One of the main reasons I stepped so far outside my comfort zone to write “The Soul Hides in Shadows” was in the hope that I could wake a few more people up to the terrors they need to stand up against. People might have to be shown how terribly ugly things could get if we don’t wake up NOW and start taking some kind of action IMMEDIATELY. And if they still sit at home, don’t vote, don’t push back, then they are helping to kill off everything decent and healthy in the world and it would be their own children and grandchildren who would pay! Everything horrific and ugly their children fall victims to would be their own damned faults!
So, I just start a few “fictional” characters going, and then watch how they develop and reveal their own lives. Fully prepared to lose a few of them along the way, move scenes and chapters around, and head off to explore something they themselves find suddenly interesting.
Others can write however they will, but I personally don’t keep catalogs of notes detailing where so-and-so stood on some issue yesterday, because he might change his mind on that issue today. And because telling myself I already know what this guy is about might tend toward confining him in cubbyholes he might not want to stay in. There are many layers and twists through each of our lives and personalities, and if this cannot be said of those who live in books, then these book people have not come fully alive.
If I am not startled and thrilled every few chapters by a sudden blast of “Wow! I did NOT see THAT coming!”, then I don’t see how readers could continue to find these stories anywhere near as exciting and full of surprises as they have.
I thrill to going back from the beginning to rewrite everything because someone has just popped in who shakes everything loose. And when I reach the end of first draft, I’d only fool myself to pretend I know what the story is really about, or where it will most definitely be taking us.
Because the characters are just getting warmed up.
– Edward Fahey.
“There were times when his heart almost felt something.
“Something tiny and unassuming. Barely stirring. Times when his heart seemed almost to be knocking, if only very meekly, on those walls of numbness he had built up over the years.
“But mostly his life was this cubicle. His world and all hope had long ago gotten lost inside countless such cubicles. Eaten away by all this electrical buzzing and flickering, dissolved into the chemically sweetened air and this dull, aching drudgery. Drained by the stagnant, plodding lifelessness of life. By the tedious, skull-gritting monotony of days without purpose and nights with no dreams.
“Outside distant windows, far away at the other end of this vast cattle barn of an office, he heard that electronic bell again. Tolling on and on from a neighboring church. Calling sinners ever deeper into fear. Taunting them and driving their days forward through self-loathing. Through the crippling ugliness of their lives into the terror of what lies beyond.”
– Introduction of one of the characters in “The Soul Hides in Shadows.”
“[Hurricane] Andrew tore trees apart; drove their shrieking limbs past our walls. All around us, it shoved huge deciduous behemoths flat to the earth, or tore them out by the roots.
“I have never been able to say “No” to wonder. Wherever God stood naked, I wanted to crawl into the middle and gawk. Plus, I’d already lost everything I had built or wanted to live for when we’d left San Diego, and my marriage had become a long, aching death. I had nothing left. I had to touch God again at all costs….
“… I ripped open the door, then had to shove my full weight into closing it behind me. Slamming and bucking against harsh unseen walls, waging war for every step, I crushed both hands into the railing, fought my way downstairs, past a pool already choked with roofing and with life torn apart. I bucked and strained my way out onto the street, deeper into the dark, vile heart of a hurricane. Gnashing hard into the storm, I leaned into winds that pummeled and slammed me about like a machete.
“Inching and lunging across the intersection, where all but one streetlight had crashed to the pavement, I crushed my way through as that last light sparked and whipped overhead. Winds like that can drive a grain of rice through a concrete wall, so I wrenched a stop sign out of a tree and held it before me as a shield, slamming my way backward through an intersection of shattered glass and metal, out onto a golf course, where I screeched Hallelujahs no one could hear.
“In that open field, that raging, shrieking fury slammed and wrenched the sign into my chest. For the first time in a long time, “I thanked God and prayed for survival.
“I fought my way back home. The sign heaved at my face, sliced my hands open, and blasted away into the night.
“There was no one left there but me, God, and His mighty, undeniable power.”
– From “The Mourning After”, a novel by Edward Fahey:
I played like this many a long gray afternoon, thirsting for the world beyond windows. Neighbors shuffled by but didn’t wave back. Some guarded their children when they saw me, as though congenital defects and loneliness were contagious, even at a distance and through glass. Those were gentler years when folks went out of their ways to not notice, but I spent a lot of time yearning through the shades; I watched them pointing without pointing, shaking their heads, cupping their secrets into each other’s ears.
Hours stretched longer when I was a kid. I knew I might not make it through to adulthood, but hadn’t grasped the full implications of that. Something had gone horribly wrong at my birth, so my father would never have his little soldier, Mom would never have her home filled with tiny scampering joy, and we each clutched our guilt very privately.
I’d been walled in since birth. Over-protected to the point of emotional crippling. I’m just now discovering that along with home schooling me in math, history, and language skills, my mom slipped in lessons on the torturous enrichment of loving too much; lessons I’m sure she hadn’t intended….
… “Honey, your father could be home any minute,” Mom told me; startling me out of my distraction. “You can leave your animals where they are for now. Just clear off the ones near the table where your father will see them.”
After another pause, “Denis. – Honey. – Please?”
I got ready, but “Sergeant Carl” didn’t come home for a while. I washed up and changed to “fresh clothes for your father.” They were warm and smelled of ironing. I caressed them softly to my cheek as I turned back toward my mother, who was scurrying around at the other end of the hallway. Folding the ironing board up with a hoarse, friendly skraaack! Hiding baskets of folded clothes quickly in the closet. Smoothing the wrinkles out of her apron but then taking it off anyway, folding it neatly, and placing it in its drawer….
… Suddenly I felt as much as saw Mom snap to attention, slap on her best smile, and launch into a flurry of activity. Out in the driveway, Dad was belting out a robustly cadenced song about caissons rolling and field artillery. No longing for loved ones left behind; no reverence for the nation or its deity; just stampeding over the enemy with arrogant pride.
We heard the war song and knew where he’d been. We knew he’d come in smelling of cigarettes and beer. He marched to the vestibule, into the house, and slammed up against our alternate reality. I didn’t need to look up to watch his face and spirit sag, forced to once again acknowledge the son who would never be a hero. I knew he’d be staring at me as he greeted my Mom. Checking his disappointment at the door, stuffing his sense of loss into private pockets he thought we couldn’t poke into.
After a long moment of readjustment, of just standing there, putting World War II buddies back onto his own inner shelves, he stepped the rest of the way into our home and, as much as he could, into our lives. He turned away, eased his sample case down onto the floor of the closet so slowly that it didn’t make a sound. I heard the metallic scrape and clinkling as he dropped his coat onto a hanger. With his back to us both, he asked Mom, “How’s the boy?”
“Denis is fine,” Mom reminded him of my name. I knew she’d then offer me a wink and a smile. I tried to smile back, but my chin was too deeply buried in my neck. “We went to Africa today. We helped fight a war to free the slaves. Then our little man helped me make dinner.”
I really hadn’t. I’d only wanted to.
“That’s good, good,” Dad said. “I need to wash up.”
He stood there a moment after turning back around; a moment that felt long and heavy, like a gray rainy day. He was wearing his special salesman shoes. Orangeish brown wingtips. “Twenty-five-dollar Florsheims but worth every penny. A man’s gotta show he’s a man, that he’s got control of his world.” Looking down at them as we all stood unmoving, I could have spat out that long practiced defense, but it would only have left me feeling guilty and broken. I was holding him back.
There were dustings of peanut shell powder below his knees and two or three small spills or splashes, some crushed shell webbing in the cuffs Mom had ironed to perfect steak knife creases, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
Mom’s feet had changed from the stained tennis shoes that always reminded her she was “home with her favorite little fella,” to conservative, respectable pumps. Barely moving now, they shifted and rocked through their choppy, but timeworn, minimalist pas de none; like they wanted to run forward and pull back in the same instant.
Dad was home.
Caught up in moments like this, which lingered awkwardly, but passed all too quickly, I liked to imagine my father’s hand wavering, just above my head, almost ready to pat me.
But not quite.
After a time, I watched Mom’s knees buckle, felt her arm slipping around behind me, her hand hooking my far shoulder with a gentle Mom’s nudge, drawing me closer in to her. “Come on, Sweetie, get out of your father’s way. I’m sure he wants to go in and freshen up. He’s had a hard day.”
My father’s legs stood there, straight, strong and unyielding. He let out a sigh before he moved past us. I’m sure he never meant to make me feel small. He was a great man in his own way, a “pillar in our community,” The Levittown Times had called him. President of the local Kiwanis club, he led charity drives for other kids at Christmas. He was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, of The American Cancer Society, founder of this and that. He was away most nights doing good work. He spent so much time helping others that he was rarely home, so you had to give him points for altruism anyway. Everybody loved Sergeant Carl. I’m sure at moments like this he must have felt if I didn’t actually look up and see him sigh, I probably wouldn’t hear it either. He really didn’t want to hurt me.
At least I hope he gave things like that a little thought.
For the next twenty minutes or so I stood on the edge, between dining area and living room, watching Mom scurry back and forth between kitchen and table. My father lingered on his “throne.” Then I listened to him gargling away hours of waving mugs with his war buddies down at Clancy’s; counting on a stinging penitential rinse to make things right. Now was the time to put all that away, anchor into that courage, and do the right thing as head of the family.
Mom busied herself nestling steaming bowls and dishes into position as I stood around the corner of the fireplace, watching. After Dad had changed his shirt, he walked as proudly as he could back down the hall, to take his time-honored position at the head of the table. I climbed up onto my chair next, and then it was Mom’s turn in our little dinner ritual. Her job was to check my fingernails; a warm, friendly, but unnecessary rite since we both knew all the dirt was outside where I couldn’t get near it.
She placed my hands back beside my plate and nodded a smile toward my father, who’d been watching. Only then did he tell us, “Let’s say grace.” We folded our hands, closed our eyes, bowed our heads, and eavesdropped, as he spat the words out as though they left a sour taste in his mouth and he couldn’t wait to unload them. “Bless us Oh Lord in these thy gifts which of thy bounty we are about to receive through Christ our Lord Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen.”
I waved my hands through the obligatory gestures, feeling there had to be more to God and spirit than that.
“Spending time here is like movin’ in with Pandora. Maybe some stuff should just stay hidden, y’know?”
“Yup,” Charlie answered. “But comes a time when you just don’t want to screw around anymore. You can get real tired of playin’ hide-and-seek with yourself.
Getting toward the end, you wanna stop playing games. There’s no time left. You see how things have gone wrong and just want to make ’em right. At least one moment of honestly trying, before your soul rots away on ya….
… “I buried my whole life, every bit of it, in my own stinkin’ manure, and it’s high time I planted some seeds there.”
He told Harve, “But I don’t like being asked to swallow OTHER people’s shit.”
“Got you on that one, man.”
“Do you?” Charlie said. “Do you really?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You. Pretending you’re no hero. – Bull. – You don’t know what I wouldn’t have given for even a little bit of something I could feel good about.”
“You did okay for yourself, Charlie. You made the papers.”
“I made headlines; I wasn’t a star. I had a few fans, sure, but not the kind I’d ever want to meet in a dark alley.
“But that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about finding out who we are, what we’re here for, and truly steppin’ into it. I wasn’t put here to smash noses. You think you were put here to shoot ’em off?
“You save lives but then you get all ‘Gosh Golly Shucks’ about it. You step into who you are, but then you step back out of it again. That just doesn’t ring true to me is all. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
Then he had second thoughts. “Look,” he told Harvey, “I know you didn’t do it for the fame and being a star and shit, but still … I would like to have experienced what it was for people to know me and like me anyway. I’d love to have done at least a little something worth doing. It’s too late for some of that now, I know, but I just want the chance to do a little bit of good if I can. Somewhere. For somebody.
“And to do it just because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”
- From “The Gardens of Ailana”
Belonging to discussion groups for fiction writers, one often comes across beginners asking each other how to come up with names for their characters. Should they just page through phonebooks? Should they ….?
– Seems to me it hardly matters what you call them early on. They often haven’t found and developed their depths and complexities throughout much of the first draft anyway. But once they have begun to discover and express themselves, some names will seem to express their specificities and complexities more than others would. Call them any name that comes to you as you are first developing the story. But after that it becomes a process of helping them to reveal their own names through whom and what they have become.
In “The Mourning After” I called the little boy Denis to show that the father may have been a war hero soldier, and demanded a man’s name for his child, but he also loved his wife, and yielded enough to let her spell it with one N (Thus letting it sound more sensitive, poetic, and maybe even a little Frenchified). – None of this was actually mentioned in the story, but a character’s name definitely has its effects on the moods of the tale, and on that character’s believability.
In “The Gardens of Ailana”, Marsha is first introduced as a bit of an insensitive lout and a truck driver. So I gave her a name that allowed other characters to nickname her Marsh, often a man’s name, thus referring to her manly qualities. But then, further into the story, people actually started to know her and like her, and at that point, Marsh became their nickname for someone they actually liked as a woman.
Artists must decide for themselves when their painting, or poem, or whatever is ready. My personal standards are that I will not release a novel until no word could be changed without losing some of its power and meaning within the story. Until each metaphor has layers; may refer backwards and forwards through several threads of the story; and is in no way cliched, boilerplate, or traditional (No blood red skies, or ideas hitting me like lightning, for example). And the book is also not ready if even a passing background character is left two-dimensional and under-developed. A part of each character’s richness then, would have led to them finding names that suit them.