Monthly Archives: November 2017

We Need a Nap After Those Interviews

bowl of gravy

Ya know ya want me.

Here at Loonistic Information Source, in honor of Thanksgiving, we’re taking the week off from our normally Serious and Meaningful blog to interview some of the participants who make up a typical American Thanksgiving feast.

The potatoes, unfortunately, refused to turn off the TV or get off the couch, so they didn’t take part. Nor did the sweet potatoes, in fact, who were upstairs doing . . . we don’t know what they were doing, but they took a bag of marshmallows up there.

We had also hoped to interview kale and broccolirabe, who were out back in the garden, but they said they have nothing to do with Thanksgiving and wouldn’t come in the house.

So the first interview was with gravy. In the interest of Pure and Honest journalism, we have to say that we found it necessary to take gravy’s words with a grain of salt (actually, it was quite a lot of salt, maybe half a cup). We’re not sure how much to trust what gravy said, given that smooth, oily way of speaking.

“I’m the most popular dish on the table,” gravy said. “No other dish even comes close to how much people love me.”

We said, “Well there are other things that—”

“No, no, no! Not even close. They love me. Really, I don’t know why people don’t just have gravy and nothing else. I’m the best there is.”

“So you think you go with everything?”

“GO with everything? I AM everything. If there’s no gravy, it’s not Thanksgiving, it’s just a bunch of people arguing.”

After our conversation with gravy, we interviewed cranberry sauce, who seemed a little bitter.

“No one, you know, appreciates my subtlety. I mean, do you? Because, like, I have so much to offer, but who gets it? No one, you know, really. On my own, I could have been a main dish, no, seriously. People look at me and they think Ohhh, you’re so sweet, but no, no I’m not. You know what? I’m not sweet at all, but no one appreciates that.”

After cranberry sauce, we got a chance to talk turkey with the big bird of the day, and turkey sat down for our interview about 3:00 in the afternoon.

“I know you been waiting,” turkey said, “but aren’t I worth waiting for?”

“Thanks for doing this interview,” we said, “and we want to start with a question you probably hear a lot, but what are your views on light and dark?”

“Oh, I love that question,” turkey said. “Good and evil as metaphorically represented by the presence or absence of light, it’s a universal concept in human societies.”

“But not everyone eats turkey,” we said.

“That’s true,” turkey said. “Some people inhabit a space that, while not completely nihilistic, certainly evokes darkness through its profound amorality.”

“And how do you feel about gravy?” we asked.

“Well, gravy’s always on top of things, I’ll grant that.”

The next interviews were with vegetables, a mixed group who hung around together. “We didn’t think you were coming,” carrot said. “We got cold waiting on you.”

“Sorry,” we replied. “The interview with turkey took a little longer than we expected.”

“Anybody here surprised by that?” said green beans, looking around. “Has there been a year when that wasn’t true?”

“Anyway,” said onion, “you probably want to know what we contribute to Thanksgiving?”

“Yes, we’d love to hear your opinion on that.”

“We’re mostly there for ambiance. We add color to the occasion.”

“Oh well,” said carrot, “some of us do. And of course there are people who like carrots.”

“Uh huh,” said onion. “All four people in America. You make me cry.”

At that point we had to wrap up our interview with vegetables, as it was announced that pecan pie had arrived, and we felt the best interview of the day had just walked in the door.

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Filed under Really True Really

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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Filed under Writing While Living

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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Filed under Not Real Poetry

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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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic