Thursday, January 9, 2014

Whispers from the Past or Goodies in Used Books

I just found out the other day that I get to attend the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas in February! Having survived this whole polar vortex thing, a few days in the sun with palm trees and desert all around me just sounds too good to be true. Ahem. Pardon my bragging, but this actually does segue into my topic today.

I have been obsessed with Las Vegas since my first visit (which was also at a WVC conference) back in 2010. I'm not much of a drinker, not much of a gambler, and am ambivalent toward strippers and prostitutes, so, you may wonder, why does this boring individual love Vegas? The history, baby. (And the people-watching, too, naturally.)
Today's post is really just an excuse to post awesome retro Vegas pics
I love learning about the old casinos, love looking at retro photographs of 1950s and 60s Vegas, love that style. This is why, when I was visiting my favorite used book shop, The Book Barn, when I was in Connecticut over the holidays, I grabbed a copy of the book: Las Vegas Then and Now, by Su Kim Chung.

As I was flipping through this book the other day, I came upon a bookmark that was stuck between the pages. It was an ad for a store called The Reading Room in Mandalay Place, which I knew was the mall area that connects the Luxor with Mandalay Bay, two giant casino-resorts on the south end of the Vegas strip. In my various trips to Vegas, I do not ever recall seeing a bookshop. Anywhere. So, as one does when one seeks information, I turned to Google. 

As it turns out, sadly, The Reading Room no longer exists, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in February 2008. Still, it was fun to read about and even more fun to hypothesize why such a bookmark ended up in a book that I bought in Connecticut. Possibly the original owner bought it in Vegas, at The Reading Room? Or did the individual happen to have the bookmark from a previous trip and placed it in a book on Vegas because they are creepily organized?
Sorry, last one.
For many of you, I'm sure this hypothesizing is boring. And yes, my leads stopped with the 2008 news article. But this brings me to a larger topic of that neat thrill you get when you pick up a used book and discover a name, a bookmark, or notes in the margins from a previous owner. I delight in such findings. For me, this makes the book come more alive. I'm no longer someone in a vacuum reading a book. I'm someone who's reading a book someone else touched, read, and maybe even enjoyed. It makes the book, the book in the physical sense I mean, not the story inside, come alive.
THEY ARE ALIVE!!!!!!!!!!!
I grew up reading used books, so I've noticed many that at the least have names written in the front cover. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get a date with the name, and occasionally, I've found a telephone number, or city and state. I can also recall coming across a few shopping lists stuck haphazardly between pages. These are like little special gems to me, indicating these books have been read at least once before. It makes me feel the book as had a rich life. Is this weird? Maybe you shouldn't answer that - it does border on anthropomorphizing. At least I don't name my books like I do my houseplants (Archie the avocado tree, I'm looking at you.....)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Problem with Plot

I hope everyone had a good holiday season. As always, I'm attempting to start the shiny new year with renewed vigor. Although I don't have many specific resolutions, unlike the farm animals I've heard, the new year always gives me a reason to re-boot my intentions and take a fresh look at the things I've done and the things I would like to do.

Enter writing.

I was crafty enough with my 2013 resolutions to avoid anything as bold as "write a bestseller" or "win the Pulitzer." Instead, I merely wrote: "make progress in fiction writing." Oh, Anna, you're so smart. "Make progress?" Why, that could be defined simply as having sharpened all my pencils. That would be progress.

Although I woefully slacked in writing anything close to a draft of a novel last year, I worked on some short stories, which is still new territory for me and counts, I think, in my fiction writing progress.

Over the last month, however, I had an idea for a story (scary, I know). The idea came from a delightful book I was reading, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Second in McCall Smith's series on Portuguese Irregular Verbs, this lighthearted book follows a wonderfully sympathetic, academically traditional, and mildly irrational German language professor, Prof. Dr. Mortiz-Maria von Igelfeld, in various escapades, one of which involved a case of mistaken identity. In this story, von Igelfeld is mistakenly thought to be a veterinarian. Not wanting to be rude and cause undue attention to this faux paus, he masquerades as a DVM and expert in sausage dogs. Please, if you are a vet, a dog lover, and/or any other sort of human being, read this story. It is hilarious.

My own idea for a story also involves mistaken identity. And yet, when one works with such a plot device, one also needs a resolution. This is where I'm running into trouble. I don't yet know how the main character reveals her true identity.

Frantically finishing McCall Smith's book in hope of answers on his plot resolution, I was let down. The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs is really a collection of vignettes, with von Igelfeld flitting from one scenario to the other. Don't get me wrong, this still makes for a very enjoyable read. But if you're looking for tips on how to resolve a crisis such as mistaken identity, you won't find it in this book.

Desperate for some other examples, I thought to look at the father of all mistaken identity stories, the great Bard himself. Shakespeare employed this plot device in numerous plays, frequently in comedies. Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night are just two examples of such plots, but as I reviewed these with a closer eye, I noticed many cases involve twins.

My story doesn't have twins.

And so I'm stuck with an unsolved plot. This got me wondering how other writers solve such problems. Have you ever been gung ho on a story and then came to a screeching halt when you couldn't figure how to work something out? Or, worse, have you been halfway through writing a story and realized you were stuck for a solution? How many story ideas have you scrapped for lack of conclusion?

Not that I'm letting this little issue keep me up at night. Well, it kept me up for two nights. But that's it. One of the many dilemmas for a writer: letting your character's life problems keep you up!