What are the ingredients in a writer’s mind? What are the raw materials he uses to create an illusory but seemingly real world, one populated by characters that are as genuine and believable as the shopper you pass in Walmart or the one who waits in line at a Burger King? How does the writer make seem real what is unreal? Convince the reader through mere use of frail words that a fabricated character lives and breathes and that he in many ways is like the reader?
The answer to these and similar questions is simple and, at the same time, complex. What the writer uses as raw material comes from an endless pool of life experiences and observations. All of which are predicated on the fact that a good writer must find the human animal a fascinating creature, which, of course, he is. What makes the Homo sapiens tick? What motivates him? How it is a man can be as altruistic as a saint one moment and within a split second become as heartless and diabolical as a Nazi commandant in a Jewish concentration camp? Is it that man has a duality of personalities? And depending upon the situation, either his dark angels or its opposite will appear? A good writer wants to probe these queries and seek their answers.
To discover them, he must be a keen student of humans. When waiting in line at Target, for example, he observes the person in front of him. Why does she overdress, wear an outfit designed for someone thirty years her junior, pack on several layers of makeup to mask age lines, sport a “diamond” ring – faux diamond – that is so brilliant you need sunglasses to look at it. And the cashier? Why does her smile seem painfully given and a “commercial” one? As mercenary in appearance as the word “love” sounds when crossing the lips of a prostitute? Forced? Tired? A carbon copy of the smile that lights the cashiers face when it’s the end of her work day. And the youngster nearby who screams at the top of his voice until his mother, intimidated, buys him the toy he wants, no, demands. What goes on in the home of the mother and child? The candy incident tells you. It also may be a forecast of what might happen in the youngster’s marriage, or his ability to have a serious relationship with anyone he cannot control Doubtlessly he will try to control his mate using the same tactics that were so successful in controlling his mother.
When I lived in Washington, DC, I frequently went to Union Train Station and sat. Not to wait for a train, but to observe the travelers. Hundreds of commuters would hurry past, representing a sampling of human kind. Some couples would bicker, others, smiling, held hands or embraced. Some commuters, wide eyed, stood and gawked at the vastness of the station and the multitude of people it contained. There were dapper men in colorful suits and wide brim hast who stood and scanned the station, predators on the prowl for innocent female prey who would be a source of income so the men could maintain their sartorial majesty. And always the station was home to several bums, men with battered hats, wrinkled clothes and bearded faces. What was the story of each man? How did he, born in Alaska, end up panhandling on the streets of the District of Columbia and sleeping in train stations? How? The answer is the stuff that novels are made of. For the bum’s story is probably little different from that of a king deposed: a story of hope, dreams, struggle, victories, failures, despair and the will to fight on. All the key ingredients of life.
Finally, who knows? Maybe one day you and I will be in the same place observing people for future use in a novel. I will see you and you will see me. If I do, you have my word that if I include you in a novel, it will a novel of epic proportions and you will be a colossal hero or heroine, one that will make Superman look like a sissy or Wonder Woman look like a wimp.
Honest. Trust me.
Calvin Davis is author of The Phantom Lady of Paris.