Characters are like children: they are a part of you, and you steer and shape them, but much of the time they don’t do what they’re told.
I wrote two or three scenes together yesterday, as I’m desperately trying to get ahead in case we don’t have internet access on holiday. Writing one installment at a time keeps the characters mostly under control, as I put them in a situation with a clear purpose.
When I let the writing flow, though, they can sneak off and do their own thing. In a normal first draft that’s fine because if they end up changing too much it’s possible to go back and reintroduce the new character traits. Writing in daily installments, knowing the first four books are published and unchangeable, makes it much harder.
I have a new-found respect for authors like Charles Dickens, writing serious literature in serial form.
Not only do I have to remember what the characters are like and what they’ve said and done – I also can’t really change it.
The person who has morphed in today’s installment is Claire’s Dad. He’s middle class through and through, and he’s taciturn, uptight, distant: but all of a sudden he started chatting away and I didn’t have the heart to stop him. I wonder if he’s channeling my memories of my Dad, after the pictures I used of him recently.
That’s always the danger. Stuff seeps into the subconscious. It’s why it’s not a good idea to read in the genre you’re writing as you pen a first draft. Too easy to plagiarise ideas and not even be aware of it.
I like the new version of Claire’s dad, though, and I think sometimes people can surprise you. So I’ll let him stay and hope readers are forgiving of a little shift from expectation. After all, the characters are in charge!
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:
When the door closed behind his son, Claire’s father seemed to relax and become smaller, shorter. It was as if he had maintained some act of standing tall in Robert’s presence that he didn’t need to continue in front of Claire.
“Cup of tea, Dad?”
Her father turned and smiled, a twinkle in his eye. “Yes, love. Now he’s gone maybe we can have a proper natter. Feels like having my old boss in the house, with him in his suit and tie. Doesn’t the boy ever relax?”
Claire grinned, feeling like a collaborator. “He’s got a lot on his mind, I guess.”
“Yes, that stuck up cow of a wife is giving him a hard time, from what I can gather.”
“Dad!” Claire stared, open-mouthed, as her father shuffled into the lounge and settled in his favourite chair. She followed him in, perching on the sofa, all thought of making tea forgotten.
“Well, don’t tell me you like her? I don’t suppose you’ve visited once since the wedding: silly pretentious affair that it was.”
Claire wondered when aliens had come and kidnapped her father. He was the one always a stickler for formality. When he was working, chief financial officer of some major company or other, he’d seemed so stiff and unapproachable. She’d never seen this side to him, lounging in a comfy chair having a gossip.
In fact, I never see him at all normally. Last time I was home he was off playing golf all the time. She thought about his question. When had she last seen Francesca and the boys?
“I Skype now and then, on the boys’ birthdays. If I remember.”
“Ah, yes. Easy to put on a front on the phone. Even with that new-fangled thing that allows you to see the other person.” He shuddered, as if the future made him uncomfortable.
“The truth is in what Robert doesn’t say. Never talks about her, you know. Nor about the boys much. It’s all work, work, work. Well, I gave all that up. Glad to see the back of it, too.”
Claire raised her eyebrows. “I thought you hated leaving your job? Mum says you’re never here. I guessed you were busy with non-exec roles, that kind of thing.”
Her father’s face flushed, and he looked towards the door, as if expecting to see his wife enter at any moment. Then he turned back to Claire and his face was conspiratorial. “Don’t tell your mother, but I’m usually at the library.”
Claire felt like a clown that had just been splatted in the face by a custard pie. “The library? Why? Mum says you play golf, when you’re not working.”
“Golf? Whatever for? Stupid game. I go to the club sometimes, to catch up with the old boys. Really, though, what’s that thing Twain was meant to have said? ‘A good walk spoiled.’ No I’ve been doing research.”
Settling back into the sofa, Claire leaned on the arm so she could face her father. “Research for what?”
“I’m writing a book.” He beamed, like a child admitting they’d won first prize in a competition. “Your mother would think it was foolish, so I haven’t told her. She’s so busy keeping up with the Jones’s and doing her WI things. She would think it awfully common to be writing a book.” He frowned. “You won’t tell her, will you?”
Claire’s mind whirled with the flood of new information. She felt like she had never truly known her father. Either that or her first surmise was right, and aliens had kidnapped Gerald Carleton and replaced him with someone new.
“Of course I won’t tell Mum, if you don’t want me to. What’s the book about?” She expected him to say Business Finance, or Military Strategies in the Second World War.
“It’s a thriller. I’ve been having writing lessons. You know, one of those free Adult Learning courses they do at the college? They say everyone has a book in them. I think mine’s tending towards a Grisham.”
Laughter built in Claire’s chest for the first time in days. She threw her head back and the sound filled the empty magnolia room, rolling off the walls.
“Oh Dad, that’s brilliant. Can I read it?”
“It’s not finished yet.” He looked furtive. “You won’t tell your mother,” he repeated.
“Why not? It’s great that you’re doing something with your time, now you’re retired. Maybe Mum could proof-read it. She did used to be a secretary.”
That was how her parents had met. Her mother had been her father’s secretary, just to prove that clichés did happen in real life.
“Lord no, I couldn’t do that. She hates being reminded of the past. Between you and me, I think it makes her feel uncomfortable, as if she’s a fraud.” He gestured at the room. “Take this house. It’s got no warmth, but she’s so afraid of it turning into her Mother’s house, full of tat and mess and pictures. As if clutter somehow makes you working class.”
His words, said in a thoughtful tone, amazed Claire. Who knew the old man was so astute? It came as a surprise to think there were busy thoughts going on behind her father’s placid face. He’d always been in the background of her life, rarely getting involved in the day to day events. Now he seemed to come alive, three-dimensional and vivid before her.
“Anyway, girl, how about that tea? And then I suppose you best be getting on your way. You’ll be stuck awhile chatting at Ruth’s and you don’t want to drive to a new hostel in the dark.”
Almost numb to the shock of fresh revelations, Claire knew she shouldn’t be surprised that her father knew she was booked into a hostel for the night, and needed to drive by Ruth’s place to say her farewells. Carl had agreed to only the week’s holiday and, with Sky returning to school in the morning, her presence was no longer required.
“Okay, Dad. Coming right up.”