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The Deer on a Bicycle by Patrick McManus

Writing Tip — Humor and Bad Experiences

accident-w994009_1920In The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor, author Patrick F. McManus advises that when looking for inspiration for a humorous story, you should write “about your bad experiences, not your good ones.” When life is at its worst, humor can be at its best. My recent trip to St. Louis gives real-world validation of that advice.

In August, I drove my parents and kids to see my sister and her family in St. Louis. One of the highlights was visiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I walked into the darkened church, and my jaw dropped. Covering 83,000 square feet of ceiling and parts of walls are 41.5 million pieces of glass in mosaics. Even in the lowered lights, the ceiling glittered, depicting scenes from the Bible and North American history. Along the sides of the church were four chapels, also covered in mosaics as well as marble. The dominant color in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is red. The marble in the All Souls Chapel is black and white, symbolizing death and resurrection.

I could have stood there for hours, craning my neck at the incredible art above me. As wonderful as the experience was, there’s no humor in it. Awe-inspiring but funny.

The fun came when I took my kids and my niece and nephew fishing. My youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, and my oldest brought five tackle boxes, just so they didn’t forget anything. We went to a small manmade lake behind a Y recreation center.

Since the kids weren’t having much luck, my oldest was trying to lure schools of fish he had spotted from a bridge to where the kids were fishing. He laid his rod on a rock, the baited hook dangling in the water.

I took one look at that and thought, “That’s not a good idea,” and reached for the rod.

A fish took the bait and the rod into the water. The first strike my oldest had had all night.

I lunged into the algae-clogged water because (1) I didn’t want any of the kids to try it and (2) I didn’t want to tell my husband how we had lost the collapsible rod. I plunged my hand into the water, but the rod was pulled deeper. So I waded deeper, reached again, and grabbed the rod.  Hiking to the shore, I recovered the rod and a huge bluegill.

I was soaked from the waist down. I wrapped a towel around myself to absorb at least some of the water. And my oldest gave me the biggest grin of his life.

That mishap is great material for a humorous story. Most, if not all, classic comedy movies concern what goes wrong in the main character’s life, and what he does to repair the situation, which leads to more things going wrong.

So I am trying to look at obstacles that normally frustrate or irritate me as writing material. It’s so much better than grinding my teeth.

What bad experiences have you had that you can use for a humorous story?

Writing Tip — Favorite Books: The Deer on a Bicycle by Patrick McManus

735600I featured this book a couple of years ago, but I am revisiting it because this month’s theme is humor, and Patrick McManus is my favorite humor writer. His stories appeared in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and then were collected into books. He also wrote a series of mysteries featuring Sheriff Bo Tully.

One of the many great things about this book is that Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat. What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques.

In his commentary on the story “Sequences”, Mr. McManus describes the Recognition Factor. These are little aspects of life that are true to almost everybody. Writers notice these thing because we are always on the look out for inspiration. The reader “gets this little charge of delight” when he reads something in a story that he recognizes from his own life.

When he comments on a disastrous camping trip in “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw,” Mr. McManus explains that he visualizes “the kind of disaster I want to produce”. Then he plots the events “that will lead to that disaster.”

Both of these pieces of advice I can use in my mysteries. In my upcoming short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, my main character owns a beat-up truck with gears that jam. My dad had a truck like that when I was growing up. Many readers have had a vehicle that  quits working when they need it most. That’s the Recognition Factor.

When plotting a mystery, I often know where I want to end. Then I plot backwards and see how I can logically arrive at my ending.

I’ll be discussing other pieces of advice from this book later this month.

Has a humorous story contained a Recognition Factor for you?

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