Monday, April 4, 2011

Pictures and Thousands of Words

I slacked off for most of this weekend. (Yeah, great start to a dare, I know....) But I suddenly came on in the middle of the night last night. It was after 1am when I started my session, and it took about an hour and a half to write 1023 words. (Not finished yet for today, but I'll update the sidebar when I do.)

Why the sudden late burst? (And what does the man in the cowboy hat have to do with this post?)


Yes, images woke up my imagination this weekend and spurred me to write. But it didn't happen directly or instantaneously. The images in question had nothing to do with the actual scene I wrote, either -- they were just generally related to the same series.

I've been drifting around the edges of the series I call "The Serial." I call it that not because it's actually going to be a serial. (That is, not a soap opera style non-ending story which jumps from cliffhanger to cliffhanger.) It's going to be like a regular series, but it's inspired by silent movie serials and adventure fiction of the 1920s. (More about serials and series and soap operas and stand-alone stories tomorrow.)

So I've been browsing for cover inspirations -- movie posters and stills of the era, period books and magazine illustrations, real life pictures of the era. When I do this (which I do all the time -- it's better than checking your stats when it comes to wasting time) I get inspiration for more than the cover.

Sometimes a pose or facial expression will give me a zing of recognition of an attitude. I might get ideas for motivations or conflicts or even a whole character. Sometimes it's the setting -- the way the light falls on a building might seem right for the cliffs in a certain scene, and there's another zing, and I have the whole atmosphere down.

And sometimes I'll see something that just evokes the feeling of the story in some way.

In my Serial, there is a country called Awarshawa. It is a nation caught in perpetual war, cold or hot. Either there's a revolution or civil war, or nations on either side of it will get in a fight and march right over their borders.

Awarshawa is a mashup of "Ruritanian" countries of early 20th century fiction. It's the place the spies are from or are going to, and the ambassadors are always getting assassinated. It's where the border guards stop the train and hassle you about your papers. It's where the exiled nobles are from, who endlessly plot against one another. And it's a place where refugees flee through the forest primeval, only slightly less afraid of the local bandits and armies of partisans soldiers than they are of the legendary monsters which also roam those woods.

And most of my Awarshi characters, so far, are kind of like Bolsheviks with the souls of cartoon Frenchmen. (They seem to spend much of their time smoking, shrugging, accepting bribes and arguing over the meaninglessness of existence.) At least that describes the more sophisticated urban Awarshis. The wild partisans of the mountains and forest have a much more Cossack style.


There's this old Soviet propaganda film of soldiers having a dance competition. Not long ago, somebody matched it to the Run DMC song "It's Like That," creating a kind of Breakdancing Cossacks video, which went viral and is a lot of fun. But this weekend, I found the original, and hey! I recognized my Awarshi partisans.

One of the fun things about this video is in the background. I was freeze-framing my way through it, looking for poses to draw for illustrations, and I realized that the guys in the backgrounds were posturing and performing their role as an audience to the hilt. They were, as I like to say, "pulling a Steve McQueen." (Hah! You wondered how Steve McQueen fit into this, didn't you?) McQueen was a competitive guy, and in his early roles in particular, he would "act" at full throttle even when he was supposed to be standing still and listening -- trying to steal the scene from the star. (They say that John Sturges, director of the Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, would subtly encourage this, and that by the end of Mag7, all the actors were doing it to compete with McQueen -- which is one of the reasons why Mag7 is such a rich movie.)

So while I'm watching this and thinking, "Oh, those guys are tracking my hero as he escapes from the castle...and that one is Commander Zuzo! .. and those guys are swashbucklers, imagine if the first one had a sword in his hand...and the second is jumping onto a galloping horse from a balcony...," I'm getting all hyped up on the mood of the story.

The scene I wrote last night had nothing to do with those images, really. There were no Awarshi characters in it, but it was from the beginning of the first story The Misplaced Hero, and was the moment the the hero's first arrival in Awarshawa.

(The Misplaced Hero is the story of Alex, a perpetual college student and ne'er-do-well. His mysterious Aunt Floria gave him a ring when she died and told him to wear all the time just in case he might want to go jump in a lake someday. Jump in a lake? Well, he finds out what that means when he jumps into the muddy college river to save his drunken professor -- only to come back to the surface in a far different river than the one he jumped into. One with a swift current, a waterfall just downstream, and soldiers shooting at each other from the banks...)

I intend this first story to be a novelette or novella, but I may actually write this by the seat of my pants and see how it comes out. Which would suit an ongoing serial, but as I said yesterday about the rambling O. Henry story: I want this to have a point. After all, if I wrote this as a literal serial --never ending, going form cliffhanger to cliffhanger -- I would be making a very different promise to the reader than the promise we make with a regular story, or even a regular series.

But more about that tomorrow, when I talk about promises....

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