I started my new novel this past August, and instead of moving from the 1970s to the present, as I had intended, the story did a backflip of its own accord (I swear!) and plunged itself into the mid-19th century.
Since then, I’ve been figuring out how to write historical-sounding narrative. Last week, though, I brought a real, fleshed-out scene to my monthly writing group.
“Look!” I announced to the assembled writers. “There’s dialogue on page 2!”
Prior to this amazing six-month breakthrough, I had been working on immigration scenes in 1850s New York despite not really knowing my protagonist. Jean-Jacques felt one-dimensional and too stuffy. He was extremely moral, and had comic potential, but the world I was building was more interesting than him. That’s when my writer-friend Sarah Cypher offered me a great piece of advice.
“I wouldn’t worry about suddenly having a wooden protagonist on your hands,” she suggested. “Maybe all it means that your entry into this novel isn’t Jean-Jacques, at least as he exists now. Something, though, is pulling your attention along.”
A second piece of advice came around the same time from another friend and fellow writer, Jackie Shannon Hollis. She reminded me, over a lovely lunch, that despite this novel being wildly different from my other work, I need to keep true to my own distinctive voice.
Sarah’s comment freed me to wonder if the narrator isn’t Jean-Jacques, then who? As it turns out, his younger brother Henri is way more compelling. He gets diagnosed with a weak constitution by a town doctor, at age 8, when a horrific workshop accident causes him to faint. Even when the local doctor dies, some years later, Henri can’t shake the definition of himself as a delicate soul bound for an early death.
Jackie’s comment about voice reminded me to tap into what I love about writing, to follow a thread of a thought beyond its natural conclusion and bring back details to enrich the text, even if none of that excess ends up on the page. That wandering has led to new discoveries, such as Henri’s diagnosis and how easily the whole family is convinced by Docteur Nanin.
Now what do I have? Two boys, brothers, in a small French countryside town. They’re heirs to a successful music-box business, and as such, mothers of potential brides take to dropping by their kitchen upon one pretext or another, hoping to gain favor. Jean-Jacques, the eldest brother by 11 months, needs to prove himself. Henri listens to his mother–and the good doctor–and takes rests and various medicines.
So now I know Jean-Jacques can stay home and run the family business. It’s Henri who needs to be wandering around Five Corners, one of the most nefarious prostitution districts in 19th century New York City, pausing to look at a scrap of paper again, hunting for an address. When a madame opts to take pity on him before he gets stabbed–or propositioned by one of her rivals–she finds him burning up with fever.
Now that’s a scene.