Summer is here and writing time is at a premium. Even so, I’m diving into a new story and loving every moment of it. I restarted/rewrote the first few chapters five times in different point of views and tenses trying to figure out which one was best and finally landed on the winner yesterday. Now, I can just write, write, write if I can find the time, time, time.
Girls’ Weekend is off and running and while I should be doing the real work of promoting the novel, I’m distracted by the new story. It’s like this illicit affair I’m carrying on that’s keeping me from paying attention to my spouse.
The gardens are overrun with weeds after the monsoon, I mean May, but even as I yank and toss weeds, snatches of dialogue float through my mind.
Dylan said, “Can I ask you something?”
“On whether it’s a good question.”
“How would you know unless I asked it?”
“I wouldn’t, but you would.”
He looked confused. She got that a lot. She stopped wiping the table, put her hands on her hips and peered over at him.
“Do you think it’s a good question?” she asked.
He was quiet for a moment, but he looked at her intently, as if he was trying to see if he recognized her or maybe, she thought, he was checking to see if she was crazy.
He nodded. “I think it might be a little borderline crazy, but you seem like the kind of person who could handle that.”
“Okay, shoot,” she said.
My current foster dog requires a minimum of 4 miles walk/run every day and as we truck down the road, twists and turns of my plot keep my mind so busy, neighbors pass by and I forget to wave or Gingersnap stops to pee and I drag her for a few feet before realizing why she isn’t following me.
The kids are all home now, so there is a daily negotiation over car rights, snack food, and the Netflix password that was mysteriously changed. I try to be present with them, even as my mind is drifting to the Cayman Islands where my characters have now landed.
The plane rolled to a bumpy, tilted landing. Kat watched the palm trees and ragged shacks rush past her window. If you’re going to be poor, living on the edge of a runway in paradise was probably a great place to do it.
As the plane taxied to its gate, she watched a dog running along the other side of the fence that separated a sad little neighborhood from the runway. He was sandy colored, with pointy ears. He barked and lunged at the plane, then sat down and wagged his tail as the plane passed – his job done. A heavyset woman in a tank top, kicked at him and then turned to wave at the plane before going back to hanging up laundry on a line. Kat lifted her hand to wave back and pressed her fingers against the cool glass. The woman scowled. Surely she couldn’t see Kat. The sun was so bright – a few shades brighter than back in Campbell. What am I doing here?
The planed slowed as it approached the terminal. Two men in tattered cargo shorts wearing bright orange gloves leaned against a fence smoking cigarettes and watched the plane maneuver itself into its parking spot. A little boy clung to the other side of the fence behind them about halfway up. One of the men banged the fence and he tumbled back to the ground. They laughed and ground out their cigarettes before ambling towards the plane.
Dylan was still sleeping, so Kat waited until everyone else was off the plane before nudging him awake.
“Huh?” said Dylan. He looked at her, surprised for a moment, but then she saw reality wash over him. “Shit,” he said.
“Precisely,” said Kat. “Now get your ass up. Everyone else is off the plane.”
My summer goal is to finish the first draft of this story – following it where it takes me. And while I’m excited about the strawberries that are nearly ripe, the beach vacation at the end of June, and the warmer weather for riding, I’m even more excited to see what happens on my laptop.
As a pantser (a writer who does not outline, rather follows a story wherever it leads), I meet many of my characters when they appear on the page.
I do know the main characters before I start, having spent perhaps months getting to know them before their adventures begin. I interview them and write dozens of pages filled with their answers, my observations, sudden inspirations (he’s obsessed with peanut butter, she always speaks with full words instead of contractions).
I imagine them while running, driving, cleaning, even having conversations with strangers. Sometimes I forget what I’m doing and wind up arriving at the school or ball field having driven there on autopilot instead of the store or appointment I set off to visit.
And then I begin a story with those characters by my side, ready to lead me in.
But the other characters – many times the ones who carry the story and make it interesting, those characters surprise me when they turn up on the page.
At a recent bookclub gathering I attended, one of the members said, “Oh that Leroy – I hated him. He was scary!”
I said, “Me, too! Whenever he turned up in a scene I got really nervous.”
They all looked at me in surprise as I explained I had no idea who he was until he walked onto the page.
“But where did he come from?”
I thought about it and told them I thought he was a blend of a couple awful men I met at a trailer park where I went to pick up an underprivileged teen I was mentoring when I was a young adult. Each week when I arrived in my little pickup truck with the vinyl seats, no air conditioning, and a radio propped up on the dashboard, to whisk my charge off to the library to study or my apartment to cook a meal, I had nervous conversations with them as they smoked their cigarettes and regarded me suspiciously.
Returning my charge there in the dark, I was always anxious when the trailer door opened and her step-father grumbled that we were late. He scared me, but she had to live with him. I wondered and worried about her for years.
Twenty years later that man who frightened me so, still frightens me, but I controlled him on my page.
Another character who turned up as I wrote I’m Not Her was Trevor, a precocious first grader. Carin opened Leann’s door, and there he was! I was as surprised as she, and quickly fell in love with him, too.
Trevor is the innocent kid I see being dragged along crying into the Wal-Mart or playing with the boxes on the shelves at the grocery store until his mom smacks his hand away. He is all the children who catch my attention when they wiggle in church, fuss standing in line at the post office, annoy their overwrought parents by their sheer curiosity and energy. “Kids are resilient,” I was told when I mentioned my concern for kids I witnessed in my work volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. They bring sunshine into dark lives on a daily basis. Reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, I was captivated by the character Holden Caulfield, but not because he was such a cynical oddball bucking the system, but because he revered children and wanted to protect them from the world he viewed as unworthy of them. That’s where Trevor came from. He is the kid I wanted to rescue.
I would guess that for most writers, characters come from their own experiences. My son, also a writer, has a t-shirt that says,
“Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.”
I would contend that there is an inherent danger in befriending a writer for this very fact. We can’t help but write from what we know. It’s not deliberate. None of us set out to write a character based on someone we know- at least I don’t. But when a mind is freed to wander, you just never know who might turn up.