This is both an example of how my brain operates and how amazing The Internet is. And a writing lesson, but in a very left-handed sort of way.
Today on Facebook, a friend of mine made a post asking his friends to recommend a recording of a specific piece of music by Handel.
My brain instantly seizes upon the scene in a M*A*S*H episode where Charles Emerson Winchester, III, asks Margaret Houlihan for a specific recording, with the joke being that the recording doesn’t exist. (Or so I thought! Keep reading.)
Being the snarky person that I am (I’m sure you can’t tell that by any of my posts, here), I instantly responded by typing, “I recommend the 1923 recording by Shnobble” and then stopped. That’s not the exact line. But to get the exact line, I’ll need to know which episode it is.
I have a friend named Mike who is a huge M*A*S*H fan. As big as me. We have frequently talked for long periods of time about M*A*S*H and are able to recognize episodes based on a single line of dialogue or a fragment of plot. I knew it was a late-series episode, and that Margaret was asking a favor . . . but that’s all I had to go on. I asked Mike, and he recognized it, but couldn’t remember exactly, either, only noting that it was probably a 10th- or 11th-season epsiode. So I called up M*A*S*H episode guides and started looking through the titles and short synopses.
I immediately found one in the 11th season that looked promising: “Say No More.” But it involved Margaret coming down with laryngitis and not being able to make it to Tokyo for a probably romantic assignation, so Charles contacts the doctor and has him come to the 4077th, instead. An “uncharacteristic” nice gesture by Charles. But not the one I wanted.
A few minutes later, scanning backwards, I located another possible one in the 10th season called “The Birthday Girls,” which involved Margaret wanting to go to Tokyo for her birthday, but instead getting stuck in the godforsaken middle of nowhere, Korea, with Klinger in a broken jeep.
The episode guide didn’t elaborate, but I was sure that was the one. So I looked up the synopsis of the episode on a better site. It said that Charles asked Margaret for a particular recording in exchange for taking over her teaching duty that she had to miss in order to get to Tokyo, but didn’t reveal the name or the recording. Crap! I’d have to just watch the episode.
I break out my DVDs of M*A*S*H, locate the 10th season, find disk 2, and insert it into my computer. Where it was rejected. Several times. Drat! So I put it into my DVD player and played it on my big screen TV in the living room, fast forwarding to where the scene takes place. Captions on, of course, so I could get the names right.
Keep in mind that all of this is so I can make a one-line snarky comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Just wanted to remind you of that. :)
Charles says, “Lately, I have had a craving to hear the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto.” Margaret replies something to the effect of, “So that’s all it’ll take? I get you a record?” Charles continues, “Well, of course it must be the incomparable Artur Schnabel as soloist.” Margaret again replies about that being a snap. To which Charles qualifies, “Ah — And not the 1947 performance. It’s just tentative. On the other hand, the 1932 performance with its limpid runs. . .” Margaret replies that she’ll get it. “If I have to, I’ll find that Schnabel guy and bring him here to play it for you!” (or something like that).
And I had my quote. “I recommend the Schnabel performance, but not the 1947. It’s tentative. But the 1932, with its limpid runs…” Aaaaaand done. Research complete, I moved on.
I share the information with Mike, who in the meantime has also inserted disk 2 of season 10 and is watching it, and provided me with the exact wording of the entire conversation, as you see it above. (Charles’ parts only, which is why the Margaret parts are paraphrased.)
But . . . then I start to wonder who Artur Schnabel was. I’d never paid attention before to the name, because I assumed that because of the resemblance to the word ‘snob’ that Charles was just being a jerk and sending Margaret on a wild goose chase for a recording that didn’t exist, possibly by a piano soloist who didn’t exist. “Shnobble,” as I’d heard it before.
So I Googled Artur Schnabel. And discovered that not only was he a real person, he was quite famous for his recordings of Beethoven piano pieces, including a 1932 performance of The “Emperor” Concerto (The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73). Stunned, I went to YouTube. And sure enough, there it was. The 1932 performance. I listened. I don’t know what “limpid” means in terms of music, but I’ll be honest, it was quite a performance. I enjoyed listening to it.
. . . Then, I wondered, “Well, was there a 1947 performance?” and I went to YouTube again. By now you’ve probably guessed that there was, indeed a 1947 performance of the same piece, and . . . it wasn’t as good as the 1932. Again, I’ve no clue what Charles meant by “tentative,” but I will say I greatly preferred the 1932 performance to the 1947.
“Wait a minute,” said my brain. It says that a lot, actually. (Just between you and me, it can get quite annoying.) “What,” it demanded, “was the point of that whole conversation, then? If Charles actually gave Margaret a legitimate recording, then it makes him far less of a jerk in that scene.” Note: LESS of a jerk. Instead of sending Margaret on a wild goose chase for a recording that doesn’t exist, he’s now just making fun of her for her lack of sophistication and knowledge about “classical” music, and perhaps for not being able to find a 20-year-old recording of western classical music in Tokyo, Japan.
Basically, my entire understanding of that character has altered, based on this little research rabbit hole down which I found myself falling. Don’t get me wrong: I dove in head first, secure in the knowledge that I would fall into something very like Wonderland.
To bring this back around to writing (because, hey, this is my writing blog): writer Lee H. Grant, who wrote that episode of M*A*S*H, added this little tidbit of character building to this episode, and probably knew good and well that the vast majority of the people watching the episode (in 1982) would have never heard of Artur Schnabel, may or may not know what Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 was, nor that it was also known as ‘Emperor,’ and nevertheless put it in there because the character, Charles Emerson Winchester, III, would know about it in 1952(ish), when the episode took place. Because Charles was a snob, was a music lover, and had a very wry sense of humor. Perhaps, the little smirk on his face after Margaret promises to “bring that Schnabel guy” back to the 4077th to play it for Charles in person was because Schnabel died in 1951, just a short while before the events of this episode would have taken place, and not because he was a supreme jerk who was reveling in the cruel joke he’d played on a friend.
What writer in his right mind would write something that obscure into his work?
Answer: A good writer, who knows his character, and wants to get the details right, that’s who.
What have I learned from this? Basically, that a good writer does his/her research, to get it as right as possible. “You’re an author. You know that borrowing of the real always gives a better foundation for fiction. There’s a rhythm and sense to reality that’s hard to fake.” This was said to me by Nick, the friend on whose Facebook post I made the snarky comment that started all this. :)
Thank you to Mike, Nick, and Lee H. Grant for making this little lesson in writing possible. And to the anonymous people who compiled the wiki articles about the episodes and the anonymous YouTubers who illegally ripped and uploaded the recordings of the music so I could hear them. They were “limpid” and “tentative.” Apparently.
Sometimes, we’re not able to see the patterns right in front of our faces, because we’re too close to them. One has to back up to see that there is, in fact, a pattern.
Lately, I’ve been trying to type up what amounts to a synopsis of my novel. It’s not written completely, yet, but . . . it’s for Reasons. That will become clear in the fullness of time. I was specifically trying to come up with what themes are included in my novel. I’m terrible at themes. A theme has to beat me about the head and shoulders with a dead fish before I notice it.
While I was working on that, I noticed something, and started looking at my other writing.
I have a distinct pattern. And it’s pervasive.
I shall give you a couple of examples.
A few years ago, I signed up for an eight-week writing . . . “course,” I guess? Kinda? . . . by local(-to-Atlanta) author David Fullmer. It was eight consecutive Wednesdays or whatever, and consisted of him giving us lectures, answering questions, and assigning homework, and us reading the homework aloud the next meeting. The first week, our assignment was to write a setting. To pick an interior or exterior scene and describe it so that others could see it. No dialogue. If characters are present, they’re ‘furniture.’
This is what I wrote.
I woke flat on my back and opened my eyes to complete blackness. Panicked, I struggled to sit up. Strange noises came at me from all sides, and I realized quickly that they were echoes of my own movements. I made a conscious effort to sit still and breathe normally. I listened, trying to gauge the size of the room. In the distance to my right I could hear the slow, steady drip of water into water. Plink! Plink! Plink! Plink!
“Hello?” I called, and it was redoubled and sent back at me in shards by walls an unknown distance away. I shivered in the still, icy air as the echoes faded away slowly. I was sitting on hard stone so cold it seemed to leech the warmth from my body. I felt around me with my hands, following the coutours of the rock as best I could, its surface rough and clammy against my skin.
Not my best effort by any measure, but it shows the pattern: David asked for me to make readers see the scene, and the only thing I wanted to write after that was a setting in complete, total darkness where seeing is impossible.
Another example. I have a time-travel novel that is currently trunked, waiting for me to come up with a better ending. The entire thing came from my saying, “Why is it in time travel novels that it always hinges on some cataclysmic event? Why can’t the event be something ordinary, but could only be done by a certain person?” (It is still trunked because I didn’t handle that premise as well as I wanted to.)
The very first self-contained short story I wrote was from the POV of a woman who was on the losing side in a battle against her second personality. Another was about an old woman who hires a vampire to cure her dying son. Another was the typical rookie-writer ‘Adam and Eve’ story where they were AI programs created sort of by accident on a limited budget by harried programmers. In my dragon and princess story, the dragon is the hero, not the knights. In my novel series, I wanted an Urban Fantasy specifically unlike most of the others that are popular: male cast, third-person POV, characters inside the establishment/law, magic is ‘out,’ no sexy vampires or werewolves, nothing sparkles, etc. Another story evolved from me saying, “If a psychic wants me to believe in them, they need to call me at home and say, ‘Gary, you’re in terrible danger!’ and then prove it.” And then writing that very scenario.
I think my pattern is that I look at the ‘rules’ and try to find a way to turn them on their heads, at least to some extent.
And, you know, I think all writers do this to some extent. But the fact that it took me this long to see it is kind of funny, I guess. How boring would it be to read the same characters in the same stories handling the same situations in the same way, every time? (It would be like re-reading the same book over and over again.)
Now, how does that answer the question about themes? It doesn’t. At all. I suck at themes. I may have mentioned that.