Will Travel For Words: Going Nowhere by Karen A. Chase
They say that every moment gives writers an opportunity to explore character development, and this month I found mine in a graveyard.
I had been in an all-day meeting with about 20 other writers, in a hall on the historic grounds of St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. A few of our attendees had never been there before. In this church–perched on a hill with the grounds and old graveyard fenced in–is where Patrick Henry said his famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
About an hour from sunset, we gathered our items to leave, happy to know we’d ended our creative meeting about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The first person out the door, soon returned and announced, “We’re locked in!”
The gates onto the grounds had been shut for the night.
The first person had really set the tone for each of us to react. They had not casually remarked, “Hey, we gotta call someone ‘cuz they locked the gates by accident.” Instead, the feeling of being trapped had been planted. So this is when the cohesive group that had been brainstorming together all day began to fray. It also provided the perfect moment for character study.
As the group filtered out into the graveyard, several opened up phones and called loved ones to say they thought they’d be early but might be late. A few moved immediately to the gate–a gate nearly seven feet high with spikes across the top. I saw the group flag down two people walking past.
Four or five tried to see if an elevator meant to take handicapped people from the graveyard to street level was serviceable. It was not, and a small groan escaped the group. A few shrugged and one admitted, “I guess we’ll just wait. At least we’re outside, right?” The weather was warm for February.
The majority, me included, stayed on the highest ground. I tend to joke in matters when I sense others might be feeling uncomfortable. So I said, “Nothing like a bunch of writers with overactive imaginations stuck in a graveyard at sundown, huh?” I’m not sure that was helpful to everyone.
Two people took off across the church grounds. One of them wandered through the tombstones, exploring. I saw her turn her face toward the last rays of sun. The other person moved swiftly around the perimeter like a caged tiger. Failing to find an alternative exit, he did what many of us had likely considered; he climbed the gate.
Ten minutes later, a custodian came and let us all out. Not exactly liberty or death.
These types of very personal actions and reactions are what writers seek to reveal. Ann Pachette in her famous book, Bel Canto, created a plot around the idea of a group of relative strangers suddenly trapped together in a highly stressful situation. Stories about people stranded or pushed together fascinate us. Under The Dome. Voyage of the Narwhal. The list is long.
I write about this event not to criticize my fellow writers for their reactions but to point out a true fact. Even writers have fight, flight or freeze tendencies within us, and our job is not only to recognize them, but to use them for greater character development. In our fiction, and ourselves.
It’s something to consider next time your plane is stuck on the tarmac. Or when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. Even when the gates of a graveyard won’t release you. Stop. Let your observant author fly. For sometimes it is when we are going nowhere, we have the best opportunity to travel for words.
Karen A. Chase is a regular contributor to Shelf Pleasure, sharing journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories and novels in her monthly feature, Will Travel for Words. She is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, winner of seven Independent Book Publishing Awards for travel and design. She is currently working on an historical novel set during the American Revolution. Find Karen on Facebook, or on Twitter.
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