A Good, Old-Fashioned, Sawdust-on-the-Floor Whorehouse

Possibly one of the best in a film peppered with memorable one-liners, this particular description of a brothel was spoken by Jane Greathouse (played by the lovely and talented Jenny Wright), in 1990’s Young Guns II. Besides the fact that it was delivered tongue-in-cheek and with a great deal of admirable sass, it rings especially poignant later in the movie, when Jane is issuing a well-deserved rant about the hypocritical nature of White Oaks, the town now casting her (and her “working girls”) out. “And the preacher at the back door by morning!” she cries, ripping pins from her topknot, just minutes before exiting her business establishment for the last time – naked except for her black hat, gloves, and boots.

The first time I saw the movie, the whole mention of sawdust left me perplexed. In case you wondered, the sawdust made the nightly cleaning of the floor that much easier, proved useful if any blood was spilled over the course of an evening’s revelry, smelled pleasant, and was therefore commonly used in saloons, brothels, butcher shops, and other stores of the era. Further, the sawdust was simple to come by and often free. And the thought of nineteenth-century prostitutes walking through it, the swishing sibilance of their layered skirts and muted clicking of their heeled boots, storms the storytelling center of my brain with about a dozen different potential plots. Despite the tendency of so many to hate and vilify women who peddled their bodies for room and board (i.e. their very survival), I think they were totally heroic.

I do my best to give them voice in my writing – and I spend plenty of time imagining what treasure-trove of stories they might tell me if I could leap back to, say, 1870 to interview them. If only. What soul-wrenching, fascinating, or even matter-of-fact anecdotes would they be willing to share? For example – how often did one of them become pregnant? Was the competition for high-paying customers fierce and/or violent? How old were they when first employed? What dire (or perhaps just necessary) circumstances led to this career choice in the first place? Did they completely disrobe for each customer, or just slide up their skirts? How many of them were addicted to opiates? Maybe most concerning – how often did they escape the lifestyle alive?

Can you truly imagine the necessity of spreading one’s legs for dozens of customers a night, sex as nothing but a business transaction (at least, on the woman’s part), without even a pretense of affection? What must have been the physical state of these girls, not to mention their mental/emotional? They weren’t robots, or heartless, or even probably particularly ignorant. They likely knew a hell of a lot more about the world than most of the people who would cross the street to avoid walking too close to them. (Keep in mind that very few people regarded the hordes of male customers as equally sinful, dirty, or worthy of disgrace). The women were always to blame – and to “deserve” retribution, mud-slinging, or abject marginalization. I would argue that the same double standard applies even to this day, one of the nastier in existence. Why are women the sluts?

A male counterpart of the word is hard to find; there doesn’t seem to be one that packs the same punch as “slut,” a compact word with an avalanche’s worth of destructive power behind it. In studying its etymology for Heart of a Dove (which was a truly fascinating and eye-opening process), I learned that the connotation of the word has nearly always been negative (unlike “wench,” for example, which was once a softer, more affectionate term); apparently men are allowed and even encouraged to have “healthy” sexual appetites, but if a woman likes, loves, enjoys, or otherwise seeks out sexual encounters, she is worthy of a negative term applied to her person, often irrevocably. The word “slut” possessing that sort of glue-like, adhesive quality.

Jane’s comment about the preacher at the back door is then reflective of what lies beneath, so to speak; the hypocrisy that flows like a river under a certain amount of those who claim to be so darn morally upright. Of course, this is a generalization of which the film was taking advantage, but there is truth to it – let’s imagine the “preacher” in the story as just any old Everyman seeking sex. Of course, this act in and of itself was common, if not to say completely natural – and this Everyman wouldn’t have been looked down upon, let alone run out of town by the tar-and-feathers committee for utilizing the services of a prostitute. But when the armed-with-torches crowd arrived, they were after the women, not the men. Women as Eternal Temptresses, and all of that. Why can’t we call it like it is – Men of Eternal Weak Willpower. Or how about – The Completely Understandable and Totally Natural Result of the Promise of Sex? Come on. Prostitutes (then and now) could not have existed/supplied the goods without the demand of male customers. And the fact that the women were/are the ones most often shamed is itself shameful. That’s part of why I admire Jane’s aplomb in Young Guns II. “Kiss my ass,” she says, in the figurative sense – but likely a large number of townsmen now burning her brothel (and refusing to raise their voices in defense of her) had done just that, literally, before running her out of their morally-upright little town.

Some of the best characters in both film and novel (and let’s face it, definitely the most interesting) are women who worked as prostitutes. Some of my personal favorites in novel format include Miss Lorena (from Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry) and Jewel Mack (from Paint the Wind by Cathy Cash Spellman), and I’ll never forget Alabama Worley, the tough-cookie call girl from True Romance (played by Patricia Arquette), or Elisabeth Shue as Sera in Leaving Las Vegas. Amazing performances.

My bottom line point here is this – things are not always as they seem. So don’t be so quick to judge. And maybe think twice about using the word “slut.” And, like me, watch Young Guns II this weekend, for the first time in years. 😉

Essentials

I’ve taught composition for more than a decade, and so I feel somewhat hypocritical when I admit that despite instructing my students to use outlines (as an essential part of the writing process), I never do in my own writing; at least, not fictional writing. I find outlines stifling. I find them a waste of time. My thoughts are often too disorganized to wrangle into the proper format. Instead I put fingers to keyboard and “run” with the story. Though, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this practice – it’s just what I have found (after decades of trial and error) that works for me. And therein lies the best writing advice I could humbly dispense – go with what works for YOU, the writer. If your practice doesn’t follow standard guidelines, don’t spend a moment worrying. If you craft the conclusion before anything else, more power to you. If you meet characters while writing (characters you did not expect/anticipate prior to beginning the narrative), pat yourself on the back.

Remember that writing often moves in fits and starts; when you hit your stride, don’t look back, just go with it; you can always return to what you wrote while in the groove and revise – which, as any writer knows, is about 2/3 of the overall process. On that note, I don’t usually keep a daily word count – and I wouldn’t recommend doing so, especially not for novice writers. It can be a useful motivator, but only if you don’t beat yourself up for failing to reach your word count goal. Here are my essentials for writing, in no particular order:

1. Singularity of Focus (or, No Excuses) – I live (and therefore write) in a busy household, occupied by husband, daughters, pets, and a myriad of tasks that require daily attention, such as dishes, laundry, packing of school lunches…you get the picture. If I attempted to wait for that magic moment of peace and quietude, I would accomplish zero work. Instead, I make time. I steal away with my laptop (outside, if the weather here in the wilds of MN is warm enough; in fact, my favorite workspace is on the back porch), insert earbuds, and tune out the rest of the world for that span of time. Day or night – I’ve been known to wake at 3am or thereabouts, get a pot of coffee going, and work like a demon until breakfast needs making. In fact, some of my most productive writing happens during those hours. I love Nora Roberts’ sage advice, “Stop fucking around and write!” And even if it requires some effort, stop fucking around and write! The point is, I tap into the ability to focus, rather than waiting around for the “perfect” writing time, which doesn’t actually exist outside of myth.

2. Music – I find music an essential component of focusing. For each book I’ve written, I have a corresponding Pandora station. For example, with Heart of a Dove, I listened incessantly to my Bluegrass Revival channel, which featured an incredible variety of amazing artists such as Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Wailin’ Jennys, The Be Good Tanyas, Crooked Still, Kelley McRae, Red Molly, and Jay Ungar. I depend on music’s ability to stab at my soul (and I’m using ‘stab’ with a positive connotation here), the same way I feel when deep in the writing groove; I would wither up without access to music. Once in a great while, I feel like the universe and I are maybe even a little bit in tune – in some small, albeit significant, way – for example, when writing a scene about Lorie and Malcolm discussing the afterlife and what lies beyond and the song “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” by the Be Good Tanyas suddenly streams into my ears. In those moments I experience a little thrilling chill up the spine. Also, the sound of a fiddle makes me feel as though all could actually be right in the world.

3. Reading Material – When I’m deeply sunk in the heart of a novel, writing every day and gladly losing myself in another century, I admittedly struggle to find reading time. However, reading is essential to writing, no question. In the past two years, I’ve reserved the bulk of my reading time for nonfiction (taking me back to my college years), but when I am able to select the research material, as logic would suggest, I find the reading far more enjoyable. I devour anthologies of letters and journals (John Ransom comes immediately to mind); short stories or chapters of longer works set in the era I am currently researching – such as John Jakes or Larry McMurtry; and adore memoirs written by former prostitutes, such as “Soiled Doves” by Ann Seagraves. I prefer nonfiction texts with a specific focus, such as a book dedicated to the making of eyeglasses in the nineteenth century. Or illustration plates from Godey’s Ladies Magazine, to get a feel for the fashions of a time far removed from my own. I visit my local used bookstore on a weekly basis, and my number is tacked up on their corkboard because they are kind enough to call me if any of the titles on my handwritten list appear in the store. I love them dearly. They put up with my eccentricities.

4. Fellow Writers – I can’t write enough about the importance of connecting with fellow writers. As in any profession, or even hobby, people who work together, or share/experience the hobby together, “get it” in a way that outsiders do not. Empathetic ears are essential to the writing process; your fellow writers will understand, sympathize, empathize, and be willing to listen, even if the “listening” is through a channel such as email, texting, or other forms of nonverbal messaging. Just as those of us who’ve been employed in the restaurant industry know immediately what to do when someone yells, “I’m in the weeds!” writers understand exactly what you mean when you wail, plaintively, “I’m stuck!” Or if you’ve recently had a sleepless night concerning the font choice for your title. Or when you’re blubbering and tearful, clutching a bottle of wine by its neck, because you’ve written the last line of your latest manuscript. Oh, that is a bittersweet moment. Truman Capote wrote, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Startlingly melodramatic? Yeah – and I’m not comparing myself to Capote, for the love of all that’s holy – but writers GET THIS concept. It is tremendously difficult to separate the thrilling pride of accomplishment with the finality of the finished product. We can’t help the twitching in the fingers that begs for just one more revision. Enough said. Don’t pester your non-writer friends with this issue, because they won’t invite you to book club anymore. Or for drinks, because God knows you don’t want to get a writer drunk and simultaneously on the subject of writing.

5. Emotional Connectedness – This one may be the most essential component. If your heart isn’t in your writing, I guess I would ask, “Why bother?” If your characters don’t talk to you, tug at your arm and demand your attention, if they don’t keep you up at night and evoke occasional strong emotion, then…I would wonder why you want to write in the first place. There’s a reason you chose to write your latest manuscript – no matter what, even if your characters are living through a hell of your own making, you should have a devoted personal connection to them. You should feel their pain, experience a sort of buoyancy at their triumphs, curse them when they won’t behave they way you intended, but what they should never fail to do to you is provoke an emotional response. You created these protagonists, their love interests, friends, families, and sidekicks, various enemies, assholes, stepmoms, paranormal creatures, pets, pawns, secondary losers, passersby, line cooks in all-night diners, taxi drivers, illusionists, dentists, clerks, mentors, lackeys, ex-boyfriends, the gum-chewing guy in the second row, and I could go on but won’t, so if you aren’t emotionally moved by these voices you create from the fantastic whole-cloth of your imagination…why are you spending time writing about them?

Final words for the day – find your No Excuses Happy Place (even if it doesn’t “fit” any guidelines or preconceived notions of the writing process), insert your earbuds, and get to writing!

Smoke Break

It’s time for a smoke break. Not just because I miss those days when I worked in a restaurant, waiting for the rush to die out so I could sneak out the employee door in the back of the place, out onto the stained concrete near the industrial-sized garbage bins, a space reserved for employees to steal a few minutes’ worth of alone time. It was best if a couple of the girls I worked with joined me, and then we’d hash over the evening, bitching about crappy tips and the short-tempered cooks, taking sweet, hurried drags of our smokes (Marlboro Lights, menthol for everyone but me) shivering if it was winter (server aprons tie around your waist and offer zero protection from the cold but damned if we wasted time shrugging into our coats), planning the rest of our night – which typically included a round of drinks after the final customer had cashed out. After hours, we’d sit and roll silverware (if you’ve never worked in a restaurant, bar, or café, I think you may have missed a rather crucial part of the human experience) and sip tap beer or rail-pour gin-n-tonics, counting our nightly take and tipping out the busboys and bartenders, all set to relive the whole routine tomorrow night.

These days, years removed from my time as a server (I say with only a *touch* of irony, as I am now a mother), I tend to look back through some pretty rosy lenses, idealizing that era when I didn’t feel the crush of guilt whenever I craved a smoke break, the feel of a cigarette between my lips, the subsequent exhalation of a rush of pure, undiluted relaxation. I know it’s a terrible, awful habit, and I haven’t truly smoked in nearly the same amount of time (not counting the very occasional “I’m actually out of the house on a Friday night, drink in my hand, and hey, do you have a light, I totally owe you” moments), but I still miss it. I argue/rationalize with myself – writers are notorious smokers, right? Why did I ever quit? And then I remind myself that this is the 21st century, and probably even F. Scott Fitzgerald would have some serious qualms about his formerly hard livin’ lifestyle.

I can’t pretend that after hours spent at my laptop, especially late into the night, I don’t have to talk myself down from the urge to drive over to the gas station and pick up a pack of smokes. Summer nights are the worst for that kind of craving – how many hours did I spend, especially that charmed June-July-August I worked out in Wyoming, sitting around campfires with rowdy friends (similarly employed at guest ranches in the Park County area), the lot of us all but howling at the moon, thrilling to the gorgeous, sharp-edged outline of the Tetons on the horizon, beneath the diamond-spangled sky in which I’ve never seen so many stars – blowing smokes rings with someone’s dashboard radio playing in the background? Too many to count, but not nearly enough in retrospect. Maybe its the companionship of fellow smokers I miss, too, that sense of now-or-never, the easygoing banter – I tend to work in solitude these days, a necessity of accomplishing any sort of lengthy writing on any given day. And I love writing – I don’t mind the isolation, usually – until I start craving a good old-fashioned smoke break. It’s why I chew the ends off pencils, tapping them incessantly on my desk the same way I used to tap my box of Lights before opening them. It’s why I often write characters who smoke – living vicariously in the little worlds I create in my fiction. Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that I need a new, less hazardous and more mature habit for those moments. *crushing out metaphorical cigarette* 😉

What Happens When I Fall in Love With One of My Characters

So, this may not be a problem most people contend with, I admit. Maybe I should seek some sort of professional opinion, because I do encounter this issue time and again when I am writing – I tend to fall in love with men I write about. Is it a phenomenon common to writers? Am I crazy in a vaguely narcissistic way? I am not sure – but this has happened to me since I first began writing as a little girl. In those days if the weather was warm, you could bet on finding me curled on the ragged lawn chair I’d dragged under the overgrown and under-tended lilac bushes that grew in the yard of my childhood home. There I would hide out with my college-ruled notebook and a couple of pencils (no computers in those days, at least not in our house) and alternately chew pencil erasers to bits, staring at the slice of sky visible through the lilac boughs, and write in bouts of exhilarated frenzy, overtaken by story after story. And those stories were so very real to me it was nearly painful. I heard and saw those characters as though the action took place a few feet from my nose rather than in my imagination, ached at their sorrows, rejoiced in their triumphs, and despaired when the story ran wildly astray from the original path. And many a time people have asked me (with pauses just like this), “But…don’t you control what they do? Umm…you’re the one writing the story, aren’t you…”

How to explain that it doesn’t always work this way? I honestly have no reasonable explanation for this – but stories really do tell themselves, at some level. Characters pop into the action without warning, and often do not behave. And by that I mean they literally won’t say or do what you (the writer) want them to do and say – they insist upon telling their own story. One of the main reasons I enjoy writing so much is because I want to find out what happens next, too. I write just to get back to my characters and their interactions, to discover what’s over the next horizon. Seriously, it’s weird.

My first attempt at a novel was called The Great West – and the young man/love interest for my main character who appeared without notice around the fifth chapter claimed my heart from the moment he “spoke.” I could picture him so well – surely an amalgamation of all the boys I crushed on in those days, with the sort of confident (but not arrogant), capable attitude I admire so well in real men. Even now, many years beyond those childhood days, I still tend to get all woozy in the stomach – you know, that feeling that overwhelms you when you’re poised at the top of a very steep roller coaster hill, about to plunge into open space and all caution be damned, because you don’t give a shit about caution when you’re riding a roller coaster or falling in love – creating male leads for my lucky protagonists. I write romance, amongst other genres, and romance will always claim a solid handhold in my heart. My favorite scenes to write are often the ones that occur between men and women – I love the tension-building, the steamy heat of rapid-fire dialogue, the eventual coming together of two characters who are absolutely dying for each other – the sort of scene that fogs up my computer screen.

Just now I am deep into book three of my historical romance series, a novel with narrating duties shared by a woman and a man. And I have been thoroughly enjoying writing from a man’s perspective (note – I am not claiming to be any expert; rather, I’m taking it a scene at a time and relying heavily on my wild imagination). It’s a first-person narrative, which is an additional challenge, as I get to explore his very thoughts. It’s a creative writing exercise taken to the extreme. And I am the first to admit, I am kinda, sorta head over heels for him. I know it’s strange. Probably even a little crazy. But I adore him – I love relating his story in his words – honestly, he does tell me the story and I just type it. I can hear his voice, his laugh, see his hands as they grip his horse’s reins, feel his shoulders shift as he moves. I walk in his boots as I write, and I relish this experience. I learn more about him every time I sit down to write – his past, his desires, his fears and hopes for the future. He is currently in a great deal of danger, and so I am anxious to get back to the action and pick up the story where we last left it, on the plains of Dakota Territory, at the base of a tree where the hanging of a horse thief is about to take place.

I love being a writer – I just plain love it. At least I admit to the craziness. And here’s to the story process – may it never stop unfolding. 😉