Harold Lloyd versus Snarf: Old Plots in New Settings

thundercats poster

“So, you know that episode of Thundercats I was finishing?” my husband asked one morning.

“Urnghuh? Um…sure,” I answered, my foggy tones conveying that no, I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. I wrestled my hair into order with a scrunci and tried to look awake.

“It had the same plot as that Harold Lloyd movie we watched yesterday.”

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That got my attention. “What?”

“Grandma’s Boy, the Harold Lloyd movie? It was the same as the Thundercats episode.”

For those of you not familiar with these two entities, Harold Lloyd was a famous comedic actor, known for a shy persona juxtaposed against daredevil stunts.

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CGI? What’s CGI?

His career stretched from the silent films in the 19teens all the way into the ‘talkie’ era.

IMDB sums up Grandma’s Boy:

“Always the mama’s boy, or in this case a grandma’s boy, Sonny joins a posse after a tramp accused of robbery and murder. He is unable to conquer his cowardice until Grandma tells him of his grandfather, also a coward, who overcame his fears with the help of a magic amulet. With new courage (and the charm), Sonny captures the fugitive and becomes the hero of the day.”

While I don’t imagine that the 1922 film was the first to use the idea of ‘the lucky charm that gives courage,’ it certainly wasn’t the last.

Enter a 1987 cartoon, in which a cat-lizard creature on Third Earth needs to save his more physically capable friends. He lacks courage until…you guessed it…he gains a ‘magical’ talisman. Which doesn’t end up being magical at all. Just like in Harold Lloyd’s film…

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Don’t mess with Snarf!

Of course the two stories are different. Different setting, characters, medium of presentation…but the bones of the story are the same.

The question, I think, is whether this is a failing in the stories.

I’d say, no.

Is it any surprise that ideas get reused? After all, in the wisdom literature of the Bible’s Old Testament the author acknowledges,

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

This was, oh, about 2,500 years ago…

I asked my husband the obvious question. “Which was better?”

He thought for a moment. “Thundercats.” *

Huh.

Writers, I find this encouraging. If your story idea isn’t exactly original, it doesn’t mean that it is unusable. A new voice might breathe new, exciting life into an old story.

Cat-lizards don’t seem to hurt either.

 

My conclusion: If you use an old theme, make sure you do it well!

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It would’ve been better if we were the stars, Wily Kat!

Has anyone else seen this same basic plot used elsewhere?

*My husband just gave me a hard time about ‘lying to my readers,’ so here is a disclaimer. All conversations are approximated. “Baby brain” ensures that I don’t actually remember things like words people say to me anymore. If I actually remember having a conversation pre-coffee, I count that as a win. 🙂

 

 

A View to a Query

Inspiration blog
Photo by Brodie Vissers, courtesy of Stocksnap

I’ve done it!

I’ve managed to produce a query letter that I don’t hate!

I’m not quite ready to admit to liking it, but I am ready to admit that it’s not too bad. (For a complete listing of acceptable emotional responses from my upbringing, see my post  Deepest Fears #2: Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene)

Hours of fretting over this miniscule 200 word piece produced nothing but a few scattered sentences with no connective tissue- dry bones on the valley floor. Lifeless. Useless.

Then came the moment of change. To use the word “miraculous” seems presumptuous, but it certainly feels like something came from nothing. I woke up this morning, and the words were there, all laid out and formatted perfectly in my head.

Unwilling to lose the moment, I grabbed an unused Christmas card off of the floor and the first writing utensil that I could find- a dull, red, colored pencil. (Ahem. I may not be the best housekeeper.)

Joy of joys, the words still made sense post-coffee. I’d done it!

Yes… I’d done it, but how? Where did the inspiration come from? What changed internally or externally that finally broke the block?

Is creative inspiration is just the resurfacing of bits of background knowledge that have stewed together long enough for the subconscious to make them into a new thought? Or is it something that can be tracked down manually, by following the right steps? Or is it different for each individual?

I think I traced the roots of my novel, but how the sources managed to inspire what I’ve written is still a mystery.

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Sometimes I doodle. Don’t worry, I explain it in the next part.

I had expressed my dislike for the James Bond franchise to my husband some time ago. On closer questioning, he discovered that the three films I had seen were what he would consider the worst of the bunch. The solution: watch them ALL with me. (This included the unofficial one Sean Connery did after he was retired from the role.)

Mix in the fact that I had just rediscovered my love of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries and had just begun reading aloud The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with my children and voila! I was visited by a dream detailing the climax of my story in vivid color. While it didn’t look a thing like the three sources I believe it sprang from, I can see little bits of influence from Bond, Christie, and even Lewis. (No, it doesn’t include anyone throwing killer hats. I wish…)

Of course a climactic scene does not a story make. The who’s and why’s and wherefore’s presented themselves as I let my mind wander while washing dishes.

The inspiration was just there without me seeking it out. I didn’t have to do any real work on the story until I started research.

In the end I don’t have any great thesis to present for why ideas come how and when they do.  I’m just grateful that they do, and for the chances I have to capture them before they slip away.

Now, if only I can stay on this ‘inspiration high’ and keep myself from picking my query apart again.  (Of course the word ‘problem’ in the second paragraph may not be the best word choice… hmm….)

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Writers, where do you find your inspiration? Is it more a process or a revelation? Do you work better within defined roles, or in open-ended situations?

Deepest Fears #2: Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dunkirk

We don’t often go to the movies. It just isn’t worth it- having to manage babysitting, scheduling, and the fact that most of the newer films just aren’t interesting enough to spend ten bucks a ticket on (just think how much chocolate that can buy!!!)

It takes something special to get us out the door and into a theater.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was one of those rare cases.

The story behind the movie caught my attention a year and a half ago. I began writing a story set in 1943, fairly confident that I knew World War 2 well enough that I would be able to flesh it out with just a little research.

Surprise! A 6 year war involving most of the world was a bit more complex than I remembered from highschool history. In particular, mentions of ‘the bracing defeat at Dunkirk’ kept appearing in my searches.

Dunkirk? What IS that- and what in the world do they mean by a bracing defeat?

I looked it up. I realized that if I didn’t know about this event, I knew nothing about the era I was trying to understand. The real research began…

For those of you who, like me, don’t know the significance of Dunkirk, I’ll try to summarize.

Hitler’s Germany, after a long period of threatening actions in Europe, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

And…the war stalled. Little actual fighting took place as the Allies waited behind France’s defensive Maginot Line. (This time period was nicknamed ‘the phoney war.’)

Months later, in the spring of 1940, Hitler made his move. The Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war,’ smashed the French and British defenses. The Allies were driven back, and back, and back. Finally, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force ended up marooned on Dunkirk beach, waiting for Hitler’s troops to capture or kill them, or for rescue to arrive from across the Channel- a miracle that would get them home.

This is the point of the story where the film begins.

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Without giving anything away, (though, if you know the history, you know the overall outcome,) here are a few of my impressions.

Rather than tracking the broad military strategies and leadership of the day, Nolan choose to follow a few of the ‘regular people’ of the conflict: young soldiers trying to survive, RAF pilots flying their Spitfires across the Channel, hoping to have enough fuel to be of some help to the troops and evacuation ships, and a civilian sailor doggedly facing challenges at sea as he heads across to help in the evacuation.  I liked this choice. Since I knew how the battle came out, following individual characters kept the suspense high as I wondered whether they would survive.

I haven’t really cared for dogfight scenes in other films; Dunkirk surprised me. The aerial scenes were well done- it was, as my husband said, the most successful attempt we’ve seen to put the audience into the cockpit. Of course, I also like Spitfires 🙂

The writing and dialogue impressed me. Having just watched a few movies with chronic over-explaining in them, (Revenge of the Sith…shudder,) the carefully placed words and silences gave the feeling of observing actual events rather than of sitting through a movie.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is also worth noting.  I didn’t find it musically interesting- it’s not the sort of thing I’d buy and listen to for fun. However, he used a variety of sounds to punctuate and accompany the action. In particular, a sound of a ticking clock in the background created a sense of urgency, of time slipping away.

On the negative side, the chronology of the film was somewhat confusing. The section of the film about the soldiers covered one week, the section about the boats one day, and the section about the planes one hour. Each of the sections was interspersed with the others so that the audience wasn’t away from one group of characters for too long, until the end when all of the threads came together. This was an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel that it was executed well. Some of the scenes became a bit repetitive since they had already happened in another timeline, and I was sometimes confused by what had happened and what would happen, as the timeline kept moving back and forth.

I’m not well versed enough in the uniforms and vehicles of the day to bring up critiques on misplaced or misapplied straps or webbing with any credibility- I’ll leave that to others. Overall I liked the ‘look’ of the film, though yes, I suppose the troops were still a little too clean, and their teeth were certainly too good for the era. 😀

SO, I’m giving Dunkirk my personal rating of 8 out of 10. (It’s a bit higher than it might be otherwise, because I like the era.) Chronologically confusing, it was still an interesting, well done ‘slice of history’ film, and worth the watch.

 

 

 

Deepest Fears #3: Whaddya Mean You Don’t Like My Protagonist?!

playground 1
Photo courtesy of Snapstock, by Adam Whitlock

Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.

My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.

My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.

My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.

I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.

‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?

I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.

After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.

The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others,  but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.

No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.

No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.

However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.

Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.

She’s too sweet.

Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.

And so on.

The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”

mama bear

WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!

When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…

Ah.

There was the problem.

I knew my characters backwards and forwards.

My readers didn’t.

I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be more clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.

From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.

First, things first. If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.

Second, no one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’

I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways.  Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!

A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.

Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )

Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?

 

 

 

 

Getting Away

Any guesses where I’ve been?

IMG_9339me and tree

This was supposed to be a year without a vacation. Suffice it to say, life has taken some twists and turns, some pleasant, and some challenging.

On the bright side, some of these challenges resulted in a trip to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California.

I had all sorts of pithy writing topics jotted down to blog about after our return.  Unfortunately, the effort of not destroying my children after spending over twenty-four hours in a van with them has left my intelligence at low ebb.*

INSTEAD, I thought I’d share some of the lovely photos my husband took on our journey. Maybe they’ll provide someone with some writing inspiration as my brain re-charges.

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First, we must get the quintessential Redwood cheesy tourist picture out of the way.

I wasn’t so much impressed at the girth of the tree, but that the tree was still alive. The damage that these beauties- the tallest living things on Earth- can take is astonishing.

I was also impressed that our rental made it through safely. Maybe grateful is a better word, as we weren’t planning to have to rent a vehicle. The person who decided to steal our back tires and rims the night before we were to go changed our mind. Sigh….

Back to beautiful nature.

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IMG_9474The kids had a good time looking for Ewoks in the forest. They were unsuccessful-those little fuzzballs are stealthy!

Still, they enjoyed the flowers and tree tunnels and trails through the warm, damp forest.

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And they laughed and cheered as they ran over plank bridges under hanging walls of millions of dripping green ferns.

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As far as they were concerned, the only downside was that all of the beautiful nature kept us away from the playground at the old school house we stayed in. (Nope, I did NOT make that up.) IMG_9447

It had been converted into a rental, large enough for our family, with the bonus of a playground and gym. Peaceful evenings on the swing set, watching the local horses and the doe and two fawns who joined their grazing every night, closed each day.

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I tried to ignore the fact that an abandoned school house sounded like a perfect setting for a horror story. Especially since the little history that the owners left us said that it was built on native sacred ground. And it had a moose head hanging just above our bed… Evil Dead, anybody? Sometimes an overactive imagination is a bad thing!

Thankfully the children didn’t have any similar worries- they kept asking when we could stay there again.

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Our time in Redwood went too quickly- here’s hoping we can hold on to some of the peace of that wood as we ease our way back into the day-to-day grind.

And, here’s hoping you’re finding your own beautiful, peaceful places to enjoy this summer!

* I exaggerate. The kids did quite well, considering the distance. 🙂

 

 

The Big Parade: A Silent Story

 

Big parade posterI must admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.

I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.

With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!

By the time I unwrapped The Big Parade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?

I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.

The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France, and the two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.

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While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers. I wonder how much time it took to distill the text to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing. Text that fit the situations would have to be chosen carefully, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…) However long it took, it was time well spent.

The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from imdb.com describes it very well.

“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.

The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.

Another nod to the skillful writing of the film- it manages to be anti-war without diminishing the courage and the sacrifice of those involved. I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!

Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?

 

My Panic Prologue: How I Mangled My Novel’s Beginning Several Times

 

LimeLanePhotography_howto
Picture from Lime Lane Photography

 

Start in the action.”

I stared at the screen, my confidence plummeting.

My past experience teaching creative writing to elementary school students only went so far when attempting to write a novel, so I’d been brushing up my writing craft.

As you may have guessed from the title of my site, my time is not my own. It’s not easy to squeeze self-education in between meals, and snacks, and potty runs, and grocery runs, and play time, and Band-Aid applications, and stories and… more coffee, please!

My writer friends put me on to some very helpful articles, which I studied each evening while waiting for my middle child to finally give in and sleep. (What is it about bed time that shrinks a child’s bladder to something that can only stay unrelieved for five minutes?)

This article worried me, and it wasn’t alone in giving this sort of advice.

Start in the action. Start conflict right away. Hook your readers at once, or they’ll leave! No backstory!

I mentally sifted through my manuscript, and cringed. The action was there, eventually. but the first chapter…well, in the first chapter my MC has been invalided to northern England, effectively removed from the ‘action.’ This worked for the story, at least, I had thought it did.

But was there enough action?

Great. I’ve blown the beginning. I am submitting this thing to a contest I’ve paid for in a month, AND I HAVE NO BEGINNING!!!

I pummeled my brain for ideas, looking for SOMETHING that I could do to liven things up. Something that would make sense…

AH! The main conflict revolves around an undiscovered murder, committed four years previously.

I’ll write a prologue! With action!!!

I gave it a go, sat back and considered. It wasn’t too bad… though it did worry me that the characters involved wouldn’t become relevant again until much later in the story. Also, the murder was one of my bigger ‘reveals’…that was gone now.

But the articles SAID action…

I kept it.

It wasn’t until after I’d submitted that I read my first writing advice on prologues, how they’re generally frowned upon for first-time authors, and it’s safest not to attempt them.

Oh dear.

 

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But it SEEMED like a good idea…

 

The contest judges said essentially the same thing. Their response reminded me of myself, trying to kindly critique a students’ work. “Hmmm…I can see what you tried to do here…”

Long story short(ish), the prologue disappeared, and I tried some other beginnings, one of which involved a character waking up. Guess what else was on the list of things to avoid in your story if you’re a first time author?

In the end, I haven’t tried to add any crazy action scenes to the beginning of my current (final?) draft. They wouldn’t make sense. I tightened up the story, slimmed down the backstory as much as possible, and went with, essentially, a leaner, meaner version of the beginning I started with- which DOES have action, incidentally. It’s just that most of the conflict at the beginning is internal. I just panicked from reading too much advice and couldn’t see it.

My advice to those struggling with the beginning of your story is STAY CALM! There are many ways to add action and hook readers! Find good advice, but don’t forget the value of your gut instincts, or the feedback of other readers who are experiencing your story as the author of the article that is terrifying you hasn’t.

I’m confident that this new/old beginning is the best start for my story. Hopefully the people who will soon be clamoring to publish it (hey, dream big!) will agree…

Just for fun, I’ve included a slimmed-down version of my deleted prologue below, a deleted scene, if you will.

I’m happy with the fact that it is no longer part of the finished product, but hey, I spent enough time worrying over the thing. May as well print it somewhere…

PROLOGUE

France: May, 1940

            “Are you all right, sir?”

“Yes, of course.” The captain lied, and finished wrapping the bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. “Phillips, get the rest of these men back behind the new lines. There’s no use waiting around any longer.” The statement was punctuated by distant reverberations that could almost be mistaken for thunder, and brilliant flashes on the dark skyline.

“Aren’t you coming along?” Henry Phillips glanced over his shoulder. The rumbles of the tanks and artillery weren’t an immediate threat, but his foot hovered anxiously over the lorry’s accelerator.

“I’ve got to go back.”

“Captain, you don’t even know…”

“That’s the problem. I don’t know. No one’s accounted for him, he wasn’t with his company, and I can’t just leave. Not until I’m certain.”

“But the retreat’s been called, you’ll be going alone. Shouldn’t I…”

The captain clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Henry, for the lift.  Get yourself safe, and God willing… In any case, I’ll, or we’ll, follow quickly, never fear.”

“Yes, sir.” Phillips hesitated a moment as the captain vaulted down, then added, “And good luck.” He was rewarded with a wave, then quickly put the lorry back into gear. With a roar of the engine and a spin of tires, he was gone.

The captain set a brisk pace in the opposite direction, towards the positions they had lately abandoned. He loped along through the night, surefooted on the uneven dirt track, breathing deeply, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm. The May air was cool and smelled of damp green countryside, laced with petrol and cordite and acrid smoke.

The dark effectively disguised the wounds on the land, but as he reached the first buildings there was light enough from the fires to distinguish the piles of rubble, broken machinery and spent shells. The French and British Allied defenses at the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line were broken, and the brief success of their counter attack could only buy them a little more time before they were overwhelmed.

The rumble of artillery was growing louder.

           Better hurry.

He navigated the shadowy streets, unchallenged. He’d waited until the very end, until everyone that he was responsible for was out.

Almost everyone, anyway. In spite of everything, I can’t just leave him behind.

            He paused, catching his breath and trying to think. Where would he be? There was that house where I saw him the other day… He changed course, searching about for familiar shapes in the flickering shadows. Down one side street, one more alley-

There.

He called out, and the figure turned towards him. He felt a surge of relief as he recognized the other man’s face. The feeling was quickly supplanted by irritation, tinged with fear as he heard another shell impact. Too close…

“Thank God I’ve found you. What are you still doing here? You need to get back to your company at once. This is irresponsible, even for you. I ought to… ” Another shell, blast followed by the rattle of shrapnel and rock flung up from its impact. “Never mind- we need to move. C’mon…” he reached for the other’s arm, then froze.

The dim light glinted off of the barrel of the Luger, leveled at his chest.

“What…?” The captain never had opportunity to complete the thought.

 

 

 

Up Front by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War

Bill Mauldin

Thus far I’ve lived a quiet life, and I’m thankful for it.

Of course there have been sorrows and troubles, and ongoing struggles that may not end this side of heaven, but once I started studying history again, I quickly remembered to be grateful for these. At least my family has a home. At least my loved ones can get medical care. At least I’m not wondering where my next meal is coming from. At least…

However, living a quiet life and writing about unquiet times proved a challenge. If I were going to try to portray a difficult time- for instance life in the slit trenches and foxholes of the 1940s- how was I to do it well?

I focused on finding books and sources written by people who lived through the conflict. I devoured first-hand accounts, and books which used first hand accounts as sources.

My husband encouraged me to pick up some fiction again in the midst of this when the heavy topics made me gloomy. He also gifted me one of my favorite books from this era, Up Front by Bill Mauldin.

Published in 1945, Up Front isn’t exactly a history book. Bill Mauldin was a cartoonist for the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes. This book is a compilation of his comics, narrated by the author. It almost reads like an interview, written in first person and giving his perspective on the time.

As far as his comics, Mr. Mauldin says:

“I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think about it.”  (pgs. 7-8)

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He doesn’t paint war as clean and shiny with everyone behaving properly, (i.e. these aren’t comics for the kids! The text of the book isn’t either for that matter) but he doesn’t paint a bitter picture either. Mr. Mauldin focuses on the people, the camaraderie, the respect, (or lack of) they show each other, fear and courage and small acts of kindness.

‘Joe’ and ‘Willy,’ two scruffy infantry ‘dogfaces,’ are the stars of Mauldin’s comics. The book follows their progress, (though not exactly chronologically,) from the muddy mountain slopes of Italy, to the embattled Anzio beachhead, up to Rome, then over to France.

His comics and views of the war weren’t always popular. General George S. Patton’s hated Mauldin’s cartoons. The ‘spit and polish’ general objected to Mauldin’s portrayal of tired, sloppy soldiers, and to jokes at the officers’ expense. Mauldin himself admitted that he liked to poke some fun at the ‘brass.’ However, he qualified this tendency.

“Not all colonels and generals and lieutenants are good. While the army is pretty efficient about making and breaking good and bad people, no organization of eight million is going to be perfect.” (pg.16)

“I never worry about hurting the feelings of the good officers when I draw officer cartoons. I build a shoe, and if somebody wants to put it on and loudly announce that it fits, that’s his own affair.” (pg. 180)

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While he may have stirred up a little fuss with some of these comics, in the end, Mr. Mauldin’s hope for his characters was for them to find their own quiet life. A hope for peace.

“I’ve been asked if I have a postwar plan for Joe and Willie. I do. Because Joe and Willie are very tired of the war they have been fighting for almost two years, I hope to take them home when it is over. While their buddies are readjusting themselves and trying to learn to be civilians again, Joe and Willie are going to do the same. While their buddies are trying to drown out the war in the far corner of a bar, Joe and Willie are going to drink with them. If their buddies find their girls have married somebody else, and if they have a hard time getting jobs back, and if they run into difficulties in their new, strange life of a free citizen, then Joe and Willie are going to do the same. And if they finally get settled and drop slowly into the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a houseful of kids, Joe and Willie will be happy to settle down too.

They might even shave and become respectable.”  (pgs. 17-18)

It takes a gifted writer, and in this case cartoonist, to find real smiles in the middle of terrible situations. For those who appreciate this gift, those who are interested in this period of history, or those who just want to appreciate their quiet lives a bit more, Up Front is an excellent choice.

 

Purple Hedgehogs Can Be Villains Too

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Is THIS the face of a super villain?

I’ve just completed my annual collaborative writing project!

For the past five years, my children and I have assembled a comic book to present to their Daddy for Father’s Day. They are the stars, acting as themselves and their alter egos, “The Super Kids!”

It’s been a journey. This started with one little 3 year old who improvised a superhero costume and stood where I told her as I took photos of her and the baby and used Publisher to add some speech bubbles.   This year’s production included pictures taken ‘on location’ at a local park, and all three heroes:  Gargantu-Baby, Skater Girl and Skunky.

As my kids have grown, so have their opinions, and their desire to direct the production. I try to keep it moving in plausible directions, (No, honey, we can’t actually have you fly,) but they do most of the creative work.

And it IS creative…

I wouldn’t have thought of a small stuffed rabbit being a ninja in disguise who secretly tries to trap us.

I would NEVER have thought of a giant, purple, spike-shooting hedgehog as a villain.

Nor would I have named my son “Skunky” and given him the power of shooting skunks out of his hands.

Part of the joy of the process is the adventure of seeing what will happen when imaginations run wild.

I think that this is applicable to writing in general.

Creativity can be a scary thing as we leave childhood. It means taking risks. It may mean writing outside of our comfort zones (as in my last post!)

It’s easy to get caught up in thoughts like, “this is what my genre demands!” or “this is what agents want” or “that article said that the way I started my story is all rubbish! It’s OVER!!!!”

I’m NOT suggesting that all writing advice be thrown out. Still, I’ve found that becoming too fixated on ‘the rules’ rather than on the joy of creating a story can be crippling.

Writing would be much more fun if I approached it like my kids do. Just tell a story. Think of a fun plot, and go for it, even if it’s unconventional. Try a crazy idea, even if it’s not currently popular.

The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work, we had some fun, and we can move on to something else.

And, if all else fails, just ask a 5 to 7 year old for help. They have PLENTY of ideas.

Deepest Fears #2: Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene

wedding photoI do not come from an emotive people.

I’m a Midwesterner by birth. The joke goes that there are three standard responses in our conversations.

#1: “That’s not too bad.” This is suitable for any event from neutral to amazingly super awesome.

#2: “That’s not too good.” This choice works for anything from a minor inconvenience to tragedy.

If choices 1 and 2 just won’t do, the fall back is choice #3: “That’s different.”

Take that and apply it to romance…well, an old Ole and Lena joke comes to mind. (Best read in a thick Minnesota accent.)

Ole comes into the house to find Lena crying.

“Lena, what’s da matter?”

“Oh Ole,” she answers, wiping her eyes. “It’s just…”

“Yes?”

“Ole, you never tell me you love me.”

Ole walks over, and pats her on the shoulder. “Aw, Lena. I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If something had changed…I would’ve let you know.”

Ba doom, Ching!

It’s not that my husband and I are not affectionate, and it’s possible that we might be overheard using the “L” word, but we don’t generally gush poetry as we gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

That much emotion, publicly expressed, is just not comfortable.

In the setting of a novel, I’ll admit it, a bit of romance is ‘not too bad.’ Still, even getting a book out of the library with a cover that clearly indicates “THIS IS A LOVE STORY” makes me squirmy. Thank goodness for self-checkout…

Unfortunately, the catalyst that gets the murder and mayhem in my novel moving is (you guessed it) a romantic interest. If I wanted to write my book, I had to write convincing romantic-ish scenes. That other people would read. Riiiiiiiiight.

I steeled myself. It couldn’t be that bad.

The first draft was…ok. I felt like some of it was heavy-handed, but I didn’t know how to make it better, and it sounded kind of like some things I’d read, so I went with it.

After substantial polishing, I entered the novel in a writing contest.

Guess what? I should have followed my instincts. They thought it was heavy-handed too. I got called out on the same bits that I hadn’t been entirely comfortable with in the first place.

Back to the drawing board.

With feedback from the contest and considerable editing, I found a few tricks that helped ease my discomfort, and (hopefully) improved the finished work.

First, I hacked and slashed unnecessary dialogue. Anything that didn’t sound like real life or made me squirm WENT AWAY, and I discovered that the story didn’t lose any clarity for it. Allowing characters emotions etc. to be implied rather than stated strengthened those scenes and helped the story move along.

Second, I changed points of view. Rather than using the ‘love interests’ to narrate, I shifted POV to my antagonist whenever possible. He’s really my most interesting character, and his observations kept things from getting sugary while still letting the reader know the essentials.

Third, I strengthened the characters. I knew the characters I was writing well enough to know exactly why they would end up together; I needed to show those traits in my writing and let things happen naturally.

Have I mastered the dreaded romantic scene?

HA! Nope. Plenty of authors handle that much better than I. BUT, I think I can safely say that I’ve come up with a story that fits my voice better than my first attempts, and something that I can hand off for others to read with greater confidence.

What do you like to see in a good love scene? Any tips, writers or readers?