Monday, May 30, 2011

Getting the Setting Right

By Michelle Gwynn Jones

Regardless of the genre of a story, all writers must decide on a setting where it will unfold. Picking a setting is too important to leave to a random dart tossed at a map. In order to be believable, the setting must make sense for the characters and for the story itself. The writer must consider several things in order to choose the setting.

Physical Location: Where on the globe, or in the universe, the story will take place influences who you can write about. If you want your main character to be the Chief of Surgery, on the Board of Directors for the symphony and drive a vintage Jaguar then you need to place your story in a city, not some remote section of the rain forest in South America.

Timing: Setting also refers to the time frame of a story. Although you may write a tale of little green people coming to earth in 400 BC and interacting with the natives, if you want your reader to believe that they were welcomed with open arms and lived happily side by side, the story might be better set after the industrial revolution.

Climate: Often as writers we use weather to indicate the passage of time, “She woke to the sound of rain on the tin roof.” Then later we will say, “The sun warmed her back as she worked in the garden.” But if the climate itself is a necessary element it needs to make sense. If the story is about main characters recovering from the loss of their home due to a hurricane, the story should take place on the coast as opposed to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As a writer picking the right location for my series of Rachel Shorte Mysteries was a difficult decision. At first I thought a large city would be the best choice, someplace familiar to me. I love New York, grew up there, but it seemed too big for my character. Paris, which to me is New York in French, would be fun but my use of the language can only be described as abuse. Then I thought Miami, lively and colorful. I could drive down for research and Mojitos, but being a tourist I didn’t think I could capture the true feel of its energy. Other cities came to mind, I rejected each for one reason or another.

Finally, I decided on the fictional town of New Grace, a suburb of Columbia, South Carolina. Although it is a combination of a few real towns that surround that city, it has its own attributes. I declared it “The Rhododendron Capital of the World.” Of course, first I made sure no other place held that honor. The main roads through town are all named after trees, such as Oak Boulevard and Maple Street. It has the added benefit of being right outside the state capital so my character can take advantage of The Arts by going to museums and the ballet. I like the freedom that creating the environment gives me. In fact, I like New Grace so much that I have chosen to use it as the locations for almost everything I write, whether or not it is a Rachel Shorte Mystery.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

“Bing, I’m a Beast!” and Other Lessons I’ve Learned from my Eighth-Graders

By Amanda Simays

It’s the end of the school year, the time when middle schoolers have to reflect on what they’ve learned, and it always means a lot when my students tell me that I’ve helped them with their writing. It occurred to me that it’s been a two-way street—my kids have also taught me a lot about writing too.

From Ethan (Names have been changed): Get into it

Some of my favorite moments at school have been working with Ethan, because he gets into his writing. Whenever he finishes a paragraph or writes a line he’s particularly proud of, he’ll shout, “Bing, I’m a beast!” and then we’ll high-five and fist-bump.

I love watching the way he can ride on the high of what he’s already written to help himself write some more. It makes me want to apply that to my own efforts. I don’t literally punch the air and yell, “Bing, I’m a beast!”, but there’s something to be said for privately celebrating that moment when you finally get the word you’ve been looking for, or you mentally land on the missing piece in the plot puzzle.

From Crystal: Persevere

Crystal has amazed me with her ability to persevere with her writing. It’s happened often that the bell will ring for her to switch from English to Art, and she’ll choose to give up the fun elective class to stay in the library because she’s on a roll. She’ll sometimes continue pecking away at her essay on the computer for a two-hour stretch. A couple months ago, we collaborated on a contest together, and she uncomplainingly came in every day during recess to write with me.

I think about her a lot on nights when I feel too tired or lazy to write. If a fourteen-year-old can give up recess and her elective class to write school assignments, I should be able to find the motivation to sacrifice my own time for writing too.

Keisha: Share your work

Keisha was bored by her latest five-paragraph theme prompt: “If you could have any wish granted, what would it be and why?” What she really needed was a change in perspective, so I tried to get across to her that a wish could be anything—a job, a vacation, a superpower…

“I could be invisible!” she said suddenly, and then we started laughing over the awesome things you could do if you were invisible—spy on people and play all sorts of practical jokes. Keisha’s pencil started flying across the paper. She was so excited about her opening paragraph that she dragged me around the school so she could show her essay to her seventh grade English teacher…her sixth grade English teacher…her band teacher…the hall monitor…

Writing is a solitary activity by nature, but helping Keisha with her “invisible” essay made me think about why a writers’ group is so useful…It both gives you that fresh, external perspective that illuminates aspects of what’s right in front of you, and it satisfies one of the most basic reasons why we write in the first place…to have readers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Give Us Dirty Laundry and a Headline

By Kimberly Johnson

Yeah. It feels good, in a seedy-Boogie-Nights (the movie) kinda way. Dirty never felt better.

That’s right. I flip through the pages of The Enquirer and Star magazine when I am in the checkout line at Piggly Wiggly. Where do you think I get my news about Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan?

I blame my fascination on the nameless editor’s well-scripted headlines. British-based The Sun is king of the trashy tales. Check out this headline: “Lusty Louise lured boy 15, for sex.” Here in the States, The Enquirer is prince of all rags with titillating titles like “Oprah Hits 246 pounds” and “Winona ‘Sticky Fingers’ Ryder at it again” (2010). My favorite is the duke of the dirty dish, The Globe, with headlines such as “Hillary’s Claw Marks” (1999) and “Nastiest Divorces of 2010.”

Let’s face it, tabloid articles are a long way from being credible outlets of information. I thought about it…Is there a book or something to teach you how to write like this? Because, somebody has to be writing this stuff and getting paid for it.

The answer is yes. The book: Tabloid Prodigy: Dishing the Dirt, Getting the Gossip and Selling My Soul in the Cutthroat World of Hollywood Reporting. The author: Marlise Kast. While surfing the Web, I found a 2007 National Public Radio’s podcast in which Kast details trade secrets and questions her moral compass. She recounted how she applied for a writing job at the Globe magazine as an unemployed college graduate. Despite no journalism credentials, Kast emerged as a quick study and learned the cunning craft of rag writing.

Here’s an excerpt from an encounter with Madeline, the editor. In this scene, Madeline gives the novice writer some advice.

“ …I like your enthusiasm. But you've got to think headlines. Headlines, Marlise! Like here, for example.

She pointed toward my idea of an interview with Anthony Hopkins about his upcoming role in The Edge.

“Obviously Hopkins is not going to give us an interview, nor would we want one. Find out something else that is going on around him. I think you're headed in the right direction."

"Marlise," she said, shaking her head. "We are a tabloid magazine. We want scandal."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Family Cauldron

By Laura Puccia Valtorta

This afternoon I returned to South Carolina from my father’s memorial
service in Watertown, New York. There was a burial of ashes followed by
an afternoon drop-in at the local Italian-American Civic Association.
Both the burial and the memorial gathering afterwards were meaningful

I hadn’t seen some of those relatives in 20 years. My fourth-grade
teacher showed up, and about 15 of my dad’s colorful co-workers. Family
members were exchanging genealogical research. I discovered that one
second cousin had made a trip to Reggio Calabria at the invitation of
common relatives there I never knew existed. They treated her royally.

I could write two books on my first cousin, David, who recently sold a
profitable produce business and lives in our grandparents’ old house.
The details of his life are like a soap opera and very entertaining –
to me.

The question is - should this family stuff be written down? Almost every
fiction writer begins by telling the story of his or her family. I did
it in Family Meal. D.H. Lawrence did it with his first book, Sons and
. Pat Conroy seems to do nothing but write about his domineering
father and mentally ill mother. At some point the reader baulks. Enough
already’! Everyone THINKS he or she has an interesting family. Not many
people do.

People who write memoir have a different task. They seek meaning in the
timeliness or the universality of their experiences. Memoir writers
don’t pretend to take the theme any farther than that.

The problem arises when a fiction writer tries to turn her living
relatives into metaphors. The temptation is great because the
descriptions are so real and easy to come by. The character is large
and loud and standing right there! The author can question the
character. This is too easy.

Maturity in writing comes when we can create characters that are
entirely fictional – not based on a relative or neighbor. These
characters, such as Carmen in my novel about the future, possess a
freedom that yanks them from the quotidian and places them in a
fabulous world full of meaning. Greater meaning than we see at the
office everyday. When we can write this we become more like the great
Haruki Murakami - fiction artists.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Man and His Passion

By Ginny Padgett

Recently HBO aired a remake of Mildred Pierce as a mini-series, starring Kate Winslet. Many of you will recall the 1945 Joan Crawford version. During the credits I noticed the movie was based on a novel. Since I had mistakenly thought this script came from an original screenplay, I was curious about the author of the original work. Quick research yielded more surprises.

James M. Cain, the author of Mildred Pierce, (the first ever block-buster novel) wrote several other novels that were made into big movies: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Serenade. In addition, I found a collection of his short stories entitled The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction, which I checked out from the library.

His introduction to this book of short stories was more interesting to me than his fiction. His father was president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The younger Cain graduated from that college at seventeen, after which he spent the next four years drifting from one job to another, including teaching grammar at his alma mater. One day in 1914, “out of the blue…he heard his own voice say: ‘You’re going to be a writer.’”

He was not successful at first, but he was committed and kept writing. He enlisted in WW I, came home and spent three years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and began to work on his first novel. After three drafts, he threw them all away. While he was writing a column for the “Metropolitan” section of the Sunday World, his short works were published in the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the American Mercury, the Bookman, and the Saturday Evening Post. When the World folded, Cain went to the New Yorker magazine where he was very unhappy.

Upon the advice of his agent, he accepted a job as a screenwriter at Paramount Studios and moved to California. He was let go after six months: another failure. However, he decided to stay on the west coast and try to make it as a free-lance writer.

He found his voice and his characters in California, and he enjoyed his highest success as a novelist during the 1930s and ‘40s. Eventually, his work fell out of favor with the public and critics. He moved back to Maryland in 1953 and wrote twelve more novels – but only five were published before his death in 1977.

James M. Cain is my new hero because he never stopped writing, even when it became unprofitable. He felt that “those who can write must write.” I’ve adopted this as my personal motto. In addition, his experiences speak volumes to me about determination and passion.

I leave you with his quote about the practice of writing, recorded during the time he was working on his memoirs just before he died. “It excites me and possesses me. I have no sense of it possessing me any less today than it did fifty years ago.”