Monday, February 25, 2008


Given the surprising comment I got on my review of “Effigy,” which had seemed to be about a unique confluence of subjects -- the Mountain Meadow massacres and taxidermy -- but is evidently not that unique, according to Kathleen Matheson Weber, I’ve been thinking about story “concepts.” Certainly they run in clusters in Hollywood where people talk plot lines when they “do lunch.” Maybe there’s something in the news or a general mood of something like apocalypse that stirs up story ideas so there's a little flurry of competing movies. Personally, I don’t mind the same concept being used by different writers since each is bound to develop it in a unique and interesting way -- assuming they are GOOD writers! A concept does not a story make.

I always have too many “concepts.” Today I read Terrierman’s post and could immediately see what a good plot line was embedded in this off-beat “sport” wherein people use a terrier to chase a pesky animal down a hole and then dig them back up -- both terrier and quarry. The best stories have three corners, like the “games alcoholics play” which always involve a miscreant, a savior, and a persecutor, the point of the game being that the three participants change roles but never the underlying three-hand structure because that ends the game.

So: a small terrier-like woman chases some varmint into the “underground” (an exhibitionist, a drug peddler, a thief?) and a man tries to save her, but his wife objects. Or his buddy, who doesn’t approve of rescuing troublesome women when there are so many others around who are less trouble.

Or what if the varmint is a child, a miserable little wart left over from a previous marriage and the genetic parent wants to get rid of him, but the step parent takes the role of the terrier, going “down the hole” to try to understand and to save the child.

Or maybe the varmint is a feral illegal immigrant, adult or child or male or female, and he/she has a terrible disease -- maybe AIDS or TB or both -- and the authorities want to stuff he/she down some institutional hole so it is the “hero” who tries to prevent this, maybe with the help of a real Jack Russell terrier who leads cops and social workers down the wrong labyrinths of flop house hallways and sordid back alleys.

My own method when starting a story is to try to determine these patterns beforehand. Other people start with the characters and then try to imagine what happens to them in certain environments. I’m afraid I tend to have a “moral” in mind -- a point about an injustice or a prescription for what ought to happen. But often the moral is that life is ambiguous and it’s hard to know what’s actually right or wrong. And surprises often happen on the way to the supposed goal. That’s always a lot of fun in a plot.

Richard Stern used to go research some exotic field of endeavor, because so many people really enjoy learning all about -- well, maybe taxidermy, though “Effigy” won’t teach you much about anything contemporary since the methods are so old-fashioned. New-fangled wouldn’t have worked: “arsenic” is a metaphor for strychnine in the story, but the modern borax-based methods wouldn’t work since borax is not poisonous except to insects. (Works on all ants but the ones in my house.) But I suppose one could design a story in which a woman kills the cockroaches in her dump of an apartment, thus becoming like a wolf-hunter using strychnine. It’s better to work from one’s own expertise, like Melville telling about whaling, but it’s also a lot of fun and stirs up ideas to study stamp-collecting or the making of silicon chips.

A new setting might also be a good idea, but I find that editors and readers have stubborn ideas about some places -- like Indian reservations or animal control locker rooms -- and simply will NOT accept reality. A little tricky to persuade them. Strangely, there is a kind of person (quite a few individuals, judging from sales) who love to read about near-unsurvivable settings and incidents: massacres, bombings, mass murder. Are they trying to understand how to survive them -- getting braced the future? Or it is a kind of voyeurism? What attracts the writer and how could anyone possibly KNOW what it’s like unless they were there. Thus the fufaraw over memoir.

Readers and so on -- should I say “consumers”? -- also differ in their appetite for analysis. Some just want the plain facts, baldly put, and let be. Others enjoy the process of speculating on a verbal exchange or a glimpsed juxtaposition over and over, trying to turn up different sides, possible alternatives, relationships to other events, possible causes. I’m reading “Monsieur” by Laurence Durrell (remember that I alternate the two Durrell’s for my throne room meditations) in which he presents a constant stream of possibilities: his main character who is a writer is developing a book about a writer named THIS and his character is like THAT; no, actually, the writer in the writer’s story is not at all that way. He’s called THAT and is like THIS. Then there will be a paragraph or two of exquisitely written description about nothing much: sitting in a cafe drinking, usually. And then maybe a quick observation about human nature or perception per se. A person can have limited tolerance for this and since it doesn’t matter a whole lot to keep track of a narrative through-line, it’s good for episodic reading. On the other hand, what Durrell is really working on is gnostic (supernatural and deceptive) philosophy for those who have enough background to find their way. A much less desultory reading would be necessary to do this.

Since I’m wandering around, I’ll confide to you that I had a hard time keeping all the biographical sketches in “Bronze I&O” from being just a jumble. Ironically -- and I think happily -- I’m discovering that the readers are “hypercarding” (linking) their way through the book, reading episodes in their own invented order because of their own relationship to Bob Scriver or myself or Browning or cowboy art. No two people seem to be reading the same book, which is always the case anyway.

Given that, I wonder what a book I wrote would be like if I used the premise of a man with multiple wives, one of whom does taxidermy, and involves Indians and wolves. Maybe I’d throw in a fox and a fox terrier. How many times in my life have I been saved by the idea that dangerous as the actual living moment might be, it was great research for a book?

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