Learning From Other Authors

I’ve spent the past few days reading Nancy Pickard’s novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Not only did I enjoy it thoroughly—it’s a page turner—I also learned from it.

Pickard set the novel in the ranch lands of western Kansas. As I read, I absorbed the locale into my bones, and wondered if someone born and raised in an urban setting would feel the same. (Will some urbanite please read it and tell me?)

In Pickard’s novel, Rose, Kansas is a small town, miles away from any city. People use plain speech, and the author sometimes uses metaphors, like tense as fresh strung barbed wire, to convey state of being or action, and a sense of setting. A horrendous storm comes in from the west, serving as the musical score for a tale of violence and death. Rose is a dying town. Hard work is valued. A female character bakes wonderful pies.

I grew up in Benton County, Indiana, one hundred miles south of Chicago, its western edge on the Illinois/Indiana state line. Our farmhouse faced north. Banks of storm clouds rolled in from the flat lands of the west and slammed against the kitchen windows. A mile away, the little town of Freeland Park slid into oblivion when the railroad diverted to another town. Grain elevators were the skyscrapers of the prairies. My mother was known for the flakiness of her piecrust.

Here is a sentence from the first chapter of The Scent of Rain and Lightning:

A person could, for instance, belong to a nice family living an ordinary life in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and on some innocent Saturday night, violent men could drop in like those tornadoes and turn those nice people into the dead stars of a Truman Capote book.

What a masterful sentence! Setting, culture, language, foreshadowing, and the metaphor: dead stars of a Truman Capote book.

The light of dead stars can be seen long after death.

Memories. Makes you think of In Cold Blood.

Pickard is the genius who thought up the CASTS formula: Conflict, Action, Senses, Turn, Surprise. I re-read her first chapter to find each component, and sure enough, they were all there. Conflict: Jody’s boyfriend, Red, loves her and she doesn’t love him, and her three bossy uncles are downstairs, and she’s in bed with Red, who works for them. Action: Jody and Red jump out of bed and into their clothes, and the three uncles, dressed in their Sunday best, enter her house. Senses: the smell of honeysuckle; tastes of mint and hot sauce; truck doors slamming; the feel of cowboy skin, all banged up, healed over, raw; sights of sky, furniture, uncles. Turn: the interruption in the day—Jody and Red making love and her three uncles showing up unexpectedly, wearing their best straw hats (Where have they been?) Surprise: the uncles tell Jody that the man sent to prison for killing her father, and maybe her mother twenty-three years ago, was let out of prison that morning. And that was only Chapter One.

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Giving Up Self

As I mentioned last week, I attended a workshop called “Writing Masterful Scenes” at the Writers’ Institute in Wisconsin. The presentation began with advice to immerse the reader in the story and make him/her feel something. Presenters Garvin and Storm talked about conflict and tension. To make the reader feel the sensuality of a love scene or the breathtaking tension of a chase, the writer must either have known these states of being or be able to imagine them sufficiently to describe them in poetry or prose.

But do we want to unmask ourselves? Do we want to reveal that we know how it feels to make love or how it feels to be chased?

This leads me to share what I’ve learned in Neil Gaiman’s Master Class. Though not a regular reader of Gaiman’s fantasy genre, I’m always curious about the workings of the creative mind, and what better way to find out than to take a master class from someone like him!

Lesson Two partially focused on revealing oneself in stories, or as Gaiman put it, “walking down the street naked.” Since I sometimes write emotive poetry, I’ve experienced the shudder of putting into verse an experience so personal or painful that it is difficult to share. “My Guernica,” published in Let Us Be Raucous, is a deeply personal poem about the suicide and an attempted murder committed by my grandson, Gideon, while on drugs, and the death of another grandson, Matthew, who jumped off a viaduct. Both events occurred within a six-month period.

In the poem’s attribute, an excerpt from my diary, I asked, “Don’t these calamities happen to other people?” Not always. After recovering from the initial shock, I knew it had happened to my family and to me. Years later, I decided to write a poem about the tragedy.

Gaiman talks about cloaking truths in fairy tales. The truth for children in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and other fairy tales, is that you can’t trust everyone. When I decided to write about the boys’ deaths, I wrapped the horror of our family tragedy in Picasso’s painting “Guernica.” I conveyed our violent truth through Picasso’s truth about war and needless killings.

From the last two stanzas of “My Guernica”:

A three-eyed nurse says: Guernica has come.
Like the matador, my pretty grandsons are dead.
My daughter’s baby lips, which compared my breasts
to apples, now propped open like a guppy’s.
She will live. The bullet lodges near her left ear. 

I sit on a chair and howl.
This is written on newsprint, this telling. 

I walked naked down the street in this poem. Though I chose to tell this story through the conveyance of Picasso’s masterpiece, (one of my grandsons was a handsome Latino), I revealed my personal hell. I did sit on a chair and howl.

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Conference Report

From my diary: Shoes hurt my feet! Was that why I was so exhausted from the flights from Indianapolis to Madison? (I will remember my distress and use it for a character in my current novel.) A soft-voiced cabby, using a gentle horn to alert absent-minded drivers, took me to the conference hotel where I found food (and different shoes) as soon as I could.

I spent most of last week at the Writers’ Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. The high point of my experience was a master class, “Building Suspense,” offered by Chicago crime thriller writer, Libby Fischer Hellman. Using film examples, Hellman guided us through memorable scenes of suspense, as exemplified by the car scene in Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis) and Fred MacMurray (Walter), where after dumping Phyllis’s husband’s body, the getaway car wouldn’t start. Time and a balky engine work against the protagonists. Suspense. Then the car starts.

Hellman asked attendees to bring a paperback novel and five different-colored markers to the class. She introduced us to mystery writer Nancy Pickard’s template for analyzing chapter structure. I brought Lisa Scottoline’s Keep Quiet to analyze. Pickard’s template is called CASTS (Conflict, Action, Surprise, Turn, Sensory Details). Using colored pens, one goes through each chapter marking CASTS components, i.e., here’s where the author shows conflict (red pen), here’s where she shows action (green pen), etc. Scottoline’s first chapter met the challenge, and since it was a spectacularly suspenseful novel, I’m sure the other chapters did too.

Interestingly, Nancy Pickard is presenting a day-long workshop to Speed City Sisters in Crime members later this month. I plan to go and learn more.

Another master class, “Writing Masterful Scenes,” presented by Ann Garvin and Tim Storm, was also helpful. Among my notes: Make reader feel. Trickle in backstory. Novel is driven by the want of characters. Plot is yearning, challenge or goal. Each sentence is expensive real estate in story. Writing is all manipulation.

In another workshop, the presenter advocated spending eleven months creating and filling in an outline, and then writing the novel in a month. Don’t think that would work for me. Though I start with the bones of an outline (including the ending), through interaction with one another, my characters come alive and grow the story.

On Sunday, the last day of the conference, I attended “Is This a Club Which I Want to Belong To: A Literary Agent Addresses the Writing Life.” Paul S. Levine shared his wisdom on far-ranging aspects of writing. Most men don’t read books, he told us. Seventy percent of all books are sold at Costco, Walmart, and Target. Most editors-in-chief are men. Most editors are women. He had advice for screenwriters: Don’t try to sell screenplays. Instead, get the story published as a book. Hollywood wants somebody else to say yes first.

Throughout the conference, I made notes to self. Post about conference (X). Change photo on website, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Rewrite first line of Chapter I of current novel.

Authors talked about the need to find writing time. I plan to find someone to clean my house, mow the yard, and help with landscaping.

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My Creative Process: Seeing Metaphors

I’m postponing writing about my experiences at the Writers’ Institute at the University of Madison, Wisconsin for another week. For now, I’d like to address metaphor.

Jesus’ parables are extended metaphors—”an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” (Don Stewart, Blueletter Bible). For example, in “The Prodigal Son,” the wastrel son symbolizes people who abandon God and the forgiving father is a symbol for a forgiving God.

Edward Hirsch explains metaphor in A Poet’s Glossary as “a figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another—as when Whitman characterizes grass as ‘the beautiful uncut hair of graves.’”

A couple years ago, I found a metaphor on my window screen. Fresh globules of rain shimmered in the tiny mesh squares of the screen. Immediately, I saw the connection between the rain, the screen, and a well-known artist’s paintings. The result was “Klimt Morning.”

He paints with rain
on screen mesh 

a goddess wearing raindrops
like silver sequins. 

Tears from a thousand eyes
glint down wooden shingles 

to pool near the drain spout,
a Niagara gush, 

gathered from gutters
to water the silver mums. 

I won’t forget writing this poem because it came to me visually and whole. Normally, I conceive the bare bones of a poem, but must work for days (even weeks) before I’m satisfied.

I’ve trained myself to recognize metaphor in nature. Evergreens waving in the wind: bawdy firs kick high, show thigh or a sunrise as an orange-throated dawn. Sunrises and sunsets inspire metaphor. So does the moon. Rivers, seas, sky, flowers—what wonders nature gives us for comparison!

At age twelve, I announced to my family that I didn’t accept the trinity and was coerced into lying that I did. I thought Jehovah would send a lightning bolt to strike me and my fellow parishioners dead that spring morning. In a poem, “The Sellout,” written decades later, I describe my mother’s reaction as the lie dripped from my mouth like soured cider: From a side pew, Mother darts her eyes and scores my brainpan like a Pippin.” I could have said she gave me the evil eye, but instead, chose a metaphor that I hoped conveyed the impact of the situation.

More later about metaphor.

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My Creative Process: Naming Characters

The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins found inspiration in the katniss plant when she named her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Washington Irving probably named Ichabod Crane after a U.S. Army colonel he met. (Ichabod means without glory, and the biblical Ichabod figures in a confusing story about the Ark.) In writing Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell called her protagonist Pansy. By the time she finished the novel, she was dissatisfied with Pansy, so cast about for an Irish name to go with O’Hara. She turned the surname Scarlett into a first name.

Sometimes when my work is in the embryonic stage, a character becomes so vivid in my mind that his or her name comes to me in an explosion of thought. In a short story, I named a prim, fussy, old-fashioned girl Vivi. In another short story, I named my protagonist Lizzie Prine. Lizzie is a farm girl with a talent for telling jokes. She becomes famous as a comedian. In “Dina, the Warrior,” Dina is a strong-minded little girl who refuses to accept her brother’s death.

More often, finding the right name for a character is challenging. Occasionally, the impulse to get a story on the computer screen has forced me to use place names until I can find the right names for characters. I don’t like to do it that way, but sometimes it happens. I can’t write too long, though, without naming characters.

Naming has some rules. If characters were born in the late 1800s, I doubt if I’d name them Rumi or Cody. I’d think about the era in which the characters’ parents were born—after all, they named the child. What were their influences? For generations, my Dill ancestors named sons after George Washington.

Where was the character born? Check for similarities with other characters’ names. Don’t confuse readers with a Sandy and a Candy in the same story. Sound is important. Be sure to say the name out loud. Does the sound convey the character’s persona?

After she had thoroughly fleshed out her protagonist, there are a hundred reasons Margaret Mitchell didn’t want to name her after a timid little flower.

To strengthen an aspect of a character’s personality, I try to find the root of the name. Was it a Greek word for warrior or sword? The Oxford Dictionary of First Names is helpful. Dorothea is from the Greek doron (gift) and (theos). I would use this name carefully. Gregory is from the Greek Gregorein (to watch, be vigilant). Early Christians were attracted to this name due to the biblical injunction to be sober, be vigilant (1 Peter 5:8). Brian, of Irish origin, means high or noble.

I tried an online name generator to see how well it worked, finding there were not enough filters to be effective. However, it was fun and I appreciated the alliteration of first and last names.

The first week in April, I plan to attend the Writers’ Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Watch for a report of Institute experiences in my next post.

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