As I explained in an earlier post, I like to use short fiction exercises to better acquaint myself with characters from a longer work. Sometimes I finish with a paragraph or two that puts a little flesh on an otherwise thin character; sometimes I gain a better sense of the character’s voice, and sometimes a short story takes shape. The latter happened a couple of years ago when I sat down to learn a bit more about a character in my first novel.
Tonda Neeley is a young single mother working as a secretary in an elementary school. She’s hardworking. She has a good relationship with her daughter. She’s also caustic, defensive, and particularly pugnacious with her direct supervisor. I knew that Tonda had suffered a few knocks growing up: her father died when she was very young; her mother struggled financially and without fiscal or emotional support from either her or her husband’s family; and, Tonda herself married young and chose her mate unwisely.
I knew the rough patches. I also wanted to know what made her strong enough to be a good mom, move far from home and grind out a better life for her and her kid or I risked reducing her to a stereotype: the single mom with a tough background. So, when the phrase, “When Tonda Neeley left her husband, she took her daughter, two pockets crammed with loose change, and three frozen chickens” looped through my mind one day, I grabbed it and began to write. And very quickly, a story took shape. It was a story that showed me Tonda’s first courageous step away from sure destruction and toward life, away from abuse and neglect, toward the nurturing community of her childhood home and neighborhood.
When Tonda Neeley left her husband, she took her daughter, two pockets crammed with loose change and three frozen chickens. She had to walk, of course, and the chickens made the whole thing awkward. Still, she figured that walking thirty-one blocks in the summer heat would start them thawing pretty quick, and when she and Lainey got to her mother’s house, they would roast them and invite the neighbors. Anyone who wanted could come and eat those chickens. They would all devour them, brown skins crisped in real butter, chopped herbs steamed against the pink flesh turned white in the oven. Every bite tender, running with juices, savory and comforting. This is what filled her mind, pounding against the inner walls of her skull as she gripped her daughter’s thin hand and stepped off the cement front step of their home.
An hour or two of writing and rewriting produced a rough draft and cleared a nasty case of writer’s doldrums. Uncounted moments of editing here and there, in the quiet moments, resulted in a short story, “Three Chickens”, published last month by Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. (If you like, you can read the full story here.)
I always like my characters more after getting to know them better, even the awful ones. (And Tonda can be pretty awful.) Kind of like real people.