Monday, June 28, 2010

Write what you glean

By Pamela

I’m assuming most people who read The Glass Castle had reactions similar to mine—they felt empathy toward Jeannette Walls and her siblings, for all they endured in their childhoods. Similar thoughts went out to Augusten Burroughs after I finished Running with Scissors.

But possibly my next reaction is unique: How come my childhood had to be so boring?

I had the fortune/misfortune of being raised by loving parents in a middle class home, in a rural Midwest town. My siblings and I attended public schools and the First Baptist Church, spent summers at my grandparents’ lake house and winters playing in the snow. We were expected to mind our manners and get part-time jobs along with our drivers’ licenses. My parents didn’t even divorce until I was an adult! We were boringly predictable and didn’t apologize for it.

As a result, not even my mother would bother to read my lackluster memoir.

So how do I find interesting fodder for my characters when writing a manuscript? Several ways I’ll share here.

Observe and Report

I try to absorb every nuance of my life—from how the crossing guard at my daughter’s school says “you-ens” to the things my plumber says he’s found in drains. I interview people for my day job, so I probably ask more questions than most people and I have a pretty good memory.

I’ve also had friends share stories from their pasts that I may someday use in a manuscript—with details carefully disguised, of course. I’ve held packets of info and observations in my grey matter, waiting for a scene or character in a story to need a nugget I’ve been saving.

Bottom line: Get out in life, look around, ask questions and listen more than you talk.

Read the News

I love scanning the newspaper’s columns and features for interesting pieces. Our Sunday paper has a “how we met” story that showcases a couple who overcame odds to get together. The obituaries also reveal interesting quirks about people. One recently touted a man as having an awesome collection of vintage handcuffs. (Wondering if he meant for that to get out.)

Elizabeth has me reading the advice columns for strange family dynamics. Recently she read about people who are known for “accidentally” leaving their wallets behind when out to dinner or drinks with friends. They always promise to pay up later and never do. Guess what one of her characters has in store for her? Yep.

Dear Abby, Miss Manners, Ask Amy…they all have people who write in with the craziest stuff.

Listen to the Radio

One morning show I listen to has two regular bits: “Does that make me crazy?” and “It sucks to be me.” On the former show, callers tell the hosts about weird things they do and then members of the morning team decide if the caller is crazy or not. People have admitting to: smelling dental floss after flossing each tooth, scanning the side-ditch on the morning drive for a good place to dump a body and talking aloud to characters in novel as if they were real people. And those were from the same day!

On the latter show, a woman said it sucked to be her because someone took a nailgun to her tire, leaving nine nails buried in the tread. Hmmm…sounds like a jilted lover to me. Certainly a character in a book could have the same thing happen to him.

So, if you’re dull like me, embrace your vanilla-ness. Think of the money you’ll save on therapy and get over the fact that you’ll probably never sell your life story. You can find fun stuff to write about. Turn on the radio, open the newspaper or ask your garbage man what’s the coolest thing he’s found on the curb. People can be refreshingly candid and just about everyone I’ve met loves to talk!


  1. Great post! Like you, we had similar backgrounds of wonderful parents and families, Catholic school, summer vacations, reading the paper and discussing at dinners (every night at 6:00 pm, except my parent's Thursday night date night and Friday night pizza). Always expected to do the right thing, I find myself saying, "Why can't people just behave themselves?". There will be no childhood memoir, but so blessed to have had the kind of childhood most people would envy.

  2. Yes, Lindsey, I'm definitely not complaining. And it didn't take me long, out in the real world, to realize how lucky I am, though at times, I feel a bit like a nerd for enjoying my adolescence so much.


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