A BRIEF DISQUISITION ON THE EXISTENCE OF BUTT-COOTIES (Gentlemen, kindly avert your eyes)
What with one thing and another, I’ve spent a lot of time in public restrooms.And, having been a scientist in my previous professional incarnation, I can’t help observing things, and drawing statistical inferences.Which is why I am in a position to inform you that roughly half the female population of the US suffer from the twin delusions that 1) butt-cooties exist, and 2) they will, given half a chance, leap several inches from a toilet seat and burrow into the skin of an unsuspecting buttock, resulting in scrofula, assorted STD’s, herpes, and probably leprosy.
I draw these conclusions from the fact that roughly half the time I enter a public restroom cubicle, I observe that the previous user has peed on theseat.Ladies…
I can only guess that at some point in an impressionable youth, these women were told by some female authority figure that One Must Never SIT On A Public Toilet, “because you might catch something.”Firmly indoctrinated with this policy, they do not sit on public toilets.They hover.Ladies, ladies…
Look.The skin of the buttocks is actually pretty germ-free, owing to the fact that we normally keep them covered and don’t (usually) touch other people, animals, etc. with them.Your butt is much cleaner—microbially-speaking—than are your hands.
Various studies of the bacterial content of public restrooms indicate that there are a LOT more germs on the door of said restroom than there are on any toilet seat therein.You acquire millions more microbes by shaking hands with someone than you would if our social system involved mutual butt-rubbing.(To say nothing of the teeming worlds of microorganisms you acquire every time you accept change from the counter-guy at Burger King.How many of you race to the bathroom and scrub your hands after ordering the meal, but before eating it?)
In order actually to catch one of the communicable diseases with which excrement or other bodily fluids are associated, two things would have to occur:1) the bodily fluid of an infected person would have to be applied to the toilet seat (which would not happen, if said person would sit her bottom on the potty where it belongs and not spray the thing like a hippopotamus), and 2) an uninfected person’s mucous membranes must come in contact with said fluids, within the few seconds that most bacteria and virii can survive outside the human body.You don’t have mucous membranes on your buttocks.
Now, by and large, urine really doesn’t contain all that many bacteria (Male urine contains almost none, owing to the fact that its exit is, um, less impeded by surrounding tissue.A good many alchemical and medical recipes up through the early 19th century require “urine of a newborn male child” as an ingredient—this being the most sterile water available).Feces…well, yes.And I have in fact encountered the Really Nasty evidence that there are not only seat-pee-ers, but also seat-poopers (to say nothing of the occasional person who is so afraid of physically encountering a public toilet that they actually don’t hit it at all, and leave the evidence of their mental derangement on the floor of the facility), but this is fortunately rare.
All right.In periods of heavy traffic, one might possibly encounter a live bacterium or virus present in the urine that some inconsiderate idiot has left on a toilet seat.Not likely, but faintly possible.Are you going to encounter it with your mucous membranes?Not unless your excretory habits are both Highly Athletic and Dang Unusual.
OK.So if the risk of catching a bacterial or viral disease by sitting on a dry toilet seat is negligible, then plainly, the Thing to Fear must be…Butt-cooties!
Traveling as much as I do, I am in a position to collect international data, albeit in an anecdotal and unstandardized manner.On the basis of such casual observation, though, I hypothesize that while butt-cooties presently have a fairly wide global distribution, they probably originated in the United States.Speaking generally, at least fifty percent of all public toilets in US airports, convenience stores, museums, and restaurants indicate evidence of infestation (judging from the aversive techniques employed by the patrons).European toilets have a much lower incidence—perhaps 10-15%.
(Point of etiquette: ought one to meet the eyes of, and/or nod to, a person emerging from a toilet cubicle that one proposes to enter?Common politeness would argue for such cordial acknowledgement—but if the next few seconds reveal that the departing patron was possessed of butt-cooties, this might lead one to think harsh and unchristian thoughts of said person, and surely it’s worse to think unchristian thoughts (WWJD?I’m pretty sure He wouldn’t pee on a public toilet seat, and if He did, He would certainly wipe it off.Ditto the Buddha, and doubtless any other religious figure you care to name) about someone whose face is imprinted in your short-term memory, than of an unknown quantity.)
In fact, we might hypothesize the geographical origin of butt-cooties as having occurred in or near Chicago.On what basis?Well, of all the airports I’ve been in (and I’ve been in a lot of airports, from New Zealand to Saskatchewan), only O’Hare International has public toilets equipped with a sliding cylinder of plastic sheeting that encases the seats; you wave your hand in front of a magic button, and voila!The plastic slides round the seat, and you are presented with a pristine surface on which to park your booty.Such is the prevailing fear of butt-cooties, though, that people pee on these toilet seats, too.
Well, there’s no arguing with psychological aberration, and thus I make no attempt to persuade Those Who See Butt-Cooties away from their convictions.I would, though, urge them—in the most kindly manner—to address the results of their antisocial psychosis, and thus leave them with this classic advice:
For all of you who read and enjoyed my nice brother-in-law’s excellent first book (No Time to Hide), I’m thrilled to announce that his even better second book came out today!
Rob (Rob Palmer is his name) writes marvelous, twisty thrillers, with 3-D characters and breath-holding suspense.And very appropriately to this election season–
Eyes of the World is a story of lies and betrayal, the tragedies that bind us together, and the blinding trust of love.America has its first woman president, Lynnie Connor, whom Mike Stanbridge has known since childhood.Their friendship is common knowledge; their love affair is the most carefully guarded secret of their lives.It’s campaign season, and as Lynnie runs hard for reelection, Mike is framed for murder.His only way out is to dig into Lynnie’s past, learning something that seemingly turns her whole life into a lie.Pursued by the FBI and a squad of assassins, Mike runs for Lynnie’s political life—and his own survival.
Praise for Eyes of the World:
“Suspenseful and affecting.A top-notch thriller with a tender heart.”
Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author [cough] of the Outlander and Lord John series
“5 Stars! A perfect read for the election year! . . . Rob Palmer’s book [is] superlative. . . . I was kept on the edge of my seat the entire time. I cannot recommend this one highly enough. Magnificent!”
“You’re gonna want to read this one!Hold on for an intricately plotted, wickedly smart trip through presidential politics.Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll realize the games have just begun.An excellent book.”
I’m sure you’ll enjoy this terrific book as much as I did—though should you need any extra inducement [g], my sister, Theresa Gabaldon, is offering the famous family enchilada recipe to anyone who buys the book before the 4th of July.
[I originally posted this as a "Letter from Home"(or abroad) in the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum, so some of you will have seen it. I know not everyone who subscribes to the blog lurks over there, though--so for the rest of you, here it is.]
April 16th was the 262nd anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, and thus an appropriate date for the dedication of the new Visitors Centre (among other things, they’d discovered that the battlefield wasn’t _exactly_ where they originally thought it was–and that in fact, the old Visitors Centre was sitting on top of part of the second Government line of battle [cough]).
Having decided to build a new Centre, though, they did it right. An immense amount of thought, inspiration, and technology went into the construction, and the staff behind it are immensely–and justifiably–proud of it.
The dedication wasn’t until 2 PM, so we spent the morning engaged in research–beginning with what one eats on “traditional Scottish porridge” (heavy cream and Demerara sugar (this being brown, crystallized sugar), at Culloden House). (The first day we arrived, I’d left something in the car, and had to go round to the car-park at the side of the house to get it. Coming back in, I couldn’t recall whether the front door pushed or pulled, and did the wrong thing. Seeing my struggles, the very nice receptionist rushed over to open the door for me, observing, “Ye mustn’t have had your porridge this morning!” “Indeed I have not,” I replied cordially. Tuna and red onion apparently doesn’t stimulate the brain cells the way porridge does.)
Research then took us into Inverness, where we found a car-park and went down to the river on foot, to undertake a census of the city’s churches (no, I’m not telling you why that, either). Fortunately, this was pretty easy; most of the churches in town are located on one bank or another of the River Ness, within a span of a few blocks. I am now in a position to state authoritatively that Inverness is absolutely crawling with Presbyterians. No fewer than _six_ Church of Scotland churches–all within a quarter-mile of each other–by comparison with a couple of Free Church establishments, one Episcopalian church (though it _is_ a fairly grand cathedral), and one Roman Catholic church, done in the “Gothic perpendicular” style, according to the plaque on its front, and with a heavily Polish congregation, judging from the notices in the vestibule.
Started out to walk down the riverside–there’s a lovely small park on the Islands of the Ness at the end of the walk–but realized we wouldn’t have enough time to get there and back, eat, and still have time to change clothes for the dedication. Zipped back up the High Street–which has changed quite a bit since I was last here; many shops shut up, or moved into the new Eastgate shopping mall at the top of the street–to a small Italian restaurant (Bella Italia) we’d seen on our way to the river, and had a quick salad to sustain us. (One feature of the new High Street is “automatic bollards” which can rise out of the pavement to block car traffic, so that the entire street becomes a walkway–but can be retracted, if an emergency vehicle needs to come down the street. Doug was fascinating by these–he kept referring to them as “automatic ballocks”–and insisted on hanging around to watch for a bit and see if they’d pop up, but they didn’t oblige.)
Zoomed back to the hotel and changed; I’d brought the blue version of my Santa Fe silks, and Doug had asked earlier if I meant to be the only peacock at the ceremony. I replied that since I would likely be in the company of innumerable men attired in kilts and grouse feathers, I rather doubted that anyone would notice me. (Doug had originally planned to wear his own kilt, but decided against it on logistical grounds; the thing takes up so much room–even without accessories like stockings and sporran–that it would have required an extra suitcase to bring it (we travel light; just one small roller bag each.)).
Not everyone was kilted (well, the women weren’t, of course–though one elderly lady had a fabulous blue tartan ensemble, heavy silk straight floor-length skirt and a box-cut jacket), but there were a good many kilts in evidence–the reception the night before had been for only 40 or so people; 250 were invited to the dedication, and there was quite a mob in the foyer of the Visitors Centre. By sheer accident, we were fairly near the front, and thus able to hear everything, and see some of it.
After a simple speech by Alexander Bennett (whose actual title I forget, but he’s in charge of the Visitors Centre–and looks Very Nice in a kilt), a lady from the National Trust for Scotland introduced the two little boys (aged 6–he’d be 7 next day–and 11) who’d been chosen to perform the actual dedication; both of them were descended from men who’d fought at Culloden–one from a Jacobite soldier, the other from _both_ a Jacobite and a Government soldier. They were introduced, and together, cut a red ribbon stretched across the entrance to the new exhibition area–after which a drape was pulled aside on the wall beside us, revealing a plaque stating that the place was dedicated on April 16, 2008, by Shonaig Somebody (whose last name I forget) from the NTS, Somebody Haigh (kid #1, whose first name I forget, too), and Philip Nicoll (kid #2, and I have no idea why _his_ name stuck). Applause all round, followed by sandwiches and canapes and tiny plastic cups of whisky–”Culloden Cream” (this being a cream and whisky drink, ala Bailey’s Irish Cream, but with a sharper whisky edge to it) and “Tomatin” whisky.
Also Celtic music, supplied by a local group called Blazing Fiddles (and they _were_!) and then Highland Dancers, a quartet of young girls performing to taped pipe music. Neglected to mention before that a piper had been playing on the battlefield prior to the dedication–they said he was to play for the exact duration of the battle.
Beyond the great impact (and I do mean impact; they pull no punches; among the exhibits are not only the usual round musket balls retrieved from the field, but some of those flattened by the impact of passing through a man’s body) and excellent execution of the new Centre, the designers also put a great deal of subtle interpretation into the fabric of the Centre itself. At the beginning of the exhibit, you have the Government side of the story on one side (they make a great point of its being “the Govenrment” versus the Jacobites, rather than “Scots versus English”–very properly, as Scots (both Highland clans and Lowlanders) fought _with_ the Government in order to defeat what they saw as a Stuart invasion (with concomitant efforts to return Britain to Catholicism, popery, and French influence)), and the evolving Jacobite story on the other (both with eerie shadow-boxes, where you touch a lighted panel, and the shadow of a person–nearly life-size–comes forward and tells you his or her story; the stories are from men and woman, people on both sides, and told in both English and Gaelic (a lot more emphasis is paid to the Gaelic culture in this new version). The backing of the exhibits on the Government side is made of raw-looking boards–which at the beginning are all higgledy-piggledy, but as you pass through, begin to lie closer together, and by the end of the story, are running in tight, true lines. This–as the staff explained to us–symbolizing the ragged nature of the Government’s information and organization, as they began to get wind of the advancing Jacobite plot–this then becoming firmer and more orderly, to culminate in the solid battle lines that had won the day.
Because of the crowd of people, they were sending them through the exhibit in small groups at ten-minute intervals. We’d seen the exhibit the night before, so instead, we went outside for a brief look at the battlefield itself–not wanting to forget just what the point was, amongst the hoopla and celebration.
It was a day of sun and shadow, with a booming wind that came roaring over the moor. I’d luckily thought better of wearing the long, floaty silk skirt [g], in view both of the wind and the fact that the temperature was about 9 degrees Celsius–but I did have the floaty silk ruana, worn over three layers of warm clothes. When we stepped out, the wind caught the back of this and whirled it up around my head; Doug said it looked as though I was proposing to introduce Islam to Scotland (did not see any mosques on Huntly Street or Bank Street, though I wouldn’t bet that there isn’t one, somewhere in Inverness).
Got disentangled to find myself standing beside a long outer wall of the building, built of stones some 3-4″ in height, most a foot or so long–some of them set so that they protruded from the wall itself. One of the staff explained that these, too, were symbolic–the protruding stones were of two kinds, and each stone sticking out symbolized either a dead Jacobite (some 700 of them) or a Government soldier (about 50) who’d died on the field. (There’s a part of the battlefield near the Center, with a stone of its own that reads, “The Field of the English. They were buried here.”)
Going down along this wall toward the battlefield, we met a woman with a black eye (a _big_ black eye), who stopped dead and said, “Excuse me–but are you by any chance Diana and Doug?” This turned out to be “Mac”–an online friend of Susan’s (Susan being the helpful person who comes to do the bookkeeping and haul all my junk to the post office). I’d told Susan that I’d hang about a bit after the dedication, in case any of the online listers or Ladies of Lallybroch who might live nearby might want to stop by and say hello–and Mac had driven down from Thurso (! )–which is _not_ nearby–to do so, with her friend Linda.
We chatted for a bit, and Mac explained that the black eye was the result of her having walked into the new plate-glass sliding door at her local supermarket, and told us that she’d just met a staff member hurrying along, who’d stopped to ask about her eye, and then said, “I’m just going to inspect the gentleman who’s been reported lying in the grass, to see if he’s all right.” (Returning, the lady reported that indeed, the gentleman lying in the grass was fine, “He was just lying back in the grass, listening to the birds.” Scotland is a very tolerant country, it’s history of religious schism notwithstanding.)
Parting from Mac and Linda, we walked down onto the battlefield. It’s a quiet place. Notwithstanding wind, or visitors, or the Highland sheep that the NTS has used now and then to remove the saplings and help restore the moor to what they think is likely its original condition. Very quiet.
The lines of the two armies are shown by lines of flags–red and blue–fluttering in the wind. And just beyond the end of the Government lines, the path leads down beside the Well of the Dead “Where the Chief of the MacGillvrays Fell”. It’s a very small spring, welling out of the ground just by the path; you’d miss it, without the stone beside it. Someone had put the heads of fresh–cut daisies in the water; they floated there, safely out of the wind.
And just beyond this, the path lies between wide, grassy verges, on which the clan stones are ranged. These were put up to commemorate the fallen of the various clans–Clan MacIntosh (which has three stones; evidently MacIntosh was in the thick of it); MacGillivray, Stewart of Appin, Cameron…Clan Fraser. People who visit Culoden often send me pictures of the Fraser clanstone. Not like the pictures they send me of standing stones; those always have the sender or a friend standing with the stone, smiling and waving. There are never any people in the photographs of the clan stone. Just the lump of lichened granite that says “Clan Fraser.”
We came back, quiet in the wind, to meet other online people who’d come to the Visitors Centre to say hello–I think I met seven or eight, all told–and sign books. On the way, I saw the boggy hollow where Jamie woke after the battle, knowing he was dead. And looked back at the clan stones, ragged lines beside the path, that say, “Don’t forget.” And back again at the new wall, with its fresh gray stones that say, “We haven’t.”
Well, I _was_ going to kick off my trip to the UK with a sprightly essay entitled “A Brief Disquisition on the Existence of Butt-Cooties.” Had it mostly done; meant to post it just before we left, then follow on with a general blog about our doings in England, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Unfortunately, I left it in my other computer. (No, really; I brought my new MacBook on the trip, and forgot to transfer the essay out of my PC, where it’s still sitting.) So I guess I’ll use that as a closing flourish, instead.
We arrived in Scotland today! (Spent two days in New York first, to break the journey–poor Doug is 6’3 or 4, and Suffers Terribly on long flights, as he can’t sleep on airplanes.) Then landed in England, which was quick, but fun. We had dinner with friends, had another dinner with the new UK publishing people–Orion is now my UK publisher, and a lovely lot they all are, too–went to the Museum of London (amazing place! It’s address is One London Wall; it’s built on what’s left of the city wall), the National Portrait Gallery (just as amazing, in a different way. So cool to see the faces of history, especially all the Tudors and Stuarts and their cohorts), and…well, ate. As my husband remarked in tones of amazement last night, “We’ve been in England for 48 hours, and we haven’t eaten anything awful yet!” The wonders of globalization. [g] (Had a wonderful time sitting in pubs drinking red wine and listening to the conversations, too. More globalization, I suppose–or the influence of television; while the people _all_ had accents–and not all English accents, either–we could understand them easily, whereas on previous visits it often took several repetitions of an exchange for both parties to understand what was being said. This time, they understood _us_, too.)
Anyway, got up Way Early and dragged our bags to the Tube station at Pimlico (lovely cool day; cold enough to see your breath, but a sweatshirt was enough to keep warm), and went to Victoria, where we caught the Gatwick Express, arriving in enough time to hunt food–had wonderful sandwiches for breakfast at the airport (the UK in general has _great_ sandwiches; they’ll put _anything_ between two slices of bread (usually very fresh and good), and it’s usually extremely tasty, though I drew the line at sweet-corn with bacon and Branston pickle): I had tuna, salad, and red onion, and Doug had egg, cress, and mayo, both on “malted granary bread” (aka multi-grain; delicious)).
Flew to Edinburgh, and got our rental car–a brand-new Audi A3 (whose right windshield wiper stopped working about three miles out of the lot; luckily, it didn’t rain much), then drove north. After the hair-raisingness of negotiating the Edinburgh round-abouts on the left-side, Doug got comfortable again, and we could enjoy the ride, heading up through the rising lands of the Highlands, into big, rolling mountains still covered with snow on the heights, the un-treed slopes covered with a thick coat of dusty heather with the purple ghost of its summer glory lingering, and thick growths of gorse sprouting out of the rocks, so dark a green as to look black, covered with yellow flowers even brighter than the scads of daffodils growing on the roadside verges. Big, puffy clouds and small intermittent showers, but overall, a brilliant, beautiful day.
We stopped in Pitlochry, ostensibly to look for lunch. I had a secret agenda, though, which I hadn’t mentioned, because I knew Doug was worried about reaching Inverness in good time to find our hotel and change for the evening reception at Culloden. I’d discovered, in the process of recent research, that Pitlochry has a hydroelectric dam, built in the 50′s, and along with it, has a visitor’s centre that recounts the development and history of hydroelectric power in the Highlands–that, and a fish chamber [g], where one can watch migrating salmon and trout making their way up a fish-ladder past the dam.
By good fortune [cough], we happened to see the sign for “Dam and Fish-ladder,” and I (in my position as navigator) pointed and said, “Oh, let’s stop there!” “Why do you want to see a fish-ladder?” Doug asked, pulling into the lot. “I don’t,” I replied, leaping out and heading for the dam. “I want to see a hydroelectric plant!” (No, I told him why, but I’m not telling you, sorry. It’s to do with the next book, that’s all.)
No fish were migrating, alas, but the visitors centre was fascinating, the stream (full of middle-aged and elderly men in waders with fly-rods) was rushing and glorious, spring plants were greening up all over, the trees were full of birds about their courting, and there was a delightful small stone inn/restaurant called Port-na-Craig below the car-park, where we stopped into the Fisherman’s Bar (so-called for the dozens of ancient fishing-rods hung from the ceiling) and had absolutely decadent burgers–tender, juicy Scottish beef, overlaid with bacon (of the British kind–soft and streaky, not the crispy American sort) and thick with melted cheese–a tangy sort of local white cheddar. You couldn’t pick them up to eat; they were so juicy, the bun fell apart, so we had to eat them with a fork (“We havena got tomahto _sauce_,” the nice waitress explained (‘tomato sauce” being Scottish for “ketchup”), ‘But we’ve got a bit of tomahto salsa, if ye’d like that?” (We did. [g]) Homemade chips with white vinegar, a little salad on the side….and we went back to the car and nearly fell asleep on the next part of the journey, from sheer satiation.
Didn’t go off the road, though, and made it to the Culloden House Hotel without incident. This place is a marvel; a very old, very large, stone-built country house, renovated and restored into a four-star hotel. Victorian wallpapering and furniture, luscious thick carpeting, windows with ancient wooden shutters to keep the morning light out, and a first-class dining room, equipped with Royal Worcester china, etched crystal goblets, heavy silver–and a menu to die for. I had the tournedos of Scottish fillet of beef, with wild-mushroom risotto, and Doug had a pork cutlet topped with pickled red onion, and a creamed sweetcorn soup with crawfish tails and chili oil (don’t laugh; it was great [g]).
You might be more interested in the fact that during the final days before the Battle of Culloden, Jacobite troops rested on the grounds here–and Jacobite officers stayed in the house (the original house; the present house was built on the same site in 1780). Also because it was in one of the attic rooms of Culloden House that Jamie had his final, fatal confrontation with his uncle Dougal (of which we may possibly hear more, anon).
You’ll be thinking that we don’t do anything while traveling but eat, by this time. But no–our actual reason for being here today was a reception this evening at the new Culloden Battlefield Memorial Visitors Centre, to which we’d been invited by the National Trust for Scotland, they generously regarding us as donors to the project.
The new Visitors Centre is wonderful from the outside–very modern, with long, low, clean lines, so that it seems to fit into the landscape, rather than stick up out of it. The outside landscaping is still in progress, but they’ve begun to lay the stones for the Culloden Walk Project. I’ll include a link here, in case any of you might be interested in contributing to the project yourselves.
I’d contributed a “chieftain stone” saying “Urram do na mairbh” (To the honor of the dead.”)–and my thanks to Catherine-Ann McPhee (noted Gaelic singer and teacher) for the proper Gaelic! The Ladies of Lallybroch had very generously donated a stone to the project as well, in my honor. [modestly pleased cough] Anyway, the walk is a long way from finished, but even the beginnings of it are very impressive indeed–flat, dark stones, covered with names, leading up to the entrance.
I won’t go into exhaustive detail about the evening or the exhibition, save to say that the evening was delightful (met all kinds of lovely people), and the design and execution of the exhibition is amazing–both striking and thoughtful. I _do_ want to tell you about what they call the “battle immersion” zone, though. This is a section where you walk through a dimly lit hallway, accompanying the Jacobite troops on the failed night march to attack the Government troops (you may not know about that, because Jamie didn’t take part–he was busy getting Claire safely to the stones); you hear the noises of the Government encampment to your left, and to your right, the shuffling and muttering and jangling of the exhausted, starving Jacobites as they go.
As you come to the end of this hallway, you turn into a small theatre–but it’s not the usual kind, with seats. It’s a completely empty room, with screens lining the walls on all four sides. You stand in the middle of this, turning constantly round as the battle begins, is fought, and ends….around you. It was fascinating to see the Jacobite troops lining up, sidling uneasily to and fro, getting into their formation–both very real, and very eerie, knowing what was coming. Empty horizon on the other side of the room, the wind stirring the moor grasses–and then the Government troops are there, coming up out of the distance. And coming. And coming. Rank upon rank, Brown Bess muskets on their shoulders. And the cannon rolling into position.
I was looking back at the Jacobite line when the firing began. Two Jacobite artillery pieces fired; a moment’s pause–and then English cannonballs struck two men in the front line, a few yards away from me. It was one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had. It went on from there in the same fashion; the terrible hesitation of the Jacobite line, before the order to charge finally came–the yelling mass of men, seeming to sweep right over us and carry us along–into the opposite screens, where the Government line stood firm….just waiting. You could smell the smoke of their volleys.
And then the wind again, over the quiet moor. And the dead.
Well, so I _did_ manage to write 1500 words of the “noir” piece (I’d aimed for 1000), and did read half the novel. Also walked six miles (the weather is still beautiful for walking outdoors–especially in the evening) and spent an hour researching hotels on the Isle of Man, to say nothing of going wih my husband to buy a sofa. What I _didn’t_ get to were about forty emails awaiting attention, but hey, you can’t do everything. What you _can_ do, though…
The following piece was originally written as a letter to a friend; later, when a magazine asked me to do an essay on what was either my Best Day or my Worst Day as a writer, I tidied it up a bit for the purpose.
Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon
[This was originally a letter to a friend, later rewritten as an essay for a writers' magazine.]
The Best and/or Worst Day of my writing career?Geez.Well, I’ve been doing this for nearly fifteen years now, so we have a wide array of days to choose from.
There’s the day I finished writing my first novel.Like giving birth, but no stitches, and you get to sleep as long as you want afterward._Tres_ cool.
There’s the day my agent called to tell me that of the five editors he’d sent the manuscript to, three had called back with offers.Definitely a Good Day–though in fact, I was so flabbergasted that I felt as though I’d been slugged with a sandbag, and went around feeling surreal for about a week.
There’s the day one of my books first hit the NYT list–though I heard the news from my husband when I staggered off a plane from a three-week book-tour, and was therefore somewhat too fogged to thoroughly enjoy it.
“Yeah?” I said (as I recall).“Oh.Good.Who am I?”
Bad days.Hmm.Well, I distinctly recall throwing a basket-chair down the staircase a few years ago, while bellowing, “Will you all just LET ME ALONE FOR _FIVE MINUTES_!?!”, though I don’t recall the specific occasion.
And there was last week, when I arrived at JFK from a book-tour through Germany, Amsterdam, Sweden, and Finland, totally exhausted, andexperienced forty-five minutes of being the ball in a game of Mousetrap–with half the pieces missing.(I’m _never_ landing in that place again, never!)
And then there’s tonight, when I returned from a long day of booksigning at –to discover that Room Service’s “All Day Dining” ceases at .
Really, though, most days in a writer’s life don’t consist of Big News or Major Annoyances.Most are more like…
…one of THOSE Days, beginning with angst and trauma in the morning when the little one couldn’t find her violin
and the middle one was so conked his father couldn’t rouse him and
had to call for assistance (I have a secret method; I toss back the
covers and get him by the feet, then play “This Little Piggie” on
his toes.This aggravates him enough to get him upright and
snarling, at which point he can be levered out of bed and into his
closet), and the big one wasn’t happy with the way her hair looked.
Having gone to bed at the night before, getting up at left me a hair short, even on my usual rations of sleep.I also ached in every limb, having fallen off the staircase the day before (don’t ask; it had to do with the FAX machine and the fact that I’d been writing.I was still writing in my mind when I came down and‑‑apparently‑‑not aware that I couldn’t levitate. Actually, I apparently _did_ levitate for a short distance, as I ended up on
knee and elbow some six feet from the foot of the staircase) and
freshly strained my shoulder reaching for something.
I rallied round, though‑‑found the violin (by the simple
expedient‑‑which drives everyone in my family completely mad‑‑of
asking “Where did you see it last?”), combed the big one’s hair
into a ponytail (had to make her sit down on the edge of the bath
to do it; she’s four inches taller than I am), tied the middle
one’s shoes, and ran upstairs to write notes to two of his teachers
(he had the flu, on and off, and missed six days of school, with
consequent assignments.Problem is, he’s too shy to go up and ask
any of his teachers for a list of what’s missing).
The boys from next‑door‑but‑one came and knocked‑‑they’d
missed their bus, could I take them to school? (no good asking
where _their_ bloody parents are.There’s a reason they live
_here_ half the time).Loaded up everybody, picked up my purse to
get in the car, when the housekeeper beetled out and said we’re out
of X,Y,Z, especially washing powder.
Dropped the kids‑‑adjuring Sam sternly to be sure to deliver
notes to his teachers‑‑went to the drug store, where I got all the
cleaning supplies and checked for the homeopathic flu cure my friend John recommended (felt a sore throat coming on).While driving to and fro, kept thinking of snow (no good reason, it’s about 85 F. here). Went home, delivered the window cleaner et al, came upstairs and spent my usual hour having breakfast (Diet Coke and Milky Way Dark) and reading/answering messages and E‑mail, seeing in the back of my mind footprints dark on the snow, and heaped wet leaves, crusted with ice, the dark furrow in the leaves where someone had been lying under the shelter of a log.
Set in to work as usual at 10, stoked to the gills with
Vitamin C and occilococcinum.Read through a half‑done scene in
progress, added a couple of paragraphs, then was overcome by a new,
vivid image‑‑I was following the footprints in the snow, and there
was a dead hare, caught in a snare, furred with ice crystals, stiff
across the path.Switched to a new document and started the new scene, to get it underway.Fell into the state of mind in which I walked off the staircase, feeling the worry of the woman following the footprints. Why didn’t he stop for the hare?Where is he?
Settled nicely into the first paragraph, when comes the
dreaded summons from the foot of my stairs, “_Es un hombre a la
Hombres at the puerta are always an intrusion, but usually
brief, as in Fed Ex or UPS, now and then the exterminator or the
man from the feed store delivering horse pellets (this is a _large_
nuisance, as I have to go collect all the dogs and shut them in the
garage, then go round and open the big gates into the backyard for
the truck to come through).
This time it was an hombre from the phone company, come to fix
the FAX machine’s line (cf. staircase, above).Showed him the
miscreant FAX, helped him track the phone line‑‑which had been
installed by one of my husband’s programmer employees, back when he
had his office in that room‑‑then left him to it.
Reminded of phones, checked for messages (only one phone in
the house rings, for reasons I won’t go into; this means I normally
don’t hear it from my office‑‑a Good Thing, on the whole‑‑so I’m in
the habit of checking the voice mail once every hour or so).
Message from my father, wanting to know when girls are off school
so my stepmother (bless her heart) can take them to have their hair
cut.Message from person wanting to sell my house for me (ignore).
Message from person wanting to come and demonstrate anti‑burglary
system (ignore.Inside dogs have finally quit barking at phone
person, but he’s gone outside, and outside dogs are now having
hysterics.There’s a reason we’ve never had burglars, aside from
the fact that we haven’t got a lot of stuff anyone would think
worth stealing, unless you count the collection of PlayStations and GameCubes. If anyone wants to come steal my ancient XT clone, they’re welcome to it; it’s insured).Message from librarian in Salt Lake City, wanting to confirm that I am coming to speak at a conference in Snowbird at end of May, and can I do the dinner speech, too, they’ll pay me extra.
Minor panic._Did_ I agree to go and talk to people in Utah
in May?Rustle through tray of speaking/workshop engagements.
Evidently I agreed conditionally (hint: never throw anything away,
and when you talk to people on the phone, write down on their
letter what it is you told them), provided I didn’t have to go to
BookExpo.Think suddenly that I don’t _know_ whether I have to go to BookExpo.
Telephone editor, who is out, but get her assistant, who
promises to find out for me about BookExpo.Return to work, get as far as lyrical description of shadows lengthening under the trees,
turning from vanilla to chilly violet and then cold blue on the
snow as the sun goes down.Get up to open balcony door, as it’s
getting rather warm in office.Phone hombre comes inside to ask
where main phone‑line panel is.Luckily I know this (from earlier
phone adventures in this house) and go show him.
Go upstairs.Come downstairs at once, as Airborne Express
hombre has arrived with parcel to be signed for.This proves to
contain a dust jacket proof for new book causing mingled
interest and panic (said book being in a state of severe
incompletion upstairs).Set proof on kitchen table and stare at it
for awhile in attempt to decide whether I like it or not, while
feeding bloodworms to fish and newts who live on table.Put fresh
seed and water in parakeets’ cups (if the dogs don’t announce a
burglar, the birds will, noisy things).
Leave cover proof to marinate in my subconscious and go
upstairs.Finish sentence about shadows, start worrying about the
man out hunting, why hasn’t he come back?Is he walking his
trapline? Go look at book on animal tracks, find out what hare
tracks look like in snow.Take passing note of ferret tracks,
various bird prints.Check Roger Tory Peterson field guide
(pausing to wonder whether constant exposure to this in my field‑
work days is where I got the name “Roger.”Hope not, as I’ve met
RTP, who at the time was rather a pompous old geek) to be sure that
kind of bird would be in North Carolina in winter.
Federal Express hombre arrives, bearing mysterious box labeled
“Norm’s GourmetMushroomGarden.”Unable to put this aside, open
it to discover that my sister has sent me…a mushroom garden for
Christmas.Roughly a foot‑square chunk of rot, oozing brown liquid
inside a plastic bag.I am assured (by the enclosed directions)
that if I remove the plastic, spray this object with water, set it
in a pan of same atop a chunk of wood and leave it in a quiet, cool
place where it gets roughly 6‑8 hours a day of diffuse light, it
will sprout shiitake mushrooms.
Put mushroom garden on downstairs desk, where I will not
forget it (next to large pile of bookplates waiting to be signed,
which I will make every effort to forget, but my husband’s secretary is coming round Monday to make sure I don’t), and go upstairs, feeling pleased that I have ordered an Archie McPhee potato gun for my sister for Christmas.
Sit down and re‑read the six sentences I have onscreen,
sinking back into scene.How long will I/she wait before setting
out to look for the missing man?It’s dark outside, it’s getting
colder.She’s stoked up the fire, but her hands are still cold.
Dinner is cooking, but she doesn’t feel hungry, and the scent of
food doesn’t comfort her.If he’s had an accident…Phone rings
and I hear it, for a wonder.Editorial assistant, informing me
that they don’t know yet whether I should go to BookExpo, but they’ve changed the date and it isn’t ’til mid‑June, so I can go to Utah if I want.
Meanwhile, husband arrives downstairs, complaining of acute
pain in foot, asking a) did I remember to buy him wart remover, and
b) do I want to go and eat a hot dog with him?Answer yes to both,
and go to eat Polish sausages with sauerkraut and mustard, while
discussing whether I should go to Utah in May.Upon finding out
that they’re offering me $1000 to come and talk to them, husband
agrees that I should, and remarks casually that he has always
wanted to build a kit plane.
Return (in car, I find myself crouched behind a screen of
rocks and twigs.There are Indians I don’t recognize, passing in
single file through the wood a few feet away.Their faces are
painted, and they’re moving in the direction of the house I just
left) to find that another Federal Express hombre has come by, but
missed the housekeeper, and instead left a delivery notice on the
door.Go upstairs, quickly download and skim messages, then sit,
list in hand, and try to organize rest of day.Phone rings; in‑
laws inviting us to come over for dessert after supper.Phone
rings; woman in Alabama wanting to get hold of autographed copy of
new book for Christmas present for sister.Explain politely that it isn’t finished yet, suppressing various uncharitable remarks that come to mind when she exclaims, “But why NOT?”
Little one comes home from school.Have five minutes to make
her a snack, listen to her report of her day, and sympathize with
her teeth (she needs orthodontia, and we’ve just had the first
spacers put in yesterday), then go to collect the older kids from
Discover that son hasn’t given teachers their notes.Grasp
him metaphorically by ear and drag him off to beard teachers in
their dens. Extract lists of missing assignments from two, but find
third one has already left for day.
Decant everyone at home, distribute food and drink all round,
load up little one, who wants to come with me, and set off for
afternoon errands‑‑feedstore, to buy nosebag and two hundredweight
of oats for elderly horse who isn’t getting his share of the
pellets, Alphagraphics, for new shipment of bookplates, and grocery
store, because we are out of necessities like milk and tunafish,
and because little one is holding a Christmas party next day
(that’s TODAY), at which she and six friends intend to decorate
cookies, among other things.
Return home, having discovered in the car that the Indians are
indeed sinister, being Mohawk far from their home range, raiding
for purposes unknown (has this got anything to do with Father
Alexandre, the Jesuit missionary whose flesh is weak, and whom
we’ll meet a good deal further on?).Cook dinner, slug down more
homeopathic flu remedy and Vitamin C, go off to dessert at in‑laws.
Return (she’s found him, denned up in a cavity under a pile of
brush. The Mohawk are being stealthily followed by a small band of
Tuscarora Indians that they _do_ recognize).Superintend massive
homework while baking ten dozen sugar cookies (“You know,” remarks
my little one, who is (haha) “helping” me bake cookies, “I feel
kind of bad.”“Your teeth still hurt?” I ask.“No,” she says,
“but I was just thinking, I’ll be in bed in a little while, and
you’ll still be baking cookies.I feel kind of guilty about that.”
While feeling gratified at this evidence of developing conscience,
I assure her that that’s perfectly all right, I _like_ baking (I
do, but), and dash upstairs to find Sam a black marker with which
to prepare visual aids for a presentation on current events).
Oldest daughter comes out to ask whether I can type her
Constitution for the nation she is designing in school, as she is
a very slow typist and overwhelmed with work tonight.Assure her
that I can, and take document up to park by computer, where I will
not forget it.
Tuck people in bed.Take more anti‑flu stuff, while listening
to husband tell me how exhausted he is.Tuck him in bed, eat a
bowl of rice and leftover Chinese beef from dinner, drink more Diet
Coke, and go upstairs to work at midnight.
Answer a few messages, play one game of Solitaire, discover I
am falling asleep, lie down on floor and nap for an hour.Wake up,
but can’t stay awake‑‑get a sentence or two down, but discover it
doesn’t make sense.Decide flesh and blood has limits, and stagger
downstairs to lock up, check kids and animals, turn off lights,
feed rabbits and hamsters, etc.Heading for bedroom when I realize
I have not typed Laura’s Constitution, which she urgently requires
for class next morning.
Unlock office, go upstairs…came down at 2:30, took more
Vitamin C and passed out.Net result, writing‑wise, being that I
have maybe 300 words actually _written_, which would be
discouraging (and is) in view of my 2,000 word goal, but I _do_
know a heck of a lot more about what’s going on than I did in the
morning, and in fact, I didn’t stop writing all day.
So I’ll get there, eventually.If I don’t die first.
And that’s the truth about writing: A good day is any day when you get words on the page.A bad day is when you don’t.
I had a gynecologic checkup this week, and while chatting with the doctor—whom I’ve known forever (her office was across the street from an independent bookstore, back when OUTLANDER was released, and when she darted in on her lunch hour for something to read, the bookseller pressed OUTLANDER on her, mentioning that I frequently came by to sign stock.The doctor glommed the book, came back, and told the bookseller to let me know next time I came in that she’d be delighted to give me a free Pap smear. [g](Like I said, this business does sometimes have unusual compensations))—she told me that she was working on a book herself—nonfiction.
“But I’m not getting anywhere with it,” she said, shaking her head.“I have all the material, and a good outline—even a couple of chapters!But it’s just so hard to find the time to work on it.”
This is a pretty familiar story.I can’t tell you how many people tell me this—meanwhile expressing admiration (or disbelief) at the notion that I’ve written all these monstrous books while having children, working, or whatever.I had one good friend at the university where I used to work, who was fascinated when I got published (I kept working there until 1992, when DRAGONFLY came out), and decided that he wanted to write a novel of his own.
Now, David had a wonderful story.It was something based on the history of his family that had taken place in WWII (they were Polish Jews) and it was fabulous; had everything: romance, betrayal, tragedy, adventure…but—
“I have two consulting contracts to finish,” he told me, “and this seminar I’m teaching, but as soon as the semester’s over, I’ll have a good chunk of free time—I’ll start writing then.”
“David,” I said, looking at him sadly, “you’re never going to write that book.”
And he never has, alas.
See, the fallacy here is that you must have “a good chunk of time” in which to write.The fact is that “a good chunk of time” (one free of interruption, obligation, or sudden change of circumstance, in which one “sits down” and focuses on the work at hand) does not exist.
GABALDON’S FIRST AXIOM:You do not “find” time.You make time, or you don’t have any.
So, how do you make time?Well, this is a rare and specific skill, akin to spinning straw into gold, but I do think anyone can learn to do it, even if your name isn’t Rumpelstiltskin.
I am about to demonstrate this particular skill—it’s .My husband has just come home—I hear him rattling around downstairs (well, more like banging; he’s replacing a junction box in the wall right under me), and will shortly want lunch.What I have to do today is to write 1000 words (more or less) of a “noir” crime short story, and finish reading the novel I’m supposed to review by this weekend.
I have (probably) twenty minutes before my husband’s hunger overcomes his hammering.So—do I continue with this blog entry (which would be fun, but can be continued tonight or tomorrow)?Do I go outside and pull weeds out of my garden?Do I wander downstairs and make conversation with my husband between hammerblows?Do I go collect the dry-cleaning that I mean to take in this afternoon?Do I think what to cook for dinner tonight?
No.I post this, pop over to Word Perfect and work on the “noir” piece until Doug comes to get me for lunch.
The dry-cleaning and the weeds can wait indefinitely, I’ll talk to Doug while we have lunch,and as for dinner, I know I have the makings of beanie-weenie on hand, should inspiration fail.What has to be done now is write.
So I will. [g]It doesn’t matter that I don’t have three uninterrupted hours.It only matters that I have now.
Sorry—didn’t mean to go off and abandon you (and poor Willie) in the Great Dismal Swamp [g].Had to pause and do a lot of Stuff, though; three books waiting for cover quotes, a new book for review, a short story (no, really!) to be written for an anthology of “noir” crime due this month, further Really Cool artwork from Hoang, needing to be examined carefully and commented on, panel by panel, three high-school and college students wanting me to provide them with information for papers on “My Favorite/Most Influential Author” (this is flattering, but distracting)—I really should make up some kind of standard packet for this; I get a rash of such requests every spring, when it dawns on said students that May is looming and they haven’t even started on their papers—a flurry of travel arrangements (me being the de facto travel agent for the family)—kids coming home for Spring Break and Easter, Doug and me going to the UK in April (more on this, later), a couple of local appearances, and a rash of email interviews.
I do a lot of interviews, what with one thing and another—and one question that seems to be a favorite with a lot of interviewers—they being fascinated by the apparent contradiction (well, they think it’s a contradiction) of my having been a scientist and now being a novelist, is, “How has your life changed?”
Now, to be honest, I always figured this was a) a pretty stupid question (“Well, I used to teach and run around forests, and now I write books.Duh?”), and b) a symptom of laziness on the part of the interviewer, who had plainly not read any of my books, knew nothing about them or me, and couldn’t think of anything more interesting to ask.I know they’re just hoping I’ll blather on sufficiently for them to pick up some interesting detail or quotable line; I’ve certainly never seen any material like this in a published interview, or c) is code for, “So, are you Rich and Famous now?Tell me some juicy details of disgustingly conspicuous consumerism I can quote.”(“Well, I used to cook spaghetti for dinner four times a week, but nowadays we mostly eat at Vu or L’Orangerie…oh, and did I mention my brand-new Audi S6, with the Lamborghini-Gallarda V-10 engine?It’s blue.”(In all honesty, my husband’s favorite two meals are spaghetti and beanie-weenie—followed closely by macaroni and cheese.He’d be perfectly happy to eat these in rotation all week, perhaps with pancakes and sausages for a treat on the weekend.))
Still, I always make an effort to answer just about anything anybody asks me (a conditioned response from decades of teaching and motherhood).So—ways in which my life has changed:
1.I don’t—thank God Almighty!—have to get up at every day.Probably the greatest benefit of doing what I do is being able to work in accordance with my own biorhythm, rather than in answer to some insane morning-person’s notion of a universally desirable schedule.(Spring is also Career Day season; I’m always asked to go talk to various school classes about the chief benefits of being a writer.These would be Not Getting Up Early, and Not Wearing Pantyhose to Work, though the teacher in charge always looks a little startled when I tell the kids this.I don’t know what the heck they think would be a good benefit.)
2.Dress.The first thing a man does upon quitting work to write full-time (or for any other reason, come to that) is stop shaving.Women buy sweat-pants.I used to work in sweats, but the fact is that I live in a desert and have a husband who still fortunately looks at me on occasion.Sweats are Rather Warm, and tend to cause adverse comment on the home front when worn for more than three days running.When I work up in Flagstaff (I inherited my old family home up there, and escape up to the mountains a couple of times a month to write by myself), I wear…well, actually, I wear pajamas until I feel hungry enough to go out for lunch, and then I put on the most comfortable available thing.At home, though, I normally work in jeans and a Foxcroft (aka non-wrinkling) cotton shirt in some bright color.This is comfortable, but sufficiently attractive as not to make my husband recoil, and sufficiently respectable as to allow me to answer the door without making the FedEx man blanch and drop his package.
The other side of Dress, though, is the public aspect.Now, this isn’t a big problem for authors until and unless they get published.At that point, the specter of Promotion raises its grinning head, and the hapless author is suddenly confronted by the problem of what to wear whilst addressing the local Friends of the Library, or appearing on the local cable-channel’s book-discussion show.
(You don’t wear red on TV, and you don’t wear things with busy small patterns, and you really don’t wear black-and-white checks.Neither do you want to wear a white shirt/blouse, because it casts unflattering shadows on your neck.Ideal is something blue or violet, or something in the rose/mauve/pink line.Tailored or draped is fine, but avoid ruffles or anything fussy.OK to wear jewelry, but make sure it isn’t the kind that swings or rattles, and don’t wear too much of it.You do want to learn to do at least basic makeup, because most TV stations no longer make up their guests, and you will look dead if you go on without blush, concealer, and eyeliner, at least.This is not hard; go to a department store on Saturday morning, and have somebody at the makeup counter “do” you, so you can see how.It ain’t rocket science.)
3.Books.You get to read and call it work, and BOOKS ARE TAX-DEDUCTIBLE!!(Theoretically, this applies only to books you use as resources in your own writing—but given the kind of indescribable stuff I write, that’s pretty much everything, including THE PLEASURES OF THE TORTURE CHAMBER, THE SEX LIFE OF THE FOOT AND SHOE (which provided the genesis of Mr. Willoughby), and THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY (cf., Willie, above).)
4.Public Life.I don’t cite this as a benefit, so much, but it’s one of the more obvious ways in which life changes when you become a professional novelist.See, most people have only one life: their marriage, their family, their job, their religion, their hobbies–and one life is frequently more than most people seem able to handle, judging from the stuff one sees on Jerry Springer.
In order to become a writer, though, you have to develop a whole new life—an interior life, where it’s just you and the page and the people inside your head.The difficulty often lies in balancing this second life with the first one.I know a lot of people who say they’d like to write a novel, but who just can’t manage to carve time and energy out of their first life—and never do.I also know a lot of people (though fewer, and all men, for obvious reasons) who are now divorced, because they went too far into their interior life, neglected their mates and families, and are now left, red-eyed and unshaven, staring into a computer screen all night.
Well, the thing is, if you’re lucky enough to be not only published but popular, then all of a sudden you have a third life.This is your public life—the requests to go on three-week book-tours, to address the local library, to give lectures in Florida, Hawaii, and Alaska, to do radio and cable-TV shows, to do print interviews, to have lunch with readers passing through town who think it would be great to meet you (I once had the president and vice-president of the Arizona Turtle and Tortoise Society turn up unannounced on my front porch and invite themselves in for a chat—nice gentlemen. [g]The president was a fan of my books and had been recommending them to the vice-president, who was visiting from out of town, and as the president knew me from the university where I used to work and knew where I lived…), etc., etc., etc.
And if you don’t learn to control and balance this third life, it’ll eat both the others alive.On the one hand, you certainly want to promote your book—and you like to talk to readers, and—up to a point—it’s fun to travel and see interesting places (though in all truth, you don’t see a heck of a lot on the average book-tour save hotels, airports, and bookstores)—but on the other, you really, truly do need to have time in which to take care of your family, and to write.
So if I have to say no to many kind invitations these days—it’s with reluctance, but out of a sense of realism.I physically can’t accept all the invitations I get—or even half of them—but I do appreciate them, nonetheless.
5.You do occasionally experience things that the average person doesn’t.For instance, I spent all of Saturday at the local Rennaissance Faire, judging the Sexy Knees in a Kilt contest (well, so that didn’t take all of Saturday; I also wandered round with a friend and my three (adult) kids, marveling at the amazing diversity of human form (all the proof one needs that God not only exists, but has a pronounced sense of humor, I think), to say nothing of the ways in which said humans decorate their forms, and had a very tasty chocolate milkshake)—I’ll put up a couple of pictures that a kind fan who was present sent me, on the website.
I spent the first weekend of the month doing a gig in San Antonio (for a trade organization of campus booksellers), at which I met Wally Lamb and Greg Mortenson (THREE CUPS OF TEA)—both great guys—and the second weekend doing the Fountain Hills Library Festival, at which I met Joe Garagiola (also a great guy [g]).
And the National Trust for Scotland did invite me to come to the dedication of the new Visitors Centre at the Culloden Battlefield (in Scotland) next month.So yeah, there are definitely perks to this, the lack of health insurance and 401(k) notwithstanding.
Well, first, a brief digression in re logistics, to answer Midge’s question as to how I handle all the bits and pieces.It’s pretty simple, really, but it works.
Having started writing far back in the mists of time, when DOS-based programs only allowed one to have an eight-character filename (with a three-character extension), all my filenames are in this basic form:[bookname/number][year symbol].[date], wherein the date is the date upon which I began writing whatever file this is.E.g., were I to begin a new scene for AN ECHO IN THE BONE today, the file would be named JAMIE7&.39.(The abbreviation for each OUTLANDER novel is “JAMIE” [g], and ECHO is the 7th book in that series.“&” is the symbol I’ve chosen to represent 2008 (2007 was “@”), and today is March 9.Ergo—JAMIE7&.39.)(This, btw, is how I happen to know that I began to write OUTLANDER on March 6 of 1988; the oldest filename I’ve had is JAMIE!.36.And no, I don’t have this file available anymore; it’s undoubtedly backed up somewhere, but it’s on a 5.25″ floppy disk, which is for all intents and purposes unreadable.It wasn’t a scene that made it into the finished book; just a half-page or so of a young man arguing with his sister while she chopped vegetables—just a place to start, in other words.So I’ve been at this for twenty years—my, time flies when you’re having fun! [g])
OK, so we’ve got filenames.Now, I never leave the computer without backing up what I’m doing to an external medium—these days, that’s usually a USB jump-drive.NEVER.(And I keep whatever word processor I’m using set to do automatic backups every 90 seconds; I hate losing work).But once a week, I set aside an hour or so to do formal housekeeping.This involves:
1.Making a P-file.This is a “printfile”—just a dump of whatever new work I’ve done during the week.No formatting, no nothing—I just pull all new files (or old files that I’ve worked on during the week) into a single file and print it off (with the date at the top) and put this in my hard-copy dump.I’ve luckily needed a hardcopy backup only once or twice in the last twenty years—but nice to know it’s there.Any electronic medium can be corrupted in the blink of an eye and without warning.
2.Updating the MFILE.This is the Master File; I have one for each book (or novella) I’m working on.All this is, is a listing of filenames, with a few keywords following it, which will let me locate a specific file.Here’s a brief sample:
JAMIE#.42 – Death of Simon Fraser (Wheatfield)
JAMIE#A.42 – same as #.42 (compare)
JAMIE7#.413 – Clouds in the water – follows “Laoghaire”
JAMIE7#.414 – fragment at Saratoga – wolves devouring the dead
JAMIE#X.D8 – beer for breakfast
JAMIE7@.410- Son of a Witch/Sanctuary
JAMIE7@.54 – Simon Fraser’s death – Claire/Dr. Rawlings – Willie’s hat
JAMIE7@.511 – fragment/image – rhythms of sex
JAMIE7A.511 – peelie-wallie, fragment – acupuncture
JAMIE7@.512 – fragment/image – Jem and gem, means of navigation
JAMIE7@.514 – Roger and the chapel (goes w/ @.410)
JAMIE7@.517 – Roger’s faith (goes w/ @.410/@.514)
JAMIE7@.519 – Claire and Dr. Rawlings,injury to hand (Saratoga)
JAMIE7@.524 – fragment – Roger’s faith/father decision (goes w/ @.410)
JAMIE7@.527 – “I’ll just mind it more” fragment
JAMIE7@.528 – numbness – “Bruise me”
JAMIE7@.64 – Lizzie’s Love-Knot (chapter title only)
[“fragment” means it’s not a whole scene, but is a partial scene, or perhaps just a kernel or an image that I wanted to catch, but either didn’t have time to develop, or it just didn’t expand at the time.Additonal letters like “A” or “B” mean it’s the second or third scene that I began on a given day (When I’m really rolling, I often have simultaneous things pop up), whereas an “X” means the scene exists under the original name, but something happened with the computer and it wouldn’t let me save a later version under the same name (Word occasionally corrupts its filenames, or takes exception to the original file having been written in Word Perfect, and won’t let me save unless I rename the file—so I use the original name with the addition of an “X”.).]
That’s about it.You notice that a couple of files in this listing note that they “go with” one or more other files.When stuff starts sticking together—or when I’m on a roll and writing sequentially—I get files that I know are part of the same bigger chunk.Eventually, all the smaller files get attached to one of the filenames, and that grows into a large piece of 10,000 words or more.At that point, it becomes a “chunk” [g], and I’ll likely save it as “CHUNK 2 (rev) – GREAT DISMAL” (for instance).When I have five or six chunks, I can usually arrange them in rough chronological order, and at that point, will probably have a decent idea of the timeline underlying the book.Often—though not always, I’ll also see the “shape” of the book at this point.
I have to go and buy bagels for lunch, so will post this for now.With luck, I’ll be back later tonight to resume—if not, see you tomorrow!
Sorry to neglect y’all. I hadn’t much heart to write for a bit, and then was overtaken by the usual fierce rush of events. Haven’t forgotten you, though. [g] I had in fact just been about to answer Midge’s questions about how I write, so figured I might as well resume with that:
It’s almost impossible (I know from experience) for me to describe coherently what’s going on my mind when I write–but fwiw, both sides of my brain seem to work at once.
No, I don’t plan out the structure–of a sex scene, or any other kind of scene, let alone the book. [wry g]
I start with a “kernel”–a line of dialogue, a sense of emotional ambiance, an object whose details I can “see”–anything that I can sense concretely. Then I write a line or two describing that, as best I can.
Then I sit and stare at it for awhile.
I put words in and I take them out. I divide the sentence in half and insert a new clause. Decide I don’t like that one entirely, but don’t want to throw it away, so drop it down a line or two and try something else. Move the gerund phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Etc., etc.—just trying to cast this “kernel” (whatever it is) for maximum clarity and elegance, just in terms of the craft.
OK. While this sort of mechanical work is going on, the back of my mind is busy throwing up a shower of little questions, like a dog digging in sand: Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of year is it? Are we inside or outside? How is the light falling? Is a storm coming? Am I hot? What am I wearing? Why is my foot tapping? Did someone just say something? What’s that in my hand? I see a face…
And the scene begins to take shape—slowly. Sometimes I have a specific purpose in mind for a scene—I know that William, say, is doing intelligence work, so we need to see him doing a bit of it. So I may think that’s what’s going to happen here…but not necessarily.
Having that rather vague notion in mind, I began looking for a kernel with which to start the writing (the kernel is where I start writing; this doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of the scene; sometimes the writing goes backward as well as forward from the kernel). I know where Willie starts—North Carolina—and I sort of know where he’s supposed to end up–with General Howe (if he gets there. Will he? I have no idea), but I don’t yet know where Howe was at this specific point in time—because I have no idea what the date is when this happens.
Meanwhile, however, I’ve wandered over to my giant built-in bookshelf (where I keep the five or six hundred books of my central reference collection plus the two or three dozen most important references (so far) for this book) to stare blankly at the collection of Interesting Objects scattered along the shelves (lots of crystals, mineral spheres, psychically active (supposedly) stones, a miniature cannon, a tiny crystal castle, a hand-blown medicine bottle with a glass snake wrapped around it, an antique bronze mortar (full of pens), a reproduction 18th-century inkstand with quills, a (real) powder-flask from a set of 18th-century dueling pistols, six pocket-knives, a beanbag octopus, the dried jaws of a small shark…and I happen to spot one of the books, titled THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY.
Well, I read this book some time ago, and frankly, it’s not all that good—not well organized, and the writing is tedious—but just the name “The Great Dismal Swamp”…well, there’s a thing to conjure with.
And I have my kernel—almost. OK. Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp. I have no idea why, mind you, but we can figure that out as we go. What I need now, though, is a concrete image that I can write down in a sentence or two.
Rather than read the tedious book again (at least not yet), I go and google “Great Dismal Swamp natural history”—and pop up an entertaining article with a lot of detail regarding the flora and fauna of the swamp (and a bit of historical detail concerning Lake Drummond, which is dramatic, so I tuck that away in a spare cerebral recess for future reference)…from which I choose the image of swarms of “tiny yellow horseflies, whose eyes reflect rainbows when you get close to them.”
Now, I do recollect from the tedious book—and check it to be sure—that during one or more of the attempts to drain the swamp, a road was built. Excellent. And so…
“ William marveled at the road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping-turtles and venomous snakes–the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a light-hearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects’ eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close. “
Now, mind, this is what the paragraph looks like now. It took me probably fifteen or twenty minutes of fiddling before it got this way—and I may yet mess with it more later, but for now, it’s the best I can do.
What happens next? Well, it’s 4:15 AM, so right now, I’m going to bed. [g] Tomorrow, though, we’ll find out (maybe) why Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp, and how I discovered that.
Thanks, guys, for all your prayers and good wishes. I’m more sorry than I can tell you to have to say that Gus is dead. His kidneys shut down entirely, and there was no choice but to euthanize him. Doug and our younger daughter (who lives in town) came down to the hospital, and we spent a good (if tearful) hour with him, petting him and telling him how much he meant to us–what a good dog. Then the kind doctor gave him a shot, and we brought him home and buried him out back, under a big eucalyptus tree, beside old Ajax, our doberman who died a couple of years ago. We buried him with a MilkBone between his paws (his favorite), and a small bouquet of fragrant herbs from my garden–rosemary (for remembrance), lavender, and sage. He always loved to help dig in the garden.
We’re very sad, but relieved that he’s out of his trouble. It’s been a bad few days.
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