Innocence Found: Purcell Park and Came to Believe

It’s no secret that Stephen King is one of my biggest influences, so I suppose it’s appropriate that he’s made me re-think things. I follow King on Twitter and have been enjoying his tweets about Molly, aka the Thing of Evil. They’ve been great as a fan and, more importantly as an author, in that they made me re-assess my interactions with current and potential readers.

Looking back, this site suffers from the lack of a personal touch. In those rare times where I’ve put the focus on something other than my fiction or the act of writing itself, it’s been to talk about myself in relation to the craft. This includes writing about influences, detailing personal development within the craft itself, and other writing-related topics. I’ve kept you at arms length. Now I’ve never been a “look at me” kind of person, owing to some negative early experiences, and I tend to think that stories should speak for themselves, but I also like to get glimpses into some of my favorite authors’ lives. So, I figured, why not open up a bit, share some things, especially when they intersect with my fiction?

You can expect a blend of slice-of-life and status posts, but I also want to talk about the sights and scenery of the Shenandoah Valley, especially as they relate to locations in Came to Believe and the other forthcoming books in the series. This is not so removed from my personal life as it first appears, as I grew up in the Valley and feel much of its history in my bones; I didn’t appreciate the place growing up, but these days it’s clear just how much it’s shaped and informed my worldview, for better or worse.

This week we’ll start with the very first scene of Came to Believe.

“I said, ‘where are we’?” Her voice had gotten a little higher this time, with a hint of panic at the edges.

 

Answer her, his weak side urged, but still he said nothing. He switched off the headlights and slowed to a crawl, studying the houses that lined the street. The neighborhood backed up to Purcell Park, with its towering oaks, baseball diamonds, and jungle gyms. The park was his destination, and while it might seem suspect to take a teenaged hooker there for business, he had few remaining options for such an encounter.

Here we meet Dean Rohrer, a dentist with a penchant for prostitutes who is taking what is to be his last “pleasure cruise” into Purcell Park, a sprawling blend of multi-purpose fields, picnic shelters, and playgrounds located near the heart of Harrisonburg, Virginia. The park opened in 1954 and is home to a “Kid’s Castle” that was installed sometime in the 80s and was likely part of the reason I went there so often, typically as part of group outings.

Purcell

My memories of these outings are somewhat hazy, though they often involved picnics, baseball, and, of course, said Kids Castle. There may also have been a girl involved, but that memory is hazy at best.

Kids_Castle

I can’t speak for other kids who used that Castle, but it sure put the fear of tight spaces into my heart. I was never a small kid, in weight or height, so it was always a snug fit at best, “age-appropriate clearance” or not. As a result, I didn’t spend a ton of time in the castle itself. My time was better spent roaming through the emptier back fields and trails, stopping for a softball game here or a baseball game there; mostly, however, I wanted to soak in the isolation of the place. What can I say? I was an only child and used to solitude. I loved to break away from the group and wander through the empty spaces.

This sense of solitude and peace, more than anything else, is what drove me to select Purcell for the book. Sure, I could have gone with Hillandale Park, where I was offered my first cigarettes and most definitely had an encounter or two with a girl, but therein lie the problem: I had imbued the place with such a sense of sleaze over the years that it felt too obvious, too dangerous. I preferred the idea of him “corrupting” a location, as it would also offer the opportunity to “redeem” it in the future.

Ultimately, this is all subjective and down to my personal experience. I’m sure a lot of people had quite different experiences with the park in question, but I needed to operate on this level to get the appropriate emotional tone.

As a footnote, I revisited the place during the early drafting stages. As always, everything looked smaller, especially that Castle, but the memories came flooding back. I was also dismayed to see that things had decayed quite a bit, but there’s a revival underway for the place, which warms my heart. So much of Harrisonburg’s history is vanishing in the name of progress that it’s good to see some preservation efforts. Let’s hope it’s enough.

kidscastle2

Oh, one more thing before I go. On November 7th, I’ll be participating in the Extra Life gaming marathon to raise money for the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, and your donations are greatly appreciated. I plan to stream at least some of the marathon, where applicable, at http://www.twitch.tv/workingdogv1. I’ll be posting a schedule in the coming days. In the meantime, I’d be ever so grateful if you’re able to donate to the cause. Even $1 will help. You can donate by going to my Extra Life page. If you’re interested in participating, I can also answer any questions you might have and point you in the right direction. Thanks in advance to everyone who helps to make this event a successful one.

Next week I’ll talk a little about Halloween in the Shenandoah Valley; specifically, what that was like when I was growing up. Hope to see you then.

Emerging From The Writer Cave

Hello one and all, I return from my Writer Cave bearing good news. I know, I know, not the first time returning, nor will it be the last, I’m sure. Blame it on an overwhelming drive to finish up this novel in the face of more than two years of work. But hey, at least I’m in the closing stages of Came to Believe! Well, the last few chapters of what is ostensibly the final draft, anyway. A few more steps to go through after that, but I’ll talk more about that on Friday.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: I have a plan for this space now.

Now, don’t expect to see content as ambitious as what I’ve posted in the past. I’ve shifted priorities to focus on quality in my novels, which is rather intensive and eats up a lot of writing time, which means daily posts are just not possible. It’s sad and frustrating, but it’s reality. And at least I do have a reliable process now, after five years of searching. One of the biggest lessons of the last ten months or so has to been to trust this process and understand that it will ultimately provide, even if it seems at times to be magic. Again, I’ll talk about this more in the near future.

My current goal for this space is to provide a “home base” of sorts for my efforts, both writing and marketing. At the moment, this means a weekly post focusing on the major themes of what is beginning to look like a series. This series revolves around the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and, more specifically, the city of Harrisonburg and towns of Dayton and Bridgewater, though other towns are represented. It’s an area that is undergoing a transformation from rural stronghold to metropolitan region, all driven by an influx of student loan money. It’s a rich vein to mine, with lots of ephemera that only shows up on the sidelines in the books but could be expanded upon with the proper time and care. That’s what I want to bring you in the weekly posts.

 

CoveredBridge15

You can also expect a bi-weekly update on the status of my latest works and talking about my overall writing, pitching, and marketing process. These will be quicker entries, just a few hundred words to get you up-to-date.

In the meantime, I’ll also be updating my Facebook Author Page, Pinterest boards, Tsu page, and Twitter with relevant content; for example, you may see me talking about Halloween in the Shenandoah Valley here and sharing some photography from past and present Valley Halloweens over on Pinterest, all while talking about this year’s festivities on the Facebook author page.

It should be an interesting adventure, and I hope you stick around for it. More in the near future.

 

 

Tied to the Tracks: Leading with Peril

First off, apologies for not having an entry yesterday. I’ve been sick the past few days and am only starting to climb my way out of it.

But that’s not today’s topic. Today’s topic is Leading with Peril. Now what do I mean by that? Well, when you start off your story – novel – screenplay, what have you, you want the story to grab the reader by the lapels and really shake them around. It should say “hey, this is important!”. God forbid you lead off with an internal monologue or a “weather” beginning.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with a “weather” beginning (though it’s quite a cliche by this point), it begins by describing the weather that a character is experiencing, something of which I’ve definitely been guilty. I’ve also been guilty of the internal monologue beginning. I mean, hell, the book that I was trying to sell – the one that may indeed still sell – starts with an internal monologue. The rewrite does not. The rewrite follows the principle of leading with peril.

But let’s look at an example from my own past to establish just what I’m talking about (from the second draft of my own long-abandoned novel, Jazshael):

The congested I-81 corridor from Northwestern Virginiais more than just a thoroughfare; it is a means to transport a traveler into a land of carmine autumn mountainsides, spacious verdant fields, and unresolved dichotomy. The unsuspecting traveler to the Shenandoah Valley moves from a place where a rural sensibility informs the outliers of a metropolitan area to an insular, unique land, where a BMW may find itself stuck in a no-passing lane behind a black horse and carriage, where drunken frat boys from that metropolis rub shoulders in sparse, redneck bars with mountain men just come down from ancient familial perches in the Blue Ridge. It is a place where the citizenry would fly both a Confederate Flag and an American Flag and see no contradiction, so long as some know-it-all from the city didn’t think to comment. The average tourist may remain unaware of the nature of the land, but those who have lived there know it, and feel it in their pores for the remainder of their lives.

It’s a travelogue, basically. I’m sure it would work just fine as a travel book, but as the beginning of a novel, it’s pretty damn weak, even if I do think the writing itself is fairly strong.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean that the character has to be in danger right from the outset. That will get a reader’s attention, but what if you’re writing a book where the character is not in physical danger at any point? I’ve read in a few places that the danger you present may be emotional. Or a career danger, or a mental danger. So that gives you some possibilities. You could lead off with the end of a relationship, or the threat of ending a relationship. Or having a job threatened.

I mean, stories are, at their core, about conflict – conflict that changes characters. If you can lead your story off with a conflict that’s even remotely related to the main plot, it’s a really good start. As I’ve become more selective about what I read, I’ve definitely noticed that the poor, slow starts always turn me off. I always sit there wondering when it will get going. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that sometimes literary works are slower burns.

But there is a way to make a literary novel also start with this peril. Like I said, it’s about identifying an immediate danger to the character – even a literary novel has some sort of conflict, and that’s what you need to be focusing on. For instance, one of the novels that I wrote once upon a time was about a young man who moved to join an artists commune in Northern California in the early 70s. It was intended as a deconstruction of the end of the Hippie Era and the end of the 60s in general.

The prime conflict within the story was that this guy wanted to become the best artist he could possibly be while living within his own ideals – more beatnik than hippie in nature. But within this commune there were rules about collective bargaining; now that I know a little more about the world, the plot is fairly ludicrous, but give me a break, I was 19 when I started it. Anyway, the rule was that it was okay to sell your works, but no agents. Dissatisfied, a group of artists broke off and made a deal to produce counterfeit art with this man who claimed to be a great agent and would eventually get them big gallery shows (which he did deliver upon).

There was also a subplot involving him falling in love with a woman who already had an abusive boyfriend who tries to kill her, but they end up killing him and running off to Mexico. It was all very melodramatic, but I was trying to wrap an artistic approach around that. Obviously I didn’t feel it worked, because I never sold the book, but I learned a lot. The reason I mention this book, however, is that I recall the opening to this book:

But that was after.

Before, it was a hot July day. Before, I was dealing with one of those days I’ve always hated, when nature wants you to soak you in your own juices. Before, I hadn’t met Norm.

Wait. Let me back up and tell you a little about Norm Lavoy.

Of all the bastards I’d seen come and go, Norm was the most significant of them all. When Norm was a kid, he kept live rats in his basement. His mom would tell him to kill them, he’d put them in a box. Norm would tell you to fuck off, then hug you like you grew up together and were just boys.

And now (or rather, then), I stood before Norm’s apartment door having never met the guy, knowing only of him through second-hand anecdotes of one of his stoner friends. My stomach was tight in my throat, my heartbeat in time to agitated thought behind my eyes. Those thoughts weren’t that important, but they involved some variations of him laughing his ass off at me, followed by homelessness, followed by hobosex in the back of a Jack in the Box at 3 AM in exchange for some trashed burgers. They weren’t that important. I knocked once, a quick tap.

That’s right, hobosex.

The only answer to my knock was machine-gun-fire barking. I imagined a gnarled dog hunkered down in some World War I trench, firing off barking rounds to protect its position from the encroaching cat army. Then…ah, yes, it paused, peering over the trench to see if the enemy was still there. I heard footsteps behind the door.

Then the doggy soldier unloaded another fusillade as it dove, ass-first, back into the trench.

This bit of a mind-movie, amusing as it was, was interrupted by a thump against the door and the quieting, but not ceasing, of the dog’s volleys.

Actually not as bad as I had once thought, but the second paragraph describes the weather, and there’s not much hint of a conflict here, and it doesn’t get much better over the ensuing pages. We just meet Norm and his jail-bait girlfriend. But keep in mind what you see above is the fourth draft. In the original draft, we followed him in agonizing detail as he walked from his car to that front door. It was a slow, plodding affair, because I had been reading a lot of literary works at the time and wanted to emulate that style. It was a very Kerouac-influenced book.

If I were to rewrite this today, I would likely start with him wondering what the hell he’s done signing this agreement with this “agent” and then work backwards from there to show him arriving while cutting out the extraneous details. At the time, though, I felt that I needed to show as many of the opening events as possible. Now, of course, I’ve realized that you can shorthand a lot of stuff.

I mean, that’s just one example of how you can do it. Look at the key point in your story and how you can harness some of that to get the story going. Some books I’ve read say that beginnings of novels are actually easier than endings and I’m inclined to agree. Now that I’ve actually learned the secret to creating a good beginning, I don’t have much trouble with it. Here are a few off-the-cuff examples that I’ve come up with, and there are loads more that can serve as spurs for writing:

  • Mark wanted to understand why he was a marked man, but the gun in his back was a more immediate concern.
  • She’d always suspected there was something unusual about her dog. The bones in the kitchen just proved it.
  • It’s not every morning you awaken in another world, but today just happened to be that kind of day.

And on and on. You get those, and you can sit down and think about which ones really work for you. Sometimes I think it’s good practice to just write these intros and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the character saying or observing this?
  • What is the situation all about?

From that you can get solid story ideas and proceed onward.

Again, leading with peril. Leading with conflict. We’ll talk about endings tomorrow.

Today’s featured blog is Middle of the Road Reviews, which I think really tries to present a balanced perspective on book reviews. They’ve created their own rating system, and also offer reviews for parents so they know what they’re getting into. Check it out!