Living in a state of dismay in NC

Rainbow_flag_breezeWhen the Supreme Court came down on the side of marriage equality last summer, I would never have predicted that in my own state of North Carolina, the legislature would call an emergency session to restrict LGBT rights. (For more info on HB2, see the FAQ from the NC Justice Center.)

What I would have predicted even less are the many writers who have decided to boycott the state, foremost among them Sherman Alexie. Many children’s book writers have signed their names to an open letter published in School Library Journal, essentially pledging support to schools and libraries while threatening to cancel other events (including, presumably, those at bookstores). Names on that list include folks like John Green, Veronica Roth, and Lauren Myracle.

The growing number of cancellations recently prompted Linda-Marie Barrett, general manager of Malaprop’s bookstore in Asheville, to post an open letter begging authors to reconsider. She makes some excellent points, but the most important one is that by boycotting independent bookstores, authors are hurting one of the most important advocates of LGBT rights in North Carolina. Indie bookstores — like Malaprop’s in Asheville, Flyleaf in Chapel Hill, and Quail Ridge in Raleigh — have long been safe spaces for speech, support, and organizing for the state’s LGBT community and its allies.

I was thrilled to hear that Felicia Day has decided to use her upcoming appearance in Carrboro to work with Equality NC to raise awareness about HB2. Cyndi Lauper will be taking similar action — on a much larger scale — at an upcoming concert in Raleigh. We need more of this kind of constructive engagement from our artists. Because what supporters for equal rights in North Carolina need the most right now is support, not a knee-jerk reaction that ends up hurting the good guys.

Image by Benson Kua [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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Plotting takes dogged persistence

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This story needs even more dogs, apparently.

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Setting: Not just for tables

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The best kind of setting?

A couple of weeks ago, I took an online class about setting in fiction, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about this red-headed stepchild of story.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about setting as you create your main character, antagonist, and plot. Setting is something that just, well, happens. But making setting a more active participant in your story can heighten conflict, enrich characters, and even drive the action.

When I think about setting, my mind immediately turns to epic fantasy: Tolkien’s Middle Earth, LeGuin’s Earthsea, or Rowling’s Hogwarts. But what I’ve been thinking about recently is that setting doesn’t necessarily mean epic fantasy world building.

What other sorts of settings could you have? Here are just a few ideas:

  • House. In Ray Bradbury’s story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” not only is the house the setting, but the main character.
  • Hospital. In J.J. Johnson’s Believarexic, the main character’s world is primarily limited to a hospital’s eating disorders unit.
  • Family. Family’s always important, but in Sarah Dessen’s St. Anything, the two families at the core of the book are different homes for the main character, and do all the jobs a traditional location normally does.

I’m sure you can think of a bunch of others.

Photo © Chris Hoerter 2016. All Rights Reserved. Do not use without permission.
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I am a Viking leprechaun

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Dude, have you seen my archetype?

In my early teen years, I became really interested in genealogy. I worked on my family tree, wrote to relatives I hadn’t met before, and even looked up ancestors in the Library of Congress. My family roots, like those of most Americans, make me a mutt. But I was fascinated by finding out where my ancestors were from, hoping it would tell me something about my own identity. And the ancestors who stirred my imagination the most were from Germany and Scotland. I mean, kilts, claymores, beer, and castles. What’s not to like?

So when my father recently did one of those DNA ancestry tests that involves mailing your spit to a lab, we were a little surprised to learn that his ancestors were primarily Irish and Scandinavian. That’s right: I am a Viking leprechaun, at least on my dad’s side. I now doubt my mother’s claim that her family is primarily English and French. Who knows? Maybe it’s all a lie, and her roots are in Moldova.

I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days because of a class I recently took on character development, taught by the wonderful Rebecca Petruck. One of the points Rebecca made is that while character archetypes are important, it’s also good to give them a little twist. For example, you might have a character named Jed who’s a lumberjack. And you would assume, without being told any more, that Jed is probably a big, muscular, white dude who drives a pickup and wrestles bears for sport. But maybe he also likes to do needlepoint. Or maybe you’ve got a powerful dragon in your fantasy story who’s afraid of princesses. You get the idea.

I’ve been thinking about this in regard to the main character in my own work in progress, Arcanum. Cyrus is a self-educated smarty-pants whose cynicism disguises some serious trust issues. It was easy in my first draft to give in to Cyrus’ know-it-all confidence. But I realized he needed flaws to make him human and deep personal issues to struggle against, so in revision I’ve focused on bringing Cyrus down to earth.

For years I chalked up certain personality traits in my family to our German ancestry: hard-working, organized, punctual, love of sausages. But I can see now that I was trying to fit myself into a certain type that didn’t really exist. While I’m still chronically early for appointments and like to eat bratwurst, it’s not because of my nominal German ancestry. I also love traditional Irish music, for instance. That’s just who I am, you know?

But I still want one of those horned Viking helmets.

Image by Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, or GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.
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Thank you, David Bowie

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I came late to the David Bowie fan club. Like most kids growing up in the ’80s, my first introduction to Bowie was from the local rock radio station. Singles like “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Space Oddity,” and “Changes” were on classic rock perma-loop in those days — and still are.

These are all great songs, no doubt. But teenage me was too busy listening to Duran Duran and the Clash to care about old glam rock stars. That changed when Let’s Dance came out in 1983. The title track, plus other pop gems like “Modern Love,” became part of my high school soundtrack.

And when Bowie formed Tin Machine at the end of the decade, I found in the blunt, cynical, and aggressive sound a harbinger of the grunge response to everything wrong about ’80s pop rock that Bowie had previously embraced and mastered. How’s that for a 180? Tin Machine is the Bowie that people love to hate, unmelodic and in your face. But as usual, it showed that Bowie was one step ahead of everyone else, and not afraid to try something new.

But for all the hits from his glory days in the 1970s and, later, his pop ascendancy of the ’80s, the David Bowie music I find the most inspirational is from his last two albums, The Next Day (2013) and the recently released Blackstar. I think it’s this music, made near the end of Bowie’s life, that explores the redemptive power of art and imagination that was so important to him.

Why does it speak to me? Maybe it’s because I’m pushing 50. Maybe it’s because I’ve been wondering about what place art and creativity will have in the second half of my life. Regardless, I find it amazing that, after a 10-year break, a 66-year-old David Bowie blew everyone away with The Next Day when we all thought he was retired and resting on his laurels. And last week’s release of Blackstar, recorded in a frenzy of creative activity when Bowie knew he was dying, is nothing short of incredible.

But it’s not just that Bowie worked up until the end. What I’m really inspired by is this: Instead of making just another album, Bowie kept pushing himself and those around him to explore new creative ground. He was still creating, thinking, blending, stealing, and taking risks. And collaborating: both on the music with a jazz quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and on two bizarre videos with filmmaker Johan Renck.

Renck put it well in a recent interview for Noisey: “David is an extraordinarily well-read man, you know? He’s truly brilliant. His depth of references is a chasm. He knows everything, he’s stumbled upon everything. And after doing what he’s been doing for such a long time, he’s still enormously curious, enormously creative in the right sense. Meaning, ‘let’s explore, let’s try stuff and see what happens.’”

And to me, anyway, that’s what David Bowie is telling us at the end, at an end he saw coming and prepared for as an artist: Let’s try something new and see what happens.

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