A couple of years ago, our MnNaNo writer’s group did regular challenges. This one was set, I believe, by Brian (Expatrie on the NaNo boards): Imitate a given passage from another writer. This week’s Writer’s Notebook entry takes up a passage I’ve admired for years, and applies its lessons to backstory for one of the characters in The Shape-shifter’s Tale.
For reference, here is the original excerpt from N. A. Durova. The Cavalry Maiden, page 99.
My service in the squadron began very unhappily. At dawn the duty sergeant galloped over to my quarters with the news that Cornet Poradowski had shot himself. In an instant I dressed, mounted my horse bareback, and dashed at a full run to Poradowski’s quarters. Stankovich was already there. The unhappy Poradowski was lying facedown in the middle of the room. His blood had collected in a large puddle by the door, his skull was shattered into several pieces which lay on the floor and benches, the carbine with which he shot himself lay beside the body, and two bullets had lodged in the ceiling. Stankovich looked through all the dead man’s letters and various notes, but he found nothing from which he could deduce a reason for the suicide. He ordered Poradowski’s face and the fragments of his head wrapped in a kerchief and his body carried out to the crossroads, where they dug him a grave. The road runs beside it, and that evening, walking down it, I shuddered involuntarily as I came abreast of Poradowski’s green mound: yesterday he and I walked along this road together. But today . . .
The Durova piece is a complete story in 200 words. We know who she is, immediately: a military officer; the details that tell us which branch of the service are the horse and the dead man’s equipment, and her rank is implied by the fact that the duty sergeant is reporting to her. I misremembered the number of telling details at the death scene as three rather than four: the puddle of blood by the door, the pieces of skull on the floor and benches, the carbine by the body, and the bullets in the ceiling. Those details sketch in the scene, and follow the camera, as it were, as she goes into the room and finds the body. The search for a cause is given in one sentence, the burial in the next (with the details of the preparation of the body, and the suicide’s burial at the crossroads). The final lines make it clear that she knew Poradowski and had walked with him along that very road. (Even the manner of grave construction is suggested in the description ‘green mound’: they’ve taken up the turf in layers and laid it back down atop the grave.) It’s an admirably succinct piece of prose, and it has just the details needed. The blanks leave a mystery. What isn’t there? A suicide note, any hint of why it happened, and this was someone she had known.
The opening and closing lines are the only one with any ‘editorializing’ or emotion in them. ‘My service in the squadron began very unhappily’ is something of an understatement by the time we get to her reaction in the final line. ‘Walking down [the road], I shuddered involuntarily as I came abreast of Poradowski’s green mound: yesterday he and I walked along this road together. But today …” Oh yes, and that ellipsis at the end. But today – absence, and mortal mystery. Someone who was alive and walking and talking the day before has killed himself in the night, and is no mor. Implied there as well is the scene of the burial of the last remains.
On rereading, I realize I left out a detail: the first thing she reports is Stankovich’s presence in the room, and then the location of Poradowski’s body (facedown in the middle of the room). Implied is that Stankovich is standing near the body, because she first sees him (the eye goes first to the living person, then the dead man, then the trail of destruction: the blood, and the fragments of skull, the carbine, and the bullet holes in the ceiling. You can almost write the ballistics report from the order in which she gives the details, and the other bit of characterization here is that the voice reporting this is trained to cause and effect. The bald recitation of details has some of the flattened affect of shock, without any squeamishness. She doesn’t pitch over into the opposite extreme, either; there’s no affectation of the hard-boiled, either, nor dwelling on the gruesome side.
I think that the thing that strikes me most is how what happened is implied by the details.
What are the main features of this for imitation:
- A statement setting the time and characterizing it (her return to the squadron after service elsewhere, the note that it was unhappy).
- The manner in which she is called to the scene and goes
- The details of the scene that imply what happened
- A witness who tells what they didn’t find
- The aftermath (cleanup)
- Her reaction afterward.
Here’s the edited version of back-story for one of the characters in The Shape-shifter’s Tale, who is describing his escape from witch-hunters in Northern England. The Durova excerpt served my needs surprisingly well, as the emotional arc was quite similar.
It had been a near thing, Trevor said. Returning from his walk, where the moor gave way to outbuildings and low stone walls, no dogs barked. He approached his mother’s house along the garden wall behind the high street. The gate hung to one side, unhinged. In the kitchen, the bread dough had swelled out of its bowl. In the front parlor, near the overturned piano stool, his sister’s sheet music lay in a long drift, crisscrossed by muddy footprints. The front door banged against its frame in the rising wind; from the square came a clamor, and the smell of petrol and dry wood catching.
He startled at the hand on his sleeve, as his aunt told him to get his things. They left by the back door, then turned toward town. He heard the high screams of pain and smelled searing flesh. They boarded the single train to London under the shadow of Victorian ironwork: she with her handbag and wool overcoat, he with his modest suitcase and passport. He glanced at his father’s sister and shuddered. He hadn’t seen her since the quarrel, since his father left. But now …
(193 words; Durova passage is 194 words)