THE UNEXPECTED is one of the joys of writing fiction and one of the most mysterious. Where the heck does all that stuff come from, anyway?
I’m a voracious reader, so I guess some of it comes from the minds of other writers. It floats around in my unconscious mind like a little life raft, unneeded and unheeded until one day I’m in desperate need of a new simile or a phrase to describe someone or something and it pops up, bright and yellow in the murk, ready for me to leap aboard.
But other stuff really does seem to come out of the ether: surprising, delightful, mysterious.
For example: I was a nail biter for years and then, with no small amount of concentrated effort, I stopped. So I coddle my nails with clear nail polish twice a week to help them stay strong and long.
I file them into gentle ovals (stick with me here) because the shape takes advantage of every micro-millimeter of length, and I do this even though it’s more fashionable to file them straight across, leaving the nails squared off and blunt.
So there you have it. Twice a week I pay particular attention to my fingernails for five minutes, shaping them and polishing them. For some reason a couple of weeks ago I was having a bit of trouble getting the oval shape just right and I thought: The heck with it; I’ll just file them straight across.
And in my head I suddenly saw a woman getting her nails done in a new salon. She normally has them filed into ovals followed up by a discreet French manicure. But her new manicurist files them straight across, and paints them iridescent green with purple daisies. My heroine hates them. (As who wouldn’t?)
Now why would she hate them and yet make no objection to the manicurist’s flight of fancy? Because, of course, she is in a witness protection program. She’s been moved far from home, told to dye her hair, quit her job and dress differently, and because she’s a thorough sort of girl, she’s decided her camouflage must extend to her manicures.
The manicurist, for no explainable reason, is a Native American. Aha! She’s Shoshone or Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation near a small town in Wyoming. I’ve vacationed there in a river-side log cabin belonging to friends. So suddenly I have two characters, a home for my heroine (she’ll live in the log cabin), a small-town setting and the beginning of a plot.
These details, including the colors of her nail polish, all came to me as I was writing, with no forethought at all. I was describing the manicure, then I was explaining why she hated it, then she was talking to the manicurist about life on the reservation, then I showed her reaction to the small town, and finally went along on her difficult drive to the log cabin as she revealed the bare bones of her troubles with evil men who want her dead.
Before I knew it I had 3,000 words and I swear to God it all began with me sitting in my study, thinking of nothing except brushing clear polish on my fingernails.
I’m not saying all of these things individually were conjured out of thin air. I’ve seen manicures like that; I don’t hate them, but I’m not a particular fan. I’ve visited the Wind River Reservation, I’ve vacationed in that small town, and–this is the capper–I know the town has a branch office of the FBI.
So these things were floating around in my unconscious when I sat down to write about a manicure, but the way I put them together was new and wholly my own. I wrote an outline for the novel starting with that scene which led to where I am now, at 15,000 words.
But here’s the punchline, which will come as no surprise if you’ve read Outline or Mishigas:
The scene isn’t in the book. I decided that the manicure was a bridge too far, even for someone in the witness protection program. My heroine is smart and she’s scared and she’s careful, but she’s not an obsessive nut. If I wanted her to be an obsessive nut I might have left the manicure in place as written.
The manicure in any case had served its purpose–I’d climbed aboard a life raft from my own unconscious and paddled like hell for shore.