Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blasts from the past

The current “me” rehearsing with my band
I’m currently back in New York, just north of The Big Apple, the area where I grew up. Getting everything ready for Christmas and also rehearsing some music with my brother’s band will mean this is a going to be a somewhat limited post, but I gotta have something online for everyone on Type M!

Last night a of twenty-one musicians, all who played in area soul bands back in the ’60s, got together for dinner as we’ve done for several years now. Of course there was the usual round of war stories concerning old gigs, rehearsing, traveling on the road, and you can imagine how funny some of them are. Actually, if you aren’t a musician, you might find it puzzling that we would find them remotely humorous, and probably, at the time they occurred, we didn’t find them all that funny, either. Only through the lens of time does amusement take over. A few of the biggest laughs came from situations that were downright dangerous at the time.

I tried to listen as much as I could to what was said, and something became very apparent in almost every case. Because we all shared a lot of common knowledge and similar experiences, there was a sub rosa shorthand to a lot of details. Things didn’t have to be explained or expanded on since we were all well-versed with the context and background details.

What struck me was that any “outsider” would have had little idea of what a lot of things meant. Of course, a lot of musical terms were thrown around, local places and geographical details, and shared language references, especially so since the preponderance of those gathered have strong Italian backgrounds. I’m not Italian, but having grown up with a majority of my friends being thus blessed, I just soaked in a lot of background without knowing. I also live in a very “Italian” city (Toronto), so this has only become stronger as my life has gone on.

An example is the term “gravy”. To North American Italians, this means marinara sauce (“Italian” Italians find this quite amusing). A lot of households always had a pot of this on the back of the stove. Kids would come home from school, grab a hunk of Italian bread, dip it in the sauce, and push back their hunger until dinner was served. If I was with them, I would gladly do the same thing. I even once asked my mother why we didn’t do that. She gawked at me like I fell out of a tree.

13-year-old “me” on guitar
The point here is, no one had to give any background to this rather obscure term when it was mentioned last night. Italians and non-Italians all knew what it meant. I could give you a number of musical examples of the same thing, but I think you get my point.

Thing is, if I was writing a scene for a crime fiction novel that revolved around a similar situation, all this musical and cultural shorthand would have to be explained or I would risk completely losing readers. In a work of “literary” fiction, I might be able to get away with a fair bit of background explanation. In crime fiction, I would risk completely stalling the pace of my story — and risk reader dropout.

We all want to add colour to our novels and short stories. It helps make our tales feel true. The issue is how to do this without appearing indulgent and having editors, reviewers and readers telling us things move to slowly. I do it myself when an author goes into an explanation on a topic about which I have no interest. I skip. I know most other readers do to on these occasions.

Does anyone have tips about how to work little shots of arcane (to some) detail and not derail the story? I’ve always struggled with this. My novels always have a musical element, and while I’m very familiar and comfortable within this context, a lot of readers aren’t. How much background information is too much? Give too little and you just confuse. I normally rely on non-musicans to advise me. (“You know, Rick, I have to admit I skipped that whole section. I wanted to find out what was going to happen!”) Usually, I truncate at the minimum. Quite often I’ll even toss the whole thing. Some of the best music winds up on the literary cutting room floor.

That’s all I wanted to say. I have to move on and practise a bit before this evening’s rehearsal. Please wade in with your thoughts, whether you be a writer or a reader. Do you have pet peeves? Ways to get around this problem? Any strong thoughts? Share them, by all means.

And enjoy a safe, happy and healthy holiday season!

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