Good Lists Make Great Stories

 

 

On a recent drive to a workshop event, I was listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS. Near the beginning, Ruth, a Labor and Delivery nurse, describes all the things that need to be observed during a newborn’s physical assessment. It’s a long list of  over a dozen items, including measuring the circumference of the infant’s head, its sucking reflex, the relative softness of its belly, the location of the urethra, etc.

I got very excited when I recognized the list as a list because I was planning an exercise about using lists in fiction during the workshop. (Credit for the exercise goes to my writing prof/writer husband, Pinckney, who is an amazing teacher.)

Do you create lists for yourself? I’m most prone to make lists when I’m very busy around the holidays, need to do a brain dump for all the things I need to do for a project, or I’m packing for travel. Even the least list-like people usually have mental checklists they use. Think: unlock car, get in, turn on engine, buckle up, adjust climate, charge phone, light cigarette, put car in gear. Or, make coffee, unlock door, take dog outside, get paper, lock door, feed dog, make breakfast, read paper. An airplane or helicopter pilot doesn’t fly if their checklist isn’t completed. If you write down all the things you usually do in a particular order, you’ll have a list.

Directions–whether to a particular location or describing how to put something together–are another sort of list.

The glorious thing about using lists in stories and other writing is that they are a perfect shorthand for defining characters and setting scenes.

Some famous lists from literature:

Oft-quoted packing list from Joan Didion’s The White Album

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

So, it’s not fiction. But we get an astonishingly clear picture of Didion, the person and the writer, in a fairly small space. Bourbon, aspirin, Tampax, typewriter–though where’s the underwear? Perhaps it was too delicate a mention for her? If so, that definitely says a lot about her.

 

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

“What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatcher, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

A scathing sentence, isn’t it? Two lists that condemn both practices and and entire philosophy.

 

Mary Oliver

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

I want, I want, I want…Imagine playing with the form of your short story (it would be too long for a novel), beginning every line with a word or phrase. A list of wants, shaped into a story.

Joyce Carol Oates has a story in which each line begins with “If.” At least I think it was “If.” Anyway, it was a good story, as I recall.

 

Johnny Cash’s To-Do List

“THINGS TO DO TODAY!

1. Not smoke
2. Kiss June
3. Not kiss anyone else
4. Cough
5. Pee
6. Eat
7. Not eat too much
8. Worry
9. Go see Mama
10. Practice Piano

NOTES: Not write notes”

This says so much about Johnny Cash. Or another sensitive man, musician, lover.

 

Bridget Jones’s Diary, New Year’s Resolution list

One of the most famous lists in recent literature. Find it. Read it. Even if it’s not your flavor of fiction. Utterly defines her character and is a brilliant precursor for the entire novel.

From my novel, The Stranger Inside

“There are two carefully folded summer dresses, both V-neck and in patterns she might have chosen for herself, one more tailored than the other. Beneath them is a pair of white Capri pants and two pairs of soft linen shorts. Then several linen shirts in pastel colors, one a loose button-down. As she takes the clothes from the bag, she lays them out on the bed. The tags say Nordstrom, and the linen pieces are marked as having been on sale. She smiles when she opens the two shoeboxes to find a pair of buff kitten-heel slides that go with the dresses, and a pair of flat Tory Burch sandals. It’s as though she’s been visited by a fairy, but she knows the fairy was surely Diana.

Opening the third bag, she laughs. There’s more tissue, but it’s wrapped around a clutch of panties that spill out like silky water over her hand and onto the bed. At the bottom of the bag is a diaphanous pink cotton nightgown with satin ties at the shoulders. While everything else is very close to what she’d wear, the nightgown strikes her as bridal and girlish. Still, what a surprise it all is. She realizes she hasn’t really smiled in days.”

(Don’t be fooled. This is one of the novel’s very few quiet moments. After all, there’s a stranger occupying Kimber’s house and he has possession of all her clothes.)

 

__________

Are those enough lists for you? Think of your own lists: grocery lists, wishlists, self-improvement lists, lists of goals, bucket lists. There are as many lists as people in the world.

Think about what kinds of lists your characters might make. If your character is a serial killer, imagine her Home Depot shopping list. Imagine the prescriptions her elderly victims take.

Every list tells a story. Go make one!

Do you have any favorite literary lists? What lists have you made that could be stories? How have you used lists in your work?

 

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Write Where You Know, or Not, and a New Release

 

 

I’m not comfortable setting stories in places I haven’t lived or visited. Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty good little story about a girl who’s held captive by a mad piano tuner. Okay, I know. Maybe a piano tuner isn’t the first bad ‘un to come to mind  when you’re thinking of thriller villains. But have you ever read the late William Gay’s story, “The Paperhanger?” You should. It’s brilliant. And I have a surreal story called “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” that’s been anthologized and is taught in some university writing courses. (You would like it unless you have a phobia of spiders that extends as far as the written page.)

Anywho…I wrote the piano tuner story to submit to an industry anthology years ago. One of the requirements was that it had to be set in Prague. I know people who have been to Prague. It’s known for Dvorák and Mozart, and impressive architecture. Only about one tenth of my story took place outside the apartment, if that. It was not chosen for the anthology. In fact, I’ve submitted four stories over the years to two different industry anthologies, and none of them have been accepted. The fact that those competitions are often themed makes the stories hard to sell elsewhere, but whatever. Writing is practice never wasted.

My takeaway from the Prague disaster is that I should stick closer to home. (And that submitting to industry anthologies is a crap shoot I’m not destined to win.)

I’m perfectly happy to set a story nowhere. An isolated mansion. A suburban condo. A backyard in summer. A mid-range hotel room. It’s part of the beauty of our U.S. of A. There’s anonymity out there if you want it. Though, now that I think of it, I also set a story in a Hall of the Gods that was definitely nowhere in particular.

All of my novels are set in places I’ve lived: Virginia-3, Ohio-1, Kentucky-3, Missouri-1. The one I’m working on now is also Kentucky. The Virginia and Kentucky landscapes are similar, in parts. Devil’s Oven is the only one set on a mountain. I’ve never actually lived on a mountain, but I’ve lived in valleys surrounded by them, and hung around on a few. Close enough, I figure.

The Cincinnati book is the one most colored by childhood memories of the town’s geography. (There are demons in that book, but I didn’t know any.) As I wrote, the image in my mind was of a big, old city, full of great hills hung with layers of narrow houses that were kept from falling into the river by a bit of dirt, hillside stairs, and a few trees.

Before I wrote my new novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, I’d only set a couple of short stories in St. Louis.

The Missouri side of the St. Louis Metro Area is made up of 79 neighborhoods within the city limits, and dozens of small municipalities in St. Louis County. No matter if you are in one of these smaller municipalities, residents are either from North County, South County, West County, or the Mid-County. When I lived in St. Louis throughout the 80s, I lived in Ballwin (far west), University City in the (in-) famous Loop near WashU. Kirkwood (also west but southwest, sort of) and Clayton. There’s not a lot of geographical variation. The differences tend to be starkly economic and racial–not so different from any major urban area.

In St. Louis, if someone asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. It’s midwestern in the sense that residents are generally friendly, no matter what part of town they’re from. If you’re from Ladue or Clayton or Glendale, people will assume that you’re wealthy, and if you’re from far South County you might as well be in the Ozarks, and if you’re from North County, well, let’s just say that if you live past or west of the airport, you might be looking at Iowa. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the different areas do have distinct personalities. And if you look at the census data of the past couple decades you’ll see that it doesn’t change all that much.

Most of my characters are from Mid-County–Ladue and Richmond Heights, with a bit of Webster Groves and Kirkwood to give it an old-time, leafy, suburban flair. My protagonist’s ex lives with his new husband in historic Lafayette Square in the house they once shared. She’s good with that. And one significant character lives in a high-rise apartment in the city, overlooking Forest Park. I confess I did make up a state park. And there may be a few  fictional details at which a native St. Louisan may wrinkle their nose. So, apologies for that. What can I say? I plead fiction.

Of course, all of these geographic details will matter little to the casual readers of THE STRANGER INSIDE. Unless they’re from or know St. Louis well, they won’t much see the distinctions. But the distinctions made a huge difference for me as I was writing. It’s not that I’m resorting to stereotypes, but just using a kind of character shorthand. That shorthand is very handy.

I’m super excited about THE STRANGER INSIDE. It’s a psychological suspense novel. Sometimes it’s called a thriller. And there’s a murder mystery. The biggest difference between this novel and my first six is that there are zero ghosts or supernatural incidents. (My seventh was a cozy mystery.) It was a lot of fun to write.

What about you? Do you write about faraway places? Or do you stick to places you know? Why or why not?

Also, surprise! I’m going to give away a signed copy of THE STRANGER INSIDE at 9:00 p.m. (CST) to one random commenter. But definitely check back to see if you’ve won, because I can’t tell you how many books I haven’t been able to give away because the winner disappeared forever. The winner should reach out to me at l.benedict@laurabenedict.com

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