Every book I write has its own special backstory: the way it came about, the books I read or films I watched while writing it, what was going on in my marriage, my diet, or inside my head. I can make all the plans I like (though I never write to a strict outline) ahead of time, but no book is ever exactly as I imagine it to be on the first day I sit down to write. Every extra doughnut, good hair day, or sick day will influence it. Think of writing a book as creating a special meal. You can work from recipes, but sometimes the eggs aren’t all the same size, or you can’t find superfine sugar in the store, or you come home with broccoli instead of broccolini, or your oven is five degrees off. But somehow it all comes together. Maybe it doesn’t look like the photo in the magazine, but it can still taste amazing, and as you eat it you know that you will never be able to duplicate it. But that’s all right because next time it will be good in a slightly different way.
When I wrote ISABELLA MOON, my first supernatural novel, I gave myself one year to write it and two rather ridiculous rules: 1) Something had to happen to move the story along in every single chapter (okay, maybe not so ridiculous), and 2) It had to be something that might happen on a sexy, supernatural, violent version of the soap opera Days of Our Lives.
If you’ve both read ISABELLA MOON and watched even a single episode of Days of Our Lives, you know that they are nothing like each other. Sure, there’s plenty of sex in them both. Days even had a supernatural plot line (In 1995 Marlena was possessed by a demon, which was pretty awesome.). But the violence on Days is fairly sterile. I don’t ever remember anyone’s boyfriend being nearly decapitated by her psychotic estranged husband. (Oh. That’s an ISABELLA MOON spoiler. Oops.) While I suspect I could write a pretty badass Days script, it would never be suitable for network television because I’m not a PG writer. But in the (Lord, I can’t believe I’m saying this…) forty-something years I watched the show, I learned an awful lot about how a story works, plotting, characterization, and dialogue. (I also read Cormac McCarthy, the Brontës, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates and hundreds of others, so don’t judge!)
There’s one big—no, make that HUGE—writing lesson that I couldn’t learn from watching Days in a million viewings: How to deal with kids in a story when it’s not specifically about them.
In a soap opera, children have the power of invisibility. They spend a lot of time in their bedrooms, playing. Or sleeping. It doesn’t matter if they’re 18 months or 8 years old. They are self-sufficient. Their parent might be having wild sex with their pediatrician in the kitchen, but they would never know because they were at Grandma’s or were sent to their room five episodes earlier and haven’t been seen since. It’s a great universe if you’re young and busy and look fabulous in heels and have a big job at a cosmetics company but still want to have an adorable toddler to take to the Easter Egg hunt in Horton Square (Which is a kind of outdoor mall/spa/memorial/coffee shop/lingerie store/place to get murdered. I’m sure you have one in your town, too.). Then, when you’re no longer an ingénue, and the show needs a shoplifting middle-schooler to test your new relationship with the new heart surgeon in town…voilà. You can just call her from her bedroom, where she’s been waiting for five years. (Sudden aging is another soap opera child superpower.)
Soap opera watchers know the deal with kids—they just aren’t an issue until they are. But a novel doesn’t work in the same way. A novel with its roots in the real world can’t afford to be so careless with children. If a character is in a car chase, that baby darn well better be strapped in its car seat, or safely at home with dad. That child needs to be taken care of. Either it needs to be off-scene in a realistic, excusable way, or it needs to be part of the story. If not, the story’s just not believable.
As a reader I want to be able to empathize to some extent with my protagonist. If she’s a mother, I’m definitely watching her parenting skills. Does she leave the baby unattended with the dog or the teenage babysitter? If so, I’m going to worry and be distracted from whatever the story is supposed to be about. And she can’t just be getting busy in the kitchen with the pediatrician if there’s a toddler who might climb out of bed looking for a drink of water. If that happens, it’s going to take the story in an entirely different direction—like immediate family therapy.
I’ve just spent the past 6 weeks getting my next novel, CHARLOTTE’S STORY: A BLISS HOUSE NOVEL, ready to send to my editor. It’s set in the 1950s, and its main character is a young mother who, in the course of the story, has to deal with not only a fiendishly haunted house, but an absent nanny, an untrustworthy husband, tons of guilt, and a one year-old son. I have to tell you that the one year-old son was by far the hardest character to manage. I’ve had a one year-old son and I know how challenging and unpredictable they can be. But in a novel, if a child is too challenging, too unpredictable, then they end up becoming the story. And that’s fine, as long as that’s what the reader is expecting.
On the other hand, writing about children is a wonderful challenge. They can bring a new dimension to a character, and to a story. I have an aversion to sentimental books, and there are a lot of kid-centered stories that are sentimental. One of my favorite novels is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a nameless man and his young son have to navigate a post-apocalyptic world full of brutality and hopelessness. Their relationship is practical, based on mutual survival, but is both tender and heartbreaking. If not for the child, the man would have to find another reason to survive—or not—and it might not even be a story worth telling.
Next time you pick up a book written for adults, notice what roles—if any—children play in it. How far must you suspend your disbelief to enjoy the story? Or is it a story in which children have no relevance at all?
Now that I’ve posed a couple serious questions, let me lighten the mood with a video clip of Marlena of Days of Our Lives being possessed. Because some things must be seen to be believed!
**Photo from the adorable Lauren Boles’ website. (She plays Ciara Brady on Days)