Thursday, February 20, 2014

Esprit d'Escalier

JANICE:  French for Wit from the Staircase: Meaning, as you leave the party in a friend's apartment and start downstairs, you think of the perfect answer to someone's remark, too late to say it. Which is one reason I write books. It gives me time to think of what my characters need to say.

I remember working on A MARE FOR YOUNG WOLF at our dining room table (before I had a real studio). Young Wolf has just been thrown off his horse in front of two other boys. What does he say or do? He's angry and humiliated. Maybe he curses, I thought. But what words? Suddenly they came. "Oh, buffalo chips!" I had a good laugh. As did my editor at Random House, Mallory Loehr, and her colleagues.

At the end of A PEDDLER'S DREAM when Solomon, a peddler, finally realizes his dream of having an elegant store of his own, he and his beloved Marie host an opening party. When the musicians begin to play, Solomon takes Marie's hand and asks if she will dance with an old peddler whose dream has come true.

What meaningful words could she say? What was this story about? I asked myself. It's about a dream, making a dream come true. I put myself in her place, looked up at Solomon's expectant face, and my answer came. "A peddler with a dream is more than a peddler."

They danced and so did we.

Solomon and Marie
Janice and Tom

Now for COMANCHE SONG, my historical novel set in the Hill Country of Texas in 1840. This is the story of  a Comanche boy, son and grandson of peace chiefs. 

We are in a council meeting where the tribal leaders are discussing how to deal with white man's invasion. After the peace chief has proposed establishing a line between them and making peace, the war chief says, "The tejanos will stop at no such line. The only way to show them the land is ours is to kill any man who steps upon it!"

It is Grandfather who replies: "We have a saying among our people that the brave die young. But I say, the wise grow old." The corner of his mouth twitched, and he paused. "When the young stop listening to the elders, they run blindly like buffalo and follow one another over the cliff to die."

I love it.

And finally some words from SOPHIE'S WAR, another historical novel set in the Hill Country, this one during the Civil War.  Sophie is the daughter of German immigrants, many of whom were Unionists in a state that had seceded from the Union. They were called traitors and persecuted by Confederate ruffians who burned their cabins and hanged their men. Sophie's father is an editorial cartoonist who expresses his Unionist views and thus is in danger. Sophie must find a way to save her family.

She comes home from school one day and finds Papa at work on a cartoon about the death of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in a battle with Unionists. Boldly she grabs the cartoon from his drawing board and tears it in two, saying he can't send it to the newspaper. 

"I'm afraid the Vigilance Committee will come after you."
Papa laid down his pen and stood. "I have been patient with your fears, Sophie, but this is going too far." He reached out his hand. "Now, give it back"
I shook my head.

What can Papa say? He brought his family to Texas so they would be free to speak their minds. After pondering, I thought of his reply. And it involved William Tell.

"Sophie, do you want to let the Vigilance Committee rule the world? If so, go ahead, tear the cartoon into a thousand little pieces, and I'll cower at their feet. Is that what you want - a coward for a father?"
I shook my head. Oh, what did I want?
"Do you think I'm not afraid too?" Papa asked.
"I don't know, Papa. Aren't you like William Tell?"
"I try to be, but he was afraid when he was forced to shoot an apple from his son's head. Remember how his arm trembled?"
"I remember."
"But he did what he had to do. And I will do no less, even if I have to draw the cartoon again. In times like these we all have to do what we are afraid to do."

He did and so did Sophie.