Thursday, December 02, 2010

Stupid, Stupid Virus

It's 1:40am, and if this was a fair and compassionate world, I would be in bed, in a coma instead of writing a blog. But the world is neither fair nor compassionate when you have the viral-equivalent of the movie Sybil. First it was my stomach, then it was hives, then a sore throat, then my stomach, then chills, then a runny nose, then a sore throat, then more hives, then a stuffy nose, then post-nasal drip, then chest-tightening, then a scratchy throat, then a stuffy nose again, then post-nasal drip... I just want to scream at myself, Pick a symptom and go with it already!

As you might imagine, as soon as my head hits the pillow I find myself unable to breathe. So I figured I might as well write a blog, since I'm unlikely to be getting much sleep tonight.

I haven't been doing much novel writing lately, but have been enjoying myself immensely doing research. Today I don't know how many hours I spent perusing websites selling vintage clothing. 1916 is an interesting year clothing-wise, since it was during a time of fashion transition (from the Gibson girl/Edwardian look to the more practical silhouette of the World War I years). Clothes are an important aspect of my book since they create such a distinction between my upper class characters from Boston and locals in Western North Carolina. But I didn't have the first idea what my characters would be wearing, the types of fabrics and embellishments they'd use, or the palette of their clothing. I'd tried researching period clothing through google images, to no avail. But today when I started searching out vintage clothing sellers, I hit paydirt--and nice modern pictures showing all the details.

There are several scenes that I only wrote halfway because the clothing descriptors eluded me. Now I can go back and fill in the missing pieces.

I still struggle with writing rich detail. The natural-born playwright in me wants to write the dialogue and let somebody else (ie. the director) worry about the visuals. I think at some point in my education, someone pounded the adjectives right out of me. Mark Twain once said, "When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice" and I think I took this too much to heart. Obviously I'm not as sparse as, say, Hemingway, but I already understand that in order for this book to work, it has to transport the reader to 1916 Appalachia, and that's all in the details.

Since I've moved far, far, faaaaar away from Western North Carolina and my mountains, I've had quite a bit of time to think about why life there is so singularly different from any other place in the world. When we lived in Cincinnati, we were on the very border with the Appalachians, but the dynamic was very different. The Ohioans would often make disparaging remarks about "the Appalachians" and when I protested, saying I was Appalachian too, they'd say, "But you're from the NC mountains. That's different."

It does feel different, but descriptors allude me. I can't really put my finger on the reasons why. Maybe it was because my Appalachian experience was always a good one. My family lived in solitude, yes, but Asheville and Hendersonville were close by for culture. And because they farmed in the bottom lands, their lives were more comfortable than those farming hillier, and less fertile farms at higher elevations. Also, my family is inclusive, rather than exclusive. We claim people as kin who are so far distantly removed from us that it takes half an hour to retrace the geneological connection. For example, Tom and I got married at my "cousin's" farm--at the site of the original family homestead, which dated back to the mid-1700s. This "cousin" is my great-great grandfather's sister's great-grandchild, or something to that effect... We go to the Wall family reunions even though the last Walls in the family were my great-grandmother and her younger sister, whom I knew, by the way. We spent a pretty substantial amount of time with her family, all things considered. Until I met Tom, I had no idea this was unusual. I was absolutely flabbergasted that nobody knew anything about his grandfather's only sister (including her married name). How do you not keep in contact with your grandfather's sister? I saw all ten of my grandfather's siblings, all their children, and all their children's children regularly!

And then how do you convey this dynamic in a novel? Ugh. If I wasn't already an insomniac, the stress of working it out would put me over the edge...

The Appalachia I'm talking about isn't the backward-feuding-Deliverance-esque-dueling-banjos-moonshine-swigging-dirt-poor hell hole that most people assume we live in. And I feel enormous pressure to get the descriptions just right, so they can see it for the magical, and entirely unique, place that it is.

But first I have to get rid of this virus, because writing this book is going to take some stamina.


  1. Ha! I loved this post. We have a huge family too, although I can't claim to be quite so in touch with those on the distant fringes as you. I'm feeling grotty too at the moment - and we're under about ten feet of snow (slight exaggeration). Get well soon.

  2. i'm sorry you're not feeling well, but if you're getting this stuff out of it, great! i'm not feeling too great either, something's been a comin' for days now.

    i have great affection for my southern heritage and the rich stories passed through my mother's side. they were working folk, self-sustaining to a large degree until the middle of last century, and we still get all of those old stories at the stanley family reunions. we are nearly a generation away from any stanleys left because of the 8 siblings my mother is among, there were only 2 boys.

    so some of it is a difference of a long southern cultural heritage vs northern, but also, kind of like tom's family, my father's side is just quieter and less populous folk, though they know where they were from, and were proud of it.


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