Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

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

March 26, 2008

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

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

Some specific locations in the story’s town include:

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

Outside the town:

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

The bay:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 15, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Post: 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 – There really IS a deeper process at work here

January 29, 2008

Some lighter fare on tap in the next few days…photos of Admiral Byrd waving his claw, Scarlett O’Hara and her molted ghost self, and . . . even the ever reclusive Melanie Hamilton! Finally caught her sitting on her “front porch” – ie the open hole in the Live Rock – at 6:30 this morning. Stay tuned.

For today: So does staring into a tank of fiddler crabs, never mind shooting photographs of them at 6:30 in the morning, REALLY have anything to do with writing?

The answer? It all depends. You mean you wanted a definite answer? Here’s a clue – Mindfulness and heart. Still confused?

Simply said, it’s what you bring to the situation. You can sit there and stare at them and your mind could be on the bills, what you’re going to buy at the grocery store, what you could be doing instead of sitting in front of a tank of crabs. You could sit there and nod, “Yup, they’re crabs. Eyestalks. Sideways walk. They all look alike. So what?”

Or you can sit there and notice that Melanie Hamilton has much tinier front claws than Scarlett O’Hara. That she is timid and almost never comes out of her crevice in the live rock…except early in the morning when the sunlight streams into the kitchen and hits that side of the tank. She loves to sit in the sunlight on her front porch. Or that Scarlett O’Hara, who normally never stops eating and never hides out, suddenly after molting has stopped eating and has refused to move from under the water filter. Or that Admiral Byrd, normally fearless, crawled into his tunnel cave after discovering Peter Lorre’s lifeless body and started twitching and wouldn’t eat.

The difference is how you watch. Are you fully present? And did you bring your heart? The heart makes all the difference.

I am taking an online spirituality course with some friends, studying the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh (pronouced Tick Naught Han). He is an 80-year-old Vietnamese monk who endured the horrors of the Vietnam War, came to America to try and stop it, and was deemed a threat by both the Communist and non-Communist regimes in Vietnam. While searching for peace, he found himself everybody’s enemy. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his efforts to stop the war, and in his later years one of his many healing works has been to heal the souls of former American servicemen haunted by that war. Having lost close personal friends to that war, he has every reason to hate Americans. Instead he’s spent half his life healing people around the world, including Americans.

He tells a story in one of his books about a young man who wanted to learn to draw lotus flowers. So he went to a master to apprentice with him. The master took him to the lotus pond and left him sitting there for 10 days. Can you imagine in today’s busy world, signing up for lessons to learn something quickly, only to be left sitting at a pond for 10 days?

The real essence was what the young man did with that time. He could have gotten impatient (something I know a lot about), and grumbled, sighed, walked away, went shopping, took a nap, try to do something USEFUL with that time instead of just sitting there. Instead for the whole time, he watched the flowers bloom when the sun was high. He watched them close into buds at night. He watched one flower wilt and drop its petals into the water, then studied the stalk, the stamen and the rest of the flower.

On the 11th day the master returned and brought him a brush to paint with. Although his picture showed his naivete of technique, a childish style, the lotus he painted was beautiful. Deep beauty shone from the painting. He had become the lotus and as such, even with poor technique, he could paint something that moved another’s heart.

Mindfulness and heart. He paid attention to the lotus. He worked from his heart. Writing, really good writing that moves people’s souls, comes from the heart, not the brain. You can write a technically beautiful book but without heart it’s a sterile desert emotionally.

I started out watching fiddler crabs not sure what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect them to have personalities and subtle differences in appearance and actions. And I most certainly didn’t expect to feel such upset as I watched Peter Lorre tumble off his rock, dead.

With any luck, at least a little part of me has become the crab. With just a little more luck, maybe that crab heart will come through in my book. I’d trade a whole bunch of technical expertise for just a handful of heart.

By the way, if of interest to read a good summary of Thich Nhat Hanh’s life, check out this link at Parallax Press.

http://www.parallax.org/about_tnh.html