Timehop’s Abe wished me a happy birthday! (He forgot the comma, but that’s okay – he’s a dinosaur.)
I like birthdays. They are unique celebrations of an individual. Every other holiday and anniversary we share with one or more people, but a birthday is often for one person alone. Twins – or family or friends who otherwise share the same birthday – have a slightly different perspective, but there is still a uniqueness to a birthday, encompassing specific wishes for good health and good fortune for a person.
Google got in on the action, too.
I wrote for my birthday, as a kind of a gift to myself. While I didn’t write about an actual birthday, this time, tapping out that short story made me think about all of the birthday scenes and chapters I have written over the years. Turns out, there are quite a few:
- Peter, in 2007’s NaNoWriMo “Sixes and Sevens”
- Larry (and Sally, too), in the Doctor Who-Lite Songbirds series short story “Slave Girls and Shining Knights”
- Yousuke, in 1 More Chance! chapter 22, and Chie in chapter 25
- Rob, in the “Finding Mister Wright” series short story “Thirty-Nine”
- Ross, in chapter 19 of Fearless (a somewhat do-nothing chapter but which I’m loathe to lose all the same, for its lightheartedness among the rest of the story’s heavy emotional weight)
- and Hell, in the Borderlands short story “Whack”
Not to be left out, here’s Twitter’s note.
Birthdays represent hope. Thinking back on it, all of those chapters and short stories were about life and the role hope plays within it, whether it’s hope for the future, hope to be a better person, or hope simply to share more days with the people we love. It’s a toss-up whether any of those stories actually worked the way they were conceived to do…but the joy of writing them gave me purpose, at least for a little while.
I hope good things for you, dear reader, today and every day, especially if you, too, are a writer looking for purpose. Because why wait for a birthday to share that?
Do you like writing birthdays in your stories? If so, do they tend to be happy events, or sad ones? What present did you give to yourself on your last birthday? Let’s all have cake!
I’m currently away from the Internet, celebrating Thanksgiving with family, the best way to celebrate any holiday. Those good feelings prompted me to compose the following free-write in my “Finding Mister Wright” universe:
“Thanks and Giving” [PDF opens in new window]
~9600 words / 38 pages DS
This one concerns family, of course, and cooking, just like I promised. It’s long, so I don’t expect anyone at all to read it. But it was a story of Rob and his mother that had been nagging at me for a while to be written, so I answered the only way I knew how, to write it. Paige is here, and Daniel, too, as well as a few new faces. Some of them are even new to Rob and the rest! There are real if subtle conflicts here between mother and son, father and daughter, brother and sister, that I’ve experienced in one way or another across my many years. As always, the stories help me understand those experiences a little bit better, but hopefully if you read this one, you’ll get some enjoyment out of it, too.
Happy families to you all!
I was flying home from a work meeting on the night of Friday, November 11. While frightening and deadly acts were happening halfway across the globe, this was the sight outside my wingside window. I didn’t have WiFi, so I had no idea what was happening in world news. There was only the thrum of the engines, the buzz of my overhead air vent, and this view, with the city bustle below, the reddening sky ahead, and that sliver of lunar light above.
When I walked out to the family car that had come to pick me up at Terminal B, my husband informed me about the breaking news in Paris. We wondered how people were coping over there, and if the extra security walking around the airport had anything to do with the events still developing in France. Over the next few days, there were political discussions, as well as conversations about safety, social centrism, and the cultural narrow-sightedness of our first world society in particular. But my mind kept coming back to that picture I took from an Embraer window.
I’ve always enjoyed flying. Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been getting on planes at least two or three times a year, and, despite some of the rigamarole involved in check-in and security lines, it remains one of my favorite ways to travel. There’s a feeling of detachment from the land below when we fly. We can look down from a plane in flight and see for miles around: freeways, farmland, rivers, lakes and oceans, all as a kind of separate spectator. As a child, I often wondered if that vantage point was how spacemen saw us, and how that high perspective affected their opinions. From 10,000 feet, you can’t hear what’s going on below, the prayers or the curses. You can’t see individuals, either, neither their shape nor their color. You can only see the parts of the world as their own wholes: villages, towns, cities. And when you fly at night, even over large expanses of land or water, you look for light. Sometimes, it’s just a point. But, if you keep looking, odds are you’ll see more points, more light, until there’s so many, they’re impossible to count.
When we hear about violence, hatred, and acts of terror, it’s natural to be afraid. It’s human to want to close ourselves off and hide. But it’s important to remember that the world isn’t all darkness. There is light here, too. Sometimes, it’s just one point. But keep looking. You’ll see more.
Sometimes, separating the writer from the character is hard. We find ourselves putting our own traits into those of our protagonist, so they become mirrors of us. They may share the same taste in music, food, or hobbies. Their favorite sports team may be ours; that song on the radio we just can’t stand may make them grind their teeth, too.
One trait that I’ve noticed that comes through in all of my favorite characters is an interest in cooking. Their proficiency levels vary (from Chie’s ignorance about what “simmer” means, to Marshall knowing the recipe for drop scones so well he can make them in his brother’s kitchen without a book), but they always enjoy cooking. It may have different meanings for them – a desire to please, a need to control, sometimes just a way for characters to relax or get to know each other better – but even those meanings are from my own experience.
Even though I’m not actively writing while I do it, cooking allows me the freedom to let my mind wander. It’s a time of day I usually spend alone with my thoughts, and those thoughts almost invariably turn to my stories and characters: Does Paige sneak chopped vegetables from the cutting board while Daniel looks away? Does Ross sway with Amber as she stirs some sauce? Does Axton have to stop making breakfast because the hounds won’t settle down?
No matter who the character is – doctor, dancer, reckless bounty hunter – they’re all me, in a way. I’m no doctor; I’m barely a dancer; I couldn’t track a skip to save my life. But there are more basic traits we share between us, like joy for art, work, and – sure – cooking. In honor of that sense of sharing, I thought I’d share a bit of a recent cooking experience: curried shrimp and mango soup. The photos below detail the real-life steps I took, but rest assured as ingredients were browning, bubbling, and coming together in that Dutch oven, my brain was equally bubbling with ideas for where my next story should go. And, of course, there’ll be cooking.
If you’re interested, here’s the recipe, originally from Eating Well:
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 serrano chile, minced (optional)
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups seafood broth or stock or clam juice
- 1 14-ounce can “lite” coconut milk
- 3 ripe mangoes, diced
- 1 1/4 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 bunch scallions, sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, chile (if using), curry powder and thyme; stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add broth (or stock or clam juice), coconut milk and mangoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
- Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.) Return the puree to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook until pink and firm, about 3 minutes. Stir in scallions and salt.
What personal traits – if any – do you find you share most commonly with your characters? What do you see your characters doing when you’re cooking, doing the wash, or some other regular chore? Do you think you’ll try the curried shrimp and mango soup recipe? Let me know in the comments!
September seems to be a popular birthday month. It must have something to do with cuddling together when it’s cold outside during the traditional winter. I celebrated my birthday this past week, too. While I may not have been able to celebrate with everyone I would have wanted there, I did enjoy a very fun and filling tasting menu supper in the city.
But I’m not here to talk about indulgent food.
Recently, several storyteller friends of mine have brought up the topic of scenes or chapters in a story where nothing really happens. There’s no big action, no deep conflict, just the characters slowing down to talk, reflect, or enjoy themselves. The prevalent argument in today’s how-to columns is that every scene should push the story forward. In some cases, that technique works: strict short stories, for example, where the prose should be so airtight that every dialogue and action needs to contribute to the plot. For a longer story, though, I believe slow-downs are necessary.
A story can’t stay at 11 all of the time. The characters – and the reader – need some breathing room between the big conflicts. This downtime can be represented in any number of ways: a conversation, a love scene, even a birthday party.
For some reason, I like using birthday celebrations to look at a character’s life. In 1 More Chance!, I used Chie’s boyfriend’s birthday to introduce her to his family (among other things). In Fearless, Ross’s birthday is an excuse for his crew to get together for a party on the beach. In the “Finding Mister Wright” universe, Rob’s birthday is used to contrast the ideas of life and death. And, in my most recent story on the subject, one of my From Hell bounty hunters uses an old birthday to bury his past. Now, 1 More Chance! is a massive, meandering relationship story, and the “Finding Mister Wright” and From Hell examples are self-indulgent free-writes, so they follow their own non-rules. The Fearless birthday chapter, though, offers what I’ve always thought to be a necessary moment of relaxation between the second and third arcs, where the characters get to have a little bit of simple happiness before the new conflict hits. Seen alone, the party on the beach doesn’t do much for the novel as a whole. The main point of the chapter is to show how well these characters fit together, and how far they’ve come from the beginning of the story. There’s not much more to it than that. But I think it’s good to have smaller, calmer moments like this in a story, to show the reader who and what has been affected by the conflict that’s happened, or by the conflict yet to come. And, just as it’s good to have these smaller, calmer moments in stories, it’s good to have them in life.
Birthdays are as much about our own growth as they are about family, friends, noisemakers, and food. That growth includes rest as well as action. So let’s push on with our stories. But let’s also not forget to allow for a little bit of breathing room now and again.
What are your thoughts on quiet moments in stories? Do you ever use a birthday occasion in your stories? What kind of birthday cake do you like best? 🙂