Friday, July 31, 2015

How Can I Use That?

I may be speaking for only a small group of heartless, cold-blooded scribblers. But from the conversations I had over the years, I suspect this is true of most of us who write crime fiction. In an emergency, we do our best to respond effectively and with compassion. We do everything we can to help. Then we step back, think, "That was really interesting" and wonder how we can use it in our next book or story.

The following tale will illustrate my point. The cat in the photo below is Harry, my Maine Coon mix, who I adopted in October of last year. He is sniffing an old sock filled with organic catnip and experiencing total bliss.

 Last weekend, Harry was experiencing a completely different emotion. And it was my fault. I live in an old house, 100 years old. My house is one-story, attic overhead, well-insulated since I moved in four years ago. But there is nothing to be done about the basement. The basement has two sections. The smaller, front section is accessed by going down the stairs from the kitchen. The "laundry room" is located there. Gray outdoor carpeting covers most of the rock and dirt floor. The washing machine and dryer are up on platforms. The trim hot water heater sits against a wall. On the other side of that wall is the furnace. One can access that other section of the basement by taking a few steps. When I first moved into the house, I was sure a serial killer lurked on the other side of that wall -- in spite of my alarm system -- waiting for me to come down and do laundry. For several weeks, I would not do laundry at night. Until I really needed something to wear the next day. . .

I still take a flashlight and turn on the lights on the other side of the wall -- just to make sure everything's okay around there in that cavernous space occupied only by the furnace and the work table and tool cabinet on the other side of the room. And a radiator that my contractor told me I should save in case I ever wanted to re-install it. . . My basement isn't as scary to me as it used to be.

When I go downstairs, I always close the kitchen door so that Harry won't be tempted to follow me. Last Saturday morning, I was careless. I didn't realize this until I came back upstairs from putting clothes in the dryer. The door was ajar. I assumed, I had left it that way. But Harry was nowhere to be seen. Not out on the enclosed "sleeping porch" where he had been watching the birds fly by. Not on the radiator watching the birds fly in and out of the bird apartment house on a pole in my neighbor's yard. Not stretched out on the rug in the dining room or the futon in the sun room having a nap. Not under my bed or behind a chair. Nowhere. Harry was gone. 

But both front and back doors were closed and locked. He had to be in the house. I ran back down to the basement, thinking he must have slipped by when my back was turned. Of course, I was calling his name . . . calling with increasing desperation when he didn't respond.

No Harry in the basement. No Harry when I ran back upstairs and looked in all the places I had looked before as if he might have been invisible the first time.  

Back down to the basement still calling his name and reminding myself (the dog person) that cats often ignore their names being called. But he had to be somewhere. And then I head a "meow". It seemed to be coming from outside -- outside just beyond the window above the tool cabinet. Upstairs, I ran. And realized as I reached the front door that the window over the tool cabinet had been closed. 

Back down to the basement again. This time, I tipped over to the cabinet. The cabinet that was against the wall and should have left no room for a large cat to be behind it. But he was. And he hissed at me from midway between either end. Obviously, Harry didn't recognize me or was too scared to come out even if he did. I stopped to think about that for a moment. About what could have scared him so much. He must have been startled by the dryer that I had turned on and dashed into the other section of the basement and found himself there in that strange space. And he had hidden in the only place there was to hide. 

The question was how to get him out. I went upstairs to get the open can of cat food in the refrigerator. Surely when he smelled the food. . . .

That got him almost out, and then he dashed back when I reached toward him. Dry food. The dry food he isn't allowed to have any more because he needs to lose a couple of pounds. But I still had half a bag. Harry always responds to the sound of that bag being opened. 

And he did respond. To the sound of the bag. To the food in my hand. To my verbal encouragement. Slowly, step-by-step, as I backed across the room. Harry following, focusing on me and my outstretched hand. Harry crouching as we came around the wall, staring at the dryer and then moving closer for a better look. Harry dashing under the kitchen steps, but then peering out. Following me up the kitchen steps, one at a time. Harry crossing the threshold and realizing he was back in known territory. And instead of meowing for the dry food he was not allowed to have, dashing into the dining room. And sitting down by my chair at the table as I came with brush and wet wipes to clean away the dust and cobwebs clinging to him. Even allowing me to wipe his paws. Harry jumping back on the radiator to watch the birds.

And me, sitting down and taking a breath. Thinking that had been scary. If I had been that scared -- heart pounding, on the edge of panic -- when my cat disappeared, what would it have been like if the cat had been a child? And thinking the next moment -- "I could write that. I could write that scene with a mother and a child who vanishes. But I don't have anywhere to use it." And thinking maybe I should write it down anyway, while I can still feel the emotions . . .

I did have somewhere to use it! The book I was working on. My 1939 thriller with the first chapter that wasn't working because my protagonist was doing nothing. Yes, he was watching other people who had come that Easter Sunday to see Marian Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial. He was observing and he was thinking. He spotted my villain and then he thought about that. But my hero was static, passive. 

What if I moved him back a scene or two? What if that first chapter began as my hero was rushing to get to the event, running late, and concerned that he would be so far back in the crowd that he wouldn't be able to see. And then he encounters the woman -- the desperate mother whose child has vanished. People are rushing by. No one is listening to her. She grabs his arm because he is wearing his porter's uniform. Begs him to help. He tells her she needs a policeman, tries to rush on. . .but she clings. He stops. He helps her look and finds her child, who is hiding and afraid to come out because he thinks his mother will be angry.

My hero has done a good deed (and been heroic). But now -- from his point of view -- he is late. He is irritated. Since he is far back in the crowd, he looks around at the faces as Ms. Anderson sings. He sees joyful, transfixed faces. He sees a few people weeping. He seems my villain -- who shouldn't be there in that crowd. Their gazes meet. My hero is puzzled, disconcerted. . .

Thank you, Harry. I'm so sorry you were frightened. I'm so sorry I was careless and a bad "cat parent". I'm really happy you are curled up on the floor by the table as I write this. But, thank you for solving my first chapter problem. You are going into my acknowledgments.

And I admit I was reaching for my notebook within minutes of making sure you were safe. 


Sybil Johnson said...

You never know where an idea is going to come from, do you? Very interesting story. Glad your cat is okay. We couldn't find one of our cats once (or twice.) I about had a heart attack. She was a black cat and very good at finding odd places to hang out. Just had to close her eyes and you couldn't see her in the dark.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Sybil. I would have found him faster if I had realized the tight places even large cats can fit into :)

Sybil Johnson said...

They can get into some very small spaces!