By Courtney Pierce
As a novelist, one question readers frequently ask me is, “What inspires a new character for you?” The answer is easy: ordinary, run-of-the-mill people become my characters. I hope to find the best ones at the gym when I’m on the elliptical machine . . . working hard to go nowhere.
As I scan the mid-morning crowd, those deep into their huff-and-puff private worlds, I pick out one person and let a new character unfold. The combination of body movement and expression tells a story about a person’s mood, determination, and inner desire. I’m particularly fond of the elderly; the road map of their lives is on full display.
On one particular morning, a year or so ago, my gaze pulled from a petite female jogger with a bouncing ponytail to an elderly man. He'd plunked down on the seat of an arm-strengthening machine. The way he grabbed the two handles made him appear to be bracing for the big dip on a roller coaster. All he had to do was push. What's the big deal? I thought as I studied him. But the man's fictional story peeled away in layers like an onion.
His physical characteristics started the process: well into his eighties, somewhat paunchy around the middle, thin gray hair in a wispy comb-over. The skin on his neck and jowls appeared to be filled with sand, as if preventing his head from flying away. His lower eyelids drooped to reveal the shiny pink inside, relenting to his doctor’s orders that he replace cholesterol pills and blood thinners with a dose of exercise. Purple bruises from a run-in with invisible obstacles dotted his arms as confirmation.
But something else . . . soft and yielding. I dug for more.
|Photo: Idea Go-FreeDigitalPhotos.net|
The man stared at the handles, as if willing them to move. At one time in his life, he probably could have pushed them to a blur. Maybe he used to be a whisky runner during prohibition, possibly a mobster who slapped the backs of his gumbas over eggplant Parmesan. He had saved lives, taken lives, and laid awake at night, haunted by the lives of those who hadn't been so lucky to dodge the bullets.
The machine's mechanism appeared to have been bolted in place, immovable, a trick. And then the old man did something that paused my loopy trek on the elliptical machine. He entwined his hands in his lap and stared at his swollen, arthritic knuckles. Was he . . . hoping? Praying? Remembering? Crimes didn't keep this man awake at night; the loss of that injured kitten, stuck in the wheel well of his Lincoln, is what kept him tossing and turning for fifty years. One little fella he couldn't save. The man’s thoughts became a vibrant aura.
I had attached a name to him: R. D. Griffin, a widower with the nickname Ardy. The sag of his lower lip . . . loss. He longed for his deceased wife to be waiting at home, dishing out a steaming plate of those special scrambled eggs she used to make. The standard poodle he'd rescued from a shelter waited at home by the front door. Ardy be home soon. Yellowed newspaper articles about his crimes sat in an open scrapbook on the kitchen table. Another life, a former life, before entering the Witness Protection Program. Too quiet to go home. No passes; one more try to make it right.
After another unsuccessful attempt to push the handles, Ardy returned his hands to his lap, convinced he was weak. But he was far from weak, just worn out. No one was left in his life to impress with heroic feats, no one who cared that he'd been something special back in the day. Living large and long had carried painful disadvantages without his wife. No phone calls from his buddies to transform painful memories into celebrated escapades. Now, Ardy was getting ready to pull the hardest job of his life, armed only with hope. He didn't fear the reaper; Ardy only wished to not die alone and that someone would love his dog as much as he did.
The old man pushed. This time the handles inched forward. My own arms tightened as I stretched my hope to him from fifteen feet away. Success! I blew out a breath. I hadn't realized I'd been holding it.
Ardy slid off the seat and lumbered away from the machine, disappearing and emerging as he passed behind the row of windows to the front door. That was it. All he could do.
His story became mine, awarding me with the ability to transform this seemingly ordinary man into a character. Real to me. He became the elderly character of R. D. Griffin in my latest novel, The Executrix.
I re-started the elliptical machine and zeroed in on Ponytail Girl.
So, what’s her story?
Courtney Pierce is a fiction writer living in Oregon with her husband of thirty-six years and bossy cat. She enjoys writing for baby boomers. Her novels are filled with heart, humor, and mystery. At least one trickster animal steals the show. For the past three years, Courtney has studied craft and storytelling with best-selling author Jennifer Lauck at the Attic Institute and has completed the Hawthorne Fellows Program for writing and publishing.
Colorful characters come alive in Courtney's latest novel, The Executrix. When three middle-aged sisters come together after the death of their mother, the manuscript they find in the safe will test the thickness of sibling blood. Mom story becomes larger in death than in life. But it is the elderly neighbor and his dog, Pogo, who just might inspire the story that will change the sisters' future.
Visit Courtney's website at www.courtney-pierce.com. Her books can be purchased at Windtree Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, and at several independent bookstores in the Portland area.