Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Writer’s Downtime

I didn’t write this weekend. But I did help Liz at her final craft show of the year. The SOWA Holiday Market. But it doesn’t mean I wasn’t furthering my writing. I sat behind her table of beautiful handmade items and watched people. People-watching is a great way to help build a stable of characters and character traits. What do real soccer mom’s look like? (Thin, harried, sandy blond hair, worn down.) What kind of hats do twenty-something city-dwelling women wear in the winter? (Tie beanies, Berets, Cabbie caps.) What kind of lipstick do grandma’s wear when they’re out of the house? (Vivid red, thick. Or none at all.)

We were set up next to a woman who sold hats and head bands with feathers on them. All weekend women tried on these items and primped in mirrors. I realized as I watched this very feminine process, that I was witnessing actions usually only saved for intimates. That is, seeing a woman prepare in the mirror is an intimate act, her behavior a delicate display of hair teasing, with subtle head and shoulder canting as she presents herself in the best light to see if she looks good in a hat. Or a head band with flowers. You’d be amazed at how many women want a head band with flowers. These are all details I saw and had the opportunity to write down, or commit to my data base memory of character details to call upon during my writing.

There was also opportunity to collect dialogue by overhearing snippets of conversations. I learned that people who knit are patient. I heard one end of a cell phone conversation: A young man repeatedly told the phone that he couldn’t do it today. Maybe tomorrow, but definitely not today. If he had known ahead of time, maybe.

I saw how parents dealt with children. Some parents hold strong command over their child’s every move. Some make deals to try to keep them satisfied, striking compromises and promises. One of my jobs was to block access to my wife’s wares from clawing, sticky children. At one point I saw a six year old boy break away from his family and run toward our table. Unbound, he aimed for one of Liz’s high-end necklaces. She interrupted the boy’s momentum by saying, in a friendly but firm manner, “Hi, I made all those beads!” The boy stopped, looked up, and realized he was being watched. The fun was over and he withered under our attention, giving his mother enough time to track him and pull him away.

What else does this ‘downtime’ do for a writer? Well, now I can set a story in the cutthroat world of craft shows. I’ve learned about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. The backstabbing and competition between vendors. The heartbreak of making shitty money or the rejoicing at breaking records and selling all but two cupcake pincushions. I’m already considering storylines starring some of the characters I met this weekend.

There’s that young woman with black rimmed glasses and the stylishly sloppy hair that stayed in any position she prodded it into. Maybe she’s a vendor who sells stuffed dogs and she’s kicked up a fierce competition with the older vendor who wears thick red lipstick, whose specialty is stuffed cats. Maybe these two women join forces against the vendor who needle felts replicas of human fetuses. Maybe, as it turns out, the baby fetus vendor is sleeping with the stuffed dog vendor’s husband. If I don’t want to keep the craft show milieu, then I can transplant my characters. How about the woman who looks just like a Kennedy? Take her out of the Holiday Market location and move her down the street to the Pine Street Inn shelter where she’s mistaken for a lost Kennedy granddaughter. Hilarity ensues. Maybe tragedy. Depends on my mood.

The craft show is two days and one evening. It’s a busy show and Liz does well. I help by being her support system. I bag merch and fold receipts and make change. By Sunday the buyers dwindle. Maybe everybody’s at Mass. Or sleeping in. Or walking their dogs. Maybe I could write a story that takes place on a cold December Sunday morning. Two weeks before Christmas. The lonely crafter oversleeps, and wakes alone. Then he harnesses up his two adorable terriers and walks them down the block. To Mass. After that, he’ll hit the craft fair to buy Christmas gifts. Hmm. Needs work.

Late Sunday afternoon and I’ve put away my notebook in preparation to pack up Liz’s booth. Swooping past our booth on her way to check out the human baby fetuses I spot Ms. X, my erstwhile Grub Street instructor. I shout her name, Ms. X. Ms. X come back! She hears me and doubles back. We’re pleasantly surprised to run into each other at such a non-writerish event. It’s good to see a walking talking working writer outside of her writing nook (I’ve never been to Ms. X’s house, but don’t all writers have nooks they write in?). She says she’s taking a day off. I know Ms. X is busy working on her second novel (she’s got a crazy Spring 2009 deadline) so I don’t ask her how her writing’s going. None of my business. She checks out Liz’s wonderful stuff. Then she asks me how my writing’s going. It throws me, this question. I stammer, “Um. Gosh. Well, I’m working on some short pieces.” And it’s true, that. But what I don’t get around to telling her is: I have some new characters in mind and some hot dialogue and some topical character descriptions. And maybe a couple new storylines to try out. All because of a little writer’s downtime.


Candace said...

Love, love, love this post. Your perspective is so interesting.

Robin said...

Dell -- some interesting character studies! I have never heard of anyone felting in the shape of human fetuses. There is a world of possibility in the mystery/intrigue of the craft fair world. If only you can tap it ...

Liz's Mom said...

A truly classic blog post.
This is just delightful, elegant, and it made me laugh out loud. I know the short-cut letters, but maybe it is tacky for a granny to write OMG, LOL.
( BTW, no lipstick for me.)

Dell Smith said...

Candace: I have to put my non-crafty side to use somehow.
Robin: Yes, you never know where you might find intrigue and mystery.
Liz's Mom: If I can make one grandma laugh, then I've done my job.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Great post! Observing people in their everyday lives is the one of the most important aspects of being a fiction writer. We need our characters to read as if they are living breathing people. :)