Saturday, July 28, 2007


I have, somewhere in my files, a copy of a "Personality Profile" designed to be used with your fictional characters. It is, for the most part, the same useless fluff that any dating service would ask you. (And we all know how successful those are.) One or two of the questions are useful, and I don't think the exercise itself is a waste, so long as you put some extra emphasis into it. Besides, even if each novel represents its own separate universe, the number of major characters can get high enough that you want to keep track of them. That sort of thing saves you from embarrassing details later on when you screw up someone's eye color - or say their height, when you have one character looking down on another, only to realize you have the dwarf staring down on the NBA player.

I exaggerate, of course, but I know of at least one author, whose novels tie together into a single universe, who got raked over the coals by her fans for making a mistake about the color of a character's eyes. And while that says just as much about the fans (obsess much, do we?) as it does the author, it's those little slip-ups that those personality profiles (or character traits) can help with.

I'm skeptical of the traits like "favorite drink" because perceptions change with the times. I don't view the daiquiri as a particularly manly drink (visions of pink umbrellas) but they were Hemingway's drink of choice. Yes, that Hemingway. I learned this little tidbit when I looked up what a "mojito" was because I was tired of not knowing. Personally, I know the drink is "hip" right now, but drinking something that tastes of spearmint does not appeal to me. But while I don't know that it matters what my main character's preferred alcoholic beverage is (VERY good Irish whiskey, by the character has a small fortune and so can afford it), I do think that having some idea of where a character comes from is a good idea.

This occurred to me the other day as I was visiting the local "beach." I grew up along the Great Lakes (like, that could be anywhere, eh?) and I realized a long time ago that this colored my perceptions. For starters, the first time I saw the ocean I wasn't impressed. Water that stretches to the horizon? Been there, done that, pretty much the entire first two decades of my life. Likewise with this recent trip to the beach. To me, that term evokes sandy shores, warm waters (in the right season), and the occasional shell. Not, as it was here locally, rocks, beach glass, and very little actual sand. That, to me, is "shore." Not beach. At a beach I should be able to build sand castles and walk barefoot as long as the sand isn't too hot.

But not everyone thinks that way (obviously, or why else would the locals have called it a beach?) and I realized that, to a large extent, this is just a byproduct of my own experiences. Which got me thinking, what others things about my worldview are/were shaped by were, how, or even when I grew up? Those are the kind of things that need to go into a character study, and the kind of things that can personalize good characters.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Boston vs Chicago

No, this isn't a sports match-up. (And realistically, while I'm not a fan of either city's teams, does Chicago even have a franchise that could legitimately challenge any of the Boston area teams? At least currently?) Rather this is a musing on the prime requirement for real estate: location, location, location. Not that I'm looking to buy a house in either location at the moment. Instead I'm faced with that common cliche of writing: "write what you know." The problem is, I don't really know either city all that well.

I'm stuck with this problem as I try and decide where to set my current story. (Or more accurately, one of my current stories. I've got a few irons in the fire - speaking of cliches.) When the story began life way back when I was in high school, I set it in NYC. The NYC of the future, as the plot was a sci-fi one. I had never even been to NYC , in fact the only major cities I'd been to at that time were, in order, Cleveland, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. And I hadn't really lived in any of them.

Besides, as I was writing in the future, I figured i was only marginally bound by any current city's actuality. Hey, I said I was in high school, remember? A certain amount of naivete is par for the course. When, older and wiser, I came back to the narrative, I realized that it might help to have at least a passing familiarity with my chosen setting. "Write what you know" and all that. The problem was, I needed - or rather wanted - a major city, and the list of cities I had any first-hand knowledge of was... drum roll please... Cleveland, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. And I still hadn't really lived in any of them.

But a little later I visited Chicago, and over the years visited it several times. Enough times that I have walked it's streets, and while I may not know where everything is - far from it - I have a feel for the place. And armed with a good map and the resources of the internet, I can plot things out. Plus I have a really great book on the buildings along the river. Here was a city I could modernize and have my hero and heroine run around in with confidence.

Up to a point, that point being limited by not having actually lived in the city, or any of its immediate suburbs. My knowledge came from passing through and the odd afternoon spent there.

Now I live in Boston, which although it is a nice enough city I have to say I think I preferred Chicago. Be that as it may, I live here, and so have a much greater knowledge of some aspects of actually residing in the city. (Like the public transportation system only runs in to or out of town, it doesn't connect any of the surrounding areas. And how the way you get somewhere isn't always the way you get back, because none of the roads here are actually straight. There are no square blocks. Anywhere.) But I don't know the downtown area much at all.

Which seems strange, and says something about the nature of living in a place as opposed to visiting it, but doesn't help with my predicament. Moreover, Boston has kindly furnished me with a map of their vision of the city in about ten to fifteen years. Replete with the sort of downtown layout that can come in very handy.

There are other factors, of course, one of the most notable being that this isn't a short story we're talking about but a novel, and one with a number of scenes in it that have already been adapted for the Windy City. Changing all of that would be a major undertaking and at this juncture the end product's already been delayed far longer than I ever anticipated. Plus there are certain things about choosing a city that, once done, it's like a separate character. You just can't go in and casually switch it. Chicago's had some powerful mayors, whereas Boston's mostly dominated by state politics. In addition, Chicago still feels like more of a major city. That might have something to do with just the size of the downtown area, and Chicago's passion for architecture.

I suppose I should probably stick with the city I am still more familiar with, despite not living in it. The only solid argument for switching is that I now live in Boston, and can scout locations - not formally as this isn't a movie, but you know what I mean - for a lot less gas money. But I don't think that's enough.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shallow thoughts off the deep end

Now see, there's what I should have called this blog. It's both clever and a bit pretentious at the same time. The kind of title that goes "gee look at me, I can be wittily introspective and self-aware at the same time." Of course, it wouldn't tell you anything about the blog itself, and as descriptive titles go it could well be applied to the majority of blogs everywhere.

Face it, we're all just doing that same journaling exercise they made us do in English class. You know, the one where some of us just never shut it off and just kept writing. Kept pouring out all the inane high school blather about how no one understood us, or that girl (or boy - or maybe both depending on where you went to high school and who you were) didn't even notice us even though we completely GOT them and if they couldn't see that then by God what was wrong with setting a few fires to draw attention to something so obvious we didn't need to carve it into their car but what the heck the screwdriver was there and the shiny blue metal was just SO shiny...

Or was that just me?

My therapist says blogging is good for me, keeps me from wanting to hurt all the pretty things. All the pretty, filthy things...

Seriously, though, I kept a journal in high school. Didn't write in it all the time. Just every now and again. I found it recently, about ten years since the last entry.

The contents were frightening. (That's a line from somewhere, I think.) I threw it out, only because burning it would have lent it more importance than it was worth. Mostly I remember thinking: wow, was I a self-absorbed, self-righteous, pompous, arrogant, asshole. Sure glad I grew up. Then there are those moments when I think, I'm doing it all over again. Except for the parts about scratching the car, of course.

This is not going to be like that. This blog exists here, now, for the sole purpose of getting my writing jump-started. I'd like to add "every day" to that, but I think we'll take it one step at a time. It was either here or MySpace, and frankly, I get enough offers to be "friends" with someone on MySpace as it is - and I don't even have a page. I'm not looking for "company," I'm looking for a place to do the writing equivalent of warm-up exercises.

I am a writer. I have been paid for what I write. I have also been published. The two are not necessarily synonymous, as I'm sure some of you out there realize. And lately I've been looking for a way to keep track of some of those random thoughts I have, or the questions I have about what I'm working on that really are just the kind of arguments you have with yourself. Some people talk out loud when that happens. I do that, too, but I think better when I write it all down. Plus, writing it down is socially acceptable. Talking to yourself - or as I prefer to phrase it "thinking out loud" - is generally not.

There will be almost nothing of any actual personal reference or substance here. No family stuff. I have another space for that (no, you may not, so don't ask). I'm tempted not to allow comments, except sometimes I think some of the things I need to hash out might benefit from the occasional third party.

Lastly, about the title of the blog itself. It was going to be "Insert Something Clever Here" except, well, that IS already trying to be clever. And failing miserably, and not even terribly original. "Fleas of a 1000 Camels " (except NOW I see I forgot the "a" - wonder if I can fix that later?) isn't original either in that it wasn't my thought. Any rate - most of what's here isn't going to be worth stealing, but on the off chance I say something that you might think about using, uncredited, for yourself, there is a curse upon this blog. Plagarize from me, and the fleas of 1000 camels will infest your armpits.

(And Mark, if you're reading this, I'm sorry about stealing your curse. But even after all these years, that off-hand remark in Office Depot has stuck with me. It was a great line, in my opinion, and if I ever make money from it I'll try and give you appropriate credit.)

PS: If there are any typos in this, I'm blaming this interface. It seems I can type faster than Blogger can keep up with. Which, given the speed of my typing, is fairly frightening.