I’m over jet lag now; the cable guy came, so I have Internet access at home, and my lungs are finally adjusting to the pollen and gunk in the air, so I’m no longer coughing my lungs out. I’m home.
I can now get back to doing what I love doing, when I’m not writing or some other activity, riding the Washington Metro Rail observing my fellow passengers. That’s right; like most writers, I am a notorious snoop and eavesdropper, and some of my best characters, plots, and descriptive have come from subway rides. In fact, the subway is probably one of the best places for a writer to observe the human condition. I’ve ridden subways in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco (not to mention London, Paris, and Stockholm), and each of them has its own unique characteristics. But, for me, the Washington mass transit system has been a gold mine.
Let me explain. The ideas for some of my favorite characters have come from the metro. Winston Lee Nesbit, the hapless 40-year-old loser who is bedeviled by the spirit of his departed grandmother in Angel on His Shoulder and She’s No Angel came to me as I watched a slightly overweight, meek commuter one day get pushed around by every other rider in the car, and he just suffered in silence, despite being bigger than two of the average jerks who kept nudging him aside.
Al Pennyback, the hero of my mystery series (the latest is Till Death do Us Part) prefers getting around the Washington, DC area via subway to driving. The Metro system is also a good way to get to know Washington’s history and character. The different stations, from Shady Grove out in Montgomery County, Maryland to Vienna in Virginia, are as different as the regions in which they are located. I often take a train at random, observing passengers on the platform and in the car, and then get off at some randomly selected station on the route and just exploring the neighborhood in the station’s immediate vicinity. Good way to soak up local color and see the difference between areas. Woodley Park, near the National Zoo, is completely different from Takoma Park to the east. I think this helps add some verisimilitude to my descriptive passages and helps put the reader more into the picture.
The Metro has also been a source of inspiration and an aid to combat a writing slump. When I was working on my first book, Things ILearned from My Grandmother About Leadership and Life, I had a real hard time trying to decide what direction I wanted to go in describing my leadership philosophy. One evening, on the way home, two young school girls got on the subway, and began making noise and being profane, much to the discomfort of the other passengers. Just as I was about to cause an incident by going over and telling them to ‘pipe down,’ a little, frail looking old lady approached them. I couldn’t hear what she said, but her wagging finger reminded me of my grandmother. The outcome of her intervention also brought back memories of the woman who raised me. The girls dropped their heads shyly, and not another peep was heard from them for the rest of the ride. That was it, I thought; what I know about leading people, I learned from my grandmother. The rest was easy.
I have also featured the Metro in some of my stories. In Deadly Intentions, the bad guys plan a terrorist attack in a Metro station, and our heroes have to thwart it. I took some liberties with schedules and the like, but anyone who has ever ridden the subway in DC will recognize the scenes.
So, there I am; or here I am; after three years in southern Africa where they speak almost 19th century British English (is that a redundancy?), my English she too good. I’m getting my groove thing back, though; dropping my ‘g’ and running words together like a real ‘Murican.
Man, it’s good to be home.