It’s 5:04 a.m. here. I am sitting in the middle of a blizzard with a mostly-dead guy. I’m cold, I can’t feel my toes and we’re about to be hit by an avalanche. But it’s important that I be here. This is the moment when he will say everything that needs to be said, and I’m going to write it down. I’m ready, I’m listening. And my mostly-dead guy opens his eyes, looks up at me and says,
“Where is my horse?”
Horse? What horse?
“The one I just rode into battle three days ago,” he tells me. “The stallion I raised myself as a boy, and trained, and made my friend and constant companion. The horse I have traveled nowhere without for the last thirty years.”
Oh. That horse. One of the biggest problems with being a novelist is keeping track of an almost infinite number of little story details. Especially the ones I don’t like. Like this horse.
At this moment the logic problem of the horse doesn’t concern me. I am writing this scene, not editing it. Still, I make a short notation in the margins of my draft: [horse where?] for when I do my daily edit later. Now I’m ready to hear the man’s last words.
“Another thing.” My mostly-dead guy pushes himself up out of the snowdrift. “Why am I wearing all this armor?”
That one I had an answer for. “Because you just came from the battlefield.”
“I’m wearing metal armor.” He waits a beat. “In winter. In the middle of a blizzard.”
“It wasn’t snowing during the battle. This just started a couple hours ago.” That doesn’t seem to impress him. “Do you know how long it took me to find three reputable sources with decent descriptions of what you guys wore back in the day?”
He kicks some snow at me. “It’s cold. I need some furs. Or a woolen cloak.”
I have read about a hundred and fifty books on this man’s culture, time period and occupation. I should know what he wears under, over, and around this armor of his. By now I should be able to make his armor. But I don’t know how his people dealt with wearing it in extreme climate conditions like this blizzard, so I make another notation in the margin: [armor – winter – storm – outer furs/cloaks?]
“You’re strong,” I assure him. “You can take it. Now, about your last words. I was thinking you could maybe say something about how this isn’t the end, you’ll never be defeated, and you’ll go into hell fighting every inch of the way. Something like that.”
“I’m not fighting going to Hell,” he argues. “Jesus, woman, I’m freezing.”
“I don’t mean literally. You can’t go to hell. You’re the hero.” Honesty makes me add, “And you can’t use Jesus as an expletive. He’s not one of your deities.”
“Oh for Gods’ sake.” He holds his head with his ice-encrusted hands. “Where is my horse?”
With my luck? The horse was probably in my backyard eating my rosebushes with the three runaways we caught on New Year’s Eve. But no, that’s my reality, not his. ”He’s dead.”
He gives me a stricken look. “You killed my horse?”
“He died in battle.” Only I remember that he didn’t, actually, but there is no way I’m rewriting that blasted battle scene again. “Wait. He’s alive. He ran away during the fighting.”
He shakes his head. “I trained him not to bolt, remember?”
Now I do. I put way too much about this horse in the back story, I can see that now. Note to self: next book, no horses. “Then he was captured by the bad guys.”
“No one else can ride him but me.”
“It’s just a horse. Who cares what happened to him? Get over it.” But in my heart I know he’s right. The characters who bicker with me always are. “Look, I’ll have your nemesis steal him, and take him back to the city, and spend the rest of his life trying to tame him so he can ride him. Naturally he’ll never succeed.”
He gives me a stony look.
“Then in a couple of years, I’ll have your horse trample him to death.” He doesn’t react. “And I’ll describe it in minute, painful detail.” No response. The last of my patience evaporates. “Or I could give the horse to the barbarian hordes and let them roast big chunks of him over a fire. They’re always hungry and not too particular about what’s for dinner.”
“Keep pushing.” I show him some teeth. “You’ll find out.”
“Give him to my enemy,” he says at last.
I make my third notation [horse captured by enemy, taken to city, is never tamed, tramples enemy to death] “Done.” I smile. “Now, about those last heroic lines before the tons of snow fall on your head.”
He glances around him. “Where is my sword?”
Terrific. Something else I forgot. “You dropped it during the battle.”
He touches his belt. “And my daggers?”
“The guys who picked over the bodies after the battle stole them.” What is it with this man and all these stupid little details? “You don’t need them. We have to move on now. Your last words are going to be . . . ” I roll my hand.
“I need to kill myself.” As I start telling him how much that sucks, he lifts his hand. “All of my brothers-in-arms just committed suicide to avoid capture and dishonor. You read the research. You know it’s what we do. Give me a blade.”
“You’re not being captured,” I yell. “You’re going to be buried alive. Honorably. Any second now.”
“This is what you do to your hero? After you give his horse to his worst enemy?” He sniffs.
For a guy who was only supposed to appear on five pages of my manuscript he’s really getting mouthy. And interesting, damn him. I have to put my foot down. “You’re not the hero. You were the hero.”
He folds his arms. “I want my sword.”
Sometimes for whatever reason, characters won’t cooperate. But a good writer can always get around that. You just have to think outside the box – and occasionally that means giving them exactly what they want.
“All right, all right. Here’s the sword.” After it appears in his hand, I watch him position the tip at the center of his chest. “Excuse me. When did I tell you that you could run yourself through with it?”
His expression turns stubborn. “I must.”
“No, honey. You can act like you’re going to do it, but if this whole idea is going to work, there can’t be any wounds on your body. Other than, you know.” I gesture at his side.
“Tough.” He wraps his hands around the hilt.
I can see he’s determined to do this thing. Which is exactly what I want. “Any last words?”
“I do not surrender to death,” he tells me. “I take refuge in it. And someday, when I find the means, I will return to this world. I will have my revenge.”
“Perfect.” I make the sword disappear, and he smacks himself in the chest with his empty fists. “Thank you very much.”
He scowls. “You tricked me.”
“Uh-huh.” In reality, I haven’t tricked him at all. Throughout this scene I have not been talking to a real man. I’ve been reconciling what I write with what is produced by the part of my brain that invents and perpetuates the constructs I think of as my characters.
In essence, I’ve been arguing with my own imagination.
I get busy packing up my dictation gear when I remember I still haven’t dealt with the armor situation. The perfect solution to that and another story problem pops into my head. Fortunately I don’t have to make another notation – I just have to tell him to do it.
“Take off your clothes.”
“It’s a weird thing people do sometimes when they get hypothermia,” I tell him. “They feel hot and take off their clothes. I’m not making this up. It was on the news. It happened to that guy who got lost with his family in the woods like two or three years ago.”
“It’s forty below out here,” he shouts.
“Now it is,” I correct him. “It won’t be forever. And they have to find you naked, right? So strip.”
I love having the last word. Even with myself.