By Deborah Sharp
A friend got me one of those writer's sweatshirts for Christmas: Careful, or You'll End up in My Novel. Since South Florida has actually had a taste this year of what the rest of the country calls winter, my new sweatshirt's gotten a lot of wear. I'm still a recent-vintage novelist. I love to see people's eyes light up when they read the logo and find out I write mysteries.
Believe me, this never happened when I wore my newspaper reporter's t-shirt: Journalists Do It Daily. Members of the media rank somewhere between politicians and Wall Street titans on the public's love-o-meter. Sad, but true.
The logo on my new sweatshirt has me wondering, though. When did I stop thinking of people as people, and start seeing them as characters?
Example: I ride my bicycle along the river in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and spot a woman on a bench. She wears a blue-flowered dress and crumples a tissue in her lap.
What I'm telling you is I don't want to do this anymore . . .
She pauses to listen.
It hurts too much. I just can't.
She presses the tissue to her eyes.
I pedal past, and just like that, this poor woman's misery becomes a snippet of dialogue. I tuck it away for some future cell-phone breakup scene in a book.
I continue on to meet some friends for breakfast. As they chat, I check out the cafe. There's an older couple, she in a poly pantsuit, he in a fishing cap. They never say a word to each other as they sip their coffee. He takes his black. She uses too much sugar.
I feel a quick rush of fear: What if that's my husband and me, 20 years down the road? But my next thought is how to make them work, fictionally. Forty years of marriage, and nothing left to say. Maybe there's rage roiling beneath her placid features. Perhaps he's disappointed at how life turned out. Or, maybe he's taken up with a younger woman who sells fishing lures along Lake Okeechobee. This is the last breakfast before he walks out on his wife.
My gaze moves on to assess the next group of diners -- three guys with neat hair and tight t-shirts. Male models? Personal trainers? But then my attention turns to a woman sitting alone at a table in the corner. Pen in hand, she has an open notebook on the table. She stares thoughtfully. At me. I feel a flush on my face as I realize maybe I'm fiction fodder for her. I imagine her character notes:
Middle-aged, lacks social skills. Disengages from her table's conversation to watch everyone else. Spends too much time in her own head.
I turn my attention to my friends, smile and ask questions. I am not disengaged! Stealing a glance at this other writer, I see her head is now bent over her notebook. She's scribbling away. The nerve! Who does this woman think she is, reducing me to a character in her novel?
How about you? Do you put real people in your fiction? Have you ever become a character in someone's book? Do you think those writer's sweatshirts are stupid?