Bonding with my Protagonist over a Dirty Secret

I love the time of year when my fingernails are always dirty. Really dirty. Deep under my nails, crusted in my cuticles, embedded in every crease on my knuckles. I love dirt. To be more precise, I love soil.

In the summer I run an organic farm where I grow a variety of vegetables and fruit. It’s a one-woman operation. I have help preparing the soil in the spring, and I usually can bribe some friends to help me plant, but after that, it’s all me.

It’s dirty work and I love it.

I also write a lot in the summer. It seems the more I dig in the dirt, the more I want to write. Weeding, pest management, and pruning are solitary tasks, so I often write scenes in my head as I work, then type them up after I wash my hands.

But no matter how much I scrub, my hands never really come clean in the summer. And that’s exactly how I like it.

The protagonist in my novel also thrives when she is outdoors. She loves rocks and insects and dirt. But in early drafts of my book, I wrote her as a journalist. I don’t really know why, other than the fact that I’m a journalist, so it seemed easy. It was a lazy choice.

When GrubStreet instructor Michelle Hoover got her hands on that early draft, one of her first suggestions was to get my main character outside more. Put her in the woods. Get her dirty.

Of course my protagonist isn’t a journalist. She is an entomologist doing research in the forest. How did I not realize that earlier? Like me, she is so much happier now that she has dirt under her fingernails. Her career change transformed my novel.

I recently discovered that the joy my main character and I derive from being dirty, isn’t just a literary device or a weird fetish. It’s biological. An article in the New York Times last year explored the connection between human contact with soil and happiness. The author explained that the microorganisms and the bacteria in soil are not only proven to boost the immune system, but they also have a positive effect on mood and can even relieve symptoms of depression.

This now seems obvious to me. No wonder I’ve been trying to get dirty my whole life.

The backyard of my childhood home in Germany opened up into a community playground with a huge sand box, which had very little sand. It was more of dirt box. One of our favorite summer activities was to dig a deep pit in the sand box, fit several long hoses together until they stretched from my house to the sand box, and fill the pit with mud. We called it Guish Gosh.

My friends and I would soak up to our necks for hours in our luxurious Guish Gosh. The feeling of cold mud squishing between my toes was exhilarating. It took days to get the mud out of my hair, from the nooks and crannies in my ears, and out from under my fingernails, but I didn’t care.

When I was older, I used to look at smears of mud under the microscope I got for Christmas in fourth grade. (Yes, I was a little nerdy.) It never failed to amaze me that the the soil was alive, teeming with microorganisms and creatures I did not have names for. Tiny, wiggly bugs and translucent critters with long, whip-like tails.

I know what they are now. Nematodes, protozoa, flagellates, to name a few. And tons of bacteria. My Guish Gosh was a far superior product to the expensive mud baths fancy spas now offer. My mud was alive. At the time, all I knew was that I was happy—that tilt-your-face-up-to-the-sky happy, breathe-in-the-sunshine joy that only children seem to embody.

When Michelle suggested my protagonist needed to work in Nature instead of an office, it opened a treasure trove of possibilities for her. It changed the way she viewed the world around her. It gave her a more useful vocabulary. And it gave me access to those childhood (and adult) joys of squishing mud between my toes. My protagonist and I understand each other better now.

It isn’t always necessary to share a passion with your main character the way I do with mine. But it’s worth considering. Our quirky interests and obsessions shape how we interact with the world and lead us to explore ideas from a perspective no one else has.

I love reading novels that pull me into someone else’s off-beat world. Louise Miller’s recent debut The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living immediately comes to mind. In real life, Louise is a pastry chef. She uses culinary language in luscious, mouth-watering ways in her writing. In one memorable scene, two characters discuss a menu. It could have been a perfunctory scene to move the plot forward, but in Louise’s hands, their language is sexual, romantic, and irresistible. It’s because Louise is passionate about food, and she uses that unique vocabulary to engage the reader’s emotions. No one but Louise could have written that scene.

Louise told me she feels the same way about baking that I feel about working the soil. The more she bakes, the more she wants to write. Maybe there’s something to this: Find the thing you love, no matter how quirky, and immerse yourself in it like a pit of Guish Gosh. Let your passion season your characters.

I’ve started working on my next novel. The protagonist is a young farmer with a complicated, medically-disturbing relationship with the soil on her farm. I’m knee-deep in the research—and the dirt. I feel giddy just thinking about it.

If you bump into me me at a writers’ conference, a party, or the grocery store, and you notice dirt under my fingernails, please don’t judge me. Be happy for me. Think of it like a dash of flour on a pastry chef’s cheek, evidence that my characters and I are doing what we love.

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2 comments

  1. Lisa Birk

    Guish Gosh sounds Awesome! Plus, so onomatopoeiac! It’s true what you say. Other than biking or walking, gardening in the soil, dirt under nails, inspires my best ideas. Looking forward to reading both your muddy novels!

  2. So true that my most vivid memories as a child involve mud pies! Thank you for sharing this and reminding me to connect with who my character really is- not just who I think she should be- and how those are rarely the same thing 🙂

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