Tag Archives: D.B. Jackson

Monday Musings: Challenging Ourselves

I will admit that my first impulse for this Monday Musings post was to write about something other than race and politics. Not because those things aren’t still on my mind. They consume me. But rather because I was thinking, “I’ve written about White privilege two weeks in a row. I don’t want to seem like I’m harping on it.” [Here are links to my post from two weeks ago and last week.]

My next thought, right after that one, was, “Why the hell not?”

College Town Protest March, David B. CoeThis past Friday our little college town had a peaceful protest march followed by a rally on the college quad. It was a terrific event: somber, but also uplifting. Several people spoke, including my wife, who is provost of the university. Most of the speakers were Black; Nancy is not. And her message was directed at the many White allies who were in attendance. Showing up is great, she said. But it’s not enough. We who consider ourselves allies of those fighting for racial justice, but who also carry enormous privilege, have to challenge ourselves to act, to fight every day for a better world. And she, in turn, challenged us. Think of things you can do. Commit yourselves.

She and I have been making donations to organizations that fight for racial justice. We are committed to voting, to supporting candidates who will help put an end to systemic racism. We have reached out to our Black friends to make sure they’re doing all right. We are more than willing to have difficult conversations with family and friends. We would be willing to have those conversations with our daughters as well, but, frankly, we have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.

But after those things, I found myself wondering in response to Nancy’s challenge, what else I could do? The answer came to me pretty quickly; it should be obvious to anyone who knows me.

I write.

That’s what I do.

I’m not saying that race and racial politics will be the subject of every Monday post for the rest of time. But one of the great problems with American politics is that we as a nation have no attention span at all. We become obsessed with the issue of the day, the tragedy of the week – a mass shooting prompts calls for serious conversations about gun control. Until the next police shooting exposes for the thousandth time the need for a meaningful conversation about race. Until the next ridiculous or outrageous Tweet from the Infant-In-Chief prompts renewed obsession with the campaign and the latest polling numbers. Until a new spike in Covid-19 cases reminds us of the devastating toll the virus is exacting. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

My thoughts about this post are symptomatic of that short attention span. Two weeks in a row writing about race? Yikes! Time for another post about my five favorite rock ‘n roll albums.

And more to the point, that short attention span is an expression of privilege. I have the luxury of being able to turn away from the conversation about systemic racism if I want to, because I’m White. Because I don’t have to worry that my next traffic stop could prove fatal. Because while the unemployment rate among my people is high, it’s not at 16.8%, as it is for Blacks. Because my health care is affordable and readily available.

I can eventually look away after the next shooting sparks a new debate on guns, because while gun violence should concern all of us, Blacks are (according to the Giffords Law Center) ten times – TEN TIMES – more likely than Whites to be murdered with a firearm.

I can be distracted from the pandemic, because while Whites get the disease and die from it, preliminary data indicates that we are proportionally less likely to get sick than are Blacks, and we are far less likely to die from the illness than are Blacks and Latinos.

We in the White community can afford to lose interest, to get distracted, to move on to other issues. But we, as White allies in the struggle for racial justice, can’t. Just this weekend in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police in an incident that began with him sleeping in his car. I guarantee you, that is a sentence that has never been written about a white man.

And so, yes, I am writing about race again. Because once we open our eyes to the prevalence of bias and bigotry and harmful stereotypes (and it is another expression of lifelong privilege that we have the choice of whether or not to do this) we can find them everywhere. The only way to avoid them is to ignore them, or to be utterly oblivious. Race creeps into everything. The next time you’re watching TV, pay close attention to the commercials. Look at how race is treated. Watch for the racial sub-narratives. Be attuned to the archetypes. Once you start to see them, you can’t stop. Listen to sports commentary (if and when we ever get to watch sports again). Pay attention to the adjectives used to describe White and Black players. How many times are Whites referred to as “hard workers”? How many times is Black success credited to “natural athletic ability”?

“Why,” we hear people ask, “do they have to make everything about race?”

And the answer is, because people of color in this country – and throughout much of the world – inhabit a different reality from the one we Whites live in. In their world, racism is omnipresent. It is unavoidable. It is the knee on the neck. Being an ally means looking and seeing, listening and hearing, discussing and speaking out. It means answering my wife’s challenge by pushing ourselves outside of comfort and complacency, and committing ourselves.

And for me, it means writing.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Special Guest, Alma Alexander!

Today, I welcome my friend Alma Alexander to the blog to talk about her new novel, The Second Star. She has lots to say about the book, about writing in general, and about advice for beginning writers. Please welcome her to the site!

*****

The Second Star, by Alma Alexander1. As we begin, please tell us about The Second Star. What is it about? What are its major themes?

The Second Star tells the story of the crew of Earth’s first starship, lost for 200 years, found and returned home, still alive but badly damaged by the experience. As one of my characters said – six people went out to teh stars; more than 70 fractured souls returned.

There are several LARGE themes in here.

It’s a novel about the big eternal questions – about who or what God is; about our own immortal souls and their ‘salvation’; what it really means to be human; and whether it is possible to go out to where the monsters dwell and expect to come home again unchanged.

In the two centuries that have passed on the ground since my starship originally departed, the world didn’t stand still.

Global warming has affected the world dramatically (but it is background, here, and is not a major factor in the unfolding of events except for details embroidered in – like the fact that air travel is now a rare event, for instance). There have been historical
developments which have shaped the foundations of the ‘new’ world, two centuries hence. Some of those changes turned us backward as well as forward – and my tech is commensurate with that – I am not portraying full-on high-tech utopia here.

The six rescued crew members have literally aged only a handful of years in the duration of those two centuries, and when they are plunged back into their world… For the people on the ground – they’ve been the frogs in the pot all along, a pot which was simmering so that they didn’t notice the rise in temperature. For the returned ship crew, they’re very much frogs who have been thrust into boiling water without warning. For them, things HAVE changed. They have returned home, to the home world… but have they? Can they? That’s a huge theme thread running through the story – can you ever really ‘come home’ again?

Especially so if you return after a major and chaotic ‘first contact’ situation, a traumatic event for both the humans and the alien, resulting in a psychological crash involving the splintering into many different personalities. All of my characters return as multiples of
themselves. And dealing with that – and with the shattering aftereffects of that alien encounter – is the bones of the story.

It deals with science, and also with faith – about the things we hold holy, and the reasons we believe those things, and what happens if the rock we thought we were standing on crumbles beneath out feet.

It’s a big book. There’s a lot in it.

2. The story resonates so powerfully with what our world has been through in recent months — quarantines, fears of contagion. To what degree did you respond to events, and to what degree did you anticipate them?

The story was long written by the time the pandemic came roaring in. It might well be read differently by readers who have lived through/are living through quarantine conditions… but such “quarantine” as occurs in the book was neither a response to nor an
anticipation of what the year 2020 brought to our doorstep. In retrospect, if the thing wasn’t already done and imminent in terms of release… if I were writing it RIGHT NOW… it is entirely possible that I would have at least referenced the quarantine in terms of 2020, in this story’s distant past. As it is, I have to leave it to readers to do the necessary extrapolation.

3. Your lead character is, essentially, a a psychologist, and your narrative does a pretty deep dive into Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka Multiple Personality Disorder). Are you trained in psychology? What sort of research did you do as you prepared to write this?

I am not a trained psychologist but I AM a trained scientist, with a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology. I’ve already used that background in a much more focused manner, in my Were Chronicles books, where I posit an entirely plausible biological basis for Were
creatures and how they exist and what happens (genetically) to them as they change into their animal avatars. For Second Star, I did my usual research – but I probably took liberties with the subject matter because in our reality the so-called Multiple Personality Disorder arises from childhood trauma, abusive situations, a way to survive the unsurvivable. There is a precipitating event in my story, to be sure, but in THIS reality the precipitating event is both psychological and physical, in a very real sense. What that meant was that the syndrome would function in ways different from what current research into the area posited. I certainly don’t claim to be an authority – but I read up on a fascinating syndrome and then gave it the kind of shape thatmy story needed. In other words, if I may, Dammit Jim, I’m a storyteller not a psychologist…

4. From a craft perspective, what was the greatest challenge you faced while writing The Second Star, and how did you address it?

My six crewmembers from the lost-and-returned starship each came back carrying different fragments of personality – fragments which were just as real and ‘coherent’ as humans as their original personality might have been. The difficulty was that I was working in a written medium and all I had to work with was the words on a page – I could not rely on visual cues (except as described in those words, and I couldn’t do too much of THAT) – which meant that the personality ‘changes’ had to rely on changes of ‘voice’, as rendered through the written word. Sometimes writers do get envious of the ability of visual media to convey subtle changes through minor alterations of posture, through expression of face and eyes, through an actual AUDIBLE spoken voice which can ‘change’ as required – we have none of those luxuries, we rise or fall by power of word (and the reader’s imagination) alone. Doing a multiple personality book is HARD. Starting with keeping track of which personality is speaking at any given time, and adjusting voice and vocabulary for that personality, to trusting the reader, in the end, to ‘hear’ spoken words in the voice that you are trying to paint, and to differentiate – sometimes several times in the space of a single extended dialogue scene – between different personalities manifesting *in the same character*. As in, the reader knows that the character is speaking – there is only one mouth, only one set o f vocal cords, but they HAVE to hear the moment when one personalty flips into another, to hear that changed happen. Everything depends on that. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted to do in the written word…

5. You have written a broad spectrum of speculative fiction over the course of your career, and have made a name for yourself as a fantasy writer. Why this book at this time? Is this turn into more science fiction-based story telling a one-off, or do you plan to do more of this going forward?

Fantasy is still my primary milieu, as it were, but although this is my first serious ‘science fiction’ novel that doesn’t mean I haven’t dipped my toe in the genre before.

I did a science fantasy, so to speak, trilogy that is my Were Chronicles books (Random, Wolf, and Shifter) which posits a valid genetic basis for the existence and function of Were creatures in our universe; I did a science fiction novel with a humorous turn,
where time traveling androids take an entire SF con on a joyride to the moon (“AbductiCon”) – it’s my love letter to fandom and to conventions,I am something of a polymath when it comes to that. I am already in the planning stages of another more purely ‘science fiction’ novel, so The Second Star is probably not the last of its
kind. Watch my website for any further announcements…

6. In what ways has your artistic life changed with social-distancing, stay-at-home, and the rest? Has it impacted your creative process? Your output?

Becoming a primary caretaker of two loved family members who are high(er) risk for the Covid-19 scourge does take up a lot of time. I’m the chauffeur, I’m the grocery shopper, I’m everything that is necessary, and often that simply means shelving my ‘work’ and doing
whatever I need to do to fulfill my responsibilities there.

I’ve lost income – people who are themselves cash-strapped are less likely to seek out editorial work, for instance, which is what I do as a professional service, and I’ve also lost several people from my Patreon as they reduce non-essential spending in a time of uncertain income of their own. I’m also becoming prone to what has become known as the Pandemic Procrastination syndrome, and I find myself simply postponing things I have to do because there simply doesn’t seem to be any tearing hurry to do them right now. I have joined up with social media stuff that keeps me in touch with my tribe (there’s a ‘convention’ going on in Facebook – I don’t know I think it started in March sometime – and it’s still going strong – it’s a blast). Keeping in touch with friends through the computer screen is becoming New Normal, but maybe one day the real cons will return and we can all meet again. In the meantime…it’s a tough time.

7. Can you offer any advice to authors just starting their careers at this difficult time?

A jaded advice giver once said, “if there’s anything else that you want to be besides a writer… be that.” It’s not an easy choice. But as I tell people – if you don’t want to be a writer nobody can help you; if you do want to be a writer nobody can stop you. Things have slowed down but they have not stopped and neither should your vocation, if you truly have it. Write, not because you expect fame or fortune, but because you have to – listen to the voices inside your heart and your head – tell the stories that want to be told. Even if
the world ends tomorrow, those stories are important.

But don’t take the easy shortcuts. Don’t “publish” stuff that should never have been published, just because you can. If you do, make sure it’s edited, and that you present the best possible product that you are able to present. And do understand that when people don’t like your offering – and if nobody has ever disliked it you aren’t being read by enough people – they aren’t out to destroy YOU. Never forget that there is no such thing as universal acclaim. Write something else. Write something better. There is no way out except through – and if you make it through the thickets and the chasms and the booby traps I’ll see you on the other side.

*****

Alma (A.D.) Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. Find out more about Alma:

Website (www.AlmaAlexander.org)

Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlmaAlexander/)

Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander)

Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander)

Monday Musings: On Race, Privilege, and Uncomfortable Conversations

As I white progressive, I have struggled with how to write this post. I know that the white progressives in my audience will struggle to read and process it. All of this, I believe, is to the good.

This past week, as I discussed with my adult children the protests taking place in cities across the country, my older daughter sent me an article called “I, Racist,” written by John Metta back in 2015. This is an extraordinary piece and I urge you to read it right now, before continuing with my post. Seriously, read the article. We’ll wait.

Much of what follows here is my working through of Metta’s piece – the thoughts reflected here are more his than mine. There are four main points to Metta’s argument that strike me as central to all discussions of race in America.

First, “Black people think in terms of we because [they] live in a society where the social and political structures interact with [them] as Black people. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.”

Second, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”

Third, “the reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad…. People of color, especially Black people… are seen as fundamentally bad.”

And finally, perhaps most important: “White people, every single one of [us], are complicit in this racism because [we] benefit directly from it.”

Last week, my Monday Musings post focused on White privilege, and I suppose this week’s does as well. The truth is, I am thinking all of this through as I write, so forgive me if this comes across as a work in progress rather than as something more finished. I know better than to claim that my thoughts on race and Metta’s essay are well-organized or comprehensive. Like so many of us right now, I am processing, figuring things out, asking myself questions. The fact is, Metta’s observations make for uncomfortable reading for Whites because they are so very hard to refute. But that is also the source of the article’s power and value.

Let’s start with points one and two. Once we accept the notion that Blacks think in terms of “we” while Whites enjoy the luxury of interacting with the world as individuals, we begin to understand how the conversation about race in America has failed so utterly to move our society forward. As Metta points out, Whites take such conversations personally. We see in the notion of systemic racism an attack on ourselves – which leads us to turn conversations about race into conversations about our bruised feelings. White privilege is by definition systemic. It filters into every element of our lives – our health, our shelter, our our finances, our relationships with institutions and their representatives (including police), and on and on.

And, I have to say, most of the progressive Whites I know are open to conversations about privilege and its prevalence. To a point. The problem comes when we turn to the notion of complicity. As Metta puts it, we Whites are unable to “differentiate [our] participation within a racist system” from accusations of being racists ourselves. We conflate the two, turn the conversation to our sense of being attacked and accused, and therefore shut down the discussion entirely. I know this pattern. I have too often gone down that path myself.

Hearing that we are complicit in a racist society hurts. No doubt. Our first response is to deny, to draw a clear line distinguishing ourselves from defenders of the the Confederate Flag, from the idiots who call 911 on people of color in parks and stores and “nice” (re. White) neighborhoods, from those who assault and murder. Defensiveness, though, helps no one, and it certainly doesn’t change reality.

In fact, I would argue this: If only we Whites could STOP taking these conversations personally, if only we could back away from our individual privilege and begin to look at our world and society as part of a larger “we” instead of always as “I, me, my” – in other words, if we could talk about the issues more like Metta argues that Blacks do – we might find that conversations about race progress far more smoothly. Our privilege is actually no privilege at all. It hurts us. It cripples our society. It hurts the people of color around us.

Recently, I happened upon a brief (one minute long), wonderful video that first came out in 2016 featuring educator and activist Jane Elliott. She is White, speaking to an auditorium filled with White people, and she asks them to stand if they would be willing to trade places with Black people in America. Not one person stands up. She asks a second time. No one. And then she tells them the obvious: that they know there is a racial problem in America, and they are willing to accept its consequences for others, but not for themselves. That is privilege.

Only when we can accept that our society is inherently racist, that we as Whites benefit every day, in every way, from that racism – only then can we start to improve our country for all Americans. It’s not enough to differentiate ourselves from the conspicuous racists we see on TV and read about in the headlines. It’s not enough to say “but my heart is in the right place,” even if it is. We have to be willing to do more – something my daughters have been telling me for some time now. We have to donate to organizations that support those who are fighting racism. We have to stand up and say to our fellow Whites, “Open your eyes and ears – see what is happening, listen to the people who live this racist reality every day.” And instead of saying, “I am better than those other racists because I have not done those terrible things,” we have to say, “From this day forward, I will be better than I have been, and here is how.”

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “A Feat of Association”

Sometimes, originality lies not in the absolute novelty of what we come up with, but rather in the connections we make between two or more disparate influences.

One of my favorite musicals of all time is West Side Story. The music is gorgeous, the story line heartrending, the action poignant, gripping, deliciously tragic. And of course, there is a reason the story works so well. It is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with music and dancing added in. In place of family rivalry, we have gang violence. In place of the friar, we have Doc, the drugstore owner. In place of blades we have a pistol. But the story is just the same.

The legendary Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, used MacBeth as the inspiration for Throne of Blood, which he set in 16th century Japan. Later in his career, he would use King Lear as the creative inspiration for Ran, also set in Japan’s feudal period.

For those who prefer Disney films to foreign films, The Lion King is, essentially, Hamlet. Look it up.

Shakespeare, of course, is not the only source of adaptive creativity. Alex Bledsoe is a friend of mine and a fantastic writer. His Dark Jenny series is a fantasy/noir treatment of the King Arthur legends. “Jenny” is Guinevere. I recommend the books.

I have written about ideas before in this Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, and it seems I’m doing so again today. They are, as I have said, our bread and butter, the currency in which we do business. And I suppose I am focusing this time on adaptations because I have an idea for a new project, something utterly different from anything I’ve written before.

First of all, this new project is going to be science fiction rather than fantasy. If I had to classify it further, I would call it space opera. Why am I taking this on? I honestly couldn’t give you a reason beyond the obvious and most simple: When the story came to me – when I first imagined my narrative framework and my lead characters – it was in the form of an SF story. There were planets and interstellar ships and nebulas and cool shit like that. Who was I to argue?

Second, this project will take as its inspiration a set of classic books by one of my favorite authors. I am not ready to say who, or which books. I’ll just say that when the idea hit me, these books and the basic outlines of their plots came with it. I couldn’t tell you why. So now I’m reading. I’ll be reading for a while, since I envision a trilogy. And that’s fine, because I’m currently in the middle of writing another project.

This is supposed to be a writing-tip post, and so allow me to offer some advice in this regard: Coming up with new ideas is not always easy, and I have seen too many young writers beating themselves up because they think their idea for a book or story is too close to something else that has been done. Originality is important, no doubt. And I would certainly never tell any writer to copy the work of another. But to quote Robert Frost (who said this, or a form of it, more than once), “An idea is a feat of association.” Sometimes, originality lies not in the absolute novelty of what we come up with, but rather in the connections we make between two or more disparate influences.

My new idea is, on the face of it, not anything new. Space opera has been done a thousand and one times before. And obviously, if I am inspired by a work (or set of works) of classic literature, my narrative structure is not exactly breaking new ground, either. But I am certain that no one has thought to put these two elements together in this way. THAT is the originality, the novelty. That is what has me so jazzed about my “feat of association.”

Stay tuned.

And keep writing.

Monday Musings: A True Story of Privilege

I can’t shed my privilege – it is part and parcel of who and what I am, as impossible to separate as chewed gum wadded in tissue.

This is a true story. Every detail. I swear.

When Nancy and I were in graduate school, we lived in Mountain View, California, about seven miles south of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. Some days we rode our bikes to school, but mostly we drove. About two thirds of the way back to home from campus, on the left side of El Camino Real, the main thoroughfare running through that part of the South Bay, there was a strip mall. It was actually more square than “strip” – a horseshoe of storefronts surrounding a parking area. It included a grocery store, a drug store, a few restaurants, some specialty stores and clothing stores. It included a Tower Records. It included a bank.

One day in early spring – California spring; it was technically still winter – I went home at midday to work on my dissertation. I had done some teaching in the morning. I might have had office hours. But I was going home to write. On the way home, I stopped at the Tower Records. I had a birthday coming up, and I probably was looking for one CD or another to add to my growing collection. I remember that I didn’t buy anything that day.

As I pulled back onto the El Camino, turning left across traffic, a police car eased in behind me and began to follow. I was pretty sure that I had made my turn legally, so I didn’t think too much about it. After about a block, though, he turned on his lights. I pulled over at the first opportunity, my heart rate speeding up a bit. I rolled down my window, expecting the police officer to approach me on the driver’s side.

He didn’t. He opened his door and got out of the car, but he remained behind the open door, his right hand out of sight. From there, he called to me to get out of the car, to move to the sidewalk, and to brace my hands against the building there. By now, I was truly scared. I did exactly as I was told. The cop approached me, as did two more guys in uniform and one plainclothes cop. I hadn’t see the others arrive. All of them had their weapons drawn. They frisked me, asked me to remove my wallet, the one thing I was carrying, from my pocket. They wanted to know if the car was mine, and they had me show them the registration.

The more they talked to me, the calmer they grew. My panic subsided. They asked if they could search my car – a Toyota Corolla hatchback – and I gave them permission to look through every inch of it. I asked what they thought I had done and they told me that someone had just robbed the bank next to the Tower Records. The suspect fit my description ALMOST to a “T”: brown curly hair, beard and mustache, blue t-shirt and jeans. But – and this is why they were feeling calmer – the guy was described as being at least six feet tall. I’m five-seven on a good day, with a strong tailwind.

By this point, people were watching us – a crowd had gathered. Flashing lights, cops with their weapons in hand, a guy being frisked on the street. Of course we’d drawn attention. But after about ten minutes of conversation – “Where do you work? Where do you live? How long have you been in the Bay Area? Where are you going now? Why did you stop at the shopping plaza?” – they let me go. I got back in my car, shaken, but feeling that I would have one helluva story to tell Nancy that night. As I drove home to our apartment, I was almost certain someone was following me, probably the plainclothes cop checking on my story. When I pulled into the apartment complex, he drove on by. I never saw any of them again, and I don’t know if they ever caught the guy who robbed the bank.

That was on March 8, 1991.

How can I be so sure of that? Remember what I said at the outset: Every detail of this is true.

I know the date because it was the day after videotape of the Rodney King beating first was aired on a news broadcast in Los Angeles.

During the entirety of my encounter with the police, I never once feared for my life or my physical safety. Yes, I was scared, but that was because I didn’t understand why I had been stopped or why they had their weapons drawn. Throughout the incident, the police treated me with courtesy and respect.

Privilege comes in many forms and manifests itself in many ways. That day, my privilege kept me safe. It kept me from being beaten or shot. It kept me from being handcuffed or put on the ground. I have no doubt that, had I been black, had the suspect been black, I would have been cuffed, face down on the sidewalk, a knee in the small of my back, if not on my neck. It wouldn’t have mattered how short I was.

But really the larger point is this: I don’t need to go back nearly thirty years to find examples of how being white gives me privileges denied to those whose skin is brown or black.

As most of you know, I birdwatch. On spring mornings, I walk through local neighborhoods with my binoculars, peering into bushes and trees. Sometimes, I’m sure, it looks like I’m skulking rather than birdwatching. We don’t have to imagine what the reaction to this would be if I were black. Just look at what happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park last week.

Then again, if I were black, I wouldn’t need to be birdwatching to draw unwanted attention from ordinary citizens and law enforcement. I take walks just about everyday. Walking while black can get a person harassed. It can get a person arrested. It can get a person killed. And yet, it’s safer than running while black. Ask Ahmaud Arbery. It’s safer than driving while black. Ask Philando Castile, or Sam Dubose, or Alton Sterling, or too many others.

If I were black, but everything else about me and my finances was the same, I would 1) have a lower credit score; 2) pay a higher mortgage; 3) pay more for every car I’ve ever bought; 4) have a harder time booking places to stay when we travel; 5) have a harder time being seated in restaurants; 6) have less access to affordable quality health care; 7) have a lower life expectancy. These are not guesses on my part. This is fact, supported by research and data.

Privilege, as I say, takes many forms. All of it, though, leads to the same place: The freedoms I am able to take for granted as a white man in this county – the freedom to enjoy American prosperity, the freedom to avail myself of the health care system politicians are so fond of boasting about, the freedom to walk and run and drive and recreate without fear for myself or my family – all of these freedoms are denied to black Americans. There is no freedom when you fear agents of the State. There is no freedom when your economic viability is subject to the prejudices of strangers who wield the power to destroy you. There is no freedom when white people in parks, in playgrounds, in college campus common areas, in malls and supermarkets and Starbucks, have the power to sic the police on anyone they deem too different.

Friends of mine, people of color, have written about all of this with more eloquence than I have to offer. But change will only come when all of us speak up, including – especially – those of us who enjoy the privilege of being white Americans.

Our country is on fire right now. It is on fire because a white police officer, after stopping a black man for far less than suspicion of bank robbery, knelt on the man’s neck until the man died. He knelt on the man’s neck. Until the man died.

Our country is on fire because our President, the very embodiment of white privilege, is more interested in firing up the white supremacists in his electoral base than he is in promoting tolerance and healing and greater equality.

Our country is on fire because after a shameful racial history that dates back four centuries plus, we remain a nation that is governed by prejudice and fear.

I can’t shed my privilege – it is part and parcel of who and what I am, as impossible to separate as chewed gum wadded in tissue. What I can do is use my privilege to speak up, to say “enough,” to draw attention to the advantages I enjoy in the hope that this will make my brothers and sisters in privilege see what is denied to those who aren’t as lucky as we are.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Single Point of View v. Multiple Point of View

If you know me, if you have been with me in panel discussions at conventions, if you have ever received any sort of writing advice from me, or even heard me give such advice to others, I need for you to sit down and prepare yourselves. What I’m about to tell you is shocking. For some of you, it may be more than you can handle. But we’re in this together and we will get through to a better place. I promise.

Ready? Here goes…

It is the last week of May – we are twenty-one weeks, twenty-one Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, into the year – and I have yet to write about point of view.

I know. I can’t believe it either.

Don’t worry, though. I’m going to make it up to you today. Who knows, I might even return to the subject in the weeks and months to come. I’m confident that, by the end of the year, you’ll be as tired of hearing me go on and on about point of view as you usually are. A bit of normality in a topsy-turvy world…

Point of view, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is, essentially, the narrative voice used to tell a story. And the initial choice of point of view for each project we write usually focuses on the relative advantages of writing in first person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “I,” “me,” “my”) versus writing in close third person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “she/he/they,” “hers/his/theirs”).

(Yes, there are other choices. One can write in what is known as omniscient POV, a challenging voice to use and master, because it demands that the narrator know what all characters are thinking and feeling WITHOUT resorting to what’s referred to as head-hopping. And one can write in second person point of view, in which the author writes the entire narrative in effect addressing the reader – “You walk into a bar and order your drink. Sounds and smells assault you from all sides…” Etc. Both of these are difficult, even risky choices for beginning writers.)

One day last week, though, I had a conversation with a writer friend (let’s call her “Haith Funter”) about the other choice we make when deciding on the narrative voice for our projects, and it is this element of point of view I wish to focus on today. Specifically, our conversation centered on whether Haith should consider using a single point of view character or multiple point of view characters for a future project she’s considering.

And being me, the moment she mentioned that she was grappling with this I launched into a lengthy (and unasked-for) recitation of the relative merits of each approach. A recitation I offer again here.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Let’s start with what I mean when I speak of multiple point of view characters. This is NOT an invitation to jump willy-nilly from character to character, sharing their thoughts, emotions, and sensations. That is called head-hopping, and it is considered poor writing. Rather, writing with multiple point of view characters means telling the story with several different narrators, each given her or his own chapters or chapter-sections in which to “tell” their part of the story. When we are in a given character’s point of view, we are privy only to her thoughts and emotions. In the next chapter, we might be privy to the thoughts of someone else in the story. This is an approach used to great effect by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin goes so far as to use his chapter headings to tell us who the point of view character is for that section of the story. Guy Gavriel Kay uses multiple point of view quite a bit – in Tigana, in his Fionavar Tapestry, in many of his more recent sweeping historical fantasies. I have used it in my epic fantasy series – The LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, Blood of the Southlands, The Islevale Cycle.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterThis is in contrast with single character point of view, in which we have only one point of view character for the entire story (and that point of view can be either first or third person). Think of Haith’s Yane Jellowrock series, or my Thieftaker or Justis Fearsson series, or Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Suzanne Collins Hunger Games series, or even (for the most part) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

With both approaches, the point of view of each character is inviolate, meaning that your reader can learn nothing from a given character that the character her- or himself can’t know. The key is that this limitation means vastly different things in single POV on the one hand, and multiple character point of view on the other.

You might notice that the examples I give for each approach are distinctive. Granted, my examples are FAR from comprehensive, but they are instructive.

SPELL BLIND,  by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollack)For single character point of view we have essentially two kinds of books: urban fantasies that have a mystery element, and YA novels that concentrate as much on the lead character’s emotional development as on external factors. Single character POV tends to be intimate. Readers form a powerful attachment to the narrators of these books. And, of even greater importance, readers learn things about the narrative at the same time the characters do. Even in books that begin with our narrator looking back on past events, we are soon taken back in time so that this older narrative has a sense of immediacy. This is why single character POV works so well in mysteries. The reader gets information as the “detective” does. Discovery happens in real time, as it were.

My examples of multiple character POV books are almost all grand, sprawling epics of one sort or another. In part, this is because it can be more difficult to tell such stories from the vantage point of only one character. But more than that, the power of multiple POV lies in two simple facts.

First, because we are following several POV characters at once, we are drawn into a number of subplots. All of these are braided together in some way, contributing to the larger story line. And since we can leave one to pick up another, we almost always have several characters in danger, or creating danger, at any one time. Each shift from one POV character to another leaves one story hanging in order to pick up another. The shifts in narrator actually impart momentum to the story.

Second, in multiple POV, our readers always have more information than any one character. We see traps as they’re being laid, we see intrigue from all angles, we can recognize the perils for one character based upon the machinations of another. Rather than discovering things as our narrators do, our readers are almost always one step ahead of them. This knowledge creates anticipation, feeds expectation, some of which we can satisfy, some of which we might thwart, all of which ratchets up the narrative tension.

Different stories lend themselves to different point of view choices. I would never dream of telling anyone (not even Haith) what approach to use for their story. Chances are you’ll know what your story requires as soon as you begin to write it. But my hope is that a clearer understanding of the relative strengths and advantages of each option will make that choice a little easier.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: 29 Years Ago This Weekend

Wedding Day Photo 1 It’s Memorial Day – and, it seems to me, a particularly somber one at that – and so I won’t write too much for today’s Musings.

But this is also a very significant weekend in my life. Twenty-nine years ago, on Memorial Day weekend 1991, Nancy and I were married. (Our anniversary is actually tomorrow, the 26th.)

To this day, memories of our wedding, and all the festivities surrounding it, warm me and comfort me and bring a huge smile to my face. We lived in California at the time – Mountain View, in the Bay Area, to be precise. We were graduate students at Stanford, Nancy in biology, me in history. The tradition, of course, is that the bride’s family pays for the wedding, but Nancy’s folks ran a small family farm, and even with our modest plans for the ceremony and reception, a Bay Area wedding was beyond their budget. They helped us out, and so did my parents.

Wedding Day Photo 2But we did everything we could to keep costs down. Because we were students at the school, Stanford allowed us to marry in the Rodin Sculpture Garden, near the university museum, for something like $200. It was a gorgeous venue — we have joked since that we were married in front of the Gates of Hell, because, well, we were. We had our reception at a reasonable local restaurant – part of a Bay Area chain called, I kid you not, the Velvet Turtle. Not amazing, but decent food and lots of it. We hosted a party the night before the wedding at our apartment, and then did the same for brunch the day after the wedding. Our big activity? On Saturday afternoon, after the rehearsal lunch, we had a softball game for the entire guest list – whoever wanted to play. (We played a lot of softball in grad school – her bio lab had an intramural team.) The game was bride’s team against the groom’s team (randomly selected). I have no idea who won. But the two key rules were, 1) Nancy didn’t have to play in the field, and 2) she got to bat whenever she wanted, no matter which team was up. She would just announce, “Bride’s turn to hit!” and then she would…

Mostly, we spent the weekend catching up with family and dear friends from near and far. And, of course, celebrating our love. That sounds like the worst sort of cliché, but I honestly don’t care. It’s the truth. From start to finish it was about the joining of our lives, the bringing together of nearly all the people in the world whom each of us loved most, so that they could be with us when we declared our intention to build a life together.

Yes, the memories are bittersweet. We have lost too many of the people who stood with us that day. Nancy’s sister and one of her brothers, one of my brothers, my parents, other relatives and friends… As I say, too many. And I won’t stand here and try to claim that the entire weekend went smoothly, that there were no conflicts or problems or logistical issues. There were. Some were truly comical, others just annoying.

Overall, though, it was wonderful – the perfect kickoff to what has been an amazing 29 years.

Across the country this Memorial Day, young couples are dealing with wedding plans that look nothing like what they hoped for, or that have been postponed until who-knows-when? It’s not something we hear about often – such disappointments are overshadowed by the breathtaking scope of this tragedy. For those affected, though, it must come as a terrible blow. I can say in all honesty that it’s the love that matters, the bond these couples mean to celebrate. I can also say, with equal candor, that this would have brought me small comfort had we lost out on our big weekend all those years ago.

I wish I had more to offer by way of wisdom and solace for those whose plans have been ruined by the pandemic. I will spare you sappy declarations of my love for Nancy (except to say that I honestly do love her even more today than I did back then, which I wouldn’t have thought possible). Part of the point of Monday Musings is to share with you where my thoughts have wandered over the weekend.

This weekend, they were in a sculpture garden two thousand miles from here.

Wishing you a great week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

Monday Musings: That Which Divides Us

But there I was, with my mask and my recyclable bags. She might even have seen me pull up in our Prius, just to complete the portrait. And I think I was a convenient target for more generalized resentments and hostilities.

I went food shopping this weekend and when I presented my recyclable bags to the check-out person, she told me that they’re really not supposed to use customers’ bags because it’s not safe. She was not wearing a mask or gloves when she told me this (I was wearing a mask). Nor did she say anything to the dozen or so people who entered the store without masks while I was there.

Fine. I took my groceries, in their store-supplied, eco-nightmare plastic bags, and I left.

But I’ve been pissed off about it ever since.

To be clear, I am not angry with her for telling me that they couldn’t use my bags. I understand the concern – she doesn’t really know me (although I see her every week) and she doesn’t know where those bags have been. What bothers me is the lack of consistency, the fact that she professes concern enough to make me use those plastic bags, but she doesn’t take the time to protect herself with a mask or gloves. She scolds me for trying to use the bags, but doesn’t bat an eye at the customers who refuse to wear masks.

We live in a small, progressive college town in the South. This grocery store is in the next town over, which is not at all progressive. Many in the surrounding communities resent the university and the people it brings to their part of the world, precisely because we are “liberal” and “elite.” They resent our privilege, and I get that. They resent the privilege and obliviousness of many of the students, and I get that, too. They tend to ignore the fact that the university is far and away the largest employer in the area and that many in their conservative communities seek and secure employment at the school in a variety of positions. I tend to ignore the fact that the university and the outsiders it draws to their area intrude on every element of their collective existence, forcing them to live and work in ways that they likely wouldn’t choose to if we weren’t here.

There are legitimate grievances on all sides.

But I think what bothered me most about the incident at the store is that it probably had nothing to do with safety, or with policy. It was all about politics, about the ever-deepening divide between the left and right. In other ways, my interaction with this woman was perfectly pleasant. But there I was, with my mask and my recyclable bags. She might even have seen me pull up in our Prius, just to complete the portrait. And I think I was a convenient target for more generalized resentments and hostilities. I don’t think there was anything personal about it.

And in a way that makes it worse, not better.

I heard a story on NPR the other day (yes, I know: more ammunition for the right-wingers who hate me and all I stand for) about a guy who had been vocally and obnoxiously anti-mask, who then contracted the coronavirus and died. Members of this guy’s family are now putting up with trolls on the left who are saying that he deserved to die, that he got what was coming to him. Really? Yes, I will agree that his death is the very definition of tragic irony. But did he deserve to die? Do the people who loved him, who are now mourning him, deserve to be mocked, to have their grief compounded by the self-righteousness of those who see the world differently?

Should I be angry with that woman at the checkout counter, or should I feel badly for her? She works in a grocery store along the interstate. She interacts with strangers every hour of every day. She might have refused to touch those canvas bags I brought in, and she might have gotten some small satisfaction out of our interaction, but she has to work a job that has become as risky as any first responder position. She’s still going without a mask, without any real precautions. She is at much greater risk of contracting the illness than I am, and I would bet every dollar I have that her health insurance isn’t nearly as good as mine.

For those of us on the political left, particularly those of us who are as privileged and fortunate as I am, it’s all too easy to express contempt for the people protesting at state capitals across the country. I know, because I’ve done it. And I do think they’re putting themselves at risk. I do believe that their threats of violence against governors – both explicit and implicit – are utterly inappropriate, bordering on criminal. But I also understand their rage. They are, most of them, low income workers who are screwed either way. They are most vulnerable to an economic calamity AND they are probably in jobs that are most likely to expose them to the virus. Sure, their beef ought to be with the Trump Administration and its failure to address this crisis promptly or competently. But the Administration is a remote target for rage. Governors less so. And the progressive “elites” in their communities even less than that.

This is the point in the essay when I ought to have some fitting platitude at hand. I don’t. Yes, our leaders have failed us, deepening our national polarization by word and by deed. But we’re grown-ups and we ought to be able to act like it, even if our President can’t. Given the chance to go back to the store and speak with that woman, I honestly don’t know what I would say. Everything that comes to mind would sound patronizing and judgmental and defensive. We are in the midst of events that will shape our politics and society for years, perhaps even decades, to come. The numbers of casualties – of the disease and of the downturn – are staggering. We ought to have come together as a nation. Instead, our divisions have grown more pronounced. I fear that the histories written about these weeks and months will judge all of us harshly.

I have no remedies to offer beyond those I give each week. Today, they seem especially apt.

Stay safe, and be good to one another.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ideas — Finding Them, Using Them

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

Back at the beginning of this calendar year, when I started the Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, I asked folks in my Facebook Group for ideas about what subjects I should cover. I have written about most, if not all, of the suggestions that came in at that time, so I would like to begin today’s post by renewing my call for suggestions. Please, if there is any topic you want me to cover, let me know and I’ll do my best to turn it into a Wednesday post.

Today, I would like to take on an amorphous topic: ideas. I am asked all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” And whenever I’m asked, I come up with some vague answer that goes something like, “Ideas come from everywhere. Writing, particularly writing speculative fiction, is an exercise in asking ‘What if?’ What if we put magic in this historical period? Or what if we take an island world with kingdoms and early flintlock technology and add time travel? Or what if we blend werewolf dynamics with detective-noir storylines and issues of mental health? “What if” is a powerful question, one that can take us to entirely new worlds.”

Or, in response to “Where do you get your ideas?” I might say, “Different stories come from different places. Sometimes I key in on a specific character and grow a story from there. Sometimes my imagination fixes on an element of a magic system, or some other worldbuilding element, and suddenly I’m plotting out three books. Sometimes I’ll visualize a scene – some key moment in a story I’m still discovering, and that’s the foundation for my next project.”

Both of those answers are true. Both of them reflect realities of my creative process.

But the truth is, in answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” I could just as easily say, “My ideas? Where do they come from? I have no fucking clue.”

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Ideas, many writers will tell you, are a dime a dozen. When I was just starting out in this business and still working on my very first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, I worried that I would never have an idea for another project. When at last the idea for Winds of the Forelands came to me, I was both ecstatic and profoundly relieved. Today, my worry is not that I won’t have another idea; it’s that I won’t live long enough to write all the ideas I have. I’ve had people – folks who aren’t professional writers and who, frankly, have no sense of what the writing profession involves – say to me in all seriousness, “I have this great idea for a book. You should write it and we can split the royalties.” I usually say, with feigned politeness and more patience than I feel, “I have all the ideas I need, thanks. But it sounds like something you should write.” I WANT to say, “Dude, if you think coming up with some lame idea is half of what I do, you’re nuts.”

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

1. Don’t worry about where ideas come from. I won’t say it’s a stupid question, because it’s not. But the vague answers I offered above are about the best I can offer, and really the question is moot. Every idea has its own origin story, and no source of ideas is better or more valid than another.

2. Simple is okay. Been done before is okay. Even derivative can be okay. The other day I was listening to an NPR story about a new retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story. This is a formula that has been done to death, and yet here is a new interpretation of it that sounds fresh and compelling and that is obviously marketable. The idea is a starting point; sometimes it’s a framework as well. Ultimately, though, your characters and voice and style will define the story. Your setting and plot devices will set your work apart. Originality is born in the creative process.

3. Ideas can’t be forced. Except when they can. Yeah, I know – really helpful. But both of those statements are true. Ideas come on their own time, by their own volition. They take us by surprise, inspiring us with their potency and novelty. It’s a great feeling. At the same time, though, we can brainstorm, hastening those ideas, forcing them to the surface. It takes patience, but it can be done. I like to ask myself questions (beyond “what if?”). I will often open a new blank document on my computer and just start typing stream of consciousness. This approach doesn’t always lead to a great story, but it certainly can. Try it.

4. Great ideas keep giving. Some ideas lead to career-defining projects. Some fizzle. It’s not always obvious from the outset which is which. What’s more, we can be blinded by the power of that moment of epiphany when the first inkling comes to us. The test, though, is how the idea builds. I find that the best ideas I’ve had beget new ideas, one after another. The visualization of a scene, say, quickly leads me to a character, or two. And those characters introduce me to a magic system. Which begins to shape my world. Get what I mean? If an idea comes to me, but then just sits there, like an imagined lump, spawning nothing else, chances are it’s not that great an idea after all.

Ideas are slippery. They lack form until we give it to them. They need to be written down, because they will abandon us if we don’t give them our full attention right away. And, of course, there is no guarantee that even the best idea will lead to a bestselling book. But ideas are also the currency of this business, the things for which we quest, and the foundations of all we do.

And so I wish you a never-ending series of wonderful, fruitful ideas. And if I have a really good one, I’ll share it with you and you can write it. We’ll split the earnings…

Keep writing!