Monday, June 5, 2017

. . . And Wonder Woman Mixed with WWI

Ah, superhero movies. They've become as ubiquitous and constant as a the sound of a river flowing to the sea. The money, likewise, flows from the pockets of movie-goers into the pockets of movie executives. I like the occasional superhero movie. I mostly like the ones that don't act like Superhero Movies with a capital S and M--you know, the ones that are just movies first.

Wonder Woman was one of those superhero movies that was a movie first. The "superhero" part did come back to bite it in the end (and by "the end" I mean the third act), but it succeeded spectacularly by really respecting the audience as well as the themes and making it work in a context that by all rights should be somewhat ridiculous (she's a bloody goddess; her family are bloody Amazons, literal Amazons).

But what really got my interested going into this movie, much more than the fact that it was a female-led superhero movie or that it was Wonder Woman's first big screen adaptation or whatever, was the World War I setting. I was a little disconcerted by the confusion the trailer caused. So many people seemed to think it was World War II. It's a little upsetting that people can't tell the difference in uniforms and weaponry. Also a little distressing was a video review in which the video reviewer quite sedulously avoided naming the time period the movie took place in, because he clearly had no idea when WW1 took place.

Which is one reason I was excited, because it would give a little more exposure of a wide audience to the Great War.

It didn't disappoint. Overall, the depiction of the time period and the war was really good. Not only did they got the facts right--they mostly did--they also got the tone right and hit some of the most important themes and lessons that emerged from that war. Those themes inform and shape the entire movie, and they're universal. The main theme: there isn't necessarily a Big Bad you can kill to make the world Right again. We're our own enemies.

The Great War was messy. It was messy in terms of politics and in terms of the deaths it caused. There was no good reason for the war, not really. it was simply a series of political dominoes that led to all-out war. In this way, it's a perfect setting to explore the moral ambiguity of war and good versus evil. Unlike in the Second World War, there was no clear "Bad Guy". Wonder Woman uses that to its advantage, for instance when Steve Trevor, Diana/Wonder Woman's male counterpart, says that he's done terrible things, too, in the service of what he things is ultimately right. This even filters down to a moment when Diana wants to go directly to the Front, but he pulls her back and says that first they have to deliver the notebook he stole. She still sees Good and Bad, and thinks that killing Ares will erase the bad. Steve sees a messy conflict where delivering information can be a thousand times more vital than storming No Man's Land.

The political messiness was mirrored in literal messiness. The trenches were muddy and miserable places. The deaths were ugly and horrifying. Perhaps worst of all were the gas attacks, which were unleashed for the first time in April 1915. The gas would blind men and/or damage their lungs so that they drowned in their own fluids. It was, along with machine guns and tanks and airplanes, one of the new horrors of warfare unleashed in the Great War.

So I appreciated the fact that the MacGuffin (look it up) they chase is a new and improved version of poison gas to be unleashed just as the Armistice is about to be signed. I don't know that it was handled particularly well, but I appreciated that that was the angle they took.

I liked that Steve had to keep emphasizing that this war was nothing like anything Diana had seen. I thought they did a good job depicting the ugliness and horror of the trenches and the war-torn towns, within the confines of a PG-13 superhero movie. As far as the time period--I thought they handled Diana's interaction with a very unfamiliar world intelligently and without making Diana seem stupid or too naive. The scenes with her and the secretary were wonderful. And they give more than a passing nod to the fact that Diana is not dressed AT ALL appropriately for Edwardian London. In many movies like this, she would just walk around in God knows what and there would be a few gasps and then it would be okay. Nope. They had to make sure a few times that she wasn't traipsing around in a breastplate and miniskirt.

Now I have to go into a few things I did not like, especially in regards to the time period. While the scene of her crossing No Man's Land is awesome to see, I just . . . don't quite believe it. I suppose she's basically bulletproof, but I don't think that even with super speed she could dodge that many guns firing on her at once.

The Germans appeared to be very Nazi-like. This isn't really accurate. While they were militaristic and had, in some ways, precipitated the war, they were not evil like the Nazis. So it rubbed me the wrong way to make them mustache-twirling villains.

Speaking of mustaches, and this isn't entirely related to my critique of the depiction of the time period, can we talk about David Thewlis's mustache? It worked just fine while he was Sir Patrick. But later, when he revealed himself as Ares? Then it did not work at all. It looked silly. Anyway, more on that twist later.

I was also a little baffled that the bad guy--Not Ares--was named Ludendorff. Why? Ludendorff was a real man, a real general in WW1, and he did not die in the war. He died in the '30's! So why make him a real person but have him die twenty years too early and be an evil bastard? Why not give him a different name? Also, aside from the oddity of being named for a real person but not being that person at all, he was kind of a useless character, and what was with that crazy white stuff he kept sniffing? There seemed no point to it.

There were a few plot holes that even I noticed, especially in act 3. For instance, Dr. Poison (who was a weak villain) appears to create a HUGE amount of her newest poison in about 24 hours. How does she manage that? And what is the crazy aircraft that its put it, that Steven flies to its--and his--doom at the end? The one he crashes in at the beginning--little more than a few sticks and some canvas--is more typical of the period. The one that holds the poison gas is . . . not.

Speaking of the poison gas . . . Well, first of all it's basically the third act of The Dark Knight, substituting the Bat Wing for Whatever the Hell Steve was Flying and atomic bomb for poison gas. The same goes for this as for the bomb in Dark Knight: fallout. Just because he flew it up into the air and exploded it doesn't mean that the poison gas wouldn't effect those in the area. It could fall out of the sky like nuclear fallout. Second, there must've been some better way to dispose of it, surely?

Still, that sequence is saved by the interactions between Steve and Diana before he leaves. We actually care about both characters and about them together (the actors have great chemistry) so I was willing to happily overlook the somewhat questionable assumptions we were asked to make.

My biggest issue was the descent into a sloshy CGI Big Fight Scene. It's apparently required for every superhero movie, but they're all the same and mostly they are just a lot of noise. In this case, it was rescued by the fact that at least no cities are being destroyed and, again, we care about the characters. But I didn't care about Diana and Ares (with his silly mustache) frolicking around in CGI glory amoungst CGI flames and explosions.

This may be a crazy idea, but I would have had no Ares. I would have had Diana kill Ludendorff and realize that there is no Ares, and that's the arc. She learns that she was placing her trust in a magic-bullet kind of theory that was a myth. Of course, it's a superhero movie, and the idea that there is no Ares wouldn't jive with what has been established on this world (Zeus and Amazons and whatnot). So I don't think my idea would work for this movie. But in a slightly different context, I think that would serve the story best.

I think those are all my observations.

Monday, May 29, 2017

. . . And The Great War

I know that some of you may not be very familiar with World War One, aka The Great War. I know that it may seem obscure and unintelligible, most especially to my American friends who are taught more or less nothing about it in school. The United States played a significant role in the war, but that role was (relatively) brief, and American casualties were (relatively) much smaller than that of other countries.

BUT, it is still an utterly fascinating period, when warfare--and medicine--were becoming recognizably modern. Obviously, medicine constantly evolves, but times of war seem to really accelerate the pace, or at least put the changes into focus. I've done quite a bit of research on Civil War medicine, which saw advances particularly in plastic surgery. Still, medicine was still very basic by modern standards. Just fifty years later, however, the field of medicine was almost unrecognizable. Germ theory had revolutionized the way medicine was conceived of at its most basic level. Not only was it finally clear what caused diseases, we could even see the little monsters. And with that knowledge, infections could, with careful attention, be prevented to some degree. Surgery improved by leaps and bounds and the danger of post-surgical infection went down dramatically thanks to simple sanitization. There were new anesthetics and antiseptics, and drugs like cocaine were used to alleviate pain. Blood tranfusions became viable and common (which, by the way, plays a major part in one of my WIPs). Doctors were more professionalized, and scientific research was more regularized. X-rays (even mobile x-ray units) came into use to spot broken bones and other internal problems. Motor ambulances and trains got the wounded to hospitals quicker.

But there was still one major problem: while doctors knew what caused disease and had tools to fight the advent of infection, there was nothing much they could do once an infection set in: there were no antibiotics. It was a paradox. They knew what was wrong but couldn't fix it. It wouldn't be until penicillin was discovered in the '40's that we would have effective antibiotics.

In any case, the Smithsonian put on a small exhibition about medicine in the Great War, and it is fabulous:


For being so small, it packs a punch. The website provides beautiful images, and you can zoom in close for magnificent details. I went to the National Museum of American History to see it myself, but you get a great view from your living room computer, too. The exhibit talks about how enlistees were measured for physical and mental fitness before they could join the ranks, about women in the war and professional training for medical personnel, and about the care of wounds and the wounded. I was interested in the role of women in the war, since one of my characters is a VAD nurse. The Smithsonian happened to also have several ladies' uniforms on display as part of a different exhibit. No VAD uniforms; VADs were British, and the exhibit was about the American experience of the war. These uniforms were from various organizations, such as the Army Signal Corps. Here's a link to that exhibit. The x-ray machine looks like something from Jules Verne, and the medical chests and belts really bring home the reality of what the medical officers were facing. It can be hard, staring through a glass case, to put the objects in context and really understand how they were used and the stories they tell. 

My favorite part, though, and the reason I made the trip to the museum, was to see the hypodermic needles. Yes, hypodermic needles. They were in use by the time of the Civil War, but they weren't all that widely used. By the time of the Great War, they were ubiquitous. The reason I particularly wanted to see a WW1 syringe was that a syringe plays a major part in that same WIP that involves a VAD. It's filled with cocaine because the male main character has a bit of a habit. I realize that's somewhat cliche, but the context is very unusual, and so is the use of the syringe. But it any case, I geeked out just a little bit and took some pictures.

This was a fun side-trip for me, and it was a reminder that no matter how many times you may have been to a museum, there's always more to see, especially when it's a museum like the American History Museum here in DC.


Hypodermic needle, shown here without the case it comes with. Click here to see the Smithsonian item details


Per the Smithsonian website: Hypodermic syringe kit: US Medical Department around 1918: U.S. medical officers carried hypodermic syringe kits on their belts with potent drugs such as morphine, strychnine, and cocaine to combat pain and shock.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Why the Civil War Happened (And Why it Matters)

I am not a particularly political person. Or maybe I should say, I follow politics obliquely, and I have opinions, but my opinions are somewhat all over the place. I'm ambivalent about most issues--I sympathize with both sides. I also hate confrontation, so I never (ever) talk politics. If you ask me, I'll tell you something like the above.

BUT.

But when you start saying shit about the Civil War that is not only nonsensical but does untold damage to progress being made recently in a very important area of popular and historical consciousness, well . . . well, I get angry.

Recently, President Trump said the following:

TRUMP: [Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave every day? I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee.
ZITO: Oh, that's right. You were in Tennessee.
TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.
ZITO: Yeah, he's a fascinating...
TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that -- he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There's no reason for this.” People don't realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
Um, holy shit, guys. Holy, effing shit. The level of wrongness is mind-blowing. Let's begin picking this apart.

I think it's okay to bypass the first part. Jackson did love his wife, Rachel. He literally fought duels with people who bad-mouthed her, because her marital status wasn't exactly free and clear when she married Jackson, and that fact haunted her the rest of her life. In fact, Jackson blamed her detractors for hounding her to death. And I'm sure people in Tennessee love him. Hey, he's an interesting and charismatic, if controversial, figure.

The last paragraph, though. Whew. Let me count the ways that this is wrong, factually and on a larger, theoretical level.

1. JACKSON WAS DEAD DURING THE CIVIL WAR. DEAD. Deceased. No longer with us. Pushing up the daisies. Six feet under. He'd kicked the can, given up the ghost, gone on to a better (worse?) place. [Insert the parrot skit from Monty Python.] He WAS NOT SAD ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR because he WAS DEAD. Dead, dead, dead.

2. Yes, we would have still had a Civil War. There were many reasons for the war, most of them much, much bigger than one man. Now, back in the 1830's, when Jackson was president, there was the Nullification Crisis and he told South Carolina to sit down and shut up because he loved the effing Union and he would personally shoot everyone dead in the entire state if that's what it took to keep them from seceding. And, yes, the bullying worked. However, that obviously did NOT solve the underlying issues, and the next twenty years only deepened the divide. Not even Jackson's considerable force of will could have prevented war. Even if he'd bullied the states into staying, it would have only postponed the reckoning, because SLAVERY. That's why. BECAUSE SLAVERY. Yeah, that little thing. You know, SLAVERY. More on this below. The fact is that even if he had been alive--and he wasn't--he couldn't have stopped the tide of war.

3. He was a very tough person. Yes, yes he was. He carried a bullet in him most his life and fought (and won) several duels. He defeated the British at New Orleans. Tough guy. But . . .

4. He had a big heart. That, sadly, is debatable and probably untrue. You see, Jackson was a slaveholder (SLAVERY), which is a black mark against him (though, in my opinion, not actually enough to condemn his entire legacy and/or erase him from the historical record like some people seem inclined to do). Oh, yeah, and there was THE TRAIL OF TEARS. To be fair, I don't think he meant to send all those people on a death march, but that was what happened when he forced them off their land in defiance of the Supreme Court. (The Court told him he couldn't evict the Cherokee, and legend has him saying, "Mr Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it".) Yeah, he was "tough" in this instance too. Tough enough to cause the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Cherokee. How delightful. Big heart, right?

5. People don't ask that question, but why was there a civil war? Again, holy eff. I mean, holy effing eff. There are tomes and tomes and tomes about the causes of the Civil War. There are entire conferences devoted to that topic. It is discussed in classrooms across the country (I hope, at least!). People are discussing this in a major, massive way, and they are relating it to the problems that still plague us today, because these things are related. Just because a certain someone isn't aware of it doesn't mean it's not happening. Now, given the breathtaking level of historical idiocy in this country, I'm afraid that not enough people ARE aware of this crucial (VITALLY IMPORTANT) discussion. Some people have gotten the entirely wrong idea about the causes of the Civil War or just don't care. But there is a discussion, a massive discussion that is ongoing and relevant to today's politics.

6. Why could that one not have been worked out? You'll forgive me, but this requires some more colorful cussing. I'm going to go and yell a bit and come back. Why could "that one" not have been "worked out"? Jesus.

What is "that one"? I'm guessing this means the causes of the war. Why couldn't the causes have been resolved in a way other than war? It's a very basic question, and not without merits for someone who knows nothing about history or the war (like, say, an elementary school kid). "That one" is not exactly one thing, but let's be clear: SLAVERY. The causes of the Civil War are not as simple as they may seem (though, still, SLAVERY). As Lincoln said, both sides had some blame in the sin of slavery.

However, the cause was slavery. Now, you may hear differently from some people, and you might hear hedging and side-stepping. States-rights, some might say. The right to do what? Own slaves. Differences in culture and economy. Caused by what? The slave economy. There are ancillary repercussions to slavery that caused rifts in and of themselves, but they basically all lead back to the original sin of SLAVERY.

So why could that not have been "worked out"? This makes two implicit assumptions: that people didn't try very hard, and that there was, in fact, a way to work it out. People did try. Starting with the Constitution, very intelligent men and women attempted to address the slavery issue. The Constitution shunted the problem down the road with the overly optimistic hope that slavery would die out naturally and/or that future generations would be able to solve the problem. Well, future generations tried and failed. There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. With every compromise, passions heated, and the rhetoric intensified--it didn't solve anything, it just bottled things up until at last it exploded.

You see, astute people understood that confining slavery to a certain place or granting more and more "rights" to slaveholders wasn't going to fix anything. There are many complex reasons why, but essentially, there cannot be a country divided between free and slave states. The slave holders can't keep their slaves in check if the slaves have somewhere to run, and no state is truly "free" if slave-holders can bring their slaves into that state and even purse their escaped slaves into that state. Slavery demands an entire political and social framework to uphold it, or it become untenable.

Now, let's look at an example of an attempt to work it out: Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 organized Kansas as a territory on the basis of popular sovereignty. The people of the territory would get to decide whether it would be free or slave territory. The result? A small-scale civil war, in which people flooded in from slave and free states in order to sway the vote. They set up rival governments and had rival constitutions, and there were battles and sieges and massacres.

Sometimes, there is no compromise.

Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "I believe the government cannot  endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. "

7. SLAVERY. For God's sake, slavery. This is so important to where we stand today as a nation in regards to race relations. Essentially, this is the only rebuttal needed to the nonsense uttered by the president.

Don't believe me?

How about this, from the Confederate Constitution: "In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States."

Or this, from the vice-president, Alexander Stephens: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. "

No, but please, tell me about how this could have been worked out.

Monday, April 17, 2017

. . . And Plot Ideas at the Wrong Times

If you are a writer, then you know this phenomenon. Plot ideas--or bits of delightful dialogue--always occur at the worst times, or at the weirdest. Or both. They come to you while you're on the can, or in the shower. They happen when you don't have a scrap of paper to hand, or when you're driving. Or, maybe worst of all, they happen as you're falling asleep. That one's a double-whammy. First of all, you're sure you'll remember that amazing solution to all your plot problems, but then you wake up and, you're like, "Crap, it's gone." Secondly, if you do remember it, it's usually to realize that it's actually a really dumb idea after all. "Dinosaurs? Why did I think that was the answer?"

In any case, I was thinking about this yesterday, because I've been reworking the beginning of a manuscript, and when that happens my subconscious is usually churning away at solutions and will provide them when my mind is half-relaxed. While driving home on I66, the traffic was minimal and my mind was largely unoccupied, and a new opening to the latest chapter occurred to me. I couldn't write it down, though I had pen and paper; I was driving and didn't want to pull over. I could enter it into my phone, but that's basically texting while driving, and I didn't want to do that, either.

So I settled on the voice recording app on my phone. And I discovered a few things:

1.) I have the worst, most monotone voice ever.

2.) Things that work in writing sound silly when spoken aloud. This might have to do with number 1 above. It gives me new respect for audiobook narrators.

3.) Really, you shouldn't narrate and drive. Not a good idea . . . No, I didn't get into any accidents or near-accidents, but I decided I probably should be more careful in the future!

All that being said, I got a great idea of how to solve a bigger, structure-sized problem for this ms last night while falling asleep, and I didn't forget it. What's more . . . it doesn't suck. So, hoorah for small victories. And for not sucking.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

. . . And Butler Island

Two years ago, in a twist of irony that seemed to portend imminent glory for me, I booked a trip to Savannah while waiting to hear a response from a potential agent who had a manuscript of mine set (partly) on the Sea Islands of Georgia in the 1850's. Just a few days before I left on my trip, I got The Call. I was officially represented by a literary agent, and I was off to visit the setting of my story, because I'd decided to rent a car and drive from Savannah to Butler Island, just south of Darien, GA.

Now, here I have a post all about that trip and my foray to nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. It was a magical trip. I loved it. Fast forward one year, and I got restless and decided to travel to another Southern city, this time Charleston. It's a further drive from Charleston to Butler Island, but I rented a car and drove there again because, well, I felt obliged. I blogged about meeting an alligator there. Fast forward one more year to, well, last week, and I was again in Savannah and Charleston. This time I drove down from my home in Virginia (a good idea in some ways, a bad one in other ways), and of course made it all the way to Butler Island, for the third time.

This time, because I drove, I was able to bring proper hiking shoes and a backpack, so I was better-prepared to hike the island a bit.

But let me back up. What does Butler Island have to do with my manuscript?

Well, as I've explained elsewhere, the seed that turned into "Channing" was the memoir of a young Englishwoman named Fanny Kemble, who married a slave-owner from Georgia in the 1830's. Apparently, going into the marriage, she wasn't aware that he was a slave-owner. There are two mitigating factors here: first, in that time, even a prospective bride wouldn't think it her place to ask a man where his money came from and, second, she met Pierce Butler in Philadelphia and the family lived in Pennsylvania, so she didn't necessarily have reason to think that their wealth came from a Sea Islands rice plantation. Fanny visited the plantation in the early 1830's and wrote a memoir, which actually wasn't published until much later, after she'd scandalously divorced Pierce Butler. Not long before the Civil War, Butler actually ended up in financial trouble and had to sell off hundreds of slaves in an enormous auction. It was called "The Weeping Time."

In any case, Butler Island is still there, as are some remnants of the old plantation. The house is gone, but the brick chimney from the steam-powered mill and remnants of the ride-powered mill are also still there on Butler Island, just south of Darien, Georgia. On the aerial images, you can see that remnants of the irrigation canals still cut the island into squares.

I used the image of the red-brick chimney sticking up into a clear blue sky in "Channing", as well as the imagery of the low-lying, boggy land, where the difference between land and water are slight. I even put an alligator--or the possibility of one--into "Channing": two of the girls blithely traipse off in search of one. For the record, the one I saw last year was smallish, not a man-eater. Still, I don't suggest anyone go looking for a gator, because even the small ones might like to chomp on your hand or foot. (Seriously, there are signs all over telling people not to approach the gators. I'm sorry, but if someone purposefully approaches a gator with the intention to, I dunno, pet it, then they might just deserve to lose a finger!).

Determined to make a real go of seeing all of Butler Island this time, I drove to the I-95 overpass. Yes, sadly, I-95 cuts directly across Butler Island. I don't think its construction really destroyed anything--it passes over a narrow isthmus of land, and it was just fields there. Still, it's a bit distracting even though there's no get-off. You have to take the next exit and come round, then rattle a mile or so down a dirt/sand road. At the overpass, that road comes to end. That's where I stopped, put on my hiking shoes, put on my backpack, and got going. Wary of gators, I picked up a random hook about the size of my hand that I found, thinking that if nothing else I could poke the bugger in the eye if a gator tried to attack me. I was, maybe, more worried than necessary about that as I walked down
a road heading roughly south, paralleling the highway. On either side was that watery, swampy, gray-blue-green-brown mix so typical of the area. The road was higher ground, and clearly some kind of vehicles sometimes used it. Still, I was wary. And maybe that's why, when I reached a bend, I said, "Alright, enough adventure for today," and turned around. I congratulated myself on getting so far. I had gone west the last two times, and I was sure I'd gone further this time than those two times. As it happens, I was wrong. BUT, I saw new parts of the island, which I'm grateful for.

It's a lovely feeling, to connect with a place like that. In the world of Google Earth, we can see and understand so much about places we've never been to. We can almost experience for themselves. But "almost" is the operative word here. I'd written Channing before I ever visited Butler Island, and I had built a strong image of the place in my mind and (I think) in my manuscript, an image that was largely confirmed by my visit there. And yet, being there was so much richer and fuller. The smells, the plants, the insects, the intensity of the sun, the emphatic vividness of the colors--it was similar to what I'd imagined, but not the same.

Which makes me think: what can we really know of the past? We can't see the places they inhabited, not really. Even preserved houses are no longer the living, breathing places they once were, and the setting around them will have changed dramatically. The light, the sounds, the things you see out those windowpanes--all of it will be fundamentally different. Oh, we can put together images in our minds--we can have a very good idea of what a place was like, in fact. But it won't be the same, will it? I guess that's true in a larger sense, too. We can't recapture the past. It's . . . . passed. And our memories can reconstruct it, but it will never be quite the same.



Sunday, April 2, 2017

. . . And my DNA

At the end of last year, I decided to get my DNA analyzed via Ancestry.com. They were having a deal, and I'd been meaning to get it done. It's not that there was any mystery about my background. I've always known that I'm English and German. The family names speak for themselves--Huhns, Schefflers, Russells, and Frowes. I wasn't sure when these various European contingents came to America, but I knew it wasn't all that recent--not in the 20th century, for sure. The way my dad told it, his family was in western Pennsylvania in the mid-1700's. Very early. My research on the Huhns runs cold in the early 1800's, so it's hard to say for sure.

While doing some desultory family-tree making at the National Archives (I was waiting for records to be pulled), I happened across the fact that some of my mother's relatives (William and Mary Moffitt) were Irish and came over in the 1850's. This wasn't a fact that I was aware of, and nor was my mother. Cool fact, say you? I agree, say I. It pops up a little later.

Anyway, after sending Ancestry a bottle filled with my spit (ew), I waited a few weeks and then got an email telling me my results were in. I eagerly clicked the link and logged in, to find, to absolutely no one's surprise, that I am the whitest person you'll ever meet. I was surprised the least of all, though it would've been interesting if something unexpected, like Pacific Islander, had shown up. In that instance, I might have called up Ancestry.com and told them there was a mistake.

My DNA revealed that I am, wait for it, mostly British and Western European. I am 33% British and 51% Western European. The WE ethnicity includes--wait for it!--Germany. It also includes some of France and England, but let's just say for the sake of argument that in this case it means Germany, because my parents' names are both purely German. The only small surprise was that I am 11% Irish--cool--and 4% Iberian. Not quite sure where that tiny bit of Iberian comes in, but maybe there's a Spaniard in my distant past. There's 1% of them not being quite sure-probably Scandanavia, they say.

In any case, it seems pretty clear that that 11% Irish comes from the Moffitts. It's kind of neat to trace a certain percentage of my genetic makeup to particular people (people whom I know nothing about aside from their names, I'm afraid).

As I was talking with a friend about these (thrillingly expected) results, she reminded me of something that I would have known if I'd thought about it a little. She mentioned that her siblings had done the test too, and their admixture was different from hers. I probably made a face, because I had to think that one through before it made sense. But, of course, we and our siblings don't get the same genes from our parents, or we'd be identical twins. Our DNA is different, pulling a little more from this ethnic group and a little from that other ethnic group. While I'm pretty darn German, I would not be surprised if my brother took the test and was even more German. He has a very German look to him which makes me think he has a pretty strong genetically German make-up.

Yesterday, I got an email telling me that Ancestry had added a new analysis. They've analyzed my "genetic communities". In addition to giving me a percentage of my various ethnicities, I now get sorted by--I *think--haplotype. This is a bit like a genetic family with a group of similar genetic markers. Using technology, they're able to put me into one or more of these groups and to trace the spread of that group from Europe (in my case) and across the world.  Ancestry DNA tells me I'm "likely" in the "Early Settlers of New York" community. The group came from England and Germany in the early-mid 1700s, then spread across New York and Pennsylvania. Sound familiar? It's basically the story of the Huhns. I'm also "possibly" part of the "Early Settles of the North East" and "Settlers of Ohio and Potomac River Valleys", which would also fit.

This is a fun exploration of what our genes can tell us. Isn't it remarkable how much of us is actually an artifact of the people who came before? Sure, our DNA is unique, but it bears markers of all the people we're descended from.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

When Novellas Attack (And Become Novels)


Hello, all! I bet you all thought that I'd fallen off the face of the earth, but I didn't, believe it or not. I've just been preoccupied with other things, and may continue to be. But for the moment, I have the urge to blog, so blog I will.

What's slightly amusing is that I wrote the title of this post apparently several months ago with the intent of writing a blog to go along with it. At that point, I'd just finished up a writing project. But I finished that up late last year, and in the meantime I--gulp--have written (well, rewritten) an entire 110k-word novel. It's hard to get myself back into the headspace of the previous project, even though I finished it only a few months ago. My computer tells me that the file for that manuscript was last edited in December, but I think I must have finished it up before then, because I couldn't have banged out 110k words in like two months. No way. Right?

See? My poor little brain gets so muddled. Talk to me about Civil War politics, or British royalty, and I'm clear-headed. Ask me to write a sentence--or a few hundred--and I'm your gal. But keep track of what I did last week, last month, or last year? Heck, no. That's why I have a calendar and take pictures.

In any case, this is the story of the Novella That Would be a Novel.

I set out to write a novella. That's an unusual thing to do, because there is no market for novellas, really. Novels are the thing, But after I wrote The Cotton Wars, a prequel to my antebellum novel Channing, I wanted to write something fun and quick--a palate cleanser. So I woite a novella set during the Civil War. A long novella, but a novella. And I loved it--still do--but I thought to myself, what good is a novella? Maybe--and it was just a theory--it would be more salable if there were two related novellas that could be smushed together into one book of novel length.

Now, novella #1 ("Hamilton Gray") is about a Confederate soldier who is coming home to his burnt-out cabin after losing his arm. He meets a woman who calls herself Missy and who isn't what she appears at first to be. He has delusions, and there are some adventures. It's a nice little story. What I intended for Novella #2 was a counterpoint to that story, with a Union soldier as a main character who isn't all that he seems to be. Along the way, the Confederate MC learns a lesson about slavery and empathy.

I began to spin a plot around that. I knew I wanted the Confederate woman, instead of the Confederate man, to learn a lesson, and for the Union man to learn a bit of a lesson, too. In my Civil War wanderings, I was struck in particular by the Battle of the Wilderness because of the rather grisly fact that fires broke out in the thick, impenetrable woods where the battle took place, and many wounded men were burned alive. It was almost a literal hell. I wish I could remember now where I read it, but I also read about a woman who lived near a battlefield who went out to nurse a man out in the field because he was too injured to be moved. And it clicked. I wanted my character to be burned and to be nursed by a Confederate woman who didn't realize he was a Union soldier.

From there, I built up the characters of Mazarine and Clara. Clara and her sisters were widows, living with the sister's six children in their uncle's house. Mazarine was a Yankee lieutenant sent to commandeer their house as headquarters for his commanding officer. This meant fleshing out the characters of Clara's sister and all her children, most particularly Eliezer, a 13-year-old boy who's itching to be part of the war.

Out of these elements, I began to devise a plot. Now, the way I work, I usually begin with a general concept--a beginning, an ending, or some highlight that I want to hit. With this story, I knew I had to start at the moment Mazarine and Clara meet, and that there would be a battle. And I knew where I wanted to end. What I began to build the story around was the moment of Clara recognizing Mazarine after she'd been nursing him for a while.

So, what would happen between the moment they meet and the moment she recognizes him? They have to bicker a bit and then part ways, and he has to get injured and be caught in the flames. I began to create some conflict between them, then used Eliezer as a catalyst to get Mazarine into the thick of the battle. And later . . . well, let's just say that Eliezer is also something of a catalyst for allowing Mazarine and Clara to understand one another.

As you go, you build in subplots. I started one involving the dead father, Liam, and whose fault it was that he went off to be a soldier and was killed. It occurred to me that Liam had his own story to tell, so I gave him his own chapters. Yes, he's dead, but that doesn't mean his story is necessarily done. I was enthused about this also because there's a supernatural element to "Hamilton Gray" (the other novella), and this added a similar element to "Mazarine" (the working title).

I won't reveal much else, but by the time I wound up all these story lines, I had a story of 86k words. And that is solidly in the realm of a novel. Plans change, and sometimes you just have to let the story lead you. In this case, the story led me to a novel I wasn't expecting.