20 August 2010

Craft Q&A

I write a regular Q&A column for The Writer Magazine. Usually, these Q&As are available to subscribers only, but this recent one—on the importance of secondary characters and the difference between who and whom—is available to the whole wide web. Take a look for a writerly fix and if you have a burning question you’d like to see me cover, scroll down for directions on how to submit it.

19 August 2010

From the Archives: Research Close to the Source

From February 2006

While fiction relies comfortably on an author's ability to imagine, most fiction writers are bound to encounter the need to research. Sometimes this can be quick and casual—looking up a city's landmark—and other times it can be intensive and long term, involving information gathering about time, place, historical events and more. Many fiction writers turn to books, the internet, documentaries or magazines for research. While these are great sources to inform your work and even guide you to additional sources, this often shouldn't be the end of it. A printed interview will give great information, but you'll miss out on the cadence of the speaker's voice. A documentary is bound to offer vital tidbits, but some of the most valuable footage of gesture and nuance that build character may be on the cutting room floor. An article about the subway system in the early nineteen hundreds might mention the vivid advertisements, but you won't get the opportunity to view them yourself and imagine how your character would perceive them.

When researching, you want to get as close to the original source material as possible. If you're writing a story set in Maui, for instance, your best bet is to go to Maui and experience the place for yourself. If you're writing about bungee jumping, give it a try first. This, of course, isn't always possible. We certainly can't experience occupied France during World War II, if we haven't already done so. Some experiences you may not want to have, like those that are illegal, unsavory or life threatening. When you can't experience something yourself, look for the second closest source: someone who has. The internet is often a great way to connect with such people.

Also, track down other forms of original source material. Historical societies often have photographs, newspapers and even telephone books from different eras. The possibilities are diverse and varied. The New York Historical Society, for example, has an extensive collection of printed materials that document the subway where you can look up some of the earliest routes of the system. Some institutions even have collections available online. The New York Historical Society has an online museum with images and information on over 60,000 artifacts and works of art from their collection.

Don’t forget the experts. For every subject, there's bound to be at least one expert. Recently, I visited the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, which features over 4,400 mustards—in tubes, bottles and jars—that come from all over the United States and more than 60 countries. [Editor’s note: the museum has since moved to Middleton, Wisconsin.] They also display mustard related items, like mustard pots, mustard advertisements, different kinds of dispensers and more. There's a tasting station at the back of the gift shop where a Confidential Condiment Counselor assisted me in trying mustards—anything from chocolate mustard, to curry mustard to martini mustard. Barry Levenson, the founder of the museum, even gave me some insight into what prompted him to create it. After two hours of browsing, viewing, tasting and reading, I left the museum, clutching my bag filled with chipotle mustard and a super hot variety called Hit and Run. I carried with me, too, an appreciation for the people in this world who have a passion that they actively pursue and a willingness to share with others. No matter how obscure or unexpected the subject, someone is bound to have explored it thoroughly.

Perhaps you're not writing mustard related fiction. (Although you might keep an eye on the Mustard Museum’s writing contests and reconsider.) Whatever your needs, look for the person or organization out there who has taken on the topic with gusto. Take, for example, the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project that has been documenting varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States—the regionalisms that exist even within one language. A vital source for writers with characters anchored strongly in place.

If you're looking for information, there's a source out there that has it.

12 August 2010

On the Street and In Your Ears

I adore the print journal as much as the next thoughtful reader, but it’s exciting to see editors doing something a little different in delivering quality creative writing. Here’s a look at two innovative approaches to the literary journal:

Broadsided defines itself this way: “Street art. Fine art. Free art. Dialogue. Serendipitous public art. A counter-force for billboards advertising fast food and cars.” Here’s how it works: When a poem or fiction is accepted, it’s passed on to an artist who responds to it visually. At the beginning of each month, Broadsided posts a new literary/visual collaboration. Vectors download, print and post it. Where? Anywhere. Telephone poles, traffic signs, bank lobbies, gates, water coolers, bathroom stalls, and your very own back. (See the Vector Gallery for other inspired locations.) Anyone can become a Vector. Even you.

The Drum Literary Magazine, dubbed a “literary magazine for your ears,” publishes essays and short stories in audio format. You can listen online or download and share. Current work is free and after three months, it goes in the archives. Subscribers can access a year’s worth of The Drum and individual stories and essays can be purchased from the archives. The Drum is currently looking for help recording great prose with their Stories on the Street feature. Pick an excerpt from something in the public domain, grab something to record and hit the streets looking for people to read it aloud.

Added bonus? As of this posting, both are currently accepting submissions.

Broadsided / Writer: Christine Bly, Artist: Ira Joel Haber

06 August 2010

From the Archives: Interview with Stacey Richter

From January 2008

The first story I ever read by Stacey Ricther was “The Cavemen in the Hedges.” I didn’t know what I was getting into, but with that title I was eager to find out. I’ve been hooked ever since. Richter’s fiction is fun. It takes the reader to unexpected places, brings to life the surprising and, at the same time, reveals something interesting about what it means to be human. “The Cavemen in the Hedges” tells the story of a resurgence of cavemen that the story’s narrator chases away from his house with shiny Mardi Gras beads shot out of a pellet gun. It also tells a story of love, responsibility, and, ultimately, loss.

Richter recently published her second collection of short stories Twin Study, which Publishers Weekly described as “bracingly imaginative.” This follows her acclaimed first collection, My Date With Satan. The Village Voice named her a “Writer on the Verge” and she has been published in many journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House and Swink. (Her website is a great resource for writers, too, with a fiercely witty q&a and interesting links to sites like “peculiar names for characters and pets.” Check it out: www.staceyrichter.com)

LP: Twin Study is your second collection of stories following My Date With Satan. What do you find appealing about the short story?

SR: One thing I love about short stories is that they’re nearly always read in one sitting, so they have a kind of unity in time that a novel can’t have. When I finish reading a novel, I have to go back and read the first page again to see how it relates to the end, but a short story is able to lodge whole in my brain. This makes short stories able to hold a lot of mystery and ambiguity and weirdness and contradiction, the kinds of things our subconscious minds are good at processing—and for some reason I think our subconscious minds prefer things to arrive in one sitting, like in a dream. I love that shivery feeling I sometimes get when I read a Kafka story or an Isaac Bashevis Singer story—like something has just been revealed but I don’t understand exactly what it is.

LP: Your stories are so fresh and imaginative. There are cavemen running around in the world as we know it (“The Cavemen in the Hedges”), identical twins attending a study on twins (“Twin Study”), and a daughter negotiating life with an incredibly famous and unpredictable mother (“My Mother the Rock Star”). How to you come upon these ideas? Do you consciously bring this element to your fiction?

SR: I just write about things that appeal to me, that interest me, and that I wonder about. Really, like everyone, I’m always writing about my life and the way I see the world. Usually I’m not writing about experiences I’ve literally had in real life—though sometimes there’s an element of that—but I’m always writing about the contents of my brain. I look for dramatic situation that excite me and I’m excited by twins, cavemen, clones, and so on. But honestly, I really don’t think my subject matter is so imaginative. Doesn’t everyone, at some point in their lives, wonder what it’s like to have an identical twin? Doesn’t everyone who’s watched a TV show about prehistoric times wonder how cavemen smelled? To me, it seems like a fairly mundane day in the life of a human imagination.

LP: When you start writing a story, do you tend to know where it’s heading?

SR: I know where it’s heading but I don’t know where it will end up. I always try to start a story with some sort of conflict in mind. That usually gives me enough direction to write the beginning and the middle and at some point after that I have to figure out how to end it. Occasionally I try to start a story with only an image or a world or a character I like. Sometimes that works too, but I’ve found that those stories are more likely to get bogged down and abandoned.

LP: “Young People Today” is written as a letter from Virginia, a woman who calls herself an “old hen,” to her friend Flora about why she’s decided to spend more time with young people. In the process, she tells the story of how it all started: with Andy Hassenfield, the young man she hired as a day laborer. Why did you choose to tell this story in the form of a letter?

SR: When I write a story in the first person, I often find myself demanding an explanation from my narrator along the lines of: why is she telling me this? So I end up with an imaginary story-behind-the-story that explains why this particular person is telling their tale and who they’re telling it to. Sometimes that explanation makes it into the story itself but it often doesn’t. In this case, the back story did make it in. It didn’t really make sense to me that an old lady would be explaining how wacky young folks are, in a quasi-sociologist’s way, unless she was addressing another old lady.

LP: I understand you’re working on a novel. How has that process been different—or similar to—writing short stories?

SR: Yes, I'm working on a novel. Compared to writing a novel, writing short stories is a piece of cake. All I have to worry about when I write a short story is the beginning and the end—the middle just sort of takes care of itself. I can pretty much make up a short story as I go along, which suits my nature, which is either disorganized or Zen-like, depending on how I want to spin it. But novels are all about the middle. The middle requires planning and plotting and conniving and perspective. It's occurred to me that I may have to write a half dozen novels before I figure it out, which is depressing, though it's intriguing to have a life-long project.

LP: Are there any authors who you think should be read widely but aren’t just yet?

SR: Kelly Link, Mary Robison, Julia Slavin, and David Markson immediately come to mind, though there are others.

LP: What are you reading now?

SR: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

LP: What piece of advice have you found particularly useful as a writer?

SR: Rick Moody once told me, in a very nice and indirect way, not to write stories with only one character in them. That was probably the best writing advice anyone has ever given me.

03 August 2010

Wordle & Writers

Can you guess what I Wordled?

A poet friend, the incomparable Joanne Diaz, introduced me to Wordle, a web gizmo that makes word clouds out of text that you provide. The more often a word appears in the text, the larger it appears in the word cloud.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing so, of course, I spent a lot of time noodling around with it and the uses for the writer are rich—and not just in the procrastination department. I used it in the creative writing classroom recently with students who were collaborating on a short story. Since they had to conceive and write a story together, I thought Wordle might help them start a discussion about common interests. I generated a series of prompts that they responded to in freewriting. Then we merged each individual’s freewriting into one group document and fed it into Wordle. The conversations that came out of this method were certainly more unexpected and varied than had I just let them lose with the direction to come up with a story idea.

This could easily be adapted to the writer who’s working solo. Need out of a rut? Dump a big chunk of freewriting—written in one day or over several months—into Wordle and see what comes up. Enter your work-in-progress to see what emerges with this different view on the material. Stumped for a title for your story? Wordle it for a brainstorming session. Enter your writer’s statement or compile your text on grant or residency applications to see the overall impression you’re making when you send out your materials. 

What do you think? Do you Wordle? How do you use it?