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

Accepting the Throwdown!

Dear Jenny and Amanda,

Ever since I started blogging, my WIPs have suffered. I’ve visited them occasionally, but we’ve drifted apart in the last six weeks. And I miss them. My best fiction friends, Annie and Maggie, are more forgiving than real friends might be. But that only makes it worse. Maybe if they were calling and emailing and knocking on my door, I wouldn’t have such an easy time ignoring them so much.

So, the other day when I read about your #1KWord Challenge Throwdown on Read. Write. Suffer, I decided this was just the thing I needed to kick myself in the rear to get going again.

To quote Jenny’s blog:

So, Amanda (from Amanda’s Wrinkled Pages) and I have been challenging each other to a type of literary throwdown. Last Thursday the challenge was to write 2000 words but there was no time limit, the next day 1000 words again with no time limit. It worked really well and helped both of us be less lazy with our writing and produce, produce, produce, so we decided to make it a recurring challenge.

You asked: “Who else will join in?” And here’s the best part: anyone who participated would tweet their word count and start and stop times to you!

This idea really appealed to me: a) I love a challenge. b) I would need to be accountable to someone. c) I had to do something!

So, this morning I say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Great challenge! Great idea! In case anyone missed it on Twitter, here is the tweet I sent Jenny when I was done with my challenge:


@jetchez Start time 11:07 a.m. EST, 1027 words, end time 11:35 a.m. EST. #1Kwordchallenge Thanks for giving me a great push!


What I didn’t tweet was this, in addition to the challenge, yesterday I also wrote a 960 word blog and a writing prompt on Creative Copy Challenge!

So, although we’ve never met, I wanted to write you this letter to let you know that yesterday was a great writing day, motivated by two great bloggers. Thank you again so much!

When’s the 2000 word challenge?

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. Have you checked out Amanda Hoving’s and Jenny Torres Sanchez’s blogs? (They will not disappoint!)

Have you ever participated in a writing challenge? How has it helped? Are you ready to join the #1KWordChallenge or #2KWordChallenge?