I watched tentatively as she let her cigarette dangle out of the side of her mouth and ash while she cooked a substandard meal. I don’t think she heard me when I said I didn’t like mushroom soup. She was not helping her case as she worked to stir the salty, gelatinous blob in a soup pan while burning some grilled cheese to dip into it.
My grandparents seemed to have a lot of this soup though from a ten for eight dollars sale at Publix. I was only here for two weeks, and Mimi was trying her best to be a Grandma. I knew she would prefer to do hair and nails in her back salon rather than tend to my care, especially since I arrived ill, unkempt, and sad.
I was interrupting the weekly gossip collection from her elderly clients on the island. As she gingerly cut and styled what remained of their hair, they were more interested in whom Mimi’s bookish granddaughter from Michigan was dating. For once in my plain life, I could count two young men in the mix. They were also the reason I ran away for two weeks to the exhausting heat and solitude of Anna Maria Island.
I always wondered what it would be like to travel back in time to my grandmother’s salon in Detroit. I could see from the old photos she was pinup gorgeous, and her nails were always perfectly manicured and painted. I was currently somewhere between goth and grunge, and I’d prefer to pick at my nails versus painting them. I had big plans, and they did not involve being a pinup or small business owner. I still appreciated the glamour of Mimi. Even with time marching against her, she had a way of preparing and carrying herself that called for your attention.
It was already in the nineties today, and there was a minimal breeze coming in from the waters of Tampa Bay across the street. I finished what I could of the misbegotten lunch when Mimi asked me what I would do for the rest of the day. I think she was ready for me to venture out on my own for a bit.
I have recently increased my reading time in support of better writing. I wanted to digest what I loved about the stories I was reading so I could find inspiration to create a story worth reading to others. Here is my shortlist of what makes a story special to me.
- Characters that become clear to me through their actions and reactions. By reading how a character responds to situations or others, I can peel back their layers from the safe space of being curled up with a good book. I also like learning how the story changes characters for better or worse. Give me the reasons to love or despise the characters through how they behave. Make their actions speak louder with words.
- Enough detail about the setting of a story or specific scenes in the story to get me in the space where the characters live. Even brilliantly crafted characters can fall flat when their setting isn’t specific enough to matter. I want to learn enough about the main setting and individual scene settings to understand how they impact the character or others. For example, whether my character dumps a significant other over the phone from the safety of their place or in a coffee shop face to face might matter in how I view them. Scene setting is an Achilles heel for me in my writing. I now go back when I finish each chapter to see where I can add detail.
- Stories where every scene moves us forward (or backward if needed) to something relevant. I like to dive deep and understand characters and their space, but if each word, page, or chapter is not moving me along the story arc or taking me back to places and times of significance, I get bored and skip to where I think the pace picks up again.
Some books I am currently enjoying are Little Fires Everywhere and One Day in December. I would love to hear what stories you are enjoying!
I have many characters in my life. Some are as real as me, breathing and living out loud before me. Others are characters I get to create as a writer. They live in my head and my heart, visiting me in my dreams or during waking hours if only for the mind’s eye. Real or created, I receive joy from these characters. They all have a structure that is interesting to observe, learn from, and love. You must be willing to let your guard down and let them in.
Recently at work, I took the DiSC personality assessment. We did this as part of a retreat for the entire company. I am always resistant to being assigned a number, a color, a letter, or other designations with these tools, afraid I will be painted as something I’m not…or as something I am and would prefer not to be. That did not happen with this assessment though. Even though I was assigned a letter, two in fact (Si), I found myself in an open environment with caring people who simply wanted to understand each better as “characters” in a live-action play called Career. We let each other in! Technology increasingly widens our doorway, too.
How lucky are we to live in a time where the world has become smaller through technological advances, and we get exposed to more characters daily? We are also more mobile for work and pleasure, meeting characters at greater distances and then staying connected via social media. This post is not about the drawbacks of a smaller, more connected world. I’m an optimist. I’ll take the best of it and try to avoid participation in the worst (e.g. trolling). Maybe some version of these new characters will make it into what I write, lovingly and as a testament to their unique attributes. We are all characters, in the end, leaving behind a story. I’m making mine, real or imagined, good ones.