The Importance of Place in a Writer’s Work

Menominee, Michigan's downtown.

Menominee, Michigan’s downtown.

Imagine a young writer. This young writer has lived all his life in Oconto, Wisconsin. He knows enough about his hometown to write a guidebook to the town. But when he sits down to write, he figures, ‘Writers don’t come from Oconto. Better set the story in someplace more writerly. Like New York City.’ And so the writer struggles, since he’s never been to New York City and only knows it from the novels of Lawrence Block and from watching Law & Order SVU. And he hates Lawrence Block and Law & Order SVU.

Think of the writing of Stephen King. If you are a Christian you may need to hold your nose as you think because King doesn’t exactly hide his bigotry when it comes to Christians. But if you have read King’s work at all you may have noticed what the Important Place in King’s work is: Maine. King is a Maine boy, he knows the towns and the people and the local dialect. He doesn’t have to fake it. He grew up with it. And so his Maine settings are right, and even people in Maine can feel it.

Think again of Charlaine Harris, author of the sometimes porny Southern Vampire series. Again, Christians may not care for her work based on her biases. But she set the series in small-town Louisiana, a setting she grew up with, and this adds a lot to the series.

Declan Finn, author of Honor at Stake

Declan Finn, author of Honor at Stake

A third example, Catholic author Declan Finn, author of A Pius Man and the forthcoming Honor at Stake. Finn set Honor at Stake, a vampire novel, in New York City. Finn is FROM New York City. The setting works for him because he knows it.

But what if you are an army brat? Or, like me, a Kmart brat? If you have lived in many different places you may not know any of them all that well— not well enough to use them as Stephen King uses Maine. But there are ways to make use of place, even if you have a hard time figuring out what ‘hometown’ means to you.

In my own case, as the daughter of a Kmart manager who was transferred to other cities every couple of years, growing up I had one good place. My parents were both from the Upper Midwest. My mother lived in Brillion, Wisconsin growing up— it was where her father ended up when he emigrated from Germany after World War One. And my father was ALMOST from Wisconsin. His hometown was Menominee, in Upper Michigan. If you lived in Menominee, you could just walk over one of the town’s three bridges and be in the twin city of Menominee, Marinette, Wisconsin. I’d recommend the Hattie Street bridge for that little excursion, myself. My dad’s family have lived in Menominee since before 1870. We know this place.

You may not have a town like that. But what about the town where you suffered the horrors of high school? Or the town you live right now? Expand on the knowledge you now have about this setting by visiting the local historical museum, and listening to the fascinating stories of the oldtimers and middle-aged-timers. (If you are a real writer, you’ve already learned that the stories that other people call ‘grandpa’s boring old-time stuff’ is more interesting than half the stuff on television.) With this knowledge, you will have a virtual hometown you can use for fiction.

Other cities and towns may be important enough to you to be of great use in your writing. I’ve lived in four different cities in California: I could probably fake a California setting easily enough. I was in Tacoma, Washington for third through fifth grade, I could use that. I even did a year in Heidelberg, Germany in college. Since I spent my spare time there wandering around the old city and the walking trails nearby, I could do things with that setting.

Heidelberg, Germany

Heidelberg, Germany. I used to go for long walks on hiking trails on the hill above the castle.

If you are a fantasy or science fiction writer you may think that these considerations don’t apply to you. But when you build your wholly fictional places, your hometown serves as a template. Your fictional places will be like your hometown in spots, and quite the opposite in others. Using your hometown and other real-world places as a touchstone, you will better be able to create fictional places that feel real.

 

How Stephen King uses the Head-Hopping Point of View

If only Stephen King didn't have to hate people like me...

If only Stephen King didn’t have to hate people like me…

This is a post from an older blog of mine. I hope you enjoy it.

What is head-hopping? When I first began reading how-to-write books, there was no such thing. Or at least, nobody had a name for it.

But now it’s the Worst Thing Ever that a writer can do. Head-hopping happens when you are writing in the third person point of view, and instead of limiting yourself to the thoughts and feelings of one character, you shift into the thoughts and feelings of another.

Recently I was reading a Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, which is pretty much like The Simpsons Movie without Spiderpig and the Boob Lady, and there it was. Head-hopping. Now, since Stephen King isn’t an unpublishable amateur writer, I guess this means that head-hopping is indeed a tool we can use.

The scene was about a shooting rampage being carried out by a young man with a brain tumor. As the scene begins the young man is our viewpoint character. Now, inside this young man’s head is not the most comfortable place to be. He kept looking at people he knew, thinking bad thoughts about them with swearwords in them, and then shooting them dead.

For one short paragraph of the scene, however, we experience the thoughts and feelings of one of the victims, from the point she sees the gun pointed at her to the time, after she is shot, that she fades off into the ‘nothingness’ of the non-afterlife. (Don’t worry, folks, elsewhere in the book we learn that even though there is no afterlife, we do become ghosts that can communicate with dogs after we die. Yes, the godless are illogical.)

After this paragraph we are back in the shooter’s head for the rest of the scene. The question is, why did Stephen King choose to use the head-hopping point of view here?

The young shooter had been the viewpoint character in a great many scenes and we got to witness him doing many horrible things, including other murders. Most readers, we would hope, were not too comfortable in this young man’s head. Most knew they weren’t supposed to be. But if you had gotten too comfortable vicariously whacking people along with this young man, Stephen King has a surprise for you.

The shift into the victim’s head gives you another very different point of view on the action. You comfortable hanging out in the killer’s head? Stephen King asks us. Step right over here, and I’ll show you what it’s like to be in the head of one of his victims! And we get to experience everything: seeing the gun, being shot, and fading off into nothingness.

If a reader had been getting complacent about the deaths— of which there are a great many in the story, many of them children— this is what restores the horror. We get to see what it’s like to be one of the victims that didn’t get away.

This, I believe, is a good use of head-hopping. First, the viewpoint character of the scene is a bad man victimizing others. If your mind had gotten dulled to the tragedy caused by any human death by the previous carnage in the book, hopping into the head of one of the random shooting victims wakes your sense that each death in the scene is an individual horror.

Now, this was a giant book in which King slaughters most of the population of a small town in Maine, and he frequently let readers inside the heads of characters about to be killed— in fact, the first viewpoint character of the whole book is the first to die. I think by the end of the story most readers have become indifferent to the deaths just because there were so many (and the characters were weak, and some hard for normal folks to identify with, such as the lady Congregationalist minister who was an atheist, but somehow not guilty of fraud and hypocrisy for keeping her job.)

But head-hopping, done right, can be a tool that the ordinary writer can use in similar circumstance. In the book Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, head-hopping point of view is treated like any other point of view, as something a writer might choose.

Conservative? Christian? There are Alternatives to Stephen King

If only Stephen King didn't have to hate people like me...

If only Stephen King didn’t have to hate people like me…

Stephen King’s been showing his bigotry towards Christians and conservatives (Tea Party members) on Twitter.  He doesn’t even bother to find out about the charitable work Glenn Beck’s been doing for illegal immigrant children in this current crisis before he insults the man. And since the insult is to call Beck ‘Satan’s mentally challenged younger brother’, looks like there is some bigotry towards the mentally challenged going on here too.

I used to be Stephen King’s number one fan. He even wrote a book about it (bits of it are totally fictional, I assure you.) I was a leftist at the time. But then, since my mind is not totally closed, I began to think for myself and began drifting in a conservative direction. Then I unexpectedly became Catholic. REAL Catholic, which means, since I am a person with Gay sexual orientation, I realized that becoming a Catholic meant saying ‘yes’ to living a life of chastity. So I became toxic waste to people like Stephen King. It’s hard to obsessively love an author you know will hate you. It breaks my heart….

If Stephen King is breaking YOUR heart, too, don’t despair. There are authors out there that don’t hate all Christians or all conservatives, often because they ARE Christian or conservative. For Example:

Dean R. Koontz— I always knew he was über-popular, but I didn’t know he was Catholic until I saw him interviewed on The World Over on television network EWTN.

Orson Scott Card— Another author I love obsessively. He does have Democrat party leanings, but he’s a member of the Mormon (LDS) church and won’t reject all his church’s teachings the way leftists want him to. So he’s often tagged as a ‘vicious homophobe’ by internet leftists.

Brad Thor— This thriller author is very popular with conservative/libertarian readers. Haven’t read him yet (I don’t think) since I don’t much read thrillers.

Andrew Peterson— He’s a Christian (Evangelical?) fantasy author as well as being a musician. I should be writing a blog tour post for his latest book, The Warden and the Wolf King, right now. (Be patient, Andrew, I’m getting to it.)

Karina Fabian— She’s kind of a friend of mine— on Facebook, anyway. She’s a Catholic and writes books about dragons who are private detectives, and zombie exterminators. Among other things.

Declan Finn— Author of the thriller A Pius Man among other things. A Catholic, and another of my Facebook friends.

So— what do you think of the Stephen King thing? Did he go too far? Or should only people who think like Stephen King be allowed to be published writers? If you do think Stephen King went too far, should people boycott him? Which authors should they read instead?

 

Big Goals, Little Goals (Yes, I Forgot the Goals Bloghop)

Do You Have Goals bannerThis ought to have been my post for the Do You Have Goals/Five Year Project Bloghop. And I was really gonna do it on time this past Friday. But, well…. stuff.

Sometimes it’s easier to set a big goal: ‘I’m going to be an NFL quarterback’, or ‘I’m going to be a rock star’ or ‘I’m going to be a best-selling author like Stephen King or Lawrence Block or St. Luke’. Because when you set a big goal like that you don’t always think about all the little goals you will have to complete to get to where the big goal is even a remote possibility.

And it’s not always easy to find out what YOU will have to do to meet your goal. I mean, I can read about what Lawrence Block and Stephen King did in their early writing days. Only things have changed in the writing world since then. Lawrence Block made a decent living for a number of years writing short stories for the many magazines that were paying markets for such things in those years. Nearly all of those magazines are gone now, and even a great short story writer can’t pay the bills by writing short stories for the one-or-two magazines that are left.

Orson Scott Card won the Hugo and Nebula awards two years in a row, and people knew he was a Mormon who hadn’t rejected his faith. But these days, I doubt a writer who was not fully on board with gay marriage and abortion would have a shot at major awards— even Orson Scott Card is routinely cursed as a ‘homophobe’ and a ‘hater’ in spite of the fact that he’s written a highly sympathetic gay male character in one of his novel series.

Looking at the big goal too much can make us crazy. Or make us believe the writing scams out there that the current way to writing success is to pay big bucks to the latest iteration of the vanity press.

I think for now I’m going to look at my little goals— the little things I have to do RIGHT NOW to take a step forward in my writing. At the moment it’s a short story/novella called ‘Rigord Trails’, a story set on a distant planet, but a story with a bit of a western feel— it’s set on a cattle drive, only the role of cattle is being played by lizardy things called ‘rigords’. And my next step is to find some names for my main characters, and some place names and odd words. So that’s my little goal— for today.