When I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, I thought it would be a piece of cake. Writing was easy. I would be rich and famous before I turned forty, retire from the daily grind, and spend the rest of my life touring the country – the world! – sharing my deep and intense knowledge of all things writing.
I labored over that first attempt for years. I read every craft book available about character building, plotting a novel, and writing scintillating dialog. I wrote and wrote and wrote, but there was a disconnect between what the craft books said and what ended up on my paper. My biggest weakness was a realistic grip at “characterization.” Craft books back then focused on building a character from the outside in, how the character looked, instead of looking at what motivated the character and then how it projected itself outward onto how the character dressed and acted.
So, I resorted to skulking, stalking, and slinking.
I packed up my kids. At the time one was in elementary school, another was in day care, and I stuffed my youngest into a stroller, and we took off for the mall. I kept them appeased with food court junk food until I saw people who looked like one of the characters I needed for my novel, and then we followed them as they weaved their way around the mall. I’d sally up next to them in the stores, and I especially loved listening to their conversation with others, and better yet, if they argued or gossiped.
I’d take a long, hard look at their face, stature, and wardrobe, and then while they went off to try something in the dressing room, I’d write down copious notes. I did this for months until one person got suspicious of my nearness, grabbed her purse to her chest like a life jacket, and ran off in fear. I did a quick getaway with my three accomplices before she returned with a security guard.
I learned a lot about characterization during my life of crime, but the biggest revelation was that you can tell a lot about the person’s character by looking at the way they dress, but what is more important in characterization is what is inside the clothes than the clothes themselves. I also learned that in Texas, stalking can be either a civil or criminal offense depending on intent, but I can assure you mine was purely civil. No evil intended unless you count bad writing.