Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's in a name?

High frequency, for one. Amazon does some interesting content analysis of the books they sell, including word clouds and textual readability and complexity scores, not to mention numbers of words and sentences. From this I learn that there are 15,287 sentences in my novel Counting Heads. More interesting—the five most frequently used words in the book are character names. I don't know if that's typical in a novel, but it would suggest that name choice is serious business. You don't want a stinker of a name showing up on every page.

What makes a good character name? What makes a memorable one? Dang if I know. I do know that I seem to always employ a large cast of characters in my stories, and so I have many opportunities to come up with names. The way I usually do it is to start writing the story and let the characters' names drop in as they may. Some appear early and some late. In the meantime, I give characters temporary names or initials. I may try various names out on a character for a few scenes to see if any fit.

In my novel-in-progress I already have a handful of characters with solid names, none of which I can divulge here. But one of my three main characters is still operating under his temporary appellation--HAD. It stands for Hunky Alaskan Dude. It was the placeholder my former Anchorage collaborator and I used for our protagonist candidates while we were brainstorming Sarah Palin story scenarios.

My own HAD is in his late 20s or early 30s, has lived in AK for about 10 years (up from LA), and worked for the NPS as a ranger for about 7. He's of the "partnership park" persuasion when it comes to the park service mission. He's a self-effacing young man, an atheist, a lover of French women, and a lover of the wilderness. No name has presented itself yet for his use. That's OK; there's time.

There's time because I'm only about halfway through the first draft. The middle of the first draft is both an exciting and scary time for me. I don't know how novel writing is supposed to work any better than I know how to name characters. Mostly I write down scenes as they present themselves to my mind's eye and trust that they are true and that more will come to me later. There is no outline, just a vague idea about the direction I'd like to go. Every other day a character says or does something surprising that changes the course of the story or reveals connections or fault lines or comedy or previously unknown facets of their personality. There's a point when the products of a sustained act of imagination--fictional stories and characters--acquire the feel of reality. Then I seem to remember them as much as imagine them. Until then it's a game of chasing shadows in the fog and hoping something worthwhile emerges.

The photo at the top is a street scene in McCarthy. One of the original buildings during the boom times, the hardware store now houses the Wrangell Mountain Center, an educational non-profit that sponsors summertime courses and field trips in the park. It would seem an unlikely building to inspire science fiction (at least before the genre-bending movie Cowboys and Aliens). But the truth of the matter is that ghost towns are a lifelong fascination of mine, and although they're not unique to Alaska, they may be the part of Alaska I find most inspiring. Deep-pocket captains of industry have come up here to extract fish, gold, copper, and oil for quick bucks. They tear up the wilderness, plop down instant communities, pile up fortunes, go bust, and leave on the last train out (before pulling up the rails behind them). They leave with what they can carry and they abandon the rest. Buildings weather and rot. Thirty years later, the coffee cup and sugar bowl are still sitting on the dining room table where the last resident left them before hurrying to the train station.

On my first day in Alaska, in July 1973, I met a man who gave me a job. He and his business partners owned the derelict Superior Cannery on Chichagof Island. It was closed in the 1930s, I think, and the owners liked to have a watchman on site during the summer to keep passing boaters from landing and stealing all the brass fittings. They loaned me a dog and a rifle and sent someone out from Tenakee Springs to check on me once a week and drop off groceries. The dog and I had a whole industrial ruin to ourselves to explore. I have stories from that time I am still trying to tell. With any luck, some of them can be put to rest with this book.

Here's another McCarthy picture. The pickup trucks are probably parked according to the last time they were in running condition. The building was made of poles nailed to a frame. Not a very stable construction method, but an accommodation to the state of the local timber. Because of the dry climate and historical wildfires during the copper mine heyday, the trees in nearby forests are skinny. Traditional log cabins around here are made with imported logs. Too bad no one's invented a willow bush cabin construction method.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

AK Bush Trip--The Spike

I'd like to say we planned it this way, but we didn't. It was sheer coincidence (or heavenly influence) that when we arrived at the subdivision, the first person we should run into was Mark V, its only full-time resident, who informed us that a centennial ceremony was planned in the mill town of Kennecott on Saturday to commemorate the completion of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in March,1911.

During the original ceremony a century ago, the symbolic spike, which in railroad tradition is made from gold, was replaced by one cast of copper taken from a creek near the Bonanza mine. One hundred years later, the ceremonial spike, seen above, is made of iron and is plated in Rust-Oleum Antique Copper.

At least the spike under the copper paint looks like an authentic Carnegie iron spike from the CRNWern. There are plenty of them in circulation today, thanks to a gift to the McCarthy Museum from Carol M in memory of her husband, Harold M. Harold died last year at the age of 99. Carol donated his horde of railroad tie spikes, pictured above, for fund-raising. The museum was selling them for $2.00 each. I couldn't believe the low price. It took Harold over 20 years to build this tower-o-spikes, and when they're gone, they're gone. $20 each would be closer to the mark, IMO. If anyone out there collects historical artifacts, dig this. While NPS rules make it a federal offense to remove Kennecott artifacts, which are literally lying in plain sight, you can legally pick up a genuine CRNW spike for $2.00.

I used to have a small horde of CRNW spikes myself. I earned them the old-fashioned way in the early 80s. My ex and I spent parts of several years at Long Lake (mile 45 McCarthy Road). In those days the road was little more than gravel laid over the rail bed. The straight rails had been scavenged in the 1940s for the war effort, and the curved rails had been pushed into the brush alongside the tracks. The cross tie spikes, seven inches long, were left where they fell. The spikes have a preternatural shape that enables them to "float" to the top of a gravel bed. That means that each time the McCarthy Rd was graded, a new crop of spikes would surface. The surface of the road was pretty primitive to begin with. It ate tires and tore suspensions clean from the frames. The spikes added another dimension of fun to the McCarthy trip. Look closely at the copper spike above. Notice that it has a large lip on only one side of the spike. This is another deadly feature of their unholy design that makes them into ideal little tire mines. At speeds above 10 MPH, the front tire runs over the lip, flipping the spike up to the perfect angle to gore the rear tire to death.

After driving for hours at 10 MPH on a gravel road, the eye acquires a knack for spotting spikes. The custom on the road was to stop and pick 'em up as you spotted 'em. Harold's tower-o-spikes, therefore, took a lot of trips in and out to build.

BTW, Mark told us that last year, shortly before his death, Harold spoke to him about dying at age 99. He had been hoping to make it to 100, and when it was clear he wasn't going to, he said that, technically, he was already enjoying his 100th year of life since birth, so it was OK to go at age 99. Harold always saw the sunny side of things.

These days, with Princess Tours bringing busloads of tourons through the valley, the gravel road is kept in terrific shape and seems safe in places to drive 45 MPH (though the speed limit is 35).

The spikes rise no longer (though surely a few of them must lurk below the gravel surface, biding their time).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

AK Bush Trip--part 1

A couple of days after the 4th, we headed out of town, driving south and east approximately 360 miles, to our lot in the Park. It's a full day of driving, and the goal on this route is to leave Fairbanks by 10 AM, with the hope of pulling into the subdivision by 7pm.

However, we usually don't make it out of Dodge by 10 AM. Always that last minute glitch. (And that's how it was this time too.) My travel companions were my niece Jennifer Brenner and my friend Drake Boswell. Our ride was DB's commodious classic Alaska Pipeline truck, an 1987 GMC 3500 Sierra 3+3.

Jenn's from Portland, Oregon, where she works as an accountant and specializes in non-profits and small businesses. This was her first trip to Alaska. She shot the three photos below (on her Android MyTouch 4G). Double click the photos for a larger size.

This is a view of the Copper River looking northwest toward its headwaters. We are on the Edgerton Hwy, still a few miles outside the Park.

It shouldn't have surprised me that other authors have already set fictional stories in the Park. I'll bet there are more than the two I've found. As I said in an earlier post, Dana Stabenow has set her wildly popular Kate Shugak detective series in the Park. Kate is an Alaskan Native, and her fictional town of Niniltna seems to be a Native village with a population of several thousand, including members of diverse peoples: Ahtna, Upper Tanana, Eyak, Tlingit (and Yupik??). Niniltna seems to be located where McCarthy should be, near a historical copper mine. But it's obviously not McCarthy, which was a white town that served as "Sin City" to the company town of Kennecott. Stabenow has renamed other landmarks. The Copper River is the Kanuyaq (if this is a real word I haven't been able to find its definition) and Glennallen is Ahtna. The river has been moved east 100 miles to cut the park in two rather than serve as its western boundary. The Wrangell Mountains are the Quilak. Most tellingly, Stabenow doesn't even name this park where she has set 18 books but refers to it simply as "the Park."

The other author I have found is Kris Farmen, whose worthy first novel, The Devil's Share, is set there. He uses actual Park names and only invents a few of his own. All of the action takes place on the northeastern border of the park where it butts up against the Canadian Kluane game sactuary in the Yukon. I've never seen this part of the park, which is understandable since the park covers over 20,500 square miles. I haven't seen the coastal portion either (the park elevation goes from sea level to 18,000 feet and includes 160 miles of coastline and nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America).

BTW, The Devil's Share is a great read. It follows the misadventures of a young man born in a remote cabin that was later confiscated by the Park Service, launching him on a lifelong quest to right that wrong. The author calls his character a "wild animal." I would call him a sociopathic serial killer. I still have a few pages to read, but I'm liking this book for its fearlessness and ferocity.

Click for an interactive map.

Authors probably change place names in their fiction for a varitey of reasons. For me at least, the biggest benefit is freeing up my imagination. I know a lot about McCarthy and environs that I hope to integrate into my story, but I don't want to be pinned down by disgruntled readers for (purposefully) mixing up dates and places. So I am following Farmen's lead and using actual place names, with a few exceptions. I am reinventing McCarthy as McHardy (big change, I know) and I am planting a whole new mountain, Solitude Mountain, south of it, rearranging several rivers to do so.

By setting a novel within a national park, the author must come to grips with how to portray the National Park Service. While most Americans might view the NPS as a mostly benign governmental agency that fosters and manages our treasured national wild places, Alaskans tend to hold a more jaundiced view. Consider these numbers; the state of Alaska covers an area equal to one-sixth of the area of the contiguous United States. That's huge. But only about 1 percent of Alaskan land is in private hands. The bulk of Alaska's land is owned by the Federal government, Native corporations, and the state. These giant landlords have strict policies that often conflict with residents' use of the land for subsistence, recreation, and development, not to mention commercial resource development. Tension between the feds and the state is a given.

Nationally, the Park Service itself has long operated under a mandate, official or not, of squeezing out any private inholders within park boundaries. Their methods, whether legal or extralegal, have enraged private property owners and their advocates throughout the country for decades. (I've just googled "national park service malfeasance" and gotten 266 million hits.) In Alaska, the relationship between individuals and the NPS was supposed to change in 1980 with ANILCA, the second large land claims act, and the establishment of the park. After all, contained within the park's 20,500 square miles are over a million acres of private land, a history of mining, and traditional land use going back generations. ANILCA mandated that the NPS respect the rights of these inholders and activities. Consequently, in the 1990s the NPS developed a new model for the land under its stewardship, the so-called "partnership parks" that views humans and traditional human activity as part of the landscape, to be celebrated, not expunged. Wrangell-St. Elias, by virtue of its size and history, is the ideal test case for this new philosophy. And for the most part the park service seems to be a benign neighbor, IMO. But over the years there have been a number of cases in which its older, more logical attitude, has resurfaced in attempts to harrass inholders. This is not limited to W-St. E. There's a trial awaiting a verdict in Fairbanks today about an incident last summer in another park, the Yukon-Charley. Two park rangers behaved like dicks there while performing boating safety inspections. They were newly assigned to Alaska and perhaps hadn't heard about their agency's kinder/gentler policy because they tried to board an elderly man's boat in a tricky part of the river, forcing him to make a landing at gunpoint, and tackled and arrested him when he did. Pretty much the whole state is up in arms about this and watching closely how the judge rules in the case.

Stabenow seems to take a benign view of the NPS and has a sympathetic reoccuring character who is the park superintendant. Farmen takes the opposite view, painting the service as tyrannical and its rangers as hired thugs. In my own novel-in-progress I have two ranger characters, one of whom embodies the new partnership park philosophy and the other, his supervisor, who espouses the old jerk-around-the-inholders policy.

Here's a view of my back while standing out in the subdivision. Jenn seemed impressed by the number of mosquitoes I attracted moments after taking off my rain jacket. This was a particularly buggy trip. The head nets provide relief even if you use deet repellent (which I don't).

I suspect that the word "subdivision" carries a lot of connotative baggage for most people. It evokes the suburbs, architectural conformity, urban sprawl, and the like. Out here subdivision is still a bunch of lines on paper. Here's a view from one of the subdivision's main streets.

I'll be putting up more pix soon.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Off to the bush

We are inholders in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in the national system. The park sits in the southeastern corner of the Alaskan mainland and bumps up against the Canadian border. It's a 13 million-acre swatch of mostly wild land and boreal forest, with mountains, glaciers, vulcanos, an ice field the size of Rhode Island, gold, copper, bears, moose, lynx, dall sheep, and only a few dozen year-round human residents. We're going to spend about a week on our lot, clearing and prepping for a cabin. I'll try to get some good snaps.

Since deciding to set a novel here, I have run across a couple of other writers who have already done so. In the case of Dana Stabenow, a cool 18 novels. It's the setting for her famous Kate Shugak mystery series. I'm only reading my second book in the series, and I can tell that it's not the park I know.

I've only recently heard about another novel set in the park, a first novel by an Alaskan author. More on that when I've had a chance to look at it.

The photo above is from the McCarthy footbridge. It shows Bonanza Ridge. To the left is Root Glacier. On the lower right flank of the ridge is a cluster of roofs belonging to the old Kennecott Copper Mine. (Double click the image to see a larger size.)