A Skunk, Google Earth and an Anvil Salesman

Scene One: Goodhusband is making toast in the kitchen. “What’s that smell?”

“A smell?” I concentrate and sniff. Nothing but toast.

Gilda the white WunderSchnauzer paces at our glass patio door, sliding her nose along the metal track at the bottom and pushing aside the accordion blinds. Short, fast sniffs. Back and forth. There’s something REALLY WONDERFUL out there! She stops at the best spot and hunkers down, nose still attached to the track.

A minute later, Goodhusband identifies it as skunk.

The odor seeps through closed windows and doors and I ask, “What’s going on out there, so close to the house? Did something attack the skunk?”

Goodhusband, who is wise in the ways of male animals, explains, “He’s probably marking his territory. Mating season.”

photo by Torli Roberts

Well, there’s an irresistible call to romance. I did not know that a skunk marks his territory with stink. I also did not know that female skunks like it. Nature provides a lesson in unconditional love.

Scene Two:  An hour later, Goodhusband says he’s almost finished his WW II book about the last Allied bombing raid over Germany. As he reads, he follows the action and locations by tracking them with Google Earth. “It helps me see how they moved around Europe and how far they had to fly on their missions.”

Scene Three: Flipping satellite stations, I see a familiar movie, The Music Man. A sweet musical that has been presented by every school district in America. There he is on the train, Charlie Cowell the anvil salesman (whom, in a strange coincidence, Goodhusband played in his own school production, back when.) Cowell insists to the other drummers, who rhythmically rant about changes in the market, that no matter what, “You gotta know the territory…”

screen shot of Mesa Verde ©Google Earth

This is not a review of the admonition to “write what you know,” which is always worth pondering, for its advantages and limitations. The skunk, Google Earth and the anvil salesman have reminded me of another thing. Whether your novelistic “territory” is animal, human, geographical, psychological or complete fantasy, you…that’s right. You gotta.

I like novels that have maps inside their covers. There are more than you might think. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh and The Princess Bride are just a few mentioned by Nicholas Tam in his discussion of maps “as an act of narration.” Maps can enhance reading experience, but even in a novel that doesn’t have them, the reader hopes for a compass and directions through the author’s fictional world. Where is the reader, in body or mind, in which universe, galaxy, planet, landmass, country or town? In which wrinkle, layer, era or moment in time?

Characters define themselves by participating in our particular narrative “somewhere.” The territory may be thinly outlined or it may emerge so clearly as to seem like a character, itself, with a distinct effect (pressure, terror, delight or transformation, to name a few) on the human characters. Territory can compel characters to fight, cooperate, negotiate, run or die. Many novels of the American West present the wilderness as a defining force to be reckoned with. Books such as the one Goodhusband read use human conflicts over territory as an anvil for hammering out character development.

photo by Andrea Brancaccio

Caution:  Overloading the reader with excessive details about location or territory may lead to falling asleep and dropping the book, ensuring a loss of the reader’s important place in a novel. Description, like exposition, is best integrated into action. From life experience and research, the writer maps out the basics and invokes both the character’s and the reader’s senses–sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, to surround the reader with a territory that feels real. It is always a collaboration, so leave something to the reader’s imagination to increase his pleasure. How much “mapping” is enough? Of course, it’s subjective, as are most aspects of writing fiction. Readers might hint at a need for more orientation by remarking, “I like it, but you lost me in the third chapter.” Or, I couldn’t figure out where you were going with this” or “where is this scene happening?” Some suggestions won’t bear such obvious metaphors of location. If a reader “can’t relate” to your characters, consider that you may not have developed a fictional territory that compresses and clarifies character enough to drive the story forward.

photo by Roger Kirby

Some writers actually draw maps to generate ideas. Pencil and paper work well, but for the technology-minded, idea mapping can be done on computer. There are too many software programs to list here and I haven’t a preference, but an internet search for “mind mapping” and “concept mapping” will produce many options. Writers may also benefit from drawing characters in physical and psychological detail, with images and words. I haven’t approached Pinterest yet, but I know some writers use it to assemble details of characters and places. As mentioned above, referring to or drawing a geographic map, even one the readers won’t see, keeps the writer clear.

History changes maps and if you’re writing fiction rooted in a specific period, be sure to look at maps that correlate to that time. You may find that a village was under different management than you assumed it to have been. You may also discover intriguing details. In my current novel, while studying a map, I discovered a geographical oddity which suggested a scene that I otherwise wouldn’t have imagined.

Your readers and editors may be your best guides in your novel’s territory. Ask for their insights and listen to them, because like the skunk, the reader and the anvil salesman…you just “gotta.”

One response to “A Skunk, Google Earth and an Anvil Salesman

  1. Goodhusband was kind enough to point out that in the original post, I had a migraine moment and mistakenly typed Oklahoma, instead of The Music Man, as the title of the musical I discussed. Which goes even further to emphasize my point…when writing, “You gotta know the name of the musical!” or, better yet, “You gotta have a loving and honest proofreader!” Thank goodness for Goodhusband, who is also wise in the ways of wifely bloggers. I will always love him.

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