The magic of brothers

When I was a kid growing up on a dead-end street in Hillside, factories at the top, factories at the bottom, all playing fields to us, we had an ice-cream man who served soft ice cream along with the Good Humor bars. The most expensive item on the truck was a chocolate shake.

The block was full of kids ranging from me and my best friend Anne, the youngest, to older brothers and sisters, in their late teens and early twenties. None of us could really afford the chocolate shakes. I’d stare at the picture as I counted dimes. One day, my brother was there, watching us in line. He must have seen me counting, figuring, looking disappointed, because he got up off the curb and said, “What do you want? My treat.”

I was afraid to say the shake, but he guessed it and said, that’s fine, and he pulled what looked like a fortune to me from his pocket. I’m sure it wasn’t, but slicing a dollar bill from what looked like tens and twenties had my eyes open wide. He worked. He was older. From that day on, if he was ever around when the ice cream man came, he’d jog over and buy me a shake.

That wasn’t his only magic. He let me play in his bedroom when he was out. He had swords and daggers hanging on his walls, medieval wall hangings, a spiked flail hanging over his pillow. And he had a wall of model cars. I didn’t take anything down, I just touched things gently, and then lay on his bed and made up stories. I liked cars and dolls equally as a kid; I liked swords and easy-bake-ovens. He encouraged my imagination in what others might have dissuaded.

And he was an artist, is an artist. He’d let me watch him draw. I’d sit at the kitchen table and watch the array of pencils bring out shadow and light to form trees and mountains and cabins and our own small house in a little street.

He’s taken to going on vacations with my family now. And I tell him he has to bring his paints and canvases. It takes him nearly the entire week to get up inspiration, and then he sighs and unwraps the canvas and sets out the paint jars and palette. I wonder if he’s doing it just because I’m waiting. We bring home at least two small canvases, little things he says aren’t worth anything.

I love them. I have two of his large paintings hanging in my house, along with the little things. I still have the sketches he drew me when I was kid, even the fire engines he helped me draw for a school project. He’ll be retiring soon, and I told him he has to come out more often, have dinner with us. He and Gary are very good friends. Maybe we’ll go out for ice cream, and maybe I’ll order the biggest dish!

Older brothers can be magic to a younger sister. I wonder sometimes how much he’s responsible for my opinions of men and my underlying belief they’re good guys.


To spin on a thread, eating the sun and moon

In Romania, the Varcolaci vampires hunger, not for the red blood flow of humans, but for the light of the sun and the moon. Sometimes depicted as small animals, but also as pale and parched humans, one legend has it that they’re created at midnight if a woman spins without candlelight. They travel wherever they like on the thread of this midnight spinning, as long as the thread isn’t broken, and an eclipse is the Varcolaci satiated by that lost sun or moon.

And the character says, Remember me?

I woke this morning thinking about favorite fictional characters, whether in books or movies or TV or any other media. The characters that first popped into mind for me ranged from crushes to heroes to soulmates. I’m beginning my list, as they first came to mind, and might keep adding if I remember more.

I’d be curious to hear what characters have influenced or remained with you!

Aragorn (LOTR)
Eowyn (LOTR)
Jack (Lost)
Shep (The Hoax)
Stephen Dedalus (Portrait of the Artist …)
Quentin (The Sound and the Fury/Absalom! Absalom!)
Alyosha (Brothers Karamazov)
Ged (Wizard of Earthsea trilogy)
Charlotte (Lost)
Baltasar (The Campaign)
Orphan Huerta (Christopher Unborn)
Nayeli (Into the Beautiful North)

The Power of Image

Imagine Gandalf a minute. What do you see?

The first image that pops in my mind is the pointed gray hat. Not any gray wizard’s hat, but a softened hat, slightly bent, worn at the edges, a sense of not only history in him but comfort, no need for embellishments or flash. A true hat, a used hat, a fitting hat.

For each character, there is probably some defining image. My mind flashes with Aragorn’s boots, worn too, mud-stained, a foot traveler, a strong and steady stride. 

And what about images that represent not a character alone but an entire story or a theme? Why does the hollowed hiding place in the tree linger with so many of us after seeing To Kill a Mockingbird? On a broader scale, what do the wide expanses of frozen white make us feel in Fargo, and do they come to represent the movie as a whole?

In storytelling, whether in novels or short stories or movies, images can convey as much as dialogue or action. The image doesn’t have to be specifically symbolic, as in a one-to-one relationship like the “A” in The Scarlet Letter, or how a key might come to represent unlocking a secret. Sometimes an image carries with it universal associations that we can’t define: water, doors, open skies, passageways, lone trees, shadows, a sun rise.

A movie or a book can be subconsciously more powerful if the writer or filmmaker incorporates resonant imagery, letting the setting convey ongoing themes or character transitions, letting a single image speak rather than the characters themselves.

Imagine a scene in which two characters stand face to face: one is shouting about an important missed phone call, while the other is unable to speak. The argument has nothing to do with what’s really happening between them, which is a betrayal and a broken promise. As they argue, the silent character’s focus is on a china teacup, narrowing in on the crack running between flowers, a crack that appears larger and larger as the argument goes nowhere.

If later in the book or movie, a teacup is once again seen, in a different house, perhaps an older woman holding a fine cup, never broken, we might not consciously ask, what does this mean, what shift is happening here? But somewhere in our subconscious the new image recalls the old; somewhere inside, something stirs and we sit up, become more engaged with the story, without knowing why.

There’s magic in the subtle play of images. Sometimes you might see a movie or read a book that brings to mind a color. I’ve heard people say, “That movie was so blue,” or “That book felt orange.” Obviously, the writer or filmmaker associated a color with the mood of the story or with the characters’ emotions. Often it’s not a conscious choice, but something that happens in the writing stage, which is taken up unconsciously by the reader or viewer.

But when revising any story, the writer should look at the potential of an image, at what the character might not say, at the action that might not happen, but that the image might show. And trust that the reader, the audience, shares a similar consciousness, and will intuitively know.

Often it’s the subtle image working at the deeper level that stays with the audience, that creates a reaction that feels a bit like a mystery, a stirring inside that lingers after the story is finished.

Meet Arturo de Rosa, vampire

Arturo de Rosa was born in the year 965, Cordoba, Spain. He currently resides in Potes, Spain, but is visiting Boston on the urging of his human blood prostitute, Stephen. In this scene he’s walking the street of the vampire community’s leader, envisioning Alec Marshall, whom he knew in those early years in Cordoba.

Arturo strummed the cool wrought-iron rails, and sniffed at the row of potted flowers that sat stiff and brown. The lamplight blurred in the descending fog. He paused, closed his eyes, then looked up at the house.

“Alexandros,” he whispered.

His vision broke at the sound of footsteps.

“If you’re looking for Alec Marshall, he’s at the State House gala tonight.”

Arturo remained staring at the house. “Not at all. I’m looking for something sweet to suit my fastidious palette. Not one human … not one has walked this street tonight.”

The vampire stepped forward. “No. You see …”

As Arturo turned, the vampire stopped, marking a distance between them.

“Simple hunger,” Arturo said.

“Yes … you see … Le Cauchemar isn’t far. You’ll find bank blood there. Or livebloods.”

“Livebloods? Ah, blood prostitutes, you mean. But I have one already.”

This vampire was young, his skin still somewhat porous, not the white sheen that he and Alexandros now had, and his heart beat with erratic weakness. Four humans with torches could overpower and easily kill these community fledglings.

Still, he seemed to be making an attempt here, this staunch community supporter. And in that he resembled Alexandros. “At some of the clubs, you’ll find humans who give blood freely,” the vampire continued, “or for a price, but the bank blood is available …”

Ignoring him, Arturo stroked the iron rail and gazed back at Alec Marshall’s redbrick home.

“Sir, if you haven’t registered at the department …”

The fence was built with perfectly spaced iron spears, the tips wet but gritty to Arturo’s touch. “Comprende, I sculpt with subtle, sloping lines, nothing as sharp as he’s chosen. Nor anything as refined as the symmetry his house commands.” Arturo sighed dramatically and finally turned to the vampire. “It has made me pause to consider.” He then brushed his hands down his coat. “But mostly, I’m famished. There are humans here, no? In this fine habitat you made?”

The vampire backed up farther. “You’ll need to register. You’ll need to …”

Laughing, Arturo pulled off his long coat, and draped it over the railing before Alec’s home.

“Nine hundred years. That’s how long I’ve battled your careful and conscientious Alexandros Mersecal. I know his many names. Is he still as beautiful?” Smiling, Arturo held up his hand. “Shhh…. Say nothing. My imagination conjures better.”

Then leaving the coat, Arturo disregarded the vampire and headed back down Bethany Street under thin lamplight, a pale yellow gauze that roused his taste for skin.

At the corner, he turned back. “South, would you say? Will I find your humans if I go, say … this way?”

The young vampire turned and, quickening his pace, headed back where he’d come from.

Arturo watched bemused. “City of proselytes, Marshall belongs only to me.”

— from Beside the Darker Shore

Using Reversals to Refresh a Story

Sometimes a story or a scene in a novel just isn’t working. Yet we can’t pin down why. Our brain, trained in the dos and don’ts of writing, can’t come up with a solution. That’s often when it helps to begin the scene over, write it fresh.

But author Stuart Spencer, in The Playwright’s Guidebook, offers another couple suggestions that might, even more than starting over, help writers let go of what they know, what is there and not working, to find instead what’s supposed to be. He calls the technique using reversals: interchanging character names or changing an essential element in the scene to its opposite.

For example, he says, if Joe is in love with Mike and wants to tell him, try writing it again, exchanging the names, with Mike in love with Joe, wanting to speak. Or change the element: if Joe is in love with Mike, have Joe wanting to kill Mike instead. Spencer’s theory is that “when that first choice doesn’t work, it’s because the intellect has covertly intruded on the work that belongs to the subconscious.”

By shaking things up so dramatically and diving back in, the writer is more apt to return to that place where the subconscious writes. And “the subconscious knows more about the truth than reasoning intellect.” As they say, when making a difficult decision, trust your intuition, trust your subconscious. Whatever lists you make of the pros and cons, somewhere deeper, you actually know what’s right. Sometimes in writing, we have to abandon the lists and trust the story that comes.