By Margaret S. Hamilton
Our annual recycling day, when everything from electronics to paint and chemicals is recycled or safely disposed of, was postponed from May to July. When signs for the rescheduled event went up, I surged with resolve, anxious to reclaim a garage stall that had been packed with boxes of old bills, bank statements, and kids’ academic work since our March 2019 basement flood. Consumed with grim determination in the ninety-plus degree heat, I attacked the boxes, shoving the detritus of the past twenty years into paper Trader Joe’s shopping bags. I saved photos, anything related to my writing, and my husband’s professional files.
I had seen a cozy mystery anthology call on the final submission day, noted the lengthy preferred word count, checked my file of unpublished stories and thought I had nothing that fit—until I went through a box of old manuscripts and found a perfect gem of a story, only fifty words under the minimum! Retreating to the cool of the air-conditioned kitchen, I padded my story with a hundred new words and shipped it off. A frustrating week of dead starts had turned positive. What else could I glean?
I amassed a fabulous collection of plastic organizers and file folders from my many attempts to get organized over the years. As the pile of empty boxes grew taller, the line of packed grocery bags stretched the length of the garage. I added leaky AA batteries to the pile, and broken electronics from the graveyard shelf in the garage.
Recycling day arrived, with a hundred people staffing the electronics and hazardous waste stations and commercial shredding truck. Seven minutes after the gates opened, I was twenty-fifth in line for the shredder. Everyone in the village, it seemed, had spent their days during home isolation sorting boxes of bank and medical insurance statements, and cancelled checks. Of course, I scrutinized the shredder as a potential body disposal method. Alas, the body would jam the hopper. My WWK colleague, Kathleen Rockwood, suggested a tree shredder instead.
From fifty-odd boxes, I emerged with a few gems, including copies of emails from our chaotic days of three kids going in different directions (“See you at 5:30 at the BP station to swap kids. I’ll do basketball followed by band practice pickup if you handle soccer”). The kids’ report cards and test scores, problem sheets and essays. Notes from the writing workshops I had taught fifth graders to bring them up to middle school standards. The first chapter of a MG mystery I had written, similar to Mary Downing Hahn’s books. My narrative voice hasn’t changed, though I instantly realized my “mom” voice didn’t evoke an eleven-year-old narrator. Various school handbooks detailing both the code of conduct and the serious consequences for breaking the rules, including NO READING ON THE BUS! Based on a lengthy correspondence with the school administration, I had fought that battle and lost.
A box of paperwork related to settling my parents’ estates brought tears. I found real estate flyers from our two previous houses. After admiring photos of my kitchen renovations, I pitched them in the recycling cart. I found an old letter from a childhood friend, meditated how her life had evolved in comparison to mine, and mentally catalogued the emotions it evoked.
After my daily four-hour stint in the garage, I came inside and continued with final revisions on my debut mystery, repeatedly coming up against the same critique from my beta readers: what is your main character thinking? How does she feel? I wanted to write that she craves Greek pizza (feta cheese, spinach, and kalamata olives), dark chocolate, and a glass of chardonnay, but I needed something more elemental and profound. Based on my recent foray into the the past twenty years, I wrote my own “emotion descriptions” for grief, despair, anger, hatred, fear, self-loathing, satisfaction, excitement, acceptance and joy. I had used an emotion thesaurus for my main character’s physical responses and body language in the manuscript. After my garage experience, I was finally able to layer in the final brush strokes of words evoking raw emotion.
Writers, have you ever turned a negative experience into one benefitting your writing? Readers, does detailing a character’s emotions add to your reading enjoyment?