McWhat?!?

Faced with the daunting task of raising thousands of dollars to take five kids to the Forensics National Tournament in Indianapolis this summer, I have spent the last several weeks enconsced in fundraising activities such as sending kids out in their professional business attire to solicit (beg) for donations, running concession stands, and supporting parents who held a giant yard sale – all typical fundraising activities.

Then I got a phone call and found out my team and I had been volunteered to join forces with another team and head up the first ever McTeacher’s night in our town.

“You signed us up for what?!? I asked.

“Working at McDonalds!!” my former friend answered a little too gleefully. “We make 20% of all total sales for the time we work. It’s a great fundraiser!”

I spent my entire day yesterday dreading my shift. I put myself through college waiting tables, and to be totally honest, I was NOT looking forward to returning to the food service industry. But I gotta tell you, working the drive thru is fun despite the fact that I kept getting in trouble because I slowed down the line.  I ended up knowing way too many drive thru customers and I had to at least say hi! It’s a small town.

Did you know drive thru’s have a timer that tracks the average number of seconds it takes to get a vehicle through? I had no idea.  I didn’t do much to help the crew’s averages, in fact, I probably would have gotten fired for being a bit too chatty.

But I did get to say hi to our vet, a gal from my husband’s office, a teacher I used to work with, two teachers I currently work with, former and current students, you get the picture. I even handed one of them my phone to take this shot which severely impacted our times, but we had a good laugh – people were not expecting to see me in the drive thru!

I finally got banned from hitting the little button that said we were done with an order because I hit it too early one time and deleted the order before it was served – oops! Thankfully the customer had her receipt, so the non-McTeachers could still fill her order.

I did some fascinating people watching which is a fun exercise in terms of character development. I never would have considered the drive thru as a good people watching place – who knew? You get to see inside people’s cars which is like a little window into their world.  The best (or worst) was the lady (thankfully in the passenger seat) who had clearly just left a casino and had her cigarette and cocktail in hand.  Apparently she needed some nuggets to go with her drink. I think I’d agree that a drink could definitely make them go down a little easier.

There was the angry grandma who was not so happy to get her “happy” meals for the also not so happy grandkids in the back seat. Another family had their dog in the bed of their truck. It was his first time ever to experience a drive thru, so we had to share a moment together. He was pretty excited about the whole experience.

You could also tell the weather has been nice by the somewhat shocking number of men who were beet red sunburned.  Apparently they don’t keep sun screen in their trucks, but I was surprised to find that a ton of people keep cigarettes in their vehicles! I clearly live in a secluded tobacco-free high school world because I had no idea how many people smoke in their cars. My 17 year old supervisor assured me that actually most people do in fact smoke in their cars and her wealth of experience in drive thru’s has provided solid evidence for reaching that conclusion.

The only bad part of the experience was that it reminded me of my age. The drive thru people are in charge of filling the drinks.  This is fine but the screen that shows all the drinks is way up high which means we had to crank our necks all the way back to see it. Then, being just a wee bit competitive I kept having to look at the little second counter to see how we were doing which seriously crinked my neck.

Unfortunately, McTeacher Night might end up with McChiropractor afternoon.

The Hero Cycle #2 – The Initiation

When we think of “initiations,” we often think of drinking rituals or hazing type situations which somehow solidify a group. In terms of the Hero Cycle, or Hero’s Journey, the “Initiation” is the second major stage. I wrote about the first stage, “The Departure,” here, if you’re interested. This archetypal pattern appears in contemporary fiction, mythology, and film, and as a writer, its useful to understand in terms of plot and character development.

“The Initiation” is also made up of three stages: Challenges and Temptations, The Abyss, and The Transformation. The first two of these stages are pretty self-explanatory. This is the part of the hero’s journey where he is tested to see if he’s really truly a hero.  The first, challenges and temptations, include all of the smaller disasters and problems the hero must overcome. They test him.

In contemporary fiction, we think of these as all the disasters that just make the hero’s situation worse. If you look at a story like The Hunger Games, Katniss follows the hero cycle. She hears the call when her sister’s name is drawn and steps through the threshold when she accepts the challenge in her sister’s place.  Her “helper” would be Haymitch, whom she doubts.  Her journey to the Capital, her struggle to deal with this new world, proving herself in front of the judges, and trying to figure out how to deal with Peeta make up her challenges and temptations.  Because she successfully navigates these, she enters the second stage of “The Initiation,” the abyss.

The abyss is the ultimate challenge. It is where the hero goes through a metaphorical death and re-birth. For Katniss, this is the arena where she must both survive and keep Peeta alive. Her worst moment is when Rue dies, and it is here where she decides that Peeta will not die either. She becomes a hero and begins to engage in the action instead of just trying to hide from it.

The final step of “The Initiation” is the transformation. This is when the hero and the world see the hero as just that, a hero. For Katniss, this begins to happen when she recieves the salve from her sponsors. People start to view her as a hero which helps her to view herself as such. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, she’s a bit of a reluctant hero, and she doesn’t like the whole idea of being a hero despite the fact that she has transformed into one.

Through this stage, she has undergone her Initiation and become a full-fledged hero. The hero’s final stage is the Return which I will write about next week.

If my characters keep dying, does that make me a serial killer?

A week ago it happened.  It was happily writing along.  One character was telling a story about a situation to another character.  I thought I knew what happened.  I was writing it after all, but then, when the character finished telling the story, he let it slip that not just one, but TWO other characters had died. I had absolutely no idea this was coming; he just spit it out.

I actually teared up as I was writing it, but I couldn’t change it.  It had to happen that way even though I didn’t realize it until it actually happened.  It worked with every part of the story and added a whole new level of emotional trauma for the main character who had been listening to this depressing saga.  While I hate drama and guilt in my life, they’re good for characters to deal with; it just makes everything a little bit, or even a lot, worse which ultimately makes a story more interesting.

When I started this whole process, I thought that maybe one character would die and only if they absolutely had to.  I don’t like death . . . at all, but apparently, murder is becoming my forte.  Several more of my characters have managed to, well . . . pass on, and I’m not even writing a thriller.  Nope. It’s historical fiction, and I’ve learned through research that staying alive in the 1840’s was hard work. In fact, I seriously question if I could have suvived the Oregon Trail and lived to the ripe old age of 42 which I am now. My great-great-great-grandmother survived it with seven children, the smallest of whom was just one, and I have the utmost respect for her and every other woman who managed the trip.

People, especially kids, died frequently on the trail.  Wagons ran over small children who fell or jumped from them as they bumped across the land, guns accidently went off, men drowned trying to get their cattle across rivers, cholera and other diseases took people by the thousands, and criminals were hung.  I think the worse part of all of this death would be getting back into the wagon and leaving the grave site of a loved one, especially a child, out there in the middle of nowhere.

In almost every diary I’ve read, there is mention of the number of graves sites passed. Many people would count the graves and keep a tally as to how many they saw in a day which I find a little odd.  I guess its a testament to not only the way of life, but also how boring the trip would be.  I whine if I can’t get a good radio station after twenty minutes of a road trip or if one of my electronic devices runs out of battery, so I can imagine that if I had to walk 2000+ miles over a six month period with no radio, tv, or (God forbid) iphone, I’d probably find whatever thing I could to entertain myself as well.

Apparently all this tragedy I have read about in my research sunk into my brain which decided (without consulting me) that a few more characters had to die to make this story real. Thankfully (or maybe not), my brain is a compost pile which takes all the random facts I discover, heats them up, turns them over, and then refurbishes them as parts of my story.  It would just be nice if my brain could prepare me for the tragedy it cooks up when I’m not paying attention. I’d like to have a little time to prepare.

Getting Characters to Come and Play . . . or Not

I’ve been waiting for someone.  This is not someone I know, but someone I want to get to know.  Actually, she’s a character.  I didn’t realize she was a somewhat major character until last week when her role in my story grew.  Now, I need to get to know her in order to move on, but apparently she’s not nearly as interested in getting to know me as I am in getting to know her.

All week, I’ve been asking myself: what kind of person is she?  What is her name?  Her job?  Her ambitions?  All those things I ask myself as I develop a character, and so far, I’ve gotten nothing.

I almost feel like she’s not quite ready to introduce herself, which is an odd feeling.  Is it me?  Have I done something?  Is it possible to inadvertently offend or intimidate a character who lives in my head?

I realize I sound crazy right now.  I feel a little crazy.

I had big plans for writing this weekend.  It didn’t happen, and I’m starting to blame this character.  To be honest, it’s starting to piss me off.  I want to yell at her, explain that I have a novel to write and a busy life.  My weekends are important for making progress, and it’s all her fault that I’m unable to work on it right now.  This is not a good start to our relationship, unless, of course, for some reason, I’m supposed to not like her much, or she enjoys creating drama.  Maybe that’s it.

I’ve tried all my strategies to jump start my creativity:  running, reading fiction, reading “writing” books, quilting, quieting myself and listening, asking for help right before I go to sleep so my subconscious can work on it while I sleep, wine.  Nothing.

Apparently, I just have to be patient which is not my strong suit, but I feel better already after this little temper tantrum on the page.

For some reason, she’s not ready to introduce herself to me.  I guess I’ll have to trust there’s a reason for that and just hope that this week, she’ll be ready to make a grand entrance.

Want to people watch? Hold a yard sale.

Last weekend, a friend and I got inspired to clean out our closets and garages and hold a yard sale.  We set up some tables on the driveway, loaded them up, priced all our goodies with little round neon stickers and were ready to go.

The morning was a study in people watching, not quite as good as a Nascar race (the ultimate place to people watch) but still pretty good, especially for a writer.

The first observation I made is that yard-salers drive like crap.  They’d fly up the road, slam on their brakes to drive by really slowly craning their necks out the window to check everything out from their car as if they could really see the cool fish shaped shower curtain rings all the way from the street.  This is worse than texting while driving.  They were not watching where they were going, and those who chose not to park missed out on some truly cool stuff.

Those who deemed the tables of treasures adequate for further perusal fell into five clear cut categories.

  • The Discerning Shopper – this person would question us on every item.  They would pick each treasure up, turn it over, and completely check it out.  One woman undressed every one of our daughters’ old baby dolls to make sure . . . well, I’m not sure what she was checking, but she didn’t dress the dolls that she didn’t buy back up.  We had to.  That was annoying.  Another guy opened up every single CD to make sure he wasn’t purchasing an empty case.  I wanted to tell him just to get an ipod but then I would’ve lost the sale, so I kept my mouth shut.
  • The Haggler – This person refused to pay full price, even on items marked .25¢.  One woman actually asked if I’d take a dime instead of a quarter.  I get that people are looking for bargains at yard sales but really?!?
  • The Browser – This person would circle the entire driveway checking out every item on every table.  Then they’d do it again . . . and again.  I’d ask if they were looking for something in particular.  They never were, but they’d usually circle one last time before leaving empty handed.
  • The Talker – The talkers came incognito as shoppers.  They acted like they wanted to shop, browsing away and slowing down when they got near our chairs.  As soon as one of us said, “good morning” their true nature emerged.  They were really there to talk.  Total strangers told us their life stories.  One man talked for over twenty minutes.  I can tell you his kids’ names, the breeds of each of his eight dogs, which ones are nice and which ones fight, why he needs a lawnmower, his job (he was a truck driver) etc. You get the idea.  Thankfully, we only had a handful of talkers.  They were the most exhausting of the bunch.
  • The Boss – These are the laziest of the yard sale people.  They sit in their air conditioned car and send out scouts, either their spouses or their kids.  The scouts then report back either by cell phone (even though the car would be parked, maybe, 30 feet away) or by actually walking all they way back to the car to let the Boss know what they had scouted out and if the sale was worthy of their presence.

Since I’ve started writing, I’ve found that I tend to people watch with a more discerning eye.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing.  For my writer self, it’s good for character development, but then I also find myself highly entertained by random details which makes me wonder if I’m being an “observant writer” or if I’m actually just overly judgmental and bitchy.

I think I’ll go with “observant writer.”

5 Reasons to Write a Character Sketch

1)      You get to have true schizophrenic moments and hear voices in your head without a need for medication or institutionalization.  Its odd how, when you begin to really develop a character, they talk to you.  I can literally see them in my mind’s eye, and we chat.  I write as fast as I can, ask them questions and see where it goes.  Sometimes, other characters will even pop in and clarify points.  Then, the schizophrenia can morph into multipersonality disorder and you can experience a smorgasbord of psychological disorders in one writing session – fun stuff.

2)      The characters sometimes know more about their world than you do.  They live there; you don’t, so they can fill you in on what its like for them.  There’s only so much research you can do before you need to just let go, listen to them, and write it out.

3)      Interesting things can pop out about your characters, which opens up all kinds of different plot possibilities.  Like teenagers, they need to find their own way and sometimes have some struggles that you hadn’t anticipated in order to get there, but you won’t know this unless you allow them to tell you.   You can create all the plot ideas you want, but if your characters disagree with your ideas, writing (at least mine) tends to come to a screeching, horrifying halt.  It’s much easier to let the characters direct the action, and it makes it more interesting as well.  For example, until I sketched another character, I had no idea she was an artist.  It just came up, and it really ties into everything about the novel.  It gives her a reason to be places I want her to be, do things I wanted her to do.  It also added quite a few different plot ideas that hadn’t even occurred to me.  I just had to listen for her to tell me that she loves to draw.  She solved a whole plethora of problems with that one statement.

4)      Some details may never, ever find their way into your book, but as you’re writing, you get to know all the juicy stuff that nobody else will ever know.  It’s like having the inside scoop, your own little People magazine on your characters.  You need to know all this stuff because your characters are much more interesting when they’re multi-dimensional, and a character sketch forces this.  As you start writing, without stopping, without editing or censoring, the character develops into a real person.  Even a villain, or antagonist, grew up somewhere, had a mother, had good things in his life.  It’s fun to figure out what those details are right along whatever motivates him to be the evil, nasty bugger that he is.  Or maybe he had a fabulous mom who adored him and he just enjoys being a condescending, entitled jerk.  I want to hear that story from him.

5)      Finally, on an organizational note, a character sketch forces you to write all about your characters in one place.  This is hugely helpful when you’re writing and you forget what color their eyes are, or what their favorite meal is, or if it is their left knee or their right knee that gives them trouble.  You have everything in one easy-to-reference place.  I spent a day last week compiling every random note I’d written about a main character into one file.  Not surprisingly, I had some inconsistencies and contradictions that I was able to work out.  Now, if I need to know something, I can easily reference my handy dandy character sketch file rather than sort through a stack of random notes, all of which are written on different sizes of paper and stuffed  . . . somewhere.  So far, I’ve got 6-8 pages per main character, and I imagine that when this book is all said and done, these sketches will be quite a bit longer.  They’ve taken a bit of time to put together, but it’s been well worth it.

Name Block

When I had my children, the first one had a name way before he got here; the second one took a little longer.  She was here, in our arms, for a few hours before she had a name.  Now, I’ve given birth to a slew of characters all of whom need names.  Most of them have names, and they seem to work, but naming them all of them is tough, much more difficult than naming my own children.  My main character has gone through three or four names.  Now she’s just ______________, literally.  Somehow, she has rejected all my ideas.

Juliet says, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Essentially, we can call a person or thing by any name, and it won’t change the essence of that person or thing.  I don’t disagree, but names definitely have differing connotations.  For example, to me a “Priscilla” would be, well, prissy, while someone named “Scarlet” would probably be a much more sexual character.   When I named my children, their names “fit” them, but they also “grew” into them.  Now I can’t imagine calling them anything else, well, okay that’s not entirely true (if you’re a parent of teens, you know what I’m saying).  But generally, their names “fit” them.

Now, I’ve created a character who is fully grown and developed.  I have a picture of her in my head; we’ve had conversations.  (That may sound crazy, but if you write, I think you understand what I mean.)  I know her strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, all kinds of interesting details about her life.  But I don’t know her NAME!!!  It’s driving me crazy.  I think the hard part is that her name has to fit her right away; she can’t “grow” into it like a baby does.  I have looked through books about the time period to help create a list of names.  I’ve looked at the etymology and meaning of different names. I’ve written about her using different names, but none seem just right.  And she’s not a newborn staring at me, waiting.  I’m stuck.  I have name block.