Mr & Mrs - all in the family

Friday, May 14, 2010

Works of Fiction Working Memory Lane

A Question of Memory - or How does memory affect the writing of the novel or short?                

God help the writer short on memory. It takes a great deal of recall work to put any sort of mind-boggling, twisting, turning, pleasantly surprising fiction together. Short stories, not so much but still...Memory is essential. Memory affects the process of writing and the writer himself in so many ways and on so many levels we often take it for granted till we lose it! And you needn't be aged to lose it. We all like to believe that no one and no force can deprive us of our talent but think again. There are such forces out there. Some of us have run smack into them.

Memory is a slippery quicksilver substance if you are having problems in the real world ranging from personal loss, depression, financial drain, or trauma and health issues (some speak of writer's block, but it is life block is what it is).

Imagine being unable to recall pivotal moments in the story upon which you had planned to resolve matters? ‘Loose ends’ as a pharase takes on a whole new meaning. Being unable to recall vivid memories of a real life situation the author wishes to place in her novel can be devastating. Being unable to recall vivid details in chapter one that need come back in on page 200 or Chapter Thirty from a character's eye color to the breed of dog on his lap is equally frustrating.

Each missing memory chip creates a hole in the story. If one can't recall details of character traits, names, ticks, etc., he may well use the computer nowadays as a crutch to re-locate such details, but this takes time away from writing the story. Questions of plot and plot development aren't so easily fixed; how do you do a search and rescue effort on a plot development gone horribly awry? Memory in both the creative artist during the creative process and embedded within the characters created becomes an absolute necessity.

Imagine creating a character without a memory. Of course, if that is part and parcel of the storyline, amnesia for whatever reason as in Mr. Budwing or The Bourne Identity that's one thing, but an unintentional outcome stemming from a character who can't remember his lines or remember his own traits might be a sticky problem indeed. Actually, there is no "might be" about it. As a rule of thumb then, characters require sharp memories (unless a confused old 'lodger' or 'codger' needs to have an inadequate memory for the sake of the story), especially our main detective(s), cops, medical examiners and such.

Our Sherlock has to be up for battle, up and alert to catch the clues and ultimately the horrendously bad guy(s) and sometimes the terribly bad gal(s) who typically leave a trail of clues to the requisite doorstep. Again unless the intent is to create and develop a bungling Mr. Magoo who really does have memory lapses (which could be an interesting premise for a mystery detective tale or only frustrating a 'ell to the reader), we're going to want our hero or heroine to be fairly sharp if not razor sharp in the memory department--even if he fakes forgetfulness as in Columbo's case.

Besides, as a rule, characters require secrets, fears, experiences which all equate out to either pleasant or unpleasant memories. Memories in fact help greatly to establish and build character 'biographies' in the story. Bumper Sticker Alert: Hard to remember a memorable character who did not have memories. Harder still to imagine an author who could possibly work without memories to ahhh...Yeah, work with.

I have gone through periods when writing became impossible, due in large part to a shut down of the senses without which no memory gets through. We and our characters react to smell, sound, taste, touch, and sight, any one of which or any combination of which sets memory into motion.

A story is a war, and it is only as good as the effect its conflict has on the reader. A great story is filled with characters hoarding secret scars, hurts, memories, some of which are revealed, and in the revelation of character, secret, and memory, we find a fully fleshed out, fully-realized character staring back off the page of ink marks, someone we relate to because we share the secret and the memory now as we do with all the classic character from Ahab to Heathcliff.

Memories...Memoriessssss--as the song says, so important. Certainly Jeremiah Wakely's ten year memories of his childhood girlfriend figures highly in my Children of Salem set in 1692, and my Dead On, a modern noir Atlanta tale wherein Marcus Rydell's memories have him on the brink of suicide until dreams of vengeance open hin up to a goal worth living for!

Hope you will share some of your "memory" concerns here on the comments section!

Rob Walker
FREE 1st 20 pgs. of Children of Salem up at

"Dead On takes the reader's capacity for the imagination of horror to stomach turning depths, and then gives it more twists than a Georgia backroad that paves an Indian trail." - Nash Black

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