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NaNoWriMo Thoughts: Ideas & Inspirations

Inspiration can strike in the strangest ways. This is probably why most authors hate the inevitable “Where do you get your ideas from?” question.

 

This is my attempt to answer that question: I get my ideas from the world around me. I think everyone does to a certain extent, which is why one of the most common mantras is “write what you know,” though I do think that advice is a little misleading. After all, if I’m writing a period piece or so me far-flung space opera epic, then what I know as an English computer dude living in Delaware really isn’t applicable.

 

So what can inspire you? One source is dreams, which is why it’s a good idea to keep a pen and notepad on your bedside table to jot down the ideas as soon as you wake, because you WILL forget if you decide to wait until later, as I’ve learned to my cost. An infamous example of the dream as inspiration is the “Terminator” franchise. It began when James Cameron had a dream that consisted of a metal exoskeleton walking out of flames (Harlan Ellison might disagree on that form of inspiration and there’s legal reasons for Ellison’s credit on the first film, but Harlan is infamously cranky and litigious so who knows?). That dream became the finale of The Terminator and is, in my opinion, one of the best “holy crap” film moments of the 1980s.

 

Another obvious source of inspiration, and one partially alluded to in my Ellison aside above is whatever you might be reading. I know one of my earliest short stories was inspired by me reading Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon and thinking “I could do better than this!”

 

Thankfully, there are no extant copies of that story online as it was typical of a new, young writer in that it was terrible. That’s beside the point though. I read a lot of non-fiction, and listen to a couple of different history podcasts. And one of my most frequent thoughts are generally “what if this happened instead?” which leads to alternate history ideas or cross-pollination between disparate historical events and genres. What would the Roman Year of the Four Emperors look like through the lens of a fantasy world? I don’t know, but I might well find out by the end of National Novel Writing Month as that seems like fertile ground for at least fifty thousand words.

 

My current plan for the 2016 edition of that exercise revolves around an eighteenth century naval battle with a commander who was very much conflicted about whether he was even on the right side, which means I’m going to be hip-deep in geographical and historical research for the next couple of weeks. And that inspiration came from a single line in one of the “…for Dummies” series of books.

 

I also have dumber ideas inspired by mass media such as movies or television. Like most of the residents of the United States right now, I’m drowning in Presidential election coverage. Watching bits and pieces of the debates not long after finally succumbing and watching The Silence of the Lambs has lead me to a short story parody idea which so far involves Donald Trump looking in a mirror and asking “Would you vote me? I’d vote me so hard.” It’s very stupid, and I’m not sure I need the mental image of Donald Trump as Buffalo Bill, but since I inflicted it on myself, I figured I’d inflict it on my loyal readers, as few as you might be.

The last source of inspiration I’m going to consider is people watching. As I type this, I’m sat in a coffee shop facing a large window that opens to the street. This is both because I’m clearly a terrible cliché and because it’s a fantastic spot to observe the small section of the world that is my street. For example, about five minutes ago there was an African-American woman in a purple halter top engaged in an animated discussion with an older gentleman in a wheelchair. I don’t know what they were talking about, but judging by the wild gesticulations, it was clearly something both parties felt passionate about. I created a backstory in my head that it was the first meeting in around fifteen years between a school custodian and an infamous vandal who made his work a living hell. They’ve both long put such things behind them, but were reminiscing about old times in the way that people who aren’t quite friend sometimes do.

 

So, how do you get inspiration for your stories? I submit that the easiest way to do that is simply to keep your eyes and ears open.

 

Lightbulb stock photo by Kyryl Lakishyk

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Ashes to Ashes

I’m not typically someone who is affected by celebrity deaths. After all, the passing of someone who I have most likely never met, and wouldn’t be aware of my existence isn’t really something I find worth dwelling on.

But there are two very big exceptions to that rule, and it surprised me that they hit me so hard. The first exception was Sir Terry Pratchett, whose death in March 2015 after a multi-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Pratchett was (indeed, still is) my favorite author and I’ve enjoyed the Discworld series of comic fantasy novels since a friend recommended The Colour of Magic (I was still living in England back then, so the title did have that extra ‘u’ in ‘Colour’) to me in 1993.

Now, twenty-three years later, there is one last entry in the series that I haven’t read. The forty-first Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown awaits me. In some ways, I don’t want to read it because then it really will mean that there won’t be any more output from Pratchett to read. I think that’s why I decided to re-read the entire series again from scratch. If you follow me on Goodreads, you’ll see that I’ve gotten a good way through the series on this re-read. I’m both looking forward and not looking forward to the end of the series.

The other celebrity death that really affected me is that of David Bowie. As of this writing I’ve known that Bowie is no longer among the living for eighteen hours, and it still doesn’t quite have the sense of reality. When it comes to favorite things, my answers for favorite book, favorite song, favorite movie or favorite food vary depending on my moods, but s far as I can remember, I’ve always only ever had one answer to “Who is your favorite singer?” Bowie.

I’ not going to claim that I have some kind of ineffable, ephemeral connection to his music or that I associate seminal moments or compelling memories of my life with Bowie’s music. In fact, most of the seismic events in my personal life (two marriages, the birth of my son, moving to the US) and in the world in general (the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 attack) are associated with quite banal music that has become elevated by association with those moments. It’s the only reason that I unabashedly enjoy Avril Lavigne’s Complicated (and I’m guessing this blog is the only place that song will ever be associated with David Bowie ever.)

Bowie’s music was different. It is different, it didn’t need personal associations to elevate it to greatness. It achieved that all on it’s own (with the possible exception of The Laughing Gnome) The omnipresence of the tributes to Bowie online show the sheer breadth of the man’s body of work. I’ve heard snippets and songs from just about every album from 1967’s David Bowie to last Friday’s Black Star and it’s impossible to narrow any of it down to choose a favorite song. Heck, it’s such a strong discography I don’t think I’ve heard two people pick the same Bowie album as their favorite. For the record, my pick is Lodger,  the last of the Berlin trilogy. But even that is subject to change.

And beyond the music, Bowie was a damned good actor. The range that can encompass the haunted Major Jack Celliers of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence to the gleeful malevolence of Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth and so many roles in between shows that it was more than just the novelty take of a musician turned actor.

I’m also amazed that the internet, noted home of trolls, malingerers and assholes galore doesn’t seem to have a bad word to say about David Bowie. There’s none of the toxic vehemence and disagreements that have characterized reactions to so many news events and deaths. It’s weird and also somehow life-affirming to see the outpourings of so many strangers united in their unabashed love for the musical output of David Bowie.

There are o words here that can really pay tribute to him any better than the literally thousands of other sites and posts that are doing so, so if you feel inclined check those out. For me, I’m going to pay tribute by appreciating the man’s work one more time. It doesn’t even matter which album or song that plays when I hit “shuffle,” it’s Bowie. It will be great.

For the record it was the title track on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps.)

Stars & Bars

The Confederate Flag

If I could get political for a moment….

The Confederate Flag

First of all, I have to say that it blows my mind that a flag associated with a country that hasn’t existed since 1865 is somehow a hot button topic in 2015, almost exactly 150 years later. I realize that there is some wisdom in the George Santayana quote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The trouble is that those clinging to the Confederate flag aren’t remembering or repeating the past, it seems they are actively trying to stop the past from being the past and keep it in the present.

There are obviously a lot of issues around the display of the flag in question, notably First Amendment rights. So, yes, under the doctrine of Freedom of Speech, private individuals and entities can absolutely fly the flag if they so desire. I’d just urge them to remember that Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of that speech.

I do feel like this particular flag shouldn’t be flown from government buildings though, as it is a flag of treason, quite apart from the ugly baggage of hate and racism that so resonated with Dylan Roof as an inspiration for his terrorist acts of murder.

I don’t say treason lightly, but that is absolutely what the Confederate States of America did, they committed treason against the United States of America by any reasonable definition, such as this one:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Which the more astute among you might recognize as the first sentence of Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States of America. I think it’s pretty darn obvious that by beginning the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina at 4:30AM on April 12, 1861, the Confederate States had begin “levying War” against the United States. So that seems like a very cut and dried definition of treason.

So, I’ll ask again, why would any government organization in the United States (or any truly patriotic individual) want to fly a flag that explicitly supports treason against those very United States?

“It’s about heritage!”

I can kind of understand this argument a little bit, after all, I certainly celebrate my heritage as an Englishman and a Brit. I even do so by flying flags, in fact I have a version of this flag behind me as I type:

United Kingdom Flag

The National Flag of the United Kingdom.

Of course, one difference between the United Kingdom and the Confederacy is that the former is still an extant nation state, as is another region of the area, whose flag I sometimes display during certain sporting events, such as the World Cup, where Britain is split into its constituent countries:

Flag of England

The Flag of England

Again, though, unlike the Confederacy, England is still an existing country, and that is a de facto national flag. England also didn’t try to secede from the larger country it was a part of and then lose a war to the United States as a direct consequence of that secession.

Obviously, Britain did lose a war to the United States in the late 1770’s. I believe that victory in that war was celebrated on the fourth of this very month. This is true, and is one of the reasons I don’t fly this flag, which was the flag of Britain at the time of the American War of Independence:

The King's Colours - The British Flag at the time of the American Revolution

British Flag circa 1776

I don’t fly that flag because 1)it represents a nation that no longer exists (Great Britain pre-Northern Ireland – though that’s a complex enough issue on it’s own), 2) it represents a force that fought a war against the country I currently live in and support, and 3) it represents the losing side of that war. Astute readers will realize that all three criteria equally apply to the Confederate flag.

So, while I understand the heritage argument for the Confederate flag, I have a few issues with it. Firstly, as something of an amateur vexillologist (flag nerd – which is probably obvious from the above), the flag under discussion is not technically the flag of the Confederacy. There’s actually a choice of three different flags that could be considered Confederate national flags and thus might be argued to represent the heritage of the Southern states.

Firstly, there’s the original Confederate national flag – the so-called “Stars & Bars”

Stars & Bars

The First National Flag of the Confederate States of America

This particular flag was used from 1861-1863, with a few variations. Like the flag of the United States, each start represented a state that was a member of the Confederacy, which meant that it started with 7 stars and finished with the 13 you see in the picture. Though, like much else with the American Civil War, there is disagreement on whether the Confederacy had 11 or 13 member states by the end of the war. This would seem like a natural flag to celebrate one’s heritage, though it was disliked at the time for being too similar to the United States flag, leading to battlefield confusion when it was hanging limp on a flagstaff.

Which is why the Confederacy changed to a second flag, the so-called “Stainless Banner,” as designed by William T. Thompson.

Stainless Banner

The Second National Flag of the Confederate States of America

This flag could also be used to celebrate Southern heritage, though it might be a little bit more problematic as in the April 23, 1863 edition of the Daily Morning News, the designer did state that the primarily white field represented

“As a people we are fighting maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”

Which does make the heritage that this version of the flag represent rather more problematic in that the hateful racism is baked into the very intent of the flag itself. This flag was also controversial in that it features a battle flag emblazoned on the white field that’s associated with the flag of truce. And once again, when it was hanging limp on the flagstaff (suggesting that these flags could all do with a Viagra dose) it looked too much like another flag, the white flag of truce or surrender, which caused confusion, and I have to imagine was less than inspiring to those who marched under it. So, a third national flag was employed by the Confederate States of America, the so-called “Blood Stained Banner:”

The "Blood Stained Banner"

The Third National Flag of the Confederate States of America

Granted, this third flag saw very little use as it was only made official in 1865, which students of history might recall as the year that the Confederacy lost the civil war.

Oddly though, when people talk about the heritage and honoring of the Confederacy, they don’t fly any of the actual official flags of the Confederacy, which would make sense. Instead they tend to use this design

The Modern 'Confederate Flag'

Rectangular version of the Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia/Army of Northern Tennessee

Which really only makes sense if the heritage they are honoring is that of the Army of Northern Virginia, or the Army of Tennessee, and even in those cases, this flag is a slightly bastardized version of that, as the proportions are different and the white borders are missing, so not only is it a very strangely specific heritage that is claimed to be celebrated, it’s an inaccurate specific heritage.

And of course it’s worth noting that the Armies in question were fighting a treasonous war against the United States for the ability to keep enslaving human beings.

“The Civil War was About State’s Rights, not Slavery”

Oh, really? Then there wouldn’t be language in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America that would restrict the rights of the member states from doing certain things, such as this:

“No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

Article I, Section 9(4) of the Constitution of the Confederacy

Which, in addition to the principles of the United States Constitution that it’s mirroring, prevents the States from abolishing slavery if they so chose. So that’s at least one less right for the States of the Confederacy, and it’s a large one. It’s also concerned with slavery, which isn’t really a surprise, as preserving slavery was a bedrock cause for the Confederacy in the Civil War, as can be ascertained by looking at the various declarations of secession.

Firstly, an extract from the South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession:

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace of and eloin the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures, to servile insurrection.”

Next up, from Mississippi’s Declaration of Causes of Secession:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”

Or perhaps we should look to Florida’s unpublished Declaration of Causes:

“The Congressional halls where the members should meet with fraternal feelings, a just regard for the interests of all the States there represented and respect for the feelings of all its members has been prostituted to the daily denunciation and vituperation of the slave holding States as sanctioning oppression robbery and all villainies, thus subjecting the members from these States to the degradation of gross and constantly repeated insults, and compelling the exclusion from our public press of the debates of our national Legislature or the circulation of the most incendiary matter.”

The fourth State to secede, Alabama, didn’t have a Declaration of Causes, but in the speech that announced the state’s secession, Robert Hardy Smith did say:

“We have now placed our domestic institution, and secured its rights unmistakably, in the Constitution. We have sought by no euphony to hide its name. We have called our negroes ‘slaves’, and we have recognized and protected them as persons and our rights to them as property.”

The fifth seceding state, Georgia, did have a Declaration of Causes, and a rather lengthy one at that which begins with the issue of slavery front-and-center:

“The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.”

Louisiana, the sixth state to join the Confederacy, also didn’t have a formal Declaration of Causes but the Inaugural Address of Governor Thomas Overton Moore, the driving force behind the state’s secessionist movement, left no doubt as to his reasoning:

“So bitter is this hostility felt toward slavery, which these fifteen states regard as a great social and political blessing, that it exhibits itself in legislation for the avowed purpose of destroying the rights of slaveholders guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by the Acts of Congress… [in] the North, a widespread sympathy with felons has deepened the distrust in the permanent Federal Government, and awakened sentiments favorable to a separation of states.”

We’re back to Declarations of Causes for Texas, the seventh Confederate State:

“She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

And Virginia, state number eight, also has a Declaration of Causes, though it is the one that has least to say about slavery thus far:

“The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”

Arkansas’ secession was a bit more complex, though one of the resolutions passed at the second secession convention makes one of the causes clear:

“1st.  Resolved, That the platform of the party known as the black republican party, contains unconstitutional dogmas, dangerous in their tendency and highly derogatory to the rights of slave states, and among them the insulting, injurious and untruthful enunciation of the right of the African race in this country to social and political equality with the whites.”

So, if the Civil War wasn’t primarily about slavery, why did nine of the eleven member states reference slavery explicitly in the run up to their seceding? I’ll allow that in the cases of North Carolina & Tennessee were likely driven to secession by concerns about internal defense given their locations within the South.

Fundamentally, the Civil War was clearly about slavery, and the Confederacy was pro-slavery, so if you’re flying a flag ito show solidarity and heritage with the Confederacy, that flag is representative of racism, as teh heritage of the Confederate States is slavery and hate.