Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

The Post – Under the Pier: So How DO You “See” a Fictional Town?

March 28, 2008

HOW DO YOU “SEE” A FICTIONAL TOWN?.

I am a visual learner so I need to see it to “know” it.. How do you “see” a fictional story location? For me, I started with the “real world.”

Travel magazines and postcards of Rhode Island, Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay were a help, but not enough. So I spent one Christmas break compiling a 3 foot by 4 foot topographical map of Narragansett Bay. I found it on the web on a geological survey site and proceeded to print it out, quadrant by quadrant. Then I taped them all together until I had the complete topographical map of Narragansett Bay, including all the islands and the surrounding land areas. My husband did question if it might not have been cheaper and easier to just buy the map, but frankly, I don’t think I could have bought the entire map that I ended up with. In any event, this gave me a “visual” of sorts to know what the land around the bay was like. I could tell that while the area is not that far above sea level, there most definitely are hills and ridges, marshes and sand dunes.

The next thing I had to do was make the imaginary town a real place to me. I started by printing photos of diners, stone warehouse buildings, rocky coastlines, Fort Adams, docks and wharves, and even that building at Woods Hole with the sailing ship model jutting out from the stone wall above the doorway.

Once I had an idea of the kinds of items and places my town included, I created a map of the town. Now I could “see” where Max’s house stood in relation to Carbone’s Auto Body shop, the diner, the rich uptown area, Lighthouse Point, her school, and the downtown dock areas. I could see how much area the Naval Research base took up on Lighthouse point, where the pier and research labs were in relation to the haunted carriage house and the Yacht club, and how far of a walk it was back to the town and the diner.

Next I needed to see Max’s house and yard. I grew up in those three-family houses, so I had an idea in my mind of how they would be set up – back staircases, front and back porches, attic rooms with slanting walls, stone wall cellars that spooked you every time you had to go down there. I did a map of Max’s neighborhood, and a blueprint of both hers and Noah’s house, showing all three floors in each. I wanted to “see what she saw” when she looked out her attic window. From the map-making kit I had as a kid, I knew about doing room plans, so I could tell where the kitchen stove was, how many couches were in the living room, and if they had a computer desk. With these, I could now see Max’s house, her backyard, her neighborhood, and how it connected to everything else in town.

Rosa’s Midway Diner is such a big part of the story that it required equal attention. I have been in a number of diners over the years, so I had some mental images. I found a number of good books on diners, and consulted the American Diner Museum website. I even went to the local diner here in town (Cary, North Carolina) and with the permission of the owner, took a couple hundred interior shots of tables, counters, stools, equipment, pass-through windows from the kitchen, plates, etc.

From all of that, I created a blueprint of Rosa’s Midway Diner. I drew up the “diner of my dreams,” the one I would build if I had the money. If this book ever sells big, I swear I’ll build it. It has regular booth seating including the large back semi-circular booth that Rosa uses for her Friday night poker games. It has a large window behind it made of those glass blocks, and all tables have roses in the vases. There’s an extra long counter with stools, another counter in the front of the diner where you can sit, sip your coffee, read the paper and look out on Main Street, and a large take-out area for walk-in business. And of course, there is the new drive-through being installed as part of the take-out area.

The diner itself is a character in the book. As such, I have created a “biography” of the diner – a timeline of how it started, who created it, where it was located over the years, expansions…the whole works. Before I’m done with this, I will do an oil painting of that diner, both outside, and in. To that end, I have a very rough cardboard model of part of the diner interior, that includes the kitchen pass-through, counter and stools, and the drive-through areas

To further give the diner reality and context, I did a map of the diner area and Main Street. I felt it was important to show where the diner was in relation to all the businesses mentioned in the story, as well as to the rest of the town.

Lighthouse Point is another important part of the story and required “visuals” and biographies. I wrote up the story of the ship’s captain who built the lighthouse and surrounding stone warehouses and who died along with his family, in the fire that destroyed his mansion. I also created a map of the area around the haunted carriage house, and blueprints of the abandoned ammo bunkers and anti-aircraft gun emplacements right near the carriage house ruins.

For Uncle Jim’s lab, I chose the stone building at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the former “Candle House.” I even gave Uncle Jim’s lab a similar sailing ship model jutting out from the exterior wall over the doorway. Interior shots of other buildings at Woods Hole served as inspiration for the lab and office interiors of those buildings.

Since paintings have such power for me, I did a 24 by 36 inch oil painting of where the two story worlds meet – the rocky coastline at Lighthouse Point. Every item in the painting is in the story – from the hermit crab, Carpus, who is right up front, to the lighthouse and rocky point, wooden pier, tide pool area, distant fishing trawler, fort on the hill, research labs and …yes, the ghosts.

The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography is the barely veiled location of the university in the story. I gave Jerry a research lab located in a former World War II ammunition bunker, and had her out doing her environmental research on a university-sponsored ocean-going research vessel, very similar to the R/V Endeavor. I verified the research itineraries, including places visited, work performed, and the durations of cruises, from the various research vessel ship logs online. I also studied the online blueprints for these existing research ships, to see the locations of labs, bunks, galleys, as well as the rules for running such a ship and expedition.

For the museum lobby where Max sneaks up to, to file her contest entry, I did rely on a memory – a very strong one burned in my brain from early childhood. In Torrington, CT, the post office at that time was in a brick building in the center of town. (It is now further out in a refurbished old supermarket building.) The post office lobby, while a very wide open area, was a scary place to me. At one end were the faces of numerous FBI fugitives staring out from black and white printouts pinned to bulletin boards.

It was the other end of the post office lobby though, near all the service windows, that truly freaked me out for a long time. Above the windows, high up on the walls all around that part of the building, were these huge murals. They showed 1800s men and women trudging through mud, beside a Conestoga wagon. There were also other scenes of 1800s life – all scenes actually, from the life of the abolitionist, John Brown. The murals themselves were intimidating enough, but ….silly as it sounds, I thought they were alive. Standing in that post office lobby waiting for my mom, I would stare up at the wall paintings and listen to the loud voices echoing off the walls around me. I thought the figures were speaking. In reality, the echoes were the voices of the postmen behind the wall yelling back and forth to each other. But to a 4 or 5 year old staring up at scary murals, the voices came out of the paintings, out of these solemn, angry looking people struggling behind their oxen in the mud. Hence, the inspiration for the museum lobby murals that Max sees.

By the way, if you are visual too, click here to see the murals from the old Torrington, CT Post Office.

Click here to read more about the history behind Connecticut post office art work done in the 1930s Depression era as part of the New Deal.

The other items I consulted to “see” the location, involved technical things like weather charts, articles on ocean fog, articles and nature guides describing the trees, birds, types of rocks, and area geological history. And I asked questions – of myself, of my sister living up there, of Google: What is the air temperature at night in June? Are there any sea breezes? How fast do storms move in, from which direction and how bad do they get? What do your clothes feel like against your body when you’re walking near the shore – crisp and dry, or soggy and limp? Do you need a jacket to walk around at night in the summer? Do you need a wetsuit to scuba dive in July?

Aside from visuals, I needed “sound” to further “see” the place. I selected CDs based on the emotions they created in me. When you watch TV, the music tells you if something funny, poignant, or ominous is taking place. In the same fashion I needed music or sound so I could see the events as they occurred in the story and feel the emotions of that moment and location. I played those CDs over and over and over, while writing in my garage. I am amazed my husband and my neighbors are still sane.

Some of these CDs include the soundtracks from: The Band of Brothers, Cinderella Man, We Were Young Once, and the Perfect Storm. There are also ocean and bird sound CDs, Gregorian Chants, and last but not least, Rosa’s “Frankie boy,” Frank Sinatra. But be assured, there are NO Dean Martin CDs. Just for the record, I personally have nothing against Dean Martin and I LOVE his song, “That’s Amore,” but you can never account for what your characters will love or hate. Rosa hates Dean. Plain and simple.

Next up – Let’s Get Technical. Stay tuned.

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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?

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 – Can Surrender = Win?

February 29, 2008

Writers pay attention to words. It’s an occupational hazard, like a carpenter paying attention to what’s the best hammer or a painter finding the best brush. Words are the tools of the trade. So I’m always paying attention to things like “Does that word have the subtlety of meaning I need?” Or :”Does this word have a second meaning that might confuse?” Writers also think about overlooked possibilities with the words they choose. “Is there a meaning you can give this word that no one usually associates with it?”

Surrender. I was thinking about that word a lot lately. You hear that word and immediately thoughts of loss, failure, futility of effort, come up. It’s hard to see it any other way. Harder still is to get your head around the possibility that to surrender, could be to win.

Even as I say the word, the competitive part of me that wants to fight for my rights, get ahead, succeed in life, cringes. I can feel my stomach knot, an uncomfortable churning inside, the hair on the back of my neck raise up. My brain yells, “NO!” The thing about surrender, though, especially in our close relationships, is that if done well, both walk away with something, both end up feeling better.

When things are always viewed in terms of win or lose, there’ s no room for anything else. There’s no “other option” possible. No wiggle room for a place that might leave both parties feeling a bit more empowered and a bit less stomped on. If there is a winner, there’s always a loser. A loser is not going to be happy and when someone in an altercation isn’t happy, it’s going to stay alive and fester. Look at World War I. When Germany lost, the terms dictated to them were so onerous, so harsh, it bred the even worse horror known as World War II. Losers are more apt to pull back, regroup, plot the next battle, seek revenge.

It’s not always possible to seek “surrender.” Some situations just don’t give that option. Then the best option is to be a generous winner. But as much as possible, taking a step back, giving the situation “more room,” might yield a more satisfying result. Take something all knotted up, spread it out on the floor, and you often can spot the tangles. Spread the tangles out more, and you have room to pick them apart, unravel them, possibly even remove them completely.

It’s the law of physics. The more room given to particles in a closed container, the less pressure there is. They spread out evenly. Close things down and pressure builds. Tighten down the valves enough and things might explode.

Surrendering in a relationship to the possibility of a greater good, allows time and room. Spread out the mess, find the knots, pick out the tangles. It might be possible to save the whole ball of string. Even if not, it might be possible to salvage a good bit of it.

So, a new twist on “surrender” – see it as a win? Something for both the writer, and the human being inside the writer, to ponder.

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.