Friday, November 26, 2021

A Yawn-Worthy Hero

 I, too, have experienced what Barbara wrote about on Wednesday -- those moments of wondering "Why am I doing this?" with all that is going in the world. Shouldn't I spend all of my time writing about real-life events?

I have come to the conclusion that crime fiction writers make an important contribution. Aside from entertaining our readers and offering them an opportunity to escape from grim realities, we provide them with an opportunity -- a "safe space" -- in which to ponder the nature of "crime" and "justice". 

But for all my soul-searching, I've still been struggling with my historical thriller. Who cares about 1939? Over the past two years -- in the midst of the pandemic -- I haven't made much progress in completing my ever evasive first draft. The book that I should be able to write -- the book that might be my eighth published novel -- is harder to write than either of those two unpublished novels in my desk drawer. I have cycled through a range of emotions, from enthusiasm and excitement while doing the  research to not caring and being ready to jettison the whole idea and move on to my next Lizzie Stuart mystery. 

Writing this book feels like climbing a mountain. Even getting to the soggy middle feels like strolling it onto American Ninja Warriors and trying to leap from platform to platform on that first obstacle. 

Committing (once again) to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has made it no easier. My 50,000 word + goal for the month of November isn't going to happen. I am not going to morph into "Super Writer" and spend the next five days glued to my desk knocking out thousands of words a day.

But this month has not been wasted. I have confronted what I didn't want to admit. My protagonist bores me.  

I was excited when I had the idea of having a sleeping car porter as my "hero". In 1939, an educated African American man who is working as a sleeping car porter is true to life. My protagonist, Jacob Baldwin, is the graduate of a small college in the South. He is working to save enough money to attend law school. He believes in the American ideal of truth and justice. He is a striver.

When first seen, he is attending Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial.  He spots Cullen Talbot, the white Southern plantation owner for whom his family once sharecropped in the crowd. He sets out to find out what Cullen up to. But Jacob as I have been writing feels like a character who is going through the motions. He has not come to life. 

The "hero" that is too good to be true is recognizable to most writers and many readers. Jacob is too noble. I've Googled online lists of character flaws and flipped through the books about creating characters that I own. But I already know what I need to do. 

What I have been saving as backstory needs to open the book. I have an ugly, shattering scene that I need to write about something that Jacob experienced when he was ten years old. Jacob is a black man in 1930s America. For all his idealism, he is filled with suppressed rage. The impact of what follows will be much greater if readers know this and can watch him unravel. 

As Cullen taunts him, playing his own game, Jacob will find it increasingly difficult to hold onto his distance from the fray. He will be forced to make some decisions that will challenge what he claims to believe. He may fail as a role model, but his motivation will be stronger. 

He has my attention now. He can carry the weight I'm placing on my shoulder. However, the book ends, he won't bore me. And I may finally get through my first draft.


Anna said...

Frankie, congratulations on deciding to frontload with some backstory. Jacob now has my attention, too. Can't wait!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Anna! It's great to hear that my decision makes sense.