This was in a small town in northern Somerset County (redundant, I know), in a chapel off of Main Street. The deceased was quite old and had lived within 10 miles of this spot, in a smaller town to the north, on the edge of the woods. She lived a full and productive life, was loved by her big family, and was reported to have had all of her faculties right up until the end. She was liked and respected. The chapel was packed.
As funerals go, this wasn’t a sad one. A few tears from close family but most people were dry-eyed but somber. They stood shoulder to shoulder, packing the pews like passengers squeezing onto a bus.
The full house listened to the tribute, the priest’s homily, the parting thoughts on a life well lived. I listened, too, respectfully but with a certain detachment as I’d never met this person. I do know some of her family and they are all good people. Decent. Honest. Generous. Successful. Hard-working to a fault. They sat in the front couple of rows. That left an entire church full of new people to watch.
This, I guess, is the writerly part of this piece—our propensity to study people, watch their interactions, eavesdrop on their conversations, and, in the absence of real information, imagine their lives.
Like most of my fellow practitioners of the writing craft, I do this in restaurants. I do it in bars. I do it on airplanes. I do it at traffic lights, staring at the people in the car next to mine. I’m the guy you have to honk at when the light turns green.
Like most writers, I don’t need much to invent an identity for the people at the next table or in the seat across the aisle. A couple sits in silence? I can imagine the cause of their disagreement. A woman waits alone? I know why the guy stood her up. Kids sit in a restaurant all in a row? I can envision roles for all of them: the extravert, the dutiful one, the rebel. Sit next to me in a bar? Even before we strike up a conversation, I’ve got you pegged.
Well, not really. In fact, much of what I imagine probably has little bearing on reality. But the imagination is a powerful thing. Give me a little while and the person I’ve conjured up is as real as anyone you’ll meet–at least to me.
I say this as I do a final revision (famous last words, I know) on a new book. I’m trimming it a bit, chopping out stuff that in the light of the editing process doesn’t seem to move the plot. It’s dialogue mostly, conversations that went on a few lines too long. Stuff that revealed more about a character but in a mystery novel probably isn’t essential. I say this like it doesn’t hurt. It does.
The thing about us writers is that we’re really fond of our creations, from hero to villain. They’re like family, in a way, the people you know best. I relish the process of imagining their lives. So it’s hard to consign them to oblivion. When I hit that delete key, I wince.
But anyway, back to the church. There were people in suits and people in jeans. There were guys in red flannel jackets and men in topcoats. There were young couples holding hands and couples who had grown very old together, like gnarled trees. There were deacons and the priest and a woman who read the scripture passages with a lovely Franco accent. I didn’t know any of them going in but by the end I felt like I knew them well.
So in a way I was sorry when the service was over. I watched as people filed out, front rows first. There was a guy on the end of our pew who knew everybody and everybody knew him, stopping to shake his hand. I figured he had run the store or something, maybe had moved away. Florida. A double-wide. No more snow for him.
I was musing about this when the older gentleman on my right jolted me back. He tapped me on the shoulder, leaned close and said, “Great turnout.”
Little did he know.