Where do zombies come from?; or, I suck at worldbuilding.

In a Facebook creative writing group that I belong to, some of us are participating in a worldbuilding challenge. While the other participants are posting these wonderful comments about their historically and culturally rich worlds, I’m struggling to come up with something more profound than, “My characters like to eat Italian food.”

As you may know, I am writing a zombie apocalypse story that I envision as a source text for a movie. (You can read part of it here.) Though I would not go so far as to say that the zombie aspect of the story is little more than a set piece–it is thematically important for several reasons–I imagine that people who complain about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and being a glorified soap opera would really have a lot to complain about in my storyMy story is about mental health, friendship, American small towns, Italian food…and zombies, roughly in that order of importance. So when people ask me questions like “How did the zombie apocalypse start?” and “Where are your characters getting water?,” my response is usually, “Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it.” (My characters have had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and lots of Coke, but water completely slipped my mind. You can see where my priorities lie.)

In my defense, part of the reason I haven’t thought much about the origin of the zombie apocalypse is that my characters don’t know how it started, they won’t find out during the course of this story, and they don’t really care. This is partly because they’re too focused on their own problems (survival, relationships, where they’re going to get Coke) to ponder such existential questions, but it’s also partly because they (at least my two main characters) are big fans of zombie movies and TV. Let me back up for a minute: In most zombie stories, the assumption is that zombie lore doesn’t exist, so the characters are kind of scratching their heads, like “Huh, I wonder what’s happening?” So I decided to do something different. My characters may be useless when it comes to wielding weapons, but they’ve seen all of George Romero’s movies and every episode of The Walking Dead (I haven’t referred to the comics, but I assume they’ve read those too), so they at least have a vocabulary for what’s happening, and they know important things like the fact that you have to shoot or stab a zombie in the head in order to kill it. (I mean, kill it again.)

So, to return to my main point: The characters in those iconic stories usually don’t know why the zombie apocalypse is happening (or how to stop it), so my characters have become resigned to the same uncertainty. In Romero’s films, people speculate about why the dead are walking the earth, but they never figure it out. (The tagline of Dawn of the Dead provides the closest approach to an explanation: “There’s no more room in hell.”) In The Walking Dead, some of the characters visit the Centers for Disease Control and learn a theory from the one remaining employee (who could be crazy for all we know), but the only really useful knowledge they take from that encounter is that “we’re all infected”–i.e. everyone who dies turns, so try not to die.

This is my justification for why I haven’t given much thought to the logic of zombies in my story, but part of me suspects that the real reason is that I’m just not very good at worldbuilding. The commonplace is that writers are usually good at either creating elaborate worlds or creating relatable characters. Yet most of the people in my Facebook group seem to be experts at both. This gives me hope: Maybe I can learn, through challenges like this, to create elaborate worlds for my relatable characters to inhabit.

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blog rebranding update and story excerpt

This summer–probably in July–I will finally be making the official, no-turning-back shift to the Hufflepuff Leadership blog. (Consider these past few months a soft opening.) In order to do that, I need your opinion. The colleague who will be helping me with the design is asking what I want the site to look like. Well, I know I want it to incorporate black and yellow and a badger; beyond that, I’m not sure. So here’s my question: Are there any blogs whose layout you admire? The topic is beside the point; I’m asking about things like fonts, use of white space, text organization, etc. Please let me know your favorites by commenting below.

And now, I’m going to take advantage of this time when my blog still doesn’t have a clearly-advertised focus and use today’s post to add to my work in progress, a road trip buddy sad comedy set in the zombie apocalypse. Every once in a while, I like to share a bit of this story with you (see an earlier excerpt here). Not into zombies? That’s okay; there aren’t any in this part of the story. Are you into Italian restaurants and/or mother and son reunions? Good, then you should keep reading.

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The restaurant looked (small and dim) and smelled (like a friendly ghost of garlic bread) just as Sam remembered it, except that the chairs and tables had been pushed back against the booths, leaving space for air mattresses and sleeping bags. Sam’s mother leaned over one of the chairs, bandaging a young man’s forearm. She was facing away from the door. Unlike her husband and son, Anna Larson was willowy. Her hair, which she wore in a braid like her immigrant great-grandmother must have worn hers, was nearly white, but the flannel shirt and faded jeans she wore gave her a youthful look that was surely unintentional. “Hey, Mrs. Larson,” said the man in the chair, gesturing toward the door with his free hand.

Anna turned around and saw her son, who was wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Sam.” She strode toward him and hugged him. “We didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” she said, her voice muffled because her mouth was pressed against his ear.

“That’s what Dad said,” Sam said on a shaky exhale, pulling back to get a good look at his mother’s face. “And you’re…?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m getting to be a nurse again. It’s been–well, since you were born.” She turned around. “I think this is one of your old friends? He shot himself in the arm during target practice. We’re all learning here.”

The young man stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

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Well, there, I introduced my new character, which was my goal. If you’re interested in learning more, let me know!

safer and friendlier schools

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that my fan-fictional Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley, wants to go into the Ministry of Magic and work toward making school a safer and friendlier place for students. I didn’t get to clarify what I meant by “safer and friendlier,” so I want to take a moment to do that now. I fear that when some people read that phrase, their immediate reaction may be to grumble about how we make things so easy for kids these days and how we should be teaching them to grow up instead of coddling them. I’m glad these hypothetical curmudgeons brought this up because teaching kids to grow up and to thrive–i.e. teaching them resilience–is exactly what I’m concerned about too. 🙂

Before we can even have a conversation about resilience, we first need to understand that it’s necessary and acknowledge that childhood is hard. I wrote a post about this last fall, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that childhood is hard for everyone–you’re figuring out who you are and who everybody else is and how the world works–but it’s especially difficult for children who experience major forms of trauma. I just watched an excellent webinar by Dr. Allison Jackson and sponsored by Emote, and I’ve been given permission to share it, which I’ll do as soon as the recording is available. It’s the first in a series on identifying and addressing trauma for educators and anyone who works with children; for me, it’s relevant to both my children’s literature teaching and my volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. Normally the word “webinar” doesn’t suggest engaging viewing, but I had tears in my eyes at one point during this one, and they weren’t tears of boredom.

When I talk about making schools safer and friendlier for kids, I’m not talking about making everything cheerful; I’m not talking about making everything easy–those things are impossible. I’m talking about letting kids know that they’re acceptable, even if they don’t have designer clothes and fancy lunches, even if they are a different size/shape/skin color from everyone else in the class. And then I’m talking about teaching them that they have the responsibility and the power to be kind to others. I will say more about this in future posts–or maybe Patrick will!

Monday miscellany

Here are some quick takes for your reading pleasure. Consider it professional development (after all, this is a leadership blog, right?).

  1. You know you have a serious problem when you start sorting the Corleone family into Hogwarts houses. I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I was considering how to pitch a Hufflepuff leadership book idea to someone who seemed unfamiliar with Harry Potter but had used a Godfather analogy in his presentation. Then I went down a rabbit hole. I sorted Vito and his three sons (his blood sons; sorry, Tom Hagen–I think you’re a Muggle), and, conveniently, there’s one for each house. Michael, I knew immediately, is a Slytherin; he’s quiet and sneaky and always assumes his way is the right way. His dad, Vito, is also very intelligent but, generally speaking, using his genius for good; he’s a Ravenclaw. Sonny is a Gryffindor because he has a good heart but mistakenly believes he can solve everything with his fists. And I put Fredo in Hufflepuff because he just wants everybody to be happy. Obviously, I’m dealing in broad strokes here; I’m just making a fun comparison, not trying to say anything profound about either universe, so please don’t pick a fight with me about the oversimplified way I defined the houses.
  2. If you want a more perceptive analysis of what the houses mean, check out this post that our Slytherin correspondent shared with me over the weekend. Lots to think about here.
  3. I watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies over the weekend (extended version, of course), so I want to take a couple of minutes to wax eloquent about one of my favorite honorary Hufflepuffs, Samwise Gamgee. Yes, I guess Gryffindor could make an argument to claim him too (he’s brave and a little impulsive), but a Gryffindor’s not writing this post. 😉 And besides, Sam is the quintessence of loyalty. You really see it in The Two Towers when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the wilderness. About 95% percent of the time, Sam thinks Frodo is making bad choices (and Sam is right, I would add). And he says so. But he never leaves, and that’s not only or primarily because he agrees with the abstract cause of Frodo’s overall quest, but because he cares about Frodo. A truly loyal friend doesn’t stop being your friend because you’re making bad decisions; a truly loyal friend realizes that when you’re making bad decisions, you need a friend more than at any other time. Sam also functions as Frodo’s connection to reality. Even fairly early in the quest, Frodo needs Sam to tell him to do basic things like eating and sleeping. And as the journey goes on and the Ring’s increasing pull causes Frodo to fade out of the physical world and nearly become pure spirit, it’s almost as if Sam becomes Frodo’s body, fighting off Shelob and the orcs, and, in the end, carrying Frodo when he is powerless even to move. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ll know my life has truly been fulfilled if I can say that I’ve had and that I’ve been a friend like Samwise Gamgee.

Well, there you have it. Consider your professional development for this week done.

Hufflepuff Leadership: a blog idea

I’m thinking of rebranding my blog. Before I explain why, I’ll briefly explain the blog’s history for those of you who haven’t been with me from the beginning.

I started penelopeclearwater.wordpress.com in December 2011 so that I could get two free books. A friend had told me about an opportunity to receive the books for free in exchange for reviewing them on my blog. I didn’t have a blog, but there’s a lot that I’d be willing to do for free books, so I started one. (I posted the book review in January 2012.) As you will see if you read my inaugural post, I had fairly high aspirations for the blog (I wanted it to be “a place where thoughtful inquiry and the magic of words can thrive”), but I never had a specific theme in mind. For the past 6+ years, I’ve kept that tradition alive, posting about whatever I felt like posting about. In that inaugural post, I also explained the reasoning behind the blog’s name–and its subtitle, which is the motto of Ravenclaw House–and while my original ideas about the title still apply, I’ve come to identify with Hufflepuff more than Ravenclaw (a journey I’ve documented well here on the blog, in a number of existential-crisis posts). In the beginning, I sometimes used “Penelope Clearwater” as a narrative persona; I rarely do so now.

Recently, some observations and conversations have gotten me rethinking the goal of the blog and how I want to represent that goal. Let me first make clear that I have no intention of quitting my day job in order to become a professional blogger. This is a hobby. Nevertheless, hobbies can be approached with purpose just like jobs can. One way I’ve been approaching my blog with greater purpose over the past year and a half is to post weekly, with few exceptions, generally on Mondays. I’ve also linked the blog to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, garnering a larger readership, even if it consists mostly of people I know personally.

I’ve also noticed that most other people’s blogs–at least the popular ones–have a specific theme. I’ve observed that when I categorize my posts with certain keywords–especially “travel”–I get more likes and follows from the WordPress community than when I use other keywords (and certainly more than before I started using categories and tags). This phenomenon was confirmed by a successful blogger I know. Another friend helped me to nuance this idea by noting that while the blogs she follows do tend to have a specific theme (cooking, design, books, etc.), some of her favorite posts are the ones in which the bloggers depart from their ostensible topics and show a slice of their lives and/or make observations outside their chosen fields. This reassured me that committing to a narrower focus may not be as restrictive as I had feared.

Also, when my dad’s guest post from this past Friday sparked immediate attention and elicited articulate comments from some of my Facebook friends, I again got the message that people are looking for ideas to engage with and not just the kooky ramblings of my mind.

All of this led me to the conclusion that it might be time to refocus and rebrand my blog.  But I didn’t know what to focus it on until one recent morning when I was thinking about some recent conversations I’d had with a work colleague. The idea came to me that someone should write a book (or a blog–or both) about how to lead like a Hufflepuff–a person who is probably not a natural or comfortable leader. I thought it would be fun to write in the persona of a Hufflepuff prefect and offer advice, from my own and others’ experience, about leading with the qualities valued by our house. And I realized that a number of my existing posts would fit into this theme with very little tweaking.

Next week, I’ll expand on this idea, but for now, what do you think? Would you read a blog about Hufflepuff leadership, keeping in mind that not every post would be explicitly on that theme?

the fandom panel! (updated with more cool links!)

In May, I told you about a panel discussion on fandom that I had just begun, along with a committee, to plan.  This morning, all the planning came to fruition, and we had a wonderful event that was collegial, fun, scholarly, and well-attended by enthusiastic fans (not of us, but of a wide range of fandoms), many of whom were wearing t-shirts representing their chosen texts.

In the spirit of “remix culture” (which we could have discussed this morning if we’d had more time), I’m not going to give you a traditional, single-authored recap of the event; instead, I’m going to give you some cool links that will inspire you to join the conversation!

  • One of our panelists captured an iPhone audio recording of the discussion that turned out surprisingly well.  Here it is on YouTube.  The image you’ll see is the fantastic event poster created by Ms. Mariannette Oyola–also mentioned in the next point.
  • We had two fabulous vendors selling their fannish wares.  One has an Etsy shop, GeekOutsidetheBox; the other posts her work on her Instagram site, @misssoyola_art.  I bought something from both, and there was a lot more I had to restrain myself from buying.  Check them out.
  • During the discussion, I mentioned Confessions of an Aca-Fan, the blog of Henry Jenkins, who was one of the first media scholars to study fandom in a positive light when he published his book Textual Poachers in 1992, and who is still going strong today.  If Jenkins and/or his blog sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because I’ve mentioned him several times on my blog.
  • I’m going to pull a Gilderoy Lockhart and tell you to see my published works for further details.  My doctoral dissertation is about, among other things, fans.  In it, I mention the intriguing (if I do say so myself) idea that some authors, like J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens, are fans of their own work.  I don’t mean that they’re arrogant; I mean something more positive and productive.  Read more here.  (I am not sure if this link requires a log-in.  If it does and you can’t get in, let me know–I’d be happy to send you a PDF.)
  • Panelist Marybeth Davis Baggett referred to her Christ and Pop Culture article on Kurt Vonnegut, of whom she is a devoted fan.  Read the piece here.
  • All of our panelists are active (and saying really smart things) on some blog or social media platform, but I didn’t ask which is each person’s preferred platform.  I’ll check with them and post their handles here so you can follow them.  (And if you’re a panelist and you happen to be reading this, go ahead and comment with all your info.)

Let’s keep the conversation going.  Share some cool links that you think would be relevant!