Tick Tock

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...

I’ve come across a wonderful contradiction built into technology, which sends us back unexpectedly to a much earlier time.

I recently had a conversation with a friend. He’s 22 and when I told him I’d just received a wrist watch as a gift he looked at me blankly, so I raised my wrist to show him.

“Oh,” he said, “I’ve never owned one.” He waggled his iPhone at me. “My friends and I all use this.” He tapped the front of his phone and the time popped up.

“What, all of you?”

“Yeah,” he said, “none of us have watches.”

I found this so startling I couldn’t drop it. “But you have to take it out of your pocket and hold it in your hand to check the time. Isn’t that inconvenient?”

He grinned and shrugged. Clearly it didn’t matter. Or the phone never left his hand. Or it hadn’t occurred to him because he’d never done it any other way.

Doesn’t that seem like a giant step backwards in time (no pun intended)?

Pocket watches required a hand to operate, too. You’d take the watch and chain out of your pocket, or lift it from where it dangled on your vest or blouse to check the time, which removed that hand from effective use for anything else. In fact, early wrist watches were popularized in the 1920s by a French sportsman who needed both hands free to operate (I kid you not) his hot air balloon.

Wrist watches  mark a significant milestone like high school graduation or bar mitzvah, not simply because they mark time–which is the essence of accomplishment–but because their daily usefulness and long life are continual reminders of the occasion. They’re built for permanence, symbolic of the giver’s lasting affection.

I still have the gold wristwatch my parents bought me when I passed a sort of pre-college examination called the Eleven-Plus. I’ve taken care of it over the years, have replaced the band and the crystal after a mishap and still wear it occasionally. Every time I see it I’m reminded that my mom and dad presented me with the watch the night before the exam results were posted, touching evidence of their faith in me.

Smart phones don’t have that kind of permanence built into them; in fact their 18-month replacement cycle is the price we pay for having the latest and best technology available. I guess you could frame one and hang it on the wall as a souvenir of the giver and the occasion, but a reminder of useless and superannuated technology doesn’t have the same emotional resonance or symbolic meaning somehow.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

I wonder if we’re about to see the re-emergence of street clocks? You still see them occasionally in older downtowns. Back in the day (and I mean really back), large up-market stores and banks erected big clocks on the front of their buildings or on the sidewalk outside so people who had their hands full of purchases or briefcase and such could see the time without having to dig in their pockets for their watches.

Maybe watch chains will make a come-back, too. Pocket watches used to be attached to gold or silver chains which were then attached via a toggle to the owner’s clothing. They saved the watch from hitting the floor if it was dropped, prevented a pick-pocket from stealing it and—through pretty fobs and charms—acted as jewelry.  Given that an iPhone is also threatened with all these things, maybe we’ll soon be seeing the re-emergence of gold chains for them, too.

I love my new wristwatch because it looks sleek and it tells the time and it is a reminder of someone I love.

And smart phones are great, too. Setting aside the problem of what to buy your graduate, I’m now completely enamored of a piece of 21st century technology that throws us back in time to the 19th century.

Note to self:  Remember to make sure Millennial characters are wristwatch free.

Original Sin

It’s difficult  to come up with a completely original idea. I have some faint recollection of Aristotle and Jasper Fforde saying much the same thing, in their different ways and in different millennia, which may prove the point.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, time and again, I’ll be reading some other writer’s book and come across a twist or bit of business that I’ve recently put into one of my stories. It’s been happening so often that I’m starting to worry about mind melds and ESP.

Sometimes it’s something small, like someone crying by a fountain when I’ve written my heroine crying by a fountain.  No big deal; I can just move her, although I’ve done some nice work describing the way her dress was getting wet which I’ll have to cut if I move her across the street. Oh, the heck with it, there are a lot of fountains in the world, I’ll just assume my girl is standing next to a different fountain and leave it at that. After all, she has to be standing next to something, and it might as well be a fountain as not. And in any case I need the sound of the water to cover the sound of her sobs and I like the metaphor of the falling water as her tears. Okay, the fountain stays.

At other times it’s a more significant duplication, like a book’s heroine who does the same work as my girl at the same kind of work place when I was hoping to give my reader an unusual experience.  Once it was a character who is not only similar in appearance to one of mine but shares the idiosyncrasies of his speech patterns, too.

Do I have to give serious thought to changing these things or will a reader forgive the occasional commonplace if  the rest of my story, its characters and the action is engaging?

The truth is, whether I change them or not, some of my pleasure in being their creator has dimmed because someone else thought of them first.

In a way it’s akin to wearing hand-me-down clothes or buying a chair at Goodwill. Shopping at Goodwill because I can’t afford Macy’s is different than shopping at Goodwill (and wearing hand-me-down clothes) because I love vintage things.

There are two ways to go here: I can think of the parallels as commonplace ideas that a reader will find boring because they have come across them before. Or I can choose to think of these serendipitous parallels as ideas so good they bear repeating.

Case by case?

Works for me.

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.” — Josh Billings

 

Me and Edgar Livin’ the Dream

I’ve known all my life about authors who were inspired by alcohol or a drug-induced stupor or a dream:  Samuel Coleridge (Kubla Kahn), Edgar Allen Poe (just about everything), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Hunter S. Thompson (just about everything), to name just a famous few.

And of course, we members of the rock ‘n roll generation are all-too-familiar with the concept of drugs and alcohol as fuel for creativity, since too many of our heroes have died as a result of overindulging in one while trying to capture the other.

I think the idea is that a second layer of creative consciousness is released during times when the brain is active, but not really alert and bothering itself about its immediate, high-level daily tasks, like keeping us from stepping into traffic or remembering to eat our spinach.

I don’t think I really believed it until I had the experience myself last week.

Before you decide that an intervention may be needed, let me assure you that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. But I did wake up in the middle of the night with the idea for a character, a McGuffin and the opening paragraph of a new novel. I don’t remember actually dreaming about it, but it was very much on my mind as I opened my eyes. In the first few minutes of wakefulness, before I was completely awake, I fiddled a little with the details and by the time I was truly awake I had something rather interesting.

Now I’m an Olympic-level heavy sleeper, so it’s unusual for me even to wake in the night, let alone feel inspired to leave my bed. But I’ve learned never to spurn inspiration whenever, and in whatever form, it may strike, so I tottered out of bed to write it down. And damn if it wasn’t pretty good. It was so good that I decided to concentrate on the resulting story for a while to see where it took me.

I’ve been trying to write a humorous novel for some time; it’s actually difficult to write humorously without working really hard and the hard work seems to stifle the humor—just one of the many apparent contradictions we writers face. But over the next few days, while I was writing my dream-inspired book, I found myself chuckling as I wrote, and in a few places actually laughing aloud. I’m not certain the book is actually funny, or if I’m just so delighted at how easily the book is flowing that I’m chortling with glee at how clever I am.

Either way, I’m pleased with it, I’m happy to know that the dreaming thing works, and I’ll keep you posted.

Alternate Realities and MapQuest

I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.

I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.

I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.

If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.

In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.

All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.

Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.

The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?

Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.

Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.

Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.

Paying Attention. It Builds Character

I SPENT A DAY recently hiking with a friend. We were taking it slow and enjoying the day when a Park Service truck pulled up next to us and the guy inside stopped to chat.

He had what is sometimes described as “a shock” of white hair and a white beard.  He’d have no trouble playing Santa Claus is all I’m saying. He was wearing a Park Service Smokey Bear hat and one of those bright orange safety vests and the passenger seat of his pick-up was filled with loose rolls of toilet paper. A lot of them. Maybe two dozen.

My first thought was: what kind of person buys loose rolls of toilet paper by the dozen? And then I realized he was probably making the rounds of the park’s outhouses to re-stock them, which was just as interesting in its way. I’m not sure I’ve ever given a thought to that particular job, or that it would be Santa Claus in a pick-up truck who did it.

Our conversation, which started with a discussion of my red hair and his formerly red beard, quickly moved to the Vikings (who had red hair) the design of the keel on Viking ships and the contributions to sailing technology by the ancient Phoenicians.  In short, our conversation was a tribute to the efficacy of the History Channel.

Our hike that day was within easy reach of the city, but it occurred to me that in a different kind of park, perhaps more like the national park where my heroine finds herself, he would probably not only pick up his toilet paper in bulk, but his evenings would be long and dark and tv would be a welcome diversion.

I happen to be building a new character into my novel.  I want him to be a bit of a mountain man, but not uncouth or strange enough to cause anxiety, and I want him to have an unexpected hobby or interest to give him some depth.

My Park Service friend had quite a number of interesting quirks I could borrow for my mountain man. For one thing, those rolls of toilet paper are hard for me to relinquish. Or maybe my new character has made a study of Viking and Phoenician ship building. Or maybe he just watches a lot of the History Channel during the long dark evenings. Or maybe all I’m taking away from the encounter is that my mountain man has a white beard.

This is what fiction writers mean when we say our characters are not real people.  We pay attention and we use bits and pieces of real people. A white beard. An interest in ancient history. Buying toilet paper in bulk.

These are real things to build a fictional character on.