My apologies for being late with my post this morning. Cathy and I drove back from South Carolina yesterday after attending her granddaughter’s wedding. Somewhere in North Carolina or Virginia (the miles blur for me), we were in stop-and-go traffic because of a wreck ahead of us. We were creeping along when we heard something that sounded like a hound dog baying.
“What the heck was that?” Cathy asked just as a car eased up beside us on our right, and we saw the driver playing a trombone. That’s right. I said a trombone. The driver was playing a slide trombone.
Such quirky sights are all around us. All we have to do is take note. Quirks can pay off big time in our writing because details like a man playing a trombone while driving are out of the ordinary, and therefore, remarkable. On the old animated TV show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, there was a segment that featured two elderly gents, Chauncey and Edgar, who’d comment on oddities they observed. “There’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncey,” Edgar would say, and Chauncey would respond, “What’s that, Edgar?” Edgar’s response would contain the punchline.
Writing can make good use of the “there’s something you don’t see every day” moments, but there’s a risk in relying on the strange and odd. The quirky must be within the range of possibility. In other words, the odd things people might do have to be believable and they have to be grounded in character. The wild and the unfamiliar can’t just be anomalous. They have to be organic to the character, and they have to reveal something about that character that may have been submerged until the pressures of the plot brought the odd to the surface in a way that made the strange seem familiar. Everything should be in the service of characterization.
Also on our trip, we went through a town in southern Ohio where it seemed like previously-thought defunct fast food chains appeared to be flourishing. It was as if we’d stepped back to a time when restaurants like Rax and Village Inn Pizza thrived. What an interesting setting that would make for a piece of fiction, particularly if it connected to the stories of its main characters. What would happen if they were taken out of their town? What would happen if a stranger came to visit? How would the main characters be changed forever?
So much of writing is a matter of making the familiar seem slightly strange and letting that strangeness return us to the familiar but with a different way of looking at what previously seemed ordinary. I don’t know about you, but I’m already thinking about that trombone player and what brought him to be playing his horn in traffic on I-77 as well as what that playing might mean for the rest of his life.
Which brings me to this invitation. Give your main character a quirky but believable action. Use it to start a narrative or to close one. Because my guy was playing his trombone while driving north on I-77, (fill in the blank with what it caused). Or construct a plot that puts pressure on my guy until his picks up that trombone and plays. Maybe he’s escaping someone or something. Maybe he’s in mourning. Maybe he’s feeling an irrepressible joy. The possibilities are endless. Let your imaginations meet the quirky things you observe.