Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 48

Meanwhile, Back on the Farm…..

As of today, the writing is underway for Chapter VI of the novel, tentatively titled “The Black Giant, Obeisance to Mammon”. I am pretty motivated about it right now for at least two reasons. The first reason is a simple one: it did not take me anywhere near as long to begin with Chapter VI after finishing Chapter V as it did to begin Chapter V after writing Chapter IV. Between Chapters IV and V there was a spirit-crushing 6-month interval. The interval between finishing Chapter V and starting this one is more like 6 weeks. Readers, this is progress! With an infant and two other children in my house, it feels worthwhile to celebrate whatever little victories I can achieve in this long, long haul.

The second reason I am excited about getting into this chapter is that it allows me to dig further into the stories I am creating around a few of the “secondary” characters for this novel. Why is this exciting? Well, it mixes it up, for one thing – I won’t be writing exclusively about Walter Brogan’s auto station or P.G. Heinricks’ business endeavors or about Greta Heinricks’ state of mind. All of these things are critical components of my story, and I don’t mean I don’t like writing about them; but like anyone trying to gut their way through a particularly long and difficult task, it is nice to have some variety. And hopefully the same thing will apply for whatever readers this novel may or may not find in the future. Also, on perhaps a deeper level, writing about the stories of other characters in the book expands and broadens the horizons of the fictional universe I am creating. It provides a larger canvas for me, a wider playing field, and given that extra space, my imagination can further stretch out its muscles and plumb its limitations, as it were. A novel, from the writer’s point of view, is partially about new discoveries. It’s about testing how far my mind can take itself and gauging the strength and endurance of my creative abilities. It is an exciting time, I am finding out. You begin to learn that your greatest obstacles are within. It’s one of those things that everyone knows, but going through a process like this bears the adage out.

Also, I must state for the record that this is the ONLY kind of “OJT” or “on the job training” I ever really enjoyed in my life, unless you count parenting.

The first “secondary” character that will be encountered in the opening of Chapter VI, which moves ahead only briefly from the end of Ch. V to the Spring of 1930, is the farmer Cal Wittenburg, who had a significant role in the story in Chapters III and IV, and will certainly have a more prominent role in events as the story rolls on. He will become a pivotal figure in Walter Brogan’s own story, because of the friendship they will continue to forge as Brogan transitions from a gas station manager to a fuel oil distributor and thus Wittenburg’s fuel delivery man. Brogan will soon enough be making regular visits to the Wittenburg farm to conduct his duties in this capacity, and that in turn will allow him to make observations of the farmer’s way of life as the Depression rolls into full swing across the land. Therefore, I think it is important for the reader to see some of that lifestyle ahead of time, and learn some more information about Cal Wittenburg and his story.

In order to gain inspiration and information, I have been reading about farm life in the early 30s, and I just completed a book that might as well have been Heaven-sent for this purpose: a book called Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, which is nothing more than a memoir of daily life in a farm in rural Iowa during the Depression. The book is a nostalgic but unsentimental look back in time to an era that is now gone forever, as no one realizes more than the septuagenarian author. It was recognized as one of the Top Ten Books of 2007 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and one can see how it garnered this sort of acclaim. It is literally jammed with details about this fascinating, long-forgotten but much simpler and, arguably, healthier way of life. I am lucky to have found the book, which contains colorful anecdotes about almost everything you can imagine, from farming procedures to cooking to saving money to church life to animals to flora to getting an education, in more ways than one. Reading Kalish’s priceless memoir has given me plenty of ideas for fleshing out my own vision of what life must have been like in and around the Wittenburg household, which I must now work into compelling scenes that also advance the story I am telling. A hard task, but let’s keep things in perspective: it’s not as hard as raising an entire family on somewhere around $300-$400 a year’s earnings.

Right now I am putting together a sequence, for lack of a better word, which will present the reader with some up-til-now lacking information on Cal Wittenburg’s back history and will also reveal Wittenburg and his wife and children engaging in a family ritual which will hopefully reveal a lot about their collective character and priorities. Who is Cal Wittenburg? Where did he come from? How long has his family occupied the land he lives on? What sorts of measures will he have to take just to provide for his family? These questions will be answered. Wittenburg for me is a stand-in for legions of faceless men and women from this era who kept America fed while shouldering the crushing burden of some of the worst economic conditions in the history of our country. For these farmers, the Depression started long before some stock market crash. Wittenburg is the sort of man whose indomitable will and unshakeable fidelity to his family, his land and his values will naturally draw Walter Brogan and inspire him to act in certain ways later in the novel which may or may not have a dramatic effect on his own fate – and his family’s as well.

Boom! Like That

Another storyline I am looking to unpack in this next chapter, to an extent that even I am not sure of yet, concerns P.G. Heinricks’ son, Peter, and his adventures in Texas with Pops Wheeler, oil man/con artist extraordinaire. Peter Heinricks hooked up with Wheeler in Chapter I of this story, and has been with him ever since, from around 1924 through 1930, when this chapter begins. For the most part he has been weaving briefly in and out of the narrative only in letter format, sending correspondence the one member of his family he still feels closeness with, his elder sister Greta. To this point his letter have been rambling explanations of the various measures Wheeler and his team have been taking, in vain, to locate and drill for deposits of oil that Wheeler insists must exist underneath the topsoil in the eastern plains of rural Texas. Needless to say, Peter’s letters have been noticeably free of details of however else he might be spending his time, or whatever money he can rustle up, while detached from his family and any other close relations over that slow, meandering six-year stretch.

But things are about to change for Peter. For Pops Wheeler is on the verge of a discovery that will prove all the naysayers were wrong and he was right after all. And this will make Peter, at least for the near future, a rich man. In real life, the “Black Giant” – a more than 1,500 mile reservoir of raw petroleum – was discovered on October 3, 1930, in eastern Texas, causing a major oil boom. Hangers-on, hungry migrants, businesses, executives, scientists – they all came running, and those who discovered the oil and sold it became insanely wealthy almost overnight. This chapter attempts to re-imagine that boom scenario, a windfall at first for Peter Heinricks. But with the boom comes temptations and debauchery and other forms of excess, and the question will be whether Peter can manage these additional pressures while living far away from the shadow of his entrepreneurial father, without restraints.

Soon, he will be driven to other measures to stop his losses and feed his own greedy frenzy for more of everything, measures that may be illegal and dangerous…..

It’s all going to make for some interesting writing experiences for the guy making the attempt to bring it all off. Hopefully the end result will be some arresting and entertaining moments for future readers.

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