Most people know Central Virginia was shaken badly during the 5.8 earthquake on August 23. What they don’t realize is we’ve had dozens of aftershocks, tremors, and smaller quakes since then.
Sunday night I was awaked by the house shaking a little before midnight. A few hours later, I heard a crash. You see the result of the 3.2 earthquake.
Enough already. We are not amused.
The absolute best part of writing fiction is creating levels of meaning and adding layers of texture. If you’d asked me about this when I was beginning my career, I would have said, “Huh?” It was enough to juggle characters and plot and dialog and have it make sense.
I began by layering my historical picture books with different elements, particularly in When the Whippoorwill Calls and One Christmas Dawn, both set in the mountains of Virginia. I remember spreading out my handwritten notes on folkways, food, crafts, speech, and legends from the region, picking and choosing elements to enhance my story.
I also added superstitions. When I was ten, I read about “good lucks” and “bad lucks” in Superstitious? Here’s Why!, a 1954 book I checked out of the library a hundred times. The summer I was 15, I read all twelve volumes of The Golden Bough in the library’s reference room. My first nonfiction work, “Never Buy a Broom in August,” a book of calendar-themed superstitions, went deservedly unpublished, but I learned to use that lore to brush texture into my fiction.
Now I’m learning Photoshop Elements and it’s all about levels and layers and textures. While I try to remember to sharpen my bicubics and make sure my anti-alias is checked, I think about how I want to process my photos. What effect am I after? What do I want the photo to say? It’s just like writing, only with sliders to adjust.
I use the same process in RadLab, a popular photo-editing plug-in. I pause my mouse over “stylets” with wonderful names like Granny’s Tap Shoes, Cinnamon Toast, Rusty Cage, and Grainstorm. I pile on effect after effect, mesmerized by the enhanced texture of handmade bricks, the garish light in the sky, the desaturated grass that isn’t winter-dead or spring-green, but something new and different.
When I write, I’m conscious of adding a touch of Granny’s Tap Shoes or Rusty Cage, but most of the magic occurs during the revision process. I boost scenes, dialog, and description with snippets of regional speech, dollops of little-known legends, scraps of folklore, tidbits of superstitions, and discover new and different aspects of my characters.
Writing the first draft is like shooting a photograph of an abandoned house. Adjusting images with bits and bobs in subsequent drafts is like sneaking inside the house for a closer peek–a little risky. What initially seems dull is actually quite beautiful with judicious tweaking.
Tom (not his real name) spoke to me first. “Good morning.” My husband and I had just finished breakfast at our favorite family restaurant and he had gone up to pay the check. We’d seen the older gentleman sitting at his usual table on previous visits. On this particular morning, he’d been seated across from us.
“Good morning,” he said again. I glanced up from digging in my purse and answered, inanely, “Good morning. I have allergies.” “Oh, that’s too bad,” he said.
His eyes were very blue and clear. I guessed him to be in his early 80s. Something about the set of his mouth and his earnestness put me in mind of my husband’s father. I stopped rooting in my purse and gave him my full attention. He spoke with a slight stammer, choosing his words thoughtfully, his speech lacking the flat, careless accent of native Virginians.
He always came in the restaurant alone, always dressed neatly–button-down shirts, pressed slacks, light jackets. Up close, I noticed he knocked his knees together, a tic of some sort. My husband said later he believed Tom had “been somebody.” Tom wore the aura of someone who once carried a tightly-furled umbrella and practiced moment generating function in his work.
The next time we saw Tom at the restaurant, we were eating supper. Tom came in and asked the waitresses if they’d found his coat, he’d lost it. No one had. He left, upset. The next morning, he arrived while we were eating breakfast [Yes, I do cook! My husband’s appetite is still poor from surgeries and his weight is low. If he has a craving for something, we go out.] I heard Tom ask the waitress what the date was. He studied the menu intently, though it hasn’t changed in the 15 years we’ve frequented this place, as if he were going to be tested.
We met Tom at the cash register. I introduced myself and my husband. Tom responded politely, but appeared vague. In the parking lot, we saw him standing by his car. He came toward us and asked us what day it was. His fingers fretted with his keys. I realized then Tom had probably had a mild stroke. He got in his car and drove off. A corner of my heart tagged after him.
The rest of the day I thought about Tom and how he managed. His world was a sphere of familiarity, I imagined. The restaurant, possibly church, the grocery store. I suspected he operated fine within its circumferance, but sometimes life poked through its pliable sides and let in chaos.
Tom’s house could be plastered with calendars, but if he didn’t look at them, they didn’t exist. He could X out each day on every calendar, but the second he turned away, he’d forget. Did he just X out the day? Was it still that day? His hand holding the pen would tremble.
I know a few things about stroke-related dementia. It can creep up slowly, as it did with my grandmother, ending in electroshock treatments that left her sealed in a globe of silence. Or it can hit like a locomotive, as it has with my aunt, shoving her into a shapeless place of hallucinations and jagged agitation.
I know a few things about memory loss, too. At one time, calendars papered the walls of my office and a huge dry-erase board loomed behind my computer monitor, yet I still went to appointments a week early (driving 200 miles to one). I bought a perpetual calendar, believing the physical act of changing the number blocks would cement the date into my head. But when I came back into the room, I’d wonder if I’d already changed the blocks or if that was yesterday’s date.
Eventually, I learned to deal with my memory problems. I threw out that bully of a dry-erase board. I have one calendar that I often forget to look at. I keep a running list of projects and appointments on my desk and carry to-do lists on days I have a lot of errands. I stopped pressuring myself to remember and order restored itself in our house, like water seeking its natural level.
When the boundaries of your sphere of familiarity become elastic and unreliable, you patch it as best you can. But you may still need help. When I see Tom from now on, I’ll speak to him first and reintroduce myself. I’ll ask him what his plans are for the day and slip the date in if I sense a hint of fogginess. Then I’ll let him get back to the comforting round shape of his eggs, fried over medium, before they get cold.
I’m taking an online photography/inspiration class called “Beyond Layers,” by Kim Klassen. This week we’re highlighting a different color each day.
Today is “blue.” I didn’t have time to set up a still life even though I have tons of blue things around my house. Instead I submitted this shot to our Flickr group. This vignette resides on top of a tall bookcase. The LP cover was given to me by the Goodwill Goddess.
Besides announcing spring, the blue background in this cover is one of my favorite shades–robin’s egg. It also combines previous daily colors: green, yellow and pink.
Look for blue today. You’ll find it in surprising places!
I’m working on a new book, mulling over the first scene. To me, the first scene is like lifting the curtain on a stage set. Where will the characters stand? What are they looking at? Unlike like my last book, this book will open with my characters in some place unfamiliar. How will the new landscape affect them and how will they react?
The unfamiliar presents itself to us in shapes. I need to select the shapes in my opening scene that draw out the best–and worst–in my characters. I’m going to practice this theory on a day my husband recently spent. We took off last Saturday to explore.
Here’s our favorite waitress at our favorite little family restaurant. I heard her say, “St. Patrick’s Day is the only holiday for grown-ups.” Clearly, she was into it. What shapes are seen in this image? Circles! Her earrings, necklace, coffee pot, cheekbones, the bobbing tops of her headband. Her smile is a crescent, a slice of a circle. Circles are pleasant shapes and put us in a good mood.
We stopped at a yard sale in King George. The house is the former King George hotel. The house caught my eye because it’s a series of squares. The shapes created by the windows and porch posts create a pleasing symmetry, like the a drawing of a house by a child. Boxes and picture frames add to that illusion.
I picked up a souvenir salad bowl and the owner filled it with stories about the house, a ghost cat, and the 90-year-old pine trees on the property. A bargain for a dollar. The bowl is a rounded square, easier on the eye than one with sharp corners.
Next door was a thrift shop run by a cheerful volunteer. I grabbed up this leather briefcase, a Kaye Gibbons paperback, and an old Kodak camera. Price? $1.58! The woman told me more stories and I donated another $5. I wasn’t sure why I bought the briefcase. I think I responded to its dependable rectangular shape (after seasons of squashy purses). It made me feel like Hemingway. I plan to use it as a “field purse.”
I made my husband stop the truck so I could photograph these two old buildings in a cornfield. I listened to different songbirds–not the usual backyard robins and finches–and let my gaze be pulled upward. The house and its dependency are small but tall, the peaked roofs led my eye into the blue sky, lifting my spirits. On a cold, gloomy day, I might have a different reaction to these abandoned shapes sitting in a lonely field.
The flat land in this region is perfect for growing corn. There were a number of little houses seemingly plunked in the middle of the fields. Behind one of those little houses, I spied a road that curved between the trees. A path of wild thistle seemed to beckon me to leave the safety of the known–the solid cylindrical silos–and follow the road into the wispy unknown.
In Westmoreland State Park, people ate lunch at picnic tables and let their dogs play on the scrap of a beach. This is a new place for us. We’re planning to rent a cabin here when they open for the season. We walked around to get the feel of the place. The dock, a skinny rectangle, jutted out into the Potomac, a man-made structure connecting the shore to the water, allowing us to experience the river more intimately. Our eyes were drawn across the river to the Maryland shore, eleven miles away. The breeze brought the smell of fish and brackish water.
I felt both free and uncomfortable. It was a lot of water, a lot of sky (clearly, I need to get out of my writing room more). But it wasn’t abstract space. This place had three dimensions. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says, “When space takes on three dimensions, it acquires depth, and it becomes place.”
A knowledge of place, Tuan goes on, is grounded in aspects of the environment which we appreciate through the senses and through movement: color, texture, slope, quality of light, the feel of the wind, sounds and smells carried on the wind.
When I write the first scene in my new book, I’ll keep those thoughts in mind: that the new environment will affect my characters both negatively and positively, based on their prior knowledge. They’ll experience place through color, texture, quality of light, sounds and smells . . . and geometry.
Mike Wallace, from 60 Minutes, and his family were sitting at a table next to us. [This will be the only famous-person-publisher-story I will ever trot out. Promise.] Our group was punchy after a long day on the Book Expo exhibit floor at the Javits Center. I’d had two book signings with this publisher and one with another publisher. The restaurant was Italian, typically New York–loud, clattery, crowded, tables so close you could cut somebody’s else meat and think it was yours.
One person in our group sat with his back to Mike Wallace’s chair. He was the gregarious sort, keeping us in stitches with his stories. None of us knew Mike Wallace was at the next table until he stood up and leaned over the shoulder of our effusive friend. Mr. Wallace told him they were celebrating his wife’s birthday and could we keep it down a little? We did. When their party left, Mr. Wallace patted our friend on the shoulder and told him he was a perfect gentlemen.
I remember that story, not so much because Mike Wallace told our group to pipe down, but because everyone in the restaurant was noisy. We were were closest and therefore invading their personal space, which I understood. New York restaurants make me claustrophobic. I prefer eating in places with big booths and plenty of elbow room. The places we eat in give me more opportunity to observe people. (And surreptitiously take their pictures.)
When my husband and I were going together, we’d eat out and I’d see people like the ones in these photos. Older married couples concentrating on their food. They would eat an entire meal and not utter one word to each other. Back then I worried that we might run out of things to say like these people.
Now I know most of these couples don’t need to fill every second with conversation. They are not headed for divorce court, but are comfortably married.
Notice how the space defines their relationship. There are large rectangles between them. The light fixtures hang high. You could draw a big triangle from the light fixture to each person. The windows are huge sheets of glass, more rectangles. The distances enable people to talk or not talk.
You couldn’t draw generous shapes in those New York restaurants with tables barely big enough hold a pat of butter, jammed chair to chair. Space is at a premium in the city so people are forced to be intimate, whether they want to be or not.
As writers, we should pay attention to how space defines our characters. Are they outside, with lots of space all around? Or are they stuck in close quarters? Geometry influences what they say to each other and how they react.
You could mix things up, too. Put the long-married couple who doesn’t need to talk at supper in a fancy city restaurant. Collapse that wide but comfortable space between them and see how they react. Put the couple who loves the edginess and jostle of a trendy nightspot in a dull diner. Would they be as bright and boisterous in a bigger space? Would the big table make them nervous?
The next time you go out to eat, get out your imaginary protractor. Watch how people behave in relation to the space. When you write your next scene between two characters, sketch the space and take note of distances. Always be aware of the landscape.
I’m taking a new online class that combines photography with writing. Our lesson for the week is to think about fear and how we deal with it.
I’m old friends with fear. I worry about everything: Will we have enough money. Will my husband’s illness get worse. What if I never sell another book. What if I never write another book. And those are just the queen bees. In my fear hive an army of worker fears feed the big ones. [E-books, aluminum pans, the election, gas prices]
In one of the books that changed my life, Watership Down, I wanted to identify with the brave smart rabbit, Hazel. But I’m really like Pipkin, the fretful rabbit who jitters in the background with his litany of worries.
This exercise made me track my fearful self all the way back to my earliest memories, and even before. In the crib I must have heard the arguments between my parents. Then there was the uncertainty of living with my aunt and uncle in a house filled with fighting and violence.
When my mother remarried, we moved to the country. I was almost five and afraid of everything: the dried-up baby snakes my sister and I found on the back porch. The tall oak trees that crowded our raw yard. The fox that trotted from our woods to raid the neighbor’s henhouse. The night sounds outside my window.
But once the new house became home and grass began to grow in the rough clay yard and I settled in the landscape like the foxes and snakes, I relaxed. The rhythm of seasons calmed my Pipkin-ness. When I started writing, I opened a door. In my stories I could be brave and have adventures.
For years, I wrote and sold lots of books, writing to trends, writing what was popular, writing what schools needed, writing what people wanted. I had lots of adventures through my work, but always from the comfort of my office. Now a new fear moves to the top of the list: time. How will I best use the productive time I have left?
In her excellent book, Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, Bonnie Friedman says:
The best art risks most deeply. It is intended not for a group of readers but for one. It descends into the subterranean, the shameful, the fraught, the urgent and covert . . . What could not be said aloud because it could exist only as this constellation of scenes, this concatenation of details on this page. What passes invisibly over the earth because you have not yet pointed a finger at it.
It’s time to take risks. To write for the one reader. To point to the invisible. To follow the fox into the henhouse. To face down fear and walk through doors into uncertainty.
I could hear the engines of the Goodyear blimp throbbing over our house. It was so close, I could see people in the gondola! I grabbed our cat Alaric and ran outside. “Look!” I said. “Look at the blimp! Look up!” Alaric looked up at my chin and licked it. He did not see the giant airship, only what was directly in front of his line of sight.
This weekend at our retreat I touched on deep mapping, a term coined after the publication of William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth, a book that descends vertically into the history, geography, sociology, archeaology, myths, legends of one tiny corner of Chase County, Kansas. Delving through various layers helps us writers understand the landscape of our project. Instead of skittering over the surface, write deep. That’s where the good stuff is.
But there is something to be said for looking up, too. When I was a kid, I never looked straight ahead (which is why my mother wouldn’t let me cross the highway alone, even when I was twelve and thirteen). My gaze was always fixed on the ground, looking at rocks and patterns in the dirt (another reason my mother wouldn’t let me cross the road alone–a dirt-staring child?). Or I stared at the sky, watching birds and patterns in the treetops. To this day, I’ve nearly wrecked the car dozens of times because I’m watching a crow or a buzzard circling overhead.
Look up now and then and check for details. There’s a whole other world over our heads. You might be surprised.
We came from Salem and Roanoke, Richmond, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Alexandria, Leesburg, Baltimore, and even Louisiana. We came on I-81, I-66, Route 3, Route 29-211, Route 340, and I-64, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains at different points. We came in the rain, some of us delayed in traffic for hours.
But we came. And we are so glad we did. From Friday evening (some of us arrived early), to Sunday noon, we ate, laughed, talked, wrote, listened, took notes, talked, ate, and became that very rare thing: a store.
Kentucky writer Silas House once posted on his blog about growing up in stores. Literal stores, like his Aunt Dot’s “jottendown” roadside store. As a child, House hung out at that store, listening to gossip, absorbing stories.
He also counts the Lily Holiness Church as a store, where he learned to study people. But the most important store was his family. Summer evenings and suppertimes and special occasions were filled with stories.
The store-keepers, as House calls his family, church members, and patrons of Aunt Dot’s store, were endless sources of words. Stories.
Thanks to Valerie Patterson, who asked me last year if I’d be interested in putting on a retreat with her, we came together in the gorgeous Mimslyn Inn, tucked in Page Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains resting against our backs and looking out at the Massanutten Ridge that splits the Shenandoah Valley. We sat in the Skyline Terrace and opened stores for each other.
The shelves were loaded with stories about angel dogs, turpentine camps, old ladies getting hammered on wedding punch, overcoming polio, ballet school, feisty bantam hens, Day of the Dead parties, a trip to Iceland, another trip to Thailand with a two-year-old, creating worlds with china animal figurines, the pull of Native American ancestry.
By the end of the weekend, we had built a writer’s Neiman Marcus.
I don’t know about the others, but I didn’t want to leave the comfort of the Inn and the companionship of the store-keepers. We ended the event with hugs and promises to stay in touch, picture-taking and exchanges of e-mails. And then we packed up and began our treks back over the mountains, down I-81, across I-66, ambling down Route 340. Whichever way we came, we went home different people.
Will Valerie and I do this again? We can’t wait. Stayed tuned for the second retreat, next spring at the Mimslyn Inn in Luray. I hope you can attend the grand opening.