What Can We Steal From Claudia Zuluaga’s Fort Starlight?

Title of Work and its Form: Fort Starlight, novel
Author: Claudia Zuluaga
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was released by Engine Books in September 2013 and can be found in all fine independent bookstores, including [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey.  Wow; the folks at [words] put together a lot of cool programming.  (You can also follow them on Twitter.)  Why not consider purchasing the book directly from the cool people at Engine Books?

Bonuses:  Check out this short story Ms. Zuluaga placed with the excellent Narrative Magazine.  If you had any doubts as to whether or not you should pick up Fort Starlight, take a look at this Publisher’s Weekly review.  Ms. Zuluaga also put together a playlist for Largehearted Boy that accompanies the book quite nicely.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Ida Overdorff is not exactly in a good place in her life.  She’s in her mid-twenties, but she doesn’t have very much figured out.  She loves baking and has a friend or two in New York City, but the specter of her unpleasant childhood has held her back from finding the community she seems to crave.  Fort Starlight is the story of how Ida finds her community and her place in the world.  The book begins as Ida arrives in Florida, expecting to pick up a check after selling a small patch of land she bought several years earlier as a teenager.  Ida takes a look at the land while it is still hers; a small and dilapidated house is located on the lot.  Eventually, she decides to make that house her temporary home.  Ms. Zuluaga gracefully folds in a number of other characters, all of whom eventually become a part of Ida’s extended family.  Ryan and Lloyd are a gay couple who offer her friendship.  Eccentric Peter sells her a cheap bike.  The manager of the local supermarket hires her to serve as the store’s bakery manager; some of the customers become a part of her life.  Even poor Mitchell Healy, a twelve-year-old boy who begins the book dead and face-down in the river, ends up influencing Ida.  Through the course of Fort Starlight, Ida gets a lot closer to being the person she wishes to be.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the structure of fiction, so I was most impressed by the way Ms. Zuluaga put her book together.  Fort Starlight operates according to a series of countdowns, the function of which is to assure the reader that a satisfying end is in sight.  The first countdown is the wait for the check that Ida is to receive from the land developer.  Once she gets the check, of course, she can move on with her life!  After that, Ida must wait for the check to clear.  Once the check clears, of course, she can move on with her life!  There are, of course, complications in Ida’s story and the goalpost she’s aiming for in life is pulled back several times.  Even though Ida (and the reader) must reset the countdown from time to time, we are happy because we soon realize that Ms. Zuluaga is not really resetting anything.  Fort Starlight is THE STORY OF THE TIME IDA SPENDS IN FLORIDA LEARNING WHO SHE WANTS TO BE AND HOW SHE OVERCOME THE PROBLEMS OF HER PAST.

Fort Starlight is a far different kind of story, but consider this idea with relation to a film we all know. What are the “countdowns” in The Wizard of Oz?

  • Dorothy wishes to escape her sepia world and that mean woman who is always snarling at her.  Once that happens, she’ll be a happy person!
  • Dorothy must follow the yellow brick road in order to get to the Emerald City, where The Wizard can help her get back home.  Then she’ll be happy, right?
  • Dorothy must assemble a team of friends to help her along the way.  Friends are always good, aren’t they?
  • Dorothy must thwart the attacks of the Wicked Witch and defeat the flying monkeys.  Once she does that, then she’ll be happy…won’t she?
  • Dorothy must accept that The Wizard is just a regular person and find a way back home…then everything will be good, won’t it?

These are the smaller countdowns and plotlines in The Wizard of Oz.  There is, however, an overarching deadline in the film, just as there is one in Fort Starlight:


Ms. Zuluaga also does something interesting with the way she builds the family around Ida.  The book begins very small.  We see two blackbirds flying around Florida and a man who wishes to build a development there.  (You know…a community.  Of people.  Who protect and care for each other.  Just the kind of thing Ida needs.)  Then the third person narrator immerses us in Ida’s consciousness.  Ida is, after all, the anchor (the Dorothy Gale) of the story.  Eventually, the chapters open up, introducing characters whose connection to Ida is not yet established.  The craft is easily apparent here; Ms. Zuluaga has successfully taken seemingly disparate stories and has woven them together like a tapestry.  Another image came to mind as I read the book.  Ida is a baker and Ms. Zuluaga is doing what a baker does: folding a number of different ingredients together until they make a cohesive whole:

When Ida bakes, she must consider the tartness of the fruit to determine how much sugar to fold into her batter.  Ms. Zuluaga needed to balance the characters in something of the same way.  Ida, for example, is pretty shy and sheltered, but Ryan and Lloyd are pretty outgoing; the combination helps Ida and the narrative to progress.

Now take a look at the opening of Chapter Two:

This is the section in which Ms. Zuluaga introduces one of the many powerful metaphors in the book.  In the first paragraph, the author reminds us of the tarp that covers some of the dilapidated home’s exterior.  The wind, sometimes a powerful force in Florida, sucks the tarp in and out.  Okay.  That’s basic description.  Then look at the third paragraph.  The expansion of the contraction of the tarp is made into something new and beautiful.  Ms. Zuluaga makes the house a living thing.  The blue tarp is a diaphragm that pulls life into the home.  (Including Ida and those she later befriends.)

What’s the lesson here?  I love the way that the description begins as a bare description, but is turned into a much more complicated metaphor.  Why does the idea have such impact?  One reason is that Ms. Zuluaga introduces the breathing home so gracefully.  Once we know the basic fact (there is a tarp on the outside of the home), we’re much more willing to take a fanciful leap.  We must prepare our audience to understand our potent metaphors and do so without drawing undue and flashy attention to them.

What Should We Steal?

  • Build your story according to countdowns large and small.  You don’t necessarily need to literally put a ticking time bomb in your story, but keep in mind that all stories can be broken down into some kind of countdown.  The film Die Hard is THE STORY OF THE DAY THAT JOHN MCCLANE KILLED ALL OF THE BAD GUYS IN THE NAKATOMI TOWER AND REGAINED THE LOVE OF HIS FAMILY.
  • Fold characters and storylines together like a baker making scone batter.  Match sweet characters with sour.  Broad storylines with quiet character moments.
  • Prepare your audience for your prettier and more complicated metaphors.  It’s one thing for Babe Ruth to hit a home run in the World Series.  We understand the impact and we almost expect it to happen.  When Babe Ruth prepared the audience by calling his shot (if he did so), he turned a simple home run into a much bigger statement about himself and the game.

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