AJAX BELL

Author of the Queen City Boys books


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(Seattle) punk is dead, long live punk

I don’t know if this is true for everyone else, but research when writing a book is kind of an endless hole of procrastination for me. It’s excusable, sure I’m not writing, but hey! I’m researching, that’s just as important. Who can argue with that? Still I need some structure around it because I can lose hours chasing down things that might not be useful to me. And I tell myself that research isn’t as valid as writing perhaps because I enjoy it so much. But the research is what underpins everything, it’s what saves me from going down the wrong road while writing.

My current manuscript is set in Seattle in 1982. Sure we all remember the 80s from movies, from pop culture, from our own history, but what was it really like? What was it really like in Seattle? I’ve been remembering, researching and interviewing people older than me to make sure I get it right. I keep a list of details I need filled in as I write for further interviews and research. And these days there’s all kinds of archives, things I couldn’t even have imagined when I was studying library science 20 years ago. And each is it’s own deep hole to fall down.

Seattle, 1982, view from Beacon Hill.

Yesterday I sat down to write, I went to close my browser (and shut off my internet, who has self control?) and right at the top of Facebook (who knew FB would actually be a useful research source) was a post from Vintage Seattle, about something in the 80s. So instead of closing my browser I scrolled back a ways, wondering what else I’d missed recently in that group that might be useful. That led me to discover the Seattle Punk Photo Archive which WOW I really needed (turned out to be super useful for a bunch of stuff I was trying to find years and participants for). And that lead me to where productivity usually goes to die: YouTube. And it turned out to be the most useful part of my day (besides the actual writing).

I have been having a hard time describing 1982 punks in my book. I feel like I’m describing them accurately, albeit somewhat from memory, and they just aren’t enough. They aren’t loud enough, they aren’t bright enough, they aren’t rowdy enough. And then I found these videos and discovered I was spot on in my descriptions. The problem is what was so punk and so out there in 1982 is just the usual stuff today. Those punks back then? We’re all in our 40s and 50s now, and some of us don’t dress any different than we did 25 or 35 years ago. My fictional punks seemed too mainstream because who they are is mainstream now. But it meant something then, and now I know my task as a writer: it isn’t to comically describe those punks as bright, loud, and brash as they were, it’s to describe that world 33 years ago and how different it was from ours now, because only against that background will how outrageous those punks were really stand out.

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Here’s some of the YouTube rabbit hole I fell down that showed me it did look like my memory. This first one really is kind of painful to watch. Squares, man, they just don’t get it (also, oh Portland, never change):

The “motto of destruction that sometimes confuses parents” (and aw, Wayne Cody):

“The 80s might see the strangest counter culture yet”:

(Hey buddy, I’m one of those kids, I’m well over 30 now and I’m still angry.)

If you want to feel like you were at the shows, way back when Seattle Punk and Indy Heart has a great collection of videos of old Seattle shows like this one from The Fags (hello glitter punk go-go boys):

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A face with a name

Years ago, when I started writing in earnest, it was mostly fanfiction. A valid artistic expression and an excellent writing exercise because it focuses on story and making the story work. Setting, character and all already exist in a given canon for fanfic. Character description is often limited to facial expressions and a passing mention of hair color. No need for more because everyone in your fandom knows what your characters look like.

When I set out to write original fiction I spent a lot of time casting my Queen City Boys after I had my plots in order. Maybe as some leftover from writing fic I needed that visual, I needed to see faces, really know my characters. It was definitely useful, in any given scene, to look at the picture pinned above my desk and do description from that. And it was, honestly, an amusing procrastination tool. If I wasn’t writing I could claim to still be working: hey, I’m casting! Which involves scrolling through endless pictures of good looking people, win-win!

Eventually I cast even side characters when I was procrastinating. Still some choices were never quite right, but others were perfect. Steven Frazier from This Charming Man was easy. Here he is:

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This picture captures him perfectly for me. His attitude, his beauty. It is is exactly as he looked in my head, as he came to me. Still the model in this picture, Dieter Truppel, really only looks sort of like my imagination of Steven. Half his pictures don’t suit at all, but enough. And really I only need on picture to cast from anyway (though finding more is joy, more pretty and more procrastination).

My editor, Annie, read a draft of the book, long before I shared any of my own casting. Much of the story actually takes place in her neighborhood and she keeps insisting that she sees Steven on the street. I love the idea that he’s out there now, living in other people’s heads and appearing as if I called him into being.

My character John Pieters appears across the Queen City Boys books. This series, as it unfolds spans four decades so that added a hitch to casting. I need John at 20, at 45, at 60. This limits casting if I want a picture at each age. I did finally cast John, though it isn’t perfect. I have such a clear picture of him in my head, at every age, of exactly who he is and I’ve never found a picture that was close. For John I cast like I would for a movie: good enough. But it doesn’t match my vision and indeed probably won’t match reader’s vision of him. I tried to write him so the reader could make their own John and decide whether he looks like Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Alexander Skarsgård, Campbell Scott, Anderson Cooper, or Jorge Gelati. (Of all these perhaps that specific picture of Jorge Gelati is closest to what is in my head, but no, still not quite perfect.)

The amount of time I spent on casting (*ahem* procrastination) eventually bled over into casting places as well. It’s all compiled, however inadequate, on Pinterest now. It was a great for me to visit while writing, to think about places (many of which don’t exist anymore since I’m writing about Seattle twenty years ago), and to see my characters all together. It made it much easier to spend even more time day dreaming about them. I’m working on the other books in the series, pinboards already filled with casting of upcoming stories, vast new spaces for me to procrastinate in.

And of course, because I am me, I am utterly ridiculous, and I find even more ways to procrastinate and play with my characters when I should be doing other things:

TCMchibi

 

Because who doesn’t love anime? Or because I love anime anyway. In fact my love of anime is what started this whole universe in my head, but that’s a story for another rainy afternoon.