Creating stories out of characters (AKA, when I grow up, I want to be Maeve Binchy)

(I totally stole the alternate title of this post from one of my commenters…)

I love Maeve Binchy, and have for many years now. Probably since I was about 15 or 16. I’ve read Scarlet Feather more times than I can count, and Tara Road almost as frequently. She creates these wonderful communities filled with interesting and sympathetic characters. Huge casts of characters. I really admire that, but I also just simply enjoy it. I’ve read Scarlet Feather so many times because I love Tom and Cathy, love Cathy’s parents, love the twins, love Shawna and James Byrne, (and the list just goes on). Picking it up is like visiting old friends, and despite the overwrought plot (the end seems a bit too… not quite Deus Ex Machina, but too fairy-tale perfect.) I just simply love it. It wasn’t one of the three or four Maeve Binchy books I read recently, but talking about it makes me want to pick it up again and read it for the umpteenth time. 

But my favorite of all her books is The Lilac Bus, and it was reading that as a young adult that I became a lifelong admirer of her work. I’m not sure how it was that I came to own my hardcover copy of it–probably someone picked it up at a garage sale, which is how I came to own a great many of my favorite books as a kid–but when I first read it, it was like… I don’t even know how to describe it. I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever read. 

“The Lilac Bus” only takes up not quite 2/3 of the pages in the book in my copy, and–it’s more of a long novella than a full-length novel. The premise is simple. Every Friday evening, 8 people travel from Dublin to the far-ish village (Rathdoon) where they all come from, spend the weekend there, and then return to Dublin for the week. That’s it. It’s called the Lilac Bus, because that’s how they get from Dublin to Rathdoon, on a lilac-colored bus driven by an enigmatic man named Tom. It details one weekend in all their lives, from the Friday bus ride on.

But rather than structuring it like a normal novel, hopping from one point of view to another and going through time chronologically, it’s written as a series of short stories, each one written from a single character’s point of view. So as you read through the stories, you understand each of the character’s motivation, and because Rathdoon is such a small village, all of the characters bump into each other at different times over the course of the weekend. A throw away line about one of the characters in one chapter, is suddenly explained when you read the chapter from that character’s point of view, and conversely, as you read through the chapters, the references to the other characters on the bus take on a new meaning to you, the reader, even though the viewpoint character is oblivious to what’s happening in this other person’s life (or sometimes not.) 

It’s brilliant, because each of the stories is small, but engaging. Each person is the hero of his or her own story, even though they may come off badly in the other chapters. It’s just so true to life.

When I read a book that I really like, I like to think about what I learn about writing from it. I’ve always wanted to be able to write a book like Lilac Bus… a book just about people, going about their daily lives, each person unaware of the struggles and triumphs in lives of the people around them.