Friday, May 10, 2013
To a Writer, It's All Material
In two decades of working at the newspaper, I came into contact with some interesting characters, to put it mildly. Many of them hovered around the office for a while until they realized we had run as many stories about them as we were going to (sometimes none at all), then faded away.
One was a man who claimed to have been former black-ops, and who certainly affected the air of one who feels everyone is out to get him. He had to deal with our advertising department for a while, and at one point a sales rep told me he had paid cash for an ad in a most memorable way.
He took out a big roll of bills, she said, and explained that the serial numbers began with a letter of the alphabet that corresponded with the city hosting the Federal Reserve Bank where the bill was printed. “I like to keep my money in alphabetical order,” he said, “and spend San Francisco last.”
When I heard the story, I filed it in a compartment in my brain that holds information or anecdotes that might come in handy later. It sat there for 15 years, and then I used the serial-number shtick in my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance.
The Wool-Gathering Mind
In one of the obituaries of Nora Ephron, it was reported that her parents, professional screenwriters, used to tell her, “Everything’s copy.” I’d say material, not copy, but I absolutely agree with the sentiment, even going so far as to say that the propensity for collecting such daily flotsam and jetsam is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the writer.
Decades ago the collection of seemingly useless facts and stories was referred to as “wool-gathering.” I’m not sure what it’s called now, but it’s a skill that requires a certain critical judgment. You have to have a sense of when something is interesting enough or piquant enough to be worth saving.
The gifted wool-gatherer must also be patient. Occasionally you come across something that can be put to immediate use, but that’s an anomaly. Usually, it’s something you realize could potentially be of value later on, but you don’t know how. So you file it and hold it until something else comes along and triggers a memory of it. At that point, the knowledge of how to use the material is generally instantaneous, and the rightness of its use obvious.
What’s In a Name?
Similarly a good and distinctive name is something to be saved carefully for the right character. One of my duties at the newspaper for a while was doing the historical column, which reported happenings of 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago.
At one point, somewhere between 1912 and 1914, I came across an item that read, “Rex Radio, the radium healer, is in town for a few days. Treatments at reasonable prices at the Mansion House.” It went into the column and into my personal mental file. Years later, when I was casting about for a name for a disgraced radio talk-show host in my mystery, I remembered Rex and realized I had it all along.
Use of a name can deviate from the original plan. If I’m on the road and in a small town on a Friday night, I sometimes go to a high school football or basketball game. A kid playing in one of those had a great quarterback name, which I filed away in case I needed one some day. I ended up using it in my book, but the football player, Mike Baca, ended up being the sheriff. It fit.
Originally posted August 10, 2012