A Different Kind of Character
On the advice of Umberto Eco (in Reflections on The Name of the Rose), I’ve just decided to give more weight in my novel to its setting. Thinking it over, I realized that one way to do this is to include a new, non-human character: the plucky little newspaper that serves my fictional town of Oxbow, New Hampshire. I dredged from my files the clippings I’ve accumulated from our real local paper, the illustrious Valley News of Lebanon, NH, mainstay of the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River. The News is living proof that rural life provides all the opportunity you need to spread yourself out in life, to let anything happen. Up here, it eventually will.
Exhibit A, from the Valley News “Local Briefs” section:
NAKED PEDESTRIAN STROLLS THROUGH BURLINGTON [VERMONT]
A naked pedestrian strolling through Burlington this week has caused quite a stir.
The man was first spotted Tuesday walking through the city’s Church Street Marketplace completely nude, with exception of sneakers and a bandana on his head.
Bystanders say they were amazed to see him walk around the busy shopping and dining district.
Burlington Police Lt. Paul Glynn said that while the man’s nakedness is “inappropriate,” it’s not necessarily illegal as long as he left home naked and isn’t disrobing the public [sic] or harassing people.
The man turned down a request by WCAX-TV for an interview.
I love the first sentence. It could only have been written by an experienced small-town reporter. You can’t imagine it appearing in the New York Times. I like to picture the interviews of the bystanders: “How did you feel when you saw the man?” “Well, amazed, I guess. I was just amazed.” Reporter writes down, “Witness amazed.”
The typo is nice, too. And the sun protection of the bandana directs one’s thoughts to all the possibilities of sunburn.
Best of all are the scrupulous liberties of the People’s Republic of Vermont. (We Granite-staters don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Vermonters just across the river.) Vermont law says that you may not take your clothes off in public. But that’s all the law says. So…. What would constitute harassment in this case? Touching is out, obviously, but what about, “Look at this”? If you only said it once? Only once to each person? Panhandling in a non-harassing manner is allowed. If you didn’t even ask for cash, just for one moment of human attention before you moved on, who could object to that? He didn’t want to appear on TV, so it’s clear he isn’t an exhibitionist. Not in Vermont, anyway.
Local TV covered the story, too, if you’re feeling voyeur-ish.
Last February 5, “Local Briefs” reported a near-tragedy. Here are the essentials. (Unhappily, the Valley News website doesn’t include the paper’s archives, so I can’t send you to the original articles.)
Fire officials say a heat lamp used for chickens caused a fire that gutted a small barn. All of the chickens escaped unharmed.
These would not be generic chickens. Here in the Upper Valley, we like to buy our eggs from our neighbors, and we know the chickens almost as well as we do the neighbors’ dogs. Miss Bossy, for instance, is a Rhode Island Red who lives out in Orfordville. I heard about her from
the lady at the feed store, who is her owner (though Miss B. might not agree about that.) Miss Bossy is the smallest of her tiny flock, which she rules with an iron claw. Her fellow Rhode Island Red is named Thelma. The two Buff Orpingtons don’t have names – I guess compared to Miss Bossy and Thelma, they’re such wimps they’re hardly there at all. You can see why, when fire threatens a barn up here, the Valley News knows what’s important. All the chickens got out.
The paper does a good job of selecting and condensing national and world news stories for its “World and Nation” page (two pages, max.) We get several serious items a day from the top news bureaus plus a small feature summing up lesser stories in a few sentences. Sometimes, on a slow news day, the editor favors us with oddities that just struck his fancy. E.g.:
Meerkat Expert Cleared of Assault in Zoo Love Triangle
London, AP. A former meerkat expert at London Zoo was cleared Tuesday of assaulting a monkey handler in a love spat over a llama-keeper….
Or, if your favorite sin is anger rather than lust:
West Palm Beach, FL. Joshua James, 24, is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon …after throwing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window.
The point to notice about these stories is their datelines. London, West Palm Beach, what can you expect? If they weren’t already crazy, they’d live here. The news(wo)man’s inverse-square law states, “The farther from home, the weirder.” James got off with nothing worse than probation.
Local papers set the tone, but all our media report scrupulously on what matters to, or reliably annoys, people like us. War and pestilence were raging around the globe, as always, when the public radio station gave us this bulletin:
A tractor-trailer full of cheese caught fire on the interstate. The driver escaped, and was able to detach the truck from the trailer, but the trailer and its contents were destroyed.
Use all the senses, the writing mavens tell us. Think how grounded, how riveted, your reader would be if you could convey to her the sight and smell of 17 tons of smashed and smoking cheese! Consider the plight of the cars immediately following. The report didn’t say, but if it was Velveeta, it would qualify for HazMat treatment. And if, like me, you write mysteries, who set that fire?