A Writer goes to the Dump

images (1)From the Archives:

I’m a proponent of the belief that every experience contributes priceless raw material to a writer’s treasure chest. I’m a hoarder, cramming the niches of my brain with sensory inputs, emotional extremes, and reams of interesting and often useless information. No detail is too small, especially if it is painful or gross.

My husband’s back is on the fritz, so this morning I made my first solo trek to the town dump. Not a chore I anticipated with delight, I adjusted my mindset and used it as an experience-gathering expedition, adding several disgusting sensory inputs to my writing stockpile.

There are a few things you should know in order to fully appreciate this literary endeavor:

  1. It’s January in Oregon. That means it’s raining.
  2. Due to a series of unplanned mix-ups and timing obstacles, my husband hasn’t been to the dump in six months.
  3. Our trashcans are missing lids, having blown away during his previous dump trips (no comment).
  4. The back of our pick-up truck is full of logs.

After two cups of coffee, I don my wool hat, an old pair of mittens, a ratty coat, and my sneakers (a mistake). I clamber into the back of the pick-up, and start pitching logs over the side. My mittens are soaked within thirty seconds, and though I try to lift with my legs, my back is now whining like a teenager. Despite my freezing fingers, I’ve worked up a sweat and my wool hat is itchy on my forehead. As I kick a forty-pound log off the tailgate, I contemplate all the miserable discomfort I’ll subject my characters to and conjure up a few choice words for husbands that I stash away for future literary reference.

With the truck empty, I skirt the log pile and slog over to the trashcans. They’re lined up against a tall retaining wall with a mountain of trash bags piled on top of them. This was hubby’s solution to critters, which was not entirely effective, I might add. The top bags aren’t overly nasty, and half of them are bulging with stuff for recycling. I sling the lighter recycling into the truck bed and then lug the rest like a yoked peasant with no hope for a better life. Such is the back-breaking toil my villagers will endure for their cruel masters.  The conditions will be dismal—wet, filthy, and cold.

Now, I’ve unearthed the cans and, of course, the bags of rotted garbage are submerged (no lids, remember). They’ve been stewing in a fetid swill for months. I tip the cans over and the brown water pours out with a ripe stench that makes my head spin. It’s swamp water with half-decomposed bodies, the reek of a medieval midden heap. Thank goodness, it’s not summer or everything would be crawling with maggots and swarming with flies. I gag and breathe through my mouth.

The water-logged bags are bloated pigs and weigh a ton. I stab them with a pointed stick. Putrid water bursts out, drenching my sneakers. Lacking a choice, I heave them up with my soaked mittens.  They leak and dribble on my jeans. Not caring anymore, my brain numb to the horror, I grunt as I heft them to the tailgate. I’m a slave in the dank sewers outside the castle walls. I reek of death and drowning. Foul water splatters and pools in the truck bed. My poor characters are going to despise me.

The F350 is our chore truck, driven far less than our cars. I climb in and the distinctive odor of mouse shit assaults my nose.  Somewhere—in the seat cushion probably—a comfy little mouse family is waiting out the winter. To my core, I know the turds are lethal, but I make the ultimate sacrifice for the king of the castle and head to the dump. The truck smells so gross I roll down the windows for the ten-mile ride to town. Rain blows in with a stinging wind, but I bravely endure it over the stink. And I’ll remember this for when my protagonists hunker down in an old lean-to, thankful to suffer the icy drafts over the reek of vermin as they labor to rid the realm of evil.

Then, I arrive at the dump…

Creating Rich Characters – Prompts

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While my days are spent grinding out my WIP, I thought I’d share an old post about writing character bios, specifically about using prompts to expedite the process.

The prompt-list below looks more complicated than it is (a result of explanations and examples). For some prompts, a word or two is sufficient, while others require some contemplation. Unsurprisingly, I force my main characters to endure the entire process; incidental players get a pass with a mere smattering of details, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

Ultimately, I believe that this pre-work pays off, not only in rich characters. To me, the process of writing flows with greater ease. My characters are immensely cooperative in telling their own stories when they know who they are.

The External Character

woman-1801830_640Physical Description: Appearance goes without saying, but add at least one remarkable feature: glass eye, cleft chin, crooked teeth, chewed nails, scars, moles, beady eyes, or rumbling voice. Remember, even beautiful people are imperfect.

Gestures, Mannerisms:  A distinguishing physical habit not only defines a character but makes him memorable. A character may habitually pick his teeth, clear his throat, rub his jaw, trace an old scar, purse his lips, fidget with a button, wink, spit, raise one eyebrow, stroke a beard, belch…

Quirk: A distinctive behavior that goes beyond a gesture: Won’t eat anything green, corrects improper speech, loves bad puns, doesn’t like to be touched, is afraid of heights, always misses the bus. There are numerous lists of quirks on the web.

Attribute, Trait: People have a blend of traits. Pick one or two for your character that stand out. Maybe she’s stubborn, lucky, picky, impatient, naïve, or flippant. Lists of attributes are also readily available on the web.

Skills, Abilities, and Interests: No real person is great at everything, and neither is your well-rounded character. Does your character have an education or special training? In what skills does he excel? Where is he lacking? What does your character do for a living? What does he do during down time?

Mix it Up: People are multi-dimensional. Villains can have redeemable qualities. They may rescue animals, love old movies, grow roses, or play chess in the park. Likewise, heroes have their flaws. They drink too much, have hot tempers, always run late, get easily flustered, or are slobs.

Don’t Overdo It: Creating a one-eyed, belly-scratching, kind-hearted, hypochondriac swordsmen with a penchant for chocolate is fun, but most characters will require much more subtlety.

The Internal Character

woman-1596954_960_720Backstory: Each character has a formative life that shaped him. What was the character’s childhood like? How strong were/are his family ties? Where are his parents and/or siblings? What significant event of the past shaped who the character is today? What was the character doing before the first page opened?

Secrets: A secret impacts a character’s attitudes and behaviors. It adds interest to the story because it can create tension or mystery in interpersonal dynamics. What is the character’s secret that no one else knows?

Goals: What does your character desperately desire? A protagonist’s overarching goal will often drive the story, and conflicting goals between characters may be a major source of tension. Consider that the main characters will have goals related not only to the main plot but to subplots.

Obstacles: What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of the character reaching her goal. This may be a nemesis, a personal flaw, or a condition of the culture or world. Remember that villains aren’t the only ones that can stand in a character’s way. Obstacles can be large and small and there are usually lots of them in the protagonist’s path.

Active Pursuit of Goals: At some point in the story, the character moves into an active role in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. What triggers the change for the character? How does the character take or attempt to take active control?

posing-1022162_640The Big Fear: This is the one that terrifies – betrayal, loss of control, inability to protect loved ones, failure, death, aloneness, disgrace, insignificance, poverty, aging. It may drive the character’s goal or be an obstacle he must overcome. Fears have a basis in experience – where did this fear come from?

The Mask: A character’s mask is directly related to his fear. The mask describes how a character compensates for the Big Fear, or hides it from the world. For example, a character fearful of betrayal, may act overly independent or refuse to get close to others. Often the mask comes undone during the course of a story and the character is forced to face and perhaps overcome her fear.

Cross-Character Relationships: Another way to add interest and tension is by creating similarities between conflicting characters, and differences between companionable characters. What might the protagonist and villain have in common? Perhaps they both love horses, appreciate fine wines, or fear water. Along the same lines, how might the protagonist and his cohorts clash? One curses constantly and the other finds it offensive; one might play an instrument poorly while his companions cover their ears.

There you have it – my prompts. I hope this is helpful. Let me know if there’s something I missed!

 

**Images from Pixabay**