Think a moment. What is one thing you would never do? You probably have quite a list, if you’re anything like me, but for our purposes as authors we need to pick the one thing our characters would never do. And then make them do it. This lets our readers empathize with our characters in a very personal way.
Lucy is a good person. A city girl from Boston, she married John and took up farming with him with great enthusiasm. When he leaves her to fight for the British and do it all herself, she manages nicely. Until the revolution catches up to her. She escapes to Niagara where she and John eventually raise their family to adulthood. John is thrown into prison for no legal reason and Lucy sees him disintegrate before her very eyes. Will this good, strong woman take the only step she can and help to break John out?
“In here,” she said, the lantern streaking into the outer room where her sons held the jailer between them, his eyes wide. Robert held the man’s one arm twisted around behind and from the side William gripped him around the neck, his hand clamped over the frightened fellow’s mouth. The man whom she had bribed with many meals these last months gasped for air. John pulled himself up against the bars and Lucy rushed to him.
Aaron brushed past her in the tight space. “Let me,” he said. He slipped John’s arm over his shoulder and followed Lucy from the cell. William and Robert pushed the jailer in but before they could tie a neckerchief over his mouth, the man shouted. “I can help you.” He twisted away from William’s hand. “A back way.”
“Wait,” Lucy said. William dropped the neckerchief.
The jailer quickly blurted out the whereabouts of the secret stairs that led to a tunnel opening near the lake. They soon decided to send Aaron out to move the wagon while William tied the jailer up for his own safety and locked him in the cell.
Lucy turned back to the jailer. “We will never forget this, sir. You are a kind man.”
His mouth gagged, the man nodded and Lucy hurried after her sons who now supported their father. She held the lantern as high as she could but her short reach didn’t light the three ahead. A few feet into the darkness they stopped to allow her to go first with the lantern, then followed on her heels. She stumbled and skirted rocks and boulders—the way was certainly not smooth—and prayed the jailer had told the truth as she walked farther and farther into the black. Water dripped more and more from the ceiling. Were they under the river now? Surely not.
But at her feet water about an inch deep soon had her skirts sopping and her shoes drenched. To make matters worse, she couldn’t see the rocks but stumbled along splashing herself with every step.
“Mama. Take my arm.” Robert moved up beside her and she passed him the lantern. She could hear William’s labored breathing and John’s huffing and puffing but couldn’t look back. Her heavy skirts slowed her pace but she clung to Robert’s arm and ignored the spidery webs clinging to her hair. The water deepened. Her legs were cold and stiff. Robert held tight. They staggered on together. Just when she was sure she could not take another step she glanced up. “Light.” She tried to point ahead.
“Yes,” Robert whispered. “Just a little farther.”
The tunnel sloped upward and, as the light grew brighter, they left the water behind. First out of the hole, Lucy watched as Robert turned back to help William tug their father, blinking, up into the sunshine. Aaron pulled her to the waiting wagon, and parted the hay to reveal a hiding place. She crawled inside, John came after and then her sons. They were almost blind in the shadowy half-light, brown with the sun filtered through the layered hay. A bright spot of light opened where they had crawled in and Aaron shoved a jug of water toward them. “Godspeed,” he whispered and was gone. She prayed his part in this would never be known. The wagon lurched and they were off, the three escapees and her, now just as guilty in the eyes of the law as her men, and whoever was driving the wagon.
–The Loyalist Legacy #3 in the Loyalist Trilogy.
What is the effect of this plot device on the reader? Does this scene make our readers think of something in their own life that went against their beliefs? If it does, I have helped my readers personalize the event.
Lucy’s son, William, having fought in the War of 1812 and carried his brother’s dead body back home, never wants to go to war again. He puts up with all kinds of trouble from the Family Compact, even turning against his remaining brother. He knows Robert is right. Their situation is untenable. But he will not join the rebels with Robert.
“Why can’t you see Robert’s side for once, William?”
“He’s going to get himself killed, that’s why.” He looked across the table. “Don’t you think I know he is right on so many of these points?”
“Then why don’t you tell him?” Catherine resisted the urge to reach for her husband. Instead she kept her tone strong and her words stronger. “He’s your brother. Can’t you see how hard all of this is for him?”
“For him? What about me? I had to watch Thomas die right beside me fighting those Americans, ride all night to take his body to my parents, and watch my mother wrap her arms around his mangled body. I tried to free my father and landed in jail with him, escaped with my parents inside a load of straw where every breath filled our lungs with chaff and our heads with terror. I watched him die simply because he wrote letters to help others fight for justice against that Family Compact. Oh, yes. I know.” He reached for her hands. “But I want peace. For you, for our children And now for our grandchild.”
She watched his green eyes fill up and understood, finally, his pain, but she had to go on. “But peace at what price? He only asked you to join a lodge.”
He jumped to his feet, eyes blazing. “Only? It’s another way to cross Strachan and the rest of them. Don’t you think I know that?”
–The Loyalist Legacy #3 in the Loyalist Trilogy.
The one thing William never wants to do is fight in another war but as rebellion comes closer and closer his choices shrink. Again, I put him in that position where he has to chose and in so doing I’ve heightened the tension to the breaking point in the novel. We can all identify with his situation, making the climax believable for us as readers.
The Loyalist’s Wife, The Loyalist’s Luck, The Loyalist Legacy
by Elaine Cougler
Available at Amazon.com and many other places.