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Tag Archives: The Door Behind Us
My first drafts tend to be heavy on dialog and light on everything else. Early scenes may consist of nothing but dialog. Eventually, I go back and add description: expressions, movement, sensations, a setting. If necessary, I compose interior dialog. I consider theme. But for me, the story always lives first in what my characters say to one another.
Good dialog drives the story forward. It entertains. It explicates character. It demonstrates conflict. In a story, it always has a purpose.
Notes on Writing Dialog
Everyone has an agenda. Everyone who talks has a reason for being in the story, a purpose, or a goal they want to achieve. Some possibilities:
- To meet an attractive person
- To network or forward their business or career
- To try to convince someone of something
- To find out something
In this excerpt from Billy Goat Stats, Coach Rocker wants something from Billy, a new freshman basketball player, but he isn’t ready to explain himself, setting up the coming conflict. Not surprisingly, Billy flounders.
“I understand congratulations are due, and not just on your state win. Digger tells me you got MVP at your last game. What was it, 62 points and 18 rebounds?”
Digger, Billy gathered, was Assistant Coach Paulson. They’d met briefly at orientation.
“Yes, sir. But the other team’s point guard was injured. I’d never have made so many—”
“Hold it right there, young man. There are always circumstances. Great players know how to take advantage of them.”
“I’m really not that great—”
“At little humility can go a long way, Billy. You don’t actually want to convince people you don’t deserve your successes, do you? Tell ’em you’re something special and they’ll more than likely believe you. Muhammad Ali taught us that.”
“But he was a great boxer, wasn’t he?”
Coach Rocker showed Billy into his office and waved him to a chair. “So how’s your dorm? Getting settled in?”
Billy didn’t know if it was because he’d won a basketball scholarship, but he’d been given a room in a suite with two other athletes in Brookhouse, a dorm that was only a short walk from the Athletic Center and Basketball Coliseum. The truth was, he’d rather have been nearer the quad with it’s green lawns and shaded walks, but he wasn’t going to complain.
“Meet your roommates yet?”
“One of them. Jason Pritchard? He’s a catcher, I think, from Ann Arbor. On a baseball scholarship. The other is Mike Brooks.”
“Oh, yes, promising shooting guard.” The coach seemed distracted, his eyes flicking back and forth between Billy and the small TV mounted on the wall of his office as if he wanted to catch the scores. “I’m sure you’ll get along.” Coach Rocker’s eyes returned to meet his. “Tulane Sampson is over there too. Nice guy. You have a lot in common. You should look him up.”
Billy knew who Tulane Sampson was. Everyone knew Tully Sam. He was Hoosier State’s star center. Last year he’d led the league in scoring at twenty-seven per game. He was also a black kid from New Orleans, and more significantly, a senior. What in hell did Coach Rocker think the guy would have in common with Billy, a freshman and small-town midwestern white boy who’d played point guard in high school, but would be lucky to get off the bench at Hoosier State?
“Well, thanks for stopping by, Billy. We’ll look forward to seeing you at practice.”
Billy rose, wondering why he’d been summoned to speak to the coach, only to be dismissed so soon. Maybe the coach made a point of welcoming all the scholarship students?
“You be sure and introduce yourself to Tully—421 Brookhouse. Nice guy.”
Everyone is hiding something. We all have secrets:
- How we are feeling
- What we really think
- Our involvement in a crime, conspiracy, or infidelity
In this scene from The Door Behind Us, Jersey reveals more than he intends about his experience as a soldier. Frank’s blunt response is instructive.
“My mama, y’know, she picks at me ’cause she says I talk too much but don’t say nothing. She wants me to tell her about the war, because she’s got this fool idea that talking about it is gonna do me some good—make me less nervous or something. She read this story in the Current about a doctor up in Scotland who’s had some luck treating people with shell shock. They called it battle fatigue, but it’s the same damn thing. I keep telling her I’m not like the fellows she reads about, loud noises just make me nervous is all. Talk, she says. Like I’m gonna to tell her about Lieutenant Heiser getting his head sliced clean off by a machine gun. When she gets ragging on me particular hard, I think about telling her ‘bout that—just to shut her up.”
“Don’t do it.” Jersey, in his own world, was startled by Frank’s reply, and by his vehemence. He looked up to find Frank had stopped tossing fresh hay from the loft and was jabbing randomly at a fresh bale. “She won’t like it.”
“Okay, Frank,” he said, tossing off a ragged salute. “I won’t.”
Dialog is an opportunity to contrast what characters are saying with what they are thinking or feeling, this creates conflict and increases tension.
- Physical reactions may contrast with a characters words in order to create conflict
- Interior dialog may contrast with speech
In this scene, also from The Door Behind Us, Frank is questioned by Dr. Jones about how he came to fall off a freight train.
“You have not said how you came to be on that train or what happened to your friend, Jersey,” Jones prompted.
“The head of school, Mr. Underwood, found an address for me. My father’s parents. They were in Plainfield, but I lost the address. It was in my coat when it was stolen from me on the train. I had no money, and Jersey…chose to stay in Philadelphia, so I jumped the freight.”
The doctor’s eyes glinted from under gray eyebrows. “Did you and your friend have a falling out?” Frank had not realized he was so transparent.
“He wanted to stay at the school. There was a girl—I don’t know. He just wanted to stay. Why do you want to know about Jersey?”
“You talk of him warmly.” Agrippa opened a hand, palm up. “Then, poof, you are alone. Then you fall off train.”
“I was thrown off the train,” Frank said sharply.
“Of course, of course.” The doctor’s eyelids were half closed.
“You think I tried to kill myself.”
“No, I don’t. The idea crossed my mind. The sheriff’s too, I suspect.”
“Why would I try to kill myself?”
The doctor put his thumbs in the pockets of his vest and moved his belly gently as one would rock a baby. “There is the world as we would have it and there is the world as we find it.”
Dialog is a great opportunity—perhaps the best a writer has—to differentiate between characters. Some ways characters may contrast:
- Language or dialect
- Use of obscenities
- World view
- Class or education level
- Favorite topic or bet noir
- Verbal ticks
- Listening skills—or the lack of them
In this scene from Valentine Shower, Reuben has been pining over a misunderstanding with his closest friend. His sister Yaffa comes over to see what’s up. It was Yaffa’s first appearance, so it’s important the reader get to know her.
I swallowed. “Are you here to help me or insult me?”
Yaffa smirked. “Six of one, half dozen of the other….”
“Look, it’s nice of you to come by, but I really don’t need—”
“Oh no, bro. I’ve been waiting for this ever since you reached puberty—and nothing happened. I deserve this.”
Yaffa’s high school years had been marked by unreliable boyfriends, flying hairbrushes, and salty tears. Maybe she had a point, but I wasn’t about to concede it. I chewed.
Yaffa bounced in her seat. “Come on, what is it? Girlfriend trouble? Boyfriend trouble? An online gambling addiction? That would be boring even for you. Oh no, it’s not a porn addiction? Because that’s nothing—everyone’s addicted to porn these days. You can hardly escape from it.”
“It’s not porn.”
“You know it’s okay, right, to touch yourself? Everybody does it.”
I nearly choked on the omelet. “Jesus, Yaffa. Will you give me a second to get my thoughts together?”
“You haven’t had a thought out of place since you were eight. You can’t blame me for getting excited.”
“I resent it, you know, when you talk about me like I don’t have any feelings.”
Yaffa’s glee morphed into seriousness. “Sorry, bro.”
I wasn’t fooled. “Just because I don’t choose to wave them around like a set of great pompoms.”
“Wave what around? ’Cause you know these are natural, right? I can’t help that I was born with—”
“I was talking about my feelings, not your boobs.”
“Oh, right. Never mind me. I’ve been a little sensitive since Boom Boom was born.”
“Yeah, Jim started calling Jack that when he started on solid food and got the worst case of gas.”
“Wow, you actually acknowledge that I’m your sister. I suppose I ought to be grateful—”
I was certain it was part of the nefarious plan, but I was more than ready to spill my guts, if only she would stop talking. “You win! I’ll tell you what’s going on if you promise to not to say anything for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes. Promise, or I’ll throw you out and cut my wrists.” I demonstrated with a butter knife. It was a low blow, but the omelet hadn’t kicked in, and I was still light-headed.
Yaffa pursed her lips and stared for a second. “You’re going to talk about your feelings for a whole ten minutes? You know, it might actually be worth it.”
“Just shut up, would you?”
Yaffa reached for her coffee. “Okay, bro. I’m listening.”
Writing dialog is fun, but it’s also hard work. Done well, it may near poetry-like density of meaning.
Wow. It’s been too long since I last posted. The good news is that I’ve been hard at work editing Billy Goat Stats, my sequel to Music Box. It should be on its way to Dreamspinner Press by the end of the month. I’ve also made serious inroads on a new book, but it’s too soon to say much about that, other than it’s contemporary, set in Philadelphia, and I’m really enjoying it.
Now on to today’s news. Dreamspinner Press is offering The Door Behind Us, my historical novel set just after World War I, for ninety-nine cents on their website as part of their Christmas in July Promotion. Please check it out, if you haven’t already. Music Box and Valentine Shower are on sale as well.
I’m going to be sharing excerpts, answering questions, and talking about my new novel MUSIC BOX, as well as THE DOOR BEHIND US and my short story VALENTINE SHOWER on the Dreamspinner Press Facebook page, Saturday at 1:00 ET.
As an incentive to join me, there will be a couple of book giveaways for people who can answer questions about one of my stories. Come join me!
I first heard Jersey’s voice in 2009 when I woke from a dream with him in my head. I was so taken with his voice and story that I had to get up and take notes. I hope others will find him as compelling.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Dreamspinner Press for the publication of my second novel, The Door Behind Us. No dates or details yet. Publication is sure to be many months out. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to be working with the folks at Dreamspinner.
I’ve also made progress with Music Box. The initial edits complete, I sent the novel out for comment last week. I’ll put it aside for a while so that I’ll have fresh eyes when I next work on it.
My current project is to restructure and expand the 50,000 word draft of Blame the Family–my first foray into the detective genre–which I put aside some months ago. I was stymied for a while deciding how to handle some material related to the antagonist, but the break proved helpful. I’ve got an idea how to move forward.
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.
For six months or so, while I’ve worked on novels three and four, I’ve been thinking that I need a better title for number two. My second novel is currently in its final rounds of editing. I hope to release it sometime in the next few months. Since I started the story, I’ve known that the working title, while meaningful to me, would likely confuse readers. But every time I’ve tried to sit down and think long enough to come up with something more suitable, I’ve gotten distracted by more pressing concerns.
I’ve heard some writers say that, for them, the first step in writing a new book is coming up with the title. From the title, all else follows. (For me, stories start with a character or set of characters talking. Yep, voices in my head. Snicker if you will, I can’t hear you.) My experience with titles has been a little different. All my titles have come from some line or concept in the finished or nearly finished book. It seems that until the story has become crystal clear, ideas for the title just don’t start congealing in my brain.
This time, I never did find the time to sit down and think. Instead, my unconscious did the job, and I woke up a few days ago with the words suspended like a string of Christmas tree lights in my waking mind: The Door Behind Us. It’s evocative without giving anything away. It feels intimate, and it tips off the reader that events of the past will play an important role in determining the future. I like it.
What do you think? Would it attract your attention in the book store?