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"Getting Material" from Bookman

by Ellis Parker Butler
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  • Bookman (July, 1919)   "Getting Material"   Humor. Printed in the "Complaint Department." HARPER incorrectly lists this in the JUN-1919 issue, but does show the correct page numbers. Volume XLIX. Number 5. p 581-582.  [HARPER, RGTPL]

from Bookman
Getting Material
by Ellis Parker Butler

The other day a young woman of Spokane, Washington, wrote me and asked how I get the material for the stories I write. Every once in a while some young woman who wants to be a great author writes to ask me that. They usually say: "The characters in your stories are so quaint and odd and yet so true to life. They seem so real. How do you get the material?" I am so well established in the author business now, and have such a steady trade, that at last I feel it is safe for me to give the secret to the world.

I get the material for my stories by putting on my hat and poking around until I find a queer-looking character, and then I ask him the story of his life. For example, I look in a window and see an old, gray-headed shoemaker sitting on a bench, working away at a pair of shoes. I go in and speak to him.

"Good afternoon", I say. "Are you a shoemaker?"

"Yes", he says. "What did you think I was doing? Think I was painting a flagpole on a submarine? What do you ask fool questions for?"

"I'm an author", I say. "I write short stories and books. I'm getting material for a short story now, but if you turn out to be interesting enough I may make a whole novel of you."

This always pleases. It puts the subject at his ease, too. Sometimes I give him a cigar. That helps. It shows I am friendly and mean well.

The first thing I have to do after the introduction is to get the local color of the man and his business. It doesn't do to say, "A shoemaker was making a pair of shoes", and let it go at that. You must get the proper atmosphere. You must mention the tools of his trade by their correct names. So I take a seat and take out my note-book and a pencil.

"The smell I smell in here is leather, I suppose?" I say. "I have to get the smell right in my stories."

"Yes, that's it", he says. "Tanned leather. It smells like that. That's the way it smells."

"And that thing that holds the shoe -- that leather strap you put your foot through. What is that?"

"That's the surcingle. Every shoe- maker has one. It isn't to hold the shoe. It is to keep the palm of my foot warm."

"I see. And that wooden thing there, shaped like a foot. What do you call that?"

"That's a micrometer, a shoemaker's micrometer. We use it to measure micros with. If leather has more than forty-eight micros to the ruble, it is not good leather."

"I think I understand", I say. "I can begin my story like this: 'The old shoemaker sat on his bench measuring a hunk of leather with his micrometer, while his well-worn surcingle warmed the palm of his aged foot'. Does that sound all right?"

"Sounds fine."

"But is it true? If you read that would you see an aged shoemaker, sitting in his shop?"

"Yes. Only you ought to mention his last. Every shoemaker has a last."

"Of course! I'll mention the last. Where is it?"

"That's it -- that wad on the box there. It's a sort of wax. 'A shoemaker should stick to his last', you know. That means his wax -- if he sat down on it he should stick to it. He should be a coarse, rough fellow so the wax would stick to him, and not a slick, oily fellow that the wax would slip off of."

"I see. And what do you use the last for?"

"To wax my mustache. All shoemakers wax their mustaches with their lasts. It is an old custom. The mustaches used to be long -- long and thin -- so the shoemakers waxed them and turned them up and tucked the ends behind their ears. If they didn't do that, they were apt to thread their needles with them and sew them into the sole of a shoe. It was a pitiful sight to see a shoemaker walking around the street with a shoe dangling from the end of his mustache."

"I should think it would be. I wonder if I couldn't make that my story -- the story of a shoemaker who sewed his mustache into a shoe--"

"And it was especially pitiful at meals", the shoemaker would say, "when there was soup -- bean soup. The shoe would get into the soup and get full of it, sometimes; full of bean soup. And the shoemaker would wonder why his mustache was so heavy. He would go back to his work with his shoe on the end of his mustache splashing bean soup down the front of his coat. And if it was chicken soup! Dogs and cats! Thousands of them! Following him to lick up the soup he spilled. I remember, once, when I got one shoe that was on the end of my mustache full of fish -- cod- fish. And the other shoe -- the one that was on the other mustache end -- full of tea."

"That's interesting. A pair of shoes--"

"No, not a pair. Odd shoes. One was a brogan and the other was a gaiter."

"Hold on. What is a brogan? I have to get the local color right, you know."

"A brogan? A brogan is a course heavy shoe."

"I see. And a gaiter?"

"A gaiter is a light shoe. I made three kinds of gaiters. I made a very light one for wear in the house -- that was a house-gaiter. Then I made a heavier one, for wear in the street. That was a street-gaiter. Then I made one heavier than a street-gaiter, but not so heavy as a brogan. It was to wear in alleys. That was an alley-gaiter."

"An -- what did you call it?"

"An alley-gaiter."

"Oh! Were they cloth or leather?"

"Leather. The house-gaiter I made of kid, but I made the street-gaiter of calfskin. It was tougher. Better for outdoor wear."

"Yes, I've got that down. And the alley-gaiter? What sort of leather did you use for the alley-gaiter?"


You see how easy it is to gather material for your stories. All you have to do is to go to the man and ask him, and he will tell you. I have never known it to fail. As soon as he knows you are a story-writer he is anxious to oblige, and he will simply smear you all over with atmosphere and local color, and rich, ripe facts like these.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:12:31am USA Central
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