I recently had an experience which got me thinking. In Guernsey airport, for some reason a security man (from the infamous G4S) decided he needed to take every item out of my hand luggage to inspect it. And while I was standing there trying to look like I had nothing to hide, I realised that by rummaging through my bag he could work out so much about me. It was a little disappointing.
My bag contained, among other things:
- two books of short stories
- one notebook full of ideas for characters and plot lines
- a bible*
- a keyring containing a Tesco clubcard fob, a Devon library card fob and a Yaris car key
- an inhaler
- a box of hayfever tablets
- a massive bag of chocolate buttons
- a scuffed digital camera in a case that doesn't belong to it and a cheap mobile phone
- contact lenses in a travel case
You see what I mean? I am a reader, writer and Christian. I live in Devon and drive to Tesco in my Yaris to do the shopping. I have asthma, hayfever and a dependence on chocolate. I like to record important events but don't care for modern gadgets. I wear contact lenses. All that without even opening my purse to look at the bank/membership/loyalty/blood donor cards and photo of my husband.
When writing, the contents of somebody's bag can tell the reader a lot about them. But of course, there would be no point in telling the reader all those facts about me unless they were relevant. With the exception of the camera and phone - which does at least tell you my attitude towards technology without having to write, "Chloe was not bothered about keeping up with the latest innovations" - most of my bag told you nothing about my personality. Unless I am a suspect in a crime novel who swears I've never been to Tesco in my life - in which case the Tesco fob (a subtle reference to this will have been slipped into chapter two) is very significant - the rest is probably irrelevant.
Of course, any of these items could be a red herring, or hide something more sinister. Can you think of a more interesting reason why I might be carrying any of those things? Planning to bump-off somebody with diabetes, perhaps? Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes would find something incriminating in the mundane I'm sure!
Readers need to know the key points of your character's personality and appearance - not heights, weights, skin colouring, medical complaints or favourite food. And if you can reveal all those things through showing little details, rather than writing descriptive passages, then so much the better. Don't tell me your man is allergic to cats, even if it's important; have him sneeze when a cat jumps on his lap! (And then don't ruin it by adding. ' "I'm sorry, I'm allergic to cats," he said.')
What would the contents of your bag/ car glove box/ pockets say about you?
*the bible was the only thing the security man didn't look through in great detail. All the other books he flicked through and read bits of. So if you ever need to smuggle a bit of paper out of Guernsey, I suggest slipping it into the pages of a bible!