People who know me know I’m a big fan of sustainability. I walk the walk… literally: I walk instead of drive to many places, like the bank, the grocery store, the farmer’s market.
Problem with that is, if you don’t drive your car enough, your battery will die. Actually that’s not the full story. Your battery will die if you drive your car the wrong way.
That’s what the guys at my car dealership explained to me—albeit only on the second trip in with my resuscitated vehicle. They said little short trips are far worse than if you don’t drive at all. Starting your engine requires a certain amount of power, and if you don’t drive long enough with your engine revved high enough (30mph minimum) to replace the energy lost at start up and then some, the next time you start your car your battery will drain a little more, and then a little more, till it’s sapped altogether.
Well, that’s great, Birgitte, you say, but you posted this in the wrong place. This isn’t Car & Driver, this is The Write Practice.
From the mundane to the inspired
It would indeed have been the wrong place to post this if I didn’t press on with my questions. I am a journalist, after all, and naturally inquisitive. I could have had the guys just replace my battery and be done with it. But I wanted to know why. Why is my battery dying now when my car started just fine after I’d left it sitting for close to two months while my husband and I went on an extreme fishing expedition to Latin America?
I have a deeper understanding of how the starter mechanism in cars works now, which means any character of mine will also have this knowledge—or not, to his or her potential detriment, tension, or conflict. Just as you have the power to flush your characters full of wisdom, so too you have the power to keep them (and your readers) guessing.
Writing requires knowledge. Intimate knowledge. Writing also requires experience. Ideally, direct experience. How do you write a scene about a dangerous stall in the middle of a freeway if you’ve never lived it? If you’ve never felt that cold curdle of realization your life might end in the next nanosecond? The panic of having just ten percent of your cell phone battery left?
You either interview someone who has, or you ramp up and extrapolate your worst start-up experience (and I don’t mean Silicon Valley startup). Mine occurred in the middle of a major four-lane street here in the Bay Area (yes, we actually have four-lane streets). My car stalled as I waited for a green U-turn light, after we’d just jump started it. My husband, who was luckily right behind me, had to make another U-turn further ahead, then come back on the other side of the road and park head to head to jump start my car with traffic flowing around us in both directions.
One of these days, this anecdote might just make it into one of my novels. It might take a completely different shape; it might turn into dialogue, an inciting incident, somebody’s dark past.
If you can’t live it, listen to it
My point is, TALK TO PEOPLE. Find out why that battery keeps dying even if you have to go through several mechanics before you get your answer. Press the staff at Trader Joe’s to explain why they keep changing the placement of their grapefruit juice. Get to know the other parents at your kids’ school. Leave that desk behind… take face-to-face lunches with your colleagues.
And if there’s no one to talk to, no matter. Just listen. The world around you is buzzing with rich new ideas. Listen to a papal address even if you’re not Catholic. Listen to the impossibly bizarre things that happen to your students. Listen to the needs and desires of your future readers.
It’s the most routine, mundane stuff out there that builds the mulch where stories germinate, that paves the roads we test our literary engines on. Speaking of roads… I never met one I didn’t find inspiring.
What everyday experience have you had recently that might one day turn into a story?
Take a mundane moment or scenario from your life or that of someone you know, and turn it into a story.* Post your practice here, and be sure to slice through other mundane-moments-turned-literary-drama with your samurai blade of critique.
*News articles, re-runs of Real Housewives of Wherever, and retweets of world events don’t count. You need to have a bonafide, verifiable personal connection to the event.