Monthly Archives: March 2021

Writer’s difficult decisions mirror human life

THE HARDEST PART OF WRITING…

is what you put your characters through, to tell your story.

Yes, this is what you created and delivered them for. They are your babies, but they were always meant for sorrow, because no good story avoids sorrow.

Writers of fiction are making a point: if I extract the relevant parts of human life, and clean them up so they are tidier and cleaner than the mess that can be real life, can I show that the story has a moral, something I’m trying to say?

There is so much to tell

that it is impossible to tell it all within the confines of the longest epic poem or novel series.

The clock starts counting seconds even before the birth, and doesn’t stop until reaching ‘The End.’

And still the writer, even the one who creates a world which encompasses the whole life of a character in one piece, must discard MOST of that life, and pick only a few high points, hoping to use those to tell you something.

Stories teach

So what will the writer choose to teach?

And what pieces of that character’s life will the writer use as salutary or insalubrious examples the Reader should consider following?

Not the boring parts, not necessarily the exciting parts.

But often the points where the character, a relative unknown to even the author at its conception, makes mistakes. BIG mistakes. Very BAD decisions.

And when we get to creating and writing those mistakes, we may suddenly find that we really wouldn’t have ever done this to our now-child if we had been thinking more clearly – because we love them, and this will HURT. A lot.

Not a bad place to be – as a parent or an author

Our writing choices are better if we care.

If we are going to hurt, damage, punish, instruct a character, it better be worth it.

To both of us.

But it is natural, first, for the author to flounder about, wondering if this torture can be bypassed, whether it is really necessary, whether we should be the ones to inflict the damage.

It’s a testament of a kind to Pride’s Children

that every single time I have hit this point, I have steeled myself, stuck to the original plan which came to me in one piece, ‘vouchsafed’ as I like to say only to me, and written through the pain (mine) and the sorrow (theirs) because that IS the story.

Characters become very real to you when you spend twenty years with them, which I will have spent sometime this year.

They also become more determined, and more pigheaded, more what you made them, more willing and able to carry the burden.

Like the actor chosen to play the villain, they have gotten enamored of their role, and are giving it everything they have.

They would be quite annoyed if the author watered down their part – which now belongs to them and is their chance to shine on stage.

I have enjoyed very much the preparation of Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher, which he writes about in The Year of the King, as he prepares for the role of King Lear. Whether the king is the true villain of the play or not, his decisions are momentous and affect the lives of all the other characters.

Actors live for such a role.

My characters are fictional, but…

Sure they are. I tell my brain that all the time. It doesn’t listen.

No real people are harmed by whatever I do to them.

Yup.

So why do I keep finding myself at this point, where I have to justify to myself what I am about to write them through?

Is it more that it exposes MY worldview?

There is some of that.

But I sat down with this feeling today and realized I get my worldview from the world, the one we all live in.

I’m not one of the experimental science fiction authors who create entire races of very different characters (Olivia Butler does a superb job of this).

I strive for such absolute realism in my writing, from ‘right behind the characters’ eyeballs,’ that you will feel this happened to you – until you close the book.

I want you to live another LIFE

I want you to think very hard about what you would do if faced with the kind of consequences that are determined by the behavior I’m espousing by showing you a character doing it.

And be glad, or maybe experience regret and longing, that they don’t actually happen – to YOU.

So this is my job.

And I go back to it with all my prejudices reinforced.

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Does love conquer all? With kids?

DO PARENTS OWE THEIR CHILDREN RELIGION?

The following is an exchange that occurred because of a short story posted on Wattpad, and a corresponding circumstance in Pride’s Children (though it may be years before you understand that last statement).

It is my own personal opinion, based on my observations of my family and the families of friends, meant as a conversation starter; usual commenting rules apply.

Where are the obstacles, by definition?

When a Muslim marries a Hindu, or a Christian a Jew, or even an atheist a religious person, it is often seen as the great triumph of tolerance over prejudice, and there are rainbows and falling stars.

When children come, this tolerance can take three nasty turns (not always, of course, but they are BUILT IN to the situation):

1) ‘allowing the other parent to choose the child’s religion’ suddenly becomes ‘bringing up MY child opposite to MY beliefs,’ or

2) bringing the children up as both (an impossibility), or

3) bringing up the children, of parents who were brought up with something, to be brought up with nothing.

Having one parent keep his or her hands off the religious education of the children, and ‘support’ the other’s efforts, doesn’t fool anyone: the kids know Daddy doesn’t believe what Mommy believes – kids are not stupid.

The final option – NOT having children – is a partial solution which must be strongly enforced for the whole duration of life by BOTH partners – a big leap when you’re 20 or 30.

Consequences of attraction.

Sadly,

giving the kids a vague idea of each parents’ beliefs and ‘letting them choose when they grow up,’

is the most common result, accompanied by the next generation not really having much of anything.

Love does NOT conquer all, not very long.

The situation often comes about because opposites are very attractive among people in the marriage marketplace, for a while. People fall in love before they think about the consequences, and the farthest thing from their mind may be adding small expensive bundles of work to a free-spirited relationship.

But the drive to procreate in your own image is powerful, or people wouldn’t spend time and money trying to conceive when Nature hasn’t made them co-fertile.

Solutions?

Think before you get married.

A LOT.

Spend a lot of time with your intended’s family – get to know each other’s actual beliefs – as distinct from the ones you are trying out in college or work.

Talk about these things – once you have that baby, it’s too late.

Have the guts not to go into a marriage hoping ‘things will all work out.’

Respect, love, and tolerance for other people’s beliefs is important in a society such as ours where many religions – and non-religious people – coexist, mostly peacefully.

The disappearance of religious beliefs and practices developed over thousands of years, which help us understand our place in the universe, and cope with the inevitable blows of life, shouldn’t happen by accident.

If you don’t believe – fine. Your choice. And religion has done plenty of damage when applied autocratically.

I just think we owe our children more than Oops!

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Blast from my past in nuclear submarines

BUT THIS COULD BE COCOA BEACH, FLORIDA

Where we stayed when we worked for the navy.

Well, my EMPLOYER, Johns Hopkins U. Applied Physical Laboratory did contract work for the navy, and people from the lab were always going to Florida to participate in testing for the submarines, and write the report.

If you were there for a three week DASO, the Lab put you up at a condo on the beach if you chose – cheaper than a hotel room.

You can’t make this stuff up.

I live at a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), and it’s chock full of fascinating men and women with amazing histories in finance, academia, business, the military, … you name it, we’ve probably had one.

There is a small but active community of ex-submariners, and, because of my first job after grad school, at JHUAPL, where I did computational work for the Navy re subs and missiles, I have a tiny membership in the real community.

We worked for the Navy, but as civilian contractors, and I had the interesting job at APL for three years, during which time I participated in DASOs (Demonstration and Shakedown Operations) on various submarines down at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the Eastern Test Range.

Most of the jobs for a DASO were day jobs: you showed up at the boat before the Captain got on, because the minute he did, the gangplank rolled up behind him, and anyone not already on board was out of luck; you got off when the boat came back to port in the evening. DASOs lasted three weeks; then the boat went back to base and switched crews – but the APL contractors usually didn’t do both halves.

A favorite for newer contractors was to ride back from underwater tests in the conning tower, and if you were lucky you got fluorescent and flying fish in the bow wave.

One of the boats I was on was the USS Ulysses S. Grant.

Today, through a real submariner who lives in our retirement community, I have in my hands that ship’s log book. He has stories – he was in the Navy for a full career.

An interesting read – which never mentions the lowly help (why should it?) – but lists important visitors, different crews, commanding officers – and anecdotes contributed by the crew.

But it brought a whole piece of my life back – as if I were standing on the dock.

BTW, if you were not ON board when the captain arrived in the morning, you were out of luck: they rolled up the gangplank after him – and away we went to sea.

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Another story: Standing on the deck of a nuclear submarine coming back to the dock at night, watching the launch of a Delta rocket at night against the dark sky.

And another: my husband, who did research in Top Secret submarine stuff (my clearance was only Secret) came to visit me at the Cape once, and he got to go on a tour of the sub I was working on – on family day – as my spouse. His only time on one of them! At the dock.

And a third: I first heard The Gambler, Kenny Rogers, going out to sea in the Fire Control room – one of the crew was playing it.

One more: being aboard a British nuclear submarine for a missile launch: the Eastern Test Range had the equipment to follow the instrumented, nuclear-warheadless missile on its flight, so they tested in the US. Imagine the reaction when the whole submarine went a small distance down into deeper water as the missile went into the sky – conservation of momentum, and equal forces, but very unequal masses.

Memories are funny.

Some of the above – though MANY years ago – kept purposefully vague.

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Leave your own stories to share.

Is deep research a writer’s peril?

RESEARCH IS GOOD, RIGHT?

Writers like me spend a LOT of time doing research to set a novel in time and place, to select the best time of day for a scene, to subtly (we hope) slip a reader into an alternate reality where we are going to tell a story that should keep the reader turning pages far into the night.

To create a world that the characters and the reader can explore for a certain distance off the main story path, we have to know a LOT more than the reader, or the shallowness of the setting will show through the words somewhere, and the lack of fit among all the pieces set down as background will leak through into the reader’s subconscious, taking the reader out of the story to wonder ‘if that could even happen.’

NETHERWORLD has several movies in it, and my current section is the shooting of a movie based on certain parts and unanswered questions in the life of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, author of what is commonly known as ‘the Alice books’:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

The amount of ‘information’ out there on this popular author (and mathematics teacher at Christ College, Oxford) is staggering.

There are entire societies dedicated to his books, his life, his work.

He is a well-known historical character, and many others have staked their reputations on writing about him.

What’s my motivation?

Even non-actors have seen an actor in a movie ask the director, What’s my motivation?

Because HOW you say something, in fact, how you use your whole body to say something, depends on WHY you say it, the motivation that gives the lines written by the scriptwriter a connection to the whole world of the movie.

Good actors go much deeper than that to create their own version of a character, to use their time on screen to make us believe the character so deeply that it’s a shock to see that actor – in a different role! “But he was so good at…” is a common reaction.

A good movie has more

The motivation for making that movie at all, for expending what can be millions of dollars on a particular story, for bringing that story to a fully-realized version that may some day be an immersive 3-D experience for viewers who participate in the movie as a character (we’re getting close with virtual reality – it’s only a matter of sufficient processing power in computers), depends on whether the investment can be justified, made to pay because there are so many people, worldwide, who want to watch (and later, to be).

Go on about how the good stories are distillations of an internally consistent process that requires knowing all the possibilities – and choosing the ‘best’ for the gut of the movie. And the actors work hard at figuring out why.

Which brings me full circle to research

And a character of mine, an actor, doing the research for a role he will play, but deep research, research that goes beyond reading the materials handed to him, or discovered in the easy-to-get-to online sources such as Wikipedia (a huge resource I support every year).

But the characters all come from me, so if they need to do research, guess who’s doing it for them?

It takes time.

It takes time away from the writing. That’s the dangerous part.

It is real research, research into primary sources such as biographies, sometimes histories.

And it is research that has to be stored, savored, coordinated (all those sources don’t agree with each other), until it is used to produce action in the character in the novel – and writing of that action by the author of the character in the novel.

Well, I have been down the rabbit hole again. Found all kinds of fascinating things, some of which I did not dig deep enough to find when I set this section of NETHERWORLD up, years ago. The slow brain makes it even slower.

And now, darn it, I have to figure out how to use all that research to give the character his motivation, and the readers something that keeps them turning pages late into the night.

My kind of author works hard for the readers she craves.

We aim to please.

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