Writing Wednesday (Friday edition) — The Three Things

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (photo by Leslie Budewitz)

Since early last fall, I’ve been serving on a federal grand jury. (I’ll write about the experience later, without case specifics, when my term ends.) This week, jurors were asked to voluntarily appear for an emergency session, because our last regularly scheduled session had been vacated (legal-speak for “cancelled”) and crime does not stop for pandemics. (With some laughter-evoking exceptions I can’t tell you about—trust me.) For me, that meant a two-hour drive to get to the courthouse by 9 a.m., with a return trip late afternoon.

We were told we were likely the first federal grand jury in the country to convene since the pandemic hit; Montana is actually the ideal place, as we have a low number of infections per capita and meet federal metrics for a slow reopening. This, of course, was an emergency situation, and I can report that safe distances were kept, protocols met, and all went smoothly.

But that’s not what this piece is about.

A few times a year, I go to a mystery convention or writers’ conference, or take a vacation with my hunny. That often means walking away from a ms. in progress, sometimes at a critical juncture. I’ve developed what I call “the three things” exercise to keep me connected to the work in progress, aka the WIP: What three things can I take from the day and give to my characters? Is it the way a particular person dresses, a habitual phrase someone uses, an emotion I felt? An incident observed, a conversation overheard?

I’m well into the revisions of Bitterroot Lake, my stand-alone novel set for publication in May 2021. It wasn’t an easy time to take a day off. Twenty miles into the drive home, I started to play my audio book and realized I hadn’t done my three things. So I hit pause and started to think back to the day. It wasn’t long before I had three, and they just kept coming. Here are a few:

– M’s hair. I had realized the day before that I didn’t have strong visuals for a couple of characters. Another juror has striking hair, and I decided to give it to a character. I’ve done that, and it’s helped to give her another dimension.

Bitterroot Lake involves four friends, all in their mid-40s, brought together by tragedy. I’d spent quite a bit of time considering how women that age dress, including geographic and socio-economic differences. I thought back to women I’d seen that day, and found several useful details.

– The story is set in a fictional town on a made-up lake in NW Montana, but by luck, it takes place in early to mid May. My drive took me through several valleys and towns and around a very real lake—in early May. What luck! Turns out the cattails have not begun to green but the cherry orchards are in bloom, both details I’d messed up. I knew the red-wing blackbirds would be about—I’d seen them close to home—but was delighted to see the yellow-headed blackbirds, too.

– Like the real lake, the fictional one is surrounded by old homesteads and new trophy houses. But what about those small bungalows and cabins now being expanded, by new owners or new generations? Perfect for my story.

– My main character rode as a young girl and thinks about riding again. She’d notice the horses grazing in the fields, and feel a deep connection to them. Put that on the page!

– And how could I not have realized that east-facing slopes would be dotted with one of my favorite wildflowers, the arrowleaf balsamroot?

That’s more than three, and not my full list—I’d primed the pump, and had to pull over a few times to jot down notes.

Next time you’re away from your WIP for any reason, even if it’s just for a few hours, look for ways to draw on your experience to deepen your characters’ lives.