So, something a little different from the past two. Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons were fairly long and as rooted in the nineteenth-century as I could make them. Nightwoods is set in the early 1960s. It is also a considerably shorter book with a smaller cast and a compressed time span. I began the book knowing little about where I was going except that I wanted the movement to be quick and tight, so long as I left room for the development of character and place.
The main character, Luce, is a young woman who has learned that the only person she can count on in life is herself. She has isolated herself in an abandoned tourist lodge on the far side of a mountain lake from the town where she grew up. She is convinced that she’s happy by herself with all the lonesome beauty surrounding her. The book begins when Luce’s murdered sister’s young children arrive. They don’t talk. They kill chickens and set fires. Luce doesn’t consider herself the least bit maternal, but she feels pretty deeply that you need to take care of what the world throws in your path. Nothing but instinct to go on, though, since her own mother disappeared when Luce was in grade school. But she’s determined to try to do the right thing.
There’s also an element of mystery or perhaps noir, since that latter term has strong associations with mood and style. I’ve watched dozens of those movies lately, many of them almost impossible to see until the past few years when there has been a flood of DVD releases. Beautiful cinematography and characters. Shadows and rain and slow trumpet solos. People in danger, people needing redemption. Even the worst of bad guys are rarely the kind of psychopathic killers who pursue their victims with laser focus, never doubting their mission. Few happy-ever-after endings in noir, but sometimes people get what they need. Some of that, I’m sure, couldn’t help but seep into this book.
Anyway, those familiar elements of a writer’s whole work that are most identifying--the voice, the style, the “world view,” for lack of a better term--should be present in Nightwoods. To a great degree, they’re hardwired in a writer’s brain, but they also take a lot of work. Supposedly, Raymond Chandler used to cut his typing paper into pieces--four or five strips per page, I think it was--and each strip needed to have something delightful on it. A sharp piece of dialog, a vivid description, some telling detail of character development, even just a clever turn of phrase. Look at practically any page of The Big Sleep and you’ll see what I mean. Though I’ve never tried it, I have always been interested in the simplicity and concreteness of Chandler’s method. Instead, I tend to read pages as units and feel for a quality like weight or density, kind of like choosing a melon. Does it feel heavy for its size? But it’s the same thing I’m hoping to get at: enough of those delightful details of character and place to let the book begin insisting on its own world. Not always an easy determination, though. The materials of fiction are so simple and fragile.