. . . a Blog by P. Wesley Lundburg
February 18, 2018
A Sense of Place
A recent reader of The Stateroom Tryst (set in San Diego) commented to me that as a San Diego resident, he really felt a familiarity in the setting due to its capturing the details and vibe of the city. He said the local feel of the book really helped him become immersed. He then went on to compliment me on my ability to provide sucha strong sense of place in the story. I thanked him, of course, and replied with something about knowing and loving the place so well (I grew up there, and visit fairly frequently), but the back of my mind went, “hmmm.”
What struck me about the comment is that I’ve had similar comments—repeatedly—about the other series I’m writing, The Frank Mattituck Series (set in southcentral Alaska). The Mattituck series was the first, with 2 books in that series written before I wrote the first book in the San Diego series (The Clayton Chronicles, about a hard-boiled noir PI). When I was writing that first book, I wasn’t trying to build a strong sense of place. It just happened. But with all the comments from multiple reviewers and emails about it, it’s clear that this is part of what makes the stories so strong.
But how? How did it happen?
I’ve written in the past a bit about the importance of setting, and even about scenery and how much detail is important. But I’ve been mulling this notion about a strong sense of place, and its place in a story. How is it that the setting in these stories has gone ‘above and beyond’ and become such a strong sense of place? I think it follows naturally from my being so immersed in the place as I write the stories. When I’m writing, I can see where my characters are, feel the ambiance, hear the sounds of the city (or nature), feel the temperature on my skin…. I can even feel their shoes – Clay’s dress shoes and his suit as he speeds up on the sidewalk to catch the Red Trolley, and Mattituck’s Raichle boots as he hops off the bow of the DeeVee8 and onto the firm, sanded shore.
I’m not exactly surehow it happens, this transfer of what the writer is experiencing to the reader, but I do have some thoughts . . . or guesses.
When the writer is fully immersed in the setting of the story, and when s/he has a deep history and knowledge of the place and the details of the place—even the details that don’t get into the descriptions—there is a rich stockpile of little details that can subtly squirm their way into the narrative. When the imagination draws on a repertoire of details that are steeped in every sense (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste), and when the writer is fully “in character” while writing the actions and thoughts of her/his characters, every detail of the place is present. And when that happens, the details of the place are noticed, sometimes intentionally and sometimes randomly . . . and they find their way into the story.
Maybe this is part of why the old adage, “write what you know,” is particularly poignant. It’s true. Maybe it’s the little, subtle, random details that perk into a story that give it a truly deep sense of place. One thing I am sure of. Those details and that sense of place are a big part of what makes writing such a joy. I love when they emerge, and in some wonderful way wind up making the story that much more real.
It’s like a favorite restaurant. It isn’t just the food, is it? It’s the ambiance of the place that makes it so enjoyable. It’s how it feels to be there.
Perhaps the strong sense of place in a story is the equivalent of the ambiance of a restaurant. If it’s not there, then the story doesn’t offer the richness that we need in order to be fully immersed in the experience of being there.
I’m thinking that any stories I write had better be places I know and love . . .
Happy Reading! (and for writers . . . Happy Writing!)
February 2, 2018
The Fountain Pen and the Blotter: A Romance
The fountain pen lay diagonally across the blank page, staring at the sky above, unmoving. She took a slow deep breath, then let it float out, careful not to let the air whistle through her empty chamber.
“What’s up, then, love?” asked the blotter jar, squatting just beyond the edge of the sheet of paper. His British accent always appealed to the fountain pen’s American psyche.
She sighed deeply.
“Oh, I don’t know . . . it just seems like something should be happening.”
The blotter watched her. Her slim figure stirred the dark blue ink deep inside him. He tried to keep his feelings in check as he waited. But she said nothing.
She sighed again.
“Y’mean something like a bloke pulling you up and taking you for a dance-a-bout ‘round the page?”
She chuckled lightly. Dear Blotter. He was always willing to pour himself out for her.
“Sounds like fun, but there’s no music,” she said lazily.
“You make the music, love,” he returned. “All you ‘ave to do is draw out some staffs and put the notes on ‘em, and we can dance the night away, if you please.”
Fountain Pen smiled again toward the sky.
“You’re always so positive.”
“Why not, then? So many possibilities. You can write out your own destiny.” He paused a moment, then added, “our destiny.”
She rose to a sitting position and looked at him.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, love,” he said. “Whatever you put on paper becomes our story, right? It’s a blank sheet under you, then, and all you ‘ave to do is draw something out. With words or musical notes or drawings . . . whate’er you like, you can put to paper, then, and we’re off.”
But she didn’t move. Nor did she respond. She only sighed.
“But I don’t have any ideas,” she said finally, the despondency in her voice as thick as the fluid inside him.
“Sure you do. You ‘ave lots of ‘em in you. Time and time again, you’ve worked your magic, flowing to and fro and creating something worth paying attention to.”
Fountain Pen gazed toward the edge of the paper. “Do you really think so?”
“Sure,” Blotter said. “Anything at all.”
Fountain Pen sat silently, unconvinced.
“For instance,” Blotter offered, “you could e’en take us sitting ‘ere and talking about not writing or writing, or drawing. Or just talking back and forth.”
“You mean with nothing happening?” she asked incredulously.
“That’s right,” he said. “Those reader blokes out there would follow along, just the same, waiting to see what ‘appens.”
Fountain Pen smiled and shook her head. “No they wouldn’t,” she returned matter-of-factly.
“Sure they would,” Blotter shot back.
“Why? What would keep them reading?”
“Do you mean to tell me you don’t know that?” Blotter said, the incredulity in his voice now. “It’s the tension, love. You know that.”
“What tension,” Fountain Pen asked, sitting up straight.
Blotter knew he’d piqued her interest now. He had her.
“Conflict. There’s nothing ‘appening in action, maybe, but there’s plenty ‘appening when you think about what could ‘appen. The readers know what could ‘appen. But they wonder. They don’t know if it be what they think, or maybe something unexpected. That there’s the tension—the reader wondering what’s going to ‘appen.” He nodded meaningfully at her. “You know ‘bout conflict, then, love. You use it all the time, you do.”
Blotter guffawed. “Aw, you’re only teasin’ at me now, aren’t you, love?”
Fountain Pen sent a demure smile at him. He felt the ink stir within him again.
“You . . .” she said, her alto voice carrying the singular syllable out across the page toward him.
He felt it draw him, and he began to slide toward her, first over the last of the table and onto the page, then more compellingly toward her.
“You . . . are the only reason anything gets on the page.”
His thoughts drifted over this as his bulbous body floated toward her.
“But . . .” he started, then paused. “But you, love . . . I would never form anything on the page without your stylus and point.”
“My point flowing you onto the paper,” she continued. “Gliding over the blankness, letter by letter and word by word, until you and I—“
“Until you and I together make the story,” he finished for her.
She smiled. “Yes. Until you and I make our story.”
Then they were joined. His ink flowed and he joined her, and their consciousness melded in an alchemy that formed their purpose together. Within minutes, they scrolled and glided along the lines of the page, two lovers entwined as they dipped and swayed around the grand white dance floor . . . the music of their story finding expression and defining their union.
Fountain Pen’s eyes drifted to half-closing, feeling the ink of the Blotter as together they parented something new and fresh.
They looked into each other’s eyes, swirling round and round, satisfied and joyous that they had taken to the page again and given it life.
Outside, the readers continued following the product of Fountain Pen and Blotter’s dance, the story hidden within that had taken form beneath Fountain Pen and Blotter’s feet. Fountain Pen and Blotter had long since left the page, but the readers followed their words across the page — the permanence of the dancing ink articulated on the page . . . living on forever etched first on the page, then in the readers’ minds.
January 7, 2018
The Plot and the Plotter
Last April 19, my blog entry was about the importance of characters, and how they drive the plot. Since then, I’ve continued thinking about plot and characters, and what makes a good story. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the interplay between the two from the viewpoint of plot. I think it’s because I’ve come across a few discussions lately where some writers insist that the key to good writing is to have a well-planned plot prior to writing. Maybe they’re right. No, I take that back—I KNOW they’re right . . . for certain writers, anyway. For the rest of us, I don’t think that works very well.
“The real story is not the plot, but how the characters unfold by it.” I couldn’t agree more with this quote from writer Vanna Bonta. I’ve long held that a good story is more about the characters than any other single element in the writing, and I’m clearly not alone among writers in holding this opinion. Anne Tyler has said that she doesn’t necessarily know how a novel is going to end when she starts writing. She devotes her effort to creating solid, interesting characters and then dropping them into a situation and watching how the story unfolds.
I know from talking to a lot of other writers and reading “On Writing” books by famous authors that most writers don’t work that way. Most, it seems, need to have a clear idea of the major events in the story and how it’s going to end before they start writing. This has never worked for me. In fact, it causes quite a bit of frustration for me as I try to force the story toward my pre-determined plot.
It was a major break-through for me when I realized that I didn’t have to plan out every detail in the story before I start writing. As I thought about it, in fact, I saw that it made perfect sense (for me, anyhow) to let the characters live their lives. It made sense to me that maybe my job as a writer was to attend to the characters and make sure they were consistent and did whatever that person would do in whatever situation they came up against.
After all, isn’t that how life is?
We don’t plot out our lives, although we like to think we have a plan. Of course, a plan and a plot are completely different. We know a plan might change . . . probably will, in fact. But a plot is supposed to hold to the plan.
Robert Frost said that without tension, there is no drama. And without drama there is no story. Tension revolves around conflict, such as a person versus another person. In that type of conflict, Person A is trying to accomplish Thing 1, while Person B tries to prevent Person A from succeeding. That’s a classic hero vs. villain plot. Another type is Person A vs. the environment, where the protagonist (hero) might survive a plane crash and needs to hike over three frozen mountain ranges to reach civilization. There are plots of person vs society and person vs self as well. So many possibilities. But the point is that there has to be a conflict of some sort that gives the story life. Have you ever read a story about a person sitting in an armchair reading the newspaper, occasionally taking sips of tea? The fire crackles here and there, but the protagonist never moves, nothing happens, and 270 pages later the “story” ends exactly as it began.
Boring. And what’s the point of that story?
A good plot unfolds through the characters living through a situation. The situation presents some kind of conflict, some tension that the main character (or group of characters) is trying overcome. That’s what keeps us turning the pages, or our eyes glued to the screen. We want to see if they pull it off.
For me, then, it’s about having really well developed characters and keeping them consistent not to what I want them to do, but to what they want to do. I need to have them react to things as that person would react, and then the outcome of their actions trigger, perhaps, a reaction from somebody else . . . or it changes the situation a bit. Or maybe things don’t turn out as intended and a snowball effect is set in motion that the main character is now trying to contain. Wow…. The possibilities are endless, if you think about it.
So when does the story end? It ends when the character finally DOES overcome the tension. They finally achieve what they wanted to, or in some cases fail to do so. In any case, the conflict is resolved, and the story comes to an end. The plot is played out.
The plot wrote itself, in other words. Better yet, the story was allowed to become what it wanted to be. What I love most about this in my own writing is that whatever it is in me that wanted the story to come out—needed it to come out—is satisfied when I write this way. I recognize that this is precisely the way the story should have ended. It happens when I know I have good characters and that I have kept them consistent. As Anne Tyler put it, I have solid characters that I dropped into a situation, and then watched the story unfold. Going back to Vanna Bonta’s quote, the real story was allowed to come from how the characters unfolded the plot.
Right on, Ms. Bonta. You nailed it. The plot isn’t the focus. The characters are. The characters and the conflict and how they live through it. That’s the substance of a good story.
December 11, 2017
Matisse and Landscapes
I’ve always seen close parallels between the impressionist painters and writers of fiction and poetry. Poetry is probably a bit obvious: images give an impression that is left for the reader to fill in and make meaning of. It’s the same with a painting. Within reason, of course. The viewer does need to build her interpretation from the image that’s presented. I don’t think I’ve met anybody that didn’t look at an impressionist painting and identify the image captured . . . even though it is far afield from a direct representation (like, say, a photograph).
I think it’s the same with fiction.
Hemingway was fond of one impressionist painter in particular: Henri Matisse. Why do I mention this? Because Hemingway was a bit of an impressionist painter himself. Well, not literally. But in his writing he was. He painted images that I believe are very much parallel to Matisse’s paintings—especially Matisse’s landscapes. Go ahead, Google “Henri Matisse landscapes” and I think you’ll see what I mean. The first thing I see in those landscapes is how well they give a complete picture of what the scene looks like without going into the details that you might see in a photograph or at the real scene. Instead, there are bold lines outlining many of the items in the landscape, giving them clear definition, but nothing like what we see in real life. And what really strikes me is the colors Matisse uses. They are soft earthy tones, which impresses on me a feeling of the truly natural world that Matisse is trying to capture. And he pulls it off. He does it with real colors, key images strewn across the landscapes—a farmhouse, a tree, or a fence stretching over rolling hills into the distance.
By contrast, if you know Hemingway’s writing, you know that it is sparse in imagery. He focuses on action and dialog, and his stories are carried by what we see and hear in the characters. We don’t get long paragraphs describing the sidewalk café or the bulls running through the streets of Madrid toward the arena. Far from it. Those images are conjured in our minds as we read, largely because Hemingway knows we’ll fill in those details, and he wants to give us what he called “The Iceberg Principle,” where 10% of the iceberg is visible above the surface. The other 90% of its substance is beneath the water’s face. He wanted to do the same thing with his writing.
Except when it comes to scenery.
In A Farewell to Arms, this really stood out for me. The story is carried by dialog and movement, even in the war scenes. Then you come to a new chapter, and he sets into a lengthy (for him, anyway) description of the landscape. The landscape. Just likeMatisse. And he does it in the tradition of Matisse, with images of this or that half-bombed building or fallen tree, and with stark bold lines outlining the images he wants to draw attention to. I think Hemingway was intentionally trying to do with his writing what Matisse did with his landscape paintings.
An impression is a powerful thing. And Hemingway knew that as well as Matisse and all the other impressionist painters did. Better yet, Hemingway knew that painting a landscape would have an especially poignant impact because it was arguably the only place he did it. Nowhere do you see such description in Hemingway’s work as you do when he writes a landscape. It’s truly remarkable and powerful. And it’s packed with meaning . . . precisely the intent of Matisse in his painting (all of the impressionists, actually). The impact of Hemingway’s landscapes in A Farewell to Arms is particularly powerful because those landscape “paintings” draw an image of the destruction the war brings to the landscape. The destruction of nature at human hands, through war.
And if you have any doubt that Hemingway loved nature that much, read the Nick Adams stories.
Wow. That’s really brilliant stuff. And I love it. I love Hemingway’s juxtaposition of the beauty of nature and the way it’s destroyed by war. The same thing happens to the human spirit, he seems to be saying through the novel, that happens to a landscape. The beautiful destroyed.
Writing is impressionist painting. Writers conjure images that they leave to the readers to complete. They paint a picture that is simultaneously accurate and fictional, and leave whatever meaning it carries to the readers.
November 16, 2017
Autobiographical Fiction . . . or Fictional Autobiography?
Ernest Hemingway said all fiction is autobiographical. I heard this way back when I was a young English major at Fresno State, and it’s stuck with me over the years. Oddly enough, I’ve had changing degrees of agreement with this idea. I think I’ve settled on the middle ground (it seems as I get older, the middle way looks more and more right for most everything). To a certain degree, fiction is always autobiographical, but it’s also true that autobiography is also very much infused with fiction. This is true in our real lives, so why wouldn’t it be in writing?
Here’s a fun story that might capture what I mean . . .
When I was in the 4th grade in Peñasquitos (San Diego), California, all us neighborhood hooligans would strike up wars in the canyon behind our row of houses, where dirt clods were in plenty and the road and houses were out of sight . . . . meaning no adults to tell us to stop our safety-threatening games. The purpose of the dirt clods was this: When you throw them at “the enemy,” they exploded with a reddish dirt that left no room for arguments about whether or not Bobby Smith was hit or not. It was the 1970 version of paint ball. After school one day, my brother and I joined in the Canyon War Games, and as any adult could have predicted, I got nailed on the forehead with a particularly hard dirt clod. It must have struck juuussst right on the capillaries, because the amount of blood gushing from my forehead was, well, alarming. We quickly saw that the wound wasn’t life-threatening, although it did seem advisable to get home to Mom.
My brother and I, being a couple of hooligans, decided to overplay it and see what reaction we would get out of Mom. We came stumbling in the front door, me pretending to cry my head off, and my brother shouting, “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!” Well, you can imagine the panic in poor old Mom . . .
Great fun. But guess what? . . . when my brother tells the story now, it was he who suffered the fictionally mortal wound. And to this day we haven’t really settled the factual event.
Autobiography for both of us. Fiction for both of us.
How so on the fiction? Okay . . . in that little story I just told you, there are a couple of facts: the canyon, the fact that we played war with dirt clods, and one of us really was hit and bloody on the forehead. Oh yeah, and we really did pull that prank with poor Mom. Everything else? . . . fiction. I don’t even know if the dirt was red.
But doggone it, doesn’t it make a good story???
I had a conversation a month or so ago with fellow author and friend, Billy Lawrence. While we were chatting about the craft of writing, we stumbled onto this very topic. As it turns out, his novel (The Punk and the Professor, which I highly recommend) was originally drafted as a memoir. This really caught my attention, so I asked him how he went about changing it from a memoir to a fictional novel. And his response really captured the essence of what Hemingway was saying. He shared with me how he altered details and events—and especially the individuals in it from real people to fictionalized characters—and how he navigated the line between fact and fiction. As I listened to him, I realized once again that everything is to one degree or another both fiction and memoir.
I don’t think I could craft a book the way Billy has, and I have to plug my friend’s work here. He is a fantastic writer, and very cognizant of the craft of writing . . . which makes for great conversation, and for two writers strolling and talking, great insight that is sure to lead to better writing.
Hemingway’s pronouncement is very definite, a hard line drawn in the sand. Maybe that’s why it’s always been a tough one for me to completely buy into—I’m more of a gray area kinda guy. But I’ve also always been fascinated by the truth of it. As a matter of fact, I’m not so sure that there’s anything that’s fully autobiographical, nor fully fictional.
Maybe there’s such a thing as a fictional spectrum.
October 20, 2017
Dot-to-Dot Painting of Stories
I read another writer’s comment the other day that he enjoys writing because he’d rather make up his own characters and situations than read somebody else’s. This was an interesting way of looking at it, so it latched onto me and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. And since I knew I’m overdue for posting an entry on my blog, you’re invited to mull it over a bit as well.
Here’s the really cool thing: We all have different motivations and different ways of seeing the same thing. I think that’s pretty amazing and, well, neat. For my part, I wouldn’t have responded with that. My response would have been something more along the lines of how much I enjoy developing a complex personality and a situation for them to be in, and then writing consistently to their character—which results in them doing things that drive the story. In that way, my stories kind of write themselves. And boy-oh-boy is that fun to watch. I absolutely love it. As I wrap up writing a novel, as I am right now with the 3rd book in the Mattituck series (“Hinchinbrook’s Hunted”), I am awed by the great story that results from simply having my characters do what is realistic and consistent with who they are. There you go… in a nutshell, that’s the joy of writing for me.
But back to the other writer’s view. It got me thinking about the imaginative process, because whether readers realize it or not, they are creating just as much—or more—than the author is. An author puts out suggestions . . . images. Just as Monet did with his impressionist paintings, they are impressions of something. A story does not represent the real world, nor is a complete picture of the world that could exist within the book. Much of that is “fleshed out” by the reader’s imagination. What the landscape looks like, how the light splays across the mountains in the background of a scene, the sound of the breeze drawing through the pines. . . all of these occur in the reader’s imagination, not the writer’s. Even those examples are suggestions I made to your imagination; your creative process took it from there and made it real for you.
So writing and reading is a cooperative process. It’s a kind of teamwork. And that’s nothing short of stunningly amazing.
That other writer said he likes making up his own stories rather than reading those of others. I don’t agree. I love both processes. I love being the ‘suggestor’ of details, and providing the framework of the story, and being the one who provides the details of the characters and the plot, but I’m always well aware that my Earl Darrick may look very different to any and all readers than he does to me. Sure, who he is and his quirks and thoughts and personality all came from me . . . but what those look like, exactly, and who Earl resembles in readers’ thoughts and experience is beyond me. And rightfully so.
On the reader side, I enjoy using that other creative ability just as much as I enjoy being the ‘suggestor.’ I like following a story and the characters in it, letting my mind drape the details over the impressions the author has created, and knowing that my own creative ability is growing and exercising its unique capacity for making things up. I enjoy becoming immersed in this world and the people in it, all created by the magical paint brush of somebody else, but finished off by the brush strokes of my own imagination.
Remember those dot-to-dot pictures we used to paint as kids? It’s kind of like that. The author puts the dots on the page, and ultimately those dots will lead to a picture that says something. But connecting the dots is the sole work of the reader. No picture will emerge without the reader connecting words and making pictures of them.
Have you ever thought about the word “author”? It shares the same root as the word “authority.” But who is the real authority of a story that is impressionist on the page and detailed in the minds of readers? Who is the true owner? Why not all of us? Why can’t we just enjoy both processes, and honor those involved, whether author or reader?
Whether you’re a writer or a reader, or both, you should embrace and enjoy the process for what it is, knowing that you are equally creative either way.
September 29, 2017
Years ago as a graduate student studying narratology, I was always fascinated by the way many of Charles Dickens’ novels were written. They were not planned out in their entirety and then drafted as a whole book prior to publication; instead, they were released one chapter at a time in a weekly periodical and then compiled into one book after the serialized version was completed. In the height of Dickens’ popularity, people would wait for the Friday release of the new chapter each week much like people now await the new season of their favorite television program. There was a lot of buzz and anticipation, and lines waiting to buy the latest installment of the Dickens story.
As a student of narrative and story-telling, I wondered how this might affect (or effect) the drafting process in writing a novel. I knew that Dickens often changed the direction of a novel’s storyline in response to the readership, but he left little in notes on what his thoughts about that were. All we know is that if readers didn’t like something and had a strong reaction to it, he would adjust the story and ‘save the day.’ If they liked a certain character, he would make sure he included that character more in future chapters.
I’ve never written this way, but I will have the chance to very soon. The Clayton Chronicles, Book 2 (“The Desert Throwdown”) will be running on Channillo.com as a serialized novel, with the first chapter due out in the next couple of weeks (watch for an announcement!—or send me an email address and I’ll add you to my list). While writing the books of the Frank Mattituck Series, I have adjusted to readers’ reactions to characters and certain ways of telling a story, but that’s been by the book (heh… couldn’t resist the pun). The Desert Throwdown will be chapter by chapter, and it’s going to be fun to see how readers react to it as the story unfolds. There is a place for discussion of the book, and I’m hoping readers will discuss it or contact me with their thoughts.
I’m going to guess, though, that even if I don’t see a discussion or hear from readers, just knowing that they’re reading as it goes might affect how I develop the story. Additionally, the schedule calls for a new chapter every other week, which is a much slower pace than how I usually write. So I wonder if the slowed pace might affect how I think about the story and write it. . . . or will I lose patience and barrel ahead of the pace? They do, after all, give me the option of keeping a faster pace if I want. We’ll see what happens. Maybe the readers will tell me to move it along more quickly!
In any case, I’m excited and anxious to try out this new way of writing a novel. I really do hope to get feedback along the way so I can see how it affects the development of the story, and the process of writing it. More than all that, though, there will simply be the fun of writing. The Clayton Chronicles are a fun series.
If you’re inclined to read that new book in serial form and like the idea of participating in a discussion as the story unfolds, drop me an email at email@example.com and I’ll make sure you know when the series starts and how to get to it. You can experience right along with me this new experience of a serial novel.
Until then, Happy Reading!