Category Archives: Giving Birth to a Book (That’s Why I’m Screaming)

What I’m writing at the current time and how it’s going.

I Pretend to Know That

bowl of herbsA couple of weeks ago, I had intended to drive to a state park in the North Georgia mountains, where a national herbal medicine conference was being held. I didn’t specifically want to attend the conference, but I did want to see what was happening, to get a feel for it and make some notes. It turns out I did not go, but I’ve talked to someone who did.

The reason for the herbal medicine interest is that I have a character in the novel I’m currently writing who is in the process of becoming a herbal healer, which I know almost nothing about. Because I have a strong interest in character development, I try to have characters familiar with a wide variety of topics, like real people, so my characters will necessarily know things that I don’t know.

I’m not going to become seriously knowledgeable about every possible thing familiar to my characters. What I write, in effect, is an illusion (assuming it works). If character development is done well, and I’ve read people who do it well, it really does seem that the characters know many different subjects.

If you are a writer, unless you strictly follow the idiotic advice to “write what you know”, a great deal of research may be needed. I was recently reading about the movie director Mira Nair, who made the movie “Mississippi Masala” and how she went to Uganda to do research for the movie. That kind of thing is far beyond my resources, but I still do a lot of research.

If you’re a clumsy writer (and it’s easy to be clumsy, as I know from experience), you can take what you’ve learned about some topic and drop it in clumps into your novel. Even if you put quotation marks around it, however, and present it as the character speaking, that block of information doesn’t even come close to creating a real character.

People don’t usually go around giving lectures on what they know. Most of the time, as they move through daily life, what they know about topic X comes out in more subtle ways. To be realistic, what you must to do is show repeated, more subtle references, as in these examples.

  • Someone who is a good cook might be standing in line at the supermarket, looking at a recipe in a magazine, thinking I wouldn’t put tarragon in that.
  • Someone who is a basketball fan may look at a calendar for a different reason, but notice they’ve marked a date to meet a friend to watch a playoff game.
  • Someone who trains dogs could be in their basement looking for something when they happen to see an old [insert dog training implement—do research].

In the novel I’m currently writing, in addition to the character who will become a herbal healer, I have a visual artist, a painter. Attempting to show the knowledge of these two characters requires both research and attention to details within the writing.

  • The artist: I knew there is such a thing as complementary colors, something a trained artist would presumably know, but I didn’t know what they are, so I looked up a color wheel (several, in fact, as I prefer to verify what I’m finding).
  • The artist: He is looking at an object, thinking about what colors he might use to capture that look, using [name colors of paint—do research]
  • The herbal healer: I met someone who knows herbal medicine, so I asked if I could interview her, which I did once for a couple of hours over lunch. I made notes, and I followed up on information she gave me.
  • The herbal healer: My character is at a friend’s house and notices a pot of flowers in the room, then learns that the flowers are a herbal plant she’s just been reading about.

Doing the things I’m describing above is a LOT of work. That’s what good writing is.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

Research in Rabbittown

Rabbittown statueThere’s a place just north of here, a hop, skip, and a jump, you might say, called Rabbittown. I don’t know the actual rabbit situation, but they have stuffed toy rabbits, and ceramic rabbits, and paintings of rabbits, and a huge statue of a rabbit. What would real rabbits think about Rabbittown?

On the one paw, a rabbit might say, “Man, we gotta go there. We’ll be like little fluffy kings!” Or a rabbit might say, “Let’s stay the hell away from that. We could end up on a styrofoam plate at the Rabbittown Cafe.” I ate lunch at the Rabbittown Cafe and saw no rabbit on the menu.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about. What I wanted to tell you is that last Saturday I went to the International Dragon Boat Races. Did you know Gainesville, Georgia, was hosting the International Dragon Boat Races? International, baby. Did you even know that dragon boats have an international racing event? Or that there’s such a thing as a dragon boat? The boats do, by the way, have an actual dragon head on the front.

Me neither, until I started reading the Gainesville paper a few months ago, as research for the current novel. Eventually I decided I wanted to put the dragon boat races in the book I’m writing, so I drove up there to see them. The races were at the same venue that was used back in 1996 for Olympic rowing events, when the Olympics were in Atlanta. The dragon races were much smaller than the Olympics, but teams came from around the world, like Switzerland and Hungary (you know, places you think about when you imagine a dragon boat).

I made a lot of notes while I was watching the boats zip across the water. Each boat had a drummer at the front, presumably to encourage the rowers. This trip was one of the more interesting ones I’ve made for research—and it included the Rabbittown Cafe for lunch, which I may also use in the book.

Everywhere I went Saturday, I was making notes, thinking about what I might want to use, which is not the same thing as going somewhere as a tourist. As a writer, for instance, I might know that one of my characters really likes trains or loves antiques, etc., so I’ll pay more attention to things like that. I also care about local details, so I always note interesting little bits, such as the women at the Rabbittown Cafe wearing purple T-shirts, or the fact that for the races the local brewer in Gainesville had made a special beer flavored with dragon fruit.

Over the years I’ve done vasty quantities of writing research. Some of it has involved reading, a beaucoup plethora of reading, or nowadays I spend a lot of time on the web (I mean, productively, not the usual way). Twenty years ago, when I started writing the book I’m currently trying to market, Birds Above the Cage, I made a research trip to a monastery and another to a strip club, where I had a chance to talk with an elderly monk and a young stripper. From each of them I learned things that I used in the book.

You can’t know where research will take you: strip club, monastery, Rabbittown Cafe, or even to watch dragon boats. For the current book, Moonapple Pie, I made a trip about a year ago to Warm Springs to see Franklin Roosevelt’s house. They had his car there, along with other things, but I didn’t see a single rabbit. I mean, not even one. What was up with that?

Leave a comment

Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)

I Think I’ll Call This One…

Adam naming the animals

And that one is called Grrr, no wait, Lion.

According to one source of the origin of the universe, within the first few days, Adam, the only human in existence, gave names to all the animals. What language he was speaking isn’t clear, but I think it might have been Yiddish. Quite a while later, the Swedish scientist Linneaus decided that he would name everything alive, such as Mus musculus (mouse), or Ficus carica (fig tree), using his double Latin names. And then in the late 1960s/early 1970s, even rock-n-roll started to get various names, like bubblegum, heavy metal, glam rock, and so on.

It’s human nature to name things, and people who like books have had at it. They’ve come up with names for different types of literature, and we even have a name for the names: genres. Good old Wikipedia lists more than 20 genres just for fiction, such as mystery, western, fantasy, horror, humor, etc. If you go on to the “subgenres” you can loose interest scrolling down the page, they have so many.

One of the difficulties with genres, however, is that many works of fiction don’t really fit into anything. Thus we have the “genre” (this is real, I didn’t make this up) of “literary fiction”. Aside from being a pretentious and incredibly vague name, it is also very common. And the kind of writing I do falls into that category.

Many literary agents specifically say they will represent literary fiction. When it comes to what that is, however, it’s not rare to see sentences like “I want great books by skilled writers” (as opposed to the other kind). Here are some modern examples of literary fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Life of Pi by Yan Martel, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

This week I found an interview with four literary agents, which I read part of. As they described the process of looking for an agent, of getting published, and of how they see the publishing field at the moment, I found myself slumping into a lethargic depression. One of the points they seemed to make is how difficult it is to publish literary fiction, one person describing it as “impossible”. How much was that intended as exaggeration?

I would also say to anyone who listens that it’s impossible to get a literary agent, at least if you write literary fiction. I was once recommended to an agent by another writer. Over and over I hear (and even read in that same interview I just mentioned) that a recommendation is the golden key to open the door. In my case, however, the agent looked at what I sent her, then wrote me and said, “It’s too hard to sell this kind of book.” Yeah, it’s a literary novel.

Was it easier when Mark Twain was first writing a novel? Could a writer at the time of Edith Wharton assume that if you had talent and worked hard, you would eventually be published? Perhaps the situation is much worse now than it used to be. All of the novels I named above have been very popular, in some cases extremely popular, and there are others. Why, then, is it so difficult to publish a literary novel?

In the broadest sense, every society needs art. The more the art flourishes, the healthier the society. I personally think there could be no such thing as too much artistic expression. I’d like to see murals and sculpture and public art everywhere you look in every city and town. Such art would be like oxygen for the spirit.

One aspect of art that a society needs is literature. Humans have always used language to tell stories and entertain, which is fine in the written form (such as romance novels or spy thrillers). We also must have books that explore what it means to be human, or we will be a philosophically shallow, spiritually hungry people. We cannot thrive without the kind of books that have been labeled literary novels.

So even if the agents don’t want them, even if it is impossible to sell them, I’m going to write them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

The Invisible Wall Between Worlds

old couch

Just put it on the front porch

One day this week I was working on an article (if you have been sadly deprived of reading this blog until now, I’m a copy editor for a medical journal in rheumatology), so anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, and you know some of those articles are like alphabet soup. That’s not a perfect metaphor, since you might actually want alphabet soup, whereas a piece of writing full of HAQ and PsA and WOMAC and SF-36 and . . . you get the idea, it ain’t no day at the beach. Or even a day at one of those weird indoor fake beaches.

So anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, which I have to hunt down and clarify (as much as they get clarified in this kind of writing), wondering what HCQ means, when it suddenly occurred to me to walk over to the cafe for a cup of coffee. I stood up from my desk, and the very moment I walked out of my office, it was like a switch had flipped. Almost instantly my thoughts turned to the scene I was writing in Moonapple Pie.

The ten minutes it took to get a cup of coffee were like this:

From my office I headed down our stark grim stairwell, because our building is like most modern buildings. If you want to waddle over to the elevator, it’s in plain view in the middle of the building, but if you want to walk because it’s healthier, you have to search for the stairs, and when you find them they have the ambience and charm of a hallway in a prison. Nevertheless, as I walked down the stairs, I was seeing my character Oleander, who was fifteen years old, riding with her father up to the north Georgia mountains to see his parents. I wondered if she should say more in the car with him. I also decided she should be looking forward to going, because her grandmother makes biscuits.

Leaving my building, I went out to the park between us and the ATT building, where the cafe is. I think the park is pretty fabulous, and at the bottom of a long grassy hill is a small lake with a fountain that shoots up rather high in the middle. As I turned from the park to walk up the long flight of outdoor steps to a second garden, I was thinking of the scene that follows Oleander in the mountains. This would be her brother Eston, an artist, in a flashback when he was in college. He goes to a party with his friend Karl, and it occurred to me that since they’re at a college party, someone might drag the living room couch out onto the front porch. So Eston and Karl could sit there later in the evening.

I went into the ATT building, to stand in line at the cafe. I always order a medium coffee, and by now the guy who works there just hands me the cup, and since I know it costs $2.09, sometimes I hand him exact change, without either of us saying anything. We do talk on occasion, however, and I know he’s an artist. As I was waiting in line this time, I was thinking about my own artist, Eston, and his friend Karl talking about art, having a disagreement over what the purpose of art is.

The barista gave me my cup, I added milk and filled it up with coffee, then left the cafe. When I walked over the weather had been wanting to mist us with rain, so I decided to take the covered route back, through the parking garage. I walked down the stairs, which are far more hidden in the ATT building than in my own. It took me more than a year to find them. Walking down the stairs, I decided that Eston and Karl will have their conversation late at night, after being at the party for hours, and they will be drunk on the front porch couch.

In the parking garage, I passed a woman who might have had dreadlocks, and who might have been wearing a dress that had flowers on it, but I wasn’t paying much attention to her. Instead I was thinking about Eston and Karl, about their conversation on art. It occurred to me that it would also be interesting, and would fit the college scenario, if they were to just fall asleep on the porch and wake up there in the morning.

Then I came back to my office, sat down at my computer, and in a minute I found that the acronym HCQ stands for hydroxychloroquine. I was back in the medical editing world.

Leave a comment

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

Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

Leave a comment

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

The People Who Came From the Sky

Australian dreamtime pictureLast weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.

The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.

I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.

For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.

The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.

Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.

As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.

On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.

So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.

Leave a comment

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

Waking Up Slowly

Slavery memorial from Savannah, GeorgiaDown in Savannah, Georgia, a very popular riverwalk runs along the wide Savannah River, where you can to stroll along looking at the water or stop to gaze up at the huge paddlewheel boats preparing to take tourists on their adventure. Facing the water are restaurants, pubs, candy stores, and souvenir shops, and on the railing that lines the walk are plaques commemorating various aspects of Savannah’s history, while in among the trees and flower beds are a few sculptures. The most surprising find among the sculptures is a memorial to people freed from slavery.

A statue of a father, mother, and two children, all dressed in 20th century clothing, stands on a stone pedestal. Around their feet is a chain, and on the pedestal is a quote from Maya Angelou. Last weekend I was in Savannah for a night of vacation, and since I knew beforehand that this memorial was there, we made a point of finding it. As I’ve read about the memorial on multiple websites, I see that it appears to be officially called the African-American monument.

The Savannah slavery memorial interests me because the book I’m working on now, Moonapple Pie, which will take place in Gainesville, Georgia, involves two brothers who decide that instead of building a memorial to one of their ancestors who fought in the Civil War, they want to create a monument celebrating the emancipation of people from slavery.

Because racism is still an ocean we swim in, even if most white people do not see it, I can imagine someone asking why two white men would build a memorial to freedom from slavery. The fact that such a question even theoretically makes sense indicates how deeply racism runs in our society. How many people, in fact, will perceive commemorating freedom from slavery as a “black” memorial? I make note, for instance, that the name I found for the Savannah memorial (“African-American monument”) refers to race, not to slavery or to freedom.

I’m asking the question differently. Why wouldn’t two human beings create a memorial to celebrate the fact that fellow human beings were freed from the horror of slavery?

In doing research for Moonapple Pie, I looked for memorials that celebrate freedom from bondage (I was looking specifically in southern states). You can find some things that show our history, such as saving old slave cabins. In Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, there is a small, not very unimpressive museum in the Old Slave Mart; or in 2016, a new memorial for African American history was dedicated in Austin, Texas; or in Wallace, Louisiana, the Whitney Plantation is effectively a museum devoted to slavery.

We certainly need to recognize our true history—for a change—but acknowledging the facts of history is not the same as commemorating the profound and joyful change from enslavement to freedom. How many memorials of that type are there? It depends on how you define such a memorial, but in the historical states of the south, I count perhaps two (yes, 2). Besides the statue in Savannah, there is a large well-done Freedmen’s Memorial Arch in Dallas, Texas.

Of the very few celebratory memorials that I’ve found (of any type), almost none of these things existed until the 21st century, and even now, it isn’t much. Just from curiosity, I also investigated how many Confederate memorials of any type exist. The estimate I’ve seen is around seven hundred (yes, 700). I mention this number only for comparison, as my subject here does not concern Confederate memorials. I’m writing here about putting up memorials.

As you read this blog, I would like your opinion on two questions:

1) What memorials celebrating freedom from slavery are you aware of, and do you know of any in the south?

2) For future memorials that will eventually exist, what do you think they should include?

Leave a comment

Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)