I suppose it does seem a little like magic, this storytelling thing. Explaining it, even to yourself, much less to other people usually results in bafflement. Like the old joke about dissecting humor being like dissecting a frog – by the time you are done, there is nothing but a bit of a mess and confusion and the frog is dead anyway. Mom and Dad are as puzzled by this aptitude in me as anyone else – they can’t for the life of them figure out how I came by the gift of spinning an enthralling story, of creating people on a page and making them so interesting and endearing that they care very deeply about them. Made-up people… and these are my parents, who have known me all my life. They can’t figure out how I do it, especially Dad, the logical and analytical scientist.
“Are you picturing it in your head, as if it was a movie?” he asked me once, and I suppose that comes as close as anything – although it is as much like to a movie as real life is, or maybe a hyper-life. I can see what the characters are seeing from all angles, know what they are feeling, the little things they do which betray that feeling, I can sense what the weather is like, how where they are smells… a couple of readers have pointed out that I do take a lot of notice of smells. Can’t account for that, either; just another aspect of the gift, I expect. The semi-employer who has also volunteered to edit much of Book 3 (which will be available after the first of the month- thank god and what a panic that has been!) also notes that I do pay particular attention to the weather, what the sky looks like, if it is hot or cold, rainy or clear. She noted this in particular as regards “To Truckee’s Trail”, which I didn’t think surprising, because living in a covered wagon, and in tents, walking ten or fifteen miles every day, of course one would have taken note of the weather. The weather would have governed every aspect of their existence for six long months, all along the Platte River trail, to Fort Hall, and into the wilderness of the Great Basin – never mind the Sierra Nevada, where weather would kill half of the Donner Party, not two years after the pioneers of the Stephens-Townsend Party dragged their wagons over the summit.
Don’t know where I got this sensitivity from – unless it was as a teenaged Girl Scout, being dragged along on all sorts of back-packing expeditions into the mountains; miserable experiences which usually resulted in making me sick from exhaustion and sun-exposure for a couple of days after returning from the worst of them… but I still hold in memory, the taste of sweet water, from a rivulet, high in the mountains above Lake Tahoe, and drinking it from my cupped hands. And also the experience of trying to sleep in a wet sleeping bag in March, high in the Angeles National Forest, after melting snow had trickled through our campsite all the day. After that one, I had a whole new appreciation of weather, even though I was never at any hazard for frostbite.
Places – I construct them in my imagination as carefully as I used to build miniature interiors; what is in the room, what are the walls made of, how sound is the roof, what do you see when you look out of the windows. What is growing in the ground outside? People live in these interiors – what would the imprint of their lives have left on that space. I saw a vignette at a miniature show once; an elaborate scene of a WWII fighter plane and a cross-section of the maintenance shed close-by, in 1-12 scale. The craftsman who had built the vignette had made the shed a show-piece of squalid disarray, including a thread of cigarette smoke rising from an ash-tray on the workbench. It was as if someone had just stepped outside for a moment… and that is such art, to make it so real that you can see the cigarette ash crumbling into the tray and a bit of smoke rising from it. In 1-12th scale, it was a real place, as real as any of those places I have built in my imagination.
People – that is one of the other weird aspects of this gift. I can read people, after a time. I have always been able to do this, not instantly – that is supposed to be one of those really, really useful talents, extraordinary valuable for a personnel manager, or someone doing job interviews, reading people as accurately as one of those instant-read cooking thermometers… but it is not mine. I’ve been fooled as well as anyone else, on short acquaintance. There have been people that I thought initially were major-league assholes who turned out to be quite the reverse, and people whom I had a good first impression of, who turned out to be so useless or malevolent that they should have been marked off with day-glo tape and tall plastic cones as a hazard to human navigation… but after six months of work-day association, I would know someone. I would know someone so thoroughly, be able to assess them down to the sub-atomic particle, with a fair degree of accuracy. This used to astound my fellow NCOs. They would not have realized some essential truth about Airman So-and-so, until I pointed it out to them. Then, with a shock, they would realize that I was right, and everything about Airman So-and-So would be understandable, out in the open, and perfectly transparent … and why hadn’t they have seen it?
I think that being able to create convincing characters might be somehow linked to this ability. Always, when I had to do a performance rating on a subordinate, my crutch in constructing this official bit of documentation was “What is the thing about this person which instantly comes to mind when you think about them?” And there would be the first sentence in their required yearly Airman Performance Report, and all the rest of it would flow after that. What is the key bit of their character, what is the essential bit that you have to know? Everything flows naturally from that… and so it is with creating characters. In my “Adelsverein Trilogy” I had to get a grip on what is their essential core characteristic. Everything flows from that: I couldn’t get a read on Magda and Carl’s children until I was writing a scene of their sons and Magda, digging up potatoes, before Christmas, 1862, during a year when they were living in poverty in Fredericksburg. It struck me that Sam, the younger son, ought to be one of those enthusiast children, who suddently take an interest in a particular topic and then go out and learn everything they can about it. Everything about the two boys became clear – the older was grieving and traumatized, the younger was taking emotional refuge in books, and would emerge as being elastic and undamaged by the experience. Everything about them was established – they would go in different directions, their reactions to various experiences would be complete as this sudden insight would take me – and everything would be coherent and sympathetic.
But of course, that is the other aspect – kind of an uncomfortable one, as far as I can see; seeing people at the best and worst, to know them down to their core – especially when it comes to people who are not all that admirable. That is actually the most challenging bit of writing a story – that is, writing about characters who are psychopaths. The major villain in Adelsverein is one if those – so cruel, so brutal – I actually don’t want to go there. I don’t like or sympathize with that character and I don’t want to go any farther into the story of him. No farther than it would take to outline the effect that he has upon the other characters, or how my main characters feel about how he meets his eventual doom. Which is as just as it is unexpected – or so I hope has appeared to anyone who reads all three books of the Adelsverein Trilogy.
(to be continued)