put the skeletons on the porch, satin finery over their papier maché bones so the spirits know they’re welcome. No one is sure when the dead arrive at the party, but they do, unseen, in a breath of ginger cologne, a rustle of silk, a small warm wind.


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