Tuesday, April 10, 2012
When characters go off-book, or Watson takes a faceplant
I didn’t find much to blog about in the last week, but luckily for me something happened on Monday. As I was hammering away on my Street of Bakers project, on the very page following the selection I posted last Friday, one of the characters went off-book.
For those of you who don’t have halcyon memories of childhood drama classes, “going off-book” is a theatrical term for working without a script. Usually, this means that the script has been memorized, and actors are now expected to go onstage and play their roles to the full, without a script (or “book”) in their hands. Less commonly, it refers to performers deviating from the script—doing and saying things that the author never intended.
I don’t consider any of my stories to have really begun until a character goes off-book and deviates from whatever I’ve set out in my mind for that character to do. Think about Trevor refusing to die when my outline called for it. It’s a sign that the character is coming to life, speaking to me from the weird part of my brain that doesn’t seem to be connected to the other parts—the place my stories come from.
Anyway, I was typing away on the first scene in Street of Bakers, where my Watson analog wakes up on the morning of her first marriage—more on that later, have no fear—and ruins breakfast. I decided I wanted to show her actually waking up because I wanted to have her notice the nasty yellowish pea-soup fog rolling past her window—the kind of fog that apparently doesn’t happen much in London anymore since the advent of clean-air laws, but that Doyle describes so well in a couple of places. Writing the wake-up scene, I discovered more details about the room in which she sleeps—that her nightstand is “secondhand”; that she uses a man’s pocketwatch instead of an alarm clock or any other timepiece; that her dressing-gown is a lady’s dressing-gown, but far too large for her; that she sleeps in an attic hastily converted into a bedroom. All these details were, to some extent, important—they showed that she was a recent and unexpected addition to her household (attic bedroom, secondhand furniture), that she’d lost many of her possessions (the dressing-gown belongs to her aunt), and that there had been a man in her life who was very important to her, but was now gone (the source of that pocketwatch). Watson realizes she’s overslept and is late starting breakfast, she throws off her bedclothes, and she’s just struggling into her dressing-gown when her author suddenly has a thought:
Wait a minute! Watson can’t walk!
Now, to understand how Watson went off-book, you have to understand how my mind works. When I’m writing a story, I’m basically taking notes on a movie in my head that happens to include tastes, textures, and smells. The camera angles may be really strange, and I can read thoughts, but it’s essentially a movie, coming from that not-me part of my brain. And when my normal brain yells at me to wait a minute, the picture freezes and nothing moves, except in the most tentative, flickering way, until I resolve whatever’s tripping me up. So imagine young Watson, sixteen years old with a tangled tail of curly blond hair, struggling into a dressing-gown that’s far too big for her, frozen in time …
And then imagine her falling over.
I hadn’t hit the play button in my head. She’d just decided that, since I’d been so stupid as to let her climb out of bed without grabbing the stick she uses to get around, she was going to have to take a faceplant. And there was something so natural, so right about the motion, that I realized she’d just told me something with it. Watson’s had trouble walking for about a year, and she keeps that cane wedged between her bed and that secondhand nightstand. She knows she needs her stick to get around. So why would she climb out of bed without it?
And the little not-me voice from the other side of my brain whispered: Because she’s not awake yet. And in her dreams, she can walk.
Now that was an interesting perspective on Watson. Somebody who knows perfectly well, when she’s awake, that she has a disability—her left leg won’t hold her weight. But in the privacy of her mind, she’s never accepted that fact. At her core, she believes she should be able to walk, and when she’s half-asleep, she tries it. And every morning she falls.
Of course, she’s also a pragmatic sort of girl, so I added a chair near the bed for her to catch herself on. She’s not stupid. She stumbles, catches herself, grabs the stick, and heads out the door. It’s her morning ritual, and she prepares for it as much as she can.
But oh, the things that will happen to this girl when she meets the most dangerous woman in London, when they’re literally off and running …
It’s a good start!