Mark Terry

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Loaded Question

July 29, 2010
Yesterday Leanne and I drove all the way across the state to drop our son off at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. He'll be gone 12 freakin' days and that's a very long time (there are stories to be told, I'm sure). Anyway, almost 4 hours there and almost 4 hours back. Once we got settled again at him, did a variety of things, we decided to go out to dinner. While we were eating, a young woman who was a waitress at the restaurant stopped by our table and introduced herself. She had been our neighbor for several years and when she was a teenager had babysat both of my sons--far more than I remembered, because she did a tremendous amount of babysitting in the summer while I was at work and Leanne was working midnights, hence sleeping during the day. So Anna came and went while I was gone most of the time. It was neat, she's grown into a fine young lady and seems to be doing well.

I asked her, "So, how's your mother?" innocently enough. And 1 second after I asked it I realized what a loaded question that could be. Her mother had suffered through depression when she lived next door to us, and we even suspected there might have been some alcoholism or other controlled substance issues involved. Anna sort of got the run of the road while Mom disappeared into the house for huge stretches at a time. Anna in many ways seemed to be raising Mom, not the other way around. The degree to which that happened was not obvious and to this day I don't know details. As it turns out, her mother seemed to be doing quite well. She had remarried, then the husband had died, but her mother had apparently gotten her act together and was going back to school (and Anna was in college as well).

When I thought about my question, I was reminded of something from Stephen King's "Bag Of Bones." After first meeting Mattie DeVore, the main character, Michael Noonan says:

There are people in this world who have a knack for asking embarrassing, awkward questions without meaning to--it's like a talent for walking into doors. I am one of that tribe, and as I walked with her toward the passenger side of the Scout, I found a good one. And yet it was hard to blame myself too enthusiastically. I had seen the wedding ring on her hand, after all.

"Will you tell your husband?"

Her smile stayed on, but paled somehow. And tightened. If it were possible to delete a spoken question the way you can delete a line of type when you're writing a story, I would have done it.

"He died last August."

"Mattie, I'm sorry. Open mouth, insert foot."

Ah well. I'm also a member of that tribe, and last night at least, the question seemed innocuous and innocent and nothing adverse happened. Doesn't always work that way for me, God knows.

But I wondered. In fiction, does your character ask the loaded question? Or does someone else ask your main character a seemingly innocuous question that nonetheless carries a tremendous amount of weight? I think mine often do. And I think, if handled carefully, can show tremendous characterization not just by the answer, but by the lack of answer.

Here, for instance, is a little bit from next year's Derek Stillwater novel, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS (coming to you on June 7, 2011).

Shelly Pimpuntikar met his gaze. Slim and petite in a crisp gray business suit, the FBI agent was of either Indian or Pakistani descent, Derek didn’t know which. Voice soft, she said, “I don’t think they like us.”

He caught the same vibe. Flashing a smile, he said, “Well, I know why O’Reilly doesn’t like me. Why doesn’t she like you?”

Surprise spread across Shelly’s face. “You don’t know?”

“Uh, no.”

“I am originally from Pakistan. I am a U.S. citizen, though.” Her English had a slight accent, almost a lilt, that Derek found very pleasant.

“Ah,” he said.

“And I am a Muslim.”

“’Ah’ again. Yes, well…” He wasn’t sure what to say, actually. He settled for silence, which often worked well for him.

“Why doesn’t O’Reilly like you?” she asked.

He took a deep breath. “We worked together in Iraq. We were weapons inspectors. We didn’t get along very well.” Not quite true. In fact, they had gotten along too well—and too often. Unfortunately, it was only later that she had told Derek she was married, a little factoid she had kept to herself during their time together. There were other issues, but that was one of the big ones.

Shelly Pimpuntikar’s large brown eyes were penetrating. “There is, perhaps, more to this story than you suggest?”

Derek nodded. “Perhaps.”


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I'm a really open person, so I ask the loaded questions assuming no matter what the person answers, it is what it is. I don't find people sharing things with me awkward, and I don't find myself shrinking from tough stuff, like funerals, or death or dying. Not sure why, but I don't find hard things terrifying--they are just things to face head on. And I think my characters are the same sorts.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I'm the same. I once had a hairdresser run from me and hide, LOL. It was only then I realized I'd been probing a bit! I'm not much for casual friendships; I tend to go straight for the deep and dirty secrets. :D

1:28 PM  

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