Plot Drivers

Several years ago, I worked at a place where we had a whiteboard on which people would post questions or challenges. Anyone could answer in response. The prompts ranged from the mundane (what song makes you happiest?) to the practical (what are you bringing to the potluck?) to the philosophical (how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?). By far the question that prompted the most answers in my time was one of my own: What was your most memorable car and why?

I had been reminiscing about the many colorful vehicles of my past and wondering if other people had similar stories. The answers covered the board, after which enterprising souls answered on paper and taped the answers on the wall. The final result went from as high as most could reach right down to the floor and filled the sides of the wall panel.If ever anyone wanted a topic for a book, this appears to be a strong contender. Everyone seems to have a story they would like to tell on this topic.

Cars have characters all their own to be sure. They do not have to be as active as Christine or the Love Bug to be prominent in our life stories and in our fiction. They can just be as temperamental as the cars in James Thurber’s short stories or as talented as the ones in the Harry Potter and James Bond serials. Or they can just be there as catalysts (the car crash that led to…etc.).

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about a related matter lately, namely what your car says about you (and, accordingly, what car your character should drive). Cars played a key role in my mystery work Soleville, mainly as a marker for the changing lifestyle of the hero, whose sudden promotion obliges him to step up in the automobile world and into unfamiliar territory. For me, the necessary research was an engaging foray into an imaginary world where my car-buying budget was well beyond my real-life means. It was fun and slightly addictive.

Back in the real world and limited by a middle class bank account, my spouse and I just purchased two new-to-us used cars after similar (but far more constrained) research. Most of the people I know clucked approvingly at the choices we made but the response I received from one person who’s known me for years surprised me: “You never struck me as THOSE kind of people.” Since then, a couple of my husband’s male acquaintances greeted his arrival in one of the cars with the remark “Now THAT is a car.” It might interest them to know, both cars were love at first drive for my husband, though not necessarily at first sight. One he dismissed at first with the remark, “Looks like a hearse.” The other he seemed too disengaged from for a comment. The same man dismissed one of the cars we test drove with a curt, “This just isn’t me.”

We didn’t intend to make any kind of statement with our purchases but car choices do say something, even if it’s only “I was in a hurry and didn’t have a lot of money” (exhibit A: the Geo Metro we once owned). You might ask what kind of person drives a jacked-up red pickup that hangs on your bumper and peels off indignantly when in fact you are going the speed limit (no, really, I want this guys’ plate number so I can turn him in)? Or who drives a blue Buick sedan about 10 MPH below the limit (All right, that would have been my mother)? Or who is that in the black van with the tinted windows (Truly, we don’t want to know)? Or who buys a car that matches their wild pantsuit (see Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety)?

Our expectations can be so raised by vehicles that there is a comic effect when the driver pops out and is a different person than we’d come to believe was behind the wheel. Maybe the jacked-up red truck is driven by a wizened old priest? Could it be the Buick is driven by a 7-foot professional wrestler? The black van, for that matter, might just be operated by a kindergarten teacher. Seeing my husband hop out of our black Volvo Cross Country had, I guess, a different effect than seeing him rise out of the white Prius (to those who knew the beat up old Subaru Forester he used to drag down the logging roads). Perhaps that was all my commentator meant: two people who drove the same old shabby colorful cars for so long do look out of place in newer vehicles. Still, can’t the padre drive a little slower?

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Why Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I spotted this piece on Yahoo News that reports the results of a British study that shows what makes a break-up difficult from the point of view of the different genders. Along the way, they note that women are the ones more likely to initiate the dissolution of the relationship, in part because they are more apt to analyze and monitor the relationship all along. Men, on the other hand, do not review the situation or recognize the stages of grief through which they may pass if it was not understood from the start that the relationship was limited and short term. Men tend to drown their sorrows in serial relationships and if they do not have a support network they may never fully recover from the blow of losing their lover.

Paging Dr. Harold Hill

Atlas Obscura posted this story about a colorful rogue from America’s past, Curtis Howe Springer, who called himself “the last of the old-time medicine men.” Mr. Springer sold dozens of untested concoctions and founded a spa-town called Zzyzx out in the California desert (so named so it would be “the last word” in any directory of health institutions). As the post points out, anyone interested in this man’s history is confronted by a snarl of lies and exaggerations, including his various claims to be a Ph.D. or M.D. or N.D., whichever seemed likely to work at the time. The list of places from which he received his advanced degrees is festooned with non-existent institutions, the most brazenly faked being the school that had re-named itself after him.  It was The American Medical Association that crowned him “King of the Quacks.”

Fanning the Flames

I recently learned that Kareem-Abdul Jabar has written a book starring the “lesser sibling” in the Holmes family, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. This reminded me of a couple other examples of formal fan fiction, the books As Time Goes By (which tells you what happened before and after the story depicted in the movie Casablanca), Wide Sargasso Sea (A back story for Jane Erye), and Wicked (the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West earned her title). There have been countless Pride and Prejudice riffs, from the silly (Pride and Predjudice and Zombies) to the serious (Death Comes to Pemberley). Meanwhile, there is a virtual universe of Star Wars follow-on books and internet postings that explore the further adventures of the core characters and the lives of the next generation of Solos and Skywalkers (yup, they’re strong in the force and sport names like “Ben”).

Then there is a more disguised type of fan fiction, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey which famously began life as an ode to Twilight but wandered far afield. I’ve even heard some of Shakespeare’s work described as a sort of fan fiction, demonstrating the bard’s interest in history and old legends as material. From there, one can also consider the Netflix series House of Cards, which boasts Macbeth and Richard III in its pedigree.

A friend who writes fan fiction focused on Stargate Atlantis expressed the concern that this form of writing is not considered very creative. However, Time magazine gave it a good-sized article bursting with if not admiration then broad acknowledgement that fan fiction has become a booming cottage industry. The books listed above (plus many others) show that it also has a solid place in literature.

Living authors who are the objects of fan fiction have disparate opinions on the subject of letting other writers take a swing at their characters. Anne Rice has gone on record as opposing the practice while J.K.Rowling seems to embrace it. George Lucas mostly welcomes it as well.

Having dabbled in my youth at Star Wars fan fiction (re-writing A New Hope from the point of view of Luke’s little-known tomboy cousin sidekick), I can appreciate the inspiration other writers’ work can give one. I’d be hypocritical if I insisted my own work is off limits for the same attention. In truth, I’d be just as fascinated to know what someone else found lurking in the undeveloped details of my writing as I was to find out why Rick was barred from going back to the United States. Fan fiction keeps a well-crafted character or setting alive and breathes more life into it.

If you are still wondering what to write about next, a small exercise in answering the question “What did my favorite obscure character do next?” might take you down a fruitful road less traveled.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Jabar wrote a piece for the September 27, 2015, Parade Magazine explaining why he chose Mycroft as a subject. Mycroft, it seems, presents an intriguing contrast to his brother’s emotional distance and Jabar wanted to explore the reasoning approach of a personality more inclined to empathy.

Wherefore Art Thou JarJar?

NPR recently aired a story about an author who specializes in translating Star Wars movies into Shakespearean language. Along the way, he has managed to take one of the most hated characters of the franchise, the fawning, simple-minded, suspiciously accented JarJar Binks, and added unexpected depth and interest to him. We may never grow to love JarJar, but now, using a couple of Shakespeare’s common techniques, the aside to the audience and the clown or fool character used as a disguise, we can understand him better. This is an inspiring example of how to add shading and dimension to a character to enhance the interest of and connection to the reader.

Your characters may not actually have any other dimensions to add (i.e. they may just be that shallow) but you might reconsider their cause after seeing what a little extra detail work could do. I have known a few people who put on accents or goofy personas when they want to disarm others. I have seen the ploy be too successful as well, to the point that the actor cannot be taken seriously anymore. If this author is to be believed, that is exactly the case for JarJar and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for thinking worse of him. I reserve the right to wince anyway.

Hangry Words

I started the day today writing about food (the “Hungry for Plot” post) and so I shall end it: with a brief notation about a behavioral study that has been a topic of conversation in my world. Results of this study support previous study results, both formal and anecdotal, that suggest a strong relationship between blood sugar levels and aggression. To whit, hungry people get angry faster. The article validates the current slang term “hangry” (so hungry you’re angry). I am hungry myself at this moment but my spouse has two big steaks on the grill so I suspect we will shortly lower the possibility of contention by quite a bit. Just as I noted below that what’s on your characters’ plates may be important, how long they waited for the plate turns out to be key to their interaction. Of course, as a former waitress myself, I have seen what happens when hunger is stretched out. Not pretty.

Hungry for Plot

What your characters are eating and how they eat it can be an integral part of the story. Sometimes (as often seems the case in the “Game of Thrones” books with their loving and intense details around the dinner table, deep enough to have inspired a cookbook) the food itself is a reflection of the characters’ tastes and their lot in life. Other times, their interaction with the food serves to underline their personalities (as in this piece about “When Harry Met Sally” that showcases Sally’s fussy, detail-oriented way with eating). Food can be a goal in itself (finding the perfect burger, for example, or stealing that crust of bread to feed your family as in “Les Miserables”) or an important prop (think a carefully wielded banana cream pie). As anyone who survived the “clean plate club” era of parenting knows, it can be a battle ground just for being present. Next time your characters sit down to a meal, take a good look at their plates and see if there’s any material there.

POST NOTE: NPR featured a story about “iconic meals in literature.” The web page features sumptuous photos of 8 top plates.