Thursday, October 20, 2011

Telling Details

by CJ West author of Addicted To Love, released this Tuesday!

My brother loves junk. He’d tell you he works with antiques and collectibles, but my dad likes to call it junk. I’m somewhere in between. A lot of it is junk, but I see the good stuff mixed in.

Last weekend I went to the home of a woman who died after a long illness. My brother was hired to prepare the estate for sale and asked us to come over and look at some work he needed done. None of the family was there, but being curious as I am, I discovered there is much to be learned from the things we use in our daily lives. I promise there is a story here, so come along on my tour of this woman’s estate.

We pulled up to an overgrown house in an established neighborhood of small homes. I assumed the family was of average means and had been here a long time. After our time inside, the quality of the items suggested they were things any average family might have. The volume of items would almost certainly tell you the home was in America if you didn’t know. It was stuffed to bursting with every consumer item you could imagine. Not only did the clutter make maneuvering difficult, it made the puzzle of life in this house difficult to decipher. The trick then is figuring out what few items in all the clutter told the story of this family.

In the garage I learned that the woman was almost certainly married. There were five various handled tools that looked like hammers, but there wasn’t a single claw hammer of the type a carpenter or homeowner would normally use. The man of the house was certainly handy. Building materials abounded, flooring, wooden handrails, nails of every size. He owned complicated tools like a gear puller and others that I wasn’t sure of their function. But nowhere was there a wrench or a pair of pliers. Odd.

We waded through a kitchen that looked like it had been bombed. With items pulled from all the cabinets, every available space was covered with miscellaneous stuff of every size and shape. I moved away from the sensory overload into the living room where I noticed some family photographs in a plastic bag on an end table. It was then I noticed there were no framed photos around the house anywhere.

In the basement, I noticed an old safe and two large freezers, some blanks for leather belts - probably another hobby of the husband was my guess. There were also dozens of empty jewelry boxes. When I saw a box full of small plastic bags, I assumed this woman was in the business of selling jewelry. That hunch was borne out when I later discovered several empty display cases with small compartments suitable for rings or earrings.

The last thing I saw was the one that really got my wheels turning. In the garbage can by the door were several locks. The woman who owned the house had passed, so who were the new locks intended to keep out? I remembered that there had been no jewelry anywhere in the house. The pictures had been removed, ditto the everyday tools.

My scheming writer’s mind imagined a scenario where the old woman had been picked clean by her family, that she’d known what the kids were up to and left the house to the butler (I don’t really know who got the house). Maybe the kids tampered with her medicine and bumped her off only to discover they’d been written out of the will.

Whatever the truth happens to be, picking through that house was great fodder for a mystery. It also helped me think differently about the particular details I include in my work.

What will the things you leave behind say about you?


  1. Fascinating post! I like the way you think. I also look at people and situations and create stories about them.

    I'm a minimalist and an open book so there won't be much mystery about me when I pass. What I hope to leave with people is my joy of life, sense of humor, and bit of good reading.

  2. This reminds me of sitting around in public places and making up stories about the people I see.

    I'm not sure I would've drawn the same conclusions you did, but that's what makes every book unique.

    My family already knows the odd things about me, but I imagine if a stranger were to go through everything, they might wonder about the feathers . . .

  3. LJ,

    Rachel is nudging me toward minimalism. I really like the idea, but I'm something of a packrat at heart. It is a hard habit to break!

    As I look around the room, my quill pen screams writer. The antique bottles say something, I'm not sure what, and the clutter says I need to move to a bigger space.


  4. Peg,

    Feathers? Inquiring minds need to know...



  5. Interesting post, CJ! I admit to being a bit of a pack-rat, with stuff in the basement that really needs to go to Goodwill or the garbage can! Your story is inspiring me to go tackle some of it! I'm sure I'll feel much lighter after that - without the bother of going on a diet!

  6. Jodie

    I moved recently. Now I view everything I buy with a wary eye. I wonder how long I will want whatever thing I have in my hand at the store.

    Good luck cleaning out that basement!


  7. There's so much novel-writing material in our everyday lives--it's virtually limitless. The challenge is being able to spot and implement it. I've developed an extra sense for paying attention to my surroundings and filtering in what may make good material for my novels. As for being a minimalist and getting rid of the clutter't succeeded there yet.

  8. CJ,
    Interesting stuff. I'm a writer who was lucky enough to get a job cleaning up houses of people who'd died without a will. I was free to go through their stuff and it was endlessly fascinating and great fodder. I learned more about the World War Two generation than I ever would have learned from books and movies. It'll be interesting to see what comes of your experience.
    Good post, thanks.


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