penn state

My Vicarious Life

Being a writer is not what you’d call an adventurous job. Generally, it’s a job spent at a computer, sometimes at home, sometimes at a coffee shop or other location. It’s often heavy with research, which can be entertaining as well as educational. But in no way is it adventurous.

So I feel safe in saying that all writers live a little vicariously through their characters. We write grand adventures and experience them through our protagonists. We write love interests who are “perfect” for us. You get the idea. But sometimes, we inject little things into our stories that seem utterly innocuous to the reader, but which have considerable meaning to the writer.

For example, when I was a college student at Penn State back in the 80s, I would visit a store called Book Swap every week. It was a used book store that also sold comic books. Today, it’s known as Comic Swap, and they’ve abandoned the used books and focus entirely on comics, games, and the like.

Drop on in – Fraser Street, between College and Beaver.

One day, I noticed a new store had opened right across the street from my comic dealer. It was a stationery store. This may come as a shock to some readers, but – as a writer – I really love pens and paper. And this place sold really nice pens, fancy paper, bottled ink… and the owner – a delightful woman appropriately named Joy – was a wonderful calligrapher. I adored this store. I would visit often, chat with Joy, occasionally commission her for some calligraphy work, but mostly just admire the goods, most of which I couldn’t afford, being a college student.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, I decided to add a little touch that meant a lot to me. In the story, the protagonist – an Earth teen who has found himself in a strange world with magic and monsters – needs some income. So I gave him a job at a small stationery shop. And you’d better believe this was inspired by that store back in college. In the story, I was able to allow him to deal in pens and ink and fancy paper, just as I wish I’d been able to do.

It’s a small thing, basically meaningless to the reader, but it was a special thing I did just for myself. Call me indulgent.

See previous caption.

The Nittany Quill is still open and still across the street from Comic Swap. If you stop in, tell Joy I said hello.


Posted by vmwales in Details, 2 comments

He’s a Real Character

This entry is in two related parts.  The first part is in the “cool” category, the second in the “embarrassing” category.

The Cool Part

Back in college at Penn State, I was a regular at Ye Olde College Diner.

Ah, the memories…

It was a fun place to meet people and I would often write there, too.  One day, my roommate Brian and I were there, probably for grilled stickies with ice cream.

Ah, the calories…

Our friend Don, who worked there, came over to our table and introduced us to Michael, one of the managers. He was a nice enough guy. I would get to know him better in the year that followed, but that first meeting left me feeling… familiar.

On our walk back to our apartment, I said to Brian, “I can’t help but think I’ve met Michael before, but I know I haven’t.”  To my surprise, Brian echoed the same sentiment. “I was thinking the same thing!”

Days later, as I was working on my first novel (still in the unpublished list), it struck me.  I turned to Brian and said, “Holy crap… Michael is Steve!”  (Steve being the protagonist of said novel.)  Michael looked just like the physical description I’d written of Steve, right down to the style of beard.  His mannerisms were similar, his age was about the same.  Lots of similarities.

Brian was one of the readers of my work and his reaction, again, was the same.  “He is!

It’s a very strange, but cool, feeling to “meet” one of your characters in real life.  For me, it was confirmation  that I was able to create authentic, believable characters on the page.  The characters of that story were quite real to me.  And that’s where we get to…

The Embarrassing Part

That same year, one of my English classes was taking a trip to New York City.  It was by bus, and I had to catch it at some ridiculous hour of the morning… four a.m., I think.  I was a college student.  Four a.m. was a weekend bedtime, not an hour at which you should be catching a bus.

So I got up in the middle of the night, took my shower and got dressed.  But I had a good bit of time, still, before I had to leave for campus to catch the bus. So I put a record on the stereo and plugged in the headphones, so as not to disturb Brian.  (The album was Tales from Topographic Oceans, by Yes.  Don’t ask me why I remember that, more than 25 years later.)

Ah, the melodies…

As I sat there on the floor, listening to the music with a brain clouded by sleepiness, I began to imagine my trip to NYC. I’d never been there, so I was looking forward to seeing all the famous landmarks, going to Central Park, having some real NY pizza, and best of all, getting to hang out with my friends: Lucy, Lorrie, the above-mentioned Steve…

Yeah, that woke me up. To this day, I remember that feeling of realization and embarrassment, having thought my creations were not just real people, but old friends that I was going to go hang out with.  I don’t know whether to laugh at myself or think I was losing my mind. I don’t often tell this story, since most people who hear it probably would think the latter.

Ah, the maladies…

For any budding authors out there, I do hope you get to meet your characters, someday.  And I won’t think less of you if you think they’re real.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, 0 comments