I think I’ve mentioned before that the project I’ve been calling ‘the Romeo and Juliet thing’ is my first attempt at a full-length historical novel. I’m rather enjoying it. Apart from digging around to find out things like how many staff a typical upper-middle class household would have and how many of them would be addressed by their surnames, and what all the relevant railway companies were called, there’s the deeper task of getting into the mindset of a different age. It’s fascinating. (It’s also an excuse to reread a whole load of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries.)
I am well used to writing characters who are simultaneously stuck in their own heads and detached from their own emotions, whether by shame, depression, or the closet, but this is another level: a whole population that just isn’t talking about anything. My hero is slightly more articulate than the type described by George Mikes in How To Be An Alien:
If he wants to marry a girl, he says:
“I say… would you?…”
If he wants to make an indecent proposal:
“I say… what about…”
But not very much more so. It is 1919, after all.
All this sort of thing is surprisingly fun to write, but it leaves a lot to be done by the narration. If the characters aren’t talking, I have to talk for them. If they can’t talk about feelings, I have to show that those feelings exist – because they do, they’re powerful, maybe even dangerous, and perhaps even more so because they’re not fully expressed. I’m using third person omniscient, though it’s pretending to be third person limited most of the time. (That is, I know everything, but I don’t tell it all, and most of the time I restrict myself to what’s going on inside a particular person’s head.)
Anyway, the proposal does happen in actual words. But in a moment of writing cowardice I chickened out of writing the first kiss – which prompts the proposal – and instead left myself a note in square brackets:
[this has to be really hot]
Helpful, no? As the old Nicorette adverts used to say, don’t tell me, tell me how. Of course I rolled my eyes at myself on every subsequent readthrough until eventually I wrote the damn thing and, yes, made it really hot. The current readthrough, however, has prompted the uncomfortable reflection that it hasn’t really been earned. Not yet. If the kiss needs to be really hot, so does everything leading up to it, otherwise it doesn’t work any more than the proposal, and then the decision to accept doesn’t make any sense either. And then the remainder of the book – about four fifths of it, I’d guess – don’t work at all.
And I think I also need to bring in my second point of view earlier, and do more from her perspective. It’s feeling a bit one-sided at the moment, and it’s vital that both parties are seen to be invested.
Time to write myself some more notes.
[this bit also needs to be really hot]
[this bit too]
I’m sure I’ll thank myself for it later.