Monday, November 16, 2009

This Relative for Hire by Tracy Kiely

A strange thing happened last week. While I was diligently plugging away on my third book, I happened to glance away for just a teensy second and during that brief moment of distraction, my muse just up and left. I don’t know if she ducked out for a quick cigarette or what, but I haven’t heard from her in days. Frankly, I’m beginning to suspect that she may have been hit by a bus. Either that or she’s sprawled on a beach somewhere in Cancun.

Two things happened while I was waiting for her to come back:

A) I ate a lot of my kids’ Halloween candy. (Which reminds me; for those of you handing out DOTS and Laughy Taffy, please cease and desist. That stuff is awful. Chocolate--buy chocolate. It’s not for me—-it’s for the kids.)

B) I came across some notes from a mystery writing class that I took years ago. What jumped out at me (other than the fact that I have lousy handwriting) was this bit of advice:

“A mystery must have tension, secrets, and characters that inspire strong feelings – particularly murderous feelings.”

And I thought—-hello!—-change out “The holidays” for “A mystery” and the observation becomes even more apt. I mean, think about it--we are rapidly heading into that time of year when facial tics become a part of our daily existence and why? Because of our families! Those lovely people who drive us to the emotional extremes that keep psychiatrists’ businesses booming. Their weird quirks, their prejudices, their emotional manipulations, hell, in some cases just the way they breathe can send you over the edge.

For instance, I remember the Thanksgiving I was ten. My mother had worn herself out prepping her usual fare; a massive turkey, two kinds of stuffing, yams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, and, of course, a pumpkin pie for dessert. That morning my grandfather insisted on taking us all out to brunch. As he made his third trip to the buffet, my mother laughingly said, “Now, don’t eat too much! Remember to save room for Thanksgiving dinner.”

With a dismissive flick of his wrist, my grandfather grunted, “Freeze it.”

Then there’s the relative who, upon eating one of my hors d'oeuvres last Thanksgiving, spit it out into her napkin and crossed the room to where I was getting dinner ready. She then handed the mess to me, and in that way little kids talk when trying to keep their tongues from touching their mouth, said, “I don’t like this.”

Cute story until you consider the fact that the relative in question is a forty-six-year old.

Okay, perhaps they didn’t exactly inspire murderous feelings (although my mom looked pretty pissed), but they certainly inspired strong feelings. We’ve all heard the advice “write what you know” and it’s pretty good advice. By carefully observing those around you, you can create some really solid characters. Characters that make you feel, make you care, and in some cases, characters that make you giggle with glee when they finally get what’s coming to them.

The problem is when we write what we know, we are tempted to write about the people we know—and if we do write about them, nine times out of ten we are going to get busted.

But, my friends, that’s all about to change because I propose we create a network where frustrated writers who are missing their muses can log in and find their inspiration.

Remember Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where the two men traded murders? Well, instead of trading murders, we trade annoying relative stories! And let’s not limit ourselves; co-workers, bosses, ex-loves are all eligible. It’s a win-win situation. We get to vent and use great material! Should my hors d'oeuvres-spitting relative read about her actions in your book, well, that’s nothing to do with me! And should your Aunt Josephine who lets her dogs eat out of her mouth read about a character eerily similar to her in my book, well, it must be some kind of coincidence, right? Right!

So, tell me your horror stories and I’ll tell you mine. I’m free today as my muse is still MIA. She’s either lying on a hospital bed in a full body cast or on a beach towel sucking down mojitos.


mary kennedy said...

Great blog, Tracy. My favorite "holiday-relatives-nightmare" story involves a friend of mine. She invited out of state relatives to Thanksgiving dinner, knocked herself out, cooking for days. The relatives turned up half an hour late for the big dinner, and then said they were stuffed and couldn't eat a thing. Why? Because they had just stopped for dinner at McDonald's. As they explained it, "the kids got hungry and couldn't wait." Yowsers, I'm surprised she didn't take a meat cleaver to them.

TracyK said...

I am convinced that there is a previously unknown tenth circle of hell for people like that. Dante just didn't know about it because McD's hadn't been invented yet.

Bpoelle said...

This year I am going to suggest "A Shirley Jackson Christmas" ala The Lottery. I think it will be much quicker and that we we can all focus our vitriol on just ONE person rather than spreading ourselves too thin.

TracyK said...

Very true - and besides, we have to save something (or would that be "someone") for next year.