Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bad Girls Make Good Heroines

I recently read two books that are not among my normal genre range. While I typically read just about any speculative fiction, contemporary romances and women’s fiction (particularly if they’re humorous) and some romantic suspense, these two caught my attention. They are remarkably similar in characters and themes, and it’s those characters and themes that interested me. Plus, the stories and writing are fantastic.

The first book, recommended by Super Librarian, is Money Shot by Christa Faust. It’s published under Dorchester’s Hard Case Crime imprint for noir fiction. Ms. Faust was the first female author to be picked up by Hard Case, so that says a lot. I love the protagonist, Angel Dare, a former porn star-turned-adult entertainment manager who makes no apologies about her chosen career. I won’t go into plot details here, but it’s a fast-paced tale of vengeance. It’s also a wee bit on the rough side, considering the world Angel walks in, but don’t let that stop you. There are some great humorous lines and fun characters.

The other book is Slammerkin (Harcourt, Inc.), by Emma Donoghue. I can’t recall where I came across the title and description, but I’m glad I did. This one is more of a historic literary fiction, set in 1760’s London and the surrounding countryside. Don’t get all glazy-eyed on me. It’s very colorful and filled with interesting people. The protagonist is a young girl named Mary who ends up out on the street, selling her body to survive. Ms. Donoghue doesn’t tell a cheery tale here, though there is some darker humor to it. You’ll be drawn into Mary’s life so completely that even in the end, when she does something so…so…well, not good, you’ll STILL feel for her.

On the surface, you may think the only thing these two stories have in common is that the protagonists work the sex trade. While Angel chose to go into the porn business, Mary was given little choice but to sell herself. But eventually Mary, with the help of an older girl named Doll, considers herself mostly lucky not to have anyone to answer to but herself. After a number of years in the porn industry, Angel (who was smart enough to stay away from drugs and such) had the capital to start her own business and be her own boss. Both women have, in Doll’s words, “their liberty.”

What really drew me to these novels were the women. The main characters are not your typical Mary Sue heroines who have perfectly lovely lives upset by a bad day at the office or a broken heart. They are, comparatively, bad girls doing bad things. Despite Angel’s enjoyment of her career, she admits it’s not the most safe environment to work in. And Mary is constantly a heartbeat away from being arrested, assaulted or worse. But they use their brains and their wit to become successful, or at least survive. Even the secondary female characters are strong and intelligent (if not always kind), making their way in the world the best way they know how, legally or otherwise. Some chose their paths, others had no option but to deal with the hand given to them. All strive for their liberty in one way or another.

Why are these characters so intriguing? How can two characters in less than honorable professions be heroines, people you are supposed to root for? During the course of both stories, these women do things that could get them into deep, deep trouble, things you and I would probably never consider doing. Unless, perhaps, our backs were against the wall. And for these women, their backs start off against the wall. Angel is horribly attacked in the first pages, and despite all her strength of character, is shown to be vulnerable not only physically, but emotionally. A hard-worn porn star emotional? You bet. Mary starts off vulnerable (she’s thirteen and in “dire straits” at the beginning) and must get hardened as the novel progresses, but there are still glimpses of the girl she was, the girl she could have been, throughout the story. It’s the way the authors let us into their lives, reveal their hopes, their dreams, that makes you want them to win in the end.

So, you may be wondering, of all the fabulous novels I’ve read, why have I decided to tell you about these two? One of my reasons for reading Money Shot and Slammerkin was for research. No, my current WIP isn’t about porn stars in L.A. or prostitutes in London. It is, however, about a woman in a less than honorable profession. In every book on writing, particularly romances, we’re told readers want a likeable heroine. Not necessarily a Mary Sue or Pollyanna goody-goody type, but she has to have redeeming qualities the reader can get behind. My heroine is a lying thief. She wants the good things in life, but is stuck in a menial day job between hits and hates it. She wants to be her own boss, to have her liberty.

After reading these two novels, I might be able to pull it off. Maybe not nearly as well as Ms. Faust and Ms. Donoghue, but if I pay close attention to their work, I’m confident I can make a good run at it.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Is It Spring Yet?

The short answer is obviously not.
These pictures were taken February 3rd. The top ones are my kids making the world's deepest snow angels. Next is the kids in front of a snow wall that isn't completely man-made. Lastly, the view from my front steps. Yes, that is my poor little minivan on the left. The big, white mound on the right is our pickup. Granted, the truck is tall to begin with, but an additional foot and a half of snow makes it considerably taller. (In another photo we have, my 6'2" husband is standing at the front of the truck and the snow on the hood comes about to the top of his head. Makes it difficult for my 5'6" self to get the snow off the truck.)
Usually, I have no problem with snow, especially if I can stay inside and read or write or, as I did on this day, watch football (woo hoo! Giants!) I'll admit I don't like shoveling, but as long as the snow stops falling periodically so I can keep up with accumulation, I'm okay.
No, what I HATE about snow is when it melts. Like it's been doing here for the last two days. Tons (ok, maybe not TONS, but a LOT) of snow that has been packed into ice on my driveway is now melting. But not melting quickly in an unseasonal blaze of sunshine and running down the culverts. Or slowly enough to dribble away quietly. Oh, no. It's about 34 degrees so there is a constant layer of melt over the ice. Yeah, big fun trying to walk up or down our hill.

For two days it's been a mess of blowing snow and sloggy slush. There is 6" of water on my driveway threatening to slosh under everything we have stored outside. I have neither the stamina or strength to move scoop shovelfuls of water and ice terribly far. Plus, I wear glasses, so two minutes into the shoveling leaves me blind. The wind blows my hood off and allows the rain/snow on my unprotected head. My gloves get saturated as if I'd showered with them. I look, feel and smell (don't ask) like a drowned rat.

The dogs, since they have no other option but to go out to pee, do their business and hurry back to the porch when they'd usually mosey about and take their sweet time returning. Even in the midst of a regular snow storm, they are in no hurry. But in this mess? You've never seen two big, lumbering canines move so fast in your life.

I'm sorry I don't have a picture, but it's just too damn wet and blowy out there, so you'll have to use your imaginations. Got it? Okay, now make it worse. There ya go. Welcome to my world.
On the bright side, since I get wet and cranky quickly while trying to save my house from floating down to the highway, I have been coming back inside and ripping through my current wip. Hmmmm....maybe this crappy weather isn't so crappy after all.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ferrets in the Field--Ferrets, Part Five

Previously on "Ferrets": Cathy trundled through the Wyoming plains searching for prairie dog poo and narrowly avoiding rattle snakes; a stint at the Sybill facility, where black-footed ferrets were bred to increase their population and prepare them for release, showed that even captive-born ferrets retained the instinct and drive necessary for survival. Caught up? If not, scroll down to the previous entries. They're good, so I'm told : )

Now that we knew the ferrets had the ability to take care of themselves out in the big, wide world, it was time to prepare them and the selected release sites. We didn't just open the doors at the Sybill facility and say, "There ya go, kids! Good luck and God bless!" This is science, people, which means there is painstaking study and discussion, gobs of paperwork, and a lot of us grunts standing around waiting for the folks in charge to tell us what to do. It's a lot like any other job, but with poo and chopping up prairie dog carcasses.

The idea was to set up cages at the release site where the ferrets remained contained and fed by us as they acclimated to the outdoors for about a week. Remember, these ferrets were born and raised inside a building. A very nice building, but it was climate controlled and their every need was met. The cages were about a meter by a meter cube, on legs with a PVC tube running from the bottom. Initially, access to the tube was blocked; we didn't want the little beasties getting out too soon. There was also a nest box within the cage, like the ones in Sybill, where we could shut the ferret inside to clean the cage and feed it while it acclimated.

The ferrets themselves were also prepared. After they were captured in their cages at Sybill (I'm not sure what method the handlers used for that but I'm betting it was a hell of a job. Ferrets are fast and feisty), the ferrets were fitted with radio-collars so we could track their movements once they left the field cages. Nowadays, I think they implant little chips under the ferrets' skin. Back in 1991, the technology wasn't there, or wasn't cost effective, so the old fashioned collars were what we used. They looked uncomfortable to me, and there is always concern that slapping a collar on critter will impede its natural movements and ability to survive, but controlled testing seemed to indicate the ferrets weren't adversely affected. I think we placed ten ferrets initially, and another ten later, but I can't recall.

So, you have a cube on legs with a tube running out of the bottom in the middle of a Wyoming field. Inside is a very confused ferret wearing the latest in biological bling. Outside the cage, sitting in a small trailer some distance away, a bevy of biologists checking the pings of radio signals. Each ferret was on its own frequency that we had to follow. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was in charge of following the ferrets' signals, while we state workers got to clean the cages and feed the ferrets. Both aspects were fun and interesting, and we buddied to let each faction get a chance to do tracking and cleaning so no one felt "cheated."

Oh, did I mention the brouhaha of media attention? I didn't? Oh, man. Well, for Wyoming it was a HUGE event. There was local coverage coming out our ears. There was a big party with the governor and the higher ups of local, state, and federal agencies who'd worked on getting the ferret program up and running. (No, we grunts didn't attend. WE were working. Plus, most of us preferred to be with the ferrets.) But it didn't stop there. The national spotlight fell on Shirley Basin, as did the international. I was a blip on a CNN piece (my dad even recorded it for me; I still have the tape), and I know of at least one visit by a British reporter. Glen and I spent the day saying, "Bloody 'ell" until our boss gave us the stink eye.

But the most "interesting" encounter with the media came from a wildlife show. I won't name names, but after hearing this (and it was only through a second or third party that I heard, so this is TOTAL rumor) I gained a whole new perspective on how these shows are made. It seems that one of the ferrets was getting its radio-collar adjusted while this person was around filming. The ferret, of course, was unconscious for the procedure. Which makes sense and was perfectly safe. So Mr. "Wild" wants shots of the ferret. While it's unfettered by a cage. Up close so it looks good for his show. Um, problem. (A), this particular little guy wasn't slated to be fully released yet. (B), he (the ferret, not the guy) was coming out of the anesthesia, half drugged and not particularly happy. Oh, says Mr. "Wild," can't you just have him in the grass here for just a minute? Um, no. Mr. "Wild" wasn't thrilled that we didn't comply with his request. Too bad, bucko.

Once the ferrets were used to the great outdoors, we removed the slat blocking the tube that led to the ground. They were free to come and go as they pleased. To make sure they didn't starve in those first days, and to give them a safe place to return to in case of predation, we put prairie dog bits in the cages and checked each day to see if it was eaten. This, in conjunction with the tracking, told us if the ferrets were sticking around. Some left the cages and never looked back. Others came and went for a few days then struck out on their own.

Tracking of the ferrets continued for some time after they left their cages for good. But not all of them made it. Loss is calculated and expected in a program like this, but each time a signal remained stationary for too long, my heart sank a little. Someone would go out with a handheld receiver to find the collar. Once or twice it was just the collar, and we had no idea if the ferret it belonged to merely slipped out or was killed. Other times, sadly, a body was found.

Despite the losses, I was thrilled to be part of this program. A species on the brink of extinction has been given the chance to re-establish itself in its native habitat. Not in a zoo, not in a breeding facility. Out on the open plains, hunting prairie dogs and dodging predators. There is still a lot of work to be done to keep the black-footed ferret program up and running. Go to Defenders of Wildlife or the black-footed ferret recovery program site (or to your favorite critter site to help some other species) to see more about the great work being done.

This is the final installment of my ferret-related adventures, though I have a few other non-ferret stories, I'm sure ; ) It's been fun sharing them and remembering one of the best times of my career as a wildlife biology grunt. Thanks for coming along for the ride.