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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Research

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)

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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, 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, one of my stories takes place in the 1940s….

…..and I’m pondering the idea of dressing as the main character in order to experience the world as she did.

Obviously, I won’t be subjected to ration books (because things like silk, food and other items were reserved primarily for those serving in World War II), nor will I be paying 1940s prices or rattling about in a 1935 roadster with rumble seat. [1]  On the bright side, however, I can still listen to music, view films and read novels of that era quite easily.  Also, there’s historical documents, non-fiction and documentaries to round all of that background out in a well-balanced way.

Still,  my goal in dressing in a similar manner as the main character is to get a sense of how she walks and how her clothes and shoes affect her.  This would greatly impact her thoughts, anyone she comes into contact with, how she feels about the day in general and her mood overall.  Since I prefer comfortable sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt whenever possible, this will greatly enhance my understanding of the character.

I hadn’t tried this before, since most of my characters are set in our current time frame, but I’m actually tickled to try this one out.  I have a dress that actually has that vintage look of the late 40s/early 50s and vintage shoes that have a thick and rather sensible heel (one that Miss Marple would approve of). [2]  When I go into town, I tend to park a few blocks from the downtown area and walk in.  This is the perfect amount of distance without overdoing things and defeating the whole purpose of this experiment.

There are a few things I’m going to have to go without, however.  Gloves were quite the fashion accessory back in the day, which is something I don’t own.  Neither do I have a proper hat to pin to my head (some with netting, some without).  I’ve also no idea how to do up my hair to fit the time period (and I imagine it would be time-consuming).  [3]

Still, I look forward to doing this – it’ll be fun, if not challenging.  In theater, this is one way to find the character from the inside out, developing their history and their Moments Before, prior to their entrance into the story.

I will keep you posted with updates and pictures, as I catch them.

 

[1] Not gonna lie, I’m kind of bummed about that last one.

[2] It’s been commented upon that it’s a good look for me.  I can work with that. 🙂

[3] There will be trips to thrift stores for the gloves and hat – hopefully, the luck of the Irish will be with me.

So, the amount of research I have to do…..

…….while in the throes of going over edits is why the process of writing a book takes so fricking long.

Working on edits.

In answer to so many questions that I’ve been getting when I mention that Novel Now Finished is in Round 7 of edits:

1. Each manuscript is different and requires a different amount of time and effort to get it to where it should be.

2. Each author/writer has a different method to their writing madness.

3. Each editor has their own questions and methods of communicating notes.

4. This is literally the second editor I’ve ever worked with – the first charged over a thousand ($1000-plus) for two hours (TWO!!!) worth of work. Had I known my current editor eight years ago, things would be different.

5. This is the first editor I’ve worked with on a consistent basis. She’s amazing and helpful and supportive and everything you’d want in an editor. In my own editing business, I hope to be just as amazing as she is.

6. If you think writing is so easy-peasy to get done and published, then please, by all means, get some paper and a pen and start writing.

7. Writing a book is a full-time commitment. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those who lack discipline.

8. The amount of research I have to do before, during and after writing the first draft would qualify me for at least three MAs/MFAs and/or a PhD.

9. There are days when I just want to quit and torch the lot of it. This is normal.

10. ^^^Then I give myself a shake and get over it. I’d rather be writing and working in my fictional worlds than anything else, so the frustrations are a small cross to bear.

11. Writing is not a hobby for me – a hobby is something you take joy in to escape the realities of life. While I love and enjoy writing, it’s often frustrating and annoying and I don’t escape the realities of life – it finds its way into my stories.

12. Art is political, it is angry, it is savage and ugly and hard to look at – but it also inspires, gives us joy and shows us the beauty in the human spirit.

So, Octavia Butler, an influential science fiction writer, once said……

……..about writing, “Here I was, into astronomy, and here into anthropology and there I go into geography. It was much more fun to be able to research and write about whatever I wanted to.”

This falls in line with my own thinking about writing and theater. It’s role-play of the best kind, where you get to try on as many different professions as possible without spending years in a classroom or in the field. There is a kind of freedom in trying on different hats, seeing how they fit and how to utilize them.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to do the research – what some might see as a downside and an inhibitor of creativity is the hard work that goes into making your characters (both on the page and on the stage) layered, believable and, more importantly, real. This will keep your audience engaged until the end, trying to outguess where the character’s ultimate destination will wind up.

What’s also fun is that you discover new things about all kinds of subjects, especially ones you think you know. Whether it’s history, physics, law or how to make an Irish stew, the research you invest in your writing (or any other creative endeavor) will not only enrich the project you’re working on, but will add to your knowledge. Maybe you’ll even add a new skill or discover an interest in something you’d never thought about before. Where it leads is up to you, but the possibilities are endless.

Editor’s Note – This blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC.

Recommended Links/Reading:

Link to Octavia Butler

Kindred by Octavia Butler

IMG_20160227_115204-2-2-2

So, this little mystery of mine…..

……seems to have evolved into a quest. Quests mean travel, which requires planning and budgeting. Now that I’m back from Ireland, getting a sense of the country my great-great grandparents had emigrated from, the time has come to map out my next move.

This means, of course, I have to re-think my approach to this wonderfully tangled puzzle.

In other words, what would Sherlock Holmes do?

Very simply, he would take what verified facts he had, categorize the ephemeral ones in order of importance before either eliminating or verifying them, then follow the threads on a chase to see what resulted. Whatever remains, he believed (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote), no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

The game is afoot!

With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.
With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.

So, it seems I have a mystery on my hands……

……about my great-grandfather, his three (yes, three) different birth years, the lack of a birth certificate from the state he was (allegedly) born in or any record of his parents in the same area. What information I have at hand comes from his diaries (beginning in 1902 and skipping to 1912), a death certificate, family lore and some historical references (my great-grandfather was something of a mover and a shaker in his day). Everything prior to 1900 is obscured in the shadows of time, lack of personal diaries and any connections to his siblings. I don’t even know their descendants or when my great-great-grandparents died or even where they are buried.

The information, as I’ve mentioned in another blog post, is sketchy at best. I have a death certificate for my great-grandfather (to be referred to as E.J. from now on), which has his parents names and general location of where they were born. I have good pieces of information, but I’m unable to fit them together and make a complete picture of the man who was such a strong influence in local events. He died years before I was born, so I have no memory of him, but his diaries make it clear that I would have enjoyed his dry wit.

He left home at a young age and for all intents and purposes, it seems he never looked back. He didn’t forget his past, but he didn’t seem to dwell on it, either. A lesson, I suppose, we should all embrace. But I want to know him, to know his history, his parents, his siblings. I’m very lucky – I know where most branches of my family came from, who they were and where they’ve been.

E.J. is an enigma, a mystery, a man who came out of the mists, almost as if he was born the day he left home and moved west.

I have a mystery on my hands. I have few leads and they only seem to lead to more mysteries. It is time to put on my deerstalker cap and think like the man who literally invented the forensic sciences over a century ago with the creation of the world’s most famous fictional detective.

It’s time to ask myself “What would Sherlock do?” and use his methods of elimination to find my answers.

Because what will be left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

So, when starting a project……

……..it’s usually from point A to point B and all the way down to Z. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, the culmination of the vision that inspired you to do the project in the first place. It can be creative, it can be a meal, it can be a paper for a class – the thing is, there’s a place where you clearly have a start point to jump from. But often, there doesn’t seem to be a clear point of departure, so the only thing to do is to jump right into the middle of things and start swimming in any direction.

This is what I’m doing as I research my great-grandfather’s history and that of his parents, who emigrated from Ireland shortly after the Great Hunger. The logical thing to do would have been to start with his papers, which are currently archived in another state at a historical center (he was something of a local bigwig in his day, serving as a lawyer, a justice and being part of the energy development). The next step after that would have been to then go to the state he had been born in, see the cemetery his parents and siblings had been buried in and look into local records. The third step, after having gained all pertinent material (birth dates, wedding dates, city and/or parish names), would have been a trip to Ireland and tracing the rest of the family from there.

Being that I have a somewhat impatient nature to get things started, I jumped right into the thick of it – I began with Step Three. I talked to a lot of people once I landed in Ireland – my driver, the tour guides – and they were very keen on helping me find the next step. I had a lot of pieces, they assured me, but they didn’t seem to connect together. The thing to do is to start back at the beginning and find those missing pieces, if, indeed, they can be found.

That I even know where to go to start my search is a big plus. I was kind of hoping to avoid going to another state to do this, but in my original plan, I knew that I would eventually have to do so. Still, the rewards will greatly outweigh my reluctance to go and that is the ultimate goal – finding my ancestral family and knowing more about who I am in the process.

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