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? 🙂
I’d meant to write a post about keeping balance in our lives, especially as writers, since many of us spend a lot of time sitting sequestered away in front of a computer. I was going to advise keeping a good exercise regime (I try to do 20-30 minutes every morning, plus walking or running through the day), a good eating schedule and habits (veggies and fruits are good and good for you!), and a regular sleep cycle (many of us ignore sleep in favor of work, studying, or even writing, when getting enough or even more sleep can actually help us do those things better). Then I had a horrendous work week that turned into two weeks – now approaching three – and I realized that I don’t even take my own advice. Instead, I put on a specific kind of mask: what folks at my institution call my PennFace.
“Pilot” by George Hodan; public domain image
Similar to the Stanford Duck, the image of which is a duck swimming placidly across the water while its legs kick furiously beneath the surface, PennFace is a term used to describe the mask some students wear to cover up their anxieties, fears, and stress. They walk around campus with smiles on their faces, saying, “I’m all good!” to their friends, and generally acting – on the outside – that everything is going swimmingly. On the inside, though, or behind the closed doors of their dorm room, they may sweat, cry, or curl into the fetal position while they wish for the world to leave them alone for a while. I have that closed-off feeling a lot, but I try to project myself as being confident and carefree.
Everybody has their own issues, and everyone deals with their issues differently. But nobody wants to burden anybody else with their problems. I certainly don’t. So, I put on my PennFace. And, that works. For a while. But we can only go so long before we have to stop running, stand up straight, and face our issues. The mask does no good then: when it’s only us and that which plagues us. The difficult part for me to admit is that that stop running bit isn’t so terrible when I finally do it. In fact, it’s very, very often a good thing, and what helps me get back on track with the rest of my life/job/whatever. Like the heroes about whom many of us write, we have to face our fears, and those moments of truth usually make us stronger.
We make the decision to stand up and confront our troubles alone. We don’t have to take the next step alone, though. Family, lovers, friends, coworkers, therapists, teachers, clergy – there are so many people out there willing to help. Asking is hard. But doing everything alone is so much harder.
Some people enjoy conflict and chaos: they thrive on it. Personally, I prefer control and routine. But, life by nature is chaotic, and how we deal with that chaos affects how we live. I still pull out and put on the mask, a lot more often than I probably should. I’m learning, though. And, I’m finding I like seeing my real face in the mirror a lot more than I like seeing my PennFace there.
How do you cope with your “PennFace?”