Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Questioning a master?

Elmore Leonard famously wrote a list of writing instructions that began with “Never open a book with weather.” And ends with “Leave out the parts people skip.”It has been reprinted in many places and quoted often. In actual fact, he later said it was meant as a reminder to himself, not a proclamation to the world, but he did write a short book about it too. Generally it’s great advice from a great master, but that first rule has always bothered me. Here’s why: where I grew up , weather can be a major player in that game called life we are playing and writing about.

You may have heard of upstate New York and the lake effect?  That means Lake Ontario, about 20 miles from my home town.  

I met acclaimed mystery writer Julia Spencer-Fleming at a convention many years ago and complimented her on the way she handles weather in the beautiful, treacherous Adirondacks.  We agreed that if you live – or set your story – where weather can kill you, It’s too important to leave out.

One of my earliest memories is of snowbanks taller than I was. True, I was smaller then but I remember times like this too:

It’s a place where you plan major events like weddings to avoid snow season, if you will have guests traveling distances. Where no one neglects snow tires, salt, snowblower. Where everyone knows someone who was stranded overnight on country roads or the Interstate by an unexpected blizzard. Where every once in awhile, my obscure hometown hit the national news for having the most snow in the entire country.  

Watertown slammed by 3 feet of snow, residents digging out

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

Leave out weather? No way.  Even in the summer, I remember news stories of tourists in the Adirondacks, setting off for a lovely walk on a lovely summer day wearing sandals and shorts, getting lost and at great risk in the mountains in the night time cold.

Leave out weather? No way.

In these times, winters are not as ferocious, but this summer, after a rainy spring, the St. Lawrence River is overflowing  and many docks are underwater. Looks like mother nature is up to some new tricks.

There is a writer’s answer to all of this, of course: don’t use weather as a lazy way to fill up a page with description. Write about what it means to the character. Write about how it moves the plot. So I will end with words  from a different master of this genre. Here’s Raymond Chandler,  showing us how it’s done in Red Wind:
 There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Friday, May 31, 2019

Authors as Movie Stars?

“Let’s make a thrilling (suspenseful, joyous , touching) movie based on a famous writer’s life,” said no Hollywood executive ever. As least I don’t think so. Movies require action and while there are writers who  lived action-packed lives, most don’t. The truth is, what makes  a writer’s life interesting and exciting It is what goes on at the desk and ends up in covers. Pretty boring to watch.

 This not-at-all original  comment is inspired by the fact that I recently watched several movies, by coincidence,  about famous writers, and have at least two more coming up. To my surprise, I enjoyed them too. They were fun on the screen and made with some imagination.

Most recently viewed was The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s the story (or  a story, anyway) of the writing  of A  Christmas Carol. Dan Stevens plays the youngish Charles Dickens, struggling to come up with a hit after a few unsuccessful books. Jonathan Pryce as Charles father, the embodiment of a character from a different Dickens novel,  and a few other real people, like Thackeray, appear briefly.  

We see Dickens in his very full  family and social life, and also struggling with some devastating memories, struggling to find the next story, struggling to get the names just right, struggling to get the beginning right. Some familiar bits start to appear. And then Mr. Scrooge shows up in his study. In person.

While most of us have never had a character appear, fully formed, looking and sounding like Christopher Plummer (then again, most of us are not Dickens), the movie was a charming and amusing depiction of the writing process. Yes, it is sort of like that. It’s not exactly a spoiler to add that once Dickens got started, he miraculously wrote it white-hot and published it in record time for  Christmas sales.  It was a great success.     

Good-Bye Christopher Robin used a somewhat similar approach, and it too is charming, but fundamentally, accurately,  sad. There was a real Christopher Robin, he was A.A. Milne’s son, and he had a bear. His father’s inspired books and the beloved illustrations of E.H. Shepherd, made them, and him, famous and did not provide him with a  happy childhood. Far from it. At the same time, the story of how they began, and why they became so beloved, is told by combining live action and animation. There are moments of real loveliness bringing to life the way stories do come to life for children.  

Colette is the exception to everything I just wrote.  Her life would have been entertaining  just as a period drama, but still, it was the books she wrote that made it matter. This is not a movie about where the stories came from; it is about where the writer came from, as the provincial but interesting  girl turns into a woman in charge of her own life.

 Keira Knightley in Colette (2018)

An older movie, Saving  Mr. Banks is quite different.I was fascinated enough to write a blog about it for a now closed group blog I belonged to. (You might find it here:   It is the story of P. L. Travers , author of the beloved Mary Poppins books, and her intense disagreements with the Disney studio over the  beloved Mary Poppins musical. So far, so good. It really happened and the characters are pretty accurate.  However, the story is – um – the Disney version in more ways than one. My old blog post concluded:  Best for us to enjoy the Mary Poppins books, enjoy the Mary Poppins movie and enjoy Saving Mr. Banks while recognizing that they are, mostly, separate works of powerful imaginations.”   

To watch next? All Is True, a tale of Shakespeare at the end of his life, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, who has starred and directed in acclaimed  films of some of the plays. This will be interesting. There isn’t a lot known about Shakespeare’s late life, or, indeed, any part of his life, and I am curious  to see how Branagh imagines that setting into persuasive life. If anyone can to it, I think he can.

Finally, there is the just released Tolkien. I’ve read a full biography and seen the current detailed exhibit on his life at the Morgan Library and Museum. He would seem to be the quintessential author who  could never have a movie bio because, after his tragic childhood and service in World War I, nothing happened!  He married his first sweetheart, had children and spent the rest of his life as professor of Anglo-Saxon, linguistics  and literature. Oh, and he wrote some memorable books. Was the first quarter of his long life  enough to make a movie? 

And it was made without the approval of his estate. Might it give us a glimpse of a great  imagination just getting started?  Or be literary gossip, fun perhaps but not meaningful? Or be charming but with little relationship to the actual life, as in so many Hollywood biographies? Finding Neverland would be a good example.

I am looking forward to finding out.

Did you see any of these?  What did you think? Is there an author bio movie you really loved? Or really hated?
Do tell!