Clean Sweep: Righting My Writing Space

When creative clutter turns catastrophe, it’s time to right your writing space.

Mistakes Were Made

Recently, I had a literal light bulb moment. The lamp on my desk, which had been flickering, made a popping noise and then everything—computer monitor included—went dark. A quick trip to the circuit breaker box, however, restored the power. My computer rebooted without problem and, happily, my documents were unharmed.[*] But as I wormed my way underneath my desk to unplug the offending lamp, I realized it was time I finally sorted out my writing space.

My writing desk lives in the bonus room of our house, an addition off our dining room that we use as office space. While it’s technically a shared space, I use this room the most, especially since my spouse decided its locale wasn’t quiet enough for conference calls when working from home. So, we spent a day (somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve) moving me into a larger desk so that I could have more space for my writing and other projects.[†] While we succeeded in rearranging and discarding old furniture and miscellany, I still needed to organize where my assorted belongings would reside on the desk. Plus, there were several boxes that needed to be sorted and stowed…somewhere. But, given the hour, I reluctantly agreed to get to it later.

Ah, later. Such a fatal word.

From Creative Clutter to Catastrophe

Of course, I didn’t return to the task during the holidays (so many social calls) or afterwards (too busy). On occasion, I filed items or slipped some odds and ends away. More often, though, I nudged items under the desk, shuffled piles around my desk, and absentmindedly stuffed items in the drawers when something was in the way. And I continued to write and manage my other projects as usual. While I’m inclined to indulge in chores when I write,[‡] the one place I leave untouched is my desk; I like to spread out the books I’m reading or using for research as well as my notes while I’m at the keyboard. I rarely clear off my desk completely but I tuck away items I don’t need once I finish a project. But more and more items lingered on my desk because they had nowhere else to go.

For some time, though, it was little more than a nuisance. Although I was irked by the unfinished job, I promised myself I’d get to it eventually—with that eventuality occurring in some distant month. My dissatisfaction grew when I found myself searching for important documents I stashed in some obscure locale. When I had to stop writing to hunt for a hefty tome that had been swallowed by a pile of paperwork (and I’m not sure what else), it was a sign that my shuffling piles around to make a spot for writing notes wasn’t working well. Having to wriggle past now dusty boxes to find an outlet finally forced me to admit that it was time for a clean sweep. The constant interruptions were officially more annoying than the clutter itself. So, off I went to organize, however reluctantly.

Righting My Writing Space

When it comes to writing, there’s nothing wrong with a little desktop chaos.[§] The question is whether the writing space works for the writer. On any given day, multiple obligations and needs pull us in different directions, often taking us away from our writing. We don’t need to get in our own way as well. In my case, too much clutter distracted me from writing. Even when I wasn’t writing, being unable to find items I needed turned my writing space into a source of irritation when it should be the place where I focus on the words. Reorganizing my desk was just another step toward creating a better writing environment. And while my desk may not be magazine ready (and the office still needs work), I already feel less crowded.

NOTES:

[*] Documents that automatically save for the win!

[†] Arts and crafts as well as household finances, plus whatever comes up.

[‡] As noted in my first post a year ago!

[§] I’m told a messy desk is a sign of creativity. I’ve been very creative, apparently.

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.

NOTES:

[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot

The hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

In the previous post, I discussed how hobbies in fiction help develop characters, something which can set up expectations of character behavior as well as lend itself to exploring a work’s thematic elements. In part II, I look at how hobbies influence setting and plot.

Setting and Hobbies: Everything in Its Place and Time

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
While exploring his passion for travel in a horse-drawn caravan, Toad (from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows) and company’s road trip goes horribly awry when they are run off the road by the agent of Toad’s future downfall: the motorcar.

Because characterization is the most obvious effect a character’s hobby has, it’s perhaps less intuitive that character hobbies make demands of the setting. Hobbies, however, must be conducted somewhere and that’s where setting comes in. Some hobbies, being rather portable (reading), can occur wherever it suits the writer, while others dictate the setting where they occur (surfing). Writers, therefore, can use hobbies as a reason to place characters into a specific setting where they wish the scene/story to occur. Travel for pleasure[*] happens to be a rather effective hobby that allows writers to introduce their characters to new people, places and experiences. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows regularly falls in love with new means of transport (whether its rowboats or motor cars) that let him travel and adventure. While Toad’s hobbies often reveal his impulsiveness and reckless side, one of the book’s notable adventures begin when Toad’s enthusiasm for the latest vehicle spurs him to gather his friends to travel and seek excitement. Similarly, hobbies can signal the story’s timeline. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the presence of Garbage Pail Kids collectible trading cards reveal Tracey’s subversive edge and her tendency towards divisiveness as well as places the timeline in the mid-1980s.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould.
The popularity of the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards was sufficient enough to warrant a vinyl doll. Cuddle up! (Photo credit: R. Gould.)

Setting the Plot: Hobbies, World-Building and Plot in the Harry Potter Series

Given the greater burdens that exist for establishing settings in fictional genres that involve world-building,[‡] character hobbies can be a useful means for conveying information about these settings. Fantasy novels, for example, typically involve intense world-building since they diverge from strictly realistic settings. J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter series in a hidden magical realm that exists alongside the real world. Although a portion of her setting existed, the magical areas of the world did not. Therefore, she needed to create the parameters for these magical places, their inhabitants, their society, how these realms and their elements interact (eg, magic makes electrical items malfunction), and so forth. Newcomer Harry Potter acts as the reader’s stand-in for these discoveries in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.[§] Rowling uses a common childhood hobby to allow for comparisons between the magical and nonmagical settings to illustrate how the former operates (in its role of world-building) as well as cleverly introduces a mean of revealing information that forwards her novel’s plot significantly.

The Famous Witch and Wizard Cards: Hobbies as an Approach to Establishing Setting

Much like Smith, Rowling employs trading cards in her story—but with the expected magical twist. While traveling to wizarding school, Harry purchases the unfamiliar foodstuff of the magical world. Among his sweets are Chocolate Frogs, which come with the Famous Witches and Wizards (FWW) cards. In the real world, trading cards that feature real people often provide an image of the person and some relevant information about the individual (eg, baseball cards indicate the player’s position and stats). The FWW cards Harry receives mirror such cards in that they include a picture of the witch or wizard accompanied by a biography that lists their claim to fame and other interesting trivia such as their hobbies.[**] What makes them different is that the cards are enchanted, with the images moving like living people (Rowling 101–3). In addition to allowing readers to see how trading cards differ between these realms, these cards also prepare the readers and Harry for how other pictorial representations behave in the magical world (eg, portraits that he encounters speak to people and travel from frame to frame). Its role in helping establish expectations for this magical setting, then, even supersedes that of delivering (or confirming with some details) biographical information about school headmaster and major character Albus Dumbledore—the subject of Harry’s first FWW card.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
In addition to confirming Albus Dumbledore’s academic credentials and reputation for dealing with dark wizards, his Famous Witch and Wizarding card informs us that he enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling, a possible nod to Dumbledore’s more whimsical side.

Setting to Plotting

Rowling’s ingenuity is not limited to creating comparisons between the world Harry knows and the one he’s joined. In contrast to Smith’s Garbage Pail Kids, the presence of the magical trading cards reveal little about the children collecting them (as I noted above, we learn more about Dumbledore here). However, Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. During his first weeks at school, Harry and his friends (Ron and Hermione Granger) become aware that some important item recently arrived at the school for safekeeping and that there had been attempts to steal it. Having learned through unintended admission that the hidden object involved both Albus Dumbledore and another wizard named Nicolas Flamel (a name Harry is certain that he read previously), the children begin researching Flamel in hopes of finding more information about the object and why it is being hidden. Shortly after the Christmas holidays end, Neville Longbottom gives Harry one of the FWW cards for his collection. It’s the Dumbledore card, which mentions his alchemical work with Flamel—hence the reason Flamel’s name seemed familiar to Harry. With this insight, Hermione locates the necessary details about Flamel, which in turn reveals that the Philosopher’s Stone is the item hidden at the school (102–103, 218–220). Discovering that the mystery item is the Philosopher’s Stone (as well as why someone would steal it) is a major plot point here, and it’s Harry’s modest hobby of collecting FWW cards that allows the children to make this leap.

Hobbies and Fiction

Rowling frequently and often playfully employed hobbies throughout her Harry Potter series, using them to reveal facts about characters, forward plot and even provide opportunities for her fictional adolescents to change settings (Quidditich, for one, gets them outside the castle). Writers such as Rowling, of course, rarely add details about characters to provide a laundry list of biographical data, something which most readers would likely find dull. Instead, she provides hobbies with specific goals: showing Molly Weasley’s kindliness when she knits Harry a sweater for the holidays or revealing Hagrid’s pet hobby of raising dangerous critters, something which informs the plot in a few places (in this book and others). Including character hobbies is among the important decisions a writer makes when developing a character, one that stretches beyond the role of characterization. Therefore, the hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

NOTES:

[*] Travel for personal enjoyment allows many fictional detectives to leave their normal environment and discover mysteries in the wild, as it were. It’s also a matter of practicality in detective series: mysteries always started at the detective’s office or set in an amateur detective’s hometown can become formulaic.

[‡] Genres most identified with world-building are science-fiction/speculative and fantasy fiction, both of which constructing new worlds. I’d argue historical fiction also belongs here, as world-building in this genre takes the form of reconstructing the world of the past.

[§] However much it annoys me that the American title differs from the British one, it’s the title of my copy and therefore the one I must use for the citation:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[**] Hobbies within hobbies! Of note, the FWW cards play a role in characterization here, although it’s not the scene’s focus.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration

Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements.

Sufficiently realistic characters are part of fiction’s great juggling act—its need to appear plausible enough for readers to suspend their disbelief and engage with the story and its emotional truths. When writers develop their characters, they provide them with relationships (friends, family, lovers, etc), careers, backstories, hobbies, and so forth to achieve this verisimilitude. Of these items, I find how writers use hobbies in their stories fascinating because hobbies can serve many purposes besides filling out a character’s biography sheet. For example, hobbies[*] (to paraphrase what I’ve said elsewhere) often serve as a shorthand form of characterization because they can reveal aspects of the character’s personality through their interests. Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements. In this first of two parts discussing the role of hobbies is fiction, I’ll take a look at the clever ways in which writers use hobbies to develop characters and explore theme. Part II will look at the roles hobbies have in establishing the setting and forwarding plot.

Rounding out Characters

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration. Text by Rita E. Gould
We may not know how Sylvia Keene plays tennis, but we know she looks good doing it.

As I’ve implied, the primary role hobbies play in fiction involves characterization. The degree to which they inform the text about the character, however, varies. Providing biographical details is an excellent way to flesh out relatively minor characters. Sylvia Keene, a young woman discussed in Agatha Christie’s short story “The Herb of Death”, played tennis. This detail is mentioned as part of a brief “verbal portrait” provided by characters (Arthur and Dolly Bantry) who are discussing the circumstances of her death. Arthur observes she played tennis gracefully, which (along with youth and good looks) was part of her charm. In this regard, tennis reveals Sylvia’s characteristic grace but tells us little else about her. Similarly, a hobby might confirm or provide additional evidence of a character’s known interests. Librarian Polly Duncan, love interest to James Qwilleran (the main human character) from The Cat Who series, is an avid reader, a detail that merely confirms the bookishness her career choice suggested.

Characterization and Themes

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration. Text by Rita E. Gould
This angler ensures they don’t disturb the fish by leaving the area.

However, hobbies frequently provide readers with greater insights into the character’s personality and their behavior. Some hobbies tend to be associated with certain types of behavior or personality types. Angling, for example, is associated with quietness because it’s alleged that fish avoid noisy spots. Hobby stereotypes also exist: stamp collectors traditionally are thought of as reclusive and nerdy. Since these expectations exist, writers can use them to signal the character has certain traits or tendencies.[†] In The Lovely Bones,[‡] author Alice Sebold initially presents Jack Salmon as a father dealing his daughter Susie’s disappearance/murder. When Sebold introduces his hobby, readers gain insights into Jack’s personality and the family’s dynamics as she explore the novel’s themes.

Personality

A few weeks after Susie’s death, Jack enters his den to clean it up as part of an effort “to move forward” (45). As Susie (the narrator) explains, Jack’s den is where he either reads or builds miniature ships in bottle after work, with Susie often acting as his assistant. Sebold’s choice of hobby hints at traits Jack possesses. Since building these bottles requires painstaking effort, we’d expect anyone who attempting this hobby to be patient and meticulous. Susie confirms this impression by noting he “he counted numbers—due diligence” for an insurance company (45). Based on this description of Jack (reading, ship building, number crunching), readers might expect him to be typically quiet and mild mannered.

Family Ties

Susie also informs readers that Jack learned how to build these ship from his father, but she was the only other person in his own household who shares his love of these ships. Jack makes several failed attempts to entice his other children into building ships with him, demonstrating how important sharing this hobby is to him. Jack’s success with Susie also lets Sebold show readers that Susie shares some of her father’s qualities. As an amateur photographer who dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer, she possesses that same careful patience—whether it’s holding the bottle while waiting for the ship sails to rise or catching the right moment to snap a photo. Obviously, this activity represents a bonding experience, one which likely held greater significance for Jack given that no one else wanted to spend time working on these boats with him. In some ways, losing Susie means Jack loses someone who understands this side of him.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration Text. by Rita E. Gould
Jack Salmon’s hobby lets him connect with oldest daughter, Susie.

Exploring Theme

Jack’s mission to clear away his treasured ships—now painful reminders of Susie—takes a violent turn as he begins throwing and crashing them against the walls. The symbolism here is evident: the bottles are as shattered as Jack’s world. Sebold, of course, could have chosen to have Jack break anything to demonstrate his emotional turbulence. Destroying his treasured ships, items so closely associated with his murdered daughter, is a more poignant choice: nothing else but his tremendous grief could have prompted Jack to ruin them—or arguably provoked such violence from him. As loss and grief are among the novel’s central themes, Sebold’s inclusion of this scene is brilliant because it lets us see how Jack’s emotional landscape altered in response to Susie’s murder. His reaction to her loss, his grieving, involves fury that she was taken suddenly and violently. It also prepares readers for a future occasion when Jack’s grief and anger erupt again, this time with greater ramifications.

Having shown Jack’s emotional state and prepared readers for other instances what otherwise would have been out-of-character behavior, Sebold could have abandoned further mentions of ships, letting them remain casualties of Jack’s grief. Instead, she revisits Jack’s hobby one last time to beautifully illustrate Jack’s progression through the stages of mourning. Years later, Jack learns his other daughter is expecting a child and dreams of teaching another child to share his love of these ships, even as he knows that doing so will always remind him of his lost child. While Jack will never stop missing Susie, he has accepted her death and is now truly moving forward as best he can. In this moment, we see all the novel’s themes—loss, grief, and love and acceptance—tangled in Jack’s humble hopes for the future.

Sebold’s thoughtful use of Jack’s hobby shows some (though not all) of the more complex ways a hobby can influence a story through characterization: it suggests his personality (supported by career choices and other pastimes), show us how his hobby connects him or distances from family, reveals how grief changes him, and how acceptance reconnects him to himself. In part II of “Fiction and the Versatile Hobby”, I’ll examine the roles, both small and great, hobbies play when we consider story settings and plot.

Next week, Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot

NOTES:

[*] Countless activities can be considered hobbies, ranging from sports to collecting. There are crossovers between hobbies and professions (an amateur painter versus the professional), with some people occasionally even supplementing their primary income with earnings from such pursuits and others managing to translate a hobby into a career (the home cook turned professional). However fine these distinctions may be, generally the hobby is the one that earns less, is conducted only in one’s spare time, and would not be considered as an occupation by its practitioner.

[†] Or to contradict stereotypes!

[‡] Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009.

Finding the Heart of Flawed and Difficult Characters: Empathy through Emotional Truth

How do we make someone whose actions are unpalatable worthy of readers’ empathy? We give them the emotional truth of the character’s situation.

In the afterword of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, author Amy Tan discusses the novel with friend, editor and fellow author, Molly Giles. Tan, known for using autobiographical elements in her stories, indicates that she chose to depict the “emotional truth” of her experiences opposed to fictionalizing actual events. Emotional truth resonates with me, both as reader and writer, because that frisson of honest feeling connects character to reader. Regardless of a story’s inspiration (eg, writer’s life, historical events, imagination), we want our readers to be engaged with our characters’ struggles. Some characters, of course, earn a reader’s regard with ease because their difficulties are readily observed and understandable. Orphaned children, as I noted in a different post, generate instant sympathy because of their youth and built-in disadvantages. The greater difficulty, however, lies in making less likeable characters sympathetic. How do we make someone whose actions are unpalatable worthy of readers’ empathy? We find ways show readers the emotional truth of the character’s situation.

It’s in the Details: Wording and Pacing

Writing about a difficult character’s emotional truth requires some finesse. Stating directly (through exposition or dialogue) that the character’s grief (for example) causes them to be antisocial lacks impact, particularly when the story relies heavily on that character’s perspective. Readers need insights into problematic behavior, so that they can relate to troubled or outright unlikable individuals. In The Girl on the Train, the musings of Paula Hawkins’s flawed primary protagonist and narrator, Rachel,[*] immediately provide small but revealing details [†] about her emotional landscape. We are alerted to the importance of these details by the word choices Hawkins employs.

On a morning train to London, Rachel observes clothing left next to the tracks when the train stops at a signal. Imagining reasons for their presence (including her allusion to a potentially sinister scenario), Rachel states that both Tom and her mother thought she had “an overactive imagination”. The negative connotation of this assessment hints that Rachel is perhaps unreliable, and she seems to tacitly agree with their judgement when she explains she cannot help but wonder about “the other shoe”. Hawkins word choices for the clothing—“discarded” and “abandoned” instead of a more neutral “mislaid”—suggests Rachel’s emotional viewpoint: she sees through the lens of rejection (she’s the lost shoe).[‡] As the train finally moves forward, Rachel desperately tries to focus on her newspaper, suggesting that she is avoiding some emotional trauma even as her mind wanders back to the lost items (the stand-in for herself). At this point, it difficult not to feel some pity for this sad woman.

Heart_difficult_characters_liquorHaving subtly established Rachel’s feelings of abandonment and her unwillingness to address her pain, Hawkins exposes another side to Rachel. On the return trip later that day, Rachel drinks canned gin and tonic (“the taste of my first-ever holiday with Tom”, a man now mentioned twice and likely her “other shoe”), claiming (with a whiff of belligerence) she doesn’t “have to feel guilty about drinking on the train” since it’s Friday. Obviously, she does feel guilty despite her attempts to justify her behavior. Before she states she’ll be facing a beautiful weekend alone, the reader can surmise that Tom left her and she is drinking to cope with her pain.

As the first chapter progresses, the extent of Rachel’s drinking problem (and its role in her relationship’s dissolution) becomes evident: she pretends to go to work so her friend/landlord won’t discover she lost her job, she drunk calls her remarried ex-husband late at night, and recounts her shameful history of violent, drunken arguments. Had Hawkins first shown Rachel’s self-destructive behavior or how she lies and harasses people, readers could have dismissed her as an angry or pathetic drunk (as many characters in the novel do) and failed to see her fragility and remorse. While it’s impossible to overlook Rachel’s failings or trust her judgement, we cannot help but feel sorry for the mess her life has becomes, even as she embroils herself in a missing persons case.

How It’s Told: Narration and Character Voice

Hawkins paces her revelations about Rachel to lets readers appreciate her humanity before discovering her grievous faults in The Girl on the Train. Tan’s approach in The Bonesetter’s Daughter also involves controlling the reader’s early impressions of a difficult character, although Tan uses narration as her tool. LuLing Liu Young is not novel’s protagonist but her daughter is. Since Ruth narrates more than half the novel, her perceptions of their contentious relationship will influence the reader’s opinion of LuLing. Tan, therefore, has LuLing narrate the preface—a tactic that lets LuLing speak in her own voice,[§] without Ruth’s experiences overshadowing hers.

Luling’s account, however, starts as relatively straightforward exposition[**] and she states what she “knows to be true”: her name, those of her two deceased husbands (“our secrets gone with them”), and her daughter’s name along with a brief explanation of how she and her daughter are alike but opposite. While the casual mentions of secrets and possible opposition foreshadow some of the novel’s central problems, LuLing’s interest remains focused on names, in particular the one that eludes her repeated efforts (“a hundred times”) to recall it. Although she seems mildly frustrated (as most people are in such instances), she proceeds to vividly recounts the morning when Precious Auntie (a family member or perhaps her nursemaid) showed her surname to LuLing.

heart_difficult_characters_calligraphy

At this point, Tan uses narrative disruptions to strip away LuLing’s collected veneer and destabilize this “truth”. Still unable to recall the name Precious Auntie told her to never forget, LuLing abruptly breaks off her tale mid-sentence and claims she’s reviewed over “a hundred family names” to stir her memory. Earlier, the use of “hundred” seemed to be mere hyperbole; Tan’s repetition here highlights LuLing’s increasing agitation. Mentions of more secrets and other lost items also raise concerns about her memory. LuLing, switching topics again, now shares that she remembered the trunk containing her prized possessions for “so long [she] nearly forgot [she] had them”. When she opens the trunk, she discovers its contents were destroyed by insects. Devastated, she claims she’s lost everything she loved, with her greatest loss being Precious Auntie’s name.

Abandoning her account of “Truth” altogether, LuLing now implores the ghost of Precious Auntie to help her remember their name before asking the deceased woman if she remembers that she is her daughter. This last revelation is particularly astonishing because LuLing referred to another woman as “Mother” in her story about the lost surname. Whether LuLing is conflating the two women or inadvertently revealing who her mother truly is, her anguish at losing pieces of her past as her memory fails is apparent and we cannot help but feel her pain. Tan’s clever use of narration gives readers a glimpse into LuLing’s emotional world and effectively establishes sympathy for her before we meet her as the dissatisfied, argumentative and cantankerous woman Ruth calls mother.

The Core of Empathy

In fiction as with real life, it’s easy to empathize with the trials of those we like. Yet, difficult and troubled characters are perhaps those who need our empathy most, however off-putting they may be. Tan and Hawkins demonstrate how revealing a character’s emotional truth lets readers see past the labels defining them. As writers, our task is to find ways that guide readers to the core of these character’s humanity and challenge them to care.

NOTES:

[*] Hawkins’s novel is told through alternating perspectives of three women.

[†] Details about a character’s inner life are doubly crucial in a psychological thriller.

[‡] Rachel’s mention of “the other shoe” similarly evokes separation since shoes come in pairs, just as mentioning “the feet that belonged in them” also suggests dispossession.

[§] Being able to speak in her own voice is also important because English is not LuLing’s first language.

[**] We later discover that “Truth” is a document that she wrote for Ruth (who cannot read the Chinese calligraphy) some five or six years before the opening chapter and that Ruth hasn’t attempted to translate it yet.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Amusing Missteps and Lessons Learned

Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter.

Traveling with Limited Tech

I tend to take vacations with few electronic devices, particularly when boarding an airplane restricts my carry-on space. Since sightseeing and other outings occupy most of my time,  jotting ideas into a notebook or tapping a brief note into my phone works well enough to let me leave my laptop home. That is, until I started this blog and the inevitable conflict between my posting schedule and holiday plans arose. Knowing I would be traveling for almost two weeks, I decided to write at least one post while I was away[*] and began planning what I would discuss. Even with limited Internet access while traveling in Alaska (with a few excursions into Canada), I reasoned that blogging should be manageable.

Blogging with minimalist equipment (ie, my tablet), of course, would be less comfortable than usual, but swapping hiking boots for a laptop wasn’t an option here. So I went about my normal packing routine,[†] until my spouse appeared holding what looked like a restaurant menu. It proved to be his spare wireless keyboard, which he said made typing easier for him when he used a tablet. We soon had it connected, downloaded MS Word to my tablet, and typed a test sentence or two. And just like that, I had a serviceable mobile writing set up. Before starting his own packing, he suggested that I experiment with using it, to see how everything worked together.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
It might like look the wine list, but it happens to be a wireless keyboard. (Photo by R. Gould)

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that, harried by travel prep, I didn’t get around to doing so. And thus I made the first in a series of eventually amusing missteps.

Roaming and Writing

Several days later, I sat perched at a makeshift desk in my temporary quarters and began to write in earnest. The keyboard, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm. Roughly every third keystroke didn’t register, forcing me to correct countless typos. As I forged onward at a glacial pace, my napping spouse awoke[‡] and insisted I use his wireless keyboard instead. With functional equipment, I finally made progress writing. All went well until I tried switch over to the WordPress app. The app I had on my phone, not my tablet. And on my phone, I realized, I didn’t have MS Word, meaning neither device had all the software I standardly use for blogging.

This is much funnier in retrospect.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
The speed of typing on a semi-defective keyboard seemed oddly familiar after Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by R. Gould.)

The complicating factor (because it’s not ridiculous until there’s complications) was the spotty Internet connection I mentioned earlier. While this was a minor inconvenience on occasions when I, for example, wanted to check whether sea mammals happened to be baby Orcas or dolphins (they were Dall’s porpoise), I truly missed the Internet when I realized I couldn’t use it to quickly fix my difficulties by downloading the apps I needed or by transferring the documents between devices. My choices involved making two trips to the Internet café (expensive and time consuming) or finding another solution. Feeling frazzled, I decided to forgo the fancier formatting MS Word gave me, connected the keyboard to my phone, and retyped the essay directly into the WordPress app. At least that went smoothly thanks to the new keyboard.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned Text by Rita E. Gould
I missed Google when I couldn’t use it to identify sea mammals (here, Dall’s porpoises) but not as much as when I realized I needed to download WordPress. (Photo by Jeremy Henderson. Used with permission.)

Uploading in Its Time

But my Internet woes were not done. I still needed to look up two URLs for the articles I wanted to link to my post. So, I found the Internet café, agreed to pay the pricey access charges, and waited for the slow connection to upload my files. Once that was accomplished, I added the links, waited forever for the app to update…and discovered  that some of the text I linked to an URL mysteriously disappeared. I fixed the text (itself a tedious process), updated again, and waited to see the corrected page. Satisfied that everything looked right, I logged off. I’d officially posted my first blog while traveling!

It wasn’t until I returned home that I discovered that last update apparently didn’t go through, and the version with errors went live.[§] *sigh*

Blogging and Travel

Despite my dearth of preparation and sundry mishaps, I nonetheless succeeded in posting to my blog while on the road. Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter. In my case, I gained several insights into how I can improve my writing experience for my next journey, which I’ve listed here for future reference.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Check both writing devices and software before leaving, making certain that you have both the necessary apps and peripherals (including chargers) for your device. Confirm that your setup works before stowing it in your bag but consider what your options will be if something goes wrong anyway.
  2. Test uploading and editing posts[**] from your mobile devices to find issues before you travel. I’ve used the WordPress app on my phone to reply to comments and make minor edits previously, so I knew differences existed between the mobile and desktop versions. Having a more accurate estimate for how long it takes to upload and edit posts, however, would have been helpful.
  3. When possible, copy URLs and download images/videos to your device in case you need to work offline. You can embed these items in your offline draft (as I did with my post’s image) so that they upload with the text, thus streamlining the process.
  4. If free Wi-Fi and mobile reception aren’t options, plan for long load times and buy Internet access accordingly—something I did right.
  5. Choose a topic and outline/plan what you want to write in advance. Even if you intend to discover your topic as you travel, it doesn’t hurt to brainstorm beforehand.[††] Expending less effort on prewriting ultimately proved beneficial when everything else went wrong.
  6. Try to laugh at travel writing and its misadventures, because tech issues and other unplanned hassles occur even when you are prepared.

NOTES:

[*] Given a less packed summer schedule, I’d have written posts before traveling. Perhaps next time.

[†] Oscillating between the worry I forgot something and the fear I brought too much.

[‡] I cannot confirm or deny that muttered profanity played a role in ending his nap.

[§] Thanks to everyone who liked my post despite the errors. For the record, they’re gone but I won’t forget them any time soon.

[**] I recommend marking the post as private if you don’t want it to be seen.

[††] I’d had the idea to write about reading while traveling since I’d written about reading in preparation for travel, recalling (to my chagrin) dragging heavy books to exotic locations, only to neglect reading them.

The Tale of the Orphan Trope: How Writers Revitalize a Common Story

When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems.

Among the common character types that exist in fiction, the orphaned protagonist[*] is one that readily elicits sympathy from readers. Regardless of material circumstances, both the real and perceived disadvantages of parental loss[†] make for excellent storytelling. As author Liz Moore observes, the orphaned character has a “built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict”. Since her works feature orphans, she worries “whether it is facile to rely on this trope”. The answer to this conundrum lies in how the story is written. When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems. In the following, I discuss some common features of the orphan trope and provided examples that illustrate how writers make the orphan trope meaningful.

Trope Expectations and Succinct Storytelling

Creating a character that comes with a problem needing resolution, one that readily generates sympathy, also allows writers to streamline their storytelling. As John Mullan explains, “The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world…set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).” Since the orphan trope includes these expectations, we don’t need the author to explain why their orphans beg or steal (Ren from the The Good Thief, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist); we already know they must fend for themselves and possess few options for doing so. Childhood (mis)adventures, too, are more readily undertaken without parental objection, giving writers incentive to remove parents from the plot.[‡] However, such reasons alone are insufficient for orphaning a character. Julie Just points to the recent trend of young adult fiction replacing dead parents with absentee, inattentive, or incompetent parents,[§] a move that still affords young characters both opportunity and reason to adventure or “act out”. Similarly, characters can experience social isolation or loneliness without being orphaned. Therefore, employing the orphan trope must serve a greater narrative purpose than mere convenience.

  • All the Living

In All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s thoughtful approach to the orphan trope lets the story focus on her young lovers and quietly makes Aloma’s orphaning central to the novel’s conflict as it explores how varied the experience of loss can be. As an orphan (now grown), Aloma can more readily ignore social convention when she moves in with boyfriend Orren to help him run his family’s farm following the sudden deaths of his brother and widowed mother.[**] While Aloma’s childhood loss avoids uninteresting complications parents would add to the plot, it also leaves her unprepared for Orren’s grief and how it alters him. Unlike Orren, she cannot recall her parents and experiences their deaths as an absence. Because Aloma never had a home, she cannot empathize with Orren when he refuses to either reside in or rent the house he once shared with his deceased loved ones and they quarrel. Orren also misunderstands her behavior, finding her tendency to “look outward” infuriating because he forgets or fails to see that her actions reveal an orphan’s need for connection. In Morgan’s hands, sharing a history of loss prevents these lovers from finding common ground. Thus, their losses generate more misunderstanding than they provide comfort.

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Advert for the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Ephemera Collection National Children’s Home and Orphanage (Great Britain). Published: circa 1920. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Unhappy Upbringings

Of course, literary orphans lose more than family when their parents die. For many orphans, parental loss also affects their material, emotional, and social support. However, their new “homes” rarely offer respite or welcome orphaned children—even when they are kin.[††] The orphan’s quest to find acceptance arises in response to this rejection. The trope’s difficulty here lies with the reasons the child isn’t wanted. Literature happens to be littered with cruel, prejudiced or indifferent guardians that range from rotten relations (stepparents, aunts and/or uncles) to unkind orphanage staff. Failing this (or even in conjunction with it), the other common difficulty that necessitates the child’s quest for belonging involves the guardian’s financial distress (Aloma, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables). Of note, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Aloma all lived with aunts and/or uncles before departing to a boarding school. And Jane and Harry both lived with guardian(s) who begrudged them their upkeep, even though they could readily afford their expenses. While some literary orphans manage to find acceptance through self-improvement and changing the status quo (Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden), most do not. Therefore, inventive approaches to writing these characters’ unhappy circumstances is critical when using these common themes.

  • The Harry Potter series

In the Harry Potter’s series, Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s have few qualms about expressing their displeasure with Harry’s presence in their lives. Rowling, however, complicates their distaste for Harry by rooting it in intolerance and jealousy. Vernon Dursley rather straightforwardly dislikes people unlike himself and wants to curb any magical ability Harry displays, prompting him to take extraordinary measures to prevent Harry from learning he’s a wizard. Petunia Dursley’s motivations, however, are more nuanced. Her sister, Lily Potter, is regularly described in glowing terms (beautiful, smart, kind, etc.), making Petunia one of her rare detractors. She denounces Lily as a freak but in the same scene indicates that their parents admired Lily’s magical ability, exposing her envy. Petunia obviously feels overlooked because her young sister managed to be remarkable in yet another way. She transfers her resentment to Harry, spoiling her son while denying Harry material comforts to ensure Dudley never feels as she did. Regardless of how much trouble Harry causes her, she begrudgingly allows him to stay, suggesting that some lingering duty or love for her sister remains.

Ambiguous Identity and Transformation

Mullan’s observation that orphans are “out of place” gives them the freedom to reinvent themselves and discard their old lives. Although their unfixed social status allows them to transcend their social circumstances, this ambiguity also makes maligning them easy. The same orphan can be classified as both dangerous or brave—incidentally, terms used to describe both Harry Potter and archvillain Lord Voldemort. The orphan’s ambiguous status also provides ample opportunity to create and resolve conflicts in the narrative (a boon for developing story arcs), but such volatility should have a goal (eg, revealing character). Conferring wealth as a reward to the orphaned protagonist, for example, ensures a happy ending but feels unearned when a previously unknown relation exists solely to enrich said orphan by dying.[‡‡]

After Jane Eyre endures a punishment that causes her to faint, the kind apothecary caring for her learns that her aunt’s mistreatment caused her collapse. He offers Jane an opportunity to attend Lowood Institution, a school that educates poor girls. The promise of a fresh start, however, soon sours when her Aunt Reed unjustly characterizes her as a liar to the school director. Accepting Aunt Reed’s word without question, he assures them that the staff will be told about Jane’s wicked behavior. Beyond creating conflict and generating future difficulties for Jane, Brontë’s goal here is to provide Jane with a defining moment. With this latest bit of malice, Aunt Reed finally pushes Jane into finally speaking up for herself, an ability she needs to develop since she has no one else to defend her. Jane grows as a character, no longer willing to suffer slights.

Summary

While the orphan trope has its stock characters, genre expectations, and standard plot lines, writers who make these moments purposeful transform an old story into a meaningful discussion about belonging and identity, something every young protagonist (parents or not) considers as they age into adulthood. And that conversation is an interesting one, however many times we have it, when more considered approaches make the story feel new again.

NOTES:

[*] Most orphans (by definition) are children. Adults usually do not identify as orphans unless they lost their parents during childhood.

[†] Contrary to expectation, some orphans prosper without at least one of their parents (eg, Huckleberry Finn). Being spared parental mistreatment, however, neither offsets nor lessens the child’s experience of loss.

[‡] For much the same reason, most orphan characters are only children.

[§] The trend here is also somewhat practical given that pandemics are less common than they once were.

[**] Of note, Aloma lives in a prevalently conservative area of rural Kentucky during the 1980s, where couples were discouraged from living together before marriage.

[††] Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins is a notable exception where guardian and extended family alike welcome her.

[‡‡] While one can argue that Jane needs to become wealthy to attain equal footing with Mr. Rochester, he already had no objections to marrying her without money and his injuries better serve this purpose.