Posts Tagged ‘writing books’

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: Finally, I Graduate to Stage Two – Focusing the Lens

February 15, 2008

 

I knew Phase II had arrived. Its symptom was unmistakable. I was tired. The amount of work coming from the dictionary job ran up against the short-term deadlines and heavier workload from the ethics board. Family needs took up more time. The ethics board work increased even more. And then there was the point of it all, my writing projects. I realized that I not only couldn’t keep spinning 20 plates on sticks forever, but I didn’t want to. Where some people revel in that level of activity or that challenge, I did not. That, in itself, was telling.

Going back to Mr. Shulevitz’s advice: “You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self . . . learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love.” My husband’s reminder felt viscerally real: I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to stop trying to be what I was not.

I let go of the dictionary work. While it was a good job, I wasn’t meant to be a lexicographer. I throttled back on the ethics board work. It was time for that directive: “Be alone with yourself . . . Achieve inner silence.” In my case that came partly from renewing my dormant practice of meditation and prayer, as well as just, being alone. You can’t run from yourself. To be a writer, if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you must learn your own truth. And it’s only in the quiet moments that the voice within can be heard.

For the first time, I stepped back from my work and took a look at the big picture. I listened to Mr. Shulevitz and sorted out the voices without and within, I looked to see what themes kept repeating themselves in me and my work. That’s when things started to come clear.

I love nature. I loved being 10 and climbing trees and fences and running free in the neighborhood – that time of childhood where you are most capable, where adventure and innocence are at their crest, before the trials and tribulations of adolescence set in. I love castles, the Revolutionary War, diners and the sixties and the blue collar, ethnic world I grew up in. And mythology.

I noticed that I collected, and still do, every silly, touching or factual story about nature, animals, and zoos. I kept a nature journal of our backyard bird feeder and the pond area and collected 3 years of information. I identified with creatures either too small or too much in the background to get noticed, and I was that nature-geek, driven to learn about every tiny sea creature that lived under the ocean pier.

I also knew I’d probably never draw comic strips, or write romance novels, science fiction, or true crime. Nothing against any of those genres, by the way. In fact I am fascinated by the genres of comics and romance novels – they are unique worlds and they seem cool and fun. They just aren’t my talent. And no, I will not try to write any more picture books. In truth, my husband has that voice.

I started to define the projects that were me:

A mid-grade novel set in Williamsburg Virginia during the Revolution. A mid-grade novel set in a 1960s blue collar ethnic New England town, of course, set in a diner. A historical fiction set in 1200s England on the Welsh Marches borderlands. A chapter-book of Greek mythology stories. A fantasy trilogy involving the world of a groundhog living at a highway rest stop, who faces the battle of ultimate evil, personal despair, loss, and emergence into wisdom. And a present day Tween novel of a girl above the pier, in another diner of course, and a hermit crab below the pier.

There is also a love of tweaky, short non-fiction articles about history and . . . nature. I rediscovered a love of and need for essays, which I will write about separately.

I started collecting reference books for all of these projects. Nature guides. Historical fiction. Topographical and historical maps of England and Wales. I made a plaster of paris model of the castle that my lord built, incorporating the latest high-tech gadgets of the early 1200s.

I pinned my project papers everywhere – the study walls were covered on one side with the pier story – maps of the fictitious town, topographical maps of Narragansett Bay, schematic of the diner of my dreams, the one I’d have if I had the money. The other side of the study has the groundhog world – map of the rest, deep woods, nearby farms. The hallway, spare room and stairwell have 1700s Williamsburg, while the den downstairs houses maps of England, schematics of the castle, and the castle model itself.

I even have two webcams up on my computer that allow me to step into 1700s Williamsburg whenever I want. I can see the view down Duke of Gloucester Street or watch the goings-on at the Raleigh Tavern any time day or night. I even had a lobster-cam until that one broke. So I had to settle for the DVD, Realm of the Lobster, that has footage of the undersea world of the lobster in the Gulf of Maine. I found that in this cool marine store store, Hamilton Marine, up in Searsport, Maine. Great website and catalog! Everything from diesel boat cabin heaters and EPIRBS, to cold-water rescue suits and ship’s bells. My next purchase from them will be a hand-crafted wind bell that sounds like a harbor buoy. They even give you the choice of 13 different bells – each one sounding like a buoy in a different place – Bar Harbor, Portland Head, Camden Reach, Outer Banks, etc. I use anything that puts me in the place of my stories.

I started painting again and even did one for the pier story. I bought a new digital camera and started shooting pictures . . . once I stopped being afraid of the thing. It only sat in a box for 2 years. In both painting and photography, I noticed the themes of nature, broken things and overlooked things.

And the words mosaics and broken bits, kept surfacing.

Finally, exhausted, I left the ethics board job. It had gotten to be so much work I was too drained to write. Besides, it was no longer who I was. Revisiting Stage One, I collected outside information as it applied to the projects I wanted to do, from sources like Writer’s Digest magazine, The Writer, countless writing newsletters, market guides and writing books.

All of this I did silently. Alone. Immersed in my own world. And I came to accept that I will work alone. Others can prepare you, teach you, assist you, but when you finally stand at the edge of that dark forest- your own inner world – you must face that one alone. It’s that line from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is about to enter an area of the swamp where evil lives. He asks Yoda what is in there. Yoda’s response: “Only what you take with you.”

All that was left now was to pick which project came up on deck first. My groundhog story was fairly well outlined. The 1700s Williamsburg novel had some drafts done, characters fleshed out, rejection slips collected. The Under the Pier story had an equal amount of journaling, drafts, and character work finished. The other projects were much further back in the data collection and journaling stages. One day in confused desperation I asked God to please “pick a nipple for me.” A few days later we stopped at Science Safari, a tweaky science store for kids. Sitting atop the discards pile on the sale table outside, was a stuffed hermit crab. My husband and son spotted it. I knew who sent it, so I bought it. The answer had been sent: Start with Under the Pier.

UP NEXT: A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

THEN: Phase Three: Coming Into My Own – The Evolution of a Novel.