Let Your Characters Tell the Story
June 15, 2012
I have read a lot of books, both good and bad. I’ve written a lot of books, and I’m sure they were good and bad as well. What I have discovered is that most novelists, especially in today’s independent publishing arena, spend way too much time telling the story themselves. They love the narration of their tale. They must love the sound of their own voice. The spit out soliloquies so long that even Shakespeare would hide his face in shame.
Stories are best told by the characters on the page. As Mark Twain said: Don’t write that the lady screamed. Bring on the old lady, and let her scream.
Give your characters voice, get out of their way, and let them tell the story. That’s what I did when I wanted to describe the dust bowl of West Texas. I could write that it was hot and dry, and nobody would care.
Readers were much more prone to listen to the tribulations of Old Man Anson and his neighbors. I saw the drought from afar. They lived with the scorched earth up close. It was the time it never rained.
The cracks had started out by Old Man Anson’s farm, and he was afraid to walk on them, scared that the ground was going to open up and swallow him whole like it did back when them folks were writing the Bible.
Old Man Anson hadn’t noticed the cracks at first, hadn’t seen them at all until they spread out to the water well, and he dropped a rusty tin bucket to the bottom and drew up a dipper of dust. He got mad, threw the bucket into the dirt, kicked it, and thought the rattle sounded a lot like the one that hung in his throat when he was thirsty, and he was.
And there beside his feet, Old Man Anson watched as the cracks parted the earth, then ran across his yard like stitches in a patchwork quilt – first one way, then the other – and by morning they had reached the barn. For while, Old Man Anson thought he owned all the cracks in the county.
For too long, the sun had scorched the farmland of Lamb County. The ground shrunk, then split open. Yellowhouse River ran until it ran dry. Clouds didn’t even bother to hang around anymore. Crops withered and failed, parched by a sun that rose too early, stayed up too late, and cursed the land with a heat that knew no mercy. A harsh wind left its tracks in the dust. And Running Water Draw began to lie about its name.
For the farmers and ranchers on the high plains of Texas, life had always been a struggle in a country where it was a hundred miles to water, twenty miles to wood, and only six inches to hell, or so they said. But the dust bowl drought had broken their spirit. Their throats ached. Their cattle went mad, and some went blind.
A rancher packed up, stuck a “for sale” sign on his front door, and drove out of Spade for good, leaving the cracks behind him.
“Where are you headed?” Old Man Anson asked.
“You ain’t got no business in a city.”
“Maybe not,” the rancher answered. “But I’ve got to go someplace where I’ll never have to listen to the awful bawling sounds of a thirsty cow again.”
Out in front of the bank, Old Man Anson saw one of his neighbors leaning against the street lamp, clutching a wrinkled piece of paper. His face was ashen and grim.
“I got a letter here from the bank that says if I don’t pay up today I’m gonna lose my farm.”
“I hate that, Elrod,” Old Man Anson said.
“Don’t worry about me,” the farmer said. “Just feel sorry for the banker.”
“Well,” the farmer said softly, “if he ain’t any better prepared to meet his God than I am to meet this obligation, then he’s flat going to hell.”
The door opened, and he stepped across the cracks to go inside and plead for mercy again. He had done it so regularly, he had the speech down pretty good by now.
The word had gone out down at the First Baptist Church. Sunday was the day to gather and pray for rain, and the pews were filled, and the minister wept and preached on faith. Not a cloud drifted across the sky.
A young girl tugged at her daddy’s sleeve. “Do you really believe it’s gonna rain if we pray for it?” she whispered.
He looked down at her sad eyes, smiled, and gently took her small hand in his. “Of course we do, honey,” he said.
“Then Daddy,” she asked, “why didn’t anybody bring an umbrella?”
Down front, Old Man Anson bowed his balding head and prayed in a halting voice. “Lord,” he said, “I need rain for my crops. I need rain for my cows. But I’m not a greedy man. I’ve never been a selfish man. I’ll be pleased, Lord, if you could just send me a quarter’s worth of rain. That’s all, Lord. Just a quarter’s worth. Amen.”
That night, the sky blackened, and the clouds hid the face of the moon. A chill was in the wind, and rain splashed down on Lamb County. It fell, then poured, and it stuffed the cracks and took them away from the tortured farmlands.
Early the next morning, Old Man Anson walked across his land, looking out where the barbed wired fence used to be. The rain had beaten it down. The decrepit old barn had washed away, and so had the dirt road that led to his house. He was stranded, and his cattle were gone, and his cotton was flat.
The drought had taken the dollars out of his crops, and the rain took the few pennies that were left.
He quietly knelt beside an old stump and again bowed his balding head. “Lord,” he said in a halting voice, “if I had knowed rain was so danged cheap, I’d have just ordered a nickel’s worth.”