Posts Tagged ‘New England’

The Post: Under the Pier – Animal R&D cont.

March 13, 2008

Even though I’d identified my first two main characters, I didn’t know much about them. On top of that, I still needed a third main animal character, and that didn’t even touch the question of who else inhabited this world I was trying to show.

I started doing simple web searches on hermit crab, symbionts, snail fur hydroid, Narragansett Bay flora and fauna, New England ocean divisions. As Robert Frost always said, way leads on to way, so web site leads to web site. In short order I was finding more info than I knew what to do with. I had to organize it, figure out just what was relevant, and in some cases, figure out whether the info I was finding was even correct. Just because it’s on a website…or even in a book, doesn’t make it gospel. My rule of thumb was to try and find that same information in at least 2 or 3 other places, including books if possible, before accepting it.

I found that animal names were a large problem. Names could drive you out of your mind. A sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus) and a sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus variegatus) are two very different fish even though they are both often just called “sheepshead”. A mud dog whelk is also called an eastern mudsnail, so when I saw the name “New England dog whelk” I figured they were the same. Apparently, though, they aren’t. The mud dog whelk/eastern mudsnail is Nassarius obsoletus, and the New England dog whelk (among other names) is Nassarius trivittatus. So using Latin names to verify who was who, really became a necessity. However, taxonomists can play a bit of havoc with Latin names, too. These 2 guys have a different genus names in different sources. In some articles the genus name was Nassarius and in others it was Ilyanassa. Needless to say, a real pain.

Another problem was “location.” I began collecting information on all the plants and animals so I could “populate” my fictitious Narragansett Bay story location. Narragansett Bay may be in Rhode Island which is New England, but “New England” isn’t always just New England. There’s the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts Bay, Georges Bank, Cape Cod Bay, Stellwagon Bank, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay…..all of which may vary in what animals and plants live there. Nothing is EVER simple.

In reality, New England actually has different zones of animals often separated right about the level of Cape Cod. There are a couple of large currents operating off the Eastern US coast. Most people are familiar with the Gulf Stream – warm water that flows westward from Africa as the North Equatorial Current, circulates through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, then heads north until about the level of Cape Cod. At that point the warmer waters turn eastward as the North Atlantic Drift and head toward the British Isles.

Coming down from the north is a cold current moving counterclockwise past Greenland, then south along the US coast and is known as the Labrador current. A branch of that known as the Maine current brings cold water down along Maine, New Hampshire and into Massachusetts Bay north of Cape Cod.

So it appears Cape Cod is the meeting spot for the cold northern currents and the warmer southern Gulf Current. From the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Sea Creatures:

“This makes Cape Cod a so-called zoogeographic barrier, a region of great interest and diverse fauna, whose water temperatures differ by as much as 10 degrees F between it’s north and south shores. Many northern cold water species range only as far south as Cape Cod, and many southern species range only as far north as its southern shore.”

So even though the Atlantic Wolffish is found in the Gulf of Maine and Maine and Rhode Island are both in New England, odds are the wolfish is an unlikely inhabitant of Narragansett Bay. In fact some of the fish in Narragansett Bay probably have more in common with ones off Cape Hatteras than Cape Cod. Another example of this – sea cucumbers. The National Audubon Guide said the orange-footed sea cucumber is the largest and most conspicuous sea cucumber in New England, BUT more than one source said it’s from the Arctic to Cape Cod. From Cape Cod south, it’s the Hairy Sea Cucumber.

Even locally within a particular area, there are differences. Just because some fish or creature lives in Narragansett Bay doesn’t mean you’ll find it right by the story’s pier. Some are strictly offshore water creatures. You can’t put them in shallow coastal zones. Some prefer sandy bottoms vs. gravel or mud. Some are bottom dwellers, or live attached to pilings or rocks and are not found floating in the sunny surface water. And of course, season: some are only present in December, but not June. I really wanted to include the Harbor Seals in my story, but they are only there in the cold months. So, scratch Harbor Seals

From all of this, I drew up a long list of fish, algae, plants, birds, and invertebrates that fit ONLY in Narragansett Bay, in the right location, in the right season. There were a few exceptions to the rules – the occasional bird who “never is here in June, only December, but occasionally, it’s there in June anyway.” I included those only if I had a research paper, article, or interview with some researcher that documented that nature doesn’t always follow the rules.

Armed with this list, I began writing up animal character biographies. They still included “flaws, strengths, driving needs, hopes,” but also included topics like:

-What problems do they have in finding food and living space?
-Who do they eat or who eats them?
-Do they have parasites, symbionts, or freeloaders who don’t harm or help them?
-Where are they most likely to be found?
-Do they have any odd quirks, interesting behaviors, unusual qualities?
-How likely are they to interact positively or negatively with my hermit crab protagonist or be present in his world?

I started with books, mostly nature guides like the National Audubon Guides to Invertebrates, Birds, Fishes, Mammals, and New England, that had detailed descriptions, photos, and answers to some of these questions. Another great book was by Save the Bay, The Uncommon Guide to Common Life in Narragansett Bay. Also I found some websites helpful. One in particular was the Narragansett Bay Biota Gallery that covered all categories of life above and below the bay’s waters, and included pictures.

I made an index card for each animal, plant, algae, bird, fish, whoever, that conceivably could end up in the pages of my book. On the front of the card I wrote their common name or names and the Latin scientific name. On the reverse, I logged some key facts, and what books and page numbers in those books had additional info. The index cards were color-coded based on whether they were invertebrates, fish, algae, plants, mammals.

Once I’d collected all of this information, I could then spot the holes – the unanswered questions. That’s where Google searches helped. Also, emailing places like the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NOAA’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, and the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center provided actual researcher names and contact information so I could talk to real human beings to get the straight information I was missing.

There are many researchers I will need to thank in a later post, but one in particular provided me with such a treasure trove of information on hermit crabs, I have to thank him here as well. Dr. Jason D. Williams of Hofstra University, provided me with a number of research papers on hermit crabs, including information on their behavior, shell interests, locations, etc. One paper in particular was invaluable: “Symbionts of the hermit crab Pagurus longicarpus Say, 1817: New observations from New Jersey waters and a review of all known relationships.” [Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 114(3):624-639, 9 October 2001] THIS is the paper that told me all I wanted to know about who Carpus would have on his shell, in his shell, crawling on his gills, and even inside his body. From this paper, I got…Crepid.

Crepid is short for Crepidula cf. plana, a slippersnail. He sits right inside the opening to Carpus’s shell. As such, he too is rather immobile, like Hydrac. He does not have stinging tentacles, teeth, or claws. And, he takes up space, giving Carpus less room to move around in his own shell. At first glance, Crepid the slippersnail seems totally useless, dead weight. But again, remember: conflict potential. How does Carpus feel about hauling around yet another useless animal on his shell? A little tension there? And what about the defensive and inferior-feeling Hydrac? There’s a good chance he would be just thrilled to constantly put down this “slug.” That means Hydrac and Crepid, in addition to being extra weight and not very useful, are now bickering all the time. It’s enough to drive a hermit crab out of his tiny little mind.

Oh, and for those sticklers for detail out there who say that this species of slippersnail doesn’t fit inside the opening of a periwinkle shell…yes, I have more than one source that documents that it does TOO fit. So there!

The last item about the animal world was “rules of the world.” As I mentioned earlier – nobody is running around in clothes and shoes, nobody flies any planes or pilots submarines, and nobody is called “Suzy Squid” or “Peter Periwinkle.” As much as possible, I wanted the creatures to look and be where they would be underwater. I wanted them to eat rotting scallops or live seaweed, not hamburgers, and I wanted their adventures and actions to be what they would experience in the ocean. In fact, the traumas and problems the main characters encounter include not only predators, but pollution, fishing trawlers, over-fishing, aquaculture, and environmental restoration.

I tried not to have many of them talk as talking animals can be a problem if not done well. However, I did take liberties with the three main characters, Carpus, Hydrac, and Crepid. To have an adventure, they had to talk and think, act, interact, argue, freak out, etc. I am still evaluating how satisfied I am with that effect, but there is precedence for it in books like Charlotte’s Web, and more recent ones like Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and Erin Hunter’s series on battling cat clans, Warriors.

I gave the three main characters, or at least the protagonist, Carpus, some knowledge of humans. They recognize things like ships, human refuse on the sea bottom, anchors, boards, and humans – male, female, boy, girl. He can recognize a few of their “sounds” – some simple words like ship, boat, etc., and he finds humans unpredictable, ghastly, annoying, and best avoided. I tried to give these skills a logical explanation. In the course of his normal life, Carpus has spent a lot of time along docks and piers, around coastal towns, and hence humans. All three characters, being the recipient of our pollution, are aware of “foreign objects…human objects” in their world.

Readers might be willing to accept these rules – the willing suspension of disbelief – if you can make a logical case for them and you are consistent with following them. If you have no plausible explanation or you keep deviating from your world’s rules, your reader is going to get fed up and put the book down. Every time you break your own story rule, it pulls the reader out of the story experience and makes the reader doubt that you can actually tell a good story.

I expect by now you are convinced I have no life. Maybe that’s true. After all, why go to all this trouble to do this much research AND document Latin names? Because descriptions, or locations, or actions, who eats what or what eats them, where they live, eat, mate, sleep are details that give your characters the authority of their truth. Get their details right and your characters ring true. Furthermore, you get the trust and gratitude of your reader.

Does it matter to have the trust of your reader? Yes. Especially if your reader happens to just LOVE sea creatures or is a science nut and actually knows these details. The minute they find something incorrect, they are now upset with the author. In fact, they have now lost faith in the author to get ANY details correct. Those readers look at it as “if they got this wrong, what else is messed up?” Their pleasure in your book is now gone, they’ve been pulled out of the emotions of being in your story world and now their whole reading experience might become a proofreading quest to find all your other errors and tell everyone else what a piece of garbage your book is. In short, you’ve lost that reader and possibly many others.

The alternative is not to use details, but then you end up with something like, “the crab wandered past a snail who was being stalked by a big fish who got eaten by some kind of bird…in the ocean.”

The bottom line is that some stories have a lot of technical detail and some don’t. If you’re going to have technical details in the story, then resign yourself to a lot of research and do your best to get details right. You may not be perfect, but you want to be close because the flip side of all this is, satisfy a reader with accurate details and they believe in your world. And you. You’ll have that reader for life. They will love you, venerate you, swear by you, possibly even quote you when they’re old enough to write research papers. Think I’m joking?

That same Dr. Williams from Hofstra who is an expert on hermit crabs and gave me all kinds of research papers, also suggested I find an old children’s picture book from 1957 called, Pagoo, by Holling Clancy Holling. It was out of print at one point (though I found an old copy), but this marine biology researcher still suggested it because of the accuracy of its details. I also noticed it was re-issued in 1990 and is still available on Amazon.

So, if you’re going to write a story with lots of creatures and such, get your facts straight or write a different story.

In that vein, as a review for myself as I prepare to do revision number three and put in all those telling sensory details, I will be starting a new post category on my blog: Creature Features. Each post will profile one of the creatures or algae from my story and include links to pictures and accurate details. Stay tuned for that.

The next post in the Under the Pier series will be: Research Part IV – Setting as Character

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

March 11, 2008

For the animal side of the story, a lot of what I said about the human characters applies here. You have to decide on a protagonist, then add in one or two sidekicks and some secondary and background characters. They need personalities, backstory, lives, struggles, flaws and strengths – essentially character bios. Before I could start that process though, I had to figure out who were my main characters.

Unless your human world has people flying on magic carpets or walking on water, the rules of your characters’ behavior are pretty much established by real life. With animals, it needs to be more defined. I wanted to stay as close to reality as possible, though I was going to have the characters talk and think. Exactly what the boundaries would be for their behavior would be defined as I got more into the story.

When I initially started mapping out the story several years ago, I wanted a hermit crab with an anemone on his shell. In fact, I believe the early iterations of this book had that. I’d read that anemones and hermit crabs have a symbiotic relationship. The hermit crab carries the anemone around, thus assuring the anemone mobility and a steady food supply. The colorful, highly visible anemone offers the hermit crab some protection from predators that prefer to avoid the anemone’s stinging tentacles.

At first glance, it seemed like the perfect partnership, an underwater Batman and Robin, and I figured I was well on my way to having two of my three main animal characters. I’d even found out which anemone prefers to live on hermit crab shells: the Tricolor Anemone, alias Calliactis tricolor. (In the next post – Animal R&D cont. – I’ll share why I bother with the Latin names). In any event, I thought I was all set. Then, reality, or rather, geography, crashed in.

My story is set in New England, specifically, in the waters of Narragansett Bay. Hermit crabs with the Tricolor anemones on their shells live in the waters from North Carolina to Mexico…warmer waters.

No problem. I figured I just needed to look at the hermit crabs in New England and find out which ones had anemones on their shells, and which anemone it was. The answer to both: none. Hermit crabs in New England do not carry any anemones around on their shells. In fact, in the cold New England waters, there aren’t as many anemones even on the sea floor.

Well that shot a hole in my approach to animal character connections. My best idea for a duo against the threats of the deep and they didn’t live in New England. The closest I could come to an anemone riding a hermit crab shell in New England was something called a “snail fur hydroid.” It lacks the flash and intimidation factor of the Tricolor anemone. It’s more like this tiny lackluster matt of tentacles and polyps. In terms of effect, it’s kind of like having an earthworm when you hoped for a rattlesnake.

I was upset at first but then realized my good fortune. How much drama do you have between two characters who work well together, probably get along, and contribute pretty equally to their mutual success? Now consider being a hermit crab hauling around a thin fuzzy matt of tiny polyps – no bright colors, no flashy poisonous tentacles. Yeah, it’s got some small stinging polyps – like having a pellet gun instead of a shotgun. Are you going to feel like the hydroid is an equal partner in this situation? Maybe a little resentment there? And is the hydroid going to be very personable? Deep down it knows it’s an undersized second-rate threat, a poor substitute for an intimidating anemone. Maybe it’s going to have just a bit of an inferiority complex which means it’s going to be a royal pain to deal with? It’s going to overcompensate by being sarcastic, argumentative, insulting…and those are its good points. I suddenly realized the snail fur hydroid offered a much greater potential for conflict than an anemone.

Okay, no anemone. Just the hydroids. I thought I could at least have a large tough hermit crab. Well, forget that too. The hydroids were most likely to be on the shells of the smaller hermit crab – the long-clawed hermit crab.

So, my anemone has been shrunk to a matt of “snail fur hydroids” and my large tough hermit crab ended up as one of the smallest ones in the coastal New England waters. Yes, it’s one of the most common ones, but hardly the most dramatic, at least at first glance.

However, again, I considered conflict potential. A smaller hermit crab would have to fight harder for any shells or food or location resources. So, I went with the smaller hermit crabs.

I hoped to at least salvage the large flashy Moon Snail shell for my hermit crab, but the long-clawed hermit crab is too small to haul one of those around. Instead, I had to be satisfied with an underrate snail fur, on the outside of a tiny periwinkle or mud dog whelk shell dragged by a small hermit crab.

Do you see where this is going?

You can start out with a vision but often your vision won’t work in reality. You can give up, flip off reality, or reframe it by looking for the conflict potentials in what reality presents. I chose the last. This meant being a stickler for detail even as I might push the limits of reality on a few things. There are readers who will excuse a talking animal, but they’d never forgive a North Carolina anemone riding on a New England hermit crab.

So, at the end of all of this, I had my protagonist: the long-clawed hermit crab, Pagurus longicarpus, known in the story as “Carpus,” and the first sidekick: a snail fur hydroid. The snail fur hydroid belongs to the genus Hydractinia, so his name in the story became “Hydrac.”

I now had two characters who instead of being best friends probably had an antagonistic relationship. Since the animal side was going to mirror the same struggle as the human side: do I connect to others or run away? this seemed to match up better for the overall story structure. So I can thank the limits of geography and nature for ending up with two characters who fit the story problem better. At this point, it was time to flesh these two out with some research, add a third main character, and start adding in some other animals.

Coming up Next: Animal R&D – Picking the third main character, painting in the details and adding in the background.

The Post: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

March 5, 2008

If you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, conducting research is pretty straight-forward. If you have a real person, you can find books, movies, articles, people who knew them or experts to interview.

How do you research someone who doesn’t exist? With fiction characters, a lot of times you first decide what your story is about and who needs to be in it, then you start hunting. A lot of the work is really character “construction.” You have to build the characters and give them a life to know what facts you need. Some research might go on as you craft the character, but for me a lot of it came after I had some idea who the people were.

For starters, I had to decide just what kind of characters this story needed – superficial or deep. If this was a plot-driven adventure story, the main change and action would take place outside of the characters. That means the characters, even the main ones, remain the same from beginning to end. So they just need their framework – looks, personality, talents, some backstory. It’s the adventure, the plot action, that changes.

Under the Pier is a character-driven novel. The real energy, drive and purpose of the story take place inside the characters. They will grow or regress, change for the better or worse, due to their personality and circumstances. It’s not about the story actions or problems, but how they REACT to those story problems. So this meant my characters had to have depth, history, psychology, family, emotional wounds, unanswered questions.

Before I could research anything, I had to pin down some concrete things about each character. As much as I hated to have to start picking traits and family backgrounds because to choose things is to exclude others, it’s the only way to have a true-to-life character. Nobody in life can have blonde, red and brown hair (unless they dye it that way), three different colored eyes, be both young and old, and do EVERYTHING you ever dreamed of doing. Neither can your characters. So for both sides of the story, animal and human, I had to create a character, build their life, and then relate their life to others in the story. Robert Frost said “way leads on to way.” In writing, character leads on to character.

For the human side I wanted more than just birth date, physical description, or the meaning of their names – yes, I selected names that matched some aspect of their personality, but I also wanted sections for things like: strengths, weaknesses, goals, fears, driving needs. I took a lot of the information from my extensive journaling and wrote up personality profiles that gave each person a life story – traumas and triumphs, parentage or lack thereof, marital status, family dynamics, issues, problems, glaring flaws.

And by the way, for well-rounded, true-to-life characters, it’s important that the heroes be jerks about some things, and the villains be saints about others. NOBODY in real life is all good or bad. If you do that with your characters what you end up with is a stereotype or a caricature. At the very least, what you end up with is dull and boring. I read somewhere that when police interrogate suspects and witnesses, they expect some discrepancies between the various versions. That’s normal human nature. Everybody sees different things. When the stories match up too perfectly, the officers suspect the story being told isn’t real. The same is true with characterization. For example, General George S. Patton, Jr.’s grandson shared this observation about the man:

“My grandfather once commented that in his view a gentlemen should be able to curse for three minutes, non-stop, without repeating himself.”

At first glance one would never figure a gentleman would use such language, but flesh and blood human beings are full of inconsistencies. So create a character that “overall” is true to his nature, but do sprinkle in some unexpected traits. It makes for more real, interesting characters, and adds to the story action possibilities.

In any event, when writing my characters’ biographies, I started with the simple date of birth and description, then went on from there. For Rosa, the old woman who runs the diner in the human side of the story, the physical description went something like this:

She is relatively thin and wiry, but solid-boned, strong from years of physical work, with short whitish hair that used to be black. She’s about 105 pounds, in good condition overall from walking up and down stairs to her apartment behind the diner. Some arthritis and she is slowing down, but still is healthy and strong enough for being almost 80. She does have high blood pressure and sometimes forgets her meds.

That gave me enough of a picture in my mind – one of those strong old women who worked hard all their life, like many old women I grew up around in my very ethnic hometown. The thing about pinning down part of a person, though, is that it provides the bridge to the next piece of their puzzle. For example, just talking about her life of hard work suggests a need to explore areas like her background, level in society, personality, and attitudes toward life.

The beginnings of personality start to show in the additional information I put down:

She was born on October 29, 1929. If you know any history – this was Black Tuesday – the crash of the stock market and the beginning of The Great Depression. Unless she was born rich and lucky, which she wasn’t, this tells you how her life was going to go. To continue with my description, I decided her parents were immigrants from Italy, arriving just a year before her birth. Her mom died giving birth to her, something not uncommon for the time. Her father wasn’t around much, either looking for work, drunk or simply gone for long periods. She was shifted from family member to family member, often not a happy situation. She had to work from a young age and got out of her aunt’s house as soon as she could. She started working in a place called the Midway Diner, run by this handsome young guy named Frank Santelli, his grandmother, and his maternal uncle, Angelo Campelli. Uncle Angelo started the diner in the late 1890s with a horse-drawn cart and built it up from there. She fell in love with the diner and Frank, almost immediately. She married Frank by 18, revered Frank’s grandmother who took Rosa under her wing, and spent the rest of her life preserving the legacy of that diner, even after Frank’s death. She had 4 children – a daughter who died as an infant, and 3 sons, all still alive.

Okay. Right in this section, by picking the particulars of Rosa’s background, I’ve set up not only the rest of her life, but set up the bridges to the stories of her husband, his grandmother, his uncle, the diner’s history, her children, and raised questions like, why did she revere Frank’s grandmother, where was Frank’s mother and father, and what happened to Rosa’s infant daughter? Just by picking certain details, you create the thread to more questions, more characters, more life situations, conflicts, and relationships. You create….a real person with a real life. MOST importantly I’ve set up the question in the reader’s mind.. Why is all of this important with regards to Rosa’s relationship with Max, the story’s 12-year-old female protagonist? That’s the ultimate thing to remember. Not everything the biography will be part of the story, but if you make it part of the story, it better have a real good reason for being there, ie, how does it relate to the protagonist and the story’s main question?

Now. Research on Rosa. Well for one thing, I looked for anything I could find to “validate” her personality traits so a reader wouldn’t think I was overdoing things. I spotted an article in a Rhode Island newspaper about a woman in her 80s who would go out after snowstorms and not only shovel her driveway and sidewalk but those of her neighbors as well. She shrugged off the effort as “exercise” and viewed it matter-of-factly. She was home, her neighbors had to go to work, so she just took her time and shoveled everybody’s sidewalks. So, Rosa rings true to life. (If you want more of a feel for her, click here for the January 24th, 2008 post where I included a bit from the book describing Rosa)

Other people in the story. I know a bit about diners growing up in New England, and what the people were like who worked in them and ran them. I grew up in an ethnic town full of those early 1900s immigrants from Poland, Italy, Slovakia, Ireland etc. and knew the rules of the culture: hard work, no wimping out, not very much money, family and church were everything. Those people survived the Depression and World War II by helping each other even as they fought with each other and drove each other crazy. They didn’t mince words, but put it right on the table, usually in colorful language. For holes in my knowledge base, I researched books on diners, history, New England, did Google searches, and talked to people.

For example, Rosa’s son Vince, her eldest son, a war hero from Vietnam who is kind of a mystery character with a shrouded past, finally returns home after many years away. He works nights at the diner making doughnuts. I interviewed a number of people who worked in bakeries at night making doughnuts, so I’d get my details right.

For other characters in the book, I did the same thing – wrote the physical characteristics, figured out ages, started linking them to other characters in the book, and creating a “web” of relationships and lives. The more you added to the people and the web, the more possibilities for story action and conflict.

For example, the human protagonist, Max, lives with her grandmother, who also works at the diner. Max’s grandmother is dating Vince. For a number of reasons this both disgusts and scares Max. And Max views Vince’s shrouded past with tremendous fear and suspicion.

Just setting up that scenario, suggests questions like: “Why is Max living with her grandmother? How long has this gone on? What happened to her parents? What IS the deal with Vince’s shrouded past? Why does Max fear him and fear his dating her grandmother?

Then throw in a quirk. Here is Vince, a mysterious character Max fears, and a still strong and burly man. I gave him a small poodle as a pet. Not exactly what you would expect is it? And then there’s that pendant he has around his neck that he never takes off. Just what happened all those years he was away?

If I ran into problems or a block, I “talked to the characters.” You interview them, start a conversation, ask them a question about school, politics, the person they hate the most and why, anything. But having a conversation with a character is like talking to someone at work. The more they talk, the more you learn who they are. Most writing blocks come from either not knowing who your characters are and hence how they would react, or not knowing where the story is going. So…interview and journal, then go back to writing the biography.

The minute you put down one trait on a character then add a second, you set up a chain reaction that leads to more questions, decisions, more characters, more background, more dark secrets in closets, whatever. By the time I was through, I had two binders of character biographies. Some of the characters are background ones. For example, Rosa runs a ladies’ poker game in the corner booth of her diner – her booth – every Friday night. ALL the area ladies who run businesses along Main Street play, and even Sister Rita Luke from Our Lady of the Seas up the street shows up to win money for her outreach programs. Father Steve is the “chaplain” As one of the old ladies in the group puts it: “First we pray, then we play.” So I needed some cursory description of who the ladies were and what stores they ran.

Once you’ve got the real people, the research part is easy. For medical problems I did Google searches, hunted through medical textbooks, talked to an ER physician, and even pulled details from the book, The Perfect Storm. For a legal issue involving Max, I talked to a lawyer. For emotional problems, again, there was Google, psychology books, and a psychologist. I researched Catholic history, and ethnic superstitions, both very big themes in that culture. I researched the fishing industry and what kinds of research post-doctoral students were doing in Rhode Island for either universities, the military or the environment. And yes, I got books on the meanings of names, so I could accurately name my characters, not just pick something out of a hat. In the course of the research, I looked for interesting tidbits or colorful facts that I could incorporate to give my characters the “authority” of that life.

Finally, I looked for things to use as character tags. Character tags allow us to quickly identify the character, tell us something about their deeper personality, and raise more questions for the reader to answer. Vince walks a poodle and wears a mysterious pendant. Rosa has her certain superstitions, Max walks around in the middle of the summer wearing a paint-stained oversized flannel shirt. Almost immediately, we associate certain things with certain people, then begin our quest to find out “why?”

Up Next: Under the Pier: Research – Animal Character R&D

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.