I know you’re all anxiously awaiting the “big reveal” on my full rewrite of “Cast in Stone”–he said, his words dripping with sarcasm–but that’s still a couple of days away. Meanwhile, I’m still working on the analysis task I set for myself.
If you’ll recall, as preparation for my next book, I’ve been analyzing the writing of some writers whose style I’d like to emulate. I’ve started with Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House, a set of vignettes describing centuries of life around a single location. My goal was to understand how she is able, with extremely simple language, to create the feeling of lyricism and the mystical atmosphere that imbue so much of her work.
Let me warn you, though, before you take on a task like this. Just as most sausage-lovers don’t like to see sausage being made, doing a breakdown/ analysis/ desconstruction of a favorite author’s work can take some of the magic out of the reading experience. Suddenly, you’ll see the elements on every page, in every paragraph, and it may take some time before you can stop seeing those elements (if at all).
I’ve called these crucial features “elements” rather than “tricks” because Hoffman isn’t trying to fool anyone. She’s creating a narrative voice that simply taps into our sentiment, our nostalgia, and our memories of childhood.
The first part of my (admittedly non-scholarly) analysis was to make notes about the narrative elements I detected. As I read, more element types presented themselves, until I had a shorthand list of single letters. As I read onward, each time I found an element, I wrote a letter in the margin. The list is as follows:
- S, for a specific Sensory description (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell)
- C, for anything specific to Characterization (how the character acts, thinks, feels, etc.)
- F, for elements of obvious Foreshadowing, where the characters sense something ominous about a thing or event
- H, for anything having to do with the History of a person, place, or object
- M, for sections that are Mythic in quality, including lore, magic, and the surreal
The first two items, Sensory description and Characterization, were completely expected and I would have been very surprised if I did not find them all over every page. Foreshadowing was also expected, though not as openly or as early as I found in each vignette. What I did not expect was to find so many elements in the History and Mythic categories, and this led me to an early conclusion about Hoffman’s work.
Everything in Hoffman’s work has a History, and while we are used to thinking of backstory for our characters, the idea of backstory for locations and even objects was new to me. When we’re first introduced to the location on which Blackbird House will be built, we’re given a tale of its past, its backstory. Likewise, when I was reading Hoffman’s Here on Earth, the book opens with a tale of Fox Hill, its history, and the legends surrounding it. But Hoffman goes further with this. In Blackbird House, I noted History elements on just about everything, from the occupation of Fisherman of the Middle and Outer Banks, to the red pear tree planted in the yard, to the color of shoes worn by one of the characters. Everything can and usually does have History, and these elements help build a sense of continuity, and when you link up enough History, what you get is Legend.
Which leads me to the elements I noted as Mythic. These are elements that take a step beyond the real and enter the realm of the surreal and the magical. They are bits of hyperbole which one by one build a feeling of other-worldliness in the prose. Hoffman’s words are not meant to be taken literally, and the reality of her stories is often quite un-real. A man’s leg is bitten off by a giant halibut, and for the rest of his life, he spits up crystalline halibut teeth. A widow’s grief is so raw and deep that when she weeps, her tears are red with blood. A blackbird, taken out to sea, is released in a storm and, flying through the ocean foam, is turned white. We know these elements cannot be, but we accept them and with them, we accept the different reality of Hoffman’s world.
Hoffman uses simple words and simple sentence structure, which gives a very straightforward quality to the prose. This promotes an aura of innocence and, when combined with the History and Mythic elements, builds an almost fairy-tale ambience. As I read her work, I can imagine the story being told before a fire, long ago, or long from now. Not all of her books carry these elements in such a pronounced manner, but they all carry this mark to some extent.
Will I copy this style? No, of course not. But understanding how she creates it will help me define the techniques I might use to create the style that I do want to use for this next book.
Next, I’ll turn to Cortazar and Marquez, who wait patiently on my desk to be opened.