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Ground Your Lightning Rod When Inspiration Strikes

January 31st, 2008 11 comments

When Inspiration Strikes It’s Best to be Prepared by David Niall Wilson Sometimes you get images that stick. It’s a good idea to write them down, even if you can’t currently pry yourself from life or leisure long enough to put them to proper use, or to complete them. I’ve been toying with the sadness of Greyhound stations, the way they seem to suck in people with no real place to go, the poor, those whose loves or lives are in tatters — people giving up and going back, and people hoping that something at the other end of a bouncing, lonely ride might be better. Anyway, this train of thought started me thinking about inspiration, how it comes at the oddest moments, and what you can do to preserver those moments so that when you desperately need the shot in the arm they provide, they are ready to hand.There are a lot of ways you can accomplish this. I know people who still carry the old spiral notebooks, or small pads of paper with them at all times, and keep them by the bedside. I have one friend who has a digital audio recorder attached to his belt. I have one of those, Trish bought it for me because I thought it would be a good way to capture things as I drove. I used it for a while, but it turned out to be a detriment to my driving, and so I let it go. I’m not a proponent of talking on the phone, doing makeup, or otherwise engaging in extra-curricular activities while behind the wheel, so I opted not to become part of that particular problem.My own solution is to worry over the idea in my head until I get to a keyboard, or a notebook, and then to write something down. It’s usually not good enough for me to just write a single-sentence idea, or words to remind me of what I was thinking. I’ve done that and come back later to stare fruitlessly at what I wrote, absolutely unable to make sense of it. Instead, what I do is that I put the image to use. I write small snippets of things that may, or may not ever see the light of day, but that capture the thing that is bothering me, eating at me, or otherwise making a mental nuisance of itself.

As an example, I present an excerpt from nothing in particular involving my current obsession with the Greyhound station – a disembodied paragraph or two that might have been scribbled in a bus station, or on the napkin at a Denny’s in Hoboken, left behind to be swept up when the bus-boys come through…

“James slouched down the sidewalk with one shoulder to the grimy wall and the other tucked in close. His tattered sea bag curled across his back like a hump, and his long hair clung to the top of it, spreading out like crusty seaweed. Ahead, the glow of the Greyhound terminal leaked into the night, dragging him onward.

James hated bus stations. They were too bright. The lights illuminated the grime and stains of the ages. Emotions, trapped for eternity, oozed from the walls. The grey dog was the chosen transport of the damned, and their legacy etched itself into each terminal and was ground into the asphalt outside the gray, filthy glass doors. Winos gathered at shrines like these, toasting the lost and the lonely, those looking for things they’d never find and leaving things they’d never forget.

The wind pressed into his back, spitting him from the city and into the maw of the future without regret. ”

I have that now. I don’t know if I’ll ever use it, but I know that it captures (somewhat) the thoughts I’ve been chewing and trying to digest, and it allows me to save it to the “idea file” and move on to the next mental obsession. I have a folder on my computer filled with things like this. Back in the day, I had a file folder with clippings, hand-written notes, and print-outs of just this sort of thing. I also had / have a list of titles that have occurred to me that started as just that – words with no story behind them, like “A Plethora of Penguins,” and “The Fall of the House of Escher.” Some of these (the latter is one such) became stories along the way. Perusing that list while seeking inspiration for a themed anthology has saved me more than once, and at least once I took one of the snippets like the Greyhound “clip” above and it became a novel – that was my most recent book, “Ancient Eyes.” The snippet I began with was something I wrote down after watching the movie “Next of Kin,” with Patrick Swayze and Liam Nisson. I never know when, or if I’ll make use of them, but I save them slavishly.

One day on the way to work I saw a truck loaded up with cars that had been compressed into cubes. I started wondering just what might have been crushed along with the upholstery, electronics, and engine.

One day a man passed me in a car with eighteen colors of primer – two windows covered with plastic and duct-tape, one big black boot propped up and out the window, slouched down and driving crazily. I recorded it as I remembered it the moment I reached my office.

There is a house along my drive to work where, in the summer, vines grow up a power pole and stretch out along the metal cord that braces the wood and holds it upright, as well as along the line leading to the house. It’s a solitary home, standing beside a cotton field in the middle of nowhere. When the vines grow in full, it looks exactly as if there is a large woman pointing an accusing finger straight at that place, and it stays that way all summer.

Another pole, further down, grows broad shoulders and, at dusk, looks like Bigfoot.

What if a Mastodon was discovered frozen in the ice – and when they managed to chip it out and study it, they found a bullet in its heart?

What if a hurricane disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle? What then, word man? What then?

I’ll leave you with another possible method of storing these ideas, a thing I’ve been trying for a few weeks now. I’ve been writing tiny flash-fiction stories that capture inspirations and actually give them (for what it’s worth) a modicum of closure. These short shorts I’m writing are born of single words …the title of this was

“Indifference.”

She was sure that he’d follow her. When she told him that it was up to him, that if she walked out that door, she wouldn’t come back, she thought it would be just like every other time. They would argue. They would fight. They would tangle themselves in the sheets and stick together for hours and wake up wrapped around one another at the beginning of a new day.The door closed behind her with a snap, and he didn’t follow.She made it to the elevator and hesitated, watching the door, sure he’d open it and follow.Nothing. The elevator doors slid shut slowly and, numb, she pressed the button for the lobby.

* * *

He hit the stairs running. He’d waited until she was out of site, indifference painted on his face like a mask. He’d barely held it in; the hurt in her had eyes floored him. Still, he wanted this time to be something more – a turning point after which they saw how bad things could become, and the fights ceased. He ran, but halfway down, he tripped. It was a stupid misstep. He hit the wall hard on his shoulder, screamed, and staggered to his feet. He turned and stumbled down, but too slowly now. He’d have to catch her on the street…he thought his arm might be broken. His heart felt the same.

* * *

She stepped out into the lobby. It was empty. She pushed her way through the door without looking back, blind with tears and unable to think. She stepped into the street and stopped.

The bus did not stop.

* * *

As he hit the lobby, he heard the sirens.

—DNW
Macabre Ink

The Liar’s Diary Blog Day..

January 30th, 2008 4 comments

This is an exta post-between-posts to honor a courageous lady and her book. A lot of folks are involved in this effort…all on this particular day…and we at Storytellers Unplugged would be remiss if we didn’t do what we could to join in… so, below is a short snippet and a link. I urge you to follow it, and to show your support in whatever way you can. If you feel the urge to read a book…maybe this is the one — today, anyway. The rest of her supporters celebrated on Monday, but better late than never, huh?

— David Niall Wilson for The Authors of Storytellers Unplugged

 

“Today, over 300 bloggers, including bestsellers, Emmy winners, movie makers, and publishing houses have come together to talk about THE LIAR’S DIARY by Patry Francis. Why? To give the book the attention it deserves on its release day while Patry takes the time she needs to heal from cancer.”

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Writing and reading Serial Characters – Some thoughts

September 7th, 2006 13 comments

(The real world intruded and prevented Matt Schwartz from posting an essay today, so I hope you won’t mind this revised piece I wrote a while back for my other column over at www.chizine.com)

By David Niall Wilson

Since my earliest days as a reader I’ve been enamored of books that form a series. I collected the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, then later moved on to fantasy trilogies, The Destroyer, and The Executioner, and have now “graduated” to detectives, forensic experts, and the occasional bounty hunter. I read audio books voraciously, and if you find a decent series coupled with a good narrator, this is a uniquely pleasant form of entertainment – like having a long, very extended episode of a favorite television show trapped in your car with you. I’m sure that we’ll soon hear more on this from Mr. Hill, who I’ve shared many hours with (he was reading the words of our own Mr. Steinberg, so it was quite the storytellers unplugged party). I have started by stating all of this, not because I I want to write about audio books, but because I want to establish that I am familiar with the ground I’m about to cover — the art of writing about continuing characters.

Stephen King has taken this art to a new level, finding ways to intertwine seemingly unrelated works with one another, dragging characters from his own literary past, answering questions left hanging in old stories and novels and weaving it all into a huge, wonderful tapestry. He’s damned good at it, but it isn’t a task for the faint of heart, or the fuzzy of memory. In fact, part of King’s success in this realm is probably attributable to the fact he has someone helping catalogue, map correspondences, and track inconsistencies. It’s a daunting task.

King’s form of serialization isn’t what I want to talk about, though. I’m interested in discussing the serial character. Kay Scarpetta, Spencer, Anita Blake, the 37th Precinct, Lucas Davenport, Dave Robicheaux, the list is endless. Each book finds our hero or heroine battling the forces of evil, or crime, or terrorists. We are presented with familiar faces, names, character traits and side plots. The familiarity is a good thing, in most cases. It establishes an immediate rapport between the author and the reader that has to be earned when the book is a stand alone project.

The problem lies in keeping the books and the characters that populate them fresh the sub-plots under control, and this is where nearly every series breaks down for me. If you follow the careers of authors famed for their serialized characters, you will notice an almost universal trend. The first book, maybe the first couple of books, receive wide critical acclaim. Readers and reviewers alike love the plot, the twists, and the introduction to these new characters that will grow easy and familiar over time. Then, as book after book is added to the series, an odd transformation takes place. The plots become secondary. The characters grow to fill so much of the book with their lives, their side-plots, and their over-repeated idiosyncrasies, that there isn’t enough story left to bring back the magic of the earlier volumes. Some series characters churn along for years like this, but most sink back and are replaced by new rising stars, until they eventually fade from view.

There are a couple of factors that play into this, I think, and I’ll touch on them briefly. One is that authors seem to tire of characters that don’t need to be invented. They are as familiar with their creations as the readers, and then some – and the tendency is to repeat descriptions and dialogue, to give the characters tics and memories they fall back on again and again. Readers of the series will find entire passages that might have come from any of the books in the series, repeating facts and memories, descriptions and pat phrases that take the place of crisp, new writing. The relationship between writers and their characters is as delicate as that between men and women, parents and children, and close friends. If you don’t work at it, it gets stale, and everyone loses interest. Never take that relationship for granted.

The second of the two major problems I detect in many of the series novels I’ve read is the urge to “one up” the last book. This leads to wilder and wilder flights of implausibility as the characters face harder and more impossible personal and professional challenges, never keeping a relationship and always reaching for some new plot device that is just out of reach. Sometimes the sense a reader gets from these novels is that the author thought of all the personal sub plots carefully, and then patched in a wild hodge-podge of unlikely events just to tie together the next episode in the character’s lives, without considering that the most important part of a dramatic book is the plot.

Every criminal faced is superhumanly strong, cunning, trained in some odd thing that no one else knows about, followed closely by the next criminal, even smarter and more impossibly elusive. It gets old, after a while, and you start to just want to see the character chase something real…have a good period in his or her life with a solid relationship and no “issues” and solve an honest-to-goodness interesting crime with believable components. Real life can’t be ignored or bent to fit a silly plotline without anyone noticing. You can’t just say that a lawyer can’t win his case when you’ve presented more evidence already than ten lawyers would need in the real world and assume that your readers won’t question it. It doesn’t matter that the lawyers trademark character flaw is his overwhelming self-doubt – once you’ve presented facts that don’t fit, you can’t expect people to just let you get away with it.

I find myself about to launch a couple of novels that will, if everything goes as planned, lead to series characters. One is my detective, Tommy Doyle, the Psychos-R-Us cop who will appear in the Maelstrom Books limited signed hardcover “SINS OF THE FLASH” – the other is Donovan DeChance, a magician, occult expert who gets involved in mysteries dealing with a wild array of dark, fantastical characters. The first novel in that series is titled “Vintage Soul,” and is making the rounds of publishers (including one who has specifically requested it) starting with the birth of the New Year. Both of these characters will hopefully develop a readership, and both will demand that I continue to develop the world that each inhabits, while keeping the plots intriguing and fresh. I never want to have a book I write remembered as just another book in a series. I want it to be remembered as “that book where that really cool thing happened,” and then, secondarily, “yeah, isn’t that one of those “so-and-so” novels?”

I realize this is apparently the opposite approach that most series novelists take, but I have little sympathy for them. I hear novelists complain about the work involved in writing a book a year. These are men and women with no day job, but only this one book to write. It boggles the mind. If you already know most of the characters, and already intend to populate half the pages with recycled fluff, how long can writing that book actually take? And why, given the above circumstances, can’t the plot that fills the rest of the pages be well thought out, memorable, and bring all those readers back for more? Maybe these aren’t questions that can be answered. Maybe characters just die of entropy. Maybe a series can only be kept fresh for so long before it’s impossible to twist your imagination back to their little world even one more time. I hope I never reach that point with my characters. Currently, I enjoy their company.

Onward!

DNW

The Hallowed Ground of the Land of "What if?"

August 31st, 2006 9 comments

“To put it in words, to write it down,
That is walkin’ on hallowed ground,
But it’s my duty…I’m a missionary.”
Depeche Mode

(Look what you’ve done, Chet…)

I think everyone has moments when they look at life, the world, governments, religions, or the fabric of reality itself and think – what if? I’ve mentioned before that I’m a great proponent of what-if stories, and recently I’ve thought some about how writers fit into the bigger picture. Scientists create new paradigms by looking at universal “truths” and daring to say…what if? When they do this with seriousness, and some authority, they become targets of ridicule, enmity, adulation and – if they are brilliant, correct, and able to prove their new insight in a way that their peers can neither refute nor view with blind eyes and maintain their own integrity, the world shifts. Thomas Kuhn told us many years ago that this is how science, and society, advance, and I believe, though he mostly aimed his comments at the scientific community, that the phenomenon reaches much deeper into the human psyche.

Kuhn said, in short, that the normal pattern of the world is that things go along on a relatively even keel for a certain amount of time, and then someone disrupts this by pronouncing that something universally believed to be true, is in fact, not. The natural reaction of mankind to such pronouncements can be traced through the lives of Socrates, Galileo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Charles Darwin, to name a few. It doesn’t matter that the opposition, in most cases, is arguing an already lost cause. It doesn’t matter that they are frantically scrabbling to prove to the world that the new truth is not true, and the old truth – the one they’ve staked lives, careers, and reputations on is fading under a more intense light. It’s even more intense when religious or philosophical truths are in question, but it doesn’t relieve us of a fundamental responsibility. If we see a truth, or a possible truth, or the great “what if” smacks us up side the head and says HEY! – we have a responsibility to respond. Anything less than this lessens us and our possible influence on the world around us.

For the scientist, this is a life-changing experience. He may succeed, he may fail, but once launched on the great what-if sea, he’s never coming back to shore. If he recants he’s an impetuous fool. If he succeeds, he’s brilliant. If he loses faith in his own theories and discoveries, the fire is gone.

For a writer, though, the words “what if” are magic. We can launch onto that sea with impunity, build a world around hypotheses or theories or flights of outright wish-fulfilling fantasy, and when we’re done, we can write something else. The science fiction authors of the fifties and sixties, many of whom were also scientists, predicted, and in many cases planted the seeds of many technological developments we might still be waiting for without their words.

I don’t remember which author it was that wrote a novel (or series of novels?) in which the stories we write always become new worlds. The act of writing brings the words, and the images behind them, into being, and once they exist, their reality is substantial and actual on some plane, in some dimension, or in some different state of existence.

“In the beginning was the word.”

I think, over the course of years, words have been a continuous source of beginnings. My world revolves around patterns of thought, painted in words and presented to the world. The patterns connect at the what-ifs and diverge. Each time a question catches my attention it’s a new adventure.

At work I was learning about a new program being used to monitor time and attendance that is designed to record each fifteen minute segment of time during a single day so that the hours being expended could be broken down and billed more accurately. Alarms went off in my head, and I saw Harrison Ford walking through a high-tech building, having a conversation with someone and – at the same time – conversing with a headpiece or a receiver in his ear, recording each direction shift and each new action, the company watching their investment down to the second and multi-tasked communication an absolute necessity to sanity.

Another day I was sitting and talking about the drug use of athletes, the need they feel to take things to modify themselves to succeed, and the what if bug bit me hard. What if – in the future – we had “stock” and “modified” Olympics? What if the athletes of the “stock” class were becoming dinosaurs, taunted by their “peers” in the modified class…and a champion arose from those old-school ranks.

It’s endless, and the best stories, for me, leave me with whole new what if roads to travel once I’ve shared the author’s vision.

I don’t know if we create new worlds with our words, but I know we have the power to contribute to changes in the one we live in, the vision to make our changes real, if only in the mind, and the potential, over time, to see the word of creation mirrored in our own humble efforts and the changes they can bring about in reality as we know it.

A very wise man, Richard Feynman, once said that it’s imprecise to talk about “the laws of nature,” and that what we really operate with is “the currently accepted habits of nature,” which is an entirely different, and much more appealing world-view. In a world of laws, the “what ifs” of writers would be impotent, but if we muck about with those currently accepted habits? The sky is the limit, and we really can be heroes – or prophets.

And so?

Onward!

David Niall Wilson

Because They’re There, of Course…

(Since we had no extra essay left this month for the 31st, I split the extra day with Mr. Steinberg – We’ll resume our normal schedule on the 1st.)

By David Niall Wilson

Life is full of situations that make us consider and reconsider the decisions we’ve made. What if I’d gone to college straight out of high school? What if I’d gone to the Naval Academy instead of boot camp? What if I’d settled into writing in the eighties instead of talking about it on through until the nineties and had not missed that big horror boom? These are decisions and behaviors I can look back on and say I could have done things differently. We all have points like that in our lives…you can’t avoid them. Most of us who write incorporate them into the lives of our characters and the plots of our towns and worlds so we can work back through them, examine them, dissect and improve on them.

But that’s not what this essay is about. The fact is that not every turn on the road from here to there has a choice associated with it. Not a real choice. Lately I’ve given this some serious thought. In June I lost a job that was supporting my family pretty well. I was not happy with the job, but it paid the bills…there was no future in it, but it was something I’d come to depend on. Then I lost it. I lost it for a number of abstract and concrete reasons, but at the root of it all I lost it because it just wasn’t a viable choice. Not for me.

You can’t make yourself do something you are miserable doing forever. You can try, but in some way it will all break down – either YOU will crumble and become a shell of what you were, or the situation will break down and spit you out. There really isn’t a good, happy medium in a situation like that. People have integral needs, desires, goals and emotional anchors. These things can’t be ignored forever. They can be glossed over, pushed aside, nailed into coffins (they almost always rot or crumble, these coffins, but if not that’s where you’ll end your days) but they will not go away.

What I’m getting at is the intangibles that make life worth living. I have some beliefs that I know don’t work for everyone in the universe. What I don’t know is how any OTHER outlook could allow someone to survive. For instance, I was in a bad marriage a few years back. I had withdrawn into a junk-cluttered room by myself, had withdrawn into the Internet to live, drank myself silly and very nearly lost my career as a writer in the jumble. My friends wouldn’t visit because they hated the situation…my kids walked on eggshells not to send their mother off on a tirade…in other words…it wasn’t good. My philosophy on situations like that is that you leave. Others have told me in varying degrees, you work it out, you get counseling, you compromise, and I am here to tell you that these are stopgaps on the drain-flush highway – you are headed to the door and you are better off stepping through it on your own power. You get yourself into a situation you CAN live with and you get through. You clean up your act and you move on. Hopefully in the process you become someone that is of use to those around you once again. That’s what I did (I was fortunate enough to gain the support of the woman I love along the way, but with or without that I had to get out, or die – internally first, and probably physically much sooner than I believe is now likely).

I believe you do what you have to do to keep yourself sane. Writing is like that for me. I could turn off my computer, go to work and focus on contracts and computers and bringing home the paycheck every week – spend the rest of my hours working on the house and barbecuing steaks on the grill. I could have hobbies, take on a second job, learn to paint – start the band I never quite started – all of that seems logical. Logic, of course, has nothing to do with it. I could do any and all of those things, but while I did them I’d be thinking about writing. I’d be plotting and sub-plotting, wondering what might happen if I started putting words in front of one another again and worried about what will happen if I stop. The situation would break down and spit me out – or I would crumble and become something else – someone else – someone less than I am without the potential I feel whirling inside me every day of my life…

I don’t know if writing is a gift. If it is a gift, I don’t know that my own slice of that pie is large enough to be considered particularly special. All indications are that I’m going to make a very small ripple in the world of literature, but the voices in my head tell me otherwise, and I’ve come to trust them implicitly with my sanity. They may be full of crap, but they keep me going. It doesn’t really matter, in the end. Writing is an essential part of me…something I can’t deny, and would not survive well without. When a couple lives together for most of their lives, and one of them passes on…it’s a statistical fact that the other usually follows very close behind. When military men who have spent a lifetime at war are turned back into the civilian world, their life expectancy is short.

I’m fortunate that writing is not like a military career. Even if no one ever pays me for it I can keep writing. Even if I become one of those crotchety old guys who tell all the young folks what it was like in the day and go on and on about my sad, past successes without selling anything new, I can write. I can keep putting the words in order because I see how they should fit. I can do it whether it matters to anyone else or not…

But writing is like a love affair, and if the writing was to die? If I had to just live like someone who has no ability, or desire, to create? Well, I’d follow pretty close on the tail of the words…as they petered out and died, that would mirror in my life until there was no life left to mirror it in…and I would fade like old ink on low grade, acidic paper.

The answer to the riddle then — what does the title have to do with this essay? Simply this.

Why do I write the words, the stories, the novels, and the dreams?

Because they’re there, of course…because they’re there…

DNW

Plumbing the Genealogy Pool

June 30th, 2006 8 comments

By David Niall Wilson

“Those who hope to read about family greatness and fortune can stop reading right here. The only thing illustrious about our family is a long tradition of being ordinary folk – mostly good, loving, substantial people through whom God=s purpose here on earth has been and is being fulfilled.”
Laun C. Smith, Jr.

That is how the book “The Smith Family, A Genealogical Narrative The W. H. Smith Family of Luthersburg, PA” – which was written by a cousin of mine from the notes and research begun by his father, my grandfather’s brother, Laun C. Smith Sr., begins. (How’s that for a convoluted sentence?)

This book is the story of the branch of my family tree that leads back through my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I still contend to be the most intriguing, fine-charactered human being who ever walked the planet. It’s been one of my obsessions to follow the history of his life for many years now and recently I’ve made some serious strides in the right direction. He served in every major battle in World War I – was shot, mustard gassed, chased Santa Anna in Mexico and served a short stint as a chemist, another with the FBI – played his guitar in the trenches and was known fondly as “Duck” because of his very short legs. There is so much more, but it’s the research I want to talk about – the discovery of our past. During that research, I’ve rediscovered a world of ideas, characters, stories and detail that I find both fascinating and rewarding as a writer.

I’m talking about genealogy, of course, tracing one’s roots. All sides of my family trace back into the earliest, most remote days of our nation. I can trace the Smiths and Taylors back to a lieutenant in George Washington’s army and beyond to the time the Huguenots were driven from France. My family peopled Illinois and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. They wore such a variety of odd names I can’t begin to list them, and they carried on trades from soldier to baseball player, from Itinerant Ministers to harness shop owners. They spoke with Native Americans and cooked flapjacks for them. They built log cabins and carried the mail. They married and moved, lived and loved, and if you follow the records carefully enough you can piece their lives together into a rich tapestry of faces and fascinating little worlds.

This isn’t my first bout with ancestral tracing, though, and as much as I am enjoying learning about my family, I want to tell the story of how I came to be “hunting bunting,” a quest that has now spanned years (and has likely come close to a dead end).

One thing about being odd – it causes a sort of vortex in the lives of those around you, sucking the oddities that they encounter into your world. A case in point is the gravestone of Bunting Miles, a laborer in old Virginia. I don’t begin to understand how he became separated from the stone, but I know when his life – and my life – became connected.

My friend Richard Rowand, author, editor, and all around great guy (who now runs probably the best and most widely read recipe newsletter on the net – each of which contains a nugget of wisdom or a story from Richard and his partner Tim – Recipe Du Jour – came over to a house I had just bought in Norfolk with a house-warming gift. Most people bring fruit baskets, or pillows – maybe something to be used around the place. Richard brought a tombstone.

His neighbor had a load of fill dirt dropped in his front yard. When he went to spread it, he discovered he’d gotten more than he’d bargained for. In the middle of that topsoil was a standard, one hump tombstone, which he promptly took to his neighbor, Richard, who was “weird” and would appreciate it. Richard DID appreciate it, but eventually his wife laid down the law and insisted he get rid of the marker, so he did the natural thing – he brought it to an even weirder person to appreciate.

Since that time I’ve learned a lot about Census reports, civic records, old newspapers and the types of things you can dig out of the reference sections of libraries. I’ve learned how helpful people can be, and how hard-headed they can be in the face of a challenge. I’ve also learned a lot about life in other times – the price of things, the way of things, the names of things and of people. I’ve gained an appreciation of just how different a day in 1910 was from a day today, and it has leaked into my fiction. I will balk at most research (though I can be coerced) but history has never felt like research to me. It’s more like meeting people through words and pictures, much as we do when we read something well written.

So, now Bunting Miles 1854 – 1892, who was a laborer in Tanner’s Creek (which is now part of Norfolk) Virginia at the time of the 1880 census, who married Lucy and had two sons, Walter Miles and William – which is as far as I’ve gotten (with a lot of help) has found a home in my living room. Every year we put lilies next to his gravestone, which rests in the corner behind the concert grand piano. My 2 ½ year old daughter says that a man named “Hat Coat” lives behind the piano, and has reported seeing him and an old woman (she calls her grandma, though she’s never met anyone’s grandma) sitting on the porch, or standing in the room. I like to think she really sees something, and that Bunting is content with us. I will continue my search for his descendants, and I hope one day I’ll meet them, return Bunting’s stone to a family grave site, and be able to visit him in the arms of his family…but if not, he is more than welcome here.

And I owe him characters, proper language, an understanding of times and places that would be long lost if it weren’t for the records…the words…that someone put down on paper so long ago. I’m a bit ashamed that the reason I know so little of his life is that he was black. Not ashamed for myself, I don’t believe in that guilt-by-association sort of mentality. I feel ashamed of the people we so often are, blind to the beauty of the differences in others and arrogant in our own imagined superiority. It is a wonder that his name was recorded in 1880. Previous Census reports would only have stated the number of blacks on a property without even differentiating men from women.

I love history, and I hate when I feel it slipping away…

I hope you’ll forgive me this little diversion. It does relate to writing, though not as directly as many of my past posts…it flavors character and setting, memory and legend. If you haven’t taken the time to follow the road your family wandered down to reach where you are today, give it a chance…read a little, search some of the past and don’t be surprised when you find that – as distant and as odd as it can prove, you are right at home.

Now, I’m off to find SOMETHING to prove or disprove the status of “bigamist” my Great Uncle attributes to one Jacob Smith of Pennsylvania, an Itinerant Lutheran Minister who figures prominently in my lineage, and about whom bad things are whispered in all branches of the family, but with no fact to back it….perhaps he was a raconteur? He married a woman named Rowles, but family rumor has it she left him when she found he was married. My suspicion is that he converted to Mormonism and was just a “bigamist by association” and ostracized. I’d love to be the one who proves it and exonerates him. Maybe he’ll stop in with Bunting and send a thank you through Katie some dark night.

ONWARD!

DNW

I Buy Them At Estate Auctions…Doesn’t Everyone?

June 13th, 2006 8 comments

by David Niall WilsonI apologize for the last month or two’s empty slot on this date. I just learned that Sarah had turned in her resignation here a while back – but was never removed. Anyway, here is something to tide us over – an extra essay I wrote for such an emergency, and we move onward. Thanks for all the words Sarah..

I’ve covered this from several angles in the past, but it’s a subject that will never grow stale, and one that I feel inspired to tackle from a new perspective, so once more into that breach…

CURIOUS READER: “Where do you get your ideas?”

DAVE: “I buy them at estate auctions.”

And it’s true. History is one of the literary playgrounds I frequent most often. What if something happened just a little differently than history recorded it? What if there is something in the story we weren’t told? What is the story behind a book, or a packet of postcards, tied in a faded ribbon? Who wore that old dress, now a limp pile of faded velvet and soiled lace?

I wrote a story titled “Bloody Knife & Morning Star” that I’ve recently had cause to revise. This story takes the battle of Little Bighorn and turns it on its ear. It fills in the cracks in history that historians are so fond of leaving untouched, and you’d be surprised how little filling it takes to shift the flow of events, like tossing stones into a river. What if Custer hired a guide who seemed perfect, but that guide only agreed to help because – in a vision – he saw that Custer would bring about the end of his people? What if the spirits of those who have passed from this life returned to prevent Custer’s reinforcements from arriving when, and where they said they’d be? What if someone wrote it down?

This story came about because of a combination of several events. The first was that, at an auction, I purchased a book titled “Son of the Morning Star,” which was a historic recounting of Custer’s life. I read it and then I researched, chasing lines of history across the Internet, and through libraries, until I found some things that just seemed to have been ignored. Accounts of strange visions. Events that felt out of place, all becoming puzzle pieces that, in the end, led to the destruction of General George, Armstrong Custer and all of his men. This battle, of all the battles of history, I count as the single greatest monument to stupid, bull-headed prejudice. Still…there is always more to the story.

I recently bought a book of folklore at another estate auction. This book covers the beliefs and myths of the “Gullah” folk – slaves on the cotton plantations of South Carolina, and immediately images sprang to mind – stories revised themselves, and I started wanting to write about them. At that same auction I bought a grandfather clock with a dial face done in Roman numerals, except that the IV is IIII – and I thought of alternate universes. I bought a lamp with intricately carved designs – like metal lace – all over the base, which is also inset with diamond shaped prisms. I thought of mysterious places and incense and gypsies…I thought of odd space lounges on planets far away…and I put that lamp in my parlor so that I can light it one evening, sit in that room, listen to Trish play the piano and dream of something that never happened outside my mind – all so I can share it with my readers.

I bought a box full of odds and ends, and in that box is a tiny advertising bottle opener – Lou’s Bar & Grill – Chicago Illinois. The place no longer exists…how did it get to North Carolina? Why was it saved? What happened at Lou’s?

I could go on and on, but the truth is this. I never know where I’ll get my ideas, whether the ideas will have a thing to do with what inspired them, once all is said and done, or how I’ll handle those ideas once I actually start writing. It’s a fluid, magical process that thrills me each and every time.

So for those of you claiming writer’s block, or who claim to have nothing interesting to write about, pull out your local classified ads and dig through the estate sales, auctions, and miscellaneous items for sale. I’ll see you on the far side of the story…

DNW

What Would You Do?

by David Niall Wilson

 

(This is posted a day early – we had no new essay on the 30th, and I didn’t want us to go another full day without a post…)

 

 

 

 

Every day, it seems, I read an article, or see a news item on television about something that stirs or outrages me. I can’t imagine the number of times I must have said, “God, if that was ME I’d have…” Our ancestors had the leisure to read much more occasional and distant news, discussing it over coffee, or whiskey, or gathering around radios to soak in the details that were carefully chosen and presented to them before launching into lengthy diatribes of their own. Our world is much more immediate, and so much smaller, that most of our opinions are glossed over, hurried past, or ignored, but for me they still simmer beneath the surface, and for that reason, among many, I am thankful to be a writer.I recently finished re-reading John Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” and I believe he feels – or once felt – the same. The protagonist is that elusive, mythical beast, the ethical, honest lawyer. He is a man confronted with questions who knows his answers and lives them. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said in “The Great Gatsby,” – “I believe all men suspect themselves of at least one of the Cardinal Virtues…” In writing, we have options that life doesn’t always afford us.

How many times, I wonder, have lawyers, judges, district attorneys and police officers heard the question, “What would you have done?” How many times, when asked, is that question answered honestly? Very seldom, I suspect. We live in a society that believes a set, mutually agreed upon set of rules is more important than any individual’s beliefs, ethics, or personal honor. That’s a harsh way of putting it, and it sounds a bit communist, when expressed in this manner, but it’s true. What we believe to be right, and what society expects and enforces as right are very seldom similar.

In “A Time to Kill,” Carl Lee Hailey, a black man from Clanton, Mississippi, is faced with the question of how to react when two drunken, red-necked white men torture and rape his ten year old daughter. This is a brutal, no gray area situation, and Carl Lee reacts honestly. He shoots the two men before the “justice system” can lock them away for a few years and set them free. Most of the men of Clanton (in the novel) – when confronted with that eternal question, “What would you have done?” admit they hoped they’d have the courage to react as Carl Lee did. They also admit that, had it been a white girl, and black assailants, the case would never even make it to court.

Of course, in our society, and even in the society of Clanton Mississippi back in the time period of this novel, shooting a man because he richly deserves it is not the correct answer to this situation, or to any situation. There are rules, and there are laws, and we are taught that “right minded” folk will abide by, understand, and even agree with these laws. But do we ever agree? Really? I don’t think so. I will never, for instance, believe that in the situation described in the book that the two rapists should get anything but the death penalty — or if they are in a more liberal state, life in prison. If confronted with the same situation, I have to side with the men of Clanton Mississippi and hope I’d have the courage to act on my convictions, because in the end, that is the only reaction that can make you feel right inside. If you see something you truly believe to be wrong, you must react, or live with the result of your inaction, and that is where this windy, opinionated essay veers in the direction of writing.

In stories and novels, we create characters and situations that — while they may seem complex — are actually simple, clearly defined slices of the world. We people these slices with characters who act exactly as we picture them acting – or who teach us how they would act as we interact with them. Our protagonist may not do the right thing in a given situation, but if we write him honestly, we will convey his awareness of what he has done, or left undone. We will lay bare the emotion behind a right decision, and a wrong one. In prose we have the liberty of slipping around, under, over or through the rules of society and reacting to the situations we create with honesty, ethics, dishonesty, cruelty, or any other emotion we hope to convey, and we have the opportunity at the same time to open doors into the minds of the characters and divulge the thought processes, the pain, the joy, the ecstasy and the humiliation those reactions cause.

Our drunk drivers may still kill people on the road, but they won’t do it in a vacuum. They will do it, take the consequences, and open their thoughts to readers, and if this is an issue the author believes in fiercely, the answer to the question “What would you do?” is clearly answered through the character. What would you do if you had too much to drink, ran a red light, and killed a young couple on their way to the prom, or their wedding — or ended the life of someone who’d managed to avoid such accidents for seventy years? Going into writing about such a thing, you may believe you know exactly how you would react, but if you write honestly, and well, by the time you are done, both you and your readers will know more about that answer, and the question that spawned it, than you might have believed possible. You will look at it from the perspective of the victim, the victim’s family, the driver and his family — the situation behind it all and the situation that follows.

As writers we create cowards and anoint heroes. We create fictional problems a notch more intense than whatever news story invoked them, and we pit ourselves, through our characters, against the temptations, dangers, rewards and possible repercussions of those situations without society’s threat of reprisal dangling over our heads.

In the real world — in the real small-town Mississippi where such a trial may or may not have taken place many times — I doubt that young Jake Brigance would have stood against all he faced. The judge in the town is not bright, and refuses to change venue. The District Attorney has political ambitions and wants nothing more than a death verdict for Carl Lee so he can further his own dreams. The Ku Klux Klan re-forms in the town, burns Brigance’s home, threatens his family, beats and shaves his young law clerk and ties her to a pole in a field, causes the husband of his secretary to have a stroke that kills him, and finally kills the informant who has helped keep Jake (and others) alive. Jake faces crooked preachers, several slick, big-city lawyers who want to the case for themselves, a lack of any real pay for the job he is performing, and the NAACP. His wife is on the verge of leaving him because of the danger he has put their family in, and Lucien Wilbanks, who owns the building that houses Jake’s offices, and who is a disbarred attorney himself, continually attempts to “fix” the trial.

This is what I mean about fiction. These odds are stacked incredibly. When you think things can’t, or won’t, get worse, they do. In the face of this, we get a clear view of Jake’s thought process. We see that his ethics are sound, that his beliefs are stronger than his fears, and that he is a lawyer who will do what he believes to be the right thing regardless of the odds. Jake almost loses heart when a young National Guardsman is shot and killed by a bullet meant for him, but he shakes it off, and he doesn’t quit.

And he wins. That is another gift we have as writers, and one that is too often ignored, I believe, in modern novels. We can create the people we wish we were, and the people we wish we could kill. Through our words, we (and vicariously, our readers) can become those good people, and those villains. We can live, love, sacrifice, and experience the myriad emotions associated with each situation. We can answer over and over the question, “What would you do,” and we can answer that question from every possible angle through characterization and caricature, putting truth to the lie that we call society over and over again and reminding people of the depths extending far beneath that social veneer.

As a reader I’ve grown disillusioned by authors who can’t seem to leave a character happy, or on top in the end of a novel. Love affairs always go south, lives are ruined — and when things seem to be looking up, they fall apart. This attitude seems to me a cop out, imposing more the veneer of the author’s own bleak reality onto a landscape of events and characters meant to take the reader away. Perhaps I’m a bit too romantic in this respect, but I think heroes should be allowed a moment of celebration when they save the world, and that villains should be dropped into deep, dark pits and sealed safely away until the next crisis — or novel –occurs.

In short – it’s what I’d do.

DNW

Joined at the Muse – Collaboration with Brian Hopkins

by David Niall Wilson

I’ve seen a lot of posts here about collaboration, but I thought I’d share something a little more personal this time. One of my longest standing collaborative relationships is with author Brian A. Hopkins, who I’ve worked with time and again to wonderful results. This essay is slanted toward a single piece we wrote together, but shows the process is a more detailed fashion than my earlier piece on collaboration.

I have written and worked with Brian for years, but if I had to choose a single instance where the work typified the blend of his style, and mine, it would have to be the story Virtue’s Mask. We’ve bonded over many a fine bit of prose in the past, the La Belle Dame stories, which I am certain have not seen their end, “Another Mile,” “A Poem of Adrian Gray,” two stories (so far) about a Scary Cowboy with a weird Eye – “One-Eyed Jack,” and “Once Chance in Hell,” and some others we have tossed about, worked over, not finished and shelved. Who knows what will be the end of it all? The point is, on “Virtue’s Mask,” the shades of our selves we blend into the fiction were more apparent than normal.

In my own writing, until recently, anyway, the word research is four letters long and hated. I have always figured if I could write around a detail, I could avoid looking it up. If I got it wrong, but did so very skillfully, no one would really notice. I’m here to tell you – Brian would notice. He would also rewrite it, fix it, and lecture me on the nuances of every intriguing detail I’d missed. If I let him.

There are a couple of aspects that are the core of “Virtue’s Mask.” One is a society so anal and repressed sexually, due to a fear of disease and governmental control, that physical contact is virtually unknown. The other is the instinct within a man that would make him willing to risk life itself to know that intimacy. I can both anticipate that sort of horror growing from within our own society, though possibly not to that extent – and feel the pain of that man.

We made the man a musician. I don’t remember which of us made that choice, but I believe it was Brian. He and I both attack the theme of musical creativity often, though I repeat it more than he does. I don’t know Brian’s musical background. I played in bad bands, sang through a lot of chemically induced nights and got lost in parking lots at concerts for years. I have written lyrics that have never been sung, have performed in ski-lodges in Spain and Karaoke clubs in Long Beach – I love music, and somehow it sticks to my writing like last weeks lumpy potatoes to my guts.

Anyway, the protagonist is a musician, and he uses his creativity to lash out. I brought in Alice Cooper. Brian brought in more research. We batted it back and forth a bit, getting our boy closer and closer to both death – and his physical “encounter.” We dug ditches and tossed him in. We wrote him – and ourselves – into a predicament that nearly stopped us cold. In fact, if I’d been writing it myself (which I wouldn’t have) – I would have had to backtrack and start over from some point where escape was possible. We needed a POINT to it all, a reason for what happened.

I will now tell you the point of this diatribe. Brian did NOT back up. Brian researched. He thought, and damned if he didn’t come up with a rare variant of the critter known as a “vole,” living in some small part of the southwest (I believe) that had a certain gene, that MIGHT if you pushed and stretched and cajoled it into place, fill what we had left as a gaping plot hole and create something very, very cool. I think that is what happened.

Brian does the research that brings us credibility. I don’t know what I ad…mood? A different twist on the characters? I think authors tend to write themselves into a few of their characters each time they write. Brian and I are BOTH in some of these . . . and that was a strange ride, all on its own.

I won’t go into the sordid history that led to this piece FINALLY seeing publication, but I will voice my opinion that it is about time it got wider readership and a chance to be seen. I will also voice my thanks to Brian. I learn something every time we work together, and for all the constant banter and rewriting, the words grow in strength. It is and always has been about the words.

DNW

Poetry & The Art of Rhetorical Maintenance

April 28th, 2006 3 comments

by David Niall Wilson

(Since we don’t seem to be quite on line with Lucius yet, I’m posting this — maybe of interest. It was originally published a few years ago in the HWA Newsletter)There are a lot of fundamental questions associated with poetry. Some of these questions are so basic they challenge the foundation of modern verse as a relevant art form, or seem to – others are completely subjective and require a different approach. I want to look at a very simple division in the poetic form that has deepened over the years into a chasm. The question is, is poetry a romantic art form, or a classic art form – and can it be both

The classical philosophy would view the poem as an object. It has a form, rules that govern that form, a purpose, and these qualities can be measured, or at least judged, through the application of reason. Meter and rhyme can be tested and found to meet the rules set forth in the form, or discarded as falling short of the model. This way of looking at poetry is currently in disfavor among most poets. The rules and structures are seen as impediments. The aesthetic qualities of the images presented are considered to be restrained in ways that block some purer form, spawned from a freestyle spontaneity.

The Romantic philosophy would describe the poem as subjective to the object of inspiration. In other words, the images and emotions behind the poetry are quantified by the re-creation in words. Romantic poetry, in this sense, is a very sudden art form, whose structure is dictated by the moment and the inspiration, rather than fitting that same inspiration into a previously defined and refined structure. This second philosophy is the current ruling school of thought, and has been so since somewhere around the early 1960’s. Since then, it has grown in strength, as the classical forms have diminished.

In high schools and universities, analysis of creative form is the preferred method of teaching poetry, or any other form of Rhetoric. The body of work that has stood the test of time is broken down surgically, analyzed, quantified, and found to meet the tenets of rule and form. Then, from the rules extrapolated by this analysis, students are directed to create their own works, following these rules and within these forms. Unfortunately for the classic forms of poetry, literature rarely breaks down in this manner to be raised again like Lazarus. The fact is that, while classical poets followed certain structures, the rules themselves were recorded and applied long after the fact. With the specter of insufficient metaphor, unsyncopated meter and the limits of imaginative rhyme glaring over your shoulder, it’s damned hard to be eloquent.

This has led to a tangential surge into other forms. Newer forms. We now have classic forms, the sonnet, and the haiku – and we have non-linear forms. Free verse. Spoken word dialogue, and even less-structured, more abstract forms. Notice the use of the word forms.

A scream is a very short, very intense experience, both for the person screaming, and anyone within close proximity. To translate that scream to poetry in the modern form would be a swift chiseling of the words that shift most quickly to the center of the mind. The words may seem staccato, short and incomplete, but they convey the scream. They fulfill their purpose. Upon immediate examination, the poet may well sit back, smile and say “Wow,” or something similar. The scream will be as they remember it, vivid and sudden.

A classic poet might take that experience of the scream in a different direction. Time would pass. The experience would be sifted through other experiences. Images would arise from the meeting of one image with the next until a rhythm emerged. Classic style poetry is an art of patterns. The pattern is natural to the poet, though it may seem coarse and difficult to those around him. The pattern will draw the words into place, and if the poet is careful, and strict with his own imagery, those words will fit into place like the bits and pieces of an intricate puzzle. The images he can paint with these words will be similar to those evoked by the work of the Romantic style poet, but more subtle.

Of course, not all free verse is sudden, or spontaneous. A Romantic style poet, using my own definition of this style, can spend hours lingering over one word, or one line, just as his counterpart on the Classic side pores over a rhymed couplet. If the poetry is true to the poet’s intent, it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Prose offers the buffer of sentence structure and descriptive paragraphs. Poetry offers only enough room for words that matter. Classical poetry is unforgiving in its structure. Romantic poetry is unforgiving in it’s necessity of standing without the support of accepted structure.

And still we have the question – is there a place for the classic styles of poetry in modern literature? Has the time for following known structures passed us by, and given way to an un-structured, more intense progeny?

My own mind tells me no. What we have in most free verse poetry is not a lack of classic form, but a variety of new forms, as yet un-catalogued. Shakespeare didn’t follow the standard format of the sonnet, but created his own slight variance on that form. The result was not condemnation, but the birth of the Shakespearian sonnet. For a poem to work, it requires structure. That this structure is not a known, accepted structure matters much less than that the poem is true to whatever structure it follows. Years from now, there may be professors in universities teaching the “rules of 20th Century Free Verse” to future literati, all of whom will be wracking their brains for words to fit those structures and convey meaning. Perhaps not.

Classic poetry teaches patterns of creativity. The act of taking your thoughts, and your words, and swirling, shifting, and re-arranging them until they fit both form and concept is both cleansing, and inspiring. New words, new phrases, seem to leap from the connection of those that come before, and the sense of challenge is immense. Much as the cards of the Tarot were originally conceived as a tool for meditation and personal insight, later to develop into fortune telling and divination placebos for the masses, classic poetry may now have more meaning to the poet; but does that make it less valid? Is there room for such poetry in this day and age? By all means.

There is really no clear delineation between the old, and the new, the classic and the romantic, except that subjective analysis applied by those who critique, but do not write. A poem may rhyme, or not, may flow like the back-beat of an old blues tune, or bark like a pen of hunting dogs catching a scent, but either way, it is an experience.

In writing – prose, poetry, or non-fiction, there are patterns. Some are more easily spotted and captured than others. Few can give the true satisfaction of a sonnet that works. These are rare. My hat is off, in the modern genre poetry world, to Mr. Keith Allen Daniels, who I believe is hard to rival in the art of the sonnet in the confines of genre work, though he has sadly passed on. I think, too often, that we write poetry for genre publications without the deep thought we might give other poetry. Too many poems I read in horror related publications are repeats of grave imagery, or pleadings for the poor, guilty souls of vampires.

Darkness encompasses half of existence, and in that darkness there are patterns. Whether you choose the Classic, or the Romantic style of expressing these patterns, learn to observe them. Expand your concept of what is dark poetry and erase some of those lines drawn between genre and mainstream. There is horror in the mainstream…count on it. And I would further suggest that poetry is a good exercise for anyone who writes. The patterns and images of strong poetry are succinct, vivid, and powerful. These patterns can be manipulated, as in the classic forms, to fit the formats of the short story, or novel, and the economy of words and deeper thought given to each “beat” of those words, when read or spoken, can change the face of a paragraph, or a page, of fiction dramatically.

Whether you choose structure as the base, or the inspiration of a moment – or manage a melding of both schools, the one rule that remains is that the poem be true. You will know when you have hit the right pattern, and if the poem feels forced, or discordant, it probably is. The poet is the harshest critic of his own work, as is true with any great art form. The form will be there when you carve away the words that don’t matter. When you see it, pluck it out, whether it rhymes like Dr. Seuss or flows like Robert Frost on acid. When you have it, you will know.

Don’t let it slip away.

The images slip
Sliding away so quickly
Then die, pen skewered

DNW