Now that mom and I are movie stars … well … television stars … well, okay … public access TV show guests, it’s time to move on to other endeavors. Because we’ve been to so many senior living communities holding book signings or introductory speeches, we’re working on a new project. We’re showing people what goes into the creative writing process by staging a couple of fun exercises. Why are we doing this? Because the most frequent questions we get when we talk before a group of people is: how do you come up with your ideas?
Like with all these wonderful book events that mom and I share, we’re learning about each other in the process. I did not know this about my mom, but her ideas for books start with a character. Maybe I should have known, given the fact characters are always running around in her brain, keeping her up at night with their antics, traveling with her to doctor’s appointments to keep her company in the waiting room. But what I didn’t realize is that her characters begin with a name.
So when it came time to put together our first exercise, it was this: Here’s a name. Tell me what you think about this person? The name she created? Elmer Martin.
Before you read this blog further, close your eyes and see what you come up with. What does he look like? What does he do for a living? What kind of a person is he?
We decided to use a planned meeting with the Emeritus book club as our test for the exercise. This enthusiastic group of people heard us tell our story in January, agreed to read Twist of Fate, then had us return in February for a discussion of that book. All of their comments were “spot on.” Or at least we hope so because they called our first book “a-page-turner-and-boy-did-I-love-Danny-and-Sam [a main character and our detective]”. We returned to their fold later in February for a review of Wretched Fate and heard this comment: “a-page-turner-and-boy-did-I-love-Rosie, the-poor-boy … and of course Sam [two main characters and our detective]). Then at the end of the review discussion we asked if they minded trying our Elmer Martin name exercise.
We were pretty shocked with the results. Almost universally they said that Elmer was some sort of farmer by profession—a hard worker who was not a handsome man, but was strong of character and in his looks; that he was a man always on the go with some sort of hands-on project; that he was quietly intelligent, a lonely man, an honorable person. They even described his physical appearance pretty accurately.
Mom and I just sat there nodding our heads, and then I read a passage from a story mom is creating that began with the name Elmer Martin. It was their turn to be surprised at how much of the character they’d pinpointed.
I don’t know if this exercise proves that people have preconceived notions of certain names or if it just shows how sharp that group of people are. What I personally took away from the exercise is that most readers love to think about their characters. To me that means if you are a writer and you have the ability to create people that take readers out of everyday life and plop them down in that character’s life, you’ve succeeded. You’ve drawn them into the book.
Mom has that ability, and I always look forward to reading a new manuscript because I know I’ll “meet” new people who will become part of my life for a while.
Stay tuned this year and she’ll introduce you to Elmer Martin.
Genilee Swope Parente