Saturday, January 23, 2010

Not really paranoid...

According to T-shirt slogans everywhere, you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you. That said, we're reactivating our alarm system at home for the first time since we moved in. We've had two burglaries in the last week within 150' of our front door, and we're understandably nervous. We don't have nice stuff, but a burglar wouldn't know that until the damage was done. So we're embracing some necessary paranoia. I don't like the thought that an alarm system is a mandatory part of life in our neighborhood now, but we're getting in the habit of turning it on at night and whenever we leave the house. It's better than the low-grade dread I had been getting whenever I left the house; I was a low grade of constantly anxious that I'd come home to find the door glass smashed in, cats kicked around, and important stuff missing. The alarm system helps a bit with the anxiety.

The fact that the house had an alarm system was a real bonus when be bought it; we didn't find out until we moved in that the seller didn't know any of the codes for the system. In 2000, this was problematical. The alarm installer had gone out of business, and another company would gladly sell us a new system, or reinitialize the old one for a few hundred dollars. So I unplugged it and pulled the battery and it sat unused until this week. I'm still a bit amazed by technology these days; what was an insurmountable problem ten years ago, took me an hour with Google to resolve. That proprietary programming and set-up guide nobody had on hand or was willing to share: available for free on at least eight different websites in pdf format. The top-secret method for resetting the installer code, even after the original installer specifically locked out the reset feature: freely available in a five-year-old archived bulletin board discussion among alarm installers. We're living in the future, in a lot of ways I regularly take for granted, but I was amazed by the ease of solving a problem that wasn't really solvable ten years ago.

So I replaced the backup battery (which had died in ten unused years), reprogrammed the system myself from scratch after a hard reset, and reconnected the phone line to the autodialer. We've now got a fully functional alarm system. I've got new cat-proof motion sensors on order; in the meantime, the old ones are set at an angle such that a cat on the sofa won't set them off, but anyone coming in through a window will. I've got an unused zone, as well, so I'm thinking about adding a glass-breakage detector. This is still something the cats can set off accidentally, but I can work around this by removing all breakable cat-level glass from the entire house. Or maybe I'll just depend on the motion sensors.

As soon as I had finished programming and testing the alarm system, a neighbor dropped by and told me she had locked her keys in their detached garage, and couldn't get in the house or back in the garage. I went over to pick the lock on her garage door and let her in, and I made sure I locked the house and turned on the alarm system when I left. The universe seems to strongly prefer irony, and the most ironic possible moment for a break-in would be immediately after I installed an alarm, but didn't turn it on, while I was breaking in to someone else's place....

Sunday, January 17, 2010

If you're keeping count...

...we're now up to seven inside cats. We've still got Laura's original cat (Chaka), my favorite kitty add-on (Koko), and the two we've had for four or five years (Meeper/Jayne and Emmett). We've since added three rescue cats. We brought Bowie in when it got extremely cold, and she's still in until we get her spayed. We also acquired an extremely damaged kitten late this summer. We named her Picasso, then found out he was a she; she's now Picassa. She lost a fight* with a raccoon or opossum, and had serious, infected wounds. We did wound care, took her to the emergency vet for antibiotics and a huge abscess, and took her to Virginia to visit Laura's family so we wouldn't have to find friends willing to not only feed our menagerie, but also willing to do wound care and risk return trips to the vet. She's also inside until we get her spayed. The seventh still has no name; naming a cat is a precursor to keeping them inside, and I'm hoping to avoid that. We've been calling her some diminutive: Itty Bitty, Teeny, Micro Cat, something like that. And the vet just informed us that she's a he, which makes us nervous since we've got two unspayed females in the house and a lot of unsprayed furniture. It adds a certain urgency to getting them all spayed/neutered.

So that's it: seven cats, four of whom are permanent. The amount of upkeep on seven cats is surprisingly higher than for four. With seven cats at home, you can't travel -- or, you have to be willing to impose on friends to feed and water them and empty their litter boxes twice daily, which I'm not willing to do. Just asking someone to drop by daily seems like a huge imposition. It's also surprising how much more dirt and hair seven cats produce. I'm sweeping the downstairs twice a day, usually, and regretting it if I don't. I even have to clean the bathroom more frequently, for reasons I can't grasp.

There are perks of seven cats, too, especially because all of ours are friendly and willing to be lap cats. When I lay on the couch to write, it's not unusual to have three or four cats join me to keep me company and make snide remarks about what's on the computer screen. They're all cute, and they all get along well. But it'll be nice to reduce the census.

* I assume she lost, given that she was a tiny kitten. But I never did see the other party in the fight. Maybe she won; she is rather scrappy.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Reality in fiction: setting

I'm having an internal debate (turning external now), about how realistic fiction needs to be. You can establish almost anything as part of your world, if you're writing fantasy of science fiction. Artificial gravity, warp drive, demon-summoning equations, slower-than-bullets energy weapons, magic swords: you can do almost anything in spec-fic genres. But for fiction set in our world, in the here/now, the options are more limited. You can set your story in a fictional location and invent the geography of, say, Felport or Pickaxe, to suit your story's needs. But if you set your story in an existing well-known locale like London or New York City, you need to stick with the real. You can't have Grand Central Station in Queens, you can't have Trafalgar Square in Leeds, and you can't see Hoboken from the roof of the Flatiron building.

But how deep does this detail mine go? If I describe a police station in New York*, does there really need to be a police station that matches my description? Is this a small enough detail that I can fictionalize it? If I mention a bar or restaurant at a specific corner, does that restaurant need to exist? At a finer level of detail, if I describe the restaurant as being run by a fourth-generation descendant of the man who originally opened the restaurant in 1902, does this history need to be accurate? I've heard that Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels are almost travelogues. When our hero walks around the corner from a specific apartment building and walks into a seedy bar, both the apartment building and seedy bar exist exactly as the author describes them; the seedy bar is probably owned by a person exactly as described in the book. Is this degree of realism, this extreme accuracy of locale, necessary?

I think I have a workable answer: if I'm setting the scene, I need to be accurate. Background details have to match reality. If a main character takes a cab from real point A to real point B, the scenery outside his window needs to be real. If my location is a real place, I need to respect the place and the people familiar with it. And I can't get any facts wrong.

But I can take much more liberty with anything that's central to my story. I can invent the coffee shop owned by my main character. I can invent a glitzy nightclub owned by the mafia don who ends up dead in chapter two, where half of the story takes place. I can create a townhouse that gets burned to the ground by the arsonist my detective is chasing, and avoid burning down any real buildings. I can't have London Bridge connect the wrong parts of London. But I can have my main character be the main architect of a new bridge linking Dover and Calais, the new (completely fictional) 25-mile span linking France and England, which is threatened by terrorists.

I'm still a bit fuzzy about the precise division between things you can invent for story reasons, and real-world details that writers need to report accurately. But for now it's less of an issue; The Novel is fantasy, so I can make up pretty much anything I want to make the story flow....

* As an outsider, it seems that 95% of the usage of "New York" means "New York City," and 90% of that usage refers specifically to Manhattan.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Another year

I just reread my new-year's resolution from last year. It was pretty simple: finish a novel, no matter how bad. I didn't, and I have no good excuse. I've got a few bad excuses, of course. At the top of that list, I lost my part-time guy at work this year, and I worked an inordinate amount of unpaid overtime. This was a real problem; not only does the extra work cut into my writing time, it can leave me with very little mental energy to write. December was particularly bad. The first three weeks of the month, I had around 90 hours of unpaid overtime....

So, I'm planning on continuing last year's resolution: finish a novel. I've got a few much more minor plans: exercise regularly, take a real vacation, clean and organize the basement. But finishing the novel is the big one. Wish me luck.