The Facts About Writing Fiction

August 10, 2012 4:05 pm
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A good writer creates a short story or novel based on what he knows – what he has experienced. Something in his past or present state of affairs affects him deeply. The story he writes may be about a person that has made some kind of impact on him – not just a family member or friend but a stranger, as well.

Sometimes, writers see a face and create a character behind that person. For example, a woman I once saw standing at a bus stop interested me. My imagination went into full gear, and out popped a short story. It was called The Powder Case. This story introduced a woman in her eighties, who while applying her makeup in the bathroom, passes out for reasons not told – until the end of the story. The reader may think she has died – until her husband gets to her in time. It is a study in character that expands into themes of love and devotion. There is a fair bit of suspense and irony.

This character was named Mrs. Jilasi. The simple act of seeing this little old lady at the bus stop triggered a story that resonates with readers. When I read it at a writer’s club two months ago, we discussed its impact. How could a piece of fiction be so real, and why did it hold interest for listeners? After much discussion, we concluded the story involved health, a near-tragic incident, relief and love. These are themes that come into everyone’s life sooner or later. These listeners felt emotionally invested in Mrs. Jilasi. They also wanted to hear what the outcome would be and how the plot twists would resolve.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace. We may love or hate these characters, but it is crucial that as character development occurs, we recognize their humanity. They must seem real. We react to their emotions and experiences, even cry, as one listener did during my reading of The Powder Case. This listener empathized with the situation, along with the vanity, anguish and love that defined the actions in the story. She said it was so real. Yet, it was pure fiction.

This can often run a writer into danger. If the novel is about characters or events within a family context, a reader can assume it is biographical in nature; a family member or friend can take the story to be about them. They are right in so far as some aspects of their lives may have provided the story seed.

I have written a story based in a real setting and on a relationship about siblings. Only one element in the story is true; the rest is fiction, formed by a multitude of brain synapses throwing up mental images and emotions that live in a writer. A writer can reinvent reality as real events and people known to him become morphed into a new reality – shaped anew by the mysterious talents and ideas percolating in his brain. Mixed into a boiling pot, these disconnected fragments are formed into a fluid piece of poignant fiction. But here is the real truth: most writers wing it as they write. The characters take on a life of their own as do the events.

Writing is not for control freaks.

Writing is not for control freaks. You have to let it all happen; you are the conduit through which the story is created. You are the stylist and ‘plot chaser’, for often the plot runs away on you, guiding you, and that is magical.

Some writers have no idea how the story will end. The creative thread of words flows to create a tapestry of truths that are all fictional. So, if someone ever tells you he is in the novel you have written, you can reply by saying: “Thank you for inspiring me to mutate you into something you never were or will be with events that never happened or will happen.”

The fact is great fiction confounds; fact and fiction blur into one.

To the Sea, a Book Review

August 8, 2012 5:54 pm
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Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

By Brian Fagan

Bloomsbury Press, 2012, 313pp.

Newfoundland and Labrador 1700: in the morning dawn, boat crews are setting off the southeastern coast for another day of cod fishing. The water is calm, the skies clear. The fishermen travel steadily out to sea before bringing their vessels to rest. Hand lines are tossed into the water, the tips covered with squid or capelin, the favorite bait used to draw cod close to their boats. The fish are plentiful, which is why these sailors originally made the long voyage across the Atlantic to the shores of Newfoundland. Towards the day’s end, storm clouds drift across the sky. Before long the winds pick up, the sky darkens and the ocean swells rise to formidable heights. A dense fog falls like a curtain over a stage. The landscape, previously visible in the distance, is now impossible to see through the thickening mist. Boats are filled with cod, but the journey back to shore will be difficult to navigate through the gathering gloom. A single wave could topple a boat. Most will make it back, but some will perish at sea.

This is the sort of story Brian Fagan likes to tell in his latest in a long line of remarkable books, Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans. The stories are more often than not imagined. Fagan masterfully paints scenes depicting life thousands of years ago. Other stories are of his personal adventures on the high seas, which he’s experienced in seemingly every part of the globe. Whatever the type of story, Fagan’s telling of it is always infused with a sense of joyful discovery and is designed to transport the reader to a particular time and place. Once there he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of history, climate and anthropology to explore the questions and themes at the heart of the book. How and why did the earliest human civilizations engage with the oceans? To use Fagan’s own terminology, how did ancient civilizations ‘decode’ the oceans’ secrets? How did communities learn to travel enormous distances on water with nothing remotely resembling modern technology? Fagan’s answers are fascinating and very much in keeping with the underlying theme of so much of his work. Climate is the key to understanding the nature of a civilization’s relationship to the sea. Indeed, perhaps better than any other living writer, Fagan makes the case for climate as a vital and sometimes decisive factor in human history.

Climate is the key to understanding the nature of a civilization’s relationship to the sea.

The monsoon system dictating weather patterns off the Indian coast provides a dramatic example of how climate shaped early civilizations’ ability to engage with the sea.  Fagan demonstrates how predictable monsoon generated trade winds made traveling to distant shores possible. Understanding the monsoon winds meant the ability to time the length of return journeys. By 2000 B.C.E. travel originating on India’s west coast was common, but was largely in response to Mesopotamia’s demand for vital commodities. Mesopotamia was without the sort of timber required for the construction of vessels capable of long distance travel. Timber as well as gold and certain foodstuffs were thus among the commodities arriving on ships sailing from the Indus Valley. The strength and the predictability of the monsoon winds also meant ships traveling from India reached far down the East African coast, otherwise known as Azania. Contact would typically lead to trading relationships. Africa was rich with commodities – ivory, timber and iron ore among them. Timber was especially valuable to peoples inhabiting semi arid and often treeless regions. Another effect of ocean based trading was to better connect interior and coastal areas and to foster density in coastal towns. Fagan refers to Shanga, Manda and Ungwana as Azania based coastal towns that might have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants. As he remarks, they acted as “ports of call for oceangoing dhows engaged in the monsoon trade.”

The type of conditions that drive the monsoon winds are in stark contrast to those that prevail in the north west Pacific, where the Aleutian islands are to be found off the coast of the Alaskan Peninsula. The islands are often characterized by their gray, austere beauty. Water this far north is frigid, wind and storm patterns unpredictable. Distant travel like that facilitated by the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean would be precarious and unadvisable in these waters. Such conditions dictated the manner in which the communities living in the region engaged with the sea. Aleutian crews rarely went too far off shore. Exploratory voyages were uncommon. Yet, as Fagan wonderfully illuminates, it is here that the earliest mariner communities were to be found. Fresh water lakes in the area featured plentiful marine life. Boats were ingeniously crafted out of available raw materials and were designed to accommodate the ice laden waters. These were largely treeless environments, with the exception of driftwood. But even driftwood was in short supply, which meant it had to be slowly collected over time. The hulls of the vessels were made of sea lion hide and sea mammal bones. The vessels were thus flexible enough to absorb collisions with ice and light enough that they could be easily transported on land. Fagan tells the story of the Aleutians beautifully.

Author Brian Fagan

For all of Fagan’s remarkable learning, however, there was a curious omission from his analysis. He promises to describe “how the earliest mariners uncovered the secrets of the oceans.”  Yet much of what he writes describes why mariners uncovered those secrets. In many cases, the reasons were to meet the human needs for commodities and food and to satisfy the basic human impulse to explore. But answering the question why is not the same as answering the question how. To be sure, Fagan does address this basic question by documenting the types of vessels used on the high waters.  But what about those systems of knowledge that allowed mariners to navigate treacherous waters over vast distances? Fagan himself, for example, refers to the incredibly elaborate and subtle knowledge system the Polynesians developed to travel enormous distances on the Pacific. The swell of waves would yield vital information about approaching weather. The night sky was a map used to guide them to distant shores. Bird flight patterns were used to gage distances. Fagan’s passing reference is not, however, the prelude to any sort of detailed overview. Nevertheless, this omission hardly detracts from the quality of the book.

In the end, adaptability is the theme that binds together the vast array of human communities Fagan investigates in Beyond the Blue Horizon. Even in the most severe environments, these communities and civilizations were able to skillfully and ingeniously engage with the sea. In the book’s final chapter Fagan ruminates on a potential paradox relevant to our own time. Does our relentless drive to master the oceans ultimately compromise our ability to understand the sea? The question seems counterintuitive. Fagan’s point is that supertankers and cruise ships are designed to distract and disengage passengers from the sea. But like those on the Titanic, feeling totally immune from the sea’s unpredictable and unforgiving nature puts us at risk of underestimating its extraordinary powers. Although fascinating, this question strikes me as less important than others that might be posed, especially given Fagan’s subtle understanding of climate. For it is the potentially accelerated pace of climate change that may render us unable to adapt to the sea’s changing conditions. How, for example, will coastal communities adapt to an accelerated rise in sea levels? The question highlights an elementary truth: land and sea are intimately interconnected and thus changes to one will have echoing effects on the other. Fagan makes clear that many ancient civilizations treated the oceans as another part of the landscape they inhabited. It is a lesson we would be wise to remember.

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