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A Small, Real World

Many years ago I wrote a long story using an old plot, a stranger comes to town—in this case, three strangers who arrive at different times in Blair, Nebraska. The story focused on three women: Louisa, Grace, and Irene. It also had a character named Walter, a pharmacist who helps Irene get what she wants. When I read the story at the writing table I attend, the response was that Walter was extraneous. I liked Walter—I could see him walking to his pharmacy carrying a newly pressed white pharmacist's coat—but my fellow writers were right. As the story changed in revision, he became an extra. So I killed him off.

In Karin Fossum's novel Broken, a writer imagines potential characters as shadowy figures standing in line outside her house. One night she wakes up to find a strange man in her bedroom. He has left the line and broken in to convince her to write his story next. Walter is too polite to break into my home, but he did start speaking in my head, insistently, about his story. He was there when I was trying to sleep and he was there in the morning when I began writing. He told me more and more about himself. He was a lonely man who didn't want to be a pharmacist but had inherited his father's business. He was still in love with a woman who had left him 20 years before. He was stuck in a life he didn't want. I cared about him more and started writing his story.

Stevan Allred, one of the teachers at my writing table, published a marvelous book of linked short stories, A Simplified Map of the Real World. His book and Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge inspired me to think about writing a book of linked stories. Stevan and I were working on a revision of Walter's story. In the first scene, Walter is walking to the pharmacy one summer morning. He meets two women, Edith and Mary, whom he thinks of as the town gossips. That first scene is the only scene Edith and Mary are in. We listed other citizens of Blair whose stories might be told. Edith and Mary headed the list. Walter's story is finished. Edith and Mary's story is almost home. I began hearing the voice of Jessie, the woman Walter loved for so long.

The other day I thought, you have created a lot of characters, not just the narrators, but their partners, their children, their parents, their friends. You have peopled a little world. I think about them all the time—Louisa and Grace, Walter and Jessie, Edith and Mary—about what I know of them and what I don't yet know. They've become as vivid to me as people I know in real life, although that's a misnomer because my life as a writer is a real life.

There's a café on Blair's main street, Dottie's Café. It's near Walter's pharmacy. Dottie has a cameo in Walter's story and a bigger part in Edith and Mary's story. Her story may be next. Although, a writer friend mentioned that Grace, a sad, somewhat bedraggled character, needs a haircut. There must be a beauty salon in Blair. Whoever cuts hair there would know a lot about Blair.

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