Back in high school, English teachers tortured us with one immensely horrific exercise. “Today’s lesson is symbolism. Rev, your assignment is to discuss the significance of windows in Wuthering Heights.”
“What!!! There were windows?”
In my opinion, Emily Bronte just wanted to write a good book, like Shelly wanted to write a scary-as-hell novel that she titled Frankenstein.
Which is what I wanted to do with my first novel, The Rock Hole. I wanted to tell a tale of mid-1960s small town life, with a little spice in it called “murder.” Then I realized I couldn’t be true to the time unless I added as much as possible about civil rights, music, cars, constables and small-time farming.
When Kirkus Reviews called it one of the top mysteries of 2011, I was convinced I’d done what I set out to do. Other reviews rolled in, all as gracious as Kirkus.
With that success, I wrote Burrows, which took up where The Rock Hole left off. Again, mixing in the same ingredients, along with a massive building filled with garbage (hoarding on steroids), I created still another mystery that garnered good reviews.
So when I sat down with a reading group one afternoon to discuss the novels, I was surprised at what they thought I’d written.
Let’s take one particular poignant scene for example. In Burrows, Top and Pepper, (a set of near-twin cousins) have reacted to a particularly violent assault in the first novel by getting into trouble through lying, stealing, cutting school, and smoking. Their grandfather, Constable Ned Parker, realized the trauma they experienced, and found a way to teach them that life goes on, no matter what.
He leaves the ten-year-olds one crisp fall morning with Mr. Martin, an elderly friend who is dying of lung cancer. The kids want to hunt quail with their family, but instead, have to stay in the house and relate the events of the hunt to the old man. They can see the fields through the open window of the bedroom, and despite his disappointment, Top gets into the spirit of the hunt by giving Mr. Martin a sports play-by-play. His girl cousin, Pepper, curls up beside the dying man and simply holds his hand while he eventually spins a tale about what makes Life personal and survivable.
Interestingly, one reader thought it was an anti-smoking chapter and felt Ned was trying to get them away from cigarettes.
Another felt the chapter was designed to show Pepper’s female compassion for a dying man.
One said I wanted to relate the spirit of those old baseball color commentators of the 1960s, to give the story even more authenticity.
Maybe, one suggested, I wanted to show how kinfolk took care of each other back then.
Truthfully, it was a chapter designed to heighten the sense of suspense and give a clue as to the whereabouts of the killer, because that individual was discussed in a throwaway sentence toward the end.
Well, that wasn’t the only reason. I wanted to include a subplot about how older people reach out to teach children the lessons they learned throughout life. The scene where Pepper holds his big, wrinkled hand in her small hands is telling, in my opinion, because men and women of very advanced years want the young close by.
“I liked where she curled up like a kitten against him,” one reader pointed out. “Young curling up against old to offer comfort was the best part.”
I’d forgotten that sentence.
Rereading it the next day, I realized I’d unconsciously written several levels into the chapter.
- It was about hunting, a tradition that defines rural life.
- It was about death and trauma, and how life will go on for the survivors.
- It was about healing, because the kids learned that both physical and emotional scars eventually heal.
- It was about a lonely old man who wanted to spend one of his last good days with youngsters.
- It was about childhood enthusiasm. Despite the somber events taking place, Top made a simple game out of describing the hunt, and therefore lightened Mr. Martin’s mood.
- It was about a man who had lost touch with his immediate family, and felt the pain as his last few days ticked away.
- In a way, it was about punishment. Ned Parker wouldn’t let his kids hunt, because they didn’t deserve it, due to their outlaw activities.
- Oh, yeah, it was in a small way anti-smoking.
- And finally, I can’t truly give you the reason, it was about rural kinfolk, because that would give the ending away.
Authors write, because that’s what we do. I know famous writers who outline and never deviate from their path, because they know step by step what’s going to happen. I write these novels, and am then surprised at what I see, once the scalpel is taken up and the inner workings are exposed.
Good lord, Miss Linda Adams has done it again. Now I’ve dissected my own writings.