Painting with Words

A persistent little plot idea had been jumping around my brain since the fall. With three projects in various stages of writing, editing, and querying, I couldn’t give it my attention, but it sat patiently waiting for me in the back of my mind. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a brand new story idea that wasn’t a rewrite or a revamp of an old project. Maybe I was intimidated by that fact, or maybe I was too spread thin emotionally and mentally to be creative at the ground level, but I avoided it as long as possible.

The idea was simple. I’d just attended my second funeral in a few months’ time. There was something exhausting about gathering to mourn with my family again when we’d barely seen each other in the time between. It was one of those moments where you ask, are we really doing this again? It was a crisp fall afternoon and I was standing in the parking lot by my car waiting for everyone to exit the funeral home, absorbing the sunshine to stay warm. I remember looking at the cousins I’d grown up with and thinking, I need to write a story about them.

That baby idea hung out in my heart for a long time. I didn’t know my angle, my approach, how I would make family interactions interesting. This story, in contrast to most of my high-energy, little slice of weird projects, was a quiet story. That made me nervous. To really do it right, I’d need to root into characters I didn’t know and tell a story I didn’t have. I planned on revolving around the lives of three main characters whose tales would weave in and out of each other around a central event, the death of their grandmother.

I didn’t have names for the characters, but I had personas: the favorite, the fuck-up, and the famous one. I started browsing on Pinterest to come up with aesthetics for these personas, what they looked like, what their vibe might be. That night, I committed to names. And as the saying goes, once you name them…

One afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, the baseline of the story came to me. The concept was a little gray. I didn’t know where it was going. I never know, if I’m being honest. Suddenly all three characters had a lot to say. Shortly after, I had the chapter opening for the character who seemed to have the steepest arch. As a general rule, when alternating point of view, this should be the case. I had a picture in my mind of a young woman standing outside her grandmother’s house, unable to go in and say goodbye to the place she’d always known. They were all experiencing a season of endings and new beginnings.

Still, my plot was flimsy. I wrote out the first three chapters from each character’s perspective, but I didn’t know them well enough to build in the subplots and color in the details of their lives. It was frustrating. I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I’m too hard on myself when I’m in the messy stage of putting a plot together. To help myself out, I drew a family tree to understand the connections between the families and who belonged where. I wrote out who my characters were, who they weren’t, what their goals were. I did research to get a better sense of place for my story, set in rust belt Pennsylvania.

Then came an explosion of color. I did something I wish I’d done in projects past: I wrote bios of each POV character’s lives up to the moment the story begins, speaking in their voice with their quirks. When I do this, I free write without judgement and let my characters tell their story to me. My imagination wanders without reservation and allows me to pull out the most fascinating details about them I can to create who they are. If you write and you’ve never done it before, I’d highly recommend this exercise. Fair warning: some characters need a bit of prying to disclose. When I figured out what was motivating the favorite, who was a bit of a struggle to understand, the whole thing left me in tears. I wish I could explain how cathartic it is, but it’s impossible to put into words.

After adding another layer of depth to them, it was time to push the narrative forward. After recovering from surgery in late April, I did just that. Since early May, I’ve written twenty thousand words. I have more scenes planned than I have time to write. And it was all because I had the patience to develop the story my heart needed to tell.

It kills me to read books where the characters have no depth beyond what’s on the page or where the author insists the character has certain traits without ever showing them. It cheats readers and weakens plots. It takes a lot of work to nurture the realism necessary to construct imaginary people doing extraordinary things in made-up universes, but it’s worth the time and attention. Don’t forget supporting characters. They matter too.

I’m so grateful for the relationships I formed with my cousins that allowed me to tell this story. I dedicate this to them, and all they’ve done to make me who I am. I can’t wait to share this little piece of me with you.

PS: If my cousins are reading this, don’t panic. It’s a work of fiction, so don’t go looking for yourselves in this story.

PPS: I love you more than you’ll ever know.

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