It’s been a challenge keeping my five characters jogging through the pages, acting independently, yet reacting to one another. Taking what was a bare-bones true story, embellishing it, and developing a coherent plot was a new experience. Where could I begin? How about starting with the events of the 1930’s? History was never my favorite topic in school. The last time I rote memorized trivia about characters named Nebuchadnezzar, Michelangelo, or Hannibal was my freshman year at Archbishop Murray Memorial High School in Sister Claire’s World History class. I was studious, but it was stretch even for me, to love that stuff. She seemed determined to show us fledgling historians how to weave divergent events across the ancient world into one big picture because she said each isolated action on one continent had far distant, unpredictable outcomes. And that was in the days before the internet.
So here I sat trying to piece together an interesting plot line with characters that were supposed to interact from first to last page. I had a shopping list of events that needed to be interwoven. And I had tons of research – from my heroine’s own pen and lips, library books, the ever-trusty Wikipedia, and reference and genre purchases. I had catalogued several three-ring binders of clippings from newspapers, articles flagged from writers’ journals, and interesting facts gleaned from all those experts out in the electronic world. Here was history slapping me in the face. I could picture Sister Claire smiling down on me from the great beyond.
I knew I had to avoid the temptation to take detours into points of view that weren’t my five characters. My readers would not appreciate investing time in getting to know a character who was banned from reappearing because they had been left back down the road a piece. One of the most difficult tasks was taking the scalpel to the thoughts of minor characters like Nehemiah, Daisy, and Sister Bertha. Instead, I had to project what they thought into the brains of my main characters. Yes, these minor actors might have had interesting perspectives, lives, or opinions, but they had to go with the lightning flash of the delete key.
I had social interactions, historical realities, opinions and prejudices, romantic aspirations, and a challenging physical environment. All of it needed recognition. My husband is one of those people who insist a computer can solve most problems – this time he was right. To the rescue came one of his well-designed spreadsheets that listed dates and events in all five main character’s lives. We were travelling our epic road trip tracing the Patsy and Virgie trail through the West. We were sitting in a Holiday Inn Express in Missoula, Montana, watching the swollen Clark Fork River roll below from our third floor window as the sun hid behind massive storm clouds. (Every river we saw on that trip looked ready to go over its banks from weeks of summer rain.) My journal from that night states “Dan and I spent another evening after dinner trying to fix story flow problems. Lots of laughs but also frustrating to see how important picky details on exactly who is exactly where at each point in time seem to be.” We figured out where Rubin had to be if he was driving and our young women were walking. And we needed to slow Spats down by throwing some unanticipated obstacles his way or he would overtake our protagonists before they got to their safe haven. It seems like we were arranging a musical score and needed each instrument in each section to play their notes at just the right time with the grand finale only happening when the maestro’s baton said so.
Thinking about it made me appreciate Sister Claire. She orchestrated the interactions of these ancients with such subtle skill that none of us recognized it. I realize now that she wanted above all things to infuse these famous people with drama and take them from the one-dimensional page and make them 3-D giants. Her challenge of combining fact with art without any of us knowing it was, in this former student’s opinion, her greatest talent. The plot thickens.