Dialogue and Chopsticks
by Stacey Lee
My mother-in-law considers chopsticks the handiest tool in the silverware drawer, not only useful for eating, but also for fetching the pasta that falls out of the pot, scooping the last bits of honey from the jar, and pulling the bones from the fish. Dialogue is the chopsticks of a writer’s toolbox, and one of my favorite tools to use. It’s how writers move scenes and turn pages. It multitasks by revealing character and relationships between characters. It fills in back story. It can be used to increase tension, or conversely, provide comic relief. If a word wanted to save the world and ducked into a telephone booth, it would probably emerge as dialogue.
I strive to make my dialogue something on which an outsider would eavesdrop. We don’t listen in on mundane dialogue, but our ears perk up when we sense tension, good or bad. Writers amp tension even more by dropping in juicy details about the scene, and twist the screws in further when dialogue contrasts with what’s happening on the page.
Eavesdropping on strangers is actually one of my favorite ways to create dialogue. I’m doing it right now as I write this, from a tiny table at one of my favorite cafés. A French man in his late forties, his two young bilingual children— a boy and a girl— and an Asian woman, also in her late forties have parked next to me, each sipping their own hand-mixed ‘artisanal’ coffee drinks. I edited the details to make the scene more interesting.
Boy: Is that air conditioning piped in?
Man: Yes, I think so. (To woman). He’s smart, isn’t he smart? (He strokes her thigh under the table.)
Woman (loudly): He’s smart, just like you. (To kids) Who’s the boss here?
Girl (grinning): I am. I beat him in thumbs.
Boy: No, I beat her in thumbs.
Woman laughs too loudly. Challenges the girl to a thumb wrestle. As they wrestle, the man continues rubbing the woman’s leg under her short skirt, hard enough now that he may start a fire.
Man (to the woman suggestively): My thumbs are pretty good, too.
This simple exchange shows us a lot; that the woman is ‘new’ to this family and trying to make a good impression on the kids. That the kids aren’t hostile to this new person. That the man’s mind is on other things besides his kids.
Learn to use the chopsticks, and they will serve you and your writing well.
Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction.
Under a Painted Sky
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.
This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.
Out Run the Moon
San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.
On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?
The Secret of a Heart Note
“Most people don’t know that heartache smells like blueberries.”
As one of only two aromateurs left on the planet, sixteen-year-old Mimosa knows what her future holds: a lifetime of using her extraordinary sense of smell to mix base notes, top notes, and heart notes into elixirs that help others fall in love—all while remaining incurably alone.
The rules are clear: Falling in love would render her nose useless, taking away her one great talent. Still, Mim doesn’t want to spend her life elbow-deep in soil and begonias. She dreams of having a normal high school existence, including a boyfriend. But when she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong woman, Mim has to rely on the lovesick woman’s son, the school soccer star, to help fix the situation. As she races to set the lovers straight, Mim quickly realizes that when it comes to falling in love, the choice isn’t always hers to make.
Stacey Lee is the author of the critically acclaimed UNDER A PAINTED SKY and OUTRUN THE MOON. Hopeful, funny, and romantic, THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE is a sweet and charming coming-of-age story that speaks to all of the senses.
Available December 27 2016
A huge thank you to Stacey Lee for taking the time to talk about the importance of dialogue and sharing your personal experiences creating dialogue. We truly appreciate the effort you put into telling your story.
As always, a huge thank you to all publishing/writing professionals who have, will be, and are participating in this feature. Thank you for helping our future writers.
We hope you all have a wonderful rest of your week!