Thursday, September 25, 2008

Real Life Characters

I believe the best characters in fiction aren't invented, so much as they are plucked from reality, cloned, tweaked slightly (if at all), and inserted into your story where they proceed along a new trajectory within your fictionalized environment, a path different from their real-life counterpart even though they share a common foundation, like twins separated at birth. In other words, if you ever feel you're writing flat characters, just start looking around you. Sometimes a human being is so colorful, so bizarre and perfect, that inserting them into your fiction while changing virtually nothing about them can almost feel like plagiarism--but it's totally legit!

Writing about the twin Asian evangelists last week has reminded me of another real-life character I've been meaning to tell you about: My grandfather. James Cooney, the First, passed away about ten years ago, and though I remember him fondly I do wish I had known him better --- perhaps that's a natural consequence of getting older, and growing more interested in your roots.

Grandpa was an Irish immigrant. From what I knew of him, he was a strong man, a simple man, a man who found comfort in his routines. He was a confident but quiet man --- my grandmother spoke enough for the both of them, most agree. Unassuming and reserved like he was, one had to look closely to see when he shined, and last month at my sister's wedding ceremony, my aunt (Grandpa's daughter) gave us one example that which, from a writer's perspective (not to mention a grandson's) is an absolute gem.

It turns out Grandpa's favorite television show was Murder, She Wrote. For those who don't know, the show starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a murder mystery writer and amateur detective, who always managed to get herself caught up in real-life murder investigations. The show invariably had law enforcement itching to arrest the red herring while Ms. Fletcher gathered up contrary evidence on her own. At the end of each show, she pieces together what she's found, and reveals the true identity of the killer.

Talk about a comfortable routine.

Grandpa watched the show religiously, and was so engrossed that he was even willing to shoosh his chatty counterpart if Grandma got rolling. But then, without fail, at 8:45 pm Grandpa would take off his shoes, and announce, "Time for bed," then walk upstairs minutes before the murderer was unveiled. And that was that.

The next day, Grandma would rant, "Don't you even want to know who the killer was?"

Nope. By then he didn't care.

Even now, as I write this, I can barely articulate the myriad questions such behavior raises. It's not just weird... it's like, Alice in Wonderland, Mad-Tea-Party weird. Can somebody be so married to his schedule that he resists such delicious anticipation??? How is it possible I share this man's genes when I myself have stayed up till 4 am on work nights, plowing through episode after episode of The Wire, or The West Wing, or 24?

It's charming, fascinating, marvelous, and you can bet I'll be looking for the next story I can squeeze Grandpa into.

My Writer's Blog: Google Page Ranking

Not sure when it happened, but somewhere in the last few weeks I attained a Google Page ranking. It's a two.


Once my chapter goes up I'll start pursuing links on other sites more aggressively, but for now, it's comforting to know I'm in the system!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Backpocket Notepad of Wonderful Ideas

My blogging friend Amanda, from Highland Madness, commented in my last post:

"Thought of you the other day whilst digging tatties. I was listening to the radio on my earphones, as is my want, and there was an interview with a successful writer whose name escapes me. I was interested to hear he actually keeps a diary of things that happen that he may at some time use in a book. Real experiences and snippets, like the cab driver explaining a point of English (as opposed to American) to him or a funny incident with his niece. Seemed like a good idea to me."

One step ahead of you Amanda! Nyah. I've actually tried a couple of ways to record unique experiences and ideas intended for future use, and have lately settled on keeping a small notepad in my back pocket. I held pad tryouts for about two months and the criteria that bubbled to the surface were (1) it must be comfortable enough for me to sit on, and (2) it must have a side spiral big enough to fit a pen through.

I haven't used any of the snippets I've jotted yet, probably because all my eggs are in this one basket (my novel) right now, but I do think their day will come.

Rather than a "journal" or "diary," I call it a notepad, not just because of its small size but because I limit myself to about 20 words per entry, much less if possible. I write only the date and enough detail to cue to my memory and (most importantly) to recapture my own interest, like a newspaper headline to myself.

A timely case in point, today's entry reads:

"9-17-08: Blue-white bonneted twins dispense bad Engrish hellfire pamphlet."

Walking through Harvard Square one sees all sorts of characters, all harmless and most of them familiar, but I'd never seen these two Asian women before. Both in their 60's, they dressed in identical turquoise and white dresses --- long, heavy, and blocky, like the Amish (but bluer) --- with white bonnets (I think they were bonnets) on their head. They might actually have been sisters since even their faces resembled one another's, and they were the same size, four and half feet tall, if they were lucky.

They walked either edge of the sidewalk silently handing out a lenghty black-and-white flyer. There's so much pamphleting in the Square my natural inclination is to indiscriminately avoid it all, but the women were so cute I got curious, thinking maybe they were championing the political freedom of some tiny breakaway region I'd never heard of, where all the citizens were short women dressed in blue pilgrim dresses, virtually identical, like the monks of Tibet, or the Oompa Loompas.

At first I was disappointed to see the flyer was merely another loopy, evangelical "Repent or burn" manifesto. It's obvious when you read these that most are written by folks with one or two screws loose, yet I can't help feeling insulted. Who are they to assume I'm going to hell? How do they know they're not pushing their litany of sin on Mr. Super-Christian? Hmm???

I got back to my office and started reading, and boy, was I ever tickled out of my vexation. The flyer contains three admonitions, each addressing "My little sons," from a holy trinity of sorts --- The Merciful Father (merciful seems to be a very flexible word here), Jesus, and Your Mother (I assume the Virgin Mary but you never know).

Here are some highlights:

Merciful Father

"...I do not want to sent ponishments but I must so that my sons learn to know ME."

[and then]

"EACH ONE OF YOU HAS AN ANGEL TO HELP YOU, & LISTEN TO HIS VOICE. He say dont; do this or that, do not go here or there because is a mortal sin."

[And finally]

"... but because you are in mortal sin , you cannot listen. SO I WILL SENT PONISHMENT OVER PONISHMENT OVER PONISHMENT."


"This life is a TRIP for everyone .With a passport to go to HEAVEN or to HELL,In the final days I will SEPARATE THE GOATS FROM THE SHEEPS. Many will say why I will go to HELL? This is why open your eyes &your Brains. BE on earth is not to be dancing, eating,drinking,singing,& going to movies, & going to partties,thisis you should be alert with your soul because it is the most important BIGGEST TREASURE,"

[And for good measure]

"... my sons are here on earth with imigrant visa."

Your Mother:

"LIFE IS NOT ONLY EAT & DRINK & BEE HAPPY. Everyone has a soul to take care. There is Heaven & HELL. Purgatory is to pay for your sins by one day you will go to Heaven.with your soul white & pure.But those who go to HELL is a disgrace for all their ETERNAL LIVES. There is not peace there they will heard yelling, scraming. fighting,hating & curse. They never are happy. In the door of the Hell there is a SIGN THAT SAY;: FOR EVER & EVER EVER."

Fire and brimstone have never been so adorable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Culture Consultant

My novel includes a lengthy episode (a 27-page chapter) which brings my hero into a mostly poor, mostly black neighborhood of Boston, a neighborhood only five miles from where I live, but which I've only walked through once. When I wrote the chapter I was confident that inserting my main character into this environment (and brushing him against a pair of local gang members) would be both exciting and revealing. I also knew that I was writing about a slice of urban living I have virtually no experience with, which has made me very anxious.

After reading the chapter a sympathetic friend offered to put me in touch with an acquaintance of hers who she felt might be a good resource, a young man who had grown up in the neighborhood and was familiar with exactly the type of characters I wanted to create. When she told me a little about him I grew very excited by the prospect.

That was over a year ago, but it was only last month that I finally got in touch with him, introduced myself, explained my situation and proposed a (I hope ample) consultant's fee.

Talk about money well spent! Perhaps it is because this guy, M, is currently a creative writing major, having his fiction work-shopped every day, that his criticism was so clear and helpful, so forthcoming without being discouraging. We spent over two hours just going through the first nine pages, almost line by line. He kept hammering on the same four or five key points over and over, and continued to give me specific examples, suggesting ways to make the dialogue and dynamic more plausible or more authentic. M's conversational style was probably more sophisticated than mine, but at times he slipped effortlessly into a unique and thrilling vernacular, one I'd wager is quite difficult, if not impossible, to find represented in any movie or TV show, any book (fiction or non-), and maybe even in any song. To my ears, it was an untapped gold mine of language.

The thing I appreciated most about M is that he managed to steer me in the right direction without making me feel like an idiot, or worse, a jerk. M is black, and lived in the actual environment that I subjected to my imagination, and no matter how respectful I tried to be in my first crack, it was probably inevitable that I'd come off sounding ignorant and stereotypical, to say nothing of the quality of the writing itself. I was dreadfully afraid he'd be insulted, but better one person (a fellow writer, no less, who can hear my apologetic voice as I explain myself). If my writing ever offends, I want it to offend because it penetrates at some uncomfortable truth, not because it misrepresents or sensationalizes something I never bothered to understand.

I have a lot of work to do on this chapter, I realize, but who'd have guessed how good I'd feel about it? There's a popular but misleading guideline in writing fiction: "Write What You Know." It's great advice to keep your writing deep and authentic provided you don't feel overly limited by it. Research is the key to making experiences that are not your own, your own. Start with books and articles, but then move to interviews (or consultations) and walking tours. Exploring these uncharted territories, finding your truth in them, might even be more compelling than fictionalizing events, characters and environments you've actually experienced.

When you don't research and explore, you end up with ten stories that have a fiction writer as the main character. You know why that's really hard to make interesting over and over again? Because, mostly, what fiction writers do all day is write. Yeesh. Boring! Time to learn more about cops and how they cope, or Iranian women and what their passions are, or schizophrenics and why they see the world they way they do.

Speaking of consultants, I'm also hoping to connect with my military consultant soon too. Very exciting!

And lastly, after I receive feedback from one more person and work it in, I'll be posting (finally) the first chapter. Before the end of the month, I vow!