It's but a short step from avian claws to shoes and I am here to declare if my battered old runners could speak, what footnotes to my history they could reveal. But, as the Christmas cracker joke has it, while they have tongues they cannot speak and so I shall have to be their interpreter.
For every mark on their scuffed once-white surface tells a story. The long smear of rust on the outer side of the left shoe was acquired from the remains of an ancient exhaust pipe that fell off the old buggy in Connecticut. We were on the way to Maine for a family holiday and decided to put the pipe in the right wheel well -- there were five people and luggage aboard and the car was exceeding small -- so that if stopped for disturbing the peace we could produce the relic and explain we intended to get a new one fitted as soon as we arrived at our destination. Fortunately we weren't stopped as we coughed and roared, or rather the exhaust pipe deprived buggy did, through several states. A new muffler was fitted the day after we arrived, and ultimately it outlasted the car.
It was in Maine the runners acquired a tidemark from sea-wading. We spent a fair bit of time on the beach, resulting in my painful attack of Lobster Legs, now passed into family legend. I unwisely remained too long in the sun and wind one afternoon and subsequently the skin "tightened" and blistered so badly I had to shamble about in a semi-crouched fashion for the first few hours after getting up and descending the stairs, child like, on my rear end.
Then there's a scattering of grass stains, picked up in woodlands while out with compass and map at orienteering meets. At least I never had to blow the mandatory whistle to summon aid or get rescued from being lost. In my ramblings through the greensward I saw much wild life, not least annoyed orienteers passing in the far distance muttering about controls being missing from where they should have hung, as sometimes happened when people pinched the orange and white flags. One afternoon a family of deer broke cover as I passed through a thick stretch of trees on a road less travelled. A magnificent buck led a single file of does and one or two fawns across the narrow track and faded away into the distance. It amazed me how their spindly legs could carry such large bodies up and down those really steep declines.
Several dark mud stains decorate my shoes, mementoes of plodging in the clart, as we say up north, in more than one state for more than one reason, although some of the other brownish marks are relics of spilt coffee, imbibing vast quantities of Satan's brew being my only vice. Well, not unless you count reading the Daily Mail online. There are also traces of sun screen oil, not that I ever turn brown as all I accomplish is to turn scarlet and then peel, and the spattering of black splashes are reminders of wet tarmacadam after crossing a rural road newly treated with tar and stone chips.
Years ago an elderly lady remarked to me she could tell a lot about a person by their shoes. That would certainly be useful in a mystery novel, though what could the detective deduce about a character whose footwear exhibited traces of rust, seawater, grass, mud, coffee, oil, and tar? In toto they immediately suggest a sailor newly returned from foreign climes who, in a heat wave akin to that currently roasting much of the US, has refreshed himself before creeping through a wooded estate to lurk in the flowerbed outside milord's study, intent on getting up to no good...but I deny it all! I may have crow's feet but with my dislike of heights, you'd never catch me in a crow's nest, not even to spot the great white whale and be rewarded with the Spanish gold coin Captain Ahab hammered into the main-mast!
I was reminded of Elmore Leonard's silly first rule of his Ten Rules of Writing -- "Never open a book with weather."
What? Never open a book by mentioning the element we're all swimming in? Weather affects how we feel physically and can color our outlook too. Of course, reading what I write, someone might suppose I was a frustrated meteorologist. There's a weather report every other page of our books and if it's not already teeming, rain is in the forecast. My Constantinople tends to be a dark and stormy place.
No doubt what I write reflects my personal preoccupation with the state of the atmosphere. I tend to be very aware of the weather. It affects my moods and changes my perceptions. The world of a cold winter morning is a far different place than that of a humid summer afternoon, and certainly important enough to mention at the start of a book.
Or is that just me? What about other writers? I opened up some books close to hand at random. Here are some first lines I came across in a few minutes:
"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge." -- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
"To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth." ---John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
"The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting." -- Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Well, Okay, so what do all those old time writers know? How about someone newer:
"A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of a February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly." -- John D. MacDonald, The Quick Red Fox
Glancing through Travis McGee books it struck me that every other one began with a reference to the weather. How about something totally different, though -- a fantasy written recently:
"Thunderstorms were common in Sarantium on midsummer nights..."-- Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium
See, someone else thinks thunderstorms are important.
To be fair, as soon as Leonard stated his rule he admitted he was blowing hot air. "Never open a book with weather," he said. "If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want."
Don't start with the weather unless it has to do with the story or you can write brilliantly enough to get away with it. That's probably good advice, generally, but it applies to anything. Not just to weather. And besides, I still think most of the writers I quoted broke Leonard's rule because most of those first lines strike me as being mainly for the sake of atmosphere.
My rules of writing are more concise than Elmore Leonard's:
Rule 1 -- There are no rules.
Oh, and let's not forget that Mike Hammer makes his first appearance coming through a doorway and shaking rain off his hat.
I could use some rain on my hat right now. The office is stuffy. Hot weather makes me curt and cranky. Not that I ought to write about it.
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, and our growing pages of links to free etexts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/