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Archive for January, 2006

Defining History and Other Acts of Futility

January 31st, 2006 10 comments

by David Niall Wilson

(My apology for being a day early, but there is no one slated for the 31st, and Josh Boone sent his apology – they are in final edits of the script for his movie Parallel, and he was unable to get here with an essay yesterday. He’ll be back soon with some real insights into the film making process, but in the mean time you’ll have to be satisfied with me …)

My current project, which started out as a biography, has gotten me thinking about history again. The recent hoopla over a million little half-truths and made up facts pushed me deeper into the same thoughts. Any of you who have known me for a long time will remember my going off on this subject a time or two. I won’t call it a pet peeve, because that phrase is a pet peeve of mine…but what is history, really?

I don’t remember how old I was when it first occurred to me that a thing being written in a history book did not make it so; that the news didn’t necessarily happen just as it was reported, and that baseball radio announcers might not even be calling games the way they actually saw them. That’s an eye-opening factoid for a young man, let me tell you, and formative in ways that other life-lessons can never be.

Maybe it was the year in high school I accidentally signed up for both Ancient History and Western Civilization. Ancient History was the college preparatory class, and Western Civilization, as it turned out, was for those with less aptitude and concentration to spare. They covered the same period in history, and they covered them differently. One class taught that Babylon was the first great civilization, while the other talked about ancient Sumer, the Zoroastrians, and drilled down into the deeper facts. Fool that I was, I pointed this out to the Western Civilization teacher, thinking that maybe he was just ill-educated, and didn’t know about ancient Sumer. Maybe he really thought the Babylonians were first, and it was my duty to set him straight.

I was removed from the class and enrolled in “Individual Research in Social Studies,” where I had to write a fifty page research paper, and history continued down its two separate roads without a hitch in its giddy-up over my concerns. In any case, that was the start of it. I don’t think I gave it much more thought back then because I had a week to catch up on researching my paper “The Opium Trade Between China and Great Britain in the 1840s,” and I didn’t have much time on my hands.

It hit me again standing in a news stand one day and reading headlines about what appeared to be the same events, but with entirely skewed “facts”. I started wondering which attitude was written into the history books, and where one could find a true accounting of anything if everything ever recorded was subject to bias. The annals of history crumbled in my mind, and I began to think more for myself. It was a good thing, I’m convinced, but one that had to be kept in check and watched constantly. If you worry over it too much you start to think that if enough people say it long enough the textbooks will report the second gunman on the grassy knoll as fact, and that H. G. Wells was the first reporter with a bird’s eye view of the Martian invasion. It’s funny, and it’s not, because repeated over and over enough times, words become history.

Words that are not repeated enough times slip through the cracks, as well, leaving people with the impression that some things never happened, when they did. It’s an impossible conundrum. You don’t know who or what to trust, so you become a historian, of sorts, in your own right, hoping to patch together a sequence of historical events that is comfortable to you, and that you can live with. It’s best if you can find a good, solid support group of like-minded pseudo-historians to back up your theories.

How does this apply to writing? In the case of the biography I’m writing, which is the story of a psychedelic band from the 1960s, it’s crucial. Running through the stories and memories of the band members, I find threads of things they all remember, and believe. I find stories only one of them remembers, or that some fan told them about, but that none of them remember. Dates are jumbled, names and places run together, then apart, and my determination, after long thought, is that it doesn’t matter. If I capture the spirit of the days when the band was working its way to fame, then I’ve done my job. If the events, dates, relationships, and hair-colors don’t match up to exact history, what difference does it make? If the four guys involved don’t’ remember the details, who does? Do they even exist, at this point in time? I’m not sure. I am sure that there is an amazing story waiting to be told, and that if I get mired in the detailed history of it, it will bog down and never get written, but if I go with the flow and apply myself to getting “in character,” I can produce something that will give the reader the “feel” of that time, and that band. The experience is what is important, and what remains of those now are the strongest parts – the parts that time couldn’t kill. Those are what matter most. What happened in the 60s – for all intents and purposes – appears to have stayed there in large degree, but we can visit it, recreate it, and find the magic that gave four college boys with dreams, an RCA recording contract and a chance to stand on stage with Iron Butterfly and Dick Clark. And we can experience what it was like to have that, and just walk away.

Years from now readers may study this book, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Woodstock,” and spread it as gospel. It may become a definitive history of the band, or it may sink into oblivion as so many other books have done, unnoticed. If any of you run across such a reader, and they start babbling to you about the exact events of a night in 1967, or a concert in 1969, just smile and nod, and say, “Yeah, that Dave Wilson sure knew his stuff.” History is full of little secrets like that.

DNW

Writing in First Person

January 4th, 2006 6 comments

David Niall Wilson

Terry asked about writing in First Person, and I thought I’d tackle this question, since we have this open day for answers. I’ve written at least one novel and a small mountain of stories in first person, some that worked, others that didn’t.

The most important thing about first person narrative is that the prose has to have the right voice. First person immediately puts you on the show, don’t tell side of the fence if not handled well, and can lead to what reads more like a story about some things that would have made a good story. First person is very limiting. To answer Terry’s question in utter truthfulness, there is no way to handle things outside the character’s perspective. If you can’t tell the entire tale from what that character could know, see, or at least intuit, then you should not be telling the tale in first person.

This is a very personal style. There are editors who have seen it handled badly so many times they won’t even read a story written in first person. They are missing out on a lot of wonderful prose, I’m afraid, but I understand their pain. Stephen King handles first person POV better than almost any author I’ve encountered. He has a natural storytelling voice that puts the reader into the action and shows every angle. He shows no angles that the POV character is not aware of. Is this more difficult? Of course it is, and that’s why it’s not the recommended POV, particularly for beginning writers. It’s like a form of poetry with strict meter and rhythms. You can’t deviate just to make something fit; you have to find a way to make the story work from the POV you have chosen.

A common mistake in first person POV is the insertion of flawed dialogue. Rather than having characters speak as they normally would, long information-bytes appear. People say things like, “Well, as you know, I’m an alchemist, studying the process of converting base metals to gold. It’s a very old art…blah blah blah.” The person they are speaking with, the reader will note, is their best friend, who knows and has heard more about alchemy at this point than any sane person should have to. It’s not a conversation that would happen. Long explanations of things that are “off-screen” for the purpose of letting the reader know they are there almost never work.

The bottom line is that it must be kept real. The voice has to be one that readers will love to “hear” in their mind; the action and plot have to unravel in a fashion that is plausible when seen through the eyes of a single character. It’s a difficult challenge. When it works, it produces some of the finest prose available, but when it’s off, even a little bit, it can leave a sour taste in the mouth that never goes away.

Hope that helps…

DNW

The Ley Lines of Life

January 1st, 2006 5 comments

By David Niall Wilson

“Quick note: I’m VERY sorry to be late posting this. This has been a contender for the worst day of 2006 and the year has hardly breathed it’s first breath. I have perservered. Here you go”

DNW

THE LAY LINES OF LIFE

Some people believe that the Earth is criss-crossed with hidden lines of power that run beneath the surface of soil and stone. They call these “Ley Lines,” and they believe that certain things are more likely, or possible, when they occur at points where these lines cross. I’ve run across this theory in texts on Ritual Magic, Native American spiritualism, Wicca, and dozens of other schools of thought. There are a lot of variations on the central them, but the crux of the matter, to make a point, is the crossing lines.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’ve come to believe that stories – the best stories, anyway – may come into being in the same fashion. Everything around us is potentially a part of some great epic or enigmatic poem; the world is a garden of imagination blossoms waiting to be plucked. The problem is that they don’t always fit. You can’t necessarily look at the first thing that comes along and press it into service to plot your next novel – it doesn’t work that way. You have to wait until the right elements cross.

It can happen at any point in any day. What you discover may or may not be germane to what you are currently working on, or the deadline looming over your head. The difference between the Ley Lines of fiction and those of the planet is a simple one. The lines in the planet are in place and stationary. They don’t grow, shift, or change. The Ley Lines of the mind shift constantly. They shoot off one way, then another, and there’s no good way to predict or control them; all you can do is follow.

Here’s an example from my own life. I drive to work pretty much the same way every day. I take the same roads, and half the time I find myself stuck in traffic between the same vehicles, because we are all caught in that commuter’s rut. I listen to audio books, take in Garrison Keillor and his “Writer’s Almanac” at 7:15 AM, fight to reach the draw bridge before it opens and prevents me from reaching work on time, and I watch the world.

most of those days are pretty much mirror images of one another, but not always. One morning, for instance, I had a simple chance encounter with a truck. The truck in question was a flat bed transporting the compacted remains of automobiles. I’ve seen trucks and squashed cars a million times, and I’m sure I would have thought nothing of it under normal circumstances. This time, though, I was trying to get the tape changed in the portable tape player I use to listen to audio books. The case slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I had to lean down, barely able to see over the dash, to get it. The truck hit its brakes suddenly, and for no apparent reason. I’m sure something ran in front of it, or I missed some other bit of traffic insanity, but at the time all I saw was the red flash of lights.

I hit my brakes, skidded to a halt about half an inch from the rear of that truck, and found myself gazing up into the wrecked, smashed cube of parts that had once been a Cadillac. The lines snapped into place. I saw things in that crushed heap, things I could ALMOST recognize. I thought about what might have been on the floor behind the seats and in the glove box. I thought about the rear view mirror and wondered what the last thing it had reflected might have been. My mind was off and running, and before my heart could even recover from the near collision, the lines in my head were weaving a cocoon around that idea, that set of images and thoughts, and attaching it firmly to my mind. In other words, I’m stuck with it until I excise it onto paper. Things like this happen to me every day. I try to tell people about them. Trish is very patient with me, but after a while even she gives me the “smile and wave, boys, smile and wave” expression of incomprehension. The lines only connect for a single moment. They don’t hang there in the air for me to point at and say, “see? Right there?”

What I bring from these moments are bits and pieces of insight, questions born of a moment’s crossed lines that must be answered, and so I write. I write, and more often than not what I write is so far removed from the initial inspiration that the crossed lines are obscured, but for the most part it gets them out of my head. After being distilled in my mind, re-arranged, and battered with “what ifs” the ideas take on lives of their own.

Imagine my horror when someone comes up to me and asks, “Where do you GET this stuff?” I always glance down then to make sure they aren’t standing on any lines.

DNW