A few weeks ago Joan blogged about allowing turns in your characters lives, having them make unusual choices, interesting and unexpected. I read that post with a snort of laughter, for I had just experienced an unforeseen turn in my own life only a day earlier.
Within a mile of the spot my characters have a tragic horseback riding accident in my manuscript Meadowlark, I shifted my car into drive, peered into my rearview mirror, and merged directly into the Mercedes in my blind spot, sending the other car airborne and stopping my heart long enough to surely shave a couple seconds off my lifespan. Both cars' front fenders got munched, but everyone was fine, thank goodness. (Even the cars will recover.)
Up until the moment of that crashing din, I’d been doing everything precisely as expected. By the book, I’m tempted to say. True to character. The kids and I were on the dad-less portion of our annual trek east, visiting a beloved and much-returned to destination. (O, Mount Vernon, how we love thee!) We’d dined burger-free at the tavern instead of the food court (hello peanut soup); quizzed the historical re-enactor for new nuggets of history from his wonderful knowledge; and had been in general awed by the great man we Americans all call father. And then. Crash.
The accident didn’t come out of nowhere. Accident though it was, there was a certain elegant logic to it, to both cars being aligned to that moment of collision. Had the other driver seen one more or less patient during her nursing shift; had we dithered longer or lesser in the gift shop; had my mom and kids walked to the parking lot with me rather than accepting my offer to scoop them up in front of the Visitor’s Center (oh, yeah, we really saved some time, baby); had we paused for a drink or a breath or a laugh. Or perhaps not taken a moment for a laugh.
But we didn’t, or we did, and... crash. An entirely laudable yet unbelievable circumstance smack in the middle of our vacation, changing the texture of the trip and no doubt cementing itself into family lore. “What about that time Mom crashed the car at Mount Vernon!”
The ramifications began with the decision to limp the car twenty miles on surface streets back to my friend’s house. Then came dinner at Chipotle and cheers from the kids who got to spend another night with the pals they’d said their annual goodbyes to just a dozen hours earlier. The next day was spent at the dealership and Enterprise and on the phone trying to figure out whether we could safely drive the car to North Carolina (which had been our intended destination as we pulled away from that curb and into disaster). And in a few weeks I’ll fly one way flight back to DC to retrieve my (hooray!) repaired van, and then drive 20-odd hours home again.
But it could be more dramatic, and if this were a novel instead of my life, it would be. What if my character returned not to her friend’s house, but her own home, and discovered her husband in bed with a neighbor? Or, yes, to the friend’s house, but the smoldering remains of it, the result of a fire the character herself caused by leaving a burner on when she left that same morning? Or a dead body?
I guess my point is, in fiction, it’s not only important to have your characters make unexpected but realistic choices, but to experience unexpected events that keep the story going. Sure, we had a great day at Mount Vernon. We toured the house, drooled over the lamb and turkey pye, wandered the grounds. A nice day.
But the accident turned it into a story.