Friday, April 25, 2014

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I've really enjoyed the posts from my colleagues this week. Aline's post about what shoes tell us about characters reminded me of how often I look at people's feet. A man in a well-pressed business suit and scuffed shoes (who spends much of his time behind his desk and seems to assume no one will spot this flaw in his grooming). A woman dressed in an understated black skirt and twin sweater set – but a glance at her feet reveals red high heels and offers a new perspective on who she is.

I thought about Aline's post again when I read Rick's post about plotting by the seat of his pants and Donis's post about going where her characters lead her. Like Barbara, I have learned to ignore the "rules of writing" while employing the techniques that seem to work. But – as I wrote about in my last post – I am methodical when I sit down to write. Neither pantser nor plotter, I am a hybrid, who needs to believe I know where I'm headed. I begin writing when I know the first sentence. I trust that my characters will go in the direction that I have in mind – at least until we are far enough in so that I can trust them when they tell me that it didn't happen that way. I plot a few chapters ahead and believe I know whodunit.

I think I know where I'm going, but I do keep an eye out for those shoes – for the character who walks in wearing shoes I didn't expect. The character who leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on his desk revealing his flip flops. I watch for shoes and other articles of clothing. In The Red Queen Dies, Ted Thornton, my billionaire walked in wearing his "trademark" battered blue jeans. His aide, a workaholic with no sense of humor, had on a tweed jacket and tie. Sneakers on the billionaire, shoes shined to a subtle gloss on the aide. As I was writing my new book, I first saw another character standing by her bedroom window. . .she has just gotten up. She is wearing her cotton nightgown and a robe that her husband gave her for Christmas. The robe is warm and comfy as she looks out at the blizzard. Her husband comes out of the bathroom. She turns and suggests they go back to bed and snuggle. He says he'd love to but he's coming down with something and no reason for them both to catch it. She smiles and says he needs a big glass of orange juice, she will go downstairs and start breakfast. As she says this, I realize her robe has been open as they were talking. I learn this because she belts the robe as she is telling him she will go make breakfast. A loving couple, generally at ease with each other, but for some reason on that morning there is tension between them. I learned that with the robe.

Clothes and effects achieved with them – but it's hair that I find really fascinating. "Hair today, gone tomorrow," according to the old saying. Some balding men embrace their baldness, even shave their heads as their hair begins to thin. Other do comb-overs. Some wear dapper hats. Still others seek hair replacements or buy hair pieces.

Do men agonize as much about the state of their hair as many women do? As a woman who never knows from one day to the next how my hair will behave, I tend to notice other women's hair. Hair and what a woman does or doesn't do with it – I imagine – provides me with insight into her soul. Or, at least, the state of her hair may tell me how much time she had that morning or whether she made the mistake of sitting down in the wrong stylist's chair. Does she chop it off to within an inch of her scalp because she's sick of dealing with it and wants to look tidy. Does she color it, perm it, wear dreadlocks or long, flowing silver locks in defiance of the "rule" that older women should wear shorter hairstyles? Does she treat her hair like an artist's raw material, shaping it into wonderful architectural structures? Does she put on a hat when the weather is cold or brave the elements head bare because of how her hair will look – "hat hair" – when she takes her hat off? Is she an elderly woman who cringes when she sees people looking at her hair because she knows it is now wispy and fine?

Hair is there in my mind as I'm creating my characters. When Lizzie Stuart, my first person narrator, meets her friend Tess for a vacation in Cornwall in the first book in the series, Tess exclaims in shock. Lizzie has cut the hair that she always – even in grad school – wore in a bun. Lizzie's hair is now short and scalp-clinging – a style that her recently-deceased grandmother would never have approved of, but that signals the evolution that is beginning in Lizzie's life. In the second book in my new series, Detective Hannah McCabe is required to spend the night at the station house because of the blizzard. She works out in the gym and then discovers in the shower that she has forgotten her conditioner. She quickly twists her damp hair into a top-knot, thinking that it is not stylish, but at least under control. And the reader learns that McCabe's hair is curly and tinged with red. The texture and the color a reminder of her heritage – an African American mother (who was a protest poet and who I imagine wearing dreadlocks) and a redheaded Scot-Irish father (whose hair is going white, and who has a bald spot). The fact that McCabe, who wears flat shoes and pants to work, has hair long enough for a topknot suggests – as does her preference that her colleagues call her "Hannah" not "Hank" – that she may be concerned about maintaining her femininity as a woman in what has traditionally been a man's job.

I've tried doing character bios with descriptions before I begin writing. I hope that my characters faces will appear before me. But, more often, they emerge as I write – the hair, the eyes, what they're wearing. I doubt that I could provide an adequate description of Lizzie or Hannah if one of them went missing. I could provide the statistics of height and weight, put I would flounder if I were asked to describe their features to a police sketch artist. But I could describe Hannah's father. He looks like Darren McGavin. John Quinn, Lizzie's ex-cop fiance, has gray eyes and a smile that she loves. I have a pretty good idea of what he looks like because she tells me.

A more intriguing question – one I haven't thought about – is how Angus, Hannah's father, feels about his bald spot? How does Quinn feels about his thick hair that has gone gray at the temples. Does he check the sink when he combs it in the morning. He often needs a haircut – a sign that he was a good soldier, but not thrilled with regimentation. Would he go for a buzz cut or wear a hat if he started to go bald? Or, would he care?

Hair today and gone tomorrow. Very true that what our characters do with their hair, put on their heads, and wear on their feet provides us and our readers with insights into who they are. . . disconcerting to think that's true in real life as well.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, I've noticed those five inch blinged-up platforms belong to the young and the brave. I would look a little crazy trying them. There's something sad about older women who can't give up wearing clothes that belong on teenagers.