Characters who inspire

I am supposed to be writing about dreams for the second installment of my 3-piece series on where to find inspiration as a writer. If you recall, dreams were supposed to star in my first installment but got relegated to second as I was overcome by the power of place in Chincoteague. Well, it looks like my dreams are on hold yet again.

As I sit on a pier in Malahide, Ireland, where I’ve come for a writers’ retreat, I’m again overcome by a sense of place. I’ve just landed, having flown through the night with no sleep. But who needs sleep when captivated by the host of characters passing by in this magical place? Since characters were going to be the subject of the 3rd segment in my series, I’m not terribly out of whack – just out of order. And as I put dreams on the back burner yet again and instead set to tackle the issue of how characters inspire writers, I realize that these sources of inspiration are all connected ultimately at some level.

We’re often so wrapped up in the bustle of our daily lives that we don’t pay attention to the little things. It’s only when we slow down enough to let ourselves feel the pulse, fall into the rhythm of a place, notice the rich characters all around us, that we realize the little things are really the essence of life. The beauty is in the details.

As I settle into the idea of becoming one with the pier, I close my eyes and pull in a deep breath, expecting fish-salty air to assault my senses. Instead, I first notice the warmth of the sun against my arms, and the roughness of the concrete pier pull against my pants, catching them, but not caring. I open up to the sounds of this place in a way I hadn’t only seconds before. And when I open my eyes, I’m acutely aware of my surroundings. A barrage of languages circle me, mixing together, forming beautiful music. Different cultures, lifetimes of experience thousands of miles apart and yet somehow fundamentally the same at their core. All these families, couples, and individuals come to this place, looking for something. Simple pleasures.

A brother and sister, licking ice cream cones, both come to the edge of the pier. Her stepping right in, water creeping around her sneakers and over her toes. Him, stopping just at the edge. And I see them in that moment. Completely and fully. Their different personalities summed up in that simple act. I see them at home, her taunting him just out of view of mom and dad. I see the beginnings of a story.

A moment later, another brother and sister whisk by. A dead crab on the pier catches their attention. “Ew!” The girl walks away while her brother gets down in its face, prodding the crab with a stick, having a conversation. More fuel for story characters. Maybe reverse the roles in this case and conflate the brother and sister from above.

The tide is coming in, creeping up the pier, slowly at first, but coming faster, forcing me to move, find a new spot. As I do, a group of early twenty-something women come along, taking turns posing for glamour shots. One a born poser, kicks water to add dramatic effect to the photos, flipping her head first one way, then another to maximize hair volume and peeking out from under her wild mop to maximize sex-appeal. Another is self-conscious, awkward in her poses, but all the more beautiful in her awkwardness. And I see the beginnings of another possible story.

As the young women wind up their cover shots, on the other side of the pier, a dumpy fifty-something woman with not-quite-black died hair and chopped bangs sets up her own photo shoot starring her reluctant husband. She pushes and molds him, trying to loosen his rigid posture, then steps back with her disposable camera (I didn’t know they still made those) to assess her handiwork. She clucks and shakes her head, disapproving of the plastic carry-bag. “Give us the bag now,” she admonishes as he rolls his eyes, even more mortified than moments before. Again, in my mind’s eye I catch a snippet of their life together and yet another story idea starts to take shape.

Behind them a couple with a carriage appears, a crying toddler in tow. The mom picks up the girl who starts to cry harder, struggling to get down. When the mom obliges, she cries harder still. The man throws up his hands in frustration, bending to scoop her up, where she proceeds to kick and scream reaching out for the mom. As the mom leans across, the stroller suddenly rolls back towards the water. It takes a moment for the mom to notice in all the confusion and she cries out, running after it. Another possible story is born.

A guy in flamboyant pink pants with pointed white shoes strolls by. Somehow he pulls it off, looking cool against all odds. In fact, for a small Irish community, a surprising but refreshing number of gay couples saunter by, in love, open and uninhibited. All rich potential characters with percolating story ideas abounding.

But the one that hits me most intensely is an impossibly thin woman in tennis whites, walking in the distance with 3 kids in tow, all carrying tennis rackets – a boy, who she holds close, arm wrapped around his shoulder, two girls trailing behind. It’s not her anorexic twig-like legs that catch my attention first, but her obvious simple joy in being alive. She aims her water bottle over her left shoulder, sending an arc of water over the squealing girls behind. “Again, Mama!” (It’s not ‘mama’, but sounds something like it.) “I’ve got my shield up.” The girl holds her tennis racket up to her face. A picture perfect scene. But as they get closer, I see I was wrong. It’s a happy tableau on the surface, but there’s a profound sadness just below the surface of the woman’s skin. She’s not close enough yet that I can see her eyes, not really, but somehow I know. I see it. But mostly I feel it. A brave show – a great day for the kids. But I have the unshakable feeling that this is a goodbye. That she is going home to put her head in the oven tonight. A definite story here.

I’m sure you get the idea. Inspiration for writing is all around us. We just need to slow down enough to notice the details that are the lifeblood for writers. If we pay attention, place is rich fodder for stories. Characters abound. And where there are unlikely characters, there is story.

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