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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

So, back in February, before the whole quarantine happened…….

……I went to the movies, hoping a little cinematic entertainment would be just the ticket to stop over-thinking (it usually does the trick).

While standing in line, I engaged in conversation with the two couples standing in line ahead of me. The four of them were going to see The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss of A Handmaid’s Tale (the film is a great twist on the HG Wells classic novel).  I was planning to indulge my inner nerd and see Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (it was a fun romp – Margot Robbie kicks ass, as do her fantabulous cast-mates).

As we talked, I noted on the marquee that Parasite (2019) was also playing, but at a much later time than was convenient for me.  An older couple behind me went into a tirade about how awful it was, that it should have just gotten best Foreign Film, that they didn’t get understand any of it and that – get this – it had SUBTITLES.

“It’s from South Korea,” I said, thinking I had just stepped into some kind of Twilight Zone alter-verse.  I mean, what were they expecting from a foreign film?  Badly dubbed English?  They waved aside the nationality of the film and continued to snark.

And all I could think was, “Wow, what a missed opportunity.  They had gone to see a film set in a culture and country that operates on a completely different system of beliefs, ideas and views than ours.  And all they got out of it was that they had to READ.  It offended them on some level that they were expected to engage their minds, instead of being fed mindless entertainment that is pre-designed to push specific emotional buttons.”

I turned away mid-snark, unwilling to even point out that foreign films are a way to experience that which is unfamiliar to us, much like fiction allows us to inhabit the lives of those who are different from us.

The arts are supposed to push our minds out of the comfort zone and see the bigger picture that lies before us, either by speculating about how technology (medicine, mechanical) may come to pass or by reflecting what is, as Parasite (2019) did – class conflict, social inequality and wealth disparity.

Mary Shelley (essentially the mother of modern science fiction), HG Welles and Jules Verne took what they saw before them and speculated on what might be.  Director Bong Joon-ho (who co-wrote the script with Han Jin-wan) took what he saw before him and reflected it back to his country specifically and to the world at large.

English is not the only spoken language in America (the oldest languages spoken here belong to the First Nations, if they survive at all, thanks to white colonialism), nor is it the only language spoken in the world.  In other countries, one is expected to not only be fluent in their native tongue, but to also have at least a solid grasp of more than one non-native language (English being one of them).

It would behoove the American people to get their collective heads out of the bubble they seem to believe we live in and realize we are not an isolated nation (though that seems to fast becoming a reality).   Learning another language is not only good for the brain, but it shows interest in something utterly foreign to us – the language is not separate from the country it originates from.  By learning another language, we open the door to a world we would not normally see – from music and literature, to art and cinema, adding a language that is new to you will only enrich your life as it is.

Unfortunately, few see it as what it really is  – a ticket to parts unknown and a gift.

So, I stumbled across an old screenplay……

……that I wrote twenty years ago, while searching for old magazines for an art project.  Only the first few pages had been typed, the rest were in long-hand.  So I put everything aside and read the old script, curious at what my younger self had produced.  It’s a romantic comedy involving a video store, a matchmaker with a mysterious background, a search for the film To Have and Have Not and the ghost of Humphrey Bogart.  It was with some surprise that I realized the story held up really well. 

A page from the old script.

It’s not a perfect screenplay, by any stretch of the imagination, but it had genuine feeling and heart and that’s where art begins to fly.  And so I put it on my desk, with thoughts of going back into it and revise it into something…..new and exciting.

At the same time, I’ve been contemplating revising my Saucy Speakeasy story and setting it in modern times.  As much as I loved the appeal of the Roaring Twenties, the music and the threat of danger lurking when dealing with illegal hooch, Saucy Speakeasy just was not working out the way I’d hoped.  I had written some brilliant moments and one incredibly intimate and sexy scene that I still blush thinking about. [1]

An old concept photo for the Saucy Speakeasy Story.

Then it dawned on me – I could merge both stories into one, creating an external conflict that was missing in both stories; fill in the blanks within the screenplay; bring a level of humor that was lacking in the speakeasy story; and flesh out the characters of both.  Instead of a video store, there’s an antique bookshop located in the building above the speakeasy.  There’s a meet-cute, a clueless bookshop clerk and, yes, a somewhat supernatural element. 

Taking two stories and merging them into one is not a new idea to me – I had taken elements of a short story to add to Novel Now Finished.  It ultimately created an unrealized subplot and opened up a lot of possibility to the Main Character’s backstory.  

What I hope to achieve with the screenplay and the speakeasy story is similar – other than the time period, both are about two people who are each other’s equals and find a true partner in love and in life.  And because it is fiction (as well as a romance), there will be the mandatory conflicts, mayhem and misunderstandings.  

The matchmaker may or may not become a part of the story – so far, she has kept that decision close to her vest. 

 

[1] I still can’t believe that I wrote it.

Image by Bitmoji

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So, I got hooked* on Once Upon A Time……

……..a fantasy TV show that aired on ABC and involving characters in both their fairy-tale context (with a twist) and in our modern world.  The most common reaction I get when I mention the show has been, “Yes, I loved it, but it got really weird”, with no clarification on how it got weird or why.  But this is a show involving fairy tales and magic, so weird kind of left the station with the very first episode.

One of the things that utterly charmed me from the start about the show was how the writers took one event and approached it from multiple view-points.  An example of this would be the ‘hold-up’ of Prince Charming’s carriage by the bandit, Snow White.  As a reader/viewer and even in real life, it’s easy to forget that everyone involved in an incident (from chance meeting to purse snatching) will have a completely different experience and interpretation of events.

As a writer, I loved the attention to detail in these moments and how they were woven together.  It takes well-thought out planning in advance – no flying by the seat of one’s pants, here – so I suspect that the creators of Once Upon A Time had their vision mapped out over at least three seasons before pitching it to ABC (and the parent company, Disney, who owns the rights to many of the characters that appear in the show).

I missed the original run when it aired on ABC, and my memories of it were articles about story lines and plot points.  There was some minor controversy over season 7 (something to do with Cinderella, if I remember it right), but coming to the show as I did, none of it seemed all that important.

Just a tempest in a pot of tea, from my point of view.

The show is fun, it’s campy, romantic, full of adventure, thoughtful contemplation on good, evil and the possibility of redemption and twists on established characters.  The conceit of fairy tale characters living in our world is delightful and it’s perfect viewing when things feel dark and heavy in our world.

Definitely on my list of shows to re-watch.

Maybe I can savor the show an episode at a time.

‘Maybe’ being the key word, here.

*Pun fully intended.

 

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Every bit helps to keep this writer going!

Thank you.

So, every morning, I get to do the most amazing thing…….

………I get to feed horses and bask in their grounded presence.

While with the horses, I’m also privileged to see real magic in this world – nature.

Nature just is.

Just a couple of blokes, hanging around…..

There is no good, there is no evil.

Just pure instinct in motion – like a red-tailed hawk capturing its breakfast or a hummingbird taking a long drink of water from a puddle.  Or four turkey vultures unwittingly re-enacting a scene as the Fab Four in The Jungle Book (1967).  Or a four-foot long gopher snake sunbathing before slithering off into the bushes for a quick snack.

There is so much more that I’m witness to and I wish I could have you see what I see.

A young red tail hawk.

I truly feel like I’m living a Disney movie – sometimes the G-rated cartoon (because it does get silly and whimsical), but most of the time, it’s more organic and earthy, like Middle-Earth.

Nature is magic.

It has both light and shadow.

It is primal and ancient and has no regard for you.

Treat it with respect and you will be granted more than you asked.

So, I had my first outing as the Main Character from my 1940s story….

…..and made some very interesting observations as I went about my normal routine, going to my local coffee shop and running errands around town.  First and foremost, this was the first time I’ve taken on the challenge to try and become a character in my own book.  Second, I did this primarily because I’m more familiar with how a woman of the late 20th/early 21st century would dress and move.  Third, in order to get into the mind-set of a character set in an era not my own, this was a fun and effective way to do it.

Also, my background is in theater and I’m a method actor. [1]

The dress in question.
The flats (left) and the sensible heels (right).

Simply by putting on the dress, my posture changed significantly – I found myself standing with my back a little straighter and my shoulders back.  This elevated my chin, so that I was looking up and around, not at the path before me.  My stride (which, given my height, is normally long and quick), became shorter and brisk, altering the way my hips also moved. [2]

In addition to the dress, I also styled my hair in as simple a style as I could manage – this was a task unto itself, if you want to know.  My hair and I have an uneasy truce going back many years – I often joke that it is elemental, with a mind of its own, since I can never get it to do anything more fancy than being braided.  Fortunately, I was able to find a simple style and, with a little practice and a couple of hair combs, I did it.  As mentioned in a previous blog, I had several options in footwear, two of which are pictured.  With black flats (to accommodate a recovering sprained ankle) and a retro-vintage black purse, I was ready to explore this character from a bygone era and to learn what makes her tick.

Ready to walk a mile in a character’s shoes.

My first observation was the weather – it was a warm day and the dress was made from a fabric that didn’t breathe.  That is, while the material wasn’t heavy or thick, the dress would have been better worn on a cooler day.  I had an immediate and better understanding for the mirrored compacts (to powder one’s nose) and the handkerchiefs (to blot any sweat) that women kept tucked neatly in their handbags.  To add to the experience, I had Tommy Dorsey’s music playing on my phone, which added an extra spring to my step as I walked (fair warning – one cannot walk to Big Band/swing music, one dances).  And the barista at my favorite coffee shop went above and beyond her duties to help me in my research and switched the music stations.  [3] Big Band played over the speakers, helping to create and enhance the mood while I enjoyed my drink and wrote down my thoughts, observations and general experiences.

My decision to dress as the main character for one of my stories is similar to the work I would do in developing the back-story to an established character in a play.  The more details you find, the richer and more interesting the character becomes.  And this influences the story and engages the other characters, creating a deeper experience, whether to a live audience or to a single reader.

 

[1] Theater is a great tool for writers in terms of plotting, story, and character.  By embodying the character and becoming a part of the story, one develops a better sense of timing, fore-shadowing and motivation.  I highly recommend seeking out scene study/acting classes in your area.

[2] Exercise – find a suit or a dress or some other article of clothing you don’t normally wear.  Observe how it makes you feel, both emotionally and physically (Happy? Energized? Sad? Sexy? Lazy? Angry? Dumpy?), as well as how the fabric feels against your skin.  Walk around, do your daily tasks and write down any details that you notice as you go about your day.  It is absolutely not necessary to do what I did and walk around town – you can stay home for this.

[3] As a ‘thank you’, I’m bringing her some saltwater taffy.

 

Recommended:

Tommy Dorsey – Greatest Hits (CD)
Glenn Miller – Greatest Hits (CD)

So, I’ve put off my 1940s character cosplay experiment…..

…….for a very simple reason – I sprained my ankle.  The bad news on that is I’m limping on a weak ankle, using a cane when necessary for extra support and balance.  The good news is, my ankle is healing and while it’s doing that, I’m gifted with more time to play around with the hair style that I’ve chosen.

This also puts me in a curious position – until my ankle heals completely, I’m not sure I want to wear the sensible shoes with the thick heel. [1]  So now, I’m looking at my black ballet flats, which will do in a pinch.  Not exactly period, but the height requirement on a flat-heeled shoe hasn’t changed all that much in eighty years.  Also, the entire process is about learning who this character is – is she someone who wears sensible heels or sexy ones?  Or is it dependent on the context of the situation?  Does she prefer flats over heels?

And so on.

Now, given my gimpy ankle (short-term though it is), I’m wondering if this character has a minor disability as well, one that requires her to use a cane.  It’s still all very ephemeral, so I guess I’ll find out as I go along.

Which is the beauty of research – it’s like being on a treasure hunt and each little nugget of information you gain leads you to more possibilities.

 

[1] There is always the fear of turning my ankle again – it’s painful and, if it doesn’t heal properly, I’m setting myself up for serious damage later on.  Also, even paved, the sidewalks in my town aren’t exactly level.

So, with Novel Now Finished back at the editor…..

……I’m spending my time waiting for its return by bumbling around with the sequel.  So many changes have occurred within Novel Now Finished that a lot of the background I’d written has gone by the wayside and no longer seems pertinent.  Still, there are some things I’m able to recycle into the sequel, with a minor tweak here and there, and I’m curious to see where these bits will fit in.

“A writer writes, always.”
Billy Crystal,
Throw Momma From the Train (1987)

Some, as I’ve mentioned, are a part of the Narrator’s background and history.  A character that I’d had to excise from Novel Now Finished will be introduced here, a prospect I’m looking forward to, as he was rather charming and amusing. [1]  Then there’s the added question about why the Narrator displays such a lack of interest in some areas of her past, which could be developed into a significant sub-plot.

So far, I’ve got a basic story-line written out and an idea of what happens, but it’s the details that will get me every time.  Many of the questions raised in Novel Now Finished will either be answered (fully or in part) or re-directed; some of the answers may produce more questions for the Narrator to ponder.  I do know that a lot of it will center around the circumstances that led the Narrator to where she is at the start of Novel Now Finished.

And while that doesn’t seem like much, it’s actually a lot.

 

[1] It helps that he and the Narrator have great chemistry.

So, I’ve got some of my ’40s character pieces together…..

……the dresses, the shoes and such.  I’ve got options on the shoes – flats, sensible heels, and a slightly sexier pair of Mary Janes.  The latter will probably not be worn, as this is more about getting to know the Character and her day to day experiences.  Since I already know she’s not interested in keeping up with the latest fashions (unlike her older sisters), I’m not going to worry about a glamorous look for her.

At least, not yet.

Right now, I’m more interested in getting to know her from the inside out, much like an actor works to get to know their role in a play or film.  [1] This means I’ve got to ask questions and make note of my discoveries in my journal.  Questions may range from Does she have a speech impediment, or a upper crust dialect?Does she have nervous habits and how do they manifest; Is her posture more formal when with her family and relaxed around friends? and everywhere in between.

Which brings me to my desire in dressing the part.

My reasons in dressing as this Character is to figure out her physicality and how she moves in the clothing and shoes of the period circa 1942.  Women wore a significant amount of layers, more then than we do now, and those layers affected how they moved and felt.  This includes their footwear.  It’s one thing to walk around in sneakers and jeans (as I generally do, since I’m a walker), but to be able to walk a significant distance even in flats (let alone the thick, sensible heeled shoes I’m pondering on wearing) has me aghast at the idea of putting my feet through a tortuous ordeal. [2]

But…..I want to know these things, so as to better inform the Character’s personality and the choices she makes.  It will give me the little details I might have missed had I not chosen to dress the part.  And until I start, I won’t know what those details will be.  That’s the beauty of this path in discovering who the Character is.

Sometimes, to know the character, you’ve got to dress the part.

 

 

[1] As an actor, I found that the more I asked why my character was in the story, the more reasons I uncovered that added layers to what might at first glance be a flat character.

[2] Already, my feet are putting in notices of protest.

So, I’ve begun a new journal for the story……

…….that had been inspired by an incident at work (thankfully, no one was turned into a toad or other amphibious creature).  As of this writing, er, typing, I’ve only got the bare minimum put down in writing.  These would be locations, a couple of characters (including the Narrator) and several questions that as of now, I do not have the answers for.

I expect that to change and evolve as I go along.  Any writer will tell you that that’s usually the case.

Right now, all I know is that the Narrator lives in a small to medium-sized town, works in retail, cursed a customer and that some guy named Roger [1] has a lot of questions surrounding him and his role in the story.

Things are about to get interesting.

 

[1] His name is subject to change at any given moment.  As I’ve discovered on Novel Now Finished, it could go up to nine name changes, plus a nationality change.  It was more than a little irritating.

 

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