Writing Wednesday — dressing your characters

Once upon a time, we put on real clothes and went out into the world. Now a good chunk of us work from home in our torn jeans (and not fashionably torn), sweats, or yoga pants. Our characters, though, are still going about their business, running a Spice Shop in Seattle or a local foods grocer in Montana, and going all kinds of places. Which means that while I can grab the nearest thing on my closet shelf, I actually have to think about what they wear.

And because I live in a small town in western Montana, I don’t get to see the full range of clothing styles I could glimpse in just an hour sitting in the window of Starbucks on 5th Avenue in Seattle or nursing a cappuccino in a hip Missoula coffee house. When I do get out of town, I’m always looking, looking, looking. Turns out city lawyers don’t dress as formally as when I was a downtown Seattle lawyer—except when they do. There’s a lot wider range of styles and outfits these days.

Both physical magazines and catalogs and websites are a great source. Of course, you have to look beyond the companies you shop from. For Erin, my 32-year-old Montana girl, I browse Title 9, Athleta, REI, and other companies with an outdoor or “activewear” style. Her mother, Francesca, dresses from the pages of Soft Surroundings. For a special event, I’ve dressed characters from J. Peterman — take a look; the catalog copy itself is pretty wild. Pepper, who runs the Spice Shop in Pike Place Market, wears black yoga pants and T-shirts with her shop apron on workdays, but I let her go bright, bright, bright away from work, and on dry days, she loves to wear a pair of petal pink Mary Janes she splurged on in Assault & Pepper.

Bitterroot Lake

For Bitterroot Lake (coming April 13, written as Alicia Beckman), I thought about how different the four friends who are the focus of the story are. Sarah’s quite aware that her upscale Nordstrom look is right on par in her toney Seattle neighborhood, but a little out of place in Deer Park. Janine is a baker who’s showed up in town with only her work clothes. Sarah lends her clothes, but because of the tensions in their relationship, she’s self-conscious about it. Besides, everything’s too long. Nicole — Nic — is a lawyer whose workday wardrobe isn’t too different from the casual pants and fleece jackets she wears on her spur-of-the-moment, long-distance drive to Deer Park.

Dressing the men is even trickier. Around here, for men of a certain age — like the age of the man I’m married to — dressing up means a sport coat over Levi 501s and popping the dried mud off the cowboy boots. (Wear the ones with the nonskid soles this time of year.) Daily wear for the younger men tends toward cargo pants and T-shirts, although the “active wear” influence of the ski slopes and hiking trails is strong, too.

Think carefully about how your characters dress and what their clothing conveys about them. And do tell me some of your favorite tricks and sources for dressing your story people!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — the power of collaboration

The Barn, pastel on garnet paper, by the author

Writing, like a lot of other creative work, is often described as a solo activity. But there’s a strong case to be made for collaboration, as Joshua Wolf Shenk contends in the book Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity (2014; the original hardcover was titled Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs). Shenk looks at artists and scientists working together — Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie — but also at artist and inspiration — Vincent and Theo Van Gogh — and scientists who worked and reworked their ideas in conversations with spouses, co-workers, even rivals, typically uncredited.

“So much of the creative exchange gets hidden. It happens offstage, and isn’t a part of history. Sometimes that’s due to prejudice, or ignorance, and sometimes it’s because, if things go well, you just don’t hear about the second person,” Shenk said in an interview in Vox.

For writers, think of the brainstorming sessions with a writing pal, email exchanges with an editor, even conversations with your S.O. about how to kill a character or how one character might behave in a particular situation.

Then take those ideas, spurred by an exchange, to your writing room and write them!

Montana Women of Mystery — coming your way Wednesday

Bitterroot Lake

Join me and my partners in crime, Debbie Burke and Christine Carbo, at 3 pm Mtn time this Wednesday, Feb 24, for a lively Zoom discussion about our mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels, the writing process, and more. Our gathering is sponsored by the Buffalo Hill Terrace senior living community in Kalispell; open to the public. Zoom link

I hope you can join us for fun, secrets, and laughter with Debbie, Christine and me.

(The downside of Zoom? You’ll have to bring your own snacks. But check the back of my books for recipes!)

The Saturday Creativity Quote

In honor of Black History Month, the February quotes will all come from famous Black authors.

“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”

— James Baldwin, American novelist (1924-87), Notes of a Native Son

The Saturday Creativity Quote

Deer Heart (photo by the author)

“Given the ways in which race works in this country, and in the West in general, it actually becomes a radical political statement to introduce blackness into the consciousness of the reader without explanation or announcement. In this way, my characters are not measured over or against whiteness, or understood as a reflection of whiteness. They are simply themselves.
The hardest thing about writing, I think, is observing properly. But more and more, I think, it’s what makes a piece of writing good.”

—Ayana Mathis, in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (2017)

The Saturday Creativity Quote

“We’ve all heard the expression ‘one person, one vote’ used to promote the idea that every human being deserves a voice in the political process. Well, I like literature that’s ‘one person, one truth’ – that each person’s experience, no matter how marginal, has the power to tell us something vital about what it means to be human. It’s true that, in many ways, fiction has not been universal: It’s probably been a middle-class form, and there are definitely forgotten people whose lives have not been chronicled. I don’t think writers should be self-congratulatory. But one of the ideological things that the novel form helped accomplish was to expand literature’s focus. The novel tends to show us that the lives of ‘ordinary people’ are as full of drama, emotion, and even political significance as those of the greats.”

—novelist Tom Perotta in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed by Joe Fassler (2017)

Writing Wednesday — Using tradition to shape plot and character

Vase painted by my paternal grandmother; photo by my cousin, mystery author Laura Childs

This is a season that is particularly shaped by tradition. We celebrate some of our most important holidays and holy days in the last quarter of the year, as autumn becomes winter and we turn the page to a new year.

But this year, traditions are dramatically changed. Travel is harder, public events are limited in size, individual gatherings and celebrations are being reshaped.

And that has me thinking of the role of tradition in story. Think about it in the story you’re working on. How do traditions influence your characters? How guide or frustrate their choices? How create—or recall—tensions between characters, or within them?

Which character assumes the family will always gather at her home? Which character resents that, resists it, has always tried to change it, and finally circumstances allow the change—but what now? Whose help does she need? Who refuses to give it? What does she feel compelled to do, but unsure that she can succeed?

Who absolutely will not hand over the star that always goes on top of the Christmas tree, because it’s always been on her tree because we’ve always gathered at her house.

Who tries to interject new traditions? Who feels rebuffed, rejected, relegated to the kids’ table?

Tranquility, oil on canvas, Tabby Ivy (collection of the author)

I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here. Traditions aren’t confined to the holidays and holy days, or to family gatherings, and you needn’t be writing about the pandemic to ask your characters these questions. Think about how your characters respond to traditions and to changes. Consider how the usual ways of doing things have influenced the interactions between spouses, sisters, business partners, or rivals—and how changes in the traditions affect those interactions. What ripple effects occur when one person decides to think or feel about “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it”? What does that character do as a result, and how does another respond?

And if you find yourself singing a particular song from a Broadway musical, go for it.

Law & Fiction — Questioning juveniles

In a recent discussion in a writers’ forum on how and when police could question a person, a writer made the excellent point that what we’d been saying is how the law SHOULD work, but that it often DOESN’T work that way, especially in communities of color or of lower socioeconomic status. Further, she stressed, we as writers should not “imply an equity that does not exist.”

So when I saw this blog post from the Washington State Bar Assn on a new ordinance in King County (which includes Seattle), I thought the writers among you would be interested — readers, too, but for different reasons. The ordinance requires police to connect any youth under 18 with a public defender before questioning or searching them, except in emergencies where police “reasonably believe the information sought is necessary to protect someone’s life from an imminent threat and the questioning is limited to that purpose.” The post, by a public defender, summarizes the problem, including statistics, and the tragic shooting that led to the ordinance. Kids’ brains aren’t fully developed yet. They often lack the judgment or experience needed to handle difficult situations. They don’t always react the way adults think they should – and it’s up to us as adults and as a society to remember that.

This may already be the law in your story state – although I am a member of both the WA and MT bars, I live and practice in MT, where law enforcement has long been prohibited from interrogating anyone 16 or younger without an attorney, parent, or guardian present. Even so, we need to remember as both citizens and writers that it doesn’t always work that way.

Wednesdays are for Writing

I’ve been sharing thoughts about writing on my Facebook page recently, and thought I should share them here, too. I hope they hit the spot!

My desk

Writing Wednesday. You said you liked my weekly comments on some aspect of writing that I’m dealing with at the moment, so I’ll try to share them more consistently.

Several years ago, I attended a Don Maass Break-Out Novel Intensive workshop — which I highly recommend, by the way. He suggested “emotional research,” a phrase I’d never heard but instantly knew was critical for me. I was writing Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, with a main character who was 32 but lost her father in a hit-and-run at 17. My father died when I was 30, so not at all the same. I sat down with a notebook and hand-wrote everything I remembered from observing friends who’d lost a parent when they were in their teens or early 20s. (Handwriting is best b/c of the direct emotional connection it evokes.) I consulted online guides for teachers and counselors on working with students or young clients who had lost a parent. I quizzed a classmate who had two teenagers. And at the end, I was able to see quite clearly not only how Erin would have responded, but how her friend Kim would have responded — creating a central conflict that carried through the first three books in the series and made both women deeper and, I think, more relatable.

Today, I’m doing something similar with my killer. Not that I’m consulting actual killers among my friends, mind you 🙂 but I’m looking at news accounts, books, reports, and articles to help me better understand the motivation, the drive, that led this person to believe murder was the only choice, the right response, to a situation. And I’m following the lead of a once-famous criminal defendant and free-writing my killer’s “If I did it” confession, by hand, using his/her favorite pen.

My desk