Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Spark: Part 3

So which writer really lit my fire (as you will) on the writing front?

As I suspect is the case for many people ... Stephen King.

I know, right?  Those of you who have seen my overly pink! green! orange! high heels! cardigans! wardrobe, my yellow-and-mint house, my CUTESY WOOTSEY puppy are probably thinking ... "Huh?"
I just realized - there haven't been enough Spenner-Baby pictures on the blog lately.  (Gasp!)  Here's Spence at Rodrigo's cabin two weekends ago at LAWYER RETREAT 2011!  Let's hope it becomes an annual thing, because there's nothing quite like spending the weekend with old friends, little pups, funny client stories, and those ridiculous chocolate donuts from Costco.
But it's true, and anyone who has gotten into Stephen King understands why he could have this effect on a young mind.  (And a 27-year-old mind, because really, I'm still obsessed.)

A friend once showed me a video on Youtube where the world's biggest nerd dissected all the problems with Star Wars: Episode I. The biggest problem he identified (and I agree) is that when you tell random people on the street that they're going to have to describe a character from Star Wars without saying who played them or what they look like, this is what you get:

Han Solo: dashing, reckless, rebellious, kind of a shady character but ultimately pretty loyal

Queen Amidala: (cricket noises)

As they say, the devil's in the details, and Stephen King provides a lot of details without bogging down his story. When you name a Stephen King character, people KNOW who you're talking about.  (Provided they've read him, of course.)  What's more interesting is that I submit they usually will not be able to say what the person looks like.

Take Louis Creed, for example.  Anyone who has read Pet Sematary is probably going to remember that he's a middle aged doctor with a wife, two kids, and he grew up poor. He wants to provide for his family, he still resents his in-laws. He's a hard worker who put himself through school. He likes cheap beer and loves his neighbor, who is like the father-figure he never had.  He's agnostic bordering on atheist. He resists believing in the supernatural until presented with overwhelming evidence.

What hair color does he have?  Hell if I know.  But who cares?  If I had to choose between remembering that Dr. Louis Creed once worked after school in his uncle's mortuary and whether he's a blond or brunette, I know what I choose every time.* 

That's important for characters, but it's also important for setting, which is really just your silent character.

Even though Stephen King usually writes in a contemporary setting, he still goes to the effort to make his "world" come alive.  Some writers just think, "Hey, everyone knows what small towns are like," but with Stephen King, you know what THIS small town is like, which is just as important as knowing the geography of Westeros or where in Diagon Alley you would go to get some really great ice cream.

Think about it.  If you've read Harry Potter, you can visualize Hogwarts.  If you've read A Song of Ice and Fire, you can picture The Eyrie.  Why should it be different if it's not fantasy?  I had a picture of Shawshank Prison in my head before I saw the movie, I know which roads lead out of Chester's Mill, Maine, and I know I don't want to set one foot in Derry, Maine for any amount of time, EVER.  And I know I want people to feel the same way about the towns, businesses, and high schools I tell them about in my writing.

So there's that.  Check back tomorrow if you want to find out what story changed my world view ... bonus points if you can guess it with just these clues:

1. I'm currently a lawyer
2. This blog post happens to be about Stephen King, not John Grisham
3. I said "story," not full-blown book

* Now that I've made this claim, I'm curious if I can back it up.  Everyone who has read some Stephen King, let me know if you can describe the following characters from memory (I'll do my best to only list big ones):

1. Bill Denbrough (IT)
2. Garraty (The Long Walk)
3. Jack Torrance (The Shining)
4. Dolores Claiborne (same title)
5. Harold Lauder (The Stand) (yes, some physical description of Harold is OK.)
6. Larry Underwood (The Stand)
7. Annie Wilkes (Misery)
8. Chris Chambers ("The Body" in Different Seasons)
9. Rainbird (Firestarter)
10. Bobby Garfield (Hearts in Atlantis)

Or list your own examples.  Fun times for all!

For another, less scatterbrained explanation of why Stephen King is the cat's pajamas, go here.


  1. Couldn't I describe every Steven King character by simply saying "New England"?

    Seriously though, I think King is one of those good writers who will never get credit because he is also very popular and good to read on an airplane. I think Michael Crichton has the same problem.

    John Irving might, but I think most intelligent people who read him know there is more going ont here than meets the eye.

  2. Stephen King is the king of characterization! I can picture every one in that list you gave. He's one of my biggest inspirations. Great post!

  3. I've never read any Stephen King because I'm not really a horror fan. Maybe I need to try. I'm in the Platform Building with you. Nice to meet you.

  4. Hi,
    I'm a fellow campaigner with YA (4).
    I agree with Christine- he's the king of creating great characters!

  5. Stephen King writes good characters. I really enjoyed his Dark Tower series.

  6. Stephen King's Dark Tower series made me obsess and despise him at the same time. I devoured the first three books of the series but had to wait some years for the next one. It was agonizing. I spent that time transitioning to more paranormal, sci-fi and fantasy but I will always love The Gunslinger

  7. I just read my first Stephen King book - The Colorado Kid. I'm not sure that was the best sampling of his work. I will have to give him another shot.

    I'm in your campaign group and excited to meet you :)

  8. So ... I've never read any Stephen King. Yep. I said it. I'm sort of scared to even try! I'm a wimp! lol :)

  9. Colt - I absolutely agree. It really irritates me when people dismiss Stephen King just because regular people like him. Regular people liked Charles Dickens, too.

    Also agreed on John Irving. Love him, and I think he avoided the "popularity = trash" trap that other writers fall into.

    Christine - thanks! I'm glad to hear that my theory wasn't total crap.

    Becca - then you found the right fangirl ;)

    Morning AJ and Brinda - great to meet you guys! I can't wait to check out your blogs as well.

    M Pax and Angela - I can't believe I'm going to admit this (and don't shoot me ...) but I have never gotten into The Dark Tower series. I've heard a million good things, but I read The Gunslinger in high school, and that and IT were the only Stephen King books I wasn't able to get into. BUT I do intend to give it another shot because I've heard the series really picks up after The Gunslinger.

    Angie - you definitely should. If you're not into horror, maybe try one of his different works. DIFFERENT SEASONS is a compilation of four novellas, three of which have been turned into movies (Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil.) Excited to meet you too!

    Chantele - not everything he writes is scary! In addition to DIFFERENT SEASONS, try ON WRITING (his memoir/book of writing advice). A lot of his stuff is also more science fictiony, like UNDER THE DOME and HEARTS IN ATLANTIS. There are only a few books of his I would definitely not recommend (I didn't love The Tommyknockers, borderline hated It.)

  10. This had such great points I had to read it out loud to my brother and discuss Star Wars characters. This is such a great take on what makes Stephen King a good writer. Very specific, and useful to other writers as well!

  11. I really enjoy Stephen King, but this post reminded me that I haven't read nearly enough of his books. I'm starting on The Dark Tower series in a week or two.

    Oh, and Harold Lauder is exactly like this guy I went to high school with. I'm pretty sure that kid would've turned out to be a villain too.