Loading Chekhov’s Gun

Today’s Wednesday Words installment is about gun safety: the proper techniques for loading and handling Chekhov’s Gun. This is based on advice from Anton Chekhov, a highly skilled writer of novels, plays, and short stories, who is quoted as saying: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” (You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the various elaborations and variations on this idea in the entry on TV Tropes.) Chekhov was talking about economy: don’t pad your work with miscellaneous junk that’s not going to be useful. I’m turning it upside down today and talk about how I’ve handled the minor Chekhovian items in my WIP.

As I worked through my first draft, I came again and again on situations where I needed something to be there, but I hadn’t set it up ahead of time. Rather than stop now to describe the lamp that’s now being chopped up for parts, I recognize that this is a pop-pistol version of Chekhov’s gun. I need to hang that puppy on the wall at an earlier point, so I can now just reach up and grab it.

There are lots of techniques for loading that gun. I’m some of my readers are using Scrivener, and you might be able to post information about how to do this effortlessly in that system. Everyone I know loves it, but it’s never clicked with me. I do my writing the old fashioned way, with a quill pen in word-processing files, so here’s how I handle it. As I’m reaching up for a gun that’s not there, I add a marginal comment right then that I need to set this up. Later, when I’m looking back at the work for the last few days, I see that note and poke around in earlier chapters until I find a good place to plant it, and I drop another marginal note at that point, something like: “Describe lamp – you’ll need it in Chapter 8.”

Here’s a specific example. For reasons I don’t want to explain now (you’ll have to read it when it’s published *grin*), my main character Kay has to be able at a climactic point in the story to reach into a kind of space she can’t really see to find a weapon. That invisible, almost intangible space is the ghostly remnant of the pantry in the kitchen of the hotel where she works. To set this up I have the following passage, which will appear on roughly Page 3 of the book:

I was working quickly as I sorted the last tray of mixed flatware into their drawers at the back of the pantry, scalding my fingers on the hot metal. Still, I had to be careful, because there were some steak knives in the tray and they had to go in the drawer the right way ’round. When I first started here I earned a rap on the knuckles for getting some of the knives backward. “Some day,” Jana said, “you will reach in there, going quickly, looking not so much.” She managed to glare down her nose at me, which isn’t easy for someone who didn’t reach my shoulder. “One knife is backward, and you will maybe wish someone had been more careful.” I bowed my head and apologized sweetly, because losing a job in two days would have been a record, even for me, and she let me off with just the glare.

I’m pleased with this passage because it does several things at once, which every paragraph in the book should do to earn its keep. Here’s what I was trying to accomplish in these 154 words:

  • Grounding the action in the present time, showing what Kay (the narrator) is doing at the time when things start going seriously awry.
  • Illuminating something of Kay’s personality with those last few lines about how losing her job so quickly would have been a record, “even for me.” It says she’s not someone who is known for sticking around for the long haul.
  • Showing Jana’s character, in that she’s a stickler for procedures, isn’t above rapping a new employee’s knuckles, is considerably shorter than Kay, and speaks English with an accent (I’ve written before about writing an accent).
  • Loading that gun. When Kay realizes later that she can reach into the back wall of that pantry, hidden though it is with magical glamour, she knows just where to find a knife. At that time she will spare a thought of thanks for Jana’s insistence on doing things right.

If you think about Chekhov’s Gun and how it works in your writing, then when you reach up it’s there — and BOOM!

How have you handled situations like this in your writing? Share your ideas with the rest of us.

Turkey Soup

turkeysoup

Thanksgiving is good and all that, but for some of us, it’s what comes after that’s terrific: the homemade turkey soup. This is an especially part of the holiday season for my son. He faces some challenges in living on his own, and the turkey soup I make after Thanksgiving was always something he looked forward to more than anything. These days I freeze single-serving portions for him to take home, and several times I’ve also given him a dozen frozen servings as a Christmas present, roasting the turkey breast, wings, and drumsticks for that purpose only. Once I even surprised him with turkey soup for his birthday, but that’s in August so it just didn’t seem right. Around here, it’s the holiday season when the house smells like turkey soup.

If you want to make Mom’s Turkey Soup, drop a note in the comments and I’ll post the recipe. It can be a bit time-consuming, but it’s not complicated or difficult, and it makes a hungry young man very happy.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without…

Giving Thanks

The Wednesday Words this week aren’t mine, but come from a Native American blessing that is appropriate on this eve of the American holiday of Thanksgiving:

Give thanks for blessings yet unknown,
already on their way.

I am thankful for so much.

  • My wonderful family: The husband who cherishes me and our children and who speaks up for what is right and good. The son who faces his personal challenges every day at work and at home and just keeps going, and the people who have helped him reach his level of independence. The daughter who shares her music and art with the world, and who donates hours each month to volunteer service at a store supporting fair trade art works. The future son-in-law who brings our daughter joy and love.
  • My privileged place in the world: My husband and I have good jobs we love, bringing us satisfaction and two steady incomes. We life in a neighborhood, a region, a nation where we feel safe and where our essential humanity is supported. We are reminded every day that this is indeed a privilege, and that we are obligated to keep working until it is no longer a privilege, but the natural state for everyone.
  • My social network: Friends to gather with, critique partners to share feedback and boost each other in the work of writing, co-workers to commiserate and celebrate with, fellow musicians to sing and play with, the terrific people who follow this blog, and all the others who share a smile every day.

I could go on, but that’s enough from me today.

What are you most thankful for?

A Magical Day

fairygirl

I don’t know who this charming little girl is, with her colorful fairy dress and face paint, but I couldn’t resist snapping her picture at a local fair last year. She is riding on a miniature merry-go-round swing, and seems to be taking the experience so seriously. It reminds me that for children, the whole world is magical.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Magic

Writing Diversity – Danger or Opportunity?

There’s a lot being said these days about the importance of including people from many different corners of humanity in our writing (for example, see this essay from Daniel José Older on Writing the Other). Like many writers, I’m coming from a position squarely in the middle of society: white, middle-class, cis-gendered, educated, American, Christian. How can I bring different kinds of people into my stories, without in some way trying to co-opt or trivialize other people’s stories? Here are three ways the characters in my current story break from my own experience, and how I’m coping with it (with varying degrees of success).

  • My main character, Kay, is very much like me. Aside from being decades younger than I am, the main way she differs from me is that she’s a drifter with no fixed address, someone who bounces from job to job and mostly lives out of her car. So not quite in the comfortable middle-class world that is mine, but not far out. I have no trouble imagining her and clearly delineating her world view. One of my critique partners made me very happy when he mentioned casually that a particular event would be particularly disturbing to Kay, since she’s one who always wants to get out and run. That’s exactly how I think of her, and it’s nice to know some of that came across to this reader.
  • Two of the important secondary characters, Naia and Alex, are in a lesbian relationship. That’s the way the characters presented themselves to me, and I’m very comfortable with them this way. So comfortable that their relationship is not mentioned in the story at all for the first ten chapters, because there was so much happening fast and furiously that it just never came up. Finally, at a peak of tension, when Naia goes out of their place of relative safety to scout for trouble, Alex tells her to be careful and they exchange a kiss before Naia says, “Always am. I’ll be back.” My critique partners loved this, finding it a quick way to emphasize the danger and heighten the reader’s emotional involvement. The jury is still out on whether I should go back and their involvement clearer in earlier sections, or whether this can be a good place to reveal it. I think I may compromise and drop some hints earlier that, in retrospect, indicate their relationship, but have Kay not pick up on it because, seriously, there are Other Things Going On!
  • Naia has another characteristic of the Other: she’s Black. This is the area where I’m on the shakiest ground, and not at all confident about how I’m handling it. There are two reasons for her ethnicity. One is that I’m one of the many people concerned about increasing representation for people of color in books, so I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. The other is that one thing I do as I’m developing characters is search the Internet for photos that seem to fit the person I’m imagining, which I can look at as I’m writing to keep me grounded in their different voices and visions. The photo I found for Naia happens to be a Black woman, lovely and confident, with a big happy smile and a mop of unapologetic dreads. She’s the kind of woman who goes out to slaughter horrible monsters from another dimension with a big freaking sword and enjoy it. But my critique partners scolded me for describing her “coffee-colored” skin as a cliché. They ask me why I’ve named her ethnicity but not the ethnicity of anyone else in the party. They point out the times when I’ve mentioned another character’s eye or hair color, but not hers. I find myself described by Rule 2 in the article about Writing the Other that I linked to above: I suck. Naia’s ethnicity is feeling, to me and therefore to my readers, as something glued on, not an integral part of who she is, and quite possibly patronizing.

How do I move forward? There are two paths I can take. I can buckle down and do a better job of bringing Naia’s ethnicity to life. To do that I’d need to do a thread analysis in revision, where I search for every mention of Naia and track how she’s introduced, how she’s described, how she acts, and how others react to her. I’d have to make this whole thread consistent, with her ethnicity integral but not central. Then I’d ask my friends and colleagues who are themselves women of color to read those sections and give me honest reactions. My other choice is to acknowledge that I’m not ready to write a convincing, authentic person of color, and backtrack to make her white, like me. That feels like a failure, but it might be the most honest choice.

I’m wrestling with this concern right now, and will be until I finish this revision pass, at least through the end of the year. Then I’ll have to make a choice.

I’d love to hear what you think. Any advice will be most helpful!

Bird House

birdhouse

Good friends of mine decorate their gardens with whimsical, unexpected things: a metal sculpture of praying mantises, an exquisite enameled birdbath, a rock painted with flowers. This delightful bird house hangs from a tree and clearly invites actual birds to visit, but I fell in love with how it miniaturizes a human house. There are shutters on the windows, a knob on the door, and tiny flowers in the tiny flower boxes. It makes me smile.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Tiny

No Words

This is where I usually post my Wednesday Words, but today, after last night’s stunning election, I don’t have any words. Let me instead leave you with this image (created by Tim Brintoni after 9/11, but just as applicable today).

weeping-libertyOne more note: If you are suddenly feeling anxious and threatened, because you are a member of one of the many groups that just got pushed farther out on the margins, know that you still have allies, and we will not stop fighting for you.

Please feel free to share here your reactions to the US election and what it means for you and for our country. I feel I have to say, for the first time, that I may choose to delete or not approve comments on this blog if in my opinion they espouse hostility or aggression toward any person or group.