Friday, March 12, 2010

Exercise - Through Others' Eyes

Go for a walk. Choose a setting where you are likely to encounter some unusual and entertaining species . Every time you see a new animal (human and non-human), imagine the world through its senses. See yourself walking along, the scene between you and the creature you are possessing. Hear, smell and taste the world from this being's point of view. Feel the breeze through fur, or tattered clothes, or?

Describe yourself from this creature's vantage. Are you a potential friend? An enemy? A meal on the hoof? What does this animal think of you? What are its motives toward you?

Now broaden your connection. What experiences might your opposite have had that would lead him to think of you the way he does? What kind of 'inner sensations' are being triggered by your presence? Your counterpart may be afraid, or angry, or curious, or hungry. What prevents him from acting on his emotions? Perhaps you are bigger and stronger. Maybe your observer has an instinctive fear of humans.

After your walk, write about your encounters from your point of view, but incorporating the types of reactions you experienced emanating from those around you.

The Experience of Writing

As a writer I get to experience the world in a unique way - or I should say in many unique ways. Part of the pleasure for me is the detective work of getting to know my characters 'inside-out' and seeing their worlds through their eyes.

Diana and I travelled to the historic Gold Rush town of Barkerville, BC this week as part of my research for Stained Glass. The question we encountered all the way up the famed Cariboo Wagon Road was: "Barkerville in March? Who goes to Barkerville in the winter time?"

A writer and an artist, that's who!

Wandering around the deserted, snow clogged streets of the town gave me an idea of what the main characters in Stained Glass might have been seeing and feeling during a winter sojourn in their remote community. That sense of 'being there' is essential, and for me making that connection between then and now, me and them, here and there is the groundwork for a successful story. It's also fun, in a quirky sort of way.

Sources and inspirational techniques for me include:
  • Actual trips to settings where a story takes place;
  • Conversations with people who have lived the life you're writing about;
  • Visits to the library and the archives;
  • Meditations on the lives of my main characters;
  • Enactments, where I become the characters I want to write about;
  • Collaborations with people who are in the roles you want to portray.
The secret is: You really have to like engaging in these kinds of activities. It has to be fun. You have to laugh when people ask you questions like, 'Barkerville in March? Are you nuts?' And sort of agree that you are.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Before you write: Believe!

Don't touch paper with the nib of your pen until you truly believe what you are about to write.

That seems a pretty obvious bit of advice. I mean, who - other than a forger or some other variant of liar - would write stuff for public consumption that they don't really believe? Why would anyone want to mislead readers by creating an illusion, where non-existent characters are depicted in imaginary settings, carrying out deeds that never occurred?

If you're thinking smugly that as a novelist you're actually supposed to do exactly that kind of thing - write about stuff that never really happened - think again! To write a great story the action has to be real. The people, places and events have to be believable. More than that, they have to be believed in by the creator of the story: me, the writer.

First and foremost, I have to believe in my characters. Again, seems pretty obvious, but sometimes I start writing before I've really gotten to know the key people. Which brings me to an important qualifier when it comes to believing: it's easy to think you're writing with conviction, when in fact you're not...


You can think you're writing with conviction when you accept a lower standard of truth than what is necessary to bring a character to life. If I content myself with insipid, ghostly manifestations of my main characters, I will likely end up with flaccid, predictable story. My characters either won't do anything genuinely surprising, or they'll do surprising things that stretch the bounds of credulity beyond the breaking point.

To know my characters well I have to live in opposition and agreement with them, the same way my shared moments of anger and assent with siblings, friends, lovers and bosses deepens my understanding and appreciation of the real people I know. The moral fiber and will of my characters has to be tested. I have to talk to them and expect answers that come from a source mysteriously external to myself.

I also have to be convinced of my own ability to write the story. If I don't have any doubts at the outset, there's a pretty good chance the story I'm thinking of writing isn't worth the ink, paper and sweat I'll expend on it. if a story idea doesn't challenge the notions of who I am and what I'm capable of as a writer, can I really be excited by it? And if I'm not excited, will any reader be? I don't think so.

The trick for me is to look at the monumental scale of the story I'm embarking on; be truly awed by it, and doubtful of my own ability to pull it off; then to convince myself that I can indeed write the damn thing - in fact, convince myself that I'm the only guy who can.

Then I'll be able to write with conviction.

If all this sounds a little bloated - like the balloon of ego swelling inside your skull - good. That's because, if you're like me, you have to convince yourself that you have a talent which is meant to be shared - that you are, in fact, a writer - and that part of being a writer is doubting, then overcoming doubts with works of fiction that make you a little more than you were before with every written page.

That transformative cycle of self doubt overcome by conviction will always be uncomfortable... and exhilarating.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A house with many windows

flickr image by Uncle Phooey

An exercise I find useful in developing both character and plot is imagining my story from every main character's point of view, and having each character write an account of the story in a letter to me, the author. These sketches don't have to be long. A couple of hand written pages is usually enough. But they have to touch on the salient points of the story from that character's point of view.

One of the interesting outcomes of this exercise is it begins to define me as narrator as much as it fleshes out the characters. In a future entry I will talk about that invisible character behind any work of fiction, the narrator. You never really meet him, not even in autobiographical works, but this spirit shapes the entire work and is, in fact, its voice.

So these letters are an appeal to a subtle yet powerful deity. I find it works best if I imagine each character trying to make his case to a tetchy, somewhat arbitrary judge. A dear-sir quality pervades the letters; but also a hello-it's-me tone. They are emphatic attempts to influence the narrator's telling of the story in the writer's favor.

Most importantly, they are to be written while the author is immersed in each character's persona. That's key. These are not abstract impressions of what the characters might write, based on the author's research and ideas. They are actual notes, dashed off in a moment of enthusiasm, or rage, or sadness, or despondency by a character relating his role in the story. A sense of urgency and a desire to be understood impels the writer. The predominant traits of the character should be evident in the letter: meekness, haughtiness, arrogance, callousness, stupidity... those personality traits have to show up. Which means the writer has to get thoroughly into the role as his pen channels the character's version of events onto the page.

It's common knowledge that every witness to an event has an entirely different story to tell. You can take that adage a little farther by likening the story to a house with many windows. Each of the characters gets to look in through his own window, but the full layout and the details of all the rooms only become visible to the narrator. You can turn that around, too. Each character can look out of his own window into the great beyond, but only the narrator will have a complete view of the encompassing sky.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Getting Into Character

As an author I have to 'get into' the skins of my characters. How do I do that? Every writer uses his own set of rituals and techniques, so what follows is an overview peculiar to me. Since character is the heart and soul of my stories this is a topic that will be revisited many times, I am sure.

To begin with, there are three sources of inspiration for developing character: research, association and philosophy. Each of these breaks down to its own facets, which we may explore later. For now, I'm going to develop a 'big picture'.

Before we go on, though, it's worth asking: what am I looking for? What do we mean when we say we're 'exploring character'? The sense I have when I set out to write a story is that I am on a historical quest. I consider myself a biographer of sorts, who is investigating the habits and actions of real people; not a daydreamer, fantasizing about purely fictional beings. That mind-set gives a tangible cast to the characters as I investigate.

Research delves into the hard facts of who my character might be. I read books about their eras, visit places they might have been, get a sense of their vocations. For example, the protagonist in Stained Glass, a novel in progress, is an Anglican priest. Step one for me is to establish contacts with practicing Anglicans to flesh out the religious parameters of his life. What was it like to be in seminary? What are the day-to-day duties of a priest? How does a life dedicated to Christ alter the world view of a priest? The book is set in the 1870s, in the Gold Rush Town of Barkerville, BC. The archives at Barkerville will yield a wealth of imagery and journal entries that will further flesh out the life and times of my characters. Research, for me, is like hunting through a crowd, looking for evidence of a character that already exists - things my character might have experienced, internalized and become.

Association brings into the mix all the people I've ever known, who might share some of my character's traits. There is an intimacy to my 'real time' relationships that adds depth to my appreciation of a character. Although I haven't had close contact with any Anglican priests, for example, I did attend Norwood United Church as a child and can remember vividly my interactions with Reverend Kennedy, the minister of the day. Although he was not at all similar to the protagonist in my story, there are some character traits that translate: the tone of voice he used in delivering his sermons; the way he greeted members of the congregation as they entered the church; the swish and billow of his robes; a certain professional aloofness. Other personalities in my life are also great reference points: teachers, psychologists, close friends.

Philosophy (or call it psychology, if you prefer) helps me extrapolate and discover elements of character that I might never have encountered or imagined. My philosophical framework is a home-made 'schematic' I call The Tetrahedron. It categorizes experience into physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual realms, which are all interconnected. Physical experience manifests as pain or pleasure; emotional as love or hate; intellectual as right or wrong; spiritual as infinite or finite. Although this is purely conceptual - The Tetrahedron does not exist - it is a marvelous construct for analyzing human motives and the factors that distort human perspectives.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Clothesline

Green Acres is the place to be
farm livin' is the life for me...

The other day Fred told me about this guy who stumped into the Central Sannich municipal hall and started yapping about people hanging their clothes on the line to dry.

The jerk rolled up in a Cadillac. Ever notice how people who drive Cadillacs don't give a shit that you might have a ferry to catch, that you're not retired like them, that even after you do retire you're still going to have to work at some dumb-ass job as a janitor or store clerk.

Anyway, this guy steps up to the counter and starts ranting that his neighbour is airing her laundry on a clothesline right next to his property.

Yeah? So?

Well, in Oak Bay, where this guy has just moved from, they don't allow that kind of thing. There's a bylaw, see. Says you can't disturb your neighbours, block their views, or lower their property values by letting sheets, shirts and panties flap in the breeze.

If you aren't gonna do something about it, I wanna see the mayor, he says.

Once, when I was growing up in Montreal my Mum sent me out into the back lane to beat the dirt out of an old rug. I draped it over our clothesline and started whacking the bejeezez out of it. Whack! Whack! Whack! Our upstairs neighbour, who must have been watching her favorite soap or something, rushed out onto her back balcony and started shrieking about all the god-damned noise I was making.

Whack! Whack! Whack!

So Fred, being the closest thing to a mayor in the municipal hall that day, steps up to the counter and explains to this slicker that there's no bylaw forbiding people from hanging their laundry on a line to dry. There's nothing to be done about it.

Like hell!

A week later Fred has a woman sitting in front of his desk bawling. Says her neighbour, who's just moved to bucolic Central from hoity-toity Oak Bay, has taken exception to her hanging sheets and such on the line. Says he's been abusive and foul mouthed about it. Threatening even.

Then, last week, he starts burning stuff in a great big steel barrel right next to their back yard fence. The breeze blows embers and soot into her yard, which soils her freshly laundered linens. Some of her stuff's even been singed. When she asks him to stop the guy grins and pokes around in there, sending up more ash.

You've got to stop him, she wails.

But there's not much Fred can do. It's Central Sannich, see. Farm country. There's no law says a property owner can't burn leaves, twigs and such whenever he wants. How else do you get rid of the cuttings and trimmings from those great, big back yards.

And besides, Fred knows the guy she's pissed off at drives a Caddy, even if the lady hasn't mentioned it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Eureka Moments!

Flickr photo by Partricia Drury

I am often asked where story ideas come from. I don't really have a pat answer. I've come to see myself as a sort of literary hunter-gatherer, constantly scanning his environment for clues. Dozens of others might walk past the tell-tale signs of a potential story, but they don't see it. What appears ordinary and uninteresting to them strikes me as fascinating, sometimes thrilling.

A couple of examples will illustrate my point.

My next novel, Stained Glass, sprang almost fully formed from a single line in the Oxford History of Christianity. I happened to be reading that stupendous tome in preparation for another novel I was working on called Caution: Prayin' Ahead. One sentence, in the chapter dealing with the medieval church, noted a furor that was created in a French town when the local harlots offered to fund the installation of a stained glass window depicting Mary Magdalen.

I'm sure hundreds, possibly thousands read that line and passed it over without a second thought. I whooped and laughed out loud, knowing then and there I would have to write a novel based on it. My version of Stained Glass will be set in the rough-and-tumble gold rush town of Barkerville, BC, but the trail leads back to that single reference in the Oxford History of Christianity.

Just the other day I was chatting with my father-in-law Fred Durrand. Fred retired years ago from a long career as Municipal Clerk with the town of Central Sannich. A great conversationalist, he has many stories to tell about: growing up in Revelstoke, BC; his experiences as a dispatch rider in the Second World War; and his career in municipal government.

His latest was about a fellow who rolled up to the Central Sannich municipal hall in a Cadillac and stumped into the office to complain about his neighbour - a woman, who insisted on hanging her clothes on a line, thus blighting the view out his back window and lowering his property values. The guy had recently moved from Oak Bay, a well-heeled jurisdiction where such Plebian offenses were firmly discouraged by law. Informed that no such injunctions existed in rural Central Sannich, and that anyone could let their shirts and panties flap in the breeze, the fellow stumped back out again - an unsatisfied rate payer.

A few days later, his sheet flying neighbour showed up in Fred's office in tears. The complainant had taken to lighting up a bonfire in a barrel whenever she hung her laundry, and stirring the cauldron vigorously to get as much soot and ash flying as possible. Carried on the prevailing wind, this malicious pollution would soil her freshly laundered clothes and linens, making it impossible for her to use her clothesline.

Fred's reminisce will become my next Two Minute Story, called The Clothesline.