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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

working girls (and boys)

Second mug of coffee draining down to the last cool swallows. We were up promptly after the alarm went off at 5:30, Kimmie wanting to turn over a new leaf and give herself more time in the mornings so she can leave punctually for work. Through my closed venetian blinds I can make out the bluish darkness still outside.

First thing for me, after I make the coffee, is to open up my big fat copy of Microsoft Windows XP Inside Out by Ed Bott, Carl Siechert, and Craig Stinson--an excellent resource. Sitting here at my PC, highlighter in hand, I make my way slowly through it, day by day learning more about the operating system I'm using.

Since Windows XP was first released in 2001, hundreds of fixes and improvements have been made to it. Most of these were bundled into two major updates, known collectively as Service Packs 1 and 2.

Well, I'm starting to think of the work I'm doing on The Mission now as my own Service Pack. Marooned on the sandbar of chapter 30, I'm finding that I want to circle back and look over the work as a whole. Recently most of my notes have been in a document I set up to write ideas for draft 2 of the book as a whole. I've been displeased and dissatisfied with aspects of what I'm writing, and I want to address these problems so that I don't finish my draft with those lame, arbitrary things left in it.

The specific problem, I believe, is arbitrariness. Everything in a story, from story events to points of characterization to specific images, should be organic: should belong to the story and help communicate its meaning. This is not easy to achieve, and requires careful, deliberate, and skilled effort.

On Saturday night Kimmie and I watched the 1988 movie Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford (the movie actually bills Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver as the stars--an artifact of their greater contractual muscle and higher fees). The movie was written by Kevin Wade and directed by Mike Nichols (of The Graduate fame). It was about the 4th time I'd seen the movie, and I continued to find more in it to appreciate. One of things I appreciated about it this time was the unity of its elements.

For example, when Tess McGill (Griffith) is making her way to Manhattan via the Staten Island Ferry during the opening credit sequence, we learn that it's her birthday. Her friend Cyn (Joan Cusack) gives ger a tiny cake and sings "Happy Birthday". Her "birth" is being celebrated: and Tess, without yet knowning it, is indeed on a journey of birth to a new life. Soon she's working for a new boss, Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), a successful, ambitious, and supremely self-confident woman, who, it turns out, is also having a birthday--a week later than Tess's. They're both turning 30--a pivotal age--but Katharine is actually younger than Tess, and has apparently achieved vastly more. They are twins and mutual shadows: Tess is blonde, working-class, and struggling to gain a toehold in the business world; Katharine is brunette, of patrician stock, and seems to have had wealth and success hand-delivered to her.

With the birthdays come gifts. Tess receives sexy lingerie from her boyfriend Mick (Alec Baldwin)--yet another gift that she can't wear outside their apartment. Katharine, for her part, is showered with gifts when she breaks her leg in a skiing accident (including a near-life-size plush gorilla--a funny inside allusion to Weaver's earlier role as gorilla researcher Dian Fossey). But the more important gifts come from Tess's new associate and would-be lover Jack (Harrison Ford). When, now impersonating a high-powered deal-maker, Tess shows up at a meeting without a proper briefcase, claiming that she's "lost" hers, Jack gives her a beautiful briefcase, classic symbol of the businessperson. With this he sends the message, "you're one of us."

At the end of the movie, when Tess and Jack have gotten together and she has indeed made it as a wheeler-dealer, he gives her a final gift: a metal lunchbox, packed with lunch and other tenderly considerate goodies. The lunchbox is emblematic of her origins, and with this Jack is telling her that he accepts and loves her for who she is. As a high-powered executive she can carry a lunchbox so she doesn't forget where she came from--so she doesn't lose what is most important about herself.

My point is that these choices were made deliberately and carefully, most likely by Kevin Wade, the writer. They are not arbitrary. The result is that the movie feels unified--it feels as though everything in it belongs.

That's where I want to get to with my own story. But (big surprise) it's not easy. You need to know your world and your characters before you can really make meaningful, non-arbitrary choices. And knowing anything, I find, takes time.

Still, what else am I doing with my life?


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