In keeping with our proposed December newsletter theme, I had to dig deep to apply it to my monthly writing tip. The best I could come up with is this: “Be careful what you wish for, or say out loud, because it could end up in some author’s mystery novel.” All we need is a few words plucked from a conversation going on nearby and we’re off and running.
Once I witnessed a domestic dispute while driving through the countryside. A wild-haired woman dressed, in orange T-shirt and pink tights, was throwing pine cones and profanity at her retreating husband, a fellow who looked as if he’d suffered years of spousal abuse. She told him if he got drunk and forgot to pick up the kids at school again (This couple had kids?), she was going to shoot him. Alas, Paula Stiner, was born and she’ll make her debut in my third Kate Caraway mystery.
Here’s another example: Years ago, I thought I’d heard someone say, “I used to go to church naked.” I’m sure I heard wrong, but the seed was planted in my ideas-file drawer of my brain. Later, that overheard statement morphed into the short story, “Morris on the Sabbath.” So, here’s my gift to you: click here to read more.
"Morris on the Sabbath”
When Morris was a child, he used to go to church naked, much to his parents’ chagrin. He doesn’t actually remember his nude forays, but hearing the stories told over and over by his family solidified the image in his mind. And because of his early-life experience, now as an adult-Morris could only speculate-he hated wearing clothes on the Lord’s Day. Sunday was a day of rest, and for Morris, rest meant a day free from all constraints.
So, that’s how the embarrassing Sunday of Ordinary Time encounter with Jenny came to pass. Morris was on his deck, filling the hummingbird feeder with special nectar he’d conjured up from his very own raspberries, which came from his organic nursery. Since Morris lived on the end of the island at the end of a dead-end road with his nearest neighbor half a mile away, he was not worried about being seen in the buff. On this particular Sunday, just as he snapped the lid back on the feeder, he heard a lovely voice ask, “Excuse me, but is this the Brewer place?”
Morris looked up to see the inquisitive eyes of a young woman staring at him from under the brim of her large straw hat. Before Morris could answer, she posed another question. “Do you add red dye to that liquid? I hope not, because red dye is unhealthy for the birds.”
Morris quickly hid his nakedness with the pitcher of nectar. “Which question do you want me to answer first?” A stupid thing to say, but Morris wasn’t used to having his Sunday routine interrupted. The young lady shrugged.
“This is the Brewer place. I’m Morris Brewer and no, I don’t add red dye. The sign near the front gate, Brewer’s Organic Farm, should have told you that.”
“I didn’t come from the front gate. Would you like my hat? It would provide a better shield than that clear glass pitcher.”
When she removed her straw hat and handed it to Morris, the waviest blonde hair he had ever seen, fell onto her shoulders. For the first time in his thirty-eight years, Morris felt a little too pudgy, a tad too short, and somewhat too hairy for polite company. Morris reached for the hat, but left the pitcher where it was. At this point two shields seemed like a good idea.
“If you didn’t come through the gate, that means you had to have hiked through the woods.” He doubted that analysis because his visitor looked as if she’d just come from an afternoon tea. Her white sundress, dotted with tiny pink and green flowers, was as fresh and clean as a spring morning. On her feet were delicate pink sandals that seemed new enough to have just come from the box.
“In these shoes? Don’t be silly. My name is Jenny Hitchcock. I could use a glass of water or, maybe some ice tea. It’s rather warm out today. Of course, you might not have noticed.”
Morris did notice, however, that in spite of her neat, crisp appearance, she looked a little flushed. Something told him that the flush had nothing to do with finding a naked man on his deck feeding hummingbirds. Morris began to relax back into his natural comfort, but he had no intention of turning this encounter into a social call. If he wanted to be social, he’d don a suit and attend Mass at St. Martin’s Church.
Before he could tell this Jenny woman to go on her way, she placed a white-gloved hand on the deck rail and stepped onto the bottom step. Morris couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a woman wearing gloves not meant for warmth.
“Well, I do have some sun tea ready. Sit down over there.” Morris pointed to his nice collection of wicker patio furniture he’d picked up a few years ago at Costco. As he backed toward his kitchen, he watched as Jenny Hitchcock studied the cushions of each chair before she selected one that suited her.
Once inside the house, Morris got control of himself. Beautiful woman or not, how dare she barge in here. He was formulating in his mind the trespassing lecture he’d deliver when he brought out the tea. He was proud of the words that popped into his head, like gall and traipse and brazen and crass, when Jenny called through the window, “No sugar in mine, please.”
“Sugar!” Morris thought. “Who does this woman think she’s dealing with?” Except for his own homemade preserves and honey and a gallon of Black Strap molasses, there were no sweets in Morris’s kitchen. He plunked ice cubes into two tall glasses so hard, he feared he had cracked one. That’s the glass he’d give her in case it had a slow leak. Shame washed over him like Judas Iscariot before the crucifixion. The metaphor reminded him that he should don an article of clothing himself. He went into his bedroom, and for the first time in ages, he couldn’t decide what to wear. How absurd. He had a suit of clothes for everyday of the week, but nothing for Sundays. Determined not to be put out, Morris grabbed his favorite bath towel, which always made him think of the Shroud of Turin, and wrapped it around his waist.
“It took you long enough,” Jenny said. “I thought you said the tea was ready, or did you have to freeze the water for ice cubes.”
Morris walked over and set the tray on the table with a thud. Suddenly, standing there in a towel, he felt like a complete idiot. He couldn’t remember which glass had the potential crack. He sat down with a sigh, exposing a goodly portion of his left thigh.
“I bought the place next door,” Jenny said.
“What place?” Morris’ ears started to ring.
“The old Perkins place.” Jenny reached for a glass.
“The old Perkins place? When did it go up for sale?” Morris felt the muscles around his heart constrict. Old man Perkins had promised Morris he’d never sell. Said he’d donate the land to the Land Bank.
“You’re thinking about the Land Bank, aren’t you?” Jenny said. “Eli Perkins stroked-out last week in the nursing home. Seems he never got around to making the provision in his will. In fact, lucky for me, he never made a will. The land went up for sale and I bought it. Drink your tea.”
Morris felt himself overheating and wishing for the first time that he had a pool to jump into. He picked up his glass and took a long drink of cold tea when suddenly the bottom of the glass fell out, drenching his lap.
As Morris sat there staring at the ice cubes nestled in his crotch, he knew that after this particular Sunday, things for him would never be the same.
Sometimes gratitude is not just for those wonderful things and people who come our way. Sometimes gratitude results from swallowing a bitter pill. I’m talking about being grateful for mistakes, failures, and bad decisions. I like to believe that these foibles allow us to grow, change, develop empathy, and become better people.
This is also true of characters we create in fiction and real people we write about in nonfiction. The adage “write what you know,” comes into mind. Stephen King says it best in his book, On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft:
“You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being… and you should use them in your work.”
Think about Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, as he wrote about his chosen life in penury in his memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London; and how his experiences led to writing essays and novels (Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Animal Farm) about social injustice.
Novelist Terry McMillan has written about her life experiences, and romances pleasant and heartbreaking, in two novels, Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Friend and fellow writer Jenny Milchman’s first thriller, Cover of Snow, came about after a frightening experience that happened to her when she was eight years old. The incident gives me chills when I think about it. Her babysitter had told her that he’d planned to kill himself that night when he returned home and that she shouldn't tell anyone. Luckily, she told her parents and they informed the boy’s mother who went into his room and found him with an open bottle of pills. This incident was the foundation for her debut novel many years later.
I wish I could turn back the clock and erase some of my mistakes, but I am grateful they happened because they made me a stronger person. I use some of those experiences to bring depth to my writing. I have yet to find the courage to lay my worst moments down in a novel, even though a few unpleasant and fearful episodes have found their way into my Kate Caraway mysteries.