Tag Archives: fiction

Writing: Other People’s Lives

cold snow person winter
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is often recommended that writers write what they know. Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of novels written by angsty professors about how an angsty professor finds renewed spirit via an affair with a ripe coed.

Writing what one knows is also difficult when one has led a basically boring life. Not everyone is Steve Irwin or Jack Ryan or Jacques Cousteau, after all. I for one have never climbed a mountain, thwarted a spy, or been a spy for that matter. Must I restrict my writing to the everyday adventures of a former English major who has two cats and enjoys crossword puzzles? What a snooze!

There are a few geniuses who’ve managed it. Most notable is Martin Cruz Smith with Gorky Park. Without having been to Russia, this superstar writer made us all believe in his snow-covered, KGB-infused vision.

For him, and for the rest of us, there’s research.

Obviously, a nonfiction writer has to rely on research – interviews with the biography subject, police files on Jack the Ripper, the diaries of Sir Ernest Shackleton. This does not, however, preclude adding a personal touch to the facts. Take Mary Roach’s work, for example. She may never have been an employee of NASA or gone to Mars herself, but her Packing for Mars is a masterpiece of factual research combined with first-person observation and idiosyncratic footnotes. For nonfiction writers, exploring other people’s lives is part and parcel of the genre. Even Rabid, a book about rabies, provides a glimpse into the lives of researchers, doctors, and victims.

For the fiction writer, research is a necessary evil as well. If you write a novel set in Victorian times, you can make it convincing only if you know what people then ate, how they dressed, what political upheavals affected their lives, and even how they used the English language. Even contemporary fiction requires research: What were the laws on the statute of limitations like in Ohio in the 2000s? What are the procedures involving releasing a person from prison? What does a meth lab smell like? These details may not add to your plot, but they can make or break the verisimilitude.

And of course the rule about writing what you know is right out the window with science fiction. You can research what is postulated about faster-than-light travel or colonies on Mars, but at some point you’re going to have to make that leap and write about a creature, a planet, a culture, a history that never existed.

It’s tricky when it comes to writing fiction about people. You can’t fashion every character after yourself (even if there’s a little piece of you in every character). And unless you want to be sued, you can’t write a villain as some specific person from your life, especially if they’re easily recognizable. Better to give that person a hook hand or a lisp, or make him over seven feet tall.

In my fiction writing, I give my characters small pieces of my life. I let my protagonist live in an apartment I once had and can describe in great detail. Another character gets a friend’s kitchen with the odd wallpaper border of ducks.

Then I do mashups for other characters. One gets the hairstyle of one friend, the hobbies of another, and the sexuality of a third. One has the appearance of someone I know and the lifestyle of a different person. Mashups keep me detail-oriented without borrowing too much from any one person. These imaginary amalgams allow me to visualize the characters clearly and not have to keep reminding myself whether the bad guy is tall and skinny or short and dumpy. I know how my model for his body moves, so I know how he moves too.

Until I can figure out a way to write an autobiographical novel about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and hasn’t gone through astronaut training, I’ll keep doing my research and my mashups.

 

Advertisements

Books, Etc. – Books as Mashed Potatoes

Books are like mashed potatoes.(1)

Some books are like mashed potatoes.(2)

Mashed potatoes are warm and creamy, oozing with butter or redolent with garlic, or chunky with fiber-filled shreds of skin, if that’s your thing. They’re yummy and atavistic, a taste that tugs at the link between memory and taste and smell and emotions.

For me, a used bookstore taps into the sensory-emotional link – the scent of dust and aged paper, the warmth of an old heater, the motion of a rocking chair, the calming voice of the owner of a store I went to in my childhood and teens.

Books themselves and the act of reading are less sensory and more intellectual. But just as mashed potatoes are comfort food(3), some books are comfort books.

When I’ve been on a serious reading jag(4), engaging with books that leave me pondering or wrung out, or even sobbing(5), when I’ve overdosed on nonfiction that punches me in the gut or heart(6) I need reading material that’s familiar and soul-satisying without being overwhelming.

I need a comfort book.

I’ve had comfort books since I learned to read – books I’ve returned to again and again, that I never feel I’ve had too much of.(7) My first were Dr. Seuss’s immortal Green Eggs and Ham in my childhood and Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, in my early teens.

Later, my go-to comfort books were the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – fairly lowbrow adventure/cozy mysteries starring a little old lady working undercover for the CIA. Each book took place in a different country and served up a travelogue more intriguing than the plot and as appealing as the quirky characters and the practicality of the heroine.(8) Also, I know that nothing really bad is going to happen to any of the main characters – none of this “relative dies at the hands of a serial killer” or “best friend is kidnapped and tortured” or “haunting memories of the main character’s dreadful past,” the stuff of much modern crime or spy fiction.

Nowadays my comfort books are largely those by Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes intelligent, witty, engrossing science fiction and fantasy novels, the best-known being the Miles Vorkosigan series. The Vorkosigan books take on sf genres including military sf, space opera, interstellar intrigue, and more, all with solid backgrounds in fields as disparate as biology and engineering.(9)

Of Bujold’s fantasy books, I find most comforting the Chalion trilogy (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) or the first of The Sharing Knife series (Beguilement). Falling Free, a mostly stand-alone novel, is also a comfort book, nicely blending the possibilities of technology and humans.

And then there’s Tolkien. Don’t get me started on Tolkien. I’ve read Lord of the Rings dozens of times. My husband, a more visual person than I, has seen the movies dozens of times. As with comfort books, comfort movies no doubt exist. But we won’t get into those. Unless you really, really want to.(10)

Nonfiction comfort books are harder to come by. Familiar but dramatic stories (The Right Stuff), biographies of interesting people (
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie)(11), and accounts or diaries of exploration do it for me. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries are particularly comforting in the summer. The vivid polar prose actually seems to lower my body temperature.

Your comfort books may be entirely different; in fact, they are almost certain to be, given our differing experiences and reading histories. My friend Leslie returns to the Catherynne Valente Fairyland series (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the first), an excellent choice, but also joins me in nearly yearly Bujold binges.

The best thing about comfort books is that I can curl up with them in bed, on rainy or snowy days, with a cat, and lose myself. After eating a big bowl of mashed potatoes.

Now, that’s comfort!

(1) No. No, they’re not. Let’s try again.
(2) There. That’s better. Let’s continue until the analogy breaks down.
(3) Mac-n-cheese. Fried rice. Club sandwich. Grilled cheese with tomato soup, the way my mother used to make it.
(4) Trying to remind myself that I was once an English major and an aspiring member of the literati.
(5) Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb were the most recent to make me cry.
(6) Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Faye Greene or And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, for example.
(7) Hence mashed potatoes = comfort.
(8) There are only a few I could probably read now – the first of the series (The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) and a couple of ones from the middle of the series that featured characters or settings that appealed to me (Bulgaria and Turkey come to mind).
(9) Of the series, the most comforting is A Civil Campaign, described as A Comedy of Biology and Manners. Memory is the best of the novels, but isn’t always comforting, given my experiences with memories and memory lapses.
(10) Hint, hint.
(11) Avoid Prince Albert, unless you suffer from insomnia. The dullest book ever about the dullest person ever was a biography of Prince Albert. Comfort books are soothing, not boring.

Currently Reading:
Fosse, by Sam Wasson
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold