An Underhanded Pitch

This helpful device assists with a task I have always found very difficult: crafting a succinct description of a piece I have written. All you need to do is spell your name (or any series of seven alphabetical characters) and you get your ready-made blurb. The result I got from using my actual name, unfortunately, not only didn’t resemble anything I have ever written but didn’t especially tempt me as a reader. Nevertheless, I can see that a good, solid idea for a novel can come out of this exercise. Now someone needs to invent a similar devise for writing it.



When I used to work with GIS, I had a fondness for the term “Groundtruthing”,  which refers to the act of physically validating the data on a map. Mapmakers often rely on users in the field to verify the accuracy of a map. My husband, for example, frequents the hiking trails in Maine’s Baxter State Park and the adjacent Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument. When he spots a mistake in the way a trail is represented, he reports it.

Recently, I encountered a different kind of groundtruthing. In Seattle, there is a project called “The Poetic Grid“, which is assembling a map of residents’ experiences as recorded in their poetic observations. Poets of all types and level of experience contribute their work, which is assigned a dot on the map indicating the locale that is the subject of the poem. The next time you are grasping for a poetic subject, this concept of recording a place that is central to your life, in however mundane a manner you choose, may fit the bill.

Aerial Photos from The Animal Farm

In case you were wondering what would have happened if writers of the past got their mitts on today’s technology, BuzzFeed has you covered with this post about Virginia Woolf’s take on Facebook, among others. It seems Ernest Hemingway’s style is just perfect for our time but James Joyce might not do as well. This reminded me of a piece I saw a while back in which Scarlett O’Hara’s texts were “recovered.” Not surprisingly, one reads: “Ashley-y-y-y-y-y….”

I’ve heard of authors writing letters in their characters’ voices as a way of connecting with them. Conversely, I saw this post advising writers to try writing a letter to their character in their own voice to help push past a rut in their writing  (“Dear Scarlett, I enjoyed the barbecue at Twelve Oaks immensely and want to thank you again for inviting me to crash with you. Please accept a piece of friendly advice in return. About Captain Butler…”).

Like scrap booking, this approach allows a writer to use another creative avenue to inspire new material. Well, that can be your excuse for hitting your favorite social media site instead of writing that 1,000 words you promised yourself. You’re welcome.

ADDENDUM: J.K.Rowling tweeted recently to celebrate the first day of school at Hogwart’s for Harry Potter’s oldest son. Fans promised to “say hi” if they spotted him on his way.

Rack up Your Roster

As the baseball season (spring training season anyway) gets underway, the fantasy draft is in full swing. What about the writers’ version of the same? One way in which authors approach wish fulfillment and play at setting up their own empires is to develop a scrapbook of the ideal cast of a movie version of their work. Of course, you would have to be the world’s luckiest and most influential casting director/executive producer/director to get all the actors you want for that movie, not to mention having command of the company with the deepest pockets on the planet, but the same is true of the various sports teams that are created by fantasy moguls. That’s what fantasy is for, to explore all the possibilities with the utmost freedom.

When I was posting actively on a few years back, I found making digital scrapbooks (really illustrated synopses) to be an inspiration for works in progress. I also found it great fun. In a few cases, I went so far as to make what I call “bootleg trailers.” These concoctions would never see the light of day (or rather YouTube) because they shamelessly appropriated copyrighted material. Out of respect for other artists (and the various laws that pertain), I declined to share these works publicly. However, I did describe in detail my efforts to develop a bootleg trailer for the first two entries in my “Hob Scourge” series in my personal website .

My own rules for finding talent for my fantasy cast are as follows:

  • The actors must be of the appropriate age, gender, race, and general body type
  • In the photo to be used for the scrapbook or trailer, the actor must be dressed (insofar as possible) in clothing that would suit the character
  • The actor’s pose and facial expression should either support the character or be neutral
  • The setting should be either neutral or echo a setting from the book

Finding the right photos can be difficult. Some actors who seemed perfect for the part had to be discarded because I could never find the right photo. For others, the search was long. For example, when I cast Topher Grace as sad-sack Jonah in Still Life Without You, I discovered that the vast majority of photos show him smiling too warmly. Elizabeth Banks either dressed too well or too scantily for the most part to fit Elsa in The Troughton Line. I almost gave up on Christina Ricci as Sugar Daniels from Shoals Court until I stumbled across a photo of her looking startled and frazzled and wearing a necklace that seems out of place on her, perfectly in character.

Along with acting talent, I also sometimes gathered photos of objects important to the story, such as the cars from Soleville and the golden toe ring from Still Life Without You.

Music for a bootleg trailer does not have to follow the same rules as that for a video trailer that will be publicly posted. For my public videos, I use royalty free Creative Commons music that is licensed for all uses. For bootlegs, I dig through my home music collection. It was hearing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” that inspired me to develop my bootleg trailer for Shoals Court but I used a different piece, Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession,” for the final project.

The greatest danger in making scrapbooks and bootleg trailers is that they can eat up all the time you should be spending on your work…just like writing posts for this blog…

Mr. Darcy is All Wet

Admit it. I made you look.

The web has been fluttering with dewy-eyed nostalgia over Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy since this photo of the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch appeared, provoking comparisons with an infamous scene from Firth’s version of Pride and Prejudice. More than once, I have encountered swooning references to this scene (Mr. Darcy stripping off his outer clothing and swimming across a small pond) as one of the most momentous in all of British film. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself on YouTube.

Personally, I do not have enough expertise in the subject of British cinema to comment on the relative importance of this one scene but I do have the experience of having read the book and, as many also point out, this scene does not occur in the book at all. The purpose of the scene in the film is likely to provide a way to convey to modern viewers a situation that is more subtle and time-appropriate in the book. Mr. Darcy, flustered at finding Elizabeth Bennett visiting his estate unexpectedly, loses enough of his artful self-composure to show her an unexpected vulnerability. I tend to side with the purists who think that the swim was unnecessary (try not to hate me) but I have no suggestion for how to have done it with more authenticity.

I do happen to think the same end was achieved much more neatly and deftly in another film that ironically (but not totally coincidentally) stared Colin Firth as a modern Mr. Darcy, i.e. Bridget Jones’ Diary. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a scene where the stuffy and rigid Mark Darcy is obliged by filial responsibility to show up at a party wearing the most unflattering and hideous sweater anyone ever owned. The moment Bridget sees him and passes judgement on him passes quickly but summarizes the first half of Pride and Prejudice all by itself and sets a firm stage for the rest of the action.

Finally, Mr. Firth getting wet is a motif that repeats itself in one of the better vignettes in the uneven collage-like film Love, Actually. His character in that segment, a writer trying to break his writer’s block on holiday in rural continental Europe, is interrupted and upended by a klutzy maid who can’t speak English. She manages to lose his manuscript in a pond and, to his further horror, goes in after it. He ends up being touched by her attempt to set the matter right and eventually his gratitude blossoms into love. Though predictable, this quiet little story is a joy to watch and a fine example of how it’s often the little gestures that build on each other to disarm and throw the characters off and set the action in higher gear.

Returning to Mr. Cumberbatch’s photo from the top of the post, it’s not a bad starting point for a story but, in the spirit of this post, it would be a meatier challenge to put it into the middle of a story by asking what vital piece of information is being communicated by this moment and what will result from it. My guess is a long sojourn with the dryer and a lecture from someone’s mother. One could start this game by coming up with a caption. For example: “Suddenly the police knew beyond a doubt who had been cutting across Mrs. Beebonnet’s property through her ornamental fish ponds to add details to the subversive graffiti on the old train trestle.” Or simply, “And with that, Jake realized that texting and driving really don’t mix.”

Talk to Her

As my son is at the age where it’s time to look at colleges, my attention was drawn to a Parade magazine piece today on college essay topics. My husband picked up on the one that asked the applicants to expound on which woman from history or fiction with whom they would like to converse and what they would say. Being currently obsessed with the work of Henry Thoreau, he commented, “That’s easy. Henrietta Thoreau. I would ask her all about the details of the trip to Maine and then about why she had a sex change.” So, he cheated.

At least he was quicker on the draw and more creative than I. All that came to mind for me was a piece I had read about mismatched fictional couples, which touched upon a reaction I myself had to Little Women: How come Jo ended up with Professor Bhaer? On second thought, I don’t want to know. Jo was so interesting for the first half of the book. I think my heart would be broken. Probably I’d be better off talking to Amelia Peabody, even if her ward/daughter-in-law, Nefret, is much more sensible.

Anyway, I know a good prompt when I see one. Enjoy.

POST-SCRIPT: My husband thought of a red-flag answer to the question posed above: “I would talk with Cinderella and ask her why she thought she deserved to go anywhere when there was still work to be done.” I guess then I would want to have a talk with her too about the dangers of waiting for a man to “rescue” you. Also, I would call that kid’s parents and suggest they have their little darling evaluated by someone with the appropriate specialty training. Extra points to my husband though for bringing that up at lunch in front of our son.