A Documentary, a Podcast, and a Dark Confession

First, I want to briefly discuss a surprisingly good documentary (well, more of a docudrama, since it features actors and fictionalized versions of real events). Earlier this year, Netflix released a film called The Most Hated Woman in America, about the life and death of outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (this was before the Casey Anthony thing).  Although over 20 years old now, the case is one of those so bizarre in a “I couldn’t write this stuff” kind of way that I’m surprised it hasn’t received more media attention. The narrative cuts back and forth between Madalyn and her family after their 1995 abduction and her past as a single mother in 1960s Baltimore, where she became an increasingly abrasive advocate for religious freedom. Melissa Leo does a great job of portraying O’Hair at different ages, and together she and the writers manage to humanize someone who was by almost all accounts a difficult, unpleasant person. Vincent Kartheiser (smarmy Pete Campbell, for those who have watched Mad Men) plays her estranged son and the talented but somewhat underused Juno Temple plays her loyal granddaughter. Then there’s Josh Lucas as bitter former employee turned kidnapper, who projects a kind of menacing charisma and, in the scenes with Leo, creates an almost palpable tension. The narrative strikes the healthiest balance it can between “this woman has enemies? I can’t imagine why” and “okay, that shouldn’t happen to anyone.” I’m tempted to say more about it , but I have other things I want to get to without being too long-winded. So my suggestion is to Google the case to get the basic facts of the story, then watch.

I’ve also added Writing Excuses  to my ever growing podcast list. Each episode is a concise 15 minutes, full of great perspectives on writing. Then the hosts yell at you to get back to work at the end of each. Also, I checked out Last Podcast on the Left. It’s a sophomoric, tasteless comedy podcast about true crime and unexplained events, and when in the right mood, it’s hilarious. It makes me laugh, then feel ashamed.

So, the thing I’m really here to talk ab0ut today is the “dark confession” alluded to above. I’m a writer, and I hate world-building. In fact, world-building can go right over and stand next to cooking on my “it improves my quality of life but I still kind of loathe the process” shelf. I have a theory that some writers start by drawing a map–or perhaps just a tastefully decorated sitting room–and then people it with characters. That’s great, but it’s just not me. I’m more likely to stumble into a character who insists on being written about, sometimes with a filament of plot attached if they’re  being charitable. Then some other characters emerge from the shadows, and oh wait, two of them are fighting, and one of them is hitting the other with a chair. So, um, I guess my setting needs chairs now. I don’t really draw maps, and naming fictional cities, countries, rivers, and mountains makes me want to rip my eyelashes out. Every time I realize that a proper noun is required, I have to spend a good twenty minutes rejecting city/river/coffee shop names, all while my characters are getting impatient for the actual scene to start.

Now, at this point, you should all be asking, “But, L.R., why don’t you just use real world locations? They come with names, maps, and descriptions, no assembly required.” First of all, it is entirely possible that one day I will use a 100% real world setting, when the characters and plot seem to demand it. I think the reason that I’ve been using not-quite-real world settings (a few dimensions down settings?) is due to the fact that A.) I feel weirdly self-conscious about writing about real places, for fear of Doing It Wrong somehow, and B). as much I dislike flushing out my settings, I’m also very picky about them in some ways. I want every aspect of my story to feel like an organic part of a whole, and if my plot and characters can’t be plopped down into a real setting without feeling forced, then I have to come up with one that will fit them.

Now, I could get away with sparse world-building in my first novel, since the majority of the action took place in one city and the plot demanded only vague references to other places. Recently, however, I’ve been working on a project that is clearly going to demand more development in that regard, so I have to confront my distaste. How am I doing that? Here are some methods I am trying.

A. I already have some characters and loose plot points sketched out, so I’ve created a separate document listing every city/region/geographic thing I might need, with a few lines of description. I’m not trying for too much with these descriptions, at least at this stage. I start with something simple like “it’s near the ocean.” Then: “Because of this, it’s heavily dependent on maritime trade.” And then: You know what would totally ruin this place’s week? Some kind of embargo or blockade. This could be a point of conflict.” Then I start trying to think of how some of these things might be relevant to the characters and plot points I already have. The names usually come last, and yeah, I still hate coming up with them, but there are random generators.

B. I shamelessly copy, paste, and recombine real places and events. I did this in The Foreigner,  I’m going to keep doing it, and honestly I suggest everyone do it. This suits me, since I’ve never gravitated to fully invented languages and cultures–I prefer my characters to dress, talk, and be named like real people. So world cultures and history offer a near-endless yard sale of props.

C. Lastly, to come full circle, while I’m trying to keep my writing weaknesses from becoming a full handicap, I’m not going to develop them at the expense of what I really want to accomplish with my story, either. I’m going to write the book I want to read, and I’m only going to develop the setting as much as I need to make the story that needs to be made. I’m going to expand my comfort zone, but not abandon it.


What about everyone else? Does anyone else struggle with some of these same issues, and if so, how do you deal with it?

On Introverting Badly, and Why No One Should Care (plus some links)

When you’re writer–or even just someone with basic awareness of their social surroundings–it’s difficult to avoid references to personality typing. A given scroll through the recommended pins for my pinterest board will reveal several infographics about the various Enneagram,  Myers-Briggs,  and Big 5 categories that a person might fall into (the last is, in my opinion, the most likely to be accurate, not that it matters much at the moment). Now, I accept that personality typing is not and never should be an exact science, but the topic intrigues me enough that I’ve learned more about the ingredients of personality than I probably ever needed to.

One pair of opposites that comes up a lot is the introversion/extroversion gradient, and where it’s mentioned, a flurry of what I can only describe as “introvert apologia” is never far away.

Now, I am without a doubt an introverted person. Typically, my idea of a great night involves me, my cat, and a Jane the Virgin marathon on Netflix (although I should add that not all nights are typical ones). My amazing fiance was gone all last weekend, and so I sat at home listening to nothing but some new podcasts and the rain on the roof and it was the best weekend ever. I do not regret being this way, and I am in total agreement with the basic premise of every “misconceptions about introverts” post, that is, that there’s nothing wrong with being one.

However, I have some points of contention with how introversion and extroversion are discussed and how these constantly repeated truisms are becoming accepted as gospel. So I thought I would share some of my own observations just to add some perspective to the topic (not to pick fights with anyone).

First of all, introversion and extroversion are matters of degree, not type. Even though most psychology texts essentially state this, the public interpretation seems to tend towards polarization. For instance, take the x000 “how to care for your introvert” things I see bandied about pinterest and Facebook. “Respect boundaries” “avoid passing judgement” “don’t interrupt” “don’t spring things on the person at the last minute.” Excellent advice, all, but mostly indistinguishable from basic courtesy. I’m willing concede that having these guidelines violated might be especially troubling to an introverted personality, but am I really supposed to deduce that an average extrovert loves being interrupted, enjoys having important information dumped on them at the last conceivable second, and sits around itching for someone to disrespect their boundaries?  Introverts, extroverts, and the many, many people who fall somewhere in the middle are all, you know, people, and are not that fundamentally different from one another. We’re discussing variations in the human personality, not two different species.

The other point that I want to address is that, while there is nothing wrong or even unusual about being an introvert, to put it baldly, there is nothing special either. For myself, I do not believe that being an introvert makes me any smarter, any kinder, any more responsible, or any more loyal than I would be if I was more of an extrovert. These are all separate qualities independent of my preferred Friday night activities. Some of the things that seem to come up over and over again in descriptions of introverted personalities are “liking one-on-one interaction” and “having few but close friends,” and neither of these are especially true of me. One- on-one conversations are actually the most tiring type of socialization for me, because I have to carry the burden for a full half of the conversation rather than distributing it evenly among, say, three to five people. And, although I certainly have some great friends, I still think that “gets along with almost everyone but doesn’t really have a  BFF” is a better description of me than “having few but close friends.”

Happily, as far as I’m concerned, none of this matters. The vast majority of people have both extroverted and introverted qualities, and neither extreme represents some sort of elite secret society with stiff standards for admission. Act as you see fit (with the standard legal and ethical qualifiers).

In absence of a snappy conclusion that isn’t a retread of what I’ve already written, I’m going to switch gears and turn to my fall back topic: Things that I Find Interesting that You Should Check Out.

I’ve discovered a great new podcast (shocking, I know):  The Strange Matters Podcast . It covers anything that qualifies as a strange matter (unsolved crime, theoretical science, claims of the paranormal) and does it in a very informative and entertaining way. Don’t worry, I’m a strong skeptic about anything paranormal, but I’m still curious enough to enjoy hearing about it. They cover a wide variety of interesting cases and I can’t believe it took me this long to stumble across them.

Recently, HBO aired a documentary called Mommy Dead and Dearest. The story is as morbid as it sounds, and it’s well worth watching.  The Brain Candy Podcast (another good one!)  discussed the documentary in a recent episode. Before watching, though, I suggest reading this article about the case first. It deals with a likely case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, and it is one of the most fascinating and disturbing things I have ever read.

That’s all I have for now. Best wishes to everyone!





June Update: Podcasts and Mayhem

So, I have been doing things for the last four months, just, err, not updating much. What I have been doing is going back to school to get a Master’s in Health Services Administration (I have been loving my classes, but I have a sneaking suspicion I was the oldest student in each of the ones I’ve taken). Also, I’ve been planning my wedding this summer. But enough about that and onto the important stuff: addictive podcasts.

I’m late to a lot of parties, including the podcast one. But hey, I seem to be having fun anyway. Last year I started listening to a lot of mystery and true crime podcasts such as Serial and True Crime Garage and within the last few months I’ve discovered Alzabo Soup, a show hosted by two long time friends discussing the works of science fiction author Gene Wolfe. Niche audience? Sure. But it’s great fun to listen to, and if you’re not already familiar with Wolfe’s works, AS is a great introduction. I’ve also made the leap to fictional audio dramas. I recently binge-listened to the first season of Homecoming over a week of walking at the gym, and I’ve started on The Black Tapes, an X-Files-type series that follows the same format and tone of the non-fictional Serial. It’s great for listening to with the lights out and the windows open on a windy night. Then there’s Alice Isn’t Dead, which is made by the same folks that made Welcome to the Night Vale. I have not yet listened to WNV, but it seems to be well-known and popular among the people that follow this sort of thing. Alice Isn’t Dead is best described as Twin Peaks after about six Monster energy drinks, and so far it’s fantastic. Now,this one is best listened to while driving down a long, desolate stretch of road late at night, but don’t wait around, just start listening.

Also, never fear, I have been writing, too.

Hope everyone is well. I’ll try to update more frequently!