Last November, one of my favorite cozy mystery authors, Ali Brandon, who writes the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries series, blogged about her characters’ reluctance to use bathrooms. (Check out her blog here.) If you think about it, you don’t read about characters using the facilities. You don’t see this often on TV either. I mean how many times did Jack Bauer go during the 24 hours he spent saving the world?
Ever wonder why that is? After all, it’s perfectly normal to have to use the restroom. Considering how much coffee, baked goods, dinner, and alcohol are consumed by cozy characters, Ali Brandon points out that there’s no reason why an author can’t include a bathroom trip or two in her story as long as it doesn’t slow down the action.
During our last Deadwood Writers holiday dinner, a very nice lady asked me about my day job. I was happy to answer that I’m a janitor for a professional cleaning company and I currently clean at an institute of higher education. Then she asked me if I had learned anything from my job that I could apply to my writing. Hmm . . . how to answer that question, considering we were at dinner, and the biggest lesson I had learned was how gross people can be. My coworkers and I were constantly picking up half-empty beverage bottles, paper towels, discarded pens, and those little pieces that students tear off the edges of paper that’s been ripped out of spiral bound notebooks.
But the most disgusting thing I learned while doing my job is that a lot of people have absolutely no concept of restroom manners–I mean the basic things we were all taught during potty training. Things like flushing the toilet or urinal, washing your hands, and throwing your trash in the trashcan have literally gone by the wayside.
These activities are social mores we learned at a young age. They are not optional. Have you ever heard a mother tell her child, “You can skip washing your hands. Nothing bad will happen”? No. How about, “Don’t bother flushing the toilet. The next person will get it”? No.
That’s why I don’t understand how people can leave a bathroom stall in such dire straits. If they tried leaving such messes at home, their mothers would knock them into next Tuesday. Wives would turn husbands out of their bedrooms for some of the infractions I’ve seen. Bathrooms across the metro area would ring out with admonitions like: “Were you born in a barn?”; “Didn’t I teach you better than that?”; “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred thousand times. . . .”
So writers, what does this mean for you and me? Pundits advise us to make our characters believable. I’m here to tell you that a believable character not only uses the restroom, but he or she leaves evidence of the visit behind. Either the facilities are just as clean, or cleaner, as they were when the user entered; or sometimes, the floor, seat and/or bowl is covered with biohazardous material. And believe me, you can’t get more graphic or gross than what I’ve seen in real life.
Take the potty break as an opportunity to reveal your character’s true self. After using the restroom and washing up, your character grabs a soap-covered paper towel and cleans the seat, handle, stall door lock, and the faucets. Why? Is he obsessive-compulsive? Is he getting rid of fingerprints–or DNA? Does your character have a disease that’s spread through contact with biological material which he hopes to contain? Is he a twisted bioterrorist spreading infected blood or urine throughout the bathroom instead of cleaning it?
Don’t forget the humorous aspect of bathroom use. A fish-out-of-water character, who is unfamiliar with motion-controlled facilities at an upscale restaurant or hotel, might do battle with the auto-flush toilet, or the self-dispensing hand soap. And if you write for middle grade readers, you can get away with a lot in the name of potty humor. Just ask Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.
So don’t fear leading your character into the bathroom, just be sure to put the seat down when you’re done.