This week we’re going to try out a new format. I’ve been thinking about how to bring you a glimpse of my “reality” through this column — but the Reality of Ruthie is that I spend most of my time sitting in a purple chair in my office, writing books.
My life this morning consists of thoughts like “I have to throw another load of towels in the wash” and “If I have to transform Kidlet’s insecticon thing one more time I’m going to scream” and “Last night I had a dream about Pete Rose.”
My reality is writing this blog post and thinking about the enormous amount of work I have to do this week and wondering if it is even remotely possible that I’ll get it done around all the Kidlet-chauffering and random doctor’s appointments and life interruptions. It’s a good reality. But it’s probably not all that different from yours, except that my work is writing books, whereas yours might be something else.
So I’m going to try out a new format for this column where I use it to talk about the reality of what I’m currently writing, as well as the ways in which I try to inject reality into my stories. First, because this is a subject that interests me. I’m fascinated by people, and I like to try to make the characters in my romance novels as much like real people as I can. And second, because I’m hopeful that it will be of interest to you.
Let me know what you think!
This week, I’m working on the final episode of my upcoming serial novel, Roman Holiday. Specifically, I’ve been writing an end-of-book reunion scene between two subplot characters, Noah and Carmen. Most of the time, I don’t know exactly how a scene will go until I start writing it, but in this case I’ve known for a few weeks what Noah and Carmen needed to say to each other. What I didn’t know until I began typing, in my living room, at six a.m., was that this would happen:
He came to the door in boxer briefs and body hair.
It was such an explicit shock—the thatch on his chest enough to build a cottage with, the straw-colored mess on his head mashed so severely on one side that she glimpsed the white of his scalp beneath it—Carmen didn’t know where to look.
She’d seen him naked before. More than once. Yet she hadn’t seen him like this, head-to-toe hair, standing in the doorway of his house with his eyes slitted against the brightness of the porch light, bewildered and sleepy at two in the morning.
The sweet shape of his ear. The line along the edge of his beard where he must have trimmed it recently, because the skin looked tender, and she could make out red bumps.
. . .
“I woke you up,” she said, because he looked drunk with sleep, and it seemed necessary that she begin by outlining the mistakenness of her every action since she’d seen him last. “You said to call, but I didn’t.”
“I can come back in the morning.”
“What are you wearing?”
She looked down at herself as though she didn’t know. But there wasn’t any way to not know when you’d put on a vintage pink Chanel suit and four-inch black patent leather pumps and driven for nearly two hours in the middle of the night.
There was no way to miss the fact that you were doing something outlandish, and you were doing it badly. Carmen had spent most of the first hour convincing herself not to turn around and the entirety of the second trying not to throw up.
Here, then, is a little snippet of reality: body hair and underpants, shaving bumps, sleepy eyes in the middle of the night.
Here is a contrast: near-nakedness colliding with a pink Chanel suit.
But why? I mean, it’s weird, right? It wasn’t in my plans for the scene. It just sort of happened, this visual contrast that ends up tilting the whole scene toward the absurd, because Noah is very hairy — big and burly and bearded and covered with a man-pelt — and Carmen is utterly clothed. Now she’s going to have to talk to him like this. They’re going to have this big, vital conversation that is probably the single most important conversation they could possibly have, and they’ll have it all mismatched, slightly befuddled, in the middle of the night. What the what, Ruthie?
One of the realities of being a writer is that I don’t always know the why of things — at least not at first. My friend Mary Ann Rivers and I have coined the term “Brain Mill” to talk about this. My rational brain is in charge of only a small portion of my writing. It can’t handle every little detail of planning and executing a book, or of thinking about every novel I’ve ever read and how it worked. It has to turn these higher-level functions over to the 98 percent of my brain that isn’t organized or conscious but is, in fact, running the show.
Mary Ann and I think of the Brain Mill as one of those big wooden paddle-wheel mills that churns up water from the depths, except what the brain mill churns up isn’t water, it’s ideas, knowledge and planning and structure, theme and repetition — all kinds of novelistic things that you don’t even necessarily realize you’re doing, because you can’t keep everything at the forefront at once or you’ll die of anxiety trying to keep track of it all. You can only handle 2 percent. Brain Mill handles the rest.
If you’d asked me when I typed the passage above why I was doing it, I would have said, “I don’t know. Shut up, I’m busy.” But I’ve been thinking about it since, and in fact the moment represents physically who Carmen and Noah are as characters. Noah is a furry and naked door-opening-in-the-middle-of-the-night sort of person. Carmen is a pink-Chanel-suit-and-heels kind of woman. The beauty of this reunion (which I have to finish writing as soon as I turn in this blog post) is going to be in watching them finally break down that difference. And if that’s the whole purpose of the scene, then it makes sense to begin with them visually, physically, as far apart as possible. The conversation they’re about to have will nestle them close together and convince us that together is where they belong.
That’s the whole point, after all: Romance. Showing what romance looks like, the realities of romance, and how sometimes what romance looks like is an overdressed woman showing up to mash herself against her man’s chest fur in the middle of the night.