Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Change in Scenery - Setting and Stagnant Water

I met Alisandra on an unseasonably warm Sunday in February.  My partner Katherine and I, glad for the warming weather after a relatively mild winter, decided to spend an afternoon out on the banks of a local lake with a picnic basket and a bottle of cheap wine. 

Before long, we had devoured our lunches and were halfway through the zinfandel.  We lay together on a ratty pink quilt and allowed our thoughts to wander.  Katherine carefully observed the skyline on the opposite bank.  As they often did, her eyes wandered over each flickering branch in awe of the way sun and shadow played amongst the sparse leaves rustling in the late winter breeze.  I, on the other hand, was lost in the feel of crisp air brushing against my skin, and in a moment of impulse I stood and crossed barefoot to the water's edge.  I dipped the toes of one foot into the frigid water.  Although it was cold enough to bring pricks of pain to my skin, I couldn't move, frozen by a feeling in the center of my chest that I couldn't describe.

That's when she appeared.  Within my mind's eye Alisandra stood, almost fully formed, on the banks of a frigid lake.  I could not move out of sheer fascination.  I wanted to know everything about this woman: who she was, how she'd come to be here, and perhaps most importantly, what she was doing.

I felt in my chest her longing, her desperation, her yearning.  I asked her what she was waiting for.  "I'm choosing my mistress," she whispered back. She stared into the distance as she waited faithfully for her hopes to manifest.

It took weeks for Alisandra to trust me enough to explain what she meant.  Even then, she wouldn't trust me with her story all at once.  First she gave me but a vignette, an image of the choice upon that bank.  Then she gave me her novella, the shortened version of how she came to make the choice.  The story that eventually grew from that initial meeting became Choosing Her Chains, my novel currently in the middle of major re-writes.  And none of it would have come about had I not been foolish enough to dip my toes in frigid water on a cool day in February.

Taken in October, not February.  Sue me.

Alisandra has been particularly silent lately.  I normally count on her to drive me one way or another, to let me know when my story is falling short or when I'm getting the details wrong.  The past few weeks, she seems to have left me to my own devices.  She's confident with my plot choices, with my characterization, and the inevitable climax the novel will take.  But something just hasn't been right.  The atmosphere has been all wrong.  I can't convey exactly the emotions I know she and her fellow characters have been feeling.

The lake's waters have fallen stagnant.  Something has got to change.

My partner and I often take mini-vacations or day retreats with her family.  We always have a great time together, and it allows us all to bond as well as relish in the fact that we're all adults (sort of) and don't have to drag whiny children around on our adventures.

As the summer fades into fall, one of our preferred retreats is Turner Falls, a beautiful park in Davis, Oklahoma.  There's tons of hiking, picnic areas, etc., but we most love swimming in the various "natural swimming areas" surrounding the falls.  The water is always cold and refreshing, even in the hottest days of summer, and the sheer volume of visitors more or less ensures safety from any unwanted serpentine residents.  It's absolutely brilliant.

Water slide, anyone?
This past Saturday, we found ourselves at a particular place in the park where a number of rocks sit underneath a series of small falls.  If you have the fortitude (and balance) to climb over the algae-covered rocky bottom, you can make your way onto one of these rocks and enjoy the falls as they splash over your head and back.  After much trial and error (and a few extra bruises), I sat on a particularly wide rock and watched as the others splashed around and avoided the rocky bottom. 

A familiar hypnotic compulsion overtook me.  I couldn't stop running my fingers over the rough stone edges of the fall.  As the chilly water washed over me, I sat motionless, entranced.  I was frozen, just as I'd been on the banks of that lake months before.  I had a sudden realization.  Of course the atmosphere in my novel had been wrong!  I had been basing the whole time of year on my initial meeting with Alisandra in February.  But no!  The timing was all wrong!

"Oppression is not cold and empty," Alisandra whispered to me.  "It's the beating of the summer sun on a hot day, blistering and stagnant.  The rush of water, no matter how frigid, whispers the song of freedom."  She shook her head and chuckled (rather uncharitably) at me.  I'd lost my footing in her story, not because the plot was "wrong" or the characters poorly portrayed, but because I was trying to fit them into my preconceived notions of setting.

I've spent time the past day and a half re-reading old notes and drafts and re-sketching scenes as necessary to incorporate this new revelation. It's as if all those plot elements that were poorly tied together now flow along like rapids on a hot summer day.  I can't guarantee the end result will be any better than it might have been, but at least now I'm no longer sitting stagnant, wondering what in the world I should do next.

Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery.

No comments:

Post a Comment