Friday, May 11, 2012

World-Building, Folk Lore, and History...or...Be Patient with the Drunk!

Greetings, Beardies!

I have to confess: I have a character I’d like to lock in an asylum. Maybe you’ve had one too—mine is an old man, often drunk, usually surly, sometimes sad, but generally almost impossible to work with. I sense that he’s important to my story, but he frustrates me beyond belief. This past weekend, in frustration, I walked away from my writing and turned on my favorite Michigan folk music to try to clear my head. As the music played, I heard two songs in a new ways. I started researching the songs, and researching gave me an insight that will affect my writing for a long time. It ties in nicely to last week’s post about Cinco de Mayo and world-building, and I’d like to share it with you. Let me start by telling you about the songs….

“Voices Across the Water,” by Lee Murdock, is a ballad that tells the story of one Mr. Dennis Hale. In 1966, Mr. Hale, age 26, was the sole survivor of the freighter Daniel J. Morrell, which broke up in a storm on Lake Huron. Clad only in a pair of boxers, a pea coat, and a life jacket, Mr. Hale endured twenty-nine hours in a lifeboat in gale-force winds with air and water temperatures hovering just above freezing. Once rescued, he told a priest of several mystical experiences he had while waiting to be rescued. The priest advised him never to speak of these things again. He suffered terrible survivors’ guilt--wondering why he alone of the entire crew survived--and was ridiculed for his mystical experiences in the lifeboat.

The second song, “Requiem for the Mesquite,” also by Lee Murdock, is told from the point of view of a young Coast Guardsman whose first command, the US Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite, ran aground in Lake Superior in December 1989. The Coast Guard meant to salvage the ship, but the Lake Superior winter was too harsh. The elements severely damaged the ship and eventually it was decided to deliberately sink the wreck.

When I read these things, I was dumbfounded. I’m a Michigan girl born and bred; I have a long-standing love affair with all things nautical. The Mesquite wreck even happened in my lifetime—how could I not know about this? Exactly how much MORE is there to learn about and who can teach me? History is too often muddled and too easily forgotten. Likewise, the survivors of tragedies become outcasts. People who remember so much valuable history are sometimes revered, and sometimes scorned, but either way, they’re an invaluable resource.

So what does this have to do with my surly drunk character? Learning about this history made me think about him in a whole new way. It is not my character’s present condition that is important to the story, but his past and his knowledge of history. Suddenly I have an excuse to write battle scenes, an explanation for a cultural norm, a window into an important piece of history, and a plethora of new avenues to explore in my story. The crazy guy is suddenly more exciting and intriguing than frustrating. I’ve decided to give him another chance before I lock him up for a few pages. Obviously, I’m going to need to have patience with him, but I realize now there’s a reason that he is this way, and I’m looking forward to coaxing him to tell me. I wonder what heroic deeds he did, who his friends were, and why he refuses to speak of his past. It’s possible that this character will lead me into a whole new story. I’m looking forward to that possibility!

A character with a tragic, heroic, or unorthodox past certainly has valuable knowledge about your “world,” and that knowledge will make your “world” come even more vividly to life. Tap into it and see where it takes you!

Fair Winds and Happy Scribing!

***Both songs cited in this post are recorded on the album Great Lakes Chronicle by Lee Murdock, copyright 1998 by Depot Recordings. This album is available for purchase on iTunes,, and Lee Murdock's website.

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