Thursday, June 30, 2011

The search for nouns, adjectives, verbs

On a recent trip to Louisville, Tracy and I visited the Seelbach Hilton, particularly its basement Rathskeller room, formerly a bar,  now a historical curiosity, the "backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding in The Great Gatsby." We were led there by our friend and former schoolmate Ashly. I am trying to remember the basement-bar well enough to describe it for you now; some of the ceiling was apparently leather, thick with dark brown designs, water damaged here and there bot mostly quite pristine. There were strange fixtures on the pillars that supported its many interlocking arches (or whatever the proper architectural term is). There were rich depictions of the zodiac. There was an empty bar, no longer used. I will admit I was more fond of the working bar upstairs, less visually interesting but also a little less dry: there was some excellent whiskey-flavored beer. Tracy had an old-fashioned (she said she loved it).

While we were in the basement the main thing I said was that you could probably get like six nouns and six adjectives out of it, which is really pretty good for one room where no one really lives or works anymore.

Recently also I lamented to my family the difficulty of varying one's verbs in-scene. I have tended to write almost exclusively in-scene, and I'm having to relax this policy as I write this next book simply because I'm getting tired of the verbs a scene usually offers. Here are some of the verbs I use most often: Said. Took. Grasped. Lifted. Ate. Held. Was. Seemed. Appeared. Wanted. Walked. Ran. Stood. Drank. You will notice that many of these verbs are essentially the same thing, that like a fourth of them are different was of saying someone has something in their hands, and then two more are verbs for when they put those things in their mouths.

Part of this is a weakness particular to me as a writer. I sometimes get too caught up in the logistics. I tell you where things are or how they are arranged or how they are moving from point A to point B when you never would have asked. But part of it is this: when one wants to be precise, one's vocabulary is often quite limited. Most grammatical errors in novice writers are clearly the result of boredom. They want to say it in a different way, so they substitute one part of speech for another, use one word simply as a way of meaning another (more accurate) word without saying it. Because they are bored of the words. 

My novels tend to require a fair amount of research, but it's not because I want to get things "right." Not really. I don't mind being wrong. (I am, after all, writing fiction, which is defined by error, by wrongness.) I do the research so I can wring out the two or three unexpected nouns a setting might offer, the verbs I might otherwise miss, the adjectives and adverbs I don't encounter in my own life, home, family, habits. 

In short, when I write a novel or sometimes even a story, I feel as if my real project is to time it such that its vocabulary and its plot exhaust themselves together. It's not that I can't use any word twice, it's that I want to have a few words I only use once. It's that some words are more interesting if you use them three times but not six. It's that there are some words or phrases that only seem to get better with each repetition -- a really good name, for instance, will tend to improve the more often you hear it, as it accrues the residue of character.

I read histories for my nouns. I remember seeing how often the word "tile" appeared in John Hersey's Hiroshima and thinking how it never appeared in my depiction of Hiroshima and thinking, "It's time to go back and lay down some tiles." I read Wikipedia pages. I watch Mr. Rogers sequences on "how it's made." I read about food. I study the pile of junk on my table. I look at photographs and try to guess what a thing might be called. I definitely need to read more about architecture as I only know the barest set of nouns, often find myself improvising a term where I'm sure a term of art would be better, more concrete, more specific, more beautiful. In researching my last novel, I discovered the power of Sears catalogues. If you need to know the precise names for all the shit that filled American homes over the last century, try a Sears catalogue! There is such a wealth of nouns and adjectives.

Where are other places I might find more nouns and adjectives?

And is there a place on earth with some additional goddamn verbs?

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