Recently, a friend in my RWA chapter did an advance read of The Demon’s in the Details, Book 2 in my Touched by a Demon series, which came out last Tuesday on Amazon.
She did a terrific job of catching little errors my copy editor and proofreader missed, but in one case, she brought my attention to a problem that I didn’t think was a problem. She pointed out that in the first scene, my protagonist thinks of her father and stepmother as her father and stepmother, but later she becomes less formal, thinking/referring to them as “Dad” and “stepmom.”
There is, she pointed out, a best practice in fiction writing of choosing a single name for each character and always using that name to reference the character.
As a general rule, I completely agree with her. When you have a character that is sometimes called, “Charles,” sometimes “Charlie,” sometimes “Chuck” and occasionally “Binky,” the reader has to stop each time and figure out who this is. While there may be valid reasons for switching names–maybe every other character thinks of him differently, or your POV character thinks of him by different names depending on the current state of their relationship–it’s extra work for the reader. And, in general, we want to make reading our books as easy as possible.
But in this case, I felt differently, for two reasons:
- “Father,” “Dad,” “Daddy,” etc. aren’t names. They’re titles. And since each person has only one father, it’s not a significant effort for the reader to track that these are all the same person.
- The other reason has to do with point-of-view distance. Here’s the opening of the book:
“Not just no, but hell no.” Georgia O’Keeffe Blackmon glared at her father and stepmother. “I’m not selling John.”
The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the north end of her father’s family room—the red sandstone cliffs and cloudless blue skies of Sedona, Arizona—was gorgeous, but Keeffe’s gaze flashed right past it, to the opposite end of the room and a wooden pedestal topped by a Plexiglas case.
Inside the case, an eighteen-inch alabaster statue of an eagle soared upward, wings spread, its gaze fixed on the sky. The translucence of the stone gave the sculpture a transcendent quality. The sheer beauty filled Keeffe with bliss, and her anger moderated a little. Mom had been an incredible artist.
“I’ve been waiting since I was eighteen to take him home,” she said. “After seven years, I’m down to my last thirty days. Why would I sell him?”
Dad responded to her question by burying his nose in his whisky glass, but Lilith, aka the stepmother-from-Hell, spread her hands.
“We’re not asking you to sell it,” she said. “We’re just asking you to meet—”
“—someone who wants to buy him.” Keeffe finished her sentence for her.
Lilith’s lips tightened. Stepmom wore a black leather miniskirt that showed yards of what Keeffe had to admit were shapely and perfectly tanned legs. On her feet were strappy black sandals with five-inch heels. Her red silk top matched her toenails. Chunky red and black jewelry pulled it all together. Keeffe was aware of the contrast to her own outfit—a flannel shirt, faded jeans and down-at-the-heel Doc Martens.
Lilith didn’t appear to have aged a day since she married Daniel Blackmon ten years ago. Probably because she was sucking the life force out of her husband.
There are, by my count, three different ways Keeffe thinks of/refers to her dad in this section (father, Dad, Daniel Blackmon) and three for Lilith (stepmother, stepmom, Lilith).
As I explained to my (really top-notch!) eARC reader, I meant to do that.
If you analyze what happens in terms of POV distance in this opening, it starts in a large room in Sedona, Arizona and telescopes in on a 18-inch tall statue of an eagle. As Keeffe’s focus narrows in on the statue, her manner of referring to her father and stepmother become more casual.
John Steinbeck employs a similar technique in his short story, “The Chrysanthemums.” The first sentence reads: “The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. ”
The second paragraph includes: “A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together.”
The third paragraph starts, “Across the river, on Henry Allen’s foothill ranch there was little work to be done.”
Fourth paragraph: “Elisa Allen, working in her flower garden, looked down across the yard and saw Henry, her husband, talking to two men in business suits.”
Over the course of the first four paragraphs, Steinbeck telescopes in from a panoramic view of the entire Salinas Valley to a single ranch to a small flower garden on that ranch, and from the entire farming population of that valley to one woman.
This is the technique I emulated when I wrote the first scene of The Demon’s in the Details.
What techniques do you use to introduce your readers to your story world?