Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Keepers of the Box by Betsy Ashton

Every family has a keeper of the box. It's often the eldest child, or the only girl, or the one interested in genealogy. The box can be literal or figurative, but there is always a box.

My husband and I are both only children. The boxes handed down to us from our mothers have no other home. My mother-in-law didn't believe in keeping what she called "old stuff," things like family documents, photos, etc. She kept a few, but not enough to reconstruct the history of his family.

My mother kept tons on documents, photos, report cards. I found information on land I didn't know the family owned, land lost to unpaid taxes. Photo albums with lots of pictures of people who have gone ahead and have not left their names behind. Legal papers. Ticket stubs. She kept so much of my childhood that I haven't taken time to unpack it.

As writers, we are all keeps of our characters' boxes. To create a complete character, we need to know ever so much more that we will ever use. We need to know what each character, main and minor, looks like. That means small details like the shape of ears, small scars and other marks. We should know what a female carries in her handbag, a man in his pockets. Where do they put their keys? Do they empty handbags or pockets every night? What is on their dressers, in their medicine cabinets? Do they floss?

You'll never use these details, because in real life they are both automatic and boring. But, if you know these things, you know your characters. And then you can throw these minutiae away and get on with the story.

At times, however, one or more of these details demands to be unpacked and imagined. When did the item, if it is literal, enter the character's life? What's its importance to the plot? Can you avoid writing about it, or will you miss an opportunity to enrich the story with just the right detail at just the right moment.

Take for example, a concert ticket stub. Did the character attend the concert alone? With a best friend? With a long-lost love? What emotions go through the character's mind when she holds that stub in her hand? How can you exploit the moment to illustrate something bigger?

Yes, families are the keepers of the box. Writers are as well, because our characters constitute our other families. What boxes do you have packed away? And how many of them have you unpacked?


Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max mystery series, Unintended Consequences, Uncharted Territory, and Unsafe Haven. She also wrote a dark psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without A Face, about a female serial killer, who unpacks her life and career in first person.


Leah St. James said...

I love this, Betsy! I've never thought of character traits or his/her back story that way, but it makes so much sense. Those tiny details make characters come to life. Thanks for the fresh perspective! As for my family's "box," I've kept tons of mementos from the kids' childhoods, figuring I'd pass them down some day. Then one of my sons (I can't remember which) said to me, "I don't want that stuff, Mom. Those are your memories, not mine." Oomph! Of course I still have them though! :-)

Jannine Gallant said...

I'm the keeper of the box when it comes to genealogy stuff, old letters and photos, etc. I loved doing family research, but now I simply don't have time anymore. I'm afraid I don't get into the minutia of my characters' lives that isn't used in the story. Their personalities develop as I write, and I feed in what fits. My outlines are sketchy at best. I'm lucky if I can remember if my hero wears boxers or briefs!

Vonnie Davis said...

Calvin always said I was the family chronicler--or keeper of the box. Mainly I just like to take pictures and enjoy going back in time with old family records. Great post, Betsy. I concentrate on my character's emotional baggage more so than what's in his/her pocket or purse. That point of pain that makes them act or react a certain way.

Andrea Downing said...

Interesting comparison, Betsy. My daughter seems to have taken on the mantle of keeper of the box; when she was in university she wrote a paper on the history of our family and we have a 'tree' and tape recordings of the memories of a couple of generations back, etc. But as for characters. I keep things fluid. I feel I know their personalities/character and try to keep them within that character. Great post.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Great topic, Betsy. My brother and sister are the keepers of the boxes for five siblings. They'll search out relatives and go visit them...just for the fun of it. They're the ones puzzling over 'who's that in the photo?' when the rest of us are snapping a reunion pic and mixing up the blue cheese dip. Alas, I don't dig as deeply into my characters as I probably should...maybe because when I take personality tests, I have a hard time picking my own 'habits.' But thanks for reminding me about the importance of detail regarding characters...I'll do better as a result.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Both my daughters have become the keepers for us, being so much more organized than their mom. Then my amazing oldest grandson took up the charge a few years ago and, through tireless research, brought to life things about our family no one could have imagined. Lesson learned to cherish the past as we look to the future. I, too, am remiss in figuring out all the various details of my characters’ lives. It’s fun, though, when some traits pop up when we’re looking the other way. Great post to get us all thinking.

Diane Burton said...

Fascinating topic, Betsy. Wait until you read my post on the 30th. LOL I'm going to have to revise it a bit. I'm the keeper of the box for our family. But as more of the family is into genealogy, I'm sharing. My youngest cousin who is the same age as my daughter is on Ancestry. With him involved, I know our history will not be lost.

Our characters have wonderful backstories, if only we check on them. Good idea.

Alicia Dean said...

What a great way to think about characters. It's true, we all have history and memories and special moments and keepsakes. Our characters should too.