Monthly Archives: November 2011

Describing Character: Making a First Impression Count

I have been thinking about first impressions. In a romance, there is a moment when two characters meet and form impressions of one another. The impressions they form may jive with those the writer has planted in the reader’s mind, or they may be false and contrast deliciously with what the reader knows to be the truth. In the latter case, the story is shaped by the change from that initial impression to one more pleasing.

I know that long descriptions full of unnecessary detail can bore the reader. If I get to the description some time after the character first appears, I run the risk of describing the character in a way which conflicts with the reader’s already formed impression, thus jarring the reader out of the story. The best descriptions are short, offering one or two key details. They often rely similes that allow the reader to fill in the details on his or her own.

First impressions are formed in a particular time and place. A chunk of description dropped into the scene without connection to the setting or circumstances of the characters is a stumbling block. I’ve been known leave such blocks in early drafts to be hammered out in the editing. I ran across the following paragraph from the scene in The Door Behind Us where Frank really sees Jersey for the first time.

It was like waking from a daydream. Frank was aware of his surroundings, but unable at first, to connect anything. He was mucking out the barn. He smelled manure and watched hay dust drift down in the shaft of sunlight from the open shutters in the hayloft. The light reached a young man on a three-legged stool. He recognized the source of the voice that had haunted his dreams for weeks. The man—boy really—was slight. Narrow shoulders cut his shirt like a hanger. He balanced on a three-legged stool on uneven thighs, one well-defined and the other bone thin. He had green eyes that looked almost gray until the sun hit them, and curly dark hair longer than army regulation with flecks of hay in it. A nose like a blade led to a wide mouth, now wavering uncertainly between a smile and a nervous grimace. He realized that this man had been with him, had been talking to him for days. The words were gone, but they hung in the air with the dust.

While not wholly without merit, the description is long and dry. It feels disconnected from the rest of the scene. Here’s the edited version.

Frank woke from a daydream. He was mucking out the barn. He smelled manure and watched hay dust drift in the shaft of sunlight from the open shutters in the hayloft. The light reached a young man perched on a three-legged stool just inside the barn door, and he recognized the source of the voice which had haunted his dreams for weeks. It was as if he were seeing him for the first time. The man—boy really—balanced on uneven thighs, one muscled, the other bone thin and ending in a stump. Catching Frank’s stare, he tilted his head, his wide mouth wavering uncertainly between a smile and a grimace. Frank thought the boy’s eyes were gray until he moved and the sun transformed them to sea green. He laughed at the trick, and the boy’s smile steadied and widened. The boy had been with him, had been talking to him for days. The words were gone, but they hung in the air with the dust.

The new description is twelve words shorter and contains fewer details, but contains action. Frank and Jersey interact in a way that adds to the scene. I can move on to the next impression.

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Prosthetic Legs, Plain Speech, and a Borrowed Suit

Odd questions arise when you’re writing historical fiction. What kind of prosthetic limbs were available to World War I veterans in 1919? Of what were they constructed and what did they look like? That was one set of questions I had to answer when I was writing my second novel, The Door Behind Us (due out in a month or so.) The novel is set mostly in 1919 and 1920. To get a feel for the time and locations that figure in the novel, I visited libraries, read historical documents, bought one obscure and expensive privately printed account of the operations of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and spent a lot of time searching the web.

It turns out that prosthetic limbs were still crude in 1919. They were heavy compared to the limbs available today and not particularly flexible. One manufacturer of products that would have been available to an amputee in 1919 was the Ohio Willow Wood Company of Mt. Sterling, Ohio. They still manufacture prosthetic limbs today. As the name suggests, they made legs out willow wood. Willow, it turns out, is light, resistant to cracking, and even grained. (It also looks good, a factor which figures in my story.) Better options for amputees didn’t really begin to appear until World War II.

Other questions I had to answer for The Door Behind Us had to do with Quaker plain speech. In 1919, many Quakers still used plain speech, which involves the use of the singular (familiar) form of address as opposed to the plural (formal), and substitutes words like thee and thine for you and yours.  For Quakers, the use of plain speech is a testimony, a way of demonstrating one’s beliefs with one’s actions, and a part of the testimony of simplicity. One of my characters in The Door Behind Us is a Quaker. He drives an ambulance for the American Friends Ambulance Unit, a fictional organization based on the real-life Friends Ambulance Unit, which operated in France during the Great War. His father uses the plain speech.

My fascination with this dialect comes from my own experience listening to my grandmother’s plain speech as a child. I thought it exotic and beautiful. I regret that it is rarely heard anymore, even among the Quakers.

In researching the Friends Ambulance Unit, I ran across an interesting anecdote. In 1947, the Quakers, as represented by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the British Friends Service Council, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their service and efforts to promote peace. The award was accepted by Henry Cadbury, a relative of the chocolate-manufacturing Cadburys. Perhaps not surprisingly for a Quaker raised in the tradition of the testimony of simplicity, Cadbury did not own a long-tailed coat appropriate for the award ceremony. He appeared in a suit borrowed from an AFSC warehouse, which had been collected in a charity drive for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

The Voices in my Head

I love writing dialog. The first draft of a story is heavy on conversation and light on description, inner dialog, and thematic material. After I get the dialog down, I use successive edits to fill in the sketch of my first draft, describing settings, sharpening metaphors and similes, honing the voices of my characters. Early drafts grow with successive layers; I am a potter adding successive coats of glaze on a pot. Later edits involve scraping away the excess.

I’m not terribly talkative in most social situations. Like many shy people, my sharpest retorts arrive in the solitude of my study, long after I might actually use them in conversation. Oh, but they fly fast and furious in my head, particularly in the early morning hours when dawn has just begun to brighten the east window of my bedroom, my limbs are warm and heavy, and inhibition has not yet taken up his post between head and tongue.

Dialog is an opportunity to contrast thought or emotion, and speech. Everyone has an agenda. Every character wants something. Jersey wants a sexual relationship with Frank, but he’s afraid that accepting any help from Frank will make him a catamite. Frank wants to protect and help his friend, but he mistrusts his sexual impulses for fear that they are God’s punishment for past crimes. Their conversations are freighted with unexpressed thoughts and feelings and characterized by misdirection and avoidance. Can you think of anything more fun?