Friday, March 27, 2009

Keeping the Stakes High

Marching out like a Lion - Carol Steward

Writing suspense is much like watching a storm approaching, which is what happened today. You hear it's going to be bad, but you just don't know exactly what it's going to bring. I live in Colorado where we get a little of everything, blizzards, tornados, heavy rain, and intense heat, which also brings wildfires. The picture of the porch is what my porch looks like today, the other picture is the result of the blizzards of 2006. (they didn't load, so I'll try to add them at noon, Mountain time.)

Several years ago we were predicted to have a heavy snowstorm right before Christmas. It had been almost a decade since we'd had a "good" winter where we had more than one measureable snow storm here on the plains. It's "normal" for us to get a deep snow in the spring when the temperature will melt it the next day. So I was skeptical. That always does it. I went to work at 8 am, and we had an inch. I expected it to stop. (This might be a good time to confess that am a pessimistic realist.) An hour later, it was still snowing, and there was no end in sight. We had a building potluck planned for our Christmas potluck that day, and we had lugged our huge quantities of food to work. No one wanted to miss that! By 10:30, we had several inches of snow, and no end in sight. Work was cancelled, not just for that day, but for the next three days. Being that it was right before Christmas, that was cool. THEN we had to eat and figure out how to get home.

In writing suspense, you need to make the problem gradually get worse for your characters. I can do this, I have life training. In spite of driving an old car with no clearance for trekking through all that snow, I made it home. But, I had volunteered to go out of my way to take a co-worker home so her teenager didn't have to get out in the blizzard. When I finally make the normally 10 minute drive from my office to my house, 40 minutes later, I couldn't get a foot into my driveway. My husband was a principal of a middle school 40 miles away, and had to wait until every child had been picked up before he could leave. Finally, despite the noon release, he was finally able to leave school at 2 pm. We live right off the highway, and it's normally a 40 minute drive for him. An hour later he called. He was fine, but he had only made it to the edge of the town where his school was located. Snow kept piling up. I tried to shovel the driveway, with the cordless phone in one pocket and my cell phone in the other.

In suspense, it isn't even that we need to make bad things happening, it's letting the reader and the characters anticipate all that could happen. In real life, this is when being a writer is a bad thing. I've seen dozens of accidents from even good drivers after snowstorms like that one. I've always loved to shovel snow, but now I have a bad back. Just thinking of all of that could happen left me on edge. It's also what keeps people glued to the television to watch during and after storms. Did what we think could happen, actually happen? Every hurricaine season, I'm glued to the weather channel. Weather must facinate me, as it's suspense in real life.

So, another hour and only two feet of space in the driveway had passed, and my husband still wasn't home. The snow kept falling. He called, he was still okay, but couldn't go more than 10 miles per hour. And so the torment continued. And so did the blizzard. And so the snow continued, at about an inch an hour for two days. My husband finally made it home safely, after 3 hours in a blizzard. We lived with the snow for months. One way street, mountains of snow. AND COLD, like we've NEVER seen here. There was no place to put more snow. Cities all over the state were crippled. I know this is common if you live in northern New York or Minnesota, or even in ski areas and in Durango, Colorado. But I live on the sunny plains where THIS is an anomaly. I've grown up with snow, so it shouldn't have affected me like it did. I sat for days, just watching in disbelief. Wondering when it would end. Adding to the torture, it snowed once a week for four more weeks, and we literally, didn't see asphalt on the side streets for two months. Five months until the snow completely melted.

So when you wonder where writers come up with their ideas, when we live otherwise "normal and boring" lives, realize, it doesn't take much to make a suspense writer come up with ways to torture their characters. We are not dangerous serial killers, we've simply learned to make mountains out of a few snowflakes!

God bless, and happy reading!


EllenToo said...

Hearing how writers come up with their ideas is really interesting.

PamelaTracy said...

I'm loving the part where the cell phone is in your pocket.