I made a gross generalization in an earlier blog about nineteenth-century perceptions of madness. I had stated that insanity was defined as a person being out of sync with society. However, Benjamin Reiss in his book, Theaters of Madness, theorizes that nineteenth-century people believed insanity “was at its root a disease of the brain that called for medical intervention,” and yet at the same time “believed that mental illness … had a psychological or ‘moral’ etiology, and carefully controlled environment was as essential to the cure as the administration of medical treatment” (Reiss 2008, 4). In other words, they had a wholistic approach to mental illness. That is why, in Seeing the Elephant, we see Eli engaging in what today might be called "talk therapy" with Dr. Winston Stanley.
However, the part about a carefully controlled environment is fascinating. People of the nineteenth century believed day to day life in a fluid culture could lead to mental illness. Last week, when I was blogging about George L. Fox, I noted that familiar trade figures standing in front of shops were believed to help city inhabitants navigate the jarring effects of change.
There is no question that United States during the first half of the nineteenth century was a nation in flux. There was 1) great social mobility as fortunes were made and lost; 2) great physical mobility as people pushed into the frontier, 3) increased political participation; and 4) greater freedom regarding intellectual inquiry and religious expression. Add to that the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, immigration, and urbanization as well as a bitter national debate over slavery, and you have a recipe for stress. And all that strain could disorder your brain. (Reiss 2008, 9)
Allow me as an aside to suggest that perhaps what’s wrong with us today is the massive amount of stress pummeling us. Perhaps our nineteenth-century forebears were right.
Anyway, Reiss writes that physicians borrowed elements of the “moral treatment” movement to create treatment centers designed to control the patients’ environment. To promote relaxation, institutional buildings were airy and light and beautiful, and the grounds were gorgeous. Inside asylum walls, superintendents promoted cultural activities believed to help patients get better in the way of “a rational, polite, elevating model of culture” that encouraged them to read and write poetry, perform in and attend plays, go to lectures, read novels, write prose and poetry, listen to and sing or play music, stroll appreciatively around the beautiful grounds, attend restrained and rational religious services, and much more (Reiss 2008, 7).
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? And it certainly seems humane. But the new asylums created tensions, as well. Treatment was not always kindly. Some patients suffered harsh or abusive behavior from attendants and physicians, so much so that former patients went on to write exposes about their experiences.
Tomorrow, in a twist on scholarly writing, I will make a goofy connection between nineteenth-century insane asylums and attitudes about mental health expressed in a popular movie. I know what I'm doing. About twenty years ago, I wrote a long piece on how the Drew Carey Show was classically carnivalesque. It is gathering dust and most likely never will see the light of day. But it sure was fun to do. (I love comedy. One of its functions today is very much like the function of the court jester. But I digress...)
Benjamin Reiss. Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century Culture. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)
So, you’re going to write a novel. Congratulations! You just became the parent of a whole passel of baby characters. Now… what are you going to call them?
You may not think it is big deal to name characters. But it is. I mean, you can’t call them all “Fred.” You need a variety of names, some of which even may describe the character’s personality or background or desires.
As for me, I have used a variety of methods for naming my characters.
The first one is “what kind of a name would work?” And that is the process I used with the central character of my first novel. She was a goodhearted, everyday person, so the name “Maggie” just came to me. I liked the sound of it because it was a nice, plain, simple name.
Another method is to peruse online lists of first and last names for various groups and eras. For instance, I looked up Quaker names to help me come up with Eli’s ridiculously simple last name. Yes, Smith is a common English name, but it is also a common name among Friends. Millhouse, Eli’s brother-in-law’s last name, is also a Quaker last name. As a historical note: Millhouse was President Richard Nixon’s middle name. Oh, and “Nixon” is Quaker name, too.
When I created the two Irish girls who come into Maggie’s family in Seeing the Elephant, I checked out first and last Irish names and came up with Moira and Birgit Brennan. I did similar research for Josef Larsen, Gustav Schultz, and Adela Edler (although Adela’s last name comes from my family tree). New Jersey has a strong Dutch influence in some areas and so my books contain characters with the last name of Opdyke, Van Curen, Beekman, and Jonkers.
In the nineteenth century, people often turned to the Bible to name their children, so biblical names are common in the Saint Maggie series. Most obvious is Elijah Amos, whose mother must have had high hopes when naming him after not one but two prophets. Indeed, sometimes he does serve a prophetic function, especially through his newspapers. But the series also is home to Tryphena and Tryphosa (two women mentioned in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters), Sarah, Andrew, Lydia, Gideon, Samuel, Abigail, Leah, Josiah, Deborah, Nathaniel, James, Daniel, and so on.
One character, though, did not care for his biblical first name. The drummer in Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll is known to one and all as Yankee Doodle. However, his real first name is Shadrack, from the biblical book of Daniel. The joke is it’s a nobrainer why he switched to “Yankee.”
Sometimes a character is named after a quality he or she possesses. Self-emancipated slave Matilda calls herself “Strong” rather than taking the name of the person who had owned her. She wanted to claim the part of herself that risked all to bring her daughter and herself to freedom.
Chester Carson was called “Mr. Carson” throughout Saint Maggie, but I changed it to “Carson,” because he revealed his dislike for his first name. Even though Eli prefers to call people by their first name when being familiar, he bows to Carson’s “Chester” ban.
Another way of naming is to take the historical or famous person approach. I named Frankie after Frances Willard, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union during a good chunk of the nineteenth-century. Ms. Willard’s nickname was Frankie. I liked it, so I stole it.
In Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, I called my male protagonist “Neil,” because I am a fan of Neil Innes, member of the Bonzo Dog Band, the “second 7th Python” (as he says) from Monty Python, star of the “Innes Book of Records,” and singer/songwriter. In the process of writing the book, Neil Gardner revealed that he disliked “Strong Oak,” the name his hippie parents gave him, and when he was of age named himself after Neil Young – a case of a character acting out and doing his own thing.
Some characters bear the name of towns. Notably Jeremiah Madison, taken from Madison, NJ, where my alma mater, Drew University, is located. and Carrie Hillsborough, who received her name because I grabbed the name in desperation form my current town of residence.
And then there are family names. Edgar Lape bears the last name of my great-grandfathers. Captain Morrison has my mother’s maiden name. Tryphena and Tryphosa Moore were given the last name of my father’s second cousin. I’ve also used the names of people I’ve known, such as Patrick, Dr. Lightner, and Sheriff Miller. Kenny of Heart Soul was named after a real homeless guy I knew.
Of course, there are times when I may start out with thinking I’m going to call a character one thing and change it later. I had decided Eli and Maggie’s baby would be Lillian but realized that the Smiths had been wrestling with faith all throughout Walk by Faith. That’s when I got I knew her name was Faith.
So, the next time you’re reading a novel or short story, pause for a moment and think about the names. Where did they come from? Why did the author use them? It may seem like a small thing, but often a great deal of thought went into it.
About a five years ago, I visited with a book club in New Castle, Delaware. It was a fun afternoon of talking about the two books I had out at the time and sharing ideas.
One of the things we discussed was whether characters become real people to me. The answer to that is a simple yes.
Most authors will tell you that after working with a character for a while, the fictional person will take on a life of her own. It’s an awesome way of working because we get to take our “invisible friends” out and play with them all the time. However, the “invisible friend” thing comes with interesting side effects.
Let’s say an author is pursuing a plot that runs contrary to the character’s “self.” Most likely the writer will meet with resistance of some sort. The closest I can come to describing the phenomenon is to say that it resembles trying to get a piece of software to do something it is not designed to do. You keep getting a loud beep or a “it does not compute” message. For me, this often feels as if I am trying to push the character only to discover that the character doesn’t like it and has responded by refusing to budge.
This happened to me after I had finished Walk by Faith and was preparing to start the next book, A Time to Heal. My plan had been to move everyone back to New Jersey. I had sketched out a plot, was all set to go, and – BAM! Maggie and Eli dug in their heels. It seemed that no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I kept getting the impression no one wanted to return to Blaineton. Clearly, they were not ready to be uprooted.
The crux of the problem, as I now understand it, lay in how I had concluded Walk by Faith. As one of the participants at the Delaware book club noted, I had tied things up too neatly at the end of the book. It was awesome to hear that, because I had that concern, too. The helpful criticism served as confirmation that my “spidey senses” were on the money. Both the participant and my characters knew that, having gone through the trauma of the Battle of Gettysburg, some significant healing had to occur before everyone could move on, both literally and emotionally.
It was as if Maggie, Eli, and all the other members of the boarding house kept shouting, “We’ve got issues!” But I couldn’t or wouldn’t hear them. So, I rewrote the conclusion to the book and cut a good chunk of material out.
There also are times when I have no idea where the story is going. My writing process is that I do some general plot work but am open to changes as I write. Using this process can lead to surprises.
When I was working on Seeing the Elephant, which is perhaps my longest book and is made up of a series of plots, I had no idea where the center of the story was. The good news is that when you have all those “invisible friends,” interesting stuff can happen. In this case, I sat down, took a deep breath, and asked myself where the story’s center was. Suddenly, I had an image of Eli grabbing my shoulders, giving me a little shake, and shouting, “It’s my story, damn it,” in my face.
Of course, Eli was right. It was and is his story. I jokingly like to say that he hijacked that novel, but deep inside, I know Seeing the Elephant had always been his story.
You might be wondering why an author doesn’t know this stuff consciously or how an author can’t see where a story should go.
For me, the answer seems to be that there are times when I get too focused on the writing and forget that I have created people who, despite their being fictional, have real feelings, attitudes, and needs. Sometimes it takes me a while to hear what Maggie and family are saying.
Recently, I’ve been working on The Great Central Fair, a Saint Maggie short story that decided it was going to develop as I was trying to write The Good Community. It took a while, but eventually I realized I was trying to stuff two major plot lines into one book. So, I removed the material related to the Great Central Fair and decided to use it as a short story.
Once I did that and started focusing on the short story, two of the characters surprised me further with a little plot twist. I probably saw that coming somewhere in my subconscious, but it is just another example of the creative process and the way my “invisible friends” claim their story.
I have to say that all these experiences have taught me to trust my gut and listen to my characters. It has become the way I write now. And why not listen to my invisible friends? After all, I am telling their story and I owe it to them to get it right.
And, no, I’m not crazy.
Back at ya on Monday, friends!
Dan Bush and I are finishing the umpteenth (or so it feels) film script draft for Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll. Have you ever read a book and then seen the movie and said, “It’s just not the same as the book”? Or maybe you’ve said, “This is better than the book.” Let me see if I can offer an explanation why or you may prefer one or the other, based on the way a book and a film are structured.
Writing a novel involves spending a great deal of time and ink on description, character development, plot, and even dialog. The process feels detailed-oriented and perhaps a bit leisurely. Using those tools, a novelist can write a book that is 200 pages, 500 pages, or even 1000 pages long. It’s all good provided the story moves along, the reader is engaged by the characters, and the plot is interesting. However, I do know that readers these days are preferring shorter books. That may be because we all have less free time to spend. More’s the pity.
But a film script is different. A script writer gets between 90-120 pages to tell a story (that translates roughly into a 90 minute-2 hour movie). Film is a visual medium, so it is crucial remember the visual nature of movies when writing a script. Strong, but brief descriptions of action are crucial. Action is used to move the plot along, since the narrative style of novels would put viewers to sleep. Action also is used to tell us something about the character, as do early descriptive elements of the way the character looks, dresses, and stands.
Dialog is another element in film that moves the plot and defines character. However, it must be succinct. Long, rambling soliloquies generally are out. Character development needs to be done quickly and sharply.
So, if you are adapting a book to the screen, you will use the same plot (but not necessarily all the novel’s subplots), you will tighten up some of the dialog and eliminate the other, and you will condense descriptive and action elements.
The other important thing to remember when doing a film adaptation of a novel is not to give the actors all the novel’s little details about the characters. You give them just enough information to communicate the character’s essence but need to leave room for the actor’s (and director's) interpretation.
Finally, there is a format script writers must follow. It looks a little like a play script but has some unique differences. So, here’s a crash course on how to read a film script.
Scene descriptions. They tell the director whether the scene takes place inside or outside, where it takes place, and whether it is day or night. So, INT. FLYING FISH CLUB STAGE - NIGHT
indicates that the scene is an interior shot taking place on the stage at the Flying Fish Club during the night (or at least the dark hours).
Character names. They are written in caps (i.e. NEIL) over dialog and in scene descriptions.
Wrylies (or parentheticals). These are the directions written in parenthesis just below the character’s name and before the character’s dialog. Wrylies give the actors information about how the character might be feeling or doing.
Action. These lines are flush with the left-hand margin and are used to describe the action the viewers will see.
Cutaway: A line that is right-justified and indicates that the scene shifts temporarily to another scene.
Back to Scene. A right-justified line that indicates a return to the original scene description.
Cont’d. A direction for the actor indicating that the character continues to speak when there are interruptions (usually action directions, or dialog that has moved to the top of the next page).
Now let me show the difference between a novel and a script, rather than describe it. First up is a scene from the early pages of Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, the novel. The second selection is the same scene from the current spec script (which we're still tweaking). Just click on the link below to bring it up.
HEART SOUL & ROCK’N’ROLL KARAOKE SCENE
Things to think about as you read:
What information did Dan and I omit in the script that was included in the novel?
Why do you think we did it?
What does the script tell you about Lindsay? Patti? Neil?
How did provide that information?
Did we re-write dialog? Did we write new dialog?
Hope you enjoyed this little journey into script v. novel. Remember, there’s a reason the book is not like the film and vice versa!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder