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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Acknowledgments: NaNoWriMo update #4

One of the reasons I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this year was the pressure. I don’t mean just write a bunch in November. I mean sign up at the site, with a profile and picture and everything; I mean post regular updates and excepts on the site and in Facebook and here in my blog; I mean do all this out in the open. I need that kind of transparency or else I’d never be able to pull this off.

I know a lot of people who participate--and do so gloriously--without bothering to sign up at the site, and I think that's cool. NaNoWriMo is supposed to be for fun, damn it. I also know plenty of people who do sign up but don't bother posting updated word counts, and that's cool too. Really, this isn't a contest. But when I signed up I decided to commit not only to writing each day and to posting daily updates at the NaNoWriMo site, but also to posting those regular updates on Facebook and to making these occasional comments in this blog, and all my friends out there in the cyberverse caught on pretty quickly as to why: I needed the pressure of public exposure to keep me moving. I'm not a very self-disciplined person, I'm afraid, so in my academic and writing career I've had to develop tricks and gimmicks to force myself into a disciplined situation. Nothing has worked better for me than a sense of responsibility to others. When I'm teaching, for instance, I often explain to my students that because I expect them to meet deadlines for their assignments, they should expect me to meet deadlines with their grading, and if I start falling behind I make a deal with them: They don't have to turn in their next paper until they get the previous paper back with my comments. For the first novel I wrote, which was my undergraduate thesis, I asked my director and reader for a schedule and they both shrugged and said, “Whatever works for you,” but I protested: “I need a schedule, guys! Discipline me!” So I told them I'd get them 20 pages every week until the draft was finished, and then I'd get them 20 pages of revisions every week until they said the book was good enough. Turns out they had plenty of other work to do and I was just making their lives more complicated, and it wasn’t long before I’ll piled several weeks of writing on them and they hadn’t even gotten around to the first 20 pages, but I never would have finished that book if I hadn't convinced myself that they were sitting across the campus tapping their fingers and waiting for me to hurry up and send my pages.

So this year, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I knew I needed to do it publicly, not because what I’m writing matters but because I needed to trick myself into thinking it mattered to someone, I needed the illusion of some impatient audience out there in the world tapping their fingers and saying, “All right, dude, show what you did today.” It’s worked so well I’ve already surpassed the official 50,000-word NaNoWriMo threshold, in only half the allotted time (I broke 50k on November 15), and it’s continuing to work so well that even though I could quit now, I have kept working on the novel and plan to finish the first draft before the end of the month, not because I need to but because I have this vision of disappointed friends and family staring at my empty updates and saying, “Damn it, Sam, you brought us this far and then you just quit, left the novel unfinished? Not cool, man.”

But here’s the genuinely amazing thing, and the reason I started this post: I actually have people out there monitoring my progress. Much as I have to pretend to get any work done, I don’t seriously delude myself that anyone is logging onto Facebook or checking my blog every day to see how many words I’ve written. And while I think most of my friends would take a look at my draft out of kindness and maybe even legitimate interest, I don’t imagine anyone is hankering to get their paws on this thing. (Though if you are anxious to read it and you know an agent or a publisher, we need to talk!) But none of that matters. What matters is that a whole slew of my friends has recognized my need for support and has been fantastically generous with it. Hardly two updates go by without at least one expression of incredulity at my rapid progress or voice of encouragement on the discipline I’m engaged in, and at least a few times each week someone has stuck up a Facebook wall post or sent me an e-mail expressing interest in the book or supporting my continued work. When I sent out a call for research help the response was swift and tremendously helpful.

I’m not going to call anyone out by name here in this blog because I don’t know who would mind and who wouldn’t, but you know who you are. If you’ve ever commented on my work here or in e-mail or in Facebook, I owe you, and I’m extremely grateful. I just wanted you to know that.

And now, for some excerpts:

from day 9:

[the women try to trade their stolen goods in the swamp store but learn the war is over and there is no more of their kind of business to be done, a discovery which endangers and infuriates them]

At the hut they fumed for some time, dragging the pail of soaked clothes still warm in the sun out to the pond to rinse and scrub them and rinse them again, their fists tight around the wrung skirts and uniform shirts, the knuckles bright against the dark blues and grays of the cloth and the remaining purple and fuscia stains. They whipped the clothes into the air over the pond so shake the water off the ends of them and they carried them back to the hut to string up between two poles and dry in the warm breeze. They sat on their stump and bucket out front and watched the clothes blowing, both the women with their jaw muscles jumping, their fingers interlocked and gripped white. Finally the old woman said To hell with it then and she disappeared into the hut. When the door opened one of the packs shot out it like it was fleeing some brawl within, and another pack followed, then the woman emerged bent under the weight of the remaining packs.

Let’s re-sort these here goods and figure what we ought to keep for ourselves. Then we can see if it’d be worth a run into Texas ourselves.

Where would we go?

Don’t seem to matter. That fight we come across the other night must of come from that direction, so I figure we head toward the Sabine we’s bound to run into one army or the other.

That still feels a long ways for just a chance of coming on something, and who knows what they’d do to us either army and us just two southern women among all them men. Maybe we just take this stuff on up into Leesburg, see if anyone wants it for they home defense like you said.

That’s a good idea and maybe we do that first, then see where we stand.

They pulled apart the assorted gear, a few cook items and some personal effects like watches and tiny photographs but most of it knives and swords and rifles and pistols. A few lever-action Spencers and one short Henry, even a Colt revolving rifle though the cylinders had fired all at once and the rifle was bloody and blown half apart. A collection of big Bowie knives many with the names of men carved into the hilts, Jesse, Sam, Pedro. They separated all the money both Confederate and Union, sorted them by denomination and issuing country and stacked the coins and cam e up with seventeen dollars and forty-three cents all together, though what was the worth of either nation’s cash they couldn’t determine. They wrapped the bills of each country around each country’s coins and tied the bundles in string, then they put the bundles together in a filched tin mess pot and tied the lid down tight. In the hut they flipped up the mattress and the woman held the pallet at a high tilt while the girl dug a hole in the earth floor with a large metal spoon and dumped the tin pot in. Back outside they bundled the rifles like kindling sticks and wrapped them in a blanket and tied it, and they did the same with the sabers and long bayonets. Among the pistols they found a pair of engraved Slocum side-loaders, barely longer than the girl’s hand from palm to middle finger, and they set them aside and sorted through the ammunition till they found a collection of bullets that would fit the cylinders, and they kept these revolvers one apiece for themselves. The rest of the pistols they collected in a knapsack with a few hats and some shoes. They found four mildewing books in the sundry personal effects, a bible and three dime novels: The Hunted Unionist; Zeke Sternum, the Lion-hearted Scout; and The Imps of the Prairie, or, The Slasher of the Cave. They set aside the bible then sat thumbing through the novels but soon gave up and tossed in the novels with the pistols and hats, and after considering it for a moment the woman tossed in the bible as well.

from day 11:

[in the worn-down shop of a free black man in Leesburg, the women tried to trade but the old woman's hatred of black men gets the better of her....]

We’ll do you a trade, nigger, but according to my own terms. I don’t let no nigger boug dictate to me.

She opened the sack and flung out a pair of worn shoes and a Kepi hat, a wooden canteen, a brass belt buckle. She grinned at the man. For the fields, cause free or not we’ll get you in em.

He looked at the small collection before him then raised his eyes.

What the hell I gonna do with a bare belt buckle out in some field.

Whatever the hell a white man tells you to, the woman said.

He laughed and crossed his legs again and waved a hand toward the door as though swatting at mosquitoes. Shoot, y’all is crazy. Y’all get on out my store afore you get me mad.

The woman screwed up her face in a fury and reached into the sack, fumbled in it with her eyes locked wide and wild on the man while the girl watched, her own features settling into a dangerous calm. The girl reached for the second sack and began to drag it toward the counter as the woman produced a pistol and aimed it at the man in his chair.

He regarded her.

I done checked that gun already, maam, so I know it ain’t loaded.

Maybe I loaded it, she snarled.

Maybe I can see the cylinders empty from where I set, he said, his voice calm. His eyes flicked toward the girl then back to hold the woman steady in his gaze. His voice a level louder he said, Missy, I’ll ax you not to put none of my wares in your sack less’n you plan to put some of yours on my counter in trade.

We’ll just take whatever we damn please, the woman said.

The man uncrossed his legs and with his hands on his knees he unfolded from the chair, stood tall before the woman with her empty pistol shaking.

Y’all ain’t gonna rob me, he said.

The girl had shoveled what she could into the bag and she turned to the woman. Let’s go now, mother, we got what we can.

The man reached and closed his big hand over the pistol the woman held in her left hand. The hammer retracted and clapped closed, then again, the woman pulling frantically on the trigger. Don’t you touch me nigger, don’t you touch me!

I’s just taking recompense, the man said. He stepped forward and twisted the pistol to break it free of the woman’s grasp but as he neared her she leered at him and he saw her right shoulder jerk, realized too late she’d been waiting for him to come to her. The pain in his side was fierce and hot, and with own right hand still holding the pistol he calmly stepped backward and put his other hand over his side, the shirt slick already with his blood.

Run, mother! the girl shouted and with the sack swinging heavy over her shoulder she lumbered behind the woman and out into the street. The woman with her knife outheld bent to pick up her sack but the man reached across himself and with one great swipe he backhanded her with his pistol fist and sent her reeling to the floor. He coughed once and swayed where he stood, his dark hand gleaming in his blood.

No maam, he said, his voice low but strong still.

The woman scrambled to her feet and with the knife raised in her fist she ran screaming at him but he twisted with his feet rooted on the floor and he hammered her another blow that sent her flying against the doorjamb, where she spun and sat down half inside and half out on his store’s front step. He faced her but stayed put.

I done told you, you ain’t gonna rob me.

She looked up at him from her place on the threshold and for a moment they regarded each other. Then he stood one deliberate step toward her and she rolled backward down the step hollering Save me, save me from the nigger! but when she’d got to her feet in the road the girl grabbed her arm and they ran together out the wrong side of the town. It took them an hour to circumvent Leesburg, another half hour hiking north along the river to find a crossing point they could wade through, the bridge too near to town for their liking, so it was humid orange dusk before they managed to aim themselves west again, and by the time they staggered into the brake and collapsed exhausted into their own small hut it was well past midnight.

from day 16:

[a violent hurricane has flooded the bayou and Buford and the girl are adrift in his shack]

Oh Lord, Buford shouted. That’s Lake Calcasieu done jumped its banks--these two currents is merging. Hold on! though with nothing to hold on to they simply continued clinging to each other. They hit the wall of rapids in a spray of foul, salty water, and they spun in long crazy ellipticals in the water until finally they’d settled into some diagonal course up the bayou toward the swamps. They rocked and rode the current and watched through their two open walls as items floated past them from Leesburg, many with their own passengers in refuge from the storm. A wooden crate of oranges and a gang of oranges loose and following like ducklings, a thin snake coiled in the crate and seemingly asleep. A wardrobe on its back and the doors flung open, with a dog inside peering overboard wide-eyed and panting with his tongue out. An uprooted sapling with a cow tied to it, the cow choking on the leash and thrashing in the water. A little while later they saw an old black woman, tiny and frail with her hair the color of brushed steel and her skin heavily wrinkled, floating on top of a hay stack somehow still intact. She waved to them and called out for help but neither person in the shack moved. They regarded each other, the pair and the old woman. Then the old woman shook her head and shouted across the water, Well, thass all right. God bless you anyways. And she floated on. Later they caught up and past the tied cow again and the cow was dead. A locked trunk floated past and Buford watched it a moment as it drifted near them, then he scuttled across the floor and slung out the ax and chopped at the trunk. His first swipe missed and the ax went in like an anchor and nearly dragged him after, and the girl screamed, but he held onto one of the wall-less stud timbers and brought the ax around and hooked the trunk and dragged it aboard. He hacked at the lock then ripped up the lid to find a collection of fine dresses wrapped in muslin. The interior layers were still mostly dry, and he hauled out all the clothes then kicked the trunk overboard again. They rode the rest of the day and into the evening draped in silk dresses like blankets. As dusk settled and the sky glowed hot amber in the wake of the storm the gable of a two-story house with the roof and walls still intact floated slowly past them, and through the broken glass of the gable window sprawled a lady limp and with her arms in the water and blood running down the siding. Her, too, they watched pass in silence.


It was a dark and stormy writer's block....

A long time ago, when I was a nerd in high school, I hung out with a bunch of other nerds in high school and we played role playing games. You know the bit Mike Myers did on his 2001 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, with one eye crossed and speaking in a lisp as he rattles on about his D&D character Lothar and magic spells and hit points and multisided dice? That was us. My parents, being parents of their generation, sometimes expressed concern over the role-playing, worried I'd get "too caught up" in it the way their scary news reports and misguided exposes told them I might, so I had to explain to them that role playing was a means of developing creative skills, that I wanted to be a writer and developing and running characters in a game wasn't much different from developing and writing characters in fiction. And indeed several of those friends were also writers.

I mention all this because one of my old friends from high school sent me an e-mail the other day to share some writing he's working on. We're still at it, we old nerds, making up characters and setting them off on adventures, and my friend--with whom I'd fallen out of touch for a while so we're now catching up online--wanted to share some recent work. But he also mentioned he was stuck, refered to the myth of writer's block, and wondered if I had any tips for hurdling it. I said I'd reply via e-mail, but here I am instead, carried away as usual and turning the response into a blog post.

They say you're supposed to set yourself a writing habit and stick to it, like brushing your teeth or going to work each day. Hemingway famously would leave off at the peak of his writing flow, often midsentence, so he had an energetic and necessary place to begin again the next day. Bill Roorbach says he likes to write the same few hours in the day, each day, every day, like a meditation regime, and he tends to keep things fresh by alternating his work: long-form fiction or memoirs on the weekdays, and short fiction or essays on the weekends. My friend Tom Franklin credits the birth of his daughter for his fiction habits--he said the only time he was ever able to get any work done was when his daughter Claire laid down for naps, and because that time was limited he had to write like mad and really make it count. Said she was the best thing that ever happened to his writing and he never would have finished his first novel without her.

Of course, some people have day jobs, but they say the routine is important anyway. Most academics I know set aside separate office hours, some for students and some for writing. most of us also disappear for a month or more during the summers, sequestering ourselves in some dark corner of the house or cloistering like monks into writers retreats to frantically pound out what we had been wanting to work on all year. A friend of mine in grad school used to work tech support for Microsoft, and for a while she'd stay up till four am writing thousands and thousands of words, then at work that same morning she'd just doze through the day waiting on calls and sometimes dozed through the calls, too. Elmore Leonard reportedly wrote his first five books longhand on legal pads he kept in his desk drawer at work--he'd write his advertising copy on his desk and, wrong-handed and blind, he'd simultaneously scribble out his fiction inside the drawer, then stay up nights transcribing it to his typewriter. You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.

But I used to discount the writing-routine rule and still do to some extent. I think every writer is different, really, and for some the routine doesn't work. I've always been bad about discipline so having one set schedule hasn't really cut it for me; I keep needing to mix things up. It's getting different lately, as I'm realizing that most of the die-hard "writing routine" adherents are actually professional writers who A) can afford to set their own habits without life interfering with them, and/or B) need some self-imposed routine to take the place of the restrictions of job and family and life in general.

I'm realizing this because this semester I'm in the middle of a brief teaching hiatus, out of the classroom for the first time in 10 years, so I am actually a "professional" writer with few other demands on my day but the prose. Fiction is not just my avocation right now--it's my job. And indeed I have settled into a kind of routine now, especially this month as I pound out this NaNoWriMo novel. It's not set in stone, my routine, but the gist is, I get up, fix my wife lunch and see her off to work, feed the cats, then kick back for a couple of hours of music and video games and multiple, heavy doses of coffee. Once I've finally managed to wake up, I get to the writing. Used to be I'd pick up whatever took my fancy, but I've discovered that it's true, you really do need a plan when you're writing full time, so the past few months I've been focused on finishing a story collection I've had in the works for years and on beginning a major revision of my dissertation novel. Then the past two weeks this NaNoWriMo novel has taken over entirely. But whatever I'm working on, I'm not too rigid about how I go about it. A lot of writers will tell you to just freaking write--if you're in the chair you need to be scribbling or typing, period. No revising, no researching, no reading, no thinking.... Just write. There's something to be said for that, but I prefer Hemingway's story about sitting in front of the fireplace in his flat in Paris, pinching bits of orange peel into the fire and watching the sparking blue flames they made. He was thinking about writing, he claimed, and therefore he was writing. My theory is, if the work I'm doing is in service of the writing--whether it's research or revision or just reading a damn good book that will help lead me back to the writing--then I'm still writing. There will come a time when the reading or the research just becomes distraction, when the revision or the thinking become an evasion tactic, and there's no way to pick up on the switch from productivity to procrastination but bitter freaking experience, but as long as I keep my ass in the chair each day, I develop the habits and the awareness necessary to continue being productive regardless the actual activity.

But then, that doesn't usually help with writer's block, because with writer's block, anything that isn't words on paper is just procrastination. There's good news, though: there's no such thing as writer's block. Period. Doesn't exist. If writer's block is defined simply as the inability to write, and writing is itself simply the act of putting words on paper, then all you have to do is start writing. Block hurdled. What you write in the throes of an alleged block will almost certainly be crap, but it'll be written crap, and the brain, funny muscle that it is, sometimes just needs to be warmed up first. Once the words start coming, the brain realizes it's supposed to be writing, and if you stick with it, eventually the right words will start coming.

So there it is in a nutshell: Develop the discipline to make yourself sit in a chair once a day, with at least the intention to write. And then, once you've established enough muscle-memory that you find your way to the chair even when you don't want to be there, start developing enough discipline to force words out of you, regardless how shitty they are. Anne Lamott wrote a widely anthologized chapter in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, called "Shitty First Drafts." In it she explains that "very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow." (I can quote this because I love Bird by Bird so much I brought it with me overseas--I'm looking at my copy right now.) "We often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. [...] For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts." Stephen King mentions similar advice (and probably quotes Anne Lamott, too, though I don't recall) in his excellent memoir On Writing, and even goes so far as to show us his shitty first drafts. They truly are shitty. It's nice to see.

I think for me the affliction I used to call writer's block mostly stemmed from anxiety. I knew the way I wanted the prose to sound in my head--these days, mostly like Cormac McCarthy, because the English language just doesn't get much better than it sounds in his prose--but the minute I start putting what's in my head down on paper or on the computer screen, it starts looking or sounding different. It's NOT Cormac McCarthy, it's not even bad Faulkner when he was at his drunkest--hell, it's not even half decent. In my head I'll have a passage like
A warm wind on the mountain and the sky darkening, the clouds looping black underbellies until a huge ulcer folded out of the mass and a crack like the earth's core rending rattled panes from Winkle Hollow to Bay's Mountain. And the wind rising and gone colder until the trees bent as if borne forward on some violent acceleration of the earth's turning and then that too ceased and with a clatter and hiss out of the still air a plague of ice.*
But when I write it down for the first time it comes out, "It was a dark and stormy night."**

So what's the freaking point? It took me a lot of time and study and Buddhist meditation before I realized that what I expect and what I come to perceive are almost never going to be the same thing, and neither of them will be inherently true anyway; what I expect will never really happen and what I perceive is never really accurate, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. In other words, I have to let go of my expectations and not worry about my perceptions, I have to empty my mind of what I want to write and just freaking write. Of course, that sounds a lot more esoteric than it actually winds up being--what I really do is just lower my expectations, so that, expecting a shitty first draft, I am never disappointed and am occasionally even surprised.

Until I start revising. But that's a whole other conversation.

* from Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper

** from Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford and, subsequently, everything Snoopy ever wrote.


Researching fiction (NaNoWriMo update #3)

Here I am at the end of day 8 of NaNoWriMo.  My current total word count is 25, 504. 

I know that makes it seem I've spent every waking moment of the past week writing, but really, I've managed to work in more than my share of reading and research, and I have this week learned a fantastic amount of information, some vital and much trivial and some deceptively important but tiny in size, all of it necessary to the novel I'm writing for NaNoWriMo. It seems like a lot of work for what is supposed to be a haphazard and frenetically composed string of text, but this is an historical and regional novel, and the details of time (the US Civil War) and region (the bayous, reed brakes and prairie grasslands of southwest Louisiana) and culture (predominantly Cajun, but a watered-down, Anglicized Cajun) are indispensible to the progress of the novel. And besides, I love to learn. This wouldn't surprise my father, who used to share volumes of the Bathroom Trivia Books with me until I began reciting passages from them at random and often inappropriate occasions. Nor would it surprise my wife, who once patiently suffered through my reading nearly half the text of The Left-hand Turn Around the World to her aloud in bed just because I found it so damned fascinating. This is what I do: I learn, I distill, and then I share, in this case through writing.

So as a result of the writing the first half of my NaNoWriMo novel, I now know the following (I've omitted links so you can do your own research):
  • how to build a variety of traditional Acadian and Cajun houses from the ground up, using traditional materials and antique tools
  • how to build a variety of crawfish traps of both wood and net, and what is the best bait to use in which season
  • what a rougarou is and how to defeat it
  • what weaponry and clothing and other gear were common among both Union and Confederate troops in the late US Civil War--and the slang they used to describe it
  • a whole slew of Cajun slang and a handful of truly fantastic Cajun names (my favorite, and the name of a character in my novel: Hippolyte)
  • a little bit about flora, fauna, and geography of southwestern Louisiana, including the reed brakes, the marshes and swamps, the prairie grasses, and the cherniers (a delightful name); several marsh birds and gulls, and the beautiful but now-endangered red wolves, and
  • a great deal more than I ever thought I would about every hurricane season from 1856 to 1865. (You thought 2005 was bad--you should have seen 1860!)

My friend Tom Franklin's first novel, Hell at the Breech, was an historical book (so was his second novel). He often is invited to conference panels and workshop discussions to discuss the research process in composing an historical novel, but his comments usually boil down to two points: 1) He doesn't like doing research. It feels limiting in some ways, and he claims he only really was able to break into his first novel when he set aside the historical facts and just wrote the damned book. But, 2) he loves historical detail for the authenticity it adds. In his award-winning story collection, Poachers, he littered his fiction with such authenticity, regional and cultural details he referred to as "STP stickers" (as in, "None of my trucks had STP stickers on them, and I knew I needed to add them. That’s not a detail you can make up. That’s real."  These comments are from interviews I did for my masters thesis on his work, back in 2001). With his historical fiction, Franklin likes to tell people, he picked up a reprint copy of the Sears catalog from around the period her was writing about (the late 1890s). In those days, Franklin explains, you could buy almost anything through a Sears catalog, from razors and flower vases and clothes to shotguns and automobiles and even houses. So if he ever found himself stuck in the novel and unsure what to write next, he'd simply pick up the Sears catalog and find something interesting and start describing it, then how it might be used, and assign it to a character and let him or her use it, and the fiction would pick up from there.

I've long admired Tom Franklin and am not shy about taking my cues from him, and on this novel I've been doing something similar. Today, for instance, I sent my old woman character out in the marsh to collect crawfish from her traps. I had some sense of the process, having come from a fishing family on one side and a gaggle of half-Cajuns on the other, but I'd never set nor collected the traps myself and decided to stop the fiction with the woman in midstride, and I set to researching crawfish traps. I found information not only on what the traps looked like but also how to build them by hand, how to set them, and how to collect from them. I researched contemporary traps as well as antique traps. I looked into the variety of baits used, the best types of traps for different bodies of water, how the season and the temperature affects crawfishing. I watched videos of crawfishers out in their pirogues or wading through the shallows of a creek, hauling in their lines--I listened to the comments they made about the crawfish and to the accents, the patterns in their voices. I looked into recipes for crawfish both contemporary and historical. And then--and only then--I sat down to write. That research resulted in fewer than 200 words of prose, but that's 200 words of prose I didn't have before, 200 words where previously I'd had two dozen, and the passage is packed with details I hope will sound authentic. Better still, I now am armed with the information to reuse it later if I need to--that old woman has returned with her catch of crawfish but she hasn't yet cooked them, and I might yet pull a half a page or more out of a crawfish boil supper if I need to.

Tomorrow the Civil War ends in my novel, but the story carries on, and I intend as much as possible to look up details of the aftermath of the war in southern Louisiana, to read scholarly articles and contemporary letters in the Times-Picayune and to look over photographs and epitaphs and anything else I can find, but I have half this book yet to write and a lot of authenticity still to build into it.

And I'm loving every minute, every word of it.

Speaking of every word.  Here are some excerpts from the past few days (from now on my excerpts will get fewer and farther between as I push through the last half):

from day 5:

The old woman stepped from the plank into the marsh where they’d killed the cavalrymen and she waded out till the water was at her chin, then she swam until she could touch again. There the sodden weeds deep in the marsh sucked at her feet and whenever she came this way now she grew nervous, worried that the bodies they sunk in the marsh instead of dumping down the well as she preferred had not forgotten her transgressions and waited there in the murk to pull her down to their revenge. She swam a ways further with her knees bent high and her toes curled, her gaunt arms pulled hard on the water and the salty marsh lapping up her chin to her lips. But finally she could dogpaddle no more and she let down her feet into the soft bottom and mucked up through the weeds to crawl ashore on the sandy bank beyond. She jogged panting up the grassy ridge of the cheniers and paused at the top where she gazed across the marsh to the thin line of the Gulf out beyond. Even from here the soft crash of surf was audible and she could smell the pungent piscine scent of the beach. She put up a hand to shade her eyes and scanned the flat line of the horizon till she found the light blot she was looking for on the rim, and she wallowed out across the marsh toward it. For several long minutes there was only lighter salty marshwater sluicing her ankles and her own huffing breath to match the lick of surf, but after a while she climbed a shallow rise and walked it till she met the girl, standing at the lip of a tidal cove, tossing baited lines out into the water. She wore a boy’s breeches with the legs rolled up and a wide straw hat. Beside her a bucket clacked with a half dozen angry crabs scrabbling inside, seeking purchase enough in the soft wood to escape but never succeeding. The woman said nothing for a while, only watched and caught her breath. The girl’s arm jerked slightly and she sorted among the lines in her fist until she found the one with tension and hauling it in, hand over hand, to collect the small crab that clung there.

from day 6:

A sharp gust rocked them on their small ridge and they were awash in the dueling rush of the rustling trees back on the chernier and crashing Gulf before them. The girl reeled in another crab and dropped it clacking in the bucket. Out on the horizon a bank of clouds was rising up in shades of indigo and steel, a feathery brush drifting down from the lip to the edge of the Gulf. The woman raised an arm and passed her hand over the horizon as though petting the clouds, trying to smooth them out.

You remember the year before the war, all them storms we had?

I remember. It was one them storms brought my family here and another made me near an orphan.
That was a hell of a year, girl. Three hurricanes in two months, just poured on over us like the flood of Noah. God’s own wrath, like we was being prejudged for what only he alone knew we was about to engage in. Did you know the first one hit on the very anniversary of that Last Island catastrophe in fifty-six? You wasn’t here then, of course, but Last Island is a story they was still telling and then here come that trinity of storms. There must be a reason to it, that first hurricane hitting on the same day as its predecessor. Didn’t hurt us much beyond all the wind and rain, was just a rowdy storm but it scared us and we’d no idea what was coming.

The girl reeled in a crab. She sorted the empty lines from her fist and handed them to the woman to coil and tie. She said, Our ship come in to land ahead of the storm, beached our ship right up here in these salty marshes and unloaded us into the water. That old captain must have had some idea. I think I must have had some idea, sick as I was on that ship and glad for land even if it was this old marsh. I don’t recollect, though, was you and yours among them that came to help us up the chernier and into the brake, out to town?

I was among them though I don’t remember you, girl. Hippolyte and Remy was out in the canes doing what they could though it was fool’s work, nigger’s work. I think those boys must have gone into Leesville to get theirselves a drink, though, because I don’t imagine how else he could first have seen you. I didn’t allow no drinking in those days, not in my house.

You still don’t.

Not having any drink about ain’t the same as not understanding the need for one. Times like these change a body’s perspective.

Why was your men out in the canes anyway? You said ain’t no one knew what was coming.

I meant we didn’t know the magnitude of God’s plans, but we sure knew it was something. Like when you was little and knew you’d got in trouble but your mama told you to wait till your papa gets home, and then all that day you know he’s coming but can’t imagine in your child’s head what he’s gonna do. The weather that summer it’d been awful hot, the air so think you’d think it was smoke not just the humidity, and both sunrise and sundown alike was heavy with mist and bloodred in the coming or dying light. We knew for certain the sky was going to break open sooner or later. There here come that cloud, one great one like God’s own anvil somehow floating around up there and waiting to fall on us. They was some strange light in that cloud, not like no lightning I ever saw, not just the blue or yellow flashes you see but all sorts of colors including colors I ain’t even got words for and utterly silent, no thunder ever to reach our ears. And then it just passed on. Weren’t no wind nor rain, just a show of what we was in for. So we all knew something was coming.

from day 8:

They stepped out to the front of the hut, sat in the steamy night on a stump and an upturned bucket. The sky glowed an eerie shade of burnt ocher, a thick quilt of cloud slung low in the sky and the evening light unearthly over the marsh. The air soupy and astir with cricketsong. The old woman rubbed her neck and looked about.

Shoot, the air's so thick now they ain't no breeze.

No, the girl said.

They listened to the song a while, the girl staring seemingly into nothing but her gaze to the sky near the direction of Buford’s house. The old woman watched her watching the brake, and she thought of something to say. Finally she closed her eyes as if in memory and then looked at the girl.

I was dreaming earlier, the woman said. Dreamed Remy come back from the war.

The girl looked at her. You miss him something terrible, don't you.

Don't you?

Sure, mother, I miss him.

You ain’t never even cried over him, I noticed. Ain't you sad your husband is dead?

The girl glowered at the woman, tightened her fingers over her bare knees.

I am sad, yes maam. But he ain't coming back. You and me learned enough about death these last few years to know they ain't no use in pining. They don't come back, they don't even hear you.

The woman leaned on her stool to touch the girl’s hand on her knee. The girl pulled it back and stared hard at the woman.

I'm sorry, the woman said, I am. I didn't mean to accuse you of nothing. And I know you must be lonely, too. An old woman ain't no kind of company for a girl such as yourself. She closed her eyes, then she opened them bright in and smiled at the girl.

I tell you what. I'll find you a good husband. Soon's this war is over I'll go on into Leesburg with you, we'll go to that hotel again and we'll find you someone good to marry.

The girl looked hard at her then out across the brake, in the direction of Buford's house.

The woman continued undeterred.

When this war ends the men'll come back, not just the deserters and the ruffians but the officers, good men of some distinction. We'll find us such a one from among them and get the cane fields going again. Them's part yours now, you know.

I don't know nothing about no cane fields.

You'll learn, we'll find you a good sugar farmer and you'll learn.

The girl made to shake her head but then they heard loud reports out in the distance and they bolted upright, the bucket toppling over. A faint orange glow in the clouds and a black plume of smoke rising out to the west. Another explosion and the rapid pop of riflefire.

Damn, they's fighting out there!

The woman grabbed her by the arm, tugged her toward the hut.

We best get started that direction. We can't wait no more for them to come wandering in to us, we got to get closer.

They dashed inside and dressed quick and silent in the darkest clothes they had, grabbed their various weapons, armed heavier than they'd ever been, and they rushed out into the night, racing stealthily through the rushes toward the ominous glow in the clouds.


Writing in the middle (NaNoWriMo update #2)

When I was doing doctoral work at UNT, my writing professor Barb Rodman once commented that I could write more story in to less space than anyone she'd seen in a long while.  "I'm always surprised when I finish a story and I look at the page count to see how short it is.  Your fiction feels longer than it winds up being."  It wasn't necessarily a compliment--she was trying to get me to expand my writing--but I took it as one and still do.  But it's becoming a problem for me now, as I work on my NaNoWriMo novel.  I have a clear outline and know the things I need to get done in the book, and that outline has allowed me to become extraordinarily productive, which I love.  I'm currently wrapping up day four but my word count--11,544--is at day-seven levels, so in that sense I'm way ahead of the game.  Except I'm running out of story to write.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I'm moving through my outline faster than I'd thought, and today I realized I'd finished a third of the story I've set out to write.  That means I'm going to run out of novel before I hit 50,000 words--I'm actually writing a novella. 

One solution, of course, is to simply over-write, to ramble on with as much verbosity as possible and try to fill out the last two-thirds with enough text to make the final word count.  And I intend to try that.  But I am taking this novel seriously and would like it to turn into something useable in the near future.  So I'm also thinking of writing it the way I'd normally write it: get through the outline, regardless the word count, and then go back and fill in gaps where I need to until I hit 50,000.  I already know of several significant gaps I need to fill with historical or regional information.  Technically, though, this is revising and therefore against the guidelines governing NaNoWriMo, but I don't think it's necessarily against the spirit of the challenge since I will only be adding, not cutting or changing text.  And this is what a novelist does, or this novelist anyway, so I now have a back-up plan.  I'll write all I can to the end of the story and then I'll just keep writing and sort of turn a blind eye to where in the story the new text appears.

That said, here are the first paragraphs I wrote yesterday and today, typos and all:

from day 3:

As dusk shadowed the brake and the sky glowed hot and gloomy like fired iron, as the cicadas set in and far off the frogs began a song, a spectral figure emerged hat and shoulders from the rippled surface of the backwaters. He carried a long walking stick with which he plumbed the path before him, and tied to the top of the stick hung a heavy black sack. He pushed his way through the weedy murk and emrged onto the damp ground of the brake dripping and naked save the wide black hat on his head. He leaned against the stick and felt carefully over his flesh in the last of red light, picked a few dangling leeches like mutant teats of blood from his wiry thighs and knotted buttocks, then he untied the sack which was in fact a preacher’s cassock looped over a heavy Bowie knife and rotting string of beads. He removed the hat and hung it float atop a clump of reed and he draped himself in the cassock, tied his waist with a rope and hung the beads from the front of the belt and slipped the knife into the rope to hang at his back. He donned the hat and inspecting first the sky and then the dark ground before him, he discerned some sense of direction and struck out through the unseen trails in the reeds. He meandered for some time, the night falling heavy around him till he could no longer distinguish the hem of his cassock from the black ground below it. His own hands seems to float in space like incorporeal spirits guiding him through the marsh. At last he pushed aside a stand of reeds like curtains and stepping into a small clearing of hard earth in the back of which nestled of burrow of reeds with a door. A drift of smoke rose less dark than the darkness around it in a thin cloud from a lifted hatch in the roof. He looked around the rest of the clearing but so no other markers and checked the sky for his bearings but could make out no stars for guidance. He bent low to the ground and laid his stick gently there, then slipped the knife from the rope behind him and crept up on the hovel.

from day 4:

Buford’s shack tilted in the reeds and listed one side half down a slope into the water. It had fallen off its thick cypress blocks. In the night it looked like some giant angular concoction of the marsh slinking back into the muck and water whence it had come. As he approached the side with his knife in his fist to peer in the one side window he still could reach he half-expected to find the blazing eyes of a rougarou leering back at him through the paneless frame, the hot wolfen breath through the dripping teeth the breath of the swamp itself. He saw nothing inside but smelled it nonetheless, though it was a form of death he’d known already these last few years and nothing supernatural about it. He slid down an embankment into water up his ankles and bent to prise open the door, had to wrench askew and climb over the corner of it just to enter. He crouched and waited for his eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness inside. He heard a scuttle of some creature and felt the matted grizzly fur of a muskrat scrape past his foot but he held his ground and waited still. When nothing else moved he reached into a fold and pocket he’d stitched into the cassock and popped a match with his thumbnail. The inside of the shack wavered in the yellow light like it was underwater, but nothing else moved. A wreck of moldering reeds in one corner, the scent of scat by the wall that cantered into the marsh. His lantern bent and glassless still hung on a nail by the door but it was drained and wickless, pilfered long ago. A pole warped along the far wall, some shards of crockery and some bones he’d collected in his youth and never saw fit to discard. Nothing else remained. His few utensils, his table and two chairs and his bedframe, his old cookstove, everything pillaged. The match expired on his thumbtip and he hissed. He shuffled into the corner where he’d remembered seeing the pile of reeds, popped another match and reached for the bent pole to poke among the damp wreck but nothing emerged save a few insects. He blew out the match and shook it to cool then pocketed the last of the stick, stirred the nest with the pole till he was satisfied whatever had called it home had now absconded, and then he kicked the reeds together into a loose mat and fell back on it to sleep. He lay instead for some hours just staring up into nothing.


NaNoWriMo update #1: So it begins.

I'm now two days into November and so two days into my new novel for National Novel Writing Month.  So far I'm off to a strange but delicious start:  I've had a very clear vision for this novel for about four years now, so at the outset of this project I set myself up a relatively detailed outline.  Then I upped the page count (NaNoWriMo requires about 175 pages, but I was shooting for 210) and divided it as well as the word count by the 30 days of November, and then I synchronized the whole thing to my outline so I'd know not only how many words I should write each day (1,667) but also where I should be on my outline each day.  Strangely, I've already fallen a handful of pages behind my outline, yet I'm more than a thousand words ahead on my word count.  Conclusion:  This is going to be a longer novel than I'd planned, and I might wind up completing NaNoWriMo without having finished the novel. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

For those friends and scattered readers who might follow this blog but aren't participating in NaNoWriMo, I'm going to post periodic updates here.  Today I'm also posting the synopsis and the two excerpts I've included on my NaNoWriMo page, so I'll tell keep the rest of this short and simply report that I've hit 4,500 words so far.  I wrote about two hours yesterday and another two and a half today, so I'm average 1,000 words an hour, which is good for me.  Of course, I spent another four hours yesterday and another two or so today doing background research (I am writing an historical novel, after all), so when you factor in that time I'm probably running slower than some of my fellow NaNo-ers.  Still, I'm happy with my progress and I'm still getting work done on other fiction as well, so everything's rolling along smoothly so far.

And now, the synopsis and excerpts.

During the Civil War, a mother and her son's wife eke a living out of the Lousiana bayou by robbing the bodies of passing soldiers. Sometimes they kill the soldiers first. Into this comes a neighbor deserted from his regiment and hiding in the reed brakes where they live; he brings news of the son's/husband's death. Now both women enter a silent, unacknowledged war of lust and jealously trying to possess the runaway hermit.

For the excerpts, I've simply pasted here the first paragraph I wrote on each day of writing.  I can't keep this up or my "excerpt" will wind up book-length itself, but this should give you the gist of where I'm headed:

from day 1:

For days on end the only sound in the reed brake was the wind in the rushes. There would be other sounds for those who knew how to discern them, the soft crash of a gator slipping from the prairie grass into the muck and water, the rustle of ducks breaking for the sky or the dip of a heron beak as it fished the shallows. But all kept quiet enough that by day few sounds were louder than the sighing of the reeds, and at night the baritone croak of the frogs was cheerless and departed. The two women listened anyway, silent and languid themselves in their meager chores, and when at last they’d catch out of the hot breeze the long-off reports of canonshot or riflefire, they would set aside their baskets of wash and reel in the crawfish traps and the few lines they’d laid, and they would gather their one musket with its fixed bayonet and a long stiff cane they’d sharpened and wrapped with a grip, and they would crawl out into the marsh to lie in wait.

from day 2:

They took almost half an hour to drag the men to the forgotten well in the marsh by a long abandoned homestead where now remained only the well and a packed foundation they alone would recognize. They dragged their pairs of legs to the low stone wall of the well and propped the naked ankles atop the rim. With such a ramp created from the dead legs they bent and rolled the third man like a log up the bodies until his rump hung over the lip and they pushed so he bent in the middle and fell into the well. Echoing up from the maw came a wet crunch of various limbs when he landed in the deep below, the bodies down there already risen past the water line. A cloud of gnats ascended to behold them that had disturbed the deep, and with the gnats came a stench of swollen meat and festered gases like the reek of hell itself. They paid the not gnats nor the stench any heed, bent already to the second body and hauling it up by the shoulders. The girl held the man steady while the old woman shifted the legs until the knees caught and held the rim. They together they lifted his back and pitched him headlong into the well. They did the same for the last body, and the cloud of gnats followed in a descending vortex like a school a fish chasing a proffered meal. The women did not notice; they returned to the trampled and bloodstained clearing to collect their piles. They stuffed what they could into the haversack then slung the straps of the sack over two of the rifles like poles for a spit. The old woman hung the third rifle crossways over her shoulder , the strap bisecting her pendulous breasts, then both women bent and rested the rifle-ends on their shoulders to raise the haversack slung between them. The girl in the lead and carrying the musket and cane pike while the old woman steadied their load. Neither had said one word the entire time, all their deeds by habit unspoken.