common themes and geekery

I watched Doctor Who with some friends last night. I’d never seen the show before. I talked over a scene to offer an opinion on something happening (I’m sure my comment was something like, “So… it’s always the Daleks, isn’t it?”) and one of my friends said, “You are now a geek.” To which I said, “Uh, have we met before?” I feel like I’m already pretty secure in my geekhood.

Everyone’s a little nerdy about something. The things that I’m nerdy about, that I obsess over, tend to find their way into my fiction.

Ebbets FieldI realized recently that baseball is mentioned in many of my works in progress. I was a casual fan as a kid, probably because I grew up in the NYC suburbs and the Mets were doing well at the time. My brother and I collected and traded baseball cards for no other reason I can think of besides that I liked collecting things and that’s what the boys his age were doing. Then, when I was twelve, my parents brought us to my first Yankees game. I loved the whole experience: talking stats with my dad, eating hot dogs and Cracker Jack, being able to see the action in person with thousands of other fans. The Yankees didn’t even win the game, but I was sold. I have since become what you might call a hard-core fan. I especially like surprising the hell out of men who assume women are antipathetic towards baseball. But I also love the history of it, the math behind it, the debates over who the best short stop was, who the best slugger was, what to do about steroids, all of it.

I was at a party once where the Brooklyn Brewery’s Pennant Ale was being served. There was a cute guy hanging around the fridge when I went to get a new round, and when he fished a bottle out for me, I said (because I am a nerd) “These say ’55’ on them because that’s the year the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series.” (Yes, that bit of knowledge just lives in my brain. I’m hoping to one day get picked up by the Cash Cab because I always win when I play at home.) The guy was impressed and told me he hadn’t known that. I apologized for nerding all over him, and he pointed out that he was wearing a Starfleet Academy tee-shirt. So, see, everyone is nerdy about something.

It’s tricky to insert nerdery into a novel yet. I mention baseball in almost every one of my novels, but I rarely write about baseball players, usually just fans. Likewise, I play the violin and have played for years, but I rarely write violinist characters. (Until I did. I wrote a long descriptive passage about a violinist practicing that I thought was quite nice, but my writer’s group found all the minutiae boring. All things in moderation, I suppose.)

Still, I always thought it was kind of fun to catch recurring themes in the works of the writers I like. Sometimes you can tell what a writer obsesses over, just in the interests they give their characters. Or it’s a write-what-you-know thing. I know what it’s like to be a baseball fan. I follow the game and like to quote stats and even played in a fantasy league last summer. It seems pretty reasonable to me that a thirty-something New Yorker (such as Noah in my upcoming In Hot Pursuit) would be at least a casual fan. Maybe that’ll be my novels’ Easter egg. Spot the baseball reference!

Speaking of other things I’m obsessed with, if you want a music rec, I’ve been listening to the Decemberist’s “The Hazards of Love” on a repeating loop all day. If you are a fan of indie rock or rock opera, I heartily recommend it. Some of the themes are a little icky, but the music is wonderful.

new york changing

I mentioned in my last post, my idea for NaNoWriMo has a historical plot. One of my protagonists lived through New York City in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and I’ve been researching important historical events of these years.

My thinking on the last 50 years of New York City history would probably take a whole book, but I will say 2 things: 1) there’s a part of me that always wanted to “be a part of it”; I grew up in the Jersey suburbs and spent a fair amount of time in the city as a kid, but more than that, I wanted to be a part of the New York as seen on TV, even the rough, nasty parts of it. I can’t really explain why. 2) There’s a lot of weird nostalgia for the Way Things Used to Be that puzzles me because it’s like people don’t remember how awful the city was, or they, for some reason, want to increase the odds they’ll get mugged. Maybe that makes them feel like a real city dweller? I’ll take the safer city, thanks.

But it’s hard not to get nostalgic, too, since the New York I live in is not the one I saw on the TV as a kid in the 80s, not the place I wanted to live when I was a teenager. And I think the cleaner New York has lost something, some edge to its creativity, as the mom and pop stores give way to Starbucks and the Gap.

Well, anyway. Speaking of 70s nostalgia, Scouting New York has a really cool series showing how New York has changed since certain iconic New York movies:

Taxi Driver: part 1, part 2, part 3

Ghostbusters: part 1, part 2

On Taxi Driver, Scout says:

Personally, I don’t look back nostalgically on the grittier New York of the late 1970’s. As I never experienced it first hand, I believe it’s dangerous and naive to romanticize something the city has worked so desperately to rise up from. In 1976, a large portion of New York’s population people simply didn’t care, and the city suffered for it. If you pine for this level of apathy, there are plenty of other American cities going through some pretty bad rough patches you could move to, and I promise the rent will be much cheaper.

In 2009, people care. A byproduct of people caring is a city that is safer, more g-rated, more expensive, more museum-like. I agree that such an environment leaves very little room for growth, artistic or otherwise – frankly, you CAN’T have a Belmore diner at the corner of 28th & Park anymore (if you owned the place, would you not sell the property for countless millions?). While I dislike the fact that so many of the FAR more interesting locations in Taxi Driver have been replaced by Duane Reades, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Sephora’s, I can only look at it as part of the unfortunate social evolution of New York. Ultimately, if New York City didn’t want them, they wouldn’t exist for long.

And, yeah, that pretty succinctly sums up what I believe also, and it’s going to be one of the themes of my novel. See also this LCD Soundsystem song:

the song remains the same

I do all my best thinking when I’m nowhere near a computer. Sometimes this is a problem; if I don’t write down an idea right away, it doesn’t always stay in my head. Most of the time, I view it as an asset.

I walk a lot. I live a little over a mile from my day job and I don’t own a car, so I walk to and from the office every day. Or, sometimes I just walk around the neighborhood when the ideas aren’t coming so easily.

And, because I’m also easily bored, I always have my iPod with me. The best strategy I’ve come up with to overcome writer’s block is to make playlists for each of my novels. If I’m stuck on a story, I’ll put on the playlist for that story and take a walk, and I can usually work out my problem. I started doing this for a novel I wrote in college: I made a soundtrack. It’s helpful sometimes to think of your novel in cinematic terms. Who would play this character in the movie? What song is playing in the background of this scene?

My musical tastes are varied and eclectic. I like everything from country to folk to opera to classic rock. Among other things, I’m a classically trained musician, and I’m a sucker for a good pop song that uses strings. (Real strings, not the synthesized ones; I can tell!) Sometimes I make playlists that are just a hodgepodge of songs that I think apply to specific scenes. It means that one soundtrack can have a folk song, a rap song, and maybe a piece of classical music. If I write a novel with a violinist character, the soundtrack might include a piece of music she plays in the novel. If I hear a song that I think is particularly evocative, that’s probably going to get added to a soundtrack. Sometimes I just pick a bunch of songs in one particular genre to set a mood for the whole piece. I have a work in progress about Wyoming ranchers, and I made a playlist that is entirely country music, for example (and all songs about wide open spaces, for the most part, or specific emotions, nothing that’s location specific to areas of the US I’m not writing about.)

So, I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and the novel I have planned is, in part, “historical,” in that there’s a storyline that spans from 1945 until 2001 or so. The character who lives through all this is a lifelong New Yorker, so I’m trying to pick out some songs for his part of the novel’s soundtrack. So far I’ve got things like Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” and a whole lot of Simon & Garfunkel. If anyone has further songs, songs that are evocative of a particular era, or of New York City (especially in the 60s ad 70s), I’m open to suggestion, too.

PS — I haven’t officially announced it here, but my first novel is coming out in February, if all goes to plan. This novel’s got a soundtrack, too, sort of, in that I was listening to a lot of whiny emo rock at the time.