OK, OK, Here’s What I Know

Little White House

Little White House

If you’ve spent much time hanging around writer clichés, then you’ve heard the stupid nonsense “Write what you know”. It’s not that knowing what you’re writing about is nonsense. That seems reasonable enough. But people who write badly, or who don’t even write at all, will use that phrase to mean “Limit yourself” or, in the expanded version, “Pretend that with your limited talent, you can turn your dull life into something worth reading about.”

Had Shakespeare taken this advice, there would be no books in the library about the sources he used for writing his plays, nor would there be a play called “Hamlet”, since Shakespeare was neither a prince nor Danish. Stupid Shakespeare.

In reality, writers often do research, and then they write what they know, because now they know new stuff. Some writers, who actually have both time and money (I know—I can’t picture that either) will even fly to other countries to do research. Here in my limited world, we take a Saturday that suddenly turns out to be free because we went grocery shopping the day before, and we drive somewhere close.

About two hours southwest of Atlanta there is a little town called Warm Springs. The place acquired this name because—are you ready?—there are springs there that bubble up with warm water. Back in the 19th century people decided this warm mineral water might cure things. The town is famous now, to the extent that it is, because in 1924, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went there, before he was President, hoping to find relief from polio. Later he built a house and went there repeatedly after he was elected President, so eventually his small house became known as the Little White House. He also died there.

For the book I’m currently working on, Moonapple Pie, I’ve gotten the notion to briefly include Roosevelt as a character, more of a secondary character, in conversations with one of my real protagonists. I sort of figured, well, as long as he’s in Georgia anyway. And I want to set some scenes of my book in that little house in Warm Springs, so I knew at some point I’d need to go see it. This past Saturday, one of the coolest days we’ve had this fall, I went to Warm Springs.

I don’t know how many people go there to visit that little house, but Roosevelt seems to still have a huge influence on the town. Granted, it’s a small village. Downtown is one block long. I saw an alley between two buildings, fixed up nicely and called Eleanor’s Alley. Across the street was a store called Delano’s something or other, I forget exactly. The restaurant downtown where I had lunch was decorated with many large black and white photos of Roosevelt. (Lunch was southern cooking buffet, as in fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and so on.)

A short distance down the road from the center of the village is the estate, if one might so call it, of Roosevelt, consisting of his little house, a guest house and house for servants, both quite small, and now with an added museum. I had two purposes in going there: (1) to generally learn whatever I might, as some things could be useful and you don’t necessarily know what they will be, and (2) to inspect the room in the Little White House where I want to set scenes of my book, to make notes of what the place looks like and what it might have been like to be there.

As an example, I noted that there is a stone fireplace that runs from floor to ceiling, and on each side of it are built-in book cases. I might use that information simply as a description of the place, to give a sense of the room, or I might decide to have a fire burning or someone will take a book down from the shelf. As a different example, on entering the house through the kitchen (as tourists do now), one comes through a little pantry sort of area where all the glassware is stored. I had been thinking that my character might be asked to get President Roosevelt a glass of whiskey, and if I end up doing that, now I know where she’ll get the glass.

I also think going somewhere provides a sense of a place that you don’t get otherwise, such as the feeling of the wooded hillside, the small towns in the area, or the agricultural and rural nature of the region. For that matter, there is a sense of the house itself, with its dark wooden interior, or on the outside seeing the Marine sentry guard posts that were used at the time, which I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to if I hadn’t gone there.

To the extent that I’m able, I’ve always done this kind of research, which I think is important. Twenty years ago, when I first began working on the book I’ve just finished (Birds Above the Cage), I visited both a strip club and a monastery, as I use both of them as settings in that novel.

I’ve also learned, I hope, that in doing research I have to be careful not to let what I learn take over the book and overwhelm it with detail. That’s definitely been a problem for me in the past. So maybe I’ll leave out the Marine guard posts. I’ll just keep the little glass of whiskey.

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Maybe If I Poke It With a Stick

Last week I was sitting at my computer, typing along, listening to music, la la la, and the song stopped. Huh? I thought. Then I noticed the dread little exclamation mark doojiggy on top of my internet connection bars. No connection!!!

I shut down the browser and opened it again. No internet. I gritted my teeth, saved what I was working on, shut down the entire computer, and waited for it to sloooowly boot back up. No internet. Then I looked at the modem box, as if I would know the difference between a modem and a trilobite skull from an archaeological dig. I pushed a button anyway. No internet.

Being the Buddha-like, placid person that I am, I did not walk into the other room, look in the closet to find the tool box, take out a hammer, and come back to beat the demonic living shit out of the computer, bust up the desk into firewood, and smash out the windows for good measure. No sir, I’m not that kind of person. What I did was contemplate the ubiquity of injustice.

And later I wrote a poem.

When the Internet Goes Down

When the internet goes down,
I check the dead connection,
reboot with anxious hope,
and grimly tell myself to just work on.
I continue with my writing,
now unable to check flowers,
which I was just about to do,
unable now to save it to the cloud.
What if the house burned down?

When the internet goes down,
I roam through my apartment,
thinking I might read a book
turning the paper pages,
or go for a walk in the park.
I look in the cabinet for CDs
instead of streaming Pandora.
I walk back and forth feeling restless.

When the internet goes down,
I light the kerosene lantern,
go out to the barn to chop wood.
I wonder if my horse is too old,
should I think about buying another?
It’s a long way to get into town,
where I go to buy flour and sugar.

When the internet goes down,
I lie on my hard straw mat,
then go to the field to cut hay,
to work on the lands of the Duke.
In exchange he protects my small hut.
Someday I hope I’ll own a cow,
but as for now,
I haven’t built a fire, so I eat my dinner cold,
bean stew from the day before.

When the internet goes down,
I look out the mouth of the cave
at the sun setting red past the river.
I’m glad I have a fire here,
and pray I don’t let it go out—
a disaster that’s happened before.
I go back to chipping a stone,
making a sharp spear point
for the next time I go out to hunt.

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Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie

Recently I got an email from a friend now living in Israel, originally from Russia, and she was telling me about reading Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace (in Russian, obviously). About a year ago I read that book myself, so I was very interested in what my friend was saying. It was her opinion that Tolstoy was not the world’s master in creating characters who have distinctive voices. She made the argument that most of his characters, other than the soldiers, all sound rather alike—they sound like Tolstoy. I see her point.

The distinctiveness of characters for me is one of the most important aspects of a book. All readers are different, and well-developed characters may not be what you look for, but I’m interested in the human aspect of novels. For me a novel, whether I’m reading it or writing it, is an exploration of human existence. More than once I’ve laid a book down in irritation, thinking, “That person would not do that.”

Let’s say the author has created a character who never goes anywhere, never does anything, and appears to be content with this life. If that character suddenly agrees to accompany someone on a dangerous cross-country trip, I’m not buying it without a good explanation. It is not rare—for bad writers—to have a character do something only because the author wants it to happen. That action moves the plot, even when the character has been created as a person who would not do the thing the author wants.

Character development all about illusion, of course. There’s not really a person there, it’s just words the writer chose. And yet, if done right, the people in the book can seem to rise off the page, take a breath, and wink at us, saying Sure, I only exist here, but I’m REAL here. We think about those characters, carry them around in our heart, and our own lives seem touched, as though we had met a living person.

I understand how incredibly, almost freakishly, difficult it is to make real characters in a book. No blog entry could possibly get into much detail about this process, but I’ll talk about working on one character I intend to use in Moonapple Pie. At the moment I’m doing a little background work on character development for the four main characters of this book (at least that’s how the book is developing so far).

I’m using a technique I’ve used in the past, of writing down random potential facts about the characters, but as I’m working, I notice that it’s not entirely random, and I’ll illustrate this with a character named Elliott, one of two twin brothers. In what at first appears to be a random process, I gradually find myself making notes on three types of things: (1) information necessary to the plot, (2) information important to the mental development of the character, and (3) trivial bits and pieces. Here are examples for Elliott:

(1) In 2018, when the novel will take place, he is 43, born March 4, 1975. This kind of stuff I try to be careful with and use a calculator, so that someone thirty years from now doesn’t say “Oh, look what this dumbass writer did.” Also as plot information, Elliott graduated from Georgia Tech as a mechanical engineer and got a job in Wilmington, Delaware, where he met his future wife. She’s from Glassboro, New Jersey, which is very close by (which I know because I lived there). This type of information is what I need for the mechanics of the plot, but in fact I don’t have to tell the reader all of it. Maybe it will be things I know that will never be mentioned.

(2) The most difficult thing I’m trying to do is figure out who the character is and what motivates him. Some of the notes I’ve made in that regard are that while he was in Wilmington he made a trip to Ireland, as it’s part of his family background, and he wants to go back and take his sons. Also while he was living in the north, he was sometimes teased about being from the south. While the teasing wasn’t much, it made him slightly defensive about being southern and about things from the south. On a different point, Elliott and his twin brother took art classes in high school, and even though Elliott eventually followed his “tinkering” side to become an engineer, he is still interested in art.

(3) The third category of notes I’m making is for things that are actually unimportant in themselves, as they could be almost anything, but these are the kinds of details that make a human being. It doesn’t matter so much what they are, but you need to have them. Thus, Elliott loves dogs and has three named Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie (named after Allman Brothers songs: Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, Hoochie Coochie Man). All three dogs are beagles, and he trains his dogs, is very disciplined with them.

I also know from extensive past experience, in novel after novel, that no matter how much I make these notes, no matter how detailed I decide to get with this process, no character ever opens their eyes and breathes until they are actually in the book. Only when I can see them move around and hear them speak do they start to become a real person for me.

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Breathe In and Be Human

woman breathingIn the Russian language, the word for “soul” (душа) is related to the word “breath” (дышать), perhaps because when the breath leaves, the soul is assumed to have left as well. Our English word soul doesn’t evoke breathing, but when we use the word “expire”, from Latin meaning “to breathe out”, the word means to die.

What about when we breathe in?

When we breathe in—inspiration—we’re not only filled with air, but with life, with something that is essential to being human. Human beings create. The oldest cave paintings go back 40,000 years (and we think 2,000 is old with the Roman empire). Aside from wall art, consider the people who decided they could take pieces of plants or rocks and put them together to create a place to live inside, blocking out animals and weather. A house is not an obvious thing to build if you’ve never seen one. It was a human creation.

I can understand why the Greeks came up with the idea (created it, that is) of Muses, goddesses who provided a supernatural source of inspiration. Because who can explain it? Where does inspiration come from? I’ll give a example that I experienced this week.

I was reading about a study called the Nurses’ Health Study, which looked at more than 120,000 female nurses in the United States for a variety of health conditions (the nurses were surveyed every two years beginning in 1976). The thing I was reading was concerned with women who got rheumatoid arthritis and continue to smoke.

As I read this very technical and abstract piece, I was wondering why someone would smoke in the first place, why someone working in the healthcare field would smoke, and why someone diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis would continue to smoke. Suddenly I had an impulse to write about a nurse who learned she had rheumatoid arthritis, to write about who she was and what happened to her.

That sudden moment . . . that was inspiration. The desire to describe this woman came to me suddenly, at an unexpected moment, almost unrelated to what I was doing, yet there it was. What if I pursued that inspiration? Suppose it’s 1980, the nurse is named Bettina, and she’s thirty-nine years old. For no apparent reason, let’s say she works at a hospital in Reno, Nevada. Her father from Connecticut was in the Air Force and her mother was half Shoshone Indian from Nevada, but Bettina’s mother died when Bettina was ten, and she grew up without knowing much about that part of her background.

Bettina began smoking when she was a teenager, as she went through a rough period with no mother. She was hanging out with other kids, which made her feel like she belonged, and they all smoked because—obviously—it was such a cool thing to do. Since she began smoking as a child, she became addicted to tobacco and continued to smoke as an adult (exactly how the tobacco companies hope it will happen). Smoking also gave her pleasure and helped her deal with stress, such as when her father died of pancreatic cancer ten years later, or when she was studying for exams in nursing school.

Twice Bettina has tried to quit smoking, just after she got married to Jack, an electrician who mostly works at the casinos, and again when her daughter, Tracy (now twelve years old), was born. One spring Bettina starts to notice that when she wakes up in the morning her shoulders and elbows are feeling stiff, more than she thinks they should at her age, and her hands seem a little swollen sometimes. By summer she’s feeling enough pain that she decides to go to the doctor, who does tests and tells her she has a disease no one knows the cause of and that there is little treatment for at that time.

Bettina goes home and cries with Jack. She’s still young! Isn’t this an old person’s disease? Nurses move around a lot, and they need free use of their hands, their arms, everything. What’s going to happen? Will she become incapacitated and not be able to work? This is not a time when Bettina is going to increase her stress by trying to give up smoking. The calming effect of a cigarette, in fact, helps her to deal with this awful news.

*****************

This is one of the places inspiration can go. A person appears out of nowhere, and from the inspiration, we can try to feel another human life.

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And Who Decided That?

spelling error sign

Maybe it tastes better that way

You’ve probably heard the phrase “the King’s English” and perhaps wondered which king. As I’m writing this now, it occurs to me that there may be people who think it means King James and has something to do with the King James’ Bible. Which it doesn’t. Back in the history of England, the power and prestige of the king were such that, when the king spoke, whatever grammatical dumbassity came out of the king’s mouth, it was—by definition—perfect English.

Because, you know, who was going to say to the king, “Hey, you used a double negative, buddy. Where did you go to school?” There surely were people who thought the king spoke badly, but if those people wanted a piece of that big pie the king had, they imitated the speech of the king. It was about power. Thus, the King’s English.

In countries with a literary history and a widespread educational system, there is an strong belief in a proper form of the language. In every case and with no exceptions, the “proper” language is the one used by people with power. “Good English” spoken by people with power is the modern version of the King’s English. If you want some of that power, you will learn to use the language the way powerful people use it. We don’t talk about it that way, however. We just call it “good” English.

“Good” is a sort of moral quality, and a language does not actually have a moral component; it either works to communicate or it doesn’t. Every dialect of a language can be used to communicate. But if you don’t speak like a lawyer, banker, politician, or doctor—if you don’t sound like you went to school and learned that way of speaking, then we will call your English bad, no matter how well you communicate.

If we are going to continue to have “proper” English (i.e., a language of power), then someone must work on the barricades to keep out the hillbilly hordes with their drawling accents, varied grammar, and alternative past participles (as in “I ain’t never went nowhere”). Most of the language guardians are professors and editors, watching with the rapacious ferocity of eagles for any slight offense.

A cosmic irony is that the people who do this guardian work to protect the language of the wealthy and powerful are themselves working jobs where they generally earn shit salaries (if they even get a salary and don’t just put together a little work here and there). Many of those gatekeepers are college adjunct professors without full-time jobs, unable to even afford health insurance, but they are adamant about protecting the language of power, of which they have so little.

I have been and still am one of those people. I spent twenty years teaching college writing, like Moses come down from the mountain with a grammar book to declare what is correct and what is incorrect: thou shalt not drop the ending from third person singular. Now I continue this holy mission from a different vantage point, as an editor. Because I edit a medical journal, however, and because our articles come from around the world, I’m not as picky as I would be if I had more time.

Here is an example of a phrase describing the results from a study, and whether those results might apply to types of people who were not in the study: “…their [the results’] extrapolation to other populations is strongly precluded.”

I would say that in general, a thing either is precluded, or it is not. It if it precluded, then it will not happen. Otherwise, it will. The adverb “strongly” does not make sense in such an either/or case. When I was looking at this phrase, I thought it really should read “strongly discouraged”, which would make more sense. Do not try to use these results with other populations.

But I let it go. Maybe I got lazy. Maybe I thought “Oh, it’s only medical writing, what the hell.” Maybe I let another hillbilly climb over the wall. Maybe linguistic standards have been abandoned, and the language has gone to hell. If anybody asks me, though, I’m going to say, “I ain’t never done nothing like that.”

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Start With This

The Master and Margarita book cover

The Master and Margarita

Being, as I be, in the bedeviled state of beginning to write a new novel, I must decide how to start the book. I heard on the radio that you should begin by commencing, though I’ve also heard contradictory advice on that. My long centuries of writing experience, which include many words splattered onto otherwise innocent sheets of paper, followed by the reactions of some readers and the occasional flicker of bemused interest from a literary agent, followed by the inevitable curled lip of negation, have given me much cause to ponder book openings.

From talking to literary agents and reading their blogs, advice, and appalled emails of rejection, I have come to realize that the ideal book opening contains these elements:

  • time travel
  • a car chase
  • oblique references to something godawful in the past
  • a mysterious young man with a pistol, looking for the meaning of life

The best books, of course, will contain these things in the first paragraph. If you’re a writer of secondary capacity, such as myself, it may take as long as two pages to mention all these things.

Of course the beginning of a novel should make the reader want to read more. That’s a basic fact of psychology and biology—we try things briefly to see if we’re interested, like tasting food, but we aren’t going to live for hundreds of years, damn it, so we need to pick and choose. What is the magical opening that will pull a reader in? There are people who will tell you how to write fiction, but usually such people do not say just who they are writing for, which makes all the difference in the world.

In pondering how a novel might begin, I went looking for some examples that I could quote here (without being sued). I’ll quote the opening sentences of three books, to give a feeling of the writing, and then I’ll summarize what happens in the first few pages of the book

Return of the Native

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

[Several pages of description of the landscape follow: by Thomas Hardy, published in 1878]

Alice in Wonderland

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?”

[Suddenly a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows it down a hole: by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865]

The Master and Margarita (I’m doing my own translation here from the Russian)

“On a hot spring evening at Patriarch’s Ponds two persons appeared. The first was around forty, dark-haired, chubby and balding, and he was dressed in a light summer outfit. In his hand he carried an elegant hat, while unnaturally large glasses in black horn frames graced his face.”

[Someone falls onto the tracks in front of a streetcar, and his head is cut off: by Mikhail Bulgakov, written between 1928 and 1940, but because he lived in the Soviet Union, writing about society under Stalin, the book was not published until the 60s]

What can we see from these openings? One thing we learn is that in 1878 you could write a book that began with landscape, then did more landscape, and was only getting warmed up in describing the landscape. Could you publish a book today that began that way? The literary agents would hurt their hands in the speed with which they would throw that back at you.

Alice in Wonderland was intended mostly for children, so of course it was going to do something more immediately entertaining than a novel by Hardy. It has almost no description, but goes immediately to action. It occurs to me as I sit here that since a requirement of modern novels is to immediately grab the reader’s attention with action, does that mean that modern readers are being addressed as children? A difference between the two books above is that Hardy was comfortable spending a long time setting the scene, while Lewis dropped the reader into the middle of the action.

Bulgakov’s novel opens with a famous scene that certainly grabs the reader’s attention. This 20th century novel seems to do the kind of thing that is demanded of novels here in the early 21st century, jump in there with something exciting. It doesn’t have a car chase, but later in the book, it does have a witch fly across Moscow.

For the book I’m starting to write (so far called Moonapple Pie, here are the first three sentences (until I change them sometime in the next few years):

The village of Mule Camp Springs sat silent below the lake. In the middle of the street, down in the dark waters, lay a boat that had tragically gone down one Fourth of July, drowning two brothers who were drinking beer and fishing. The sunken boat had come to rest next to the disintegrating remains of the Mule Camp Methodist church.

I’m still working on the obligatory car chase, which I guess will have to end up in the lake.

 

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What You Know Can’t Hurt You

FrankensteinLast weekend I was driving home from Florida and on the radio I heard some talk about the novel Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818. The next day, I heard someone else on the radio read from Shelley’s notes on how she came to write the book. Because this year is the 200th anniversary of her thinking up the idea for the novel, perhaps it’s no great coincidence that I’d hear these radio reports.

The following day, however, I was reading a modern novel that out of the blue made a reference to Frankenstein, and still the day after that I was listening to some language exercises while studying Spanish, when a speaker used the sentence (in Spanish), “Oh, it’s the Frankenstein monster! Run!” I think using the word “run” was the actual point of the exercise.

The cultural impact of Mary Shelley’s novel is so enormous that it’s impossible to calculate. I pause for a moment to note that she was 18 years old when she thought of it and began writing it. Are there novels by any men at that age that have had such an impact?

Shelley tells us that her purpose was just to write a horror story, some entertainment during a rainy summer for her husband, herself, Lord Byron, and another friend. We can now see the book in two very different ways, however. There is the “Grrrrrr!!!” monster way, which she was after, and in the 20th century we have certainly pursued this line, with movies and pop culture that celebrated the “monstrousness” and nothing else, leading in fact to parodies like the song “Monster Mash” and Mel Brook’s utterly wonderful movie “Young Frankenstein”.

Whether Shelley intended to make a cultural statement or not, I don’t know. Maybe she did intend it. Both of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were influential thinkers and writers, concerned with the state of society (you can look them both up on Wikipedia), so Mary Shelley was probably influenced by this background. And there is obviously a second way to look at her book.

In Frankenstein, she picked up on trends happening in her time, including current scientific knowledge, such as electricity (remember, the year was 1818), and captured a growing cultural uneasiness with how that knowledge and technology were affecting people. At the same time that Shelley was close to writing Frankenstein, for instance, textile workers in England were destroying weaving machines from fear that the machines would take away their jobs (does that fear of being replaced by machines sound somewhat familiar?).

Clearly, in the early 1800s some people were beginning to feel that knowledge and technology were moving beyond human control. It was at that moment that Mary Shelley produced this novel, which embodied those fears. The book is actually about a man who creates a living creature that he is then afraid of. The creature of the novel, by the way, is not the cartoon character of our movies (in Shelley’s book the monster reads John Milton’s Paradise Lost).

Of course, after Shelley, both our knowledge and our technology have increased astronomically, and our fear of them has continued. A very good example of fearing our own creations came exactly 100 years later, with the Czech play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, where the word “robot” was first created. In that play, the artificial creatures eventually turn on their human masters and kill them.

In the late 20th century, I’d cite two movie examples of this same theme. In “Blade Runner” artificially created people come into conflict with the humans who made them, and in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the anthropomorphic ship computer turns on the humans who are supposed to control the space ship.

From our vantage point 200 years later, the time of Mary Shelley seems quaint and bucolic. Most people then lived in villages. Everyone rode horses. Not one thing on the earth ran on electricity. And yet part of the reason for the success of Shelley’s novel is that is wasn’t just a horror story. Other people have written horror stories, but we don’t hear about them.

Even 200 years ago, people were beginning to worry about whether humans were acquiring knowledge beyond our capacity to use it. And look at us now. We have nuclear weapons. We have cell phones that tell people where we are, even when we don’t realize it. We are developing the capacity to change the very DNA that makes us who we are. Writers struggle now to deal with such changes and threats to our humanity. A teen-aged girl 200 years ago captured the anxiety of her own time, something we still understand.

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