Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dissecting Fantasy: Objects, Part 1

Objects, Magical and Mundane

Part I

How selective use of objects can enhance a fantasy (or non-fantasy) novel

Sources: The Night Circus (fantasy) by Erin Morgenstern, Mutant Message From Down Under (nonfiction/ travel) by Marlo Morgan, Into the Wild (nonfiction/ travel) by Jon Krakauer, Warriors: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (reference) by R. G. Grant, Mistborn (fantasy) by Brandon Sanderson

A Treasure Box

"The finished clock is resplendent.  At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and silver pendulum. [...] But that is before it is wound.  [...] First the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side. [...] At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler."

--Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

When I was a kid, I had an old photo box stuffed with my own personal treasures. I thought that if the house ever caught on fire, I could take the box and run out the front door; therefore, I chose with great care the objects that would represent my past.

Stumbling upon my treasure box in the shed some years later, I was sort of amazed by the paraphernalia that made the final cut.  Some things made sense, like my oldest hand-written diary  entries and the gold musical locket my grandma gave me.  Then there was a mini photo album of my best friend and I picking kumquats, a half of a heart made of masking tape, and a random sticker of teddy bear ballerinas.  As I picked each one up, I felt a sentimental squeeze in my heart.  Whether or not I understood the meaning, these were my treasures.

As humans, we love objects and invest a good deal of feeling into them.  So when you write a book, objects take on a significant role.  They can personify a character or act as a symbol of a relationship.  They can move the plot along.  They can represent an entire culture.

But never forget that sometimes we like objects just because we like them.  An interesting object lovingly described can hold your reader's attention as well as any fight scene or moment of poignant drama.  And in fantasy, where nothing is limited by real rules, enchanted objects trigger the imagination and send your reader floating into new realms.

Choose It, Use It, Lose It

"A young woman came to me holding a plate full of rocks.  [...] Ooota at me very seriously and said, 'Choose a rock.  Choose it wisely.  It has the power to save your life.' "

--Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message from Down Under

Writing fantasy can be like going on a shopping spree.  You can pick out anything you like and fill whole rooms with treasures.  Dragon hoards.  Castles.  Bazaars.  Museums.  The power of these places come from the sheer delight in so many objects to look at, smell, and hold.  By all means, go a little crazy.

Just remember that very few of these objects will actually amount to very much value.  As a writer, you must choose only a few prominent items for each of your characters to use within the confines of the story.

Notice I say you get to choose--not necessarily the character.  After all, the character might be exiled from the village with little more than the clothes on his back and a few oddities in his pockets.  It's up to the writer to decide what clothes and what oddities he has.  Likewise, the character might stumble upon useful items in the woods.  For him, it's a matter of luck.  For the writer, it's a carefully planted plot twist.

What the character does get a say in is how he utilizes the objects he has.  As a rule of thumb, the more creative, inventive, and resourceful he can be, the more interesting the character will be.  That's why imposing limits can be a good thing. If he, for example, has only a string and a bent nail in his pocket, can he make a fishing line?  Can he use his cap to gather berries?  Can he collect rainwater using his wooden shoe?

It's always fun to see things used in different ways than intended.  The same goes with magic items.  Can they be used in two, three, four, five different ways.  Can they be combined with other objects to make something entirely new?

Maybe your character will start off unfamiliar with the objects on which he pins his survival, but ultimately, he should gain mastery of his tools.  Once he does, you can make things interesting by taking his objects away.

Sometimes a characters will lose the items they're familiar with.  Sometimes magical wands break.  Sometimes quantities of healing potion are depleted.  Sometimes bad guys steal the mystical sword of awesome.  Sometimes the all-knowing compass leads you in the wrong direction. Sometimes you accidentally leave your book of spells on the train.

The point is, you can never fully 100% rely on objects, either to be with you when you need them or to do the job like they're supposed.  And that's a good thing.  Because characters are more than the things they have.  Start taking away their objects and their true nature comes out.  Can they adapt in time?  Can they fix what's broken?  Will they keep their cool or panic?

Now, I don't mean you have to send your hero naked and unarmed against the monster of doom. You need tools to get the job done.  That's fine.  But taking them away is a great way to create conflict and keep the readers in suspense.

* * *

Writing Prompt

In junior high, while studying voyages to the new world, my history teacher asked us to write an essay on the following question: If you were going on an overseas voyage and could only pick three objects, what would they be? (Mine would be a fat journal and pen--that counts as one--letters from my family and friends and a book--probably Ender's Games, if I could just choose one.)

Apply this to your characters.  If they had to leave home forever and could only pick three things to take with them, what would they be?  Would they choose them for practical purpose?  For comfort?  For sentimental reasons?  For psychological necessity?  Now, will you, as the author, actually let them have these things?  If not, how does it affect your character?  Do they try to replace these things with other comforts?

* * *

Objects in Survival

"Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice.  His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior [...].  Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated.  His rifle was only a .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals[...]. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass.  The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station."

--Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

By and large, most of the objects you come across in everyday life are exceedingly practical.  We put very little value in the stapler or the potato peeler until we lose it or it breaks.  Then we huff out a sigh and buy a new one.  It's the same thing for writing a book.  We don't realize what the character need until suddenly they need it.  Then, with a growl of frustration, we re-write the last few pages to mention the item we forgot.

All that's fine if your character is sitting in the midst of civilization and can easily get a hold of anything he needs.  But fantasy stories are not exactly known for their sedentary natures.  Characters go on adventures, tramp through the wilds, and find themselves in new and strange objects.  They might not be able to page through their junk drawer or go to the 99 cents store.  They'd better have the items they need at the start.

In which case the story becomes a little like planning a camping trip or traveling overseas.  You'd better make sure the character has everything he needs to start with.

But what kinds of things do they need to survive?  Fantasy stories may take place in modern times, but they might also take place in older times, in which case you aren't going to have access to modern technologies like matches and plastic.  Even if you do have those technologies, how many of us actually know what objects we need to survive and how to use them?

Here's my own casual list of wilderness survival items:
  • Food, Means of Getting Food, Means of Preparing Food (jerky, biscuits, salt, herbs, pots and pans, knife, utensils, fishing gear, basket/ bag for gathering wild fruits and vegetables)
  • Canteens and Water Purification Method (pot for boiling water, tea leaves, coffee, alcohol)
  • Clothing (boots, cloak, hat, gloves, armor)
  • Hygiene (soap, shaving kit, brush, toothbrush)
  • Medicine (bandages, disinfectants, insect repellant)
  • Map/ Compass
  • Light/ Heat (candles, lantern, flint/ matches, oil)
  • Shelter (tent, blanket)
  • Weapon, for food and protection, and Means of Maintaining Weapon
  • Personal/ Psychological Objects (journal, religious text, letters from home, games, musical instruments )
  • Other (sewing kit, rope, axe,)
  • Means of Holding Objects (knapsack, backpack, saddle bag, belt)
But these are general things.  How do you narrow figure out specific items?

I, personally, like to steal from history.  (Note my interest in A Soldier's Pack in my Civil War blogs.)  I grew up on the Oregon Trail and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Half the time, I just think back to all that pioneering goodness and steal objects willy-nilly.

Lately, I've been interested in looking at soldiers, who have to pack light.  Some sections of R. G. Grant's Warriors: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (a DK book) show what soldiers throughout history traveled with while on campaign.  For example, an American rifleman fighting in the Revolutionary War would carry with him:
  • a pewter mug
  • a wooden food bowl
  • a salt horn
  • a bone-handled fork
  • a wooden spoon
  • a tin cup, which could be used for cooking as well as drinking
  • a swiggler (a tiny wooden barrel for spirits)
  • a white canvas bag to carry it all in
Or look at survival fiction or non-fiction to see how people manage under trying circumstances.  There's a ton of survival shows on cable.  I personally like to watch Survivorman while doing the dishes.

The amount of research you decide to do, is up to you.  But having at least some idea of how people survive does add elements of realism to a story.

The more objects your character has to haul around, the heavier his pack becomes, the less able he is to fight and the slower the trip.  So you need to figure out ways of carrying the supplies (via horses or some other beast of burden) or keeping the amount of items on his person to a minimum. Towns, inns, farms, and other pockets of civilization are useful, because here your character can re-supply.  If he's less scrupulous, he can steal.

If your character has intimate knowledge of the terrain and it happens to be summer/ early fall, he can simply live off the land.  Or a large party of travelers can share the supplies--one person brings the cooking pot and knives, another one holds the medicine, a third carries the map and books, etc.

Of course, you can always use magic to cheat, but I'll get to that later.

Thus far, I've assumed your character is going off into the woods to survive.  But maybe he's not--maybe the whole story takes place in the city.

Here you have access to whatever you want, depending on the resources of the civilization or the wealth of the character.  Even a poor person, begging or going through the garbage, can usually find food, clothes, and various broken objects.

Survival objects will most likely be tools of the trade.  A peasant will have his plough and sickle.  A tailor will have needles and threads.  A warrior will have his weapons and armor.  And so on and so forth.

Even those ply magic may have perfectly ordinary objects they use in their trade.  In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, for example, certain individuals are able to "push" metal objects of lesser weight than themselves; they carry around ordinary coins and send them spraying like bullets.  More generically, fortune-tellers have their tarot decks and crystal balls, while potion-makers have their cauldrons and bottles.  Mixing magic and non-magic objects can be perfectly charming and fun.

* * *

Writing Prompt

Ever heard of  "For Want of a Nail..." ? It goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

You can try your own "For Want of a Nail" and imagine how your character loses a single item and how it leads to a disaster.  Or, inversely, you can have your character gain one small item and imagine how that leads to something wonderful.

* * *

And that's all the time we have for this week.  Stay tuned next week for the continuation: "Objects in Identity" and "Magical Objects."

Weekly Update: 3-29-14 Earthquake

Yesterday, there was a 5.1 earthquake in La Habra, which is just a skip and a jump from Brea, so I was close to the epicenter when it hit.

There was a warning earthquake first, a huge bump after dinner, like a giant had stomped his foot down once.  I sprang to my feet, but when the shaking didn't continue, I slowly sat back down.  That was the second "stomp" earthquake in a month.  I thought of how scientists were always warning that LA was due for a Big One soon, and then I compared earthquakes to Sakurajima, a volcano in the prefecture where I lived in Japan.  Its occausional erruption of ash were a release valve that kept the pressure from building into a real explosion.  Maybe these minor earthquakes worked the same way, preventing the Big One from happening.  Such thoughts flickered through my head; then I went back to TV.

An hour or two later, the real earthquake hit.  It felt like a rattle that didn't let up.  I dove for the cover of the bathroom doorframe, the closest one.  The closet stood before me; the door flew open and flapped back and forth, spilling its contents to the floor.  The ground felt like it was sliding and the house sliding with it.  I found this reassuring.  The house was not going to fall down on my head.  A few seconds later, the earthquake ended.

I felt shaky afterwards, for the adrenaline had seized me, like it would after a rollercoastewr.  But I hadn't really been scared during the event.  Earthquakes are scary because they're sudden and they wake you up in the middle of the night.  I half-expected this one and was conscious when it happened, cutting down the fear quotent by 50%.

Afterwards, we evaluated the damage.

The manger scene, which sat atop the knick-knack shelf, took a hit.  A wise man and a camel had been decapitated; the unlucky camel's body had been flung clear across the room.  Mary and Joseph were huddled close together, head to head, as though huddling together in fright.  Baby Jesus was fine.

My uncle duct taped the cabinets shut in order to keep thew dishes from flying onto the kitchen floor during the aftershocks.  There were many of them; every hour, it seemed, another jolt--like a snooze alarm going off.  They were gentle, brief quivers.  Rather annoying.

* * *

In addition to the excitement of the earthquake, I worked on my Coffin stories, researched self-publishing, and had a job in Japanese.  I have to admit, half the time I walk into Japanese, I'm terrified of how rusty my Japanese is, how little I trully know.  I look at the new vocabulary words and grammer the students have and can't remember the half of it, let alone teach it.  But this Thursday, as we reviewed some simple words and grammer I thought they'd know, I realized--they forget things, too.  It made me feel a bit better.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekly Update: 3-23-14

I'm having a lousy week.

I got a rejection on Monday.  This time they actually told me what was wrong.  That didn't make me feel better.

Insomnia on Thursday and Friday.

Four days of subbing for Japanese.  That's great for my wallet.  But Japanese has been a lot of prep work.  So I haven't gotten much else done.

Sorry for the poor post.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Weekly Update: 3-16-14 Disneyland

I know the sights and symbols of Southern California pretty well by now: the palm trees, the ever-blooming flowers, the mission style houses, the sunshine.  But for some reason, when I walked into Disneyland, it felt like California intensified.  Everything just seemed brighter.

My cousin's fiance, Krystal, works in Disneyland and got us in for free.  We hit several good rides like Indiana Jones, Star Tours, and Big Thunder Mountain.  Technically, Big Thunder Mountain wasn't open to the public yet, but cast members and their guests got to preview the ride.  They'd cleaned it up and added more special effects.  It was fun.

But the funniest moment came on the Indiana Jones ride.  We were bumping around on our jalopy, avoiding snakes and bugs and lava.  Right at the climax of the ride, Indy hangs on a rope in front of a huge boulder.  We'd all been on the ride and knew the boulder was supposed to plummet toward us.

"Save us, Indy!" Krystal cried.

The ride came to a dead stop.

We waited as the seconds ticked by and the boulder stayed put.  The Indy animatronic doll continued to wriggle suggestively on the rope, its legs squeezed tight.

"I hope you don't need to go to the bathroom," Krystal said.

It was hilarious.

We had to go on Pirates of the Carribean and the Haunted Mansion.  I swear, everytime I go to Disneyland, I end up on those rides.  There's something about them that sparks my imagination.  We also went on the Jungle Cruise and the Buzz Lightyear shooting game and saw Mickey and the Magical Map and the Main Street Parade.

We dined at Cafe Orleans after the parade.  Being Disneyland, prices were outrageous, but Krystal's employee discount got us half off menu price, which bumped it back down to reasonable. I ate a triple cheese Monte Carlo sandwich.  It was like a savory beneign, fried and puffed up and crusted with powdered sugar.  It was so rich, I couldn't eat it all.  So I gave half to one of Krystal's friends and ate some of her blackened chicken and vegetables instead. 

* * *

Other than that, I've been attempting to write short stories this week, which is turning out to be pretty impossible because I can't write short.  For proof, look no further than my "Three Floating Coffins" story, which was originally supposed to be a simple fairy tale.  Today I officially reached the 50,000 word mark--200 pages--and I still have another 12 chapters to go!

I began trying to write a story of a plain girl given false beauty, a magic ring with spikes around the inner circle, and a talking raven.  My tentative title was "Counterfeit Diamond."  Unfortunately, after some 2,000 words, I realized I had a good excuse for the girl and raven to head off on many adventures together.  So I moved on to "The Sword in the Lake," an old story inspired by Lake Tahoe about a man who lost his son and a boy who lost his home struggling to fish the magic sword out of the lake.  That story had an ending, but it was longer--maybe 20 pages--and I couldn't finish it in the few days I had left.

Book Review: Graceling

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: Fantasy (Sword and Sorcery), YA


Within the Seven Kingdoms, children whose eyes turn dual colors are marked as having a Grace, an incredible talent eagerly sought by ambitious kings.  At age 8, Katsa, with one eye green as the grasses and one eye blue as the sky, slapped a man and shattered his skull, forever marking her as a Killer.  Her uncle, the King of Middluns, has spent the years since refining her into his own personal weapon.  It's a role that Katsa has only recently begun to chafe against.  In broad daylight she enforces her uncle's tyrannical will, but in the secret of the night she carries out rescue missions.

It's on one such mission to free a kidnapped prince that Katsa encounters another Graceling, a fighter named Po, with one eye silver and one eye gold.  He says he trusts her.  But should she trust him?  For Po has a way of getting under Katsa's skin, making her question who she is and what she's capable of becoming.  As they work together to unravel the mystery behind the kidnapping, Katsa soon learns that Po has secrets of his own....


This is the kind of good, solid fantasy I love to read: equal parts outward quest and inward journey.  I have to admit, though, when I saw Graceling on a table at Barnes and Noble, I was initially wary.  Clear-cut sword and sorcery fantasy is incredibly easy to botch.  I should know; I've read my share of botched fantasy.  But this book was good.  I read all 471 pages in less than 24 hours.

I really appreciated the morality of the heroes and the warmth of their relationships.  Since Katsa's originally presented as a killer, I was prepared for angst, guilt, and cynicism.  Actually, I found her genuinely heroic and relatable.  She refuses to kill unless its necessary.  She has a bit of a temper but doesn't let it control her.  The few times she does lash out in anger, she regrets it.  I find this a refreshing departure from the typical fantasy hero, usually a bundle of moods, whose anger is presented as an asset rather than a liability.

Katsa's internal change marks the first of three main plot threads in Graceling.  Po--and Katsa's relationship to him--marks the second.  The third plot thread is the kidnapping of the prince and how it reveals a growing threat from a far-off kingdom.  These three plots are braided together expertly, so that whenever one seems to come to a conclusion, the other two pick up the slack.  There's always something to make the reader wonder, always some reason to continue reading.

Could I nitpick about the book's flaws?  Sure.  I find Katsa's Grace a bit too powerful and all-encompassing for my taste.  During one point in the romantic arc, Katsa goes from mostly stoic to moody so abruptly I wondered if she'd fallen into an enchantment.  The ending lingered past the villian's defeat, neither concluding the story nor setting up a sequel.

But on the whole, I found Graceling immensely satisfying, with plenty of fun and magic, emotion and adventure.  Ms. Cashore has written a classic fantasy without succumbing to its cliches.  That's no easy balance to achieve.  I heartily recommend Graceling to anyone looking for an adventurous fix.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 8

The Meaning of the Civil War

Event: Civil War Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town

The little train chug-chugs into Calico station.  We are off on one final ride before the day comes to an end.  I stand looking at the rocky hills, the blue desert sky, the Union banners flapping in the wind. Can there really be a connection between Calico and the Civil War?  Or is it all just a game of make believe?

Calico Train and Union Banner

I think back to the old Confederate soldier who showed me the supplies.

"I come from a family of cotton pickers and pecan pickers," he told me.  "I'm proud of my blue collar roots.  Even today--except for teachers--there are no professionals in my family."

His ancestors had originally settled in the South, before the Civil War disrupted their lives.  Between the utter destruction of property during the war and the slow and often vindictive nature of Reconstruction, the Southern economy was in shambles.  Soldiers had no home to return to.  Jobs dried up.  Many had no choice but to move elsewhere.  The old Confederate's family, along with countless other families, moved west, settling empty lands and filling up the Western United States.

"The Civil War gave Manifest Destiny a kick in the butt," the old Confederate soldier concluded.

Which brings me back to Calico.  The town is rooted squarely in the Cowboys-and-Indians era of American history.  Would that era have come about in such a dramatic fashion, if not for the Civil War?  The old Confederate argues that the lawlessness of the Wild West did not come about because people up and decided they wanted to break the law.  They robbed banks, because they were desperate.

View from the Train

The train pulls in.  I take a seat in the shade and pull out my camera to snap shots of tunnels and yellow deposits of clay.  The creaky overhead voice announces points of interest: the old settlement ruins, the richest silver mine, Chinatown.  My mind is still full of the events of the past.

"Little children come up to me and say, 'Why are you the bad guy?' " said a man in a gray Confederate uniform.  "It's not as simple as that.  This may offend some people, but you can't just take textbooks at their word.  You have to do your own research."

"I always tell people 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War," said the old Confederate soldier.  "Not Northerners.  Not Southerners.  Americans."



* * *

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

* * *

Thank you for all those who patiently read through all these long-winded articles.  I hope you, like me, were able to learn just a little more about this fascinating period.  I owe a debt of gratitude to the Civil War re-enactors who spend so much of their time, money, and energy making history come alive.  You are awesome!  Thank you.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 7

Battle of the Schoolhouse

Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town


The yellow ropes are back.  This time, Union soldiers occupy the upper road at the top of the main hill.  Their cannons point across a gully, toward the Confederate cannon on a second hill, where the old schoolhouse stands.  A Union soldier explains the ropes are for our own safety.  The gunpowder's real, and it's dangerous.

"Why don't you use real bullets, too?" quips a member of the audience.

"We'd have a hard time recruiting new people," the soldier replies.

Union Cannon Faces Confederate Cannon

I can't see the schoolhouse at all--one of the restaurants blocks it off.  The best I can do is peer across the gully from cannon to cannon.  The Union troops wait in lines, as the cannon is loaded.  Warning is given.  The cannon blasts.  At the same time, a unit of Union soldiers breaks off from the main group and makes for the schoolhouse.

It takes me a minute to figure out why.  The barrage of cannon fire gives the infantry cover.  They can march more safely when everyone's distracted by the Boom!  Sure enough, each time the Union cannons fire, another unit of foot soldiers take off.

Union Barrage

The Confederates fire back.  I don't know what kind of gunpowder they're sticking in, but their Booms! seems exponentially louder than the Union's.  Maybe it's because I know when to expect a blast from the Union cannon--I see the men load it and hear the leader shout "Fire!"  The Confederates take me by surprise; that makes the noise louder.  So I start to watch the Confederate cannon very closely.

Boom! goes the Confederate cannon

Boom! replies the Union cannon.

Suddenly, cheers break out from the audience.  I turn my head just in time to see the last unit of blue-coated soldiers go running down into the gully.  The flag bearer stands tall, as Union troops kneel and fire.  Snap, snap, snap.  Smoke wafts around them.

Charging Across the Gully

The artillery can't deal with this.  It's up to a few Confederate gunmen to hold the hill from the advance of Union troops.  There's something very Western about the scene.  The Confederates play a feisty group of bandits, the Union is the long arm of the law.  As the blue-coats fire their riffles in unison, a Confederate falls.  The audience Awws sympathetically.

Other stuff's going on, too.  The cannons keep firing.  Union soldiers sent out earlier are most likely conducting some awesome raid on the Confederate camp that I can't see at all.  Some green-coated Union sharpshooters invade the gully itself but die before they reach the cannons.  (I question the veracity of the term "sharpshooter.")

Fighting in the Gully: Confederates and Green Coat

Mostly, though, I'm entranced by the drama taking place at the base of the hill.  It's a shoot out!  Even though the Confederates have the high ground, the Union's superior numbers prove to be too much.  The Confederates drop like flies, until only a single soldier remains.

It looks like a firing squad.  The Union blasts at the lone Confederate, smoke pouring forth from their riffles.

Fun fact!  Do you know that the riffles in the Civil War were atrociously inaccurate?  Why, only a few hours earlier, some of the Confederates told me that getting hit with a bullet was considered an act of divine providence--if a minie ball pierced your heart, God clearly meant you to die.

Last Stand

And so, despite the fact that the lone Confederate is maybe ten feet away, not one of the Union soldiers can bring him down.  The Confederate gunman shoots a pistol into the thick of blue-coats.  Same result; not one of the enemy dies.  It's almost comical how close they stand and yet can't kill each other.  This would be a good time for bayonets, but those are banned for safety reasons.

At last the valiant Confederate receives a shoulder wound.  He holds his ground, but it's over.  The Union soldiers shoot, and he falls into the dust.  Now the Union soldiers are free to capture the cannon.

Union Takes the Hill

From the furthest edges of my vision, I see the porch of the schoolhouse.  Union soldiers have taken it.  They march to the Confederate cannon to join their brothers in claiming victory.  The star-spangled banner flaps triumphantly in the wind.

Then, as if on cue, the dead soldiers rise zombie-like from the ground.

The audience applauds.

Confederate Cannon

* * *

To Be Continued...

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Weekly Update: 3-7-14

Everyone procrastinates, right?  

February ended and with it my winter semester.  Spring brings new work, new goals.  March is supposed to herald a month of short story writing.  I also need to get serious about researching my credential and looking for a summer job.   But my brain does not want to get with the program.  It would rather obsess over Frozen and add new pins to my Pinterest account.

Why do we procrastinate?

I think I procrastinate, because I feel overwhelmed and anxious.  Rather than face my mental fear, I run from it, escape into anything but the thing I must focus on.  Weirdly enough, this causes my already weak multi-taking facilities to collapse entirely, narrowing in on the object of my obsession.  But procrastination causes guilt, which boils up inside me like a simmering pot.  When the guilt becomes greater than thew fear, then at last I snap back into action.

Can anything good come out of procrastination?

Weirdly enough, I've found a nugget of goodness can come from the experience.  Some of my pinterest pictures got me thinking of my Three Floating Coffins story.  I re-wrote two vital chapters and brainstormed most of the ending.  Obsessing over Frozen inspired me to look up Hans Christian Anderson, author of "The Snow Queen."  I ended up borrowing a whole slew of fairy tails from the library, along with books on symbols, in order to help inspire short stories.  

That's the good thing about writing.  Anything you do can be recycled into inspiration.

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 6

Grant's Press Conference

Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town

On the main street stage, General U.S. Grant is having technical difficulties.  The same electronic equipment that gives him access to the microphone also plays soft but distracting frontier music.  Eventually, Grant just shuts it off, to the applause of the audience.

Grant on Stage

"I never did care for music," he says.  "The military band wanted to know my favorite song, so they could play it during dinner.  I told them I have two.  One's 'Yankee Doodle.'  And the other one isn't."

Grant is wearing a black coat with shiny buttons on it.  It's a civilian frock with the military insignia's sewn on--a duster, like he saw Zachary Taylor wear.  He's got a cigar in his hand; after being asked a question, he puts it to his mouth, pausing for reply.  A man in the audience asks why he smokes cigars.  Grant answers in this day and age everyone smokes.

  But he's very ardent that doesn't drink.  Not at this time, toward the end of the Civil War. (Though drinking did cause him disgrace earier in his military career.)  Someone in the audience starts to press him on this matter.  Here the impersonator breaks character and says that as a former Marine and someone who followed Grant since he was 8, he's convinced that General Grant could not have run a successful military campaign if he were drunk.

There are many other stories.  Like the time Grant took his son to a hotel and no one knew who he was until he signed the guest book.  Thereupon everyone made such a fuss that he couldn't eat.  That same night there was a reception for his upcoming promotion, but someone forgot to invite.  Someone whisked him away at the last minute.  The room parted like the red sea when he arrived; they made him stand on a sofa so everyone could see him. Lincoln spoke to Grant afterwards and expressly told him not to give him his military plans, because Lincoln, by his own admittance, was a terrible gossip.

A Terrible Gossip

But my favorite vignette is brief and telling.

The Battle of Shiloh, 1862. The first day of fighting didn't go well.  The Confederate general took Grant by surprise.  The expected reinforcements didn't come in until later that evening.  In the midst of all this chaos, Grant sat under a tree, whittling.

"We lost today," Sherman commented.

"Yep," Grant calmly replied.  "We'll whip 'em tomorrow."

And they did.

* * *

To Be Continued...

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 5


Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town

Between the heat, the dust, and the gunpowder smoke, my throat's gotten pretty dry.  It's around noon. Time for lunch!

Cold Drinks and Peanuts

Evidently, everyone else has the same idea.  The Calico House Restaurant is crowded.  A sign says to seat ourselves, so we do. A salt and pepper holder made from horseshoes sits on the blue checkered tablecloth.  So does a complimentary bucket of peanuts.  Families husk the peanuts and toss the shells on the hardwood floor.

My mom refuses to create a mess.  She collects her shells in a neat pile on the table.

The menu includes such old West easting as pulled pork sandwich, BBQ beef sandwich, and a bowl of chili--each for under $10.  But I already know what I want: a buffalo burger!  Mostly I just want to add buffalo to the list of unusual foods I've eaten.

Buffalo Burger
We order specialty house sodas--sarsaparilla and boysenberry--which come in large ice-filled mason jars. As I soothe my throat with the cool drinks, I look around.  The restaurant is full of country charm.  There are black and white photos, red walls, white window sills, and waitresses in costume.

Before I know it, the food's here.  I chomp down on my burger.  The buffalo is dry and tastes slightly different from beef in a way I can't quite identify.  A few more bites, however, and that subtle difference is wiped clean off my palate.  It just tastes like a hamburger after that.

We're just finishing up, when we hear the sounds of fiddles from outside.  The band is playing on the front porch and people are line dancing on the street. I watch, for a minute, as they clap and twirl, tourists and cowboys, adults and children.

Dancing in the Street

* * *

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 4

Battle of the Ruins

Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town

I remember a comical episode from the First Battle of Bull Run and Manassas.  It was summer of 1861, the war had just started, and confidence ran high that the Union would whip the rebels quick and go back to business as usual.  The war was all so amusing that Northern picnickers sat in the fields behind the Union lines in order to watch the festivities.  It grew less amusing when Union troops lost the battle and broke into a frenzied retreat.  Thereupon the picnickers realized they were closer to the action than they liked, hauled up their baskets, and scrambled away before Union and Confederate troops alike trampled their beloved blankets.

That's sort of how I feel right now--like one of those picnickers eager to exploit the war for my own selfish entertainment.  The scent of popcorn fills the air as bystanders claim their seats upon the rocks.  I'm irritated because no matter where I go, I can't get a perfect view.

Ruins and Stage

The Union troops occupy the ruins of Chinatown.  I look at the maze of crumbled orange walls and my mind thinks "fort."  The ruins are the battlements, the center stage is the inner keep, the log fence is the outer wall, and the stairs leading into the fort is the main front gate.

A Confederate cannon sits a few feet from my newly imagined gate.  Unfortunately, I can barely see it, because a stupid tree blocks my view.  I also wouldn't mind getting closer to the fence, so as to take better picture of the blue-uniformed soldiers, but no, a yellow rope cuts me off.  At last I give up and find a nice rock to sit on.

Later I do get a good picture.  BOOM!

I'm chatting with my dad about Pickett's Charge, when the blast of the Confederate cannon loudly announces the start of the battle.  It sounds like a firecracker and makes me jump.

In response, a battalion of perhaps 12 Union soldiers form a line along the wall and open fire on the cannon.  Their guns sound rather less fearsome.  Sort of like snapping.  White smoke discharges from their guns and wafts around them.  I suddenly wonder if whoever coined the phrase "fog of war" meant it literally.

The cannon replies to the gunshots.  BOOM.  There's a pause as everyone reloads.  The Union opens fire.  Snap, snap, snap.  Pause.  BOOM.  Pause.  Snap, snap, snap.  Pause.  BOOM.

Union Soldiers Open Fire
The snapping reminds me of the popcorn.  But soon after I think it, the air begins to reek of rotten eggs, and I'm vividly reminded that one of the three main ingredients in gunpowder is sulfur--the other two being charcoal and potassium nitrate (saltpeter).

I can think about things like the ingredients in gunpowder, because the action thus far hasn't been gripping.  The Confederate's frontal assault seems neither imaginative nor very well thought-out.  A lone cannon to take out a fort?  How do they possibly expect to--

"Get out, you Yankee Dogs."

Confederates Emerge from Behind

My head snaps away from the tree--er, cannon.  A gang of Confederate soldiers have emerged from out of nowhere behind the Union line, pinning the blue soldiers between their guns and the cannon.  The taunt gives the Union troops time to pull into a defensive position.  The rebels open fire.  Snap, snap, snap.  BOOM! I flinch as the cannon goes off again.

The Union soldiers back up against the wall.  Suddenly shots ring from the distant hills.  A couple Confederate gunman, like outlaws, open fire on the walled fortress.  Now the Union is beset by three sides.

Somehow the cannon's moved up to the fortress while I was distracted by the gunmen.  Wait!  It's not just a cannon.  There are Confederate troops as well.  (Curse you tree for blocking my view!)  The troops have breeched the gate and are climbing down the stairs.  They're taking over the ruins!  Union!  Get your act together!

Marching on the Gate

Everything's moving so quickly, even though none of the soldiers seem to rush.  The Confederate troops who emerged from behind the Union line ("Get out, you Yankee Dogs!") march between the yellow rope and the fence, turn the curve, and make for the front gate stairs.  They march--they don't run.  Yet I can't keep track of the action.  The blasts of gunpowder draw my attention from hills to cannon to Union line and back.  People end up where they're not supposed to be.  The fort is overrun.

The blue-coated soldiers fall back to the center stage.  They're rallying around the Union flag.  But it's too late.  The Confederates have moved in.  The Union gives ground and gives ground, until they're pushed out of the fort completely.  A few last shots from the hills, and it's over.

The rebels hoist their flag in the center of the fort and stand in solemn attention.  A lone bugle plays an anthem.  The Confederates have won this round.

Confederate Salute

* * *

To Be Continued...

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 3

A Soldier's Pack

Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town
My parents find the bayonet

An old Confederate soldier holds the long metal shaft in his hand.  He indicates the tepee-shaped tip, explains how when you stick a man through with it, the bayonet leaves an odd-shaped hole that a surgeon cannot easily stitch up.  So the wound festers and the man dies.  This is just one of the reasons why the bayonet was among most feared weapons in all the Civil War.

Also, it was very good for cooking meat.

The bayonet is one of many fun items arranged on the old soldier's table.  There is a square-headed tooth brush with a bone handle, tooth cleaning powder in a round tin, soap, small white candles, little sacks of rice and beans, and a tin cup with ice water--though the ice is probably not historically accurate.  Everything fits into the soldier's canvas bag, which is coated in tar.  The tar keeps the rain from contaminating the goods.

Fun stuff in a Soldier's Pack
I don't know how it happens, but suddenly I'm recruited into the Confederate army.  The old soldier puts a gray wool coat on me.  It's cotton-lined and not nearly as hot as it looks.  But it is a bit heavy.   

He has a blanket, too, which he's rolled up and twisted into an oval shape.  Some soldiers carry their blankets on their backs.  He prefers to loop it around his neck and demonstrates this tactic by sticking it on me.  The blanket oval goes over my head and through one arm.  It mildly chokes me.  He says it will flatten over time and then sticks a musket in my hand.

In the Confederate Army
The weight is beginning to add up.  I'm not falling over or anything, but it is uncomfortable.  The blanket oval reminds me of a harness.

"I feel like a pack horse," I comment.

The old Confederate lifts up his boot.  A horseshoe is nailed into the heel.

Soldiers actually did this during the Civil War.  The horseshoe broke up the ground and gave them better traction when marching over rough terrain.

We turn to the food.  I see what looks like a very large, very fat saltine cracker.

I become excited.  "Is that--?"

Hardtack.  Image courtesy of New Boston Historical Society.

Teeth Dullers. Worm Castles.

 Way back in high school I read about this Civil War ration with horrific delight.  A simple mixture of flour, salt, and water created this indestructible biscuit that soon became the bane of soldiers everywhere.  And now I have the chance to eat it!

But first I must break off a piece, and that proves to be about as easy as ripping a rock.  The darn thing will not crumble.  At last the old soldier manages to chisel me off a morsel.  I pop it in my mouth.

"Don't bite down," he warns.

I know.  I let the hardtack soften in my spit.  I'm surprised how quickly it dissolves.  For all the mythos regarding the hardtack, it really just tastes like a saltine cracker.

Of course this hardtack is new.  The soldier tells me his wife made it this weekend.  In the Civil War, hardtack would last for months.  Sometimes they'd acquire unexpected guests, which would wriggle out when the soldiers soaked the biscuit in their chicory "coffee."

"But I don't think the soldiers minded the worms," the old soldier tells me.  "Extra protein."

I can't imagine anyone wanting to eat worms.  But it's true the soldiers were in a perennial state of hunger, especially on the Confederate side.

A second Confederate soldier, popping in on our conversation, tells us how he saw Confederate uniforms on display at a museum, that they looked so small, they almost seemed fake.  "These were men who stood at 5' 6" and weighed about 130 pounds.  You could put your hands completely around their waist."

Unlike the Impersonators

At the time of the Civil War, one woman describing the Confederate soldiers noted the "gaunt starvation that looked from their cavernous eyes" and further remarked: "That they could march or fight at all seems incredible." (Grant, 201).  Needless to say, after the battle, soldiers could often be found stripping supplies off the dead, friend and foe alike.

This brings me to the quiz portion of this blog.

Question:  What's the number one thing that soldiers would look for when foraging off the battlefield?   Is it:

a. money
b. food
c. ammunition
d. canteens
e. shoes

Surprisingly, the answer is d. canteens.  Next they looked for ammunition, followed by food.  However, if a soldier did see a dead man with money or a nice set of shoes, well, it wasn't going to do him any good, was it?

Confederate Camp

* * *

To Be Continued...

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

Additional Sources:

Grant, R. G.  Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man.  DK Publishing: New York, 2010.

Harding, David (editor).  Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.  Diagram Visual: New York, 1990.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 2


Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town

I like old weapons.  Even the ones that aren't shiny.


The Springfield model musket-riffles are made of polished walnut and sit together in a line on a rack.  No glass separates me from these guns--I can reach out and take one and cradle it in my arm.  I consider it.  Will anyone actually stop me if I do?  Maybe not, but I decide to get permission from the man or the woman running the table, just in case.

So far my strategy of buzzing around the table like a fly has not been paying off.  No one's noticed me.  Boldly, I decide to approach one of the people and ask.  The man finishes his conversation, so I walk over to him.

"How do you load one of these guns?" I ask.

I ask because I really want to know; I was researching the weapons earlier, looking at pictures of cartridges and caps, with no idea how to fit them together.  I also ask because apparently I am not yet brave enough to say I want to hold the gun.

The man takes one of the riffles off the display.  "It's a six step process," he says, but neglects to number his actions, leaving me to guess which step is which.  This is what I've come up with:

1.  Take a paper cartridge, tear it open with your teeth, and pour it down the barrel.  (He doesn't actually break the packet, but mimes the action.  He tells me the cartridge holds a 60-grain black powder.  Soldiers liked to store extra ones in their pockets.)

  2. Stick in a ball or minie ball. * (I'd heard of these minie balls but had never seen one until now. The man holds up what looks more or less like a bullet.  Well, that's disappointingly common.)

3. Take a ramrod and push the gunpowder and bullet deep into the muzzle.  (Now I'm really paying attention because one of the things I never could figure out was where the soldiers hid the ramrod. The man pulls it out of the underside of the barrel.  I hadn't even noticed the thin unassuming pole. The man loads his gun with one clean push.)

4.  Take the ramrod out of the gun.  (Now things become confusing, as the man veers off topic in order to tell an anecdote about how soldiers would forget to take their ramrod out of the barrel and end up shooting it at the enemy.)

Exploded Percussion Cap
5.  Stick on a percussion cap to ignite the charge.  (Here's another mystery solved.  I'd seen these little golden caps--which remind me of thumbtacks--in my book, but I didn't know what they were used for.  Apparently, the gun's hammer crushes the copper cap, creating a spark that makes the gunpowder explode.)

6.  Ready, aim, fire.  (I assume.)

"Most soldiers could fire 3 shots a minute," the man tells me.

I wonder how the men protected themselves during that awkward 20-second loading phase.  The man explains that soldiers lined up in rows of two, one in front, one in the back.  To demonstrate, he gives me one of the guns.

(Yes!  I get to hold it!  Sometimes the subtle approach works!)

I'm in the front.  I get to fire first.  Boom.

While I'm pretending to fire, the man behind me is loading his riffle.  His commander gives him the order, so he sets the barrel of the gun onto my shoulder and shoots.  I feel the gun uncomfortably close to my head.

"Did anyone ever get their ear blown off?" I ask.

"Oh yes," he replies.  "And many of them went deaf."

I hand back the gun and go on my merry way.

In the Union Army now.

* Other sources suggest that gunpowder and bullet alike were wrapped in the same paper cartridge. If this is the case, I can't fathom what the second step would be.

* * *

To Be Continued...

Disclaimer: All quotes are approximate.

Additional Sources:

Grant, R. G.  Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man.  DK Publishing: New York, 2010.

Harding, David (editor).  Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.  Diagram Visual: New York, 1990.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Travelogue: Civil War Re-Enactment, Part 1

Event: Civil War Re-Enactment
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
Location: Calico Ghost Town

Introduction: In Case You Didn't Have Enough to Read

As those close to me know, I'm something of a history-buff-in-training.  My passion runs deep, but my knowledge runs shallow.  That's why I was so excited about the Civil War Re-Enactment taking place at Calico Ghost Town during President's Day Weekend.  Any excuse to soak up random facets of history from experts more knowledgable than I.
Experts on Parade
 Those close to me also know that when I start to write, I tend to get... how shall I put this... Verbose?  Profuse?  Long-winded?  Point is, brevity is not my friend.  When typing up my notes, I found this entry totaled over 3,500 words--a full 13 pages!  And that's too much, even for me.  So to break up the monotony, I decided to split this blog into 8 different sections, which I'll be posting once a day for the rest of the week. The sections are:
  • Historical Inaccuracies
  • Guns
  • A Soldier's Pack
  • Battle of the Ruins
  • Intermission
  • Grant's Press Conference
  • Battle of the Schoolhouse 
  • The Meaning of the Civil War
Most of it's in chronological order, but I do reserve the right to skip around in order to make it more interesting.

Flags!  Just because!
Now when I moseyed around Calico, I didn't have with me any of that fancy recording equipment, no ma'am.  Paper and pencil was good enough for my ancestors, and it was good enough for me.  Please note, then, that the quotes are not exact.  I'm relying on memory and the smudged lead scrawled on my notebook.  Also on wikipedia and a couple of reference books.

Hope it's educational.  :)

* * *

Historical Inaccuracies

No major battle of the Civil War was ever fought in California.  Let's just get that out of the way.

This is not to say that California played no role in the Civil War.  It's gold kept the Union from going bankrupt.  Its over 15,000 volunteers saw action in both Eastern theatre and Western frontier, most notably when a California regiment soundly whipped some Texas Confederates in the Battle of Picacho Pass.  Within the state, skirmishes broke out between Northern and Southern sympathizers. Los Angeles was a hotbed of secessionists.

Calico Ghost Town
  Even so, it's safe to say no such battle ever happened in Calico.  Founded in 1881--20 years after the Civil War--Calico came about due to a silver strike in the desert hills just outside of Barstow.  Much of the silver still remains--it just became too expensive to extract.  Without money, the town decayed.  But then, in the 1950s, Walter Knott (of Knott's Berry Farm fame) took an interest in Calico and revived it as a tourist attraction.

So, to sum up, no, this is not an exact re-enactment.

At this moment, however, I don't care about.  I'm wandering up main street, gazing at the old West buildings now festooned with red, white, and blue banners.  (Festooned!  How often do I get to use that word!)  The usual crowd of cowboys and prairie wives are replaced by soldiers and southern belles.  Sepia fliers call for recruits.  One flier offers a bounty for the capture of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's murderer--even though, Lincoln is looking very alive right now, talking to a surgeon in the Union Camp.

Banners festoon the ghost town
  Interestingly enough, the Union camp occupies the base of the hill, what's known as southern Calico, while the rebels pitch their tents in the high ground near the schoolhouse in northern Calico.  Oh dear, I think to myself.  This isn't a good sign.

I peek into the Union camp with its white tents and star-spangled banners.  Blue-uniformed soldiers mill around, chatting with each other, and a little boy plays the flute.  Many of the tents are shut, but when a wind blows one open, I spy modern equipment--an ice chest and the like.  Do they actually camp here? I wonder.  The general store hints that perhaps they do.  In addition to barrels of old-timey candy and souvenir pencil sharpeners, they're selling baking powder and camping supplies.

The Union Camp
In these opening moments, I'm too shy to talk to anyone.  I'm afraid that if I open my mouth, all my giddy fangirl-ness will come pouring out, and these costumed men will look at me like I'm strange.  Slowly, however, I'm gaining nerve.  I see a display of guns which looks educational and make a break for it.

Ah ha, I think.  Here's my excuse to ask strangers questions about history.

I shuffle around the riffles, waiting for someone to acknowledge me.

But Lincoln's Not Dead Yet!
* * *

To Be Continued...