Sunday, February 17, 2013

Idea Garage Dale: A Sunday Brunch Buffet

Before we begin, please, I would like to appeal to anybody out there who knows how to update Facebook with this blog to contact me and tell me how it's done. Because I know people do this sort of thing, but neither I nor the person who helped me set up pages for Sullivan and me can figure it out.

All right, on to the regularly scheduled Garage Sale and since I have a new Fortean Times again, I'll go back to that bottomless well, Human Weirdness. I open it at random and find myself faced with the Strange Days feature. A man who has licked every cathedral in the British Isles on a bet. A naked "Texas Wildman" who lives in a cave in "the hills" (a phrase which conjures up completely inaccurate pictures of the landscape in question) around El Paso, living by donating blood and recycling cans, who harasses hikers and puts out dead snakes as food for wildlife. Hmm...A Japanese man whose library cards were washed away by the March 2011 tsunami hopes someone on the west coast of the US will find and return them...Holey Cheese, an empty 28-foot yacht with no identification markings, a tidy cabin, and Dutch sea charts, recovered about six miles from a nuclear power plant in Suffolk. And the world's oldest parrot, Tarbu, dead at age 55.

Not surprisingly, given the structure of the Strange Days features, each of these news snippets lacks an important feature necessary to the production of a full-fledged story; but each of them has potential. Taking them in order:

With the cathedral-licking story (the feature for the page, with a full column of text and two pictures) we have an attention-getting, but largely pointless, story. A bet is not, in and of itself, sufficient motivation for odd behavior for a story. Something else needs to be going on for this to be a good novel; probably the licker's character arc. And a character arc is implied by his reluctance to claim the original forfeit for the bet, which was that the friend who made the challenge streak outside York Minster. This now seems disrespectful, and he's likely to change the terms to a monetary contribution to York Minster. Yes, something could be done with it; and something has, and possibly will be, as he has a blog on the subject and considers writing a book. Therefore, the rest of us need to keep our hands off of this until it's undergone a chemical change in the compost heaps of our brains and produced something that won't infringe on his intellectual property rights in the matter of his own life.

Moving on to the "Texas Wildman," what we have here is, on the face of it, only another homeless person with mental issues, and most of the mystery and intrigue of the situation would probably vanish if we knew more about it. The fact that the snippet is credited to the Sydney MX News rather than any closer news source would seem to indicate that the people who live near him find him more annoying and/or pitiable than interesting. This is not unusual, as the poor of distant places, for whose welfare one cannot by any stretch of the imagination be made responsible, are often exotic and mysterious, while those who live close by are a mere itch in the conscience we would rather not notice. Given that poverty and inadequate public mental health provisions are not readily soluble problems, what we have here is a character without a plot. The plot, however, could be generated by an unflinching imaginative exploration of the character. Is the assumption of mental issues true, to begin with, or does he in fact have rational, functional reasons for his behavior? If he does, what are they, and where do they take him? Who are the other characters in his life - family, friends and ex-friends, the hikers (does he truly harass them, or do they feel harassed by his mere existence?), the owner or representative of the owner of the land on which he lives? Perhaps it's family land. Perhaps he owns it. What about the snakes? Does he wear clothes to cash in his recycling and give blood? How do the staff at the plasma center feel about him? You start answering questions like that and investigating the difficulties of the life he's leading, you'll find yourself a story, I promise you.

The Japanese man with the library cards is a character without a story; an optimist, or someone with no concept of scale. You couldn't stop with the library cards for this person. You'd have to show him in action, moving through mundane life at a completely different level than those people around him - ridiculous, maybe annoying, maybe endearing - and make some kind of point about the disconnect between expectation and reality. I wonder what would happen if his life trajectory intersected that of the man in the cave? Or the cathedral licker's?

And then the Marine Mystery, oh boy! What we have here is a teaser leading nowhere, the mystery rather than the solution, a nearly blank slate. A writing prompt, in fact. First, you'd have to decide from which direction to tackle the situation - will you be telling the story of the people who created the mystery, or of people who come upon it after the fact and uncover that story? Either way, you need to work out what happened. Is the nearby nuclear plant relevant, or a red herring? Are we talking a supernatural mystery, a thriller, or a personal tragedy? What are the implications of the lack of identification on the vessel? What maritime laws are broken here; what maritime customs make sense of this or that feature that merely puzzles a landlubber?

The 55-year-old parrot, who said "Hello, my darling" to his owner every morning, is a character without a story. Unless, of course, you put him alone on that empty yacht...


  1. Some brilliant ideas -- I'm really impressed how you read the same news snippet as me but see so much more potential in it. And I can't pretend I didn't see that issue, because there's a 5-page article by me in it (hope that was of interest, by the way -- the British equivalent of pulp fiction). As regards the list of ideas, I might be tempted, but I think I'll wait until the money starts rolling in from The Mechanical Gorilla (which of course it never will).

    Not sure exactly what you want to do with Facebook, but I use Networked Blogs (just type it into Google if you've never come across it) to link my blog to FB.

  2. It's a habit of mind. Once you get it, the stories won't leave you alone!

    Joan Lowery Nixon told a story on herself at a conference we were both at. Her husband took her on a balloon ride, and while they were rising, she looked down and saw a man putting something into his trunk. He looked up, and she said to her husband: "We're close enough to him to see his face."

    "Yeah, so?"
    "So that must mean he can see ours and could recognize us."
    "Yeah, so?"
    "So what if we'd seen him committing a crime?"
    Her husband sighed and said: "Just enjoy your balloon ride."

    When I told my husband this story, I added: "If that had been us you wouldn't have said that."
    He replied: "It that had been us, I wouldn't have been in the balloon at all."

    And that's what it's like to live with an author.

  3. I really like the idea of the guy living in the cave. But, good grief, I have enough ideas as it is!