Wednesday, December 8, 2010

From Soup to Nuts

The process I use for structuring a story line is a hodgepodge of sticky notes attached to the seat of my pants. With a premise in mind, I always have to give the story or book a title before I begin anything. For some reason, without a title, my brain stays in lock-down, refusing to wrap around characters, settings, or how I’m going to move either or both along in the story.
Fortunately, coming up with titles is fairly easy for me. I roll a few choices around in my head, and when one finally settles down in my gut and feels right, I know it’s the right one.
Once the title’s in place, I immediately look for characters with personality traits that will suit the premise and name them. Then, with title and characters in hand, I’m off to the races, jotting down notes about who should be doing what and when in the story on sticky pads.
Out of the entire process, choosing the right characters and naming them seems to be the toughest part, for me anyway, because a person’s name often creates an immediate mental image. For example; if my heroine is supposed to be a supreme court judge, I wouldn’t name her Bambie Greenfield. I don’t know about you, but the name ‘Bambie’ makes me think—dainty blonde debutant with two-inch, pastel-pink fingernails.
Because characters are one of the most important elements of a good story, I’ve spent years people watching, looking for unusual traits, ticks, facial expressions, and listening for different dialects and curious phrases I might be able to use in stories. On rare occasions, I happen upon a mother-lode that is so fascinating but stereotypical I’m not quite sure what to do with.
Here’s an example--
Below are some common traits often used to portray a stereotypical, modern day Southerner: 
  • Drawl in their speech.
  • Not having a full set of teeth, and the missing ones are usually in the front.
  • Being slow on the uptake, meaning they don’t quite ‘get’ things as quickly as other folks.
  • Their love of country music.
  • Their dress—typically anything Walmart has on sale.
  • To summarize most of the above—Dumb Hick
Now although I’m from the South, I’m not a Southerner. I’m a Cajun, and we have our own public perceptions to bear and overcome. That being said, I understand why Southerners get a little rankled sometimes when they see themselves portrayed in books and movies. Although we (we being those stereotyped) know some of what we’re reading or seeing is true, it’s not true about all of us, and some of us resent the implication that it is. Because of that, writers are often told to stay away from the stereotypical traits and focus more on the person. Okay, so you can throw in a missing tooth or two, maybe even a few, “Thank Youuuuuu,s” to add flavor, but that’s it. The rest should be kept neutral. Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but what happens when all you see in a particular culture is stereotypical traits? Do you then have to ‘create’ neutral?  

Some time ago, I was in Alabama when the transmission in my SUV blew. Fortunately, I was able to nudge the car off the Interstate before she froze up and refused to move another inch.

So there I was stuck on the side of the road in a small, north Alabama town—on a Sunday—and it was Father’s Day. Not a winning combination by any stretch of the imagination. I called AAA, first time I’ve ever had to use them, and told the dispatcher what was going on. After asking me a dozen questions, she then tells me I’ve contacted the main dispatch center, which is in Missouri, and that she’ll have the Alabama office contact me on my cell asap. Fine. 

Forty minutes later, I’m thinking our definition of asap is different so I call back, this time insisting that I’ll hold until someone from the Alabama office picks up. After huffing and puffing about it not being protocol, the woman from main dispatch finally agrees, and I’m put on hold while she contacts the other office.
Ten minutes later, a woman with a heavy Alabama accent picks up the phone, and due to drawl alone it takes her six more minutes to say, “My name is Carol Ann, with AAA in Birmingham, Alabama. How may I help you?” 

Frustrated that the first woman hadn’t even bothered to give her the myriad of details I’d already relayed, I went through my story again…. “My name is Deborah LeBlanc, and my SUV broke down just outside Huntsville. I’m near a convenience store right off exit—” 

 “Your name is Deborah what?”

 “LeBlanc.” I spelled it before she asked. 

 “And you’re in a S-U what?”

I swear to everything in the universe and beyond, I was on the phone for another forty minutes repeating the same information a million times. The woman was either writing with a broken ink pen or was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Finally, she says she’ll have a tow truck heading my way soon. I ask how soon. She says she doesn’t know, but soon, then proceeds to give me the name of the towing company I should expect. 

TWO hours later, I see a tow truck with that name plastered all over it fly past me. I wave. He doesn’t stop. Doesn’t even look my way. I see him make a U-Turn two blocks down and keep my fingers crossed. Maybe he did see me waving. . . . Nope, he takes off down a side street that leads to the on-ramp of the Interstate.  I call AAA again. Twenty minutes later, I’m talking to the Alabama office again. I tell her about the wayward tow truck driver, and she spends another fifteen minutes telling me that she can’t understand why he didn’t stop and ain’t that about a shame.

While she’s yammering, the tow truck suddenly appears again, and I all but run out into the middle of the road, arms waving, and yelling, ‘Over here! Here!” He waves back, signaling that he sees me. All the while, the woman on the phone is still working on finishing her last sentence. Knowing I’d be stuck on the phone with her another hour if I told her he’d finally arrived, I simply hung up. 

 Okay, so far I know this could be tied to AAA and not be considered Alabama specific, but bear with me…. 

When the driver gets out of the tow truck, the first thing he does is spit out a wade of chewing tobacco, then wipes his mouth with the back of a hand. His walk is slow and his talk slower, and the combination of the two means another two hours go by before my SUV is loaded onto his tow truck. 

 After settling into the passenger seat of that truck, it takes me another hour to finally get the information I need out of him so I can make a decision. The bottom line finally came to this—Nothing was open—no repair shops, no rental car companies, no dealerships. The only option I had was to have the car towed to the towing company’s yard, where it would be kept in a gated area overnight. Fine.

Once we reach the yard, the driver leads me into the office so I can take care of the paperwork. Two people were in that office. A woman with a missing front tooth, wearing an “I Love Garth” t-shirt, and a guy with only four front teeth, wearing a stained “Get ‘er Done!” t-shirt and jeans. Both were watching a small television that was tucked just inside the front door. It takes quite some time for me to get their attention, and when I finally do, they look irritated that I’ve disrupted their viewing pleasure. In the meantime, I see the driver who brought me to this lovely establishment, now sitting at one of the desks, eating biscuits and gravy.  So much for unloading my car… 

I ask the toothy wonders, “Where is the nearest hotel?” 

 The woman looks over at the guy watching TV, he keeps looking at the TV, then she looks back at me.

“Don’t know.” 

“Are you from here?” 

She glances at the television. “Uh-huh.”

Figuring it was useless to ask how she could be from the area and NOT know if they had a hotel, I said, “Okay, what about cabs. Got any of those around here?” 

Still looking at the television, she says, “Uh-huh.”  

Mr. “Get ‘er Done!” suddenly guffaws and points at the television. “Did you see that?” he says without looking away from the twelve-inch screen. Evidently, I had never been a solid form in his peripheral vision.

 “So there are cabs here?” I ask the woman again. 

“Uh-huh.” This time she looks right at me but says no more. She simply stands there. 

“Would you mind calling one for me?” 

“Don’t know the number.” She looks over at ‘Get ‘er Done!’. “Hey, Earl, you know the number to that comp’ny’s got them yellow cabs?” 

Earl frowns, but doesn’t take his eyes off the television. “Nope.”

She turns back to me and shrugs. “Earl don’t know the number neither.”

It takes me a moment to respond because I can’t believe this whole conversation is really taking place. “Maybe we can find the number for a cab service in the phone book.” I offered. “Do you have one?”

She looks at the television. “Yeah, we got a phone book. It’s back over there by Earl’s desk.”
Not knowing if she was implying that I should go get the book and look up the number myself, I ask, “Do you mind if I borrow it?”
Again, I swear to all that’s in the universe and beyond that the conversation went back and forth like that seemingly forever.  I finally did get a cab—another two hours later…and, yes, the driver had a missing front tooth and talked like he was reading a primer and didn’t quite understand the words he was sounding out. We did locate a hotel, though. Days Inn circa 1958, and their ‘free’ Internet access was dial up that kept dropping the call every two minutes. So much for getting any work done. 

The following morning started off much the same way. I got a phone call from the towing company at 6 A.M., asking me what repair shop I wanted my car towed to. I told them I didn’t have a clue since I wasn’t from the area. The person on the other end of the line remained silent. Every couple of seconds, I’d hear him sip on something.  

“Well, can you recommend a repair shop?” I asked. Yeah, I was snippy, but damn I hadn’t even had coffee yet.  

As you might suspect, that simple question got an even simpler answer. “Not really.” 

And we were off to the races.
The short version of the ending is that I had to hunt up another cab, then orchestrate getting the car to a repair shop. When that was finally settled, I asked the owner of the repair shop if there was any chance my car would be fixed that day. If not, I planned to rent a car to drive back to Louisiana. The owner says, “Yeah, there’s a chance.” 

“How good a chance?” 

“We’ll probably get it done today.”  

Finding that answer still too iffy, I batted it back to him a dozen different ways, trying to get a more concrete answer. It always came back the same. “There’s a chance.” 

Well, hell. The only thing left for me to do was wait. I figured I’d hold out until 4:30, a half hour before the rental car place closed, and if the repair shop hadn’t made progress on my car by then, I’d still have an escape option open. 

So I waited in that repair shop ALLLLLL day. And, again, I swear to everything in the universe and beyond, that every person who walked through those shop doors was dentally challenged and had that slow, not-quite-gettin’-it drawl. I had quite the time watching and listening, jotting down notes on some brown paper towels I’d found in the bathroom. 

I’m happy to report that the repair shop owner was true to his half/word, and my car was done by 5 P.M. As I drove away, though, I realized there was no way I’d ever be able to write a story using any of the characters I’d met over the last two days. If I stayed true to them, I’d get bashed for using stereotypes. In truth, I’d actually have to tone them down to make the characters believable.

Now, ain’t that about a shame?     



  1. Funny story, Deborah. I guess that's why they say truth is stranger than fiction.

  2. OK, but my big question is: Are you related to *Matt* Leblanc???

  3. Great observation on characters- sometimes the real persons are too large for life

  4. Oh, wow, I so related to this post - from the needing the right title from the beginning and often having to choose among several, to people-watching, to having a hard time finding the perfect name. And I loved the story so much I think I'm going to post a similar observation I had when interacting with the new neighbors from L.A. lol! So much fun today. Thanks!

  5. *LOL*

    Sadly I related to 3 of the 5 stereotypes. Then I sadly related to the man who wouldn't commit to "it would be finished today" because you never know might crop up and make that not true--and if you give your WORD, by God, you have to make it happen. So it's better not to make any promise.

    I am saddened by how unhelpful everyone was though. I haven't--fortunately--had that experience in my area (and we're pretty small town southern); I mean, I've been on the end of unhelpful, but not that unhelpful. Eventually someone with manners arrives.

  6. And you can tell I'm southern because it was SIX items, not five.

  7. Thanks, Karin. So, so true about life being stranger than fiction! Fortunately, this was one of the funnier-strange adventures. Much better than when life starts throwing watermelons at ya!

    Lauren, to be honest, I'm really not sure if I'm related to Matt LeBlanc or not. If I dug deep enough, I'd probably discover we're 5th cousins or something. ALL LeBlancs wind up being related, one way or another. :)

    You're so right, Eeleenlee!

    Thanks, Kathy. :)I'd LOVE to read your post about the neighbors!

    LOL, MsHellion, you're spot on. The one thing I forgot to mention in that story was right before I called AAA, two guys (an older gentleman and his middle-age son) in a pickup truck stopped to see if I needed help. When I told them about the problem I was having with the SUV, the old guy tsked, shook his head, then said, "Sounds broke that's for sure. Sorry we don't know nothin' 'bout fixin' cars---but I wouldn't be standin' out here after dark if I was you, little lady. This here's a bad neighborhood. So you take care now, hear?"

    Manners he definitely had. :)