Writing the Problem Child

castillo vista

Castillo de San Marcos – St. Augustine, FL

Every author will tell you that they have secret books – those that will probably never see the light of day. Our skeletons in the closet, if you will pardon the cliché. We also have our problem children – those books that, for whatever reason, were harder to write than others. The more experienced and prolific the author, the more of these they are likely to have. Some problem children allow themselves to be finished, others do not.

I have such a problem child – Indian Summer. This one allowed me to finish it, but there was great doubt for a long time. The problem was several fold. First of all, I chose first person, which is difficult for a new writer. However, Gabriella was determined to speak for herself, so I had no choice but to make it work.
Another problem with the original manuscript was that I tried writing it as a diary. NEVER do that as the entire book. It’s boring and it doesn’t work at all.

Third, and most difficult for me to overcome – there wasn’t a lot of information on-line and the books I most needed were frequently missing from the shelves. If it hadn’t been for a happy accident, I would never have found the information I needed – but that’s subject for another post.

I had chosen a time period in the 1830’s, little knowing what a problem this would present. My basic idea was that Gabriella was forced to marry Manuel by an uncaring father. Manuel, a drunkard womanizing gambler, was abusive. To get away from him, Gabriella fled to New Smyrna from St. Augustine, to live with her sister at the sugar mill. When the sugar mill was attacked, she would find friendly Indians and be taken in by the tribe.

After some research, I found out that the tribe I wanted to use died out circa 1777. That bumped my time period back about six decades. While there was a great deal to be found about American owned Florida of the 1830’s, there wasn’t much on the Spanish occupation. Yes, there were books, but as I said, they were hard to find. However, with some digging, I found that there was a major siege of St. Augustine, by the British, in 1740. I chose to move my date back another 38 years, to 1739, the year before the siege. (This decision wasn’t made until later.)

My troubles didn’t stop there. After a time, Gabriella stopped talking. I wrote a few scenes, mostly scribbling them in a notebook late at night, but she abjectly refused to move forward. Something was wrong. Rather than figuring it out, I dropped the notebook in a drawer and left it there. I didn’t entirely forget about Gabriella and her struggles, but the voice was muted. I was a busy mother and didn’t have time or the wherewithal to diagnose and heal Indian Summer’s woes.

Several years later, I was cleaning out the drawer. I found the notebook and started reading. I remember thinking, “This is crap.” I almost tore the pages out to throw them away, and then I came to a scene that caught my attention. It’s one that happens later in the book after Gabriella meets Sailfish, the Indian man. I read the first few sentences – then more. “This is pretty damn good,” I concluded. “I can work with this.”

I carefully removed the pages from the notebook and carried them to the computer. My first step was to type everything out NOT as a diary. I still used Gabriella’s voice, but as if she were speaking. As I typed, the story began to unfold. Gabriella started speaking again, her voice loud and clear.

As the story progressed, I found I had less and less control over the action. Somewhere around the time that Manuel takes Gabriella to a horse race on her birthday, it got away from me and galloped off like a runaway horse.
Manuel, the evil, womanizing gambler refused to be bad. In fact, he reformed!

Gabriella, the shy violet of the piece, decided that she would not sit quietly while she was shoved around and manipulated. She also refused to fall in love with anyone but Manuel.

Sailfish was forced to take a secondary role in the book. He did so grudgingly. I finally had to promise him his own book so he would behave. It’s not finished yet (it’s another problem child) but I do have a good start on Savage Heart.

A secondary love interest, became the villain. He snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting that at all. That’s what made him the perfect man for the job. The governor, Gabriella’s father, didn’t suspect him either.

At the time, the experience of having the characters take off on their own was extremely disconcerting. Later, I realized it was a far better book than I had envisioned. Now, I delight in the moment the characters become so real, they move the action instead of me. That’s when I know I’m doing my job right, recording their lives as they live them.

Below is the scene that grabbed my attention as I read through my scribbles. The way it appears in the book is almost identical to the original. From Chapter 13 & 14 of Indian Summer by Dellani Oakes.

The ocean felt blood warm and comforting. I hadn’t realized how much my body ached from my new activities. The tension of the last few weeks washed from my body as the water closed over me. It buoyed me up, letting me float gently on the waves. I closed my eyes to the bright morning sun and rested. I didn’t realize how far I drifted, for the tide was going out. I heard a noise, a shout from the beach and looked up. I was much further out than I intended and began to swim slowly back in.

Before I saw what was happening, a man dove into the water and swam rapidly past me. It was not until then I saw the fin on the water. Shark! I could formulate no other thoughts but the horror of that image, that word. I had seen people attacked by sharks, their bodies torn and bloody, bloated from the water they died in. I swam for my life as quickly as I could. The man met the shark not far from the
shore. I scrambled out, running to my clothing. I had the ridiculous notion that it would somehow protect me. There was a battle going on in the waves, but I couldn’t see it clearly. The man raised his knife, the sun glittering off the blade. He brought it down on the shark again and again with a dull, liquid “thunk.” Blood was everywhere, but whether it was his or the shark’s I didn’t know.

Forgetting my clothing for the moment, I grabbed my knife. Foolishly, I dashed back into the water as man and shark dove under! I couldn’t see either of them, just blood on the waves. A small ripple where they went down was the only other thing visible. Suddenly, the water beside me erupted as a huge shark leapt out of the water not five feet from me! I screamed, frozen to the spot. I saw the knife in its ugly, brutish head, between its eyes. It was fighting fiercely, despite numerous stab wounds.

Clinging to it stubbornly was a man. Sailfish! He was covered in blood, slipping from the shark’s hide. The vicious beast gave a last squirm as the life left it. It shivered once more and died. Sailfish drew his blade from it, racing toward me.

“Run!” He yelled.

I was stupefied, I couldn’t make my legs work. I stood there naked and dripping, too terrified to move.

“Run!” He yelled again. “Gabriella, get out of the water!”

Before he finished speaking, I saw the fins racing toward all the blood, toward us! I turned and ran, splashing and flailing to get to shore. He caught up with me, righting me as I fell. Impatient at my lack of speed, he lifted me out of the water, carrying me to the sand. His long legs covered the distance in less time than it takes to tell of it. I stared in shock and horror as the dead shark danced crazily in the water, the others tearing its carcass to pieces in a horrific frenzy! A scream threatened to erupt from my throat. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. Gradually, the furor died down and the sharks swam away. Nothing was left of the dead one. I sank to my knees, retching. I had not eaten yet that morning, so it was dry heaves. Sometimes that’s worse than actually vomiting. I became aware of strong hands helping me sit up, of the same hands dressing me like a baby and the muscular arms around me, holding me while I cried.

All the sorrow, anger, and fear that had built in me since the night of my capture, came pouring out in a flood of tears. I felt so safe in his arms. I clung to him, weeping as if my heart were broken. He held me, rocked me, and stroked my hair, all the while speaking in low monotones. None of it made sense to me for he spoke in his own tongue, but the flow of the words and the tone were comforting. I cried a long time, finally coming to a stop. He continued to hold me, giving me his comfort.

Soon, however, the touch changed, I felt the comforting become a caress as a lover would touch his beloved. I don’t know why, but I felt a tingling sensation for the first time since we met. He was so strong, virile, warm and so alive. He stopped rocking me, but continued to hold me, turning my tear-streaked face gently to his. I gazed into his jet black eyes, lost in their depths. His strong jaw was working, trying to hold the emotions in. I felt his manhood pressing against me and faltered in my resolve.

God help me, I loved Manuel! How could I dishonor him by kissing another man? Even as I thought this, Sailfish lowered his lips to mine and kissed me with a passion not even Manuel had equaled. I melted into his embrace, his lips locked with mine, his tongue probing my mouth. I burned inside, my heart fluttering like a trapped bird. I felt swept away as if the ocean waves had carried me off into the water once more. Wave after hot wave coursed through my body. He touched me all the places I knew he shouldn’t, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to stop him. I was so tired of fighting desire, sick of saying no, weary of being proper.

I believe I would have allowed him to continue had we not heard shouts coming from on the mound. There was a ruckus on the river side of the island. Reluctantly, he let go of me, turning to the lookout. Sailfish called out to him, demanding to know what was wrong. I couldn’t understand his answer, for they spoke in their native tongue. Sailfish all but dumped me on the sand as he rose and ran toward the camp, shouting as he went. I gathered myself up running after him, curious and afraid all at once.

I was sure it had to do with James and me. I was afraid for all these people, worried they would be injured. I was terrified that Sailfish would kill James, or worse, James would kill him.

To purchase Indian Summer

Indian Summer – Excerpt

indian summer scanned cover 500 x 750Gabriella Deza is the youngest daughter of the Spanish Governor of Florida. The year is 1739 and trouble is, as usual, brewing with the British. It is nearing Gabriella’s fifteenth birthday, a major step for a Spanish girl, where she becomes a woman. Her father gives her charge over her younger brother, asking her to care for him while he and his wife are gone to Jamaica. The day of their return, a terrible storm hits the shore.

 There was a nagging feeling of dread rising in my mind. I felt hot then cold all over as if I were taking sick again. I had the feeling that Manuel needed me, something was horribly, terribly wrong. I couldn’t suppress it, for it seared my soul. My dreams nagged my thoughts, causing shivers of dread down my spine.

Without saying a word to anyone, I wended my way as quickly and quietly to the door as I could. It was hardly more than three minutes after Manuel left, and yet he was nowhere in sight. He must have taken his buggy. Having no such vehicle available to me, I ran to the fortress with as much speed as I could muster. I was grateful to Grand-mère for the dress as it provided more mobility than any of my other outfits would have.

The hair rose on my arms as if I were cold, my breath came in shuddering gasps and yet I ran until I thought my lungs would burst. It was then I saw it, a flicker, a flame and suddenly the entire southeast bastion of the fort seemed to be on fire!

Silhouetted against it, I saw a man. My dream came rushing back of an instant and I knew it to be James the spy! I couldn’t contain my anger. It drove me onward, compelling me to be hasty, chiding my slowness. Anger burned within me, hot and fierce as the signal fire before me, filling me with a fury driving away my fear.

I finally reached the gate, passing the ladies and the buggy without fully noticing. I saw no sign of Manuel, James or anyone else. In fact, the postern gate was open and unguarded, just as in my dream! I stifled the shriek I felt rising in my throat. Fear gripped me, cold unreasoning fear. Dread of ghosts of dead soldiers floated through my mind, making me shiver again.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think or make any decision. I stood there stupidly, gaping at the sight in front of me, riveted to the spot. That was my undoing. Stealthily out of the shadows, James was upon me. He grabbed me in his strong arms, holding me to him, using me as a shield, a gun pointed at my head!

An involuntary scream ripped from my throat! James chided me, goaded me on, pulling my hair, waving the gun before me!

“Go ahead and scream, lass. Scream for all you’re worth! It will bring him to me. I’ve waited, plotted, planned for this moment. Before the sun rises, he’ll be dead and you, my lass, you will be mine!”

He planted a rough, brutal kiss on my cheek, nipping my ear, causing me to scream again. I writhed away from him, but he held me fast. He shifted his hold upon me, crushing me against his pelvis. I could feel the lust in him. It disgusted and terrified me. He seemed to feed off my fear, growing more bold.

“That’s it, that’s it! He’ll be here any minute that upstart Spanish bastard!”

He was turning around from side to side, holding me in front of him, pulling my hair to keep me on my feet, for I was near to fainting. A shadow moved stealthily toward us. I hoped James had not seen. Perhaps I only hoped so much that it was Manuel, I imagined it. But no, I heard a pistol being cocked and knew James heard it to. From our left, Manuel emerged quietly from the shadows, pistol in hand.

The light from the signal fire threw wavering shadows and highlights over his face, making him look demonic, his handsome face contorted into an unyielding mask of cold rage and hatred. His hand was steady, pointing the gun at James, who tried in vain to keep me in front of him. Manuel lifted his chin standing still.

“Let her go, James, or I shall drop you where you stand.”

“If you shoot me, she’s dead.” He put the gun up against my head.

“Don’t be so sure of that, Doctor.”

I could hear panic rising in James’ voice. His breath coming in fast gulps, hot on my neck. “Drop your gun. I’ll let her go if you drop your gun!”

“Do you take me for a complete fool? You drop your gun and I’ll give you a head start to the gate to run like the cowardly cur you are. Stand away from her now.”

James’ hand holding the weapon was beginning to falter. I summoned all my resolve and slammed my elbow into his ribs, stamped on his foot and hit him in his private parts as hard as I could with both my fists together.

He gasped for breath, falling to the ground, dropping his gun. Manuel kept him covered while I jumped out of reach. All I could think of was getting away, returning to the safety of my home, of Manuel’s arms. I was in a panic, terrified! Then I saw the man behind Manuel, musket raised like a club, the sailor who had met James.

Manuel couldn’t get a shot off in time, but caught the blow of the musket with his pistol stock, forcing the man away from him. They grappled for what seemed hours, but was only a few seconds. Unfortunately, neither of us watched James. He lunged for his pistol, grabbing it before I could warn Manuel. I could do nothing to stop him. I was too far away. I tried to scream, to alert Manuel in some way, but the sound caught in my throat.

Manuel and the sailor turned just as James raised his gun to shoot. James’ shot caught the other man in the back, the bullet slamming through him as if he were jelly. The echo in the stone courtyard was deafening. Then they fell!

“Manuel! Dear God, he’s been shot!” I screamed to no one.

The other fellow was dead, but Manuel was still moving. I ran to be by his side, but James grabbed my hair again and dragged me away! The last I saw, Manuel was lying in a pool of blood, his life draining from him and I could do nothing!