Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Behind the Scenes 2: Sweet Caroline

I didn't get a good, good start on Sweet Caroline until December. Between October and November, I had a lot of starts and throw-aways.

Here's one:

My grandfather Rainier and I had a tradition. The day after Thanksgiving he'd come by our house around four in the afternoon and take me to the Frogmore Cafe for a hot bowl of Frogmore Stew.
"I had enough turkey, Posey," he said to my mother, patting his belly. "I need some low country boil."
He glanced down at me with a wink. I was six and the baby of the family. Still am in some ways, I suppose. "Care to go with me, Caroline?"
"Momma, please?" I hopped off the stool and hugged up next to Pop's leg. A retired Marine, he carried a certain authority, commanded deep respect.
I heard Daddy talk about him with the men standing in the front yard after church, smoking cigarettes. It's where I first heard the words Nazi and the big war.

But to me Pop was my best friend. Like we were cut from the same cloth sixty-six years apart.
"Jessup, you’ll spoil her." Momma flattened her hands against her hips, shaking her head. "Now, Caroline, if-"
I ran for my sweater.
Momma followed us all the way to the drive way. "Now remember, she's only six. Don't get talking to Jones and forget she's sitting there. Remember little pitchers have big ears-"
That pulled Pop up short. "Sakes alive, Posey, I'm seventy-two, not addled."
Momma sucked in her bottom lip and wrinkled her nose. I didn't know what addled meant but it sure shut Momma up. Grandpa took my hand and smiled down at me.
"Guess that did it."
Pop’s friend, Jones Whitmore, owned the Frogmore Cafe, a converted nineteenth century home facing the Beaufort River. The old sweeping veranda creaked when we stepped up, but the Frogmore was warm and cozy. Even at six, I felt enveloped by the atmosphere. Low sounds, low lights, wonderful smells.

Here's another start and stop.

The wind carries a wintery chill as it blows through the live oaks, catching up the Spanish moss in an easy, melancholy dance. A few stubborn dry leaves, lacking the courage to fall to the ground, rattle against the side of the veranda's roof.
Propping myself against the porch railing, I cradled a For Sale sign to my chest, feeling my heart beat against the tips of my fingers. Some of my best childhood memories happened in this place, The Frogmore Cafe.
Through the moss and barren trees, I watch the Beaufort River flow gently toward the Atlantic, diamonds of sunlight lingering along the water's surface.
The cafe door opens behind me, then claps shut. My father's broad hand presses down on my shoulder.
"Well, Caroline, how's it feel?"
"Weird." My entire body is conflicted with swirls of anxiety and excitement.
He bends forward so his hands rest on the railing and gazes toward the river. "It's going to be a lot of work."
I bob my head, once. "Can't imagine it not."
Dad looks over his shoulder at me. "You’ve never run a cafe slash restaurant."
"No, but I'm a good business woman, Dad."
"Until Parker stole your business out from under you." He shift his gaze back to the river. "You're too trusting, Caroline."
"Your confidence in me is exhilarating."
Dad dips his head with a chuckle. "I'd feel better if I knew you could manage the back half of the restaurant." His ton is gentle, but laced with a warning. "Never will forget that call from the high school principal."
"I was there, Dad, remember?"
"'Hank, Caroline is a fine student, but we just can't keep her in home econ...'"
His laugh burst from his chest with a deep resonance. "A fire. Of all things. A home ec kitchen fire."
"How was I supposed to know the cherries and cinnamon would spill over on to the baking element and ignite?"
"Come on, Kit, surely you see the irony." He motions behind him toward the once-tabby exterior of the nineteenth century home that was now my cafe. "Pop filled your head with a bunch of dreams."
"Tony's coming to help me."
Dad tips his head to one side making a clicking sound with his teeth. "I don't mean to be a downer, but are you sure that's a good plan?"
"Absolutely. He's a great chef. Experienced."
"Got fired from his last job for insubordination, I believe?"
There are no secrets in Beaufort, South Carolina. What happens in Atlanta, or Charleston, or Savannah is breathed around here in soft whispers.
"He didn't get along with the executive chef." I face my father. "Do you think I can do this or not?"
Dad slips his hands in the pockets of his khaki slacks and starts down the steps. "I've always said you could rule the world Caroline. You could rule the world."
I run after him. "Except for?"
"You lead with your heart. It's like a big welcoming matt for the down trodden and the users. Even Jesus walked away from the insincere."
"I have to do this, for myself, if for no other reason. No guts, no glory."
Dad stops by my car parked along Bay Street. He pats the cherry red door with the palm of his hand. "Pop's old '65 Mustang. Still running."

Finally, at the beginning of January, I'm closer to what would be the final product.

My life changed the day a man died. The day I sat in morning traffic on Hwy 21, the spring sky promising to be blue, while the Beaufort River draw bridge slowly swung closed.
The day the carburetor of my old '68 Mustang convertible sputtered and choked, then died right there on the bridge with a hundred cars in line behind me.
The day I arrived late for work at the Frogmore Cafe to find everyone milling around in red-eyed, stunned disbelief.
The day Daddy told me he was finally marrying his long time girlfriend, Posey, and I had to move out of the house. Was two months enough time? Yes, if I had money.
The day God heard me whisper a simple question, "Hey, I don't know if you're really there, but if you are, could you dig in your bag of goodies and find a life for me?"
Two months. That's all it takes for my broken down jalopy quit on me again just as I exit the bridge and turn left onto Bay Street. I mashed in the clutch and gunned the gas to keep it from dying completely - and to save face with the line of cars behind me - and send a vapor of black smoke out the exhaust.
So fitting that I inherited this heap from my mother. Thank you, Sarah Sweeney, wherever you are.
The carburetor sputters and chokes and the 'Stang hesitates, then lurches forward. Come on, come on. I ride the clutch, gun the gas and aim for an open parallel parking slot in front of as I inch over to the side of the street, barely slipping into a handicap spot in front of Rhett Gallery.
The engine rattles and shakes. And dies. I jerk my bag to my lap from the passenger seat, muttering soap worthy words, and dig around for my cell phone.
As I auto dial Daddy, a siren and blue lights blip beside me. "Can't park here, Caroline."
I don't even look over. Dang J.D. Think I don't know I can't park in the handicap spot? "Car's broke down, give me a minute."
"Caroline?" JD inches the squad car forward and blips the siren again.
Go out with a Sheriff once and he thinks he owns you. I peek over at him. "I'm calling Daddy."
"I can radio in a tow truck for you." Sheriff JD holds up his handset.
Shaking my head, I point to the phone, "Daddy can fix the car. Besides, no money for a tow."
"Don't worry about that, now."
Oh no. Rule number one of lowcountry dating. Don't be indebted to a man who claims he's loved you since fifth grade and grows up to carry a gun for a living.
"Yeah, Caroline." Daddy's voice booms into my ear.
"Help." I wince. "She broke down again."
"Where?" Sigh. "I told you to get rid of that thing."
"And buy what? With what? I'm in front of Rhett's." With my best smile, I give JD a thumbs up. He can move on now.
But he doesn't.

Originally, I thought Caroline would not work at the Cafe and discover she inherited it. Then I wrote a couple of scenes with that in mind and the story did not feel real to me. The conflict was not genuine enough.

Now, I pray a lot while writing. Pray for God to write His story through me. I think a lot about my characters, analyze each scene, questioning it's relevance and importance. Is the scene contributing, or redundant? Is there enough tension? Why should the reader care about these characters?

I just didn't feel like I was getting the story right. One night, as I went to bed I asked the Lord for a dream to help me understand the story I needed to write.

He answered.

The gist? Write the story as if Caroline worked at the Cafe, but instead of it being a fancy place, make it a run down Cafe. Then there was the part about Tom Cruise making a movie in Beaufort, but I cut that part.

So, on January eight, I started the story over. While I used a lot of material I already had, but nevertheless, I was starting over.

I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Long days, long nights. The book was due March 1 and on February 17th, I sat in my chair and wrote for fifteen hours to finish the book.

Tony was reading and offering input, then a friend was critiquing. The Saturday before it was due, she wrote, "I think you need to add a thread to up the conflict."

What? How? Where? Now? I freaked. I only had five days. How could I create more conflict and tension in five days? I was up until midnight writing. Then up again at 3:00 a.m. trying to rewrite.

I managed to crawl into church, a zombie. Thank goodness I wasn't leading worship. But on that day, my friend Jesus began to really show Himself strong.


Katie said...

This is brilliant. I love seeing your work process. Secrets revealed and all that! The last section is so REAL and intimate. So--right there. Very good writing.

I love it that you update your blog so frequently. So few writers do.

Katie Johnson

Lynette Sowell said...

Rach, I love hearing this. :)