Writing That Makes Sense – Part Six — the Mystery Sense

What Lies InsideThe last post on this topic is the one that has taken the most time for me to write. (Obviously, since there is such a long break in the postings!)

The Mystery Sense is, for me, the one that involves the heart. It’s one that makes us sigh when we read a beautiful piece of prose, or laugh out loud when the character’s voice rings so true that we are right there with them as they sail through their adventures.

I am currently reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, by Jack Gantos. This writer has the mystery sense dead to rights. Fell in love with the voice right from the start. The moment when I lost my heart to this novel was when Jack was standing on a picnic table about three miles away from the drive in movie theater, watching a WW II movie with his father’s old war binoculars. His mother catches him playing with the war souvenirs and scolds him…and then literary magic happens…

“Jack!” my mom called, and reached forward to poke my kneecap. “Jack! Are you listening? Come into the house soon. You’ll have to get to bed early now that you have morning plans.”

“Okay,” I said, and felt my fun evening leap off a cliff and she walked back toward the kitchen door. I knew she was still soaking the dishes in the sink so I had a little more time. Once she was out of sight I turned back to what I had been planning all along. I lifted the binoculars and focused in on the movie screen. The Japanese hadn’t quite finished off al the marines and I figured I’d be a marine too and help defend them. I knew we wouldn’t be fighting the Japanese anymore because they were now our friends, but it was good to use movie enemies for target practice because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaking into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack. I put down the binoculars and removed the ammo clip on the sniper rifle then aimed it toward the screen where I could just make out the small images. There was no scope on the rifle so I had to use the regular sight — the kind where you lined up a little metal ball not the far end of the barrel with the V-notch above the trigger where you pressed your cheek and eye to the cool wooden stock. The rifle weighted a ton. I hoisted it up and tried to aim at the movie screen, but the barrel shook back and forth so wildly I couldn’t get the ball to line up inside the V. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath. I knew I didn’t have all night to play because of Mom, so I gave it another try and the Japanese made their final “Banzai!” assault.

I lifted the rifle again andwhen I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.” — DEAD END IN NOVELT, Jack Gantos, 2011 Farrar Straus Giroux

And, you guessed it, there was a round still in the firing chamber. And then an ambulance pulls up to the next door neighbor’s house and Jack is sure he’s killed her. Did he? Go read the book — you’ll love it.

Why I fell in love with Jack has something to do with the fact that he reminded me of a favorite great-uncle who, as a child about Jack’s age, once blew out the windows on the undertaker’s barn with a homemade cannon. More importantly, however, it also had to do with how the writer has drawn Jack’s thought processes. He has not only shown us how Jack misbehaves and justifies his actions, but he provides the means for us to LIVE it as we read.

So how on earth does a writer draw what is in the character’s heart? The answer, sadly enough, is not found in Diane Ackerman’s wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, the book I used as a text for my class Writing That Makes Sense. She covers, Hearing, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste with abandon, but this last sense deserves to get the same coverage.

How to make your Point Of View character’s heart shine through?

1) Know your character. Backwards, forwards — and everything in between. Do a character sketch. Interview them. Have a conversation with them. Take them on trips (Grocery store: do they have a routine there? Are they OCD — or hopelessly forgetful when it comes to getting home with everything on their list? Going to bed routine: Do they brush their teeth while looking in the mirror or while sorting their mail?)

2) Discover their speech pattern. Do they have a trademark phrase that can tell the reader when they’re truly upset, startled, sad, angry? Winnie the Pooh uses “Oh, bother!” Jack’s is “Cheeze-us-crust!” Instructive difference between Pooh and Jack.

3) Look at your sentence structure. Long sentences usually mean slower action. Short sentences make the reader’s eye go faster. (I know. With Jack’s story, it’s the tumbling longevity of the sentence with so many thoughts pressed in between punctuation that makes for the hectic pace. He’s broken the rule. Once writers know the rules and can follow them, then and only then can they effectively break them and make it work.)

4) How do other character’s react to your Point of View character? Are they fully realized? Did you do steps 1 – 3 with them? You should with your main characters. (Just make sure that you don’t give too much air time to those characters who are so minor they don’t even have last names.)

5) Are you using speech tags to demonstrate emotions rather than having your action or dialogue convey that to the reader? Not a good idea. (An exercise you can use it to completely remove the tags from your dialogue and see if A. Can you tell who spoke and B. Does the dialogue convey the sense of emotion and the message you wanted to get across.)

6) How do you feel while writing the passage? A difficult scene may also be difficult to write. I’ve cried while writing scenes where the character feels despair and laughed out loud when the character has a good moment. This does not guarantee that the writing will convey what you want it to convey to a reader, but it’s a clue that you are headed in the right direction.

7) Do your word choices match the tone you want to convey? Do you use slithery, slimy, and slumpy words in a scene that is supposed to be about heartbreak? You might want to rethink. The disconnect between the words you use and the emotion you wish to evoke may sabotage your work. Contrast is one thing. (Think Irony or Sarcasm.) But having words come out of left field is another thing altogether.

8) Journal. I know. This is out of left field. Or is it? When you are in the grips of a particular emotion and journal about it, you are far more likely to capture the language of that emotion — and then you have a reference to use for your own writing.

9) Make lists. One of the exercises we did in my class was to come up with lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with the different emotions. Corny, but effective. Once we had the lists it isn’t so much about going back and pulling Word 3 or Word 14 from the list like interchangeable cogs. It is more like recognizing and internalizing the vocabulary of the heart.

10) Practice. Yeah. I know. This one goes for all writing.

11) Read. There are some outstanding books out there — study them. Take your favorite stories apart and see how the author got you to buy in so completely that you were swept away.

Happy Writing.

All Strays Apply Here

Cats in a crate
Peaches and Minnie on their way to Austin

I miss the redhead from Chapter Three. She was a dynamo in riding tights, whose dialogue sparkled and forceful nature promised much in the way of future interesting conflict.

Pity she didn’t fit the story line.

She charged onto the page in Chapter Three, well into the action of the book. Bright, sparkling dialogue, an outspoken personality, and enough sass to intrigue. You’d think she was a gift I’d want to keep. Sadly though, once I got further along in the book, I realized that she was a one-scene character, and that having her spend that much time on the page during that one scene left a ghost behind. If I as the writer was still wondering about her, then the reader probably would too. Painfully, the truth is that she didn’t move the plot of this book along. So I whittled her part down to one line and moved the rest of the scene to a secret location.

Well, it was a secret, but now I’m telling you. I have a special file on my computer called Not_Now_Stuff.doc, a wonderful file filled with characters and scenes that didn’t fit the work-in-progress, but with which I was sufficiently intrigued not to simply delete them out of hand.

I think of it as a no-kill shelter for stray ideas. This way nothing is ever lost. If they keep bugging me, I already have something to start with when I pull them out of the file to play.

Who knows? Ms. Redhead might get a story of her own some day. She’ll still be all sparkly, conflicted and sassy, because I’ve got her tucked away safely.

Happy Writing!

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.

 

Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!

 

Happy Writing.

 

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.

 

Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!

 

Happy Writing.

 

Writing that Makes Sense — Part 4 – Touch

Touchy Feely, that’s me. I love to plant things in my garden that have tactile attributes, so you’d think that putting things like this into my writing would be easy. Velvety soft lamb’s ear, the smooth crisp sides of the aloe vera, spikes and shoots of the red yucca. But it isn’t always that simple.

Let me start be looking at TOUCH and how our bodies interpret it. All objects have texture, be it the mustache on a dashing hero’s face to the feel of a breeze lifting the short hairs along your arm. In a way, it’s friction, or tactile tension, that you are feeling.

TOUCH is a complicated combination of the ability to sense heat, pain, mechanical pressure, and texture. We define TOUCH through the largest organ in our bodies, our skin. TOUCH includes more than just what you skim your fingers over, it includes your entire body. Some label TOUCH the somatic sense, because it includes the sensations produced by movement, both of objects around your body and the movement of your body itself.

While I’ve discussed in my previous posts on Writing that Makes Sense including language to express the different senses, I have not yet touched (sorry!) on what sensory detail can do for your character building. Each person has touch sensations that stimulate some sort of happy — or not so happy memory. This means that your reader comes with certain expectations of what each sensation of touch means to them. Your characters should as well.
One of my favorite plants is the fuchsia bougenvilla, a plant that thrives on the hot west wall of my garage — and which has long thorns hidden among its leaves. I’d never given that a second thought until an acquaintance of mine mentioned that when he was young, he literally skewed one of his eyes on a bougenvilla’s wicked thorns. Obviously the tactile nature of this plant means something very different to Jeff than it does to me.

Writing exercise:

Trifold your paper vertically to create three columns. List TOUCH adjectives, nouns and verbs in each of the columns. Stroke, velvety, slap, marble, embers, you get the idea.

Realizing that sometimes just mentioning specific nouns can evoke the sense of touch if there are memories attached, look at the list of nouns in particular. Make sure they are specific — Lava instead of stone. Jot down any memories associated with the nouns — or make them up — you are a creative writer after all!

Happy Writing!

Read All About It

So you want to be a writer. Do you read?

This may seem like a rhetorical question, but I’ve had students in my classes who have come in expecting to write a best-seller (and who expected me to teach them how to do this!) but who do not read.

That’s right. They think they can out-write the many professional, wonderful storycrafters who populate the midlist. My question to them always is, “How will you know how to write a great book if you don’t read them?”

The best writing class I ever took didn’t cost me anything but time. I read for the Best Novel committee for the Edgar Awards a few years ago. I had already written several books, and been fortunate enough to have two published at that time. It became clear very early on that the vast majority of the books that are published are good books. It was also very clear that a small percentage of writers put out an absolutely amazing book during that one year of their life. An even smaller percentage write amazing books on a frequent and regular basis.  The committee was charged with reading over 400 books that year. Yes, that is correct. Over 400. Most of them were good. There wasn’t one book that I read that didn’t have something to teach me in terms of what worked — and what didn’t — in prose. (I used that double negative on purpose, btw…Sometimes using weak grammar makes a point.)

I learned how some authors used setting as a character in the story. I learned how dialogue can make or break a character’s voice. I learned how description, when carefully placed and beautifully crafted, can be an amazing gift to the reader. All of this has stayed with me, influencing my choices when I write.

So if you want to be a writer, read. Read everything you can. Read the best that is out there — and those books less fortunate in their sales, because those books are helpful too.

And if you don’t want to read, then do everyone a favor, and stay away from the word processor.

Happy reading!

Write Away

I’ve been in revisionist country lately, so haven’t done much new writing. The best thing about all this is that I enjoy revising. It’s so much easier than doing the rough draft. I liken revision to working with clay on a potter’s wheel. Shaping, scraping away unwanted flaws, imprinting patterns, changing the shape of it so that it is more pleasing. Writing a book is like building the clay molecule by molecule, word by word. Once you get that clay into a basic shape, you have your rough draft.

Editing, now, that’s where the hard work of spinning all that clay pays off. You can pinch and pull, turn it around to look at it from all sides — and do whatever the hell you want to with it because you created it. It didn’t “happen that way” because that’s the way you wrote it the first time around. Even if you are channeling Ernest Hemingway, you might be getting interference on the line.

Here’s my recipe for revision:

Ingredients:

  • One completed manuscript.
  • One completed storyboard for each scene.
  • List of overused words: a short example of mine are…just, very, anything ending in ‘ly’, ‘ing’ or fronted by ‘was’, ‘to be’, whatever my critique group says is my word of the month.
  • One finger capable of hitting delete even if I really like that sentence.

Scenes: Pull out the storyboards. On the basis of the info on the page, state why that scene belongs in the book and why it belongs where it is in the narrative. Cut any scenes that don’t move the action, motivation, or character growth forward.

Characters: Do they all form a vital function in the storyline? If not, do they need to stay as a supporting character. Have I over-described supporting characters? (Don’t want the reader to finish the book and wonder about what happened to him/her.)

Dialogue: Read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it fit the character who is speaking? Is it age/geographically/gender/socio-economic/etc. appropriate?

Exposition: Where is your white space? (hint: usually around your dialogue or fast-moving action.) Lay your chapter pages out and see if there are any dense areas. Look at them. Does it work? Does it need breaking up? Do you need more description because all you have is dialogue?

Sentence Structure: Have you ended sentences with prepositions? (In dialogue it’s ok, otherwise avoid.) Do all your sentences follow the ‘Subject, verb, Bang/Pow!’ format, or do you have a pleasing variation of sentence structures.

Punctuation: How many commas can you take out and still breathe while reading the work out loud. Did you use parentheses, semi-colons, colons, and quotation marks correctly?

Repeats: (AKA Deja Vu.) How many times do you use a word in the same paragraph? It sometimes throws a reader off if you touch someone on the shoulder over and over again. Have them take their honey’s hand before the awkward pat on the shoulder. Do you have two scenes that seem eerily similar?

Touch/See/Taste/Smell/Emote All The Senses: We don’t just see things. We feel them in a myriad of ways throughout our body. Develop a vocabulary that includes the taste of happiness on the tongue and the fear of fire on our skin.

Color your way to a visual understanding: I go through my rough draft in printout form, using my nifty box of 48 color Crayons to mark sections with sentence structure. Underline the Subject/verb/object sentences in blue, the ones with an independent marker in the middle with orange, and ones where I use fragments with red. And so on. This gives me a nice visual for the rhythm without me having to worry about missing something because I got distracted and didn’t notice I had an entire page of sentences with the same structure. I do the same thing with dialogue, each character getting a different color. I usually do this along the right side of the manuscript page. I mark the left margin of the page with plot. Is the action centered on the main plot or a subplot? Again, each plot line gets its own color.

Then I revise the electronic copy, print it out and do it all again.

Eventually it pleases me enough to let it go. Or the deadline hits me over the head and I have to let it go. Either way it is a darn sight prettier than it was when it started.

I’ve now finished five novels. (Three in print. One more in half-way to rough draft-dom status.) Despite the fact that I could conceivably consider myself an experienced novelist, I still have to do this for each and every book I write. It takes me a year to write a book — at the least. There’s a lot to forget about the process in that amount of time. Must be why I face the blank page of each new book with a feeling of complete and utter panic.

What am I thinking?

I know I’ve done this before, but I have no clue what I’m doing!

Fortunately, now I can go back to some of these blog entries and have at it.

Happy Writing!

Bubbling Up From Within

Never hurts...

Last week I wrote about Writing in the Open, doing character sketches in public places. I said then and I’ll say it again, I don’t use those sketches for my fiction, but they serve as wonderful writing practice. That does not mean that people I meet by chance don’t turn up later in my writing. For example, I took a Memoir class a few years ago from a wonderful woman, Sarah Cortez, author of the poetry collection, How to Undress a Cop. Thanks to one of her excellent writing prompts, I got to revisit a gentleman I met by chance at the Lexington Market in Baltimore when I was living there in the early 80’s.

Here is that story:

Soon after graduating from college, a small group of nurses from the hospital decided to go out to lunch at Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. Since I was new to town, Susan gave me a ride to keep me from getting lost.

As soon as we went in the double-wide glass doors, the cacophony of hundreds of voices bargaining their way through their weekly shopping list enveloped us. One of my feet slipped against the worn pastel tiles, and I grabbed the steel railing next to me. Grubby with the touch of all those people, I quickly turned it loose. My friends were a couple of steps ahead of me, intent on the soft shell crab they’d whispered about all through the morning’s in-service session.

I took a step forward, and was jostled yet again. I wound up next to the fish stand, where lean sleek bodies of sea bass lay prostrate next to rainbow trout on the shaved ice. I began to worry that the crab would come with eyes as flat as those in the fish case.

A light touch on my arm proved to be an old man. Worn woolen hat on his head despite the heat of the day, he smelled worse than the fish. After establishing that I would not give him a dollar for a lunch which I suspected would be as liquid as the sour odor on his breath, he touched my arm again.

“I was an engineer,” he said.

Before I even realized it, he’d told me much of the sorry story of his life. Hidden behind the fading blue of his eyes, lay an intelligent man, whose life had been ruined by drink. As I stood there listening, my friends occasionally waved at me from their table.

On the way home Susan asked me why I’d listened to him so long. “You’ve got to learn to be tougher, no more Aunt Julie,” she said, unknowingly using the nickname boys and girls in the dorm had bestowed upon me when I became their designated shoulder-to-cry-on. I’d given him an hour of my time. It cost me nothing.

Writing in the Open

I love doing character sketches. When the children were small, I’d take them on an outing and while they were playing in the sandbox, or the ball pit, or on the swing set, I would pull out a notebook and jot down a character sketch of the Nanny putting her children into the Cinderella Carriage at the Pumpkin Park, or the man reading his newspaper with the collar of his polo turned up against his neck against the morning sun, or the gentleman who drove by me in his truck, speeding up as he hit the puddle to splash muddy water up against the side of the curb with an evil glance sideways as if to say it might as easily been tobacco juice he spat out the window. Each and every person who came into view became a potential inspiration.

A particular way of walking, one shoulder dipping to indicate an old injury, leads to thoughts of how that injury occurred, which leads to thoughts about who else was involved in the accident, which leads to speculation about his motivation for being in that particular place at that particular time. All of these things go into making him who he is. Someone I do not know, but someone who, because I’ve lumped a bunch of motivations and incidents onto his one characteristic, becomes someone I want to know. Make no mistake, I do not consider this construct to be the human being right in front of me. If I’ve done my job correctly, a character sketch wanders pretty far from the truth. At least I hope I have created someone up out of whole cloth. I’ve never been brave enough to fact-check my character study with any real folks. Just doesn’t seem like a likely way to make too many friends.

I first learned about character sketches from a book on writing. Then learned a bit more from a class offering at a conference. Then even more from practice. While I do take notes on my characters while writing my stories (It sure helps to keep the person straight from one end of the book to the other!) I don’t use characters I concocted from my character sketching exercises. Those are more about stretching the imagination muscle and less about finding the perfect character for any particular story. Even more fun for me since I did this so often when the kids were small– my son, Edward, evidently does this when he’s riding the subway into Manhattan for work.

Here’s one way I flex my character sketching muscles :

Pick a likely looking person, one who has something about them that really stands out. For example, that gentleman who came into the park that day, limping on his left leg as if it hurt. It was a clear day, so I decided it wasn’t gout, but the poor dear had been in a terrible accident. I then start looking around and take one physical characteristic from each of the other people nearby. Sometimes this particular character would take hold of me and follow me into What-a-Burger for lunch.

Totally out of the blue: Name: Shorty Gibson

Age of man who just drove by: 57

Sex of first person to enter the door: Female

Height on next person in the door: 6′ even

Weight of woman sitting behind me: 190

Hair of man second in line for the checkout: Sandy, greying, thick, straight, cut like he might have served in the military and couldn’t shake it off. (Since Shorty is female, it will be a little longer than this guys is…)

Then I start making things up:

Favorites: Food, places to sit and relax, family member, pet, vacation,

Happiest childhood memory?

What does she want more than anything else in the whole wide world?

What is she most afraid of?

What is her weakness at work? In a relationship?

Is she in a relationship? If not, how did the last one end? If yes, how did the last one end?

Where was she born? Lived?

Where does she live? City, state, type of housing, own, rent…color of bedroom?

Does she live alone?

Pets?

Who is her best friend? Frienemy? Enemy?

Where does she work? How high up the food chain is she while at work?

How did she get that limp?

How does she get around? If car, what make, model, year, color? Bike? Same…

Does she have any special skills? Fly a plane, know how to wire a light socket, plumb a toilet, break down a shotgun in 1.2 seconds?

As you can see, you can go into incredible detail, or just hit the high points — it’s just a game really — you get to play it how you like. If you make up your own rules, it can be kind of fun, like eavesdropping on the next table during a meal at a busy restaurant. So go out there, write in the open, and have some fun.

Happy Writing!