“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Day 77: The Friction of Cooking Up Fiction

A fifth, maybe a quarter of the way into the novel I am radically revising, I realized that Anna, my narrator, needed to follow her best friend, Ursula, home.  We spend much of the novel in foreign parts, but Ursula makes a decision that changes all the characters' lives and I didn't think we would understand her as a complex character unless I dug more into her various motivations, some of them subterranean, and there's no better way to do that then to watch a character revert back into her familial role.

Up until now, all I knew was that she moved to France for love.  There's a country, and a certain young man, she is moving toward.  But was it possible, I now wondered, that there was something she was also relieved to leave behind?  Could there be an additional reason why she was willing to put an ocean between herself and her family?

While I was writing, I made a realization that surprised me.  Ursula's dad is kind of a tool.

I hadn't known this before.

As I started getting to know him this week I found out that he is the type of person who goes into a sulk when he loses a game, even with his teenage children.  He corrects people, mid-sentence.  He expects everyone to cater to his schedule.  He flies off the handle easily, and the other characters have to dance around him just to make sure that doesn't happen.

I've known people like this, so that isn't so hard to write, but then I had to wonder:  What are his redeeming qualities?  Apart from being good at his work and loving his wife and kids, what is there about him that I can relate to enough to make him real?

And then, as I started writing a scene from when Anna and Ursula are in college and they head to Ursula's home outside of Amherst, Massachusetts, for Thanksgiving, I got myself into more trouble.  I ran into the brick wall of all I don't know.

For the setting, I was fine.  I know Amherst well enough.  I went to U-Mass/Amherst for graduate school, and my sister and her husband live twenty minutes outside of this pretty college town.

We spend Thanksgivings together.  There.  So I know the weather.   The lay of the land.  I've seen the pumpkins outside people's houses, eaten pie from Atkins Farm, gone walking along damp, tree-lined streets past quintessential New England town greens and sipped fresh cider from local farms.

The problem is this guy.  He's a Dante scholar.  He collects a lot of eclectic stuff.  He's very knowledgeable about opera, Cuban cigars, former Massachusetts Governor Dukakis, and is insanely competitive when he plays Scrabble and Risk.  I've never read Dante, I've been to maybe half a dozen operas in my life but am certainly no expert, I have never smoked a Cuban cigar, and I haven't paid attention to Dukasis since the Bush Senior campaign ran those attack ads linking his supposedly liberal policies to the release of the convict killer/rapist Willie Horton and he lost the election and fell out of public view.  I never play Scrabble, because my husband is so good at it there's kind of no point, and I've never even looked at the Risk board up close, even though my husband and our sons play it once a year.  Plus the game would have to take place in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I am a little rusty on late Cold War geopolitics.

So in order to get closer to what makes this guy tick, I need to do a little research.  But I had dismantled my internet access for the three hours I gave myself to write my 1,000 words of the day.  I couldn't look this stuff up, and I sure as hell couldn't make it up.

They say only trouble is interesting in fiction, and it's the friction that makes the pearl, but my brain was too clogged up with roadblocks to cause a single little spark to ignite.

I love making lists in real life, and I love lists in literature, so I thought drafting one would help me.  I went back to Anna, my narrator, who is fun to write, and had her try to help Ursula come up with a list of potential birthday gifts for this man based on what she, Anna, (who is just as ignorant as I am at the moment, although this may change) knows from observation of this fussy man's collections.  Forgive the rough draft writing, but here was what I came up with after quite a lot of staring and frowning and wishing I could hire a hacker to undo my Google lockout:

Florentine stationary, Cuban cigars, Italian top-of-the stove espresso makers, Fra Angelico prints, every translation in every language of every Dante volume that exists, silk ties or bow ties (depending on his mood and you had to know), jade paperweights, art nouveau cufflinks, and glass figurines of dogs.

I didn't plan this list, or will it into being.  I just wrote what came to me.  So what the hell?  Glass figurines of dogs? Did he buy them?  Or maybe inherit them from his mother, who was a collector herself?

How can you not be a little charmed by someone who is supposed to be a formidable scholar and an aesthete and occasionally a petty tyrant who also collects glass figurines of dogs? So there's a side of this cultured dude that goes for kitsch?

And then I remembered that this family raises collies.

Now I know my way in.

He'll still be kind of a tool, this fictional father, but there's at least one part of him a gal like me can love.

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