I don’t remember where or when this picture of Steve and me was taken. It looks like an airfield. Those are the Wasatch Mountains in the background. Steve and I used to make stories for hours on end, speaking in the voices of the characters we imagined. Maybe that’s why I rely so much on dialogue in my fiction.
I used to have a recurring dream about Soldier Summit, the dying town high in the mountains of Utah where my parents began their marriage and my brother and I first lived. Though it has been years, my memory of the dream remains vivid. I am hiking along a road with snowbanks on both sides and mountains rising in front of me. Then night falls and it begins to snow. Music plays, haunting music with bells. Brilliantly lit houses on the mountainside overlook the road, promising warmth and rest, but I can’t stop. I have to reach Soldier Summit before nightfall. Then the lights from the houses fade. Darkness closes around me.
My mother told me how she waded through hip-deep snow to reach the Hillcrest Cafe where she waited tables and my father cooked. Before buying the cafe, my father worked as a dispatcher at the railroad station in Soldier Summit, but he wanted to be his own boss. Once Mom became pregnant with me, she stopped working at the Hillcrest. She had to be careful. She’d miscarried with her first pregnancy, an older brother or sister that Steve and I might have had.
I recall only moments of that time in Soldier Summit. I remember waking before dawn in the dim bedroom where Nana and I slept and watching her get dressed. She had on an old-fashioned girdle with garters and stockings but no underpants, and I saw the tuft of gray hair between her legs before she slipped into a dress. I asked where she was going. To Salt Lake, she said, just for the day. I asked if I could come. Not this time, she told me. Sometime later she took me on the train to Salt Lake. We shopped in a huge department store. Then we checked into a hotel so I could take my afternoon nap. This seems unlikely given how little money we had, yet the memory is vivid — the cool sheets and the precipitous view from the window.
Another memory: Steve as a toddler wearing a frilly pink dress, screaming, furious, his red face smeared with tears and snot. Years later I asked Nana about the incident. She told me I was imagining things, nothing of the kind had happened. So I never mentioned it to Steve. But a long time afterward, when both of them were dead, I asked Mom about the memory. Nana had put the dress on Steve, she said, as punishment for wetting the bed. When Dad came home and saw, he cussed Nana out and ordered her to get that dress off him. “It was my fault,” Mom said. “I should’ve stood up to her.”
Steve told me once I had no clue how hard it was being a man. High on speed and beer, he’d nearly fought some guys on the street because one of them said something. He got into vicious fights over matters of respect. I heard about the ones he won. He boasted of beating up a drunk who ruined his hat with a pocket knife.
Earlier this month I went back to Soldier Summit. Steve’s son Hayden, his wife Tonia, and their daughter Aspen came with me. The place I remembered was no longer there. Snow covered the foundations of the demolished houses where Steve and I once played. There were a few new buildings along the highway, but everything I remembered was gone except for one abandoned house and the railroad tracks.
In my heart I keep hoping each new piece of technology will be the spark that sets my writing on fire. I wasn’t always this way. Once I detested the term “word processing,” which seemed to imply that the act of writing was like pulverizing fruit in a blender. My techno-lust began the day Joe brought home a K-Pro he’d borrowed from a friend. Long extinct now, the K-Pro was a clunky box with an ugly little screen, no hard drive and a tiny fraction of the memory of the simplest electronic device today.”Just try it,” Joe said.
From that first day, the K-Pro set me free. My writing became more fluid. I loved being able to move words around without inking corrections on a page or starting over with a blank sheet of paper. Pen and typewriter had shackled me, made me reluctant to write anything down until I felt sure of it. With a word processor I could change sentences, shuffle paragraphs, and rework passages by pressing a couple of keys.
I imagined being able to write with the quickness and suppleness of thought. Impossible, I knew. But maybe, with the right device, I could come close.
The K-Pro was succeeded by a Compaq that I named Lloyd. I loved Lloyd. I spoke to him as though he was a person. But eventually he became obsolete, and with sorrow I replaced him with a custom-made Ares. It had a hard drive and a huge screen. Thirteen inches!
The Ares cost $2000. In fact, every computer I’ve bought has cost around that much, because I always want upgrades – a more powerful motherboard, a bigger hard drive, more RAM. My techno-delusion began to cast a disturbingly sexual shadow that sometimes obscured the reason for the computer.
“You use it to write,” Joe reminded me. “You don’t need all that shit.”
But apparently I did.
Each new computer became smaller and faster but not radically different from its predecessor. Then I bought an iPad – a computer almost as light as a notebook of lined paper, with a screen like silk beneath my fingertips. We were almost one, my iPad and I.
My clumsy, imprecise fingers fumbled over its virtual keyboard, hunting and pecking, making a typo every other word. So I bought an Apple wireless keyboard. Thin and elegant, primed to couple with my iPad, it moves me closer than ever to the magical ideal – writing as fluid and spontaneous as thought.
With my iPad and wireless keyboard my writing can catch fire wherever I go. All I have to do is provide the fuel. No technological miracle can do that for me. Not yet, anyway.
I was halfway through the latest revision of Chasing the Light when I realized it needed a prologue. In a novel the prologue usually presents an event that belongs to the story but outside the plot – something happening beforehand or afterward or elsewhere that influences or explains the main action. I wanted the prologue to Chasing the Light to do more. Besides intriguing readers with a glimpse of the mystery, I wanted to introduce an objective narrator.
Part one of the novel is told in third person entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, Kelly. Parts two and three include the perspectives of other characters as well. I worried that changing point-of-view characters so far into the story would be jolting. After a hundred or so pages, readers are used to seeing the world through Kelly’s eyes and, unless I’ve done something terribly wrong, they identify with her. Since the prologue has a narrative voice not associated with Kelly, it signals that the narrative is larger than her. At least I hope so.
Anyway, here is the prologue to Chasing the Light.
A photograph tells only some of the truth. Viewers cannot know for certain what’s happening outside the frame the photographer has drawn around her subject, or what has happened and will happen after the image was frozen.
These four photographs are black-and-white and shades of gray
In the first, a young man and woman are craning their necks to face the camera of the photographer who stands over them. They are seated on a blanket with a Navaho pattern, surrounded by the remains of a picnic – bottles of Corona, a half-eaten hard roll, an open jar of Greek olives, a hunk of cheese on a board, a knife. A kind of metal pipe viewers would recognize if they smoked hashish. In the upper edge of the frame, beyond the blanket, are meadow grasses and the rangy weeds that some people call wildflowers. Stalks and blossoms of the same weeds are entwined in the woman’s hair, not artfully, but as though braided into her curls in idle moments and forgotten. They are beginning to wilt.
The couple is in their early twenties, no older, skin aglow with the freshness of childhood. The young man’s head is too big for his body. He has a round face, a snubbed nose and an undersized mouth tight with disapproval – of the bothersome flies or having his picture taken, or perhaps of something far worse that he would call evil. The woman’s mouth, dark with lipstick, hangs open. Her forehead is creased. A disturbance roils her eyes. She gazes beyond the camera to where something has drawn her attention, pulling her out of the framed moment.
She sees it coming and is afraid.
In the next photograph the couple is gone. A creek flows under a barbed wire fence. The angle suggests the photographer has crouched on the bank and aimed the camera low over the water, upstream. Nearby the water is transparent, and the topography of the riverbed hints at an underworld viewers cannot know. Beyond the fence, shadowed by trees, the water darkens and winds across the frame. The eye follows it to the edge.
The creek in the third photograph is narrower, rippling with current as it tumbles downhill. Again the angle is low, but this time the photographer has aimed her camera across the water and into a welter of trees. No focal point, it seems at first. But keep looking. After five seconds, maybe longer, the eye settles on the cross. Deep among the trees, carved in the trunk of an aspen with a blade too small, the cross is several inches high yet not as noticeable as the black knots and threads of lichen around it. But once seen, its wrongness stands out – the one unnatural detail in a landscape too wild to be framed. The knife cuts are fresh, and the purpose of the photograph is to record them.
X marks the spot.
The last photograph points down at a patch of forest floor that also looks wrong in subtle ways. Pine needles are unsettled, not packed as they would be after lying together a long time. The scattering of cones and twigs seems deliberate, like coconut sprinkled on a cake. And despite the unusual fluffiness of its cover, the ground looks sunken, as if the cake had fallen while baking.
Here lies buried the secret of the young woman’s fear.
No marker distinguishes this spot from any other on the vast mountainside. The photographer has led the viewer from the border of nowhere into its heart, trusting someone will care enough to follow the trail laid out in her photographs, that even after winter has come and snow has fallen, someone will wander the wilderness in search of a grave.
In a post a couple of weeks ago, All Characters Must Die , I wondered why readers care so fiercely about fictional characters. I figured the key was identification and empathy. Readers find enough of themselves in the characters to climb inside their fictional skin and experience the story. But understanding isn’t enough. As a writer, I have to know how to breathe life into characters.
First, let me bring you up to date on Lady Catelyn, the character in A Storm of Swords whose death pissed me off. It’s relevant, I promise. You might recall that Catelyn is murdered along with her son and his followers at a wedding celebration. But that’s not the end of her. Since this is fantasy, she gets to come back – not from the dead but as the dead. A magically animated corpse, she wrecks vengeance against the villains who betrayed and killed her son. I no longer empathize with Catelyn. It’s not so much that she looks monstrous (her body was in the river a few days before the mage and his crew fished it out), as that nothing is left of her but vengeance. She orders the death of a woman who had been her friend. Alive, she would have heard the woman’s explanation and most likely shown mercy. Not anymore. Her soul is gone.
Now we jump from the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin to the gritty realism of Plain Jane, a thriller by a James Patterson wannabe. The principal characters are a female cop, her partner who is also her lover, and a brilliant FBI profiler who used to be her lover. Almost halfway through the novel, I still don’t give a shit about these characters. Oh, they have their amusing quirks (the profiler loves comic books), but somehow they aren’t quite real.
Maybe it’s because they don’t have lives beyond their trite love triangle and frantic campaign to find the serial killer before he strikes again. They aren’t shown at home or thinking about their families or eating scrambled eggs. They lack emotional depth and physical reality. I have no idea what kind of music stirs them. They never have a fanciful thought. They work without sleep and are supposedly dead tired, but nothing gives me the experience of that exhaustion.
They act in ways that seem incredible. During a strategy session, the female cop allows the profiler to pull her pants down and draw on her stomach with a magic marker. Okay, I understand he’s a dashing and charismatic guy, and she still has a thing for him. Granted, he’s talked her into helping him pull some dubious stunts. But if anyone undressed me in a roomful of men, I wouldn’t stand there thinking it was lucky I had my crotch hair waxed. Moreover, I have trouble imagining how any woman tough enough to be a cop would let herself be humiliated like that. Not that it’s impossible – human beings are capable of almost anything – but to believe it, I have to believe in the character. And the more outrageous her behavior, the more compelling that belief has to be.
The characters in Plain Jane are kind of like the reanimated Lady Catelyn. They have motives but no soul. I might go ahead and finish the novel anyway. I enjoy a puppet show every once in a while.
Speaking of puppet shows, anyone remember this classic?
When I began this blog I promised myself not to whine about my tribulations as a writer. I don’t have an agent anymore, my novel isn’t a bestseller, I have to work as a teacher to support myself, etc. Poor me. Given the tragedy and hardship many people face daily, nobody is going to care that some whiny writer has to grade several dozen freshman essays when she would rather be writing her novel.
So instead I’m going to remind myself that my situation is largely a result of my own choices.
For quite a few years, I wrote everyday while also teaching. My work week averaged somewhere between 60 and 70 hours. I accomplished a lot but had no time to spend with friends and no interests outside of reading and writing fiction. Then one day I remembered I was mortal and pictured myself on my deathbed with no memories except words on a computer screen. A bleak prospect. Now I have time for coffee with friends, for riding my horse and playing Scrabble, for just hanging out with my husband.
After I retire eighteen months from now, I’ll have more time for writing. Maybe I could retire sooner if I weren’t supporting the horse, if I had less fondness for clothes and handbags, if I gave up traveling to California and Utah (so what if I never see my family and friends who live far away). But I would have missed out on some amazing experiences. I watched blue whales frolicking off the coast of Long Beach and spent a weekend in an idyllic park called Crystal Cove. I met siblings that I otherwise never have known.
I feel much better about facing that pile of essays – but not now. The Charleston Scrabble Club meets today, and I want to see my friends.
In Stephen King’s Misery a novelist finds himself at the mercy of a fan infuriated because he has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. The woman is obviously a lunatic, yet a few days ago I found myself sympathizing with her. At the very least I wanted to write fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin an indignant letter.
Right now I’m engrossed in his Ice and Fire series. I can barely tear myself away long enough to do meet my obligations and do necessary work. The first volume, A Game of Thrones, runs more than 700 pages, the other three more than 1000 pages each. And I can’t wait to turn those pages. Martin writes a great story. On one level he serves up typical sword-and-sorcery fare – dragons, wights, dire wolves, skin-changers, giants, sorcerers, brave heroes on horseback, etc. – but he creates his imaginary medieval world in abundant detail and peoples it with complex and believable characters. And along with the many battles come political intrigues and betrayal.
He narrates the story from the point of view of a dozen or more characters. I have grown attached to a couple of them, only to have the author kill them off in one gruesome way or another. In particular I came to like Lady Catelyn Stark, maybe because she’s a woman around my age. Of course my husband isn’t the lord of a castle and I don’t have five children, but I understand and sympathize with Catelyn’s motives even when she screws up. Which she does, more than once. One mistake results indirectly in her husband’s death.
Before going on, I should warn that a spoiler is coming.
Poor Lady Catelyn sees her husband falsely accused of treason and beheaded, her two younger sons murdered, one daughter engaged to a sadistic prince and the other daughter missing and probably dead. But she still has Robb, her eldest son. He becomes king of the northern realm and goes to war with the prince and his scheming family. Catelyn worries endlessly about Robb. He’s only sixteen. Though he wins every battle, he makes a fatal political error. He’s pledged to marry a granddaughter of a crazy old coot but falls in love with another girl and marries her instead. Robb tries to make peace with the old coot by arranging for Catelyn’s brother to marry the granddaughter instead.
Off they go to the wedding. When they arrive at the old coot’s castle, Catelyn senses something wrong but figures they’re protected by tradition. It’s anathema to kill a guest under one’s roof. But the old coot, being nuts, has no problem ignoring the ancient rule protecting guests. At the end of the wedding feast his men ambush the northerners. Catelyn watches helplessly as her son is pierced by several arrows and stabbed through the heart. Then someone cuts her throat. Afterward her body is thrown naked into the river.
Reading this, I was stunned and indignant. For more than 2000 pages Catelyn had been an important part of the story. How could the author bring her so far and then kill her off so horribly? At least he could have let Robb survive and go on to win the war. Of course one of the few remaining Starks could triumph in the end, but I won’t let myself hope. I no longer trust George R.R. Martin. I think he’s going to snuff out every one of them.
But that won’t keep me from reading to the end. I’m Martin’s captive until I finish A Feast for Crows.
The larger issue here – the one that matters to writers – is that readers would care so much what happens to characters who are, after all, only constructs. I want readers to care that intensely about my characters. I want them to feel like writing me an angry letter when I kill one off. There’s no secret to it, really. Readers have to find enough of themselves in a character to empathize, to feel as if they themselves have lost a husband, a child. Easy enough to understand.
Making it happen is the hard part.
Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burninghe had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.
Narratives are often classified as plot driven or character driven. In plot-driven works such as thrillers, events happen to the characters, who are defined by their reactions. In character-driven works, characters shape the events and outcome of the story. The categories seem simple and obvious – until l sit down to write.
I’m nearing the end of a novel titled Chasing the Light in which the protagonist, Kelly, tries to discover what happened to her missing friend, Day. I have a plot outline and know how the story ends. But I can’t foresee every twist and turn along the way.
Imagine hiking in the mountains. You stand on high ground and look over the landscape you’re about to cover. You see your destination off in the distance and know where you’re headed. But during the journey you encounter obstacles that weren’t visible from above– streams that can’t be crossed where you planned, steep paths that could be avoided with a detour, shortcuts you didn’t anticipate. That’s how writing from an outline works for me.
In one chapter of Chasing the Light, Kelly hikes into the mountains to meet a woman who gives her crucial information about Day’s fate. Then, hiking back to her car, she’s spotted by the bad guys. They’re in a Land Rover and could easily run her down – except a fence stands in the way. Kelly makes it to her car. In my outline she turns south toward town, forcing her to pass a side road where the bad guys are watching for her. They follow her and try to force her car off the road. But as I wrote the passage where Kelly reaches her car, she anticipates them lying in wait for her. I hadn’t planned for that, but of course she would. She has been to that place before and knows where the roads are. Unless she wants a harrowing car chase down a winding, precipitous mountain highway, she wouldn’t go south toward town. And so the chapter ends, “She went north.”
The novel loses a car chase that has been done so often in films it has become cliché and gains suspense as readers wonder where Kelly is going and whether she finally makes it home. Meanwhile, other events unfold according to plan, and the story moves toward the outlined conclusion. Only not quite on the course I originally charted.
Songs don’t exactly make me cry. I have to accept the invitation, and many times I say no. But when I say yes, I usually feel better afterward. I’ve never understood the mystery in music, how patterns of sound affect the brain and evoke emotion, with or without words. Certain songs combine music and lyrics in a way that tweaks particular neurons in my addled brain. It could be something as individual as an iris or a fingerprint.
“Dust in the Wind” by Kansas gets to me, much to my husband’s amusement. Crying to a song like that hardly requires a refined sensibility – the haunting melody, the refrain reminding us that “all we are is dust in the wind.” I recall a scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where the two time-traveling stoners impress Socrates and his disciples by pantomiming the message of “Dust in the Wind.” Even Bill and Ted know the song is deep. Thinking about those dudes dries my tears.
“Someday Soon,” composed by Ian Tyson and sung by Judy Collins, sometimes has my neurons tweaking. The narrator of this pop ballad is a girl in love with a rodeo rider. She sings joyously of her intention to run off with him “someday soon.” Even though her father warns that “he will leave [her] crying,” she pledges to “follow him right down the toughest road [she knows].” It becomes obvious her parents are right, the guy is bad news and she’ll probably end up stuck in a trailer in some shithole town, pregnant and abandoned. Really, there’s no reason to shed a single tear for this naive girl. For her parents, maybe. They have to watch as she screws up her life. But the compelling melody and the purity of Collins’ soprano trump my intellect. They insist passion inevitably ends in heartbreak and love is worth the cost, no matter what. A simple and obvious sentiment. Only the music gives it power over me.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” might be the song with the most power over my tears. I just don’t want to say no to Cohen’s gravelly voice. Neither obvious nor simple, this love song has inspired dozens of explications in online forums. They range from highly insightful to downright ludicrous, but the best ones confirm that Cohen’s lyrics are poetry. Some listeners point to the song’s Biblical allusions and give the lyrics a strongly religious interpretation. Others glom onto on its references to sex.
For me, the song honors the sacredness and profanity of love and the power of art to transcend heartbreak. “Hallelujah” unites the opposites and demonstrates that power. Cohen sings of two hallelujahs: the holy (whole) one that purely praises God and the “broken” one drawn from the lips of those in the throes of passion, at moments of orgasm and heartbreak: “Love is not a victory march. / It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
The hallelujah’s power comes from the union of the word and music. In the first stanza, Cohen tells of “a secret chord / that pleased the Lord” created by the Biblical king David and describes it as a musician would: “the fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift.” He addresses someone directly, remarking that she “never really cared for music.” So why is he singing to her? Later stanzas reveal that she is or has been his lover. She has taken his heart, perhaps broken it, without ever appreciating what he is. So he now he’s letting her know. For him, the passion, suffering, and ultimate loneliness of love have the same outcome:
Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
When a poet’s heart is broken, he – or she – writes a poem. Or in this case, a song that invites my tears.
These songs are about the suffering and loss every human being experiences, the devastating kind worthy of tears. But all of us endure mundane aches and pains and frustrations that are considered unworthy of tears. We’re not supposed to cry over fender benders. We’re not supposed to cry over losing a game, no matter how much winning matters. I rarely cry about such things. Instead I carry around my pool of unshed tears and wait for an invitation from the right song.
“Hallelujah” Lyrics from Song Lyrics .
Family dinner on a winter porch.
Our table, too large, squeezes us
against fogged glass. My chair wobbles.
Others, more privileged, are eating
inside the house. I complain, but
someone whispers the man who shares
the house is sick, it may be cancer.
The others crowd onto the porch.
My chair collapses. I reach for
another, not to sit on but to hold
the glass of water at my bedside.
Outstretched, I watch the procession:
a baby rhino, a zebra, a lion,
a giraffe swaying its long neck
like the maestro’s baton. A gnu,
alone. Behind the animals comes
a strapping man outfitted for safari,
his head smoother than marble, his face
youthful and cold. He commands,
Spend your last days with me.
Now the film winds back and the scene
replays: the solemn parade
of animals, the white hunter fixing
me with glacial eyes. And now
I recognize the porch.
Aunt Lila’s husband died there
not long after I was born.
Photo by Galyna Andrushko
Please stop by Dreambeast, the chronicle of my enthusiasms and obsession, where I blog about the things I love. The first post is devoted to riding and my beautiful horse, Tucker.
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