Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Literary Imperative for the Sensual Life

I have been writing all my life in one form or another, but have only lately consciously recognized the literary imperative for a sensual life. I believe that in order to truly immerse the reader within a particular setting one must recreate that environment from the senses out. We experience our particular environment in an intrinsically visceral way: the pungent, almost earthy aroma of freshly-ground coffee beans, the sour heat of tom yam soup, the almost painfully delicate beauty of Mozart's divertimentos, the soft warmth of a newborn's skin...these sensory encounters make our world come alive for us, brightened and enhanced through the lens of human experience.

While writing The Goodwin Agenda one of my primary goals (other than writing a suspenseful, character-driven narrative that was true to the larger historical trends of the time) was to quite simply make my readers feel like they were there : in the dark slipways of Paris where rotting vegetable scraps stewed in icy puddles, where garlic and onion flavored stew as well as breath, where the cold of a particularly harsh winter crept through the rags of the poor, and where the cacophony of street sellers and the clatter of carriage wheels dominated the auditory scene.

Wolfe Trant, one of the primary characters, had spent years bare-knuckle boxing, and he was particularly attuned to physical nuance - it had become an occupational necessity: to determine from an opponent's expression, or way of moving, his subsequent strategy within that particular conflict. Wolfe's sensory world, if you will, became concentrated and focused to such a degree that everything else dropped away. That is the experience that I was attempting to create for my readers - a sensual immersion in nineteenth-century Paris and London; where the sights, smells, sounds and tastes evoke a particular place in time, where they wrap sinuously around the characters (and by extension the reader), providing the context, the ambiance.

I think that young children naturally live a highly-sensory life, perhaps an important part of that is the ability to live very much in the moment; splashing joyfully through recently formed puddles, the creamy deliciousness of ice-cream on a hot we get older I think we become more removed from our immediate sensory environment. We are rushing through a life increasingly crammed full of obligations and appointments, and perhaps, for the writers of us, there is a literary imperative to stop and smell the roses. How else can we find the words to describe the sight and sound of things if we do not fully experience them ourselves?

Of course a reader's expectations and desires are as varied as there are writers to satisfy them, and we are all, fortunately, formed from a different mold. There are many writers who eschew the more detailed sensory narrative and are no less powerful in their depictions for having done so. I, personally, have found it an imperative to literally close my eyes and imagine myself in my character's circumstance. When Primrose was battling Monsieur Gubrient in her boudoir, the knife blade between them, my impressions were of the wet drip of sweat and makeup (Gubrient was 'old school' at this time - still wore face powder and rouge), the hot coppery spill of blood, the slippery fight for possession of the knife, the gasp and heave of shortened breath, the smell of fear...the distant tinkling of someone playing the pianoforte and the occasional sprinkling of laughter and conversation.

So I raise a glass of particularly fine merlot in a toast to the sensual life - valued not only for its own enrichment, but also perhaps for the inspiration it provides to us writers; because we cannot merely look, listen, feel, taste and smell - we need to do so acutely and we need to do so with a considerable degree of awareness. Only then perhaps might we be successful in putting it into words.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

That Historical Nugget & the Soul of a Story

As a historical fiction writer I am always looking for that historical nugget - the thread of gold buried deep in the dark substratum. To further extrapolate this analogy: my methodology is a labor-intensive one, and I spend months and months (sometimes years if deadlines permit - which of course they seldom do!) devouring non-fiction pertaining to my period of research. When researching my recently completed novel, The Goodwin Agenda, I read countless biographies of many of the main personages in my novel (Napoleon, Talleyrand & Pitt), as well as treatises on early nineteenth-century architecture, diet, fashion, cultural and political trends. I also needed to immerse myself within the psychological landscape that was Paris in the post-Revolutionary period. The Parisian characters in my novel remain deeply scarred by the decades of bloodshed and murder that characterized France during and immediately after the Revolution, and to adequately portray this ongoing angst and to make it believable, well...that was at least ten books worth of reading and research! But I hope that as a result my characters have a little more of an edge, a anxious frisson - life after all was precarious and their immediate history illustrated the dangers of making a careless alliance.

Some might say I took the historical details further than might be necessary, but with my academic background in history and archaeology, I am pleased to think that I might, in my own humble way, make the past a little more accessible for those that do not necessarily read non-fiction historical accounts. Every aspect of the book that could be historically accurate (from street names and how they connected, to architectural facades, to the renovations of the Louvre, the methods of torture, and the transfer of rotting corpses from the Cimetière des Innocents to the catacombs) was.

And here I come to the really interesting point (thank you for bearing with me!) - the main thrust of my story, around which everything else revolved, the nugget of gold, was the central plot itself. Napoleon Bonaparte's formidable army has gathered in Boulogne in readiness for a wholesale invasion of England. "A nation of shopkeepers," Napoleon derisively claims, from whom they are separated by a "mere ditch." This ditch, however, is effectively defended by the mighty English navy, and French vessels find themselves confined to various harbors along the coast. Convinced that if they can be ‘Masters of the Channel for six hours,’ they will become ‘masters of the world,’ Napoleon develops a plan to combine the French fleet and lure the English from its vigil. He secretly offers a substantial payment to any English captain who can lead the French invasion fleet through treacherous coastal waters of England, known as the Goodwin Sands. You can imagine my delight stumbling upon this little-known (at least to me!) historical nugget! If there was ever a 'truth is stranger than fiction' moment this was it! And from this little historical insight the book, all 530 pages of it, was born. Napoleon's covert agenda was just too juicy to let lie within the dusty pages of a historical tome, and the characters themselves (Talleyrand and Pitt) were too blissfully fantastic to resist. Primrose, the enigmatic female leader of the French Resistance, is a shadowed historical figure, and Wolfe Trant is based upon an Irish rebel by the name of Wolfe Tone who conveniently left hundreds of pages of personal diary for me to peruse. 

So now, reluctantly leaving my Goodwin characters (who have become intimate friends - Dickens would understand!) I turn to the next agenda: this time an American one. And true to form I am delving, with utter delight, into dusty historical tomes looking for another gold nugget. They are always there it is just a matter of persevering. A character that is already larger than life, an unlikely circumstance, a dramatic moment that could be elaborated makes my heart beat faster just thinking about it!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Braving the Slush Pile & the Intoxication of Print

Well the time has come for me to be brave. My completed manuscript of The Goodwin Agenda sits snugly in the depths of microchip darkness. My query letter is formulated, my synopsis repeatedly revised and reduced, and my target list of agents at hand. After years of research and labor I am finally ready to mail the letters, to stick that stamp to the all-important SASE, and consign my novel to the depths of the slush pile. Hoping that some incandescent phrase, some witty turn of speech, might catch an agent's eye. Hoping that amidst the stacks of dreams mine might prove enduring. I have investigated e-publishing and am aware that there are increasingly sophisticated packages available for an aspiring author who wants to go that route.

 I have not gravitated towards e-books myself, and still literally lust after that moment when I first open the cover of a new book and run my fingers across the title page: there is something special...something exquisitely intoxicating about the anticipation of  words, phrases, and paragraphs waiting to be read. There are so many talented writers published today, each with their own unique style; I remain in awe of these finely-honed subtle skills, the deft literary sleight of hand evident in characters that leap off the page and plot lines that have you enthralled despite the call of routine and the necessity of sleep.

I have a stack beside my bed of recent purchases that I have not yet had an opportunity to read - from recent archaeological investigations of ancient Egypt, botanical insights into the whys and wherefores of plant growth, a comparative analysis of Spanish and English colonial policies in the New World, gravity's engines and the role of black holes in the formation of the universe, and lastly a new edition of American Short Stories. Quite simply I never have enough time to read. I have stacks upon stacks of books from floor to ceiling, sagging the planks of homemade bookshelves, crowded beside chairs and stretching across counters. I could quite willingly give up most or any of my possessions but would fight fiercely for retention of my books.

So when the choice comes I much prefer my novel to be a published book of the traditional variety. While I understand the often insurmountable difficulties associated with breaking into the industry as a first-time author, to be able to place The Goodwin Agenda beside my be able to run my fingers over the title page in anticipation of turning to that first paragraph...well, I have hope. And tenacity. And optimism. And come what may I will always write. Because that is what I do, and that is what makes me happier than anything else in this world.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Journey of the Hero : An Irresistible Archetype

I have been thinking not just about character attributes, ie: static qualities that define an individual at a specific point in time but I have also been pondering the evolution of the character and the journey which they take from the time the novel opens until its close. I am reminded of Joseph Campbell's characterization of the mythic hero of literature from works such as Gilgamesh, Aeneas, Aeneas, Hercules, Sinbad the Sailor etc. Books, plays and novels abound with themes of this kind, with characters that do not only literally travel across the landscape (as well as those who do not) but who, most importantly, experience the journey of personal growth and understanding. I am struck by how universal these characterizations are, and how prevalent, not only in ancient mythologies and early historical texts, but throughout modern literature of all kinds. In my recently completed novel, Keeping the Elephant Dry, I discovered my hero to have traveled along these very well-defined lines without any deliberate authorial intent. It makes me think of Jung's unconscious archetypes! Am I susceptible to these universal literary trends and tendencies without being consciously aware of it? Perhaps it is because somewhere inside us we all yearn to be a hero, and imagine ourselves traveling these personally arduous paths to the ultimate reward of enhanced wisdom for ourselves as well as our broader community.

The Hero's Journey:
The hero or heroine, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is depicted sympathetically in order to establish an immediate empathetic connection with the reader (critical if the reader is to willingly accompany the hero on his or her journey!) Some background is presented to provide context for the hero either in the form of social or physical environment, or personal history. Often the hero is subjected to some kind of polarity in his or her life that is pulling them in different directions and serves as an ongoing cause of stress. The hero is then called forth, as a result of external pressures or something rising up from deep within, and must, as a result, contemplate the beginnings of change. They feel the fear of the unknown, the dread of change, a degree of uncertainty, and briefly attempt to turn away from this call. The hero then comes across a mentor of sorts who provides a source of strength, training, or advice that fortifies the hero, who subsequently reaches within to a source of wisdom and courage in order to undertake the requisite journey.

The hero commits to the answering the call and enters a new region with unfamiliar rules and values. The hero is subsequently tested and acquires allies that will assist him or her in the challenge that lies ahead. Near the middle of the narrative, the hero confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. The ordeal. While the hero is ultimately triumphant, there still remains the conclusion of the adventure: the journey home and the ongoing threat of things again becoming unraveled. Often a chase scene conveys the desperate urgency of the mission. At the crescendo, the hero is once again severely tested on the threshold of home, undergoes one last ordeal and emerges on an even higher level than previous (increased wisdom perhaps). As a result of these actions, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning of the novel are finally resolved, and the hero returns home bearing some message, understanding or influence that has the power to transform the world just as the hero has been transformed.

The Archetype and What it Means for Writers Today:
I am utterly intrigued to know whether any other authors have found these kind of hero-journey elements emerging within their own work with or without deliberate intent, and what they think of these of the dramatic possibilities inherent within this archetype. Is it less engaging precisely because it has been so well-utilized? Do you feel an irresistible urge to tweak the formula? Or perhaps the mere existence of an ongoing literary theme that has been prevalent in story-telling for thousands and thousands of years, proclaims, utterly regardless of our own personal inclination, the universality of an idea that has been, and continues to be, appealing to all readers. I find this unexpectedly comforting, in a world that increasingly feels as if it is being torn apart by political, economic or religious strife, that at one point in time we all had the same heroes. Or the same kind of heroes at least. There is hope in that.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Beginning....that All-Important Hook

The characters are real and vivid in your mind, perhaps not yet fully-fleshed, bones protrude in uncomfortable places and they do not yet breath as they should (they need to inhabit and engage their fictional landscape) but the tantalizing suggestions of them are there. I find that my characters are less knowable before the book is written - no matter how many detailed pages I write concerning their backgrounds, attitudes, behaviors and history, often they do not really come alive for me until I have them engaged within the plot. Dialogue and character actions often suggest themselves to me in mid-chapter, as if I do not truly know what that particular individual will do until I place him or her within the multidimensional framework of the written novel. Regardless, your characters are set, plot development is defined and you ready yourself to begin. The First Chapter. There are a multitude of options: to begin before the beginning with an intriguing prologue that sets the mood and precipitates the action, or right at the beginning catapulting the reader immediately into the action, or after the beginning when the primary event has already occurred and the ball is already well in motion. In addition to plot and timing, there are the characters to consider: do you thrust the main character front and forward, or do you introduce them through the perspectives of others?

 However your novel begins, you have to think about creating an opening scene that possesses the reader, promising intrigue or excitement. We need to hook our readers, be they bookshop browsers, agents retrieving our manuscripts from the slush pile, or editors perusing at the request of an agent. That being the case, we need to begin our stories in such a way that keep the reader reading. The hook might be the opening sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene, or the first chapter; it serves the dual purpose of stimulating interest in the forthcoming story and establishing mood and atmosphere. Edgar Allen Poe's opening sentence of 'The Cask of Amontillado' is a masterpiece: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." In these few words, Poe provides us with two characters: Fortunato and the narrator; he illustrates the narrator's state of mind through his use of language: "when he ventured upon insult"; and finally he reveals his plot: revenge. Dickens, in the Tale of Two Cities, declares: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,"and  sets the mood for the novel in an evocative duality that inevitably leaves the readers intrigued. Being a Shakespeare devotee in a most impassioned way (I began a project last year to read all of Shakespeare's plays from the very first all the way through to the very last - declaiming aloud of course, as all Shakespeare should be - I reached Titus Andronicus before other tasks of life intruded, but have fervent intentions of renewing that project to completion - perhaps a blog topic?) I also adore the opening lines to Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this Sun of York." Shakespeare has established two characters - Richard the speaker as well as his brother whom he refers to as the 'sun' of York in a play on the word son - as well as Richard's attitude toward Edward. I have great respect for writers who manage to convey the sense of a time and place with very specific details that create authenticity without the weight of cumbersome description: Robert McCammon in 'Speaks the Nightbird' describes trees 'bearded by moss and blotched by brown fungus the size of a blacksmith's fist.' This highly atmospheric introduction utilizes the metaphor of a blacksmith's fist to set the time indirectly and to magnificent visual effect. Similarly, a moldy jack-o-lantern might place the action just after Halloween far more effectively than stating it directly.

I always feel a great deal of pressure insofar as the first chapter is concerned. It is absolutely critical to get it right, to ensure that the reader is immediately engaged and committed to seeing the book through to the end. I find many literary examples of this hook done with succinct perfection ("Call me Ishmael") and continue my ongoing quest for perpetual self-improvement, to craft that perfect opening sentence that lures one on.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Landscape and Personality of Place

I have been thinking about landscape lately.  My next novel is set in San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century, and I have begun delving into the historical backdrop of this place and time. My knowledge of American history is woefully lacking so I begin at the beginning: a fascinating book of comparative colonialism, exploring the divergent, as well as the similar, policies of the Spanish and English in the New World. From then on a history of the War of Independence and through to the Civil War. While my novel is set in San Francisco at a later period of American history, I feel that the landscape in which my characters will be moving is still very much a frontier; in order to adequately convey these individuals and how their attitudes are formed and molded, I need to understand from whence they have come, and what they have endured to get there. Many of the early settlers of the Barbary Coast came via boat from around Cape Horn or through the Panama Canal. Like many of their earlier compatriots they were coming to uncharted territory inhabited by often hostile indigenous populations. I am thinking most particularly about the personality of this place - and how, as a writer, I can make it come to life in such a way that it becomes an unforgettable part of the reading experience. So in consideration of the land itself I want to know what grows upon it and what does not, its shape, texture and terrain. The way the sky meets the land, the hazy mist of heat that sometimes clouds the intersection of two, the creatures that inhabit the landscape, and the seasons in which they can be found. Of course being a port city, also examining the intersection and interaction of all things maritime and terrestrial. This time encapsulates not only the gold frenzy, but also the great transcontinental railroad project in which the Central Union blasts miles and miles through seemingly impenetrable mountains. A time of giddy enthusiasm. I feel that the broader landscape and the new inhabitants' relationship to it and within it will become an emerging theme of this novel. However no matter where one's book is written, the descriptive power of the landscape should stimulate all senses, but ideally be inter-weaved through the narrative in such a way that it does not inhibit the forward movement of the plot or unduly weigh down momentum. Ultimately I want my reader to feel as if they are really there - immersed within this environment - to feel that the Barbary Coast in 1840 is as real to them as their own immediate neighborhood. To this end I ask myself the sensual questions: what does the sun feel like on his head? When the frost creeps beneath his rags how does it affect his way of walking? sleeping? What did he eat for breakfast and what did it taste like? What sounds were part of his normal routine? Clatter of carriage wheels? All of those mundane quotidian details that make up the sensory experience that we take for granted today has a corollary in the 1840's : and to depict them within the narrative is critical for this reader-immersion to take place. It is an exciting endeavor and I am gleefully anticipating the multitude of research avenues that will make this landscape come alive for me, and then, hopefully, for the reader.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Character : The Greatest of All Puzzles

I found this wonderful quote by the writer Isaac Singer the other day. While being interviewed by Richard Burgis in 1978, he said the following:

"When people come together - let's say they come to a little party or something - you always hear them discuss character. They will say that this one has a bad character, this one has a good character, this one is a fool, this one is a miser. Gossip makes the conversation. They all analyze character. It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment. And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names. The writers who don't discuss character but problems - social problems or any problems - take away from literature its very essence. They stop being entertaining. We, for some reason, always love to discuss and discover character. This is because  each character is different and human character is the greatest of puzzles."

I am increasingly of the opinion that character is ALL - that what drives a reader forward, what sustains the hook, is the early development of characters with which the readers can readily identify. As individuals we are all plagued by self-doubt and uncertainty, embroiled in conflicts of one kind or another, susceptible to emotional fluctuations - such is the nature of humankind. Characters that transcend the written page are also ones that make mistakes and have lapses of judgement; they are far more intriguing in their conflict and miseries, in their respective flaws and with their particular foibles, than they would be happily unburdened of these elemental human attributes. A favorite character of mine is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a fictional persona that has stood the test of time (over one hundred years!) and is still being depicted in movie after movie today. Holmes' intellectual capabilities are unsurpassed, but socially he is unbearably supercilious and unable to sustain any long-term emotional relationship with anyone other than Mr. Watson. He indulges in drugs, and his routine is characterized by numerous quirky habits that reinforce that social distance from many of his peers. He is truly luminescent and emerges from the page as a full-fledged, very much flawed, but also utterly engrossing character that we, the reader, want to see more of. Once we begin reading a new novel we continue reading primarily because we care about what happens to the characters - but only if the writer succeeds in making them real  to us. An idea, or plot, or event cannot hold the story together, only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can really do that.  When we think of the novels that remain with us generation after generation: it is the characters that shine forth from their fictional environments that capture us so completely rather than the plot within which they operated. Catherine and Heathcliff, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Captain Ahab, Madame Bovary, Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn...there are countless examples. Of course none of them are real people, but the writer has made them so - breathed life into these complex, flawed, multidimensional individuals who continue to live after the rest of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. So as I open a new Word document, fingertips poised to begin my next novel, I am obsessed primarily with the characters that will inhabit it, that will people the landscape which yet remains hazy. I wish to bring them into focus, to grant them a clarity, that will, I feel, drive the narrative inevitably forward. There is a famous sketch of Charles Dickens at his desk, the characters of his books materializing in the air above his head; for Dickens, Esther Summerson of Bleak House was more vividly real than his own children. May we all be so skilled in our literary characterizations (without the cost to our kids of course!)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The End of the Epic Narrative?

Having just completed a novel which is a sizable beast to say the least...I find myself pondering the fate of the epic narrative. Being a voraciously regular and repeated reader of the classics, (Tolstoy, Dumas, Hugo, Melville all being particular favorites) I have an insatiable appetite for the hefty tome but wonder how many share this particular proclivity today? I would argue these classics are timeless indeed, but how many readers today would persist through narrative asides (I am thinking particularly of Hugo's extraneous chapters on the history of Waterloo in Les Miserables) or the deliciously grand prose of Melville as he describes the albatross. Dostoyevsky's masterpieces can be demanding for the modern reader, struggling as they may be with the concepts of serfdom and land ownership, for example, in mid-nineteenth century Russia (not being a scholar of this particular history myself, I find repeated readings critical and even so am certain that I am missing so much simply because I do not know enough). But of course the writing is positively luminescent and urges me onwards despite layers of allusions and references that I am indubitably missing. Charles Dickens is a decided favorite of mine - the characters of Bleak House leap off the page in all their pungent and disreputable glory. These are all 800-plus page masterpieces. Of course Dickens' works were originally published in a serial format with installments being released at intervals...but today they are read together in their entirety. With the pressures on modern society, with free time becoming increasingly marginalized, families holding down two jobs to make ends meet, and the chaotic requirements of children, and the seemingly frenzied fast-forward pace of life - how many have time to meander through Anna Karenina? And of course publishing houses are looking to their bottom line and additional pages mean greater production costs which of course also place additional pressure on prospective sales. I do not mean to suggest that my novel has anything in common with these magnificent masterpieces (length being perhaps the only associated attribute) but I hope that in reading them again and again that some of their magic will rub off on me. Some of their enviable literary polish will guide and influence my own humble works. These great classics form a benchmark of the kind of writing that we can all aspire to, ("But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or mid-way leave us whelmed.") and hope that there are many out there who still have the leisure over some golden twilight hour to pick up one of those thick classics.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What's in a title?

My recently completed manuscript sits on my desk: a neatly bound stack of paper. After years of research and writing it is finally done. However the white sheet of paper sitting on the very top serves to remind me of one critical element that remains: a title. I have made a list of thirty or so potentials, each interesting enough in their own right and vaguely suitable insofar as plot line and characters are concerned (some connections more tenuous than others). So while it seems a simple matter of systematically narrowing down the selections until I am left with one viable candidate, I am not sold on any of them in particular. I have been waiting for a certain phrase or a coupling of various words to jump off the page, and for that instinctive affirmation, that gut-derived understanding that this was the ONE. The one and only title possible for this novel. It feels much like expectant parents struggling to agree upon a name for their unborn child; however while this dilemma of naming seems perfectly natural for two people assigning a lifelong label to an individual they do not know and have yet to see, it seems the author who has labored long and mightily to bring this work into the world should have the intimate insight and understanding that renders the assignment of title a relatively simple and straightforward procedure. Not so. For me at least. I feel most acutely that the title is the primary hook by which the potential reader (and agent!) is initially enticed. The mundane need is that the title be appropriate to the storyline and characters, but it seems the critical element is that it compels the reader forward: a title that alludes to the general theme but also served to advertise the suspenseful character-driven plot of a political thriller as well as a novel of historical fiction. I am seeking to broaden my potential reading demographic and hope for a title that can help me achieve such inclusiveness. Suggestive, compelling, sexy, memorable and particular. A tall order - particularly when one must encapsulate all of such in just a few words. The fundamental issue I have with my list of 30 is that they are all fairly generic, whereas of course my book is anything but. To name a thing. I have come to the conclusion that the more complex and sprawling the narrative (and mine is indeed a tome) the more difficult it can be to assign just a word or two to encapsulate the work in its entirety. Generic seems almost an inevitability. I have since dismissed my list of 30 and another two or three rumble around in the dark labyrinths of my mind...hopefully to come to both tongue and conscious thought before too much longer! To all writers out there struggling to name their baby, of the human as well as literary variety, I raise my wineglass in commiseration (but colored by hope!)