A Floor Plan for Fiction (Using real settings for your canvas) by Tom Pitts

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Setting aside the ongoing argument about whether art imitates life or life imitates art—because I think we can all agree there’s a simpatico relationship between the two—I’d like to talk for a moment about those times when art must imitate life. For pragmatic purposes, I believe there’re times when, as a writer, you have to lean on a non-fictional backdrop so you can build your fictional world.

The setting for my latest novel, 101, is a pot farm in Humboldt County in Northern California. Now, the jungles of Humboldt aren’t a place you can easily use Google maps to load your palate. And even if you try, it’s hard to fill in the minutiae; what kind of trees, plant life, and other details of flora and fauna.

I have some friends who’ve been in that business for a long time and I was able to go up the 101 and venture into the hills for a true taste of the grower’s life. So when it came time to write the book, I decided it’d be easiest to use the cabin where I stayed and the weed plots around it for the actual floor plan of the novel.

I’d done this before—as I’m sure many of you have—used an apartment I lived in or a house I stayed as the floor plan for fiction. It’s important for the author to really know the details, even if they aren’t revealed in the story. Just like knowing the whole backstory for a character can give shape and depth even if the character’s backstory isn’t revealed (or is cut.)

In 101, it was more than just the cabin’s floor plan, it was the whole side of a mountain. From the exit off the 101, up the winding dirt roads, to the tiny farm where I stayed, I used the whole thing. Now, I didn’t map out the roads, but the general feel for the bends, the look of the neighboring farms and fences, and which side the sun rose and set, were crucial elements in tattooing the setting on my brain. Once the picture is set in my own mind, I can paint the picture for the reader.

Of course the reader won’t see the same thing I see—that is, after all, the beauty of writing and reading—but the more complete that picture is in the author’s head, the easier it is to describe and communicate the action to the reader. And that’s what it’s about, not reproducing every little detail, but bringing the reader along with you on the story, the action.

At the end of 101, there’s a lot of activity that takes place at a biker’s house in the city of Alameda, right beside Oakland. For that I used the house of my pal, Alameda Mark. His house is an unusual place and doesn’t really fit in with the surrounding buildings, but I know it inside and out, so when a lot of action breaks out, you have a clear idea of where the bullets fly, what doors will swing in what direction.

This may seem kind of obvious, but when you really begin choreographing an action scene, it’s these small details that give it plausibility, thus authenticity. It’s one of those subtle things that support the action right under the story. I liken it to the drummer in a good band. You don’t always notice if the drummer is tight and right on time, but if he’s off, you definitely notice. It feels loose and it’s hard to get into. The song and the story.

Of course, it’s easy to invent a setting, and there’s plenty of imagined sets in 101, but I don’t know if the picture—that floor plan—is as clear to the reader as ones I borrowed from my life. The reader may not see the same tattered blue couch in my biker’s house in Alameda, maybe they’ll see a red couch. But if there’s a hallway with three bedrooms on the right and a bathroom at the end, the reader will know—especially if there’s someone hiding in that third bedroom with a .45 pointed at the door.

Here’s the thing about writing advice, it often seems obvious or simple. But like a lot of ideas we prescribe to, it’s important to be reminded of the basics. Whether it’s Buddhism or AA, knife throwing or knitting, it’s the practice of principals that keep you on track.

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Bio: Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of AMERICAN STATIC, HUSTLE, and the novellas PIGGYBACK and KNUCKLEBALL.  His new novel, 101, is out now with Down & Out Books.

Author photo by Mark Krajnak.

 

HARDCORE NOIR by Eric Beetner

 

all the way downWhen Paul debuted Punk Noir my immediate thought was of the night those two passions of mine collided.

See, I was a hardcore kid. Punk rock was actually kind of weak in my mind at 15, even though my gateway drugs had been the Ramones and Sex Pistols like everyone else. But after I’d been to my first genuine hardcore show I was hooked. Trouble was, I couldn’t drive yet so my outings to shows were limited by when my friend Dan could drive us. Dan was a bit older and the only other person I knew in my quiet suburban Connecticut town who liked loud music. Dan was a metalhead and he’d taken me to see Slayer, Megadeth and Bad Brains in NYC earlier in the year when I was 15 and I got stopped at the door and not let in because I was too young. I’m still bitter about it. Then again, I didn’t even own a set of earplugs back then so maybe my hearing came out ahead.

But the club where I’d go see hardcore shows was an all ages venue run out of the basement of an art gallery in Stamford, CT. called the Anthrax, because why not?

They made no pretense of turning it into anything but a basement. The floors were concrete, the ceilings head-cracking low and the “stage” was a six inch riser tucked in a corner where the bands would set up and try not to get electrocuted by the PA system.

A big show would be thirty people crammed in and doing their best to slam dance while avoiding the exposed steel beams holding up the floor of the art gallery above.

This is suburban Connecticut in the 1980s. It’s Regan-era conservative in a commuter town with money. They didn’t care for punks. As a result, the Anthrax had an adversarial relationship with the police. Noise complaints, calls of crowds of no good delinquents hanging about were commonplace. But we didn’t care. It was only proof that the system was out to get us. It radicalized us punks like zealots.

I look back at the schedules then and I kick myself for the shows I didn’t make it to. But one day they announced a secret show. A big time band. So big, it was the first time they’d sell advance tickets. And they’d be five dollars, not the usual three bucks at the door. Rumors swirled and before long it was clear the secret was out. Black Flag was coming to town.

black flagFor a hardcore kid, this was the Beatles playing at the Cavern Club. Granted, this was late era Black Flag when they all hated each other, the songs got bloated and long and a far cry from the Hermosa beach heyday of the band. But still. It was Black Flag.

I bought my ticket. I secured a ride. I was going. I still didn’t own any earplugs.

When we arrived the parking lot was a zoo. Leather jackets, skateboards, mohawks, spikes. There had to be two hundred kids there. I didn’t know how we were all going to fit into the basement, but I had my ticket and I was psyched.

I stepped inside and the tiny stage was surrounded by a wall of amplifier cabinets. The opening bands were to be Painted Willy and Gone, Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s prog-punk instrumental jam band who might have fulfilled him creatively at the end of Black Flag’s career, but the run-on noodling was painful to hear and more like and Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert than a hardcore show.  No worries. Suffer through this self-indulgent crap and soon Henry Rollins would be screaming Rise Above in my face.

Here’s where the Noir comes in. I’d set myself up for one outcome and I was about to be tripped by the fickle foot of fate. I went in with the best of intentions. Don’t we all?

We knew the long history of contention between this notorious band and the police. With dozens of punks spilling out into the street, the cops had plenty to respond to.

The two openers had played. The anticipation had built. Fights broke out. It was a hardcore show, after all. And a Black Flag show on top of that. No big deal. But not to the cops.

It’s hard to argue that the tiny club wasn’t in severe violation of fire code limits. With only one way in or out via steep concrete steps, if anything had gone wrong down there, none of us would have much of a chance. Worth it, though, for a band we all knew was as dangerous as they come. This wasn’t the faux kabuki danger of Kiss. This was a show where you were very likely to come away bloody, and you’d be excited about it.

But alas, before the first chords of My War rang out, the police descended in numbers. Squad cars circled the gravel lot outside the club. They’d arrived expecting trouble. A crowd of angry punks were more than happy to give it to them.

I wasn’t one of them. I stayed on the fringes. I just want to see the show. But as the punks spat on the cops, the cops muscled the punks into handcuffs and the call went out to shut it all down, I knew my dream of seeing one of my favorite bands was dead.

I didn’t know then that this would be their last tour. There was no way to know if the show would have lived up to expectations. All I knew is that it had all come crashing down in a storm of nightsticks, siren whoops and calls to disperse or be arrested.

In many ways, it was the ultimate way to see Black Flag at the time. A disappointment, a little dangerous, cops were involved. Yeah, it seemed about right. I also see it as very noir. I might not have been trying to commit a crime but I was trying to do something dangerous, a little illicit. I’m sure I’d lied to my dad about where I was that night. And then plans went to shit.

As we were driving away I saw Henry Rollins walking along the street toward the club. He must have been getting food or something. He was walking back into the melee of angry cops and angrier punks. There was my Mick Jagger walking to a show that would never happen.

Later, when Henry released his tour diaries from those days in the book Get in the Van, the show didn’t even merit a mention, so commonplace were Flag shows being shut down that it blended in to the larger tour and wasn’t noteworthy enough to write down.

I was crushed when I realized this hugely significant night of my youth wasn’t even diary-worthy by the man who lived it, but it has always been formative for me.

Shortly after, the club moved to a different, larger location in an industrial park where they could be as noisy as they wanted. I got my driver’s license and by the time I left high school I’d seen over 170 bands at the new Anthrax, at CBGB and other NYC clubs like the Pyramid and L’amour. I never did get to see Black Flag. Still have my ticket, unredeemed. If that isn’t Punk Noir, I don’t know what is.

Bio: Eric Beetner has written more than 20 novels, the latest of which is All The Way Down. Ken Bruen has called him “The new maestro of Noir” He co-hosts the Writer Types podcast and lives in Los Angeles. Ericbeetner.com  

Beetner by krajnak