Place Names Can Inspire Plots

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Sleepy Hollow in New York State is a real place that inspired a classic story. Chances are there is such a place in your backyard.

I know of a small piece of land in Massachusetts tucked under an overpass, adjunct to an off-ramp, adjacent to one of 13 villages in a township near Boston – that absolutely has the greatest name. Every time I pass it, I pledge to use it in a book. “Hemlock Gorge” was probably dreamed up by the Department of Parks & Recreation or maybe it was passed down in local history. Either way, it always conjures up images of mystery and finality. There’s something foreboding in the name, yet alluring – as good plots should be. The name hints of darkness and danger, secrecy and deception.

Of course this piece of property is just a bit of green public land along a charming river bed, but like “Alligator Alley,” “Lantern Lane,” or “Coyote Gulch,” I’m drawn to it.

Many years ago, on a cross-country excursion, we drove through a town named “Shell.” As I recall, the population was 3 or 13. We were told it was named for the Shell gasoline station located there. I see in online search, there’s a Shell, Wyoming.  That name supposedly comes from the fossil shell beds in the region. Could be the same place, different story.

I’ve always liked Gorda, on the Pacific Coast Highway, en route north to Big Sur. There was a time when the entire town could have been purchased by a single buyer. Now it is a destination site – in fact, a resort. I, however, always imagined myself ensconced in the cliffs of Gorda among the orange coreopsis, overlooking the ocean, awaking to the sound of surf … a temporary hermit, writing my great novel.

For those seeking a compelling setting, or even the spark that ignites a story, I suggest scouting your region for names of interest. Here on the East Coast, our pond and street names are rich in Algonquin language; on the West Coast, there is a distinct Spanish influence.

It’s easy to imagine peaceful native villages and survival plots when you hear names like “Popponesset” in Massachusetts or “Mooselookmeguntic” in Maine.

In California, bustling missions, rich in ornate religious artifacts, come to life among the agaves off El Camino Real when you hear names like “La Purisma” or “San Juan Capistrano.” One name that jumps out to me does so because it was such a surprise, tucked away in the dry landscape of Arizona. Tumacácori dates back to 1691 when Father Kino visited an O’odham village and established a mission there. If that doesn’t suggest dramatic possibilities, I’m not sure what would.

If nothing strikes your fancy, try combining names. Some years ago, I noticed a “Dead End” sign near a local church. I quickly wrote a poem called “Dead End Church,” but I could see it becoming more of a Cannery Row. (Thank you, Mr. Steinbeck)

As an exercise, think about the places that influenced your childhood. Chances are, you will recall some pet names created by friends. In my small town, we always had “The Knoll,” a space on someone’s farm that was great for sledding. For years I never knew exactly where it was located in the context of the community, but with a few shortcuts over rock walls and between apple orchards, we could find it.

Aside from the rough and rigorous names, there are other names that evoke a sense of peacefulness and calm. Take “Baby Beach” in Aruba or “Mother’s Dock” at a lake in New Hampshire. Don’t you just see a turn-of-the-century plot unfolding where women carry parasols and wear bouffant bustles?

So, as the New Year gets underway, let’s stroll away from Main Street and Elm, and go to far-off and exotic places – or nearby haunts that just sound that way.

What’s in a name? It could be your next plot.

The Non-Christmas Cactus — or The Art of Continuity

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Today, on the shortest day of the year, a soft snow is falling and the skies are as gray as my sweater. Our bird feeders, now on new hooks, have attracted a fresh invasion of feathered friends: woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches.

The holidays are upon us which means traditions are everywhere.  Old toys and ornaments… candles and song … costumes and centerpieces… are surfaced by families across the country. Handed-down recipes come to life in kitchens big and small, turning the air into a sweet and spicy cultural celebration that says ‘home’ in a U.N. of languages.

In the corner of our front room sits a “November Cactus,” a cactus that never learned it was supposed to bloom for Christmas, but rather, selects its moment of glory just before Thanksgiving.

Whenever I look at this now-woody plant – a plant that has since begotten many “children” that live on counter tops and kitchen tables far and wide – I think back to its origins. A close aunt had passed away unexpectedly, and my young son had joined me in cleaning out her apartment.

With most of the heavy lifting done, we turned to her window sill and saw a little Christmas cactus struggling in rock hard soil. It was stunted, misshapen and not particularly attractive, but just when I was about to toss it out, my son suggested we bring it home.

My thumb was never as green as my mother’s, but I’ve generally had good luck with plants, so we rescued it and repotted it. We put it outside under a tree in summer and brought it in before the frost. Shortly after, we saw pale white points appear at the ends of the succulent leaves that grew from the thick branches. Within days, the plant became a sea of light pink blossoms that dangled delicately, lasting a few weeks and then dropping, as our own special autumn, on the living room floor.

It really doesn’t matter that our cactus runs ahead of schedule. By holiday time, it’s fresh and green again and each year, it reminds me of my aunt.

The continuity of this cactus is not unlike what writers need to do in developing ideas and plot lines. There has to be a “constant.” It could be a premise, a quest, a catch phrase or gesture. It’s something that recurs and creates familiarity with the character or theme.

Continuity in writing, much like in cinema, has to be monitored closely.  A stubbly beard in one scene can’t suddenly be long in another. That limping gait so carefully described at the outset can’t carelessly be forgotten when the character breaks into a run.

Just like this cactus, continuity anchors us when writing. It’s a stake in the ground, a frame of reference. It gives us bearing and perspective.

Some writers keep careful notes to track character development lest they forget a small detail. Was that scar on his left hand or on his right wrist? Did the dog have three brown patches or four? Was the music playing before or after dinner on the night the crime was committed?

As our November cactus nears its 20th year, we pause to think of all that occurred during this fleeting expanse of time. Despite the ups and downs and unplanned changes, the joys and disappointments, the misadventures and the good adventures, this slightly confused but persistent cactus soldiered on and gave us a gift each year.

What nice assurance that all was right in our small corner of the world.

Let this post serve to wish you the comfort of continuity in the New Year — and a profusion of unexpected blooms.

The Little Shoe

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It might seem trite to say that every item has a story, but surely, some items have better stories to tell than others – and for a writer, this is a magnetic pull that wants to be drawn out.

So it is with a little shoe I found at an antique shop in Prescott, Arizona. Truth is, this isn’t a shoe but a wooden shoe mold, style 600, size 6 ½ E – most likely intended for toddler feet.

In that Prescott was a lively ranching and gambling town at the turn of the century, I sensed that this mold shaped shoes for the children of local farmers and homesteaders, shop keepers and adventurers– children who no doubt grew up being part of the nation’s historic fabric.

Prescott is home to “Whiskey Row,” the 100 Block of Montezuma Street that at one time, as I recall, boasted 18 saloons… establishments with names like the Bird Cage, Hooligan’s and Jersey Lilly. This shoe mold may not have been crafted there but perhaps transported from Lynn, MA, where the shoe industry began.

That’s another piece of history lost to most of us: Jan Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), invented the shoe-lasting machine which could produce 150 to 700 pair in a day. This innovation forever changed the industry and turned Lynn into the “shoe capital of the world.”

But I digress…

Regardless of origin, this little shoe carries mystery with it, and for writers, mystery means intrigue, and intrigue means good reading.

I’m currently using “concealment shoes” in a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 years. This is the kind of manuscript that’s complete in my head but requires a vacation by a lake or solid block of time to be typed out.

In this context, old shoes were sometimes entombed in Colonial homes to ward off evil spirits. Perhaps it was thought that they contained the essence of the people who wore them – a human quality that would surely scare away ectoplasmic intruders.

The point here is that we writers should be aware of our surroundings and nurture the ability to look at everyday things with a sense of curiosity.

An old door key is one item that stands out. Ditto for a letter from a soldier. A seashell can conjure up images of pirates landing on a beach; grandmother’s sewing kit brimming with jet buttons and souvenir needle cases from a World’s Fair certainly tells of another time; that gnarled piece of roadside metal might well have fallen from a space ship or a car wreck that changed someone’s life.

Imagination is the lifeblood of writers, and just as a ‘medium’ is said to be a conduit to ‘the other side,’ intriguing objects can be a path to a plotline.

My little shoe makes me think of a small grave on a grassy hillside where the Great Plains spread out to accommodate Conestoga wagons.  I see a tow-haired boy in patched overalls; I feel the dust in his throat and behind his neck. But I also hear the squeals of a little girl in gingham as she scampers after her siblings, unaware of a danger about to befall.

This little shoe suggests hearth and home; a hard life, simple joys… but perhaps it is just the beginning of a bigger story that tells of celebrity or crime. Perhaps it is literally “a first step.”  Who wore this shoe – and what ever happened to the other one?

Text Stop — The Need to Write

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I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny other than that it elevated texting to a basic need. Communication of course is essential to our well-being, but is not usually regarded with the same urgency as “rest stop.”

In thinking about this, though, maybe writing and communication are more necessary to human survival than might appear.

For people who write, words dance in our heads. Sometimes “they need to get out” – they need to be captured by pen or keystroke lest they vanish, lest we forget.

Once as a student, I woke from a compelling dream, and keeping pen and pad on my nightstand, forced myself to jot down notes before falling back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at my scribbles and saw they were gibberish. So much for the perfect plot line.

The need to write can be healthy in that it drives us to organize our thoughts, energizes us when we’re tired, pushes us to perfection, motivating us to add one more letter, one more line, paragraph, page — until it “feels right.”

Do you remember the movie Quills?  It was fairly disturbing, taking place in an insane asylum that housed the Marquis de Sade. While most of us associate him with other unsavory acts, this film focused on his obsession with writing as a protest against censorship and was a conveyance of mental imbalance. For him, writing was a compulsion, a therapy, a release. While I don’t recall too many details, I do remember leaving with the sense that writing was in fact, his “life blood.”

Sometimes the persona of “writer” makes us cranky as we watch others empowered with social media tools. OK, some are glib, informative and thought-provoking, but others are just plain self-serving, illiterate and nasty. To this end, we need to continually distinguish ourselves in skill, accuracy, and originality.

The ability to write serves different purposes. Sometimes we write because it’s necessary (“Jimmy, please write a thank you note to Grandma.”); sometimes we write to avoid face-to-face confrontation (“Susie, I’m sorry I stood you up the other night.”); writing gives us a voice (“Dear Sirs: The car you sold me is a lemon.”); writing conveys leadership. (“As my research findings show…”)

But what if writing is simply indulgent? I say, go for it! Sit on a bench in a meadow and pretend you’re in a Victorian Garden or on the high seas or in outer space. Writing helps us travel, imagine, age with wisdom or return to youth.

Yet writing isn’t all about emotion. This word-business can be lucrative, too. Sometimes aspiring writers forget that not everyone is an editor, English teacher, columnist or novelist. There are copywriters, speech writers, web writers, direct response writers, grant writers, medical writers, and technical writers to name a few. For any industry or profession, you will surely find writers who specialize in those topics and are gifted at generating vast volumes of content in a world that is hungry for it.

What about ghost writing? Could you do it? Not sure I could. I think I’d want to take credit for my work. (because — despite the gratification– it is work, especially when someone else is depending on it)

Sometimes the challenge of writing short is just as difficult as writing long. The 140 characters of a Tweet aren’t always enough to express a full thought, but then again, drafting a 400 page manuscript is not something most of us have time to do… so maybe how we write is a  matter of convenience, something we shape and format for the occasion.

I remember climbing into the cliff dwellings of Bandalier, an ancient Native American site in New Mexico, thinking that this need to write is wired into the human psyche.  There on the cave walls, ceilings, and rock sides are petroglyphs that tell the stories of long ago. There are tales of travel, symbols of strength, and a suggestion of seasons. Thanks to pictorial writing, history is alive here.  It envelops us, transports us, helps us understand– or in more modern terms, “it engages us.”  How ironic.  We act as if story telling were new.

Vignettes

I’ve been waiting for a brainstorm, a mental tidal wave, an epiphany that would inspire a brilliant blog, but the best I could conjure up was a series of vignettes.

In thinking about it, though, that isn’t so bad; it’s what writers do. We piece together snippets of information, insight and memories, crafting them into a patchwork of imagery and ideas. We weave together characters, stitch a sequence of events into a plot, trim the excess away as we edit, and with luck, roll out something creative.

blanketcroppedcwordsonthefly2013Vignettes can be discovered with observation, simply taking the time to notice the details, having the presence of mind to realize that what you are experiencing is special, something you can recall later and use when you need a nugget of authenticity.

Conversation in a clothing store:
I dawdled on the way home the other night, detouring to a chain store in hopes of finding some holiday gifts. I wanted to avoid the impending crowds sure to assemble in the weeks ahead. It was dinner time, and the store was quiet. While pondering sizes in the pajama aisle, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I whipped my head around, realizing a woman with a cart was trying to pass. I mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and pulled my cart closer so she could get by. But she tapped me again, this time harder, gesturing in a sweeping downward motion from my head to my toes. I realized she was mute, but her message was clear. She was complimenting me on my long coat, so I smiled and acknowledged with a thank you. I’m not sure if she could lip read, but it really wasn’t necessary. She nodded and moved on. We had enjoyed the nicest chat without a word spoken.

Twinkling in the twilight:
Rain was driving in, and like so many others, I was eager to get home for Thanksgiving. This was an unseasonably warm day with fog hanging in the streetlamps. Thanksgiving would be quiet this year, with only a few relatives in the area. Daylight was fading fast, and trees that had just been lush with orange leaves were now stark and bare. Facing a wall of oncoming traffic, I tried to focus on the yellow line but couldn’t help noticing a little shop off to my right. The door sign said “Florist and General Store.”  A few simple strands of white lights twinkled in the window and illuminated a hand-lettered sign… signs, actually… plural… posted to a pole. Each placard promoted a specialty item: cookies, honey, holiday greens… jam, fresh-baked bread… I thought it remarkable that the epitome of small town charm was alive and well, just feet away from a busy road.

Turkey Visitations
Wild turkeys come out of the woods at this time of the year. They had never visited before, then a few years ago, they started to appear. The first scouting troop consisted of 3 females and 4 young males, eventually increasing into a flock of twenty, gathering like clockwork in our backyard every morning. But it wasn’t until the weather changed to bitter cold, with the threat of snow predicted, that the toms came down as well, all pompous and puffed out with their tail feathers striking that familiar fan-like pose. They moved slowly, commanding respect. They “herded” the others and then finally, approached the seed. This morning, hearing a Bob Dylan retrospective on the radio… Subterranian Homesick Blues made me smile. Of course “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” You just need a turkey.

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Happy Thanksgiving everyone!