Tell Me Something I Don’t Know: The Falling (Chapter One.1)

So let’s get into this. The Falling: Chapter One.

PART I: The Letter

First off, you’ll notice I’ve not only divided the book into chapters but into parts as well. There are five parts to The Falling, and the titles of each are homages to my favorite TV series: Seinfeld. In Seinfeld, each episode had very minimalist titles (“The Voice”, “The Opposite”, “The Contest”, etc) and I’ve laid out my titles similarly. In fact, two of these coincide directly to Seinfeld episodes: Part I: The Letter and Part III: The Revenge.

Chapter One: Tom’s Restaurant – Morningside Heights

An even more obvious Seinfeld homage. Tom’s Restaurant is, of course, the stand-in for Monk’s Coffee Shop. An exterior shot of Tom’s in New York was used in the show, with the interior shots coming from a sound stage in LA. Morningside Heights is one of my absolute favorite NY neighborhoods and once I got to know my main character Tommy a bit more there was no better place to have his favorite diner be situated. In fact, the working title for The Falling was originally TOM’S. I liked it; it was short and catchy. But the more I looked at as a title it the stranger it seemed. I had never actually been in the restaurant but when a couple of my friends were headed to NY I’d asked them to snap some photos inside so I could use them as reference, which they did. Thanks Mike and LeeAnn!

2004.

My decision to set the story in 2004 came about because of a few reasons. I wanted the novel to feel timeless, and the best way to do that is to have it take place at a point in the past. I don’t know why that is exactly, but I’d heard it said somewhere before. Also, a key chapter was to take place as a flashback, back to September 11th, 2001. I realized there had been – and still are – plenty of novels cashing in on the emotional events of 9/11, and I really wanted to avoid it, but the further my story went the more I knew it had to be there. Because of the nature of The Falling’s timeline following that day October, 2004 was to be the right moment for my story to take place.

I’ve known Thomas Mueller long enough to know most everything about him, except perhaps the most important thing of all. I watched Tommy that morning as he took a bite out of the big apple.

My narrator, as mentioned in a previous post, is meant to be the great city itself: New York City. The City watches over all of its inhabitants, following their ups and downs, good moments and bad. And even though readers will not explicitly know for sure who the narrator is, there is a feeling of comfort with having The City tell the story, as opposed to a traditional 3rd-person narration. The “most important thing of all” is the twist in the novel, which doesn’t reveal itself until Chapter 25 (Tommy and his identical twin brother were accidentally mixed up as babies, so he is not actually “Tommy.” Literally losing his own identity comes as a major blow to the character later). “…as he took a bite out of the big apple” is an obvious metaphor for Tommy’s self-perceived conquering of the city.

The CKY Grocery on Amsterdam had giant, bright red Spartan apples every day of the year

The fictitious Morningside Heights grocery store’s name comes from the name of a local grocery store I grew up down the street from. I don’t know what CKY ever stood for – and the place has since been demolished in favor of townhouses – but I had fond enough memories of walking there as a kid that I chose to use the name here.

He loved the four seasons, although autumn was easily the most anticipated. To Tommy, Central Park’s bright, almost copper hues in the fall were the epitome of orange. He loved the unique perfume of deli meats and subway steam. He loved the rain with such verve that every time it so much as drizzled, he would turn to the sky so he could feel the drops sprinkle onto his teeth. Because every raindrop that hit him had already experienced that much-envied journey from the tips of the skyscrapers all the way down to the cracked and foot-stamped sidewalks.

This was one of the very first paragraphs I wrote for The Falling. And using words like epitome and verve really helped set the tone and solidify the type of language I would use for the rest of the book. Even though this was to be my second novel I really didn’t feel like the use of language was too exciting in my first book. The Falling changed the way I write, and I still get that fuzzy feeling when I read excerpts from it. I’m proud of it and of the word choices that helped make the novel what it is. “the unique perfume of deli meats and subway steam” is one of my favorite lines from the whole book.

Everything was perfect in the city, and as long as things remained the
way he wanted them to, Tommy would continue to love the city forever.

This line is very obviously the crux of the story. It’s clear that things are bound to change, but could Tommy possibly ever fall out of love with his city?

Finding the letter in the mailbox was another reason for me setting the story in 2004. We still received letters from people in 2004! It almost seems too ancient a concept now. But having Tommy simply open up an email from Patrick rather than a letter felt too lifeless; less dramatic.

“You guys are not going to believe this,” Tommy said as he removed his coat and scarf. He sat down next to Kate and across from Jesse, placing the still not-quite-yet-brown apple core onto Kate’s empty plate. She hated that about him, how he’d walk into the coffee shop everyday as though he owned the place.
“Not now Tommy,” Kate interrupted. “Jess was just about to spill the details of his date last night.”
Jesse struggled, but managed his best ear-to-ear smile. Still, Jesse’s fake smiles were far more beautiful than most of the city’s genuine ones.

Immediately we are introduced to the three main characters: Tommy, Kate and Jesse. And I waste no time in having the readers really get to know them at their most basic. In three quick paragraphs we get a lot of information: Tommy is controlling and always assumes whatever thoughts are on his mind trumps whatever his friends might be discussing; Kate is brash, quick to voice her opinion and never afraid to tell someone to shut up; Jesse is a bit more socially awkward, but there’s no doubt he has a big heart and has a hard time disguising his feelings.

“Dinner?” [Kate] asked, with one of her infamous one-word questions. Kate didn’t like to waste words, unless of course it was to tell someone how disappointed she was in them.

The one-word question was intended to be something that resurfaced in varying forms throughout the book. As it happened, I probably only used it a couple more times. Partly due to me finding the right situation for it hard to nail down; Kate simply had too much to say most of time. She’s a chatty one. Still, I think it’s still an interesting character trait and the line above about not wasting words was too perfect to remove. It’s true that writers do find it exceptionally hard to cut their favorite lines sometimes.

Jesse sprinkled two packets of sugar into his steaming drink. He focused on the granules as they plopped in one by one. It was almost as though he was attempting to count each single glittering speck. The tiniest droplet of coffee arced from the cup to the letter on the tabletop. Observant as ever, Tommy was the only one who noticed. He rubbed the globule off with the back of his hand.

Coffee plays a big part in the book too; if you’re going to have a bunch of scenes with characters sitting around chatting what better prop to include than a cup of coffee? Movie directors do it all the time. You’ll see coffee pop up within scenes in The Falling many more times throughout. I wanted to note here just how observant Tommy is. He’s aware of everything and is always taking everything in. It’s part of what makes him a writer, and – as the main character in the book – it makes him the perfect character for the reader to live vicariously through.

The shadow from a crowd of people outside spread across the tabletop. “Hey!” Tommy banged on the window to get their attention. “Fuck off
already!” He cursed seemingly at random, but there was nothing arbitrary or illogical about it to Tommy. He did it all the time….On the other side of that glass were a million faces Tommy did not want watching him slurping coffee and stuffing breakfast sausages into his mouth. He banged his fist on the window again. The crowd scuttled away like startled spiders.

This was an idea that I always found amusing: if you have a famous location that lures throngs of photo-snapping tourists on a daily basis, how does that make its regular visitors feel? There was a story earlier this year about the “Goonies House” in Astoria, Oregon. This was the house used in the cult 80’s classic. So many fans (a thousand a day, the owners claimed) came by and would generally leave such a mess behind that the owners eventually just shut down public access to their home. It’s probably similar to Tom’s Restaurant in New York, with so many Seinfeld fans wanting to have their picture taken in front. Probably even standing by the windows where regular customers sit. Maybe even every day. Naturally, Tommy would find this extremely annoying and I think I turned it into a pretty funny character moment, one that could repeat itself in later chapters.

This takes us to about page ten. Stay tuned for the next part.

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know Series: The Falling (Novel Concept)

Hi all,

Today I’ll be starting a new ongoing series that I’m entitling Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Here, I’ll be writing about where my ideas come from, specifically focusing on my second novel, The Falling. You might think of it like it were a DVD commentary track, as I’ll be (hopefully) going in-depth and chapter by chapter discussing the origin of every detail along the way.

My hope is that Tell Me Something I Don’t Know will help writers realize where ideas are found (Spoiler Alert: they’re everywhere!) and it may be a great resource for some of you who have enjoyed my writing and want to know more.

I shouldn’t have to warn those who haven’t yet read the book, but there will be SPOILERS APLENTY!

Let’s start with the actual concept of the novel.

Cover

THE FALLING [2012] tells the story of four friends who’ve grown up together, having moved to New York from Seattle upon graduating from high school. The book follows all four characters 11 years after their move and 10 years after one of them changed his mind and returned to the west coast. The Falling examines their relationships, loves, careers and decisions they’ve made in their lives, focusing specifically on their lowest points: their tragedies, their mistakes and their regrets.

Personally, I love a book that mixes humor, relationships, workplace hijinks and city-wide exploration (specifically New York). I love moments of melancholy and characters who feel the world is against them. I enjoy the mentioning of things that are dear to me (comic books, a good cup of coffee, ice hockey, etc.). I like a helping of meta-fiction with my contemporary fiction. And I love the interactions of great characters who all have their own thick layers of history. So this is what I focused on while plotting The Falling.

Each of the four characters are – in most ways – representations of certain aspects of myself: Tommy represents my dreams; Kate represents my raw emotions and recklessness; Jesse represents my creative side and optimism; and Patrick represents my analytical side and maturity. All of them go through moments of sadness, which has always played a key role in my life. Depression is very common among artists and writers and was no stranger to me growing up. The key to this story for me was harnessing some of those experiences and feelings from my past and transplanting them into my characters.

As part of my character research I conducted “interviews” with each of my main characters. I’d heard of this being done by one other person and it struck me as being weird, but I tried it anyway and it turned out to me a game-changer for my characters. I knew a bit about them all going into it, but by sitting each of them down individually into a Word document I was able to just ask them questions; anything that came to mind. By shutting the analytical part of my brain off they would eventually just answer my questions and spawn new ones I hadn’t thought of beforehand. Some authors claim that their characters will begin to take over their novels and act on their own, doing things the author had not intended. This was along the same lines but it was never part of the actual story: I was just getting to know them.

Most importantly to the story, Tommy is obsessed with New York City, just as I have always been for as long as I can remember. There’s a line in the novel that reads:

“Growing up in Seattle, he had never yearned to visit Manhattan; he only ever wished to live there. To Tommy, there was a very significant difference between the two, although no one else could ever seem to appreciate the dissimilarity.”

This is exactly how I’d always felt. In many ways I am most like Tommy, but I think that’s fair if he’s going to symbolize my dreams. After all, who doesn’t want to write about their dreams? Writing a book about New York (and I really mean “about”, not just “takes place in”) was something I’ve aimed to do since I began writing, and I think The Falling comes pretty close to where my intended target had sat. I’m exploring the neighborhoods of Manhattan that I love and sprinkling enough details within to really bring the environment to life (which was not easy considering I don’t live in New York, and haven’t been back there since 2007). The Falling was initially written in the 3rd-Person POV, but I made a decision close to the end of my first draft to switch the POV to 1st-Person. More like Omniscient 1st Person, actually, due to the fact that I decided to make the city itself act as my narrator. But the “I’s” and “my’s” are sporadic enough that the reader should never be bothered by questions like, “who the hell is telling this story, anyway?” I never outright say New York City is the narrator, and I don’t think I need to. The novel just flows naturally regardless of any POV concerns.

Juggling four main characters was also difficult, and since each chapter more or less highlights one of them at a time (while simultaneously involving the other three somewhere off-screen) I had to plan the timeline of the entire book out carefully. Where is Tommy when Kate is talking to Jesse? What’s Patrick up to while the other three are scheming against him? Where’s Patrick’s young son during all of this? What time do they work at their jobs? Can they realistically meet one another when I need them to and still work at various hours of the day? Not only that but the story skips ahead by a week at three different points in the book so each character should have had enough to do during that time, and enough happening to them to believably propel their individual stories forward. I created a multi-layered spreadsheet where I broke down everything that was happening in each chapter, and then breaking it down further to distinguish exactly what each character was doing in each chapter. Plenty of scenes were still deleted or moved around during the writing process, but the spreadsheet definitely helped me.

Well, this is a good enough start I think. From here I’ll dive right into Chapter One and we’ll see where all of this leads.

Thanks for reading.