Archive for the ‘About Writing’ Category

About Writing: Sherlocking for details

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

November is National Novel Writing Month. If you are trying to get a first draft of your “I have this idea for a story” book, now is the time. You have only to write everyday in November in a completely free flow of putting stuff down on paper. Then for the next year you can rewrite. Or if you are really good, you can rewrite for six months. Me? I rewrite, put aside, rewrite more. And I need a critique group to prod me every week.

For this November, though, I’m doing some guest posts arranged by Pump Up Your Book. Today, November 6, I have a post on Workaday Reads.  I’m putting the same post here. But stop by Workaday Reads to see that site. You might need a review of your NaNoWriMo product.

SHERLOCKING

Are you watching the new Sherlock Holmes, the one with Sherlock in rehab and Watson as a woman? It’s different. But no matter how current authors tweak the classic character, Sherlock remains the epitome of keen observation.

When I started writing Artists & Thieves I knew a great deal about observing language. My first Master’s degree was in English, my second was related to language disorders. I’d read literature biggies and dissected how they did what they did with language. I worked with children who had difficulty using ordinary language and I had to pinpoint what was missing. In both cases, I learned to observe.

So when I wrote Artists & Thieves, adding details to a scene to put the reader “there” was easier for me than adding tension or conflict to a scene. I’m always on the lookout for details. I don’t record them in a notebook but they pop into my head as I’m writing.

When I bought a new gas stove I was surprised to hear the pilot light clicking away before the flame started. My old stove didn’t do that. I was working on a scene with Angelo, an artist, moving him around in his loft. I gave that detail to him: “At the kitchen sink he filled the tea kettle with water, and when the clicking of the pilot light finally caught enough gas to flame, he set the pot on the burner’s medium flame.”

When I needed details to bring the setting of Fisherman’s Wharf to smelly life, I remembered a crowded market in San Francisco’s Chinatown: “He bounced down the rough, tarred surface of the wharf shoulder to shoulder with morning tourists. He passed raw sea creatures displayed outside the seafood market on his left, then crossed to the other side to catch the aroma of clam chowder steaming on the counter at Bernie’s, ready to be ladled into paper cups.”

Details are not just for describing a scene. They work to add tension or stress to a character. While I was working on the climax of Artists & Thieves, I needed to build suspense by putting obstacles in the way of my heroine, Mai, as she frantically rushes to find the bad guy. I remembered driving home late at nigh lost in fog so thick I had to stop the car and wait for the fog to break. No cell phones then. A spooky situation. I gave that experience to Mai: “The streets at the west end of Golden Gate Park were shrouded in fog and darkness. Mai couldn’t see the white center line on the road or the one at the edge marking the bicycle lane, couldn’t keep the Jaguar in her lane. . . . She leaned her head out the window, straining to see beyond the flapping windshield wipers. . . .’Where am I?’ She was frustrated, talking out loud.”

And on a more poetic note, I’ve seen a red tide twice in San Diego. The waves fluoresce at night in moonlight. A fellow writer in my critique group suggested that I use a red tide to add mystery to the setting for the climax. My memory helped: “Long bands of glowing light stretched up and down the coast, eerily luminescent in the fog hanging over the waves. The red tide’s tiny organisms sparkled, ebbed and flowed in the ocean’s easy motion.”

Observation is a writer’s necessity as much as it is a detective’s. For me, plotting and character development require a lot of rewriting. That is a long and tedious process.

But I can Sherlock descriptive details quickly. And that’s the fun of writing.

About Writing: Using Real Details in Imagined Settings

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

November 3, 2012 was National Authors’ Day. I had a book table at the Oceanside library. There must have been twenty local authors and there were ten speakers. It was a good chance to meet and talk to other authors.

November is also National Novel Writing Month. To celebrate, I’m doing some guest posts on literary blogs. The schedule is on the Pump Up Your Book site.  But you can read the first post here. It was on Sapphyria’s Book Reviews:

USING REAL DETAILS IN AN IMAGINED SETTING

Writers fill their fictional world with details from their real world. That’s why we believe their stories. I think this weaving together of the real and the imagined makes for strong settings.

In Artists & Thieves I consciously placed the character Angelo in Monterey’s Cannery Row because it is a well known place. But the restaurant I invented for him is straight out of my head. I called the restaurant Sardines because Cannery Row used to be a cannery now, think John Steinbeck, not a tourist destination. And the main fish packed in those old canneries were sardines. A reader doesn’t need to know that but it helps with the pun: “Sardines was packed. Angelo nudged his way into the bar area of the performance space, reassured a little by the odd mixture of elegance and crap which its owner, Max, had assembled. The metal and brick walls were bleak, the lighting exquisite.”

I don’t always consciously use details from a real place in a scene. The other day I had lunch at a restaurant which is built around an old trout fishing lake. It has fish water spouts on the eaves, fountains spraying cones of water in the middle, and ducks. There is a long path which winds down from the parking lot. The path is cool even on the hottest day because bamboo lines both sides of it, thick bamboo, almost three inches in diameter. As I walked down the path the other day I thought, Wait a minute. I know this place. Well, of course, I know it, I’ve been here dozens of times. No, that wasn’t what I felt. I knew the path from somewhere else. Then I realized that I had used this path as a setting in Artists & Thieves. It popped into my head as I was writing a key scene towards the end of the novel. The memory of this real place unconsciously provide the perfect setting for a chapter. The chapter is titled The Bamboo Grove. The main character, Mai, is in the hospital with her grandfather who has been shot. I’ll just pull a few sentences here as examples:  “Mai walked outside to the coffe stand. Came back in with coffee. Walked outside for a muffin. Came back in. Sat. Picked up a magazine. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t sit. Paced. Sat. Outside, wisps of fog flowed in currents of evening air. Mai wandered away from the hospital down a path to a grove of bamboo which screened the cement parking structure. The thick bamboo stalks offered a sturdy comfort. . . . The gently curving path wandered through the bamboo. She walked slowly, feeling hopeful. . . .Along with the rustle of the bamboo leaves, the bowl’s song played in her head. . . .”

Since I study Chinese brush painting, I know that bamboo is a symbol in Chinese thought for resilience. It survives the snow of winter, bends without breaking, and remains green in the heat of summer. That image was perfect for this crucial moment in the story when Mai needs to pull herself together and find the person who shot her grandfather. Even if you as a reader do not share the knowledge of the symbol, bamboo works throughout the chapter.

Sometimes I deliberately choose certain places for my characters to be, sometimes the details of a place pop unexpectedly into my head as I write. Both ways help create a good story. Artists & Thieves won the 2011 San Diego Book Awards in the action/suspense category.