Where did THAT come from?

Posted: August 5th, 2012 under the writing life.
Tags: ,

If you’re a discovery writer, as I am,  many things appear in the course of writing a book that you didn’t expect.    I’ve talked about plot bombs before.  But there are also character appearances…I’m writing a scene, and suddenly–as if thrust up through the stage–there’s a singing, dancing, clown-faced person right there, and he or she won’t go away.  Belongs there for some reason.  (Or sometimes doesn’t. )

Sometimes I know that “someone” is coming into the story (without knowing who…though sometimes I do know who)  at some point, and have anticipated it will be here (no) or over here (no) or surely by chapter Y (no) and then the anticipated arrival bursts in just like the intrusion above.   If I have an inkling of who it is, then I often have an idea of the character’s function.    This piece of information can only be known to R-, who is going to tell the much more important character, to whom it’s a complete surprise and a call to action…or the new guy/girl is going to be some other kind of problem (like the princesses back in Kings of the North.)  The most minor of these characters come with the label “Plot Complication.”    The more major, like Elis and Ganlin,  bring backstory that’s already entangled with everything else and will themselves play a part in the story to come.

Nonetheless,  these characters usually show up individually, not in bunches.    And I found Elis and Ganlin interesting in themselves from the first.  Right now, though…I have a bunch, or a group, or a gaggle, or a mess (let’s say a mess; it fits) of characters who arrived with the overall label of “Writer’s Problem: Fix.”  And they aren’t particularly individually interesting.  They’re annoying; they’re cluttering up the story-space;  they were inevitable (I knew they were coming sometime, and even–sort of–when);  and I can’t get rid of them.  I offered them to a writer friend who’s in the throes of writing a big battle scene–there’s a bridge to be blown up, and I thought “Oh, goodie, that’s a solution” but she declined.  They won’t all fit under the bridge, for one thing (I’ll bet they would if stacked like cordwood)  and anyway she says she has enough to deal with, without my mess of boring characters.

Last night was not a good night, in the sleep way, but lying there not able to sleep, I could of course think about my mess of characters.  The thing to do at such times is imagine them as very real people.  Who were they before they entered this story?  What were they like?   In any group that size you have a range of personalities–they can’t all be equally boring in the same way, after all.  This one is the golf enthusiast; that one only wants to explain his/her religion; this other one wants to talk about the idiots in his/her job, neighborhood, family…there are lots of ways to be boring.   And they’re probably not boring all the way through, if you really know them.   (OK, some people are.  But not this many in a random group.)

I mentally walked around among them.  They aren’t all wearing the same colors, so they have preferences.  What are they?   Why?  This woman and that woman glance at each other and turn away to talk eagerly to someone else…what’s that about?   That man is slumped in his seat, looking sad; another speaks to him, he looks up briefly, then subsides into the same posture and expression…what is he grieving?   And look–there’s a little cluster–you know this kind of cluster–one talking, heads nodding, sidelong glances at the rest.   Someone else saying something, more urgently, but in a low tone.  Hands clenching, gesturing, again with the sidelong glances–and they’re not loud–they’re trying not to be overheard.  Do we have a plotter here?  A little newborn conspiracy thing going on?  Are these characters going to be interesting after all?

Well, well, well….so if these still nameless characters are up to something, what kind of something are they up to?   Breaking and entering?   Mugging?  Horse-stealing?   Taking over something?    Do they know secrets they’re about to reveal, or something they want to bury?   They seemed so bland and colorless when they appeared, so lacking in any useful information, so annoyingly boring…I had been thinking of ways to send them all away and warp the story to accomplish that, but now, after all…maybe they have a purpose.

It’s amazing how much questioning you can get done in the middle of a night you can’t sleep.   It’s amazing what you can find out, and how the writer-mind then tries out scenarios and rejects this one and that one and the other one and…oh, wait.   Now this looks interesting…quite a possibility, in fact.  In fact, that would connect a thread from way back to something that…oh, my YES!

Maybe.   But this version will have to be written out and given the nod or the heave-ho when it’s much, much farther along.

I’m going to have to give them names.


  • Comment by Mj — August 5, 2012 @ 9:07 am


    Naming them has got to be the hardest part. Especially if you don’t know all of their history as yet.

  • Comment by Jenn — August 5, 2012 @ 10:40 am


    My stash yarn does the same thing to me. Balls of yarn are very particular especially when they are lone balls and want to be something glorious and unique. Would you like to be a toy?–toys are acrylic I am WOOL. Hat? Mittens? No Sweater. You are only one ball you cannot be a sweater. It is still holding out for sweater. So back in the annexed file cabinet it goes.

    I loved the bridge idea. May be you could write a short story about a bridge blowing up or a ship sinking or a giant wardrobe sucking them off to another realm and they can be the main characters!

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 5, 2012 @ 10:46 am


    Exactly. And their personalities, as well. This is not a world in which I can use some automatic fantasy name generator.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 5, 2012 @ 10:52 am


    I’m discovering that about stash wool. The wool I bought specifically for socks is happy to be socks. Yes’m, I’m going to be BlueTwo and that’s fine with me. Me! I’m RedThree!

    But some of the other stuff, that I bought last year when I was feeling my way into choosing yarn for myself (not with my mother)….*that* yarn, some of it, has a mind of its own. The acrylic is less bossy. The wool and wool blends (I tried several, since these were things I knew nothing about–a ball here, two balls there–and worst, the silk/cotton incredible stuff that I had no idea what to do with but it was too gorgeous to not have around–that yarn not only knows what it wants to be, it won’t tell me. It’s highly bred yarn, it informs me, and I will have to rise to its level.

    Now your one ball that wants to be Sweater could maybe (???) be colorwork on a sweater??? Or is that an insult to its woolly nature?

    I’m just starting a chapter with several of the “mess” and a major existing character…they’re going to talk and I’m going to learn.

  • Comment by Jenn — August 5, 2012 @ 3:12 pm


    I am so glad you understand. Non knitters give me the “look”. Color work in a sweater etc. is another problem The yarn has to get along with the other colors. “I don’t want to be in a sweater with antique rose I am sunshine yellow.” Neither was happy but in the end they decided to work together. I’ll email you the result. And I have this lovely metallic gold and black too little to be a shawl and I am NOT going to be a scarf.
    Do you think that Flessinathlin (even though she was soulless) has been re-incarnated into my yarn? It would explain a lot.

  • Comment by Karen — August 5, 2012 @ 3:31 pm



    A gentle piece of advice: don’t start collecting fabric to go with your opinionated bits of yarn. Fabric tends to be even more emphatic, because it wants to tell you that it is able to become anything — unless you cut it. The moment you cut it, it cries out, “I could have been anything and everything simultaneously — but now you have reduced me to a single possible fate, and if you make a mistake, I won’t even be good for that.”

  • Comment by Iphinome — August 5, 2012 @ 4:18 pm


    Schrödinger’s yarn?

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — August 6, 2012 @ 6:17 am


    My mother’s a quilter. She’s good at it. Won a couple awards, etc. But I get to help when she has to make a single a double, a double a queen, etc. The dimensions don’t always scale. Trying to get 16-30 different fabrics to play nice is a joy!

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 6, 2012 @ 7:12 am


    My mother had saved fabric for years, hoping to do quilting when she retired, but her eyesight went bad. I gave her quilting fabric to the local quilt guild. I’m not a happy seamstress, so I don’t collect fabric–yarn is another matter.

    Iphinome: Schrödinger’s yarn is the perfect name for the yarn that won’t name its preferred state of being. (And I had to copy paste the name because I don’t know how to get those little dots over the /o/.)

  • Comment by Iphinome — August 6, 2012 @ 7:35 am


    I use an extended keyboard layout, US international.

    You wouldn’t like it. To make the umlaut I type a ” and then an o for ö or a u you ü. But this means to get a plain ” I must hit the ” key and then the space bar. That’s the downside, the upside is tilde ~ then letter give me ñ, ‘ then letter gives me é ` then letter gives me è and I have alt-keyboard shortcuts for æ þ ð µ ç and a few others.

    Unless you have the occasional need to type in French (I sometimes do) or German (almost never, my German is just plain bad) learning to hit space after ” will drive you mad.

    With the standard keyboard layout. hit the numlock key then hold down alt and on your numberpad type 0246 to get an ö.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 6, 2012 @ 7:41 am


    I think I need to bookmark this comment under a new tab, because I’m never going to remember the number-code. But thanks for the info.

  • Comment by Iphinome — August 6, 2012 @ 8:04 am


    The windows character map utility under accesories/system tools in xp will allow you to copy any unicode character to paste later into a text box, even the ones without alt-codes such as arabic letters. Double click the character and then control+c it from inside the program.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — August 6, 2012 @ 1:25 pm



    If you’re only needing the occasional “special” character, I use the “Character Map” utility that comes with Windows (if you are using that system–Macs have something similar). It’s just open the application, choose the font and scroll to what you need. Select, copy and paste in the appropriate document. 🙂

  • Comment by Chuck — August 6, 2012 @ 2:01 pm


    Starting about 1993 I kept a sticky note on my monitor at work with commonly used symbols(°±–·— and so on) and their codes, plus a few special letters like é and ö, so I wouldn’t have to use Character Map (easier to do ALT + 0176 than go to Character Map every time I needed a degree symbol, just like using CTRL + u is quicker for underlining than highlighting and selecting italics from a toolbar). But some publisher’s guidelines still indicate they don’t want special formatting. I don’t know if that’s changing these days or not.

  • Comment by Kathleen Hanrahan — August 8, 2012 @ 10:11 am


    For my Windows (or Mac, if I had one) typing of special characters, I’ve done Internet searches on “typing special characters” and have found Web sites like this
    and this:

    I’ve setup my Linux computer to allow me to type and ~ and n to get ñ, for instance.


  • Comment by GinnyW — August 9, 2012 @ 3:56 pm


    I use insert symbol in Microsoft Word when I want diacritical marks. It is incredibly slow and tedious, but I can’t remember the number codes. Some fonts have more symbols than others, just to create more frustration when you least need it.

  • Comment by Richard — August 10, 2012 @ 3:09 pm


    You people having taught me how to do special characters, I have created a little (WordPad) document from which I can cut-and-paste the ones I might want.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 10, 2012 @ 10:52 pm


    Richard, when I first read this, I thought of “special characters” as book characters, and it took three readings to grasp that you meant font character. Otherwise the thought of “cut-and-paste the ones I might want” applied to story characters was…bizarre.

  • Comment by Fred Zebruk — August 11, 2012 @ 1:09 am


    Did the US Marines ever develop Divisional Officer’s Notes. They are very useful in the RCN. Essentially a one page crib note on every member of ones Division. They are normally kept by all supervisor and ensure that you can carry on an intelligent conversation with any of your troups about their family or their own aspirations. Normally kept in a binder with pages for observations and debriefing/assessment forms.
    Many of the role playing games created in recent years have similar sheets that identify experience, as well as the strengths and weaknesses identified in the original dice rolls for caracter development. Possessions gathered by the individual in their adventures are also added to the sheets to keep everyone honest.
    What some people keep on paper others employ electronic records (database)to maintain. Given characters spanning 10 volumes now (in this literary sequence) it amazes me that you attempt to keep it all in your head.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 11, 2012 @ 6:51 am


    I don’t know…since I was sent to HQMC to mess about with computers–not a standard organizational model.

    However, as far as these books go, I never made the attempt ot keep it all in my head. It’s just that somewhere in the 20 years between the early books and the later ones, the background notebooks I made at the time disappeared. I have reconstructed what I can while writing the newer books. I have a lot now in computer files–and there’s the stuff on the Paksworld website as well. All that’s been reconstructed, but the necessities of writing the books on a tight schedule has meant that I still don’t have as much on the background as I had in those notebooks (included sketches and notes on every engagement, from simple fights to full-scale battles.)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment