We’ve had a few days of wintry weather here in Portland, including a lovely, swirling blizzard-like snowfall Tuesday night.
The next morning, though, we woke up to slush and rain. My husband and I talked about that little-kid feeling of being up late peering through the window at all the flakes coming down. Oh the potential! It was so disappointing waking up to puddles and spots of grass reappearing beneath the pristine white. (Hello, you slushy gray reality.)
We were glad, at least, that our daughter woke up in the middle of the night so the three of us could spend a few hushed moments staring out the window and imagining sledding and building snowmen in the morning.
I want to capture that sort of hopeful, first snowfall delight in my historical novel, LOST NOTES, when my protagonist first arrives in New York City in 1853. Despite misfortune, Henri is intoxicated with the possibility of this bustling place and what he can do now that he’s far away from his restrictive family. But my critique group read his arrival, as written in the first draft, as Henri being naive and unafraid and not particularly sympathetic. He should have reacted strongly to the crowds and dirt, they said. He should have been scared, too–all good points about a young man hailing from a sheltered village in France.
I’ve been thinking about all this since our group meeting in November, specifically why I’m so set on Henri having this initial idyllic view of his hometown and then New York. Thinking about the falling snow brings me closer to an answer. I want Henri to set out on his adventure–his quest–full of expectations and hope. I want him to close his eyes at night full of excitement about the next day.
One of his heroic qualities is to make the best of a situation rather than wallowing in what goes wrong. Henri ends up at a brothel in a notorious New York slum, but at least he finds a place that welcomes him. His gratefulness and his sense of honor go a long way in continuing that idyllic view of things for a while longer.
Certainly, as my group pointed out, Henri stays sheltered and naive too long in this first rough draft, especially in an environment where sex and commerce intersect–and where women end up when they have no other options. But in order to get him to become more realistic about the world around him, I needed to understand why he’s so hopeful in the first place. I don’t have an answer, yet, but the snow has gotten me thinking about potential. When Henri sets off for America, he knows anything can happen, and instead of being afraid, he feels liberated. He’s ready to be a hero in his own life. And that’s as good a place to start an adventure as any.
Have you had any epiphanies about your work lately? Or are you stuck trying to solve a particular problem?