Writing blocks, ah, we’ve all had them. Some of us more than others. I’ve been semi-struggling with a work of fiction for about six months now. It’s a multi-generational story, and I’ve come to a fork in the dirt road. I do most of my writing in the evenings and on weekends, when there are less distractions to deal with. This aging, somewhat meager manuscript has spent a lot of time on the shelf along with a number of other writing projects which include a cookbook, a children’s story, and two more mysteries set in New Mexico. Every so often I’ll take the manuscript into my bedroom, where I prop the pillows up, grab an icy glass of decaf tea, turn the TV on, reach for my reading glasses and proceed to reread. Some people might consider that to be a lot going on, but I’ve discovered that multitasking helps me to focus more on the task at hand. And besides, I do my best work in the bedroom. Maybe I have a form of Attention Deficit Disorder, who knows?
My stories begin in longhand. I write in a notebook and then transfer it to my computer. I don’t mind typing at all and I smile when I see others doing the hunt-and-peck (two finger typing). I was a legal secretary for a good portion of my life, and honed my skills on IBM electric typewriters (yes, you remember those), and MagCards (IBM typewriters which saved information on a 3×6 magnetic card ). During the 1990s when my art was becoming a bigger focus than my job, my grandson insisted I buy a desktop computer. I was surprised to find that its keyboard was so similar to an electric typewriter . Well that worked fine, and then a few years later at my son’s prodding I tried a laptop. He said it would free me up and I could take my work with me to the coffee shop and a host of other places. Honestly, this didn’t work at all. Because I type pretty fast (150 wpm or more with little effort) it turned out that all the words ran together on the laptop. After ten minutes of typing I looked up to find that there was nary a space between words. I had to go back and insert spaces between almost every word, a task I found to be very irritating and time consuming. I never did get used to that skinny-ass laptop keyboard, so I hearkened back to my trusty pen and paper and my handy desktop.
Back to my original topic on writing blocks. Some months ago I received an email newsletter from Jessica Morrell, a writer/editor from Oregon who conducts writing seminars throughout the west. I had used her editing services on one of my manuscripts in the past and found her sharing of information admirable. This particular newsletter had a section about characters and how to develop them. She asked, “Just how much DO you know about your character?” I realized that in most cases I knew very little about my characters. They were just truly figments of my mahagination (a word coined by my daughter when she was six). Did I know their social security numbers? No. Did I know how much they weighed? No. Did I know their favorite color or alcoholic beverage? No. Overall, I was embarrassed how little I did know about my characters. Jessica’s solution was to take your character out to breakfast or lunch and find out a little more about them. I made a mental note to do just that.
The following Saturday morning I drove across Santa Fe’s busy main street over to the Santa Fe Baking Company, where I ordered a cup of Earl Grey tea and a bagel for myself and just water for my character. She wasn’t hungry, having risen early in the day, gone out for a jog, and eaten a hearty bowl of yogurt and granola. So I took out my notebook and proceeded to take notes of everything she said. At first she was a bit hesitant, since she wasn’t quite sure of my motives. After all, she had run away from her ex-husband a while back and needed some reassurance I hadn’t been hired to track her down. I smiled assuredly and explained I was just trying to get to know a little more about her. She smoothed her hair back with long, well-manicured fingers. I ventured a guess that with those beautiful hands she could probably play a mean rendition of a Rachmaninov piano concerto, and I asked about her musical endeavors. She replied that as a child she hated the weekly piano lessons her parents insisted she partake of, but admitted that for a number of years she had capitalized on this talent to earn extra money playing at a small restaurant during her college days.
I noticed that she had a small scar in the center of her neck. The robin’s egg blue turtleneck she was wearing was about a half-inch too low to cover it. She must have seen me staring, as her hand quickly went to her throat. “I was in an accident some years ago,” she said. “My brother and I were running through the woods and I didn’t see the wire strung between two trees and I ran right smack into it. It crushed one of the bones in my larynx and it had to be replaced with some sort of plastic.” I nodded, a little embarrassed that she seemed able to read my thoughts and realized that‘s how her Betty Davis voice probably developed.. I was a bit uncomfortable, sitting at the table with this woman. She had a way of answering one question without hesitation, as if she knew there was more to it than I was asking; and on the next one completely avoiding eye contact. Yes, I wanted to know her deepest thoughts. What did she think about life, love, war, and everything else? What events had occurred in her life to make her appear so shallow in one light and so forthcoming in the other? Why was she here in this small town; what was she looking for; who was she looking for? Did she come here to renew her old acquaintances and friendships, or did she come here to hide? And what was she hiding from?
After about an hour, she began to fidget in her chair. I realized our interview was over. She wasn’t at all interested in answering any more questions. She kept looking at her watch as though she had a much more important place to be. I waved for the waiter, paid the tab, smiled and said. “Let’s do lunch soon. I’ll call you.” I haven’t been able to reach her for several weeks, but I am having lunch with Carlos tomorrow. You remember him. He’s the tall, dark and sinfully handsome antique dealer from Buenos Aires. I can hardly wait!