Friday, February 3, 2012
A Bit of Prompting
I have been getting daily writing prompts from Figment (not the dragon from Epcot...). They are usually along the lines of "describe a moment in painstaking detail" or "write in a dark room." While I rarely actually do them, I like at least processing them, letting my brain churn.
Other prompts, and ones that require more work, come from Terrible Minds, the blog written by author and "freelance penmonkey" Chuck Wendig. Be warned: his style is, ahem, a little salty. But under all the "unmerciful" profanity lurks great writing advice, and, once in awhile, a contest. I don't always do these, either, but I always contemplate doing them, and often spend a few days pondering. His latest is to compress the seven acts of a story (intro, problem, initial struggle, complications, failed attempts, major crisis, resolution) into 1,000 words. This one I bit on.
I have an idea for a novel whose first incarnation was as a blurb or a pitch, rather than a scene or an outline, as I usually do. So I took this and pushed it through the seven-act Play-Doh mold and came up with what follows. It is in no way perfect, but a great start on something. Thanks Chuck, you brilliant motherfucker!
Thousands of years ago, early Americans constructed a bustling city along the Mississippi River. But the city disappeared, leaving very little evidence of it's existence. In 1984, graduate student Christine Kasevich is part of the team trying to uncover the mystery of what happened to the city at an archaeological dig in western Illinois. Spending her time in the dust has made her dirt poor, so she takes a summer job at a camp that brings eighth-graders to the Westville Dig. Christine was on the lookout for a big find, something she could stake her archaeology career on. Wrangling hormonal pre-teens was not it. Her group of boys and girls brought only their lip glosses and filthy sneakers, rather than an interest in the past, with them.
The boys are at least interested in looking for something big, and there’s always the chance that the former garbage dump they're digging in – this kitchen midden – will give up something interesting, like an animal jaw. This usually satisfies them, although some are determined to find a human jaw. She tells the girls that garbage tells a lot about women’s roles in the community, as they were the ones in the kitchen and they cooked the food that the men hunted. A few girls find this interesting but many just chew their hair and ask questions about how much childbirth hurt when there were no hospitals. The boys have the imaginations to go a little longer than the girls, believing that they’re just one trowel full away from an amazing discovery. The girls soon move to the side of the dig, sit in the grass and talk, or braid each other’s hair and fan themselves with their notes.
Chaperoning the group is Matt Markert, a social studies teacher whose lack of seniority dooms him to camp duty. He'd rather spend the summer volunteering for his father's friend's Senate campaign. But the extra money for the summer gig makes dealing with the gangly limbs and dramatic pouts of his charges almost worth it. Almost. It's the camp director who really drives him crazy. Christine's loud liberalism really grates on Matt's solid Republican personality. And, she likes going braless, which embarrasses Matt. It's hard enough keeping young boys' eyes away from the gaping areas between the buttons of her madras blouse, but he has to walk the walk. Unfortunately, part of him also thinks she's brilliant, eloquent and more mature than the women he's used to.
The adults at first try to be, well, adult about their differences, contradicting each other in the most polite way possible. Christine tried not to hold her expertise in Illinois archaeology over Matt, and he refrained from reminding her that his school could decide on another summer activity for the students next year. Their battlefield started to occupy the local diner/bar, where Matt settled into the rough-and-tumble ferry worker's table and Christine held her ground at the bar.
Matt and Christine's attempts at tolerating each other are not fooling the students, who are working harder on playing their chaparones against each other than on uncovering history. The kids' favorite game was to tell Christine that Matt wouldn't let any of the girls work in the laboratory. The boys would reverse the gender roles for their complaint to Matt. As it turned out, most of the kids hated laboratory work, so waiting around as Matt and Christine argued sexual politics was an outcome they all worked toward together.
To prove to Matt that her way of dealing with the kids is the right way, Christine agrees to violate camp rules and take a two girls to the nearby college town for a concert. The two geeky girls have endeared themselves to Christine because they remind her of herself. Her bond with the girls, however, causes a severe lapse in judgment on Christine's part, infuriating both Matt and the camp director. While most of the camp is in an uproar over the missing girls, one of Matt's students – one of the few who actually likes working in the lab – drops a clump of dirt on the laboratory floor. Thought to be a piece of pottery, the dirtbomb breaks open and reveals the remnants of a clay pipe. One of the graduate students supervising the lab starts to hyperventilate – apparently, this is evidence that proves the former inhabitants of the camp were more sophisticated than originally thought. Christine had hypothesized this based on other discoveries and some research she had done, but there was no concrete evidence to support her – until now.
Christine returns home to face a frantic screaming fit from the camp director. Just as he is about to put her on probation, Matt and the students bursts in his office with the pipe fragment. The camp director recognizes its significance immediately, and appreciates the irony that the discovery might not have been made if the day had proceeded as scheduled. Christine gets credit for the discovery but asks for a week of probation. Matt realizes that she's more responsible than she seems and as smart as he thought she was. While he will recommend bringing students back to Westville next year, he and Christine plan to meet again to tour the natural history museum and watch the state senate in action at the state capitol.