What Gail Carson Levine Taught Me About Writing

Written by Kathryn Olsen | August 19, 2013

During my years as a student at Brigham Young University, I occasionally volunteered with the annual speculative fiction symposium—Life, the Universe and Everything. As a committee member, I would help with registration, judge the writing competition and hand out nametags. One year, we ran into an problem: Gail Carson Levine didn’t have anyone who could take her to lunch on Valentine’s Day. After a moment of disbelief and thanking God that I didn’t have a boyfriend, I raised my hand and said that because I had no romantic plans, I would be thrilled to take the author of Ella Enchanted out for some Chinese food.

Gail could not have been nicer to this twenty-something fangirl and the sister-in-law who came along for the ride. She asked me about my studies and my writing and how I was enjoying that year’s symposium. As soon as we had ordered our lettuce wraps, she graciously discussed some of her favorite writing techniques. One of these tricks has stayed with me ever since.

She was once advised by a writing friend to rifle through her character’s pockets to see what could be found there. When she first tried this, she came out with a pocket edition of The Book of Homely Truths.  If you are not familiar with Levine’s work, the king in The Two Princesses of Bamarre is constantly quoting from this tome, which means that rather than have an opinion of his own, he rules by proverbs and the fantasy equivalent of a fortune cookie.

I went home from that symposium and tried the exercise on one of my own characters.  He was a German Jew in an Austrian labor camp in 1943 and I was still in the process of working out his personal history.  Rather than find a piece of stolen bread or work papers from the Lodz Ghetto, I found a child’s rag doll that he had carried since his daughter’s death.

I encourage you to consider a few of your favorite fictional characters’ pocket contents.  (I advise not doing this with friends, since you may be waylaid as I was by friends arguing over the likelihood of Eowyn of Rohan having pockets.)  Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort would only keep his wand there; he relies exclusively on his magical powers and has no nostalgic mementos.  Vin from Mistborn would never leave home without her stores of coins for allomantic purposes, but you might find reading material borrowed from Elend Venture.  On a more ordinary level, Claudia Kishi from The Babysitters’ Club would have a paintbrush and Skittles there.  We all know what Bilbo Baggins has in its “nasty little pocketses.”

Now that we have a firmer grasp of how this all works, let’s go through an exercise together.  I will go through the motions here, but feel free to grab a piece of paper or open up a new document and come along for the ride.

Start with the gender of your character.

Decide what kind of pockets these are.  Are these shallow pockets on the side?  Is it a single pocket on the front of overalls?  Does your character have many pockets to choose from because they are addicted to cargo pants?  Do they carry very little and only on the right-hand side?

What is the first thing that you pull out of said pocket(s)?  Wallet?  Chapstick?  Work ID card?  What does your character use the most?

What is the last thing that you find in there?   Does the character forget a pack of Rolos that are now half-melted and attached by caramel leftovers to the cotton?  Is it a movie ticket stub that is barely legible because they forget to check their pockets on laundry day?  How often does the character clean out his/her pockets?

Finally, let’s talk about the middle things.  You can put anything in this section and the first thing you should consider is medication.  In The Shining, Jack Torrance chews aspirin to fight off cravings.  A character with asthma will have an inhaler.  A character might carry Claritin for their hay fever.

Car keys are next.  What brand of car do they drive?  Do they have a fancy key-fob?  Do they have their Toyota key on a Red Sox keychain?  Do they have a cheap spare key because they haven’t found their regular set in months?  Do they even drive or is their mode of transportation evidenced by a bus pass or the key to their bike lock?

What is their wallet like?  Do they carry cash?  Do they have a different credit card for every day of the week?  Is it stuffed with business cards or photos of friends and family?

Now that we’re through the essentials, what random crap is in there?   Most people have something in there that is not like the others.  This can be absolutely anything, but make sure it has an explanation.

If you have a hard time getting started, try checking your own stash.  Take a tally of your crumpled dollar bills, slightly warped debit card and leftover Starbursts and see what those things say about you.

Bio: Kathryn Olsen is your average office drone. She works 40 hours a week to pay for rent, food and the occasional fantastic trip. She comes home and watches too much TV for her own good. In her spare time, she works on the 30+ book ideas that are running loose in her head and writes for WhatCulture.com if there isn’t a Red Sox game on. Born in Texas and raised in Massachusetts, Kathryn studied English at Brigham Young University. She has no husband or kids, but is a doting aunt to five awesome nephews. Visit her here and on her blog.