The Need for Place

Old Streich Land 6

I walked through hunting grounds on a frigid April morning. This used to be a farm I looked upon often from the cemetery, where my grandparents are buried. It is an old cemetery, as you can see by the stones, and the church itself has been locked away to the world for decades. I would look upon those broken stones and that gaping maw of a tree as a child and wonder if the stillness in the day truly continued into the night.

Why do I feel drawn to these places? My grandmother’s death was the first major loss I experienced as a child. It also helped me realize how much I depended on my grandparents for stability in the world.

When you’re a preacher’s kid, your allegiance is to your church. You go to the church’s school and hang out with other church kids. The town is to be held at a distance, what with all its heathens and *gasp* Catholics.

Yet even in the church, I felt held at arm’s length from everyone. The Powers That Be considered my dad to be something of a problem solver, so every few years he was sent to a new church to deal with frictions inside the church or between the church and the community. Every few years we had to pack up, say goodbye to people we were just barely beginning to know, and walk to the front of yet another church and be stared at by hundreds of people as the “and family” of the new pastor package. It’s hard to become a part of something when you’re set apart from the get-go.

My grandparents, however, never moved. For years, I walked with Grandpa to the same park and fed ducks. Every summer I dragged my feet behind Grandma to the same craft store so she could sift through dress patterns. (Note to Craft Stores: put something to do by those blastedly huge pattern catalogs!) We grilled out at their house every Fourth of July and parked on the same mosquito-addled hillside for fireworks. My grandparents knew contentment through place in their community, and with every visit, I knew it, too.

When Grandma died, they buried her in this small rural cemetery, not far from the open-mouthed tree. After the burial, my mother pointed across the street to a hollow yellow brick house. “That’s the Streich farm, your grandma’s.” I stopped listening after “grandma’s.” When you’re twelve, you don’t think much about cousins twice removed or however that works. You just hear that something else was once a part of your family’s place. I looked upon the fields of corn, the fallow lots of grasses, and inside made it mine. I imagined that land during my years in boarding school, where we learned to tie ourselves to God and prepare to move across the world on His Whim. I wanted that house and its fields. Let God maneuver other people about like game pieces. I put my time in. Let me have place.

Then they tore down the house and turned it into wild lands for hunters.

I don’t blame the Streich relative, however distant, for selling to the Department of Forest and Wildlife. At least the land won’t be buried under concrete and strip malls. It’s acquired a new beauty in this wild phase, with hidden pools, peculiar clumps of trees and shrubs, and grasses tall enough to hide wolves. The land may never physically be mine, but I can wander through it, touch its soil, and imagine, for a while, what it means to have place.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Exposition Before the Story

71sst0-sdELMy first exposure to Diana Wynne Jones came through Hayao Miyazaki. I was entranced by Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which remains one of the greatest examples of an organic plot I’ve ever seen, and couldn’t wait to see his next feature film, Howl’s Moving Castle. While the film is beautiful in its own right, I soon learned it does not have the Jones flair I fell in love with by, oh, page 1 of her novel Howl’s Moving Castle.

After reading twenty-some of her books (I still have a long ways to go), my writer’s self gets stuck on one particular aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle: its first several pages are exposition.

Now granted, it’s a different world. She establishes that in the first sentence in a fantastic way: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.” Not only does she present the fantasy-aspect, she snags the reader’s attention because you just know she’s going to write about some such eldest of three and that something bad’s bound to happen to that person.

She goes on to describe protagonist Sophie’s life and situation for five pages, then pauses for a mini-scene that seems to establish the character’s fate, and…goes on describing life until page seventeen.

Now as writers, are we not to avoid loads of exposition? We give scenes, conflict, details and information placed in strategic tidbits of dialogue and mini-exposition. Not page after page of talking about things. I may as well dial up my aunt and hand the phone over to you.

How to justify this?

The prose is not first-person; it is third-person limited, with Sophie’s perspective as the focus. Through Jones’ exposition, we receive a clear sense of Sophie’s personality pre-adventure: bored but resigned to a bland future because she is the eldest of three. We get a glimpse of her daily life in the hat shop, as tedious a place as one can imagine, and wonder if this character’s got the spine to actually go out a do something worthy of a story.

Then the other bits of exposition come, inter-mixed with Sophie’s hat shop life, thanks to visiting customers and rumors and other things that float around a small town. We learn about two potential villains and their supposed powers. We get foreshadowing of Sophie’s hidden talents, hidden so well that Sophie has absolutely no clue they exist. We also receive a quick foreshadowing of the curse inflicted on Sophie that forces her out of the hat shop and into the dreaded Waste.

Lengthy exposition has always been considered an audience-killer for any story, especially when placed before the story itself truly begins. Yet Jones took this idea, buried it, and transformed it into a tactic that works. With a careful balance of setting, character, and information dropped from passers-by, Jones whips through several years and at the same time establishes the major aspects of the world necessary for the story to take place.

Would I try this tactic in one of my own stories? Maybe after the twentieth book. Until then I will enjoy meandering about Jones’ writing and worlds, eager to learn from one of the most fantastical children’s writers of the past century.

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman

lemonysnicket_soundtrackNewman’s work throughout this album fulfill several needs for the children’s writer: you have the quirky theme for Olaf (a personal favorite). A quiet, music-box like quality for children. Crazy and proud themes for the different relatives the orphans meet. Newman’s got a delightful uniqueness for every setting the Baudelaire Orphans encounter. I was torn one which track to write about, actually, because Newman’s score has helped me with character development and plot drive. Today, I will focus more on the plot angle.

“The Letter that Never Came” is a beautiful balance between strings and piano. It portrays hope and apprehension all it once—just the mix one experiences when watching doctors move about a child’s sick bed. I write this scene from the human pet’s perspective; she stays close to her troll master while they work, desperate to hear good news of any kind.

When a writer kills a character, it absolutely must happen for the sake of the story, and not just for gut impact. I’ve had enough people die on me in real life to have an inherent need to keep all my characters alive no matter what explosive battles they endure. But in my story about trolls who keep human children as pets, I knew I had no choice. The trolls have made their world toxic, but they refuse to admit it. It takes the death of my main troll child to push the human pets to fight against those hiding the cure. “The Letter” helps me combat the emotional drain and stay on task, forcing my characters to face the inevitable loss and inescapable future.

 

Click here for more on Thomas Newman’s LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

In Praise of Found Things

Emily Ebeling, the professional photographer and friend who compiled the lovely winter shots I posted in “Where and Why I Write,” also took a few shots of this:

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Just a necklace, right?

The actual finding took place a while ago. At the time my graduate school experience mirrored the Minnesota spring: cold and messy. One afternoon I spotted this bright red in the muck. Even with the dirt and oil, I could see it was something beautiful. It just needed a home.

My daughter loved it too, which is nice, until one realizes that a baby prefers to show her affection by slobbering all over it. Often the necklace ended up by my computer because it was in the only room we kept closed off. During my first NaNoWriMo, I pulled elements from the book room into my story because, well, they were there, and I was writing against two clocks, one of which was capable of screaming when ignored for too long. Wonderland conundrums, Neverland mermaids, Sherlock Holmes, and…my necklace. My female protagonist needed a memento of her family, and it seemed as good a token as any.

With each draft, I nurtured those cuttings from the classics to become unique elements in my story-world. The necklace, too, became more than just a token. It symbolized my protagonist’s sacrifice. It lured enemies out of the dark. It foreshadowed a secret lineage.

It became one of the most important pieces of my story.

Not bad for a random find in a parking lot.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna II

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As I wrote in February, Danna’s music has helped me a great deal as a writer. While The Sweet Hereafter creates an unsettling atmosphere (see “Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna,” posted on 2/27/2015), Breach provides an air of mystery no plot should live without.

Say what you will about writing for a specific genre: if you want a page-turner, you’ve got to have a puzzle of some sort to be solved. Characters must work out causes of events, sources of conflict with others, and their own inner flaws. These puzzles can’t just sit on the table half-finished until the last ten minutes; someone’s always got to be working on them or the reader’s going to leave, bored, and never return.

Danna’s Breach utilizes an extensive string section, keyboard, and a few brass and woodwind instruments to build upon each other with musical rhythms. As “A Full Day” begins with the keyboard, I can watch my characters start with little, and slowly begin to piece the different elements of their mystery together, just as Danna brings in layers of short rhythmic melodies, each played by different instruments. By the time the keyboard pulls together its melodies over the crescendo of strings, my characters have uncovered a clue vital to uncovering the kidnapper and where he’s hidden the protagonist.

One other note on Danna: the timing of his music. While I may start a track over and over during the writing process, I expect my story to read in time with the music. If my scene lags—and it does, shamefully often—I know it must be tightened. Writers constantly hear they must “keep up the pace,” but apart from using a metronome, how does one pull it off? In moments where mystery dominates the plot, use Breach’s rhythms to drive your characters onward.

Selection: “A Full Day”

Click here for more on Mychael Danna’s BREACH and other albums.