Author Commentary: Winter’s Shadow Chapter 4

by M.J. Hearle

Darkness rippling with emerald light. Bells tolling somewhere in the distance.
She was flying, or falling, while someone held her hand tightly.

Originally, this glimpse of the Dead Lands comprised its own very short chapter. I didn’t actually know what the Dead Lands were going to look like save for the broad strokes – it would be a city lit with an unearthly green light. A city of crumbling gothic cathedrals and ominous tolling bells. I wanted to give the reader just a taste of this realm so wrote the paragraph as a series of disjointed impressions. Stephen King does this a lot in his work – highlighting a sentence or fragment by pulling it out of the body text. I think it’s an interesting way to break up the narrative flow, but my editor didn’t agree so it was merged with the subsequent chapter. I still feel like it would have worked better isolated. The problem was the first chunk of Winter’s Shadow was feeling a little ponderous. Not to me, of course – just everyone else who read it – so we were constantly trying to figure out ways to speed up the pace.

It seemed a sin that such beautiful features
were troubled by this worried expression.

This chapter gave me a lot of trouble. I re-wrote it more than other section in the book’s first half. Why? Well, it’s Blake and Winter’s first interaction with each other. That’s pretty damn pivotal. I didn’t want to screw the pooch. With distance, it seems like a relatively straightforward scene to write – Winter is attracted to Blake but also wary of him. Blake appears aloof and mysterious – yet for some reason I just couldn’t nail it. I kept swinging too far in one direction or the other. In one draft, Winter is automatically obsessed with Blake, in another she thinks he’s a weirdo. Sometimes Blake was sullen and brooding, other times he’s a charming rogue. I hadn’t decided just who the hell Blake was? This is what happens when you start writing a story without knowing your characters. For some reason, I just assumed my characters would take on a life of their own (and to be fair, sometimes this happens). All I had to do was create a scene and let them improvise the dialogue. Obviously, as is evident by the new grey hairs that were appearing daily, this approach was ill advisable. Interestingly, I tried this again with Winter’s Light and it worked. I was much more confident while writing the sequel which makes all the difference.

His voice was soft; his breath smelled vaguely of that
strange darkness she’d fallen into: aromatic, sweet.

The Demori’s breath being sweet and lulling is a biological feature that probably wasn’t crystalised until the second book. I wonder if I knew it while writing this line? It’s doubtful. So much of the mythology evolved from these scattered phrases. It’s like I was hiding tidbits for myself to discover and expand upon at a later date.

He was looking at her more deeply than anyone
ever had before, his vision penetrating her mind, as
though searching for something hidden.

Could I have been a little more obvious with this line? For shame, Michael!

How did she come to be lying here in
the clearing? Had she been hit on the head
and suffered some kind of brain damage?

In the first few drafts my agent actually suspected Winter might be suffering brain damage. She felt – and rightly so – that the character was too slow to connect the dots. ‘Dense’, I believe was the word used. Winter’s internal monologue consisted of far too many questions. The reason for this is simple – I didn’t know what was going on half time and Winter being my surrogate inherited this general state of befuddlement. Of course, if I’d revised my work better before submitting it to my agent I would have exorcised much of this ruminating. Unfortunately, time is always my enemy and as such I never seem to have enough of it. Especially, at the proofing stage. One of the great luxuries I’m experiencing at the moment while writing the third Winter novel is no deadline. For the first time I’m going to really be able to go over my manuscript with a fine tooth comb before submission. The downside is it’s taking me twice as long to write this book. I need someone to light a fire beneath me. Got a match?

Dead leaves crunched beneath her as she shifted her weight.

I always try to sprinkle in some ‘sound fx’. It helps the reader create a more vivid mental image.

She would rather have broken a bone or two if it meant
saving the Nikon. Bones healed, cameras didn’t.

My original intention was the damaged camera to be a pivotal plot point. Blake was supposed to hide the roll of film in his jacket which Winter would later discover and this would kick start the mystery of Blake. I could never make it work though. I was trying to revolve the plot around an inanimate object – a Hitchockian McGuffin if you will (and you will) – because I was so insecure about focusing purely on character. Characters should drive the narrative, not the other way around.

After a moment’s thought, he turned back to Winter
and asked hopefully, ‘Miss Adams, don’t suppose I could
get you to sign those insurance forms now, could I?’

Re-reading this chapter I’m pleased to discover how well it flows. My memories of the prose difficulties, the agonising over dialogue, and the numerous revisions made me apprehensive about approaching it again. While I might have been a seething mass of insecurities during the writing, luckily it didn’t translate into the pages. So much of this game is down to luck. Sure, Mr Denning’s last line isn’t the kicker it coulda been but it’s neat and makes me smile and that ain’t bad.