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Apr 14

Potty Mouth

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.

14 comments

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  1. Claire Murray

    Very true and so funny the way you wrote it.

  2. dwhirsch

    When I wrote entertainment reviews for a newspaper in New Jersey, if I commented on the venue in addition to the band, I always commented on the state of the facilities. Most times my editor cut them out. Sometimes, however, she left it in.

    I have discovered that the only times bathrooms are brought in as a setting or character is when women (or men) dash in to talk in private or when a character is escaping someone or something. You never see on those crime shows what people do while on stakeout (Depends?) or when out in the woods. I mean, what do women do when they are stuck in the desert and it happens to be their time of the month?

    Yes, I have wondered these questions before your post, but what a delight to know I’m not the only one and to have someone address the matter so…fluidly.

  3. Ali Brandon

    Thanks for the shout-out, Victoria. 🙂 I didn’t mention in my blog post my little hobby of taking pictures of interesting bathrooms. One of my favorites is the yellow tiled “comfort station” in the Hemmingway House in Key West. Gorgeous bathroom! It even has a window at sitting height so you can enjoy the view while otherwise occupied. 😉

    1. Ali Brandon

      And I do know how to spell Hemingway! 🙂

    2. vicky

      Diane you should so do a blog about that! And have Hamlet include pix of cute litter boxes. Or not. I get the feeling potty humor is too unrefined for him. But maybe hamlet and rosa can share a potty moment.

      1. Ali Brandon

        Actually, I am working on my “Spring” newsletter and planned to have Hamlet’s own column, From the Litter Box. LOL!

        1. Victoria Wright

          YAY!!! I would so read that, and I know Layla likes to keep up with Hamlet’s activities both in and out of the litterbox.

    3. dwhirsch

      I’m glad I’m not the only person who takes pics of interesting bathrooms….

      1. Ali Brandon

        I have to confess, I even once bought a book on outhouses. LOL!

        1. dwhirsch

          Is that a coffee table book or a…? 🙂

  4. Phil Rosette

    Very nice, Vicky, and true. Never written a “flush” scene… but I can image some guy running into a bathroom with the cops hot on his trail thinking he’ll hide his stash in a toilet and come back for it later. Then he lift the seats and decides he’d rather get busted.

    1. vicky

      *snort* Phil that’s terrific!

  5. Yibbity

    The Help by Kathryn Stockett really did a job on the bathroom. Not sure the use of the bathroom is too interesting unless the use is unusual to the reader. That might be why it is not put in a lot of books.

    1. vicky

      Nice! I haven’t read that but it’s on my list.

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