Saturday, June 14, 2014

What's My Line?

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

“All drama is about dissonance.
All comedy is about dissonance. Where would we be without the
sword and the banana peel?”

        --Bruce Adolphe, composer

 What’s My Line?

The right profession for your characters will open up a wealth of possibilities in your story. Do your research and create an authentic feel for a protagonist’s vocation.

First published in Writer’s Digest

Here’s the situation: You’re at a party. You’ve just met someone. Names are exchanged – and then you face the daunting task of beginning a conversation. What are the next words out of your mouth?

“So – what do you do?”

Why is this? Simple – because a person’s job provides a readily accessible, non-invasive point of inquiry that is rife with conversational possibilities. That one tidbit can inspire common ground, follow-up questions, insights on character, avenues to humor – possibly even free advice.

“Action is character,” wrote Fitzgerald – and few actions speak louder than what we choose to do for a living.

Employ your characters! Even when career factors are far from the main thrust of your narrative, carefully choosing and researching occupations for your fictional heroes opens up a wealth of possibilities for enriching your story. Let’s look at how some of today’s best authors have done just that:

Framing the Point-of-View

In David Guterson’s 1999 novel, East of the Mountains, elderly widower Ben Givens discovers that he’s dying of colon cancer. His reaction to this news is largely determined by one important fact: Givens is a retired heart surgeon.

Like all physicians, he knew the truth of such a verdict; he knew full well the force of cancer and how inexorably it operated. He grasped that nothing could stop his death, no matter how hopeful he allowed himself to feel, no matter how deluded… Better to end his life swiftly, cleanly, and to accept that there would be no thwarting the onslaught of the disease.

By making his protagonist a doctor, Guterson sets up the philosophical framework for his hero’s quest: finding the best way to die. He also provides the opportunity for Givens to keep the disease a secret, and, thereby, to make his suicide look like an accident.

Making Work the Story (Making the Story Work)

In his 1993 collection, Working Men, Michael Dorris uses work not just as a point of reference, but often as the central conflict. In the story “Jeopardy,” drug salesman Don Banta’s main task – obtaining physician signatures acknowledging their conversations – means that he spends most of his waking hours chit-chatting medical receptionists. His first target is Dee Dee, whose son suffers from allergies.

“Lots of pollen around, huh? Hey, maybe your little boy… That’s not him in the frame on your desk? I can’t believe how he’s grown. No… Maybe he could try this new inhaler. It’s a miracle worker. Just remember, you don’t know where you got it, right, because I could get in major trouble and it’s just because we’re friends, you know, and I had allergies myself as a kid.”

All in all, a pathetic existence, brought to a devastating nadir when Banta learns that his father has died. Stuck in a motel room with no one to talk to, he calls Dee Dee – and learns that the inhaler he used to bribe his way into her office has saved her son from a near-fatal allergy attack.

Establishing Character

In Anne Tyler’s 1985 novel, Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary is suffering from his son’s murder, his subsequent divorce, and his dog Edward’s growing inclination for biting people. Although dog trainer Muriel Pritchett appears in the story-space usually reserved for a love interest, her loony verbal flights hardly seem a match for a fragile, phobic intellectual. But Muriel trains Edward with a fierce competence, and tells some amazing stories – like the day she was knocked down by a Doberman Pinscher:

“Come to find him standing over me, showing all his teeth. Well, I thought of what they said at Doggie, Do: Only one of you can be boss. So I tell him, ‘Absolutely not.’ …and my right arm is broken so I hold out my left, hold out my palm and stare into his eyes – they can’t stand for you to meet their eyes – and get to my feet real slow. And durned if that dog doesn’t settle right back on his haunches.”

“Good Lord,” Macon said.

Painting a Canvas

In Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel, The Shipping News, Quoyle returns to his ancestral home in Newfoundland, and gets a job at the local paper, covering the boats coming in to harbor. Giving Quoyle this particular assignment allows Proulx to tap into the town’s raison d’etre, as well as the delicious patois of the seagoing trade, like this passage from a local boatbuilder:

“There’s the backbone of your boat, She’s scarfed now. You glance at that, somebody who knows boats, you can see the whole thing right there. But there’s nobody can tell ‘ow she’ll fit the water, handle in the swells and lops until you try ‘er out. Except poor old Uncle Les, Les Budgel. Dead now… Built beautiful skiffs and dories, butter on a ‘ot stove.”

Proulx adds to this canvas by heading her chapters with diagrams and descriptions of sailor’s knots.

The secret to all of these is that they feel authentic – as if the author himself has performed this line of work. It’s possible to capture some of this by reading – but reading is only a start. What you really need is first-hand experience, and real-life sources. Following are some strategies that have worked for me:

Use Ur Own

Sad to say, if you’re writing fiction, you’ve probably got a day job. Why not use it? And don’t discount the non-glamorous. A lot of your readers will have much more in common with a shipping clerk than a shipping magnate.

Squeezed into a grimy crawl space, soldering copper pipes for my contractor brother-in-law, I began to notice the small, poetic details: the horizontal ballet of positioning the torch, the way the lead solder flashed around the joint as it melted, the pleasing hiss when I ran a damp rag over the hot pipe. I decided to give this same assignment to the poet-protagonist of my novel, Rhyming Pittsburgh, hoping to complicate the effete-intellectual stereotype with a healthy dose of blue-collar grit.

Upgrade a Hobby

Lots of hobbies are simply professions performed on an amateur level. Easy enough, then, to take the knowledge attained as a hobbyist and “crank it up” to the level of a fictional pro.

In the nineties, I played drums for several rock and blues bands. Although I never got to the pro level, I met a lot of pros, played a few clubs, and got a good, all-around feel for the musician’s life. I’ve since had two drummer-protagonists (one in a play, one in a novel), made plentiful use of backstage stories, and even filled out the details with specific musical passages from my playing days.

Be a Journalist

Ask questions. Be a buttinsky. People love to talk about their jobs – especially if you tell them you’re working on a novel.

But hey – why not get paid to be a buttinsky? Local papers are always on the lookout for stories on interesting residents and their vocations. And being “on assignment” gives you that much more license to snoop.

For my opera novel, Gabriella’s Voice, I set up an extensive research program. I got an assignment reviewing the San Francisco Opera. I took a soprano friend out to dinner, parked a tape recorder next to her silverware and asked her three hours’ worth of questions. Then I spent a full season with her company, hanging out at auditions, rehearsals and cast parties, picking up backstage stories.

The reviews I most enjoy from Gabriella come from singers, who spend half the book laughing at all the inside jokes, and inevitably come back to me with that priceless question, “How did you know all that?”

The “Life-Line” Strategy

Another thing I learned from Gabriella – this from the editing process – is that it’s easy to carry your research too far, and bury your story in technical details (as if to say, Hey! Look at all the research I did!”). An effective way to fight this off is to establish a correspondence with a real-life expert, and get your information on an “as-needed” basis (similar to the “Life Line” option on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”).

For my novel, Double Blind, I wanted the particular world-view of a scientist – and just happened to have a friend, Rob, who works as a geneticist.

One typical transaction went like this: I wrote, “My character is doing one last thing before leaving work at the end of the day. What is it?” Rob wrote back, “Running his gels,” and described a process for preserving tumor samples. In this case, however, the details were unnecessary. I was simply moving my character from one setting to the next, and needed only that simple three-word phrase, “running his gels,” to add a note of authenticity.

You can also use your Life Line later, to proofread your manuscript for technical errors.

The Prescient Literary/Vocational Advantages of Anticipatory Experiential Ventures

I once had a playwright friend – inveterate spewer of writerly slogans – who used to say, “You gotta live before you can write.” This is the final thought I’d like to leave you with. Though it’s great to use your character’s occupation as an excuse to dig up first-hand experiences, the reverse is also true: You ought to pursue these kinds of adventures at all times, with the idea that, someday later, you’ll use them in your writing.

It’s not just a good way to approach fiction. It’s a good way to approach life.

Photo by MJV

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