You Can Dance

Right now I’m trying to get Little Birds off the ground, and it has been a struggle. It’s always a struggle, but these characters are not at all clear yet, and until I get a better sense of them everything is stalled.

Today I had a kind of breakthrough, which doesn’t happen often. I’m writing about it here so I will remember exactly what happened, and also to entertain readers who happen to wander by.

Two of the primary characters in Little Birds are pretty well established in my head (they are  Lily’s children, but you don’t know them), but a crucial third character — somebody entirely new — is missing.  This has been causing me some distress. Of course I did what all writers of fiction do in this all-too-common fix: I found a way to procrastinate and went out to run errands.

Driving home from errands, I decided to turn off the audiobook that was playing (dry, but interesting) and turn on my current music playlist, which is set to shuffle. The song that started took me by surprise because I forgot it was on the list:  Save the Last Dance for Me — the Drifters original recording.  

And suddenly I had that third missing character.   I don’t even know his name yet, but I can see him leaning against a wall, arms crossed, watching people dance.  Or maybe, just maybe, somebody has offered him a fiddle and he’s playing and watching the dance floor.

Where did this come from, you might be wondering.  I had to think about it to sort out the associations, but it ties into my own experiences while I was living in Vorarlberg in my early twenties.  I did a lot of dancing. There were dances, all the time. Simple weekend dances.  Big fancy dances for Mardi Gras or annual celebrations of one guild or another. Big or small they all featured local musicians and dancing. And lots of beer. And schnapps. You’re thinking ump-pa-pa, but no. That’s not what it’s like at all and I’m not sure I can make it clear how un-umpa this experience is, but I’m going to try.

Imagine  a lot of people crowded onto the dance floor, some proportion of them much the worse for beer, still cheerful as they bumbled along.  Some small portion — maybe fifteen percent — were there because they really liked dancing and were good at it. I was in that fifteen percent. 

This is a video from Helsinki, a polka dancing competition.  The music is scaled way way down, but I’m posting this here so you can see the dancing. You can hear the excitement in the audience, and hear them yodeling in appreciation. This captures part of what it’s like. 

In your imagination you have to speed this up some, and also imagine it is happening in a hazy smoky dance hall (ca 1980), and now imagine the dancers are just regular (and somewhat younger) in their nice-casual clothes. But they can dance. Speed it up again. If you’re good at this there’s a lot of improvising, double and triple steps, stamping, things I can’t really describe but I could do, and do well. If I had stayed there I’d probably weigh 120 and be able to carry a calf around, no problem. It’s exercise and cardio exercise all rolled into a single package that you WANT. And that’s the trick, of course. 

One of the chapters in Homestead was meant to capture what this kind of dance was like.  Now, today, while I was listening to Save the Last Dance I had a flashback to the dance I described in that chapter.  This is what happened in real life: Someone I didn’t know asked me to dance toward the end of the evening, when the musicians had had a couple shots of schnapps and they were just on a tear.  I had noticed this guy dancing and hoped he might come ask me, because watching him I knew that I would dance well with him. 

Here’s the thing, in this kind of dancing. If a guy who is strong and lithe and confident puts a hand on your waist and takes your other hand in his, and then he just takes off — and you can follow him — it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. If you can follow him, and then assert yourself a little, and he responds to this … I’m going to say this but you won’t believe me. Better than the best sex.   To this day I remember the feel of the stranger’s arm muscles through his shirt.  I remember the way he smiled down at me, and winked. I remember he didn’t ask and I didn’t hesitate when the set ended, we just kept dancing.

I never saw him again, never learned anything about him, but we were absolutely in sync with each other in a way that is distinctly more than dancing.  There were a lot of unplanned pregnancies in Vorarlberg at this time (and maybe still are, but apparently this kind of dancing is out of favor, to which I say NO NO NO), and I am convinced that some large percentage of them happened after two people click like this on the dance floor.

Now I have to go figure out who this character is. While I interrogate him you can watch this Bruce Springsteen cover of Save the Last Dance. It gives me chills, because: well, nobody can do a song like this better.  After you watch this go look for his Tougher than the Rest. 

 

Truth Inside the Lie

Under My Skin: Volume I of my Autobiography to 1949. This was the first volume of a two volume autobiography, covering  birth in 1919 to leaving Southern Rhodesia.

I just came across this quote by Doris Lessing (from the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin):

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” 

In the dedication for the novel It, Stephen King says:

“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” (That bit is part of a longer sentence, but works better on its own.)

I’ve been thinking about this all day.  I know that if I go looking I can find similar quotes by writers, but really what interests me is the juxtaposition of lie – truth – fiction. 

 

Doping up Baby

It’s often distressing to read 19th century advertisements.  Our great-great grandparents  were just as desperate (and gullible) when it comes to certain aspects of the human condition. Hair loss, for example.  

Weight-loss was just as big a topic back then as it is now, though body image was not quite so awful. 

Nobody likes a crying baby. Parents don’t like their kids to be in pain or distress, and strangers are often pretty intolerant. Do a google search and you’ll see that this is a perennial problem with no easy solution. Sometimes babies just cry. Sometimes babies get really sick, and they scream.  Sometimes overwrought caregivers are driven to extremes. There is no excuse for that, but it happens. It happened then, too.

What’s most disturbing about the 19th century is how unaware they were of the dangers of doping their children. Have a look at this handy dandy cure for the crying baby available at every drugstore.

Stickney & Poor-Paregoric
Stickney & Poor’s Paregoric

It’s a challenge to stay in the mindset of your characters when you’re writing historical fiction.  An intelligent, sensible person who truly believes that there’s nothing dangerous about smoking, or a little laudanum is just what the baby needs, that is sometimes hard to pull off.  I consider it a kind of anachronism to pretend a character understood something that was just not knowable at the time, but I struggle with it.

Of course there were quacks who knew very well that what they were selling would do nobody any good. For instance this cure for male weakness. Note the positioning.

 

 

If you write fiction

….or want to write fiction, or are interested in the process of writing fiction: 

Insomnia drove me to do some work, but weariness kept me from actually writing. So I spent an hour going through old posts on craft (plot, pov, characterization, etc etc), and I’ve organized them into something I hope is usable.

It’s incomplete, but it’s a start.  

You’ll find the index to these posts under “writing and craft” in the menu just under the top banner. Please let me know if you run into any problems.