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.