In my novel, Bella – Isabel Moss — loses her husband early in their marriage. Understand this is no ordinary couple. Their honeymoon is in its third year. They are young, beautiful and endlessly fascinated by each other. Neither has been unfaithful, seriously ill or even quarrelsome. Their love is embodied in a beautiful young daughter.
When Hank dies, Bella turns. By day she is bitter and fixated on discovering the truth about his death on an Afghan battlefield. At night, she is more reflective. In one scene, she turns to Dan, the reporter she lured into joining her quest, and asks, “What’s it like being married for a long time, Danny?”
He never saw the question coming because I never saw it coming. That sounds funny, since I’m the author. It all started when I interviewed Bella, which probably sounds even weirder, since there is no Bella. Before you start recommending professional help, know that I routinely take time out while writing to talk to my characters.
No, we don’t huddle in a corner table at Starbucks, scaring customers and aggravating the baristas. In fact, the one-on-none Q&A plays out in my head and on the computer screen. The way it works is, I draw up some questions at various plot points, then pose them to the characters. I persuade myself that I’m Bella or Dan or whomever, and then type out the answers, raw and uncensored as possible. It is challenging, as the exercise requires relinquishing control and allowing the shortstop to manage the team for a while.
When Bella asked her question, Dan started thinking about his own marriage. He and I pushed her off the page and started talking. Turned out he had a lot to say. It went something like this:
SP: What was going through your head when she asked that?
Dan: I thought about being married, how problems bubble up you never expect that sweet day you shove the cake in each other’s kisser. The crappy wedding band butchers your favorite love song, uncles you barely remember get sloppy drunk and press pastel envelopes to your chest, and none of it seems quite real because all you can think of is that after all those years of fruitless, unsatisfying dating and one-night stands and maybe a real girlfriend or two along the way, you’ve found someone to love and to bear your children, to help mow down whatever devils are waiting around the bend.
SP: That’s interesting, but …
Dan: Your eyes mist with greeting card emotion and of course it’s hard to see it may not always be this way. Now, if one of you dies in the early years, there’s no chance for fights, affairs, long-term illness or seedy lawyers. You delude yourself, thinking it was perfect. Ever wonder what JFK might look like if he hadn’t been gunned down so young? Take a look at how Ted wound up.
SP: What if nothing extraordinary happens in those first years, just routine stuff?
Dan: Suddenly – sometimes it’s gradually – the markers vanish and you’re in the woods. One gets a little ahead and takes a fork the other never sees. Maybe there’s a cute little wood nymph off to the side. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe you do and get caught and learn your lesson. Or not. The trees get thicker, the trail, wilder. Sometimes you catch up to each other at a clearing. Some couples share a grown-up martini and press on … ”
SP: How can Bella understand all that, given what’s happened?
Dan: Isabel’s image of her marriage will remain as flawless as the handsome young president slain in his prime. Hank got himself killed before anything could go wrong, years before one hair on his head would go gray.
SP: Is she ready to hear you tell it that way?
Dan: I remember the way she asked about a couple being together a long time, as an eight-year-old might ask of Pegasus.
SP: Right, so what are you going to say?
Here he paused again and said simply: Some things are good and some are awful.
Try this technique and let yourself be surprised. Shoot me a note and let me know how it turns out.
Steve Piacente, who spent 25 years as a daily newspaper reporter, is the self-published author of Bella and a forthcoming prequel titled Bootlicker. Steve is currently deputy communications director at a large federal agency and teaches journalism classes at his Alma mater, American University.