Getting into Character

Today I took a field trip to do a little research for one of my works in progress.

I didn’t go very far, I didn’t need to. I live in a small town on the coast of Maine: a town where many people know each other—if not by name then by sight.

In fact, a lot of times people know each other by car or by house, as in:

“Oh, I didn’t recognize you, did you get a new car?”
Or (when someone who you only just met needs to deliver something to your house and you start to give them directions) they say:
“Oh, I know where you live.” In that tone that makes you realize they know a lot more than just where you live.
Anyway, one of my WIPs is a mystery set in a small town on the coast of Maine. And one of the places I get fodder for this mystery is from the local weekly newspaper’s Police Beat. (I wrote about the Police Beat in another blog when someone was stealing branches from my apple tree; you can read that here.)
Back to today’s field trip. Here’s why I took it: I wanted to get inside the head of my WIP’s protagonist, Maggie. Yesterday when I picked up the local weekly paper, I turned first to the Police Beat (like always), and I found this:
A resident of West Elm Street contacted police to report there was a family of woodchucks living under the shed. Really? (I’m telling you, you can’t make this stuff up.) 
So, as I’m reading this, I’m thinking: what would compel someone to call the police about a family of woodchucks (purportedly living under their shed), knowing they well might end up in the police beat? Then, more importantly, what would someone, like my protagonist Maggie, do if she wanted to figure this out? In short, I made the kind of plan that Maggie might make.
This was my thinking as I set out on my field trip with my legal pad and pen in hand. I also took my iPhone (of course, I never go anywhere without that. I did not take my camera, I figured my iPhone would do in a pinch. We’re talking about a 1.3 mile stretch of road, right around the block from where I live, for cryingoutloud. I figured I could always book it home and get the camera if I needed it.

Oh, I drove, because did I mention that it’s raining, again? So instead of walking, I took the car, our “other car,” because MOD (My Outstanding Daughter) is home from college, and MOD always drives my car (a newer but still pretty old white station wagon) because it’s (a) safer and (b) more reliable. But this “other car” actually works out better because it’s a nondescript much-older blue sedan. No one would ever think I’d be driving it. (MEH (My Engineer Husband) used to drive it before he got his bike and bikes to work.)

Naturally, in MEH’s car, I know no one will recognize me (small town, they know me in my white station wagon). Which is probably good because I was driving somewhat slowly, somewhat erratically with my pen clenched in my fist so I could easily take notes on the legal pad next to me on the car seat.

Here was my plan: drive the length of the road (like I said, 1.3 miles) and look for all the sheds. But of course I didn’t know that it was 1.3 miles until I set the trip odometer, which took me three times around the block to figure out how to do. I’m sure that wasn’t conspicuous at all. Not with the pen clenched in my hand and fiddling with the car controls.

Oh, I forgot to mention that before I left home I texted MEH to let him know I was going out to investigate the woodchuck-shed incident. (Every good detective lets someone know where they’re going, just in case something goes horribly wrong. I know Maggie will always do this.)

Here’s what I wrote in my text to MEH:

“Toughie’s back; off to research woodchucks on West Elm Street”

(“Toughie” is a cat that has been hanging around our house way too much. Our dog is getting old, and apparently is not nearly scary enough to keep cats away. Toughie seems to have some developmental issues, tipped off by her unusual gait, perhaps hit by a car at some point in her life…she’s a really nice cat, but we’re not in the cat adoption market, and I’m afraid Toughie (with her issues and all) is confused and thinks she lives at our house…)

My handwriting is usually better than this
but I was driving at the time…

Anyway, after I finally figured out how and set the trip odometer, I set out. As I said, my plan was to count all the sheds—first on one side of the street then all the sheds on the other side of the street. I was hoping if there weren’t too many I could do a door-to-door search for whomever called the police. Then I could interview them. Because, I’m thinking, that’s what I’d have my protagonist do.

Better yet, I was hoping I (and more specifically my protagonist) would actually KNOW the person—as in recognize them from the house they lived in.

On the second side, the east side (again, weird, huh? the east side of West Elm Street. Go figure.) I counted five sheds. Now, I need to say, it’s pretty woodsy these days—trees really grow like weeds here in Maine in the summertime—and West Elm goes from pretty dense, town-style housing to less-dense more country-style housing (with a lot of weedy-woods) once you go by the high school. But I tried hard to look through the woods and miss none of the sheds.

I even pulled over twice to let cars pass me. It was still raining so there weren’t many people out (I passed two male and one female runners, one man with a huge big bushy black beard and a blue baseball cap, and a kid on a bike)—which made pulling over on the side of the road logistically possible without driving too erratically or recklessly.

In addition to the sheds, I was actively looking for woodchucks because I assume that even if the police and/or animal control captured the entire woodchuck family out from under that shed, there may be other woodchucks in town. (For the record, I saw no woodchucks. I did see a squirrel, two chipmunks, and two cats.)

I’m sorry to report that none of the sheds I saw were behind houses of people I know who live on West Elm Street. And I didn’t really have the guts to approach all eleven houses with sheds to ask the people if they had, in fact, been the person who called the police and appeared in the weekly Police Beat. (Maybe I would have had the guts if there were only a couple sheds. Maybe.)

So I’m also sorry to report that I didn’t solve the mystery of the woodchucks under the shed or even who called the police to report it. And I probably will never know who on West Elm Street doesn’t mind taking a chance of being in the Police Beat about a family of woodchucks (although I may find out when I least expect it—living in a small town and all). But doing the research, thinking like my protagonist (who really will have to talk to people if she wants to solve mysteries, for instance a murder), taking notes, and writing this blog post, have been extremely helpful in the writing process.

And that’s really all I have to report. Except that once again, the kooky lady of Orchard and Main streets got safely back into her house without herself making it into the Police Beat despite the reckless driving with a pen in her hand.

What kinds of research do you do for your WIPS? Do you ever try to walk in your characters’ shoes?

Cheers,
Julia

Comments

  1. Julia, even if you didn’t solve the woodchuck mystery, I’m sure you could envision your character knocking on those doors a little better after your trip. It’s so interesting to read about your process of getting into your character’s head. Can’t wait to hear about more adventures!

  2. Ann says:

    Hi Julia! You might not have solved the mystery….but what a GRAND adventure! I wish I was there with you – I’d’ve knocked on the doors for you…no one knows me there!

  3. Thank you for the Friday morning entertainment. I LOVE that you went detectiving (and find it uncanny, once again, that your protag shares the same name as the protag in my first novel AND that my Maggie is a bit of a sleuth as well… Actually, her obsession to uncover family secrets drives the whole plot). *cue Twilight music*

    At any rate, I can totally see how this was helpful research for you to put yourself in the shoes of your character. My research – tagging along with a rancher and helping with ranch activities – was hugely helpful to understanding my current protag in my WIP. I also spent time with a greenhouse expert/master gardener to better relate to my character and how she would react to various situations.

    The research part is SO MUCH fun, isn’t it? I have to know MEH’s reaction to your adventure. I think my hubby would have been worried about me getting into trouble. :-)

  4. Lisa Ahn says:

    Hi Julia,
    This is hilarious — I love the part where you are driving incognito, erratically, with pen clutched in hand. Good luck with the Maggie research!
    When I am figuring out my characters, I tend to just imaginatively project myself into their weird heads (since I am too afraid to knock on strangers’ doors). I also love to read historical neighborhood accounts for fuel.

  5. Jen, It was such fun imagining what I would do in my protagonist’s shoes. Truth be told, Maggie is a lot like me anyway — go figure — except she gets involved in a lot more WAY more dangerous stuff than I do! And she is apparently more fearless and less concerned about how she appears to friends and neighbors!

    Ann, Next time you’re in Maine, we’ll find something in the Police Beat that we can investigate together! I love the adventures that I seem to stumble on, as Maggie or myself!

    Melissa, Did you already tell me your first novel protag was Maggie? I didn’t remember that! I love the family secret idea — my daughter is reading a nonfiction book right now called Annie’s Secret, have you heard of it? (I love the name Annie, too — my protag in my OTHER novel!) Your novel sounds great! And your research of tagging along with a rancher sounds wonderful — MEH’s dad was a cowboy at one point, and I have a softspot for ranchers… I love the research you’ve done. Very cool! As for MEH? Most of the time, he’s a very willing participant! :)

    Lisa, Thanks and glad you thought it was funny — it was certainly great fun to research and write! :) Maggie and I get into way too much trouble (and consequently have way too much fun) together. She’s really not much help in the writing department, though…. she just doesn’t write herself! As you read, I too am afraid to knock on strangers’ doors, and like you, too, I love reading historical accounts — I’m good friends with the woman who used to be the town historical society director, too!

  6. LOL This is hilarious! Totally worthy of a quirky protagonist! Problem is…these woodchucks probably heard you coming and totally hid out.

    I’ve never actually made an attempt to walk in my characters shoes, but I’m sure I spend way too much time in their heads. As in, if something bad is happening to one of them I get sad/nervous for them. Maybe soon I will have to start medicating in honor of my MC. 😉

  7. Chris Fries says:

    LOL! I love the police beat story that began the adventure.

    But maybe you never saw any woodchucks because it might have been a misprint — do you know of a family of someone named Chuck Wood who might now be homeless???

    What a wonderful rainy-day saga, Julia!

  8. Stephanie, I never thought that the woodchucks might be hiding…. you must be right! :) I know what you mean about being sad/nervous for MCs. Maggie freaks me out with her bravery to go where I’d NEVER go. I can barely write as it is, so medicating is definitely out of the question :)

  9. Chris, Glad you enjoyed this fun adventure! I am not kidding, these kinds of weird reports are in *every single week’s paper*! As for Chuck Wood, no, but I do know a Wood with another first name, and maybe his nickname is Chuck and/or he has a son who’s a chuck off the old roast :) Thanks for the read, Chris!

  10. Nina Powers says:

    From this post, I’d like to suggest you write a new novel starring a protagonist who is a writer trying to get into her characters heads 😛

    That was a very fun and interesting post!

    Nina

  11. Oh you are so sneaky! I had to look up what a woodchuck was though…not too many of those around these parts.

  12. Nina, Glad you enjoyed the post — funny idea for a novel! Maybe if Maggie won’t cooperate in this book, I’ll start anew with the writer idea!

    Sara, Thanks for the visit and the comment! That’s so interesting that you didn’t know what a woodchuck is–guess I should’ve explained! I always think of them as universal because of the little poem I learned when I was a kid: “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood…” :)

  13. I have woodchucks living under my shed and I never thought to call the cops! LOL.

    I love getting in my MC’s head. It’s fun to see things from someone else’s POV.

  14. Kelly, Are you SURE you don’t live on West Elm Street…. if you want to confess here that it was you who called the police and ended up in the Police Beat, I will never ever tell anyone or think less of you :) Seriously, it really is fun to look at things from a character’s point of view! I’d never do the things that Maggie would (except of course drive around town and look for woodchucks :)

  15. LOVE that! Very cool how you’re living your own adventure in life, not just writing about them. =)
    -Ellie Ann

  16. Julia, this was much fun.

    As a former LL scorekeeper, I got to be pretty good at recognizing kids in uniform. Running into the same kids in the grocery store, WITHOUT their baseball caps and numbered jerseys = help! So I could relate to recognizing somebody by the car they drive.

    What fun, to drive in your MC’s shoes. Not to worry, someday your woodchucks will come. :-)

  17. Ellie Ann, Glad you enjoyed my adventures with Maggie! I love looking for life’s little mysteries, and writing about them gives me a great excuse to find more mysteries. Thanks for the comment and the visit to my blog!

    Beverly, That’s so funny about the LL players and exactly like in our town! Cars, uniforms, etc., all help us identify people quickly. But in the grocery store? Everyone looks pretty much the same, right? LOL! It was very fun driving in my MC’s shoes — and if by “someday your woodchucks will come,” you mean my books will be published, I hope so! :)

  18. Leah says:

    You are so creative! I would never have thought to look in the paper for that type of research information. Wow! Sounds like a fun adventure. I need to start thinking that way.

  19. Leah, Believe me when I tell you that if you lived in *this* town, my looking in the Police Beat is anything but creative! Everyone, but everyone, reads the Police Beat, hoping to get some juicy tidbit to gossip about! It’s the way we learn about almost everything going on. Still, I think I might be the only person (surely the only person I know of) who actually seeks to search out further information based on the Police Beat! And, yes, it was a fun adventure!! :) If you come to Maine, let me know & I’ll take you along!

  20. Please, tell me at least one of your WIPs will have your sense of humor behind the story?! I love coming here for my daily giggle. So glad you reported your whereabouts to YEH… otherwise, who knows what might have become of you—had the other woodchucks found you and ganged up on you! In the meantime, I’ll be happy to send my coonhound out your way. Although she’s bred to sniff out raccoons, she will gladly sniff out any other animal equal in size and stand there & howl until you see it, too. She’d make the perfect assistant for your Maggie. 😀

    Barb

  21. Bella says:

    Julia, this post made me giggle! Oh the beauty of small towns and the little things that make its citizens lose sleep over! If life were like that the world over, the planet would be a better place to live in! In any case, I’m glad you did not find the family of woodchucks given you went searching for them without backup! hee hee!

  22. Barb, I’m not sure it’s possible for me to write *anything* without some sense of humor behind it, so I’m glad you appreciate it! I think that’s a hilarious angle to think the woodchucks might have ganged up on me — it never occurred to me but it adds a lot to the story! As for the coonhound, a great idea for Maggie’s assistant — right now she has a labrador retriever, but I may need to reconsider and give her a coonhound instead! I’ll let you know if I need some details on coonhound behavior. 😀

    Bella, I’m so glad this made you giggle! I have to admit that I spent a little time giggling as I was on my adventure! Small towns do provide a bit of amusement with its preoccupations! I’m glad I didn’t find the “gang” of woodchucks, but I would’ve been amused to find the caller to find out their thoughts behind calling the police….and risk exposure in the Police Beat 😀 (p.s. maybe I need the support of all the commenters on my blog and we can go en force to question residents!!)

  23. I love that you live in a town where the woodchucks make the police beat! I love Maine and I know I’m going to love following this story.

  24. LOVE this post! It’s the kind of mystery-solving I’ve been doing since I was a child. It’s your imagination, Julia, you can’t help yourself!!

    Thank you for your lovely comments on my blog – they are greatly appreciated.

  25. Deborah, Now it’s time for me to thank you for your lovely comment on my blog! Thank you! And you are so right, I really can’t help myself. It’s so much fun; and it’s also fun to know there are others like me out there….isn’t it great to have stories wherever we look and go? Never, ever a dull moment! :) Thanks again for your comment & visit to my blog!

  26. Julia,

    What a great idea to come up with ideas for your characters! Searching the local paper’s police beat. I LOVE IT!! If I find a funny story in the paper, I’ll usually print it out and stuff it in my idea box (to use at some point in my novel at a later date). But I’ve never actually THOUGHT to SEARCH the paper’s police beat for great, quirky tidbits to add to my characters. Thanks for the great tip!

    –Shari

  27. Shari, Thanks for your visit to my blog & for your comment! You’re so welcome for the tip! I also print out story ideas from the paper & Police Beat (I don’t always follow up on each one, though!) — one of the advantages of the small town is that I’m intimately familiar with all the streets and things mentioned. I can even surmise WHO is being discussed in a Police Beat mention…. it’s why we in this small town work so hard to stay out of the Police Beat usually. And it makes me wonder even more: is it worth it over WOODCHUCKS!? :) Glad I gave you a great tip — let me know how your adventures go! Thanks again for your visit to my blog!

  28. Love it! And I love that you don’t just sit around and wait for inspiration. You get out there and find it.

    My current WIP is about waiting tables and working in restaurants, so I consider it to be research each time I go out to eat. =)

    Thanks for this.

    -Miss GOP
    http://www.thewritingapprentice.com

  29. Miss GOP, (first, have I mentioned that I love your “name”? :) Oh my goodness, a WIP about waiting tables and working in restaurants? Been there done that so I can only imagine the fodder you have — so much! Little known fact, I met my husband when he was a cook and I was a waitress in a French restaurant in Santa Cruz, CA! Many a story in a restaurant, no question! Glad you enjoyed this post, thanks for the comment!

  30. What a fun research expedition! I think I want to move to your town.

  31. Amanda, I admit it was a LOT of fun to conduct this exercise! However, in general I would not necessarily say this town is anymore fun than any other…. in fact, perhaps only if you read about it on someone else’s blog! :)

  32. I’m supposed to be away right now, reading your guest post at Natalia Sylvester’s blog . . . but with a title like Getting Into Character how am I supposed to resist?

    I loved this entire adventure and this really had me chuckling:

    Or (when someone who you only just met needs to deliver something to your house and you start to give them directions) they say:

    “Oh, I know where you live.” In that tone that makes you realize they know a lot more than just where you live.

    I can totally relate to chickening out on knocking on all those doors to ask who got published in Police Beat with the family of woodchucks. But I think you can console yourself with the idea that Maggie probably would not always use that direct approach either. She might have to use cunning and off-site research to cover the fact that she’s investigating people’s actions or motives . . . so you did right to remain so inconspicuous ;~)

    I think it’s so fun that you went out on a Nancy Drew-style mission. I loved those books when I was a kid and it should always be that fun, right? (Morgues and body bags? Eww. Getmeouttahere!)

  33. Milli, I am so enjoying this — reading all your comments today — reminds me of “Lake House,” with the notes into the future/past! Very fun! NANCY DREW is a family favorite!! I loved them as a kid, and so does my daughter! We even watch all the old Nancy Drew mystery series! I have to say, this was one of the most fun things I’ve done, living in Maggie’s footsteps. Although, I have to admit that (believe it or not) MEH and I frequently take these kinds of adventures…. we’re kooky that way :-) Glad you enjoyed it, Milli; thanks for your insight on Maggie, great ideas!

  34. I’m thrilled you love Nancy Drew too!! I haven’t ever seen the series but it would be fun to watch with a girlfriend. Not sure my daughter would be into it – and I *know* MEH would not. He’ll watch a lot of stuff that most guys would think was chick flick-ish, but I think Nancy Drew would really be pushing it.

    (Hey, I wonder if he read The Hardy Boys as a kid? Must ask him. He’s never been a big reader of fiction, but one can hope.)