Monday, August 27, 2018

David D. Levine & Wendy N. Wagner in Conversation

Join Willamette Writers for an evening with David D. Levine and Wendy N. Wagner. Levine and Wagner are respected science fiction and fantasy authors. We are honored to listen in on their conversation about writing, submitting, building your writing career, and more. Come early to socialize, drink tea, and network with other writers, and stay late to ask questions and get your books signed. Doors open at 6:30PM September 4th at the Old Church, SW 11th and Clay in Portland, Oregon.

About Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner
Wendy N. Wagner's poetry and short fiction has appeared in over forty venues. Her third novel, An Oath of Dogs, a sci-fi thriller, was released July 2017 from Angry Robot. She is the Managing/Associate Editor of both Lightspeed Magazine and Nightmare Magazine, and served as the Guest Editor of Queers Destroy Horror! She was also the Nonfiction Editor of both Women Destroy Science Fiction! and Women Destroy Fantasy! 

About David D. Levine

David D. Levine
David D. Levine is the multi-award-winning author of the Arabella of Mars series and more than fifty science fiction and fantasy stories. Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and his story "Tk'Tk'Tk" won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin's bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards.

For more information about Willamette Writers, visit 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Environment as Character, Notes on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

              by Bill Johnson

Cover of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird Just as a story's main character can be described according to their dramatic truth (the issue that drives them), a story's environment can also be described in the same way.

Harper Lee's description of the town of Maycomb in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of language that evokes the feeling of a time and place.

"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it."

To say a town is old is descriptive, but to say it is tired is evocative. It evokes what it feels like to experience the town.

"In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square."

Grass growing on a sidewalk quickly conveys a sidewalk seldom trod upon, and a courthouse that 'sags' conveys age more efficiently than several photo-like details. Even the buildings can no longer manage to stand up straight.

"Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square."

Mules pulling carts in the town square suggests a time period, and that the mules are bony suggests poverty.

"Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

Beautiful details. The description of the ladies as 'like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,' is lovely, lyrical, and evocative. A reader can feel like he or she has met these ladies.

"People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County."

A day longer than 24 hours, wonderful way of evoking a long, long day and a way of life, and so different from our time.

"But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself."

This reference to a President Roosevelt line conveys the setting as the Great Depression.

"We lived on the main residential street in town- Atticus, Jem and I, plus Calpurnia our cook. Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment."

Note how Scout saying she and her brother found their father 'satisfactory' evokes how they felt about him at the time of the story, and also leaves open that later she will have a different feeling about her father.

Next comes the description of the family servant, Calpurnia. I'm including it because Lee uses the same techniques that she used to bring the town to life.

"Calpurnia was something else again. She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard."

Again, a rich, potent evocation of a character, not merely a description.

"She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why I couldn't behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling me home when I wasn't ready to come."

This evokes a child's view of Calpurnia's world The body of the novel will explore that world.

"Our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could remember."

Details of environments that do not evoke a time and place in a novel risk being an invitation to readers to skip ahead. Like other great authors, Harper Lee knew how to dramatically evoke the world of her story and its characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

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