Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How to write with pickles

by Bethany Maines

I just read a blog about a woman who bought her husband a giant 5’ chicken because they got into an argument about the need for more bath towels. It was done with a great deal of love, humor and antagonism – like a good marriage.  Or at least like my marriage.  I frequently tell my husband he has extra-large fingernails; he finds this statement bizarre and tells me I just have midget hands.  I haven’t bought him a giant chicken yet, but we’ve only been married for some amount of years under five (I’ve outsourced this knowledge to my husband and he’s not home), maybe when we get to 15 we’ll have reached the giant chicken stage.

But my point is, (stick with me here – I usually get to a point sooner or later) that relationships, even loving ones, frequently work in opposition, as well as compliment, to each other. And yet, that simple, everyday dynamic is one of the harder motivations to write into a character. Why would anyone in her right mind buy a giant chicken and leave it on their front porch to annoy their husband? That’s not logical, or as my agent sometimes says, “I’m just not seeing it – I don’t think she has significant motivation.” Um… he said the pink beach towels were good enough for regular bath towels? That’s practically an engraved invitation for giant chickens right there.

What I’ve discovered is that there are two kinds of people in this world – the chicken people and the non-chicken people. Unfortunately, I don’t get to pick which ones read my books, which means that I have to write for the non-chicken people. And they are much less willing to take that leap to chicken on the front porch ringing the door-bell with me. Which means that I have to do writerly things like establish a history of chicken type actions in my character. Sometimes I add alcohol to an incident – that seems to help readers believe the unbelievable idea of chickens. But I think the most important technique I use is to make sure the tone of my story matches the tone of my character.

I once wrote a science fiction story – very serious, very edgy etc – and at some point my character ate a pickle. Why? Because she likes pickles. But I was informed, in no uncertain terms by my critique group that pickles weren’t allowed. Apparently, pickles are an inherently funny food choice and not in the least sci-fi. I railed against the anti-pickelites, but they were right. You can’t just throw a pickle in from out of no where and expect readers to roll with it. They have to know they’re in a pickle type book.

And then it occurred to me that I must be living a pickle type life if I think 5’chickens are a good thing. I’m ok with that.


  1. Bethany, oh, how I love your sense of humor! And the way you look at everything. I get exactly what you're saying because I feel like I'm a giant chicken person writing for nonchicken people much of the time! (Especially when I was writing my humorous mysteries and I'd read the reviews that said, "Is this supposed to be funny?") Thanks for making me laugh today as I finish up the last three chapters of a first draft with hands so crampy they're starting to resemble giant chicken claws. Cluck.

  2. H'mmm, I'm coming up on 60 years of marriage and never considered buying hubby a giant chicken. Maybe I should have. It's not too late. Wonder where I could find one?

    Fun post.


  3. Good point about matching the tone of the character with the tone of the book. And hilarious, as usual!

  4. I'd buy a giant chicken in a heartbeat. And put it in the bed where I would usually sleep (next to hubby) just to underscore whatever point I was trying to make.

    Excellent point about character development, though. I also like to use alcohol to explain everything. :-) Maggie

  5. I am totally a 5' chicken kind of person. So yeah - explaining that to the non-chicken people can be totally tricky. Here's hoping there are more chicken people out in the world than non or I'm in trouble.

  6. I saw the chicken post. It was funny, as is yours! Great post, Bethany... I guess this confirms that, I too, am a chicken sort of person!

  7. Yay for chicken people! I'm very glad plenty of 'em hang out here. I feel at home. :-)