I’m reading Richard Peck’s A Season of Gifts which follows the antics of Grandma Dowdel, star of the Newbery winning A Year Down Yonder and the Newbery Honor A Long Way from Chicago.
If you haven’t read them yet, you’re in for a treat. Are you an adult who thinks children’s books are just for children? Tis a pity. Your loss. Run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore or library and get a hold of these to learn all you can about voice, setting, character and great dialogue.
In chapter two of A Season of Gifts, an “evangelist of the sawdust circuit” comes to town. Delmer “Gypsy” Piggott, called Texas Tornado for his style, could “scare a lot of money out of town.”
People and cars were everywhere. Some “believers” had rented rooms from Mrs. Dowdel. But late one night, the main character, twelve-year-old Bob, Mrs. Dowdel’s neighbor, is awakened by noise on her front porch.
Stuff began to fly off the porch and bounce in her yard. Suitcases? Trumpet cases? More came. White moths seemed to flutter across the grass, but it might have been sheet music.
I couldn’t see how many people were on the porch. But it was Mrs. Dowdel who barged through them and outside. She wore a nightgown the size of the revival tent. Cold moonlight hit her white hair loose in the night breeze. She held something high and poured from it onto the ground.
“WINE IS A MOCKER, STRONG DRINK IS RAGING,'” she bellowed into the night. “Proverbs. 20:I. You could look it up. I don’t have hard liquor in my house. It goes, and so do you.”
She seemed to pour strong drink out on the grass. Now she hauled off and threw the bottle. She had an arm on her. The bottle glinted in moonlight, hit her cobhouse roof, and rolled off.
“Now, now, Mrs. Dowdel,” a voice said, “calm yourself. ‘A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.’ Ecclesiastes. 8:15.”
I’d have known that voice in the fiery pit. It was the Texas Tornado, Delmer “Gypsy” Piggott. Now I could hear Mother and Dad stirring around in their room.
My nose was flat to screen wire. “GET OFF MY PLACE,” Mrs. Dowdel bellowed, “and take these . . . sopranos with you. Trumpets, strumpets –everybody out.”
More shoe-scuffling came from the porch, and the peck of high heels. A sob and some squealing. The gospel quartette milled.
“You’ve rented your last rooms in this town, you two-faced old goat,” Mrs. Dowdel thundered. The whole town was wide-awake now. “Hit the road.”
“Dad-burn it, Mrs. Dowdel,” the Texas Tornado whined, “we done paid you out for the whole week with ready money. Cash on the barrelhead.”
“I’m about a squat jump away from a loaded Winchester 21,” Mrs. Dowdel replied, “And I’m tetchy as a bull in fly time.”
Note the unique dialogue between the characters, Peck’s vivid verbs, word choices, and use of humor. With his characterizations in this brief passage, he’s brought these two to life so that we are dying to know more about how Bob will interact with Mrs. Dowdel.
Choose two characters of your own. Give them a strong conflict. How can they oppose each other? How will they show this through dialogue? Action? How will you show their character through vivid verbs and word choices?