Henry James, in The Art of Fiction, advises writers to “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Stories are all around us. We just need to take the time to listen and look.
They come in a variety of ways. Sometimes a person catches our eye, and we think, “hmm, I wonder what it’s like to be him or her.” I lived next door once to a family who had a daughter about ten years old, a girl who was eccentric to say the least. I saw her come down her porch steps once in a rain shower on roller skates with an umbrella held over her head. Another time, I saw her jumping on a trampoline, tooting a toy horn clamped between her lips. It seemed that she was fearless, a force which nothing could suppress.
When I wrote my story, “Love Field,” which will be in my forthcoming collection, The Mutual UFO Network, the character of this little girl is where I began. I didn’t want to tell the story from her point of view because I thought it would be too limited. Heck, I didn’t even know what the story was going to be. To learn that, I had to pair the girl with another character. At the time, I was living in Texas, and one of my neighbors was a very proper elderly southern widow who lived alone. What better match for the irrepressible, non-conformist girl, Naomi? Naomi and Belle form the heart of this story, the two of them rubbing together in a way that creates the narrative while also bringing out aspects of each character that wouldn’t have emerged without my putting the two of them together.
Once I had the point of view established and the proper pairing of characters, I opened myself to the world around me and began to find certain facts, details, images catching my attention. In the early stages of writing a story, we have to trust the instincts of our subconscious. We have to let the story take us where it wants to go. We can reshape, add, subtract, rearrange later in the revision stage.
Here are the some of the things that began to attach themselves to the story as I wrote it: the sounds of humpback whales and their “intimate language not meant for human ears”; the Dallas airport Love Field which gives the story its title; the once-upon-a-time single supercontinent, Pangea, and the shifting blocks of land that formed the continents we know today; the jaundice of another neighbor’s newborn daughter. I made Belle’s dead husband a geologist for an oil company, I created a granddaughter for her, who despite Belle’s protests, moved out and followed a man to Hawaii. I said that Belle and her husband once lived near Love Field and had to put up with the roaring noise of the jets coming and going. I gave Naomi a sister. At that point, I had my opening sentence: “One night, the baby died, and a few days later, the mother, Mrs. Silver, came to Belle’s house and said, “I want to talk to you.”
Mrs. Silver wants to talk to Belle “because on the evening the baby died, before she had known anything about it, she had put a card in the mail to the Silvers. Congratulations on your beautiful baby. She had known the card would be hurtful to the Silvers. The baby had come home from the hospital with jaundice, and it was obvious, even without that taint, that she was unattractive.”
Why in the world, I wondered, would Belle, a proper lady, send such a hurtful card. What had happened to make it so? I knew the work ahead of me would involve the pairing of Belle and Naomi and the narrative they would create, the one that would lead them to the night of the baby’s death.
Henry James also said, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” In the case of my story, “Love Field,” I started with a character who caught my imagination, and I paired her with a character who was quite her opposite and then set out to discover how alike they were. I opened myself to the details around me and used them to advance the plot and, ultimately, to reveal character.
When we are with story, our instincts are super sensitive. The world gives us exactly what we need to write the story that needs to be written. All we have to do is pay attention.