Bit of an infrequent blogger of late, and longer days yet since I’ve read one of my stories aloud here. I know how much my audience has been waiting for a story set on a tropical island. With the main character having a foot fetish. Make that both feet. Done.
I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.
One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.
Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?
This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.
They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.
My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)
My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.
Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.
Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas
Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.
This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.
So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.
Denying your fictional characters something—even if they are the sweetest of souls—is an effective way to see what they are made of. Holding back something they crave can show their real faces—or at least their faces under stress, and thus show character, or lack of it. We’ll shoot past the given that your characters have to want something in your stories, even at unconscious levels, and sidestep the subtle ways you can introduce those wants. Let’s go to not giving it to them.
I have a character with the sonorous name of Pinky DeVroom, the protagonist of a novel on which I’m collaborating with a pal, Rick. Pinky is a newspaper man in Boston who has high literary ambitions. He’s written a novel that gets him tingling attention from a Boston agent, who secures a publishing contract. The novel being written and the publishing contract were deep desires of old Pinky. The matter of him being sharply smitten with his agent flamed new desires.
Those had to be thwarted.
Sadly for poor Pinky, he offered his novel to the agent right when the Crash of ’29 happened. The warm handshake of the contract melted into delay and dithering. But at least a friendship with his agent, Elfred, is deepening, yes? No. Pinky can’t have Elfred, because Pinky himself gets in the way: his better instincts are always trodden by his baser ones, so that every moment of their apparent coming together is met by Pinky’s blunders with booze, his miscalculations on what wooing is all about, his flummoxed misinterpretations of Elfred’s attentions.
In other words, he’s a mess. And he’s a mess because Rick and I keep denying him things. His messiness and denied goals keep propelling the story forward, in both funny and frightening ways. Deny your characters and they have higher hills to climb, more veils in front that obscure any clear-sightedness behind, potholes that leave their heart’s tires airless and flat.
Of course, you can’t just create a bumbling caricature of a character, one who never has a fine moment or measured victory—readers will tire of sheer slapstick, of paddling in the shallows of the fictional pool, of defeat’s cold ash. Even a fine myth like Sisyphus loses its weight if we have to push that rock up the hill into infinity along with the poor boy. So it’s helpful to work out—organically, and not as a formula—a two-steps backwards, one-step forward motion, where Pinky gets to taste some sweetness midst the bile, where the sun sometimes warms the cold rooms in which we’ve put him.
He hungers for that relief, and I think readers do too.
Unwrapping the Prize and Seeing Tarnish
That notion of denial and its graces occurred to me because I’ve been denying myself of late. I came back from a recent media trip to Myanmar with a wicked belly bug, necessitating a round of antibiotics. Now I’m a fellow who likes a glass of wine, sometimes two, with dinner. Even more so a nice classic cocktail on the weekends. Antibiotics aren’t the best mixers for booze, so denied I was.
But it was interesting to me to observe my interest in making my sweetheart a cocktail (a Negroni, if you must know) last weekend. I loved to mix, shake and pour the ingredients into the frosted glass, and took a deep sniff. Ahh, very good. Not as good as drinking one though.
And I also went to a party, where I poured some wine for a couple of people, admiring its hue in the glass, catching a whiff of bouquet. So it was with great anticipation that when my antibiotic shackles were thrown, on my birthday no less, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a glass of wine, ahhh.
Who Put the Goat Hoof in My Wine?
What was that bitter stuff? And what was the bitter substitute glass that I replaced it with? And the squinched-lip sips I took from two samples of other wines the waitress kindly brought? Either the antibiotics were still biting, or my entire constitution had changed. But that made me think further of fictional situations: what if the thing desired, finally wrought, was wrong?
Have to keep that in mind for Pinky, because that complicated weave has so many more threads than boy-meets-girl, boy loses novel and girl, and boy gets various plummy things. Boy might have no clue what he really wants after he has a taste of it, eh?
I have to say though, that I’m somewhat anxious about what might happen this evening. It’s the first Friday I’ve had being antibiotic free since my bellyaches. What if the Manhattan I’m thinking of mixing up tastes like goat hoof? Oh well, there’s always beer …
Story-structure geeks (and I’m a mere dabbler) are well aware of Joseph Campbell’s work with the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, where a story’s protagonist protagonizes in a most protagonistic way. To boldly summarize (where a zillion summaries have gone before), it’s the process of challenge and life change—and in the myths, these challenges are epic—where a vision, however cloudy, is followed to its consequence.
That consequence is usually the conquering of fear, the gaining of courage, insight, resourcefulness, resiliency, and a deeper understanding of self. And because that’s pretty heavy, you might also get a nice new pair of shoes out of the deal. Lots of heavyweights (even Homeric ones) have employed the monomyth gambit: witness Odysseus (or Ulysses), in Homer’s The Odyssey, Huck Finn in his eponymous tale, ring-bearer Frodo, Luke Skywalker’s skywalking, and in contemporary times, Cheryl Strayed in Wild.
The Narrative Wings in the Monomyth House
There are a whole lotta narrative wings in the monomyth’s house; there’s the Calling, Answering the Calling, Finding Guardians, The Challenge, Answering the Challenge, Returning Home and the presence of many archetypes, like Shadows, Shapeshifters and Tricksters. Obviously, it’s a lot like growing up with siblings.
No story has to venture into all of the wings, and no story has to stuff itself to bursting with every archetype, but the structure itself, the journey, is a critical storytelling component, in all its chills and captivations.
“Road” stories are a variant of this, like Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant (and scary and sad), The Road. I borrowed the frame itself for my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, where the protagonist is a callow just-out-of-high-school lad hitchhiking across Canada, caught in a series of picaresque escapades. His quest: to lose his virginity.
I know, I know, cheap monomyth, but it is a quest, after all.
Serving the Salad
And why is there salad at the head of this blogging meal? Because we traditionally serve salads first here. But really, because yesterday, part of our Big Island Hawaiian house-sit, we drove to Hilo across the Saddle Road from Hawi. What that means is that you drive in the saddle between the substantial humps of two volcanos: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Because Mauna Kea is a seamount, it’s actually the tallest mountain on earth, bigger than Everest. (Though it’s a mere 13,796 feet above the ground.) Its cousin across the meadow, Mauna Loa, is considered to be the largest volcano on Earth by volume. So, they ain’t punks.
And, your hands around my dithering throat, what’s the quest, you ask? Well, the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s Gourmet Garden Café in beautiful bayside Hilo. How on God’s heavenly body can that be an example of the hero’s journey? Easy: One of these volcanos, though snoring, is still active—we could have been engulfed in fiery lava! We also got lost on a road exchange—we became slightly tense! We were vaguely running out of gas on the way home—we became vaguely anxious! All surely monomythical in their challenge.
As for the salad, we’d had it recommended to us by a friend back home: “You have to try the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s.” So, we had the Vision, we had the Challenge, we had the Return. And we had the Salad. It was worth the quest.
All salad silliness aside, the Hero’s Journey remains a solid structure for building—and building in some variants—around, if your story is seeking such. Try it! (Oh, lots of good stuff on story structure over at Shawn Coyne’s Storygrid site.)
Bottom o’ the Page Plea
Oh, and if any of you have read my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, I’d love an Amazon review, no matter if you thought reading it was like changing diapers. The more reviews (and diaper changes) the better.
Our Crib on Kosrae: We Never Did Get That Yard Raked
When I lived on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, my girlfriend and I took morning walks, pretty much daily. We walked on the main road, not long after the sun came up, when the weather was merely remarkably hot and humid, rather than paralyzingly hot and humid. Kosraeans were up early too, and we often saw our neighbors and other people active in their yards. Coconut palms were everywhere on the island, and it was a regular sight to see a native woman raking the big palm leaves off the grounds surrounding the house.
This never made a lot of sense to us, because Kosrae has regular trade winds and frequent torrential rains, so that daily raking was a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again—rolling down the hallways of forever, forever. But it wasn’t exactly that our neighbors were fastidious. Not a palm leaf might be seen in some raked grounds, yet soft-drink cans might pepper the yard like, well, like unraked palm leaves. Many yards with food wrappers, too, and broken toys and all manner of other discarded miscellany.
We only received half a clue when one of our Kosraean friends scoffed at us for all of the palm leaves that littered our lawn. (Though nary a can was to be found.) Why didn’t we clean up our yard? Later, some other ex-pats suggested that leaving the cans and other things in their yards was a visible sign of prosperity for people on a poor island where easy cash was a scarce commodity. True or not, that memory makes me consider how expectations work, and how they can work in stories.
Cultures clashing seems a more raked-and-dried example of differing perceptions and expectations—one person’s troublesome palm leaves are another’s organic ambience. But in stories, there are more subtle expressions of expectations dashed that can work well to heighten drama. One brother in a family might always toe the line when it comes to decorum, the law, polite social mores; another might never see a law he wouldn’t scoffingly break. The brother with the halo might experience befuddlement, shame, or even an unbecoming rage at his brother’s “inexplicable” behavior. His expectations of propriety aren’t his brother’s, and a story’s plot might be impelled forward by the rift.
Not Even Spock Is Clean
We often remark upon the behavior of others—why did they do that, that’s not rational, what could have prompted that—when we know that no one is truly objective, not even our dear departed Spock. There are all kinds of psychological and critical-thinking categories that break out formal examples of things like cognitive dissonance and hasty generalizations, sharing some sets of behaviors: in the lofty tower of our higher thinking, the particular (and peculiar) way we’ve assembled our way of looking at the world presumes that others look at it in the same way, that others are motivated by the same desires and outcomes.
Stories can bank on such unrealistic expectations: a character will get angry or frustrated or resentful when his or her fellows “misbehave” by acting contrary to the character’s presumptions of how the world works. Why did that “nice” high school girl spurn her friendly classmate? What prompted the sullen office mate to start bringing treats for everyone in the office? Why did the ever-stingy uncle bequeath his lavish estate to the nephew he’d spoken with twice? These kind of plot twists can be disruptive and perplexing for both other characters in the work, and—if convincingly rendered—perplexing in a stimulating way for the reader.
I’ve owned a number of odd vintage automobiles, most of which had the ill manners to need extended (and expensive) consultations with mechanics over most of my ownership. Most people who buy old cars are tinkerers, but my best uses of wrenches have been as paperweights. You might expect, after having owned many old cars, I’d either stop buying them (because I can never afford the repairs) or I’d learn how to repair them. Nope. Expectations be dashed: I am looking for another one right now. Some itches can never be fully scratched.
However, my yard is very nicely raked.
My cat Malibu, pretending it never happened
Warning, unpalatable opening paragraphs:
My cat vomited on the living room floor last night. Before she did it, she performed a comic/frightening backwards dance, reminiscent of something the dwarf in Twin Peaks would have been envious of. She scooted backwards eight feet across the floor on her belly, haunches rolling, and appeared to be reversing the peristaltic effect of a snake swallowing a goat: her skin seemed to ripple the length of her body in churning waves, back-humped in high ascent.
Never having seen this behavior, I was fascinated and appalled. It was only when she produced the cud of half-chewed grass and belly splooge onto the floor that I realized that she was vomiting; I thought she needed an exorcism. After she’d finished her performance, she calmly reviewed the results and then daintily walked away.
Because I regularly turn daily events into writing considerations, while I cauterized the floor with an acetylene torch, I pondered how dramatic scenes/plotlines work in stories. (I also pondered getting a goldfish to replace the cat.) I’ve been mulling over writing a new novel that would be a series of connected stories. The lead character is a frustrated writer with an alcohol problem that’s preventing him from success in his work and his relationships. (No, this is not an autobiography.)
The Deus ex Machina: Story Salvation or Story Sap?
I’d been considering some of the major life events that can bring a person—or not—to their senses. Or perhaps make them leap off the abyss. Things like deaths in the family, loss of love, loss of respect, both self and otherwise. But I was also considering “artificial” things, on a deus ex machina level: the protagonist loses an arm in an industrial accident, the family is heir to a previously unknown fortune, a main character discovers that she’s adopted, with blindingly harsh effects. Or a cat you’ve owned for a while exhibits a behavior thought possible only by aliens.
Stories by O. Henry often have a twist in them that for me sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The times they don’t work are when you feel the author is trying too hard, where the plot device feels author-imposed or a kind of window dressing. But some stories work up to their explosions in a way that seems organic: the suicides of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary come to mind. When I looked at the entry for deus ex machina on Wikipedia, it cited Lord of the Flies, where the rescue of Ralph by a passing Navy officer seemed to rescue the author as well.
An unpublished novel of mine uses the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 as a catalyst for the coming together—for better or worse—of San Francisco characters who otherwise wouldn’t have had the occasion to converge. The earthquake is a frame for the story, but its extreme drama isn’t used as a prop. Seeing the cat spill her story onto the rug made me consider that authors can populate their stories with all kinds of exotic and peculiar entanglements, but if the entanglements aren’t threaded into a congruent, evolving tale—with characters that are much more than manipulated marionettes—then all you have is, well, vomit.
And don’t expect your readers to stick around to clean it up.
No matter how soggy, you can emerge from the storyless swamp
Story ideas often seem to fall from the sky. Or in the case of my latest story, to come up from the basement. I’ve been in a fetid fictionless swamp for the past couple of months, incapable of putting anything to the page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling pointless resentment over not being able to get agents interested in what is now becoming an old novel, or editors interested in what are now becoming some old (but newer) stories.
The sing-song hearing of “not for us, thanks” can be a blow to writing confidence, but at some point you’ve got to come out of the swamp, at least to get some fresh socks. What made me change out of my swampy sad sack’s clothes was a helpful spur for any writer: a deadline.
I saw a link for an “Unearth Your Underworld” short story contest in one of the writing newsletters I get. I’ve won (or gotten seconds or thirds) in a number of writing contests, and in reading that the theme for this one was, “Anything Underworld—dig in to the sewers, bomb shelters, basements and your deepest hells!” I had an instant idea for a creepy story. In a blink, I saw my peculiar landlords and the strange business they had in their basement from so many years ago. A story, with visuals and plot line, in a second.
Stories Lie Waiting
When I say “instant idea,” I mean that the story idea jumped up from that basement of my imagination, where it’s sat in cold storage for all these years. I’ve written before how writing ideas are everywhere, and indeed they are. The theme of the book I’m writing right now is how to see through a writer’s eyes—how to see and record the stories that surround us.
It’s harder to see them when you are in the dim swamp of your sadness; you’ve got to at least open some curtains. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a deadline that pulls in some light. The basement story’s deadline is November 20th, and it’s well on its way. I don’t have to win anything in that contest to know I’ve already won, because I’m writing fiction again.
Sometimes I forget that you can get used to carrying a backpack of sadness around with you, so that it seems almost natural to shoulder that stuff. But it’s good to know that you can leave that backpack on the counter now and then. Everything feels lighter.
So, where do your story ideas come from? Do they stealthily finger up through the grass, crawling up your leg so that it takes some time to feel the itch, or is there a crashing from the sky and a lightning bolt, so that a story is revealed in instant incandescence?
Epitaph: Goodbye to One of the Good Ones
Sometimes our lives are touched by someone we’ve never met, who has a public forum that lets viewers (and listeners) get a sense of that person over time, so that he or she feels like family of sorts. I’ve listened to (and roared at) the madcap philosophizing of Click and Clack, NPR’s Tappet Brothers, for many years, delighting in their boisterous intelligence and warm camaraderie, both between themselves and their guests. Their shtick was never about the cars—it was about life’s tumblings, madnesses and small graces. And laughter. Ringing, infectious laughter.
The oldest brother, Tom Magliozzi, died this past week at 77. His brother Ray is going to continue to let the recorded shows play on NPR in his brother’s honor. Goodbye and good tidings, Tom. Wherever you are, don’t drive like your brother.
The monkeys were already in the barrel
One of the books I’m reading is titled To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. The book is a compilation of drink recipes based on cocktails mentioned in Hemingway’s works, or those known to have soothed Ernest’s throat during any dry spells behind the typewriter. From reading the book, you wouldn’t think Papa ever had a dry spell that he didn’t counter with a drink. Or four.
There’s a long history of associating writers with the sauce: Fitzgerald with his gin, Faulkner with his whiskey, Hemingway with his Definitivo (which combined equal parts vodka, gin, tequila, rum and scotch, bolstered with tomato juice and lime, a kind of Long Island Bloody Mary in Hell). So maybe this is associating Hemingway with any full bar—which he seemed to take as a challenge.
Literary Lights Liquored Up
Some literary pundits suggest that the liquor lubed their writing, giving it a flow whose force would be absent without the sweet succor of spirits. Heckfire, I’ve even put together a short video that shows how whiskey can improve your writing.
But that bit of legerdemain logic is tripped up by the old “correlation is not causation” adage: those guys just liked to get pickled, plain and simple. It probably didn’t improve their writing, but it did make them learn fascinating words like “jigger,” “muddling,” and “crapulous.” But that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t seek solace in pleasant refreshment. [Note to my business-writing clients: I never combine copywriting with cocktails. At least not at the same time.]
So, in the spirit of experimentation, thirst, and the quest to be aligned with my literary idols, I decided, along with the fair Alice-who-lives-in-this-place-we-call-home, to make some barreled cocktails. Barreling cocktails is a bit of a craze now: you take the ingredients of a standard charming cocktail, such as an Old-Fashioned, Negroni or Manhattan and put them in an oak barrel for a month or two, to take on some of the mellowing characteristics—vanilla, maple, honey, tobacco—that contact with toasted oak often lends to spirits. A number of hipster bars now offer barreled cocktails, the little darlings.
I’ll Take Manhattan(s)
Being a man believing no Manhattan should be left companionless, Manhattans were the clear choice. Thus, two nights ago, we alchemized the following:
⁃ 1.5 liters Bulleit Rye
⁃ 250 milliliters Bulleit Bourbon
⁃ 500 milliliters Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth
⁃ 3 tablespoons bitters: approximately half of which were Peychaud’s (New Orleans), half Rossard’s (Chile), and a generous splash of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters (New York?)
Rye was the original right arm of a Manhattan, but I tend toward bourbon as the main kicker. But we had the jug of rye and proceeded thusly. We added the bourbon to lure the rye to sleep comfy in the barrel. No fancy vermouth here, just a basic, since we are relying on the barrel to bring the orchestra to tune. As for the bitters, I always like combining two bitters in a Manhattan, and the orange in volume is a bit too floral for me, but it added a nice top note to the combination. I wanted to put the aromatic combined bitterness on my hair.
As for the barrel of fun, that’s a nice 3-liter job (medium char) from Tuthilltown Spirits, makers of fine firewater, including the dandy Hudson Baby Bourbon. I bought the barrel for Alice’s birthday, for her efforts with moonshine (fun!) and the attempt to make our own bourbon (disaster!). We’ll shake up some of this barreled hootch into a couple of chilled glasses in a month or so, and get back to you on the results.
Or if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and we can discuss what Hemingway really meant when he said: I drink to make other people more interesting.
Confession: I have a bit of the voyeur in me. Not the sort where I’d climb up in a tree to look into a maiden’s window to see her pajamas, but the kind where I like to sit in a public place and observe (snoop on) people going about their peopleness. Endless variations there, and endless speculation from me on those variations.
There’s an adjunct to that, where the goings-on are even more mysterious (and thus the stimulus to know heightened), because they’re less visible: they’re behind closed doors. I’ve just returned from several weeks of house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, and one of my fascinations, among many others in this vibrant, vivid city, was with the doors. So many of the entryways in San Miguel are beautiful, with rich colors, unusual ornamentations, cascading flowers. Many of the walls of the homes in this hilly city, with its narrow, winding cobblestone streets, are set right up against the street. You can’t see through, can’t peek into what is often a lovely courtyard, unless those doors are open.
Many of the commercial establishments (hotels, restaurants) in the city have their beautiful doors thrown open of course, so that you can indeed see those beautiful courtyards filled with unusual furniture and artworks or happy diners. But having walked up and down through many of the back streets on a daily basis, it was those closed doors that always had me wondering. What charms or perils lay behind?
Doors of Deception
Thoughts of doorways and what’s beyond kept percolating through my time in San Miguel. And because my thoughts often turn in a writerly way, I started to think of how characters and their development in a story are like doorways. (Hey, I’m not the only one that thinks this way. Or if I am, I still have good table manners.)
It can be a useful tactic in a novel to introduce characters who aren’t what they seem. Or who is only partially what he or she seems. Or who is so radically unlike the first descriptions the reader encounters (or how other characters in the book perceive him or her) that the story—and the reader’s emotional ties to it—turn in unforeseen directions.
To make it more concrete (or wooden, which was the case with many of the San Miguel doors), many SM doors are highly ornate, or fussily decorated, or on the verge of ostentatious. Characters in stories might have big shows of wealth or power, but later we see they are insecure, anxious wretches. Their doors have splinters, and big ones. Conversely, a worn, simple door could conceal lavish fittings within (or, to torque the metaphor, conceal a character’s deep soul).
I enjoy when a writer later opens up a door wider on a character, where the wrinkles of personality show in a clearer light, as long as the way the revelations come are organic to the story. Even an event or characteristic that is such a radical bit of information—the protagonist murdered his best friend when he was seven, the protagonist was raised by wolves—can be later absorbed and appreciated by the reader if the doors to that information are positioned properly, and opened in a way that works in the tale.
By the way, once in a while a San Miguel closed door that I’d passed many times would be opened and I’d get to exercise my voyeur’s moment. I was amazed one day to pass by a couple of doors, on the very steep, hilly alleyway in the residential neighborhood where we stayed, and see in one, opening just off the street a tiny shop packed with sundries, top to bottom, with a single, strangled aisle, so dark and filled with overhanging goods I could barely see the counter. Another, just a few doors down, stacked with big plastic bags of what looked like curled ropes of chicharones and others with something that may also have been a pork product. No proprietors in either.
You never know what’s behind a closed door. Until the author invites you fully in.
Evening over San Miguel de Allende, Minutes Before a Storm Busted Loose
Writers are reliant on conflict in their stories; something must be surmounted (or not), questioned, circumvented, abandoned, left to wither. So much of reader engagement is the revealing of the layers of resolve (or not) in a character as they push against existence, whether their challenge or their adversary is some part of themselves, an acknowledged enemy, a societal crack, an unseen force. How the characters engage with their nemeses (or not) and the consequences of that engagement are at the core of most novels, whether literary or commercial.
Sometimes it’s fun to imagine yourself as the character in one of your novels, tilting your lance at battlements, or perhaps at the laundry. Besides the difficult suspension of disbelief there, the problem with accurately envisioning yourself as a novel’s character is that much of your time might be spent with dealing with a balky mouse, wondering if that modest pain you have in a molar is a cavity, and facing that laundry. The challenge of the laundry must be met, but it’s not quite like Huck Finn sailing down the river to flee from those dunderheads trying to sivilize him.
That real-life stuff isn’t all that novelistic. As Elmore Leonard said of his work, “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” We all want to skip the laundry.
But when you travel to a place that you’ve never been before, particularly a place that is vivid, dramatic, and not that of your native land, the setting alone can provide an exotic backdrop or stage for a character’s choices. How do you behave there, where you’ve never been? How do others behave, walk, talk, gesture, argue, kiss? Since I’m house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an extraordinarily colorful city of deep history and picturesque sights, it’s easier to fantasize that I’m in a novel, perhaps one by Graham Greene, where a shady character’s gesture with a cigarette in a lively café implies there will be a mysterious death tonight. Or at least some exceptional margaritas.
A Character in a Balmy State of Suspension
Novels often go in pulses of dramatic action and lull, charges and retreats, tension and release. Last night, my character’s place in the exotic city was in the balmy state of suspension. My sweetheart Alice and I walked down the winding cobblestone roads from our place high above the city center to a nice hotel restaurant just off the main plaza. Alfresco dining in a bright courtyard filled with tall, fruited trees, flitting birds and beautiful stone arches supporting the second floor, all painted variants of a washed tangerine.
A great meal, with cognac after, since that’s what characters in novels do (or not). Because the hotel housed a nice tobacconist, and I was in Mexico, where where they don’t fear the corruption of Castro’s commies, I was able to buy a lovely little Habano cigar, a demitasse Montecristo. Up, up the winding cobblestones at dusk, big clouds gathering. Up, up the tight, treacherous third-floor inner staircase to the deck. Down, down on the deck swing. Stogie lit, check. Malbec accompaniment, check. Incredible view of the city below, lights beginning to twinkle, clouds roiling, check. La vida es buena.
And then, the unexpected conflict: winds suddenly whipping, and a blasting downburst of rain, orchestrated by sky-filling, snapping lightning and a cracking series of thunderclaps like a bomb going off. Flee! So, my character, smug in his full-bellied comfort, ended up smoking his coveted cigar in the first-floor courtyard, hunkered under a concrete garage overhang which steadily dripped down on his muttering head. But it was a Cuban—I had to finish it.
Later, back in the steamy house, I did enjoy the thought that my novelist didn’t want my character to get quite so comfortable. Where’s the narrative interest in that?
By the way, today I really did do the laundry. Sometimes the joke is on your character, sometimes it’s on you.