Monday, September 20, 2010

Picking up Strangers

Here’s my favorite metaphor for writing: it’s like driving on a foggy night with the headlights on. You can only see a few feet in front of you, but if you keep on driving and focus on the road ahead, you eventually reach your destination.

I’m one of those writers who knows the end of my story from the outset, so driving in the dark with a destination in mind is the perfect metaphor. When I’m in the thick of it, plowing steadily forward through a new book, the only thing that keeps me on track when it all feels too big or too much to write, is the road before me. I focus on the scene on the immediate page: the particular word to describe the tables; the smell of the place when the character walks through the door; the color of her hair.

Then, some damn fool steps in front of the car, waving his hands.

We’re not talking about a distracting bystander, or a sketchy hitchhiker one can easily justify whizzing past. Oh, no. This dude steps in front of the moving vehicle. Go on, hit me, he dares. Or, do the unexpected thing, the risky/brave/out of the box thing, by pulling over, and letting me in.

I’m currently writing my third novel, and for the third time this has happened. And if past experience is any indicator of what’s to come, if I let this stranger in, I’m in for a ride I didn’t expect.

In my first book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, the guy I picked up was Mr. Beady. He walked into the story as a minor, random octogenarian who was friends with the main character’s grandmother. A few chapters after he got into the car, he was practically a member of the family. He was an important foil; a source of great comic relief; and ultimately, a hero upon whom a major plot development hinged. Who knew, when he showed up for dinner one night carrying a bag of corn chips, that he’d be there for the climax?

In my next book, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best (March 2011), I began with a single narrator, a girl named Henry, and before I knew what was happening her best friend was elbowing her way into one scene after another. When Henry made plans to travel to Florida and leave her best friend behind, I commented to my daughter, “My editor isn’t going to like this. The best friend is about to disappear.” My daughter, who at 16 has way better instincts about writing than her mother, disappeared into her room, returned with an armload of books which she tossed on my bed, and said, “You need a two-narrator novel. Here are a few good examples.” The final version of Tomatoes is told from two alternating points of view, and the twin “voices” in the book are an important theme.

And now, I’m back in the driver’s seat, this time cruising with my narrator through Lewiston, Maine, and I’ve taken him to a strange little place where I planned to introduce him to a girl … when another girl walked in. She’s short. She’s got a gold stud in her nose and blue eyes that my narrator says “unnerve” him. I’d planned to have her show him into the other room, then leave, but then … he followed her. I realized he’s going to follow her further, beyond the other room, all the way to the end of the novel. I don’t know where she was when I was outlining this book last winter, but a couple of days ago she arrived, standing boldly in the headlights, waving her arms ….

I think I have to let her in. And see where the journey takes us.


  1. I like this driving picking up strangers metaphor! Thanks, Maria.

  2. I like how you extended this classic writing metaphor of driving in the fog and made it yours.