Do you suppose Hannibal Lecter does his own laundry? It’s easy to see a white collar criminal doctor sending his whites out to be dry cleaned and pressed by an efficiently outsourced place with pink boxes. But I imagine, what with the blood stains and all, doing it himself is a better plan. So there he is in the basement—or, I guess he has one of those fancy laundry rooms on an upper floor with sunny yellow walls and a sign that says “Wash. Dry. Fold. Repeat.”— sorting whites and red and pulling out the bleach and hoping it doesn’t ruin his favorite sweater…
Why do you suppose Thomas Harris never wrote that scene?
I was reading a book by Mary Rose O’Reilley last night—she’s an educator, a poet, and a lapsed Catholic/Quaker who has practiced Buddhism. Which is to say, she has interesting things to say. In her book, she talks about being truly present and how a physical task can focus you, like doing the dishes. Then she refers to a PBS documentary about a master potter, Warren MacKenzie, in which he washes his dishes and tells the story of each one.
This concept moved me. I had my own dishes sitting in the sink, so that night, I decided to skip loading the dishwasher and clean my dishes by hand. There is a mug from my trip to Disneyworld at Thanksgiving with my mother and brother and grandmother. There is a Blue Willow plate from Spode my husband picked as our China pattern. There are the two “lady forks” inherited from my mother. (So named because they are far more graceful and delicate than the rest of our forks. I like to use them for eating cake with tea.) The list went on.
As I dragged the heavy sponge across soapy surfaces, something happened. I was washing dishes and imagining my character doing the same thing. And I remembered where she was in her story, and how she felt. And I began to cry, because she had just lost her child and was home from the hospital feigning normalcy. And nothing is more normal than washing the dishes. And nothing has the weight of memory attached to it like such personal objects (except perhaps for scent). I thought about how she was trying to pull it together, and what it would be like to have to do something ordinary while living through her experience, and suddenly I had a scene.
Now, she comes home and goes to work in the kitchen, ostensibly to make tea, which turns into busy work. Which turns into the weight of the world. And it taught me something about her. Especially when she dries her eyes on her dish towel, sets up the tray, and carries it back into the parlor where her husband and a nurse are waiting. The scene might not stay, but for the moment, it’s made her very real.
And now it’s got me wondering, what if we gave our characters chores? The very things we need to do every day, the things that seem to eat into our writing time. Why do the laundry as yourself, when you can do it as your protagonist? Or better yet, as your villain. Nobody ever thinks of villains washing their delicates (unless their delicates are the focus of their villainy—maybe they throw red shirts into all the white loads at the laundromat). But what must it be like? What characterizations can we learn from mundane tasks?
Why not try it and find out? If you’re working on a period piece, it’s a great way to get details of the era into the story. In the time period of my book, laundry was an arduous all day affair. Dishes, likewise, might signify much about the status of a character, and even show the lay of the land—do they haul water, having plumbing, etc? Remember, Indian Jones chose the true Holy Grail based on what a carpenter would have owned. Conversely, Star Trek does a great job of dispensing with chores—the replicators seem to make both the food and the plate on which it’s served. (I don’t know where they get their lady forks from, though.)
So, that’s your homework for the week. Make a list of chores for your characters to do. Write the scene. Do the characters work together on a task, or alone? What emotions are involved? What items are they handling? How does it reflect the story? Don’t plan too hard on this—just dive in. After all, most people don’t over think their chores. They just do them. What you discover may be like finding that worn ten dollar bill in the laundry (or all those shredded Kleenex—that’s the worst). It might be worth something (or it might be worth throwing away).
So back to the main questions—does Hannibal Lecter do his own laundry? I’m guessing yes. I imagine he sorts his whites from his darks, his murder clothes from his mundane ones, and he regards the stains and little rips and tears with a touch of nostalgia. Or perhaps he burns them, and when he watches the sparks fly up into the night sky, he thinks of Heaven and his dead sister, and what else he will someday burn. He definitely hand washes his China—it’s too delicate for a machine to handle. Scrapes the plates into the disposal, grinding the remnants of his victim meals, and thinks about the pattern on the plate, where he bought it, what its provenance means to him, before toweling it dry and placing it back in the cabinet for another day. Wash. Rinse. Dry. Repeat.