Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shop Talk#4: The Back Trails of Research (Part of a Series)

No "fun" for Writer Tom, This Time
I have just returned from four days in Alpine County, California. “Gee,” you might well ask, “doesn’t this call for another episode of ‘Them Thar Hills’? Another hapless Laurel-and-Hardyesque escapade about being pursued by bears and burning down campsites—no, entire national forests ala Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire?” No, not this time. My primary goal had little to do with basking in Nature’s Glory and divining Her Secrets (though a little divination did go on). This time it was all about research. The collection and absorption of information about the people of Alpine County. All in preparation for the approaching conclusion of my work on that fabulous, sure-to-be bestselling novel all of my readers are Morally Obligated to purchase or face the Onslaught of Various Rashes and Bizarre Deformities: The Vampire of Alpine Canyon. People live in the country, often close to, and within, wilderness itself. I know this is strange to many of my readers who are probably mostly urban dwellers. Maybe one or two of you feel the same way about the country as H.L. Mencken: Nature “is a place to throw empty beer cans on a Sunday.” It’s a funny thing about the supernatural tale. The more realistic, the more grounded in quotidian detail it is, the stronger the sense of surprise, awe and terror at the appearance of the fantastic. Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to be the first to notice this, and, no one’s proven him wrong yet. (Fantasy horror efforts, like the awful awful The Mummy and Van Helsing don’t even deserve the term ‘horror.’ They’re action comedies, and bad ones at that.) I need enough of those everyday details to make my story, its characters and the world it takes place in, believable, to you, my loyal readers, who will make yourself twenty-to-thirty bucks poorer to fulfill your solemn duty to me, your hard-working author (unless you wait for the paperback). And to get those details, and get ‘em right, I had to return to the scene of my original inspiration. Now, as you might imagine, the Alpine County of quotidian reality has, in the rich soil of my mind, morphed into another place that resembles the magical place I love, but is still very different. Firstly, it was missing a couple of significant geographic features I want for my book—one of them the titular canyon. But I knew that things would have to really change when, on a trip I took a couple of years ago, I learned from a curator at the County Museum, that Alpine County completely lacked a certain kind of Rural Professional, who had become central to my tale. (Apologies for my coyness here, but I really don’t want to spoil it for you.) At that point, I realized I could no longer use real-world Alpine County as my backdrop. I would have to “make a place up,” a normal practice among novelists of all genres (read Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, another great Gothic, which is set in an imaginary Upstate New York.) First off, I changed the name of the county. Next, I doubled its land area and its smallest-in-the-state population of around 1,200. Increasing the population meant creating another whole new town and actually demoting the remote, charming, bucolic county seat of Markleeville (population 150) to a remote, charming, bucolic village, also bearing a new name. Still, I need a realistic baseline to build my new fictional world from and there is still plenty that Alpine County can teach me. (Another note: The next biggest California county in population, Sierra County, is around 3500, which is way too much. In fact, Alpine County is so small, California's state government considers it “unclassifiable” in terms of state funding.).
My Front Yard (See last week's posting for back yard.)
I arrived on Sunday afternoon and camped in Grover Hot Springs State Park, a place I’d hiked around on a couple of occasions, but this trip, as a camper, I found myself falling stoned in love with: I decided to make it my base for my entire stay. (With a four-square mile golden meadow surrounded by the towering looming Sierras as my front yard, what fool am I to sneer?) In my previous posting on this subject, I shared a profound dread of the hostile resistance I might face in response to my questions. I couldn’t have been more wrong, I’m grateful to say. From the County Health Services, through the Washo (Southern Band) tribal headquarters, on to the Sheriff’s Department and the County Library, all my questions were answered with patience, utter politeness and everyone’s best effort (though the Sheriff’s spokesperson did worry about whether if they would be reading about yet another crooked, spineless, inept small-town sheriff; I assured her not). Not all questions, of course, could be answered and correspondence with a couple of the people I spoke to will continue. One insight I did gain that I can share: not all the facts I learned about how things are done in Alpine County, will become facts in my book. By now, my fictional location has taken on a shape of its own. Practices regarding say, law enforcement, vary, from county to county. In Alpine County, the California Highway Patrol handles all traffic matters on all roads . . . but that will not be the case in my story. Still, just that scrap of info helped to clarify a few things. Still, I have to be careful. Critics complain, often rightly, how genre writers blithely ignore reality just to keep our fanciful plots moving. Fair point, but too much attention to too much detail can create a doorstop book: a kind of Á la Recherché du Temps Perdue Meets Edgar Rice Burroughs that doesn’t get moving until page 300, because I’ve spent too much time describing how the deputy cleans what kind of pistol while reflecting on his latent transexualism and problems with his pregnant wife: I’m not doing either Tom Clancy-ville or Marcel Proust, here. I returned home on Thursday with over a dozen pages of chicken scratching and a tremendous case of exhaustion—I hardly slept the whole time I was there—part of the reason I did very little hiking around. I’m still catching up. Sleep? Oh yes, more please . . . . Nevertheless, this time, I crossed one of the biggest mountains. I’m well into the Valley of the Third Draft (the Reader’s Draft.) of The Vampire of Alpine Canyon. Despite all the work that remains, I do believe I see a little light up there, just over those peaks, yonder.
There. See it? Yonder . . . .

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