This is no. 59 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Early in the writing of my second novel, The Prettiest Star, I thought about what TV shows one of the protagonists, Jess, a fourteen-year-old girl, would be watching in 1986, when the novel begins. MTV, of course, and a lot of sitcoms. But what about when she was younger, what shaped her? I grew up in the eighties, and before my family had cable or a satellite dish, we had four channels from which to choose. Like most kids from that time, I watched a lot of PBS. In addition to Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Electric Company, a nature show always seemed to be on: Nova or Wild America. While I was thinking about Jess’s TV habits, I also watched the 2013 documentary Blackfish, a heartbreaking indictment of SeaWorld’s practice of raising orcas in captivity, and remembered when I visited SeaWorld Ohio as a kid. (Yes, they actually had whales in Ohio; the park closed in 2000.)
What if Jess watched a lot of nature shows? What if she fell in love with killer whales, the way some kids do with horses? Maybe she goes to SeaWorld Ohio, and since she’s never been to the ocean, the shows and books she reads about whales transport her from small-town Ohio to the wildness and mystery of the sea. As I did more research, I started to hear Jess’s voice—and her brainy knowledge of whale facts and details worked their way into the novel. Before this, I didn’t know much about whales, except that they were beautiful and spectacular and mysterious. This is something I love about writing fiction—entering, if only briefly, other worlds, and learning about topics and places and people you may never encounter in real life.
The killer whales also began to resonate thematically, which surprised me—the orcas’ relationships to family, matriarchy, and mourning the dead reflected and deepened some of my explorations in my novel of how my human characters relate to one another. The Prettiest Star revolves around Jess’s older brother, Brian Jackson, a young gay man diagnosed with AIDs, who has returned to his family’s home in the small, conservative town where he grew up, and asks how his family will, or will not, care for him. Similarly, like Jess’s love for whales, Brian’s love for David Bowie reverberates throughout the novel, even influencing the title. For Brian, a queer kid growing up in a small conservative town in Appalachia, Bowie’s music represented hope and magic and possibility.
What interests your characters, what obsesses them? What are their hobbies? What do they dream about, what do they love? Maybe they play basketball, read tarot cards, collect matchbooks, idolize Dolly Parton, dream about outer space. What is that thing that lights your character up, and gives you a way inside—so that you’re not writing from the outside, but inhabiting the character from within? A hobby, a gesture, a dream may help you understand and develop your characters, and just may deepen the novel’s ideas, building stronger connections between characters, themes, and imagery.
Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program.Thumbnail: Bart van meele