Writing Right with Dmitri: When in the Woods...

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: When in the Woods, Do as the Woodsies Do

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

All right. You've got characters and a point of view. You have something to say. You have a finely-honed sense of time and place. You're ready to help the reader to be there. You're good to go, right?

Just wait.

One of the pitfalls of writing fiction is that the space/time you're creating has a logic. If that logic is different from the one by which you live your everyday life, you might find yourself in difficulty. There are pitfalls that await the suburbanite who wishes to write a sea yarn, for example. No sense in having Cap'n Seadog yell 'splice the mainbrace', if you're not sure where the mainbrace is, or what it's good for, or even whether a 150-foot Elizabethan galley with two or three over-decorated poopdecks has a mainbrace, spliced or otherwise. See what I mean?

There's a reason they say, 'Write what you know.'

Not to panic, though. Unlike earlier writers, you have the World Wide Web. Before venturing out on the high seas, you could always take a virtual tour of the Spanish Main. Or explore the Australian Outback via the internet before you write that story about Ned Kelly. Or check out a few Appalachian Trail websites before embarking on your novel concerning Davy Crockett.

Just don't get your nature information from James Fenimore Cooper.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was a prolific writer of tales about the colonial American frontier. He is considered the first true American novelist, by people who care about that sort of thing. His stories were thrilling romances about woodcraft, the life of Native Americans, and doings in the French and Indian War. His work was wildly popular with many readers – although not, it must be said, with Mark Twain (1835-1910).

Twain objected to the adulation heaped upon Cooper's works. It should be pointed out that Twain, in addition to being a prolific literary man himself, was a licenced riverboat pilot (in the days when this accomplishment was akin to being an airline pilot), and an experienced woodsman. He knew his nature – and he suspected that Mr Cooper did not.

One of Cooper's most popular novels was The Deerslayer, a tale of the scout Natty Bumppo (that is not misspelled, at least, not by me), and his friend Chingachgook, who along with his son Uncas made up the 'Last of the Mohicans' (another Cooper book title). In The Deerslayer, Natty and his friends have picked up some naïve companions, including a young woman called Hetty Hutter. In our scene, Hetty has fallen asleep in the woods, and wakes to a rude surprise1:

It would exceed all the means of human knowledge to presume to analyze the influences that govern the acts of the lower animals2. On this occasion, the dam [mother bear, he's not swearing], though proverbially fierce when its young is thought to be in danger, manifested no intention to attack the girl. It quitted the honey, and advanced to a place within twenty feet of her, where it raised itself on its hind legs and balanced its body in a sort of angry, growling discontent, but approached no nearer. Happily, Hetty did not fly. On the contrary, though not without terror, she knelt with her face towards the animal, and with clasped hands and uplifted eyes, repeated the prayer of the previous night. This act of devotion was not the result of alarm, but it was a duty she never neglected to perform ere she slept, and when the return of consciousness awoke her to the business of the day. As the girl arose from her knees, the bear dropped on its feet again, and collecting its cubs around her, permitted them to draw their natural sustenance. Hetty was delighted with this proof of tenderness in an animal that has but a very indifferent reputation for the gentler feelings3... – James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer

When you've stopped laughing, we'll go on. Ready? Okay. Aside from the fact that James Fenimore Cooper obviously had about as much business animadverting on Red Indians, bears, and life in the forest as did that German sage, Karl May (1842-1912)4, the fellow is, well, just plain doing it wrong.

Which is what Mark Twain said, or words to that effect. Only much, much funnier.

If you read nothing else I recommend to you in this series, read this one: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is not only an essay which I defy you to read without laughing out loud5, but also a tour de force in literary criticism6. Twain starts by noting that there are rules for writing, durn it, and Cooper breaks just about all of them in The Deerslayer. One is this:

They [the rules] require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

In other words, leave the 'bear is intimidated by praying maiden' motif to the realm of the urban legend. Let snopes.com sort it out. Jeez Louise.

The main point of Cooper's novels was that men like Natty Bumppo were genuine heroes, whose familiarity with the ways of the woodland set them apart from ordinary mortals. Fine. But if he wanted to show this, rather than telling us, Cooper really needed to do his homework better. Here is what Twain had to say about it:

Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig... Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one...

Twain is absolutely right, you know, although Victor Hugo liked this mess. Even if you don't know what real woodsy lore looks like, when you read Cooper, you know that ain't it. You are not surprised to learn that some of Cooper's works were written while he lived in Paris. You suspect he might have been more at home on a cobblestoned street than in a primeval forest.

The moral of this tale:

  • Before you take your characters on a journey, figure out the itinerary. Make sure your knowledge is in the right currency.
  • Nature has laws, physics has laws. Even in fiction, these should be respected. (Unless you've decided to throw caution to the winds and write fantasy. Maybe Cooper should have tried it.)
  • Do not allow animals to be cowed by the power of prayer unless you are aiming for the Sunday School market. By the same token, never allow an animal to kill and eat a human being unless it is a) absolutely necessary7, and b) physically possible (and ethologically likely) for the animal to do so8.

Now you know about James Fenimore Cooper and his woodsy lore. Let that be a lesson to you: Do your homework.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

12.09.11 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1The surprise would have been ruder had Prof Konrad Lorenz been present. One can only imagine what he would have said about that bear.2But, Mr Cooper, you should try.3A word in Cooper's defence: Americans used to be afraid of bears, with good reason. They were large, smart, and irascible. They were also numerous in the backwoods east of the Mississippi. For a long time, bears occupied the niche in popular imagination now reserved for the Great White Shark in beach stories.4Apparently May and Twain never met. They missed each other in Vienna and in Connecticut. This is a shame.5Or, like me, snorking away until the tears come.6If you can write like Twain, go ahead and be snarky. If not, be nicer. Besides, unlike Cooper, the people in the AWW are still alive.7I leave this to your conscience.8Some bears will eat people, some won't. The North American mountain lion (panther, catamount) will. Apparently, sharks don't like the taste of humans. If they bite one, it is an accident, and they try to spit the nasty bit out. In all of human history, it is unknown for a beaver to have eaten a human. So do not put this in your next short story, please.

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