Here is a description of how to create and utilize prompts effectively. Ray Bradbury writes in the preface to Dandelion Wine that in his early twenties he discovered a word association technique that helped him reliably build stories. As he described it, “I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head. I would then take arms against the word or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done.” As the word ‘dandelion’ is associated with this description of the author’s method, it makes for a useful visual metaphor, that of a spreading, branching, far reaching plant that casts out seeds in every direction, just as a good prompt should. Bradbury goes on in this preface to describe how he pulled images and sensations from boyhood out to establish the scaffolding for this poetic and whimsical glimpse into a boy’s world.
I started the day today writing about food (the “Hungry for Plot” post) and so I shall end it: with a brief notation about a behavioral study that has been a topic of conversation in my world. Results of this study support previous study results, both formal and anecdotal, that suggest a strong relationship between blood sugar levels and aggression. To whit, hungry people get angry faster. The article validates the current slang term “hangry” (so hungry you’re angry). I am hungry myself at this moment but my spouse has two big steaks on the grill so I suspect we will shortly lower the possibility of contention by quite a bit. Just as I noted below that what’s on your characters’ plates may be important, how long they waited for the plate turns out to be key to their interaction. Of course, as a former waitress myself, I have seen what happens when hunger is stretched out. Not pretty.
Misplaced apostrophes are so common now that they are in danger of becoming standard (if ungrammatical) spelling. I don’t mind seeing them on hand lettered signs but feel annoyed when they appear on professionally made materials. The latter result implies several professional people at various levels viewed the product and failed to see the problem. I take that a little personally, I suppose, because when I was a graphic art student, back in the neolithic age when we prepared our materials for cameras and “stripped the flats” for plate-making, I learned that we were to exercise every bit of caution at every step over the content. I sent a fellow student back to the drafting table once when I caught her stripping a flat for a professional business advertisement she had created that contained a rogue apostrophe (something like “All Ages’ Served”).
I’m not too uptight to get a laugh out of the offending punctuation. I still love my sister’s story about her days as a team manager in high school when she encountered a group of fans carrying a sign that read “We Love Our Boys’!” Her comment was, ‘We love our boys’…what? Is that too risque to be shown?” The fans didn’t get it.
I was therefore delighted to discover this morning that we may eventually solve a serious miscarriage of punctuation here in Maine through legislative action. Today is “Patriot’s Day” here in Maine. No kidding. Just the one “Patriot.” That is how the holiday is officially listed in the statute that created it. I usually refer to it in writing as “Patriots’ Day,” as it was created to celebrate the battles of Lexington and Concord in the Revolutionary War and patriots in general. There is some question as to whether the official term ought to be ” Patriots’ ” or simply an unpunctuated “Patriots,” but some legislators are concerned enough that they are working on a bill to fix the holiday’s name. Either way, I (and many English teachers too) would be relieved to see justice finally, officially served in this matter.
I first read about the story of Albrecht Muth a couple years ago in this absorbing profile of the man then accused of murdering his much older wife, likely for the mundane purpose of acquiring booty. He has since been convicted in a not surprisingly colorful trial and will soon be sentenced. The lives of Muth and his wife, Viola Drath, were intertwined with Washington D.C. society, which was enchanted by his audacious self-presentation and willful weirdness. According to the profile referenced above, for example, Muth styled himself a “count” and ordered ornate stationery embossed with his made-up crest. There are many interesting accounts of this complex character and convoluted relationship available on line and they are worth pursuing as a study in how a talented and bold story teller can make a place for him on a foundation of half-truths and fantasies well delivered. It is also a study in the limits of self-delusion.
What your characters are eating and how they eat it can be an integral part of the story. Sometimes (as often seems the case in the “Game of Thrones” books with their loving and intense details around the dinner table, deep enough to have inspired a cookbook) the food itself is a reflection of the characters’ tastes and their lot in life. Other times, their interaction with the food serves to underline their personalities (as in this piece about “When Harry Met Sally” that showcases Sally’s fussy, detail-oriented way with eating). Food can be a goal in itself (finding the perfect burger, for example, or stealing that crust of bread to feed your family as in “Les Miserables”) or an important prop (think a carefully wielded banana cream pie). As anyone who survived the “clean plate club” era of parenting knows, it can be a battle ground just for being present. Next time your characters sit down to a meal, take a good look at their plates and see if there’s any material there.
POST NOTE: NPR featured a story about “iconic meals in literature.” The web page features sumptuous photos of 8 top plates.