By Cait Collins
A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Cunningham. He was a speaker at my first writers’ conference. I was enrolled in his advanced novel writing class and looked forward to hearing his lectures. He was not the standard speaker extolling his accomplishments. Instead, Michael gave us an assignment. We had fifteen minutes to list twenty physical characteristics of your protagonist. The list could include physical attributes as well as manner of dress, and smells. And when we had the list completed, we were to write the opening paragraph of the novel and incorporate at least six of the characteristics in that paragraph.
Ageless long, white blonde hair tall slender piercing blue eyes
Gold wire-rimmed metal glasses long, slender fingers musician’s hands a pipe stem peeping from the jacket pocket a brown tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbow
Smelled of apple wood pipe tobacco pressed dark blue denim jeans large, blood red ruby ring on the ring finger of his right hand black leather belt patrician nosehigh cheek bones English oak walking stick with a wide gold band at the bottom and a dragon-head handle
Dark wool muffler slight limp high cheek bones linen handkerchief in left breast pocket voice of authority
He stood in the doorway. Piercing blue eyes searched the room lingering on the faces of the women in the crowded lecture hall. He appeared ageless. Was he forty or four hundred? White blonde hair fell below his shoulders. He limped toward the lectern at the front of the room. Facing the audience, he spoke. The voices of the ages filled the room as he told stories of Glastonbury, Tintagel, and the days of Camelot. The authority in his words called to some and ignored others. The sparkle of the blood red ruby on the ring finger of his right hand hypnotized the woman sitting in the last seat on the third row.
“Daughter of King Arthur, it is time.”
Copper tresses gleamed and emerald eyes stared into the beloved face. “Merlin,” she whispered.
I loved every minute of Michael Cunningham’s lectures.