When you’re working on your manuscripts, do you dread scraping your insides raw to produce the reality of honest-to-goodness tragedies? I’m talking about those sad times that people suffer through in real life. The very ones, as authors, we must create in our stories.
Let’s face it, the times when you feel as if your heart won’t make it through the next few minutes, and you just want to give up, is hard enough to live through never mind write about. But to be a good novelist and reproduce a story about real people, it’s essential. Otherwise, our characters will end up like paper dolls, flat and boring. Sure we can dress them up pretty and move them around the pages, but if they don’t have real emotions, then the conflicts we subject them to won’t come alive for our readers.
I’ve read books like that myself and never finished them. On the other hand, I’ve read stories where the author tries to effect emotions that don’t ring true. They’re just words without any substance or genuineness and it’s noticeable – at least to me.
Every time I write a touching passage full of disturbing words that I hope will bring out some feeling in the reader, I worry about whether I’ve taken it too far… or not far enough. I figure if tears appear while I’m writing the words, then chances are they will affect the reader in the same way.
For instance, one passage I wrote in Together Always makes me bawl like a baby every time I review it. But I wonder - is it too much…? At the time, it seemed perfect for the characters.
Example: My heroine, Grace Joye, wakes up in another woman’s body terrified of the man who she now has to accept as her husband. Afraid he won’t let her play the role of his wife; she lies in the hospital bed and worries about what will happen. This day, he comes to visit and brings their son. The boy he caught his wife beating just before her accident.
Finally she couldn't stand the tension another minute. “Is something wrong, Lucas?”
He stopped and sat in the nearby visitor’s chair, surveying her from head to toe, his eyes like a laser as they travelled her length. Then he zeroed in on her face. She could have sworn the man's expressive smoky-blues were pleading and for some unknown reason a sickening rush of shame curdled her insides.
“Yes. I have to ask you a favor, and I honestly don't know what will work best, a bribe or a threat.”
“My goodness. It sounds serious. Why use either? I'd be more than happy to grant you whatever you ask, be that it won't harm anyone.”
He shook his head and sighed. “I don't get it. You're different. And I don't trust you. But your son needs you, and as much as I wish I could deal with this, you're the only person who can. Now I know you've never wanted anything to do with Samuel. But for once in your selfish life, I'm asking you to behave like a mother.” The scorn he showered her with felt like shots of acid burning her soul.
His words slapped her soft heart and she felt battered enough to pass out. What did he mean? She didn’t want anything to do with her own son? What kind of woman could possibly feel that way? Despite his glaring, she picked up on his desperation and her spirit snapped into place. The backbone vital to dealing with her particular life's challenges had kicked in with a vengeance. She clenched her teeth, swallowed, then spoke gently.
“Of course I’ll help. What is it he needs?”
“You must understand, Sam's very fragile right now and I won't have him upset. But he's also blaming himself for your accident and is making himself ill over it all. Between the lad's nightmares and loss of appetite, I feel scared and well…rather frantic. Last evening, he finally broke down and told me what's been making him so unhappy.”
“Oh, the poor baby. What did he say?”
“Seems he feels responsible for your being in the hospital.”
“Why in the world would he think that?”
“You don’t remember?” His searching gaze probed her innocence and seemed satisfied when she shook her head. “Before you ran from the house, you'd been angry with him. In fact, you were furious.” Again, his penetrating stare drilled into her as he leaned closer and watched her expressions. She knew he'd see confusion and empathy because those were the emotions that roiled inside.
“You really don't remember, do you, Vanessa?”
“No. Nothing. It's all blank.”
Her answer seemed to satisfy Lucas who stood tall and resumed his wandering. “He made me promise to bring him here to see you. Now, I want your promise that you'll be kind and tell him he's not to blame. Trust me. If there were any other way to settle this, to clear his little mind from the torture he's undergoing, I would do so in a flash. But it seems you're the only person who can help him.”
“Of course I ca—”
Lucas, caught up in his speech, swiveled and leaned over her. “I've never begged you for anything Vanessa. I've given you everything I thought would make you happy, but I'm begging you now. Please don't let our son grow up bearing this horrible burden. He's been so unhappy. I'll give you anything—”
“Stop! Lucas, stop. You're breaking my heart. I want to see the boy and of course I'll tell him it wasn't his fault. Of course I will.” Grace had reached out without knowing and had grasped Lucas’s hand. With each assurance, she'd tightened her grip. Sincerity rang from her shaken voice to where even she could hear it. “Is he here?”
Seeming to be confused but hopeful, Lucas nodded, swallowed and turned away quickly. “Yes, outside.” Did his voice wobble? She could have sworn it did and, if nothing else, that chink in his armor told her just how much the next few minutes would mean to him. She'd never let him down. Not only was he a thoughtful man, but obviously a wonderful father. Sadly, it seemed, he'd just chosen the wrong wife.
He left, and a few moments later the door opened again and Grace pulled herself higher in the bed and tucked her loose hair behind her ears. One stroke of her now-smooth cheek settled her nerves and she smiled.
A small boy, dressed in short pants and a sweater, the spitting image of his mother, crept into the room as if afraid he'd wake her up. He stopped as soon as he passed the threshold, hesitating, waiting, fear imprinted on his little boy features. His hands were clasped in front and Grace could see how his fingers were pinching each other, twisting and rubbing. His father, looming behind him, placed a supporting hand on his thin shoulder.
“Samuel, I'm so glad you've come to see me. Please come closer.” Grace motioned him over to her side. She smiled as gently as she could, and a coaxing wiggle from her fingers and encouraging nods drew him nearer.
“Daddy said you were better now. I wanted to see for myself.”
“Can you see from all the way over there? If you'd like sit up here with me, then I’ll get to see you also.”
First fear and then a blossoming pleasure filled his little face. Green eyes, the twins of hers, lit up and a tiny smile emerged. “Daddy? Can I?”
“Sure, sport. If it's okay with your mother, it's fine with me. Can you climb up alone or do you need a lift?”
“A lift, please. I don't want to hurt Mother accidentally.”
Grace spoke softly. “Oh, Sammy-son, you could never hurt me.”
Lucas’s head reared up at her words and his eyes narrowed. Sam lifted his arms. Both man and boy hesitated at her bedside, not sure what to do next.
“Come and sit right here.” She patted the comforter next to her. “Then I can hug you like I've wanted to do since you arrived.”
“You want to hug me?”
“Ever so much. Do you mind?”
The youngster carefully leaned toward her and that was all the encouragement she needed. She gathered him to her, and as she soon as she felt his arms go around her neck, she heard the sobs that wracked his little body.
“Shh, baby, it's okay. Don't cry, my lad. Mummy's here.” All the while she soothed him, she rocked his little body back and forth and placed kisses everywhere, his hair, his cheeks, on every surface covered with tears.
“Oh, Mother! I'm sorry I was such a bad boy. You were so an…angry with me that you got into an ac…accident. It was my fault, wasn't it? You weren't looking where you were going ‘cause I made you lose your temper.”
The sobs grew louder and Grace became fearful that the little guy would never stop. Hiccups wrenched his body and the wails broke her heart into smithereens. Suddenly, she experienced a tremendous welling of emotion from within and it overpowered her to where she felt she'd lose consciousness. Afraid, staggering under the double onslaught, she reached her hand toward the man whose eyes were brimming over.
He came closer, gingerly sitting on the bed next to them and rubbed his large hand gently over the boy's back. It seemed to soothe Sam and his cries quieted while he lay with his head nestled on her chest.
Lucas spoke softly. “Take it easy, Samuel. Don't cry so. Everything is okay now.”
The boy refused to look up and burrowed even harder into Grace's embrace. “Sammy, please, you must stop or you'll be sick. Listen, baby, the road was slippery, and I wasn't being careful. It was my fault the car went off the road, not yours. I didn't want to have to admit this but here's the truth: your mum's a rotten driver.”
“You are?” Hope lit up globby eyes of green glass, and sniffles replaced the bawling from seconds earlier. His body relaxed and he leaned away from her so he could stare into her face.
Grace had always had a soft spot for children, but since they tended to shy away from her birthmark, she’d never had the pleasure of any up-close relationships with them until they were sick and needed a nurse. Then she'd been in her element.
Having this precious little guy stare at her with such adoration brimming out of his gorgeous eyes filled her heart. Love, such as she’d never before experienced, overflowed and oozed into every pore and cell until she belonged to him. From that moment on, she knew he’d be her first consideration in the same way that a dog knows its own pup.
She swallowed and prayed her voice wouldn’t break. “I'm afraid so, Sammy-son. Actually, I'm really quite awful.”
“Is that why you'd never take me anywhere with you?”
Sickened by the actions of the woman's body she now controlled, she shook off her anger and stared into his questioning, glistening eyes, then nodded. “Uh huh! I'd never want anything to happen to you, baby…ever!” She dropped a kiss on his soft blond hair. “But I promise you one thing. From now on I'll not go anywhere in a car until I've gotten lessons so I can learn how to drive better.”
“Then you could take me with you.”
She looked up at Lucas, a question blazing. His nod was hesitant but finally forthcoming.
She smiled at the boy. “I would like that very much.”
The indecision the boy fought before he kissed her cheek was telling and, oh so sad. She leaned forward ever so slightly, encouragingly, and felt his warm lips caress the one area on her body that needed the tender touch. She knew before falling asleep, and every night afterward, she would relive that moment over and over again.
She hugged Sam once more, and like little boys do, he settled down beside her and curled up in her arms. With a loud sigh, his eyelids began to droop. Sifting her fingers through his blond curls worked the magic as he released one last quivering sound and then went limp.
Lucas shifted and drew her attention. Still pale from watching his son suffer, he rubbed at his cheek one side and then the other, his hand finally covering his mouth as he leaned his chin onto it and stared at her with his head angled to the left.
Mesmerized, his grey eyes compelling, she couldn't look away, not even a little. His held her prisoner, and having no talent or skills in concealing her feelings, she knew her emotions were open to him like a picture on a television screen. God, don't hurt me, she worried, her skin flushing hot and cold—terrified.
Before she knew what he would do next, he leaned over and kissed the same cheek his son had moments earlier. When the little boy lips had touched her skin, love had resulted. When the man's lips touched the same place, she thought she'd swoon. Never in her life had a moment been so beautiful.
His hand reached up and caressed the opposite side of her face and he leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “We both know you’re a terrific driver, Vanessa. Get better soon. I want you to come home.”