More Horrible News

No, it’s not Donald Trump winning the presidency. My only comment on that is related to a post on another blog where I noted that Rachel Maddow sarcastically exhorted our governor to “stay classy” but my advice is for him to “stay funny.” Someday historians will unearth articles about Paul LePage and Donald Trump and conclude they are fiction of a dark humor type, because in the abstract they can sound very much as if someone made them up. I have no doubt Mr. Trump will be entertaining as president and hopefully it will be in a good way.

Mention of Mr. LePage brings me to Maine’s best-known horror writer (heck, best-known writer, period), Stephen King who tweeted a super-flash fiction story that went: “Once upon a time, there was a man named Donald Trump and he ran for president. Some people wanted him to win.” Some of those people were probably comedians and late-night show hosts.

I am more interested in what Time magazine published last week in their innocence of the pending dramatic twist in the election. Never mind the cover story or various editorials. My eye fell hard on their ‘chartoon’ entitled “Horror-Movie Plot Generator.” Besides the fact that this piece is a few weeks too late for Halloween (but just in time for, well, election day), I was struck by the inclusion of this item in the “contextual” column: In Maine.

I don’t know if we Maineiacs should be honored or insulted by such a mention. This is the only specific place name on the list. It may be a tip of the hat to Mr. King and/or the many stories he has written that take place in Maine. It may be wise-acre homage to our governor. It might just be a random whim. It’s just interesting that someone thinking very hard for at least 20 seconds thought of this as one of the most recognizably scary places, right up there with “a hospital,” “an old house,” and “the woods.”

Anyway, at least now you have another helpful tool to get you out of that rut and start writing about…Newlyweds in space butchered by an ancient evil thing…

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Write in the Place Where You Live

I was hard at work in a local coffee house, elbow deep in paper festooned with red pen marks. A lady from a nearby table leaned over and asked what I was doing. When I told her I was working on a novel, she chirped, “Oh! What is it about?” I described the plot and setting and then answered her follow-up question: “What’s your working title?”

Almost before the entire title was out of my mouth, the woman’s companion cut me off with the remark, “You’re not supposed to TELL people your working title.” The woman leaned back and shook her head at me. She said in a despairing voice, “I don’t KNOW about Maine writers who write about other places.” Her companion added “I’ve LIVED in the place where your novel is set.” The lady added, “He’s a professional writer, you know.”

I did not have the opportunity to explain that I’ve traveled in my book’s setting and lived in similar places, giving me my own experience of that setting (i.e. I’m not “making up” everything I describe). The pair lost interest in me and my book after their pronunciations, closing the topic with a soft murmur from the woman, repeating my working title and promising, “I’ll watch for it.” The last utterance is a roundabout way of saying I can count these guys out as readers, since if they “watch for my book” under the working title (which I’ve since changed twice), they won’t be finding anything I wrote. POSTSCRIPT: Having crossed paths with the couple again, I am certain now that they won’t be among my fans. The man said a very brief “hi” and looked away and the woman merely gave me the panicked ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look to which I have become accustomed when people discover that I write (see the post Snakes Alive).

The topic of working titles and etiquette around them could be a post all by itself. Instead I prefer to ponder the question of why anyone should write about any place other than their home. Some sages tell us we should “write what we know.” Others have noted that if that were a rule we would have no fantasy, little science fiction, not much in the way of adventure, and, I suspect, a lot less romance (good-bye to both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray). The vast majority of my Smashwords catalog would be wiped out, excepting maybe a couple short stories and, perhaps, my gentle romance parody set in Jackson, Wyoming, where I lived for a summer. The short story, ‘Learning to Shine,’ stolen from a friend’s childhood memories would be iffy.

The lady’s concern about my setting is voiced in such a way that it presumes I had a real choice. In fact, ideas will come to me in situ, asking to be written in a place that I can fully picture. Once in a great while, I can perform a transplant but the risks are the same as if I were dealing with live hearts. Once in a while, I drop one and it splatters. As many have pointed out, settings are characters in themselves (Google “setting as character” for many useful tips on the subject). One does not deal with settings lightly.

It’s not that Maine is a terrible setting. Literature set in Maine is a genre unto itself and writers ooze out of every nook and cranny in the state. Much of Stephen King’s work is set here in the fictional Castle Rock and other such towns. Although the movie was filmed in New Hampshire, On Golden Pond is set here, very close to where I live now and where the author once lived. For that matter, Empire Falls, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, was partially filmed in my town on a street I often pass. These two depictions of life in Maine couldn’t be more different and yet both are true to the place I know. So is The Beans of Egypt Maine, a different vision yet. I can recognize King’s characters (until they sprout scales, fangs, and fur) in my daily life (usually buying a carton of cigarettes and two cases of beer at the local convenience store in line ahead of me).

I have a lot of affection for Maine. It just does not always happen to be what calls to me when I sit down to write. I am not deliberately spurning my home state. I simply have to follow the path the story has taken. I’d rather take the advice of another professional writer from Maine, Stephen King (see the Plumbers in Space post) and write what I want (or what is wanted by the story), than let random coffee shop patrons dictate my actions. Besides, my book wouldn’t have it any other way.

Fanning the Flames

I recently learned that Kareem-Abdul Jabar has written a book starring the “lesser sibling” in the Holmes family, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. This reminded me of a couple other examples of formal fan fiction, the books As Time Goes By (which tells you what happened before and after the story depicted in the movie Casablanca), Wide Sargasso Sea (A back story for Jane Erye), and Wicked (the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West earned her title). There have been countless Pride and Prejudice riffs, from the silly (Pride and Predjudice and Zombies) to the serious (Death Comes to Pemberley). Meanwhile, there is a virtual universe of Star Wars follow-on books and internet postings that explore the further adventures of the core characters and the lives of the next generation of Solos and Skywalkers (yup, they’re strong in the force and sport names like “Ben”).

Then there is a more disguised type of fan fiction, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey which famously began life as an ode to Twilight but wandered far afield. I’ve even heard some of Shakespeare’s work described as a sort of fan fiction, demonstrating the bard’s interest in history and old legends as material. From there, one can also consider the Netflix series House of Cards, which boasts Macbeth and Richard III in its pedigree.

A friend who writes fan fiction focused on Stargate Atlantis expressed the concern that this form of writing is not considered very creative. However, Time magazine gave it a good-sized article bursting with if not admiration then broad acknowledgement that fan fiction has become a booming cottage industry. The books listed above (plus many others) show that it also has a solid place in literature.

Living authors who are the objects of fan fiction have disparate opinions on the subject of letting other writers take a swing at their characters. Anne Rice has gone on record as opposing the practice while J.K.Rowling seems to embrace it. George Lucas mostly welcomes it as well.

Having dabbled in my youth at Star Wars fan fiction (re-writing A New Hope from the point of view of Luke’s little-known tomboy cousin sidekick), I can appreciate the inspiration other writers’ work can give one. I’d be hypocritical if I insisted my own work is off limits for the same attention. In truth, I’d be just as fascinated to know what someone else found lurking in the undeveloped details of my writing as I was to find out why Rick was barred from going back to the United States. Fan fiction keeps a well-crafted character or setting alive and breathes more life into it.

If you are still wondering what to write about next, a small exercise in answering the question “What did my favorite obscure character do next?” might take you down a fruitful road less traveled.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Jabar wrote a piece for the September 27, 2015, Parade Magazine explaining why he chose Mycroft as a subject. Mycroft, it seems, presents an intriguing contrast to his brother’s emotional distance and Jabar wanted to explore the reasoning approach of a personality more inclined to empathy.