The Last Breakthrough

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Kathy Stinson’s writing class this past Tuesday was quite enlightening. I read a portion of The Young City before the members, and got a number of interesting comments. This is the passage I selected:

Peter looked from Rosemary to the horizon and back again. “It couldn’t have.”

“It has!” Rosemary jumped to see if her view wasn’t blocked by some rise. It wasn’t. “Where’s the CN Tower? Where are all the skyscrapers?” She turned and stared at King’s College across its wide green. “Peter, if this is the University, half of the buildings are missing! I recognize that one, but all the others built after it are gone—” She cut herself off, still pointing, the implications settling in. She stared at Peter in horror.

He raised his hands and shook his head. “No. There has to be some mistake. Maybe we got turned around. Maybe—” Then, looking southeast, he realized that he could see a city. Across an expanse of grass and dying wetland, tall narrow houses stood up, with pointed roofs and gingerbread detailing, much like the one Theo was renting, but showing plain brick rather than flashy exterior paint. Beyond these, he could see a slow rise of buildings and the occasional church spire. Nothing was more than five stories tall.

Peter stumbled back. Rosemary caught him. They exchanged a horrified glance.

Peter shivered. “This is—”

“Who goes there!”

The bellowing voice made them dive for cover. As they peered over the rim of the embankment, Rosemary noticed that they were in the middle of a deserted construction site. Large timbers were piled by huge stones and mounds of moved earth. A temporary wooden wall, made of planks, not plywood, encircled the site.

Standing in the middle of this worksite was the only worker on duty: a tall, stout man stooped over by time, but still a force to be reckoned with. He had a grizzled beard and a grim face, and he held a plank like a club.

“Who’s there!” he shouted again. “Thieves? Vandals? If I catch you, you’ll regret it, you young ruffians!” He stalked towards the back of the camp.

“Where do we go?” whispered Peter.

Rosemary nodded at the fence. “The front gate’s open.”

Peter frowned. “He could have left it open to draw us out.”

The watchman circled the back of the lot. “Where are you, you cowards! Show yourselves!”

“What choice do we have?” whispered Rosemary.

“You’re right.” He gripped her hand. “On the count of three. One…”

They charged over the embankment. Weaving past the muddy obstacles, the ran for the gate.

“There you are!” The watchman splashed for them, clambering over a pile of timbers and jumping into their path.

He froze, staring in shock at the sight of Rosemary in her jeans and muddy halter-top. “A woman?”

She ploughed into him, sprawling him in the mud. Peter ducked around him. The watchman struggled to his feet and followed, but only to the gate. Peter and Rosemary kept running until the watchman’s shouts faded in the distance. Only then did they allow themselves a moment to catch their breath.

“You okay?” Peter gasped.

“Yeah,” Rosemary wheezed. “Did you see the clothes he was wearing?” She stopped short, and stared at her sandaled feet. “We’re standing on a wooden sidewalk… by a dirt road. What is this, the wild west?”

Peter stared at the narrow, gabled row houses on either side of them. Ahead, the houses rose to multi-story stone buildings; behind, the dirt road vanished into a hint of wilderness and farmer’s field. He listened to the echoing silence. “I don’t think we’re in Toronto anymore.”

Rosemary marvelled. “Whereever this is, this place is as deserted as the Marie Celeste.”

Then bells started ringing.

They peeled in all directions, shattering the silence, echoing off brick and hill like a city come to life. Peter and Rosemary stared about in astonishment.

Down the street, at the source of a nearest bell, a squat church opened its gothic oak doors. People descended the short steps onto the sidewalk. Men put on hats while women adjusted theirs. The men wore topcoats and tales. Women dresses had puffed sleeves and skirts that brushed the ground. Rosemary fingered the tie of her halter top. She had never felt so out of place in her life.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

“I’m way ahead of you.” They turned and walked away as quickly as they could without running.

The bells stopped ringing, their echos ebbing. A new sound rose above the city. Carriages rattled after hoofbeats, splashing and sucking the muddy roads. Hard soles clopped on the wooden sidewalks. Crowds thronged the street like another form of rush hour. There was flannel and taffeta everywhere, lace and gingham. The underdressed teenagers curled into themselves, willing themselves invisible. It didn’t work.

Behind them, an old lady cried out, “Oh, my goodness, that girl is practically naked!”

Rosemary flushed.

Heads turned. People stared, some in shock, others in pity, but some with hostility.

“Vagrants!” somebody else called. “Street urchins in our neighbourhood!”

“They’re filthy!”

“Where’s the constabulary when you need them?”

Peter took a deep breath. “We’d better get off this street.” He took her hand and stepped off the sidewalk.

“Peter, look out!”

A carriage pulled by two horses was rolling along quickly, its hooves and wheels drowned out by the traffic around it. The horses whinnied and veered. Peter stumbled back, but not fast enough. The wheel clipped his leg and sent him sprawling. He hit his head on the wooden sidewalk and lay dazed.

“Peter!” Rosemary knelt by him. “Speak to me!”

He moaned and rubbed his head. “I don’t believe it. Not once hit by a car in eighteen years, but the first horse and buggy comes along and whammo!”

Rosemary laughed nervously.

“Are you hurt?”

A young woman knelt beside them. Her dark hair drawn back in a severe bun but her face was open and warm. She wore a plain cotton dress that didn’t match a finer hat and gloves.

Rosemary stared at the gloves as the woman pulled them off. It’s the height of summer and this woman’s wearing gloves?

The woman pulled Peter into a sitting position and gave his head a quick but thorough glance. “You’re not bleeding.” She touched the back of his head and he let out a yowl. “But you are going to have a bump on your head, I’m afraid. How do you feel?”

“Okay, I guess.” He winced. “I’m just a little stunned.”

“Are you dizzy?” asked Rosemary. She raised her hand with a ‘V’ sign. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two,” said Peter.

The woman gave Rosemary a curious glance, but returned her attention to Peter. “No, don’t stand up, yet. Get your breath back into you, first.”

The crowd gave Peter and Rosemary a wide berth, creating a bottleneck on the sidewalk. This gave people time to stare, and others to comment.

“Why don’t you leave those two alone?” snapped a man in fine clothes. “They should have been watching where they were going!”

The woman’s nostrils flared. “‘Whatsoever you do unto the least of my people, you do unto me!’ Did you not pay attention to today’s sermon?” The man dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

As she turned back to Peter and helped him stand, she added, “You should have watched where you were going. You walked right into that carriage’s path!”

“I was a little distracted,” said Peter.

“Try not to be too dazzled by the sun, next time,” said the young woman.

“We will,” said Rosemary. “Thank you for helping us.”

“You’re most welcome. My name is Faith—”

“Get a move on!” shouted a respectable man in a black hat. “We don’t want your kind around here!”

“Scandalous that a woman should be seen like that in public!” said a huffy old woman. “And on the Lord’s Day too!”

The hostile comments were starting to fly, now.

“There ought to be a law!”

“I’ve a good mind to call the constabulary!”

Rosemary flinched. The last thing they needed right now was police.

Faith caught Rosemary’s reaction, and glared at the crowd. “Is this how you would treat people in need, and on the Lord’s Day too? What does it say about our society that we should live so prosperously while such poverty exists?”

Peter leaned towards Rosemary. “What is with this woman’s accent? She sounds almost British. Everybody sounds British.”

Rosemary gripped his hand. A crowd had gathered, most staring in bemusement at the underdressed couple and the dark-haired young woman that railed at passers by. Some weren’t content to just stare.

“We have no need for these people on our streets,” one man shouted. “If they won’t find decent work for themselves, they should be made to work!”

“How do you know they haven’t tried?” Faith yelled. “This city teems with people who can find no work at the factories!”

“That is none of our concern!”

Then come the sound of running feet. “Police! Let us through!” The crowd parted, and two policemen strode in.

Rosemary stared. The uniforms were just wrong. They were dark blue, with brass buttons, in an antique cut. They wore bobby hats instead of caps, just like the officers in London, England. Strangest of all, they did not carry guns. They smacked truncheons on their palms as they advanced. Neither looked in the mood for a long explanation.

Rosemary tightened her grip on Peter’s hand and stepped back. “Let’s get out of here!”

Peter stared at the constables. Faith was already remonstrating with them. “Run? Are you sure—”

He didn’t finish his sentence. Rosemary yanked him across the street.

The audience agreed that the story (or this section of it, at least) is mostly there; that it has a lot going for it. I can draw up effective visual and auditory details. Sometimes I go a little too far (spelling out in places that they’ve travelled back in time), but that’s what revisions are for.

However, Kathy picked out (and I agree with her) the fact that although my secondary characters are quite strong and detailed, we still have a hard time getting into the heads of Peter and Rosemary. My viewpoint is very much a camera’s eye viewpoint, but there’s more to it than that. It takes a while to really get to know Rosemary. At key emotional points, I pull back, and tell rather than show.

I mean, take as a minor example the part where the watchman leaps over the timbers and is brought up short by the sight of Rosemary in her jeans and muddy halter-top. Who’s point of view is this? Not Peter’s (we don’t get much of a sense of what he’s thinking at all). It’s more Rosemary’s, but we don’t get the sense of how she feels to be stared at in such a fashion (or later when others point out how shockingly underdressed she is). The point of view, in fact, almost belongs to the watchman. In terms of conveying the emotional impact of this scene, I seem to be backing off.

Am I afraid to get really close into my characters? Am I afraid to really tap into their emotional responses? Possibly. I do put a lot of myself into Peter and Rosemary, but I keep a tight lid on myself at times — just as I might be doing with them. And truth be told, I’m a little nervous about digging deeper and seeing what’s inside.

But this may be the one thing that’s missing in my writing — the final breakthrough that still has to happen. It’s an exciting (and a little frightening) prospect. Not one that’s likely to happen in the Young City just yet. But something to think about.

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