Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.

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Writer’s Music: Richard Tognetti

246828b86b597eace58e331ffce41e4aSome stories cannot be told with crashing-techno, happy pop, or lonely piano. Some stories call for the drums of battle.

And strings. Lots of kick-ass strings.

Such is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as composed by Richard Tognetti. I can’t think of any other film where the story, character, and score entwine so completely. Normally I don’t bother with movie trivia, but I have to note that Richard Tognetti not only composed the score, but he performed as the violin solist and tutored Russel Crowe when it came to playing the violin.

Why did Russel Crowe need tutoring? Because his character, the captain of the HMS Surprise, is also a violinist. His best friend is the naval surgeon and a cellist. In the quiet moments at sea, these two play duets of such sweet sways you can feel the ocean rock the boards beneath your feet. These are but classical duets, however. The moments of battle between ships lets loose the drums and brass as cannons between the bows. “The Far Side of the World,” the opening track on this score, captures the rise and fall of battle in the fog as well as the celebration of friendship. Violins and cellos both sing and echo the melody to one another; all the while the song builds with a light intensity. What friendship doesn’t go through its moments of tension to come out all the stronger for it? Just so as the captain and surgeon work together to save ship and crew.

Unleash your characters to the drums of battle, and see what they discover in the fog.

Click here for more on Richard Tognetti.

Click here for more on MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD.

 

Writer’s Music: Steve Jablonsky II

onesheetA couple of months ago I wrote of Steve Jablonsky, how I only knew his music from a single anime film: Steamboy. Now I can appreciate that steampunk is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to genre writing: it’s an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, and history all baked into a single pastry that you’re either going to really, really love, or really, really hate. (Rather like my aunt’s rhubarb cranberry bread, come to think.)

Steamboy is one of Jablonsky’s earlier works, and it feels it-not in a bad way, to be clear. There’s a greater dependency on his theme for protagonist Ray throughout the film; any time something heroic or incredible happens, out pops the theme. It’s a bit like the James Bond theme during the Connery films–all Bond had to do was enter the room, and ba da BA DUN, ba da da! You couldn’t go through ten minutes of the film without hearing his theme. (And now the Craig Bond films don’t touch the theme with a ten-foot pole, but ANYway.) My point is, Jablonsky knew he had a good thing, and was determined to use it whenever possible.

Good job he did, because the theme itself is brilliant. Like Ray himself, who starts a boy and finishes the hero of London, the song starts with delicate sounds: piano, harp, oboe, with strings carefully supporting. Halfway through the song, the harp lets loose, and the brass step it up. The trumpets take over the melody, and the edition of subtle percussion makes the music strong, yet light–like Steamboy, this is a creation made to fly.

Every hero deserves a song. Perhaps Ray’s song is just the machination your story needs to send your hero soaring through the pages and into readers’ hearts.

Click here for more on Steve Jablonsky.

Guest Author Michael Dellert Discusses the Land’s Influence on Writing

Time and Place: The Real World of Fiction

Hi, Jean Lee. Thanks for inviting me to write to your audience today.

You asked me recently, “How does the landscape around me influence my writing?”

Nothing anchors a work of fiction so solidly in a reader’s mind as knowing when and where something is taking place. Settings provide bases of operations for everything that happens in a story or novel, and these settings—along with the characters that will do things in there—provide writers with a means to actually tell a story, rather than simply report information.

I grew up in a small, rural farm town in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by reminders of the US Revolutionary War, during the height of the US détente with the Soviet Union. Down in the valley, there are rolling hills, twisting streams, swamps, and small family farms with dairy cattle, sheep, horses, corn and other vegetables. Up in the mountains, where I grew up, there are worn, blunted peaks, steep drops, and tumbled collections of fractured boulders, deposited by the retreat of glaciers so long ago that the land didn’t even know a footprint when those stones were laid down. There are lakes in the low places on top of the mountain, most of them man-made in a time not so long ago when my town was conceived of as a close-to-home retreat for wealthy New Yorkers.

In the winter, the temperatures fluctuate, sometimes bitterly freezing for days at a time, during which the lakes ice over. Then at other times, the weather is mild and merely cool. On such days, the icy lakes suddenly melt, and fog rises, obscuring sight beyond a few dozen yards, and the black-barked, leafless trees loom through the mist. In the Spring (which comes late and slow to the mountains), those same trees suddenly riot with yellow-green leaf-shoots, and the blossoms of flowers in purple, yellow, and white. Summers are a time of blue skies and white clouds reflected on the still waters of the lakes, but also of drenching, earth-shaking thunderstorms. Autumn is a cacophony of colors, gold, red, brown, and yellow, as the leaves change. The temperature drops off in late September when the apples ripen on the trees, and then rebounds for a last hint of summer in mid-October before dropping off again and for good until the following Spring.

As a young man, I didn’t fully appreciate where I’d grown up. It was too familiar, and familiarity breeds contempt. I left that small town as soon as I could to see what this “real world” was really like. Since then, I’ve been a lot of places, and seen pictures of the rest. From city to wilderness, I’ve crammed a lot of travel into a short time on this blue-green marble of ours. And one thing I’ve always found? When I’m stuck for inspiration in my writing, one of the things I can do to break the block is go for a walk wherever I am.

The Credibility of Setting

Human beings are strange creatures. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re always in search of “objective truth,” a common reality that is beyond all dispute and argumentation. Why else is “based on a true story” such a great marketing hook? The idea that some strange, absurd, and fascinating story “really happened” carries a certain amount of magic, doesn’t it?

For this reason, every one of our stories has to really happen in the minds and eyes and ears of our readers. The worlds we create have to exist as surely in fiction as if they had actually transpired in fact. And this comes down to two simple things:

  1. Establishing our characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it all could possibly take place; and
  2. Effectively conveying those characters and situations and details so that the story does take place.

One of the very best ways to ensure that both of those things happen is to pay close attention to the description of our settings.

For example, in my recent book, A Merchant’s Tale, I take the reader to a time before they were born and a place that never existed. Yet through the description and use of small details, the reader is actually there, seeing the things the narrator is seeing, feeling the chilly, early spring morning of a rural farmland:

The wagon rocked beneath my seat. The trail was rutted and pocked with holes and stones. The axles groaned as the old, grey-haired drover tapped at the oxen with a long, flexible switch and nickered encouragement. Ahead, the hills rose and fell. Early spring leaves on the scattered trees had recently broken bud, and flowers belied the hidden dangers lurking amid the shadows.

We passed through croplands. A ploughman and his ox-goader struggled to drive a team and their ard-plough through a fallow field. It had been cold overnight. No doubt the soil was partly frozen. Adarc told me it was hard work, but they might plough at least an acre that day.

Elsewhere, cow-herds mustered cattle through pastures and dogs barked and nipped at the herd to move it toward the best grazing.

The land rose as we passed through the village fields, bearing east into the hills of Droma. We could look down on the king’s village behind us. It wasn’t much more than a ramshackle collection of thatch-and-daub mud hovels clustered on a wide, shallow bend in the river. The tower was impressive, a three-story shell-keep on a tall hill, but otherwise, I’d seen much more civilized mud-holes.

For the reader, this event really happens, just as surely as the events in any “based on a true story” movie. Despite the distance in time, culture, and place from our modern world, this little scene comes through as clear and crisp as if the reader was standing on that trail on that chilly morning, looking across the countryside of Droma.

All fiction should seem that real to the reader. The only way to make it happen is to pay close attention to the details that you want, and only those you need, to convey your story. Then find the very best words you can to describe those details.

The end result will be a work of fiction that brings your readers in and gives them a realistic sense of where things will be taking place.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jean Lee!

—**—

Michael Dellert lives in the Greater New York City area. Following a traditional publishing career spanning nearly two decades, he now works as a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach. He is also the sole writer, editor, and publisher of the blog MDellertDotCom: Adventures in Indie Publishing. He holds a Master’s Degree in English Language & Literature from Drew University, and a certificate from the Cornell University School of Criticism & Theory (2009). He is the author of two fantasy fiction novellas: Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, which can be found on Amazon in print and for Kindle.

Writer’s Music: Anne Dudley II

That which we read often cannot help but influence how and/or what we write. In this case, having immersed myself in The Name of the Rose and Hedge King in Winter, I find myself drawn to @Inessa_ie‘s recommendation of Anne Dudley’s score for Tristan & Isolde.

Period music has its uses: atmosphere, for one. As much as I enjoy John Powell’s powerful narrative, or Philip Glass’ delicious tension, they simply do not always lend to a particular time period. One of my stories contains several characters of bygone ages–The Dark Ages, for instance. Over the course of the story, the protagonist finds herself inside the memories of these characters. How to make the present connect to the past? With music.

“A Different Land” helps me hear the past so I can help readers see it. A lovely melody passes between the oboe and violin while the harp provides the undercurrent on which the song travels. Dudley does not use brass too often in the score, which I find to be a benefit: a romance this delicate–and tragic, sorry–requires a lighter sound, and the balance of strings and woodwinds, with just a touch of percussion, gives us precisely that.

Perhaps your characters are about to embark on a journey to a different land. Perhaps that journey is really for you. Whatever the case, bring Tristan & Isolde. Listen as Dudley’s score and the landscape unite to create new harmonies for your world.

Click here for more on Anne Dudley.

Click here for more on TRISTAN & ISOLDE.

Know. Your. Setting.

My husband Bo is not one to read fiction. He prefers reading nonfiction about the fiction-makers: biographies on actors, the making of films, the rise and fall of movie studios, and the like. Sometimes, Bo shares something with me that I MUST pass on.

We all scratch our heads over certain stories’ successes. How one novel reaches best-seller status despite its writing or cliche character/plot/etc. How one screenplay reaches the screen and another does not. Peter Bart’s Fade Out chronicles how this happened in MGM and, as a result, knocked the studio off the pedestal to the ground.

This excerpt is just one of the many bizarre instances Bart shares in his book. After reading it, I hope you’ll ask yourself: Do I really know my story’s setting? Do I really know my characters? Because if you can’t answer that with confidence, someone is going to call you out on it. Hard.

First, here is the premise of Road Show (spoiler alert: this movie never made it to production) as told by Peter Blart:

The central character was a rock-solid American cattle rancher named Spangler (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself besieged by voracious creditors. When thieving truckers try to charge an outrageous price to transport his 250 head of cattle to Kansas City, Spangler opts for the ultimate act of defiance. He will drive his herd to market the old-fashioned way–a classic cattle drive past the turnpikes and the billboards and the Holiday Inns and the Big Macs. Assisting him will be his wife, Opal, and his friend Leo (Tim Hutton), a schoolteacher who is desperate to learn what the “real world” is like. Along the way, there is danger and adversity, but Spangler prevails–he gets his cattle to Kansas City. (Bart, 1990, 72-72)

Now that you know the story involved with the incident, let’s learn about the incident, shall we? The other players involved are Richard Brooks, slated to direct, and Denne Petitclerc, writer and “battle-hardened veteran of the movie wars” (Bart, 1990, 80).

Having read the Getchell draft of Road Show, Petitclerc said he was troubled by the curious absence of conflict. Once Spangler decides to defy the venal truckers and launch his cattle drive, the story seems to dissipate rather than build, Petitclerc reported. A tentative romantic triangle between Spangler, Leo, and Opal never develops into anything.

Indeed, nothing seems to develop!

When Petitclerc posed his analysis of the script to Brooks, he listened carefully and said he agreed. After tossing ideas back and forth for several hours, a working plan was agreed to. Petitclerc would start his rewrite, consistent with their discussions. Brooks, meanwhile, would go to Kansas to scout the actual locations and hopefully come up with some fresh solutions to the story problems.

“I’m not good at dealing with things in the abstract,” Brooks said. “I have to get a sense of real people and places.” And, having said that, he got an even better idea: He would also invite his two leads, [Jack] Nicholson and [Tim] Hutton, to join him on his jaunt through Kansas. Having waited so long for the picture to start, they might be energized by the trip and get into their characters.

The actors readily agreed, and they all took off. Once during this trek, Brooks phoned to say it was going well. The only setback thus far, he said, was that Jack Nicholson almost got arrested for mooning other motorists on the turnpike.

Upon returning from the trip, however, Brooks quickly fell into a dark mood. “He’s worried,” Donna Dubrow reported. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong, but he looks miserable, and he’s popping glycerine or some kind of a pill for angina pains. He’s worried, and therefore I’m worried.”

A week later, Petitclerc turned in a stack of revised pages, but Brooks would not return his phone calls to disclose his reaction to them. An aide reported seeing clumps of pages atop Brook’s desk with epithets like “garbage” and “trash” scrawled in the margins.

Brooks himself burst into my office one day to explain, in his usual disconnected way, what was bothering him. “It’s the goddamn story,” he said, pacing the room, “the whole premise. It starts from there.”

“What starts from there?”

“If a rancher like Spangler felt he was being fleeced by truckers, he’d go out and rent his own goddam trucks, that’s what he’d do. I realized that driving around Kansas, talking to people. And he sure as hell wouldn’t start a goddam cattle drive, because he couldn’t get the goddam cattle across the goddam turnpikes, and even if he could, the goddam bridges wouldn’t hold up under a thundering herd.”

Brooks stopped in his tracks. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“No one involved in this movie ever went to Kansas, that’s what I think. There are a hundred things in this script that wouldn’t be there if anyone had visited Kansas. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve visited Kansas!”

Having said that, Brooks exited my office. (Bart, 1990, 80-81)

Believe it or not, it took MORE hi-jinks to ensue before they finally shut this project down.

Anyway, I hope this bit of history gives you pause. It’s so easy to set our stories anywhere, real or imagined, but unless we can fully explain how our world works, or how our characters work, we are setting our stories up to fail. Know your place. Know your people. Or you will find yourself knocked off the pedestal and face-down in the dirt.

Click here for more on Peter Bart’s FADE OUT.

 

NaNoWriMo Writer’s Music: Week 1

National Novel Writing Month is upon us. You’ll have to pardon me as I wish to dedicate my time write–feeble as it is–to the challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days.

So rather than blog, per say, I shall share music I find useful for various elements of story. For starters, a starter: music that marks the beginning of adventure. James Newton Howard’s score for PETER PAN has an excellent bit of fantastic to inspire you: a light giddiness that builds into the dramatic departure of the known for the unknown.

Are you ready to embark on Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon? Don’t be afraid. Let your story hold out its hand. Take it, and fly.

Click here for more on PETER PAN.

Click here for more on National Novel Writing Month.

Roads

In my post  “The Consequence of Denying ‘What If,'” I introduced Rachel, a friend who had a cancerous tumor removed from her brainstem. Two weeks ago I took a trip to visit her in the rehab facility she will call home for an indefinite time. I avoided the interstate on purpose.

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20150623_082913When one breaks from the suburban south of Wisconsin, one enters a clear, open space, where farms still live and die by the land. Because I had no deadline, I paused often on the road.

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20150623_08224320150623_084305I loved how every road felt worth a journey, from the well-tended to the unpainted. The farmlands themselves felt perfect for a hike (trespassing aside).

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20150623_082924And the run-down places begged for a looksee.

20150623_084653I crossed over a heavily-treed river and noticed a small waterfall—manmade, I figured. As was the mill.

A skeleton of a mill.

20150623_083514_HDRAnd it was beautiful.

I watched the water fall and cast ripples, carry sticks and leaves under the bridge, to the other side, and beyond. As a mother of young children, I am often not allowed to admire natural wonders. The blink of an eye can mean a missed mill. It can also mean a missed child.

So when these moments away from family come, and I am allotted hours to lose myself in the partly-tamed wilds, that is precisely what I will do. As a mother, it allows me a moment to breathe and enjoy the quiet. As a writer, I am reacquainted with the quintessential rural setting. Lose yourself in the natural world around you, and discover a wealth of sensual touches to make your created worlds real.

For more images of Wisconsin, please see “Where and Why I Write” as well as “The Need for Place.”