Saturday, February 28, 2009

Classical Strings (part 1)

I was trying to round out a character I have in mind for a future project, and making the usual decisions about what sort of details to include. I'm not talking about height or hair color or those sort of physical descriptors, but the little scene/character builders that often only get a line or two mention in a story.

I'm not out to do this in in great detail, mind you. I've seen (and have, somewhere on my computer) those lists where you're supposed to come up with everything about your character. What kind of music they like, what books they read, the name of their first kiss, pet, and/or houseplant, that sort of stuff. I don't buy into those too much because I think some of it is just a distraction, and worse, if you write a serial character, you take away some of the process of discovery. If I have a character who's going to be around for several books, I expect to learn about him or her along the way. Otherwise what's the point?

Two examples come to mind. The first is a classic, and it's Sherlock Holmes and his violin. Everyone who's ever read a Sherlock Holmes story or two knows about the violin. (And probably the cocaine addiction, but that's another story.) To the best of my knowledge, and while I have read them all it has been some time so I may well be wrong, but as near as I remember, not once did that particular skill ever help Holmes solve a mystery. Yet so iconic is it that it even made it into that "Young Sherlock Holmes" movie, albeit as a brief, almost throw-away moment in the story.

The second is far more contemporary. I won't name the show, but it was on in the 1980's and the main character had a cabin up somewhere in Canada or the Rockies or something. That bit has of course almost become a cliche for the lone hero motif, but what wasn't was the occasional shot of him on his front deck, playing the cello. I have no idea who thought of that, or whether the actor could even play, but it was a neat moment and it spoke volumes about the character.

In both cases the choice of instrument was probably dictated as much by the needs of the story and the medium as it was of the times. Other than the violin, there were few other instruments you could conceive of the Great Detective playing, and few others that would fit in the apartment at 22B Baker Street (the grand piano was definitely out, though I could see Holmes as a pianist). As for the cellist, I suspect someone decided it made for some good cinematography, and was something the lead could play while looking good. The harmonica can make you look kind of silly, for example, even when you're really good at it.

I thought of something similar to do with my character, and my reasons for choosing the instrument I did had as much to do with the character as they did with the particular scene I have in my head, and how that's going to play out.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lost Thoughts

Twice now I've had these really great ideas for what I was going to write here. Both happened last week, and while one of them has since occurred to me again I can't remember exactly what it was I was going to say about the whole topic.

The other one was just completely lost. Other than the vague notion that it was a really great idea and would have made an excellent post. One of those ideas.

Now, I know, as a writer I'm supposed to keep something on hand so I can write my ideas down anywhere they strike. And I have an idea book that's kept me company for years for those odd random thoughts (first one is from a Barnes & Nobles in Illinois and how the parking lot smelled like cows). Unfortunately, it can't always be on my person. And sometimes by the time I have the chance to write down the idea to keep it, it's gone.

I was able to write down a solution to a short story that's been bugging me for months, because I had that thought in the house, might have even been a dream but was more likely that space between dreaming and waking... though ideas have come to me in my sleep. And in the shower. And on the road. Which is where that second lost idea occurred to me. Right there at a traffic light. With no time and no opportunity to write it down.

And try as I might, I haven't been able to get it back. Sometimes I can. Sometimes I can recreate the thought processes, chase down the errant strands, and get back to where I was. And sometimes, it's just gone. That's when it gets really frustrating. Granted these ideas were just for a blog and not a story or a novel, so it's not a huge loss, but who knows? It might have germinated into something else.

At the very least, it would have given me something to write down last week and make this blog look like I'm actually trying to keep it rather than slowly abandoning it to its fate.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Passing of an Era

My local channels have started going digital. We're covered because we're on a satellite and the company is now providing them for us (though not the DVR to replace the VCR that has become completely useless except for watching those few remaining videos we have on tape). However, it was still a little odd to go and push the buttons for the channel and then ... have nothing.

Some of it is just the passing of an era. Of course there is the whole "converter box" for the antennas, but that's just the last dying gasp of the rabbit ears. I expect that for the majority of hold-outs for free tv that it's only a matter of time before they break down and pay for cable or satellite. Or just go without tv altogether.

Okay, so that last one isn't very likely.

There is also a part of this that is simply a transition from one tech to another. I don't remember 8-track (thankfully) and vinyl albums were already out of date too, but I was around for cassettes to CD, from VHS to DVD. Those transitions went gradually. My relatives had CD's and a CD player long before they were mainstream household items. Even so you could see the change coming. And you had time to get used to it, make the transition.

None of those were government mandated, of course, which also makes a difference. If this were allowed to progress at its own rate I suspect it would be years more before it truly happened. I'm not going to rant about government interference (listening to some yahoo on Fox decry the stimulus bill as something akin to a Soviet invasion cured me of ever turning this political) because I understand the reasons for it. Still, it has a forced and somewhat artificial quality to it that precludes the chance to ease into it.

Nope, you just scroll up the analog dial and there's .... nothing. Here one day, gone the next.

Though at least not all the networks have gone at once. I needed to tape "Lost" tonight.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Out and About

I know chores are usually things to complain about, but they have their upsides. One of those is not burning the papers with a lighter that barely stays on which leads to burnt fingers as you try to get the papers to catch... but the sunrises and clear blue skies are. This morning was particularly beautiful because in addition to the sunrise there was the crescent moon hanging over the trees. If it hadn't been so cold I might have stood outside longer to appreciate it.

As it is, some days the chores are the only time I manage to get outside. When the weather warms up I can relocated my writing space to the front deck, but right now it's a little cold for that. Hard to type with frozen fingers.

And while my current writing space has a window, it's not a big room, and I have to watch the light or else I can end up down for the day with a migraine. Hard to type when your head is about to explode, too.

So sometimes the only chance I have to get out and see the sky or breathe in the fresh air is when I'm getting done what needs to be done outside. After that it's back in to the desk. I think my ideal space would have some sort of big windows with some sort of anti-glare coating on them so I could see out without having to worry about it triggering headaches. (I think when the snow melts it will make a big difference, too. Not much glare off of grass.)

Though maybe that would be worse. Hard to type when the beautiful outdoors is calling to you. Unless you can type outdoors.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Show me Yours

One of the perils of being friends with other writers is that inevitable moment when you exchange creative works. Sometimes this comes early on, sometimes later, but it does inevitably happen. This poses one of two problems - either the other person is really good, in which case you start to feel inadequate, or they're really bad, in which case you have to start making excuses or forgo the friendship. (Or possibly more, if they're in the "more than friends" category.)

Come to think of it, it's kind of like sex, only no one has to actually get naked. I could make the metaphorical comparison that as a writer when you show someone your works you are baring your creative soul, but your creative soul doesn't have unsightly tan lines or surgery scars or those extra fifteen pounds that just won't go away. The worst your creative soul has to bare is the occasional dangling participle or end-of-sentence preposition.

Just because you cringe while reading the work doesn't necessarily mean the other person is a bad writer, of course. Sometimes it's simply a lack of craft. They've got a good story lurking in there, it just has to be found. Then you have to gently guide them to it without hurting their feelings. (As a word of caution, always make sure they intended to write humor before telling them how funny it was. Or else be prepared to stave off an hours-long diatribe about how it was meant to be filled with pathos and a dissertation on all the suffering of the world as expressed by the fluffy kitty whom you compared unfavorably to Gene Shalit's hair because you thought it was a stroke of comic genius.)

Sometimes, though, it's just bad. It's got so much tell that if you played poker with it you'd never have to work again. There are dialog tags that somehow wandered in from some other playground game and are now hopelessly lost trying to play crack the whip. Then there's the redundant purple prose that makes "It was a dark and stormy night" look like Hemingway. Then you have a couple of choices - you can be honest and tell them it sucks, whereupon the relationship hits that phase known as "sleeping on the couch." You can pretend it doesn't, but of course that leads to other trouble down the road when they keep sending you stuff. Or you can try and help them.

Sometimes though they're just beyond help and should be gently encouraged to take up other hobbies. Like crocheting. Cause everyone likes sweaters, don't they?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Odd Detail

Often times it's the little things that make a scene. Some writers manage to take fantastic events and ground them in the here and now with the introduction of an almost casual detail that uses some item familiar to the reader. (Stumbling over a case of a familiar beer while fleeing zombified co-eds or something, for example. Which strikes me as a good idea for a story somewhere laden with irony.) There is the risk when using actual products of making a particular work dated later on, of course, such as the Pan-Am flight in 2001.

At least I think it was 2001. If this blog had actual readers I'd be concerned about expecting a backlash of corrective emails, but I figure by the time I actually have readers this will be buried so far back that no one will notice.

Which, yes, means I'm essentially talking to myself here. In theory it helps the creative process. In practice I suspect I'm just nuts.

However, now that I've wandered far afield, little details can also establish not only a certain ambiance but also contribute toward characterization. A farm with a dog is not unusual, after all, but a farm where the farm dog is a Pekinese is rather unusual. Now it might just be that the little dog is the family pet, one of many dogs including some that are more traditional farm dogs. Or maybe the people who own the farm are Chinese. Or perhaps the tiny dog is on the farm for a specific reason, such as to chase rats down tunnels (which is what dachsunds were bred for, I think - again there would be corrective backlash if I had readers. I would look this up and verify it if it was important or going into a story or something, but it's really rather more than I want to do at the moment).

It's these little things that can be just as important as the big things, and one reason why, I think, they say the devil is in the details.

Which is also a good idea for a story....

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Living Vicariously

One of the things I enjoy about writing for a living - even the meager living I make - is the opportunity to branch out and learn about things I'd probably never do otherwise. This is also known as research. However, it doesn't all have to be boring and dull, and it can lead to some interesting things.

For example, I don't fly fish. I'd like to, and will probably learn eventually because it looks like a lot of fun, but right now I don't. For starters there haven't been a lot of places to do that where I've been living the past decade or so of my life. Also there is the matter of getting my father to teach me, which means getting him the time off to do so. Now that I think about it this might be something to accomplish this year....

However, even though I don't I have a character that is the outdoors type. It's not the central theme of the book, or even a main sub-plot (hence no Robert Redford adaptation in it's future) but I think being able to integrate some details into the story makes it more real. Not to mention broadens my horizons about the things I know. I learned a great deal about blacksmithing for an article I had to write that might also someday find it's way into a work of fiction.

Those are things I could probably find the opportunity to do myself, other things are probably relegated to books for the foreseeable future. Such as sailing a boat on the ocean - not the HMS Victory type but a smaller, more modern sloop or something. Or wading through the jungle in sandals because anything else gets your feet to wet (learned that in National Geographic, of all places). Or riding a camel in the Arabian desert....

All of which gets filed away for potential future use, and in the meantime takes my imagination to places it otherwise might not go.