I always have a character or several characters partially fleshed out in my mind when I begin a manuscript, and I have part of the story in mind, but the rest of it is developed as I go. I’ve said I think with my fingertips because there is some metaphysical process that occurs as I stare at the screen, picturing whatever scene I’m working on, and my fingers find the right keys to formulate what’s transpiring in my mind’s eye. I can’t imagine writing longhand any more than I can imagine narrating a manuscript. I need my fingertips on the keys.
Every writer has their own way of working, some with an outline, some begin by writing the last chapter. That approach amazes me since I have no idea what the last chapter will be until I get there. Untamed was one of the rare times I knew what the ending would be, because I wanted to end by showing how Edgar Rice Burroughs got hold of the story of Tarzan. But, usually, the characters and I just slog our way through the book one scene at a time.
My belief is, if I create real enough characters, they will determine the action and ultimately the course of the story. I wrote a novel several years ago, Crimson Hall, (no longer in print, although I plan to rework it and get it back out there) which is the story of the (North Carolina) Barrett family in 1850. It’s written in first person, narrated by an elderly servant, Marabelle. This is how she explains the premise.
Me, I’m an old servant, not much use to anyone anymore, being infirm and nearly always confined to my bed, so I have time to devote to these musings and memoirs. Plus I’m a fair hand at writing and I can describe this estate down to the most minute detail and recall past events with great and utter clarity. And there is something else, something so strange and new to me I hardly know how to describe it. It seems the more I lie here, slipping away toward my everlasting peace, the more I feel my mind and body part ways here and now. I am growing able to let my spirit-self float away from me for short spells. What I call my spirit-self travels down the halls and into the more occupied rooms of the Hall where life still goes on as it always did and, I imagine, it always will.
You might be wondering to yourself, if it’s true I can float my spirit self away then why don’t I go to somewhere more interesting and exotic — somewhere like Paris or Persia? I suppose the answer is two-fold. First, I never did much want to see those places and second, and more important, everyone I love resides right here in Crimson Hall.
Those words set the tone of the story. There are serious, even grim, situations in the story, (deaths, murder, abuse) but the general tone is one of warmth and humor. In one scene, the master of the house, Thaddeus Barrett, (a sensitive, passionate man who adores his daughters and sees himself as a pioneer in scientific exploration) interviews a man from Greensborough to be his assistant in an undertaking to prove there is medicinal value to hemp.
The interviewee, Eli Sommerset, is a fussy little man who tries too hard to impress, feigns an arrogant self-assurance that rubs Thaddeus the wrong way. Thaddeus, as always, is polite, but Eli begins to sense he’s blown it and the more he realizes he’s blown the opportunity, the more he wants it. Thaddeus invites Eli to join his family for the noonday meal before starting back home and afterwards he’s going to walk Eli to his carriage and bid adieu. Or I should say that was the plan when I began the scene. This is what happened.
The rest of the meal goes without incident or catastrophe and Mr. Barrett is finally able to show Mr. Somerset to the door. Of course, by now, Mr. Somerset is fully aware that all is not right with his potential employment – an employment that’s been looking better and better by the minute. For someone who felt mighty confident only an hour earlier, he feels slightly nauseous as he is being walked out. Mr. Eli Somerset can feel the golden opportunity slipping through his fingers and it makes him desperate to clutch at it. “Would you like to discuss a date for beginning our work together, Mr. Barrett?” he asks in a squeaky voice.
Thaddeus, who, by now, is a few steps ahead of Mr. Somerset because, wittingly or unwittingly, the younger man has been slowing with each step, turns back toward him. “I don’t think that arrangement will work out after all, although I do thank you for taking the time to come and see me.”
“B-but why ever not?” Eli stammers. “No, no, I know why,” he blurts before Mr. Barrett has a chance to reply. “I was arrogant; insufferable really. That comment about inconspicuous female flowers.” He shakes his head and wrings his hat in his hands. “Of course, I didn’t realize you had flow— . . . daughters. Daughters, I mean to say, but that’s no excuse. There is no excuse. Do, please, forgive me.”
“Mr. Somerset, you are ruining that hat,” Thaddeus remarks, glancing down at the sorry looking object in the hands of the smaller man.
Mr. Somerset looks down at it sorrowfully. “Truly, I do apologize,” he says, (and I’ll be danged if he doesn’t look sincere.) “I . . . don’t know what gets into me sometimes.”
After a moment of silence, “Maybe a need to impress,” Thaddeus offers, trying to be helpful. Poor Mr. Somerset looks heavily abashed and Mr. Barrett must see it too because he says, “My thought has always been if you have to work too hard to impress someone, perhaps you’re in the wrong company.”
What can I tell you? Thaddeus gives the man the job on a trial basis. I finished the scene and shook my head in surprise that Thaddeus had taken over like that. But, hey, when it’s right, it’s right. My characters rule. I just tap out the keys to make it happen.