Thirty Days and All That Jazz

Here we are, last day of September, and it’s been a weekend.  Friday was good, Saturday was tiring, Sunday was wash day and watching Nazis head off to Belize.

It’s all over.  Now is the time to get serious, kids.

There were a number of distractions keeping me from my writing this last week, and I really didn’t do jack.  Actually I didn’t do jack most of the month, but that’s September for me.  I did that in 2011, and I did that again in 2012.  Well, really, no, I didn’t do it in 2011:  I finished up and published Kuntilanak then, but lets not go there.  September seems to be a time for screwing off rather than writing, and it happened this month, too.

Though, lets be honest:  the last few weeks have involved moving and running around and getting to know my new local a lot better.  Lots and lots of things happening, and none of them writing related.

And this is where I sort of fall on my sword, because I’ve always managed to get in writing no matter what.  Spend twelve hours writing, work on something for an hour.  Spend six hours running around on the weekend, work on a story for ninety minutes.  I’ve always done that.

Not this last month.  This last month was do stuff then screw around.  Don’t bother working on anything because . . . well, just because.  I haven’t felt like doing a damn thing.  Call it being tired, call it creative burnout, but it’s been a bit of a downer.  Because I do want to work towards something I desire greatly.

Here is the really sucky thing:  driving back from The Abandoned Turnpike (which I wrote about yesterday), I worked out a few scenes for the NaNo Novel in my head.  I mean, there’s like sixty miles of driving, what else is there to do except notice that Amish farmer working his field?  (Which I totally did, yo.)  That’s great;  always thinking, always working.

Except by the time I got back to The Burg, as I’m getting closer to my destination, I’m getting tired.  I’m getting so tired I’m finding it hard to stay awake, which is never good when you’re driving along at seventy.  I stopped, picked up a few things, ran back to the Castle in the Sky, and did . . . something.

This morning, I’m damned if I can remember what I’d thought out Saturday afternoon.  Maybe that’s because it’s six forty-five in the morning, but I’m usually good with these things, and now–nothing.  It’s all a blank.

Well, not completely a blank; there’s something in that black hole of my brain somewhere.  But I don’t like this feeling of not remembering something that, at the time, I thought would be good for my story.  And I don’t like not working on my stories.  Thirty days hath September, now it’s burnt like a dying ember.

It’s time I won’t get back.

I have things to finish, and October is upon me.  No more waiting or messing around.  It’s time to move forward.

On The Road to Nowhere

Where it was decided to create a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the producers needed to find locations that resembled the apocalyptic hell-hole that was the world McCarthy had created.  A nasty, bleak, gray, depressing place that would suck all the happiness from your soul so fast that a Dementor would sit back and go, “Whoa.”  They picked Pennsylvania.  Probably because Indiana wouldn’t give them any tax breaks for filming.

There is, however, an important reason they filmed The Road here.  Because if a big part of your story involves walking down a road that hasn’t seen any maintenance or repair in decades, Pennsylvania is the place to be–

Because of The Abandoned Turnpike.

Starting in the early 1960s the authority that controls the Pennsylvania Turnpike knew there were certain sections of the existed road that required extensive upgrades, or complete bypassing.  While there are sections that saw these improvements come to be, two areas of the Turnpike were bypassed and left abandoned.  We’ll get to the reason for that in a moment.

The largest section of The Abandoned Turnpike is a twelve mile stretch running from Breezewood–near U.S. 30 and I-70–in the west and to about a mile east of the Sideling Hill Service Center.  If you look on Google Maps you’ll see this stretch clearly labeled “Abandoned Pa Turnpike”, and while Street View doesn’t exist, you can find pictures of the old roadbed.

Or, you can read on . . .

There are three ways to get access to the Abandoned Turnpike:  you can enter it by the location of a removed overpass near Breezewood; you can walk onto it from Oregon Road, a service road running through a state forest; or you can drive onto the road off Pump Station Road.  I did all three of these, and saw some interesting things.

First off:  Breezewood.  This was the easiest, as there’s parking right off U.S. 30.  Then you walk up a high, West End Abandoned Turnpike 01sloping hill–what had once been the underside of the overpass–and out you come.  As you can see, this part of the roadbed isn’t in great shape, but then that’s what you want from your apocalypses, right?  You want everything to look like crap, and The Abandoned Turnpike gives you want you need.

Then you head up Sideling Hill and find Oregon Road, which is a gravel road heading back into the woods.  Something to keep in mind is that the Abandoned Turnpike is at the bottom of the big hill you’re on, so at one point you’re heading down a five percent grade with a big drop off on your left.  Don’t worry, the trees will stop your fall . . .

This section of the Turnpike was where most of The Road was filmed, due in part as this is the only place where one can actually drive onto the Abandoned Turnpike with permission.  By “permission” I mean you need to get someone to unlock this big gate and then–ta da!  You’re on The Road.

This West of Sideling Hill 01section of the Turnpike is in the best shape, perhaps due to the West of Sideling Hill 02sheltering effect of the ridges around it, or maybe due to a singular lack of humans.  The road is now being used as an unimproved bike trail, and I encountered five people who were biking riding the trail, or preparing to do so.  You can go about ten miles in one direction–the Penn DOT uses a couple of miles of the road for storage, and consider that section private property, which means you can’t go in there–and if you don’t have a pickup on the other side, you need to turn around and go back.  Or you can walk a couple of miles like I did.

Need I say that it’s very quite, and since it was overcast yesterday, sort of gloomy?  No, you knew I was going there.  The overcast kept it cool, so I wasn’t sweating my butt off as I hiked the road.

From the middle section I hiked west, walking up an incline.  No one around, no one to share my journey.  The road curved up and to the right–was there something waiting for me?

Yes.  Sideling Hill West Portal ApproachThis:

Remember I said improvements were need to the turnpike?  Those improvements involved three tunnels,  At one time there were seven tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike–six of them following an old railroad route–and while the turnpike was four lanes, the tunnels narrowed to one lane each way.  While this hadn’t been a problem when the Turnpike was first opened, by the end of the 1950’s traffic volume was leading to backups as two lanes narrowed to one.

While four tunnels were given a second two lane bore to allow for better traffic flow, three tunnels were eventually abandoned.  The first, Laurel Hill Tunnel, was sealed and is currently used by Chip Ganassi Racing for testing.  But the other two tunnels were not only left unsealed, they were left accessible to the public.  one of the tunnels, Ray Hill Tunnel, was the shortest of the tunnels, and the one I couldn’t get to easily as there were no direct access points to its location.

Not so with Sideling Hill Tunnel.

First, lets see what the in-use tunnels look lCurrent Tunnelike.  Here’s Tuscarora Mountain, all nice and shiny.  Pretty, isn’t she?  Keep the cruse control on 70, blow right in there, and a mile later you’re out the other end.

Now, lets get a closer look at Sideling Hill West Portal 02the west end of Sideling Hill:

Not so shinny, is she?  Mostly because the tunnel has been sitting here, unused, since it was bypassed in November, 1968.  This was the longest of the original tunnels, going 1.3 miles through Sideling Hill.  And it’s open all the way through; an engineering analysis carried out some time back said the tunnel can last another sixty, seventy years before anyone need worry about structural failures.  Yes, they build them well in back in the day.

After this I hiked back to the car and drove over Sideling Hill (Elevation 2195 feet at the summit along U.S. 30), headed down a three mile section of curving road with an eight percent grade and run-off chutes for runway semi, then over to the went end parking area, and back onto the road.

The first thing you come across as you head Cove Vally Plazawest is a huge expanse of pavement.  This is all that is left of Cove Valley Plaza, which was abandoned along with the road.  Gas, food, and restrooms–it was all here.  Now, it’d be a great place to do burnouts if you could get your car onto The Abandoned Turnpike and through the barriers that block off this area.

The east portal of Sideling Hill Tunnel is about a mile East of Sideling Hill 03beyond the plaza, and the road leading to the portal is pretty much crap, and most of the east-bound lane is completely overgrown in places.  Someone in the parking lot questioned me as to why I thought this section of the turnpike was the worst, and I have no idea.  Maybe it’s due to weather; maybe it’s due to climate conditions brought about by being right in the middle of a big mountain hollow.  Maybe it’s caused by trolls–who knows?  It wasn’t hard to walk, but give it another ten years and this section might start becoming little more than a gravel road.

The east portal looks much like the west Sideling Hill East Portal 02portal, though there are a few difference that are noticeable if you look hard.  If you have seen the movie The Road–or should I say survived, ’cause that was one depressing flick–it was here that Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee were filmed walking out of the tunnel, then having to hide from the cannibal hillbillies in the four-by-four–or as I like to call them, local residences.  I kid, I kid.  The raised strip in the middle of the road gives the location away.  Given that there isn’t any direct access to this part of The Abandoned Turnpike from the east, that means the movie people likely drove through the tunnel so they could set up on this side.  No biggie, right?

And what does the inside of that tunnel look like?  I’m glad you asked, because you know I had to see for myself . . .

Oh, sure, the roof is showing a bit of Looking in East Sideling Hillwear and tear, but there aren’t huge blocks of cement lying upon the roadbed.  As one person told me, if they sealed up both ends during the winter, that would slow a lot of damage during the winter.  I was also told that the middle part of the tunnel is in good shape, but as I didn’t have a lamp I wasn’t about to walk the 1.3 miles through the structure.

I did, however, go about a hundred Looking Out of East Sideling Hillfeet inside to get this picture.  So if you ever wanted to know what it looks like as you’re walking through an abandoned tunnel, and you’re getting close to the portal, now you know.

Oh, and while I was snapping these last couple of pictures, there was singing–not from me, but from people deep inside the tunnel.  At one point I saw the red light of a bike tail light, and I saw some lamps being used.  Then there was the singing, some bastard version of Gregorian chants.  The people I meet in the parking lot said they were going into the tunnel to offer their own songs.  There’s a story there if anyone wants to write that–

So there you have it:  my trip to another local filming location.  Oh, and one other thing . . .

Heading The RVdown the steep side of Sidelng Hill there are no house, no one living there, no branching roads.  I did, however, discover this RV sitting up all by it’s lonesome.  I really, really, really wanted to go up to it and knock on the door to see if anyone was at home, but I knew if I did I’d have someone inside screaming at me, “This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed . . . bitch!”

Naw, best to leave cranky people alone, you know?


Strange morning for me.  I set in Panera with my coffee, my breakfast consumed, and I’ve got the song El Paso on repeat because–well, just because.  I have my reasons, and in a few I’ll change it to something else.  Something that will give me just enough time to do this post and hit the road, for I have some travelin’ ahead of me this morning.

This afternoon I get back into the routine.  I’ve had a few distractions this week, but it’s all legit, and you need a distraction now and then just to break things up.  But once you get too far away from what you should do, then you get distance, and that distance can lead to break up, and once you’re made that break it’s tough to take it back into yourself.

I’ve been there more than a few times.  Why?  Doubt.  Always the goddamn doubt.  you question if what you do is worth while, if what you’re attempting is going to be another “All in vain” operation that lead nowhere.  Nothing usual there:  that’s the majority of our lives, it seems.  You question everything, and doubt often comes into play when the questions fly.

To paraphrase a famous quote doubt is the creativity killer.  You doubt, and your creativity takes a hit–but you can’t allow that, for the creativity must flow.  It must keep moving forward, even if it’s stumbling about much like a young Keith Richards after many hours of Jack Daniel’s and heroin–or as he used to call it, “I’m awake, right?”

I have this little itty bitty part that I need to complete for my NaNo Novel research, and I’m sort of dragging on that.  Some of that I blame on AMC, for this damn Breaking Bad marathon is dragging me away.  And I would have stayed up until three in the morning to watch Gus and two others get rung up on the Heisenberg Hit-o-Meter, but it was midnight, I’d been up since four-thirty, and like I say, I gotta drive today.

There is a line in El Paso that goes, “My love is stronger than my fear of death.”  Writing should be that way:  one’s love of writing should be stronger than their fear of failure.  You are going to fail, and fail mighty, before something comes of your endeavor.  I know it sounds like BS, but there’s much truth in this.  I failed over the summer.  I wrote a novel, I did my best to get it published, to get the word out, to make certain it was clean and good–and a whole lot of nothing came.  Oh, sure, there were sales, but you always hope for sales, and those never materialized.

I shouldn’t call it a failure, however.  It’s the third thing I’ve published, and I learned from the experience.  I have the information filed away and on-hand for the next time I publish.

If you learn from your experiences, it’s not a failure.  Never.

Now I gotta road to catch . . .


The Circle of Drama

Back on Wednesday AMC began running every episode of Breaking Bad, with a intermission here and there to keep people from jumping out windows because they were depressed, I suppose.  Because there are so many things going on with me over the last few years I haven’t been able to watch the show, but I’ve known of it, and I’ve been fortunate enough to catch the last eight weeks of the series, which comes to an end this coming Sunday, 29 September.

Because of this show we now have ever high school chemistry teacher in the country being asked if they know how to cook meth, which is probably not a good thing, but it’s better than no questions at all, I suppose.  And it would appear that Albuquerque is one of the major drug capitals of the country, and a good place to buy up some bankrupt fried chicken shacks.

The one thing it has done is bring drama, and that’s because the writing is just so damn good.

Getting home from work I was able to catch the last four episodes of Season Two:  Over, Mandala, Phoenix, and ABQ.  Two of these episodes made up a grouping of four that foreshadowed an event that closed out Season Two, and the last scene in ABQ foreshadows an event that will close out Season Four.  It’s all there:  life, death, getting hope, loosing it all . . . and watching people turn into monsters before your very eyes.  (And those four episodes were Seven-Thirty-Seven, Down, Over, ABQ.  Now you know how the season ends.)

I love great writing.  One of the reasons I don’t watch a lot of television is I’m not much for the product dealt.  Think of it along the lines of the Sky Blue that’s cooked on Breaking Bad:  you get the normal crap that’s all over the place, and then there’s the crank that’s ninety-five percent pure.  Finding that Sky Blue drama is rare, but when you do, you sit on that stuff and love the ride until it takes you down.

One of the reasons I decided to take a creative writing course in the late 1980’s was due to hating what passed for good story telling on TV and at the movies.  My ego was just enough then that I thought, “I can write better than most of these hacks,” and I still have that personal belief that if you work at your craft long and hard enough, and you’re willing to learn from the crap you first churn out, then you’ll end up producing something good, maybe even some great stuff.  Work at it long enough, and you’ll produce a few lines of Sky Blue quality stories.

If you’re luckier, you’ll do that for a while and end up feeling guilty about what you’re going to do with all the money you make.

None of us start out being true artists of our craft; it takes time to get there, it takes work.  It’s rare that any of us are gonna drive the RV out into the desert and produce some totally pure produce the first time out, and do it wearing only our underwear.  But if we work at it long enough, we may just become artists of our craft.

Or we can get wasted on our own product.  That’s always an option.

The Nonsensical Fantastic

I belong to a lot of groups.  Some are about writing, some about things science fictiontiony, some about makeup and clothing, some about how to cook the best meth.  (No, that last is just a joke.  A joke.  Does anyone remember laughter?)

Over the last few days a thread popped up in one of these groups, and it made my head hurt.  Without getting into too much detail, someone decided that, for their story, they needed a Hollow Earth.  Not only did they need one, but they needed it bigger, and they needed populated . . . and they needed it to occur naturally.  They also wanted to know if the people on the inside of the world would ever know that their are people on the outside, and if the people on the outside would ever know about the people on the inside, and could they detect each other like they would an earthquake, and . . .

Ouch.  My head hurts.

I know what you’re thinking:  “Cassie, you’re being a bitch.  You’re gettin’ all up in this guy’s stuff just because you think the primary plot element of his story is crazy.”  Yeah, I’m like that.  I look at things that aren’t and say, “Hey, you know if you don’t have a spinning molten metallic core in your planet, you’re never going to have magnetic fields, and eventually everyone dies.”  I know–bitch, right?

I am the first to admit than when I want something in a story, I go for it.  Magic?  Sure, why not?  I’ve done it in one story, and I’m going to do it in another.  Superpowers?  You know it, because I know I’d look great in a boob window.  Psychic abilities?  I have a whole series I could write around a couple of ladies who possess them.  How do all these things work?  Damned if I know, because it’s all stuff that’s happening at quantum levels of nature, and you need to get people brainer than me to puzzle that stuff out.

Tell me you have a naturally occurring hollow planet, or that you’re packing up your planet and moving to another system because everything’s used up, and I start looking at you funny.  Because there are some things that just aren’t meant to be.

Suspension of disbelief is something all writers have to deftly balance when working their craft.  You can throw a few pieces of Handwavium into your story to make it fantastic, but if you maintain the internal consistency of the world, things’ll be groovy.  (And Handwavium?  Yeah, that’s a real word.)  But if you do something stupid like, oh, I don’t know, synthesize someone’s blood and discover that it’ll bring people back from the dead hours after they croaked, then you’ve officially crossed the border into Bullshittia without your passport and there’s no coming back in one piece.  (This also goes for dumping a dead body on a newly created planet and having it restore someone to the age they were when they died.  Yeah, the border guards should have stopped you.)

Nothing wrong with the fantastic.  We love to read it, love to wallow in it, too.  But we own it to ourselves to keep it somewhat real as well.

Otherwise someone like me comes along and . . .

Lexiconie Morning

Well, then, after a couple of days of dipping and weaving away from that thing that’s shaping up to become another NaNo Novel, I finally pulled up The Foundation Chronicles and started in on a bit more research.  But this wasn’t research sort of research, it was more like world building kind of research.  The kind where you get the lingo down and you start your characters speaking the way they’re suppose to speak.

Each group and organization has their own way of speaking.  If you work in a hospital, or you’re a police officer, you know this for a fact.  If you work for NASA, they have their own words, their own terms, and their own form of understatement (“Obviously a major malfunction.”).  If you’re in IT, this is also true.

The instructors at my Salem School have their own terms, their own sayings.  Some of them are related to the school, some are taken from the hidden world of the Foundation.  They speak of things that are normal to them, but may not make sense to those from outside their circle.

Last night I began putting that list together.

Nearly all of these terms were familiar to me because I’ve been thinking of them, and using them off and on in my prior story on the Foundation.  But there were a few that I needed to lock down, like, “What do they call a kid who has powers?”  And by powers I mean the kids are able to do things that don’t require science and/or magic.  Like with my current Director of Facility Security, who can levitate without the need of spells or technology.  She’s a Hugo, and you can look up that term if you like, because it’s out there.  (Actually, I knew the novel from whence the term comes, but I didn’t know the name of the characters.  But . . . Research!)

The thing that surprised me the most was how quickly the list finished.  I was able to come up with a dozen and a half terms and write them out in under a half hour:  this is due in large part to having made many of these terms a part of my life over the summer.  When you get that stuff in your head, you’re able to get them down quickly.  The trick tonight is to come up with school courses and “things” that the Gifted can do.  I mean, I’ve already made someone’s heart jump out of their chest, made another person’s head explode, had a student flay a teacher to death with dust and bits of rock–don’t worry, he was bad–and then Shadowcated her and another student through a couple of walls.  What do you call that stuff?  I mean, I know what I can call the last, because the student in question may have had Chell as an instructor, so that’s an easy one . . .

Terminology is just as important when building your story as location and characters, particularly if they work in a field that isn’t all that usual.  And if that field involves magic and powers and scientist building ray guns, then you better know what your character is saying when they say it.

After all, you don’t want them to look as if they don’t know what they’re talking about, do you?

Promises of Lightness and Dark

This is what comes of fooling around on line all night and then getting a good night’s sleep:  you look at things in a different light, and ideas pop into your head.  Maybe they’re not good ideas, but they do come up, and you’re a damn fool not to do anything with them.

I really was intending on working on my NaNo Novel last night, getting the lexicon worked out, because I truly do need that cat in the bag.  But I didn’t.  I waited for a package that didn’t come, and by the time I’d stopped waiting, it was getting on six-thirty.  So in for a shower, getting nice and clean, and I pop back out and it’s already seven-fifteen.  I did go to plug in my external drive–

But I had people wanting to speak with me.

The one part of The Burg that is so much like being back in Indy is having little or not personal contact.  Yes, you can speak with people at work, but there is no one here who you can hang with after the day is over and chat up, and maybe go out for a couple of drinks afterwards.  I have this lovely balcony and sitting out there is nice, but it would be wonderful to have someone over to speak with.

At the same time, during one of the conversations, my mind started working on its own side project.  I was reading what they typed, and I responded one way, but in another part of my brain I saw myself typing something else.  Something that was dark and not a little strange.  I know, you’re saying, “You, honey?  Strange?”  Shocking, right?  Sometimes I surprise myself.

While I have a lot of story ideas, very few of them are dark.  Maybe that’s because I have enough darkness surrounding me and while I might not write the most uplifting prose, I at least have something close to a happy ending by the end of the tail.  What I saw last night, what was being typed on the other side of my mind–it wasn’t happy, it wasn’t light, it wasn’t a good ending.

Or was it?

Every so often I dip into the horror.  Every so often I imagine the dark spaces in life and wonder what exists there.  Oh, sure, cannibal hillbillies and shambling zombies and things going bump in the night are good favorites.  But what if someone was drawn into the darkness, and embraced it willingly?  Not because they’re crazy, but because what was promised . . . touched them in a special way?

At the end of the novel Hannibal, Clarice ran off with Doctor Lecter because she’d spent too much time staring into the abyss, and when it stared back, she shrugged and said, “Ah, fuck it:  this isn’t that bad.”  Sure, you can say the drugs and the brain washing played a part, but I’m of a mind that after all those years chasing the darkness, she finally caught it and allowed it to become her own.

I need some dark writers.  The people in my stories better watch out.