Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The New and Unexpected

Back when I was in high school, I remember half-waking up in the middle of the night, thinking I heard the window make noise. I blinked at the room for maybe a second, then fell back to sleep. Next morning I heard we had an earthquake. I live on the East Coast. Once in a lifetime experience. I was bummed that I'd missed it.

Yesterday at 1:50 pm, I was in my 2nd floor office, sitting at my PC, writing, totally in the zone. The rest of the world didn't exist.

Some independent part of left brain heard what sounded exactly like someone running up my stairs. The house is old--running up the stairs shakes the floorboards. Didn't faze me until I realized I ought to be alone in the house. Noise stopped, but the vibration increased until it felt like someone wiggling my desk chair from behind. That brought me out of the zone. Heavy truck going by? Explosion across town? The desk moved under my hands.

The vibration stopped abruptly. I was turning in my chair when it began again and this time, the room swayed. The Venetian blind rods moved, my bobble-head moose nodded, my PC monitor was wiggling like it was made of Jello. Now I knew an earthquake was passing through. But I sat frozen. And geek that I am, my first thought was "How cool!"

All this lasted maybe 4 seconds. I went outside, not because I felt unsafe--I only wanted to ask the neighbors what they felt. I was fascinated.

Of course, by now I was so out of the zone, I gave up on writing for the day. But it got me thinking about how often we mystery writers put our characters in new and unexpected situations.

In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, someone shoots at my protagonist. She's not expecting it, she's never been shot at before. Like me in the earthquake, it takes her a moment to realize what's happening, then she freezes. I think I got her reaction right in that instance. After yesterday, though, I'm not so sure of other scenes where she experiences something new.

Reactions, of course, must be personality-driven, but no one should react to a new experience with perfect reflexes, even characters with emergency training of some sort. Yet, I've read too many novels where the protagonist reacts instantly, somehow instinctively doing the right thing. To me, that's the fastest way to dehumanize a character.

Last night quite a few of the people I heard from said they never wanted to feel an earthquake again. Me? If no one gets hurt and no property is damaged, I wouldn't mind another chance to observe the experience.

Like I said, I'm a geek...and a writer.


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