Write what you know: but I’ve never been a bag lady

“BAG LADY: A poor woman, often homeless, who uses bags or shopping carts to transport her possessions and collect things that might be of use or traded for money.” – Urban Dictionary

Authors often joke about the feds tracking them down after they (the writers) use the Internet to learn how to kill people in various ways, break into banks, and commit other nefarious deeds for use in upcoming novels.

Yesterday, I looked at dozens of sites to learn more about bullet and arrow wounds. I found a wealth of information. So far, the police haven’t knocked on my door to talk to me about cold cases involving arrows in the ass.

Years ago, I asked a vet on a pet forum how much chocolate it would take to kill a large dog. Figured I’d get turned in ASPCA. I was surprised that we actually had a good discussion about it: he knew I was an author and not a nasty pet killer.

And then there the time I asked a forensic scientist what a dead lady would look like after she’d been buried for three months. He told me and asked for a copy of my book in which I gave him credit in the acknowledgements. Apparently, I didn’t sound crazy enough for him to suspect I was a grave robber.

It just goes to show, authors not only write what they know but write what they don’t.

So now the novel in progress has a bag lady in it. Needless to say, I’ve never been a bag lady. I once knew a lady that people in town thought was a bag lady. She looked like she was 150 years old (she wasn’t) and had the dried out look old people get who’ve smoked ten packs of cigarettes a week for 80 years. She was the cashier at a small grocery store. One time when the credit card reader was taking a long time, she asked that the screen was saying.

“Waiting for bag lady,” I said (because she bagged the groceries as she scanned them). “Most people around here think I’m a bag lady because I walk everywhere when my car won’t run which is near about always.” After that, she got ticked off if I didn’t come to her register or take her advice on my grocery buying habits. Seems like I saw her everywhere in town and about every time we’d stop to chat, somebody would ask me a few days later why I was talking to “that old bag lady.”  I told people she was giving me brokerage tips.

She’s long gone now, but I think of her as I try to come up with what the bag lady in my new novel will look like and act like. Whenever I have a female character in a novel, I have to ask my wife what kind of clothes she’d wear. I’m aware that women wear clothes, but I have no idea what any of the clothes are called or what for what occasions they’d be appropriate. My wife can’t help me as much this time out because my 1950s bag lady is wearing clothes from the mid-1940s.

Government restrictions seriously impacted the clothing people could buy. My wife wasn’t around then, so I’me learning about color and fabric restrictions, knitting socks for troops, and the no-nonsense styles men and women wore then on line. Even Mrs. Roosevelt was purportedly knitting socks for the war effort. Needless to say, my bag lady doesn’t look like the lady on the cover of that sheet music.

If there’s a crime spree in your neighborhood targeting bag ladies, I have an alibi–enough browser history to prove I’m here in my den doing research.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”



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