Blog #2: Time and Place
Since beginning my ‘Novels After Fifty’, I’ve learned several valuable lessons. Lessons that writers of all ages can appreciate. The first being, if your book is specific to a certain “Time and Place”, take time to do the research. Resources abound in today’s world. Thanks to Google, historical newspapers, the National Archive, and City Hall web pages. Even Google Earth can give you a real time visual of a faraway place that you wish to write about. I can visit a place that I lived for a year in North Wales in 1970 – the house is still there and looks quite the same. Amazing technology that this over fifty man didn’t have In 1977, when I began writing. I had to – (and you’ve probable heard this all before) – to go to my public library to do all my research. School work and personal writings were researched this way; thumbing through old index cards housed in rows and rows of drawers. Searching for that one book that held the pertinent information I needed.
Say you are an artist and you are painting a landscape of a specific place and time. You’d want to include as much detail as you can. so that the viewer can perceive the painting as you intended. In your book you’d want the words to describe to the reader the environment your characters resides in. Your colorfully painted characters can not live well in a black and white, or under constructed, world. It doesn’t do them justice. Take the time to bring the landscape up to the color palate of the people who live in it.
I relate it, also, to one of my favorite places to visit. A train park in Scottsdale, Arizona. The McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. The model train exhibit, in a large building, houses the works of several model railroad club. They have been building their layouts for many years. There are HO gauge, O gauge, N gauge, and Z gauge. My daughter and I have our favorite in the HO gauge. My father and I built an HO gauge railroad set up on an 8’ X 4’ sheet of plywood. We bolted castor wheels on it so that I could roll it under my bed.
The various club have built amazing landscapes for their railroads. They depict different places of Arizona and of certain time periods. They meticulously use plaster scenery base, extruded foam, cast plaster rock moldings, and heavy corrugated cardboard to form mountains, hills, and rocks formations. Then, painting and adorning the structures with realistic miniature model trees and shrubs, the scenery is brought to life. The streets that cut through the little towns are adorned with houses, banks, gas stations, and other buildings. The miniature model cars, people, dogs, cats, sheep, horses and cattle bring an air of livelihood to the picture. Then trough it all is the working model railroad system that bustles throughout. All these things make it a realistic and snapshot of a place and time. No matter how insignificant the scenery is alone, in the workings of the model railroad it is pleasing to the eye and is relatable to the viewer. It gives it a finished or polished look.
I took the idea of building the model railroad scenery and applied it to the structure of the books I’m writing. My place and Time is the farmlands and town-hoods of Southern Illinois, 1906.
The farmlands of Southern Illinois are filled with crops of varying shades of greens, yellows and browns. The barns with their bright red paint and white trimming. The green tractors. The house painted a golden yellow and white-sashed-windows. The new corrugated metal of the silo a shimmering silver. The dusty road, straight and narrow, has a rusty-brown haze that lingers just above the surface as the old Model N rambles by. The trees. The shrubs. The animals of the farm and ones that run wild in the fields and the nearby woods. These are all a part of the embellishments of the story. The things that give the characters a solid surface from which to exist.
I wanted to give the reader those details so that they have the full picture. After all, we are talking about Southern Illinois, 1906 – not Philadelphia, 1776, as an example. Philadelphia, 1776, creates imagery of the founding fathers adopting the declaration of independence. Southern Illinois, 1906 may not give the reader too much to go on at first. There may not be an immediately mental image created in the mind. So – I delved into researching Southern Illinois, 1906. I was able to create a decent depiction of that particular time and place.
Note: I do have some recollection of Southern Illinois from childhood. My family visited Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins several times growing up. Though that wouldn’t help with the “Time Period” part of the novels it certainly helped with the place part. The charm of the people and the allure of the checker-boarded farmlands. Many of the old town-hood structures, city halls, court buildings, museums, still remain from those early times.
As I researched Southern Illinois, I found, nestled in those farmlands, these small towns with rich histories of their own. I, as an avid reader, enjoyed the research just as much as the writing. And as I researched I found that each town had unique characteristics. It was important to capture these Landmarks with the respect they deserve. like the characters that resided in them. After all, The devil is in the details.
Now, if your time and place are both non-existent – like some fantasy and Sci-Fi – then your work is cut out for you as well. Without any references to reality for the reader to draw from – you have to paint a picture from scratch. Having said that, I realize that if you watch as much sci-fi TV as I do you will notice some planets resemble Earth. Uncanny. Yet, the devil is still in those details.
Once I had established the T&P, I then added the fantasy. This is taken from the Protagonists’ odd talent (without giving away too much now – as it isn’t relevant). The “unbelievable” became the fantasy and the place and time remains the “believable”. Creating A Fantasy with its roots in history. American history.
Now that I have my time and place established, and the nature of the characters and the fantasy element – I needed to slice my idea into scenes. (like the scenes of a film, TV show or play, the place where a particular incident has occurred). Before I began to write the actual book – I laid out the entire book into scenes – crazy, huh. This truly helped me later on. Each scene written out in a few paragraphs including some essential dialogue. This was the moment when I realized that a trilogy would be the best course in unraveling this tale. The dotted lines that divided up the trilogy are cut along the three separate regions of the Protagonist’s journey.
Having my story concept, the place and time, character development, fantasy element, and the scenes – it was time to divide the book into chapters. Some chapters have more scenes than others, and others just one. An editor may tell me to rearrange my scenes alternatively but for now – I’m comfortable with how I sliced the meat.
In my next blog I want to talk about dialogue.
Thank you and keep chipping away at the stone.
Blog #3: Talk about Dialogue
Blog #1: Where do I begin?
Where do I begin? That’s the question I’ve asked myself for many years. I suppose the reasonable answer to that question would be – at the beginning. So that’s where I’ll start this Blog – at the beginning.
Since this is a blog about writing, I should explain how and when I took an interest in writing. And how, for so many years, I strayed from the thing I loved to do.
As a teen, I was timid. A shy, thin, pimple-faced boy that had minimal self-confidence and went unnoticed. (I ask no sympathy – it was the nature of my character, and it taught me how to develop a thick skin and drew me into writing.) I spent a lot of time in my room, with my vinyl records spinning, a sharpened #2 pencil, and a blank notebook on my desk. This was when I became large and self-assured. I could be whatever or whoever I wanted to be. I could create a world and all its inhabitants. Having them thrive, and move far beyond the humdrum life of an introverted teenager. I was the master of my creations and the ruler of my kingdoms. And it made me feel good about myself.
So I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote some more. I wrote short stories, character sketches, and funny little plays. Once filled up, I tucked those notebooks into a bottom drawer and hung onto them like bullion.
As I became a young man, it was time to work and pay bills. After all, the writing thing is never a sure shot – like a “Regular” job. So writing became a hobby, placed on the back burner. (Though that burner always remained lit)
I worked construction, learned a trade, and paid my bills, and wrote less and less over the years. The perpetual motion of “the grind” led me onward and away from my writing.
I never gave up though. I did, however, find it difficult to return from an extended hiatus and expect to chug full speed down the rails. Writing came and went in phases. Never completing anything. It felt as if I were starting big-eyed stories while squinted. It didn’t help that my newest hobby, over indulging in alcohol, annexed all others.
So – now immersed in the “Workie” thing, paying bills (or not paying them), and drinking the rest of the time.
Priorities changed, and the back burner switched off.
Not to be a bore with the horrible details of an Alcoholic’s antics, I turned to poetry to aid in my recovery. Plus my lovely wife kept me focused – bless her. And since AA meetings are fucking depressing I stopped attending but remained sober. Go figure.
OK – onward and upward. Poetry!
I took an interest in poetry, as an aid, because poems are these tender morsels of life I could chew on and swallow. Which I needed. Sustenance for the psyche. What I love most about poetry, especially metaphysical poetry, is that it forced me to get inside my own head. It does so in depths that the abstract is the only plausible outcome. Poems can reveal more about a human being than an autopsy.
I felt, and still do, that poetry reconditioned my disorder. I cant say it eliminated it, its still a struggle, but it did redirect the force of it. I realize everybody has their own way of dealing with addiction. I do not claim that the method I took for myself would work for anyone else. “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” – Chris Robinson (1984).
At forty-six years old, I celebrated seven years of sobriety. And I self-published my first book of poetry. A hundred and fifty-five-page book of my most revealing poems. Seven years of picking at my own brain and fingering the gray and white ooze onto blank pages. It was crap – but it was my crap. I had my head speared onto a mast then placed at the edge of town for all to witness. Few people read it as I was lousy at the self-promotion thing – but it still felt like an accomplishment to me. Even an ugly dog is loved by its owner.
Four years later, I published my second book of poetry. Selling a few copies and passed a lot of them around to friends and family. I was ecstatic at the reviews and reception. Then once the fanatical frenzy died down, I went back to do the “workie” thing and shelved the remaining copies. I’d glanced at them from time to time out of the corner of my eye and beam with pride.
Still feeling the high of how poetry not only revealed me to the readers, it also revealed me to me. That’s a pretty cool thing. Scary – but pretty cool.
I completed a third collection of poems and let it sit for a month to stew, like I did the first two, with plans to return to it, re-read, and make edits. This was around the time that our old computer decided that it was a good day to die. It crashed and took with it the entire contents of my tertiary book of poetry. And, NO, I did not “back up” my work. I can still feel my boot-heel across my backside when thinking about it. And not having an eidetic memory, I could not recapture those little snippets of mind cache.
So – lesson learned, back to do the “Workie” thing, continue writing, when I could, and dream dream dream.
At this point, being over fifty, I rekindled the idea of getting that first novel written. I had several ideas floating around, but one I started a decade earlier kept coming back to mind. A fantasy story about a little farm girl. A Period Fantasy or I as I like to call it an Americana Fantasy. Well, it started with a farm girl, simple enough, but it turned into an epic tale. One that filled my dreams at night and my thoughts of every waking hour. It consumed me, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote some more. I developed my characters and filled plot holes with rationale, and I created a world for that little farm girl.
Between the “Workie” thing, family, and sleep, I chipped away at that stone one word at a time – revealing the novel. I had never been so focused on my writing ever before.
And so it began in this quest to write my novel after fifty. I guess the first thing I contended with was not dwelling so much on my age. Once I passed that stone from my craw, I got down to the business of immersing myself in the story. I got to know the characters, what they looked like, what they might say, their quirks. I brought them to life. And once the characters had discernible qualities – I envisioned them living in the world I created for them. Their relatability, along with their adverse nature, once defined, brought them to life.
This novel, the Americana fantasy about a little farm girl, I knew, would go far beyond the limits of a farm – it had to. But how far depended on my imagination’s limitations. Was I up to the task? As an introvert, I found my imagination to be my best friend at times. I decided I was going to bully and exploit that friend of mine until he screamed and kicked with mercy. Then I set him on fire.
Sounds a bit brutal – but that became a method of mine. I took that little farm girl and set her on an adventure that she couldn’t second guess. I know she is a character in a book, but I wanted to push the boundaries of what a little farm girl was capable of as she grew into our hero. She turned into something else when she least expected it.
Along with a strong, confidante, and dynamic protagonist, I needed support characters. In the life of every being there are, at first, family, then there are friends, lovers, and cohorts. I gave her all these. Then I needed an antagonist – or perhaps many. An adventure is a buffet – there are more opportunities to eat a bad shrimp.
I gave the little farm girl a world and filled it with friends, family, and cohorts. I set her on an adventure, removing all the stops, then set the whole damn thing on fire – again. And as I did this, I found that the story spread along with the blaze.
My novel became a trilogy. I could see no other way. Three equal slices of the epic adventure.
I am a writer. And the question of “Where do I begin?” Loses all meaning once a person decides that they have already begun.
In my next blog, I will continue the story of writing my novel after fifty. I may even remove my scull-cap and show you the imprint of when I first read Frost.
Thank you and keep chipping away at the stone.
Writing your novels after 50
Blog #2: Time and Place