Reality Calling

In Susan Breen’s mystery novel Maggie Dove, Maggie (a Sunday school teacher in a small town) discovers the dead body of her neighbor in her front yard late at night. Then…

Maggie took off her sweater and put it over his face, thinking to protect him. Then she ran into her house and called the police, except that in her nervousness she accidentally transposed the digits. She wound up with the pizza parlor instead.

“You can’t be wanting a pizza so late, Mrs. Dove,” Joe said. “What’s up?”

“Something terrible’s happened, Joe,” she whispered because it didn’t seem right to speak loudly. “Something’s wrong. Marcus Bender is dead on my lawn.”

This being a small town, Joe knows Maggie, and he calls an ambulance.

It reminds me of a moment in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy (a financier in Manhattan) takes the dog out of for a walk because he wants to call his mistress out of earshot of Judy, his wife. This being the 1980’s, he calls from a payphone:

Three rings, and a woman’s voice: “Hello?”

But it was not Maria’s voice. He figured it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: “May I speak to Maria, please?”

The woman said: “Sherman? Is that you?”

Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialed his own apartment! He’s aghast—paralyzed!


He hangs up. Oh Jesus. What can he do? He’ll bluff it out. When she asks him, he’ll say she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

I love both these moments not because I’m a fan of misplaced phone calls (interesting as they are), but because they’re the kind of accidental, absurd things that happen in real life. They’re so minor, you might not think to include them in your story, but you should, at least now and then.

These accidental, absurd things bring a smudge of reality to your story. They seem so randomly real that they must have truly happened. Why would someone invent something so silly?

It’s nice to bring reality-smudges to a story heavy on artifice—for example, a cozy mystery like Maggie Dove. And you’ll want life’s randomness to run rampant in a highly naturalistic story—for example, the current TV series The Bear.

Hey, try this: write a scene about a mistaken phone call.

And I’ll leave you with the opening of Raymond Carver’s short story “Whoever Was Using This Bed”:

The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.

“Answer it, answer it!” my wife cries. “My God, who is it? Answer it!”

Wrong number.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Character Journeys

Recently, in my memoir class, we were dissecting a scene in the book Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro.

It’s the first time readers meet Lenny, (a pseudonym, but he’s definitely a real-life stinker). The protagonist, Dani, calls Lenny’s office, and his assistant answers the phone. And then Shapiro reveals the first character detail:

“I have often wondered how she [the assistant] keeps it all straight: wife, daughters, girlfriend.”

We know this about Lenny before Shapiro even tells us his name.

Is Shapiro using this scene to frame Lenny as a serial adulterer and a villain? No. She’s establishing the nature of their relationship.

In Elements of FictionnovelistWalter Mosley writes that our characters are “synonymous with journey, because every important player moves within and is transformed by the story.” So, when they first appear, you’re not merely introducing them as people. You’re launching your story.

By the time Dani calls Lenny, she knows her parents have been in a serious car accident, the book’s inciting incident. She knows she must return home to New Jersey from California. But her first call is not to an airline, or a best friend, or even to her half-sister, whom no one has yet thought to notify. Dani’s first call is, instead, to Lenny.

As she tells him about the accident, Dani hyperventilates. Lenny coaches her through it. “Just do what I tell you,” he says, advising her to breathe into a bag.  “Good girl,” he says.

Also, he also calls her “cupcake.”

“It is worthwhile, I believe,” Mosley writes, “to attempt to tell a story from its negative spaces, to allow the reader to wonder what is real before you reveal the truth, affording the reader an understanding of the lies told to keep the narrator safe and sound — she believes.”

When she can breathe again, Dani asks Lenny to get her home. Dani is 23 years old, with a phone and a credit card (it’s pre-internet), but she asks her married boyfriend to book her a flight to New Jersey. To me, this is the most important detail of the scene because, while it definitely establishes multiple red flags about Lenny’s character, the big takeaway is how dependent Dani is on him.

It’s not a long or ornate scene, but with it, Shapiro effectively sets the story in motion. Already struggling, our protagonist hurtles into an ordeal, weighed down with Lenny, and whatever internal reasons she bears for being so dependent on him. She’s erected what Mosley calls any narrative’s “major, and certainly most irreplaceable, pillars.”

“The [characters’] world is always in flux,” Mosley writes. “Its inhabitants are flotsam, seeking refuge in each other on the relentless tide of story.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Find the Light

It’s Halloween today, but the world will still be scary tomorrow.

Sorry, but it’s hard to ignore the darkness surrounding us these days.

One way to cope, to survive, to thrive is to find the light where you can. And to cherish that light.

If you find light in writing or being around others who like to write, maybe Gotham can help.

When the pandemic struck, we started offering free Friday Write-Ins on Zoom, and they’re still going. Please join us if you like. You are all invited.

And we have new classes starting up all the time.

Plus, contests and conferences and scholarships and resources.

And here you’ll find some inspiring letters from Gotham students who have reached their writing dreams in some way.

All of us here at Gotham will feel good if we can offer something that makes you feel good.

Alex Steele

Gotham President