Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Stories Within Art

I constantly wonder why some art pieces are endlessly fascinating and why others leave no impression at all? 

Why do some paintings entrance me time and time again? Why are other paintings, though skillfully crafted, totally unmemorable?

I recently saw an amazing art show at the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University in Malibu which solved my years of fretting. The show, Illustrating Modern Life, The Golden Age of American Illustration from the Kelly Collection, (see events tab) is one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen. And I'm a museum junkie, so that's saying something. 

The answer to my question - STORY!

The Customs Inspector by Elbert McGran Jackson for Collier's Weekly, March 1930
My take on the story: A handsome, brazen, brash customs inspector asks an attractive traveler if she's carrying any illegal food products in her trunk. She flashes him a winning smile, tightens her coat's waist belt to emphasize her figure and replies that she would never do such a thing. The inspector mistakes her action as a flirtation, instead of as the intended distraction, and requests to examine her baggage. She finds his determination irritating at first, but after he compliments her various shawls, shoes and accessories, she finds his self-deprecating lack of fashion knowledge to be charming. Then he finds her miniature bottle of illicit Absinthe, and gains an entirely new respect for the woman. He sincerely apologizes for having to abscond with her precious souvenir, but she only smiles and nods accent for she knows her pint sized bottle is still safely hidden in her jacket, resting on her waist belt.  

Waiting by Dean Cornwell for Cosmopolitan, Feb. 1921
My take on the story: She's just been sent out of the family drawing room. Her parents anticipate the arrival of her betrothed, an advantageous match that will insure money enough to preserve the magnificent manor house the parents intend to grow old in. However the daughter feels only duty bound to the forthcoming attachment and pleads for a miracle to save her. Her emotions match the staircase upon which she sits and a deep melancholy consumes her. Now she is merely waiting for her parents to call her in so she may be formally introduced to her future husband.  

If someone wrote a book that was described as, "Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey," this would be the cover art. 

Your challenge - Run with this idea! Leave a comment with a story for one of the below paintings. 

Wing Walkers by Harold Von Schmidt for Liberty Magazine, April 6, 1929

Florist by Joseph Christian Leyendecker for Kuppenheimer Style Book, Spring 1920

Monday, March 18, 2013

Korea - Eating Seafood - A Moral Dilemma

Eating Seafood in Korea - A Moral Dilemma For Your Main Character.

By Joel Gonzaga

Do you ever pity the lobsters in the tanks at your local seafood restaurant? If you do, that means you’re human. You’re only coming in because you’re hungry. You’re not the one who cooks the lobster. You don’t even watch it get cooked. You have nothing to worry about. You’re still a good person.

Eating seafood in Korea can make you feel like a bad person.

One thing any novelist needs to know about Korea is that the restaurants are much more compact. Imagine the size of a Starbucks - that’s the size of a typical Korean diner. The reason for this is economics. Space is at such a premium in Korea that few people have room in their apartments to cook. Thus, small diners fulfill the demand of meals. The best way to understand it is this: a city block in the United States might have a handful of large restaurants.  In Korea, there are dozens of smaller diners within the same space. And they’re stacked. The place you want to eat might be on the third or fourth floor. But difficulty to reach one’s dining destination never deters patrons because eating out is, strangely, more economical in Korea than owning a house or apartment with a full kitchen.

At one such location was a delicious seafood locale. My colleagues and I decided that this should finally be the place for us to eat. Outside the diner there were several tanks of identical fish and crustaceans. They all swam in their tanks in strange, sanitized, and blissful ignorance. Some tanks even had currents for the fish to swim against, thus keeping them alive, fit, and fresh.

We all crammed into the tight, rectangular room of the diner. We were seated in lightweight, stackable plastic lawn chairs. Our circular table had a single, giant, flat frying pan in the center of it. This is fairly typical of a Korean diner. They served us tiny aluminum, dixie-cup sized waters, bowls of rice, and several saucers of condiments. Our boss ordered in Korean.

The server came back and sprinkled a thin layer of rock salt and seasoning on the pan. He flipped a few switches and got the the pan sizzling. He then left us, and came back with some very confused, and very alive shrimp in a colander.

He dumped the hapless crustaceans onto the sizzling pan and slammed a glass lid on top of it. He then walked away casually to his next patron.

The poor gray shrimp flapped and jumped helplessly against the glass ceiling of their torture chamber. The flapping and sizzling sounds were like microwave popcorn, except you do not normally watch your popcorn transition from slimy wet gray into the tortured -yet scrumptious- pinkish orange.

When the brutal mass murder had been fully executed, our waiter returned. He hurriedly clipped off the heads of each shrimp. Not that he was going to throw them away, of course. Rather, he served us the shrimp heads as well as the extremely fresh tails. Think fried pringle for the tails, but add a muddy bean curd center for the heads.

Yes, I admit that it was a sad dismal sight. But what can you do after a full plate of shrimp valiantly gave their lives for you? They were even thoughtful enough to make sure they were cooked on both sides. There was really nothing to do but enjoy the shrimp with everyone else.

If you ever eat shrimp like that, you will feel like a slightly terrible person. If your character is a Westerner, she might become a vegetarian. And if your character is forced to eat a sizzling shrimp head, make sure a black eyeball or antennae twig gets stuck between her teeth. That will totally destroy any first date.

Joel Gonzaga is an American who spent an adventurous year in South Korea and has returned for numerous visits, although he has still not developed a liking for shrimp heads. Further writings can be found at his website.

For all Korean Expats, this shirt is for you:

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Buried Books of Herculaneum: Part 2

"The Villa of the Papyri is unfinished business.  In consideration of the immense income from Vesuvian sites, excavators have considerable margin of choice.  Their priorities could extend to completion of the excavation of the Villa of the Papyri, halted largely due to piranha-like demands for payment for expropropriated lands."

- Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened

In Part I of this Novel Travelist Mystery, I presented the following question: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?  The predominant answer to this question is detailed within the murder mystery that develops in The Vesuvius Isotope.  A hint is above.  Please allow me to explain.

The answer to this mystery begins in 1709, the year the Villa dei Papyri was rediscovered after nearly two thousand years beneath the ash.  Naples and surrounding regions were under Austrian rule.  Like so many of the world’s most amazing discoveries, the lost city of Herculaneum was rediscovered by accident.  While digging a well, a feat accomplished in 1709 by leading a heavily yoked ox in a circle, a farmer began unearthing marble.

The farmer began selling the fragments, and one of his earliest prospective customers was Emanuel d’Elboeuf, the French prince commanding the Austrian cavalry.  Eager to complete his own summer residence, the task that had brought him to shop for marble in the first place, d’Elboeuf confiscated the poor farmer’s well on behalf of the Austrian government.  He began digging in earnest, and three female statues were unearthed.  They were quickly followed by a statue of Cleopatra.  The statues were claimed as property of the Austrian government and placed in the king’s garden in Vienna.

D’Elboeuf and his workers pillaged the building he had drilled into until it was stripped clean.  When the booty was gone, they filled in the holes, and with no interests whatsoever in art, no such field as archeology and no apparent concept of historical preservation, there were no real records of the find.  The story might have stopped right there, had it not been for a succession of women as ambitious as Cleopatra herself.

To be continued in Part 3, April 11...

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a new novel by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Don't Be Afraid To Travel Alone

Ai Ogata on the USS Midway, San Diego, USA

Introducing contributor Ai Ogata from Osaka, Japan. Ai has lived in Malta and Australia, and has enjoyed extended travels (2-6 months) in the USA, Europe, Nepal and Turkey. Ai is so mobile, she writes her blog posts on her telephone. 

There are many things in the world to be afraid of, but traveling alone is not one of these things.

I'm always traveling by myself. Planning, arrangement, organization.

For me, travel is a kind of
Dream. I’m away from reality like work, social community, and all the small things. In reality I wake up at the same time every morning, take same Metro, work, go back home or meet the same friends for the same drinks, go to bed and next morning do it all over again. Reality is an endless boring loop.

That's why I don't travel in Japan but always go overseas. And I don't like seeing Japanese people when I travel. I don’t even like hearing Japanese spoken. I want to dream.

My friends often ask me if I'm lonely or if my travels are fun?

Lonely? Not at all!
I can see somebody in everywhere, especially in the hostel. Normally I stay in a dormitory room, and if there's somebody, I just say Hello! If we’re compatible, we go out for a drink, a walk together, see the sites. That person can become a good friend after you get back home. They are separate from reality. That person continues the dream when all the travel is done. A connection with a person living across the world is the best connection. It escapes the endless boring loop.

If you travel with your friends, you may not care about meeting your roommates even if you stay in a dormitory room. Traveling alone can be less lonely than traveling with friends you see everyday.

Actually fun? Of course!
Traveling alone is really easy going. I don't have to care about anybody else’s ideas, I can go wherever I want, I can do whatever I want, I can move on whenever I want. And no one is judging me or telling me when to wake up in the morning.
And I get new friends.

Only bad thing about traveling alone is meals.
Sometimes I feel awkward when eating in a restaurant alone. But it’s still fun! The waiters are nicer and sometimes bring you free dessert.

You want to travel?
Why don't you by an air ticket and fly away from boring life!

Go Dream.

Sara and Ai first met in Rome in 2006 and have been close friends since.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing Advice - Leave Home

This blog is about improving your writing by interacting with the world while you travel. I met a wonderful author who perfectly expresses this idea.

Scott D. Southard, the author of A Jane Austen Daydream (coming in April 2013 from Madison Street Publishing) and other books offers these words of travel wisdom:  

We writers are isolationists, introverts. How else do you explain the fact we spend our time alone creating friends and worlds?  We are not made for the outside; we’d rather stay inside, thank you very much.

When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, as much as I cared about the degree, I was more interested in something else. It was always my dream to be that young traveler/writer by himself going through Europe, with nothing but a notepad and a few paperbacks in a bag. I saw myself sitting under trees in Jane Austen's garden, opening my soul to the romantic poets, or wandering the halls of Charles Dickens’ home hoping for a message from beyond. I even sometimes thought about smoking a pipe (I didn’t, but wouldn’t it look cool?)
What I actually experienced though really was not at all what I expected. The rude awakening of being thrown out of my “universe,” my norm; well, I had to adjust for that in a major way.
There were no little safe places to go, like I could when I wanted to write or just read at home; here everything was new and different (as well as the people around) and for an introvert it can make one’s hair stand on the back of one’s neck… permanently.
Still, I know that this experience made me a better writer. I look at what I did before I went on that six-week trip and what I did later and I see a more imaginative, more creative, more introspective, and more worldly writer.
So fellow writers, here is why, I think, you need to break out… Yes, I am telling you to step away from the keyboard and the soft couch. (Don’t worry they’ll be there when you get back.) Here are just three reason why:
Art by Wes McBride
Your Characters Will Thank You
One advice I always give new writers is to go out and listen to people. I still stand by that advice, because you catch things in delivery, expression, accent, that can find their way into your own characters. And while we introverts are happy with the friends we have (after choosing them wisely over many years), you miss out on what this can do for your characters.
The fact is I can always tell a writer who doesn’t get out, because, frankly, all of their characters sound like the writer in front of me. And, sometimes, more humorously, I can tell when they went to TV for inspiration. How? Because their characters have extremes.
They have extreme emotions, feelings, and even political views (I always imagine these writer spend too much time listening to pundits on news shows; people that are paid to have a certain opinion, in other words, being nothing more than a megaphone for a cause). The fact is we human beings are not extremes, typically; what makes us human is our subtleties, and more interesting, our contradictions (Character advice 101: Create a contradiction, not only does it make a character human, it shows growth when they change or grow with their contradiction into a new opinion).
One thing stay-at-home writers can be guilty of is the creation of stereotypes. I don’t want to begin to count the many times I have seen this in a new writer’s work. The fact is many times writers don’t see it that way, because they don’t realize there are so, so many different kinds of stereotypes out there. But the thing is whenever you use a stereotype (no matter how unique or rare) you are insulting someone, somewhere. And, really, you don’t want to be that kind of a writer. NO ONE wants to be that kind of a writer.
Going to Europe for me was great because not only did I meet people from other countries, but I was able to meet fellow students from America that were from different states. It expanded my world and filled it with real breathing people. And hearing other opinions, other experiences, other norms influenced and expanded (I use this word a lot) the characters I went on to create.
Art by Wes McBride
Your Locations Will Be More Real

Writers typically don't do frat parties and raves. We are the ones at home, with a few friends maybe and a few drinks, discussing movies. Yet, how are writers expected to realistically write about such events if they have never attended one before?

Here let me give you a more real world example: Let's say you want to write about the Tower of London. Yes, you can look it up on Wikipedia or Google and get the facts (what it is built out of, how long ago, how tall it is, it's history), and those are a good starting point on the page, but consider all you miss by not visiting the location. For example:
  • Does it have a smell?
  • How do the other tourist look? Act?
  • What do you hear people saying around you?
  • Touch the walls, how do they feel?
  • Breathe the air, does it have a taste?
  • Spiritually, do you feel the history there? What is impacting you on a deeper level?

These little touches may seem trite (and maybe they are) but they are the difference between just describing a location and really making the audience feel like they are there with a character. And locations, like characters should feel alive. Remember, Hogwarts is as much a character in the Harry Potter series as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. 

Another thing to consider, why not reach out to a resident or expert on the location before going or upon arriving? It may help make a place real, by seeing all sides of it (not just what the tour groups may want you to see). In other words, it could make it that much more real to you, and to your readers.
Art by Wes McBride
You Will Get That Voice
So why did I begin with my story about traveling to Europe by myself? Frankly, it is because what I came back with, more than anything, was my voice.
First, by taking myself out of my norm, having to find my own strength and survive, gave me confidence. That confidence led to my own voice emerging. I do not hide behind another’s work or style or a teacher’s lesson; I can stand with my writing. If you are a strong confident writer, you don’t even need this essay (but I would recommend you keep reading).
Second, by speaking to people outside my home region I learned different speech patterns, pacing. We all have our own distinct meter in our voice and by speaking to others from around the world, it is like being introduced to other forms of music. And those patterns (Or as I like to think of it, possibilities), found their way not only into future characters but expanded the possibility of my own voice. You are like a method actor studying an accent, enjoy the thrill of it.
The best way to think of all of these points I made is that you are a painter. Where you are right now, your colors are limited; but the more you explore, the more you meet people, your color palette expands with each new experience. You need more color. That’s assuming you want to paint something great.
If you truly want to do more than write about your life right now (and the things and people around you), you need to find opportunities to breath in the fresh air of this planet around you.
The world is that a way!
Scott D. Southard, the author of A Jane Austen Daydream (coming in April 2013 from Madison Street Publishing), swears he is not obsessed with Jane Austen. He is, however, also the author of the award-winning novels, My Problem With Doors and Megan. Scott can be found on the internet via his writing blog "The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" (http://sdsouthard.com) where he writes on topics ranging from writing, art, books, TV, writing, parenting, life, movies, and writing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Unconventional Meet-Cute Site: Great Wall of China

I am a hopeless romantic. Everything I write has some sort of romance in it even if it is just a tiny inkling of romance.

After thinking about all the “meet-cute” scenarios from my favorite books and movies, the locations where the boy and girl usually meet seem quite conventional. Usually, these “meet-cutes” happen in a bar, at a wedding, at a party, at work, at school, a supermarket, etc. These are all very logical locations since these are public locations where people are in a social setting.

But why should “meet-cute” scenarios be limited to social or crowded locations? Exotic locations are also great places to meet people. We just tend not to think of them off the top of our head.

When I visited the Great Wall of China, the main entrance Badaling  was very crowded, so our tour guide took us to the Juyong Guan (Juyong Pass) instead. The bottom of the Wall is always the most crowded because the stairs are quite difficult to climb and most people visiting the Great Wall are sightseers and not hikers, so people tend to climb the first 50 steps, take a picture, and head back down.

I, on the other hand, was much more ambitious and picked one side of the pass to climb and climbed. When I got to the “end”, of the Wall, I found I was the only one there. I was finally able to take a picture of just the Wall and me. But one problem of being alone, I did not have anyone to help me take a picture since I didn't have a tripod with me.

While I wandered around trying to regain my breath for the hike down, a young ambitious fellow American made his up the stairs too. This wasn’t a meet-cute scenario for myself, but he did offer to help me take a picture, and I returned the favor for him. Also it was nice to meet a fellow American at the “top” of the Great Wall.

So now you have an unconventional location for your two characters to meet. Think of the possibilities!

  • Your main character has climbed the Great Wall for some soul searching, he asks for a sign and up comes a breathless beauty.
  • Someone manages the injured his/her foot after a misstep on the old worn stone steps and is rescued by a Good Samaritan.
  • A lone traveler reaches the top and realizes that she needs another pair of hands to take a picture of her and the monument, and she finally musters up enough courage to ask the other lone handsome traveler for aid.