Influences in my writing

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For some strange reason I’ve been thinking about the strongest influences on me as both a writer and illustrator and how these influences came to shape the creation of the Wythe family in “Wythe’s End”.

The above three pictures shows the three strongest influences (not including J.R.R. Tolkien and Beatrix Potter, of course).  What these three pictures have in common is that they focus on eccentric, wildly eccentric families and their quirky, loving, ordinary, extraordinary, peculiar and exacting lives.  Throughout my entire career as a writer I always wanted to create my own quirky and eccentric family.  It only took me fifty years to finally do so.

It is easy to see parallels and influences in my writing and characters if you study these three families: The Yokums, The Giles, and The Addams Family.  Where the Wythes differ is simply in locale and number of eccentric family members.  Wythe’s End could be seen as isolated and haunted as the Addams’ mansion.  The groundskeeper Russ Samson could be compared to the butler, Lurch, in the Addams family.

What I love most about these three influential families is the strong personality and quirks of each and every family member.  With this in mind I strive to make each member of the Wythe family as distinctly unique, believable, true to their nature, and each with their own ‘quirk’.

Once the characters came into my head and their personalities became clear writing dialogue for each character was easier than I ever thought it might be.  Because each character is so “real” their voices, how they would say something, what they would say, how they would react in any given situation, allows me as a writer to let the characters speak for themselves.  It’s a strange situation, really, to just let the characters speak and not try to put words in their mouth.

I have my own way of speaking and the only character that I hear my own voice coming through is the narrator, Phineas Wythe.  Phin is me when I was his age.  He thinks and talks and acts almost exactly as I did when I was that age.  He has the same worries and fears that I had when I was fifteen.  The only difference between Phin and me is that I grew up in poverty and he grew up (is growing up) in privilege.

I suppose the real test for me as a writer is to imagine what it must be like to grow up privileged, never having to worry about money, having domestic help, etc.  In fact, the Wythes never think about money at all.  It’s just there.  Period.  And this lifestyle fascinates me.

However, in spite of the fact that the Wythes are very wealthy their wealth and privilege never makes them unsympathetic to the plight of others.  They are generous to a fault, loving, caring, and the most liberal minded wealthy family I could imagine.

In other words: I’m combining my outlook in life with their wealth and am letting the two worlds merge that set the Wythes apart from other Boston blue bloods/Brahmins.

They are eccentric because they have a zest for life, for fun, for adventure, for travel, for literature, and for making a difference in the world through their hard work and talent.

I’m obsessed with quality higher education so it was important to have each and every Wythe attend Harvard or a school of equal high status standing.   Naturally, after graduating from Harvard each and every family member would travel and study abroad to broaden their perspective on life and appreciate how other cultures exist.

Hopefully, Li’l Abner and his family, Lurch and the Addamses, and the Giles family would be interested in knowing the Wythes.

One Moment

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Wayne and me

The photos show me and my best friend, Wayne, when we were both young, hopeful, enthusiastic about being writers, and never thought we would not succeed in our goals to become writers.

Wayne died twenty years ago.  He was my best friend, my best editor, my best/worst critic, and someone I will never ever forget.

Whenever I feel uncertain about my writing or lack confidence for whatever reason I can hear Wayne’s voice in my head “Bitch, stop whining and just do it!”  And I usually do.

Several years ago I heard about a short story writing competition on NPR.  The rules required that you use five certain words and could not write more than 500 words (I think).  Never having done anything like this before I wrote a short story reflecting on the time I was diagnosed with colon cancer.

The story is titled: One Moment

The bare trees huddled close to the wooden house as if to warm themselves from the cheery glow coming from the kitchen window.

Sitting in the kitchen the man stared out the window, thinking.

A fly softly buzzed against the glass seeking its own freedom from his thoughts.

The man picked up his mug of coffee and sipped it without taking his eyes off the trees standing stark against the steely sky.

It was 3:14 in the morning.

The world was hushed and silent as if waiting for something to change.

Something to alter his reality.

Something to make his reality not be.

On the kitchen table sat a small plant.

A winter primrose.

As if unaware of the shift in reality the primrose bloomed bright with yellow flowers. Cheerful and calming as all primroses are.

The fly grew bored of buzzing against the glass and settled on the leaves of the primrose exploring the surface hopefully.

Hope.

I am the eternal optimist, the man thought.

Optimism springs eternal.

Or is it hope springs eternal?

How could this moment be his reality?

The eternal question everyone asks at one point or another in his life. How and why. What had he done wrong?

It had to be a trick.

A trick of the machines.

A trick of the light.

A trick of his hearing.

He must have heard wrong. That had to be the answer.

What had Gertrude Stein said before they wheeled her into surgery?

What is the answer?

And when no one answered she said the most oft repeated line of her career: “In that case, what is the question?”

What is the question?

The man had no answers.

No questions either.

Just the silent reality of the warm kitchen.

The man stood and pressed his forehead against the cold glass that kept the outside world at arm’s length.

He put his hand in his pocket and fingered the bone button that he always carried for good luck.

The button had failed to bring him the good luck he needed most a few hours ago.

A lifetime ago.

Twelve hours ago.

The man took the button from his pocket and held it between his thumb and forefinger.

The smooth texture brought back a flood of memories.

A night in an ancient burial mound.

The discovery of his first skeleton lying on its side, undisturbed.     Unaware.

His reality was that he was too aware.

Too discovered.

Outside, the bare trees shuddered in the wind and scratched at the window with their bony branches.

Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.

The sound brought back memories that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It would be a brief haunting he thought.

But why now?

Why me?

It made no sense.

Reality made no sense.

He had too much to do.

Too many things to finish.

The fly buzzed back to the window. Desperate to get out, not be trapped in this man’s reality.

But, what was his reality?

His reality was one month.

One month to tie up the loose ends of his life.

The man’s gaze settled on the primrose and he smiled.

How could something so humble bring so much joy?

It was the same with the bone button he always carried in his pocket.

It brought him peace of mind and held all the memories of his life.

The button made him remember.

The button made him forget.

The diagnosis made him regret.

Cancer.

One word.

One diagnosis.

One button.

One fly.

One plant.

One last trick.

Outside the kitchen window the bare trees stood still holding their breath.

Wythe’s End

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Wythe's End Front 1

I have more or less worked out exactly HOW the house called Wythe’s End will appear as a character in the novel.  A house has always felt alive to me.   Our house, Henwoodie, is 100 years old.  I have never lived in, nor could live in, a “new” house.  I like to feel the character and history of a house.

I haven’t written any new chapters recently due to our travel schedule and still being in Dearborn looking after John after his nasty fall on the ice.  BUT…I am revising the beginning of each of the 18 chapters already written to include the opening passages that center around Wythe’s End in order to set the tone and mood of the event(s) to be revealed in any given chapter.

It’s difficult NOT to write new chapters but until I finish another book deadline first I cannot, in all good conscience, allow myself to sit down with the Wythe family and catch up on all their activities and escapades.

I have also been watching a lot of old movies (film noir) just to be immersed in the wonderful story lines and settings.  One of my favorites is: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”.  This film, like Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” appeal to me simply because a great deal of the action takes place on a train!

When I first ventured to Europe in 1972 train travel was still mysterious and exciting and downright thrilling!  I loved the old individual first class compartments that felt like safe rooms separated from the Outside World.   I did quite a bit of writing on trains in Europe and the UK when I was young.   There is something about the gently rocking motion of the train and being in a confined space that sparks the imagination.

Naturally enough, in my ‘larger’ writings there is almost always a train that makes an appearance.  And in the case of “Wythe’s End” a narrow gauge private railroad plays an important role in the story as well.

I don’t travel by train in the U.S. because it’s not all that romantic or private.  There are no First Class comfortable compartments with wood paneling and soft cushioned high back seats.

I drive one of the original Scion XB automobiles that I like to describe as a small “Belgian bread truck” kind of vehicle.  I’ve driven this car for nearly 10 year and because we still commute back and forth between upstate New York and Dearborn, Michigan, it has come to feel like my own private First Class compartment for me and the pups.

Of course, I have to pay more attention to the actual driving, but the long drive back and forth allows me time to listen to wonderful audio books.   I can listen while I drive without being too distracted.

I suppose what this rambling post is all about is the fact that, in my writing, the setting, the place, the house, the train…is as important a character in a story as are the people (and animals). It would be impossible for me to NOT think of a old house or an animals as not having a soul, having feelings, and having an affect on the other characters.

I hope I am successful in bringing Wythe’s End (the house) to life as I feel I have been with the people and animals that love the house as much as I do.