16 July 2012

Necessary Evils

by Robert Lopresti

Some people write in their offices, surrounded by shelves of fine old books.  Some go to special retreat homes set aside for the dedicated scribbler.  Others drag their laptops to the local Starbucks, inspired by the lattes and the bustle around them.
I am writing in a laundromat in Port Townsend, Washington.

Not my usual hangout, really, but I do seem to spend part of a morning here every summer.  We attend a weeklong music camp and since the classes are much more up my wife’s alley than mine, I volunteer to do the wash ‘n dry duties.  Long as I can plug the laptop in, I’m set.  The fact that there is no wireless is so much the better; fewer distractions.

When I packed for this vacation I brought the text of a book I have been working on, hoping to make some progress on it. But after a page or two I knew it wasn’t where my heart wanted to spend the week.

You see, I have a new idea for a novel  And when I say “idea” that’s almost all there is.  I have a one-page outline and calling it a page is generous.  But it was summoning me and with a big (for me) chunk of time to work, I decided to give it a shot.

All of which might be of mild interest to my dearest friends, but let’s see if I can make it more general by getting to my point.  It’s here somewhere, possibly next to the fabric softener.

Right!  At this point in my young manuscript Character A realizes he needs to get to a certain place.  He’s an executive type and it seemed reasonable to have him call an underling for a ride.  But the chapter was awfully short so I decided that the underling – call him B – would be busy.

“Okay,” says A.  “Send Ray Ray.” 

And who the hell is Ray Ray?

That’s what I wanted to know.  Until A mentioned him I had no idea the guy existed.  I did like the name, though.

Now, he could have passed by the reader like a ship in the night, showing up only long enough to transport our protagonist to his destination.  But in the early stages of a book you should take advantage of every possibility that offers itself.

So I thought about the little I knew about Ray: the childish name, the fact that he was a low-level person in the organization who could be expected to jump when summoned…

And bingo!  I suddenly realized that Ray Ray was a double-crosser, working for Characters Q and R who, as you can tell from their place in the alphabet, don’t come into the story for quite some time.  Even better, because of Ray Ray I now knew how they WOULD arrive in the book.

And, by the way, remember Character B, who was too busy to give his boss a ride?  It turns out he was busy with his wife, which gave me something more I hadn’t known about him, as well.

All of this progress on the novel happened because my protagonist was too cheap to call a taxi.   I’m very grateful to him.

Which brings us to the witches of Lancre…
I have blogged before about Terry Pratchett, the brilliant English fantasy writer who invented Discworld. In one of his books he created a witch named Granny Weatherwax: a grimly Puritanical old woman who was a good witch simply because she was too vain to be a wicked one.  (Being wicked is weakness.)

In another book Pratchett introduced another witch to interact with Granny but he realized he needed a third because “You needed three witches for a coven.  Two witches is just an argument.”

And so, simply to fill that temporary gap in his cast of characters he invented a jolly, twinkle-eyed, much-married, bawdy-song-singing, unrepentant old witch named Nanny Ogg.  After many books she remains one of his most popular creations,  the perfect foil for Granny Weatherwax.  Clearly these were the kind of life-long best friends who couldn’t go ten minutes without an argument.

God knows I am not trying to compare myself to the brilliant Sir Terry.  But it is clear that at many levels of the writing ladder an author can take good advantage of a character who seemed to be only designed to fill a space on the set.

Ray Ray and Nanny Ogg are necessary evils who turned out to be pretty useful  Sort of like a trip to the laundromat.

Speaking of which, you will have to excuse me.  The driers have stopped.


  1. So -- I know I'm being horribly curious, but is that Port Townsend in the little picture? If so, do you know when the drawing was made?

  2. Rob, you may have started a new series of analogies: Some writers soft-soap, some run hot 'n' cold, and others outright lye. All's fair during the spin cycle.

  3. Anon,
    that is PT in 1852. I drew it myself. Okay, that part is a lie.

    If you want a verbal description of PT from the same era, and a hilarious one at that, go here http://fifteeniguana.blogspot.com/2007/09/encounter-with-mr-browne.html

  4. Leigh-

    Oddly enough while I was in PT (but not doing laundry) I wrote a song that starts like this:
    "Baby, you're my metaphor
    You're the music, I'm the score
    I'm the prisoner, you're the crime,
    You're the clock and I'm the chime..."


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>