Love Thy Neighbor

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photo by [phil h]
There’s one thing about a disaster, you get to know your neighbors.  And for the most part they’re pretty nice folks.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City hard.  Downtown in the West Village we watched the storm with our fingertips on our windows, the glass ballooning inward.  We saw the Hudson River rise.  Piers disappeared.  The West Side Highway became a river.  Our block-long apartment building became an ocean liner aground in a shallow sea.

The blackout that followed was, for us, seven nights long.  The first night, as fire alarms sounded, our neighbors converged in our pitch black hallway with flashlights and candles.  Where were the emergency lights?  Fire alarm?  (We later learned we were supposed to evacuate.)  We discussed what to do.  Stick it out?  Head out of town?  But how?  The subways, railroads, airports, bridges and tunnels were all closed.  Cars in the parking lot across the street were under water.

In subsequent days we joined the army of affluent downtown refugees heading uptown into the power zone north of 26th Street for cellphone charging, hot meals and coffee.  You could tell who our neighbors were.  They were warmly dressed, pushing strollers, looking like they needed a shower.

And they talked.  People who ordinarily would keep eyes averted on the sidewalks and subways were eager to share stories.  Are you okay?  Do you have water?  What have you heard?  Hi, I’m Don.  This is my wife Lisa, and our son Abi.  Nice to meet you.  Where do you live?  Which school are your kids in?

I collected business cards and handed out mine.  We’ve heard from none of those neighbors since the power came back but for a little while we were a community, and a nice one.  The conditions were inconvenient but the company was warm, neighborly and connected.  I was glad to be living downtown.  I didn’t mind the dark.

So what has that to do with manuscripts–?  It’s not often that I read about a fictional place and wish I lived there.  But once in a while those magical places appear on the page and welcome me.  It’s a combination of the place and the people.  There’s a warmth, a comfort, a sense that whatever the conflict underway there’s an innate goodness to the folks there.  I feel at home.  No doubt you can think of such places in some of your favorite novels.

How does such a place come about on the page?  It takes only the deliberate intent to create it.  You may be writing about a world that’s cold and hostile, or a time when no one can be trusted.  Fair enough.  Yet even in dystopia there’s room for goodness, a safe corner for your readers.

Here are some ways to develop that:

  • What’s the nicest thing about people in the time and place you’re writing about?  Find a way for us to experience that early in your story.
  • Who in your cast is generous, big-hearted, empathetic, insightful or wise?  Make sure we meet that character soon.
  • Early in your story, let someone reach out to help someone else.  If possible, involve food.
  • In the world of your story what’s the equivalent of a Sunday picnic, backyard barbeque, school dance, country fair, town meeting, 4th of July parade, old time diner or corner bar?  Set a scene there.
  • What are the highest values in the world of your story?  What’s the most dramatic way in which they can be enacted?  Go ahead, you know what to do.

Once in a great while I read a manuscript where everyone is too nice, but not often.  Far more commonly I slog through stories in which I meet hardly anyone nice at all.  It’s odd, considering that novelists are some of the nicest people I know.

Don’t be afraid of warming up your world or your characters.  It could be just the thing that gets us through the disaster you’re going to blow our way.

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

Comments

  1. James Pray says

    Reading this makes me feel affirmed, because I sometimes struggle with that precise fear — that my characters are too warm, that there aren’t enough jerks and self-interested people in the story. Nice people and hot meals don’t have to come at the expense of conflict, though. They can serve to throw the bad stuff into greater relief.

    Thanks for sharing more of your experience with Sandy. I’m so glad you made it through safely!

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  2. says

    Donald,
    Glad to hear you made it through the storm safely. We talk here about the importance of conflict and tension to the story and the idea of contrast plays into that. Yes a writer needs bad guys in a story and bad things must happen, but the writer must contrast that with what is good in life, which you experienced first-hand. Thanks for another insightful post.

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    • says

      CG-

      Yes, it sounds kind of contradictory at first: Build tension…create warmth! Yet readers…well, everyone really…want to dwell in a world of solid values and good people. That can be done in any story.

      To put it differently, if your characters are going through hell then it’s important that there’s also hope. Readers need that, otherwise why read?

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  3. says

    Loved this! The tip about having someone reach out to another (using food) gave me a plot line idea for the novel I’m writing. Thank you.

    I’m so glad that you all made it through safely. This post reminded me of when our area (North Alabama) had several huge tornadoes a few years ago. We were without electricity for days, and finally met our neighbors. Everyone pooled their resources together and ate together and the kids all played in the front yards together. It was beautiful and too short-lived.

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    • says

      Laura-

      There’s little that nurtures more than food. Giving food is a powerful act in life and in fiction, yet you wouldn’t believe the number of manuscripts I read in which no one eats. Really!

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        • says

          I have trouble NOT describing food and sharing meals. It’s the heart and soul of any culture, or it should be. Those who don’t break bread together in some way are doomed to be lost. A beautiful post with another round of thoughtful questions. Thank you, Don!

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  4. says

    I love your intro — a very personal and well-drawn description of Sandy — and I love how you tied this all together. It’s not something I had thought of in this way before. (Not concretely, anyhow.) Thanks!

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    • says

      Kristan-

      Great fiction illuminates the big meaning in little events, and the unnoticed meanings in big events.

      Sandy was a big one around here, but it was in the mundane aftermath that the storm’s lessons came clear.

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  5. says

    I’m glad you made it safely through– what a traumatic, life-altering experience. I live in a small, mountain town and it’s amazing how the community pulls together in tragedy.

    I have read quite a few books where I couldn’t find a redeeming quality in the main character. Many times, that factor alone caused me to put down the book. Why would I want to read about emotionally ugly people? Creating likable people, even antagonists with redeeming qualities, isn’t easy though.

    I appreciate your encouragement to create a world, people, who make you want to be there with them. That doesn’t negate the conflict and obstacles, in fact it may heighten it by contrast.

    Great food for thought.

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    • says

      Julie-

      I love it when I don’t want to leave a fictional world. And strangely what makes fictional worlds warm are the same things that make our own communities warm.

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  6. says

    Excellent post, Mr Maas. I was a bit further north than you. We also had no power for a couple of weeks, but neighbors looked after neighbors. it was a learning and challenge experience.

    Such an experience has to galvanize character development, and not only a direction for a story.

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    • says

      Marie-

      It’s through characters’ POV’s that we experience everything, including the intangible qualities of place. Indeed, I believe that portraying a character’s changing relationship to the place where they dwell is an aspect of mastery in novel writing.

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  7. says

    Having just finished a draft that is too warm and fuzzy, I had to both laugh and then appreciate this post. As I dive into some bite and some edge, I will take your words with me.
    Thank you.

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  8. says

    Great post with great tips — and as frightening and heartbreaking as those emergency experiences can sometimes be, I’m always left with that feeling of the community you described so well.

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    • says

      Julia-

      I think the kindness of neighbors is even more affecting in the aftermath of a tragedy. People reach out. The Red Cross and other relief organizations swarm into places as diverse as Syria and Far Rockaway, but it’s there are smaller stories too.

      A few blocks down from us was a dog that fetched bottles of water for impaired and immobile people on higher floors. After 9/11 I heard stories that never made it into the news, for instance the downtown athletic shoe store owner who put on the sidewalk boxes of running shoes for fleeing women office workers who’d gone to work in heels.

      Why isn’t there more kindness, heroism and self-sacrifice in novels?

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  9. says

    Wow Don, even when life hands you something so much more sour than lemons, the stuff you come away with is so much more potent than lemonade. I love the idea of creating that warm comfort. It’s one of the things I love about the historical fantasy genre. Sometimes I feel like the process of revising tends to strip some of that warmth away. I love the idea of using food, too. And drink? Perhaps something more potent than lemonade?

    Glad to hear things are getting back to normal. Who knows when the warmth you all found together will come in handy again. Thanks for sharing the lesson.

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  10. Lisa Millar says

    Hello Don Maass,

    Your post put me right back to the 1998 ice storm, where, in the outskirts of Ottawa, Ontario (the middle of the power failure,) my hubby and me, plus our smelly old collie, we were forced to leave our home. We were out of our house for 12 nights.

    While we lost power & heat on Day 1, many families were self-sustaining in their homes because they had a fireplace &/or a generator, and in the city many families never lost power, or did for only a few hours. Families took in strangers, people shared stories, and community centres were filled with kindness.

    Your point, EARLY IN YOUR STORY, LET SOMEONE REACH OUT TO HELP SOMEONE ELSE. IF POSSIBLE, INVOLVE FOOD, really hit home for me. During my 12 days adrift a woman I barely knew told me that she had done some baking. She then handed me a Tupperware filled with chocolate chip and oatmeal muffins, stating that she wanted to help. I still have the crystal-clear memory of looking down at the Tupperware in my hands, looking back to this woman that I barely knew, and realizing that while I was struggling she had thought of me, and reached out and gave me something to eat, something that she had even taken the time to bake, for ME-a person that she barely knew. Okay, so I wasn’t starving or anything but it was something about the gesture of food that seemed to extend kindness in such a gracious and humbling way.

    So ya, I can’t agree more with your point about involving food. It just does something….

    Thank you for sharing your Sandy experience.

    Best,
    Lisa

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  11. says

    so very true, Mr. Maass, glad you made it — and I appreciate the great limoncello you have crafted from it. perhaps despite, or maybe because of the dire emergency (and outright fear?) we humans are drawn to our most basic needs. water, food, and shelter. fire. may i share, too that one of the most dramatic and memorable experiences in our chapel hill neighborhood was in ’96 when hurricane fran came through. my grown sons still talk fondly of it as the best time. our neighborhood looked like a war zone. no power. the men folks roamed with chainsaws to remove huge oaks from houses and roads. we set up tables and chairs in our cul de sac and everyone brought their thawing and perishable food over to cook communally. we served breakfast lunch and dinner to 30 people for those 10 days. life was simple. and good. it was hard but there was a community as you say. we brewed coffee, strength and control after and, and…you know, i think i may see a place to use this… merci!

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    • says

      Dorette-

      Now what made you think of limoncello? It’s our very favorite summer drink. We bring a chilled bottle up to the roof deck of our building to enjoy the summer sunsets and city panorama while remembering Italy.

      And thanks for sharing your ’96 experience. We never forget those times, do we?

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  12. Denise Willson says

    I wonder if this is why us writers have some difficulty with tension. We’ re really just searching for calm waters, good folk, and a hug. :)

    Glad to hear you and your loved ones are all right, Don.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      Denise-

      You are so right! I notice often in manuscripts that authors pull back, blunting drama and making it easy for their characters. But as I remind them in my workshops…those characters are NOT REAL!

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  13. says

    Your second paragraph put me right in your apartment and made me experience Sandy from Manhattan, rather than from my suburban blackout. Beautiful.

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  14. says

    There’s something special about when New Yorkers come together. I was fortunate to have lived through a blizzard that hit NYC in ’60 or ’61. Nothing moved except the subways. No traffic. We all walked down the middle of the streets. It was sooo quiet and no alternate side parking! Bliss.

    Your tips get the mind churning. Good ideas.

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    • says

      Alex-

      City snowstorms are the best! So peaceful and quiet. I love seeing folks cross-country ski down the avenues. Families go sledding in Central Park. It’s a holiday from the go-go stress. Alas, with climate change I wonder how many more of those we’ll experience?

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  15. says

    My thoughts are with my northern neighbors. I live in Pensacola, Florida. Devastation seems to bring out the community in all of us. Thanks for the reminder. Just what I needed. I’m making a sticky note.
    So glad you’re safe. Now the recovery…

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  16. Pat Harris says

    Hey Don,

    Glad you and yours are safe and survived the storm. One of my favorite childhood memories is when SW Michigan was blanketed with around 3 feet of snow overnight. The next day I met neighbors I’d never seen before, whole families walking down the road to the small corner grocery story. It was great.

    Your post is encouraging and heartwarming – and I take it as confirmation of a special food “thing” I’m including in my next novel. Thanks!

    Looking forward to your next post,
    Pat Harris
    http://www.newhopechronicles.com

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  17. Carmel says

    Good to hear all is well now with the Maass family.

    Your advice is something rarely heard, but my favorite novels are always determined by the people in them – the ones who become soulmates, the ones I don’t want to leave when the book ends. Add to that a place where I wish I lived, and I want that book in hardcover, on my Kindle, and as an audiobook!

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  18. says

    When I was nineteen and a nanny in Queens I experienced a lot of kindness and compassion from New York residents. It made the City one of my favorite places on Earth.

    I have to ask (social worker in me, sorry) do you look differently at your neighbors now? Even if we don’t have the same level of connection outside of a crisis, it seems to me that the shared experience of crisis leaves a bond that at least affects how we feel about others.

    And then, just thinking, isn’t it a similar bond we try to create between character and reader, and why the emotional experience in a story is so important? The reader meets a character and experiences a crisis with them that creates a bond. Perhaps that is why series are so popular?

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    • says

      Lara-

      Do I look at my neighbors differently now? Yes, I wonder why we stay in our shells when there’s not a disaster underway. Yet I do understand. The city is a joy but also an assault. We protect our little bubbles of privacy on the subway and on the street. It must be a natural urban tendency because we all do it.

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  19. says

    Great advice for adding warmth to my story! We, too, experienced a renewed feeling of community after Sandy. Our beach town in NJ was struck hard and the ocean came in through our front door. But neighbors helping neighbors, loyal contractors working overtime to patch our roof, replace our front door, give us heat, and hot water, all of it has made this time of recovery very special. And I’d like to create that feeling in my writing, that through tough times, people seek and offer warmth, and that’s a thread that connects us even when the tough times are just a memory. Glad you made it through the storm.

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  20. says

    This is great! I recently did this–made a list of situations and emotional touchpoints in novels that I enjoy. I wanted to try to codify the things that make me want to stay inside a story.

    These are highly personal, but one of mine was “character helps an unrelated child.” Etc.

    One of the reason that I’m such an Aaron Sorkin groupie is that he does this really well–he creates “families” (usually centered in a workplace) that do just what you’ve described.

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  21. says

    I echo everyone else in relief that you and your family made it through the disaster safely. I smiled when I read your line about food. In one of my novels an integral part of the story is the main character sitting at the kitchen table with his grandparents. In those scenes the reader really gets to know him and them and his love of “home”. Thank you for validating the need for that in a novel.
    Patti

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  22. says

    There are certain writers I read precisely because of that warmth and community. (Vintage Jennifer Crusie and all Sarah Addison Allen come to mind.) It’s interesting to see they can still build tension and conflict despite a world that’s mostly optimistic and connected.

    We had a tornado in our city years ago. Over 30 lives lost and a great swath of devastation. I was an intern in a hospital and saw a tough, cynical emerg doctor crying; could never have anticipated such a sight. Anyway, everyone let the mask slip for weeks after. I’m sorry for the trigger, but I’ll never forget what that felt like.

    Glad you and yours are okay.

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  23. says

    This is a great post! Unless the reader can warm to a character, or be inspired by attributes of wisdom or kindness, it can be difficult to feel any emotion when there is conflict or tension.

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