This story begins in The Sherman House in Batesville, Illinois, in 1982. Or maybe the story really ends there. My friend, Ellen, and I were on the first day of our journey, driving from North Carolina to Alberta, Canada. That night, in our room at the Sherman House, I saw the last episode of “Barney Miller.”
Seven years earlier, I’d watched the first episode. It’s one of the few television shows that I’d seen both beginning and end, like bookends. I loved the 12th Precinct, with it’s ratty ambiance, bad coffee, and cast of wonderful characters. Around our house, we quote Barney Miller a lot.
“I find something that finally makes me feel good, and it turns out to be illegal.” (Detective Phil Fish)
“You washed my cup!” (Detective Nick Yemana)
“His apartment is full of plants.”
“Harris, a lot of people have plants in their apartment.”
Harris draws himself up to his full height. “Wheat?”
A whole raft of quotes from Det. Stanley Wojciehowicz
“It was beautiful, Barn. When the building came down, the bomb squad applauded.”
“Wojciehowicz, just like it sounds.”
“You’re late, Wojciehowicz. Where were you?”
Barney does a double take. “Church? Are you all right?”
“I just felt like going to church, okay?”
“Sure. Okay. I’ll be in my office if you want to talk or anything.”
Then there was that wonderful scene where a suspect insists on being read his rights in his first language, Spanish. Wojo Mirandizes him in perfect Spanish and ends by asking, “You want to hear it in Polish?”
Twenty-five years later, I remember the incredible timing the characters had in delivering their lines, even if it was one word, like “Wheat?” or “Church.” And they way they moved around each other on the crowded set. Though the series initially used a few other sets, in the end, they came back to the squad room and Barney’s office, and that was enough.
As writers we have to resist the temptation to do too much with our characters. Too much back story. Too many details. Too many minor, irritating personal problems. In fact, sometimes, too many characters. What we need to do instead is get them up-close-and-personal. Stick them in a crowded room and watch how they avoid tripping over one another. Every detail has to count, whether it was Harris' natty suits, or that banty-rooster, "this is where I belong" walk that Officer Lebowitz had ever time he walked into the squad room.
As the song says, it's a gift to be simple and wise.
Writing quote for the week:
A good character has humanity, humility, humor, heroism, honor, honesty, heart (passion and energy), and horse-sense. ~Denise Tiller, mystery writer
Here’s the attribution for the quote from last week:
One of our favorite lines stems from the time my husband, also a writer, asked upon emerging, "Have we had Easter yet?" It was June. ~Susie Coombs, mystery writer