Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lumberjacks, Vampires, and Writing What You Know.

'Write what you know' has to be one of the most-given pieces of writing advice in the entire history of the craft. I remember really hating this as a teenager. I mean, what had I done in life? All I wanted to do was crank out some story so I could pass some class or another, and they wanted me to write what I knew and slant it to some theme or assignment that I couldn't even choose? Bleh. I knew nothing in the scheme of things except living in what I perceived to be a boring town and going to school. As I grew I still remained somewhat ruffled about this piece of advice, even as I wrote for fun, because I liked writing speculative fiction and there's no way you can "know" that sort of thing, right?

Yeah, I can be an elitist idiot that takes things literally at times. 

Now, I realize how lucky I've been to have the experiences I've had - no matter how mundane. Every little interaction, every emotion, every experience is fodder for something and has the potential to be magic. Plus, I consider my insatiable curiosity one of my better traits. Both come in handy when I'm writing fantasy and horror. Don't believe me? Let me explain (Come on, you had to be expecting this, otherwise it would be a very short and pointless blog entry).

As a kid I harbored a deep and burning grudge that my parents got to pick our summer vacation choices. I was convinced I must have been a serial killer in a past life. As we cruised down the American highways I would always collect brochures at rest stops and dream of what it must be like to have parents who loved me. After all, only heartless maniacs would pass up waterparks, amusement parks, giant malls, pointless roadside attractions, and other obvious vacation spots for every historical site that could possibly enrich my mind and raise my history grade (that didn't need raising, thanks). I would sigh and fondle over those brochures and hope against hope that Gettysburg was closed during the week or maybe every worker in every historical site in Philidelphia would go on strike or something. 

To be fair, this resentment usually lasted a couple of days until we were actually well into our vacation. It probably didn't help that we were crammed into a small tent trailer and at least one of my parents has an overpowering sense of humor that does not do well in enclosed spaces, especially when paired with a kid who wants to read or listen to music or sleep and dream about whatever power ranger is dreamiest or something (Who knows. That was ten million years ago). 

Eventually, though, I would lighten up and enjoy myself. Truth be told, we probably shouldn't have done most of the Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites in the same trip; to this day I still tend to get a lot of them mixed up. There is also the story embedded in family folklore about the time when I was like four and we went to Mesa Verde and somehow everyone thought it was a good idea to go on a tour that involved actually climbing ladders and hand and foot holds up the canyon walls and across the pueblos. (Also to be fair, these were fenced in and I was flanked by both parents and the park guide. Still, retelling this story is guaranteed to give my relatives heart palpitations). There were other adventures I was probably guilty of - the same trip out west might have involved a trip to the dinosaur museum in Utah that featured a dig site at the time and because I saw it on Reading Rainbow I may have tried to make a break for it so I could climb up to the fossils and be at one with the dinosaurs (hey, they let Levar Burton do it on TV...). There may have been one museum visit in Peoria where we stayed right up until closing and I may have been almost locked in with an exhibit of an exposed burial mound that revealed hundreds of exposed skeletons. To this day I remember the panic of trying to find the door as the minutes ticked down until five, caught between the vertigo of an outdoor balcony that was fairly high up, and the madness of having to walk right by this gigantic room full of exposed full skeletons. I was eight. When I read the Bradbury story "The Next in Line" I actually broke out in a cold sweat remembering my own experience. 

By the time I was a pre-teen, though, I began to get fascinated with some of the mundane aspects of history. I really liked hearing about what it was like in the everyday life of different Native American tribes or the colonists before the Revolutionary War. I liked learning about miners, and to this day some of my favorite books are by Laura Ingalls Wilder (including her journalism collection and her diaries). Admittedly, though, my mind tended to wander and I was always adding my own flair to things. I remember distinctly during the Philadelphia trip wondering what it would be like if the displaced ghost of Benjamin Franklin was the one giving us the tour, and I probably added my own flair to many other trips that I'm not remembering. There was at least one trip I spent sketching disturbing looking trees that Brian Froud would be proud of. Still, there is something to be said for the hardcore lives these everyday people lived. The adversity they had to put up with is incredible. When I read about pioneers, the Dust Bowl, or any number of hardships that make up American history, I'm humbled. I mean even back as a teen I recognized that I was a huge wuss. It also doesn't help that part of my family history has had books written about it, which just goes to prove that I am a definite wuss and a disgrace to all those that came before me who could survive in the wild in subzero temperatures without even a blanket and walk away like it was nothing.

So it probably isn't a huge surprise that I would still be fascinated with reading about the everymen of American history: the miners, farmers, pioneers, laborers, and lumberjacks. I remember reading the books of Lilian Jackson Braun, who also tends to gravitate to similar topics (though without the ghosts and evil trees), in my adult years and really began to wonder if I could do something with that particular interest of mine in a speculative sense. But what?

There are many elements of speculative fiction I "know," not because I've lived them, but I am a huge geek and darn proud of it. I was perusing different educational sites about lumber camps and came across the entry "mooner." While not really defined, it referred to a supernatural creature that haunted lumber camps.

This fit in nicely with the speculative things that I geek out over...specifically, vampires. I love vampires. I love reading new takes on them, I love the movies, I love the folklore. Not everything vampire is good, and I appreciate when people know the mythos and work with it instead of against it. Barring this, I like when people use vampirism as a metaphor or backdrop for something else. I'm not one of those who outright prefer evil vampires over vampire romance or urban fantasy smooth criminal vamps over mindless feeding corpse-like vamps or old school Dracula/Gothic types. If it's done well, if it works, then I'm willing to give it a chance. Still, I like my vampires to use their teeth, and I think playing the moral grey area is always interesting. I think there can be romance mixed in with bloodshed, there can be mindfulness mixed in with a hunting mindset. It's the contradiction that makes things tense, and it's the knowledge that you're never going to win against something like that that makes the genre so full of possibility.

While maybe not an obvious choice, I like the use of vampires as metaphor, the thought of them being like Nietzsche's superman, but with teeth. I also like thinking about what happens when a normal person is tossed into that type of lifestyle and has to make reason of all the horrible things they're expected to do to survive (or is it any worse than any other pioneer trying to survive in an unsettled country?). 

That time period and life in the lumber camps was hard enough as it was...what if there was something bigger and badder than the strongest lumberjack? What if there was something to balance out all the shenanigans that tended to go on in the saloons during the weekends? What if there were motives bigger than the obvious, a subtle game being played, although it could never be won? It was an intriguing thought, and when put together with the historical aspect, I suddenly had a really interesting concept. Not only that, but the blend of bad boy lumberjack, innocent newcomer, well-meaning townspeople, and this sense of "other"...well that was too good to pass up.

Now I still had to look up things, I still had to do my research. Still, I can't help but think this story would never have come about if I hadn't gravitated to my own love of history and tendency to warp things to my whim (As you can imagine, my parents just love knowing what was in my head during all those family trips). 

Curious to see how all of this could come together? Well you'll just have to read the book to find out!

Like many young men at the end of the 1800s, Bill signed on to work in a logging camp. The work is brutal, but it promised a fast paycheck with which he can start his life. Unfortunately, his role model is Big John. Not only is he the camp’s hero, but he’s known for spending his pay as fast as he makes it. On a cold Saturday night they enter Red’s Saloon to forget the work that takes the sweat and lives of so many men their age. Red may have plans for their whiskey money, but something else lurks in the shadows. It watches and badly wants a drink that has nothing to do with alcohol. Can Bill make it back out the shabby door, or does someone else have their own plans for his future?

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