Posts Tagged ‘blue collar’

The Post: Under the Pier – Place as Character, Part II: Specific Story Locations and the “Real Story” Behind Them

March 26, 2008

In this entry I’m going to talk strictly about the human story locations. I’ll deal with the animal locations in a later segment on physical and geographical details of the setting.

For the human side of the story – Max’s world – the setting could be broken down into the town, places outside of the town, and the bay itself.

Some specific locations in the story’s town include:

  • Max’s home area – a residential street sandwiched between the local business district on Main Street on one side, and the auto body shops, shipping repair shops and commercial wharfs, on the other
  • The diner area of town – centrally located, it contains Main Street’s local business district, the schools and church.
  • Uptown – the fancy boutiques, expensive hotels and restaurants along with art galleries, museums, the hospital, civic buildings and the library;
  • The areas south and west of the diner are industrial in nature, and east of the diner right on the waterfront, there are welders, electricians, ice houses, a sailor’s assistance shelter, soup kitchens, etc.
  • Lighthouse point – at the upper end of the point, close to town, a state park along the shore; a little further down the road, there is the Naval research base on one side and an exclusive yacht and sports club on the left bordered by sand dunes with the burned out remains of an old mansion and carriage house from the 1800s; at the end of the road – old stone warehouse buildings that now serve as research labs, the wooden pier, a lighthouse on a rocky point to the left of the pier, rocky outcroppings with tide pools to the right of the pier, and an old Civil War fort, on the Naval Base land, that overlooks the pier and labs, and is open to the public as a museum.

Outside the town:

  • A local university marine research facility including an ocean-going vessel and dock

The bay:

  • Ecological disaster restoration sites out in Narragansett Bay where environmental researchers plant eelgrass shoots to restore the bay’s destroyed eelgrass beds and seed the areas with baby quahogs – hard shell clams – to restore shellfish populations
  • An upweller site – essentially a farm to raise baby clams and oysters used to reseed other areas

In considering the town, I needed ask some questions such as:

Is this an upscale affluent area? A low-income blue collar industrial or commercial fishing area? Are there homeless shelters or condos? Are the store fronts vibrant and thriving? Empty? Are there boutiques or thrift shops? Vegetarian restaurants or diners? Is this a “border” area where two worlds collide? How do the people on either side of the tracks react to each other?

Is this a newly established area or does it have a history dating back to the 1600s? Are there universities, military installations, factories? Does the commercial area involve banks and high finance, or boat repairs, metal shops, and welders? Or both?

What are the ethnic groups in the region? Is there a prevailing religion? Is it an old town where things “used to be this way” but are falling into disrepair or customs that are now disregarded? Superstitions? What are the prevailing attitudes on politics, work, family and friends? Is the area conservative? Liberal? Apathetic?

Based on these and other questions I came up with the following:

Under the Pier takes place in a fictional Rhode Island port town that’s a crossroads between the pampered and the struggling. It’s reflective of a lot of places in New England, manual laborers right next to rich tourists and the well-do-do. It is based on no one town in particular, but is more a blend of the many places I lived in or experienced over the years, places that run the range from industrial, commercial fishing, and laboring, to museums, boutiques, fancy restaurants, and art galleries. They have a heavy basis in blue collar and immigrant populations and while there’s a variety of religions, many of the people at least used to be Roman Catholic.

Examples of some of the towns included as influences for this story are: Newport, Providence and Middletown, Rhode Island; Torrington, Winsted, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and Farmington Connecticut; Fall River, Seekonk, Gloucester, Provincetown, Boston, Woods Hole and New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Places like Farmington Connecticut and Boston Massachusetts have affluent or very successful upscale flavors to them. Many of the other towns reflect the reality that times used to be better in the past. Manufacturing used to be a staple of the region’s economy. Now that has declined or almost totally left the area, though many old factory buildings remain. Commercial fishing, always a difficult way of life, has become a real struggle, and the towns themselves struggle with aging infrastructures like bridges, roads, parks, hospitals, etc., many in decline due to the loss of tax revenue that the manufacturing industry used to bring.

The town and surrounding areas are saturated with the influences, flavors, structures and artifacts of many eras in American history:

– Puritan Pilgrims and their intense work ethics; independent types like Roger Williams who left established colonies for the wilderness of places like Rhode Island so they could live the way they wanted; stubborn colonial farmers battling poor land; independent types who produced some of the leaders of the American Revolution, the literary world, industry and business

– Historic landmarks like old forts, statehouses, battle sites etc.

– The churches, schools, convents, and fraternal club buildings built by turn-of-the century (early 1900s) immigrants to New England, from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Italy.

– Turn of the century industrial buildings when the area bustled with work, workers, and possibilities in the area mills. Money was tight and the hours long, hard and dangerous, but there were jobs to be had, especially during the busy days of World War II.

– Support businesses that grew up around those factories like, corner grocery stores, diners, hardware stores, newspaper offices and their printing facilities, Five-and-dime stores like Woolworth’s, etc.

– Left-over World War II military installations, forts, anti-aircraft gun mounts, ammo bunkers. Some are still in use, some boarded up and abandoned, some razed, and some converted to other uses. For example, some of the old ammo bunkers were converted into research laboratories at the University of Rhode Island.

– Continued US Naval military presence including advanced underwater naval weapons research

– Ivy league colleges and renowned universities with cutting-edge research programs that often overlap with military objectives and budgets

Regarding Max’s home – she lives right at the edge of both worlds, in her grandmother’s three-family house. Her grandmother worked all her life in the diner, while her grandfather drove a truck for Grunder’s Moving and Storage after a stint in the army, in Vietnam. In spite of their lower standing on the economic ladder, they still owned their own home. It’s not fancy like the single-family homes in the richer parts of town, but still, it’s theirs. It’s more practical – a three-family house, which means you can rent out at least one floor for additional income. In Max’s case, her grandmother rents out the first floor apartment – to Vince Santelli, the somewhat mysterious eldest son of Rosa, the old woman who runs the diner. Max and her grandmother live on the second floor. Their apartment is pretty comfortable since Max’s grandparents converted the third floor attic into additional living space. Max’s grandparents managed to send two of their three children to college, and the only reason Max’s mom didn’t go was out of choice – she wanted to be an artist. All in all, while not a rich or pampered life, Max’s grandparents did okay for themselves.

Max lives next door to her best friend, Noah Olansky. His is a military family – his dad is a drill instructor for the Marine Corps, while his mom manages the local exclusive sports club. Again – not a rich existence, but still, they have a home, access to some nice perks, good schools, and they have ambitions for their son that they have a reasonable chance of achieving. In addition, they too collect extra income by renting the first floor apartment of their house to the elderly twin sisters, Mildred and Margaret Stoltz. It’s considered a perfect arrangement. Noah’s parents get tenants who pay on time and regularly, don’t destroy the place or have late-night parties, and are stable. The two older women get a safe place to live, reasonable rent, help from Noah and his mom, and live close to their friends and the things important to them.

Behind Max and Noah’s houses are stand-alone garages, and behind those, an overgrown wooded area that buffers their backyards from the backyard of the auto body shop and the commercial wharves on the next street. So it is a residential street right on the fringes of blue collar businesses.

Rosa Santelli, who runs the diner, lives in the central area of town, right in the middle of all the businesses. She has a living situation representative of that segment of society that started out in modest quarters, right next to their growing businesses, and stayed there even as the area declined. Rosa lives in a small apartment on the back side of the Grunder’s Moving Company. This is not an uncommon occurrence in urban areas, to have back alley apartments behind commercial businesses. She has lived there all her life with her husband until he died. They raised their sons there and it is conveniently located right next to her 24-hour-a-day diner. As is the case with those arrangements, it still suits her as everything she values in life or needs, is right there. Her church is right up the street, the diner is next door, the florist who sells her roses for her diner is in a storefront next door, along with the Laundromat she uses for free, the hair salon where she gets her hair cut. She is friends with all of these people and has been for years. They look out for each other.

Rosa’s apartment is also two doors down from the apartment Max and her mom lived in when they moved back to town from Cape Cod, six months ago. The apartment location placed them down the street from Max’s school, next door to her mom’s job in the Grunder’s office, not far from the art galleries her mom was trying to break into, and close enough, YET far enough away from Max’s grandmother. It had the added perk of being high enough, located on the second floor, so they could look out on the harbor and Narragansett Bay.

The businesses on Main Street clustered around the diner, reflect the nature of the area: a fish and bait shop, an Army and Navy store, marine supplies, a fish market, hardware store, grocery store, hair shop, photo shop, florist, gas and oil company, and a Laundromat. The local fire station, bowling alley, and liquor store are around the corner, and all these people know each other, support each other, look out for each other, and share food and fun with each other. For example, Rosa and all the local business ladies get together every Friday night at the diner for their poker group.

Gambling and games of chance are pretty standard things in the area and there’s a long history of it, especially in the ethnic communities. For example, one of my grandmothers and her friends would catch the afternoon bus to Pennsylvania , play bingo for the night, then get home early the next morning because the cash prizes were bigger in Pennsylvania bingo games than those in Connecticut. Local churches always ran a turkey bingo at Thanksgiving and raffles during the summer.

My other grandmother would attend early Sunday Mass then catch the bus to Green Mountain, Vermont to go to the racetrack (horses). It was a very common thing for my dad, uncles, and family friends to take a day off during the summer to head to New York’s Aqueduct horse race track, or for us to go up to the Saratoga racetrack for a day trip as a family. My grandmother knew horses, jockeys, and win-loss statistics. I knew very early on the different betting rules of the race track, such as what the Daily Double (predict the winners in two consecutive races) was, and I knew that the Latin prefix “tri” meant three, because you had to predict three things – the horses for first, second and third place in a race to win a Trifecta. I knew at a young age that you won the most money if you bet on a horse to win, but stood a better chance of getting some kind of payout, if you bet on the horse to place or show. And you always, always, checked your ticket and your change before you walked away from the betting booth.

As time went on, the state added lottery games. Jai Alai came to Connecticut from Florida. The world of betting became upscale with fancy off-track-betting facilities, lavish casinos with entertainment that rivaled Vegas run by the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe in Connecticut (Foxwood), or the large casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Jersey is just a long day trip away, either by bus or limo. So all of this is a part of life there.

Moving north from the center of town is the more upscale area frequented by tourists and the wealthier of the town. Museums, boutiques, bistros, fancy restaurants, art galleries, the hospital, and the city’s civic buildings are all there. A walk through Newport Rhode Island gives as good an example of that as any place.

In contrast areas west and south of the diner are heavily industrial as well as military. East of the diner, on the other side of Max’s street, and you are at the waterfront of the harbor. Again, blue-collar, generally commercial boating and fishing industries and support services dominate this area, along with soup kitchens and a Seamen’s Assistance House that provides shelter and support to sailor’s in need of a place to stay between jobs. This last one is based on a similar facility on the Newport, Rhode Island waterfront.

Heading out of town you can either head further inland, toward the rest of Rhode Island and the university in the story, or you can head out toward Lighthouse Point – a large strip of land jutting out into the water on the outer edge of the harbor. Past this point are the open waters of Narragansett Bay and then the open Atlantic. While again a fictional location, a look at the geography of the land surrounding Narragansett Bay, for that matter, right in the Newport area, would show countless inlets, harbors, rocky coves and jetties of land that could match Lighthouse Point in description.

As mentioned above, the story’s pier is at the end of Lighthouse point, along with the research labs. To some extent, the campus setup for the research area was loosely based on facilities at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.

To the left of the pier, on a rocky point, is the lighthouse that shines out on the waters between the town’s harbor and Narragansett Bay. To the right of the pier are the tide pools and the rocky tail end of land as it meets the bay. Overlooking the pier area from the hill above it, is the old Civil War fort. It is located on land owned by the Naval base and is run as a museum. The Point also has the Naval base for underwater weapons research, the exclusive sports club Noah’s mom manages, the burned-out remains of the haunted carriage house and mansion and a state park on the south edge of the point.

Out in Narragansett Bay, my story characters have been to eelgrass restoration sites, shellfish restoration sites, and an upweller installation – a farm where seed clams and oysters are raised to later be used in the above restorations.

Some of the real-life locations that inspired the above story sites include places like Fort Adams , an active military fort from 1824-1950 and now a museum, that overlooks the Newport harbor, as well as the many exclusive yacht clubs there. Narragansett Bay has many operating lighthouses, as well as state parks, and rocky points, tide pools, and wooden piers abound.

About ghosts. Well, frankly, I think most of New England is haunted, and Rhode Island is no exception. Brenton Point State Park in Newport, Rhode Island has the plant-shrouded remains of a supposedly haunted building, and the Cliff Walk along the water by Newport’s exclusive mansions, as well as some of the mansions themselves, have their own stories of ghosts and hauntings. A number of these are in the book: Haunted Newport, by Eleyne Austen Sharp, though the Brenton Point one I learned about firsthand from someone when we visited the area.

The stone buildings that make up the research labs were based on many of the old warehouses and mill building scattered around places like Lowell and Fall River, Massachusetts. The main lab building is modeled on an old stone building in Woods Hole, Massachusetts – the Candle House – that has a model of a sailing ship mounted over its doorway.

I created the story of the ship’s captain building the stone warehouses, lighthouse, and mansion out on the point, but even there, it is based in reality. On a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia one summer, I dined in a restaurant right on the waterfront that dated to the 1800s and was built to hold goods for trade coming in on the ocean-going vessels. The same is true of waterfront buildings in many New England ports, including Boston.

Regarding the story’s secret Naval research base, it mirrors the current reality in that region. Military installations and research labs are prevalent throughout the area, being in close proximity to large universities doing cutting-edge research in electronics, robotics etc. The Naval base doing underwater weapons research on Lighthouse Point is based very loosely on The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport Rhode Island, and on the area research projects sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. NUWC’s website describes the center as: “the Navy’s full-spectrum research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support center for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, and offensive and defensive weapons systems associated with undersea warfare.”

There are also the “leftover military infrastructure relics” from World War II that can still be found in the area – decommissioned bases that became wildlife research stations, remnants of anti-aircraft gun emplacements and artillery batteries on the hillsides overlooking the water, and old ammo bunkers. On the last – there are a few research labs at the University of Rhode Island that are actually converted ammunition bunkers. They are coveted because they can be easily controlled for temperature and humidity, and they have no sun-lit windows to interfere with experiments.

The University of Rhode Island has an extensive marine biology research program at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography right on Narragansett Bay. This includes the ocean-going research vessel, R/V Endeavor, docked right at the school.

A few remaining settings are out in the bay itself: eelgrass restoration programs and shellfish seeding at the sites of polluted areas. These are based on actual restoration projects such as for the 1996 North Cape oil spill, the 1989 Prodigy oil spill, the coastal superfund hazardous waste site at the Newport Naval Education and Training Center at McAllister Point off Newport, and others.

The details for the side trip to a clam farm or upweller site, where baby clams are raised for later transplantation to other areas, came from a number of websites found on Google searches.

Next up: So How DO You “See” A Fictional Town?

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The Post: Under the Pier – Setting as Character, Part I

March 15, 2008

I’ve seen writing books and articles that talk about “setting” as character. For some stories setting may just be the convenient place to locate a tale that could happen anywhere. Though, I have to wonder if that’s really true. I suspect on some level, setting is always a character. I have to think the author chose the particular locations for a reason, if only to give a certain emotional feeling or atmosphere to the story.

In Under the Pier, it’s a main character. I can’t imagine it taking place in California, North Carolina, or even New Jersey. There is a unique combination of influences: history-from witches to rebellion to World War II; independent Yankees who kept farming or going to sea, refusing to quit and finding innovative solutions for their problems, even though the land stinks for farming and so many died at sea; ethnic and immigrant work ethics, religion and beliefs; family ties; blue collar industrial types, and a pragmatic, no-BS attitude that sees through and hates charm and flattery. That butts head-on against Yuppie, new money, old money, universities and the intellectuals. You have the heritage of rebels like Sam Adams, abolitionists like John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and those strange independent types who would spend a year living alone on Walden’s Pond writing a book, thrust face to face with investment bankers, world politics, and cutting edge research. Where else would a large town mayor be accused of Mafia ties and the people still want to keep him in office because he revitalized the region?

The climate is difficult – as steamy and hot as the south in the summer, yet bitter cold with Artic winds in the winter. The short growing season and poor land make it difficult to earn a living farming. The sea brings nor’easters and claims fishermen as karmic payment for men daring to venture out there. And yet, they keep going.

Crammed right in each other’s faces are the poor and rich, intellectual and backwoods, new and old. The small geographical area makes it a pressure cooker because it shoves these groups right in each other’s faces. Like all places where boundaries meet, the participants cross back and forth between the two sides all the time. You can walk into a diner on a tougher side of town and have a truck driver on one side of you and a neurosurgeon on the other. People are pragmatic. If they want good diner food, they go to where they can get it and it doesn’t matter what walk of life they come from. Tough blue collar dockworkers raise sons and daughters who go to Ivy league colleges and have letters after their names like “PhD.” In fact, it’s almost an unwritten law in those harder places that you make sure your kids work hard, “get an education” and get a job where they don’t have to “do what their parents had to do to get by.” In a culture where immigrants measure progress in generations, the force and focus is always on making sure that next generation moves up a notch and has that “security” the previous generation never had.

So in looking this over, if this isn’t a character in its own right, I don’t know what is.

Under the Pier is set in one of those boundary places that straddles the worlds of commercial fishermen, dockworkers, manual laborers, and factory workers, vs the “new moneyed” rich tourists who fill their restaurants, the higher class well-educated intellectuals, and old money.

Max lives in the world of diners and auto body shops, commercial fishermen and the wharfs downtown. Her grandmother, Connie, is a widow, and has worked in Rosa’s diner all her life. It’s where she met her husband who came back from Vietnam and drove trucks for Grunder’s Moving and Storage until he died. Her grandmother’s total focus was to make sure her kids had the security and respect she didn’t have when she grew up. It’s all about prestige, money, position, getting ahead, but it’s really about security. If you have the others, the thinking is, you have the security. Connie’s youngest son is one of those who have crossed the line. He’s a post-doctoral researcher dating another PhD whose love is all those undersea critters. Her oldest daughter is a business consultant married to a successful doctor and lives in an exclusive area in Farmington CT. The biggest worry of Connie’s life was that middle daughter, Alicia, Max’s mom, who threw caution out the window, followed her artistic heart to Cape Cod, and worried her mother to death because she rejected most of her mother’s values….at least on the surface.

So the “personality” of the place, creates the personalities of the people who live there. From those personalities and the fact they’re all thrown up against each other, you get, story conflict.

Coming up next: Place as Character, Part II: Specifics of the Story’s locations and the research behind them.

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post: Finally, I Graduate to Stage Two – Focusing the Lens

February 15, 2008

 

I knew Phase II had arrived. Its symptom was unmistakable. I was tired. The amount of work coming from the dictionary job ran up against the short-term deadlines and heavier workload from the ethics board. Family needs took up more time. The ethics board work increased even more. And then there was the point of it all, my writing projects. I realized that I not only couldn’t keep spinning 20 plates on sticks forever, but I didn’t want to. Where some people revel in that level of activity or that challenge, I did not. That, in itself, was telling.

Going back to Mr. Shulevitz’s advice: “You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self . . . learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love.” My husband’s reminder felt viscerally real: I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to stop trying to be what I was not.

I let go of the dictionary work. While it was a good job, I wasn’t meant to be a lexicographer. I throttled back on the ethics board work. It was time for that directive: “Be alone with yourself . . . Achieve inner silence.” In my case that came partly from renewing my dormant practice of meditation and prayer, as well as just, being alone. You can’t run from yourself. To be a writer, if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you must learn your own truth. And it’s only in the quiet moments that the voice within can be heard.

For the first time, I stepped back from my work and took a look at the big picture. I listened to Mr. Shulevitz and sorted out the voices without and within, I looked to see what themes kept repeating themselves in me and my work. That’s when things started to come clear.

I love nature. I loved being 10 and climbing trees and fences and running free in the neighborhood – that time of childhood where you are most capable, where adventure and innocence are at their crest, before the trials and tribulations of adolescence set in. I love castles, the Revolutionary War, diners and the sixties and the blue collar, ethnic world I grew up in. And mythology.

I noticed that I collected, and still do, every silly, touching or factual story about nature, animals, and zoos. I kept a nature journal of our backyard bird feeder and the pond area and collected 3 years of information. I identified with creatures either too small or too much in the background to get noticed, and I was that nature-geek, driven to learn about every tiny sea creature that lived under the ocean pier.

I also knew I’d probably never draw comic strips, or write romance novels, science fiction, or true crime. Nothing against any of those genres, by the way. In fact I am fascinated by the genres of comics and romance novels – they are unique worlds and they seem cool and fun. They just aren’t my talent. And no, I will not try to write any more picture books. In truth, my husband has that voice.

I started to define the projects that were me:

A mid-grade novel set in Williamsburg Virginia during the Revolution. A mid-grade novel set in a 1960s blue collar ethnic New England town, of course, set in a diner. A historical fiction set in 1200s England on the Welsh Marches borderlands. A chapter-book of Greek mythology stories. A fantasy trilogy involving the world of a groundhog living at a highway rest stop, who faces the battle of ultimate evil, personal despair, loss, and emergence into wisdom. And a present day Tween novel of a girl above the pier, in another diner of course, and a hermit crab below the pier.

There is also a love of tweaky, short non-fiction articles about history and . . . nature. I rediscovered a love of and need for essays, which I will write about separately.

I started collecting reference books for all of these projects. Nature guides. Historical fiction. Topographical and historical maps of England and Wales. I made a plaster of paris model of the castle that my lord built, incorporating the latest high-tech gadgets of the early 1200s.

I pinned my project papers everywhere – the study walls were covered on one side with the pier story – maps of the fictitious town, topographical maps of Narragansett Bay, schematic of the diner of my dreams, the one I’d have if I had the money. The other side of the study has the groundhog world – map of the rest, deep woods, nearby farms. The hallway, spare room and stairwell have 1700s Williamsburg, while the den downstairs houses maps of England, schematics of the castle, and the castle model itself.

I even have two webcams up on my computer that allow me to step into 1700s Williamsburg whenever I want. I can see the view down Duke of Gloucester Street or watch the goings-on at the Raleigh Tavern any time day or night. I even had a lobster-cam until that one broke. So I had to settle for the DVD, Realm of the Lobster, that has footage of the undersea world of the lobster in the Gulf of Maine. I found that in this cool marine store store, Hamilton Marine, up in Searsport, Maine. Great website and catalog! Everything from diesel boat cabin heaters and EPIRBS, to cold-water rescue suits and ship’s bells. My next purchase from them will be a hand-crafted wind bell that sounds like a harbor buoy. They even give you the choice of 13 different bells – each one sounding like a buoy in a different place – Bar Harbor, Portland Head, Camden Reach, Outer Banks, etc. I use anything that puts me in the place of my stories.

I started painting again and even did one for the pier story. I bought a new digital camera and started shooting pictures . . . once I stopped being afraid of the thing. It only sat in a box for 2 years. In both painting and photography, I noticed the themes of nature, broken things and overlooked things.

And the words mosaics and broken bits, kept surfacing.

Finally, exhausted, I left the ethics board job. It had gotten to be so much work I was too drained to write. Besides, it was no longer who I was. Revisiting Stage One, I collected outside information as it applied to the projects I wanted to do, from sources like Writer’s Digest magazine, The Writer, countless writing newsletters, market guides and writing books.

All of this I did silently. Alone. Immersed in my own world. And I came to accept that I will work alone. Others can prepare you, teach you, assist you, but when you finally stand at the edge of that dark forest- your own inner world – you must face that one alone. It’s that line from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is about to enter an area of the swamp where evil lives. He asks Yoda what is in there. Yoda’s response: “Only what you take with you.”

All that was left now was to pick which project came up on deck first. My groundhog story was fairly well outlined. The 1700s Williamsburg novel had some drafts done, characters fleshed out, rejection slips collected. The Under the Pier story had an equal amount of journaling, drafts, and character work finished. The other projects were much further back in the data collection and journaling stages. One day in confused desperation I asked God to please “pick a nipple for me.” A few days later we stopped at Science Safari, a tweaky science store for kids. Sitting atop the discards pile on the sale table outside, was a stuffed hermit crab. My husband and son spotted it. I knew who sent it, so I bought it. The answer had been sent: Start with Under the Pier.

UP NEXT: A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

THEN: Phase Three: Coming Into My Own – The Evolution of a Novel.

 

The Post – Back to the novel, Under the Pier

January 24, 2008

After almost 10 days of this bug, I am finally partially human again. I’m frustrated because it halted all the things I had going on, except for my setting up this blog. At least I got all my “Pages” set up in the sidebar, all 7 of them!!!

Today I get back to revising my novel, which feels like going to meet a long lost friend. The book is set in a fictitious town on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. The viewpoints alternate between two protagonists – the one “above the pier,” a 12-year-old girl, Max, or Maxine Seraphina Bryant (though she HATES for anyone to use her full name), and the one “under the pier,” Carpus…a long-clawed hermit crab scientifically known as Pagurus longicarpus. I don’t suppose he cares what you call him.

For today, I am feeling connected to the human side of the story. The town is one of those blue-collar places and the diner in the story, Rosa’s Midway Diner, straddles the line between the fancy uptown shops and tourists vs. the worlds of docks, factories, and fishing boats. The nearly 80-year-old woman who runs it, Rosa Santelli, is someone I would want to be if I ran that diner. In fact, I hope when I’m nearly 80, I’m just like her no matter what I’m doing. I know that today, still feeling under the weather, I wish Rosa and her diner were right here. My soul could use her soup, and her care.

Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter in the novel that describes Rosa’s approach to running her place. She is the matriach, the keeper of the diner’s life, and by extension, the life of the town:

Rosa Santelli, the diner’s undisputed ruler, headed for the door. She moved with a speed you wouldn’t expect for someone her age. Max smiled as she watched the old woman work the crowd with jokes and barbs like something between a politician and a stand-up comic. These people were her family. Most were regulars who’d been coming for years, and she had them all. Lawyers, soldiers, families, and truckers, dockworkers, doctors, fishermen, and cops. Even during the 60s and 70s when the hamburger chains invaded and the other diners folded, Rosa’s Midway Diner not only survived, it thrived. Max knew why–the others didn’t have Rosa.

Her touch filled the place. Every booth and even the counters had bud vases, each with a single rose–her trademark. In the back pantry, she grew trays of fresh herbs that flavored her sauces and soups. She insisted on home-made. “Would you serve ‘store-bought’ to your family?” she’d yell at Mick and Joey whenever they tried to get her to cut back.

Her soups were thick as stew, something the local fisherman appreciated. She made sure the soups got made late at night so they’d be fresh for the guys heading out in their boats. If Joey or Mick didn’t cook them the way she wanted, she’d yell “How those boys gonna stay warm out there if you don’t make good soup?” If they didn’t put enough clams or oregano or whatever in, she’d yell at them to stop being so cheap. Sometimes she’d even come over during the middle of the night to greet the boat captains and stuff their lunches with a few extra sandwiches and doughnuts.

Others felt her generosity, too. Police, firemen, and soldiers ate free once a week. She just shrugged. “They take care of me. I take care of them.” Every kid in town knew if you needed a safe place, just go to Rosa’s. Even the birds, from the locals to the exotics passing through, found their way to the feeders hanging at all four corners of her diner. After a while, most of her customers were amateur ornithologists.

A true romantic, she also fed hearts. Frank Sinatra love songs crooned through the place, constantly. Today it was “Fly Me to the Moon.” Joe Petarski and his wife, Millie, from the marine supply store had just walked in. Joe scooped Rosa up in his arms and the two swung up and down the aisle while Joe belted out the song along with Rosa’s “Frankie boy,” as she called him. Max laughed in spite of the fact she wouldn’t be caught dead telling any of her classmates about this. Kenny Milacek from the bait store yelled to Mick to play some Dean Martin, knowing full well what would happen.

Rosa waved her fist. “Don’t you dare play that bum, Dean!” Everybody laughed because they knew Rosa hated Dean Martin.”

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about connecting to the shadows and crevices under the pier, and explain my welcoming fiddler crabs into my home to “feel” that world. For now, I have to go clean out the aquarium gravel and lift up the live rock to see if Scarlett O’Hara is still alive. I haven’t seen her in days. Just Melanie Hamilton and Admiral Byrd. Until tomorrow….