Learning From Other Authors

I’ve spent the past few days reading Nancy Pickard’s novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Not only did I enjoy it thoroughly—it’s a page turner—I also learned from it.

Pickard set the novel in the ranch lands of western Kansas. As I read, I absorbed the locale into my bones, and wondered if someone born and raised in an urban setting would feel the same. (Will some urbanite please read it and tell me?)

In Pickard’s novel, Rose, Kansas is a small town, miles away from any city. People use plain speech, and the author sometimes uses metaphors, like tense as fresh strung barbed wire, to convey state of being or action, and a sense of setting. A horrendous storm comes in from the west, serving as the musical score for a tale of violence and death. Rose is a dying town. Hard work is valued. A female character bakes wonderful pies.

I grew up in Benton County, Indiana, one hundred miles south of Chicago, its western edge on the Illinois/Indiana state line. Our farmhouse faced north. Banks of storm clouds rolled in from the flat lands of the west and slammed against the kitchen windows. A mile away, the little town of Freeland Park slid into oblivion when the railroad diverted to another town. Grain elevators were the skyscrapers of the prairies. My mother was known for the flakiness of her piecrust.

Here is a sentence from the first chapter of The Scent of Rain and Lightning:

A person could, for instance, belong to a nice family living an ordinary life in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and on some innocent Saturday night, violent men could drop in like those tornadoes and turn those nice people into the dead stars of a Truman Capote book.

What a masterful sentence! Setting, culture, language, foreshadowing, and the metaphor: dead stars of a Truman Capote book.

The light of dead stars can be seen long after death.

Memories. Makes you think of In Cold Blood.

Pickard is the genius who thought up the CASTS formula: Conflict, Action, Senses, Turn, Surprise. I re-read her first chapter to find each component, and sure enough, they were all there. Conflict: Jody’s boyfriend, Red, loves her and she doesn’t love him, and her three bossy uncles are downstairs, and she’s in bed with Red, who works for them. Action: Jody and Red jump out of bed and into their clothes, and the three uncles, dressed in their Sunday best, enter her house. Senses: the smell of honeysuckle; tastes of mint and hot sauce; truck doors slamming; the feel of cowboy skin, all banged up, healed over, raw; sights of sky, furniture, uncles. Turn: the interruption in the day—Jody and Red making love and her three uncles showing up unexpectedly, wearing their best straw hats (Where have they been?) Surprise: the uncles tell Jody that the man sent to prison for killing her father, and maybe her mother twenty-three years ago, was let out of prison that morning. And that was only Chapter One.

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