Posts Tagged ‘connection’

The Post – Under the Pier: Research Part I – Turning the Dream Into Flesh and Blood

March 3, 2008

According to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh.” (John 1:1,14) Something similar happens when performing a science experiment or writing a novel. First there is the idea. But before the idea becomes a scientific paper or a book in the hands of a reader, a few things have to happen. Again, given my science background, I’ll define the process in terms of the scientific approach.

The scientific approach involves a series of steps:

1) Define your hypothesis – the question you are trying to answer or the idea you think you want to prove and a rough idea of how you will do this

2) Outline the procedures and supplies to be used

3) Research your idea to see if it has merit, if there are any invalid assumptions, or new information out there

4) Run your tests and record the results

5) Do a preliminary analysis of your results

6) Re-test anything soft or questionable and make any changes or additions to the experiment

7) Analyze the data and draw conclusions

8) Write the report

Now the same steps adapted for writing a novel:

1) Define your premise – the deeper story question you want to answer – and create a rough outline of the story plan you will use to do this

2) Create your research plan and to-do list: what areas will the research cover, who can you talk to, what information should you collect, where can you find it, what places might be good to visit

3) Do any interviews, phone calls, site visits, library visits, obtain books, pictures, maps, DVDs, music, anything to “put the reader” in the story. Look for any new or unusual information that could add a twist to the story

4) Refine the story framework, such as plot action points or chapter structure then write some sample scenes, character descriptions, dialogue, and chapters

5) Review what you’ve written to see if the characters, emotions, and setting ring true, if the rules of your story world hold up, if the path you’ve taken will in fact answer your story question, and if the pacing is correct. Read any scenes, dialogue, or chapters out loud to see if the voice sounds real or fake. Decide if the point of view is correct

6) Make changes to the story framework such as adding, deleting or rearranging chapters; If needed, add, delete, or change characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, voice, themes, story action, point of view, or pace.

7) Review your plan and tweak where needed

8) Write the first draft

Before I go on, I’m going to put one disclaimer in here. My computer shows #8 on both of these lists with a smiley face. No matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it. I didn’t put it there and it annoys me, but I’m not wasting any more time on trying to get rid of them. If your computer doesn’t show the smiley faces, that makes me happy.

I’ve already covered item one. I know that my story question involves the theme of connection: Do you run from yourself and others or risk connection? The setting includes the worlds above and below the pier in a fictitious New England port town, and there are dual protagonists – a 12-year-old girl and a hermit crab – each with a predicament that forces them to answer this question. I’ve already roughed out a chapter structure and a story line with plot action points, crisis, climax, and hopefully, the correct resolution. This post introduces the next step: Your research plan and to-do list

Research is a kick. In fact some authors will tell you they love it so much they can get lost in it. They have to literally pull themselves out of it and force themselves to start writing. Research unearths specifics, those delicious details that bring the story world alive. They besiege the readers’ nose with pungent smells, their skin with sticky salt water mist, their hair with humidity-generated curls, and their ears with the dull moan of foghorns. They answer questions like: How DOES a fishing trawler catch fish and why does it use cookies and rockhoppers? Can a child operate an ROV? WHICH seagulls are in Narragansett Bay and where?

Specific details make the difference between a man “on a beach looking at the ocean,” and a man “staring longingly out over the east passage of Narragansett Bay, while slipping on black-algae coated shale next to a tide pool containing blue mussels, orange-striped anemones, Northern rock barnacles and red-gilled nudibranches, at Brenton Point State Park, in Newport, Rhode Island, on a steamy August afternoon, just before the black cumulus clouds erupt into a violent thunderstorm.”

Research helps answer “why.” Why is the character looking out over Narragansett Bay instead of Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay or the Outer Banks? It explains why the story action is set in January and June instead of July, and why the fish you wanted in your story can’t be used because it’s not in Narragansett Bay near the shore in June.

This story required LOTS of research, and I had a ball with it. All the research really fell under two categories: Characters and Setting, though in some respects, setting can be a character too, but for simplicity, I’ll keep them separate. I will deal with each of the two categories below more extensively in separate posts, but for now a general summary of the approach for researching characters and setting issues. Like the journaling phase, you start with questions:

1) Characters/Creatures/Place as character

First you need to know who you have. In this story, for both people and animals, there are primary, secondary, and background characters. Real people and animals have lives. Good characters – human or animal – have back-story. What’s the story behind each primary and secondary character?

Since there are animals, there need to be rules of the story world. No Suzy Squirrels, no ducks in clothes, no seagulls driving cars. There are long-clawed hermit crabs, hydroids, slipper snails. common periwinkles, Atlantic oyster drills, dogfish sharks, winter flounder and Northern lobsters – in short, real animals, specific to the location. But do they talk? To each other? To only certain animals? To certain humans? No humans? No one? Do they understand “human talk”? Do they know what boats, piers, fishing nets, and otter boards are? Is the human world totally foreign? Do they think?

Regarding place as character – are there particular places in the story that are characters in their own right? Why? What do they feel like? What is THEIR backstory?

2) Setting – This story has a dual setting – under the pier and above the pier. The setting issues include the “broad picture” – what is the surrounding area like, and the “narrow picture” – what is the protagonist’s home turf like? For example, what is her house like, or what is the hermit crab’s tide pool like? What kinds of neighbors do they have? What places do they like? Avoid? Why?

Topics to investigate include things like: topography, geography, geology, climate, the natural flora and fauna above and below the pier, environmental issues, financial and sociological concerns, local economy, business and industry, higher education and research universities, military installations, availability of technology, an educated populace, the effects of prevailing attitudes, ethnicity, and superstitions on the types of jobs, housing, architecture, food, dining, shopping, churches and civic institutions there, the effect of the area’s history on its attitudes, the incorporation of historical buildings or artifacts, legends and myths as part of every day life, and whether historical values influence current day life at all.

Once you’ve brainstormed about all the possible areas to look into, what questions to ask, what references to get, who to talk to, and where to go, the next step is start digging. In the next three posts I’ll show how steps 2 and 3 were applied for my character and setting research.

Coming up Next: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

Soon to come:

Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal Character R&D

Under the Pier – Research Part IV: Setting as Character

Under the Pier – Test, Review, Retest, Analyze, Conclude

Under the Pier – Write Your first Draft

General Writing Journey Topics – Broken Bits, Writer Sanity, The Writer’s House – That Swarming Bacteria Proteus mirabilis

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The Post – Twenty Years of Marriage

February 27, 2008

A time out, today, from both my writing journey posts and my fiddler crab posts. No new info on the latter yet, by the way. It’s like pregnant women past their due date – you just wait and don’t ask if the contractions have started yet.

Today is a special day. It is our twentieth wedding anniversary. It is a milestone, and worth taking time out to honor. The years have gone quickly, sprinkled with child-raising, dogs, sick parents, near-death experiences, heart-ache, joy, aging. A good mix for life I’d say. As I’ve noted, we are both geeks in our own ways, and as such, we understand each other. I just wanted to take a moment today to honor my best friend, and I figured he would enjoy and understand the movie reference below. He and I speak in movie references – lines from movies that capture the emotion of a moment for us. Over the years we have accumulated a collection of lines from hundreds of movies. They have become a kind of coded communication between us.

This particular movie is called 84 Charing Cross Road. Anne Bancroft stars. Her husband, Mel Brooks, purchased the rights to produce it – his gift of love to her, knowing how much she loved the story.

It’s the true story of a New York City writer, Helene Hanff – a person kind of like me – no bullsh–, doesn’t mince words, very “unglamorous.” She has a sharp, but kind sense of humor and a great heart. Helene LOVED English literature, but in late 1940s New York City where the movie begins, she could not find any English literature books except at the library. Then she discovered Marks & Co. and began a decades-long correspondence with them. The story is told through her letters. From the opening of the movie:

“October 5, 1949, to Marks and Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2, England. Gentlemen, Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian bookseller” scares me somewhat as I equate antique with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions. I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have any clean second-hand copies of any of the books on the list for no more than $5 each, would you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”

Thus begins her relationship with the very proper bookseller at Marks & Co., “FPD.” FPD, over letters and time becomes Frank Doel, then simply, “Frank.” It’s a love story, but not the usual kind. They live an ocean apart, have different lives, and he is married with daughters. Happily married. So no, there are no hot sex scenes, the crutch of most modern movies. Yet it is a love story, anyway, because true love at its deepest is about caring, generosity, and the connection of souls. It is not limited by the relationship but can be felt for spouses, friends, relatives, neighbors. Their friendship enlarges their lives, expanding to include his wife, neighbors, daughters, other workers at the bookshop, her friends. Their love is about adding something to each of their lives, not taking things away or destroying things. It is about understanding each other, and that is the quality of love that sustains it, whether in marriage or friendship, well into old age. And frankly, a marriage that lasts well into old age is as much about friendship, as anything else.

Throughout the movie, she revels in the old books she buys, books better for having been owned by someone else first. Again, it is a love of connection to others, even those she never met. She says: “I love inscriptions on fly-leafs and notes in margins. I like the camaraderie-sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.” She can’t get enough of the books. Frank finds them for her.

By the end of the movie, he is “Frankie” to her, and she tells him, “You’re the only soul alive who understands me.” It’s a sentiment that reflects a bond where you are known deeply, valued, and most importantly, accepted. Your truth is safe in the hands of another. Whether two people are the same or very different matters not if there is acceptance. When someone knows our deepest places, our vulnerabilities, and accepts us, they give us the best of gifts. The wish to be understood and accepted is one of the bonds that links us all. These are things I have felt for and from my husband.

At one point a friend of Helene’s made it to England and visited the book store. She wrote Helene with a description:

“It’s the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens. You would go absolutely out of your mind over it….It’s dim inside. You can smell the shop before you see it. It’s a lovely smell. I can’t articulate it easily but it combines must and dust and age and walls of wood and floors of wood…The shelves go on forever. They go up to the ceiling and they’re very old and kind of gray, like old oak that absorbed so much dust over the years they no longer are their true color.”

Such a visceral, sensual description. It was a description both my husband and I fell in love with immediately when we heard it. It is a place we hope yet, to be.

At one point in the movie Helene writes to Frank:

“I require a book of love poems with Spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley. Send me poets who can make love without slobbering. Wyatt or Johnson or somebody. Use your own judgment. Just a nice book, preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.”

Late in the movie, Frank is shown, reflecting on her as a Yeats love poem runs through his mind. The moment, and the poem, are my gifts to my husband, my best friend. Thank you for these last 20 years. They’ve gone so fast. I’d like 20 times 20 more, and if time allows, I’d like yet to walk into 84 Charing Cross Road with you.

So to “Eddie,” all my love, and to you and all romantics out there, a poet who can make love without slobbering:

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). The Wind Among the Reeds. 1899.

The Post – Under the Pier: Next Step – Scaffolding

February 26, 2008

Okay. Besides sitting in the chair playing 20 questions with my stories, what else happened as Under the Pier took shape? I spent a lot of money at Office Depot and Staples. Let me back up.

In the early stages of the journaling and “assessing what did I have” it wasn’t obvious at first that I was combining all of these various stories into one big one. I am a stubborn person. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the reality I’m supposed to confront in life. I was still trying to “finish this story fast” so I could go to my to-do list and say “Yup! Finished a story, mailed it, waiting for the money, move on to story number two.” Yes, I told you I learn slowly. So I tried to make the animal story into a chapter book. I thought about making the Max-Jamie problem into a chapter book. Chapter books are longer than than the picture books I couldn’t write and shorter than the novels I didn’t want to write. It was just my last vestige of resistance and it didn’t last long. God finally hammered it into my head that 1) you have to write the story that’s meant to be written, not the one you can cross off your list fastest, and 2) if you’re not going to do it right, why bother? In any event, the bottom line – novel.

I think it was about this same point that it suddenly occurred to me I might have something bigger than a simple novel. That’s how I am. One minute I’m trying to get away with writing a sound bite, the next minute I decide to go for the other extreme – TWO novels intertwined. And that’s what this has become – the story of a girl and her world above the pier, the story of the hermit crab and his world below the pier. The two worlds intersect at points until they meet at the climax, then go off their separate ways. The two worlds reflect similar struggles, and mirror the question “will I reach out for connection or run away?”

Now that I’d finally gotten the message it had to be a novel AND figured out the one line premise, there was that whole HOW in God’s name do I combine all this and keep track of details? How do you remember who did what in the various chapters, never mind between two different worlds? For that matter how could I keep track of who was who? And then what about when the worlds intersected? Lots of places to drop the ball. Hence – I needed infrastructure. Scaffolding.

Some people can do all this in their head, or their computer. I need to “see it on a wall.” I need paper. Sorry, trees. And I had to tackle this like a business otherwise the brain says “hobby…play” and nothing gets done. Writing is a business. A novel is a project. When I worked at Glaxo, we had project planning – calendars, files, SOPs, to-do lists, wall charts. I had to manage multiple projects at once. If you don’t keep track of details, it all comes crashing down. So, manage two novels at once when I’d never even written ONE novel? Yup – go back to what I know. Organize.

That meant binders, index cards, binder section separators, page protectors with binder holes, stickies, markers, highlighters, cork boards, Styrofoam boards, push pins, a spare toner cartridge for the laser printer, pens, crayons, large sheets of paper to plan on…. Yes, I go to Staples a lot.

I set up binders for character bios – animal and human. I made short “at-a-glance lists” of characters for both sides of the story, so I could quickly know who was who, saving the binder bios for the complete facts. I also made an index card for every invertebrate, fish, algae, plant or mammal that might show up in the story, with scribbled references on the back to find more elsewhere. More on these in the research post.

There are binders for the settings above the water and binders for the places below. I had binders for all the research I did and the background info I created. Again, I’ll discuss this separately under the research post.

As I reviewed all the journaling I did on the story line, I established a “time-line” and figured out what times in the story would be covered and in what chapters. Once I had a rough idea of chapters, I took a cork board and huge sheet of paper. I drew a large box on the paper for each chapter/time point. Any idea, shred of paper, page of journaling that pertained to the events on a certain day, I tacked up in the appropriate box. Every time I thought of something new, another note got tacked up under that day. Some of those days had an inch thick stack of idea notes.

I made a wall chart that showed at a glance the chapters in the novel, human on the top half, alternating with the animal chapters on the bottom half, and listing on each, the chapter number, human or animal, exactly what day of the week each took place, and relevant plot points in each chapter. On this same chart in the middle between the human and animal chapters, I graphed the rise and fall of emotions and action for the plot. I wanted to see at a glance how the story tracked for rising and falling action, both in each chapter, and in the story overall. I knew the story needed to have balance – not all snoring nor all white-knuckle rides, but a mix of intensity with catching your breath. However, I did want to make sure that overall, the trend of emotion kept rising until the crisis/climax, and then dropped for the resolution. Hence my chapter graph.

I made a chart of the human world characters – their family trees and interrelatedness with the other characters and locations in the story. This was helpful actually, because I discovered a couple of characters who didn’t really connect to anyone and hence I cut them. If they don’t connect to anyone in the story, why have them?

I made a chart of all the chapter happenings on the animal side of the story- where the action happened underwater for that chapter, which critters were involved, what happened. I wanted to make sure that 1) I wasn’t having the same thing happening in 3 different chapters, 2) I had the right animals in the right place at the right time, and 3) if the animal appeared in both the human and animal chapters, I made sure the action matched up

I kept a running to-do list of things to check on, research, fact check, people to call. I have logs for each chapter in each draft of the novel and can tell you the dates I worked on a particular chapter in a particular draft. I made organizational charts to show the chapter numbering changes from draft one to draft two and there’s charts on foam boards of all the elements to check on when revising the stories – one board for the human story, one for the animal side, one for elements of revision applying to both worlds.

And calendars. Yes. I kept a calendar. I even set deadlines for finishing certain milestones. In business, you have deadlines. It’s the only way your product gets out the door. Now, most of the time I missed those deadlines because things always take longer than expected. Still, the thing about deadlines is that you set them. Even if you don’t meet them, you’re a hell of a lot closer to the end goal, than if you never set one.

So, lots of infrastructure. Other authors may be ripping their hair out. This may not be their way to work. I may not be this detailed for another story. This is not the only way to write a novel. It’s probably not the best way. It’s simply my way – what my brain needed. I’d never written a novel before. Also, given the complexity of this one, the level of technical, scientific, and real-life detail, and the fact that I was writing two stories at once that intertwined, infrastructure was the only way I could keep anything straight.

Next : The First Half of the Scientific Approach – Define Your Hypothesis, Assemble Your Gear, Do your research

The Gift – a writer’s extra

February 20, 2008

I absolutely LOVE diners. They were part of the world I grew up in. To me they were places of love, connection, friendship, community and sustenance. I still feel that way. They also factor very strongly in both my current novel-in-progress, Under the Pier, and a chapter book/novel-in-progress, Diner Kids.

I also feel very strongly about our kids. All of them. It matters to me that they all have a shot at happy, productive lives no matter where they live.

I came across an interesting program when I found the web site for the American Diner Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. I had a chance to interview Daniel Zilka, the museum director, and learned about two important projects they sponsor. Through those programs both at-risk youth and historic diners stand to benefit. As my gift back to diners and those kids, I pass on this info:

Important News About Diners at the American Diner Museum:

The American Diner Museum in Providence, RI not only records and preserves the history of diners in America, but it is actively involved in preserving and restoring both the diners and our youth in today’s world. They have two ongoing programs:

The Diner Rescue Fund: a fund from donations to restore and preserve historic diners in America

The New Hope Project/Diner Restoration Fund: A project with The American Diner Museum and the Rhode Island Training School to restore old diners and save at-risk youth. From the New Hope Project web page:

“The Rhode Island Training School saw a need for enhanced vocational training for the student population and the American Diner Museum visualized new hope for diners that it was trying to save from demolition”

The project teaches youth skills from carpentry and cooking to business management. The diners are restored by the youth and are either displayed or will be used as functioning diners, possibly staffed and run by these youth.

This whole thing is summed up best in a quote from the RITS Community Liaison, John Scott, in an October 31, 2007 article by Joe Kernan in the Warwick Beacon Online :

“The poetry in all of this is that the students of the RITS, a population that society turns away from, is going to save historic structures that society has turned away from.”

The Rhode Island Training School (RITS) is part of The Juvenile Corrections Division of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Families.

The links above contain information about the programs and places to send any donations.

The Post – Gab to Go

February 4, 2008

Given it’s Monday, you expect to see someone sitting at their desk with a coffee cup sipping tentatively before plunging into whatever awaits. So it’s not a surprise that I have this Styrofoam cup on my desk. The odd thing is it sits next to my regular ceramic mug, which is what’s actually holding my caffeinated drink of choice – tea. So why the Styrofoam cup?

Ah, a throw-back to yesterday’s post – start this one with a question, right? Well, questions are the order of the day, and that’s exactly the point with this Styrofoam cup. It doesn’t contain caffeine. It’s loaded with . . . questions. No it’s not some mystical beverage, or some liquid whose swirls you gaze into or whose curls of steam you study for the secret of life. It’s a game. And to a writer, it’s like a playground.

Questions are the staple of a writer’s life. It doesn’t matter if it’s nonfiction, essays, or fiction, you write to answer questions. Whether it’s what killed the dinosaurs, why we should care, or a story about bringing them back to life in a doomed amusement park, all three start from a question. No questions, nothing to contemplate, and hence nothing to write.

A question here: In an era of You Tube, My Space, video games and Instant Messaging, how do you cultivate a love for, and the ability to confront questions? No this isn’t another essay bemoaning all of this technology in our kids’ lives. Technology is here to stay and frankly, a lot of it is great. Just see the effect on homebound elderly who’ve embraced email and the web and thus feel connected not isolated. And let’s be honest, even adults are glued to all of the above, not just teens. It’s simply a realization that unless the power goes out, everyone is plugged into something electronic (like this blog?) and when is there time to sit across the table from someone, ask a question, and ponder an answer?

One family confronted this on a vacation trip. They realized each was plugged into their own electronic device, and hence, their own world. Fine up to a point. But there was no conversation. No connection. Now I’m not dissing this completely because hours of several people jammed together in a closet on wheels can get old. Each having their own space for a little while can be a relief. However, I did grow up in an era of “See how many different states’ license plates you could find” or “look for whatever object came up next on a list” as you traveled down the highway. Like it or not, you interacted. So I can understand this family’s concern.

They came up with a simple yet elegant solution. They came up with a list of questions, things like: “What is something about you that would surprise most people?” “What word do you really dislike?” “What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?” Simple questions. Yet even one person’s answer could lead to not only an extended conversation, but a newfound appreciation for people you reside with and ordinarily take for granted. We often find talking to “new people” exhilarating because it’s something new and different. Yet how many new and different things are within the very people sitting next to us that we may have grown bored with?

The family went ahead and created a product – a bunch of question cards in a Styrofoam coffee cup – and have recently started to market it. It’s called “Gab to Go.” It started locally and is beginning to spread as people realize what a gift asking a question can be.

For myself, I could probably take each question and write at least one post on it, maybe more, depending on how I slanted it. The possibilities, if not infinite, are pretty extensive. In fact, I may use a question/essay approach on a regular basis in future entries. For now, I revel in the new worlds and travels never imagined, with people very close to me, all because somebody thought to ask a question.

If you’re interested in learning more about the how and why behind this couple’s game, and news articles on their idea, check out “Gab to Go.”