Try It . . . You’ll Like It!

by Claudia Cangilla McAdam

I would hate for anyone to actually watch me while I write.

If a writer really wants to accurately and effectively express the things her characters do and feel, then she has to get into her characters’ shoes. For me, that can mean acting out a gesture or a facial expression, to see how it works in a particular scene.

For example, if my character is surprised, I will pretend that I am surprised, and therefore, I’ll react as my character might and observe the results: my eyebrows arch, my eyes widen, my jaw drops as my mouth forms an “O”. If she’s going to cry, I’ll do the same, noting how the tears run, what they taste like, what my face looks like during and after. (Not a pretty picture, believe me.)

When a scene calls for a character to do something physical, I’ll do my best to replicate the motion. Now, mind you, if that character is going to be hit by a bus, I’m going to just have to use my imagination to describe what that feels like.

Frequently I find that something I experience in my life works its way into what I’m writing. Here’s an example: I’m currently at work on a book of Biblical historical fiction, a follow-up to my novel AWAKENING. The story is set in first-century Jerusalem. Last summer, I read of an interesting archeological discovery there. Excavated from Jerusalem’s main drainage channel was a rare gold bell, about one centimeter in diameter, with a small loop at its end. It dates back 2,000 years, and it must have been sewn on a garment as an adornment. I tucked the bit of information away, not knowing how I could use it in my book, but knowing that I would.

Weeks later, I was cleaning up a three-year-old’s toys including small metal balls that roll along an intricate track. They are about the size of the ancient gold bell. One of these metal balls was on the carpet, and I picked it up with my bare toes. An idea began to germinate. What if my main character comes across this golden bell in Jerusalem just moments after it has popped from the wearer’s clothing? If she slips out of her sandal, she could surreptitiously pick up this valuable bauble with her toes. Excellent!

But how could I describe to my readers the size of this gold bell? I could say it was about as big as a marble. But wait. Did marbles exist in the Middle East 2,000 years ago? A bit of research told me they did. But would my readers know that? Would my identifying the bell with a marble cause them to pause and ask the question I did? Would it pull them out of the story?

To avoid that possibility, I decided to come up with something else—something from nature—that I could compare to the size of the bell.

I keep on my desk a jar of acorns. (The reason for that is another post altogether.) A small one is about the size of the trinket. That could work. Could my main character pick up an acorn with her toes? Only one way to find out. I stripped off my shoe and sock, tossed the acorn to the carpet, and proceeded to secure it under my toes and take a few steps (as my character in the story will do with the gold bell) to see if it was possible. It was.

Granted, anyone watching my little experiment would surely wonder what on earth I was doing. But I found the experiment extremely helpful. My advice to writers who aren’t sure if their characters could actually DO what they propose they do (or if they want to write about it with greater accuracy): Try it . . . if it’s reasonable to do so. You may find out you like getting into your characters’ shoes . . . or sandals. Or, as in my case, out of them.

 

 

5 Comments

  1. I’ve done my share of conversations at my desk (and in the shower)! One quick thought, though. I don’t think you’ll find many acorns in Jerusalem. Even though it’s just a comparison, having lived in the Middle East, mentioning acorns will suggest to me that you either don’t know the local flora, or don’t have the attention to detail that you clearly do. There is a kind of acorn tree that grows in the Mediterranean area, but the actual acorn is much longer (and bigger) than the one we’re familiar with, and doesn’t tend to grow on the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. An easier (?) fix might be, since you’ve ascertained there are marbles, to let the character notice kids playing with marbles in passing. This will establish for the reader that marbles were around. And playing marbles in the street can’t be beat. Hope this is helpful, and best of luck!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insights. I’ll certainly keep them in mind as I pull together this scene.

      Reply
  2. This is a great post, Claudia! What a great way to more accurately describe someone’s expresions/actions. I often say bits of dialogue out loud to see if the rhythm sounds right, or if this is really something someone would say. But I love the idea of acting out emotions.

    And the story of the gold bell is really intriguing. Those what ifs make for great storytelling. Can’t wait to read the sequel.

    Reply
  3. Hm. Maybe the facial expressions (I do them involuntarily) are why I have so much room around me at the neighborhood coffeehouse.

    I can picture your character with that small bell clutched in her toes so clearly!

    Reply
  4. Claudia,
    Wish I was a fly on your wall. Great ideas. I never thought of actually acting out a physical action. Great way to tap into realistic descriptions.

    Reply

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