Have you noticed the role that telephones play in our novels, TV shows, and movies these days? The next time you enjoy a piece of fiction on the screen or on the page, count the number of times a cell phone comes into the picture, with characters making or receiving calls. Add bonus points for texting or use of smart phone apps. Often those calls are plot-changers. In my almost-finished novel, that’s certainly the case. The phone interrupts what my protagonist is doing at a key moment. I did a search and discovered I had used the word “phone” 115 times in 350 pages. Doesn’t that seem like too much?
What did writers do before folks had easy access to telephones? When they had to write letters? When they had to find a phone booth and money to pay for the call? When maybe because they weren’t near a phone they didn’t know what was happening elsewhere? Does anyone reading this remember when you had to stay home and wait for a phone call that might or might not ever come?
Is it too easy to just say, “And then the phone rang.” Is this a modern version of the old deus ex machina, in which some catastrophic event suddenly ends the story with a plane crash, explosion, earthquake or other unbelievable device? Or is it just a modernized version of a letter arriving or a stranger riding up on a horse to deliver a message?
Maybe we’re just being realistic. Certainly we have all noticed how many people walk around staring at their phones. And why not? They’re so entertaining. My new smart phone is really a small computer. It does everything but make my lunch. But have I gotten any life-changing calls on it lately? No. Just the usual nonsense about work, a few wrong numbers, and Verizon wanting to sell me more apps.
We seem to be creating a generation of zombies who can’t look away from their screens—phone, tablet, computer—for more than a few minutes without going into withdrawal and who don’t know how to look directly at the world around them and the people in it. But does that make for an interesting story? A horror story maybe.
Gina Denny, a blogger who’s half my age, has a different opinion. In this post, “Cell Phones in Fiction,” she scolds writers doing books about teens for NOT putting enough smart phones in their fiction because kids do everything on them. It would be unrealistic, for example, to have a teen character study a paper map or look up a word in a print dictionary; he would use his phone. It’s something to think about. It’s important to consider who your characters are and how they use their phones.
So here’s my challenge. Write a story that has no cell phones. Put your characters in a place with no service if you have to. And while you’re at it, put your own phone down. After all, you can’t type with a phone in your hand. Although I suppose you could write the story ON your phone.
Humor me. Just power off. Now go write.
One piece of advice that especially hit home was Appel’s suggestion that we set our fictional stories in places we know very well, places where we have actually lived. With a guilty twinge, I thought about a novel that I drafted a few years back that I set on the other side of the country in a city in Massachusetts that I had visited for a few days. Great place. I took a lot of pictures and notes and always planned to go back and do more research, but can I ever capture the heart of a city where I have only spent a few days? I can gather lots of facts on the Internet, but can I really feel the place in my bones? I doubt it. Locals will know I’m faking it.
The novel I’m just finishing is set right here on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here for 17 years. I know the history, the people, the climate. I know what used to be where Walgreen’s just opened. I know the mayor, I swap critiques with a county commissioner, I have taught at the community college, had surgery at the local hospital, I know what kinds of birds, plants and wild animals live here, and I can name most of the businesses up and down Highway 101. I’m lucky that I live in a place where the natural setting offers plenty of opportunities for drama. I could write stories about the Oregon coast forever.
I come from San Jose, California, which has grown from a quiet farm community into a huge metropolis. You have to hunt for unpaved ground. Traffic, overcrowding and high prices are constant factors in everyday life. It’s a completely different scene, but I know that one well, too. My family lives there, and I visit often. I also know the road from here to San Jose ridiculously well. I’ve got so many places to set my stories.
How about you? Where do you live? What stories can you tell? Can you look at your hometown with the eyes of a visitor seeing it for the first time? Maybe they’re armed with a guidebook that points out the special attractions, but you know more about it than the guidebook. You know where the locals hang out. You know the history, the secrets, and the dangers. You know the language. One of my problems with the Massachusetts story was capturing that distinct New England way of speaking. But I don’t have to stretch to write dialogue from the West Coast. That’s how I speak.
Everywhere can be a setting for a story. For a writer, the whole world teems with stories. With enough research, you can set your story anywhere, but know that if you want to make it real, the best place to start is the place you call home. It may also help your career to become identified with a particular place. Give it a try. Write a story that happens where you live.
Next week: How to use where you live for your nonfiction.
I’ve still got a few copies of Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market available for $10, including shipping. Email me at email@example.com if you want to buy an autographed copy.
Now go write.
Last night I attended a workshop by Eric Witchey, a prolific writer who has just sold his 70th short story. He says he has at least 50 out to market at all times. Impressive. How does he do it? He has a system of assigning himself prompts and craft techniques to work on every morning. After 15 minutes, if he can envision the end of the story, he keeps writing.
Our lesson was full of acronyms. You have the ABCs: Agenda, Back Story, Conflict and Setting. Then there’s ED ACE: emotion, decision, action, conflict, and emotion. You take these and go round and round until a story is formed. We started with a white board listing possible occupations for characters, then back stories, conflicts, and relationships that could develop from those occupations. This totally works. A story formed very quickly.
Witchey, who has won many prizes for his work, often writes for The Writer and Writer’s Digest, and has taught more classes than he can count, knows what he’s talking about. Visit his website for links to his articles and other information. He preaches that, after a while, these things become natural and you start to think in story structure. You write, a story develops, and then you can massage it to make sure all the elements of a good story are present. Maybe the conflict needs to be more intense. Perhaps we haven’t prepared the reader for the way the protagonist acts at the climax. Maybe the setting isn’t clear. But the basic story is there.
While Witchey uses his prompts and acronyms to get started, he doesn’t plot out the whole story before he writes. Some writers map it all out on a graph or cards in much the same way that people write plays. Here are the characters, here are the scenes, here are the major plot points. Then they fill in the blanks.
For me, if I know everything before I write, the story loses its energy, like a Coke that has lost its fizz. I just put down a sentence and follow it with another and see what happens. At some point, especially in a novel or a long story, I stop and take stock. What’s going on here? Where am I heading? What other scenes do I need to write to get there? Maybe, in a backwards, informal way, that process is my way of creating the structure and planning the story.
We have all heard of writers who do it all intuitively. They write as if they’re taking dictation. God or their characters tell them what to type. That doesn’t quite work for me. I can hear God saying, Think of something, and characters can’t talk to me if I haven’t created them. It’s like when I go on a road trip, I don’t like to plan my stops, but I do have to put gas in the car, pack a bag and bring my maps so I don’t get lost.
With fiction and poetry, I just start writing and see where it goes. With articles, I plan. I gather my materials, make sure I have the answers to all of my questions, jot down a loose outline, mark up my notes to match the outline, lay them out all around my desk, and start to write. After many years writing newspaper and magazine articles, the only difficult part is writing the lead, the first paragraph. After that, it flows naturally because my brain is programmed in article structure.
How about you? Are you an intuitive writer or a planner? What is your process when you are about to write something?