Category Archives: location
The trouble with plotting a novel in which your protagonist encounters challenge and change is that you have to experience her losses with her. Eliza Harris, protagonist of my long-labored mystery novel, is going to end up moving into a “senior community” of highly eccentric academics. When I thought this up, it seemed full of promise. That was before I invented Fallowfields, the house she is going to leave.
Near my own real home (I am, unfortunately, a real person) is a short stretch of country road where, around 1800, six New Hampshire tycoons built their mansions, one right next to the other. Remember the old ads for Dewar’s Scotch that had a rich guy trotting across the yard to his neighbor’s palatial home from his own, to borrow a cup of Dewar’s? It’s like that. Without realizing I was doing it, I created Fallowfields from bits and pieces of the three houses I’ve visited.
Externally, Fallowfields is unlike the Ridge houses. It’s a Victorian brick monstrosity, rather like the house of the Addams family. Inside, though, it’s a dream. In fact, imagined houses are like dreams. Bits and pieces of places we’ve known are plugged in or detached as needed, logic not included. As in Terry Pratchett’s Empirical Crescent (built, you will recall, by Bloody Stupid Johnson), the door of Number 3 can open into the back bedroom of Number 14, entirely without consequence.
Once you import these mysteriously significant spaces into a story, though, the pieces need to fit. The staircase and the fireplace in Fallowfields’ living room have changed places three times. In the end, the fireplace settled on an outside wall – less likely than a central position in a house of its vintage, but I needed a staircase open to the living room, so one character can overhear a remark not meant for her ears. Of course, she could simply have been walking in from another room on the same floor. But by that time, I had the stage set in my mind, and her descent from above pleased the director in me.
The layout of Fallowfields has reached the point of proprioception for me. I can feel the living room on my right as I stand in the dining room looking down the corridor to the front door. This south side of the house has been grafted onto the layout of the local mansions – it is an apartment that my mother lived in for only one year while I was mostly away at college. So although Fallowfields is a very large house, with big rooms, when my mind is absorbed in the action of the story, the walls shrink in around me. When space is needed for, say, a large party or for a character to be far enough away from another for a whisper not to be heard, the walls ease out again. These contortions warn me to be careful; they’ll be fertile breeding ground for howlers in the logistics of the story.
The furnishings are much to my taste. Eliza’s desk is huge and heavy, made of the same mahogany as the pieces brought into our household by my English great-grandmother. It sits beside a tall window with six-over-six panes of glass. Outside is an ancient maple, huge and close enough for Eliza to watch lines of snow fall from individual twigs on a sunny February day. There is a liquor cabinet well-stocked with Scotch, bourbon and, at the back, an old bottle of rye that comes in handy for a rough-and-tumble visitor. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, hewn from the (perfectly real) soapstone quarry near my home on the side of Cottonstone Mountain.
Fallowfields has outbuildings linked together in the big-house-little-house-back-house-barn configuration of early New England farms. These, unmagicked, are cobbled together from the back house and barn of the original farmhouse on our property plus my grandmother’s chicken house in Peacham, Vermont.
My mystery plot requires that the back house have a loft, the barn’s tack room be turned into a laboratory and its hay loft into an apartment. They lost none of their reality in these renovations. The horse stalls in the far end of Eliza’s barn still bear the faded names of Shetland ponies who lived, long ago, in ours: Jennifer, Princess, Duchess.
So it will be very hard for me to force Eliza out of Fallowfields. I console myself with the thought that it will remain enshrined in the story, holding in place a lifetime of memories.
What about you, readers and fellow writers? As a story streams through your brain, what parts of your world does it clothe itself in?
Rx for Plot-Blindness
Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale.
Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.
Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”
Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?
The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:
INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.
VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.
VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.
HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.
COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN
VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.
VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.
HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.
Now, about those details….
Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.
The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.
Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.
So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?
I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”
I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.
Breaking the Mystery Rules
I was whining away on a Facebook page the other day (Golden Age Detection) about how the current “rules” for mystery novels are turning them boring. So today, a positive note: a review of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries that breaks many of those rules, Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh.
The book begins, as Marsh’s always do, with a list of the “dramatis personae.” Marsh worked in the theatre, and some of her best mysteries take place during theatre productions. (Her very best book, in my view, is Light Thickens, in which she violates the most sacred commandment of the Detection Club by…
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read Light Thickens yet, scroll past the single line in italics immediately below this one.
…ending the story with the entirely satisfactory discovery of a homicidal maniac.
I love to make my way through the dramatis personae list, imagining likely interactions, spotting promising eccentrics and provokers of conflict. In Dead Water, the obvious candidate is “Miss Emily Pride, Suzerain of [Portcarrow] Island.”
Dead Water comprises only nine chapters, and the first of them is that major no-no, a prologue. Its title is actually “Prelude.” It recounts the alleged appearance of a fairy in a modern-day (that’s 1963) UK fishing village, and village’s resulting transformation into a folklore-y spa. Conflict is confined to minimal levels of discomfort as the whole cast of characters is introduced. Far from leaving anyone hanging from a cliff, the final sentence of the Prelude informs the reader that the story is about to leap over the following two years. This prologue takes up its full 1/9 of the text.
(“Prelude” also sets up one rule-blessed plot thread of which Marsh was fond: a romantic young couple, who will – the reader always knows – live happily ever after once the inevitable murder is cleared up.)
The first quarter of Chapter Two is very heavy to backstory, another no-no. The vivid characterization makes it perfectly smooth and perfectly fascinating. One of Marsh’s best creations, Miss Emily Pride, born ca. 1880, was formerly French coach to rising members of His Majesty’s diplomatic service. The rest of the chapter sets the scene for future confrontations, but the participants in the main conflict of the story remain hundreds of miles apart.
In Chapter 3 the enemies meet and conflict escalates, but nothing worse than threats and minor assaults occur. Not until the end of the chapter does the detective/protagonist appear on this scene of not-quite-crimes. In this reader’s opinion, the threatened victim beats out our hero for character and interest. (I’ve never been hugely enamored of Marsh’s detective Roderick Alleyn. He and the mysteries he unravels serve, it seems to me, largely as an axis for the galaxy of her dramatis personae.)
We are now 1/3 of the way through the book. The first quarter of Chapter 4 is a comic and entirely believable account of a disastrous village festival, ending in nothing worse than a thunderstorm. Not until the end of the chapter, at the 40% mark, does the first and only corpse in the story appear, and it is not a cliffhanger but an elegant switcheroo.
From that point, detection takes over, with no diminution of character interest or involvement with the setting. Marsh’s brilliant plotting picks up from the early chapters clues and red herrings –– including the fairy and the thunderstorm – so subtle as to have been invisible even to experienced mystery readers as they passed by. When the usual climactic scene of derring-do is complete (another rule that Marsh generally followed), Chapter 9 continues with an extended explanation by the detective, a happy ending for the lovers and charitable provision made for innocent sufferers. This denouement covers two days.
Marsh’s editors seem to have had no problem with passages inserted for sheer fun. Here’s one of my favorites. A now-deceased character, whose sole function is to have made a plot-generating bequest to Miss Emily, is described:
My sister, Fanny Winterbottom,” Miss Emily announced, “was not free from this fault. I recall an informal entertainment at our Embassy in which she was invited to take part. It was a burlesque. Fanny was grotesquely attired and carried a vegetable bouquet. She was not without talent of a farouche sort and made something of a hit. Verb. Sap.: as you shall hear. Inflamed by success she improvised a short equivocal speech at the end which she flung her bouquet at H.E. It struck him in the diaphragm and might well have led to an incident.
So there’s an instance of brilliant, rule-breaking mystery writing. A small prize (a blog shout-out) is offered to all who can name a recently published equal.
Fiction Finds Its Fact
I had already invented a historic house for my murder. It dated to pre-Revolutionary times. I knew how it had begun –smallish, built by a hard-working tiller of the stony New Hampshire soil – and how it had grown as the family prospered. The foursquare, four-room shelter expanded, front, back and sides, as the nineteenth century progressed. The second story lost its sloping bedrooms and acquired an attic. Greek Revival doohickeys appeared. Even the sheds and barn grew neat.
This week, I got a chance to visit the kernel of my mysterious house. A kindly neighbor is selling his 1775 farmhouse, and he gave me a royal tour. I found myself regretting that I had allowed my fictional Stark House to be tinkered with by a bunch of equally fictional ancestors.
We stepped from the narrow front porch into a graceful swirl of centuries. A narrow wooden staircase on the left of the hall was painted in a deep, vivid blue, like the rich colors that once graced Mount Vernon. The paper on the walls reminded me of the papers Americans imported in the eighteen hundreds, when they established themselves among the nations — as consumers with the best of them.
To either side of the hall were parlors, each with its fireplace, rooms deliberately kept small to conserve heat and prevent drafts. There were signs of new prosperity here, too: the wood-paneled walls may have been the work of a carpenter known to have come through town in the 1830s. He dressed up a number of the local houses – no one wanted to be left behind the fashion. My neighbor had stripped off the centuries of paint that disguised it; you can now stroke the original wood of this 19th-century upgrade.
Behind the smaller parlor was the “warming room.” It shared a chimney with the large kitchen behind the company rooms. Here babies came into the world and the old left it, tended by the women of the family as they kept the kitchen fire going and the stew on the simmer. Our woods here in the Upper Valley still grow good lumber, but the trees that provided its wide floor boards and the original rafters above the kitchen are no more.
The old kitchen has become a living area, its original rafters once again visible, and the extension of the house to the back now houses a modern kitchen. One thing hasn’t changed: my host had a stew in progress that any Puritan goodwife would have envied (or at least asked for the recipe.)
When we made our way down to the basement, I knew that I had missed a great opportunity for my fictional Stark House. Its walls were made of fieldstone, like the walls that run through all our woods and pastures here, but with a big difference. These had been matched and placed with such care and skill that the corners were militarily precise. Just over our heads – we’re both about middle height – huge wooden beams lowered over us. Many had been replaced over the years, but some were still unsquared trunks from those ancestral forests. Think what crimes I could have committed – and concealed! — in such a basement. Just a little monkeying with the light fixtures….
Outside, under the lawn, there are signs of another foundation, probably the barn. I ached to know whether it had once been connected to the house by sheds and work buildings in the style known as Big-House-Little-House-Back-House-Barn. Those convoluted connections figure largely in my murders.
I can see that I’ll have to write a sequel, if only to add the counterpart of this lovely place to my fictional Oxbow, New Hampshire.
On Not Winning the Freddie
Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.
The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.
I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.
When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”
The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)
Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:
10 Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8 Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6 Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4 Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2 Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed
By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.
Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.
I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.
- Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
- Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
- Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
- No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.
Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!
That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:
I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.
Good advice of all of us.
P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.
On Not Faking the Color
I like my cozies cozy. We’re talking mystery novels here, of course. The base-case definition of “cozy” is “no overt sex or messy violence onstage.” For me, there’s one more requirement: the story has to happen in a place and/or a social setting made so vivid by the author that living in it for the length of a book is worth the price of admission. Cozy, after all, is a matter of one’s surroundings. Solving a murder? Not so important. It’s local color that makes me part with my cash in the bookstore.
Currently, I’m reviewing the presence of the great state of New Hampshire in the umpteenth draft of my novel. It’s a wonderful place, no question. I notice, though, that my local color focuses only on the nice stuff. Autumn-leaves-sort-of-thing. This is the “place” equivalent of the sweet and comforting cat owned by so many mystery protagonists. Said cat never ignores her owner, gores the vet or vomits on important people. Autumn color on the Kancamagus Highway is New Hampshire’s version of that cat.
So I’m hunting around for aspects of the New Hampshire life that will take readers into the real place, including the unsweet parts, which they will nonetheless want to explore with me. Here’s where that effort took me.
The Kancamagus, narrowly defined, is 37 unspoiled miles of two-lane road through the White Moutains, no turnoffs (except for trailheads), no gas stations, no food outlets, no nothing. On the other hand, it starts in Lincoln, New Hampshire, home to the Loon Mountain ski resort and a stretch of random and ramshackle shops whose only purpose is to extract dollars from skiers and leafpeepers. You can eat a gyro, spend more on a mountain bike than the annual household income in Rwanda, or get your nails painted blue with little sparkles on. Every tourist trap in the country could boast the same. So how is this New Hampshire?
I find a possible connection: a little strip-mall shop that sells very upscale foodstuffs, organic of course, plus Luna bars, sandwiches, and elaborate chocolate pastries clearly made by machines in a factory somewhere well to the south. But one of the sandwiches is a lobster roll better than anything I’ve tasted on the coast of Maine. Why make that a specialty? Because this is northern New England, mountains or no mountains, and the lobster is one of our totem animals. (So is the moose, but you don’t want moose on a bun.) Serving bad lobster is done in New Hampshire, yes, but it is nevertheless Not Done in New Hampshire.
Winter is another New Hampshire specialty. I do let my heroine enjoy the first pristine snow of the season. This brook isn’t just down the road from my house, but its twin brother is.
Where I have to be stern with myself is on the downside of all this loveliness. Hence :
We aren’t the rural state we once were, either. In the southern tier, New Hampshire is becoming downright post-industrial. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is no longer the economic engine of the area. It’s more a blight on the sea coast. Good place for a thrilling climactic chase scene, though.
So one way or another, I imagine I’ll give my readers a place more interesting than some non-denominational Heaven. If I get really desperate, I still have one lead to follow:
The Fifth Season
I started out with the idea of a novel set in rural New Hampshire. There’s no such thing as a novel set in New Hampshire that excludes the weather. I decided to spread the plot out over a year – up here, you can’t leave out a single month and still cover the territory.
Fate gave me a freebie: the full-year idea fit well with a problem my protagonist faces. She’s stuck at home, probably for good, after years of regular escapes to Kenya.
Today’s weather reminds me of why I changed my plan.
Last fall was lovely. Dampish now and then, but the beeches, oaks and maples all came through with October fireworks in yellow, red and russet. Winter sidled in with a little snow but then appeared to give up. Open ground could be seen in January and February. We had a storm or two, sure, storms that people in D.C. would call blizzards. But nothing you’d mention. Nothing we would, anyway.
Snow gone at the end of February. Temperatures scaling toward 60 every now and then. And then… BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!
Arrives the blizzard that breaks the records. With nine days to go till spring, parts of New Hampshire got more snow in a single day than at any time since Cain discovered writing. (He wrote crime fiction.)
Now we’re back up to March’s ordinary 40-degree highs, on one day out of two anyway. And today is the kind of day I’ll end my novel on. I could stretch it all the way around the calendar, ending on a June day of glorious sun, leaving out the black flies. Or I could end on a July day of glorious sun, leaving out the deer flies and the humidity. But no. My heroine will triumph on the first day of Mud Season.
The frost goes deep here. Even calling it “frost” is misleading. It’s a rock-hard layer of frozen earth that can go down five feet. We like it. Foresters can work in the woods all winter with heavy, heavy equipment.
But when the warmth creeps back, the ground unfreezes from the top first. The layers farther down don’t feel a thing. They don’t absorb moisture, either. So for weeks, meltwater mixes with topsoil and sloshes around — and slides and squishes and slops — on that impervious surface. This is Mud Season.
I took the dog out this morning. Winter is still mounded to either side of our forest road. You can’t walk over the plow piles because you’ll go straight down in and never get out again. The road, though, is all spring, from the surface to about two inches down. This new-born world is gluey, gritty, rich and brown. Runnels of melt water dig channels on the slightest slope. A blazing sun picks out sparkly grains of marble in the 3-inch gravel that is trying to hold the our forest roads in place against strong odds.
Pfeffernuss the dog is a 90-pound black Lab with feet almost as webbed as a duck’s. They sprea-a-ad out under her weight and then snap back into place like little backhoes, storing up hours-worth of pawprints for my floor tiles.
My knee-high muck boots go so deep you’d think “muck” is what they’re made of, not what they cope with. The sound they make on the upstroke is indelicate, nay, carnal.
This is what resurrection looks like in New Hampshire. The delicate blossoms and tender grasses come later, as an afterthought. When Mud Season arrives, you know you have come through the dark night of the New Hampshire soul and back out into the light.
Descriptions are for Feeling
I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.
Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.
Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.
At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:
V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.
G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.
At a writing conference:
Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.
A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.
In the room where I write:
A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.
Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.
A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.
In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:
A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.
The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.
Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.
You Belong in the Upper Valley If…
…your first thought when you need to buy something is, ‘I’ll just run down to Dan & Whit’s.’
If you live in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, you don’t think twice about Dan & Whit’s Country Store of Norwich, Vermont. You just go in and get stuff as thoughtlessly as you open your fridge for a Coke. Or you explain where somebody lives as ‘about ten minutes from Dan & Whit’s.’ Maybe that’s why we locals sometimes forget how quintessentially Vermont D&W’s is.
In fact, you can’t get absolutely everything there, as the front window is careful to point out. But you can get all the important things:
Once you’re in, you encounter what looks like a small grocery store. You can get Spaghetti Os and Tide, sure. But you’ll also notice a high percentage of Vermont-made food items. Not all of them are kale:
The Red Door Bakery of Marshfield Vermont does not make mimsy, everything-free baked goods. These are cookies that intend to be cookies. And succeed.
Across the aisle, you’ll find a product so packed with Vermonticity, you’ll be glad you moved here. The Cabot Creamery Cooperative is owned by the farmers whose milk it processes — a very Bernie Sanders set-up.
Cabot does make more than one product. It’s just that cheddar cheese drives all thought of yogurt from a Vermonter’s mind. Remember, come-heres, that cheddar is not an ingredient for dainty pastry puffs. It is meant to go with apple pie, eaten with a knife.
Now the grocery aisles are fading out. As you wander, the goods morph toward pans. And salt shakers. Thread. Glue. Cartoon stickers for the kids. Cork screws. Exactly what you imagine was spread from a Yankee peddler’s pack around 1850 (ex the stickers), enticingly open on the back porch.
The gizmo department fades away in turn. Clothing appears. Yes, you can get a Dan & Whit’s sweatshirt, if you insist. You can also get a big, touristy mug that proclaims all the traits that identify Vermonters.
(Many of these statements are true. Especially the one about taking your wife hunting for your wedding anniversary.) On the other hand, real Vermonters come in looking for these:
This is where Dan & Whit’s becomes eerie. As you circle back around the little office, a door appears on your right. Another on your left. You pick one. You wander through a corridor that seems to have left the building. You turn right, left, right again. Stairwells gape in unexpected places. Physicists at nearby Dartmouth College have demonstrated that Dan & Whit’s back premises exist in hyperspace, and the store’s inside is larger than its outside.
After your first right turn comes proof that Dan & Whit’s does indeed carry all the things you actually need:
Just remember that real Vermonters install these things themselves.
Press on, past topsoil, bird seed, dog food and above all Halite for winter sidewalks, 50 pound bags of it stacked almost to the ceiling. You will need this. Buy several.
Another doorway. The floor has been roughly — very roughly — horizontal all the way, but you know you are now in an underground environment, the bowels of Mother Earth. Here you find just what She believes you need.
Please do not disgrace yourself by asking for “green bean” seeds. There are seven varieties available. Also, please read the instructions on your new pressure cooker carefully before canning. Newbies may experience poisoning or explosions. It ain’t easy becoming a Vermonter.
You’ll find your way out eventually. (If you turn right one door too early, you will find yourself, embarrassingly, standing behind the meat counter.) Plunk your pressure cooker down on the counter, pay for it, and remember to take your new socks out before you use it.
Welcome to Vermont. Welcome home.
A Different Kind of Character
On the advice of Umberto Eco (in Reflections on The Name of the Rose), I’ve just decided to give more weight in my novel to its setting. Thinking it over, I realized that one way to do this is to include a new, non-human character: the plucky little newspaper that serves my fictional town of Oxbow, New Hampshire. I dredged from my files the clippings I’ve accumulated from our real local paper, the illustrious Valley News of Lebanon, NH, mainstay of the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River. The News is living proof that rural life provides all the opportunity you need to spread yourself out in life, to let anything happen. Up here, it eventually will.
Exhibit A, from the Valley News “Local Briefs” section:
NAKED PEDESTRIAN STROLLS THROUGH BURLINGTON [VERMONT]
A naked pedestrian strolling through Burlington this week has caused quite a stir.
The man was first spotted Tuesday walking through the city’s Church Street Marketplace completely nude, with exception of sneakers and a bandana on his head.
Bystanders say they were amazed to see him walk around the busy shopping and dining district.
Burlington Police Lt. Paul Glynn said that while the man’s nakedness is “inappropriate,” it’s not necessarily illegal as long as he left home naked and isn’t disrobing the public [sic] or harassing people.
The man turned down a request by WCAX-TV for an interview.
I love the first sentence. It could only have been written by an experienced small-town reporter. You can’t imagine it appearing in the New York Times. I like to picture the interviews of the bystanders: “How did you feel when you saw the man?” “Well, amazed, I guess. I was just amazed.” Reporter writes down, “Witness amazed.”
The typo is nice, too. And the sun protection of the bandana directs one’s thoughts to all the possibilities of sunburn.
Best of all are the scrupulous liberties of the People’s Republic of Vermont. (We Granite-staters don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Vermonters just across the river.) Vermont law says that you may not take your clothes off in public. But that’s all the law says. So…. What would constitute harassment in this case? Touching is out, obviously, but what about, “Look at this”? If you only said it once? Only once to each person? Panhandling in a non-harassing manner is allowed. If you didn’t even ask for cash, just for one moment of human attention before you moved on, who could object to that? He didn’t want to appear on TV, so it’s clear he isn’t an exhibitionist. Not in Vermont, anyway.
Local TV covered the story, too, if you’re feeling voyeur-ish.
Last February 5, “Local Briefs” reported a near-tragedy. Here are the essentials. (Unhappily, the Valley News website doesn’t include the paper’s archives, so I can’t send you to the original articles.)
Fire officials say a heat lamp used for chickens caused a fire that gutted a small barn. All of the chickens escaped unharmed.
These would not be generic chickens. Here in the Upper Valley, we like to buy our eggs from our neighbors, and we know the chickens almost as well as we do the neighbors’ dogs. Miss Bossy, for instance, is a Rhode Island Red who lives out in Orfordville. I heard about her from
the lady at the feed store, who is her owner (though Miss B. might not agree about that.) Miss Bossy is the smallest of her tiny flock, which she rules with an iron claw. Her fellow Rhode Island Red is named Thelma. The two Buff Orpingtons don’t have names – I guess compared to Miss Bossy and Thelma, they’re such wimps they’re hardly there at all. You can see why, when fire threatens a barn up here, the Valley News knows what’s important. All the chickens got out.
The paper does a good job of selecting and condensing national and world news stories for its “World and Nation” page (two pages, max.) We get several serious items a day from the top news bureaus plus a small feature summing up lesser stories in a few sentences. Sometimes, on a slow news day, the editor favors us with oddities that just struck his fancy. E.g.:
Meerkat Expert Cleared of Assault in Zoo Love Triangle
London, AP. A former meerkat expert at London Zoo was cleared Tuesday of assaulting a monkey handler in a love spat over a llama-keeper….
Or, if your favorite sin is anger rather than lust:
West Palm Beach, FL. Joshua James, 24, is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon …after throwing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window.
The point to notice about these stories is their datelines. London, West Palm Beach, what can you expect? If they weren’t already crazy, they’d live here. The news(wo)man’s inverse-square law states, “The farther from home, the weirder.” James got off with nothing worse than probation.
Local papers set the tone, but all our media report scrupulously on what matters to, or reliably annoys, people like us. War and pestilence were raging around the globe, as always, when the public radio station gave us this bulletin:
A tractor-trailer full of cheese caught fire on the interstate. The driver escaped, and was able to detach the truck from the trailer, but the trailer and its contents were destroyed.
Use all the senses, the writing mavens tell us. Think how grounded, how riveted, your reader would be if you could convey to her the sight and smell of 17 tons of smashed and smoking cheese! Consider the plight of the cars immediately following. The report didn’t say, but if it was Velveeta, it would qualify for HazMat treatment. And if, like me, you write mysteries, who set that fire?