Friday, March 30, 2007

Natal Days

In real life, my friend's first child was born on February 29th. Her second was born on Christmas Day.

In fiction, what's a good birthday for her third child?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Mirror Work

A friend who owns a restaurant franchise tells of the woman he hired last summer: a 24-year-old who'd borne three kids with three men and had lost custody of all during a period of hard drinking and drugging.

Over the summer at the restaurant, though, she cleaned up her life -- reinstating contact with her kids and earning respect from her co-workers.

Her job? A dishwasher.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dumpster Driving


The contents of this car would have taken three days’ worth of words to describe ... and then how many more to make it believable?
It belongs to a retail employee -- a likeable guy whose personal appearance does, however, resemble the car's interior.

Words also seem inadequate for my reaction, except to write that my brain processed this mess through a night of the weirdest dreams ever.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dialect

For a fresh perspective (or just a giggle), run a section of your prose through The Dialectizer.

The site translates your voice into your choice of dialects, with results that are 75% comic relief and 25% inspiring in new energy.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Mantra

I do my brand of sumo and I do my best. [source unknown]

All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of thing will be well. [Julian of Norwich]

Friday, March 23, 2007

Wed Cam

Want to see what details come out in a high-emotion situation? Try people-watching via streamed video from the MGM Grand wedding chapel in Las Vegas.

Approximately 15 minutes each, the wedding ceremonies tend to combine incredible nervousness with touching moments and, occasionally, the bizarre. Check the calendar to see when upcoming weddings are scheduled and watch them live. Or, easier, watch a past wedding: choose a date and click on any entry with a "View Now" button.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring ...

... and the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, NC is open for the season!

I watch the piercam year ’round to get my fix of ocean and surf and sunrises. But when the pier opens for fishing in mid-March, the camera also provides for people-watching. (Well, fisherman-watching ... basically a still-life.)

The site offers options for a live, still shot that can be updated manually via a browser's Refresh button; or a Java-script feed that auto-updates every few seconds; or a feed with the sound of surf. It's a great site during hurricane season.

[Photo cropped from an old -- and timeless -- issue of Martha
Stewart Living
]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

cARTography

Matthew Gray, a software engineer at Google, used data from the company’s Book Search project to map the world based on how often each point on the planet is mentioned in books.

Similarly, Aaron Koblin at UCLA designed a U.S. map based on FAA air-traffic data. His 3-minute Video Documentation (sound alert) is stunning.

Most art seems created top-down from a big-picture concept.

But these developed from the details up.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Predictability and Lies

CBS-TV’s Sunday Morning is a terrific program of history, culture and art features. One of yesterday’s segments marked the 56th anniversary of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

As a kid, I’d see photos of those fugitives posted high on the wall of my small-town post office. Most of the faces had a predictable “bad guy” look, but there’d be the occasional gentle or charismatic face that fascinated me in its lie. And the whole wall chilled me: the most dangerous men in the country -- men who, according to the FBI, were likely enough to come around my town that we needed to be ready to recognize them.

Decades later, living in a metropolitan area, I heard the state police publicize its online sex-offender registry. I accessed the website, entered my zip code and discovered half a dozen convicted offenders residing in area homes and apartments. I looked at the photos of several -- predictably creepy men -- all convicted of crimes against children. Then, up popped another lie: a photo of a regular-looking guy. I read the details about him and it turned out he’d assaulted an adult woman. I looked at more photos and discovered a curious correlation between creepiness and pedophilia.

Now the FBI’s list is online, too. I think it would be helpful to look at those photos and explore the visual details that, for me, characterize “bad guy” and “creepy.” And more helpful -- toward building complex story characters -- to tease out the details that prompt surprise.

(P.S. A few of those photos go a long way. I resorted to visiting the sugariest website on the planet to clear my head.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Thirtysomething

A woman -- the wife of a medical malpractice attorney -- becomes pregnant and seeks an obstetrician. She contacts more than 30 doctors before she finds one who accepts her as a patient.

Imagine: What is it that's different -- about what she does ... or doesn't do ... or about the doctor -- this time?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Green Eggs

I've been skittish about eating green-dyed food since my mother colored the milk one St. Patrick’s Day and my brother got sick.

Yet I felt a steely adventurousness after reading New Scientist’s article about how red-cabbage juice turns fried eggs green. The chemistry is clever, although outweighed by what seems like a lot of culinary work instead of just using a drop of food color. Then I wondered: What if I could make green hard-boiled eggs?

Hadn’t dyes on the Easter eggs of my youth sometimes migrated through the shells to the egg whites inside? Every time I’d hard-boiled eggs, hadn't I seen bubbles escape through the shells as the cold eggs acclimated to the heated water? Might the shell’s porosity work in both directions, allowing some of the cabbage juice to be taken up into the egg?

So I simmered about a cup of shredded red cabbage in a small saucepan of water until the liquid turned a deep blue-purple. Then I added two eggs … hard-boiled them … cooled them … and cracked their shells. As my thumb peeled away the first bit of shell, I saw -- snow-white egg whites.

Drat.

Should I have soaked the eggs in the colored water for a while before cooking them? If I’d taken room-temperature eggs and submerged them in ice-cold cabbage water, might they have sucked some in? Could I borrow a tiny insulin syringe and inject some cabbage water into the raw egg white? It took restraint to not pursue a way to get inside.

Then I imagined what I'd do with the eggs: the green-egg-salad-on-wheat sandwiches.

And soon enough, I felt a little like my brother.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Spineless

Ack! From a Pottery Barn catalog:

Who ever would display their books like this?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Constraint

From composer Igor Stravinsky: "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self."

It’s counter-intuitive, but true.

Consider three co-executioners, none of whom will ever know whose syringe contained the poison. But one grows sure it was his, and he makes peace with it. Another grows sure it wasn't his, and makes peace with it. The third remains unsure, and suffers for it.

Consider a writer. "What shall I write about today?" launches me into an untethered, abstract infinity. It's better to begin at ground level with constraints -- details -- and let their energies develop into a story.

Consider story characters. When mine need to move -- but instead just stare at me, frozen in indecision -- I try the “bracketing” technique from James V. Smith’s Fiction Writer's Brainstormer. It’s a method of generating options between the extremes of possibility. Take a story question, any question (“Where is she going in the car?” “What does he do when his boss hangs up on him?”), and first give the automatic answer and then the over-the-top answer. Between those extremes lie lots of interesting alternative answers: the commonplace, the odd, the opposite, the adolescent, the inventive, the romantic, the magical, the obscene, the math-related, the biblical, the amusing, the poetic, etc., etc., etc.

I remember using the technique to brainstorm occupations for a story’s accountant-type secondary character. Through bracketing, the probability emerged that he was a circus acrobat -- totally ridiculous in my serious story. Until ... constrained to resolve that ridiculousness by weaving it into the plot ... I stumbled upon the story’s central secret.

Huh.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Contrast

I've stayed at all types of lodging yet when it comes time to set a story in one, I draw a blank on all but the most obvious (yawn) details.

But. If I take a moment to imagine the setting and then imagine its opposite -- say, the Atlantis Resort and a tiny hotel -- the differences are emphasized and interesting details start popping rapid-fire.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Landmark

Forget the usual reasons for preserving old buildings amid urban development. Specifically what happened with this building that allows (perhaps even mandates) its preservation?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Contrived?

Three writerly observations about the timing between Cheney's blood clot and the Libby verdict:

1) coincidences feel finagled -- by authors in fiction, by conspiracies in real life;

2) something negative (for Cheney, a health threat) can turn positive (insulation from reporters' questions about the verdict); from other points of view, it turns in the opposite direction; and

3) God enjoys a deus ex machina even if readers don't.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Improvisation

From a widely circulated email:

After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped.

Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies.

The deception wasn't discovered for 3 days.

The story isn't a Darwin Award winner (as claimed), and it's not even true, according to Snopes. (Snopes does discuss why it's so believable, though. Hint: it's in the details.)

But it is clever, and full of motivations. Use its arc as a starting point, then riff with your own hilarious (or horrific ... pick your genre) details.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Binge Architecture

Corn products are everywhere now -- no longer just on dinner plates or the walls of the Mitchell, SD Corn Palace.

Why not give another food its lucky break? Write a story involving an item built of some surprising edible.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Mutiny

Toward the middle of a Catholic Mass, a lector leads the congregation in a series of six or eight short prayers -- intercessions for the needs of spiritual and civic leaders, people suffering around the world, the sick or troubled in the local parish, the recently deceased, and so on. The lector ends each intercession with, “We pray to the Lord,” and the congregation responds, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Sometimes, the script changes and the congregation gets a different line. Yesterday, the lector announced the new line and then prayed the first intercession. But had no one been listening? When it came time, the congregation responded with the smallest spatter of voices, most of which were, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Following the second intercession, the lector helpfully (and nearly solo) prayed the congregation’s response, too: “Stay with us, Lord.” Then she read the third intercession and, thoroughly prepped now, the congregation responded -- with a half-and-half mix of the two replies! After the fourth intercession, the lector brought her mouth directly to the microphone. “Stay with us, Lord,” she boomed.

And after the fifth, the congregation, as one voice, boomed back: “Lord, hear our prayer.”

In your story … what happens next?

Friday, March 2, 2007

To Do

There's The Poker Channel. And now NBC has added a poker show to its late-late-night lineup.

I simply didn't get how a card game makes for good TV. Then I heard people talking about the mannerisms (called "tells") that poker players often can't cover up -- mannerisms that communicate the information usually concealed by poker faces. They reminded me of the "telling details" that fictional characters need.

Suddenly, gathering some nervous mannerisms from a TV poker game sounds like a plan.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Irony

I'm fascinated (and horrified) by ironic extremes: physicists who develop Alzheimer's; orators who can't speak after a stroke; athletes who develop crippling disabilities.

While visiting a nursing home recently, I met a man named Gary. He'd spent his career trimming trees, navigating the canopies of the tallest elms, willows and maples. Never an accident, but he'd often noticed people watching him from the ground -- surely thinking, and sometimes even calling out, "Don't fall!"

Now, rehabbing from a stroke, he walks the hallways between his sleeping room and the dining room. He notices the nurses watching and he can almost see their lips move: "Don't fall."