Thursday, May 28, 2009

Echoes of Thunder

In the midst of a thunderstorm here, one of those natural phenomena that never fail to impress me no matter how many times I see it. Sort of like Niagara Falls, which I had the good fortune to grow up close enough to, so that I've been to see it probably a dozen times in my life. (Which I was grateful for the last time I was there and able to remember what it looked like on the Canadian side before they commercialized the heck out of it. Casinos are evil, pernicious things. Just saying.) Thunderstorms are far less regular, and I can't simply hop in the car and go see one, but they do happen here reasonably often in the summer.

I've also been to Southern Florida, where the afternoon thunderstorm is part of daily life there when the weather turns right. You can watch them form out over the ocean or the Gulf, depending on which side you're on, and see them coming for miles. They churn and color the waves beneath them which adds to the beauty of them... unless you're on a boat out there, of course, when it just becomes scary.

I suspect, too, though I've never been there to witness one, that a thunderstorm out in the Great Plains might well be something similar. Out there in the summer you also have to worry that each storm might bring a tornado, which as impressive as they are is not something I wish to experience any more first hand than I already have - which has been at a distance. Out there, like on the ocean, you can see forever, and so I imagine the flash you see and the thunder you hear could pass you by entirely as you watched it from a distance.

Here at home, I don't really have an expansive view of the horizon, unless I head up to the lake, so I can't really watch the storms roll in. (Yes, I'm aware that's a metaphorical cliche, but as anyone who has ever watched a thunderstorm come in off the far horizon will tell you, that's an apt metaphor.) I watched it lightning yesterday while driving over the top of a ridge where I could see clear to the next one, and that in itself was impressive. They're always shocking - if you'll pardon the pun - and also beautiful. I'm well aware of how dangerous they are, but then again so are tigers. It doesn't make them less beautiful.

My point in all this is that I suspect how we view something like a thunderstorm, which occurs all over the world, often depends a great deal more on the locality we're in. For a sailor it's a sign to head to shore, whether along the coast of Florida or out on the Great Lakes. (My home lake of Erie is especially noted for the ferocity of it's storms.) For someone in Oklahoma, it might be an indicator that they need to watch the skies, turn on the radio or television, and wonder if this time, the tornado will choose their little corner of the world.

For someone like me, it's just something to watch in awe from the comfort and shelter of the front deck, as the lightning lights up the trees and the thunder echoes around the surrounding hills.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Singing at Flanders Field

Do Canadians get choked up over "O' Canada"? I ask this, because aside from watching the Olympics I don't often have the opportunity to watch people of other nationalities react to their own anthems. The Olympics doesn't quite count, either, because you understand it then when some athlete from some small country, against all odds (or sometimes even in favor with the odds, but still...) manages to ascend that central podium, hoist there gold, and watch and listen as the symbols of their country are displayed in international prominence. Sometimes it's the only time these countries get to shine.

The American anthem does it for me, lots of times. Not every time, mind you, and frankly Whitney Houston's did and still does make me cringe. It isn't a pop standard, and should not be "stylized" the way everyone since here has seemed to feel the need to do. It stood on it's own very well for over a century before Whitney, and I shudder to think her version has somehow become the epitome for the "Star Spangled Banner."

Yes, in some things I'm a purist.

But back to the central point, here, in that it's become a moving piece of music. I doubt that when, in the midst of battle, Francis Scott Key penned the words to his poem he had any expectation that it would go on to such prominence in the national psyche. (If he was anything like the other writers I know now, he was probably just hoping it would be good and not end up in the trash heap somewhere.) That it has is as much a testament to thee power of the words as the sentiment they embody, something that just seems to capture much of the American mind-set as no other piece has done.

(I know there has been a movement around for years, if not decades, to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" with "America the Beautiful"... and while yes, "Banner" is at least on the surface about war, and "Beautiful" is by default a more peaceful song... there ought to be more to a national anthem than just a moving description of the landscape. A country is more than its scenery, after all.)

It also matters the occasion for which an anthem is sung. I love baseball, but it is just a game. On the other hand, hearing it sung today, Memorial Day, by a group of kids in Flanders, Belgium - where they very much appreciate that sometimes you have to fight for things such as the ideals of democracy and your country, and that on two occasions we have done that fighting for them - then it struck chords that it doesn't when being sung by some local crooner to kick of the Mets vs the Yankees. And while at the start of a baseball game it does carry reminders of history and patriotism and national pride...

... there was more to it today, sung by school children at a cemetery erected to honor those Americans who fell on foreign soil defending higher ideals. And for a moment, I paused in what I was doing, and took a moment to reflect on and be grateful for the sacrifice of people like them.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Vampires of Lake Wobegon

No, Garrison Keiller is not venturing into the urban fantasy genre. While I think it would be hysterical if he did, I understand his particular brand of often laconic humor might not carry over well into the realm of vampires and werewolves and fairies. ... Or then again it might. What prompted this post and title though, was a skit on "A Prairie Home Companion" last weekend where in one of the skits he played the author of a series of vampire novels. His books were apparently the kind with much soul-searching and lots of emotion (and tree vampires dragging off young unsuspecting writers), the kind that had entranced the local librarian who often seems to suffer from delusions of grand romance.

It's a recurring skit, the librarian. (For those who don't listen.)

What got me thinking though was how we seem to have de-fanged many of our monsters. I know this has been remarked on elsewhere by others with far more letters and publications after their names than I have, but around about the time psychology started making a major comeback in the public perception, we began to seek reasons and explanations for our monsters. They all have back-stories now, some childhood trauma or longing for understanding that makes them tragic figures. They are almost never *just* monsters.

In some ways, of course, this makes them far more interesting. Having a back story gives the creator/audience something to explore, creates characters with nuance and subtlety, and in some ways allows us to relate to them. Which is not always a bad thing, if by relating we start to understand that there but for the grace of god (or fate, or circumstances, or whatever moves your particular heaven) go we. That a shove here, a push there in a different direction and many of us have the capacity to be monsters ourselves. As writers we're told to do this, that even if we don't put it down on the page, we ought to know our character's history so we can better understand their actions, and therefore write them more convincingly.

Understanding, though, is not the same as sympathy, or worse yet the idea that all monsters are sympathetic on some level. Because they aren't, and this is one of the pitfalls I have found in our romanticizing of our monsters. It tends to make us overlook the presence of true evil, of that monster without a backstory, the monster that just *is.*

I am a fan of modern psychology, and acknowledge that in many instances a large percentage of the criminal element is, in fact, "made" - that is, a product of environment and circumstances as much as any inborn tendency. But not all. Sometimes, the monsters just come into being as they are, no shaping, no environment, just something in them that makes them monsters.

Our figurative monsters - the vampires, the werewolves - have always been extensions of ourselves, the creative manifestation of our fears of our darker impulses. It concerns me that in attempting to relate to the manifestations, we are losing their other purpose: to remind us that evil is real, is lurking out there in the shadows.

And that if we aren't careful, it will get us.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Characters that Count

This is not going to be a post about math geniuses in fiction, though I admit I enjoy the program "Numbers." No, one of the other blogs I peruse posted what I was hoping was going to be an interesting discussion on who is your favorite character? Only instead of a decent blog entry they copped out, wrote essentially just the question, and then turned it over to comments. Which was a complete disappointment.

So I'm going to do it here.

Now I had to think about this some, and inject a few parameters. Because there are great characters out there. Characters I can do read about again and again and again, and no matter how many times I read their story, I find something new, and enjoy reading them. Books that are on my shelves to stay, no matter what else ends up in boxes. Some of those are the predictable ones, like the Hobbits Frodo and Sam and Bilbo, or Scrooge. And some are the old standbys of Holmes, Long John Silver, and the rest.

Most of the time we only get one or two stories to get to know these characters in. Even in the case of Holmes and Watson, the truth of the matter is they aren't much different story to story. Read "Hound of the Baskervilles" and you know Holmes, mostly. Though the story he "writes" himself was interesting.

There are modern characters, too, like Lestat (when he isn't being too whiny) or Bourne... though I've stopped reading Ludlum as I've gotten older. Even the young Mister Potter has a place on my shelf that will be revisited.

But, if I had to pick just one, I think I'd have to go with Long John Silver. His was the story that I always had the sense there was more too. Yes, Harry Potter will grow up and doubtless have future adventures, and Holmes' coldly calculating manner probably came from somewhere... but those aren't really relevant to their stories. Silver's background is, as it where he goes afterwards. Why he took so fondly to Jim Hawkins, for example.

S0meone penned such a book, and while it was a good read it took liberties with the original source that made it something different. It wasn't *quite* Silver, in other words. But it gave the character more dimensions that it had, and left me wondering about where the original came from, in ways I almost never think about any of the others I've mentioned here.

Though, while I wouldn't mind sharing a dram with him, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to sail with him.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Moment of Clarity

Every now and again I have one of these. They aren't always about writing, but sometimes they are. They're those moments when everything just comes together, and for whatever reason the moment takes on this feeling that's outside itself. Something that, however briefly, transcends the circumstances of where it happens for that spark of inspiration. They can occur about any old thing, and sometimes as a writer I get lucky and they happen about something I'm working on.

I remember once in college I was working on what would go on to be my second serious WIP and all at once, I saw how to make it work, start to finish. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way, but years later as the story has resurrected itself, much of what appeared in my head in that one moment is still there. More importantly, it's still found it's way into the story, and helped to keep the narrative coherent.

Other times I've had those moments about how to finish a scene, or a short story, or something else that had been giving me fits when I tried to approach it head-on. Which is one of the ways in which these moments work, in that they are almost always indirectly. I'm not thinking about anything in particular, and usually not even the thing about which the moment concerns. It just pops into my head, and then it's there.

Unlike some of the other ideas that have popped into my head (I never did recover that idea that occurred to me at the stop light months ago) these moments of clarity tend to stick with me, even if I don't get the chance to write them down. Say if I'm in the parking lot at Walmart and putting groceries in the trunk, for example. Even if they aren't about writing but are about something else in my life.

The added bonus of those moments is that, for a while after, everything seems better. Call it temporary euphoria, but suddenly the view from even so mundane a location as the Walmart parking lot takes on grand overtones. There's a feel to things, where the coming and going of the people, or the expanse of green hills on the horizon, or even the cars on the road just sort of resonate with deeper meaning. Pretentious? Perhaps. But it's there, and it's inspiring.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Same Old Story

They say all the good stories have already been told. (I'm not sure who "they" are, precisely, though I envision hoary old men, much like my 10th grade English teacher. Who I revered, by the way, much like my 11th grade teacher only with a certain amount of fear. Mind you, that's a different "they" than I envision for grammar... which is embodied by my 9th grade teacher and a coworker I once knew. They could have been sisters, only my coworker was also far less scary. Come to think of it, it seems like every other English teacher I ever had exuded that scary vibe. Hmmm... oh well, that's another post entirely.)

As any writer/reader knows, to some extent "they" are right. All stories boil down to a few simple plot lines. (Add a little salt and some celery and you have soup.) Usually these are defined as the "man vs" stories, though that's probably passe and not in keeping with gender-neutral stories. Though "person vs" doesn't quite fit. Not to mention it's not always people anyway. "Watership Down" was about rabbits, though as with any animal as protagonist book they were at once stand-ins for people and a way to look at ourselves without appearing to scrutinize ourselves too much.

Or simply a way to approach otherwise unapproachable subjects. I was in high school before I read "Dracula" but back in middle school there was "Bunnicula." The average 6th grader isn't tackling wooden stakes and sexual undertones, but vampire rabbits - and well-meaning but slightly insane cats trying to pound a t-bone through the bunny's heart - those are doable. And still funny three decades later.

Which brings me around to my point, despite the meanderings. All the stories have been told, of course, but it's the way in which they are told that matters. "Romeo and Juliet" is essentially "boy meets girl," and "West Side Story" is essentially "Romeo and Juliet" set to music. Catchy music, no less. Sometimes even telling the same story can be important if you change who is telling it. I was listening to a story on NPR the other day, and a reviewer was commenting how he has seen a specific opera probably a dozen or so times. And yet the last time he went to see it, something about the performers at that time made it more poignant, more involving.

"A Christmas Carol" has been told hundreds of times, but I still prefer to hear Captain Picard do it. (My apologies to Patrick Stewart for typecasting him. He was also excellent as Professor X. ... No, seriously, he's a good actor.)

So just because it's been done before, doesn't mean it can't be done again. Or done better.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I was listening to the radio today, and happened to have it on at the exact moment the shuttle took off. NPR covered it live, I suspect mainly because it occurred at the same time as their hourly news update. I'm a space geek from way back - well, not WAY back given my relative youth, so that by the time I was watching the original Star Trek it was in reruns, not original run. (Though I have to say I think the show holds up pretty well despite its age.)

It occurred to me that the simple act of counting backwards, from ten to one, has been forever altered for all the generations that came during and after the great space race. Prior to that, I don't think it had any significance. The only other counting I can think of that has some sort of cultural significance is the ten paces for dueling, which of course was a count up. And I'm not sure if it was really that prevalent, or if my view on history is simply skewed by all those hours spent watch Bugs Bunny.

(Hey, Bugs taught me opera and to this day, whenever I hear The Barber of Seville by Rossini, the lyrics I inevitably hear in my head go: "Let me cut your mop, let me shave your top, d-a-intilly." That Wagner has been similarly introduced and influenced should go without saying.)

But since the 1950's or so, and certainly since the 1960's when the whole world tuned in, that steady, backwards count has come to symbolize one thing above all others - namely a rocket launch. The phrase "lift-off" seems to naturally follow the number one, and the sequence feels incomplete without it. It creates a sense of anticipation wholly out of proportion with the simple numbers involved, and can invoke - in me at least - both a sense of wonder, exploration, and vicarious nostalgia.

I didn't live through the first space race, and the last trip to the moon finished before I was born. In theory we are heading for a new era in space exploration, as we head to Mars. I look forward to those new days when space launches are covered by the news not just when they happen at the top of the hour; when we wait and listen with anticipation as those ten simple numbers roll back in stately fashion to that moment when rockets roar and the ground shakes, and we reach for the stars again.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It's in the Details

It's an ongoing thing here in my house that when we watch a program, we inevitably end up picking apart the details on things where the writers or whomever should have gotten it right - and yet didn't. It's not always the obvious things, either, like the guy in blue jeans in that scene from "Gladiator." (Which, yes, I've seen. Unlike the shoe in Star Wars or the car in LOTR that everyone claims is there yet I've not seen actual proof of.) No, it's often the kind of detail that someone in research should have caught, and is either omitted - or added - for dramatic effect, or just glossed over because the editors or producers or someone figured no one would ever notice.

Yet we do.

Take "Mission Impossible III" for example. Aside from all my other problems with the movie - and they were numerous, starting with the idiots who made "MI:II" and decided the first movie was "too cerebral" (I get irked when they dumb things down, but that's another post entirely) - my biggest one was that they came all the way to Shanghai, and got it wrong. They got it completely wrong, actually, not just from the moment he jumps out of the building and somehow lands on the other side of the city, which is like jumping out of the Chrysler building and landing in Queens. No, they botched up the ending, which takes place not in Shanghai at all- at least according to what I saw on the screen.

Now, I lived there, so I catch this, and it's likely I was one of only a handful who did, but that's not the point. I can forgive shows like "Smallville" which send their characters to Shanghai's "mountain" because I doubt it was a detail they were concerned with. Even though a cursory check of the Wiki gods would have probably told them that Shanghai sits in a river delta and is flatter than Nebraska. But hey, it's on the CW. It doesn't star Tom Cruise. It didn't pony up the time and money for location shots.

If you're going to take the time to scout the location, you need to get it right.

Likewise, in the opening bit in "The Descent," when they're all in the mountains of Appalachia. The scenery is nice and ominous, and there's the bit of the shock scene... and then the wolf howls. Um, excuse me? But there are no wolves in Appalachia. It's the kind of thing a ten-minute fact check, heck, a ten second fact check (go on, Google "wolf habitat" and see how long it takes you. You might have to add the United States to the search terms, but it shouldn't take very long.)

It's things like this that can take away from the enjoyment of a film or television show. They may not ruin it completely, but they provide moments of exasperation that suck you out of the make-believe world they're trying to sell you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Difference in Genres

It's odd how the different genes in any given artistic media form there own little communities, each with their own set of protocols. This was sparked the other day when I was listening to a program on the radio and they were interviewing a jazz writer. He's a musician as well, but he makes his primary living writing about and reviewing other jazz musicians. The part about the genre culture came into when he was talking about how, when he goes to review musicians or write about festivals or the like, he's often invited to play with the musicians. (Technically I suppose it would be "jam with" but no matter.)

This was then contrasted to when someone would write a review of a classical musician or performance, where it is very unlikely the writer would be invited to sit down and perform alongside the musicians, even if they play. (Of course, if you're a classical musician, likely you're making a better living playing than you would be writing about playing.)

There are similar things in the fiction writing community, I imagine. From what I've seen there's often an overall sense of camaraderie, with everyone defined as "writers." The only significant division I've noticed at the top level is between those who write "popular" fiction as opposed to those who write "literary" fiction. (Also often determined by those who came to the craft on their own, and those who pursued a MFA or one of those creative writing degrees.)

I suspect, however, that there are probably ins and outs among the various genre communities, things that say a gathering of horror writers might find normal (such as comparing research tidbits - the gory kind - over dinner) whereas it might be very different with a group of romance writers. ... Actually, that later might be a bit more interesting, but then again that's likely just my twisted imagination.