Novel Basics: Imp v. Ump

Some Reflections on the Creative Process, not Limited to Writing

Imp v. Ump

Imp: I wrote a story. I wrote a story. It’s so much fun. The characters were really talking to each other. I love them and the end is super great.
Ump: Let me take a look at it.
Imp: Sure . . .
Ump: Well, let’s see. You left out a word on the first page.
Imp: Okay . . .
Ump: And on page three you put an apostrophe in its when you shouldn’t have.
Imp: Are you sure?
Ump: Of course, I’m sure. And on page five . . . Imp? Imp? Where’d you go?

Imp? Ump? What are you talking about now? you might ask.

It goes back to the left-brain, right-brain theory of how our mental processes work and the attachment of the label left-brained to someone who tends to be logical and critical and right-brained to someone who tends to be creative and imaginative. I call the former voice in my head my ump and the latter voice my imp.

Definition of ump: the critic, the perfectionist, the logician who lives on the left side of your head, the English teacher of everybody’s nightmares who says, “If you don’t get this absolutely perfect the first time through, you might as well not start at all.”

Definition of imp: the energy, the source, the little kid who lives on the right side of your brain, jumps up and down, waves an imaginary hand to get your attention, and says, “I got an idea. I got an idea.”

In essence, writing isn’t a left-brained activity. It isn’t solely a right-brained activity either. It’s a whole-brained process. To write anything including a novel–maybe especially a novel–you need both your ump and your imp.

But if you let your ump shoot its mouth off too early in the process, you will completely demoralize your imp. And it will quit talking to you altogether and curl up into a small, tight fetal ball.

So when your ump starts saying to you, “Wait! Wait! That’s not exactly the word you need”; or “Is that the correct there, their, they’re?”; or “Why bother? It will never sell”; just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, button it, Ump. You’ll get your chance later.” And then, coax your imp to come out and play.

We are not after perfection here. We’re looking for the basics you need to know about your novel before you start to write it, or most of the basics anyway. For example, you might not come up with all the major characters the first time through your cards. Probably you won’t know all of the characters’ names. You might not answer all the questions. It’s not as if you have to show your work to anybody. So relax and enjoy the process.

Telling your ump to cool it goes for drawing the images on your cards, too, if you decide to do them at all. Some of the images on my deck of cards are really messy. And I simply don’t care. At this point, you shouldn’t either.

Join me tomorrow when we’ll talk a bit more about the people of your book.

Novel Basics: Summing Up About Characters

You’ve probably noticed that so far we’ve mostly talked about the characters, the people of the book you’ll write. And maybe you’ve already noticed that your characters are fueling ideas for your novel. But before we move on to issues of plot, that is, driving the plot car to the end point of your journey or walking the plot tight rope, I’d like to point out a few more things about characters.

I’m a fan of mystery fiction, and mostly that’s what I read with a smattering of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction from time to time. So the first point about characters relates to mysteries in particular, but really you can do this with the principal characters of any novel.

1) Everybody has a secret.

2) A character can play two roles at once. This happens very often when the narrator tells his own story in first person. Or the ally is the narrator as in The Great Gatsby. But it can happen in other ways as well. Perhaps the ally also serves to start the plot by coming to the protagonist for help.

3) Any character can play a different role from the one she started out as. For instance, in mysteries, the protagonist/narrator can turn out to be the killer. An apparent antagonist/suspect can turn out to be an ally. An ally, that is, the confidant or sidekick, can turn out to be the killer. The character that gets the plot rolling can turn out to be the killer. (I just love it when a skillful writer fools me. Don’t you?)

4) Sometimes you need more than one of any type of character. In a novel, quite a few characters can pose a threat to the protagonist accomplishing her goal. In Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, for instance, a crime boss sends a couple of his goons to pick up Vic, the tough female private eye. In my own January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the protagonist, Minty Wilcox wants to find a suitable job in old Kansas City. But not only does the major antagonist interfere with her reaching her goal, but so does Minty’s mother who views her daughter’s wish to help with household finances as a sign of her own failure to manage them.

5) If you have trouble finding directions for where your plot car could go, ask your characters. They might surprise you with their inventive suggestions. Sometimes a character might suggest something outrageous. For instance, when I was drafting my second novel, set in a dystopian future, the antagonist wanted to kill the protagonist very early, but I couldn’t let that happen of course. But the antagonist’s attempts to kill the protagonist made for some really dandy plot developments.

Coming tomorrow . . . Previously, I’ve done the Novel Basics class live in about 90 to 120 minutes with a bunch of people busily creating their personalized packs of cards as we go along. But really right now, many of us have the time to explore some of the aspects of our novels. So tomorrow I’ll give you some tips and suggestions for brainstorming fiction more generally and characters specifically. See you then.

 

 

Novel Basics Cards 6 & 7

Today we have cards for other important two characters in your novel . . .

Card # 6

The Match

The Match Card asks the question,

“Who fires up the plot car?”

 I know. I know. This is a bit of a mixed metaphor because you wouldn’t really want to burn up a car. Still, I think the image of the match works well to get at the nature of another essential character that you’ll need–someone who appears near the start of your novel to get the plot going. Once you’re onto this sort of character, you’ll see lots of them in the novels you read.

For example, a noir mystery novel often starts with some blonde, wearing a tight black suit and stilettos, swaying into the tough private eye’s office to hire him to find out who murdered the victim or where her sister has gone. Several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels start with potential clients–though not usually sexy blondes–entering his office.

Sue Grafton has a woman wrongfully imprisoned for murdering her husband come to Kinsey Millhone to discover the true killer at the start of A Is for Alibi.

Early in Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, the first V. I. Warshawski mystery, the private investigator heads to her office at night through steamy Chicago to meet a potential client who refused to give his name to her answering service. But she needs to pay her bills, so she goes to her office, and thus she meets a man who wants her to find his son’s missing girlfriend.

I’ve given examples from mystery fiction, but that’s not to say writers of other sorts of fiction don’t have this sort of character, too. For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit begins with the wizard Gandalf arriving in town and carrying Bilbo Baggins off on an adventure.

Fiver’s horrid dream of death and destruction to the warren sets in motion the long, epic journey of the rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Wanting husbands for her daughters, Mrs. Bennet gets the plot of Pride and Prejudice going by sending her husband to call on the eligible and rich bachelor Mr. Bingley who has rented an estate nearby.

Card # 7

The Mouth

The Mouth Card asks the question,

“Who tells the story?”

Novelists have many options for narrators for their books and exactly how those narrators will present the narratives. I’ll give you some common choices. I’ll also note that sometimes, once you get into your novel, you might change your mind from what you write down on your card initially and what you later decide might be a better choice. The common terms for these choices are viewpoint, point of view or perspective.

By far the most common choice of point of view is first person from the perspective of the protagonist, that is, the guy or gal in the driver’s seat of the plot car. “That day when I saw this dame come in my office door, I said to myself, ‘Mike Hammer, you know she’s trouble. Gorgeous, but trouble.’”

But sometimes the first person narrator who tells the story in his own voice isn’t the protagonist, but the second most important character in the work, the ally. This can be due to a very practical reason: the protagonist dies before the end of the novel. That’s one reason why Chief Broom tells McMurphy’s story in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s why Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story and Ishmael tells Captain Ahab’s. “And I alone remain to tell the tale . . .”

(Believe me when I tell you that few things annoy a reader more than getting to the end of a novel and finding out the person telling the story has been dead the whole time.)

Narrators can be innocent and say more than they understand, at least in the early pages of the novel, like Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, for example. Ishmael of Moby Dick is sort of an innocent, too.

A narrator can be reliable like Nick Carraway. Or a narrator can be unreliable, like drunken, deceitful Rachel Watson, The Girl on the Train, in Paula Hawkins’ best-selling psychological thriller.

Speaking of that book, it’s told in first person from three women’s points of view: Rachel, Anna and Megan. If you’re an experienced novelist and want to use multiple first person viewpoint, I say go for it. If this will be your first novel, I’d say save this choice until your later books and keep this one simple.

Another very common choice is third person narration limited to the perspective of the protagonist. All of January Jinx, my first Calendar Mystery, and most of the second, Fatal February, stick to my protagonist’s point of view in third person. One advantage of this sort of viewpoint is that it gives some distance for the reader on the action. It can do the same for you the novelist, too.

You might consider using an omniscient viewpoint, a popular choice in 19th century novels. That’s when the narrator is some sort of godlike, all-knowing creature who looks down at the characters in the book. An early and famous example of this sort of point of view is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in which the narrator sometimes says things like “So what do you think of Becky Sharp now, dear reader?” Occasionally omniscient viewpoint cropped up in twentieth-century novels and even twenty-first century novels like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

But these days, most novelists stick to a third person perspective that’s limited to a couple of characters, the young woman and her potential lover in a categorical romance, for instance, or no more than four or five even in a huge book like Stephen King’s 800+ page American epic The Stand.

A word of caution about shifting from first to third person . . . In T Is for Trespass, Sue Grafton shifted back and forth from the third person viewpoint of the antagonist and the first person perspective of series protagonist Kinsey Millhone instead of sticking to Kinsey’s perspective as Grafton did with most of the books in the series. But Grafton had lots of writing practice by then. She also started the book by using third person point of view to set up that expectation before she moved to Kinsey’s usual first person viewpoint instead of springing that character’s angle on the story suddenly and without warning later on.

Andy Weir used the device of Mark Watney’s log to alternate smoothly between first person and third person sections of The Martian. Throughout Mischief in March, the third novel in my Calendar Mystery series, I have Minty Wilcox write in the journal that she calls A. M. Wilcox’s Investigation into All Things Daniel Price and thus she moves back and forth between first person and third.

Novel Basics: Cards 4 & 5

The cards for today are two important characters in your future novel, one opposed to the protagonist and the other allied, more or less . . .

Card # 4
The Boxing Glove

The Boxing Glove Card asks the question,
“Who will oppose the star of the story?”

Card # 4, the boxing glove, asks the question, “Who will oppose the protagonist as she attempts to reach the goal?” That is, who’s the antagonist of your novel? And why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? In other words, who’s the bad guy or gal? And why?
(Actually, it’s more fun for you and your eventual reader if the antagonist has some redeeming virtues or at least is interesting.)
You can call him the villain if you like although your antagonist might have a perfectly logical reason for his despicable actions, or at least they make sense to him. For example, in January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, the ignorant, so-called sheriff of Campbell, Kansas, messes with the protagonist’s goal of finding a job because he thinks he can extort a bunch of money from her.
It’s not uncommon for a novice novelist to let the antagonist drive the plot car from the start and just keep on doing that until the plot car runs right off the road. The protagonist and the antagonist should be worthy of each other. And often the antagonist seems to be winning at the start of the novel. But sooner or later she probably should get her come-uppance.
Personally, I don’t read lots of horror fiction, but I have read Stephen King’s Misery. It has a superb yet terrifying antagonist, Annie Wilkes, who proclaims herself to be novelist Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan.” She is a really scary woman, that’s for sure, and she does many bad things to the author, including forcing him to write another sappy novel in his sappy series. But eventually Paul wins out though he’s left physically and mentally scarred.
Note: The antagonist doesn’t have to be human. It can be a force of nature like the ocean in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Card # 5
The Ear

The Ear Card asks the question,
“Who helps the star?”

This is one of my favorites. Your protagonist needs an ally, that is, someone to talk to, aka a confidant–for a very practical reason. What’s that? you ask. Answer: so you can have dialogue. Fiction needs dialogue, that is, people talking, for it to come alive and jump up off the page. Also, with dialogue comes the ability to have conflict, the essence of what fiction is about.
I once had a student who didn’t like to write dialogue, so she arranged for the protagonist of her science fiction novel not to understand a word of what other characters, members of an alien race, said. Gosh, that novel was dead in the water, and after a while I refused to read any more of it.
But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. Suffice it to say you need to give the star of your novel someone to help him or her. At the very least, the ally can help the protagonist achieve the goals of the book by listening to the main character, that is, by serving as the protagonist’s confidant.
You can have lots of fun with the ally since there are so many possibilities for this character besides providing someone to talk to. The ally can serve as the foil to the protagonist, for instance, the lippy girlfriend who’s temperamentally very different from the serious female protagonist. The ally can be the comic relief sidekick. You can even let the ally oppose the protagonist sometimes by putting her down or by expressing doubts about his ability to make a million bucks.
Think about how interesting The Silence of the Lambs became when Thomas Harris made the loathsome cannibal Hannibal Lecter Clarice Starling’s ally by giving her information that ultimately helped her find the killer.

P. S. If you want a faster pace, you can order your eBook version of Novel Basics for only $2.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

Novel Basics: Cards 2 & 3

Card # 2: the Outcome Card

The Outcome Card asks the question,

“Does (s)he succeed?” 

In answering the question on the second card, “Does she or he succeed?” you will figure out if the who gets what she wants or needs. Or more formally, does the protagonist accomplish his goal by the end of the novel?

Let me explain through an analogy. Writing a novel is a trip, and it won’t be a short one like bopping over to the closest QuikTrip to gas up the truck–unless of course the floodwaters are approaching and your protagonist named George must get enough gas not only for the truck but also for the generator back at the house so he doesn’t lose all the frozen food in the freezer during the inevitable power outage. And that way, his family of five including newborn twins . . . Oh, I do so love to write fiction, but let’s press on.

Writing a novel is a long and maybe even an emotionally arduous and physically challenging journey. So it’s good to know where you’re headed when you start out, so you don’t get lost along the way and end up making lots of little side trips that take you nowhere.

To use another analogy entirely . . . Writing a novel is like walking on a tightrope. It really helps if you have the far side of the narrative tethered to something before you start out, if not to a specific rock or tree over there, at least in the general neighborhood of where you want to be at the end.

Besides these reservations, knowing where you’re going lets you know what kind of journey you’ll make and allows you to plan the journey.

We’ll go into those issues later, but now, you should write yes or no on the back of your 3” by 5” card.

Let’s go back to the “girl wants boy” and “boy wants girl” examples we talked about for the heart card.

Yes, of course, Cinderella gets Prince Charming.

I’ve decided to speed things up a little so here’s another card today.

Card # 3: the Star Card

The Star Card asks the question,

“Who drives the plot car?”

On Card # 3, you’ll jot down a few details about who will star in your novel, that is, the kind of person in the leading role. I put the star inside a car because it’s very important that your main character, aka your protagonist, generally drives the plot of your novel and makes its actions happen, especially as he or she nears the end of the journey.

You might not know this character’s name yet, but probably you can already make some basic decisions about this character. Will your protagonist be male or female? How old is your protagonist?

Another thing you might want to explore on your third card–at least a little bit at this point–is why your protagonist wants to accomplish the particular goal that you’ve given that character. To save a life? His own or someone else’s? To prove herself? To clear his name, or her sister’s or his brother’s? To solve the crime and thus keep the murderer from killing more people? Why does Gatsby want Daisy? That question is so easy to answer. The poor guy loves her.

Another thing to think about even at this early stage of brainstorming your novel: what about the star of the novel keeps her from accomplishing her goal and your novel from reaching its outcome right away? He can’t be perfect. None of us are. Besides, perfection is boring. Even Superman has his Kryptonite. Something internal like self-doubt might hold your protagonist back or something external like a broken leg when she’s out in a blizzard.

Tip: avoid putting a complete schmuck in the driver’s seat of your plot car. It makes most readers uncomfortable to be forced to identify with someone capable of the worst villainy without any redeeming virtues at all, an all-powerful being who, for example, wants to wipe every person of color off the planet or destroy the galaxy or remove one person in every two from the galaxy for his own peace and quiet. On the other hand this sort of character will work very well as the . . .

 

Novel Basics: Card # 1

Novel Basics

About those cards . . .

I put the numbers, names, questions and images on the blank sides of cards and save the lined sides for my answers and specific notes. But you do whatever works for you.

I also enjoy color, so I used a variety of colors of cards and different colors of pens, too. And no, there is absolutely no system or coding to the colors of the cards I used. The very idea of doing that makes my brain seize up. So if you prefer to put everything down in black and white on 3” x 5” cards that are blank on both sides, make it so.

When I teach the class in a physical classroom, I tell the students not to sweat the small stuff like making sure the bottom points of the heart meet on Card # 1 because typically we only have 90 minutes. But since the online version goes more slowly, knock yourself out on the arty stuff if you like.

Card # 1: The Heart Card

The Heart Card asks the question,

“Who wants what?”

At the heart of every novel–every story really, no matter the form it takes, novel, short story, play, movie or television script, or epic narrative poem for that matter–lies the question, “Who wants what?”

As like as not, what you write down on Card # 1, with only a vague notion of what your novel will be, won’t be very specific. You probably don’t have a name for the who, for instance. Your answer might be something not much more than the following:

Boy wants girl.

Girl wants boy.

Boy wants boy.

Girl wants girl.

Even more broadly, someone wants to find true love.

More specifically, a returning veteran named Jay Gatsby wants to find Daisy, the girl he left behind, and make her his own.

Let’s move on to other genres besides love stories . . .

In murder mysteries the detective wants to find the killer to keep her from doing it again and/or to bring her to justice.

Someone wants to escape something, his hometown for instance, or her abusive mother for another.

Someone wants to find something, the Holy Grail, a magical ring, or the owner of a lost dog.

Someone wants to get rich.

Katniss Everdeen wants to save her little sister Prim from the Hunger Games.

Minty Wilcox, the protagonist of January Jinx, the first novel in my Calendar Mystery series, wants to find a job as a typist/stenographer in Kansas City in 1899.

Princess Ella, aka Cinderella, wants to escape the walls that confine her in Walls, the first book in my Cinderella, P. I. series.

Often in fiction, as in life, a want becomes a need. Someone needs to find a job to stay alive. The Chosen One needs to save Middle Earth, the world, or the galaxy before he and everyone he knows perish.

Regardless, to start a novel you need to know what someone wants or needs to accomplish by the last page of the narrative. Or at the very least you need to have a general idea of who wants want in your novel. To put it in literary terms, a story needs a protagonist with whom the reader can willingly identify and who has a worthwhile goal.

I put that in bold because it’s important, but I’m not going into it right now. We’ll talk about that when we get to Card # 3.

Card # 3? What happened to Card # 2?

I’m so glad you asked.

P. S. Feel free to share what you put on your cards in the comment section. Ask questions, too.

P. S. S. If the online version of the Novel Basics goes too slowly for you, you can buy the print version of the book on Amazon and the eBook for only $2.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

Novel Basics Online

The online version of my Novel Basics class starts here and on Facebook tomorrow, March 27, 2020.  Here’s an introduction.

 

Novel Basics Online Class
How to Brainstorm a Novel with 20 Index Cards

I know you’re out there. I’ve met you in some way or another.

Maybe you’re the less than confident young woman in an online group I belong to who wants to start your coming-of-age novel about growing up in the Ozarks amid the opioid crisis, but you don’t quite know how to do that.

You could be a short story writer intimidated by the sheer size of a novel.

Or maybe you’re the man I talked to at a local authors fair who always meant to get back to that novel you started twenty years ago, but now it sits hidden in a drawer at home.

Perhaps you tried to write a 50,000-word novel during a National Novel Writing Month event, but you didn’t make it all the way through.

Or you did finish and now you have the diploma declaring you a NaNoWriMo winner, but you don’t know what to do next.

Let’s say that you’re the author of a brilliant, well-received first novel who can’t get that sophomore effort together.

You could be a best-selling author on a tight schedule who needs to get cracking on the next book in your series.

Or you’re the author of a best-selling series for which you still have a ton of ideas, but a notion for a brand new book or series has crept into your head, and it’s so strong that it wakes you up in the middle of the night. Still, before you commit, you’d like to explore it.

Maybe you’re writing a nonfiction book about yourself growing up or a shocking event that happened in your hometown, but you’re thinking the book might be better as a novel, so you can distance yourself from the material emotionally and have more latitude with facts.

Maybe you’re like me. You have several completed novels in your file cabinet that you could never get an agent or publisher interested in, so you gave up on those projects. Possibly taking a little time to explore one of those will help you decide if it’s worthwhile for you to go back to it.

Or maybe you don’t fit into any of these slots I’ve mentioned, but still you’re like the rest of us. You’ve got an idea sparked by that powerful question “What if?” that keeps bugging you, an itch you’d like to scratch at least a little bit.

Maybe you’re not a writer. Instead, you’re an avid fiction reader who would like to learn more about the novel so you can sharpen your insights into the selections you discuss at your book club.

Regardless, I’m thinking that my method using twenty 3” by 5” index cards will help you to brainstorm your novel or study someone else’s. There’s no time like the present . . . So get your cards and join me here tomorrow or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/JulietKincaidauthor2016

If you prefer to go faster than a card a day, you can buy the Novel Basics book available in print from Amazon and as an eBook for only $2.99  at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07K2LXFRP

Popcorn!

Friends, do you find yourself missing popcorn now that movie theaters have gone dark? Pine no more. Using this very simple recipe from Mark Bittman’s Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, you can have this fragrant treat whenever you like.

You’ll need a brown paper lunch bag (the kind you’re not sending your kids or grandkids to school with right now), vegetable oil (I prefer canola) and popcorn. Bittman says it should be fresh. Mine wasn’t, but it still worked, just not so much popped as it did when it was fresh. Also Bittman says you need salt. At our house, we watch our salt intake with great care and prefer to add it sparingly after the popcorn has popped.

Okay, put 2 teaspoons of oil in the bag and add a quarter cup of popcorn. Fold the bag over twice and crimp firmly. Shake the bag to mix the corn with the oil.

Put the bag in the microwave. (Tip: I put the bag on a paper towel to keep the glass carousel from getting greasy.) Our current microwave has a popcorn setting that works to perfection. If yours doesn’t, set it on high and pop the corn for two minutes to three minutes depending on the power of your microwave. With our old microwave, closer to two minutes was best because you really don’t want to burn your popcorn. (Tip from Bittman: stop the microwave when the pops are four seconds apart.) Take the bag out promptly and empty it into a bowl. Bittman makes some suggestions for what you might add besides salt. We’re cheese freaks at our house, so we sometimes put Parmesan on our popcorn. But mostly we eat it plain with a little salt.

Enjoy!

Fun in Old K.C. only 99 Cents

As their wedding day fast approaches, Minty Wilcox has some questions about her fiancé Daniel Price. Did he really kill someone? Why has he never told her he’s rich? And for goodness’ sake, where will they go on their honeymoon?

 

From Minty’s journal . . .

But back to my story of naming the Irish setter puppy that Papa has given us as a wedding present . . . My fiancé, the outrageous Daniel Price, the man that I am to marry in less than a week, told me in no uncertain terms that the dog must be named Butch! I suppose he was just teasing, but still . . . Butch?

Even Papa said, “Why, Daniel, giving this sweet girl pup a thug’s name doesn’t bode well for when you two start giving Laura and me grandchildren.”

(That reminded me of possibly being called “Mrs. Elmer Horace Frankenfurter-Engishdeiler” that at one point Daniel said was his real name, so I giggled a bit over it.)

After Papa said that, Daniel backed down and said, “Well, let me think about it then.”

He does seem to like the pup very much. After he half scared the poor little thing to death with his clown’s wig and white face, he took off the wig, went upstairs to the bathroom and washed up. When he came down again, he looked fairly normal except for the bruise around his left eye.

Speaking of that, my brother Kit said, “Will you have a black eye for your wedding day?”

“I might,” Daniel said . . .

Mischief in March is Book 3 of the Calendar Mystery series that tells the story of Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price from newly met to newly wed and beyond a hundred years or so ago, when life in Kansas City could get downright deadly.

For a short time only, Mischief in March is $0.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XR1STRN and £0.99 at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XR1STRN
(And it’s always free on Kindle Unlimited.)

An Envelope, a Single Stamp

A week or so ago, I walked to the post office nearby to mail something and to buy some stamps. Not knowing if USPS might have jacked up the price per stamp again, I put an extra dollar in my pocket. (I didn’t want to carry my heavy purse or have lots of money on me.)

When I arrived inside the post office, I got in line behind two men. The first, a young guy, was having the clerk on duty price out the various speeds of mailing several different sizes of the boxes stacked on the counter. $37.50 seemed the limit to what the young guy would pay, so he gathered up the boxes that he’d apparently brought with him, and fled.

The next man stepped up to the counter laid a plain white rather square envelope on the counter and asked for a single stamp. I never saw this guy’s face, but I could tell he was older than the first due to his gray hair and hunched shoulders under his thin coat jacket.

During the first failed transaction, I read the nameplate on the pocket of the clerk’s shirt and found out his name was Tom. A man about sixty, he had brown hair and a pleasant, round face. After Tom rang up the single stamp, the older man asked, “How much is the envelope?” He pointed to the envelope on the counter.

“That envelope? Well, that envelope belongs to one of the cards on the rack. It’s not actually for sale.”

“Oh,” the man said.

“If you need an envelope, there are some on the other rack, just turn it around and you’ll see.”

“Okay.” The older man returned the first envelope to the rack among the cards and brought back a postal service envelope of similar size that he lay on the counter.

Sneaking a peek past the guy, I saw that his fingernails were little more than short, white flakes close to the quick.

“How much?” the man asked.

Tom rang the purchase up. “That will be a dollar four.”

The man reached toward his pocket, but stopped. “I only have a dollar,” he said. “I’ll pay with my debit card so I can get change for a twenty. Can I do that?”

“You bet,” Tom said. “Put your card in the machine right there.” After the man did that, Tom said, “The transaction failed.”

“Oh . . .”

And so, finally more from impatience than any kindness in my heart, I reached in my pocket, peeled off the extra dollar bill and tossed it on the counter. The man scooped the bill up with his damaged fingers and handed it to Tom. Tom quickly rang the purchase up adding the four cents he paid. The man left and I stepped up. “Takes all kinds,” Tom said toward at the door after the guy had left. “And what would you like today?”

Not until much later did I realize that the man’s flaky fingernails indicate that he’s probably diabetic, his bounced debit card a sign that he’s almost penniless. Quite possibly he’s homeless, too. And what sort of letter did he put in that envelope and send with that stamp? A plea for help perhaps? Or maybe an apology to a loved one in some place too far for him to travel to. I’ll never know.

“A book of stamps, please,” I said to Tom. They didn’t have any more books of the Winter Berries stamps that I like so much, so I got a sheet of twenty Celebrate stamps, paid for them with the eleven bucks remaining in my pocket and walked home to my life for which I have so many reasons to celebrate.