Ethan, once more

Recently I’ve had quite a few emails with questions about the Wilderness series. They are maybe four or five questions that keep coming up, so I’m posting this first, to provide some general insight into this phenomenon, and second, to point people to answers.

Here’s my philosophy about questions arising from a novel: if the author has to tell you, she didn’t do her job very well, OR, you need to think about the questions some more on your own. Because for every question you can ask, there are many answers. Every reader takes away a different reading, and it’s not for me to agree or disagree. So for example, many people have written to me asking about Ethan and the ‘secret’ that brought him home to Paradise and then motivated his proposal to Callie.

It’s not really a secret. All the clues are there, but for me to tell you would be forcing a reading on you that should be your own. I know what I meant, but you are free to read the story, read the clues, and come up with an answer of your own. This is the kind of question that makes a good book club discussion point.

Now, do people sometimes get the wrong end of the stick? Yes. If somebody tells me that Ethan was clearly abducted by aliens and suffering post-traumatic stress, I would say: huh. Really not what I was going for. I might go so far as to say that that person did not read very closely. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Having said that, there’s an older post that does go into more detail, and you’ll find it here.

Finally, here’s my general explanation of things: authorial confessions.


Digging down to Conflict

Update: I spend a half hour or an hour every day sorting through old weblog posts in an effort to bring some order to the chaos (for example, if you care to have a look, the FAQ section is actually starting to come together). But every once in a while there’s a post that’s been culled somehow from the herd, so I have to either do some research to figure out where it originated, or repost it. Today time is short, so I’m reposting this, after some editing.

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The nature of conflict in a story is so complex it’s hard to talk about. I’ve rarely run into a teacher or book that does a good job of laying out the very subtle manouevering that goes into establishing and building on conflict. There’s a good chance I won’t pull it off either, but I’m going to try.

People who are just getting started with writing fiction often take things too literally. Yes, you need a major conflict. A couple married seventy years who are thinking about divorce? Yes, excellent conflict. But how do you put that idea into actions, into a story that makes the reader want to turn the page?

You might set the whole story at the breakfast table, your two characters arguing and fighting — but that’s very restrictive for you as a writer, and really hard to pull off well. Your characters will give you an idea of where to start.

Imagine them sitting at a table with you. You are interviewing them.

Writer: Sam, can you tell me why after seventy years of marriage you want a divorce?

Sam: She’s too damn picky. She never lets up. I’m ninety-two, I think I deserve a little peace in whatever time I’ve got coming to me.

Sally: Aren’t you going to ask me?

W: Of course. What’s your version of this story, Sally?

Sally: Sam is selfish. He never thinks about anybody but himself. He gets up, goes to the kitchen, gets a cup of coffee. Does he think to ask me if I want coffee? No. If I ask him will you bring me a cup too? — He makes faces like he’s got a sore tooth. For seventy years I have put dinner on the table. You know how many meals that is? 40,320 meals! And that’s just dinner! And he makes faces about bringing me a cup of coffee.

W: Any response, Sam?

Sam: There was that week I went fishing with Marty, you didn’t cook that week.

Where are you now? You know quite a bit about your two characters’ personalities, but you still don’t know what’s really up. Ask them one more question.

W: But you’ve been coping with things that irritate you — both of you have been coping — for seventy years. Why now? What set this off?

Sally: Mind your own damn business.

Sam: See, now she’s got nothing to say.

At this point you have the backbone of the story. Something happened before the curtain opened. We don’t know what. Sally is defensive about it. Sam is resentful. Maybe she lost all their money at roulette. Maybe she revealed an affair she had fifty years ago. She might want to move to Argentina, while Sam is comfortable outside Santa Fe. As the story unfolds, you’ll start to understand how these two communicate, and a lot of that won’t have anything to do with talking. So I could narrate a scene:

At dinner Sally puts a big pot of Carbonada Criolla on the table. It’s her mother’s recipe, which Sally brought with her when she came from Argentina eighty years ago. She serves Carbonada Criolla only when she really wants to irritate Sam, because she dislikes it as much as he does.

This narration would be the absolute wrong way to handle this scene, but for the moment I just want you to think about what’s the conflict of the moment. Any conflict of the moment has to feed the big conflict, or it doesn’t belong in the story. Does this scene about Carbonada Criolla move the story along? It could. Carbonada Criolla can serve as a big fat symbol for what’s wrong between them. Sally insists she wants to go back to Argentina, and she won’t stop harping about it… but on some level she’s counting on Sam to talk her out of it.

On the other hand, Sam always wanted to travel, and he likes the idea of Argentina — but after seventy years of saying no, he’s got to find a way to say yes that will save his pride. In this chapter or story, there will be very little direct discussion of Argentina, but you will see conflict on an every-day-to-day level. And each scene with its conflict of the moment moves us closer to a crisis in this ongoing struggle of wills.

I’m going to jump over the crisis for the moment and get straight to the resolution. You could be lazy. You could send them off to Argentina, and wave goodbye. But isn’t it more interesting to let the reader participate? If you followed the story of the HBO series The Sopranos, you probably heard all the controvery about the ending. It left everything up the air. Maybe a hitman was going to come through the door and shoot Tony; maybe the FBI was going to arrest him on some charges that he won’t be able to sidestep; maybe he’ll just have a dinner with his family. As the viewer, you take everything you know about the characters and what’s happened thus far, and draw your own conclusions.

In a nutshell: The resolution doesn’t have to be a summary about Sam and Sally’s trip to Argentina. You can lead the reader up to that point, and if you are devious enough, you can leave the question for them to answer. Here are some possible very symbolic final scenes to this story — each of which provides a very different idea of the story that went before it:

Sam goes into a travel agency and asks for brochures about visiting Sweden.

Sally calls her awful sister in Argentina and says she’s sending her a first class, one way ticket to Sante Fe.

Sam opens a book to find a photo of Sally when she was twenty-one.

Dinner time, and Sally puts Carbonada Criolla on the table.

Sam buys a bathing suit.

So what we’ve done here is: we’ve got our characters fleshed out and moving around. And we’ve got the resolution. With only this much, a whole story can blossom into being. I realize this may not be very clear at this point, but bear with me a little longer.

Yesterday you put down some thoughts about a character based only on a photograph. Today you’re going to think up five possible symbolic resolutions — not for your character, but in isolation. These symbolic resolutions may not be huge or emotional events; they may not be completely passive, either. Here are some examples:

(character unknown) …. buys a red velvet cape. …. jumps the stile instead of paying the subway fare …. takes a half eaten sandwich out of a public trash bin and tucks it in his/her pocket

resolutions that won’t work: Character X gets run over by a train (too big); brushes her teeth (too little).

Tomorrow I’ll pair the characters with yesterday’s exercise with resolutions from today’s. You’ll be astounded at what pops out of the Story Machine.

Ethan, Callie Questions and (maybe) Answers

*Edited to correct inaccuracies.

I get quite a lot of email about the Wilderness series, and I’m always thrilled to hear from readers. Really, thrilled. Writing is a very solitary occupation and every once in a while I start to wonder if I’ve hallucinated everything. Your emails remind me that somebody is out there, listening. So thank you.

Over the last year or so, I have been getting the same question over and over again (yesterday, twice, as a matter of fact):

What’s up with Ethan and Callie? What exactly happened?

It goes against the grain to answer questions like this. Generally it’s up to you, as reader, to interpret the story as you see fit. You might decide that Ethan has been replaced by an alien and is working undercover to arrange the destruction of mankind. I doubt you could convince me, but I couldn’t tell you you’re wrong. If that’s where the story went for you, then that’s the end of that.  You may have a theory I find hard to fathom, but that is your right.

So let’s look at Ethan and Callie.

Things you know for sure:

  1. Ethan lived in Manhattan for two years because his uncle Todd’s will demanded it of him. He didn’t return to Paradise in  that time.
  2. He’s a friendly guy, and so he will have made friends. He sees Martha Kirby quite regularly, and tutors her. He’s very attached to the Spencer family, which is where Martha lives as the Spencers are her guardians.
  3. He leaves New York to return to Paradise quite suddenly.
  4. Once back in Paradise there’s no talk of friends in Manhattan, no overt sign of letter writing, no visitors.  He is, essentially, without immediate family though he always included in the Bonner family affairs as Elizabeth’s nephew.
  5. He dedicates himself, all his energy and resources, into putting the village back on its feet after years of decline. His small circle of friends includes Callie ad Daniel, Blue-Jay and Runs-from-Bears and Nathaniel.
  6. In all the time you’ve known him, he has never shown interest in the opposite sex.
  7. Martha is back in Paradise too, and eventually Jemima shows up ready to make trouble, as usual.
  8. Jemima lets it be known that she did some investigating in Manhattan and knows all about Martha’s sad little engagement. In fact, she visited Martha’s fiance’s mother and put an end to the whole ridiculous undertaking. Why she did this isn’t immediately apparent.
  9. About the same time Jemima lets it be known that she investigated Martha while in New York, she  says she did the same for  Ethan.  She voices this in a threatening way.
  10. Ethan lives on his own and is lonely. he sees Callie as someone he likes and admires, and someone who needs his help. Marriages have been founded on far worse foundations, and if he can get her to agree, they will both be better off.
  11. Because his experience is wider and he is lonely, he recognizes that same problem in her.
  12. Callie has never shown interest in the opposite sex, either.
  13. When Martha marries suddenly, Callie feels hugely betrayed and rejected.
  14. Ethan may recognize this reaction as founded in something other than sisterly affection.
  15. Ethan capitalizes on the opportunity: he couches his proposal in terms that Callie can live with, and offers her things that she needs and wants. Friendship not least among them.
  16. They marry and make a stable, peaceful, kind home where they raise Jennet and Luke’s children.  And they never sleep in the same bed.

So read through this list and then ask yourself the question: what was the basis of Ethan and Callie’s relationship?


Summary: Dialect in Dialogue

I came across this material while I was sorting through posts, and I thought it might be useful to those of you who are writing fiction.
mouth open

Click to watch Polar Bear on Vimeo: storytelling in the classroom

Fact: everybody has some kind of regional and social dialect.

Question: Which features indicate differences in national or regional origin; social standing; economics, for the spoken language? And how best to get them across in the written language?


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