Q is for Questions #AtoZChallenge

With Q drawing closer, not swiftly exactly but steadily, I was drawing — not quite a blank, but I wasn’t inspired. I solicited suggestions from Facebook friends. Quirky, quixotic, query, question, quahaug (aka quahog) . . .

All worthy, but still not quite right. When I did the A to Z Challenge last year in my Write Through It blog, “Q is for Query” was a no-brainer, but the Vineyard connection was tenuous. Quirky and quixotic were more promising: they suggested character, as in “She’s a real character,” meaning she’s colorful, individualistic, maybe even a bit outrageous, but basically harmless. Quincy Hancock III, a minor player in The Mud of the Place, was known as Quirky Hancock in his well-heeled youth.

There’s a Q character in Wolfie too: the animation artist Rafael Quinteros. He plays an important role but so far he hasn’t appeared onstage.

Quahaug — well, that would be a natural if I had an affinity for shellfish, but I don’t, so they haven’t shown up in my writing. Protagonist Shannon Merrick has done her share of crewing on fishing and charter boats, shucking scallops, and other Vineyard jobs, but all of it was before Mud gets under way.

So I went through the mss. of both Mud and Wolfie, searching on space + qu, to find all words beginning with q. Hands-down the most common were quite, quick (and variations, e.g., quickly), quiet (ditto), and question (ditto). Not far behind, at least in Mud, were quote, quoted, and quotable (etc.) — not surprising, since one of the main settings is a newsroom and one of the point-of-view characters a reporter.

Others included  quarter, quantum leap, quilt, quarantine, queued, quit, quizzically, quid pro quo, qualify, quotient, Queen Mother (the epithet given Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle publisher Arabella Roth by her mostly admiring staff in Mud), queen (specifically “drama queen” and “sugar-daddy queen”), quarry, qualified, quarrel, queer, quest, query, and Quark XPress.

Finally, as you’ve no doubt surmised from the title of this post, I settled on questions.

A popular axiom has it that there are no stupid questions, or that the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked. Up to a point, but it’s also true that the questions you ask can say as much about you as the answers you give to other people’s questions. The eyes of all but the most polite Vineyarders tend to glaze over at “What do you people do in the winter?,” and by the middle of August even polite year-rounders can be caught swapping stupid tourist questions with their friends.

My favorite is being approached by two men at Five Corners around 10 on a weekday morning and being asked “Where can you get a drink in this town?” My answer was “You can’t,” and I pointed them in the direction of Oak Bluffs. You can tell this was a while ago because now you can get a drink in Vineyard Haven, but it has to be with a meal and I’m not sure if anyone’s serving spirits at 10 a.m.

Reporters ask questions and base their stories on the answers. Leslie in Mud of the Place keeps a running list of the answers she needs, who’s likely to have them, and the questions she needs to ask to get them. She’s methodical and competent. In the past she’s demonstrated her courage by asking questions that threatened people in power. If she’s got a fault, it’s that she puts too much stock in her questions. It’s not hard to answer a question truthfully without telling the querent what she wants to know.

Courtroom lawyers are advised against asking questions they don’t already know the answers to, which may sound silly, or at least contradictory, but it’s not. It’s not bad advice for living in a community where word gets around and it’s best to know the lay of the land before you ask anything that might disturb a person’s peace or seriously piss her off.

In Wolfie Shannon can’t find out what she wants to know by asking questions. This was the challenge I set for myself: Something’s amiss in the Smith family, but there’s no way to find out directly, the grapevine is off-limits because asking questions is a great way to start rumors, and the price of being wrong is very high. In real life such situations so often end in tragedy that I was determined to stack the deck in favor of the good guys, to give them a fighting chance. I think it’s going to work out.

I often ask my characters questions, but I may not take their answers at face value. Leslie was evasive when I asked her where she lived and how she paid for it. She didn’t want to tell me she was living rent-free in the in-law apartment of her parents’ summer home, but she finally did — and the tensions in her own family started coming into focus.

So, yeah, Q is for Questions. On to R!

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Q is for Questions #AtoZChallenge

  1. Karen says:

    I am so grateful that at least now I am a tourist who has been to the Island enough times to know the place well enough to not have to ask the stupid questions.

    I’m just getting to know Leslie and Shannon and Pixel and Jay and company – as (thankfully) I’ve been falling asleep shortly after picking up The Mud of the Place for the past few nights, no reflection on the great read. I absolutely LOVE getting to know what it feels and sounds and looks like to be an actual resident of the island, and your exceptional writing makes that possible. I love that I can easily visualize all the places you mention, makes it that more enjoyable. I look forward to finishing “Mud” and moving on to Wolfie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that these days summer visitors generally have less informal interaction with year-rounders than used to be common. People are here for shorter periods. We used to talk about July people and August people, and the weekend that fell between the two months was called the Changeover, or Changeover Weekend. Now it seems most people are here for a week or two, which doesn’t leave much time for hanging out with year-round people (who often are frazzled working two or three jobs, looking after kids, etc.) But I and nearly everyone I know is happy to answer questions (and blather on about this, that, and the other thing) from anyone who wants to know more about the place. Hell, that’s one reason I wrote the book! 🙂


      • Karen says:

        I have noticed the frazzled many who are eeking out a living catering to tourists and I have most often found they are gracious, regardless. I’m also embarrassed when I see tourists with that holier-than-thou attitude – or things like the trash that seems to pile up at South beach with reckless abandon – not inflicted by the locals, I’m sure. Am I wrong in assuming there must be a real housing crisis on island for anyone who can’t afford the real estate prices and lack of affordable rents and is trying to live there year round? We have the same issue in our little town in Connecticut – no real affordable housing options for our seniors, our youth, people on limited income – and yet we depend on volunteerism for our town hall committee positions, our fire department, etc. etc.

        The trend you mention about shorter stays and less interaction is interesting… what do you think contributes to this? Fewer second home owners? More expensive rents and housing cost? We have found, having been coming to the island for over 30 years – that rents and room rates have risen tremendously. We used to dream of a little house somewhere on island walking distance to any of the shores, but that doesn’t appear doable now that real estate prices have exploded on island. I suppose this eventually happens anywhere that has as much to offer as MV. Must be frustrating for those who call the place home.


  2. I wouldn’t mind so many questions if we remembered having already asked them before and learned from the answers. R is for redundancy!


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