Saturday, January 31, 2009

1. Madison, After chapter one

I started Madison, After in June 2008 and finished the first draft in November, not bad for a 300 page novel. Writing about a post-apocalyptic world is very seductive and this novel was one of the most absorbing things I've ever done. Anyone with writer's block should try it. Read (or re-read) The Stand by Stephen King, then just imagine yourself dealing with food and water at a most basic level. I'll post a list of books I read during the first draft, things as old and diverse as Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham to the non-fiction collection The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I would also like to know what other people read in this strange little sub-genre.

You won't see it except in very general plot terms, but the inspiration for this novel was NOT the end of the world. It was a Victoria Holt novel called On the Night of the Seventh Moon. If you are under 40, there's no reason you've seen this book. It's an entirely wacked gothic romance from the 1960's with an underaged heroine, a dangerous man, and a mysterious setting. I loved this book when I was a kid, and when I came across a copy a few years ago, I found I still loved it. But for such different reasons! A friend and I kicked around the notion of rewriting it for a modern audience, but the story couldn't work without the virginal, trusting 18 year old narrator. For reasons of my own (being the mother of one) I was more comfortable writing it as a young adult/crossover novel. If anyone reads this genre, you know the label is anything but a limitation. And the end of the world stuff? It just seemed like a really good idea.

I'll try to post a chapter a week as I rewrite. Comment freely--or rather, with some tact. Mindful of the fact that the author is a complete wuss. Here goes---

Chapter One

The first time I saw anyone read a book on the farm was when a man named Tierney pulled out a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire during lunch break.

When Dad wasn't looking, I carried the water bucket over to him. "Do you know how to read?"

He wasn't much, just one more stringy-haired stranger who'd come to the valley looking for work. "Do you?"

"Madison!" yelled Dad. He never liked me talking to men.

"I learned." I ladled water into Tierney's bowl and went to the next person.

Our farm workers came from all over. Migrants. Pinkus sent men from Independent Canby, but all they did was sit in their trailers, eat our food and watch us work. During harvest, when we could certainly use more help, we had as many as five of Pinkus's guys on site, making Dad crazier than usual. What did Pinkus think we were going to do with our crop of green beans? Sneak off in the night without paying tribute?

The migrants who actually did a job of work came from wherever the wind blew them. Refugee camps, cities, other farms. They'd all had other jobs Before—stockbrokers, salesmen and housewives. Once we even had an airline pilot. They came and went, blown away by the same vague wind after a day, a week, a month. I got used to not learning their names.

Except for this guy. The next time I saw him, he had a book of poems. It was a battered old thing, curved from being carried in his back pocket. The rest of the crew was playing cards, whittling, napping. At the end of lunch break, Tierney stuffed the book into his pocket, and Dad frowned. Tierney reading on his breaks was probably enough for Dad to think about firing him. Dad had a poor view of learning, even though he had once been a lawyer and you had to have a lot of college for that job.

Dad saw me staring at Tierney. "Are you planning to eat next year, Madison?"

"I don't know. What are we having?" I smiled and he glared. That was Dad, always angry about something. He used to scare me but at age eighteen, there wasn't much he could do to me.

"Quit daydreaming and help your mother."



"She's not my mother."

Dad humphed and stomped off. I could do that forever and he knew it. Mother, stepmother, mother, she's not my mother, yes she is. No, yes, no, yes. No.

The workers went back to the fields and I carried the water jug and ladle to the house. It was June, a time of intense worry for Dad. The new plants were up but the weather was still cool and rainy. A lot of people depended on Dad growing food and for keeping our community on the good side of Pinkus. When Dad was a lawyer and there was still a government, he got Pinkus's brother out of jail. No one ever forgot a good turn, but Dad said there was a time limit on returned favors.

My stepmother, Margo, and her sister Gayle were in the kitchen. They both looked up as I walked in, identical sour-puss expressions on their faces.

"Were you talking to that migrant again?" asked Aunt Margo. "You know how your father feels."

"He made it very clear." I put the ladle in the sink. There was no point arguing; she would only repeat everything I said to Dad.

"I think someone has a little too much free time," said Gayle. She used to be the family disappointment: she'd been a hairdresser Before. But since they weren't training any more beauticians and people still needed their hair cut, the tables turned for Aunt Gayle. She now had the barterable skill and Margo's only skill had been to marry Dad a week after my mom died.

"Wash up the lunch dishes, please," said Margo. "Then feed the sourdough and make the batter. After that you can join us at the strawberry field. No reading, Madison."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

As soon as they were out the door, I sneaked a glass of apple brandy. Times like these, I reflected on how being a slave was not on my top ten list of things I wanted to do when I grew up. Every kid had those lists, right? Being a farmer wasn't on my list either. What I wanted was to be an archaeologist with a specialty in Egyptology. In light of what happened in the last ten years, however, I would focus on the late American epoch.

A couple of years ago, I organized a dig at the old Chandler house with some of the other valley kids. Mrs. Chandler and her children had been the first in the valley to get infected, before anyone really knew what it was. The house had been vacant ever since.

I had my crew working in grids, collecting artifacts. We set up a sifter to catch bone chips and pottery shards and had a methodology for recording our finds. Most of the furniture, dishes and useful stuff had been taken by other valley families, but there were lots of clues about what the last days of the Chandler family had been like. Shopping receipts, medicine bottles, toys. We dated our findings by strata. The top layer was leaves, dirt and animal droppings deposited after the looters did their business, and it was by far the deepest layer. The next was detritus of broken furniture and dishes, stuff the looters dropped. Below that we got to items the Chandlers had used. My friend Andrew found a diamond earring.

We did this for almost a week before Dad discovered us and made us stop. Well, there was more to it than that. Dad was tracking an infected person, a Demented, up our road. It was headed for the Chandler house as if it knew exactly where it was going. Before Dad could stop it, the Demented came through the front door, naked, bloody, mostly starved, scaring all of us. It had been almost a year since we'd had one in the valley. The Demented are not dangerous unless you touch their blood, so what does Dad do? Shot it through the head, right in front of us. The blood flew everywhere.

The valley council had a big meeting and decided to burn the Chandler house. All of us kids were grounded to our home farms, but I got it the worst. Dad made it very plain that I wasn't going anywhere, ever. He stopped home-schooling me and gave my bike to my brother Chris. Whenever I was allowed off the farm, I went to my sister Jayden's house in Oregon City which was worse than prison. Everyone watched me after that. I couldn't walk to the end of the driveway, either at home or at Jayden's, without some neighbor asking what I thought I was doing, did my father know where I was?

I asked Dad, after I got over being so pissed off, why the Demented had gone directly to the Chandler house, almost as though it had purpose. It didn't fit what we knew about the infection. Naturally Dad got angry and wouldn't answer.

But I thought about this for a long time. The Demented don't eat, care for themselves, or communicate. They don't appear to think at all. They stumble around until they starve to death, or some jerk like Dad shoots them. Everyone says the Dims don't remember their past and or care about sheltering themselves. But this one came directly to the Chandler house, walked right through the front door.

I had two theories on the subject. One was that the guy wasn't Demented; he was just an ordinary crazy human being who wanted a place to hide. Plenty of people went crazy without being Demented. The other theory was that Dims have a shred of memory left in their destroyed brains. This man had a tiny thought that had guided him to the house. He was Mr. Chandler, returning home after all this time.

In either case, the creature should not have been shot. I vowed not to kill any Demented unless I had to, and to protect them from people like Dad if I could.


  1. Okay, you have me hooked...

    I love the beginning of the backstory, but find myself somewhat lost at the beginning as I have no idea who these people are...this may work in your favor, but beware it may also be hard to capture readers initially.

    On to more...

  2. Is that you, Isis? I recognize your goddess-ly commentary anywhere! Any ideas how I can make the front of the novel work better--other than putting zombies on page one--bring it. Love you!

  3. Is this based on the Dims around you? Will be interesting to find out who is more normal.

  4. The way I feel today, I'm my own inspiration. Thanks for reading!