Posts Tagged ‘long-clawed hermit crab’

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

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….