Last night I walked to the National Mall (because I can) to watch the Independence Day fireworks.
In the course of my travels through the crowd I witnessed several conversations and scenes that could very easily be adapted to fiction.
LIGHTING UP THE LIGHTS. I am a people watcher; I think most writers are. So, when I go to see the fireworks, part of the attraction is watching people react.
As can be expected, visitors to the National Mall were in a frenzy taking photos of the fireworks. What I did not expect is that most of the cameras I saw held up would be flashing.
Flashing, you know, in case the fireworks weren’t well-enough illuminated.
This image could be put to excellent use by a writer who wanted to illustrate a character’s disdain for humanity: an immortal of some sort, an evil genius who looks on other human beings as little more than beasts, an alien scouting the Earth for invasion, a federal agent who has grown weary of protecting the undeserving masses, or a garden-variety miserable cynic if you’re writing “literary” fiction.
Although I don’t fit any of these character types (I hope) it was certainly groan-worthy to me watching so many people take flash photography of a light show. This sort of momentary reaction to events can be expanded to define the personality of a character in your fiction.
COPS WITH CELL-CAMS. The civilians weren’t the only ones eager to preserve the fireworks digitally. Several times, as I walked past a group of police officers, they were lined up perpendicular to the direction of the fireworks, all of them holding up their cell phones and taking video of the show.
Now, this scene could be used in tandem with the previous image, as a way to illustrate the negative assessment of human intelligence held by some snob character. After all, each of those cell cameras were getting essentially the same footage. Couldn’t one guy take the video and email it to the others, so they could continue performing their policing duties?
But, this scene could also be used as a plot device. Distracted police officers can enable all sort of mayhem, particularly when the crack of gunpowder explosions are already pummeling the eardrums of everyone within hundreds of meters.
THEY TRAIN ‘EM YOUNG. Before I get to my favorite anecdote, which happened during the fireworks, I want to share this little bit of shocking talk I overhead as the Mall visitors were walking back to their cars, and I was walking back to my apartment.
As we passed a piled of blankets stashed off to the side of the street by some homeless person who was not there at the time, I heard a little boy’s voice behind me. The kid could not have been more than eight years old.
“Mommy, that’s where the bums sleep, so they can get free treats. And a free ride.”
Did you work out what I did from that brief monologue? Since his mother was the audience, and since this is clearly not the original philosophy of a grade-schooler, the kid was clearly presenting a political dogma he had learned from someone else. His father? Grandparents?
Regardless of the source, someone who believes people abandon their jobs, families, and homes to live on the street for “treats” and a “free ride” has been inculcating this child with an irrational and unsympathetic ideology. With this as prologue, where would the story of this kid’s life go?
NOT THE SAME FOR EVERYONE. During the firework display itself, one young couple caught my attention. She was enthralled by the display, eyes wide, smile almost manic. Her boyfriend, with an obvious military haircut, was drinking Dr. Pepper and eating a hot dog with a little too much mustard. Trying not to allow the mustard to drip, he was apparently not paying adequate attention to the fireworks in the opinion of his girlfriend, who started pushing him.
“Look! Look! You missed that one! You’re not loo-oo-ooking!”
His eyes followed a droplet of mustard from his hot dog to the ground, then he looked back at his girlfriend with a sympathetic shrug. “Baby, the last time I saw something blow up, I did it. And there were people inside.”
He nodded toward the fireworks bursting festively behind the towering white brick of the Washington Monument. “This?” and he shrugged again. She scowled at his crudeness and turned back to the display.
See how that already tells a little story? She has been insulated from what he has seen; it tells something about her, and about their relationship, that she thinks he must share her enthusiasm for explosions that are safe and decorative. And, the soldier’s well-adjusted reaction reveals that he does not suffer from PTSD; but perhaps he does suffer from the hyper-stimulation of danger that makes the joys of everyday life seem humdrum.
On the other hand, his enthusiasm for the everyday joy of a hot dog says something else. For a soldier, returned from a distant war zone where explosions were commonplace but old-fashioned American food was not, the real highlight was not the fireworks but the half-smoke on a potato bun, slathered in mustard.
And, what does it say about traditional gender relations that she reacts so disapprovingly to his lack of enthusiasm, which is consequent to him facing dangers that she could not understand? Or, what does it say about the women soldiers he may know back in his unit? Imagine one in particular who was there with him in the war zone? Will he email her later to share the same story I just shared with you?
The plot thickens! If you let it…