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Archive for November, 2013

Today, 28 November 2013, much of America is sitting down to consume a whole flock of these:

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But this raises the question: Why is an American bird, one the Benjamin Franklin proposed to be our national symbol, named after this place:

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The answer, it turns out, is that when Europeans came to America to take over, they confused the bird here with this fowl:

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The guinea was also referred to as a turkey cock, since it was brought into Europe through Anatolia. And thus, the bird and the country are related, if only because of confusion.

Since I’m pushing a book, I’ll give you a teaser in which my character, Henry Dowland, shoots a turkey to feed himself and a young fellow that he’s met along the way:

The wind rustled the leaves overhead, shaking Dowland out of his thoughts. On the other side of the clearing, three turkey hens worked their way across the grass. He picked up Alpha and steadied it with his left hand, the elbow on his left knee.
A big tom strode out into the open. His wings dragged the ground, and his tail fanned out, twitching.
Dowland cocked the hammer, each click as he it pulled back an alarming crack through the air, and squeezed the trigger.
Thunder boomed out across the open ground, and the hens scattered. The tom flipped over and lay still, relieved of the disappointment of courtship.
This evening, there would be a good meal. The world of memory was ever unsettled, but Dowland’s stomach would be full, and that was as much as anyone had any business wanting.
He crossed the grassy field to collect the bird in his pack and returned to mount his horse. If Young Joe had found any luck, so much the better, but the boy had been alone long enough.
The ride back took less time. He knew the way, and he was done hunting. His stomach was also in a hurry. The bird had to be cleaned, and a fire needed making. Dowland knew how he would divide up that labor. There were advantages to having a child about, after all.
But when he cleared the trees again onto the strip of grass next to the creek, a new problem presented itself. Joe cowered by the water, a fish on a rock in front of him, and a black bear, thin from its winter’s sleep, stood on its hind legs some thirty yards upstream and growled.

You can find out what happens on the 8th of December when The Willing Spirit goes on sale.

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A writing friend of mine, Gil Miller, asked me some time ago to explain the difference between awhile and a while. He has a book coming out on the 14th of December (from the same publisher as my book, by the way), so I hope this question didn’t come up. I’ve read parts of his book, Spree. It’s a wild tale about two potheads who while away the time, but probably never have occasion to use the word in question.

At any rate, here’s the answer:

Awhile is an adverb. That means that it tells us about verbs. Consider this sentence:

We must wait awhile.

How long must we wait? Awhile.

Or this one:

The cat puked on the rug awhile ago.

When did this happen? Awhile ago.

Adverbs also tell us about adjectives, but in this particular case, no use of awhile modifying an adjective comes to mind. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the comments.

By contrast, an object of a preposition must be a noun or a pronoun. Recall that prepositions are anything that an airplane can do to a cloud. (Thank you Principal Wuttke.) The plane can fly over, under, through, by, toward, for, against, and so forth that poor puffy accumulation of water vapor. Try this sentence:

We must wait for a while.

In that case, while is the object of the preposition, for, and thus has to be a noun referring to a length of time. Or how about this:

The cat puked on the rug for a while.

We see here that whatever was bothering the cat took its time getting out.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, is it 4:20 yet?

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Today (22 November 2013) is the fiftieth anniversary of deaths of three famous persons:

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Aldous Huxley

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John F. Kennedy

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and C. S. Lewis.

The irony of that day is that Kennedy–a star on the rise, but not yet fulfilled–is the one whose death got the attention. Of course, he was the president of the United States, and someone that visibly powerful tends to draw the eye more than those whose influence plays out over centuries. Kennedy was glamorous and youthful, and while his education showed itself in his speeches and policies, his intellect didn’t challenge people in uncomfortable ways.

By contrast, Huxley warned us of the dangers of cheerful tyranny in A Brave New World. More importantly, he reminded us of transcendence, what he referred to as the perennial philosophy. His writings convinced me that science is not the only way to see the world. I have come to think of this as the theology of narratives. We comprehend the world on multiple levels, but storytelling is our primary mode of thought.

Lewis’s influence on me is broader. He was a vigorous debater, a teacher of the classics, and a fine literary critic. His stories were of varying quality from the heavy-handed Space Trilogy to the fun of his best known Chronicles of Narnia, but some of his narratives were profound. The Screwtape Letters works, whether we see the demons as fallen angels or as marketing executives. Till We Have Faces is a study of jealousy and of how human beings interact with the divine. And, of course, as a writer myself, it’s gratifying to see a scholar who comes to public attention as he reaches middle age.

But what of Kennedy? As I said above, he was potential without fulfillment. We love to play the game of counterfactuals, speculating about the Vietnam War or civil rights. Certainly, Kennedy was more cautious than Johnson and may have preferred the free market to the Great Society. We just don’t know. Like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, we are, with Kennedy, left in anticipation. His life was a story unfinished, and so we can only spin out the ending according to what our imaginations can conceive.

And that is the point. All our lives are stories, stories that we write for ourselves and tell to each other. The meaning that we find is in the narrative. If I may play with the ideas of “The Music of the Ainur,” written by Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, it is the duty and life of each of us to sing our theme in the cosmic fugue (thanks be to Carl Sagan) and our worthiness to use that theme to add to the total music.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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My western novel, The Willing Spirit, comes out on the 8th of December from Pen-L Publishing.

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But you can read a few teasers here to see what you’ll be buying (and you are buying it–of course, you are). Here’s the first:

The sun had risen twice since the nighttime shootout and was setting again. Dowland’s body bore the weariness of continual shock and labor. He sank into a bed of needles beneath an elder pine, surrounded by a cover of trees, sure that the lot of them would stand aside and show him to a waiting world at his enemies’ command.
There had been men on horseback both days, always in the distance on the top of a hill or the far end of a valley, too far to shoot and too far to identify as belonging to the Willises. Was it hours between each one or only seconds? Weary bones and empty stomach made time swirl and blend together, and fear exaggerated every sighting.
They all may have been railroad workers, ranchers, and prospectors, but his nerves told him that he was watched, that the encirclement was tightening. For every one he’d seen, a hundred more must have been hiding behind rocks and trees and boulders. They were coming for him. Every step, whether at a full run or a furtive creeping from cover to cover, shoved him like a fox toward the hunters’ waiting guns.
But surely that was foolishness. The rugged land stretched too wide for even this gang to cover every mile. Besides, a man had to rest sometime, even if the whole world were after him.
And he had to eat. Dowland dug through his pack, but nothing more than one good meal was left. He had only a guess as to where he was, but the nearest settlements were at best many days of hard walking away. Taking a shot at game would announce his presence to anyone within miles. Hunger, though, no matter how quiet it was, offered no satisfaction.
He stood and pressed forward toward an open space filled with light from the west. A broad field of grass with a stream flowing through its middle presented itself. Somewhere, a creature must be grazing in the calm of the evening.
The thought of fresh meat gnawed at his stomach. One shot, then a little time to clean the kill and a small fire to cook it wasn’t too much to ask.
He scanned the land about him. Nothing moved. Dowland knelt beside a boulder and drew Alpha. He rested his elbows on the rock and steadied his right hand with his left. He turned from side to side, the muzzle following his gaze. His joints scratched across the rough surface, but his stomach mattered more at the moment than did his sleeves.
Brown ears rose above a tuft of grass.
An orange ball of fire erupted and was consumed in white smoke. A rabbit sprang forward, only to tumble and collapse in the grass.
He’d fired without a thought. When his mind caught up with what had happened, he gazed at the rabbit’s body, sixty yards out, but it lay still, dead by the flowing water where it had been drinking a moment before.
His stomach growled, and he stood to get his meal. A stone under his left foot shifted, though, and he stumbled and swung his right foot around to save himself.
There on a far hill, two miles at least, a sparkle of light caught his eye. The rays of the setting sun reflected back to him for a second, then the glint vanished.
Damn it! Someone was watching him. He shoved Alpha back into his belt and ran toward the stream. That rabbit still called to him, and he leapt over the water to the muddy ground beyond and hurried toward the kill. He snatched up the body and tore it open, eating what pieces he could as he ran on toward the cover of the forest on the other side.

Watch this site for more teasers and announcements.

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We know that Hollywood is concerned about money first, last, and all the way through. And a good portion of the industry makes a show of caring for the environment, especially when that involves recycling movies or treating franchises as renewable resources. This can be a mixed blessing or an exercise in brilliance, but mostly, it’s just a case of people who are too short-sighted to see something new.

But today (19 November 2013), I find that Tinseltown has discovered the true meaning of Christmas:

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At least, what it thinks is the true meaning, though the reality is more like a mold that won’t go away. It’s a Wonderful Life 2 will be coming to theaters near you soon. Or perhaps that’ll be direct to DVD. Or to a can of schmaltz.

This leads me to wonder, though. With all the writers in this country, can’t Hollywood take a chance–now and then, mind you–on a new story?

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Next Tuesday (19 November 2013) will be the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

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The words are well-known, so much, in fact, that it’s become a cliché to point out that Lincoln was wrong when he said his speech wouldn’t be remembered. Many schoolchildren are obliged to memorize the text, guaranteeing that they won’t understand it. Lincoln gave a good encapsulation of a democratic society–government of the people, by the people, for the people. If only such a government existed, what a wonderful world we would have.

But as a son of North Carolina and someone with a contrary streak, there’s a part of me that understands another famous passage, this one written by William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust:

It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s roaring rim.

Now before anyone rises up to accuse me of supporting slavery or the like, understand that I abhor that peculiar institution. The driving impulse that led to the Civil War was the wrong cause. But it was also a lost cause, and as Faulkner explained, something in the spirits of those of us born in the South feels a sympathy for lost causes. It may be that many of us are of Scots-Irish ancestry and have a cultural memory of what distant capitals do to common people. It may be the hillbilly sensibility that we’ll welcome you in for a plate of beans and cornbread if you’re hungry, but if you commence to telling us what to do, you’d better be able to run faster than 850 ft/sec down the road back to town.

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But the Union won that fight, and I am glad for it. The rebel in me–the source of my western character, Henry Dowland–hears the trumpet sounding for the charge. As dangerous as it is to follow that call, at times we must. Alas, as we’ve seen in the tales from the Trojan War to the War between the States and beyond, the contest requires two sides at least to be fought out. May the gods grant us the wisdom to choose the side of good.

Crossposted in English 301: Reading and Writing.

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In a post on the Oghma Creative Media blog about genre, I told you why I like science fiction and related types of stories. I went on at length, but the short answer is that I love the world of Faerie, the world that the author gets to build. In that way, speculative storytelling is a lot like the myths that shape our culture.

But what about westerns?

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Gene Roddenberry did say that Star Trek was a wagon train to the stars, so there’s a connection, but this genre is typically defined as stories set west of the Mississippi River between the end of the Civil War and the death of Queen Victoria (points if you know that last reference). Yes, Lewis and Clark fan fiction could be a western, as could a tale about the doings to the left of the Allegheny Mountains in 1782, but the general idea is easy to understand.

So what is it that I like about westerns?

1. Research

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As I’ve said before, research is an essential part of good writing. That’s especially true if you’re going to dive into a genre that is known and defined. Yes, John Wayne schlepped a Colt Single Action Army revolver and a Winchester 1892 rifle in movies set well before those tools were available, but today, we’re less forgiving. Writers of westerns need to know the period. And that’s the thing: I love that time and place. Learning about it is fun, and I can immerse myself for hours in digging through books and websites. Of course, that can be a way to avoid writing, but we all have our weaknesses.

2. Ethos

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Remember in Lawrence of Arabia when the reporter asks our hero what attracts him to the desert? Lawrence answers, “It’s clean.” That may seem like a strange reply, given all the sweat and blood that he spills in that story, but what he meant was that the choices in a harsh environment are simple and stark. You fight with every ounce of your being to win against the odds and perhaps die anyway, or you die for sure. You survive by being worthy to meet that land and by joining in common cause with other good people. Sometimes, particularly if Clint Eastwood is the star, the morality tale becomes ambiguous, but the principle remains. A western is about good vs. evil, played out in a world that rewards the skillful.

3. Epic

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Westerns are the American genre. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner gave a speech titled, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. His thesis was that our nation is defined by the concept of a frontier, a boundless horizon over which we can always journey. The fact that our frontiers are now closed, at least until we get serious again about pushing into the final frontier, only sharpens our desire for stories about staking our claim in the freedom of the wilderness. The fact that westerns also deal with that stake being driven through the heart of those who were in that wilderness before us is a good corrective to our unrestrained impulses. More than stories about our founding, more than the woes of slavery and the Civil War, more than the fight against fascism and communism, the western is a tale of who we are.

That’s my answer to why I like westerns. I even write them, if I may promote myself. If I didn’t love this kind of story, I wouldn’t read them, watch them, or write them. For the genre to survive, I need more of you to join me. Hit the trail, pilgrim, and I’ll see you out there.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.

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