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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

Month

April 2019

So, I had my first outing as the Main Character from my 1940s story….

…..and made some very interesting observations as I went about my normal routine, going to my local coffee shop and running errands around town.  First and foremost, this was the first time I’ve taken on the challenge to try and become a character in my own book.  Second, I did this primarily because I’m more familiar with how a woman of the late 20th/early 21st century would dress and move.  Third, in order to get into the mind-set of a character set in an era not my own, this was a fun and effective way to do it.

Also, my background is in theater and I’m a method actor. [1]

The dress in question.
The flats (left) and the sensible heels (right).

Simply by putting on the dress, my posture changed significantly – I found myself standing with my back a little straighter and my shoulders back.  This elevated my chin, so that I was looking up and around, not at the path before me.  My stride (which, given my height, is normally long and quick), became shorter and brisk, altering the way my hips also moved. [2]

In addition to the dress, I also styled my hair in as simple a style as I could manage – this was a task unto itself, if you want to know.  My hair and I have an uneasy truce going back many years – I often joke that it is elemental, with a mind of its own, since I can never get it to do anything more fancy than being braided.  Fortunately, I was able to find a simple style and, with a little practice and a couple of hair combs, I did it.  As mentioned in a previous blog, I had several options in footwear, two of which are pictured.  With black flats (to accommodate a recovering sprained ankle) and a retro-vintage black purse, I was ready to explore this character from a bygone era and to learn what makes her tick.

Ready to walk a mile in a character’s shoes.

My first observation was the weather – it was a warm day and the dress was made from a fabric that didn’t breathe.  That is, while the material wasn’t heavy or thick, the dress would have been better worn on a cooler day.  I had an immediate and better understanding for the mirrored compacts (to powder one’s nose) and the handkerchiefs (to blot any sweat) that women kept tucked neatly in their handbags.  To add to the experience, I had Tommy Dorsey’s music playing on my phone, which added an extra spring to my step as I walked (fair warning – one cannot walk to Big Band/swing music, one dances).  And the barista at my favorite coffee shop went above and beyond her duties to help me in my research and switched the music stations.  [3] Big Band played over the speakers, helping to create and enhance the mood while I enjoyed my drink and wrote down my thoughts, observations and general experiences.

My decision to dress as the main character for one of my stories is similar to the work I would do in developing the back-story to an established character in a play.  The more details you find, the richer and more interesting the character becomes.  And this influences the story and engages the other characters, creating a deeper experience, whether to a live audience or to a single reader.

 

[1] Theater is a great tool for writers in terms of plotting, story, and character.  By embodying the character and becoming a part of the story, one develops a better sense of timing, fore-shadowing and motivation.  I highly recommend seeking out scene study/acting classes in your area.

[2] Exercise – find a suit or a dress or some other article of clothing you don’t normally wear.  Observe how it makes you feel, both emotionally and physically (Happy? Energized? Sad? Sexy? Lazy? Angry? Dumpy?), as well as how the fabric feels against your skin.  Walk around, do your daily tasks and write down any details that you notice as you go about your day.  It is absolutely not necessary to do what I did and walk around town – you can stay home for this.

[3] As a ‘thank you’, I’m bringing her some saltwater taffy.

 

Recommended:

Tommy Dorsey – Greatest Hits (CD)
Glenn Miller – Greatest Hits (CD)

So, I’ve put off my 1940s character cosplay experiment…..

…….for a very simple reason – I sprained my ankle.  The bad news on that is I’m limping on a weak ankle, using a cane when necessary for extra support and balance.  The good news is, my ankle is healing and while it’s doing that, I’m gifted with more time to play around with the hair style that I’ve chosen.

This also puts me in a curious position – until my ankle heals completely, I’m not sure I want to wear the sensible shoes with the thick heel. [1]  So now, I’m looking at my black ballet flats, which will do in a pinch.  Not exactly period, but the height requirement on a flat-heeled shoe hasn’t changed all that much in eighty years.  Also, the entire process is about learning who this character is – is she someone who wears sensible heels or sexy ones?  Or is it dependent on the context of the situation?  Does she prefer flats over heels?

And so on.

Now, given my gimpy ankle (short-term though it is), I’m wondering if this character has a minor disability as well, one that requires her to use a cane.  It’s still all very ephemeral, so I guess I’ll find out as I go along.

Which is the beauty of research – it’s like being on a treasure hunt and each little nugget of information you gain leads you to more possibilities.

 

[1] There is always the fear of turning my ankle again – it’s painful and, if it doesn’t heal properly, I’m setting myself up for serious damage later on.  Also, even paved, the sidewalks in my town aren’t exactly level.

So, with Novel Now Finished back at the editor…..

……I’m spending my time waiting for its return by bumbling around with the sequel.  So many changes have occurred within Novel Now Finished that a lot of the background I’d written has gone by the wayside and no longer seems pertinent.  Still, there are some things I’m able to recycle into the sequel, with a minor tweak here and there, and I’m curious to see where these bits will fit in.

“A writer writes, always.”
Billy Crystal,
Throw Momma From the Train (1987)

Some, as I’ve mentioned, are a part of the Narrator’s background and history.  A character that I’d had to excise from Novel Now Finished will be introduced here, a prospect I’m looking forward to, as he was rather charming and amusing. [1]  Then there’s the added question about why the Narrator displays such a lack of interest in some areas of her past, which could be developed into a significant sub-plot.

So far, I’ve got a basic story-line written out and an idea of what happens, but it’s the details that will get me every time.  Many of the questions raised in Novel Now Finished will either be answered (fully or in part) or re-directed; some of the answers may produce more questions for the Narrator to ponder.  I do know that a lot of it will center around the circumstances that led the Narrator to where she is at the start of Novel Now Finished.

And while that doesn’t seem like much, it’s actually a lot.

 

[1] It helps that he and the Narrator have great chemistry.

So, I’ve got some of my ’40s character pieces together…..

……the dresses, the shoes and such.  I’ve got options on the shoes – flats, sensible heels, and a slightly sexier pair of Mary Janes.  The latter will probably not be worn, as this is more about getting to know the Character and her day to day experiences.  Since I already know she’s not interested in keeping up with the latest fashions (unlike her older sisters), I’m not going to worry about a glamorous look for her.

At least, not yet.

Right now, I’m more interested in getting to know her from the inside out, much like an actor works to get to know their role in a play or film.  [1] This means I’ve got to ask questions and make note of my discoveries in my journal.  Questions may range from Does she have a speech impediment, or a upper crust dialect?Does she have nervous habits and how do they manifest; Is her posture more formal when with her family and relaxed around friends? and everywhere in between.

Which brings me to my desire in dressing the part.

My reasons in dressing as this Character is to figure out her physicality and how she moves in the clothing and shoes of the period circa 1942.  Women wore a significant amount of layers, more then than we do now, and those layers affected how they moved and felt.  This includes their footwear.  It’s one thing to walk around in sneakers and jeans (as I generally do, since I’m a walker), but to be able to walk a significant distance even in flats (let alone the thick, sensible heeled shoes I’m pondering on wearing) has me aghast at the idea of putting my feet through a tortuous ordeal. [2]

But…..I want to know these things, so as to better inform the Character’s personality and the choices she makes.  It will give me the little details I might have missed had I not chosen to dress the part.  And until I start, I won’t know what those details will be.  That’s the beauty of this path in discovering who the Character is.

Sometimes, to know the character, you’ve got to dress the part.

 

 

[1] As an actor, I found that the more I asked why my character was in the story, the more reasons I uncovered that added layers to what might at first glance be a flat character.

[2] Already, my feet are putting in notices of protest.

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