Monday, July 18, 2016

Laurel Garver & Fish Out of Water!

Please welcome one of my bloggy friends to the blog today -- Laurel Garver!
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The amazing power of fish-out-of-water stories

Stories about a character forced into an unfamiliar context are a staple of creative narratives, from books to plays, TV
shows, and films. The most common kind of fish out of water is geographical—crossing the urban-rural divide or visiting a foreign land. Crossing socioeconomic or class divides is common in fairy tales, yet often with very little realistic nuance—going from pauper to prince overnight would actually be quite stressful! Other divides include ethnic (My Big, Fat Greek Wedding), religious (David & Layla), educational (Good Will Hunting), temporal (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), and generational (Freaky Friday).

We love fish-out-of-water stories because they tell us about the human condition, and make us examine our own inner workings. Every one of us has places where we feel at home and places where we don’t. Those contrasts, if handled well, make for wonderful story tension. 

Here are some of the specific “powers” these kinds of stories have, as I discovered while writing my latest novel, Almost There, about an urban teen who, on the eve of a trip to Paris, gets stuck in her mother’s rural hometown. 

Reveal temperament
Characters’ reactions to unfamiliar environments shows how adaptable, accepting, or curious they are. Does the unfamiliar threaten or fascinate? How confidently or timidly do characters carry themselves among those unlike them? 

Weaknesses and fears that never come out in familiar, comfortable environments often show themselves in new venues. Conversely, the new experiences can cause unknown interests and strengths to emerge. 

When I dropped New Yorker Danielle in rural northern Pennsylvania, I found that her city-kid independence expressed itself as curiosity—and also made her seem a bit cocky to the locals. The wooded landscape initially frightens her, but also proves an inspiration for creating new art.

Reveal a comfort zone and sense of “normal”
Your concept of what is safe or dangerous, wonderful or disgusting, cool or weird is to a large degree colored by how unfamiliar things compare to life inside your comfort zone.
An urbanite will feel far more comfortable in man-made environments and in the press of a crowd. Put one in the woods, and they’ll likely find the environment deeply sinister. Sounds they can’t account for might be a dangerous predator; dirt could be full of gross, crawly things. 

As an outsider, a character might make striking or hilarious observations a local wouldn’t. For example, on arriving at her grandfather’s, Dani describes the summer hum of crickets chirping as “a threatening cacophony, reminding me that this is their crawly, leggy, wingy territory.”

Dani’s normal is multicultural and fairly unfazed by difference. When she learns the neighbor has been labeled with the ethnic slur “Mick,” she quips, “Seriously? Is being Irish considered weirdly ethnic here? In New York, you could have earlobes stretched to your shoulders and pierce your whole face with nails and hardly get a passing glance from anyone.” 

Reveal underlying biases 
Characters approach unfamiliar things with a set of expectations—sometimes even deep prejudices they didn’t know they held until put in proximity with this environment. 

For example, when an unfamiliar beater Volvo appears in her grandfather’s driveway, Dani assumes that only an elderly person would drive such a car, and this person must be “be a granny from Poppa’s church bringing us dinner. I hope it’s one of those epic tuna noodle casseroles with crushed potato chips on top that Mum always jokes about. I bet it’s as delicious as it is lowbrow.” It’s actually one of her New York friends, an additional shock because she’s accustomed to no one learning to drive until they’re 18 and no longer a restricted “junior learner”—rules peculiar to the five boroughs. 

Awakening to biases can become an instrument for change in a character. When Dani befriends a neighbor and sees the ways he struggles that she never has, she begins to re-evaluate her own life, and realizes just how privileged her upbringing has been. 

Reveal values
We all naturally make judgments about unfamiliar things. The familiar world will be held up as a model, and the unfamiliar measured against it as either inferior or superior. How a character makes value judgments about which culture is superior gives a very accurate window into their entire value system.

For example, Dani recognizes in the neighbor boy an entrepreneurial drive she’s never seen in her city friends. She notes that he acts “like a grown man” when seeking work and calls it “intriguing.” Rather than label him a boring workaholic, she admires his maturity. 

What is your favorite fish-out-of-water story? Why does it speak to you?

About the Author
Laurel Garver is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, professor’s wife and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and taking long walks in Philly's Fairmount Park. You can follow her on her blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

About Almost There
Genre: Young Adult Inspirational

Paris, the City of Lights. To seventeen-year-old Dani Deane, it’s the Promised Land. There, her widowed mother’s depression will vanish and she will no longer fear losing her only parent, her arty New York life, or her devoted boyfriend.

But shortly before their Paris getaway, Dani’s tyrannical grandfather falls ill, pulling them to rural Pennsylvania to deal with his hoarder horror of a house. Among the piles, Dani finds disturbing truths that could make Mum completely unravel. Desperate to protect her from pain and escape to Paris, Dani hatches a plan with the flirtatious neighbor boy that only threatens the relationships she most wants to save. 

Why would God block all paths to Paris? Could real hope for healing be as close as a box tucked in the rafters?


Available here: Amazon  /  Barnes and Noble  /  Smashwords  / Apple iTunes   
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Thanks Laurel!

I love fish-out-of-water scenes and stories. The story I'm currently attempting to plot plotting is going to have a strong element of this. 

Maybe my love goes back to my the first time I saw Wizard of Oz! 
How about you? What's your favourite Fish-out-of-Water story?

39 comments:

  1. Reveal values - or a lack thereof.
    Fantasy stories centered on a quest often feature this trope.
    And dirt IS full of gross things.

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    1. Indeed, these situations can reveal some rather negative or nasty values. But everyone has values, surely. For example, narcissists value being praised and adored, rather than loving others. Fish-out-of-water stories can make clearer to characters just how warped their existing value system are.

      Thanks for coming by, Alex!

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  2. I love these kind of stories. And Alex is right about fantasy stories featuring this, though I hadn't thought of it this way before. Congrats on your book, Laurel!

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    1. Thanks, Natalie! It is a powerful trope to use to press against a character's sense of normal and become an agency for change.

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  3. This element works well in cozy mysteries, too, when you want to add in a series hook (quilting, knitting, cooking) and you're not an expert...have the protagonist learn it as you learn it. Great topic, Laurel. :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Elizabeth! Indeed being a learner puts a character in a submissive position that might rankle a bit--which can be a powerful way of examining what drives them.

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  4. Placing a character in an uncomfortable position really does bring out traits you don't see otherwise. Brings out the good and the bad.

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    1. Indeed it does. Even a mostly "nice" character often has some inner judgmental urges that will be pressed against in certain settings. So this trope can be useful for ensuring you present a fully-rounded character with strengths and weaknesses.

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  5. This was a great post. I'm always feeling like a fish out of water, so reading about others in the same situation would make me quite happy. I'm not alone!

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    1. Thanks, Lee! Seeing others struggle with new contexts does help us feel less alone. Their courage can give us courage, right?

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    2. I count on it, Laurel. Here's to exchanging courage.

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  6. Fish out of water stories are the best. I think they speak to us all. Great post, Laurel.

    Hi, Jemi!

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    1. Thanks, Mason. We've definitely all been that floppy fish, haven't we? Nothing like leaving the comfort zone to make one change and grow.

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  7. This sounds like a very interesting story! And I love fish out of water tales! Excellent post :)

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    1. Thanks so much! I hope you check it out.

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  8. Thanks again, Laurel, for dropping by today! You've really got me thinking with your post today :)

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  9. Love these types of stories especially seeing how the fish learns to swim in the new ocean.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie. I like that metaphor--much less violent to a creature with gills. :-)

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  10. "An urbanite will feel far more comfortable in man-made environments"
    Many years ago, I worked in an environmental center on Long Island. Most of the kids that came out were from NYC. The place had an enormous front lawn, 5-10 acres of space to play during free time. And where did we find the kids playing? In the parking lot.

    Best of luck to you, Laurel, thanks for the nice post.

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    1. Because they perceived the ground as full of icky bugs and worms, right? :-D
      Thanks for coming by, Jeff!

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  11. Love the cover and premise, Laurel! You got me thinking about myself and the many moves throughout the years. It's amazing what you learn about yourself by changing your environment.

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    1. Thanks, Crystal! Indeed, new environments teach us so much about ourselves.

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  12. Congratulations Laurel. The story sounds fab!

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  13. This sounds like a very interesting story!

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    1. Thanks! The romance in the story gets some added tension when my character meets a guy unlike anyone she knows at home.

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  14. In our mortal condition we're all fish out of water. Yes, new environments are great teachers. I think about my daughter's accident 30+ years ago. What a new environment! And today we're facing another such possibility. Thanks for this excellent post that explores this. And your book sounds wonderful. I'm off to check it out. thank you, Jemi, for hosting Laurel.

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    1. Thanks so much, Ann. One doen't always have to travel to leave the comfort zone. Happy reading!

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  15. Congratulations to Laurel on the release of Almost There!

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  16. Lots of great ideas in this post. Thanks for sharing, Laurel!

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    1. You are most welcome, Beth. It's a useful trope that works in any genre.

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  17. I love the description of Almost There. Fish out of water stories are great to read and watch. These are all wonderful points.

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    1. Thanks so much, Medeia! Some of your stories edge this direction, right? Character trying to cross cultural lines? It can be a fascinating way to test a character's mettle.

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  18. ALMOST THERE sounds fun, and I love the cover! Congrats, Laurel!

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    1. Thanks so much, Dawn. I have to give a big shout out to the gifted photographer Oleander Schatzky. I'm more the typography magician.

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  19. Almost There sounds like an interesting read and I am curious about what the MC finds in the rafters! Great post from Laurel. I do like fish out of water stories- but I think The Wizard of Oz is probably my favorite too- or at least one of the ones I am most familiar with for sure. :)
    ~Jess

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    1. Thanks, Jess. Funny you should mention Wizard of Oz, because it's a text I allude to throughout this novel. Dani definitely feels "we're not in Kansas any more" quite regularly.

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