Happy Sunday folks! I hope you’re enjoying whatever it is you do on Sunday morning. Me, I wish I could say I’m sleeping in and enjoying a nice snuggle. But, to quote my mom (who was quoting someone else): There’s no rest for the wicked and the righteous doesn’t need any. In her scenario, I’m not sure if I’m wicked or righteous, but either way,
I’m not resting. No worries. I’m not having a Pulp Fiction-esque existential crisis. I’m just pointing out that, Sunday or not, I’m a busy busy woman with busy woman things to do. 🙂
You know who else is a busy woman? S.M. Harding! Nonetheless, she found time to drop in and chat with us about the demands her characters make on her and the lengths she’s willing to go in order to please them.
Also, because she’s that kind of badass, she’s giving away two copies of I Will Meet You There. Yeah, you want in on that. To enter, drop a comment in the space below. I’ll pick the winners next Saturday, 9/12.
Two Characters in Search of a Writer
by S.M. Harding
When I teach writing classes, I usually begin by saying the writer serves the story. Which means we also serve the characters who populate this invisible world. “Value the characters who pop up on the page by listening to what they have to say and not mistaking them for chess pieces,” I say. I try my best to follow my own advice.
I’d been writing a series of related short stories for three or four years about a fictional area in southern Indiana, McCrumb County. I was comfortable with the cast, sure that I knew them well. Headed by Sarah Barrow Pitt, a third-generation sheriff, most of them were involved in law enforcement. I did detect a low hum of loneliness from Sarah, but assumed it was because her husband Hugh, a state trooper, had been murdered fifteen years before. Sarah didn’t want to talk about it. Or think about it. Her badge provided a haven of neutrality, distance and emotional invulnerability that she wasn’t about to abandon.
When Colonel Winifred Kirkland, USMC retired, walked onto the page in “A Matter of Security,” I sat up straight and paid attention. Win was a complicated woman who’d grown up with Sarah, but hadn’t really kept in touch since she’d joined the Corps. Why, I wanted to know, had she returned home? And why had she retired? In that first story, Win was as elusive as Sarah on her worst days. All I could sense was that something dark had happened and Win was trying to heal from it.
The thing is, if you try to push your characters for quick answers, they can run screaming into the ether, never to be seen again. So, I sat them down and asked for more of their backstories, being sure to say please. Win stood up. “Need-to-know basis only. Write us and we’ll tell you more—when it’s the right time.”
“Quit with the short stories,” Sarah said. “I want something bigger, more full of human possibilities.”
“Add ‘shinier’ and you’d sound like the unsinkable Molly Brown,” Win said as she left.
Sarah scowled at Win’s back and then turned to me. “You don’t know my story because all I ever do is solve crimes. I want a life. I’m novel-worthy.”
“A novel? Are you sure?”
“It’s time,” she said as she faded into the background sounds.
Great—characters who wanted me to trust them implicitly, without a clue about the story. I took a deep breath and said okay. I mean, if you can’t trust your own characters, who can you trust?
At this point, you’re probably thinking, this writer is batshit crazy. Probably true, but I’m in good company. “Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called ‘mad’ and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called ‘writers’ and they pretty much the same thing.” Who am I quoting? Ray Bradbury. Since I’m in such good company, bring on the straightjacket.
So anyway, I took a deep breath and began a novel completely blind to where I was going. My first surprise came with the first chapter: Sarah was speaking in first person, something she had never done before. I decided to go with the flow, figuring I could rewrite in a third person narrative.
The second big surprise wiped me out: Win was speaking in first person too. “Ladies, get your acts together—this is never going to work. One of you is going to have to speak in third person or readers won’t be able to tell you apart.”
I thought I heard a faint response. “Trust us to figure it out and keep writing.”
I didn’t take a deep breath—I did twenty minutes of deep breathing. Months later, I ended up with a novel with two first person narrators, I Will Meet You There.
My advice for struggling writers? First, ascertain whether the voices you’re hearing are characters bringing you a story or random echoes from the universe. If they’re characters bearing a gift, say thank you and listen carefully. Honor them with your trust.
I’ve long valued an Arapaho saying that Margaret Coel quoted. “…there are only so many stories in the universe and from time to time, the stories allow themselves to be told. And when they do, they choose the teller.”
Yep, full agreement here. As a photographer, I learned to get “in the zone,” both in the field when my finger hit the shutter and later in the darkroom. To me, that’s always meant knowing all the technical stuff so well, I didn’t have to think about it. I had to relearn that when I started writing fiction. If you want to write, master the basic toolbox—then sit back and listen for what story and which characters will tell it to you. This doesn’t mean twiddling your fingers, playing computer games or binge-watching Netflix. You can only keep filling the toolbox by writing.
And in the meantime, I hope you enjoy my delusions, Sarah and Win.
S. M. Harding has had over thirty short stories published in various online and print anthologies and magazines. Two of the most recent include “A Winter Story” in Wicked Things and “Spirit of Christmas Past, Christmas Future” in Unwrap these Presents, both from Ylva Publishing. She teaches classes at the Writers’ Center of Indiana and participated in panels for their annual Gathering of Writers, also at Indy Author’s Fair, Magna Cum Murder and various local libraries. She edited and contributed an essay to Writing Murder, a collection of essays by Midwestern
Visit her online at smharding.webs.com authors about writing crime fiction.