Friday, August 12, 2022

Plotting the Journey

My dog Fergus has been home from daycare alll week because he has an eye problem that seems to have started with itchy, irritated eyes. He seems to have rubbed at one eye so much that he gave himself an ulcer in his cornea. Fortunately, eye drops can resolve the matter in 7-10 days. That assumes that he wears an E-collar and allows me to put the prescribed drops in both eyes twice a day. Let me simply say Fergus and I have not agreed about the necessity of doing either. Even with help from a friend, my yard guy, or my neighbor, getting drops in a determined dog's eyes is not easy. Having him wear an E-collar that he can't see around doesn't work out well when he bumped into things and can't go up and down steps. So, this week hasn't been as productive as I'd hope. 

The good news is that he seems fine otherwise and is happy to hang out with me and the cat. He's up for a car ride any time I head out the door. We've gotten in a few walks. But I haven't gotten a lot done. So, I'm hoping that when we go in for his follow-up tomorrow, his vet will say he can go back to daycare next week. 

I've been working when and where I can. High on my list is the synopsis that I promised my agent.  Writing a synopsis before I've finished a book always feels like trying to see into the future by gazing into a crystal ball. 

I'm a plotter. I spend lots of time sweating the details before I begin writing. I edit as I go along, and often the details change. That's because I continue to do research and often this gives me a better idea or, occasionally, I discover I've gotten something wrong. 

Sometimes the plot changes because a character says or does something unexpected. Arguably, this is my subconscious at work, but it feels as if the character has taken the story in a direction that I couldn't have predicted or planned for in my outline. When that happens, I go with it -- particularly if this happens with a secondary or minor character. Once it happened with my designated killer -- who suddenly offered his explanation for what had seemed to be guilty behavior. He had a secret, yes, but not the one I thought. If I had written a synopsis before I finished the first draft, I wouldn't have known that. I would have missed a subplot that took the book in a different and better direction.

I think I know how the book is going to end. But I still don't know which -- if any -- of the main characters will survive. This is a stand-alone novel, so theoretically all of the characters are in jeopardy. 

The other part of the synopsis issue has to do with "the hero's journey". I enjoyed playing with the three-act structure as I thought through the plot. But when I began writing, I realized I didn't really believe my protagonist would risk the goal that he has worked and sacrified to obtain because he was curious about the antagonist's inconsistent behavior. 

According "the hero's journey," in Act I, he is supposed to respond to a catalyst, may deny the call to action, but then takes the action that propels him forward. 

My protagonist is a Pullman sleeping car porter, who wants to go to law school. A couple of days ago, I was having another look at academic articles about the African American men who -- after the Civil War and through much of the 20th century -- were hired by the Pullman Company to work as the servants who cared for the passengers traveling by rail in the luxurious sleeping cars. But as historians who have done research in the archives and who interviewed the men who worked as sleeping car porters have documented the working conditions for the porters were stressful, both physically and mentally. They traveled hundred of miles per month, were on duty much of the time they were on board, and they had little opportunity for sleep during the night. Often they made back to back runs, coming in on one train and going out on another.

One scholar offers a fascinating analysis of the impact of sleep-deprivation on Pullman porters. Even though there was no scientific research on sleep deprivation in the early 20th century, the men themselves recognized the impact of chronic lack of sleep. Generally, they were able to get less than 3-4 hours sleep each night, and that on a cot in the men's washroom or a noisy upper berth made available for their use. Even this downtime was not available when they needed to be at the passengers' beck and call. The demand for time to sleep became an important element of the negotiations in the late 1930s between the porters' new union and the Pullman company. 

Reading about this issue of sleep-deprivatioin gave me the explanation I needed for why my protagonist does what he does in Act I. If he had thought it through, he probably wouldn't have. But -- tired and irritable -- he reactions without thinking. He tries to recover from his misstep, but his mask has slipped and his antagonist is taunting him. 

So, now I know where I'm going with this. I have a sleep-deprived hero who gets himself into trouble because he is too exhausted to "perform" his role wth a smile on his face. His lack of sleep will affect his actions throughout the book. 

I feel better about the synopsis now that I have more context. But I know other aspects of the plot are likely to change. 

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