Give Your Characters Memories

by James Scott Bell

Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories. — Steven Wright

We often talk about a character’s backstory, including a “wound” that haunts as a “ghost” in the present. It’s a solid device, giving a character interesting and mysterious subtext at the beginning. The wound is revealed later as an explanation. (Think of Rick in Casablanca. “I stick my neck out for nobody” and his casual using of women. The wound of Ilsa’s “betrayal” doesn’t become clear until the midpoint).

An often overlooked, but equally useful item, is a character’s memories. These can show up when we want a deeper look inside. It is sometimes recalled as a flashback, but can also be revealed in a dialogue exchange. One of my favorite examples of the latter is when the three friends in City Slickers are riding along together and share the best day and worst day of their lives.* In my workshops I have the students do a best day-worst day voice journal for their Lead, and suggest they do the same for other main characters, including the villain.

Another way to access this material is through your own memories. And a good way to do that is via morning pages. One exercise is to write I remember and just go. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Follow the tangents. The other morning I did just that:

I remember a mobile hanging above my crib. Do I? Or did I formulate it later as a created memory? I don’t know, but I can see it even now.

A nursery school memory I know is real. There was a girl crying in the room, which had walls with nursery rhyme murals on them. I vividly recall a grandfather clock with a mouse running up. Anyway, I went up to the girl and started to pet her hair. I didn’t want her to be sad. 

In third grade there was a girl in our class named Leslie. She was sort of an outsider. Never said much. One rainy day I was walking home from school in my raincoat when I came upon Leslie crying her little eyes out. She was having trouble holding her books, lunchbox and umbrella. So I took the books from her and offered to walk her home. Immediately she brightened up and chatted away all the way to her house.

Not long after that I was riding my bike when I made a wrong move and crashed into a tree. Down I went. My arm exploded in pain. As I lay there moaning, a woman ran out of her house to check on me. She helped me up and into her house, where she called my mom to come and get me. Mom took me to our family doctor (remember those?), the same doctor, Dr. Depper, who had delivered me into the world. My arm wasn’t broken, but it got wrapped up and put in a sling. When we got home, Mom turned on the TV. My favorite show was on, Huckleberry Hound. Mom gave me some ice cream.

About forty years later, Mrs. B and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant when an elderly gentleman came in with his wife and was seated.

“You see that man?” I said to Cindy. “He’s the doctor who delivered me.”

I went over. “Dr. Depper?”


“I’m Rosemary Bell’s son.”

“Well I’ll be!”

“I remember your office in Canoga Park. You had a great aquarium in the waiting room.”

“Oh, yes. Those were the days, weren’t they?”

Yes indeed, those were the days, and the memories are priceless.

Do you give your characters memories?

What’s your earliest memory? 

What act of kindness were you shown when you were young?

*Here’s that scene from City Slickers. It’s beautiful writing.


Love, Loss and Emotion in Our Writing

James Scott Bell

Her name was Susan and we were in the third grade. I saw her for the first time on the playground. She had blonde hair that was almost white, and eyes as blue as a slice of sky laid atop God’s light table.

She looked at me and I felt actual heat in my chest.

Remember that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, sees Appolonia for the first time? His two friends notice the look on his face and tell him, “I think you got hit by the thunder bolt!”

When it happens to us at eight years old, we don’t exactly have a metaphor for it, but that’s what it was––the thunder bolt. Love at first sight!

I remember the ache I felt the rest of the day. My life had changed, divided into two periods (admittedly of not too lengthy duration)—before Susan and after Susan.

Now what? Having no experience with love, I wondered what the next step was supposed to be. How did love work itself out when your mom was packing your lunches and your allowance was twenty-five cents a week?

I’d seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. He climbed up the vines to Maid Marian’s balcony. Was that a plan? Not in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of mostly one-story, ranch-style homes. Clearly, the balcony strategy was out.

I had also seen the 1938 version of Tom Sawyer(I was getting most of my life lessons from movies and Classics Illustrated comic books) and was enamored of his love for Becky Thatcher. And what had Tom done to impress Becky? Why, he showed off, of course.

There was my answer. I would show off in front of Susan.

What was I good at? Kickball. Athletic prowess would be my ticket into Susan’s heart. So out on the playground I made my voice loud and clear when I came up for my kicks. Susan was usually nearby playing foursquare.

And every now and then we’d make eye contact. That’s when I’d kick that stupid ball all the way to the fence.

Yet I was shy, afraid to talk to her directly. I mean, what was I going to say? Want to see my baseball cards, baby? How about joining me for a Jell-O at lunch? Hey, that nurse’s office is really something, isn’t it?

Flummoxed, I thought of Susan for weeks without ever exchanging a word with her.  She had no problem with that, it seemed. But she knew I liked her. The rumor mill at school was a fast and efficient communication system. Which only made me more embarrassed.

I considered running away and joining the circus, but my parents were against it.

Then one day circumstances coalesced and the stars aligned.

School was out and kids were heading for the gates to walk home or get picked up. I usually went out the front gate. Susan went out the back, and this day I fell in with that company and quickened my pace to get next to her. Heart pounding, I said something suave like, “Hi.” I don’t recall that she said anything, but at once I found we were side by side, walking down the street.

I started talking about our teacher, Mr. McMahon, who was tall and imposing and a strict disciplinarian (thus, in hallways and safely out on the playground, we referred to him, in whispered tones, as “Mr. McMonster.”)

Susan said nothing. I started to get more confident. Maybe, just maybe, she was interested in what I had to say. And maybe, just maybe, oh hope of all hopes, she actually liked me back.

All of that showing off was about to pay dividends!

And then came one of those moments you never forget, that scorch your memory banks and leave a permanent burn mark. Susan turned to me and spoke for the first time. And this is what she said:

“Just because I’m walking with you doesn’t mean you’re my boyfriend.”

It was the way she said boyfriend that did it. It dripped with derision and perhaps a bit of mockery. If I could have found a gopher hole I would have dived in, hoping for a giant subterranean rodent to eat me up and end my shame.

This all happened fifty years ago, yet I can still see it, hear it and feel it as if it were last week.

Is that not why some of us are writers? To create scenes that burn like that, with vividness and emotion, rendering life’s moments in such a way as to let others experience them?

Even if it’s “only entertainment,” the emotional connection that takes us out of ourselves is something we need. “In a world of so much pain and fear and cruelty,” writes Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.” And the way into that escapism is to create emotional moments that are real and vibrant and sometimes even life-altering.

The best way to do that is to tap into our own emotional past andtranslate moments for fictional purposes. Like an actor who uses emotion memory to become a character, we can take the feelings we’ve felt and put them into the characters we create on the page.

Thus, Susan was part of my becoming who I am and how I write.

So Susan, my first love, wherever you are, thank you. Maybe I wasn’t your boyfriend, but you taught me what it’s like to love and lose. I can use that. All of life is material!

I hope you’re well. I hope you’ve found true and lasting love, like I have. I want you to know I hold you no ill will.

But always remember this: I’m still the best kickball player you ever saw.

For Mom and Dad on the Fourth

Fourth of July weekend. Time to think about America, hot dogs, burgers with everything, pie, fireworks and a day off to chill (even in L.A. where it’s going to be trip digits). We’ve already had some reflections on the 4th of July here at TKZ. I wanted to add another. 
On the Fourth of July, above all else, I think about my parents. Mom and Dad were part of that Greatest Generation. They gave me and my brothers the best possible start in life. And for that I will be eternally grateful. 
Arthur S. Bell, Jr., grew up in Hollywood, next door to Joel McCrea and around the corner from Alan Hale (whose son was about my Dad’s age and would grow up to play the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island). He went to Hollywood High School and UCLA, where he was catcher on the baseball team. Oh yeah, and he had a teammate there by the name of Jackie Robinson. (Dad’s in the middle of the first row, Robinson far left)

During summers, Dad was an extra in the movies, making numerous appearances, one of which was as a wounded Confederate soldier in the Atlanta train station scene in Gone With the Wind. We’ve never been able to spot him, though.
But here is the thing that really blows me away. At the age of twenty-three, Dad was an officer in the United States Navy aboard a Patrol Craft, hunting subs around the Solomon Islands during World War II.

My mom, Rosemary, was born in Maryland. Her father was with the Roosevelt administration and went down to oversee projects in Puerto Rico. That’s where Mom grew up. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1944.
While living in New York she met a dashing young Naval officer and the rest is Bell family history.
Dad and Mom settled in Woodland Hills, part of the booming, post war San Fernando Valley. Dad went to USC law school and Mom was active in the community. She helped start the Women’s Club and worked on a local newspaper. She served on the Chamber of Commerce and as honorary mayor of Woodland Hills. Mom was the writer in the family and I first learned about stories from her.
From Dad I learned about hard work. He was one of the most respected lawyers in Los Angeles and a devoted champion of the Bill of Rights. He helped start the federal indigent defense panel in the city, so the poor facing major raps would have access to competent criminal defense counsel.

This explains, I think, why my books all have a quest for justice in them. I learned to respect that quest from Dad.

Here’s the way I remember him best––sitting in his home office reading advance sheets with the latest case law. He was the leading search and seizure expert in California. Judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and more than a few prisoners all sought his advice over the years.

Fourth of July was always big time fun when I was a kid. Mom would host a potluck for the neighborhood. All the baby boom progeny would be running around or swimming or eating or playing games. Then we’d sit on the front lawn and watch a local fireworks display.
Dad would sometimes take that occasion to recite a poem or two. With his ever present cigar, he would orate in the same voice with which he argued to many a jury.
One of his favorites he learned from his father, as I learned it from Dad. To me, it sums up what my American father was trying to instill in my brothers and me. I think he succeeded. It’s called The Victor:
A toast to the man who dares
No matter how dead his trade;
Who can win his luck
By his own good pluck
When the rest of the world is afraid.
Another to him who fights
When the trade is a whirlwind lure,
And who jumps right in
With a will to win,
Though rivals are plenty and sure.
So here’s to the man who dares,
Though fortune blow low, blow high,
And who always knows
That the conquest goes
To the man who is ready to try.
Happy 4th of July, everybody!

Rockin’ the 4th

My life’s experiences as an author often wind up in my books. While I’m writing, I let my mind wander wherever it goes to come up with settings, emotions, and dialogue. I free my mind and don’t censor myself. Chances are, if what I’ve written makes it through my own edits, it will stay. Being a writer has added to the quality of my life because I’ve become more of an observer and a listener and everything interests me.

So with the July 4th holiday coming up, I’ve been reflecting on my favorite memories of this celebration. It’s a federal holiday—typically a long weekend for most—which is reason enough to celebrate. Independence Day (commemorating our freedom from Great Britain and the adoption of our Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) is typically celebrated with fireworks displays, parades, picnics, BBQs, baseball games, and gatherings of families.

I’ve had many fond memories of this holiday. My brothers and sisters used to wage war in the neighborhood with bottle rockets. I mean serious war, folks. We had bunkers and booby traps and body armor in the form of hooded winter jackets in the middle of the Texas summer heat. My oldest brother, Ed, once donned a hooded winter coat to protect himself from the onslaught of direct hits. He launched bottle rockets from a Coke bottle pointed wherever he aimed—like a young Rambo—but one blasted out of the bottle and turned on him. A self-inflicted wound. It spun back into his hood and sent sparks flying around his head. He looked like a human torch (except for the weird dance he performed) trying to smother the live round. He could have lost an eye, instead of the singe circle of hair that got burned off his head. This wasn’t exactly one of his stellar moments. Now that he’s a father, giving sage advice to his boys on fireworks, he has real credibility (even though it’s a story he’s never told them). Sometimes I’m amazed he’s still alive.

The memory of my brother setting his head on fire ranks near the top of my list of childhood memories for reason only a kid would understand, probably because Ed survived to laugh about it. But my favorite memory of this holiday came when I was in my 30s and vacationing in Hawaii. I lived in Alaska at the time, so spending weeks on a beach was as close to heaven as I could imagine. My husband and I didn’t know what to expect, but we’d been invited by friends to join them in an annual event they participated in on July 4th. A boat picked us up on the beach near our hotel. I’m not talking about a pier landing. We had to walk into the ocean and clamor—as gracefully as possible—from the cresting waves and into a raft. I should have taken note that arriving at the party onboard the boat, soaking wet, was a hint of things to come.

Every year, a group of close friends launches an all out war on the water between two boats. They make huge slingshots with surgical tubing and launch large water balloons, trying to score hits. Better than the old game, Battleship. The two boats run a parallel course and bombard the partygoers with mega-water-balloons. The battle was a lot of fun, but I will never forget being adrift on the ocean at sunset in paradise with warm water everywhere and the sounds of laughter filling my soul with a contentment I will always remember.

But after it grew dark, the boats anchored near shore. We had the best seats in the house as we watched the fireworks on the beach from the boats rocking on the waves. The dazzling lights reflected on the water and I couldn’t drink enough of that memory in, surrounded by friends and my husband beside me.

My favorite memory of the July 4th holiday was a little unconventional, but most good memories are. With the holiday coming up, how will you spend it? Do you have a favorite July 4th memory to share? Tell me a story.