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!