What You Don’t Know

There’s nothing like writing to show you what you don’t know.

The other day I took two of my characters on a field trip. Rather, they took me. These are the same two, Shannon and Jackie, I blogged about last month in “The Importance of Place,” after they took me to the Gay Head Cliffs.

Shannon has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for decades. Sister Jackie has never been there before. Shannon is playing tour guide. (Come to think of it, there’s nothing like playing tour guide to show you what you don’t know — and also what you do. Shannon listens to facts and factoids coming out of her mouth that she didn’t know she knew. I didn’t know I knew them either.)

So we went window-shopping in Edgartown, where in novel time it’s Thanksgiving weekend so some shops but not all are closed for the season, then we strolled along State Beach. The sheer vastness of the ocean started getting to us, so Shannon and I simultaneously hit on the same antidote: “Let’s go to the Campground.”

In the Campground — formally the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association — more than 300 cottages sit on about 34 acres of land.

I’ve been to the Campground many times over the years, but never accompanied by these two characters. As we walked, the conversation they were having flowed in interesting directions, shaped by the narrow walkways and the colorful, cheek-by-jowl cottages.

The Pink House from the front

The Pink House from the front

The most colorful, and by far the most photographed, cottage in the Campground is the Pink House so of course Shannon guided Jackie in that direction. When we got to it, I was glad we’d made the trip.

In my memory the Pink House stood apart from its neighbors, as if they’d startled at the sight of it and taken a giant step backward.

But it doesn’t. It’s on a corner, yes, but it’s nestled as close to its immediate neighbors as any other house.

Jackie then wandered around to the back of the house. The Pink House may be the most photographed cottage in the Campground, and maybe the most photographed building on Martha’s Vineyard, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a photo of its backside.

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

The trouble started when I got home and started to write. What the hell were those tall stalky things on the left? I wrote “tall stalky shrubbery” and knew immediately that I wasn’t going to let myself get away with that.

Like what if I were reading about a character running through a meadow noticing little white flowers and little blue flowers over there and hard orange berries over here? A little of that goes a long way. At some point I start to suspect that the author didn’t know the names of the things and didn’t care enough to find out. This subtly undermines my confidence in her knowledge of other things.

So I posted that rear-view photo on Facebook and asked for help identifying the tall stalky thingies. The first two friends who responded said it was hard to tell without foliage or flowers, but they thought it was probably rose of Sharon. Others thought privet, which I’d always thought was an evergreen but it turns out it comes in deciduous too. Trying to confirm one or the other was difficult because all the pretty pictures I found on the internet were of flowers; no stalks were visible.

Rose of sharon is currently in the lead.

Sturgis’s Law #6 says “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” This is how it works. That particular scene may disappear from future drafts of the novel, but now I’ve a pretty good idea of what rose of Sharon looks like. Who knows where it will show up next.

A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Jonathon Owen doesn’t post all that often, but his blog, Arrant Pedantry, is always worth reading. He brings clarity and good sense to style, usage, and grammar questions that hang a lot of editors and writers up. Here he takes on that hoary bugaboo “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Click on the link to read the whole thing.

— sjs

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are …

Source: A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

The Importance of Place

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

Two days before the late January snow fell, I drove all the way to Aquinnah to see the Gay Head Cliffs. My Alaskan malamute, Travvy, rode shotgun, his nose usually as far out the window as it could get.

In the Forester’s back seat were two of my characters, protagonist Shannon and her long-estranged sister Jackie. Shannon’s in her mid-fifties. Jackie’s three years younger. They survived their violently alcoholic family in different ways, Shannon by fleeing, Jackie by sticking it out. After almost four decades of minimal contact, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and Jackie has come for a visit.

I live on, and write about, Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard is famous, not least because the president and one of his recent predecessors vacation here. I write about the place and the people who are still here when the celebrities leave.

Gay Head light

The Gay Head lighthouse. In a major engineering feat last fall it was moved 129 feet back from the cliff that was eroding out from under it.

The Gay Head Cliffs are celebrities in their own right, celebrities who never leave. People who know nothing else about Martha’s Vineyard have seen them in photographs. Shannon, like me and many another year-round resident, is somewhat jaded about both celebrities and tourist attractions, but she’s showing her sister around and it’s late November: no chattering crowds, ample places to park.

At this point I realized that my mental image of the cliffs looked like a picture postcard. I hadn’t been there in years. I couldn’t remember the path down to the beach or what the beach looked like. Hence this mid-January expedition. I kept my eyes on the road, occasionally scratched Travvy’s back, and listened to Shannon and Jackie talking in the back seat.

After I parked the car — there was no shortage of available space — we walked past the silent summer shops and up to the observation area. Shannon and Jackie leaned on the post-and-rail fence. Shannon pointed out over the water. “That’s Devil’s Bridge,” she said. “Major hazard to navigation.”

Jackie shaded her eyes against the sun and squinted. “I can’t see anything,” she replied.

“Neither can the ships,” said Shannon.

Most Vineyard people know about the wreck of the City of Columbusa passenger steamship bound from Boston to Savannah. It ran aground on Devil’s Bridge, a submerged rocky shoal, in the dark early hours of January 18, 1884, and quickly sank. Despite heroic rescue efforts that morning by the Gay Headers and the crew of a passing vessel, 104 died; only 29 were rescued.

The anniversary had just passed when we drove to Aquinnah, so it was on my mind, but when Shannon said “Neither can the ships,” I froze. Rescue is a major theme in my novel in progress, starting with the rescue of Wolfie, the title character, who was inspired by (you guessed it) Travvy — rescue and the difficulty of recognizing threats before it’s too late. And there it was, arising naturally and unobtrusively from the place where my characters stood.

Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.

Regional writing, writing deeply rooted in place, sometimes gets a bad rap. Regional writing is only about that region, so the thinking goes. It’s not universal. (If this reminds you of the equally popular notion that writing about women is only about women, and writing about people of color is only about people of color, while writing about white men is universal — it should.)

If William Blake could “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” writers can find a whole world in a particular place, and readers can learn more about their world from following a writer’s words into places they’ve never been.

For another take on where imagery comes from, check out my earlier blog post “Grow Your Images.”

Trav on path

The path to Moshup’s Beach is a lot longer and wider than I remembered. That’s my sidekick, Travvy, waiting for me to put the camera away and keep walking.

Moshup's Beach

Once I realized how rocky the beach was, it was easier to hear what Shannon and Jackie were saying as they picked their way over the rocks.

The Usefulness of Poetry | Talking Writing

A really wonderful essay by Gloria Heffernan. It’s not just about the usefulness of poetry; it’s about the usefulness of all the writing that isn’t done primarily for money or a wide audience.

Check out Talking Writing too. It’s a very good e-zine that approaches writing from all different angles. The newest issue focuses especially on teaching.

Source: The Usefulness of Poetry | Talking Writing