Thursday, January 21, 2010

History in the Novel

Presenting history in a novel is not so simple as some might think. This is one place where the rule Show, not Tell definitely applies. You can’t just lump together a collection of facts and liberally drop them in as solid blocks of fact. That would annoy readers and distract from the flow of the story. Instead you must show history through the lives of your characters.

My current WIP, Fallen From Grace, involves a small town sheriff in 1897. His town is a generally peaceful place and Sylvester’s biggest problems are lack of a deputy and the refusal of his girlfriend to marry him despite many proposals. Lydia, his friend, is a new breed of independent woman. She manages the family store, serves as postmistress, heads the women’s temperance league and sings in the church choir. She contends she’s too busy to get married.

Life in Arahpot is turned upside down by the deaths of two newcomers—one by stabbing, the other by arsenic poisoning. The latter death could be murder, suicide or accident.

Arsenic and chloroform both play a part in the story. Both compounds were readily available to the public in the 19th century, as were cocaine, opium, mercury and a host of other chemicals we now know for their harmful aspects. Our ancestors were more blasé in their attitude toward these compounds for which they found a host of uses.

The use of chloroform as anesthetic became common after 1853 when it was administered to Queen Victoria for the delivery of Prince Leopold. Anyone with a quarter could buy a quantity at the corner store and it was used for such routine purposes as removing stains from carpets and quelling bees in a hive.

On the darker side, addicts also discovered they could get a “buzz” from inhaling it. And it wasn’t long before it became an aid to suicide.

As to arsenic, we know its deadly potential. But in the 19th century it was a common ingredient in over-the-counter medications and had many household uses, including as a skin cleanser and laxative. Those probably aren’t historic precedents anyone wants to continue.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hey, Guys, We're Not Doomed

First the good news—the male sex is not dying out.

Then the bad news (if you dare to characterize it as such, guys)—males are not more highly evolved than females.

Just a few years ago some researchers had claimed the Y chromosome (the thingy that make men male) was shrinking and somewhere down the road men were going to disappear.

Well a new study, reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday, has concluded it just isn’t so. In fact, Dr. David Page, co-author of the study, said the Y chromosome is evolving faster than the rest of the human genetic code. Page, director of the Whitehead Institute of Cambridge and a professor of biology at MIT, compared it to a house being constantly rebuilt.

But Jennifer Hughes, lead author, cautions that just because the Y chromosome, which determines gender, is evolving faster doesn’t mean men are more highly evolved. The researchers cited several reasons for Y being an evolutionary powerhouse. One is that it is single and not part of a pair like 44 other chromosomes. Hughes explains when there are mutations there is no need to recombine with matching chromosomes to compensate for the change.

Another factor has to do with mating. We won’t get into that here, guys. Let’s just be happy we’re not bound for extinction as soon as some of those wonky scientists were predicting a little while ago.

If you care to read about the study, here’s the link:

Monday, January 11, 2010

More Learning From Film

As I’ve said before, writers (particularly novelists) can learn much from film.

One of the latest to drive home that message for me is Michael Winterbottom’s 2001 release, “The Claim,” with screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” I say inspired by, because Boyce has been influenced primarily in theme rather than plot by Hardy’s classic.

The setting is the 1860s in a snow-covered wilderness in the California Sierras (it was actually filmed in Alberta, Canada, and Colorado). A wagonload of women arrive in the town of Kingdom Come, all but two of them prostitutes bound for a local bar/brothel owned by Lucia, a beautiful Portuguese woman. Drunks brawl over the younger of the other two women, Elena Burn and her daughter, Hope. They are rescued and escorted to the local hotel by Donald Dalglish, head of a railroad survey team which also has just arrived in town. Hope tells Dalglish they have come to see a wealthy relative.

The ‘relative’ is Daniel Dillon, lord of the town, who 20 years earlier had sold his wife and daughter for a rich gold claim. This is revealed to us in a flashback, the movie equivalent of back-story which can be equally effective or damning to a story. Boyce handles it deftly in this presentation. Elena Burn is dying and wants recompense for their daughter who doesn’t know Dillon is her father. Despite having achieved wealth, Dillon has been haunted by his secret. He doesn’t want to admit his sin to Hope but offers to “marry” Elena and try to make up for the past.

In order to make this change Dillon must disassociate from Lucia who has been his mistress. Since he doesn’t explain his actions and attempts to pay her for services rendered Lucia at first believes he has his eye on the younger Hope. She then tries to seduce Dalglish who has been building a relationship with Hope.

Notice how skillfully Boyce manages the conflict between characters and how each of them changes by the end of the film. There’s ample lesson just in this. The character who experiences the most change, of course, is Dillon who after Elena’s death does confess to Hope. Though she earlier voices forgiveness for an action by Dalglish she rejects her father’s plea for salvation. Distraught, Dillon destroys everything for which he had previously sacrificed his family.

It’s a remarkable film, one like we used to see from studios before they became obsessed with comic book super-heroes. Though he took a broad step away from his inspiration, I think even Hardy would have approved of what Boyce did with the theme of sacrifice for material gain. While they can’t be duplicated in print, there are some stunning cinematic moments in this film along with good acting, lovely (if cold) scenery and some beautiful music (especially the songs by Mila (Lucia) Jovovich).

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Fountain of Youth

An article in today’s New York Times comments on the growth of adventure tourism among the elderly

The poet Longfellow saw aging as a new phase of opportunity. Modern society too often views it as a time for neglect, disease and decline. The difference is solely one of attitude toward the process.

No one can deny age poses certain limitations. But the greatest of those are self-imposed.

It was Adler who first proposed civilization arose out of human physical limitations. In other words, man, despite his physical inferiority, gained superiority over the wild beasts by developing his intelligence—a capacity some in this century appear determined to relinquish.

George Bernard Shaw, a supreme example for any experiencing age defeatism, said men die of “…laziness, and want of conviction, and failure to make their lives worth living.” And, “…it was by meditating on Life (rather than death) that I gained the power to do miracles.”

That miracles of achievement are possible in spite of age has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history and, most particularly, by practitioners of the arts. Scientists probing the mystery of longevity among conductors, composers and other musicians have found some common denominators including a joyful and optimistic outlook, resolute purpose, regular exercise and consistent intellectual stimulation.

And that recipe isn’t restricted to musicians.

Jean Frederic Waldeck was in his late sixties when he began his exploration of Mayan sites in the wilds of Yucatan and doubted he had the physical stamina to resist the dangers, disease and privation to complete his work. Yet this extraordinary man lived to the ripe old age of 109 and was described by contemporaries in Paris as a vigorous and intellectual man, a charming conversationalist and an avid girl-watcher up to the day of his death.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of some of the most elegant prose ever penned in this country, began her crusade to save Florida’s Everglades when she was 80 and continued that fight and her literary efforts till she succumbed at the age of 101.

Actor-director Clint Eastwood, who will turn 80 in May, said in a recent interview he won’t retire because he learns something new everyday. “You want to do something? Just do it the best you can, whatever that is,” he said.

That’s good advice for any age, but especially for those of us on the far side of 45.

As the great Cervantes put it, “While there’s life there’s hope.”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Power of Imagination

My second oldest grandson can’t understand how I survived a childhood without television. Ethan thinks I was really deprived because we didn’t have TV until I was in high school.

There were many outdoor pursuits, of course. A major indoor solace at the time was reading and listening to radio, pursuits enjoyed then and now by many of my generation. Those who didn’t experience it can’t imagine how exciting it was to hurry home from school and tune in a favorite show or, at night, gather around the radio with family to listen to a popular program.

One of my favorites at the time was “I Love a Mystery,” which followed three adventurers, Jack, Doc and Reggie, as they went around the world fighting monsters and solving mysteries. I think it was one of the factors leading to my choice of writing genre. I was thrilled when my son found 57 episodes of the show available free on line: They may not be as great as I remembered, but I’m still listening.

We also went to a lot of movies, particularly the Saturday matinees where you got a feature and a serial.

That wasn’t the last time I went without TV, either. While living in Korea I made do again with reading, radio and film when not involved in other activities. And, when my own children were young, there was a long period when we had no TV. I couldn’t afford it at the time. They occasionally remind me and their children of those days. During that same period I also made a practice of reading stories and poetry to them after dinner—both to compensate for the lack of television and in hope it might inspire in them a love for reading. Since they do read when they have time I may have succeeded in the latter goal.

While Ethan might not agree I believe people who’ve grown up with television have been deprived of something we had. Reading and listening to radio requires more use of the imagination. A lack of imagination is a prime reason why there’s so much drivel on present-day TV. Reality shows? Don’t get me started.

As Conrad so aptly put it, “Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life.”

Shakespeare knew it even earlier:

“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”