Showing posts with label datura. Show all posts
Showing posts with label datura. Show all posts

05 October 2012

What's the Objective?

Recent events in my life -- unrelated to writing -- caused me to remember the old adage about "putting things behind you."  When something is over and done with, you can't go back and change it; you have to just keep moving ahead.

I don't know when I learned this adage, but my time in the Army brought me face to face with some of the most painful occurrences requiring it's implementation   Thankfully, those days are over.  Now, for me, the path ahead is inevitably made easier by the love of my wife and family.

And, I'm reminded that the easiest way to turn my back on the past -- putting something behind -- is to focus on an objective ahead of me  This is a good trick for writers to remember: both in their personal lives, and in our writing.

When the inevitable rejection slip arrives, for instance, it's always much easier to deal with when I've got a new work in progress.  I take a moment (maybe an hour or two -- to be sure I've got it right) to repackage the rejected material for the next market I've got on the list in my computer.  I try to list as many markets as possible for each work, in advance, because I find it hard to remember where I intended to send the manuscript next, when it's just come back to me.  Once it's repackaged and shipped off, I do my best to drop it and forget it until the manuscript either sells or comes back again.  And, it's much easier to drop it and move on, if I've got a new objective ready and waiting: that new work in progress that's calling me from my Word program.

My recent ruminations about putting things behind, by focusing on an objective farther ahead, has also led me to consider how this concept fits into writing.

The Series

Lee Child, author of the Reacher series
Currently, I've been reading novels from the Jack Reacher series, since a friend of mine decided to get rid of about a dozen books she had read, and these included a lot of Reacher novels.  I've read several other successful series, in the past, and it seems to me that protagonists in nearly all of them were focused on distant -- often unobtainable -- objectives.

These objectives are often not mentioned directly, within the novels of any given series.  However, even if they are not clearly spelled out, or alluded to, these objectives still come through, via a manner of transmission similar to that of an unstated theme:  The words may not mention it, but the characters' actions, words and/or thoughts shout it loudly (or, at the very least, seem to repeatedly murmur it) to the reader.

I haven't quite decided what Jack Reacher's objective is, but I suspect it's something along the lines of: Finding roots that he can pull out and carry with him when he moves on.  Reacher is a wanderer -- he moves from place to place -- from what I've seen of the series. (Some of you know him much better, and I invite comments or corrections.)  This idea of a wandering protagonist, in search of some objective or ideal, is an oft-repeated theme in literature -- but seems even more recurrent when it comes to series protagonists.

Though he occasionally winds up working in New York, Mexico or California, for the most part Travis McGee seldom gets far from where his houseboat, The Busted Flush, is moored at slip 18F (if memory serves me correctly), yet I would argue that he's also a wanderer.  He wanders from job to job (though they're all part of his "salvage" operations), and from woman to woman.

Through the life of the series, he wanders mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  And, in all that wandering, he's seeking.  What is he looking for?  Well, perhaps it's True Justice and True Love, coupled with Fiscal Security.  I suspect, however, that he'd trade away Fiscal Security, if he thought he could get the other two as a result.

There may be those who are shaking their heads, wondering why I'm writing about objectives, when what I just wrote about Travis McGee looks more like motivation.  And, that's not a bad question to ask.  To me, objectives and motivation seem to be two ends of the same stick.  The objectives the character wants to achieve -- even if they're beyond the character's grasp -- motivate that character to do what he does.  More importantly, they motivate that character to do these things the way he does them.     

An objective such as True Justice may lie far beyond the story parameters.  It may well be an objective that cannot be achieved just by solving any plot problem -- such as a criminal investigation -- but if the protagonist is seeking True Justice, that may well influence the way s/he deals with people who pop up as obstacles to solving the case.  And it would certainly influence how the protagonist deals with having to kill or injure someone.

This is one reason why I think it's important for the author to have a firm grasp on the protagonist's long-range objectives, even if the other characters, or even the protagonist, are unaware or a little "iffy" on the subject.  Keeping the protagonist's long-range objectives in mind helps keep that protagonist in character -- no matter how many installments finally make up the series.  When the protagonist changes over time, which can happen in a long series, it also helps an author understand what sort of soul-searching that protagonist is going to have to go through as s/he changes.  Maybe the change is internal, but the long-range objective remains unchanged, thus providing a touch-stone for how the character will change.  Or, perhaps the objective itself may change, which could engender much greater soul-searching.    Either way, this is one reason to keep a protagonist's objective in mind while writing.

Another Reason

How many Westerns feature a gunslinger with a good-guy streak, who goes around righting wrongs?  The movie The Magnificent Seven may have been based on The Seven Samurai, but I suspect its tremendous success was the result of snatching up seven such wandering gunslingers and putting them all together on a mission to right a wrong.  And, each of the seven clearly had his own objective for doing so.

This plot line reverberated with audiences, who felt as if they knew where these guys were coming from. I suspect, however, that the mechanism for making the audience members identify with these guys had more to do with those objectives, than with the gunfights.  Action may sell a film, but I suspect audience identification with the main characters is what makes a film great.  People may wonder: "How would I handle those bandits?"  But, when viewers think, "How would I handle this, if that were my objective, if that was what I was worried about and/or trying to achieve -- how would I act in that man's shoes?" then the guts begin to twist, and celluloid springs to real life.

I think it works the same way in novels, too.  No one would enjoy being in an actual fire-fight, and few readers can say, "Yeah!  I remember what that was like.  I totally identify with this guy being shot at and shooting back."   Give the protagonist some long-range objectives, however, similar to those other folks might have, and suddenly the reader identifies with the character.  S/he has a reason to care about that guy being shot at, because there's a connection there.  After all, we all have unobtainable objectives in our lives -- don't we??

When I was in the Army, I was much younger and quicker as well as single.  I also spent a lot of time flying between far-flung places, where I was not always surrounded by friends.  And, there was a Sci-Fi "Men's Action" series I used to read, about a wandering band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world.  The group had stumbled across a network of teleportation devices, which made it possible for each novel to begin in a completely new setting.   Essentially, it worked as a Sci-Fi version of a traveling band of Old West gunslingers who went from town to town cleaning up each place they moved through (i.e. killing the bad guys, thereby liberating the oppressed populous).

At the time, I had enough blood and guts in my life, without adding more from my reading.  What kept me buying the books (aside from the fact that I could find them in most airports) was the unstated group objective.  What the group was really traveling around, looking for, was A Safe Place to Nurture Love.

Now that would hardly seem like a successful objective for a "Men's Action" series, but I'm convinced it was indeed the group objective.  Each of them had lost people they loved to sudden, unexpected violence several times in the past.  Each was now in love with another member of the small party, but unwilling to fully commit to that love, for fear it would "Jinx" the relationship, causing them to lose another person they loved to the sudden senseless violence that ran rampant in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabited.

Not that any of the macho male characters would even have been caught  even thinking about nurturing love!  And, none of the female characters -- who were a bit more intelligent than the male characters -- would have deigned to mention it aloud to any of the males.  I got the feeling, however, that everyone understood this was what they were looking for.  Their personal histories, their actions, words, thoughts -- the way they went about doing things -- made this very clear.  And, that objective, A Safe Place to Nurture Love, was absolutely unobtainable, given their circumstances.

At the time, when I was reading these books, I knew that I identified with the main characters.  But, I didn't know why.  Only in retrospect did I realize that my personal objective at the time was quite theirs.  They were seeking a safe place to nurture love.  I – a single soldier on an A-Team, who was in and out of the country quite a bit ˆ was seeking a way to live, which would give love a chance  to grow in my own life.  That seemed unobtainable to me, back then.

And -- when I tried to re-read one of the books in the series, years later, after my wife and kids had become such a fundamental part of my life -- well, I suspect that's why the book couldn't hold my interest.  I was no longer a part of the target audience for the series, because my own objectives had changed.  I no longer identified with the main characters.

In Conclusion

Certainly, there are other ways of helping readers to identify with characters. But, helping them identify via connection between objectives is useful.

I've always felt the line that gave the Declaration of Independence it's greatest strength, was mention of "the pursuit of happiness."  It probably also gave the framers of the Constitution their biggest headache, too.  I often picture them sitting around saying, "That damn Jefferson!  It's one thing to write about the pursuit of happiness, as if you're a poet!  We all know there's too much random chance in life, creating unexpected sadness, to make True Happiness possible.  Yet, we have to write a document that gives people the latitude to at least try to pursue happiness.  How the hell are we supposed to that?"

And, that's one of the nice things about writing fiction.  We don't actually have to make any of our characters achieve True Happiness.  In fact, doing so would probably destroy the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief (unless you're writing for children).  We just need to remember what our main characters' objectives are, so readers have another way of identifying with them.

For what it's worth, that's my two cents.

28 February 2012


Typical Datura blossom
They believe what they are told, said Miss Marple.  “Yes indeed, we’re all inclined to do that,” she added.  Then she said sharply “Who told you these stories about India, about the doping of husbands with datura . . . .?”

                    Agatha Christie
                    A Caribbean Mystery

    In a previous article I listed a number of books that were inspired by trips to the Caribbean.  When I finished the article I realized that there was only one book on the list that I had not, in fact, read.   I remedied that by downloading Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery onto my Nook and read it while we were “down island.”  Half way through the book Miss Marple muses on a strange flowering plant – the datura. The reference struck a personal chord.

Areas where daturas are likely to be found
    I suspect that few readers know much about the datura.  The plant grows profusely in warm climates and, while indigenous to Latin America (on this continent) can be found in many aereas of the world.  The datura puts forth beautiful lily-like flowers, wonderfully fragrant, that blossom and then whither, each over the course of an evening and the following morning.  Sometimes, particularly in mid-summer, one datura plant can produce 20 to 30 of these one-day wonders.  At sundown you can watch the bees buzzing around the sealed flower buds, waiting for each flower to burst open.  A beautiful plant.  But, as Miss Marple alludes, there is a dark side to the Datura.  More about that in a little while.

    Why was I surprised to encounter Agatha Christie’s reference to the plant,?   Well, as rare as the datura plant is, it is hardly so on our block in Chevy Chase, in the District of Columbia.  Like many of our neighbors we have several datura bushes growing in our back yard, where they have been ensconced for the past thirty years.  It was surprising to find Miss Marple referencing this strange plant since my wife Pat and I, along with many of our neighbors, were, in fact, introduced to the datura by a lady not completely unlike Miss Marple.

    Shortly after we first moved into our home in Washington, D.C. back in 1982 there was a knock at our front door.  When I opened the door I was face to face with a ramrod straight 80 year old woman attired in a cotton dress and a huge straw hat, tied at the chin.  Our visitor announced (seemingly in one breath) that she was Mary Marsh, that she lived just across the street and that she had lived there since 1942.  "Back then," she said, "the street was not even paved."  Nodding her head once in punctuation she then marched through the door before I could even utter a word of invitation.  Mary walked purposely into our living room, seated herself on the couch, and explained that as the oldest neighbor on the block she wanted personally to welcome us to the street.  My wife Pat and I watched in awe as Mary prattled on non-stop about the history of our new block. 

    The next day Mary appeared again at our door, this time with a small white envelope.  “I thought you might like these,” she said, thrusting the envelope into my hand.  “These are datura seeds. I could see your back yard through the kitchen window yesterday, and I thought that a row of daturas would look lovely along your rear fence.” 

    Pat is more the gardener, but even she was perplexed.  “What are daturas?” she asked.  “Lovely white flowers, bloom only for a day,” Mary responded.  “You have to pinch the flower off then, you know, in order to be sure that the plant continues to produce and doesn't start going to seed. Bert and I,” she said, referencing her 84 year old husband who at the time we had yet to meet, “brought them back from Mexico years ago.”  Mary thought a minute and then added “you know, I have a book about daturas that I should lend to you.”  And at this she turned on her heel and trotted back across the street only to return several minutes later with what was probably the most dog-eared and heavily read book I have ever seen.  She handed the book to Pat and then left. 

    We closed the door, looked at each other and then down at the book.  The well-worn volume our octogenarian neighbor had pressed into Pat's hands was titled Narcotic Plants of South America.  Well, beyond that ominous title the book also confirmed the beauty of the datura's flowers.  That afternoon, like Jack and the beanstalk, we planted the seeds.

    So, we had a colorful introduction to Miss Marple’s (and Mary Marsh’s)  most unusual plant.  As Mary had assured us, the datura, more  technically the Datura Stramonium, without question, produces a lovely and fragrant flower. Each blossom is lilly-like.  The flowers open, like clockwork, just as the sun sets, and they last only until the next morning.  And as each flower opens it sends forth a beautiful fragrance, that often, in the height of summer, will flavor the air of our entire back yard.

    I never found another copy of that book Mary loaned to us, but in one of the few horticulture books on daturas that is easily accessible, Brugmansia and Datura: Angel's Trumpets and Thorn Apples, Ulrike Preissel, writes   
Datura, sometimes called Thorn Apples, are mostly annuals and are cultivated like summer flowers. The impressive bell flowers of both varieties -- in white, yellow, pink and red -- are extraordinarily decorative. It's no surprise that Brugmansia and Datura are prized by enthusiasts around the world. 
    But enough of this.

    Mr. Preissel also notes  that cultivation of daturas is unlawful in some places in the world.  (I understand this to be the case in Oklahoma, for example.)   Why?  Well, as Miss Marple observed, and as the title of that book Mary Marsh first loaned to us back in 1982 implies, daturas are not known solely for those lovely, lily-like aromatic flowers.  We can get an inkling of this from the name itself: reportedly  in Latin one meaning of the word "datura" is "send to die."

    The datura is, in fact, one of the most dangerous poisonous and hallucinogenic plants in the world.  Enno Freye in Toxicity of Datura Stramonium  has written:    
No other substance has received as many “Train Wreck” severely negative experience reports as has Datura.  The overwhelming majority of those who describe the use of Datura (and to a lesser  extent Belladonna, Brugmansia and Brfunfelsia) find the experiences extremely mentally and physically unpleasant and not infrequently physically dangerous.  
Datura seed pods 

    This beautiful flowering plant has historically been linked to numerous murders and suicides, particularly in India and in Europe, where it also grows in warm climes.  A 2002 study entitled Brugmansia and Datura:  Angel’s Trumpets and Thorn Apples by Ulrike and Hans-George Preissel (yep, co-authored by the same gentleman who, in the earlier quote, was extolling the datura’s beauty) reports that the between 1950 and 1965 the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India  investigated 2,778 deaths that were caused by ingestion of the datura plant. 

Datura seeds
    Most poisoning incidents involving daturas stem from the ingestion of the plant’s large potato-like root.  But it is not just the root that causes trouble.  The datura’s seeds, which diffuse from the plant in the wind after the first frost, are also highly toxic, and reportedly swallowing as few as a half teaspoon of the datura’s seeds will cause delirium and, in severe cases, death by cardiac arrest.  

    Closer to home (indeed, only a few miles from mine) the United States Center for Disease Control reports that in 2008 a family of six in Maryland were inadvertently poisoned when they ate  cooked datura root and leaves that they unknowingly added to a stew they had assembled using only “natural” ingredients found in the woods behind their home.  (Ahh, nature!)  While, thankfully, all six survived the ordeal, the Center, even in its characteristic dryly medical style, reports a harrowing experience:
The six affected persons came from one family and included three men and three women ranging in age from 38 to 80 years (median age: 42 years). All six shared a meal of homemade stew and bread at approximately 9:00 p.m. on July 8, 2008. No one else was at the home when the meal was eaten. Approximately 1 hour later, another relative arrived at the home and discovered the six affected family members laughing, confused, and complaining of hallucinations, dizziness, and thirst. One of the family members vomited. The unaffected relative called emergency medical services, and all six were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

On admission to the emergency department, two of the six patients were unconscious. The other four were awake and had altered mental status; . . . .  During the next 6 hours in the emergency department, the six patients continued to experience tachycardia [i.e. accelerated heart beats], mydriasis [i.e. severe dilation of the pupils], and altered mental status. One remained unconscious. The others demonstrated confusion, aggression, agitation, disorganized speech, incoherence, and hallucinations. All six were admitted to the hospital, five to the intensive-care unit.
    According to the Center, such effects are apparently not at all unusual in cases where datura, and principally its root, is eaten.  Typically ingestion of the plant produces delirium, a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, violent behavior and prolonged amnesia. Without immediate treatment ingesting the root can prove fatal, particularly to children.

    You would think that such a plant would be very popular in the types of stories that spring from the computers of authors such as those who contribute to this blog.  But aside from Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, I personally know of only one other book in which the datura plays an explicit role –  The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel.  There the roots of the plant are ingested by the clan’s shamans to induce a hallucinatory religious experience.  The  datura also reportedly inspired the strangling plant that was a key element in the plot of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone depending on where you live).  Following publication of the book there was a spate of somewhat hysterical reports from folks in the English countryside who found that their gardens in fact contained the plant that had inspired the one used against Harry.  

    While the datura is not a common mystery device, it has made its presence known throughout history.  The chapter on daturas that is available on-line at the Poison Garden Website  reports the following:
In 38 A.D. Antony led another attempt by the Romans to subdue the Parthians and, as with previous expeditions, met with no success. Starving on the way back, his soldiers were reduced to living off the land and some of them ate Datura. As a result they are reported to have done nothing but ‘turn over every stone in his path with the greatest gravity, as though it were a difficult task.’ It is sometimes said that this incident leads to the saying 'leaving no stone unturned' to mean taking great care over a task.
    My favorite historical reference to daturas, however, that is quoted at the Poison Garden website, is from colonial times: 
In Jamestown in 1679, soldiers ate leaves in a salad and experienced ‘a very pleasant comedy’. In the “History and Present State of Virginia” (1705), Robert Beverly gives an account of what happened. “Some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy ; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; another, stark naked, was sitting in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making mows at them;  a Fourth would fondly kiss and paw his Companions and snear in their Faces with a Countenance more antick than any Dutch Droll. . . . A thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering anything that had pass’d.” This incident gives [to daturas] the [local] name jimsonweed (Jamestown Weed).
    Or consider, if you will, the strange case (sounding like Rod Serling, here) of Clairvius Narcisse, probably the most well-documented Haitian "zombie."  Narcisse "died" in 1962, lay in a refrigerated morgue for three days and then was buried.  Yet he turned up 18 years later, identifying himself to his sister on the streets of Port-au-Prince.  Narcisse claimed that after being buried alive he was dug up and then subjected to mind control that allowed him to be kept in forced labor all of those years.  According to Wade Davis' 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, and a report at the Skeptoid website, this was accomplished by force feeding him "a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and a plant called Datura"  The website notes that datura, popularly referred to as "the Devil's cucumber" in Haiti, along with nightshade and henbane, has long been used there as a hallucinogenic drug.

    All that having been said,  thanks to Mary Marsh -- who, notwithstanding her life-long proximity to these poisonous plants lived to be almost 100 -- our neighborhood is populated by many daturas, all relatives of the seeds Mary brought back from Mexico decades ago.  On our block daturas are cultivated only for the beauty of their flowers.   No mystery stories here,.  Certainly no zombies.

    Our daturas plants do seem to have a mind of their own.  They started out near our back fence in 1983, died out there but then re-appeared for several years at a side fence, only to desert that location for their present home  under a black locust tree at the rear of our yard.  There they die off every fall only to re-appear, like clockwork, in the first warm days of June.  By August they can be six feet tall.

    Throughout the summer we appreciate the beautiful flowers, and the aromatic fragrance each evening as the blossoms open.  Miss Marple, and our late neighbor Mary Marsh, knew both sides of the plant.  But for us it is all about the flowers.