Fools and other writers

I wrote TO PLAY THE FOOL beginning in the winter of 1994. In January of 1995, when my husband was off in China, my mother fell and broke both her wrists. For five weeks and three days (but who’s counting?) she had plaster from fingertip to armpit, and could do nothing for herself. If she wanted a snack, she had to wriggle the cracker out of its packet one-handed, lay it on the counter, and bend down to take it in her mouth. Dressing, tooth-brushing, toilet—nope. Even reading was tricky, although thank God she had one of those modern televisions with the remote controls.

So I would begin the day getting my mother up, dressed, and set up with a cup of tea and a straw, then go back next door and do the same for the kids. Back to her house to spoon in her breakfast, then home ditto the kids, and make a quick outing to take the kids to school. Some time in the middle of the morning she would be settled, and I would go up to my study and work, one ear on the buzzer in case she needed help.

In addition, I was writing a book, the first book for which I had a contract before I wrote it. In other words: deadline. And halfway in, just to make my life truly interesting, I decided that my Fool character, Brother Erasmus, really needed to speak entirely in quotations.

So there I was, bent over my Bartlett’s and two or three other dictionaries of quotations, with collected Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, and the King James Version at hand, trying to find means of answering a cop’s questions using the words of these great luminaries, in the gaps between keeping kids fed and mothers dressed and sane, the only fit adult on a two-acre farm.

Why on earth would someone do that?

The only reason I can think of is, novels are an escape. Oh sure, for the reader, but for the writer as well. The intense focus, the challenge of getting the story to work (and of finding the words for one hugely difficult character), the all-encompassing presence in an alternative universe—I’m amazed that every person out there with problems isn’t scribbling away on a masterwork.

As a note, I can’t recommend the technique of a character who speaks in others’ words. I’ve just written a short story for Mike Connelly’s anthology THE BLUE RELIGION (out next year) about Erasmus, and found the speech even more difficult than it was twelve years ago. In fact, I remember talking to Harry (HRF) Keating once about the book—this is a man who has done everything in the mystery field, including a full-length historical mystery novel in verse—and he said he’d once thought about writing a book with a person who spoke in quotes, but given it up as impossible.

He was probably right. The basic requirements are a mother in plaster, a husband in China, a couple of kids, and a large garden.

TO PLAY THE FOOL’s discussion is going on over at the VBC, where we’ll be giving away copies of the 1995 hardback with the gorgeous cover.

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  1. Becca Shmeka on September 8, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    I must be completely honest, I haven’t read FOOL yet, but I plan too. Just the daunting task you had set forth when writing Erasmus’ speech makes me want to read it even more.

    I stand in awe of your writing abilites once again and applaud you for the huge undertaking.

    Keep it up, we need more writers like you.


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