Portraying character: The importance of a haircut.

If you’ve ever taken one of my classes, or worked with me as an editor, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Coco Chanel: “quality is in the details.”

Often, the details I’m focussed on are word choices. Is this the most evocative verb? Is that the most specific noun? As Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” But when it comes to portraying character, those aren’t the details I worry about most.

Don’t get me wrong. You still need the right words and not the almost-right words in any description or dialog. But what portrays character most powerfully, in literature as in life, is what a person does. So I spend a lot of time worrying about what my characters do, and what that says about them. Which gestures, decisions, and actions should I choose to show you, the reader? Which are the gems that will best evoke my characters?

I recently had a brainwave about one of my characters — the one loosely based on my great-great-great grandfather. Let me first explain what “loosely based” means. It means that the character in my novel walks around in my head. I have a feeling for him. I know him on an intimate and nuanced level, although like any human, he may surprise me. I might even be a little in love with him.

I don’t know what kind of man my greatx3 grandfather was. Like any reader, I have to deduce this from his actions. But the man that I’m “reading”from the paper trail I’ve researched is not very much like the corresponding character in my head. No matter. Greatx3 grandpa is only there for inspiration. After all, my novel is fiction.

The other day, I was looking at a photo of Greatx3 Grandpa taken in 1905. Here it is…

CCH 1905

Doesn’t he look like a Mafia don, with his thick, short, centrally parted hair and self-satisfied smirk?

That hair fascinated me. I kept coming back to it like a tongue to a missing tooth. Where was his queue—the long Celestial braid that should have been hanging down his back?

The queue was not a fashion statement. The queue was an imperial edict enforced by law, punishable by death. All Chinese (Han) men had to wear a queue as a sign of their subservience to the Qing, their Manchu overlords. Lose your queue; lose your head.

And yet, here was Greatx3 Grandpa giving his finger to the Emperor. He was involved in a lot of China trade at that time. One year, he shipped east four thousand 100-lb sacks of American flour.  Yet, queue-less, he must have stopped outside the Manchu’s gates—at Macau or Hong Kong, foreign colonies where head-chopping for missing queues was not enforced.

This gesture, this one little hair cut, tells you so much about his character. It tells you that he was nationalistic. It tells you that there was a broad streak of defiance in him. It tells you that he was confident — that he didn’t have to kowtow; he had other options, in America. It tells you that he had his eyes on the future.

Six years after this photo was taken, the Qing Dynasty fell.

My great-great-great grandfather’s early cutting of his queue is what I’d consider a telling action. Although, with all the “show don’t tells” I chirrup, maybe I should call it a showing action. So I’m stealing it for my novel.

My character is softer than I suspect my greatx3 grandfather was. He’s less businessman, more romantic. But they share a boundless optimism, an ability to see the glass half full and on the verge of getting fuller. Both had eyes on far horizons.

In my novel, cutting that braid will cut ties to the past. It will be the declaration of a new man. It will be the exultant embrace of a new world.

So, sometimes you can tell a lot about a man from his haircut.

Happy writing!





Building the platform — with help from my great-great-great-grandfather

CCHAP Postcard Front

Greatx3 Grandpa

At every writers’ conference I’ve attended in the last three years, much time and angst has been spent over “the writers’ platform.” Having one improves your chances of sales, and because of that, your chances of getting published. Logically, this means you should have a platform in place before you pitch your book. Here’s where the angst comes in: how does one do that?!

First of all, what is “a writer’s platform”? In advertising speak, it’s your reach. A workable layman’s term would be your fame…although that word has been ruined by the Kim Kardashians of this world. Notoriety won’t cut it. Not for most books, anyway.

From a publisher’s perspective, a writer’s platform is the author’s ability to convince the publisher that s/he has access to an audience already interested in the author, the subject, or best of all, the book in particular. Writers often think of publishers as gougers who give them some crummy percentage when they (the writers) do “all” of the work. But it is edifying to think of them as the people who are the first to pay and the last to be paid. In that context it makes sense that they’d really like to maximize their very slim chances of getting their money back.

Now, at the risk of eliciting some “that’s easy for you to say”s, here’s an example of a writer’s platform being built in advance. Before you read any further, make sure you’ve read my last post about how I’m living in the Twilight Zone. It will give you necessary context.

I came to Washington to conduct research on a novel whose germ was the story of my great-great-great-grandmother. She was a Native American woman who married a Chinese merchant and eventually moved to China. The man she married, who has a small part in my novel, happened to be the first Chinese resident of Seattle.


Greatx3 Grandma

A friendly Seattle Public librarian introduced me to her friends, and those librarians to other librarian friends, until in ever-expanding circles, my research came to the notice of the very warm and lovely curator of the Seattle Room. Turns out, the Seattle Public Library partners with the Museum of History and Industry to host a program called History Café, a monthly soirée for people interested in Seattle history. Would I like to speak to them about my great-great-great-grandfather?

Here’s a tip. This may look like an obvious decision, but I’ve seen many people turn down opportunities like this — because public speaking is not their forte, because they don’t have time, because they are working on a novel about one thing and being asked to speak about another. But my attitude is that life is short, and experiences are to be collected. At the end of life, it’s not the one with the most toys who wins, but the one with the best photo album.

So, anyway, I said yes, and worked on drafting the presentation and conducting much deeper research to fill the many holes. I started spending considerable chunks of time in the Wing Luke Museum. Then, weirdly, I began sensing some discord in the ether. I felt as if I was being pulled in two directions by jealous ancestral spirits. Time spent on the presentation (Greatx3 Grandpa) was time I didn’t have to work on the novel (Greatx3 Grandma), and my time in Washington was running out.

So, goofy as it sounds, I sat down and made peace between them. I promised Greatx3 Grandma that I would finish the research I needed to do for the novel, but pointed out that even if I didn’t get it done in this one pass, all those resources would be here another day. The opportunity that Greatx3 Grandpa had so graciously thrust in my lap, however, was evanescent. I also pointed out that the research I was doing on him was giving me great context for her: scales were falling from my eyes. I could see her world with increasing granularity. So for now, I was going to prioritize the presentation. And listen, Greatx3 Grandma, I concluded, it will be the first plank of my platform: it will help your story get disseminated one day.

I think Greatx3 Grandpa decided to reward my faith. The Chinese Services Librarian of Seattle Public asked me when I would be speaking. I told her, and told her it would be at the MOHAI. “Oh no!” she said. “I mean, that’s good, but we really need to have you speaking here. Maybe we can partner with the Wing Luke to sponsor another presentation in our auditorium. Ask them.” So I did…the parties will meet to discuss on March 10th. “And when your book is finally published,” the Genealogy Librarian said, “We’d love to do something here to help launch it.”

So, without the guiding hand of a 19th century ancestral spirit, how to you start building your writer’s platform? Consider what your book (and the good research you’re conducting for it) makes you an authority on:

— An individual
— A demographic group
— A historical period
— A geographical area
— Some aspect of lifestyle or culture
— An environmental or political concern
— The process of research
— The process of writing

And then ask yourself who would be interested in this information, and how you can put yourself before them. It doesn’t always have to be public speaking, although that certainly helps. You can write articles for special interest magazines, you can give interviews on local radio stations, you can offer your insight to writers’ groups, and you can even — yes — blog.

Happy writing!