A good writer can crawl inside the skin of his or her characters. She (from here on out, we’re going with the feminine, sorry boys) can see through their eyes, breathe what they breathe and feel what they feel. Some writers are better at it than others. I’ve always found it interesting to examine this as I critique fellow writer’s works-in-progress. Some writers focus first on the outside forces, the details of the scene, the action, the plot. Others focus on the motivations and emotions of the characters. In the end, whichever you tend to do in first draft, we all have to cross that line and venture into the territory that makes us least comfortable as writers. It’s the ability to blend both seamlessly that allows our readers to experience the story on a visceral level.
Me? I’m a character-first writer all the way. I build them and then I begin crafting a story around them. From that first step, I’m walking in their shoes (which is why I do very little plotting beforehand). Never has this been more evident to me than with nine-year-old Starla Claudelle in WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD. This character nagged me incessantly before I even started writing the book, whispering in my ear, spouting her wry observations. She’s fiery, impulsive, a champion for the underdog and brave beyond words. In other words, she’s the opposite of me as a child—except for the underdog part. So to create this character, I really did have to concentrate and focus my thoughts to view the world through her eyes.
But is there such a thing as getting too deep inside your character? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I supposed the end proof is in the readership. We shall see.
So here is some of the fallout I recently discovered about going deep.
I was so entrenched in the point of view of Starla that her voice came shining through as if she were telling her story without me sitting between her and the reader. Which made this book unique (good). It also made it impossible to switch to any other character’s point of view (bad?). I did try it—because readers generally like to crawl around inside various characters’ heads and follow them through parts of their lives where the main character isn’t a participant. But it was just too jarring to shift from Starla’s sassy narrative into any other character. Even though many of the characters in this book, Eula and Starla’s father in particular, would have made good storytellers.
Starla told her story in the moment, with her nine-year-old understanding (think of Huckleberry Finn), not as a recollection from the perspective of adulthood (think of Scout Finch). So, I had to finesse the reader into understanding that although this was what Starla thought and understood, she was operating with only her nine-year-old consciousness and might actually be wrong or misconstruing (neither good, nor bad … just more challenging as a writer).
And then there’s the non-writing issue. I call it The Ooze. Sometimes when you’re living so many hours a day deep in another life, in another time, that character begins to inhabit and influence your real life. Of course, when you’re character is a nine-year-old girl it isn’t nearly as dangerous as if, say, your character is an international spy or a serial killer. Still, that nine-year-old from 1963 can cause you to blurt out un-adult-like comments that draw many a raised eyebrow.
WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD is my first novel written in first person, so maybe Starla Claudelle stepped so easily across the line between fiction and reality because this was a new experience for me. Or perhaps it was because of the kind of in-your-face, don’t-mess-with-me character she is. Whatever the reason, I found myself spouting Starla-esque observations and using 1963 vernacular—sometimes at the most awkward moments.
As I said, my personality couldn’t be farther from Starla’s. I was an obedient child. A rule follower. A conflict avoider (hmmm, still am that). But I found Starla’s attitude lingering in me after I’d closed my file and backed up my work. I felt myself being more “prickly.” Things like, “crap on a cracker” and “don’t get your back up” and “mind your own beeswax” and “truth be told” and “love it enough to marry it” started seeping into my personal dialog. Wildcats became catamounts. Purses became pocketbooks. Music once again came on records and Walter Cronkite became the voice of reason. I developed a slight Southern accent after listening to Starla talk in my head all day long. I dropped my g’s in every -ing word. And I found myself using totally unPC phrases. When I’d spent the entire day thinking in 1963-speak, I once actually referred to African-Americans as “colored” when talking to my daughter-in-law. I certainly meant no disrespect, but how embarrassing! (One thing that incident did was emphasize the vast changes we’ve made in our attitudes over the past forty-some years. Thank you baby Jesus -- Oh yes, that was another Starla-speak that oozed over.) As I got deeper into the book, the harder it became to mentally step back into the twenty-first century.
It took several weeks after the book was finished to get my language all straightened out again. Now that I’m going on book tour and doing readings nearly every day, I imagine Starla will begin regaining a foothold in my daily dialog. I’ll welcome her back … I’ve really missed that little firecracker.
WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD
July 2, 2013, Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster
July Indie Next List
Summer Okra Pick
A coming of age story set in 1963 segregated Mississippi. Starla Claudelle's sometimes funny, sometimes dangerous journey to find true family in an unjust and confusing world.