Tag Archives: setting

Creating Your Own Omar or Vito Corleone: An interview with crime novelist Steph Post

16 Jan

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood, A Tree Born Crooked and, most recently, A Walk in the Fire. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics.

Pretty much everyone’s favorite character in the television series The Wire was Omar, the gay, sawed-off shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of the Baltimore streets. And his most memorable scenes were also some of the most mundane in the show: Omar walking down the street, whistling “Three Blind Mice” as kids ran ahead of him, calling out a warning: “It’s Omar!” The theft and shooting that happened afterward was thrilling but rarely as satisfying as the stroll that preceded it. It was the equivalent of Marlon Brando’s best scenes as Vito Corleone, which mostly involved him sitting in a room, holding court.

As writers, we often look for moments that break routines, moments of exaggerated or unusual action, but some of the best scenes in literature and film are set directly in the midst of everyday routine. The key, regardless of the genre you’re writing in, is to discover what makes the mundane exciting.

This is what Steph Post does in all of her crime novels. They’re set in rural northern Florida, among swamps, run-down gas stations, and evangelical churches that prefer the image of money-changer-ass-kicking Jesus rather than Beatitude/turn-the-other-cheek Christ. It’s a potent setting filled with drugs and guns, but some of the most vivid scenes take place while nothing is really happening. Those scenes also happen to be essential to the everyday routine of the place: driving from one spot to another.

Moving characters around is a challenge for all writers, one that’s often solved by skipping it. A character gets on a train and then steps off, leaving the actual train ride off the page. This can be an effective strategy, but Post does the opposite. She digs into the lull of driving to show us her characters. Here is a typical scene:

Lesser glanced over at Judah, relaxed behind the wheel, and then purposefully slouched down on the other end of the F-150’s maroon vinyl bench seat. He cranked the window down and resisted the urge to brush his chin-length hair of out his face. It whipped across his eyes, but he tried to ignore it as he slung his elbow up on the edge of the window and squinted through the streaked windshield into the lowering twilight. He rode in silence for a few miles, trying to watch Judah out of the corner of his eye, but not be noticed doing so.
In the luminous green glow from the dash, Judah seemed so at ease, his arm half out the window, fingers just barely touching the steering wheel, a lit cigarette burning down in the other hand, resting lightly on the gearshift. The wind seemed only to graze his hair. Judah appeared to be completely engrossed in the monotony of the road ahead of them. Or maybe he was preoccupied with some kind of deep thoughts, of Ramey most likely, and Lesser was startled when Judah suddenly tossed his cigarette out the window and picked up the pack from the dash console.
“Go ahead, kid. It’s not as glamorous as it looks.”

In this moment, we see the kind of vehicle these characters drive, how they drive it (windows rolled down, wind in their hair), and what they do while driving (thinking and smoking). The scene also builds character by showing how effortlessly Judah is able to make smoking and driving look cool and how much Lesser would like to be like him. Post turns a passage that could easily be cut into great, engaging writing.

She does this throughout the book, returning again and again to the characters’ vehicles, showing them rolling up before a crime and peeling out afterward, being worked on, and sitting abandoned. You can’t tease out the novel’s plot from the way the characters interact with an essential part of the place where they live: their cars and trucks.

A Walk in the Fire is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at a bookstore near you.

In this interview, Post talks about how she made driving around northern Florida an opportunity for great crime writing.

Michael Noll

I’m from Kansas, not Florida, but I recognize the spirit of certain parts of your novels’ setting, if not the actual place itself. One of the things I love about how you write about the place—the swamps and run-down houses and bars and weird churches—is that they aren’t metaphors. And they’re not overblown to elicit a kind of false emotion in the reader. They’re just the places where the characters happen to be. This is hard to pull off, at least based on my reading experience. Maybe it’s because writers who come from those places tend to leave, or because they consciously or unconsciously write for an audience that isn’t from that place, their portrayals of it feel a bit like giddy cultural tourism. Did you have an audience in mind for these descriptions?

Steph Post

Wow, first of all thank you so much for your kind words. And I’m so glad you picked up on the fact that none of the places or settings are metaphors or tableaux or symbols to represent something in a character’s unconscious. They are, as you say, just places where the characters happen to be. Which doesn’t lessen the setting’s importance- it simply makes it more relevant to the characters of the novel.

And so perhaps that’s the audience I have in mind when I write descriptions of a landscape or a dive bar: the characters themselves. The characters are everything and so whenever I craft a scene I have to keep in mind whose point of view I’m writing from. I can have a little more poetic license when writing, say, from Ramey’s point of view. She looks at the world through a more open, more considering, lens than a character like Judah or Benji or Clive. Judah might look out at a landscape and feel something remarkable, but he’s not going to expound upon it. And so when writing from his point of view, I can’t go off into some florid description of the light filtering through the trees and liken it to a stirring in his soul or something. Judah would call bullshit. Actually, Ramey probably would, too.

Michael Noll

A great example of your great descriptions is the early junkyard scene. You write about the characters in it as if it’s the most natural place in the world to get some alone time. What do you draw upon when you write a place like this?

Steph Post

I’ve never had the exact experience that Ramey has in the opening scene of the novel—where she is able to find time alone surrounded by towers of crushed cars out in the salvage yard—but my dad worked on and sold cars and had no idea what to do with a little kid when it was Sunday and his turn to take me for the week, so I spent a lot of time alone, hanging out in the garage or the car lot or whatever junkyard he’d brought me along to.

As a teen onwards, my way of finding those moments was always to head out into the woods or the swamp and lose myself among the trees. When I was writing this particular scene, I think I combined the two ideas. I had this vision of Ramey sitting in a forest—a more conventional place where one might find solitude—but instead of trees, she’s surrounded by these stacks of cars. She’s finding her peace in the only place she can.

Michael Noll

Cars feature prominently in the book, whether they’re junked or in the shop or being driven. Do you know a lot about cars? I ask because I don’t, and so when I’m talking to a mechanic, I’m intensely aware of my lack of knowledge, which is easy to give away. You even have brief scenes where characters are working on cars, and you give details–fairly specific. I don’t know if you researched the mechanical parts, but I’ve seen books where the writer was clearly showing off his or her research with passages that went on too long. How did you strike the right balance between enough detail to be convincing but not too much to drag down the narrative?

Steph Post

Well, I’m glad that it looked like I sort of knew what I was talking about! Because honestly, I don’t know much about working on cars. My brother is a mechanic and my husband knows a lot, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to anything technical under the hood. So when in doubt, I just asked one of them. I think the balance comes off because I’m only supplying just enough detail to give an idea of what a character is working on. Again, it goes back to a character’s point of view. If Judah is working on a car, he’s going to just assume that everyone knows what a catalytic converter is and so there’s no need to take it further. I spend a lot of time on research for a novel, but I only use about a tenth of what I learn. I don’t ever want the research to overshadow the story.

Michael Noll

In all of your books, your characters spend a lot of time driving. It’s necessary, of course, since you can’t exactly take the subway where they live. Moving characters around requires a lot of time. You could show it on the page or not. For instance, you could write, “They drove to the gas station and got out.” Or, you could show them en route. You tend to show them, and those moments tend to be contemplative. Is this just a natural way of writing those scenes? Or is there something about the act of driving in North Florida that is particular to the place?

Steph Post

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, so I’m glad you brought it up. I think it comes down to growing up in the country and now writing about characters who live and move in the same landscape. In these places, it takes time to get anywhere. Where I grew up, it was ten miles at least to the nearest stop light and another five to get to the first gas station. And spending a lot of time riding and driving around means that a lot happens in cars. Fights, confessions, hearts won and broken. So it seems only natural to set scenes with characters on the road. A lot also doesn’t happen when you’re driving half an hour just to get to the nearest grocery store, so being on the road gives you a lot of time to contemplate or daydream. I don’t think this is specific to Florida, but rather to anywhere where long distances factor into everyday living.

Michael Noll

I love the small moments that you describe in cars. For example, there’s a moment where Sister Tulah adjusts the air conditioning vents even though they’re pointed in the right direction–she’s just fidgeting to calm herself. There’s another scene where a character rolls down the window, rests his arm on it, and doesn’t brush his hair away as it blows in his face. These are visceral driving moments. What is your own car history? What do you draw upon when you describe a character’s experience driving?

Steph Post

I think in a lot of ways cars are an extension of us, even if it’s just the car we’re riding in at the moment. The fact that Sister Tulah buys a new Lincoln every year—that she is so particular about its tiniest details—this is clearly part of her character. Her car is as much a part of her as her Bible. If you watch how people ride and drive, you can tell so much about who they are or who they are trying to be. Lesser, for example, is a teen just trying to be cool when he’s riding in the car with Judah in the first chapter. He’s mimicking Judah’s movements inside the space of the car—the slouch, the arm on the rolled down window—because it’s encompassing the sort of person he wants to be.

I’ve spent a lot of time on road trips and it’s these times in particular that I draw upon when I write about characters in cars. The wind whipping through open windows, the smell of asphalt blistering in the sun, the buzz of destination possibilities. The, as you say, visceral driving moments. To go back to your first question, my characters don’t move in a world of metaphor, they move in a world of gut feelings and reactions. So I do my best to draw upon my own raw feelings and hope that it comes through in the writing.

January 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

13 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of the Freemans, an African-American family that moves into a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach to this problem in the novel’s opening pages.

How the Novel Works

The novel has a bold premise: The Freeman family is moving into a research institute in rural Massachusetts to be part of an experiment. They will live (and raise their daughters) alongside a chimpanzee named Charlie. The novel begins with the Freemans driving to this institute, where they meet some of the staff and then, finally, Charlie. The introduction is prefaced with this line: “Dr. Paulson thinks it’s best we all meet Charlie now.” It’s a dramatic moment, and here’s how Greenidge handles it:

Charlie lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shaped space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture. Instead, there were bundles of pastel-colored blankets heaped up on the scarred wooden floor. Even from where I stood, I could tell the blankets were the scratchy kind, cheap wool. The room was full of plants—house ferns and weak African violets and nodding painted ladies. “They’re here to simulate the natural world,” Dr. Paulson told us, but I thought it was an empty gesture. Charlie had never known any forests and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them.

Charlie sat beside a fern. A man knelt beside him. “That’s Max, my assistant,” Dr. Paulsen said.

Max was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, his lab coat balled up on the floor. He was pale, with messy red hair. He was trying to grow a beard, probably just graduated from college a couple years earlier.

Charlie has taken Max’s glasses and is licking them, and Max is trying to distract Charlie so that he can get them back. We watch this “very gentle disagreement” for a bit, until Dr. Paulsen calls Max and he carries over Charlie. Finally, we see Charlie directly. It’s a good description, with strong, specific imagery. But it’s also clear that Charlie is just a chimpanzee—no more, no less—and quickly the novel returns to the other characters and their reactions to Charlie, ending with the narrator’s mother holding him with tears in her eyes.

So, what can we learn from this?

In this novel, as with The Great Gatsby, the title character isn’t actually as important as the supporting cast. The most interesting scenes take place around the title character, with other characters reacting to him. So, the introduction reflects this fact. In both novels, we’re first shown the people around the title character before the character himself.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce a character through misdirection, using We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge as a model:

  1. Bring the reader into a place where the character is present. The key is for the reader to know that in this place, somewhere, is the character. Horror stories do this all the time: somewhere in this spooky place is the monster, we’re just not sure where.
  2. Give the reader a reason to want to meet the character. Both Fitzgerald and Greenidge do this by putting the character in the title and making them the ostensible reason for the story to exist. Without rich, mysterious Gatsby living next door, there’s no novel. Without Charlie, there’s no experiment. So, give your reader a sense for what role this character will play in your story.
  3. Introduce the character through place. We see Charlie’s home behind the door before we see Charlie. The home is filled with details (the lack of windows, the blankets, the plants) that tell us a lot—not so much about Charlie but about the people around him at the institute. So, think about the place where your character is found. If people entered that place for the first time, eager to meet the character, what details would they notice? What would they discern from them?
  4. Introduce the character through other characters. Charlie is named, but we don’t see him. Instead, we’re shown Max. As with the details about place, the details about Max and how he interacts with Charlie reveal a lot about him. So, show the character interacting with someone else and then focus on that someone else. Again, what details would people notice, and what would they think about them?
  5. Finally, show the character. The details should be specific. Greenidge mentions Charlie’s smell, “old and sharp, like a bottle of witch hazel.”
  6. Return to the other characters or the place. Remember what is important. In Greenidge’s case, the real focus is the effect that Charlie has on the Freemans. With Fitzgerald, the focus is the effect that Gatsby has one everyone else. Show enough of the main character and then return to the effect that he or she has.

The goal is to introduce a character by revealing the world and characters around him or her.

Good luck.

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

7 Jun

Julia Fierro’s novel The Gypsy Moth Summer is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Some stories are blessed with great settings, such as shadowy mansions with secret gardens and skeletons in the closets. This is a description of many great novels and also a brand new one: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. One of the things she does so well in the book is play up this great location. But it’s not enough to make a mansion very very shadowy and its gardens very very secret. A novel must also personalize the setting so that its importance becomes acutely attached to one character in particular. That attachment is often what will drive the story forward, and it’s the case in The Gypsy Moth Summer.

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows Leslie Day Marshall as she returns to her home off the coast of Long Island, bringing her African-American husband, Jules, and their children. Leslie’s the daughter of the most prominent family on an island full of them, and so we’re quickly introduced to their estate, as seen through the eyes of Jules:

He had no language to describe the Castle then. It took a few days for the archaic terms he had studied in required architectural courses at Harvard to return to him. Turrets and finials and gables. But studying glossy photos in a textbook was nothing like the real thing. Of course Leslie’s parents had named it The Castle. It was the stuff of fairy tales, a white marble palace rising out of the trees, built to protect a royal clan from marauding villagers, raping and pillaging hordes. From war. From the undesirables—what his pops had called the kids in their hood who spent their days slinging dope, lounging on stoops like the sun had melted them there.

These are the details that are supposed to impress pretty much any reader. It’s literally a castle, but it’s also something out of a fairy tale. The house is not just big and fancy; it’s the stuff of legend. A couple of paragraphs later, we learn that the doors weigh a ton each and also that the house is a literal copy of a French castle and resort.

But you can also see the novel beginning to personalize it, with the way that Jules connects the word undesirables to his own background. The novel continues on in that direction:

If there had been a chance left for him to hate the island, to refuse Leslie’s and Brooks’s demands that they move, it died when Jules entered the maze that led to the Castle’s gardens. Leslie, not one to keep anything under wraps, had managed to keep it a surprise, and as Jules ran into the maze, ignoring Leslie’s cries, “Wait, you’ll get lose! You need the directions!” there was nothing he wanted more than to lose himself between the tall (at least eight or nine feet, he guessed) fragrant corridors. It was his personal amusement park—the funny mirror glass replaced with living, breathing, CO2-releasing walls.

We later learn that even the word fragrant is personal. The corridors are formed from boxwood, which “smelled like cat piss,” a scent that Jules is unusual in loving.

This personal connection is important because it will give Jules a reason to stay when things go south—as they inevitably will. It’s a bit like the horror movies, where you scream, “Get out of there,” but the characters never leave. In this novel, Fierro has created an intense attachment that will keep Jules in the Castle, even after he should have gotten out of there.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make setting striking to all readers but personal to one character, using The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Name your setting. Fierro names hers “The Castle.” Your name doesn’t actually need to appear in the story or be used by the characters, but it will help define the setting: the town, the farm, the yard, the school. When you’re able to think of the setting as a single entity or place, it’s easier to begin to give it a sensibility—a mood.
  2. Describe the setting in terms from some other story. All books are read in the context of other books that came before them. It’s why we can think in terms of genres and why a castle off the coast of Long Island is more than simply a great big house. Ezra Pound said to make it to new, and that’s all well and good, but you should also take advantage of the literary traditions that have shaped your reader. If you’ve got a castle, make it more than a big house. So, find some counterpart for your setting in another story—not just old ones like fairy tales but anything people might be familiar with. For example, a small house could be described in terms appropriate to the submarine in Das Boot. As soon as you tap into the connotations and memories that readers have retained from that other story, your own setting takes on a life that is, to some extent, larger than the page its written on.
  3. Connect the setting so one particular character. This can be a literal connection (I, too, once lived in a castle). Or it can be primarily in the character’s head, as it is with Jules, who connects what the castle seems to keep out with the undesirables of his own youth. This connection doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s simply a bridge to connect setting and character beyond mere presence (I’m in a castle). Try using this basic phrase: “The place reminded him/her/me of ____.”
  4. Deepen the connection. Jules sees the garden, and even without knowing much about him, we can already sense that the guy’s got a serious thing for nature and landscaping. So, give your character an “Oh my god” moment, as in “Oh, my god, did you see this ___?” The ____ should be something more remarkable to that character than to the others around him or her. Then, keep going. Focus on some particular aspect of the ____ (like the boxwoods) and make the character respond to it differently than the other characters. This might seem forced at first, but play with it. Dig into the idiosyncrasies of your character or the things in his/her background not shared by anyone else—or simply the weird stuff he or she likes. Use those traits to make the connection with the place intensely personal to that character.

The goal is to set up plot points later in the story by strengthening the connection between one particular character and the story’s setting.

Good luck.

How to Write Expansively Instead of In a Straight Line

29 Nov
Angela Palm's memoir Riverine "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine “is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

In my own writing, the number one sign that I’ve lost track of the narrative is that I become locked into a minute-by-minute recitation of what’s happening in the story. Even if the action is eventful, the telling of it feels tedious. Good prose should seem light on its feet, not plodding; expansive, not narrow; all-inclusive like Borges’ aleph or Whitman’s lines “what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Perhaps that sounds a bit high-minded, but it’s a feat of mechanics, something that any writer can try on the page.

A great example of expansive prose can be found in Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Memoir Works

Palm grew up in rural Indiana, in an unincorporated group of homes along the Kankakee River. Her neighbor and friend was a boy named Corey, who she played with and fantasized about until the day he was arrested for the brutal murder of two of their neighbors. She continues thinking about him long afterward, and the memoir is an attempt, in part, to make sense of that murder in both their lives.

As a result, the book faces the need of telling what happened to Palm and Corey but also exploring the world around them. Palm does exactly that in a passage about a third of the way into the memoir:

Generally, the town newspaper was a thing you decidedly wanted your name in or out of, depending on your status. If you were Bridget Trotsma with the brownest eyes and leanest thighs and eagerest stage mother, you wanted to be in. You said, “Look at that. I can’t believe I made front page. Again.” You smiled to yourself knowing full well you’d be on the front page but not knowing that you life would never be better than it was in that moment. If you were Corey, on the other hand, and you had killed two elderly, innocent persons and torched their car in a cornfield, you wanted to be out. You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart. He talked to someone who talked to someone else who talked to the police.

The passage starts with a definitive statement about town newspapers and the sort of people who wanted to be written about. It’s a statement that requires explanation and evidence, which Palm proceeds to provide with the examples of Bridget Trotsma and Corey. Buried within that explanation are more statements that beg for more information, like “But Corey wasn’t that smart.” It’s no accident, then, that the next paragraph begins “Or, he was smart once, but only had a makeshift upbringing as the fifth of five children, one dead too young, to guide him.”

This meditation on types of people and how they become that way runs into an opposing view in the next paragraph:

I walked the aisles of the grocery store—a mistake, in retrospect. In the bread aisle at the IGA, I heard a man say, “I hope he fries.” Firing squad, another said. In the frozen section: “Those people living in the old riverbed ought to be self-incorporated if you ask me. Those people ain’t never been fit for this town. Draw a line between the northern farms and the river and be done with them.” Some folks are born evil, someone said. “Ain’t nothing you can do about it.” But that wasn’t true, was it?

The paragraph proceeds to offer examples that complicate a belief that in “born evil.”

The passage has now moved from the town newspaper to a metaphysical discussion of the nature of the soul, and so the next paragraph begins with “His case never went to trial” and ends with “But somehow I held out hope against hope in Corey’s civility, in his true self before he shattered, over time, into other broken versions of himself.”

We learn essential information about the narrative, the sort of details that are part of any crime story. But by making definitive claims about the world (from simple things like newspapers to complex abstractions like the nature of good and evil), the prose expand far beyond the basic execution of the crime and its punishment.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s expand a narrative beyond its immediate action, using Riverine by Angela Palm as a model:

  1. Start with a general statement about the people, places, or things in your narrative. Palm begins her passage with newspapers and how people feel about appearing in them. It’s a version of the old saw “There are two types of people: those who ____ and those who ____.” Of course, statements like these are simplistic (“There are two types of people: Those who believe in dualities, and those who don’t.”). The point is not to definitively describe something so much as launch a discussion of it. You’re giving yourself something to talk about. So, pick any aspect of your narrative world and describe it in terms of “There are two types of people…” Ideally, you’re picking something that is connected to the main thread (the action or plot) of your story, but don’t let that stop you in your tracks. If you’re stuck, pick anything and see where it takes you. Don’t plan yourself into a perpetually blank page.
  2. Provide evidence for your statement. Give examples, as Palm does with Bridget and Corey. Put faces on the examples. Avoid, if you can, the invention of straw men (faceless characters who act in ways that are convenient for the writer). Ground your statement in reality (even if that reality is intentionally curated).
  3. Make definitive statements about your examples. Palm writes, “You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart.” She starts with a generalization (“if you were smart”) and then makes it particular (“But Corey wasn’t”). Try using Palm’s basic structure “If you were ___, then ___.” Then, follow it up with “But/And ___ was/wasn’t ___.”
  4. Provide evidence for this new statement. Palm digs into the idea that Corey wasn’t smart and tries to explain how that could be true. In your own work, think about the how. This may feel like a natural progression: from what is to how/why it got that way.
  5. Introduce opposing views. If this sounds like instructions for a freshman comp essay, that’s okay. Good arguments are often narratives, and good narratives often make arguments about their worlds and characters. Palm introduces what some of the townspeople say about Corey, which differs from her own perception of him. She does this by putting herself in the place where the townspeople can be found: the grocery store. She doesn’t worry about identifying the people she encounters. Instead, she lists their statements one after another.
  6. Ask if these opposing views are true. Palm does this literally: “But that wasn’t true, was it?” Notice how she uses a question, not a statement (But that wasn’t true). A question demands an answer, which she then must provide. What you’ll probably find is that if you ask enough questions in your narrative (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you’ll find one that’s difficult to answer–and it’s that question that is likely at the reason you began writing the story in the first place.

The goal is expanding a piece of prose to reveal the world around a plot and possibly discover a story’s about-ness.

Good luck.

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Put Setting to Work

15 Nov

“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of story. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put setting to work, using “Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins as a model:

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain?

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

How to Turn Information into Scene

2 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel Good as Gone “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

When I was a MFA student, one of my professors liked to hold up a story and rip out the first three pages. “This is where it ought to begin,” he’d say, and he was almost always right. Our openings tended to be general information and backstory. The story started when the first scene arrived. If this is true, though, it poses a challenge to writers. How can you start in scene and introduce the basics of setting, character, and situation?

Amy Gentry does an excellent job of doing both in her novel Good as Gone. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will. It’s getting a big national marketing campaign and big-time reviews—for good reason. The book is a thriller that is also thoughtful, with well-developed characters. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The story is set in Houston, which is information that must be conveyed quickly—not just the name of the city but the particular details of what the city is like and how it feels to be there. That information and more is introduced in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Julie’s been gone for eight years, but she’s been dead much longer—centuries—when I step outside in the steaming air on my way to teach my last class of the spring semester. The middle of May is as hot as human breath in Houston. Before I’ve even locked the door behind me, a damp friction starts up between my skin and clothes; five more paces to the garage, and every hidden place sickens. By the time I get to the car, even my bent knuckles are sweating up the plastic sides of the insulated travel cup, and my grip sips as I climb into the SUV, throwing oily beads of black coffee onto the lid. A few on my hand, too, but I let them burn and turn on the air conditioning.

Here is the information delivered in this paragraph:

  • The situation (“Julie’s been gone for eight years”) and how that absence feels (“dead much longer”)
  • The temperature (steaming)
  • The narrator’s job (college instructor)
  • The month (May)
  • The city (Houston)
  • How the weather feels (“a damp friction”)
  • The exact location of the scene (outside the narrator’s front door and then in her SUV)
  • Something about the narrator’s mindset (“I let them burn”)

This is a tremendous amount of information, and one thing that beginning writers tend to do is dump it onto the page. Such info dumps are almost always tedious and boring—but this paragraph isn’t because it’s in scene. As a result, the passage has a sense of movement. Because it begins with situation, we want to know more about what’s going on. Because the setting is made palpable, we feel the narrator’s discomfort along with her. Because the narrator reacts to a detail in an unexpected way (“I let them burn”), we want to understand what’s going on in her head.

In short, Gentry manages to include an info-dump’s worth of detail and make it feel like story because of how she weaves it into the scene. If Gentry can make such mundane information come alive, you can imagine how exciting the book becomes once she’s working with the twists and turns of a thriller plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s turn information into scene, using Good as Gone by Amy Gentry as a model:

  1. Prioritize the basics of setting. For Gentry, this means city, month, and weather, but this is because those details are impossible for her narrator to ignore every time she walks out of her house. So, put your character into motion. Move her from one spot to another and find out what part of the setting affects her most acutely. If your character doesn’t notice the weather, then the weather doesn’t matter. What does the character notice about setting? What is the character’s attitude toward this noticeable detail? It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative, only that it’s charged.
  2. Give the character some necessary task to do. Gentry sends her narrator to work. The job isn’t pressing; it’s not like she’s a fire fighter rushing to a burning building. But it’s necessary for the narrator to go. This tethers the narrator to the world. Too often in drafts, characters are left floating in infinite space, thinking big thoughts. It’s almost always the case that no thought—no matter how deep or well-stated—is interesting if it’s not given context or background. So, before the character thinks, let the character do something she has no choice but to do. This task could be a job, or it could be some other essential task (household, community, family). You’re connecting the character to other characters and institutions, and these connections reveal small, yet important information.
  3. Be specific about setting. Gentry’s scene is set in Houston, but it’s also outside the narrator’s front door. Without that detail, we wouldn’t know if the narrator was leaving an apartment, a doctor’s office, a super-secret spy agency; we’d only know she was outside.
  4. Be aware of your character’s state of mind. Perhaps the best detail in the paragraph is the one about letting the coffee burn her skin. We begin to read into such a detail, making guesses at why the narrator would act that way. Once the readers begins to do that work, they’re hooked. So, put yourself in your character’s head; what is the single most pressing emotion or feeling in it? What is the source of that feeling? We already know that Julie is dead and gone, and so we can begin to connect that piece of information with the unexpected action. You can do the same thing. Let your character’s state of mind affect how she reacts to some small detail.
  5. Introduce the situation. The state of mind and reaction from the last step will make more sense if we know what’s going on. In this case, what’s going on isn’t the narrator going to work but the fact that Julie is gone. The situation is ongoing, not acute. The advantage to clearly stating the situation and how it feels (as Gentry does in the first sentence) is that is quickly orients the reader. Every new piece of information will be read in relation to the situation. I made this the final step because writers often don’t know what the situation is until they’ve gotten into their character’s head and seen the character react to the setting. Then, as writers, we’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

The goal is to make basic information about setting and character interesting by putting it into scene.

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