WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

The Author’s Perspective

“When an old man in his leisure, possessed of a good memory and a way with words, takes advantage of a keyboard and access to a printing press, you may be disconcerted or dismayed by the results. You may not, however, be as surprised as he is.”

David A. Woodbury

Four main characters

Cold Morning Shadow opens in Spearfish, South Dakota, in September, 1967, just as high school is resuming in the fall for the four young people highlighted in green below. It is the story of their budding friendships beginning with their first encounters. Their parents are unavoidably involved, an unwelcome development to the children of one family but welcome to the pair of siblings in the other. Two older siblings in the Comosh family, highlighted in gray, play only bit parts in the story.

The 1960s spanned a cusp in American history. As the author, I was the same age that the main characters are in the story. At 12 I was re-enacting the Civil War on the playground. Department stores such as Kresge’s sold authentic-looking hats in blue or gray. My bessssst friend, Mike Stewart, was a genuine Negro who lived around the corner. So I was a blue in the Civil War play. Real Civil War veterans in wheel chairs were still being pushed through the streets by white-uniformed nurses during major parades. Some of my school teachers had been born in the 1890s.

Kids my age were only one generation removed from people who had lived in the era of real cowboys and Indians. When I was ten years old I sold Christmas cards to earn my first real gun, promoted to children in the pages of Boys Life. Once a week, on Sunday eveninges, my parents took us to our aunt and uncle’s house to watch The Wonderful World of Disney on a color television. When a jet plane was coming into view in the sky we ran outdoors to watch it pass. A steam locomotive whistle still pierced the nighttime stillness. A pocketful of coins still consisted mostly of silver and included half dollars and silver dollars dated as far back as 1878.

Did you just dream this whole thing up?

“You had all this in your head?” someone asked about my novel, Fire, Wind & Yesterday, then revised it: “Or you pulled it all from your head?” Um… No, I didn’t do either.

If the question, phrased either way, had been asked about Cold Morning Shadow instead, I could answer the same way: No, I didn’t have it all in my head.

Understand: These people, if they are real, are still alive. If you’re in your 30s or 40s they could be your parents. If you’re in your 20s or younger, they could be your grandparents. This is how they truly lived and thought and went through life.

Writing Cold Morning Shadow was like an assignment to make a time-machine trip into the recent past. I stepped from the machine into a town I had never visited — in a region of the United States, in fact, that I have never yet visited. The date was exactly the start of my own junior year of high school, and yet I was not stripped of my five decades of subsequent experience and perspective. The atmosphere of the era was absolutely familiar, but I was invisible to the people before me.

As I drew my initial breath in a high school classroom on a hot South Dakota afternoon in 1967 I immediately recognized the first principal character whom I was, apparently, placed there to observe. I instantly realized who the second one would be as well, seated nearby in the same room.

I accepted the assignment because I had a two-dimensional image of each of the four main characters and I knew that they had a good story. I “knew” their story the way you know someone else’s story after they have just regaled you for fifteen minutes while standing in line for concert tickets.

Standing there, invisible, I began watching and noting what I saw and noting what my omniscience conveyed to me of their thinking. They moved quickly, though. My time scale matched theirs. I needed to write almost as quickly as things were happening, or else I would lose details. Sadly, I did lose many, many details. My fingers couldn’t record everything as quickly as my mind tried to convey it to my hands.

I knew approximately what was about to unfold before me before the time-machine journey. I knew that I was to meet four players and that I would be privy to every scene and every thought of each one’s life for as long as I lingered. That saddled me with a burden carried by every proverbial fly on the wall: I would know everything. And yet, above all, I must not be a voyeur.

Yes, these are fictional people, but they exist, to me, just as other people, whom I have never met, exist in the mind of the stranger who regaled me while waiting in the concert ticket line. I needed to recognize that it could be as agonizing for them to go through the motions and emotions of daily life as it is for a real person undergoing the same experience. Even fictional people shiver in a blizzard, endure stomach aches, worry about how they are perceived, are shocked by unexpected loss, and rejoice over small triumphs.

Even fictional people can be insulted or complimented. Even fictional people become angry, confused, embarrassed.

Indeed, in my role I was less substantial than a house fly, but also more substantial in another way: Like a spirit, I had influence. I knew what was to take place. I often didn’t know from page to page how each one would accomplish the next task, but I was apprised — sometimes only a little ahead of time — of coming events.

I began with a two-dimensional image of each of four characters.  I introduced them to each other.  I let them develop themselves.  And they did indeed develop themselves.  Within a few pages I became a reporter barely able to keep up with all that they were doing. But I was prescient, even God-like. As I was learning about them, they were making choices and, as the publicity blurb for the book says, they were laying the cornerstones for lasting friendships.”

See the Page Go Big or Go Home

I also had the duty to record only what was pertinent to the story. A writer with total access to every protagonist’s every moment can become mesmerized by a character’s charms or diverted by matters that are of no consequence. Being only one mind against their four, I never felt that I could watch all of my main players simultaneously, so I had to follow one at a time — two or more if they were in each other’s presence — and not dwell there too long, for other things were occurring simultaneously. I needed to absent myself as soon as the action or contemplation ended and pop up in another place.

I had the luxury of stretching time a little bit. It was imperative that I do so now and then when something was taking place on another side of the world, for instance, concurrent with an event I was monitoring and recording. Omniscience told me when to double back and capture the simultaneous action so that I could juxtapose the two scenes.

Since the characters did not realize I was there and were not performing as in a movie, where a scene can be re-recorded, they did not pause for me to keep up or repeat a sentence that I might have heard indistinctly.

My perspective was also colored by my age — that I had grown up in the Midwest at the same time their story was unfolding — and was aided by my own experience as a college student, as a member of the Army Security Agency during the Vietnam non-war, as a lover of classical music and classic automobiles (see This Book Is Not About Cars and Themes in the Novel), and much more that I did not need to invent in order to understand.

Advice to Writers – (see also Discipline in Writing)

I discovered that I knew virtually everything about the four protagonists, Wilton and his sister, “Rockie,” as well as Cyleine and her brother, Lionel. But I knew only as much of their parents as those four main characters themselves knew. And I knew only as much of most other people in the book as they disclosed in conversations or as much as I observed while they interacted with the protagonists. I could live within the mind of Lionel, Cyleine, Garnette, or Wilton — one at a time, as if I myself were one of them. I couldn’t step into the mind of Wilton’s father or Cyleine’s mother, any more than, in my own youth, I could occupy my own father’s mind. If I were writing about myself — about whom I know everything, I would be able to involve my mother or father in the story only according to what they themselves have revealed to me together with as much as I might have concluded from observation or discovered from my own snooping perhaps.

And so, in another way, I told the story somewhat as if I had sat down with the four principals and let them tell it to me as I wrote it down, as they allowed they might do in the final chapter, Fireside.

Suffice to say, I knew them personally. They were ordinary people, really. The events that wove them into each other’s lives were mostly ordinary. The times they were living in are long past, but only a little longer ago than yesterday or last year. For me, now, Cyleine, Garnette, Lionel, and Wilton are like friends I knew long ago, whom I know I won’t see again, and whom I have written about so that the memory of them will not perish.

Cold Morning Shadow is dedicated to my cousin, Stephanie of the Brulé Lakota, her tragically-fated father, Mitch, and her late mother, Janet, who was my first cousin, playmate, and friend when we were children.

=David A. Woodbury=

See the author’s other titles at DamnYankee.com.