The Importance of Eyes

A garden, full of sweet basil in the summer, now tall, lean stalks, stand rigid against the wind along the south end of the backyard fence.  The wind, cold, it’s March.  Fuzz in the corner where that south fence meets the edge of the back of the garage, a mixture of pet hair and cotton and insulation wound around grass, torn gum wrappers.  The backyard is part cement, part lawn, unattended to, lazy.  Pieces of concrete lay alongside the seams, irregular shapes balancing on wide faces don’t move with the wind, consistent, and would be frightening if it was fall and the trees were dropping leaves and neighborhoods were getting quiet earlier with the quicker sunset and this wind might howl and find its way through stitching.  The man thinks of this, leaning on the inside of his back door frame, the door open, swinging while it catches the wind, hinges whining.  He remembers Halloween winds, how they felt conjured, part of a enormous outside haunted house, created for effect, controlled and penetrating, encircling and encompassed while lonely all at the same time.

Or,

The man thinks of this, leaning on the inside of his back door frame, the door open, swinging while it catches the wind, hinges whining.  He remembers Long Island from his parents’  photo albums, the ones filled with images taken during the Junes and Julys, how it looked like what he thought vacation ought to look like and, then, feeling almost cheated by the cold tumbling off the water in early spring, his first time there, visiting his father a few years after first seeing those pictures, pictures taken when his parents were visiting that same beach together.

Or…

Well, your choices as a writer are endless.  The key is to not miss the opportunity the utilize your characters’ proximity to an event and how they run that event through their minds, through their own filters in order to help the reader realize how that character, those characters are feeling.  Take a simple situation: A woman sitting on a car hood watching a sunset.  You, as the writer, have a visual and feeling about that sunset.  A reader will, too.  What you have to do, though, to move the story properly, to flesh characters properly, to drive plot well, is to spend time amplifying the impression made on the character who is there.  So think of that sunset and describe it through the eyes of a character that just lost her husband but don’t mention the loss of the husband.  Think of that sunset and describe it through the eyes of a character that just got released from jail but don’t mention the jail release.  It’s tough to be disciplined enough to remove the “you” from the parts of the story where you don’t belong.  It again comes down to practice and then, trust.  As writers we are witnesses and have to bring the news to our readers.  We just have to be sure that we’re reporting the honesty of the moment as the character gives it to us.

Talking about the Weather

imageThe leaves blow past the window, spinning and twirling in the wind as they travel to a resting place. The emptiness of the trees casts new and different shadows on the ground while also letting more sunlight stream in through the window.  The wind whips past those same windows, making a whistling sound as it points out deficiencies in the way-too-old weather stripping which has needed to be replaced for several seasons now.  Stepping outside, the warm smell of a wood fire from someone’s fireplace fills my nose while my lungs ache from the sudden intake of cold air. The frozen grass and dried leaves crunch beneath my feet, adding yet another sound and sensation to this season. The rain coming down in sheets has to go somewhere when it hits the ground, but where can it go when the ground is frozen and the leaves are clogging all the drains?

The change of seasons and the day-to-day changes in the weather can be inspirational from a storytelling perspective.  Just as it does to you or me, little changes to the environment in your story can mean big things to your characters. The weather and the seasons dictate the types of clothing your characters wear, the amount of time they spend outdoors and even their mood and outlook (I know that I, personally, definitely feel less happy on the darker, cloudier, cooler or drearier days).

Incorporating the environment into your stories can make them much richer and more realistic.  I don’t mean you start your stories or chapters with “It was a dark and stormy night…” or anything like that. The choices your characters make when faced with their environment can build a lot of details about them.  Why does Joe wear shorts, even in the dead of winter? Why does Suzie always carry an umbrella, even on sunny days?  How does the village in your story celebrate the solstices or equinoxes?

Jokes abound about how we as human beings “talk about the weather” when we don’t know what to say.  There is truth to that idea that we do this, but why do we do it?  I’d say it’s because the weather is one thing that every single one of us has in common.  Sure there are regional differences to the changes in seasons and even to the duration or severity of storms.  But still we all are able to talk about the weather because it is a common enemy or ally in our existence on this planet.  And while I wouldn’t recommend dedicating entire chapters or thousands of words detailing the specific nature of the exact angle at which the windblown rain is falling against the leaky windows, I do think that the existence of the rain and the wind and even the leaky windows should be touched upon, especially because of the impact it has upon our characters. It is another case of being careful to include enough detail, but not too much.

Having your characters stand around and talk about the weather for paragraph after paragraph is boring; having them interact with the weather can be insightful.

Do you include the weather and seasons in your stories? What tips and tricks can you share about doing so without spending too much time and too many words on it?

Why I don’t like to write about where I live: a study in contradictions

I can’t remember exactly who told me that the heath in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native was a character. I wish I could remember, because I’d like to thank that person. Landscape as character has stuck with me since I first read that novel in tenth grade. And since then, I’ve gone looking for other such landacters or charscapes, if you will, in everything I read.

My memory of Egdon Heath, as it was named in Return of the Native, is as a wild, wind-swept, rain-pelted, snow-encrusted, greedy place—a hungry thing that shrunk and grew with the seasons, and against which the tragedies of the human characters played out. It’s been quite a while since I read Return of the Native, and so my memory of its characters is a bit cloudy. Yet, when I think of that novel—and the heath in particular—I am hit with strong images, with a sense of things, rather than specific, or even accurate, plot points. For example, as I was thinking about this post, I was sure that Eustacia, one of the main human characters, had died as a result of exposure on the heath. After flipping through my book, I realized that my memory had misled me (spoiler alert): she had, in fact, thrown herself into a nearby river and drowned. My point is that what I recall of the heath has more to do with its personality traits—bleak, vindictive, unrelenting—rather than actual plot points.  My memory of Egdon Heath is fuzzy around the edges, and not quite specific.

When I think about landscape in my own writing, I notice that the landscape that I currently exist in is not the one I want to write about. I have many theories for this, and they contradict: there’s a war between clarity and obscurity. Maybe I feel like I’m too close to the current landscape to see it clearly; a true assessment of its characteristics wouldn’t be possible. It’s like the inability to point out a new lover’s flaws—you are too close and too in love to see them. Or maybe I see my current landscape as mundane, old hat, boring snoring. I’m living in it and with it, and what is there to say? It’s bland and lacks character because I see it every day.  Or maybe I just want some distance so I can love the old landscape again, so I can give it its rightful (or at least fairer) characteristics.

I think avoiding the current landscape for the past ones has something to do with the way that I remember Egdon Heath. Living in/with a landscape is perhaps too precise, too fact-driven. Reflecting on a past landscape is more imagistic, sensory, feelings-based. As with any memory of things past, I revise, reshape. Sometimes I remember things worse than they were, or better. The terrible relationship becomes a funny story, where my own ridiculous decisions are played up as comedy, as opposed to focusing on the 12,000 times I sat in my room and cried.

I like remembering the small, seaside town of Aberystwyth, Wales where I lived for a year, as a windy, damp, moody place, with tiny streets, quintessentially British architecture, and idyllic countryside dotted with old churches and graveyards. I don’t like remembering the specificity of the damp (my clothes dotted with mold, the stubbornness of my coal fireplace to light), or the remoteness of the town that frequently drove me to boredom. Or rather, it’s not that I don’t want to remember those things, but that I didn’t want to write about them when I was in it. I wanted to wait, until I could see all of it a bit more hazily, until I could give it some context and gain some perspective (or maybe at least until I could reach in my closet for a dress that wasn’t mold-wracked). But perspective in this case, for me, meaning less clarity. Or does it? What kind of perspective does distance and time give to something? If I return to Egdon Heath and the way I remembered it, I could say, on one hand, that I have a terrible memory and that I’m just wrong about the heath; on the other hand, I could say, my impression of the heath is true, my hazy memory of it is what matters.

And as far as Aberystwyth goes, now, I can use the town in my writing based on my broad strokes of memory—I can create mood and temperament more dramatically, perhaps, because of the distance from the actual place. I can create Aberystwyth, the character, with its seaside arcade, its ruined castle, its university, and Constitution Hill, that looked out over Cardigan Bay. I can make it moody and dreary, with unwelcoming bus drivers who resent my inability to speak Welsh. Or I can make it cheerful, with the sun shining, the seaside promenade bustling with walkers, the wind mild, and the waves rolling peacefully inward. I can create these two, seemingly contradictory characters, because really, Aberystwyth was both, and I can see that better or worse, now.

Setting or, The Two Walls of Windows That are Pouring Sunshine Over Everything in the Room, Warming Me Inside and Out as I Sit Curled Up on the Couch Typing

When I write letters to my grandparents and great aunts who do not have computers, I describe where I’m sitting in the house, what I have around me, where the rest of my family is and what they’re doing while I write. When I’m instant messaging with out-of-town friends or family members that I don’t get to see often, I always ask them first where they are and what they’re doing. I want to know if they’re stretched out on an easy chair or sitting at their desks in home offices. I want to know if they’re having a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and if the kids are running around or already in bed. I want to know if they’re talking to me after a day of getting mentally beaten up or a day of small victories. I want to picture them in my head while we type away, sharing our thoughts and experiences. Knowing their setting takes our words from the page or the screen and turns them into a conversation.

When it’s time to write, I often move around my house. I love how my own setting affects my writing. This glorious room of sunshine where I’m sitting right now is the perfect place to write about anything uplifting, such as my passion for a great setting. I use my desk for serious subjects and my kitchen for fun and gossip. I hide from the world on a closet floor when I want an extra boost of secretive juice.  If I need the feel of interruptions, all I have to do is sit near my child and tell her I need a few quiet moments alone. For me, it’s a bit like method acting, I suppose. The more I feel it, the better I write it, or at the very least, the smoother it comes to me.

Creating the setting is how I take myself into a story. I want readers to know my characters through their interactions with their environments. When I’m putting a scene together, I cannot – or perhaps will not – do anything until I know where the characters are. I want to know why they’re where they are, how they’re moving, what they’re wearing, what happened directly before they got where they are and what they’re about to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing she might be about to make a cup of coffee. It might be that his entire relationship history has been overwhelming him since breakfast.  If her mind is a bewildered tornado, she might find herself on the floor in a heap because she missed the last stair. If he just found out that she loves him back, he might be stretched out on the sun-baked patio soaking in the heat all the way from the stones to his heart.

I want to be with my characters. I want to see them sweat in the summer and hear them cuss when they trip over the vacuum. I want to taste their coffee and smell the dinner they cooked. I want to feel the heat when they look into each other’s eyes for the first time. And if my characters are having a cocktail, then I’m having one with them. You can bet on that.