In which narrative mode is like vegetable gardening, no really

If you venture into the Time and Fevers teaser chapters I posted yesterday, and make it through reading all four, you will probably note several things:

1. Wait, this is written from George’s point of view! Cool! (I mean, I hope that’s what you’re saying.)

2. No, hold on, here’s Olivia again.

3. And George.

4. Just a minute now – could she be attempting alternate chapter shifting narrative perspective?

And indeed yes, that is how I wrote the book. I use a third-person subjective and limited mode of narration, meaning that I’m in a character’s head throughout but the character is not “I” to the reader, and for this book I thought it’d be neat to switch back and forth between my protagonists by chapter, which turned out to be… an interesting choice, in the fully diplomatic sense of that adjective. Actually, it was a pain in the narrative butt after a while, but I still think it worked. The shift in perspective helps balance the action when George and Olivia are not together, and lends fairness to the view when they disagree, and I hope gives the reader some sense of what they see in each other, and a report on the broader world and its happenings from differing corners of experience. But it’s probably worth noting that although I continue the trend of using multiple perspectives in later books (Time Goes By has four point-of-view characters, Not Time’s Fool three), this is the only book in which I timed the switch by chapter. Free-form shifts are much easier.

Some of you know that I run the vegetable beds for a Master Gardener demonstration garden, and back in 2011 I decided that a neat way to organize them for the year would be by geographic origin. All the plants that originated in the Americas would grow on one side of the garden, and all the Old World plants on the other. Which was, again, interesting and I hope educational to some visitors – personally I find the history of plant origins and how they’ve been moved around the globe to be fascinating – but ultimately kind of frustrating. You can read how in detail here if you’re interested, but the main point is that I had self-imposed restrictions on what I could plant combined with a very tough growing year. And while I planned and planted and ripped out dead things that could only be replaced by something else from the same part of the planet, I was teased by a sense of familiarity – and then I realized: it’s like Time and Fevers. (It had been six years since the first draft at that point, so it took me a while.) I’d experienced some of the same mental wrestling deciding how to arrange the incidents in the novel, because I knew certain things had to happen, but then I’d say “I want this to be told from George’s perspective, but it’s happening in the middle of Olivia’s chapter! How do I deal with that?” Which ultimately may have been more difficult than deciding what to do with the Mexican “mouse melon” that came up from seed in the middle of Africa, but at least I didn’t have to worry about stink bugs and hurricanes along the way. (Or only in a metaphorical sense.)

As a writer I like point-of-view shifts very much. I enjoyed adding George’s perspective into the mix, and as I work through final edits I’m noting how the chapter-by-chapter switch gives the book some solid bones and helps keep the action moving (from one vertebra to the next, perhaps), not giving the characters time to wallow too deeply in the emotional muck they’d prefer to bury themselves in. It’s easier for a character to laugh at himself if he’s just been viewed from the outside, perhaps. In any case, I’m glad I gave myself the writing exercise… and I will probably never do it again. But I hope you as readers enjoy the final product.


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