Welcome to today’s stop on The Girl In The Box blog tour. Featured will be author Sheila Dalton who has kindly agreed to a guest post. Her new book The Girl In The Box is the subject of the guest post specifically her choice on how to even start. Not easy for a writer I’m sure.
Caitlin Shaughnessy, a Canadian journalist, discovers that Inez, a traumatized young Mayan woman originally from Guatemala, has killed Caitlin’s psychoanalyst partner, Dr. Jerry Simpson. Simpson brought the girl, who may be autistic, back to Canada as an act of mercy and to attempt to treat her obvious trauma. Cailin desperately needs to find out why this terrible incident occurred so she can find the strength to forgive and move on with her life.
Inez, whose sense of wonder and innocence touches all who meet her, becomes a focal point for many of the Canadians who encounter her. As Caitlin struggles to uncover the truth about Inez’s relationship with Jerry, Inez struggles to break free of the projections of others. Each must confront her own anger and despair. The doctors in the north have an iciness that matches their surroundings, a kind of clinical armour that Caitlin must penetrate if she is to reach Inez.
Choosing a Beginning
The beginning of The Girl in the Box went through so many changes, I lost count. The problem is that it’s told by two different narrators: Jerry Simpson, the doctor who rescues a Mayan girl from a shed where she is kept by her parents in the Guatemalan jungle, and his lover, Caitlin, after he is killed.
In a first draft, I began with Caitlin, in Toronto, discovering that her lover has been murdered by the young Mayan woman, Inez. I thought it was a suitably dramatic place to start, and would grab the reader’s attention.
However, after workshopping the ms. on two Internet writing sites and getting mixed responses, I took a closer look at it. I still couldn’t decide, but I tried moving Jerry Simpson’s part to the beginning, so that the scene where he is sitting with the Mayan girl’s parents in their ramshackle house in the jungle, wondering what he has let himself in for, is the novel’s first page.
Then I asked for more feedback, and, again, opinions were mixed. Worse, most readers were no more able to decide than I was! Many said something like, “I don’t know. I like the Jerry scene because it’s atmospheric, but the Caitlin scene is way more dramatic, and really grabbed me.”
The deciding vote came from me, and from an author in Guatemala, who read the ms. to check my Spanish, and details of Guatemala I may have forgotten or got wrong. I hadn’t been there in years, and my notes from my extended trip in the seventies were incomplete.
She seemed confused by the novel which, when I gave it to her, began once again with Caitlin’s section. She told me she didn’t get into it fully until the next section, Jerry’s. She couldn’t really explain why, but when I took yet another look, I thought it could be because the Caitlin scene plunges you directly into a very emotional place, without any chance to get to know Caitlin, and thus to care about her. Therefore, I switched back to Jerry, and I’m not sorry I did.
I didn’t stop thinking about it after my final decision, but every time I looked at it, I thought it worked better with Jerry starting things off. It’s a slower beginning, but it’s quite mysterious. We are still put right into the middle of things, but it’s not an action scene, it’s fairly slow. I think because both the reader and Jerry aren’t sure what’s going on, it’s intriguing, and makes you want to read on. It doesn’t overwhelm you with action and emotion, and allows you to get to know Jerry a little before you’re expected to feel for him.
I decided it is not always best to start with your most exciting action scene – a lot depends on what you are trying to accomplish and how you think it will engage the reader. Perhaps it goes against the grain of most writing advice, but in this case, it seemed wiser to start slow and build up to the more climactic scenes.
Guatemala, Feb., 1983
The smell was thick as sludge, and rancid. It forced an intake of breath when Jerry wanted to pinch his nostrils shut and run out of the hut.
He struggled to ignore it, but the stench dropped into his throat and lodged there. When he tried to swallow, he coughed instead.
“Agua?” He turned to the Mayan behind him. “Por favor?”
The man nodded while continuing to talk to his wife.
Jerry leaned into his arms on the rough-hewn table and stared at the crucifixes on the wall.
There were five hand-carved wooden Messiahs in front of him, each more lurid than the last. One strained so far outwards from his cross that Jerry thought he looked like he could tear himself off and change religious history. Painted blood ran from the hands, feet and sides of all five, and hung in gobs from a number of wounded knees. It cascaded over one Christ’s body in vermilion stripes, ending in a single dangling blob at the bottom of the cross.
The murmur behind Jerry grew louder. He swivelled around. The couple dropped their eyes and lowered their voices simultaneously, as though performing a duet.
“Agua?” he pleaded, a hand to his throat.
“Si, Senor.” This time, the man shooed his wife behind a ragged curtain then followed her out of sight.
Jerry concentrated on the pictures on the wall,. colourful renditions of what he thought must be Mayan deities, interspersed with rumpled copies of paintings of Catholic saints. An abundance of spiritualities, where he himself had none.
He frowned at the uplifted eyes and sweet secretive smiles of the saints. Multicoloured woollen frames bordered each blissful face—red, orange, bright yellow, the kind of blues and greens that oceans radiate and skies sometimes faintly reflect—colours out of a child’s fantasy, woven together with tufts and tassels and thick, knotted fringes that infused the pictures with the kind of robust good cheer he’d come to admire in Latin Americans themselves.
His spirits lifted. But there was that unhealthy smell, and a filthy blanket hanging heavily over the doorway, blocking air and light.
He’d met the couple while riding the bus to the village of Panajachel, on the way back from the market in Chichicastenanga.
Baskets were everywhere, and lunches wrapped in banana leaves, redolent with spices. Chickens clucked on the seats beside their owners. The women’s feet were bare and dusty, the ribbons in their thick braids vibrant against the dark coils of their hair.
As Jerry admired both ribbons and braids, the woman in the seat directly across the aisle from him leaned forward and vomited in a thin stream onto the floor, then moaned and nestled back against her male companion.
The macho drivers and the hair-raising roads made travel sickness so common here that no one except Jerry reacted . He sat forward in his seat,frowning at the ashen grey of the woman’s face, a stark contrast to her blue, red and orange huipil, and the vivid rebozo clutched tightly to her mouth.
She groaned again, loudly, and Jerry’s frown deepened. The man who, despite his healthy brown face, looked dull and pedestrian beside her in his faded T-shirt and polyester pants tied with string, pressed a hand to her forehead.
Jerry leaned across the narrow aisle, and spoke haltingly. “The Senora is…ill? Sick?
“Yo soy…doctor,” he added when he saw the fear in the couple’s eyes. He hoped to reassure them; his Spanish was limited, and it was the best he could do. “From Canada. Don’t be afraid.”
He addressed the woman, punctuating his speech with hand gestures and smiles. “Do you have stomach pain? A headache? Where do you hurt?”
The Girl in the Box is available from Amazon:
You can read reviews and the first chapter, and learn more about me and my work on my website: http://www.sheila-anne-dalton.com
Sheila Dalton has written books, both fiction and non-fiction, for adults, children and teens. Her YA mystery, Trial by Fire, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis, Canada’s major Crime Writers award. The Girl in the Box is her second literary novel for adults. It’s winning good reviews from both professional review journals and readers.
Be sure to continue following The Girl In The Box blog tour by visiting tomorrows host Michelle Fayard