Here are a couple of ideas that might be useful in generating plots for novels or adding dimension and texture to character-delineation.
Suggestion One. Read a lot. I read everything I can get my hands on. What do I read about? Name a subject and I’ve probably read something about it, from the latest technology in electronics to what is happening in Washington, DC — and everything in between.
Thanks to the Internet, I scan at least four major newspapers each morning. Journals are crammed with the stuff of human drama, the material of novels. Case in point: a recent article reveals that a couple happily married for fifty years is kidnapped and buried alive; when exhumed, the dead pair, their excavators discover, are holding hands (what a great love story). Another article: Parents in Maryland watch the local TV newscast and see a video clip of a robbery and a shooting at a convenience store. Police asks for the public’s help in identifying the shooter. Soon afterwards, the viewing parents go to law authorities and reveal that the shooter is their son (all the ingredients needed for a good novel: loving parents, the desire to do what is right, a dilemma; what mental agony the pair must have endured in reaching their decision).
Another news item: A man in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. hails a patrolling cop and says he wants to turn himself in after being on the run for fourteen years, pointing out that he was tired of looking over his shoulders – shades of Hamlet: “conscious doth make cowards of us all.”
Yet another article: scientists claim they have discovered a particle that exceeds the speed of light, meaning theoretically, it is possible to go back in time: Example a person leaves Point A today and arrives at the same point from which he left yesterday. Given that possibility, a good writer can turn it into a novel (a man goes back in time and prevents his own murder; a detective retrogresses chronologically and discovers the identity of Jack the Ripper; another possibility, a German patriot takes a trip back into yesteryear to the moment following the birth of Adolph Hitler; the time traveler snatches the toddler from his mother’s arms and assassinates him, and by doing so altering the course of history and saving countless lives.
Suggestion Two: fine tune your eyes and ears. Characters for novels? You see and meet them every day. At the supermarket. The gas station. Wherever you go. The trick is, don’t just see people, but observe them: how they gesture when speaking, when not speaking, the movement of the eyes, their shrug, when they shrug, how they shrug, the energy of the shrug, etc.
Each eye movement, gesture, etc. communicates something, often more eloquently than words spoken. Thes facts can be applied to character delineation in your novel. Give the reader the proper clues – the nonverbal ones — and trust him to understand the character you’re creating. If he does, there will be no need for you, the novelist, to lecture the reader (readers don’t like being lectured).
Remember, there is meaning in every body movement, frequently more meaning than in words that come from a person’s lips. The truth is, folks seldom – in fact, more often than not — say what they mean. Sometimes meaning is between the words. Except for people like me who are half deaf, we hear what others say, but do we listen to what they say? Do we understand not only the words, but the, often more eloquent, message conveyed by the speaker’s hands, eyes, tilt of head, cadence of speech, and, as important, the communication between words and those messages that peek from under the lines?
Final example: TV report, November 14: a grieving daughter who purchased a casket on line in which to bury her mother is distraught, for on the day of the funeral the pallbearers, mourners and all others are in place and ready to precede with the ceremony. The casket wasn’t: it was a no show. Hadn’t been shipped. There is a humorous novel in this incident, perhaps beginning with the following telephone call.
“Is this Hi-Tech Lay’em-low.com?”
“It is. How can I help you?”
“Got a problem. Folks are gathered here at the funeral home but that casket I ordered over the Internet from your company hasn’t arrived.”
“What the voucher number on the sale.”
“Eight, six, two, two-A.”
“Um, let me see. That order was taken by Betty. Betty’s not in the office now.”
“Is she at lunch?”
“No, not unless she’s gonna eat for the next three months. She’s on maternity leave. I can transfer you to our vice president, Mr. Talk. He might be able to help.”
“Mr.Talk? What’s his first name?”
“Double. But around here, we just call him ‘Mr. D.”
“Oh. Anyway, transfer me to Mr. D.”
Seconds later. “Double Talk, here. How can I be of service?” Following the customer’s explanation, Mr. D says, “Afraid I can’t help you m’am. I can’t even discuss the matter with you until you have filled and submitted to me, in triplicate, Form AFT-156.”
“I don’t have any Form AFT-156, whatever that is.”
“Be happy to mail you one, m’am. In fact, I’ll rush the order. You should get the form in about thirty-five business days.”
“I got a problem now…today…this second. Mourners are in there waiting and have been for over four hours.”
“I can understand your anxiety, m’am. But I can’t get those forms to you any sooner. Company policy, you know. Ah, by the way, what’s all that commotion I hear in the background?”
“Forty irate mourners who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for a funeral to begin.”
“Sounds more like a mob and riot scene to me.”
“It’s turning into both. Excuse me for a second. Ah, Deacon, please put down that chair, don’t slam it over the pallbearer’s head. Everybody…calm down.”
“Well, I must say, I’ve never heard so much profanity in all my life. Are those church people at that funeral?”
“They claim to be. Anyway, I gotta hang up so I can make a 911 call.”
“Don’t forget, ma’am, we’ll get those forms to you as soon as possible. Oh, I forgot to mention this. That particular casket you ordered is out of stock. We’ll have to special order you another. That’ll add another forty days to the thirty-five, making a grand total of seventy-five days. Thanks for calling Hi-Tech Lay’em-low.com. As always, we value our customers and show our appreciation with our premium service. Do have a pleasant day, ma’am.”
“Ah, shut up!”
The above is just one idea generated by a news article about an Internet coffin foul up. Such a report has infinite possibilities. (You can probably think of better ones.) Examples: the casket finally arrives but has a dead body in it – nobody knows whose. If not a dead body, why not a wooden leg, or a glass eye, or a million dollars in one hundred dollar bills, or a treasure map, etc., etc.? The possibilities are unlimited. And newspapers are filled with new possibilities every day.
Calvin Davis is author of The Phantom Lady of Paris.