In my mind, it’s 1992 again and my brother has just decided that he will not call our newborn cousin by her first name. See, it’s been brought to his attention that her name is the name he was supposed to have. It’s been brought to his attention that our parents thought he might be a girl. It’s been brought to his attention, and he ain’t having any of it.
He tells us that he’ll call our baby cousin by her middle name, Ashley, and that’s all there is to it.
Now it is 2001, and I am searching for a name. I have yet to read Ron Carlson’s excellent volume on writing, Ron Carlson Writes a Story — it hasn’t even been published yet — so, I don’t know to always have one female and one male name at the ready when writing. Instead, I pause, pick my fingers up off of the keyboard (a cardinal sin when working on a first draft), and I think.
The character who needs a name is the sister of character based loosely on myself. I’ve made her a sister instead of a brother because my favorite method for translating reality into fiction at this moment is the gender swap. But that’s it; that’s all I’ve got, and now I’m stuck.
I don’t want a relative’s name, or an ex-girlfriend’s, and I haven’t yet moved my bookshelf within arm’s reach of the desk to allow myself to crib the names of my favorite authors like I will do in years to come.
I push back from my desk and swivel in my office chair, staring out at the snow falling into the potholed road outside my window. I think about asking my wife, probably reading in the next room, but then I know that she’s going to say she has no idea.
And then, suddenly, it hits me, my muse hitting up the side of the head with a bag of fairy dust as heavy as a sock full of quarters. I remember my brother’s proclamation from all those years ago, and the girl has a name.
If you’ve been reading my Drafts for a while, you’ll note that Ashley is a character who pops up often. When searching for a thread to tie together a book celebrating the first year of Drafts, Ashley was the obvious choice. From the story “Jokes” that I serialized back in November 2014 through “The Last Donut,” a story I plucked from my unpublished archives and published this past summer, Ashley has been a favorite subject of mine. There are even a half-dozen pieces I’ve published without mentioning her name that were written with Ashley in mind, and a couple of really old pieces that will fill in the blanks of her story if I change but a name or two.
So, that answers the question of character. But what about the question of plot? There are years worth of stories about Ashley, but what story am I trying to tell by putting them together?
We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Next: The Bear at the Door