Are you going to make me a character in your book?
When people discover you’re a writer, there are a lot of reactions:
Have I read you?
Should I know you?
Are you going to make me a character in your book? The answer: No. You’re not interesting enough.
I know somewhere in this world exists that person who is interesting enough, but I’ve never met him/her. On the other hand, everyone has bits and pieces of their life that are fascinating, which takes us to one of the lesser exalted tools of a writer: listening. When you listen, you hear stories and details that bring your manuscript to life.
My father-in-law is 96 years old. Tom was born in the Idaho mountains and lived through the Great Depression. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the navy, worked on airplanes and PBYs (amphibious planes) as an electronic technician. After the war he returned to Idaho, worked in the woods as a logger and firefighter, got married, raised three baby boomers and ended his career as a grader in a sawmill. It took three men to replace him when he retired. In his later years, he golfed five days a week, including in the winter…
Him: “I don’t golf when it gets below 17 degrees; I get cold.”
Me: *eye roll*
…and at 87 he got his first hole-in-one. Since he quit golfing, he goes to the gym three days a week. He also reads voraciously.
What I’m trying to say is—Tom’s life experiences are very different from mine.
Now if you have elderly relatives you know that you’re going to hear the same stories over and over. My husband and I have been married since the earth’s crust cooled, so I’ve been listening to Tom for a lot of years.
When I was writing my novel Strangers She Knows, the Di Luca family—father, mother and daughter—are in exile on an isolated island off the coast of California, hiding from a vicious serial killer. I wanted a project for them, something the whole family could do together in difficult circumstances.
The solution: for twenty-five years my father-in-law owned a goldenrod yellow 1955 Ford F100 pickup with a straight 6-cylinder engine. Ford F100s are coveted among car lovers and legendary for being easy to work on. My father-in-law never paid anybody to do anything he could do himself; he did all his own car repairs and maintenance and taught his sons, too.
So guess what the Di Lucas found in an old garage on their California island? A goldenrod yellow 1955 Ford F100 pickup with a straight 6-cylinder engine. What a coincidence! Another coincidence—Max Di Luca had wanted for years to rebuild an F100.
While my husband was visiting his dad, I was home writing and constantly on the phone with them. “What’s going to cause the most trouble with rebuilding an F100?” (Carburetor.) “What would you do if you didn’t have replacement spark plugs?” (Clean them and be careful with the spark-plug wires.) I learned that a man can stand inside the engine compartment; it’s easier with a V6, more of a squeeze with a straight 6.
Remember how I said my life experiences were different than Tom’s? That’s putting it mildly. I’m the third of three daughters. My father died before I was born. My sisters were older. At the time I should have been hanging around with my dad while he worked on cars and fixed stuff around the house, I had my nose in a book. When it comes to car matters, it would be hard for you to find someone more incompetent than I. Which led to conversations like this:
Husband: “Two beams run the length of the pickup, and the masherbumbles connect at the whipdoodles. When the engine wingles snarfle the fiskpopers—”
Me: “You know I’ve never in my life been under a vehicle, right?”
Him: “Okay.” *speaks slowly/uses little words* “There. Are. Two. Beams. That. Run. The. Length. Of. The. Pickup…”
Yes, I did research, but given my level of incompetence, what I needed was that hands-on knowledge and the kind of patience you get from two men who know you, love you and are willing to go out of their way to help you. You’re never going to ask me to fix your car. At least I’d advise against it. But the knowledge and the tidbits my husband and father-in-law gave me lend verisimilitude to the story, and a writer only gleans those nuggets by listening.
As a comment on life experiences, I’ve also learned that listening is not only a skill you can use to build a story. You can also use it to build a relationship. You can also cement a friendship. You can give someone who needs to talk a few moments of your precious time. Listening is a gift; use it.
I don’t know if you’re listening or not, but I mean this with all my heart—may your masherbumbles always connect at your whipdoodles.
New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd writes “Edge-of-the-seat suspense.” (—Iris Johansen) and her books have been called “Scary, sexy, and smartly written” by Booklist. Much to her mother’s delight, Dodd was once a clue in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle. With more than 15 million copies of her books in print, Dodd’s fans know that when they pick one up they’ve found, as Karen Robards writes, “an absolute thrill ride of a book!” To learn more about the Cape Charade series starring kick-ass heroine Kellen Adams, and to join Christina’s mailing list, visit christinadodd.com. (And yes, she’s the proud author of the book with the infamous three-armed cover.)