Friday, April 16, 2010


My fifth-grade Home Economics teacher was a lady in the true sense of the word, and she was bound and determined to make ladies from the gangly class of muffin-baking, apron-sewing, boy-crazy mid-pubescent girls assigned to her tutelage. I discovered how determined she was when her yardstick came crashing down upon my head for violating sacred rule number six of her classroom commandments--LADIES DO NOT CHEW GUM! I pondered the possibility of utilizing the useful info gleaned during the morning's Social Studies lesson on the American Civil Liberties Union as I nursed my wounded ego and rubbed my knotted head.

Yes, she whacked me--hard. Times were different back then. I was humiliated, but while I would have loved to have seen the snippy old wombat face a tribunal of my peers, I think I got the last laugh from that experience. She is now a series of entries in my little book of characters. I don't remember her name, or even what she looked like, but I remember her attitude, and I especially remember how she made me feel. Now, when I want to create a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child-natured, overbearing matron, I think back on the day I was pummeled while sitting at my Singer, sewing a yellow, flowered apron, and I can not only recreate such a woman, I can see and feel the emotional tsunami she unleashed on her class with a wave of her mighty yardstick.

It's all good now. In fact, perhaps such strong characters are why I love character-driven stories and why I love studying people--their physical characteristics, their accents, their gaits and body movements. I love the myriad ways people will respond to the the same dilemma or situation. I marvel that some peoples' faces are like motion picture screens where every emotion plays out candidly and others are like locked boxes displaying nothing to the public.

I enjoy the different ways people laugh, sit, smile and flirt. And I enjoy studying the way they manage stress. Some people pace, some eat, some chew their nails, holler, seclude themselves or become manic and crazy. People watching is amazing.

Good moments and bad moments are all learning moments for a writer. Here's a good exercise for a budding author. Pick a person and study them from afar for a few minutes, then write phrases describing everything you've observed--their dress, their actions, their physical characteristics, the way they move. . . Then imagine how they'd respond in different situations. What might have caused those situations? See? Now you're writing a story.

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