by Michael Dymmoch
Tuesday morning my vet called to see if the cat I’d brought in a week earlier was over her “problem.” Problem was she’d decided to mark her territory on my couch—something that’s led to homelessness for many indoor animals. I hadn’t noticed any untoward odors since I stripped the couch and trashed the cushion, so I blithely assured the doctor everything was fine.
An hour later I discovered the problem wasn’t fixed—I just hadn’t “looked” closely enough.
By the time I got the couch cover in the wash and the underlying plastic sheet wiped down and re-covered, I had fifteen minutes to get the tech trash to the recycling center—a whole back seat full of it. But I had to stop at the Salvation Army first because there was a donated baby stroller on top of all the old electronics…
And while I was out, I really needed to save a trip by stopping at the grocery store for eggs and the hardware store for a cat trainer (that’s the plastic rug-runner with teeth too close together for a cat to step between them) and at the pet supply for some more of that stuff that’s supposed to neutralize odors…
By the time I got home, I was fit to be tied because three hours had passed and I hadn’t even started on my list of URGENT THINGS TO DO TODAY.
But this is a writer’s blog. So why should anyone care how my non-writing day went?
Because I use all this aggravation to drive my writing. What we as writers are supposed to do is put our heroes in hot water and turn up the heat. Pressure in the cooker can come from a flame-thrower, or from a lot of little fires that all have to be put out RIGHT NOW. It’s easier to describe something you actually feel. The rage that nearly overwhelms you when some idiot cuts you off in traffic is biochemically akin to what you’d feel if someone shot your buddy, just not so intense. So you describe the feeling and extrapolate to show your heroine’s rage when the bad guy slashes her tires or kidnaps her dog. The dismay you feel when your formerly well mannered cat starts— is only slightly less intense than the anguish your hero feels when his sidekick falls off the wagon. And—you get the idea. The worse your day, the more emotions for your story.
Although my day wasn’t thrilling, a simplified outline could be used for a thriller:
Everything seemed to be going well…
When I discovered that…
Meanwhile the clock was ticking…
And then, just to complicate things,….
And, “Oh shit! I forgot” (“Had I but known…”)
Then I got home and discovered that in the heat of the crisis I’d forgotten….
And we all lived happily until the sequel.
You can do this with almost any loss or irritation. Phone calls to businesses are a HUGE nuisance—it’s almost impossible to get a real person and if you do mange to get a living, breathing human being, it’s probable that he/she doesn’t have a clue about how to help. But not to worry. Be patient. Take notes. You might get a story out of it, or—for your next murder—a victim who has so many enemies the police will never narrow down the suspect list. (Or you might at least have the subject for a blog) For example, I recently discovered (while stumbling through a phone maze) that all you need to get the balance and credit limit for certain credit cards is the credit holder’s card number and zip code.
And did you know that you can cancel certain (someone else’s) insurance policies if you know the insured’s home phone number and DOB? (Wanna make granddad kick the bucket? Just cancel his credit cards and his insurance—he’ll die waiting to see a doctor in the county hospital ER. Or he’ll have a heart attack trying to straighten out his finances.)
In character driven novels family pressures can add to the protagonist’s headaches. In Homicide 69, a Chicago detective has a son fighting in Vietnam to distract him from solving a murder. Sam Reaves puts his hero in a tight spot, then squeezes. In Jamie Freveletti’s debut novel, Running From the Devil, her heroine starts out in a plane crash. Then things get worse. Just what good writers are supposed to do.
So next time you’re having a bad day, grab a pen and paper (or your laptop or recorder) and get the feeling down. You may even discover, as you struggle to capture your dismay or fear or irritation in a way that makes your reader feel it too, you’ll forget all about the event that upset or scared or pissed you off.