Wednesday, October 21, 2009

TRAVELING IN OUR WRITING

When we write a short story or a novel, that work is a “journey” from beginning to end in many ways.

Hopefully, our main characters will learn something about themselves and grow emotionally and in their personal values of not only each other, but the world around them. They must become more aware of their place in the world as individuals to be able to give of themselves to another person, the hero to the heroine, and visa versa.

The main conflict of the story brings this about in a myriad of ways, through smaller, more personal conflicts and through the main thrust of the “big picture” dilemma. I always like to use Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell as a prime example of this, because the States’ War was the catalyst for everything that followed, but it also remained the backdrop throughout the book. This generated all of the personal losses and gains that Scarlett and Rhett made individually, so if the War hadn’t been the backdrop, the main original conflict, their personal stories would have taken very different routes and their love story quite possibly would have never happened.

No matter what kind of story we are trying to weave, we have to have movement throughout—not just of the characters’ growth, but of the setting and circumstances that surround them.

Have you ever thought about how important it is to have travel in your writing? No, it doesn’t have to be lengthy travel, although that’s a great possibility, too. Even a short trip allows things to happen physically to the characters, as well as providing some avenue for emotional growth and development among them.

One of my favorite examples of the importance of travel is the short story by Ernest Haycox, “Last Stage to Lordsburg.” You might know it better as the John Ford movie adaptation, “Stagecoach,” starring a very handsome young newbie…John Wayne. A varied group of people are traveling on a stagecoach that is attacked by Indians, including John Wayne, (a seriously good-looking young outlaw by the name of Johnny Ringo) who is being transported to prison. The dire circumstances these passengers find themselves in make a huge difference in the way they treat each other—including their hesitant acceptance of a fallen woman and the outlaw.

If your characters are going somewhere, things are bound to happen—even if they’re just going to the store, as in the short story “The Mist,” by Stephen King. Briefly, a man goes to the grocery store and is trapped inside with many other people by a malevolent fog that surrounds the store and tries to come inside. Eventually, he makes the decision to leave rather than wait for it to get inside and kill them all. He thinks he can make it to the pickup just outside in the parking lot. A woman that he really doesn’t know says she will go with him. By making this conscious decision, not only are they leaving behind their own families (he has a wife and son) that they know they’ll never see again, but if they make it to the vehicle and survive, they will be starting a new chapter of their lives together. It’s a great concept in my opinion—virtual strangers, being forced to make this kind of life-or-death decision in the blink of an eye, leaving everything they know behind, when all they had wanted to do was pick up a few groceries.

In all of my stories, there is some kind of travel involved. In Fire Eyes, although Jessica doesn’t travel during the story, she has had to travel to get to the place where it all takes place. And Kaed is brought to her, then travels away from her when he is well enough. Will he come back? That’s a huge conflict for them. He might be killed, where he’s going, but it’s his duty. He can’t turn away from that. After what has happened to him in his past, he has a lot of mixed feelings about settling down and trying again with a family, and with love.

One of my professors once stated, “There are only two things that happen in a story, basically. 1. A stranger comes to town. Or, 2. A character leaves town.” Pretty simplistic, and I think what she was trying to tell us was that travel is a great way to get the conflict and plot of a story moving in the right direction. I always think of “Shane” when I think of “a stranger coming to town” because that is just such a super example of how the entire story is resolved by a conflicted character, that no one ever really gets to know. Yet, although he may have a checkered past, he steps in and makes things right for the Staretts, and the rest of the community.

In my upcoming release, Time Plains Drifter, a totally different kind of travel is involved—time travel. The hero is thrown forward sixteen years from the date he died (yes, he’s a very reluctant angel) and the heroine is flung backward one hundred fifteen years by a comet that has rearranged the bands of time on earth. They come together in 1895 in the middle of Indian Territory. But the time travel is just a means to bring them together for the real conflict, and that is the case with most of the stories we write. We aren’t writing to look at the scenery/history: we want to see the conflict, and the travel is just a way to get that to happen.

How do you use travel in your writing? Do you have any tips that might make it easier to describe the actual travel sequences? I find that is the hardest thing sometimes, for me.

Here's an excerpt from my upcoming Dec. 2 TWRP release, "A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES". In this western short story, a wounded gunman and three children seek shelter on Christmas Eve with a lonely widow. Not only is their travel important, but the timing of that journey. I hope you enjoy!

FROM "A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES":
He sighed, his breath drawn up short. “I didn’t want to keep riding,” he said quietly. “No, that’s not right.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t keep riding. When I saw this cabin, it was like an answer to a prayer.” She raised an eyebrow, and he slanted her a rueful smile. “No, I’m not one to pray too much, but sometimes hope’s all there is. That, and believing maybe everything will come around right—for once.” He sighed and closed his eyes. “We’ve barged in on you, haven’t we? Gave you no choice but to grant us shelter. I’m sorry—”

“No.” She laid a hand on his arm and squeezed, cutting off the rest of his apology. She’d been prickly, and she was suddenly ashamed. It was time to put aside her own guarded feelings and do what she could to help Nick Dalton and the children. They were all counting on her. “Please, don’t say you’re sorry. I’m afraid I should be apologizing to you. I haven’t been as--gracious as I should have. You’re welcome here, for as long as you want to stay.” She was surprised to find she meant it.

He gave her a sardonic white grin that creased the lines at the corners of his eyes, as if he were laughing at the entire situation, himself included.

“My…reputation…hinders a fair amount of hospitality sometimes.” He paused before he went on. “The light inside here warmed me, even in that wind. I could tell the kids felt the same. They got so…hopeful all of a sudden. Like a glimpse of heaven in all that damn snow.”

“Somehow, I’m beginning to wonder how much of what they say about you is really true,” Angela said in a low tone. She leaned over the wound again.

The dancing laughter evaporated from his expression as soon as she spoke the soft words.

“You don’t need to be afraid. I’d never hurt you.” Their eyes locked, the air sizzling between them. He let his breath out slowly on a sigh. “Never.”

A noise from the doorway caught Angela’s attention, and she tore her gaze away from his to see the two younger children peering around the corner. They pulled back quickly out of sight as she turned.

“Go easy on ’em, Angela,” Nick said quietly. “They’ve had…a rough time of it.”
His concern for the children was not what she’d expected, and as she called to them, she wondered again what strange circumstances had brought them all together. They sheepishly came from the kitchen into the bedroom. Angela quickly pulled the sheet over the hole in Nick’s side to hide it from their view.

“Thanks,” he muttered, giving her a grateful look before he turned to the children again. “Where’s Will?” he asked, his tone rough with the suppressed pain.

Leah glanced toward the bedroom doorway. “He went out back to bring in some more wood…” She trailed off at Nick’s sharply indrawn breath.

“He shouldn’t be out there.”

The faint measure of worry in the gunman’s tone mystified Angela. But she recognized that he didn’t want to speak plainly in front of the youngsters. She stood up and took Charlie’s hand. “Come with me, you two,” she said. “I bet I can find something you’ll like. A surprise.”

8 comments:

Obe said...

What a great observation! It is true, when we look at stories or at television, the story involves travel. I would have never stumbled upon that idea of change. Thank you, for a great post and an even more fascinating excerpt. It really peaked my interest.
Nancy O

Cheryl said...

Hi Nancy!

I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and the excerpt. It's amazing how sometimes if someone else points it out, you realize you've been doing it all along! LOL (Which I'm sure you HAVE!)Thanks for reading and commenting!
Cheryl

Kathy Otten said...

Hi,

Interesting that you pointed this out. I never thought much about travel. I do it because moving the characters causes stuff to happen, but it's like you said in GWTW, the Civil War is what shaped the characters. That was almost its own character acting against the heroes. In my new Christmas story, my characters are forced out of their safe world and their safe personas, to travel and encounter forces that bring out their true personalities.

Cheryl said...

Hi Kathy!

You are so right about GWTW, the States' War being its own character. I have thought about that, too, and how even though they were all "at war" they were not only fighting "the war" but things that the war brought to their lives that they'd never thought they'd have to do EVER. I like the idea of your characters being forced out of their "safety zone" and what it brings out in them. Some times, there is just no telling...LOL Thanks for commenting, Kathy.
Cheryl

Sarah Simas said...

Great post, Cheryl! I love your examples, too. I adore Scarlet! I had never really given much thought about the travel aspect being so important to a story. Thanks for teaching me!

Lauri said...

Great point about travel, Cheryl! And great excerpt! I love Christmas stories, so will have to check that one out!

Cheryl said...

HI SARAH!!!

I love Scarlett, too! She is one of my heroes! LOL about the teaching...did it come through? LOLLOL I love learning about stuff like this, and I teach classes here in OKC so a lot of my thoughts and ideas probably come from the class material I'm so used to using. Travel really is important, and it can be anything from going to the grocery store to going across the country (or the universe, if you write sci-fi.) Thanks so much for coming by and commenting, Sarah!
Cheryl

Cheryl said...

Hi Lauri!

I love Christmas stories, too. I would love to just sit down and write holiday stories. They always make me feel better! LOL Glad you enjoyed the excerpt, and I look forward to hearing what you think about A Night For Miracles.
Cheryl