And It is Officially Autumn….


Early morning takeoff from Almond Marsh to join southbound flights on the flyway

It is that time of year. Nights get chillier. You leave the windows open just a crack to let in light and heat from the sun, but at night, you want to snuggle under the blankets and get that bit of warmth you lost in the bathroom on the cold tile floor. It doesn’t matter how many bath rugs you put on the floor, somehow, the cold still seeps into your feet and you wish summer’s heat would stay just one more week… but it leaves at night, and in the mornings, it takes off like the geese and heads south, away from your cold feet, while the geese and ducks head south and slightly west or east toward the flyway, depending on where you are.

Geese coming in for overnight at a local marsh

If there is anything that sticks with you more than the sounds of geese honking 1200 feet up in the sky on a clear, chilly autumn morning, someone tell me what it is. When they get within striking distance of the flyways – and there are several – the flights of geese and ducks become enormous flocks.

Why? Self-preservation, that’s all. A huge mass of flapping wings and honking birds moving south isn’t going to stop a hunter from getting a couple for the dinner table, but it drastically enhances the odds of survival for all those migrating birds to move in huge masses like that.

In Africa, there is one species of swallows that flocks in numbers so massive, they create their own thundering noise and high wind as they pass. They look like a river, almost a single organism, just as starlings look like a single moving organism when they engage in a murmuration – a unified movement that looks like a single organism at a distance.

Fish do this, too. They get into huge masses, all moving in unison and all done as a means of getting out of the way of predator fish like sharks and tarpons.  Mayflies and other insects do the same thing. They appear to be a single mass, almost a cloud, moving in unison while they look for mates.

Now, if you have these separate genuses (birds, insects, and fish) that do the same thing, two in the air and another in the ocean, as a means of self-protection, doesn’t it seem as though that instinct to move as a mass is as old as life itself? And if you build a world for a story, would it be possible or even likely that you might see the same thing in that other world?  Is that a universal instinct, or something peculiar to our little blue planet?

Go take a walk on a sunny autumn day. Get out early if you can, and find a place where you can see the migrating birds. Watch them closely, to see how they are spaced and how often the leaders change places.

And listen to their voices. It will stick with you for a very long time.

 

Advertisements

…and More Awareness


 

I’m continuing with my previous post “Awareness”, as it is especially important to telling stories and/or creating poetry.

Details matter in a story. It is not necessary to run the details ragged, or roll them into a tight little ball and bounce them off the wall. They should be consistent within the context of your tale of derring-do or epic poem, or even just the lyrics to a song that won’t leave you alone when you’re trying to sleep.

If you look at the photo that accompanies this article, you can see the waxing moon trying to shine through layers of ice in the atmosphere, cirrus clouds, and late evening haze. It was winter. It was late in the day and bitterly cold. And I could not resist that shot, because in the lower right hand corner, you can just make out Venus and Jupiter triangulating the Moon as the sun sets.

The fictional character most widely-known for his acumen and awareness was Sherlock Holmes. After him came Agatha Christie;s Miss Marple. We are fortunate that neither author told us exactly how Holmes could figure out the answers to a crime, or how Miss Marple just knew who did what, but the answers to that are there in the stories wrapped around these characters.

Awareness will often keep you alive. At the bus stop, for instance, is that large fellow in a rather dingy jacket just going to work or is he somehow a threat? What if he’s neither? What if he’s just coming home from work at this hour of the morning? Is he carrying a brief case or a steel lunchbox?  Is he maybe a werewolf on his way to work after a night out prowling the neighborhoods?

Excruciatingly written details can bog down a story, or inflate it to a reality that may have been otherwise missing from it. The jacket wasn’t just red; it was an odd shade of crimson, just bordering on a cold red that matched the red in the suspect’s tie.

If you know how something functions, you can use the functionality that you know about to move the story a little further into the reader’s mind and get it to stick there. It isn’t necessary, as I said to go into excruciatingly deep details. But awareness of how an event takes place, or how a machine functions, or how one color supports another or clashes with it – well, this kind of awareness added to your story will make it richer, and your poetry stronger.

And I’m still looking for the pink dragon with one ballet slipper missing. If you see her, tell her to call me. Thanks!

Awareness


Oops! Sorry! Absence not intended! If you have friends who decide to go sailing ahead of a hurricane, and then call you while they’re trying to find a sheltered place to dock, tell them to stay safe, and then later, give them a loving but scathing piece of your mind.

That’s a sundog in the photo. It was very late in the day, sunset time, and for some reason involving complicated atmospheric physics, conditions were just right for the appearance of this effect produced by the Sun.  I never miss a chance to get a weird shot like this, so I got the camera, made a bunch of shots and then pulled this one up.

It’s really nothing more than water vapor that has crystallized at a high altitude and turned to ice. The ice acts as a prism, breaking the sun’s colors into this rainbow effect. It is unusual to see one like this, with ice crystals streaming eastward off the prism, away from the setting sun, but at that elevation there was a strong air current pushing anything like this cloud of frozen vapor eastward in front of it.

There are many aspects to the sundog. In some folklore, a sundog in the morning usually means three days of bad weather. Since they usually appear in the winter, if you are lucky enough to see one at sunrise, make a note to yourself to watch the weather forecasts and try keeping track of what happens. If you live in a city, the heat created by any city may or may not prevent a snowfall, but in winter – well, Ma Nature has her own way of doing things. Ask Boston how it felt to dig out of a 9-foot snowfall.

Some time back, I had to go visit my parents in the middle of winter so I started the trip at 5AM. Cold, clear sky in the morning at sunrise does not mean it will be like that forever, and I saw a perfect circular sundog around the rising sun as I headed south. I had been warned. Sure enough, when I returned to the north end of the state, I ran into a nasty snowstorm that was so bad, I pulled off the road at a truck stop to wait it out.

What’s this all about? When you set out to create a world independent of this planet, whether it is a fantasy world, a sci-fi world or just a small, local place where everybody knows everyone else and there is a mystery underway, awareness of your character’s surroundings is very pertinent to the story. Small details, like clouds in the sky ahead of or after a storm add color and substance to the narrative.

It isn’t just a sunny day. It’s a hot, sultry summer day, or a cold, wind-blasted winter sunrise after the blizzard sweeps the fields clean of snow, deposits it in your driveway, and brings down the local cell phone tower. No cell tower, no comm link. Or it’s the early summer sunrise with a wheat field that needs to be harvested, with small birds scattered here and there, sitting on the stems of the wheat, stealing the kernels right out of the seed heads. (Wheat kernels are seeds, as are corn kernels and dried whole peas.)

Those details are meant to draw your readers into the story and make them feel that they are part of it. It isn’t necessary to load up on details constantly, but as a means of putting your readers in touch with what your characters are doing and where they are, these things matter.  Put yourself in that setting in your imagination, look around you and ask yourself if this tavern full of grumpy, large guys is one where you can seek food, warmth and refuge from the cold and will the owner let you sit by the fire overnight?

On a Rainy Day….


Showy trilliums on the hiking path

It has been raining in my area since yesterday morning, off and on. Sometimes there was lightning, sometimes low, rumbling thunder, and sometimes there was simply rain. It’s a time when you can take advantage of the urge to stay indoors in a comfy chair with a good book, a drink within easy reach, and something to nibble on.

If you’re one of those who like to go out and splash through puddles, and I enjoy that, too, then it’s a chance to enjoy acting like a kid again. Put yourself back into how you viewed the world as a 12-year-old wearing jeans soggy from the mid-calf down, wet shoes (and maybe socks, too) and a waterproof jacket and umbrella, and remember the joy of splashing through a puddle.

And then what? Then what was it like to come back into the house, dump the wet shoes on the porch, hang the dripping jacket on a hook to dry along with the umbrella and change those soggy jeans and socks to dry? I could say the same things about winter, but the cold season hasn’t started just yet, so I’m holding off. But what could be better after drying off than hot (or ice) tea or coffee, some cookies, and a good book?

There’s a story to be written. It’s at the tips of your fingers and your mind. There is nothing wrong with finding inspiration in someone else’s story, either, so reading what other people have written while you’re recouping from splashing through puddles, with drinks and a plateful of stuff to nibble on is sometimes the best inspiration you can get.

If you think you’ve gotten stuck and have nothing to say, let it go. Move on. Read someone else’s story. Make notes on your own, yes – you might solve the problem that blocks progress that way. But do not worry that you’ve run out of things to say. This is simply a pause in the action, and you can set aside one or all of your written works for a while, and read what others have done.

After a brief hiatus, some splashing through puddles in the rain, and a trip through the field of poetry or fiction, or even non-fiction, you’ll find yourself refreshed and ready to go again.

The Source of Ideas


A hike along the river….

Setting off on the trail again, aren’t we?  And we don’t know just what is around that corner in the trail ahead. It could be anything from a pink dragon that lost a ballet slipper, to a blacksmith running a forge to create new shoes for Pegasus. And why would a flying horse need shoes, anyway? I don’t know; ask the blacksmith!

Therefore, I’m following up on the advice to you about giving free rein to your imagination to do creative work. There are many, many ways to spur that into action. Sometimes, the simplest approach works very well.

There’s always the “list-making” habit: creating a list of subjects you want to cover or just phrases, like titles that may/may not generate an idea for a story or a poem or a nonfiction essay. Shopping lists, if you will – well, they’re okay. I’ve got a bunch of them. They generate small images, but it’s kind of like looking through the wrong of the telescope. Not close enough, not enough information. It needs expansion.

Try moving beyond that to a sentence or a paragraph that gives you a brief description of what you think will happen in this story or poem. Now it becomes more than a brief phrase on your screen or notebook page. Now you can start moving forward: make a few notes, then make more notes, figure out where this story goes and in what form. How much of a mystery could you create in a painting that shows a half-opened door?

If you write poetry, have you considered something besides free verse? Have you considered creating an entire story written in the sonnet form? What about an epic poem giving us a saga in blank verse form, something that is specific in structure, but great for creating epic poems, and a story on the order of “Beowulf” or ‘The Iliad’? But instead of just mimicking “Beowulf”, you create your very own heroic saga, something that a trained bard would use as a means of entertaining not just the King, but the King’s entire court.

Most of us know that William Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays and also that he wrote hundreds of sonnets. So think about this small fact for just a moment: all of those plays were written in blank verse with the occasional classic sonnet thrown in for good measure. All of the sonnets followed the classic sonnet form. Elizabethan English is as close to modern English as you can hold together, so don’t let the line length or the rhythm and meter distract you.  Just stop for a moment and realize that only very seldom did Old Will write any of his characters’ lines in NON-verse form.

It’s less intimidating when you understand that, isn’t it?

Now, if he could do that, and your goal is to write poetry that people will remember and quote and tell other people about, you can do it, too. The only person holding you back is – well, Nobody.

Not straying from the subject at hand, I will add that a small paragraph that you write up as a basic guide to your story, whether it is in the form of prose or poetry, is something that will keep you on track. Yes, you can make notes as you go, and remember that things will change as the story progresses. That is nothing new. When you come up with an idea, record it in your notebook or whatever you’re using. Just a small pocket notebook will do the job.

Off you go, now. That pink dragon is still looking for her missing ballet slipper. Help her find it.

The Meaning of Free Rein


Plans

There’s a phrase that is frequently used to mean doing whatever you want to do, and so on. It is ‘free rein’.

The meaning of ‘free rein’ alludes to a rider on the back of a horse giving the horse his head and letting him go wherever he wants to, without stopping him, letting him wander at will. In creative work, it means letting your imagination loose and following it wherever it goes.

It’s the kind of thing that spurs the creative imagination to produce something. Whether that something is new or a new version of something else is up to the imagination of the person who is bringing something new to life.

In the current crop of movies such as the Justice league series and the Star Trek retro Captain Kirk films, there isn’t a whole lot of anything new. Same thing with the Jurassic Park and Star Wars prologue and epilogue movies – It seems to just be the production studios wanting to cash in on what has worked before. It’s a rehash and/or retelling done mostly because the original movies worked, were popular, and there may be some money to be made – or not.

The problem with rehashes and prologues created after the story is written instead of ahead of it is that it frequently seems contrived. If you have a popular TV series from the 1960s (Star Trek) with an episode (Space Seed) that later becomes a movie which finishes the original story (Wrath of Khan), then you have the beginning and the end, and it works. If you have a movie in which a giant drooling ant (Alien) kills off everyone but one crew member, who wakes up 60 years later, can’t find anything but the barest level of work because her credibility is doubted and then is recruited in the next part of the story (Aliens) to go fight the giant drooling ants again, you have a finish to the story. But when someone decides to fiddle with the story because there weren’t any of the (excuses) techno-junk items available originally that are in place now, it somehow doesn’t work very well. It seems contrived.

It’s as though the original creator of something didn’t think his whole story would be accepted by a studio or publisher, and he crawled into his closet to pick out what might work instead of presenting the entire story.

This is why the “what if–?” questions are so valuable to creativity. It isn’t “What if nobody likes it?”

I’ll give you a piece of advice: nobody will like it except you, so get over yourself right now. And it does not matter. Not one tiny little bit.

On your worst day, you can come up with more new ideas that will work if you give them a chance than an entire investment bank full of Harvard MBA grads.

The point is that you do not need approval. You need to take your story or idea from start to finish, even if it takes you half a lifetime to figure out how it started and how it ends. It’ll keep you busy on snowy winter nights when the streaming on your TV is boring the living daylights out of you and you only have it on for the noise.

Get an AM/FM radio instead, maybe one with a CD/DVD player. Choose a station you like and let it run in the background. With no images to distract you, you can focus better. Spend your time with your brain and wake it up.

Ask yourself the following question about a popular series of movies, like the “Mad Max” group: What if the first “Mad Max’ movie took place on Ceti Alpha VI, where Khan and his tribe from ‘Space Seed’ were dumped by Captain Kirk, but before they arrived? In the “Mad Max” series, that planet is green and growing, but there has obviously been a disaster of some kind, unnamed but implied, and civilization is falling apart. In “Road Warrior” (Mad Max II), the planet is starting to lose its green growthy state. By ‘Beyond Thunderdome” (Mad Max III), the desertification is nearly complete, and Max is found by a bunch of refugee children. By ‘Fury Road” (Mad Max IV) the planet is almost as barren as the Atacama Desert in Chile and water is nearly nonexistent. There is one more episode: “The Wasteland” (Mad Max V), but it is not yet in production, so here we stop.

So what if Mad Max takes place on Ceti Alpha VI, but Khan and Max never come across each other because they are on different continents?

It’s not that there are no new ideas. There are plenty of new ideas. I used to carry a small 5×8 spiral notebook in my draggin’ bag (briefcase) with my lunch, on the bus, to and from work, so that if I had an idea, I could record it right away. Sometimes, there were plenty of ideas, and sometimes nothing. This is much later, and some of those ideas are coming to life. Others? Meh….

But you get the idea, right? Okay, then let’s take a hard, hard look at making your creative ideas come to life. Start in the middle if you like, but ask yourself why did this happen this way? There, in the answer to this question, is the start of your story.

J.R.R. Tolkien worked out the history and legends and geography of Middle Earth before and while he wrote ‘Lord of the Rings’. He knew where the story started, because it was part of an old, old legend that he came up with, but it affects everyone in the present of the story that was published. History becomes legend and legend becomes myth.

J.K. Rowling worked out the history and progress of the Harry Potter story so that she had a guide to follow to bring those stories from start to finish.

The “free rein” part comes into play in those histories, character outlines, and plot lines, but the guides and summaries and tons of notes are guides on the journey to get the story completed. They are not four walls surrounding you and boxing you in.

It has taken me a very long time to work out the start of a story that I began to write in 1989. Now I know where the Bad Guys come from, and when, and how very bad they are, and yes, I still have the ending to work out, but it is a twisted, looping, torturous route that doubles back on itself like a mobius strip. I’ll get to the end. The beginning was more important. The end will write itself.

There are no bad ideas. There are only ideas that got lost in the fog of being busy. If anyone ever says to you, ‘Oh, that;’s no good, that won’t work’, you can politely respond with “Thanks for your feedback, but I’m taking the time to make it work. You have a nice day.” And go on about your business.

You have a nice day and take good care of you.

Back to Business….


My sunflower in bloom

The end of August is approaching rapidly. It will not be long before Autumn rains and cooler days replace Summer heat and sometimes wilting humidity. It also means the start of fall semester classes for some people and back to learning new material. The sunflower is a plant that blooms late in the summer season, and is popular with people who love that sunny color and with birds, who just love the seeds when the plants start to produce them in the center of the blossom.

Back in the beginning, I recommended that people who want to write get a stockpile of references and guides on their bookshelves,  Whether these are in print or digital, it doesn’t matter. A thesaurus helps you find synonyms and antonyms, but won’t guide you in homonymn: words that sound alike. If you write poetry, a rhyming dictionary will help you there.

There are books on the shelf meant to act as a means of inspiring you to write, to do creative work, and to do the best you can.  I still recommend Brenda Euland’s book “If You Want To Write” to anyone who has something to say. Her students were mostly fiction writers, but what she says also applies to non-fiction. She liked to keep things simple, too – simple and straightfoward. In a few words, ‘Get to the point, Edna’.

So those are my first two recommendations: get a good thesaurus such as Roget’s Thesaurus, a timeless classic, and a copy of Euland’s guide to writing, if you want to write.  I’d also recommend keeping a journal for the simple reason that if you post an entry in it every day, just mind-noodling, nothing important, it gets you into the habit of writing… and that is the whole point.

Remember, you don’t have to be spectacularly good as a writer in any form, prose or poetry or just essays, when you’re starting. You are doing this for you for starters, and for others afterwards. Allow yourself that little luxury of not showing everyone what you did. It’s yours until you decide otherwise.

More later….