I was doing some mundane laundry – where I often get some great ideas – and it occurred to me that the doing of housework is a great way to reveal character. Not the singing and dancing while mopping Disney style – which is quite clearly the behavior of a homicidal maniac. No? Well, ok then, moving on. But what does housework reveal – and what does it have to do with Chekhov?
Housework is such a dull activity, and you need to keep doing it over and over, with the knowledge that no one will notice until you stop doing it. But we all do things in different ways – even to hanging out laundry. Different cultures also have their own methods, and indeed acceptance of levels of hygiene. Use of cleaning chemicals, tools, water conservation – all of these can vary quite significantly across cultures and people.
The heroine is doing some cleaning up. Don’t leave it at that, or leave it out altogether as the cleaning fairies do it between scenes. Does she think about the past? Her Mother? Is she fastidious, cleaning all around the nooks and crannies with a brush, and using harsh germicidal chemicals? Why is she so strict about it? What would happen if she is plunged into a more bohemian household, or a survival situation? Relax or breakdown?
Or is she more meh? Does yesterday’s washing up sit in the sink, and she kicks dirty clothes into a pile in the cupboard? Is this a temporary aberration from being tired, stressed or unhappy, or is the cleaner late? Does she ignore all of this as not important while she focuses on her work?
What about the hero or the bad guy? Imagine she meets him for the first time, and notices the CD collection is organised alphabetically- does she rearrange them, or smile? Does the bad guy have all his books organised by colour and not by author? What little warning signs can you put in to foreshadow what they are really like?
Chekhov (the writer, not from Star Trek, that’s another story!) famously said “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Is it wrong that I think we could apply this to housework?
For instance, the well organised CD hero may be an extremely pedantic scientist, and this can be a source of friction and conflict that can work well if the heroine is a bohemian artist. How flexible are they to change – and can this be seen in the housework? You can imagine the neat freaks reaction to the first signs of mess. Something drastic will have to happen for them to get together. Or does he pick up a cloth and help clean up dog sick without comment? (Hint: he’s a keeper!)
Bad guys can be more subtle. Outwardly charming, there is something off kilter. How do they react when a waiter spills coffee on them? A car splashes mud on their designer trousers? The explosion of anger, or coldness can be an early warning sign- not all is as he appears.
The heroine herself can be shown in the ways she deals with housework. Organised or forgetful? Is she more the environmentally conscious recycler or give me a takeaway coffee- stat! This can lead into the first meeting – does she smash into him on her push bike, or elbow him out of the way as she goes to an important meeting? Gets rescued as she breaks a heel on the pavement and nearly falls under a car? Need to borrow a warm jacket or can provide a handy pocket knife? Will opposites attract and annoying traits become endearing – it worked in “When Harry Met Sally”. Or is the glamorous model a red herring and the real heroine the dusty bookshop owner?
So while putting housework and mundane activities in writing seems dull, little snippets can enchant the reader. They’ve been there, done that – they understand. Beguile them – foreshadow and let them anticipate how it will play out.
Cindy Tomamichel is a first time SMP author, with her novel Druid’s Portal the first in a series of time travel romance set in Roman Britain. Druid’s Portal: The Second Journey will be out in 2019!!!
Short stories of fantasy, scifi and romance can be found on her website, where she blogs on aspects of world building. Her Instagram account is devoted to tranquil scenes of nature and flowers, and experimenting with graphics.
Contact Cindy on