Friday, April 4, 2014

What Blue Actually Looks Like

One morning last May, I rounded a corner in a loop of sidewalk in my neighborhood and found little trucks with little claws crawling over the rubble of a collapsed furniture plant. Some years before that, my husband and I moved into an old house in Drexel, NC--raised in the late 1940's by skilled and amateur carpenters alike--and began adding our own inexpert repairs and clumsy renovations. Soon after that, we began planning for a family, another clumsy and inexpert endeavor.

Read my essay, recently published in South Writ Large, here.

An excerpt:

We moved in in June of 2000; in August 2001, I had a positive pregnancy test. I was sick and happy. We both were. We called Danny’s uncle, a carpet layer, and chose a beige pile for the upstairs. Downstairs, the original wood flooring had been restored by actual professionals. It was beautiful, perfect in its imperfections, its knotty whorls and discolorations, all the reminders that this was real wood, grown from an actual tree, cut and sanded and fitted by human hands. We’d laid out new linoleum in the kitchen without disturbing the asbestos beneath. Replaced the rotted vanity in the bathroom. Put new hardware on the kitchen cabinets. Filled the rooms with furniture, mostly hand-me-downs and gifts, factory mistakes family members had purchased for a song.

I started bleeding on a Saturday, but it was just a pale smudge in my underwear, and so I went out to begin our weekend work like normal. I said nothing to Danny. We were spreading grass seed on the long, muddy side yard. It was the first cool day of fall and the cloudless sky was such a deep blue, I couldn’t stop admiring it. I tried to think of the right word for it. We use deep to describe such a color, but the word doesn’t quite mean what it should. Not dark blue or thorough blue or even endless blue. It was the kind of blue that could comfort a girl pushing a seed spreader in narrow stripes over a red-mud stretch of land.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Character and Setting--Lev Grossman's The Magicians

Observe how, in the opening pages of his novel The Magicians, Lev Grossman uses the protag's physical size coupled with his corresponding posture to portray his view on life:

Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first.

We are writers. We have to show our readers the basics of setting: time, place, weather, etc. What's better is to crawl inside our character's bodies and let them experience the setting, thus revealing setting and character.it

The low gray sky threatened snow. It seemed to Quentin like the world was offering up special little tableaux of misery just for him: crows perched on power lines, stepped-in dog shit, windblown trash, the corpses of innumerable wet oak leaves being desecrated in innumerable ways by innumerable vehicles and pedestrians.

Notice Grossman's word choice: threatened, misery, shit, corpses, desecrated. Also, his strikingly apt repetition of the word innumerable.

The images are both visual and visceral since it is impossible to see "stepped-in dog shit" and not recall a time when we have, indeed, stepped in dog shit. Also, what more could possibly happen to a fall oak leaf?

A few lines later, the narrative moves closer into the protag's psyche, but it still connected to the setting:

Quentin felt cold all the time, like he was trapped in his own private individual winter.

A few lines after that, and the narrative takes us into the protag's very heart:

...Quentin knew he wasn't happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn't think what else to do.

Now, Grossman has set up the story's chief internal conflict: Quentin versus himself in his pursuit of happiness. Such a simple-sounding conflict, isn't it? What I'm taking from that is that a simple conflict, skillfully and originally rendered, is all you need.

An exercise:
Allow your character to experience a specific kind of weather. How does he/she internalize external conditions? How does he/she pass these conditions through the filter of his/her innermost fears, frustrations, and desires?