Two Fridays ago, I rewrote Chapter 2 of my novel. This whole first part of the book takes place in 1837 and revolves around the character Constance Branch, very loosely based on my great great grandmother, Mary Bella Brice (pictured here with her husband A. G. Brice circa 1860).
They're a rather stern looking couple, to put it mildly. And she is such a tiny thing, probably about the size of a sparrow when those layers of clothing are removed. It's the only photo we have of her, and this is how I picture Constance Branch when she grows up later in the book.
They have only a few essential things in common, my great great grandmother and Constance Branch. They were both born in New Orleans in the 1830s. They both eventually marry judges. They are both wealthy, they both paint and they both take care of the sick during yellow fever outbreaks, but that's about all they share.
My problem at the moment is that Constance is only seven years old, and I know nothing of what a seven year old thinks, and particularly a serious one in 1837. Constance is an orphan (unlike my progenitor). I got out my old scrapbooks and read through notes my mother pasted there that I wrote to my parents and siblings and teachers when I was six or seven. The shock is, upon sober reflection, that anyone could stand me, really. I was typing notes to my teacher. TYPING THEM! I belonged to the Book of the Month Club. Well, at least it gave me license to allow Constance to be a serious, thoughtful little girl, and one hopes, less annoying than I was.
My other problem this week is that I read some John Cheever, and frankly, it brought me to my knees. Every line is so complex and important, so finely crafted, so surprising and right. Read this one line from his short story "The Swimmer" and maybe you'll see what I mean.
"He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure."
After reading a few pages from one of his journals, I picked up my revised Chapter 2 and it felt like a wet rag. I read it over and it seemed that what I thought was a chapter, was merely an outline now. It wasn't "written" yet. It was more Barbara Cartland than John Cheever. So I am back to Chapter 2 this week. I have to figure out what I am about here. What am trying to convey about what is inside this serious little girl's mind, and then I must write the damn thing, and really write it this time.
February 13, 2012
I started with a new, blank document and began over. Wonder of wonders, I am a better writer than I was a few years ago when I last attempted this chapter. I found it easy to figure out the main action of the story, and to intersperse just the right amount of background so that it feels less like a lecture and more like a story that's driven by character.
I introduced two important characters for the novel: Sister Marie Claire of the Sisters of Charity and Constance Branch. I cut out long passages about them, and tried to pull the two or three essentials that would help readers see them and begin to care. Sister Marie Claire, for instance, is wearing a woolen habit in the middle of a New Orleans summer, and she is something of a botanist and she bites her nails.
I also introduced some elements that I hope to develop into themes as the novel progresses such as frogs (this poor frog gets burned by a child with a magnifying glass), the Sisters of Charity, medecine, orphans, etc.
It was an excrutiating 5 hours, but an exhilirating time too. I finished up the chapter and put it away for the night. Then I revisited it first thing on Saturday morning and cleaned up a lot of fluff, tightening it a bit more. Then I sent it to my "trusted reader," and I await word from her.
Do you have "trusted readers?" I recall that the lack of trusted readers is a real problem, or was for me.