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Archive for the ‘Reality and Realism’ Category

Show, Don’t Tell: The Difference between Life and Text

Posted by CW64 on August 24, 2012

Another major issue I encounter while editing manuscripts is the excess of descriptive and explanatory narratives that produce flatness in character and the world in which that character lives (and quite often involves redundancies in many forms). This annoys me more than impresses me, but I am always understanding and patient with beginning writers.

For one thing, ongoing explanations of text offend intelligent readers; such continuous tirades deprive readers the opportunity to use their own minds during the reading process. A story means nothing without the reader’s cognitive input, which includes interpretation and query-making among other things. As I state in an earlier post, writers are never to underestimate the intelligence of the readers; doing so drives away an audience that sums up the experience as nothing more than an aggravating slap-in-the-face.

The point: quality writers get on with the story and let the readers figure things out for themselves. The rule is to stick with the action, dialogue and minimal description, sharing casually the essential information necessary to facilitate the flow and flesh out character development to the point of promoting a sense of realism. This practice refers to the ever-mentioned notion of “showing,” and it isn’t always easy to do. With experience and reasoning, though, writers develop the skill quite naturally.

Let’s start with the two sentences below:

Frank moves slowly
Frank drags along like a slug in the mud

Which of these two describes the concept of moving slowly? If you don’t know the answer, chances are you haven’t done enough reading and writing.

The concept of “showing” is both a fuzzy and distinct one, and an understanding of said concept will help readers and writers discern why. This might sound like a contradiction, but it is not; “showing” in literature—any kind of literature, whether it be fiction or non-fiction—is extremely complex.

Firstly, the assertion of “fuzzy” refers to the idea that each person has her or his own idea what “showing” means and what it entails to be executed appropriately. A nice example lies in the above illustration. One person might say that the first line is simple and clear and therefore more appropriate than the second. Another would likely say that the second is longer, but it “fleshes out” out the concept in question and conveys more information about the character and what he is doing than what is merely stated. Finally, a third might concur that both, in fact, are showing the reader what is meant by “moving slowly” but in two different acceptable ways. In the end, however, the particular perspective to which one wants to adhere is dependent on that person’s ideals and style preferences.

Conversely, the idea that “showing” as distinct follows through the obvious: to convey imagery so that it “jumps” from the page and appeals to the reader’s senses. In this light, the imagery comes to life in vivid color, sound and motion so that it appears and feels real to the reader. Not everything written can do that. Do the two illustrations above satisfy the requirement necessary to consider them “showing”?

Let’s take a closer look…

Frank moves slowly

According to the first person mentioned above, this one is sweet and simple and therefore most adequate to convey the idea, which shouldn’t take extensive passages and countless adjectives and modifiers to express. This, indeed, makes perfect sense. The sentences contains three common words—a noun, a verb and an adverb. The noun tells who is performing the action, the verb clarifies what that action is and the adverb—the keyword necessary to establish the overall idea—describes how the action is carried out. What more is required? Nothing is, apparently; the entire idea is complete.

Still, the second person can jump in and say that this sentence, though simple and direct, is cliche and therefore not fresh or unique at all; the character and the action are both flat and contain no life beyond the three words used to write the sentence. From an artistic perspective, this point is extremely valid. The better writer stands out by not expressing ideas the same as any other; she/he captivates the reader’s attention and has a greater potential for achieving a larger and wider audience than the writer who employs the use of the first line. Creativity demands individuality and non-conformity, and that quite often means breaking away from conventions, no matter how common.

Frank drags along like a slug in the mud

This line, according to the second voice, consists of four extra words than the first line, so it isn’t really excessive in length. The action word “drags” and the simile “like a slug in the mud” together paint a vivid picture that appeals to the reader’s senses and emotions by allowing said reader to feel Frank’s slow movements. In addition, this line implies something regarding Frank’s personality, that he is, perhaps, a sloth by nature. Simply put: the sentence shows the reader who Frank is, at least in part, and therefore does more than just tell. The reader is much more likely to be drawn into characters that seem real than those whom the writer merely dictates in sprawling descriptions and explanation.

Another point to be made here is that although the first sentence is terse and direct, the fact that it expresses nothing more than the three words suggests that the writer will require longer passages to express the same amount of information that the second one does, so it isn’t really shorter in the end. By using a greater number of words in a single sentence, as in the second line, the writer conveys more about the character and her or his situation by using fewer words overall.

An example: a sunshiny day encapsulates the same information, impressions and characteristics as a day full of bright sunshine and warmth filled with smiles and laughter; everything mentioned in the longer version is implicit in the shorter one.

Then, of course, there is the third speaker, who takes a neutral stance and insists that both perspectives are equal yet different. In this view, individuality is still promoted, as both lines offer a unique form of expression compared to the other. As long as all of the points and/or premise are clear and the information discernible, the words shouldn’t matter.

This attitude makes sense as well and is worthy of consideration. After all, intelligibility and clarity are two major cornerstones of good, quality writing. Both lines are intelligible and clear in their delivery, so one form should not necessarily be superior to the other.

In the end, however, the writer needs to know her or his characters and their lives well in order to “show” them effectively. This fact is quite often associated with the context…

Showing in Context

Context makes a substantial difference when it comes to how, where and if a writer “shows” something. By this, a writer uses the means, if necessary, the appropriate elements to effectively bring something to life.

The case of a story on a World War II aviator requires imagery relevant to that particular scenario, such as the use of metaphors like “dust” and “shattered metal” and fireball” as opposed to, say, “rag doll” or “lollipop,” for instance. The words employed should hold some type of relevance to the subject matter at hand if the description is to be applicable and effective.

Take the following passage for instance:

Young James Claybourne heard the hellish squealing bursting through the crackling and the grinding of twisting metal. His heart slammed against his ribcage as he scanned the smoking windows. Vile fumes of cinders burned his nostrils.

“Where is it coming from?” he muttered, spitting ash to the cracked sidewalk. The grime on his skin felt sticky under his coat, but he pushed that out of his mind. “Wh-where?…”

Then she appeared suddenly, jutting her reddened face from the top floor. The building shook violently. The girl’s eyes flamed white in terror.

“Help me!”

James sprang forth amidst the crumbling walls and smothering heat from the eruptions around him. He held his helmet tightly with a glove while gripping an axe with the other. Water swelled in his eyes and his head spun and swayed like a loose light fixture, but he forced himself onward stair after stair after stair after stair. . .

Here, no explanations are given and descriptions are minimized and limited to relevant references. No mention of the particular situation is stated because it isn’t necessary for the reader to realize that the scene is about a burning building and that James is a fireman. The narrative stays on the action and keeps pace all the way through. The words and phrases used belong in this scenario and paint a vivid picture that appeals to all of the senses: “hellish squealing,” “bursting,” “crackling” and “grinding of twisting metal” (audio); “vile fumes burning his nostrils” (olfactory); “swelling water” and “spinning and swaying” (visual); “spitting ash” (taste) and “grime” and “sticky” (textural). The reader can sense what he is experiencing, and so he seems real as a result. Other words, like “redden face” and “flaming eyes of terror” not only describe how the girl feels, but also enhance the overall tone of the scene and contribute to the description of the fire and the sense of urgency prevailing. The “swaying like a loose light fixture” simile isn’t really necessary here (“spinning and swaying” would be enough), but its inclusion demonstrates the use of an appropriate reference that serves two purposes: (1) to illustrate James’ mental state, and (2) to offer a suggestive detail that sharpens the overall descriptive image of the shaking building that plays in the reader’s mind while reading.

Also: James’ actions say something about him: pushing discomfort out of his mind and springing onward into the firetrap to save the girl and forcing himself onward despite his dizziness all attest to the man’s persistence and dedication to helping others in need. This message comes through the actions, NOT any drawn out and tiresome explanation.

In Conclusion. . .

Whatever means of “showing” a writer employs, the objective is to bring the characters and their situation to life so they can interact with the reader. As said, a story’s value is nothing without the reader’s reception and interpretation of said story’s contents. Publishers know this all too well, which is why their evaluations revolve around how riveting a story is. If readers are drawn into a story/book/novel, it will surely sell. The “show” aspect, or the degree of vividness and/or realism a story projects, often makes a difference between high-quality and substandard quality writing, and it ultimately determines failure or success.

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Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Novels, Publishing and Publication, Reality and Realism, Short Stories, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | 2 Comments »

Getting Published Is ALWAYS Possible!

Posted by CW64 on September 15, 2011

Hey there! Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been busy dealing with some other demanding obligations (i.e. life), but I haven’t forgotten in the least.

I just received notice that a writer-friend of mine from graduate school is on the verge of publication with regards to a draft he had been working on back in 2007. Here is the link to his blog: Fuzzy Ergo Sum Review. He is excited about it and so am I.

And so should YOU be.

This goes to show that getting published is not impossible for ANY writer who keeps working at her or his craft. Knowing the market is essential as well. The point is: Don’t give up, even when you are discourage–especially when you’re discouraged. Writing is a challenging and competitive field, but there is room for everybody with talent and persistence.

In the end, getting published is all up to you. Be prepared, be in the know, and keep writing at ALL costs.

I will be posting some new articles soon (“soon,” meaning within the remainder of the year), so please keep watch.

Posted in Advice, General Commentaries, Publishing and Publication, Reality and Realism, Uncategorized, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | 21 Comments »

Research: a Tribute to Titanic: a Century’s Struggle to Learn the Truth

Posted by CW64 on April 14, 2011

This is Titanic Week, marking the ninety-ninth anniversary of the sinking, and so now the time is right to include a post about researching the Titanic. Flocks of enthusiasts and student researchers continuously seek information on that tragedy and the many people involved in it, so let’s hope that this post finds them drawn to read.

Whether rational or not, Titanic has attained the status of legend of sorts that stands out from many other ships and shipwrecks. The continuously growing community of experts and enthusiasts holds Titanic in its collective heart and keeps the stories as fresh and alive as they were nearly a century ago.

What more can be said about the ship and those on board her? Believe it or not, the stories haven’t yet finished unfolding. That’s the beauty of Titanic—it is limitless in her treasure trove of knowledge. Our long struggle to discover and learn more about her has continually brought forth a plethora of new insights not only with regard to the ship and her time period, but also how we conduct research. This process has not stopped.

When it comes to researching Titanic, the process has been life-long for me. As a boy, I found myself intrigued by the great ship and all the mysteries that abounded: How big/long was she? How many funnels did she have? What did she look like? Where, when and how did she sink? How many people were on her? Who were they and where were they from? Who died and who survived? Why did so few first-class perish compared to those in steerage? These and other questions drove me on.

The answers to these questions were at one time unknown, but continuing research has unearthed much of that information. Not surprising, such information has created a bit of controversy and debate among many: Was there a three-hundred-foot gash or was the damage nothing more than a series of tears and rivet pops? With regard to this damage, what developments caused the Titanic to sink within two hours and forty minutes? What efforts were employed to render safety to passengers and seek help? Why wasn’t that enough? What could have been done differently to change the outcome?

And the questions keep on mounting. Ironically enough, this happens when one conducts research; the deeper we look into the subject and discuss it, the more questions arise. This serves as the natural cycle of ascertaining and building knowledge. The more questions we have, the further we go. There is never an end and likely never will be. That’s what keeps researchers like me interested—the game is in a constant shift, but it persists, and the mystery and intrigue remain throughout. As long as there are questions, people will push to find the answers.

One place to start would be obtaining a library’s worth of essential documentation: the transcripts (there are two—American and the subsequent British Board of Trade), birth/death certificates, passenger/crew and cargo manifests, ticket purchase receipts, diaries, personal letters, and deck plans, all of which are primary sources; and eyewitness testimonies, books, documentaries and discussion boards fall in second place due to their subjective nature (even though researchers obtain their information from primary sources et al., personal biases are likely to affect their accounts, and quite often conjecture is made [remember the ongoing questions?]).

Field experience, which I have discussed in earlier posts, is extremely important in Titanic’s story. In order for us as researchers to determine where Titanic went down, what condition she was in and how she sank, we had to get to the wreck of the ship and study it up close. The problems were multiple: (1) we didn’t even know where the ship was (Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall’s calculations put the sinking at 41/46N-50/14W, but that has since been proven false); (2) the wreck was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some two and a half miles down, which wasn’t easy to reach, much less to find in the first place; (3) the reliable technology needed to find and reach Titanic, wherever her location, was scarce, in its infant stages or untested; and (4) the costs required to develop the technology, let alone mount a mission to find Titanic, would be unbelievably and staggeringly high. Several attempts have been made over the years to find her, but all failed. One millionaire, Jack Grimm, invested large amounts of money, but the research just wasn’t there to assure success. This is/was the Catch-22 of field investigation: the research requires money, but the money requires research. Which one would have to come first—the chicken or the egg? This was the unsolvable conundrum.

In the meantime, all we could do was speculate. This stirred the imaginations, but it did little as far as finding the desired answers and facts. This failure and our limitations motivated us; ironically, both served as a benefit in the research. We assessed the situation and its complexities and strove about to rectify the issue.

One area on which we focused was the development of technology. Specialists in a variety of fields, from marine salvage to history to ship-building to naval architecture and oceanographic engineering, contributed their insight as to what would be necessary to safely find and reach the Titanic. Among the innovations that came about in this process were the use of sonar and the underwater submersible. Sonar was limited in its scope and detection capabilities, but it was enhanced to discern the differences in mass size and composition. The latter, submersibles, were already being used, but they never made a safe or successful descent to that extreme depth; these vehicles were able to go to a certain depth, but none had ever gone two and a half miles down. That was risky, not only with regards to air pressure, but also to equipment function (lights, gauges, camera and video), water pressure (at that depth, it was relentlessly strong and dense), and communication (would those at the bottom be able to communicate with those at the surface, etc.?). These technologies needed to be developed or enhanced further and tested as well before any attempts could be made. The cost would be in the millions.

See how important and involved and expensive field research can be?

During the summer of 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard and his team of the prestigious Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts, grouped with French underwater exploration, headed by Jean Louis Michel, set out to find Titanic. The area was vast and comprised of a large triangle established by three coordinates (Boxhall’s calculation, the Mount Temple’s estimation of Titanic’s location and the Carpathia). This would take several days, if not weeks. In late September of that year, while the night shift scanned the ocean floor, a large mass of metal triggered the signals. On closer inspection, the hulk of a huge ship came into view. It was the Titanic’s bow! Finally, the behemoth was found. What shocked the crew and Ballard was the fact that the ship abruptly ended around the region of the third funnel; everything aft of that point was gone. This confirmed the ongoing query—the ship had indeed broken apart on the night she sank. They found the stern a half-mile away, lying in a debris field; its shattered remains a sad sight to behold (most of the people who died were either on or inside the stern. This fact has caused many onlookers to weep silently while gazing upon this heap of splayed and twisted metal). Other discoveries included: (1) a third middle “section” was missing, which showed that the ship did not simply crack in two, but crumbled away as it broke apart, top-down and in a twisting motion, at the point of the aft expansion joint situated just aft of the third funnel (the aft-grand staircase was completely gone, leaving an exposed first-class smoking room and a set of reciprocating engines); (2) the decks were compressed flat, suggesting that the stern slammed hard into the bottom; (five boilers from BR #1 rested nearby, confirming that the break went through that room); (3) the hull was splayed out on the starboard side and the poop-deck peeled back over the docking bridge, indicating that the stern section first imploded and then exploded on its way down (the trapped air inside burst outward through the third-class stairwell and cargo hold #4, obliterating the well deck and sending the poop-deck backwards); and (4) the presence of five more boilers at the end of the bow section substantiated the theory that the boilers, in fact, did NOT blow up that night and were still embedded on their moorings. These findings are/were valuable, and would not have been possible to know had we not traveled to the bottom of the ocean to take a look. Field research, as said, is not only essential, but crucial, to gaining knowledge that would be inaccessible through any other means.

Further advancements were also set in place with regard to marine protocol. International Ice Patrols (ICPs) now constantly monitor the north Atlantic for icebergs. Of course, modern-day ship communications operate via computer systems, so reporting dangers is quicker and much more efficient than at the time of the Titanic, so the vigils underway are a combine effort. Another innovation—or law, to be more precise—was that all passenger ships MUST have enough lifeboats for everyone on boat (Titanic had only enough for approximately 1,200 people, a little over half of the 2,200 people the ship carried on her maiden voyage. The owners of the White Star Line placed luxury over safety, figuring that any dangers or threat to human well being would likely be minimal or non-existent. She was the largest ship in the world at the time, after all, at 883 feet in length. What could possibly happen? No one at that time ever said that Titanic was “unsinkable,” but it was likely assumed by many). Her sister ship, the Britannic, would later be redesigned with bulkheads going up to B-deck (Titanic’s only extended as high as E-deck, but it wasn’t high enough—the incoming water spilled over each bulkhead in “ice tray” fashion until the imbalance of weight created an excess of stress that caused the break). Unfortunately, the Britannic sank in 1916, as a hospital ship during World War I, but the damage incurred there was severer than that inflicted on Titanic. Still, the raised bulkheads gave the crew time to disembark before the ship sank. Had the bulkheads not gone as high as B-deck, the death toll would likely have been greater than the 30 it was).

As far as research goes, the Titanic and her demise have spurred on new forms. The technological developments one could argue as added research capabilities, since the Titanic would not have been found without it. Indeed, what was achieved pushed research capabilities at that time of the ship’s discovery. Jacques Cousteau had found the Britannic wreck only nine years prior, but that wasn’t the same—the hospital ship lies nowhere near the extreme depth as that of the Titanic, so its access was easier and less costly. Even then, in 1985, the idea of looking for something that deep was considered as somewhat risky—only a desire, a hope and a dream that, with ongoing diligence and persistence, paid off. This shows that success in research is due just as much to human ambition and ingenuity as much as it is to capability. The drive creates the need(s), which, in turn, brings about research insight and the advancements that reflect it.

My research methodology has expanded as well. When I was younger, looking up info was considered the extent of broadening one’s knowledge, but I have always been the one to ask questions, generate queries, to think critically about things. Only this way can we increase the scope of learning. Don’t settle with what is told to you, even if it is based on current findings; think for yourself and form your own conclusions. Diversity adds to the research and the growing body of knowledge. This doesn’t mean one should disbelieve or disregard the knowledge that’s out there, but, don’t accept that as the “all and the end” of what can be learned. That serves as a necessary base, that’s it. Always go further, and what I have discovered as a Titanic researcher is that there IS no end.

Titanic Research and the Media

The media has contributed to Titanic’s legendary status. This is especially true in the industry of entertainment. No other ship has generated as many books, documentaries or movies as the Titanic. New authors emerge all the time with fresh insights. The number of Titanic experts is still growing, and that would include James Cameron, a filmmaker by trade, who researched, produced and directed the latest incarnation in 1998, which is merely the latest in a series of seven movies (eight, if one considers survivor Dorothy Gibson’s 20-minute reel from 1912. No copies are known to exist, but it was made). The film won eleven academy awards, including Best Picture. This reflects an unwavering interest in Titanic. Although most viewers weren’t concerned with details, they were curious and became inspired by the great ship and her story.

That said, these movies do not reflect one-hundred percent accuracy, nor are they meant to do so; instead, they are products that (1) showcase a filmmaker’s perspective or beliefs, and (2) entertain. No movie made is factual to the detail, but more commercialized than anything else; that is, the purpose is to garner high numbers, both in ratings and in dollars, than to teach history.

A couple of examples revolve around the suicide of First Officer Murdock and the Californian’s role in the tragedy. Several eyewitnesses from the Titanic recall hearing gunshots and seeing an officer slumped on the deck during the later hours when chaos reigned. Yes, a few named First Officer Murdock, but it has not been confirmed whether those individuals actually knew Murdock personally, and the limited lighting and excitement pounding at that point in time leave the question open as to the identity of the officer—or whether or not an officer actually shot himself. People have made mistakes before, and others have even mentioned Chief Officer Wilde in connection with this. No one knew for certain, except Murdock’s family who knew better than to believe he would commit suicide. His body was never found. We will never know. Still, the argument that he felt guilty over the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg during his shift is a compelling one, but it doesn’t confirm anything. Everything here is conjecture, and so the depiction of Murdock’s suicide in both Cameron’s film and the TV miniseries that preceded it a year before can only attest to the filmmakers’ respective beliefs, nothing more.

The Californian’s role in the story, too, is a continuous debate between those who believe this was the ship within visual distance during the sinking and those, called Lordites, who insist it wasn’t. The Californian never appeared in the “official” movie depiction, A Night to Remember, released in 1958 but Walter MacQuitty, who, as a boy, had actually witnessed the Titanic being launched back in 1912. That inspired him to no end. He knew better than to include such a controversial issue as that of the Californian’s questionable involvement in the sinking. Most other movies leave this account out as well and likely for similar reasons. Although many people believe it was the Californian there that night, no evidence exists to substantiate the claim one way or another. Stanley Lord’s log for that night places his ship at a set of coordinates considerably farther away from Titanic, so no one knows for sure. Yes, the nighttime crew saw a ship in the distance that shot rockets, but they couldn’t tell what ship it was and it could very well have been another. Again, nothing has been determined conclusively either way. As a researcher, I must remain objective and weigh all arguments evenly; without evidence, I cannot form any definite assessment. That would be irresponsible.

Art is a wonderful thing (I am an artist and creative writer myself), but the built-up drama and suspense for the sake of art cannot serve as a viable source for showcasing fact when expressing fact is not an objective of the movie. These movies, though, DO add a visual depiction of the Titanic and her story that inspires one to imagine what it was like being aboard her during her voyage and her sinking. That’s the extent of how far research goes.

The media has always sensationalized Titanic. But though the story warrants recognition, the hype it receives serves to excite readers for the wrong reasons. One must remember that magazines and other commercial publications are in the business to first sell. People are drawn out of interest, are intrigued, but they gain a superficial impression of the ship and her story that is based on little sensibility and is more legend than reality so that all, or most, credibility is either minimized or lost. The truth about Titanic is enough to give it strength; when that truth, whatever it might be, is approached with a sense of rationality and sensitivity, the legend stands up for what it actually is and acquires its rightful stance.

Conclusion

As the Titanic fades off into the past upon its centennial anniversary (coming up next year), its light remain strong and steady. The great ship won’t let us forget who she was and why she existed. So many stories ring continuously through our minds non-stop. . . The band playing “till the end” (which is true, depending on what one means by “the end.” If it refers to the point where the ship took a perilous slant and chaos reigned, then yes; if it refers to the point when the stern went under, then no); Molly Brown quipping about going out and retrieving ice on the deck for her late-night drink; Ida Straus refusing a seat in lifeboat #8 in order to stay behind with her husband, Isador (she was one of only five first-class females to perish that night); W.T. Stead reading his book in the first class smoking room all during the sinking; Benjamin Guggenheim casting his lifebelt aside and insisting on “going down like a gentleman,” along with his valet; P. Fletcher charging his bugle before every meal; John Phillips, the head wireless operator, persisting the calls, even after the captain released him and water began flooding the room; the battle between Molly Brown and Robert Hitchens (who had been at the wheel at the time of Titanic’s collision with the iceberg) in lifeboat #6 as they argued whether or not to go back and rescue people from the water; Fifth Officer Lowe forming a flotilla with lifeboats 4, 10, 12 and Collapsible D, then returning with a few volunteers in lifeboat 14 to rescue people in the water after the Titanic sank, only to find most dead (he saved a handful of people, including a first class man, an Asian man who had been strapped to a door, and a steward); the multitude of people who screamed into the night as they died horribly, among them several third-class families such as the Goodwins and Sages . . . There are countless stories, too many to mention here—many of them true, others skewered over the years—but the spirit of the Titanic shines through and penetrates us. We continue to reflect, yearn to know what really happened, long after every survivor has passed on. Its allure doesn’t weaken as long as her story is shared—her real story.

That’s where the research comes in . . . .

Posted in General Commentaries, Historical Accounts, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Research, Uncategorized | 19 Comments »

Research and Influence #1b: Echoes from the Past: Urban Legends Brought to Life

Posted by CW64 on January 19, 2011

Urban Legends: Real or Unreal?

Urban legends, such as those created and maintained through stories of Lambertville High School, are always assumed to be just that, with no basis of reality, at least not in the major sense with all of the ghost stories prevalent throughout history and the various cultures of the world; most of these stories are believed to be figments of the imagination or tales conjured up through pranksters or hearsay or those weird inexplicable phenomena witnessed by people who find no logical source but that are, again, assumed to have a rational explanation.

Still, with all of the accounts that continue to emerge and be passed along throughout time and space by people from all walks of life—those of imaginative capacity and those who are “respectably level-headed,” as the learned and prominent in society—not all urban legends can all be untrue or non-factual, can they? What if some of these urban legends were based on some actual truth in reality? After all, many encounters have been investigated and still remain unexplained. Some even have scores of witnesses.

Such a case would be Columbine High School. The dreadful event took place on 20 April, 1999, almost eleven years ago. Two disturbed high school students burst into the school library and murdered several students in cold blood. Some bodies were even tossed out the windows for terrified onlookers to see. No one ever believed that such a situation could happen, until it did—more than once.

Virginia Tech, even more recently (17 April, 2007), echoed that long-ago scenario, and it occurred in another part of the country (the former in Colorado; the latter in Virginia, farther east). A troubled Asian student burst into a hall while classes were in session and open fired, killing many, this time including instructors.

Both events and others like them have left lingering nightmares in the minds of those who witnessed them or knew those involved—effects that will likely last a lifetime. The country, as a nation, will never forget these horrible scenes and the lives lost. Such indelible impressions have shaken a nation and scarred its conscious so deeply that no one will escape the damage incurred.

As far as haunts go, however, Columbine has already begun manifesting the paranormal residue of its own story based in reality. Accounts reported by both students and teachers attest to feelings of being watched, oppressing pain and apprehension, voices and screaming throughout the school (but especially near the library), orbs and even sightings of mysterious figures. Could this be a result of so many minds still under siege by a persistently lingering nightmare that many are unable to forget? That is entirely possible. Yet, how can one explain the uncanny similarities between accounts, especially with regards to students now attending the school who were too young to remember the actual event of eleven years ago? To those who have experienced these phenomena, the series of variable manifestations are certainly unwaveringly real.

Obsession or Destiny Fulfilled?

The protagonist of my novel, Hallowed Halls, encounters similar manifestations. Nothing so unusual about that, only that he is drawn by forces beyond his control to pursue them in a dire need to uncover answers and is uncertain as to what he might find, even as he is succumbed into what he senses as real. This is subjective, of course, until others from his clan, without knowing anything about his situation, become involved and experience the same overwhelming manifestations that purposefully interact with them as well.

This is a case exploring what it would be like if such urban legends were actually true or based on some fact. My protagonist (and later his comrades) conduct research on the haunted place and discover the horrible event that happened there so many years before, so long ago that it has been left forgotten, except by those who were there and have managed to survive. The answers reveal a story that is surprisingly not as much science fiction, fantasy or as supernatural as human. THIS is enough to weigh upon the heart and mind because it involves actual people. It is such a sad ordeal that no one can or would want ignore it. An obsession turns into a need to help others who are lost, and that attempt, the protagonist learns over time, is his destiny, whether he is ready for it or not.

Both Lambertville High School and Columbine play a part in this story’s development, mainly because these are real-life places with real-life stories. Although the legends of the first example are unproven and are assumed by lingering manifestations continually permeating the place eerily destroyed but still standing, the latter has a confirmed account that correlates to the phenomena experienced by those there.

Another chilling point testified by Columbine is the fact that such a possibility of an in-school massacre is, in fact, true, since it actually happened. Such a scenario, though one that no one wishes to imagine, is indeed not beyond the realm of feasibility. As ugly and as tormenting and as disconcerting as it is, such an occurrence forces us to keep an open-mind and never underestimate what is possible and what is not, and never to assume anything is considered too farfetched to be conceived or believed. The protagonist of Hallowed Halls learns this lesson all too well, as do all of those around him, including those who have died.

Another aspect that correlates between Lambertville and Hallowed Halls is the echoes that ring over time through several means to grip the minds of those in the present. Such signals take the form of visual manifestation, such as the mysterious artwork of students on the blackboard and other various images throughout the site to sounds vibrating in the inner conscious, such as calling voices and laughter of those from an earlier time to even the deeply embedded feelings of presences sensed. These are common, true, but they are nonetheless profound on those who experience them, whether young explores at the Lambertville ruins, attendees at Columbine or the protagonist in Hallowed Halls, who encounters is own array of inexplicable visuals and sounds directed specifically at him. They all share similar experiences that draw and tie them to the past where they learn more about their surroundings and themselves. This is the true nature of any haunting, and though it is skeptically contested by many, it is an experience prevalently shared by an even greater number of people than those who deny it. There is no concrete evidence to substantiate any of this, of course, but, then again, those who have experienced such phenomena do not need evidence—their own sensations and how they are affected by said phenomena are absolutely real enough. Perhaps that’s all that is necessary to create impressionable meaning in the human mind.

This is what gives the story of the novel its strength, persistence and solidity, as well as the assurance that so many people will be able to relate to it over time. This is an urban legend that is all too human, just as the readers are; the human factor is what makes the story as real to the reader as the ghostly experience does to the individual. If this is the case, as apparently it is, the story is well-justified, as it achieves its intended purpose.

Lessons on Writing

As writers, we all learn more about writing by actually writing. It’s not too out-of-line to say, then, that each writing project we complete as writers teaches us lessons on writing while simultaneously improving our skill in writing. The two, therefore, go hand-in-hand.

What have I learned about writing through Hallowed Halls?

First: that the characters themselves create the story, just by being the entities they are. If the writer knows and is confident in her/his characters, the story will flow out and write itself. Yes, I already knew this, but this experience has reminded me that such a notion is not merely an ideal, but indeed a truth in creative writing. The Characters are everything; they are the essence of the story. If a writer underestimates them, s/he is wasting time with the story. First thing a writer needs to do—regardless—is to get to know the characters. Before I even started writing on the story itself, I delineated pages upon pages of life story for each of the characters. That took hours, days, even weeks, but it was necessary, and by the time I was done, I knew exactly what the story would be from beginning to end. Yes, some details fluctuated, but the essence of the entire story was already there and out, so I felt confident when I started on the actual novel. All this came to be because I knew my characters well beforehand.

“But if it isn’t going into the novel, why waste your time writing it out?” Many of you might say.

The answer: It doesn’t matter. Not all of the details of a character’s background should go into the body of the novel. The important thing is that you, the writer, must know your characters well enough to write about them.

A fine example would be that which lies in a different field of writing—journalism. One does research on a given subject to familiarize oneself with the subject so that one can write about it, even if much of the information obtained remains unenclosed in the final product. The writer gains an in-depth understanding regarding the overall nature of the subject so that s/he can write about it confidently without the need to include everything.

A writer isn’t wasting time by developing character backgrounds. The principle described above applies to creative writing and the characters one creates. Writers need to know their characters, how they think and feel and what makes them tick, how they relate to others and what motivates them, their families, their childhood friends, their enemies, their issues and pathologies (we all have these). In doing this, the writer IS writing the novel because all of this serves as the basis for the story upon which the novel is founded.

Another important point I accomplished through writing Hallowed Halls relates to foreshadowing. This not only alludes to future developments in the novel’s story, it also ties together the many elements of the plot so that everything is unified. This is done through the employment of metaphors and similes, setting, dialogue, structure, even font. As I mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, modifiers are of the essence. Nouns themselves can and do serve as modifiers for themselves. If such elements are used correctly and innovatively, foreshadowing will be effective.

One should keep in mind, though, that the most efficacious foreshadowing is, believe it or not, the most subtle. Nothing destroys a storyline like foreshadowing that SCREAMS what will be to come. Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader; if they are paying attention, readers will pick them up quicker and easier than the “in-your-face” references, probably because the former are naturally and casually presented, as they are in life, and are therefore more profound.

An instance of the subtle foreshadow would be a conversation between two characters who are joking. An off-the-cuff slur is made that will come into play later on. Do NOT elaborate or explain this right then and there, as the foreshadow will lose its power and so the story will lose its strength. A writer should simply make the slur and move on. Unnecessary explanations and descriptions are not only redundant (please see post on “redundancies”), but also interferes with the flow of the story and bloats the content.

The overall irony about composing a novel is that despite all of the writing that goes into character developments, minimal referencing will make the final product.

A conscientious writer should never underestimate the power of a single word, as long as it is the RIGHT word.

As for Hallowed Halls, this is only the beginning; more writing development and lessons to learn will come with the revisions. That’s where the REAL writing takes place.

I am looking forward to it . . . .

Posted in Fiction, General Commentaries, Novels, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Writing Development Issues, Writing Topics | Leave a Comment »

Research and Influence #1: Echoes from the Past

Posted by CW64 on September 1, 2010

This is the first of many musings discussing research and how such influences have shaped and driven my works. Perhaps some of this insight will inspire other writers the same way such insight has inspired me.

Also, I must maintain an unbiased perspective, to consider all alternatives, ideas and other possible notions regardless of my personal views or beliefs, in order to develop intriguing, balanced, credible and realistic accounts. Ironically enough, opposing arguments contribute to the premise of my novel and other works as much as supporting arguments do.

In the end, I try not to over-think these points, but to remain laid-back about the whole thing. The well-developed and naturally flowing stories emerge easier that way.

Echoes from the Past

Recently, I found myself becoming absorbed in one intriguing find that serves as a major influence for a novel I am writing, not only because the site correlates in ambiance with a major setting in the story, but also because it speaks to me with distant voices reminiscent to the voices that speak to my story’s protagonist. These voices echo from the past, like those of some resonating entity penetrating me with such a force that pulls me to the site. Everything this place represents is covered in mystique that has captured my imagination.

‘What place is this?’ you may ask.

This is a place known as Lambertville. No, it’s not an abandoned military base or some obscure American Civil War battlefield—it is, of all places, an old high school.

Lambertville High School, in western New Jersey, has a long history filled with more than just a few inexplicable if not interesting stories. A once-lively place consisting of a small building and a bell tower, the school is now a decrepit hulk, resting under a veil of trees on a hill overlooking New Hope, Pennsylvania. The roof and third floor are gone, and the interior is a cold darkness screaming with a sense of foreboding.

This place has come to be what I consider the ‘Titanic’ of abandoned high schools, and for good reason—the mysteries behind this place are more than just imaginary.

A Legend Built on Mysteries . . .

According to a tribute stone erected at the site, the school was built in 1854—before the Civil War. That means Lambertville was open for classes during a time prior to that long-ago war serving as but a distant memory to us today. That’s how antiquated the school is. The stone rests in the ground near the center of the western wall, situated so that it may watch the sun set every day. Painted graffiti scrawled across its face reflects the vandalism it has endured over the years, but the stone refuses to falter. Truly inspirational and extraordinary indeed!

This is but the first mystery. The tribute was erected by the class of 1927, after a fire gutted most of the school back in the early-1920s (the date carved into the brick over both doors—‘1924’—provides some indication as to the time period). The fury that consumed Lambertville came about as a result of unknown causes, though some enthusiasts believe the culprit to have been a boiler explosion (common in many stories regarding school fires). The tribute is reminiscent of a tombstone, and what makes it eerie is that that representation was apparently intended.

The story goes that this fire took the lives of 150 students and some staff and that the stone is in memory of them. Other indications related to these deaths resonate here as well: the disturbing chalkboard drawings that depict praying and burning students, voices and laughter on the top level, steady footsteps, and messages scribbled along the walls here and there that allude to some horrible tragedy long ago . . .

Still, city officials, graduates of the high school (from the 1950s) and others who have studied the background of the place have attested that such an event never occurred, that the deaths are all hearsay and fiction created by someone’s imagination. Supposedly, the fire was at night when the school was empty, despite the inference through historical references that students used to live on the upper level during the school’s early years. When did this arrangement change? I don’t dispute any of this; these sources serve as more knowledgeable and reputable authorities on the subject than I, but I am curious.

I have to ask, though: Who would conceive such stories and why? Every story has a basis of reality somewhere. Whatever that reality is, this mystery has grabbed the attention of so many people, many of whom have visited the school from all over the United States. They have taken pictures as if the place were some vacation spot, and then subsequently posted those images on their own respective websites. Hell, the school even has a page on Wikipedia. No other abandoned high school can make that claim.

So I ask again: Who would conceive such stories and why?

The chalkboard theory, which leads into another mystery, seems to have been true; the website alluded to above actually features images of students drawn in elaborate detail.

Yet there are simple explanations behind this one. One woman who claimed to have graduated back in 1954 said in one personal account that she had known the art teacher who drew them on the boards before leaving the school. She never explained why the teacher had done or would do this, and I find it doubtful that a teacher would do such a thing. Also, even if a teacher from the 1950s created these images, it’s doubtful that said images would have lasted so long without fading, being erased, or marred in some way (though there are methods to freeze chalk on a blackboard) with vandals racing through the place on a regular basis. Furthermore, the photographer might simply have followed some artist thrill-seeker who had drawn the images on the boards to generate excitement. If this is what happened, apparently, this person succeeded.

Alas, all the chalkboards are gone now, likely absconded by souvenir-hunters who wish to hang them in their basements or perhaps sell them on eBay. Needless to say, the place is a smorgasbord; everyone is going there to get what s/he can before the building finally collapses. It’s not like the owner is protective of such items; if s/he wanted anything in there, s/he would have had it removed and stored away long ago. Before long, nothing will be left except the shell itself—and maybe the ghosts, if there are any.

As for ghosts, or spirits, there are other stories as well. Take, for example, the case of Buckeye Bill, probably the most famous mystery associated with Lambertville. This entity and the story on which he is based have become a unified legend.

The year was 1935: Lambertville and New Hope high schools engaged in their famous football game. During the game, one of the New Hope Buckeye quarterbacks caught the ball. A pile-up ended his attempt to make a touchdown. When the players rose, everyone was horrified to see that the quarterback was dead, with a broken neck. Even more grisly is the claim that the player’s head was twisted 180 degrees (his face was over his back). The parents of the New Hope student body subsequently insisted that the school no longer sponsor football. To this day, New Hope High School does not have a football team. This entire story is supposedly documented and true, although it doesn’t serve as evidence to substantiate the paranormal stories that were to follow.

As the legend goes, if one stands on the front landing to the main floor of the west wing and challenges Billy with “Billy, I challenge you to a game of football!” a football is said to fly from within the darkness and slam into the challenger’s face, breaking her/his neck. Another variation of this legend assumes that if one stands on the old football field (which lies up the hill, if anyone can ever find it) and cries “Billy, I challenge you to a race!” a breeze sweeps overhead and/or a pair of red eyes appears and a deep voice growls “run to the other end of the field or die!” If the challenger doesn’t run or runs and doesn’t make it to the other side, s/he dies.

This second variation derives from a questionable event that also occurred back in 1935 immediately following the game that had claimed the life of Buckeye Billy. Allegedly, five boys were on the football field. One jokingly challenged Billy. A pair of eyes appeared and said “run or die!” The boys jumped, startled, and four ran while the fifth didn’t. Three made it across the field, but the fourth stumbled and could not be found. The next day, the authorities found the last two boys at the field. They were dead and their heads were turned 180 degrees. The story is supposedly true, yet it was passed along as hearsay, perhaps by someone who might have wanted to scare his friends. Teenagers can be and frequently are this way. I am not saying the story is a fiction; only that it could be, so there is a reasonable doubt. I therefore am not one to assert a case of reality here.

By the way, this is the story around which the movie Only Go There at Night revolves. Five friends go on a thrill adventure to a supposedly haunted high school in New Jersey where two get killed and, upon investigation, the police come to realize that the killer might not be a living human being (i.e. a spirit, presumably based on Buckeye Billy). The simple difference here, however, is that the five boys live in present-day, not seventy-five years ago. I haven’t yet seen the movie, but the fact that these boys are going to a supposedly ‘haunted’ high school suggests that a significant amount of time has past since the school was in use for classes. The premise here seems to consider, among other things: What if the legends WERE true?

Let’s also keep in mind that several thrill-seekers have gone to the school at night and have challenged Buckeye Billy according to version #1 (the stair landing scenario) and nothing happened. Does Billy choose when to come out? Could something else explain why nothing happened? I don’t mean to mock this, because I do believe in spirits and a spirit realm, but if nothing happened, the story would be difficult to believe and/or accept. That’s not saying that there isn’t some aspect of reality on which the legend is based. After all, as said, every story has its origins in some basis of reality.

Still, how could a story like this be true? What could have possibly caused this? Why would Billy have red eyes and threaten the lives of those who ‘challenge’ him? And at a high school he didn’t even attend? The story seems farfetched, but that’s only because we don’t know the account on which it’s based, the story that inspired it, and there likely was one. What was it? Was it the experience the five boys had in 1935?

If these stories and legends are not true, where did they originate?

Yet, another fire broke out soon afterward, but the exact year is not known. This event resulted in no deaths or injuries, but significant damage still incurred and repairs initiated. Apparently, Lambertville was developing a pattern of attracting fire.

The school finally closed its doors somewhere between 1954 and 1959 (sources conflict on the date). The closing had nothing to do with the fire as commonly believed, but to zoning issues and the need for city expansion. The Lambertville community had outgrown it and the area consolidated all students into the larger South Hunterdon High School, which is still in operation today. Not only does this new structure easily house all the students in one place, but a single school cuts down on city expenses and minimizes taxes involved. The old high school was disregarded at that point, but it was not razed.

Also of special note is the strange fact that the school closed one century, perhaps to the year, from the time it was constructed and opened. The second fire occurred around this time, but, as said, the specific year is not known.

After sitting empty in excess of ten years, Lambertville High School reopened for business—literally. During the 1970s, a private machine press company occupied the basement and changed the area into workspace (the equipment is still there, though not operational) while families rented the upper level and had the total run of the building. It’s admirable that the high school, instead of being destroyed, took on the role of a shelter for homeless families who might have even worked downstairs. How convenient and surreal, considering the structure’s earlier past.

When the last fire broke out around 1992, the city decided not to rebuild. The families disappeared and the business apparently moved on without taking its machinery. That’s odd, isn’t it? I say that because the last fire supposedly destroyed only the upper floors, not the main floor or the basement (had the fire consumed those lower levels as well, nothing would have remained there; they would now be in the same condition as that of the upper floor), so there was no reason to leave this equipment.

The chaotic state which resulted from this final conflagration is the same in which the building is today, except that over the years the second floor collapsed in on the main floor in some areas, especially the east wing, which is essentially nothing more than four walls enclosing a great heap of rubble, although some classrooms and offices on the main floor there are still accessible. The upper-floor corridor in the central hub has caved in, exposing the hallway beneath to open air. Trees have sprouted in a rough terrain of dirt and grown throughout these upper levels, creating the appearance of some ancient ruins. Cracked doors are suspended or lie askew. Window panes are shattered and their frames wrenched or obliterated. The west wing windows are blown out and nothing more than a row of six large square holes. Rusted pipes twist around like weird sculptures. Sections of walls still stand amidst piles of scrap consisting of timber and bricks. Plaster, which was at one time shiny white and pristine, is now chipped or completely stripped away. Sooty tiles are among what little remains of the showers for a non-existent gymnasium. A few scorched girders dangle precariously around a chimney that, once stately, shoots up in the air like some aged sentinel attempting to continue standing guard over its charge.

When one realizes that this is a century-and-a-half-old high school with a unique and legendary background, not something typical of the inner-city ghetto, the feeling becomes quite surreal and sobering, indigenous to a history struggling to maintain itself, but in some morphed, dreamlike manner. The sight is unbelievable, but it’s real, though many people question whether or not some deeper aspects of it are a part of the physical world or something else only sensed.

This is possibly the ultimate mystery. We know how the devastation occurred, yet we have no evidence that the fire had a particular source, like a flame out of thin air, just as the previous fires. The effect on the mind when one views the chaos reflects on the mystique of deeper meaning resonating there, whatever that meaning may be. Amidst all of this incredible destruction, Lambertville High School continues to live on.

Final Thoughts . . .

Lambertville High School is indeed a spell attraction. Even I have found myself pondering about this place, although I wonder from time to time why. After all, it is only an abandoned building, dilapidated and crumbling; an empty shell that people who have attended it have claimed is or was nothing more than a regular high school.

Or, again, is it something more?

This place has not become a legend for nothing. Several high schools in the United States have ghost stories connected to them, yet THIS one inspired a movie, a plethora of websites and a wiki page. As said, droves of people from all over the United States have traveled to see and explore the site. As a matter of fact, some have scheduled vacations to the place, as if this abandoned building were an attraction that cannot be missed, like the haunted house at Disney World.

This, I guess, is the final mystery, the great irony.

Perhaps that is because THIS high school is real, actual, not fabricated or imaginary. That fact alone is more than enough to create a spell on the human mind. The paranormal legends associated with it make it even more magical, regardless of whether or not such phenomena are true or real. That is why visiting the school allows one to become a part of that legend, a part of the reality.

The mysteries of Lambertville are likely never to be resolved, and that’s fine. The longer the mysteries endure, the legends will as well; as long as these legends persist, Lambertville will never die.

Lambertville High School, as said, serves as one of the main inspirations for my novel Hallowed Halls, which is another story reflecting the possibilities of spiritual haunting and what it would be like if such haunts were real. Again, I believe in a spiritual realm, as I have had encountered some profound experiences. There is something to it, and I am thoroughly compelled to explore that conceptualization in light of human nature and how we’re driven to learn about the forces within and around us through life and death, just as the case is with Lambertville.

In the follow-up, I will discuss more about how Lambertville and another growing legend of death, based on truth—Columbine in Littleton, Colorado—relate to the novel with regard to similarities, differences, parallels and background development.

Those who are curious to know more please stay tuned . . . .
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I wish to thank Lostdestinations.com, Surrealnewjersey.com, WeirdNJ.com, The Goop blog and Randy Kline (a.k.a. StangGT), whose Lambertville High School photo-stream can be found at Flickr.com, for providing their photos. Great pictures, guys! Anyone interested in reading up on or seeing more images of Lambertville High School please feel free to visit their sites as well as those listed below . . .

Lambertville High School:

Buckstore
Experience Project: Get the Paranormal Report
Forgotten USA
Hub Pages: Haunted Places – Lambertville, New Jersey
Lost in New Jersey
Spectral Review: Lambertville High School
STU of Doom
The Lambertville High School Story

Other [Haunted] High School Stories:

Forgotten Ohio
Forgetten Ohio – Stivers Middle School
Ghost Village
Newsweek.com – Ghosts of Columbine High Schools
OMA Haunted.com – Columbine High School
Snopes.com – Discussion on Columbine
StrangUSA – Discussion on Columbine
Unexplainable.net – Article on Columbine
Unexplainable.net – Haunted High Schools in the United States – Columbine
Your Ghost Stories – Real Ghost Story – Columbine

Reminder: I do believe in spirits, but that doesn’t mean that I automatically believe these stories; I am fair and skeptical about everything without evidence, which is why I ask questions. I included ghost and haunt sites to show how prevalent in number these sources are with regard to Stivers Middle/High School, Lambertville High School, Columbine High School and others. That’s how one conducts ongoing research—by asking questions and following through with leads to form her/his own conclusions. I encourage everyone to do the same

Posted in Fiction, General Commentaries, Historical Accounts, Movies and TV shows, Novels, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Research, Writing Development Issues | 2 Comments »

My Professional Forties Part I: Graduate School . . .

Posted by CW64 on December 23, 2009

My forties marked my time in graduate school and an advance in my professional career as a writer, editor and translator. Interestingly, it transformed me into more of a family man as well.

The two wouldn’t be exclusive to one another.

During the summer of 2000, I entered an MAT at a major university in Detroit. This was, in my opinion, an exceptional graduate program, and I looked forward to getting started. The MAT (Masters of Art in Teaching) balanced education with foreign languages and computer technology, so I knew I would become more well-rounded. The field training portion was year long, too, instead of only a single semester, so that was another plus. All in all, I was on my way to obtaining my teaching certification and my Masters at one time, which is what I had wanted in the first place .

That doesn’t mean that I had given up on my writing—not by a long shot. No, but teaching would have allowed me to get a job and survive (Yes, I realized even then that earning a living while writing, though possible, was difficult to reach and usually takes years, and I’d turn out to be right). I figured I’d write and teach at the same time. This was a simple, if not commonly sought, objective, and I knew it wouldn’t take as long.

As far as writing goes, this route would also provide plenty of unique experiences about which I could write. I liked exchanging knowledge and insight, so teaching would be ideal and rewarding.

It wasn’t until a year-and-a-half later, when I was in my first semester of field training, that I had a turning point, and I got right back on track. I was an assistant at a middle school with extremely energetic students (what middle school student isn’t energetic?). The teacher seemed open, but, being a bit older and set into her routine, she was irritated with any deviation or innovation on my part. Because of that, she and I never formed a professional relationship. Her evaluation of me, I knew, wouldn’t be totally positive. My supervisor, who was very easygoing and turned out to be a great listener, sensed from my writing that I placed myself as a writer before teacher, which had always been the case. We talked. He told me that teachers must be dedicated enough to make that their priority. “You would be a great college teacher,” he said, “but you are a writer and should be in the English department. That didn’t take much thought. After spending time in the teaching program, I had been thinking to myself “What the hell am I doing here?” but only then did I listen to that voice gnawing away inside of me. Then it made perfect sense. I was overcome with a wave of excitement and anticipation. I knew I had to be a writer, employment difficulties or not!

I was on my way once again. Now I could focus solely on my writing. Not only would I develop my skills, but I would meet other writers, expand my network and, perhaps, even discover the range of employment possibilities available and how and where to find them.

The joy of writing and gaining inspiration from others had always been my utmost priority (under eating and paying my bills, however; without these two, I wouldn’t be in a position to write).

The year was 2002, and I had already integrated myself into the writing community online, which is where I enhanced my translation skills as a moderator for a Spanish-oriented site. I had been chosen selectively by the webmaster who had seen me interact fluently in Spanish at another site and was impressed. I had also served as a moderator at a music site, so I was familiar with Internet forums. I looked forward to it, not only to strengthen myself as a leader, but also hone my skills and gain experience as a translator on active duty. That prepared me for what was to come: become a founding editor for a new literary journal and the chief entertainment editor for an international publication based in Estonia, both of which would be instrumental in establishing me as an editor and copy-editor and provide with the insight and objectivity to edit my own work effectively, which I knew was necessary in order for me to be an effective and successful writer. And this all started as I was easing myself into the English department at the university. My education and experience were proceeding in sync. That was the way I liked and wanted it. I felt ready for the transition.

My Creative Writing professor was well-established and constantly offered very thoughtful insight. So did several of the other graduate students, many of whom I got to know quite well, some of whom had been writing for years. Interestingly, I learned from reading their works as well; the variety of styles and insights led me to try different things, including the use of Onomatopoeia in unusual ways for creating sound dynamics, the effectiveness to writing with a minimum of descriptive modifiers, condensation and organization, and realism in dialogue. The latter had always been a strength of mine, as I have always listened to how people talk. That really brings out character distinction. Chris, my professor, who had taught at more than one ivy league university, including Harvard and Bennington, always encouraged me without deception, always made me feel special. With him, I established a friendship rather immediately. He has been a major driving force in my life as a person, mentor and writer, and he always will be.

He and our class would routinely go out and eat after class each night. Our ongoing bull sessions were happy and exhilarating, and I always looked forward to them, not only for the chance to explore a flow of ongoing ideas about writing and wonderful and engaging personal experiences, but also for the chance to socialize; this was a great way of networking, and so I never passed it up, even when I was exhausted.

“You never cease to amaze me,” awed Chris in overhearing the conversation I was having with another student regarding music theory one night. “I learn something new about you all the time. You are a virtual encyclopedia of Classic 60s Rock music.” When I subsequently told him about my experiences during the late-60s/early-70s hippie generation (see the first two posts of this series), he shook his head, excitedly enthusiastic, and said, “Why aren’t you writing this stuff down?” My response to this, in part, would be the short story Born to Be Wild, which I have already mentioned and described in this blog.

Under him, I have written and shaped other works, including the novel The Monkey Cage, the first three chapters of which would serve as my thesis. This story deals with a teen in the 1980s who spends time coming to terms with the suicide of his girlfriend—an incident he had witnessed—and is set in the teen ward of a state mental facility. Chris pushed it, saying it was brilliant—vivid, realistic, engrossing. I would continue working on this with pride and joy.

By the way, he hadn’t said that about everything I had written; some efforts he had found questionable, especially those works I had spewed out on the spur of the moment to meet a tight class deadline. That showed me that the more one develops a piece before presenting it (revisions! revisions! revisions!),  the better chance that work has for a positive reception. That is why revisions are important and why revisions are the essence of writing.

During this time, too, I honed other stories that were of a ghostly nature, influenced by paranormal encounters I had had when I was younger. Bond Beyond the Grave, revolving around a World War II mystery, and the tentatively titled  The Mystery of Alahantaga Island, about a decades- old massacre on a remote island, came into fruition and inspired by other students’ works of a similar nature; yet my pieces were unique in that they were ghosts stories. These works, too, full of imagination and imagery, would propel me forward to create others that would eventually comprise a collection of ghost stories. Ongoing research in the paranormal, with resources such as, for example, this site, offers background information that has helped keep me grounded, real and focused. My ghosts, unlike those of many other writers, reflect what they really are—disembodied humans who are trapped and have lost their way, or who are around to help loved ones. Despite what many people think, ghosts are not the “scary green-eyed ghouls” out to kill; most spirits are generally harmless and seek communication with those in the realm of the physically living, or simply wish to be left alone.

At this point, I was totally absorbed in my writing, and I loved it (I had loans and didn’t have to work at this point). My other classes simply reinforced and fed my desire to write. Linguistics added that dimension of language origin and how the different parts of speech work together. Dialects brought some depth to my dialogue resources. Medieval Literature (one of my favorites) complemented both language origin and imaginative generation. I was nothing but writing.

This was where I wanted and needed to stay; this, to me, was home.

(End of Part I)

Next: My Professional Forties Part II: Freelance and the Family Man . . . .

Posted in Editing, Fiction, General Commentaries, Historical Accounts, Linguistics, Novels, Reality and Realism, Short Stories, Teaching, Translating and Translation | 6 Comments »

My Erratic Twenties: Disillusioned Individualist

Posted by CW64 on November 23, 2009

My isolation continued on into my late-teens and twenties, but that time period in my life became equally erratic, meaning filled with ‘on-again-off-again’ conflict and stress, not to mention a lack of self-esteem and second-guessing my own goals and direction.

When I started college at eighteen, part of me yearned to become socially accepted and to make friends; instead, I was outcast, kept at a distance and arrogantly snubbed by certain people who had made certain erroneous assumptions about me based on their own limited exposure to my actual person. These experiences, though hurtful at the time and haunting throughout the following decade, fueled me in ways that would eventually bring out skepticism towards people and the world around me through the flame of raw emotion; such interactions had an impact on me in so many humanly complex ways.

I worked odd jobs through my twenties while going to school on and off. Where this was a lack of direction, I see it now as a means to an end, struggling to not only find a niche, but to establish my own fertile and respectable identity.

One example dealt with the midnight shift at a gas station (that alone stirs the imagination with a variety of exciting as well as frightening possibilities). I worked under my ex-brother-in-law, an anal and bombastic runt of a man, who shouted rather than spoke calmly. I was held up by a druggie once, but I felt vindicated when, a short time later, I deterred a gas scam and had the driver arrested. My ongoing experiences here and in other retail scenarios have already been laid down in a recent three-part short story entitled Service, about a young frustrated man of 28 with a dismal existence who works at a convenience store. He is smart, though, and takes care of his own, until . . .

This came about predominantly through my artwork. I had started a novel about a sixties rock band living in Detroit, and one piece I sketched in precise detail depicted these characters. That work was one of a few showcased in an art exhibit.

Women, too, came back into the picture, but these only served as fleeting events which, although originally ‘hopefuls’ in romance, turned out to be mere "friendships" and rejections. As a result, I had limited engagement with females outside of my immediate family. This series of non-surprising let-downs shaped me in ways that could only inspire such jaded but realistic stories to which many people can and will relate.

Strangely, though, I became fascinated with erotica. Fantasies abounded! I never offered any of these visual depictions  for any art show, however, but I did carry through on writing out various fantasies that obsessed me at the time. Not only did I manage to express myself in this way and did so individualistically and creatively, but I also developed my writing skills by studying the concepts of imagery and metaphor, which I found had no end.

This was the time period, too, during which I continued developing my song-writing skills. I wrote a song for a woman during this era of my life–someone who, as I had suspected, turned out to be a lesbian. I hold no prejudice toward gays as I am liberal-minded in that sense, but the loss was a crushing blow. This young woman (twenty-five to my twenty-four) had a deep effect on me, and the music rang out. She and I are still ‘friends’ (whatever that means; we haven’t spoken in years), but that song is still fresh in my mind.

My writing, which definitely swelled to get out, was released in only bursts of energy. These bursts were erratic, but they reflected the spirit of a caged animal that yearned to be released. These writings, aside from my one novel and erotic samples, mostly revolved around class assignments written through creative angles. One was an essay I wrote on the novel Johnny Got His Gun. The story was about an unfortunate soldier who had lost his face and all of his limbs during WWI. The young man couldn’t cry out, couldn’t be heard, felt trapped within his own dark space. How eerily reminiscent of those in society who long to be heard and never are! I remember that piece and am still proud of it for the unique way I addressed the story and the issues pertaining to it.

Despite that, I felt lost. Where was I going? At 29, I had goals, but I had no self-confidence or light source to lead me there. I felt as if my life drifted aimlessly, with no end in sight. I knew I had to find a new milestone to reach; needed to grow and move forward. Women, if they fitted into this plan, were definitely not primary; my writing ambition took precedence, as so it should have, and I am glad it did.

Next: My Thriving Thirties: Rising Parallels . . . .

Posted in Essays and Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, General Commentaries, Historical Accounts, Novels, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Short Stories, Writing Development Issues | Leave a Comment »

The Significance of Realism in Fiction

Posted by CW64 on October 20, 2009

Earlier this evening, I read an article discussing the level of realism in TV medical shows. The article featured an actual doctor who distinguished the accuracies and inaccuracies regarding a collection of new shows due out this fall. His explanations were very detailed regarding the particular scene and certain procedures and hospital protocol. Following the article were five comment pages filled mostly with criticisms by those who work in the medical field in one capacity or another. Their points were very poignant and insightful. That got me to thinking about how realism, or reality, is depicted in fiction.

What role does or should reality play in fiction? How should the creator or creators  (writer/producers/actors and actresses) approach it?

I consider this point every time I site down and write, even in works that deal with the paranormal, such as ghost stories (yes, I believe in ghosts, although I am not one to accept every claim as an actual haunting. Some ghost stories are more realistic than others. I stay away from the monsters and blood-and-gore, such as Halloween. I am skeptical, too, so I remain open-minded). I make sure that the level of realism feels right and does not threaten the integrity of the story. I am imaginative (you have to be to be a fiction writer), but I am very level-headed as far as my thinking goes; I am casual and laid-back, but I am an intellectual.

So what about reality and realism?

Let me share, or elaborate further, on an aspect of myself already mentioned "About Me": my ongoing interest in and research on the Titanic , the ship that came in contact with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, and sank, taking 1,496 of over 2,200 people to their deaths (yes, this count is accurate, and I have documentation to verify it). I have been into the Titanic since I was a child, and I have conducted research most of that time. Eight movies were made on the event, and not one is 100% based on the reality of what actually happened. Why? Because most details are not confirmed, so no one knows everything for certain; much is merely conjecture. That said, much of what we know or what was even possible for that time has come out short in every single movie.

Why is this?

Well, filmmakers explain that they need to create "drama and suspense". That’s interesting, considering that the actual event was already dramatic in its own right. If this were the case, why not stick to the reality and realism instead of ignoring them to create "drama and suspense"? Does that makes sense?

In my opinion, no.

Filmmakers’ real reason for avoiding reality to create said "drama and suspense," even in light of the facts and culture indigenous to the original event, can be summed up in two words:

Artistic liberty .

Changing aspects of a story, especially in a depiction of an actual account, allows filmmakers to have control over their creation, even to the point of thinking that they are manipulating history in some way. I enjoy all of those movies on the Titanic, but I cannot help but point to all the little and grandiose inaccuracies every time I watch them. I cringe.

Yes, I realize that these works are only movies–"entertainment"–but I am funny that way. Movies designed to reflect a particular event in history should respect that event and time period, right down to the specifics and cultural mores. When certain data are unknown, theorizing must be done based on already known criteria of the event or era.

For example, in the latest Titanic movie, filmmaker James Cameron (whom I respect and greatly admire) revolves the story not around the sinking itself, but around an unlikely  scenario of a romance between a first-class passenger and a steerage passenger.

Well, that could have happened, right?

With what experts and scholars already know about the caste system of the early twentieth century, the answer is an unequivocal No! At that time, the classes did NOT intermingle, at least not romantically; the three caste sections aboard Titanic—first-, second- and third-class—were isolated from one another for that reason, and no one dared cross the line, not that anyone wanted or intended to do so.

If a filmmaker wants to take such liberties, why not create an indistinct setting in a similar era and tell the story s/he wants  (i.e. create a fictional boat or place with fictional people set within an actual time period)? This way, s/he would not be restricted by the reality of the one particular place or event.

Again, in my opinion (and please remember: I am well-versed on Titanic), taking too many liberties can and quite often does offend the event, the time period, those who were involved, and even the intelligence of the audience.

Yes, I support and engage in my own artistic liberty, but not to such an extent that it undermines or distorts reality.

That’s the difference between reality and realism: the former deals with actual facts and specifics related or relating to what was/is; the latter—realism—refers to that sense of truth and possibility within the context of a certain reality.

So when it comes to TV medical dramas, the realism shouldn’t be offensive to those who work in the field (and, believe me, many are/have been offended), but all too often that sense of reality is/has been ignored to accommodate artistic liberty.

This doesn’t need be the case, even in written fiction, for the story to be dramatic and/or suspenseful; let the reality speak for itself, and the audience will still be captivated. This goes for both medical TV shows and Titanic.

In the end, it all depends on the work and what is intended through the work. Respect should always be maintained towards the subject and content, and everyone should realize the difference between fiction and reality.

I am a realistic fiction writer; I balance realism and imagination throughout the entire process, because I hold equal respect and consideration for both. As a result, my stories are balanced as well.

Posted in Fiction, General Commentaries, Historical Accounts, Movies and TV shows, Personal Experiences, Reality and Realism, Research | 17 Comments »