Sunday, April 09, 2006


I was working on The Crowns of the Martyrs, writing the scene in which Ligonier Cardinal Rafferty visits the Archbishop of Vaildai to congratulate him on being named to the sacred purple, and I knew Urdan was having some kind of emergency that kept him from being present at Ligo's arrival, as protocol would really require. However, I soon realized that I was writing around the nature of the problem, and the text was effectively a placeholder.

Placeholders can be tricky. Sometimes they can enable you to write around some minor bit of information, like the name of a minor character who'll only appear once, or some minor incident that isn't really critical to the story, so that you can keep the story energy flowing. Then, when you've got the whole novel written, you can look back and see what fits best into that odd little spot, and it's actually likely to have more resonance with the whole story than if you'd stopped and tried to force the right answer as you went.

But if it's actually a placeholder for something critical to the story, it can sap the story of life, or even keep you from reaching the conclusion the way it really needs to be done. And if you don't realize that you've got a placeholder for the real thing, you can end up with a limp, lifeless story.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Papers Please

As I'm writing the story of young Rene XIV and Sebastien the Usurper, I'm getting steadily closer to the point where Rene's blasted into our world and falls in among a group of teenage skiffy fen who help him integrate into our world when they think the worldgate may well be a one-way, one-time event, and then defend him when Sebastien's goon comes hunting for him, and help him get back to his own world to regain his throne after it's obviously possible to reopen the gate.

But as I'm doing it, I'm discovering just how hard it would be to insert a kid into the school system who has absolutely no backtrail, no identity documents, no record whatsoever of his existence before the moment he appears in Cynthia's family's backyard in the middle of a pouring rainstorm. The obvious cover is that he's a refugee from the hurricane that's just torn up the Gulf (and probably is the source of the rainstorm he arrives in). This would explain why he has no documents -- he got up here with nothing but the clothes on his back, and was separated from his family and isn't even sure they survived.

However, there's the question of whether the school system would let him in on even a temporary basis with no documents without his putative guardian actually coming into the office to sign paperwork and speak with the administrators. The kids don't want to clue Cynthia's mom in on the situation because she runs a beauty shop and is a notorious gossip -- and the beauty shop also provides the obvious excuse as to why she can't come in for face time with the administration, since she can't just cancel her customers' appointments and close her beauty shop so she can go jump through bureaucratic hoops. That is supposed to give the opening for the late-twenties older sister of one of Cynthia's friends to call the administrative office on her cellphone, pretending to be Cynthia's mom in the middle of her beauty shop, and tell the administration to just send the necessary paperwork home with the kids and she'll sign it and send it back the next morning. But if they're going to insist on face time, it's going to get a lot tougher. Either Sandy comes up with fake ID with her face and Cynthia's mom's name on it (and thus commits criminal identity fraud), or she arrives as herself and then has to explain just how a Greek-American should be guardian to a Louisiana Cajun with a noticable French accent.

And even if I can get them over the initial hump and get Rene into school, eventually they're going to want to see some documentation. It's believable to say his school records and immunization records are irrevocably destroyed and there's no way to obtain copies, since schools and doctors' offices don't typically maintain offsite copies of their records, so if the schools and doctors' offices in question are completely destroyed by the hurricane, those records could be wiped out. Even a baptismal certificate could believably be impossible to obtain if parish churches don't routinely send their records on baptisms, marriages and deaths to the diocese to be kept in the central chancery archives. But believably claiming that his birth certificate has been irrevocably destroyed in this day and age is pretty close to impossible. Once there was a time when a fire in a county courthouse could wipe out all those vital records -- but at least in Indiana all hospitals send birth and death records to the central vital statistics bureau in the Department of Health on a daily basis (my husband works with the ISDH computers, and has told me how these things work). Louisiana probably follows a similar protocol, and since Baton Rouge is well inland, it'd be hard to believe that a hurricane could retain enough strength to destroy the state vital records center. And even if it did, with the practice of keeping duplicate data centers in remote locations, it's likely that even complete destruction of the one in Baton Rouge would still leave duplicate records in Montana or Wyoming or suchlike. And then there's the problem of a Social Security number -- and Social Security records are kept in Federal record centers in Washington DC, and probably duplicated in multiple secure locations, so even if his Social Security card was reduced to a pulp in his wallet, the record would be there in the Federal government's files -- and when the local Social Security office can't turn it up, there's going to be a major problem.

So if Rene's going to be on Earth for any length of time, either his teenage protectors are going to have to get involved in criminal identity fraud, or his story is going to fall apart for want of documents that can't plausibly have been irrevocably destroyed, and aren't going to be there.

Yes, we really are that tightly documented from birth to death these days, and every important step of our lives requires producing those documents, to the point that it's impossible to operate without them. The present is most definitely not a friendly place and time for a visitor from another universe.