I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.
If your genre includes historical fiction. . .
Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.
If you are obsessed with money. . .
Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.
Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?
If your genre is magical realism. . .
There’s no better place to look than science.
Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.
But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.
Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.
Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.
All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.) It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.
This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.
Takeaway for writers
Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.
Every writer who has a scene involving an arrest and/or jail time really should do some jail time—preferably in the local facility. On April 21st, I toured the Richmond City Justice Center (a.k.a., the City Jail). I start by thanking all involved. This facility is modern, clean, and apparently well-run and forward- thinking. While JCRC seems exceptionally good for what it is, you wouldn’t want to live there
Even though I had toured the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office and did interviews there when writing Dark Harbor, time has passed and jails differ by locale—by state, by rural/urban, by tax base. When it comes to jail time for writers, once is probably not enough.
The mission of the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office is, in part, “To maintain a secure jail and a safe court system along with seamless inmate transport and civil process to preserve public safety.” This is, more or less, the mission of sheriff’s in all jurisdictions.
But the devil is in the details. For example, at the RCJC, inmates (whom they call residents) can have one visit every seven days, four visitors at a time, children under 12 not included in the count. At the Pamunkey Regional Jail nearby, inmates are called inmates; a total of three people, counting both adult(s) and minor(s) can visit.
And, by the way—here—any jail with Regional in the name is a for-profit facility.
Both of these facilities require photo IDs for visitors and forbid too short, too tight, too revealing, or transparent clothing. Nothing can be given to inmates (food, paper, drugs, keys, pictures, etc.) RCJC has options for both face-to-face visits, separated by a clear partition, or a set-up similar to Skype for video visits.
At present RCJC houses approximately 1000 people, approximately 10% women. Most are in the general population, but about 150 are in “The Program,” a 24/7 structured program of education and rehabilitation geared toward successful reentry into the outside world.
WRITERS, get the details right.
CLOTHING: RCJC residents wear jumpsuits that are color-coded according to which pod they live in and whether they work custodial or kitchen duties. There are 32 living pods, ranging from 12 to 76 people each. Only those in for detox or overnight transfer wear orange. Black and white stripes are for the most violent/dangerous prisoners.
MEALS: at RCJC, breakfast is at 5:00, lunch at 11:00, dinner at 4:00. Lights out is at 11:00, so lots of time between dinner and breakfast. Which brings us to commissary sales. Inmates can buy food, t-shirts, and other incidentals (though no tobacco and no makeup).
PRISONER CLASSIFICATION. When taken into the facility, each person is assigned to a level of restriction based on the seriousness of the crime, criminal history, and behavior while in custody. People who are more violent, suicidal, or seriously deranged are in smaller pods and have more restrictions on meals and showers. They have video monitors, take meals in their cells, and are taken from the cells in handcuffs. Showers are in a locked and barred shower stall they call “the cage.”
Much of this information could be obtained online or with phone interviews. But nothing beats actually being there! I toured RCJC with seven other Sisters in Crime, all of us writers. Mary Miley, who teaches writing in The Program every Monday afternoon, arranged the tour. (I’m on the far left, Mary is second from the right.)
We learned that the carpeted areas are not secure and the tiled areas are. “The Yard” for open-air activity mandated by law is a room with a basketball hoop and open-air ventilation. All furniture can be bolted down, even though it isn’t in most cases. We actually saw the tiny white cells with bunk beds, a toilet, and a washbasin, shoes lined up and everything else in duffels under the bed, virtually bare of anything personal—unless one counts one plastic bowl and one plastic glass. The women had a few more toiletries visible—presumably from the commissary. Family needs to deposit funds for use in the commissary.
By the way, RCJC charges inmates $1 per day (toward the $58/day that their incarceration costs). They could charge as much as $3 per day. If these charges aren’t paid, the inmate can’t have commissary accounts.
Contrary to Orange Is The New Black, women inmates have no nail polish and no makeup—though sometimes they use M&Ms, Kool-Aid, or iodine for the purpose.
LINGO: a click is a phone call; a lick is a theft; a canteen girlfriend is someone who’s into a relationship for the partner’s canteen account; riding the phone means monitoring it.
Technically, jail is for people awaiting trial or the outcome of an appeal, and for those serving sentences up to one year, while prison is for longer incarceration; in actuality, due to prison over-crowding, inmates are sometimes in jail up to three years.
Gambling and bullying are strictly forbidden, but they do happen. Ditto intimate relationships among inmates.
And there’s more: the distinction between public defenders and court-appointed attorneys. The gangs that “own” the phones in the general population. The nine arresting bodies that bring people to the RCJC. The total lack of privacy for phone calls or during visitations—and what people say or do anyway! Inmates and visitors who expose themselves. The girlfriend who calls and barks for fifteen minutes while her incarcerated boyfriend tends to his arousal.
Two things in particular that inmates said stuck with me.
Not all inmates are bad people; they’re people who made bad choices.
You aren’t your crime.
In short, there’s nothing like being there. Get thee to jail, pen and paper at hand! And be sure to appreciate the access. Thank you, RCJC! Special thanks to Sarah Scarbrough, who conducted the tour.
FUNNY WRITING : I don’t do that. It isn’t for lack of interest; it just doesn’t come naturally to me. I have sometimes written things that make people smile, and several of those short pieces appear in Different Drummer. But when writing those things, humor wasn’t my goal. On the other hand, I definitely chose the cover for smiles!
That said, I do like to laugh. And it’s a scientific fact that you can’t get ulcers while laughing. So for the sake of your physical and mental health, write funny if you can. And if you can’t, read some of the following.
My all-time favorite humorist is James Thurber—and not just because he lived and worked in Columbus, Ohio. Not only does he write funny, he draws funny! His stories, illustrated with his own cartoons, appeared dozens of times in The New Yorker. If I had to choose just one book of his, it would be The Thurber Carnival.
For one thing, it includes selections from several of his other books, as well as some previously unpublished stories. It begins with a third-person bio which Thurber wrote about himself. Even his titles make me smile, e.g., “Are You the Young Man Who Bit My Daughter?” and “Darling, I Seem to Have This Rabbit.” But really, snap up any Thurber you happen to come across.
I tend to like collections of humor writing. For example, Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures, edited by Jennifer L. Leo, contains stories by Anne Lamott, Ellen DeGeneres, and others.
Two great classic collections are Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remick and Henry Finder, and An Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor,edited by Bennet Cerf. Both include dozens of time-tested stories.
I also enjoy a number of writers who have assembled entire books of their own work. P.S. Wall’s My Love Is Free . . .But the Rest of Me Don’t Come Cheap comes to mind, as does David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Erma Bombeck, All I Knew About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room.
Then there are the humor books targeted to specific groups of readers. The Primal Whimper(Glenn C. Ellenbogen, Ed.) a collection of made-up research that pokes fun at psychologists and psychiatrists. I like What Dr. Spock Didn’t Tell Us: A Survival Kit For Parents(B.M. Atkinson, Jr., with Whitney Darrow, Jr.). I recently found four copies on Amazon to gift to the “children” of friends who are now parents themselves. Maybe part of the reason I like it so much is that the drawings remind me of Thurber!
Perhaps the greatest admiration should go to people who can write entire novels that make us laugh. I’m thinking particularly of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
Also remember P.G. Wodehouse and Steven Leacock. And who could forget Mark Twain? The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But consider the slim volume The Jumping Frog. It pokes fun at literature in translation!
And where do I fit in Peg Bracken? Most well-known for The I Hate To Cook Book, she is just as funny in ButI Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World.
But we mustn’t limit our laughs to books written primarily for humor. Think Jane Austen and Mary Roach.
Takeaway for Readers
Take your laughs where you can find them.
Takeaway for Writers
Good humor writing is timeless.
What books make you laugh? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.