Thursday, October 3, 2019

John Muir's "Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta"

For a couple of bucks I've bought the e-book John Muir Ultimate Collection. My first dip into this collection is "Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta."

I have not finished this piece, but am reminded that Muir's roots as a naturalist stand side-by-side with his narrative capabilities as a writer. This piece begins with the geological history and description of Mount Shasta, a volcano in northern California. After a thorough description of the geology of the area, Muir continues on with an overview of the different zones of vegetation. Then he warms up to the narrative of his and a companion's climb to Shasta's summit in the April spring to conduct barometric pressure readings, in conjunction with a college at the base of the mountain.

A lively blend of observation and action ensues, with the two men reaching the top summit, where they observe clouds forming and blanketing the entire area. What with the title of the article, we know what is coming . . . wind, snow, and more exquisite narration by John Muir.

I leave the how Muir's great, true adventure ends to your reading, but of course we know Muir made it out alive to write the article. We'll experience considerably more fair weather reading about his exploits from our armchairs at home, where nothing is a better read than Muir upon the snowy, wind-swept heights of California peaks.

Other articles I've written about John Muir:

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Travelogues and Tiny Trailer Travel

Howell Station Campground, Lake Red Rock, Iowa
Funnily enough, it is four years ago that I wrote a blog article entitled "All Writing Is Travelogue"--and I mean exactly four years ago. The article was published on September 16, 2015, and today, September 16, 2019, I was thinking about travelogue writing and referenced this article. Auspicious or quirky or just random, but I'll go with the flow.

In a week I'll be heading out with my tiny travel trailer on what my wife and I call "scouting missions," where I head out solo to find new campgrounds for us to visit together. When we camp together, my wife needs good cellphone receptivity so that she can use the phone's hotspot to set up her online mobile office for her business. My scouting missions are the search for beautiful camp spots that include a strong phone signal.

I'm planning in a week to leave for a couple of weeks, touring northeast Iowa and specifically scouting out state parks that will fit our family's recreation and business needs. In my earlier article about travelogue, I begin with the following premise: "When writers put down words, they take readers on a journey. In this sense, all writing falls into the 'travelogue' genre, the chronicle of a journey, first the writer's journey of discovery and then the reader's." Four years later, I have no problems with that premise, although I might add that the journeys writers and readers take can have a focus. "How-to" articles have an intellectual and practical focus. Biographical and geographical articles can have a social focus. All writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, has to provide emotional connection to the individual. Writing in some way has to be transformative.

In my "All Writing Is Travelogue" article, I reference a travel blog, The Travel Writing Life, written by a woman, Laurie Gough. It's ironic that her blog is now shut down or "parked" and no longer accessible. I remember, though, Gough's descriptive passages of her travels, and thank her for her inspiration. I hope she is doing well. One article from her blog delineated points for good travelogue writing.

Travel Writing Tips

  1. Focus on interesting, different, and special qualities. "Usually this will be a combination of the place and the people."
  2. Concrete details: "not 'fruit' but 'rotting pomegranates.'"
  3. "Stay true to who you are." Let the readers find out as you go along.
  4. Open your senses to the small things: oil-burning lamps, newly cut timber, cricket chirps . . .
  5. Characterization: "How human beings are acting on this planet never fails to enliven a story."
  6. Find the good, even in the lousy.
  7. Backstory: history, facts, past events.
  8. "Read your work aloud to yourself."
  9. Tone/mood:"Take in as much of a place as you can."
I need to take these tips to heart, and thank you again, Laurie Gough. I spent a little less than a week at the campground in the photo above, and wrote the article "Howell Station Tiny Trailer Basecamp" for my travel trailer blog, Green Goddess Glamping. I think the writing tips listed above are good to remember and to consciously apply.

A beautiful meadow setting at Howell Station
In my Howell Station article, I believe I provided backstory about the lake and Pella, Iowa. I think I missed the "tone/mood" a bit because it was, at least for me, an interesting experience to be camping below Lake Red Rock Dam. The campground is a beautiful meadow with soft morning and evening light, deciduous trees, walnuts, oak, and maple, providing shade during the afternoon. I could have captured that mood better.

Des Moines River at Howell Station Campground
The Des Moines River flows past the campground, adding its liquid background growl to the setting. However, there was always a quiet background awareness of all that water above me, behind the dam. Lake Red Rock is Iowa's largest lake, with over 15,000 acres of water. Maybe it's just me, but if I put my attention on it, I could kind of feel that mass of water lurking over me. Luckily, the five nights at the campground provided a chance for me to get used to the three-dimensionality of the landscape.

I believe I could have spent more effort adding more sense detail and description for both my basecamp experience and for my bike day rides. I added some, but more conscious application of this aspect of writing should always be part of my revising process. I included some bits about me--"staying true to me"--such as when I got lost. I could have added more characterization since I had some good interactions with a variety of people. 

I enjoyed my bike ride to Pella, although I found this fellow not much of a conversationalist. 
I'm looking forward to my tour of state parks. Northeast Iowa is an area missed by glaciers, so the terrain is different than my local area. Also, some of the parks will be on the mighty Mississippi River and should provide some spectacular panoramas. We'll see how the trip and the writing goes, but it should be a bit cooler and more pleasant--the weather, that is. Below are links for the state parks I plan to visit. I will be flexible, but I plan to spend two nights at each park. If a park is really spectacular, I will spend longer; if underwhelming, I can just do an overnighter. I feel no compulsion to have a plan and to stick to it point for point. 
Rivers, lakes, hills, caves, and the amenities of the state parks. I should have some good times. Most of the campgrounds will have modern facilities, but Wildcat Den is a primitive site, so I will have my first experience of camping off the grid with the Green Goddess--my "hard-sided tent." I have a week's work now to get my garden tucked away for the winter and to prepare for my trip. Traveling solo, I should have many opportunities to focus on the details of travelogue writing. I'm writing this now at dawn from my home, and the fields are covered with fog, dyed pale shades of pink and gray by the rising sun. It's a beautiful world, and I'm looking forward to chronicling my adventure.
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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Scratch That Writer's Itch

Blog writing that is shared with a particular, lively community is a rewarding writing endeavor. I've been writing my little blog, Green Goddess Glamping, about tiny travel trailers and camping, for a year now.

That year of writing produced over 50,000 page views for my blog and one hundred email subscriptions. Now, I realize this isn't much compared to some blogs, but for my individual efforts, I find this modest success rewarding. The important things for me, though, is a consideration of the most basic definition of "writer." A writer is one who writes, and my success with Green Goddess Glamping has provided me an audience, allowed me to write about my interests, and has just provided me a fun time steadily writing. That's good because I feel that the steady flow of ideas and words on the page aids my creativity. The educational, higher order thinking skill term is fluency: many and diverse ideas.

Green Goddess Glamping
However, I've been thinking about short stories I've written and ones that are still in the draft stage, stories based in the Dragons of Blood and Stone universe. There are some that I'd like to finish polishing, and  some I'd like to develop. Looking at the map of my made-up universe, ideas are popping for a few new stories. Soon my wife and I are heading out for a ten-day camping trip. Maybe I'll take a peek at that short story draft, entitled "Blade" right now.

A little change is always good, and "Blade" is set in the wilderness . . .

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Elizabeth Warren Should Not Be Ashamed of Her Native American Heritage Mistake

Let me tell you a personal story.

My mother was adopted, and as a teenager wrote to the state of Kansas and acquired her original birth certificate. This was probably around 1940. My grandmother didn't want my mother to do this because she felt it wasn't important, but my mother, being curious and a teenager, went ahead and got the birth certificate anyway.  On the certificate, my maternal, genetic grandfather's race is listed as "part Indian."

Think of the history of Native Americans and the history of indigenous people all over the world. What does "part Indian" mean? Decimated by disease and violence, cultures actively destroyed with government sanction, tribes displaced and disbanded, use of native language forbidden--my "part Indian" genetic grandfather could have belonged to any tribe. I don't even know if on that birth certificate the "part Indian" designation was my grandfather's terminology or whether my grandfather had stated his tribal name and the clerk had just decided that "Indian" was good enough. The information is vague enough that I don't even know for certain how accurate that designation is--or if it was accurate at all. What if the story told to my grandfather was just inaccurate family legend? Or what if there were some truth, but that truth so far in the past or such a small part of the past as to be meaningless?

Let me tell you one more story, a quick one.

My father told the story that our family name of Kepler was a direct link to the German mathematician Johannes Kepler, best known for establishing his laws of planetary motion. Johannes Kepler was born December 27, 1571. My dad told the story that Johan's brother was a Hessian soldier during the American Revolutionary War, and that when he came to America to fight, the war was over. That first American Kepler of our line, so our family legend goes, deserted by hiding in a hogshead barrel on the docks, ran off, and became an American resident. That's a great family story, but probably some of you good at math (like Johannes Kepler) will note that the timeframe is about two hundred years off for Kepler's brother to be connected to American independence. That doesn't mean there might not be some germ of truth to the legend, though, that some distant relative of the mathematician didn't ship off to fight those rabble-rouser Americans. As a teenager, I went pretty much the same route as my mom had regarding her heritage--I researched and discovered that the Hessian Kepler soldier shipping overseas was definitely not the mathematician's brother. The time frames didn't.

These stories are a part of my past, and my connection to them is quite honestly not to those distant ancestors (real or not) but to my parents. I remember them telling me the stories, my mom telling me how she asked for her teacher's help in obtaining the address and agency for her inquiry, and help on how to write the letter. This spunky behavior by my mom was especially poignant because my mother had very poor eyesight from a childhood injury and had difficulty in school, although she did well. I remember my father telling me the Hessian soldier story and how much he enjoyed doing so. He was a joke teller and a storyteller, and it was a real sharing moment between us.

Elizabeth Warren and her mom and brothers

Elizabeth Warren grew up with similar circumstances--family stories explaining her heritage, stories that were not accurate. Warren was recently asked about her credibility toward people of color, since when in college she had referenced her family legends, which with recent DNA analysis were determined to be inaccurate. She responded at a New Hampshire candidate forum, as reported by the online website The Hill.
Warren responded that she was told about her family heritage by her parents and cited a Boston Globe investigation from last year that found that her ethnicity played no factor in advancing her academic career. 
“Like most people, my brothers and I learned about who we are from our mom and our dad. My family’s very important to me, and based on that, sometimes, decades ago, I identified that way. But nothing about the way I identified ever had anything to do with my academic career,” Warren said.
“Even so, I shouldn’t have done it. I am not a person of color. I am not a citizen of a tribe, and I’ve apologized for any confusion over tribal sovereignty, tribal citizenship and any harm caused by that,” she continued. 
Whether or not my Native American genetic heritage is significant in my DNA or not, those two words on my mother's birth certificate, "part Indian," did have a big impact in my life. I will most likely never know what tribe my heritage connects to. That knowledge is lost. The fact that I have lost knowledge of my family's past has been an impetus, though, since my teenage years to learn more about Native American history. It has influenced my understanding of spirituality and of my relationship with the natural world. Those two words and my mother's stories have influenced who I am. My genetic grandfather died in an automobile accident and my genetic grandmother, a nurse, could not work and raise my mother, so my grandmother gave my mother to my adoptive grandparents, who had not been able to conceive. My mother told that story so sweetly and simply.

Elizabeth Warren has established a Fact Squad page to "Fight back against the lies, smears, and wacky conspiracy theories making the rounds about Elizabeth and this grassroots team. Fact Squad gives you all the information you need to respond to every lie with the truth."

On that site is referenced The Boston Globe's assertion that genetic claims were no part of Warren's work history.
Fact: Elizabeth Warren's heritage played no role in her hiring. In the most exhaustive review undertaken of Elizabeth Warren's professional history, The Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a White woman.
Warren has recently proposed a "lengthy and exhaustive policy plan" to address Native American issues, which has been reported by many sources, among them ABC News. I am still watching closely the Democratic candidate race for the presidency. I have to say, though, that I admire that Warren discovered her family legends to be inaccurate, fessed up, and is now moving forward to improve the situation for Native Americans. As Americans, we can and should feel some connection to all the different people who comprise our nation.

That's what makes us American--our heritage is conceptual, not genetic or cultural. Warren's positive, inclusive spirit is what America needs. I'm not sure at this point whom I will vote for in the presidential election. We all make mistakes, and I'm reassured to know that there are candidates who are willing to admit mistakes, to rectify errors, and then to move on in a positive, constructive manner.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Spenser Detective Novels: How Ace Atkins Channels Robert B. Parker

Photo by Joe Worthem
Robert B. Parker's last Spenser novel to be published was Sixkill, which introduces Native American Zebulon Sixkill, who becomes Spenser's protege in the fine arts of sleuthing. Since Parker's Sixkill, author Ace Atkins has written seven Spenser novels, the last I've read being Old Black Magic. I was curious about how Atkins would handle the Spenser novels. Could he write with the same rhythms and little stylistic beats that Parker employed? Could he characterize Parker's cast so that continuity of character was maintained and believable? Could the Spenser novels continue to evolve and not become petrified, Atkins slavishly mimicking Parker's art and craft?

Simply stated: would Atkins' novels of the Spenser saga possess a body but lack a soul?

I read Atkins' first Spenser novels, Lullaby and Wonderland, with some misgivings. I was not displeased but was overall uninspired to read more. There were moments where the novels flowed well--and they weren't disagreeable--but there was a certain heavy-handedness and woodenness to the action and dialogue. Parker's use of short chapters that always ended with that clever little drum roll of action and dialogue too often seemed obvious or contrived. Atkins was competent, consistent, and respectful with his material--and just too competent, consistent, and respectful with the Spenser oeuvre. I was pleased to read more about Spenser and company, but I was not inspired to read more. At least not fully inspired. There were, however, moments when Boston was Parker's Boston and Spenser was Parker's Spenser.

And so I tried more of Atkins' Spenser novels, discovering something deeply satisfying and revelatory. The new Spenser novels transformed from clever, masterful Parker forgeries to creative, innovative detective novels in their own and Adkins' right. In Adkins' Spenser novel Old Black Magic, Spenser has a conversation with a competitive sleuth about how the Brit is wearing a Red Sox baseball hat. "'You should try and curl the bill of the hat,' I said. 'You look ridiculous.'" A few lines later, Spenser observes, "Marston smiled up at me, looking very silly in the Sox cap. He wore it far back on his head like a child, with his hair loose over his forehead." It took Atkins a time, but he has fully learned how to "curl the bill of the hat" and wear it properly. Most importantly, though, Atkins is no longer wearing Parker's writing hat. He's got his own Sox cap now, all broken in, and it fits him perfectly.

Can Atkins write with the same rhythms and little stylistic beats that Parker employed?

Atkins is obviously an attentive reader because he is able to use those signature stylistic patterns and mannerisms that made Parker's development of the Spenser novels so readable and identifiable. Some of Parker's "Spenser style" included short chapters, ending each chapter with some clever beat so that each chapter was a self-contained vignette, attention to clothes and cooking, and "readiness is all," that powerful force of protocols infused with personal integrity.

As Atkins has written the novels, the good event is that the inclusion of the elements mentioned above (and more, of course) have become smoother. There is the sense that Atkins began with a list of stylistic elements that he felt must be included in the novels to create a familiar environment for the reader, yet over time those elements became more natural and less contrived. The most obvious example of this "feeling comfortable in the other guy's coat" is that as Atkins' writing has continued through the Spenser novels, the chapters have gotten longer and the end-of-chapter bada-bings have become more subtle. Atkins still pays homage to the master, yet he has discovered his own affinity toward those elements.

Can Atkins characterize Parker's cast so that continuity of character is maintained and believable?

The short answer to this is "yes." I think Atkins' ability to work with Parker's characters will also improve with time. I believe this because Atkins' utilization of the Spenser cast has improved throughout the novels he has written. There are occasional missteps, such as in Old Black Magic (which I thought well-written), there are some points where I think the character of Vinnie is too glib in his dialogue. However, these smaller moments are minor compared to how believable and true the Vinnie Morris character reads as compared to Parker's characterization.

I think Atkins has chosen a very clever and effective course of action regarding Parker's characters. What Atkins has done is to take Parker's minor characters, choose those he has an affinity with, and then to develop them in his novels, to expand the characters, to essentially make them his own. He has done this effectively with Vinnie Morris and also with Henry Cimoli and the Harbor Health Club.

Atkins has also deftly managed the adoption of Parker's cast by not saturating his novels environments with the old gang--not all at once. Hawk is off working in South America; Z is setting up business on the West Coast. Quirk has been promoted and there is a new precinct captain. Atkins then can interact with Parker's characters, but not all at once. There can be Susan and Pearl. There can be a segment with Quirk, a bit of Belson, some moments with Rita Fiore, but not a sink-or-swim environment like Parker's novel Potshot, which even Parker struggled to manage.

Atkins introduces new characters like Large Marj Phillips in Old Black Magic, art museum manager and hardass, a character totally natural to Spenser's universe. Times have changed, too. Characters have aged. This is to Atkins' advantage because we see thug Jackie DeMarco not as Parker described him but as Atkins must newly envision him with the passing of years. All these realities of a long series of novels about a single character have led to Atkins successfully maintaining the believability of the Spenser characters.

Can the Spenser novels continue to evolve and not become petrified, Atkins slavishly mimicking Parker's art and craft?

The best choice Atkins has made--and that the publishers and editors have allowed him--is that he has chosen to write his own Spenser novels. Atkins is a novelist in his own right. His website says the following: "New York Times Bestselling author Ace Atkins has been nominated for every major award in crime fiction, including the Edgar three times, twice for novels about former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson. He has written eight books in the Colson series and continued Robert B. Parker’s iconic Spenser character after Parker’s death in 2010, adding seven best-selling novels in that series." Reading Crossroad Blues, Atkins' first novel, is to see how Atkins has adapted his skills and styles to the Spenser saga; his has not excised them. Robert B. Parker has praise for the novel: "Crossroad Blues sings. It proves that big guys can write, and that Ace Atkins can write better than most." No, Atkins does not slavishly mimic Parker's Spenser novels. He has found his own voice, and he sings his own interpretation.

In the end, the only way the Spenser tome can continue is if the saga, the characters, and the soul of the novels continue to evolve. Atkins and the Spenser publishers are on the right path. Let me just come out and say it--I enjoyed Old Black Magic more than some of the Spenser novels Parker wrote. It reminds me of some of the earlier Spenser novels, where Parker's style was still more fluid, where his chapters were longer, and where the strict attention to detail and action superseded character. "Just the facts, ma'am." The universe of Spenser now lies in the hands of Ace Atkins. As the saying goes, you built the channel before it rains. Atkins was a skilled mystery novelist, praised by Robert B. Parker, before Atkins ever wrote a Spenser novel. The canal has been surveyed, the channel dug, now let the Spenser novels flow.