In the Writers’ Room of my imagination, it’s time for another meeting of the committee of great writers who have been “advising” me about my novel-in-progress. (If you’re not up to date with “transcripts” of previous meetings, catch up at the highlighted links.)
This time, I set the agenda myself: I wanted to know about whether I was including enough sensual elements in my detective story. Now, before you flinch at that (or because you do), I want to emphasize that I am trying to avoid just watching the story go by. I want to involve all of the other senses: hearing, touch, smell, and even taste.
Daphne Du Maurier perked up at the mention of taste.
“Arthur! Arthur!” she cried. “Let’s see whether Margaret can top the tangerine in the proposal scene in ‘Rebecca.'”
I remembered that Daphne meant that when her nameless narrator receives a proposal of marriage in “Rebecca,” her groom-to-be is at breakfast — and she eats a tangerine that leaves a bitter taste in her mouth, just when she is being proposed to.
Well, I can’t top that just yet. But I do have Mike Hossa and Daisy MacDonald, my principal characters, go to the Student Union’s restaurant for lunch between Daisy’s classes. They order chili — I can vouch for it being served there in 1983, when the book is set, because I lived on the stuff some weeks.
“Oh good — chili!” I said. Mike murmured agreement.
“If it looks good to you, go ahead and get it,” said Mike. “If you don’t have the money, I’ll take care of it.”
“Thank you,’ I said. (Was that the steam from the hot food making my face feel hot?) “But I’ve got my meal card from the cafeteria, and that will cover it.”
Mike paid cash for his bowl of chili, we helped ourselves to oyster crackers, and we carried our trays into the small room off the main room where a TV was mounted near the ceiling. It was turned off.
I spooned up the thick concoction greedily. It wasn’t as spicy as my best school friend’s mother’s chili had been, and there was lots of beef. I could eat it every day some weeks, and this seemed like one of them. I was feeling my appetite returning in the mechanics of just keeping my spoon moving.
“All right, that’s enough food!” said Robert Louis Stevenson from his seat, the Writers’ Room couch. “What about feeling — how’s she doing writing about temperature and the snow?”
“Let’s take a look,” said Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, turning to the copy of my manuscript. “Yes, there’s another snowstorm after Chapter One. You helped her out well with that, Louis.”
Here’s how snowy Chapter Seventeen feels:
First, I hit my left knee. I tried to get up, but I landed on my rear end. Somehow, I noticed, my purse stayed on my shoulder. It’s funny what’s comforting when you do something embarrassing.
Mike didn’t see me fall, which wasn’t comforting in the least. We lost each other in the storm for just a moment, though, before calling each other’s names and finding each other again.
I tried to get my left foot up, but the wet snow was too slippery – so slippery that I felt its cold around the waistband of my jeans. So much for the ski jacket on stormy days, I thought angrily. I wondered whether I’d torn it as I fell; the wind was too loud to hear anything.
My neck hurt from trying to keep my head up and out of the snow. On the other hand, my pride hurt worse.
“Daisy, are you all right?” said Mike. “Get up and out of that mess!”
I tried to get onto my right knee, but I just rolled. My left ankle would not cooperate with me.
“Easier said than done, getting up,” I said.
Mike came closer and held out his right hand. “Here,” he said, more gently this time. “Now, how about moving?”
“I’d like to,” I said.
“I mean can you?” said Mike. I thought I saw him furrowing his eyebrows the way Dad did, but I wasn’t sure through all the snow that was still falling.
Mike moved so that he was in front of me, still holding my mittened hand in his gloved one. “Try to step toward me,” he said. “See how your ankles and feet feel.”
“Besides cold?” I said. I got up, thanks to a pull from Mike, but I took only one step before I fell right down into a slightly different patch of snow.
“Things?” said Daphne. “What about people? How does the narrator herself look?”
“Like a painting, it seems,” said Agatha, sniffing slightly. “A French one.”
“Quite a demure one,” said Arthur. “Margaret has her character looking at a postcard of the painting with another character, who says the pale dressing-gown –”
“She calls it a robe,” said Robert Louis Stevenson.
“All right,” said Arthur, “the pale robe is buttoned up and covers, well, everything but her face and hair.”
But I still want to describe Daisy MacDonald’s looks in terms of a painting by Edouard Manet, “Young Lady in 1866,” so I gave Daisy a postcard of the painting like the postcard I have. The painting made me think I was looking at Daisy herself.
I write about how that Daisy looks like that painting over and over again, I told my imaginary advisors. There’s no way I can cut them all out and paste them in; you’ll all have to keep reading.
And with that, the meeting was over. Arthur didn’t gavel it closed or anything; I just, well, sensed it.
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