As part of a three part series, today Paula R. Stiles blogs about observations and the importance of being observant. Sit back, grab a drink, eat some chips and enjoy.
I just got back from a bird watch on the beach. We did two events. One was a nighttime drive-and-walk for owls in a wildlife refuge (We also saw several Black Bears). The other was a morning lecture and walk introducing people to the subject of Birding. The Owl Prowl had the added bonus of occurring on a very clear night, so I got to do some binocular astronomy while we were out there, as well, far from those ugly mercury lights that pollute our skies.
The Owl Prowl was especially striking in providing an opportunity to do something most people don’t get to do anymore – to be outside at night, far from lights and noise, with the sounds and sometimes sights of the wild. It had been a while since I’d had that, maybe even since living in Cameroon. You couldn’t get away from the distant sounds of the highway (even Cameroon had the sounds of trucks on the dirt road that bisected my village) or the night glow of a city on the horizon, but everything else seemed to be many years in the past. It felt the way the Native Americans and first European settlers must have felt hundreds of years ago, out there in the Carolina coastal woods.
We drove along the dirt roads, trying to find wildlife with a spotlight. Then we’d periodically stop, get out, and just stand there, listening for the night creatures as our guide explained what to listen for. Even the next day, in broad daylight near a busy road, our guide gave us the same advice: stop, look and listen.
I was struck by something that is touched on tangentially in writing advice, but doesn’t get covered enough as its own topic: observation. We, as writers, do not observe enough. Oh, we are instructed to keep notebooks with us so that we can jot down every thought and conversation, and to examine our dreaded feelings, but advice about actual observation is in pretty short supply.
I say this because I edit a Weird fiction zine and micropress, focusing on Lovecraft, and also am on a writer’s group, and it’s amazing how many derivative stories we get. Some of these stories are well-constructed as far as plot is concerned, but they are neither original nor exciting. They are much too reminiscent of older, better stories. They recycle characters from Golden Age scifi, horror comics, or The Twilight Zone.
We hear too often and too much that nothing is new under the sun. Some one hundred billion people have lived under that sun in the history of our species, telling the same seven or ten plots, using the same sets of characters. Every so often, there is an innovation, but these stories are retold for thousands and thousands of years.
However, there is one thing that is always different – every single person of that one hundred billion has had a slightly different, a truly unique, view of the universe. You gain your own perspective by observing your environment. Classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick are classics because they reflect experiences that were unique to those authors. Mark Twain’s love of the Mississippi is so strong in Huckleberry Finn that the river is a third lead character after Huck and Jim. Melville’s passionate Humanism combined with his experiences in whaling all over the world is the thread that holds that sprawling saga together.
It doesn’t have to be the natural world. Office Space and Fight Club are both quirky takes on the artificial, urban society that smothers the protagonists. And even the computer world that we encounter informs the subgenre of cyberpunk. But every good story has a setting that comes out of the writer’s view of the world around him or her. If you develop your own view of the world, every story you write can be unique, like a fingerprint.
For example, in my latest book, The Mighty Quinn, the hero is a Canadian who flees his home city of Vancouver and ends up across the border in Vermont. There, he gets a faceful of Vermont culture, especially its folklore. I grew up in Vermont and was living in Vancouver when I wrote the book. The intent was to have fun with the surroundings I knew, rather than copying someone else’s story or making things up out of whole cloth.
Similarly, my co-writer, Judith Doloughan, and I set our novel, Fraterfamilias, mainly in New York City. We had written the rough draft over the summer of 2001. When 9/11 happened, we decided to keep the time of the book in the early part of 2001, because pre-9/11 and post-9/11 New York were so radically different in a lot of ways. Setting is unique, but you can only discover that through observation.
Stop, look and listen.
You can find Paula’s book, The Mighty Quinn at the following places: