Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions ...

How well do I know my characters? Do I know for certain how they will respond to situations that require decisions, preferably situations crucial to the action of my story? In other words, will they make decisions that are in character and believable, that will advance the story? For me, these are the questions inherent in the challenge posed by the writing exercise Janet posted on Sunday.

When I first thought about the exercise I assumed that I would simply identify a major, life-changing decision that would have an impact on the outcome of the story. My main character, Laura, would have to agonise over such a decision. But we make many choices that are not gut-wrenching, but are just second nature to us. Nevertheless, those decisions can also have lasting effects on our own lives or on those around us.

So, which kind of decision will Laura have to make? And what will she go through to make it? Will this simply be an “exercise” for me to get to know Laura better, something to add to a profile, an off-stage back story, or will it find its way into the story? I often let my characters lead me through the action while I follow along nodding my head, or saying, “Tut, tut, I’m not sure you should be doing that!” This exercise compels me to think it through carefully before I 'command' Laura to follow my bidding. What if she doesn’t want to do it?

Laura is trying to come to grips with the fact that her daughter, Fiona, who is travelling in Europe with friends, has told her in a brief telephone call that she has met an attractive young Scot. He is going to take her sightseeing. The news awakens memories from Laura’s past when she met and fell in love with a young man herself while attending university in Scotland. Things ended badly for her. She doesn’t want Fiona to meet the same fate, but she feels helpless, being halfway around the world from her. I have opted to give you three excerpts that explore Laura’s decision-making: a conversation with a good friend, a scene that shows Laura grappling with her uncertainty, and Fiona's reaction to the news that her mother has travelled to the UK.

* * * * * *

“I’m waiting. Are you going to tell me what you’ve decided, or not?” Liz asked quietly.
Laura slumped on the bench. “Actually, I don’t know what to do, Liz. I feel I should do something, but maybe my imagination’s just working overtime.” She sighed and sipped her tea. “Do you think I should go over there and join the girls? I could do with a short holiday. It wasn’t in the plan, but I need to see Fiona, talk to her, and meet ... er, this fantastic young man.” She looked hopefully at Liz.
“Hey, you know your daughter better than I do, but most young women nowadays would call that interference.” Liz tried to keep her voice light. “And I’m surprised you’d go anywhere near Scotland. I think you should sleep on it. The whole thing might look different tomorrow.”

* * * * * *
Later that evening, Laura sat at her computer. Fiona had not e-mailed her for days. She noticed that envelopes and other mail had been accumulating on her desk while she was busy with end of term activities. She sorted idly through the items until she spotted a small postcard bearing a picture of the Tower of London. She snatched it up and turned it over, but there was no handwriting on it. Above her address a brief notice was typed: Final reminder! Register for the Virginia Woolf Conference, London. According to the smaller print, the conference would begin in a few days. Chagrined that she had not noticed the card earlier, she turned to her computer, typed in the address of the conference website, and scanned through the program for sessions that might be relevant to her graduate seminars in the fall. She clicked on Contact Us. “Maybe they will entertain a late registration,” she mused, feeling a possible plan emerging from the chaos on her desk.
After sending the query, she paced the room. “What am I doing? Fiona will see through this in a flash. But I’ll be in London. If she doesn’t object, I can head up to Scotland afterwards. Or, she might be back to London by then. Realistically, what are the chances anyway? Registering late, getting approval for professional leave funds on short notice, getting a seat on a flight ...”
Laura coaxed herself to bed, trying to settle herself with hot herbal tea and a few pages of a paperback novel. After a few moments, she threw the book at the closet door and turned out her lamp. Periodically, she punched her pillow into another shape and tried to move her tense body into a more comfortable position. Finally she fell into a restless slumber only to find it peopled with strangers who asked her about her destination – “Will you be going straight through to Aberdeen, then?” – and, in the same Scottish accent, someone, a taxi driver or perhaps it was a train conductor, suggesting that Fiona had left Scotland and nobody knew where she had gone.
Distraught, she looked at the display on the clock: 4:30 a.m. She was not quite sure if she was still in her own home or if the dreams had transported her across the ocean. She couldn't resist checking her e-mail, and sure enough, there was one new message. But it was not about the conference; it was from Fiona, with attachments. She read the brief message quickly: Hi, Mom! These were taken in a park in Dalkeith. A lady took one so Duncan could be in it, too. After that we went on a tour of Rosslyn Chapel. Had a great time. Love, Fee.
Laura opened the first attachment, looked at the smiling faces of Fiona and her two girlfriends, then clicked quickly on the second file. She watched the next picture scroll open. She zoomed in to look closely at the face of the young man leaning over Fiona from behind the park bench. All she could make out was that he had dark hair. “Along with thousands of Scots,” she thought in dismay. She could see he was only inches away from Fiona’s equally dark hair. He certainly was paying close attention to her. She closed the files, and went back to bed.
“I must go to that conference,” she muttered, bashing her fist into her pillow for the umpteenth time.

* * * * * *
Fiona looked up from the e-mail message, a look of shock in her eyes.
“My ... my mother is in London. England. She didn’t tell me she was coming, and she didn’t say anything about a conference when I talked to her a few days ago. She wants to come here, to Aberdeen, while I’m here.” She looked from father to son in confusion, feeling embarrassed at the turn her visit was taking.
“Well, this is good, right?” Duncan said. “You said earlier that you would love it if she could be here, to see everything you’re seeing. And this will be our chance to meet her. Right, Da?” Duncan looked hopefully at his father, who seemed mildly puzzled.
“Of course,” Gordon said. “We would be glad to meet your mother, Fiona. Perhaps she could stay here, in the guesthouse.”
“But this is so unexpected, not like my mother at all,” Fiona said, tentatively. “She doesn’t just pick up and travel to a conference without planning for months. And I’ve never known her to invite herself anywhere.” Then she said rather quickly, “But I’m sure she’s planning to stay in Aberdeen.”
“Well, we won’t allow that,” Gordon said, emphatically. “If a mother comes all the way from Canada to visit her daughter, then we will make her welcome. When does she arrive?”

* * * * * *
I found this exercise useful because it forced me to examine whether this decision comes naturally to Laura; I hope it is obvious she has to persuade herself that it is necessary, even though she has doubts. However, she is convinced by her concern for Fiona, which is based on more than what is revealed in these excerpts, that she must act as she does. And, of course, that changes everything!

Have you done the exercise yet? Give it a try and tell us about your experience or post the result as a comment here one day this week for others to give you feedback.


Jean said...

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I have been granted the honour of passing on Kreativ Blogger badges to a few blogs and would like to pass one on to your blog.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Decisions a mother has to make regarding her daughters are always difficult! Though mine are nearly grown up it never seems to end.

As a mother of girls I can understand Laura's anxiety about Fiona's travels. It's a natural mother's instinct when your baby girl flies the nest for the first time. But I'm sensing Laura has more reasons to be concerned. You hint that Laura went on a trip to Scotland and had an affair that ended badly. Does she think the same thing is going to happen to Fiona? Does she have a good reason to believe so? Make sure that her reason for going to Scotland is well motivated, so that under the circumstances it is the only thing she can do. I loved that Laura agonized over the decision, losing sleep over it. I'd love to know the reasons the decision was so hard. Is she afraid she is going to lose the respect and affection of her daughter? Or is it just going back to Scotland that is so hard?

Lovely excerpts, btw. I can hardly wait to see more of this story.

Karyn Good said...

This sounds like a great story, Helena. I loved reading your snippets.

Mothers worry. It's coded into our DNA. There's no escaping it. Laura's worried and it's understandable but I like what Jana had to say about making sure her reason for going to Scotland is well motivated and it's the only thing she can do considering the circumstances. I very much get the sense she agonized over her decision, lost sleep over it but deems it necessary to act quickly. I sense the lines are starting to blur for her and she's about to project something of her own exerience onto her daughter's situation.

Helena said...

Sorry I'm late checking in, folks. I've been busy at my 'day job' (make that NaNoWriMo -- and that's a tale for another day!).

You've certainly nailed the dilemma in my story, both Jana and Karyn. The issues are definitely blurring for Laura, but started out solely as worry about her daughter. I'm glad you liked the excerpts. The idea behind the writing exercise helped me focus more on the purpose of that part of the story. It was already in an early draft but the exercise made it clear to me that Laura (and the writer) needed help in defining the decision to be made. There are some other developments in the story between her decision to go to the conference, and the e-mail she sent to Fiona. I just thought you might want to get a sense of the potential impact of her decision.

I know Janet is still lurking out here on the prairie without constant access to the internet, but I owe her one for this exercise. Helped me think more about Laura, and I'm not sure if I have her right yet. Thanks for a thought-provoker, Janet.

Oh, and Jana, I loved your post yesterday on the same exercise. The hinted-at issue with NaNoWriMo had everything to do with not commenting. (How about my laptop refused to boot up on the first day of Nano, so I wrote in longhand for hours on Sunday? First opportunity on Monday, took it to a computer store, and wasn't up and running until late afternoon. Big time catch-up needed at that point.)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there Helena, very glad to hear you're checking in late because of Nano. Me too! :)

I like your story. I like the fact Fiona is taking baby steps. She's not overwhelming herself or her daughter to a certain extent. Just one step at a time and then she'll see what happens.

Good job.

Janet said...

Great job, Helena. I love how you showed Laura's internal battle (do I go, do I not go?)and the opportunity to pretend to be in London for a conference. I think it needs to be, like Jana said, more about her worry over her past mistakes. If that's the real motivation for Laura's decision, that needs to come through in the scenes where she's trying to decide (perhaps a mention of her mother and if she had intervened..). Of course, you probably have that in your work already - this being just an exercise. But what a great way to include backstory - a decision that is based on history.

Good luck with NaNoWriMo.