Goin' to the Morgue

by sbh on Thursday - 7 February 2008

in Uncategorized

As a writer, it’s important to be out among people. I know that James Joyce said something about how a writer needs space and solitude. Trust me, I’m not the first to try and shoot holes in the inimitable Joyce[1]. I won’t be the last either.

Allow me to qualify the above statement. You need to be out among the people. Yes. However, when it comes to the actual work of writing, it’s a different-strokes-for-different-folks kind of situation.

As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane. Natalie and I are flying to L.A. to visit some friends of ours. As a passenger, I am crammed into a small metal tube with 150 other people. Consequently, I am privy to the private lives of a bunch of people around me as we rocket through the stratosphere together. I’m not just paying for passage; I’m paying for access.

h3. Access = Eavesdropping

It’s all about access. Access often means eavesdropping. You’ve got to be an astute observer of the world. If the only people you meet or listen to are characters in books, movies, and plays then your writing will undoubtedly come up short. If art is holding a mirror to the world, then art is just a reflection[2]. If the world you’re holding a mirror to is a reflection itself, then you’re creating a reflection of a reflection. The reflection pales. The reflection of the reflection sucks.

Eavesdrop. Observe. Butt in (I don’t really do that much, but some do). But try not to let on that you’re doing any of it…

A woman was sitting in the terminal near the gate. She was dressed well, but on the cheap. Her posture was incredible — lightning rod straight. Perhaps 55 or 60 years old. I’m not sure where her husband was, but I know that she was borrowing his phone.

“Why is she so apologetic?” I wondered.

She went on and on apologizing. A story lives behind her apologetic ramblings. Surely. I listen further. She’s apologizing for calling while “he” is home. Who is “he”? I can’t be sure. Her husband returns. She quickly hangs up and gives him back his phone.

What’s going on here? I don’t know, but I’m filing it away in my little repository.

h3. The Repository

Gosh. That’s a really dumb name. But, let’s go with it.

I keep a document. This document grows and shrinks with the passage of time. Essentially, it’s a list. But inside of this list lives all of the interesting people that I’ve encountered (at least all of them since starting this little document). Usually, I try to capture these people with one detail, idea, phrase, or sentence. Example:

“slouchy wears only black leather guy”

This phrase means absolutely nothing to you. I realize that. For me, however, it conjures up this guy I saw once. He was sleeping in a chair, I’m not entirely sure where, a public place for sure, slouched over, head tipped down. Everything that this man was wearing was leather (I’m not sure about his skivvies). Leather baseball cap, leather jacket, strange material shirt (probably not leather, now that I think about it), leather or vinyl pants, and leather sandals. All black. Hence: “slouchy wears only black leather guy”.

Unfortunately, this guy was sleeping, so I don’t have a lot of insight into who he was: what did he sound like? who are/were his friends? what kinds of conversations was he having?

Another example:

“woman with lots of opinions about Mexican food restaurants who constantly makes lists — touch of vertigo”

OK, this is a lady that I used to work with, so I got to know her pretty well. All of the above is true. She would constantly bloviate about this Mexican restaurant or that Mexican restaurant. She had sticky notes full of lists lining her computer and desktop. I don’t know what those lists were about, but they were accumulating. She really did have vertigo.

I’m slowly, but surely, creating this database of characters. I’m not getting too descriptive. I don’t need to go into minute detail here. I’m just trying to capture something about them for use later. I don’t want a character that is __exactly__ like this person. If I did, no doubt I’d end up regretting it — just like Woody Allen in __Deconstructing Harry__. That’s a no-no. I just want to lift something out of that person and tape it on to my character to see if it fits. That’s a yes-yes.

h3. Art in the Repository

My repository exists in an “OmniOutliner”:http://www.omnigroup.com document. OmniOutliner is a great program — like most of the software that the OmniGroup puts out there. It has the ability to be so basic, and yet so functional. Usable, yet extendable. It’s Mac software goodness. If you’re interested in learning exactly how I use this document, I’ll be finishing up a post on that in the next few days. Stay tuned.

For now, I’m just going to paint with broad strokes. OmniOutliner Pro[3] allows me to create sections. I’ve got several: “characters”, “situations”, “in progress”, “stuff I’ve writen”, etc. Data moves in and out of these sections with ease. The document lives and breathes.

As I’m working, it is always open in the background. Even when I’m using “Scrivener’s”:http://www.literatureandlatte.com excellent full screen mode to block out distraction, the repository hangs, barely visible, behind Scrivener’s translucent black veil.


As I’m uncovering the story, excavating it, digging the fossil from the soil, new thought trains come howling down the tracks. I might have a vague recollection of a person, a trait, a story idea, or whatever pop into my head. “Gee, that might be kind of interesting here.” Consult the repository.

I said above that I like to keep these entries short. A sentence at most. Because they are short (unless of course you are attempting to challenge Victor Hugo in the category of annoyingly long sentences), they are quickly and easily digested. I can scan through the document without getting bogged down in a bunch of other “stuff.” I look; I find the sorts of references I am looking for. Cool. Does it work in my story? Yes. No. Maybe. Give it a try. Don’t give it a try. It all depends.

Again. Why?

I have friends who are artists. Not writers. Real artists. They make stuff with their hands: drawings, paintings, sculptures, dada-ist crap. You name it. A lot of them keep what is sometimes called a “morgue.” These are snippets of art or design that they like or that taught them something. They can open up that little file, pull out this photo, that piece of fabric, a photo of this chunk of architecture. These morgues are repositories for information and inspiration.

My little document is no different. A writer needs to take information and inspiration, and fuse them together to create a compelling, moving narrative. Maybe writers are artists after all, eh?

Access + Repository/Morgue/Database = Whatever you want…

h3. Notes

fn1. I admit that I have never been able to read more than 60 pages or so of __Ulysses__. I have tried multiple times. But, I think I may have given up on that. Judge me. I prefer Homer to Joyce.

fn2. I have no idea where this came from, but I’m sure it isn’t mine. If you know, by all means, comment below.

fn3. I can’t quite recall, because it’s been a while. But, I believe that new Macs come bundled with OmniOutliner — not OmniOutliner __Pro__, however. So, if you want to be super-cool and count yourselves amongst the elite, you’ll have to go out and buy a license. Or, you can make do with the non-Pro version. I’m not sure if it’s possible — I’ve never tried.

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