Author Brigid Amos talks about choosing the best point of view for her protagonist, Ruthie, in A Fence Around Her, a Young Adult Historical novel.
One of the biggest decisions a writer makes when she begins a new story is choosing a point of view (POV). There are many ways to define POV, but I like to think of it as the means by which the writer guides the reader through the story and what she allows the reader to see, hear, and know. It is as if the reader arrives at a theater to watch a performance, and the writer is the usher who shows the reader to his seat. But the seat isn’t necessarily in the audience. Sometimes, it’s inside the head of one of the characters, sometimes, it is even inside the writer’s head. Where the reader sits will completely affect how he experiences the story. The usher can move the reader around during the performance, but must do so in such a way that he does not get confused and lose track of the story.
When I first started writing, I gravitated toward an omniscient point of view, or so I thought. I wanted to tell the reader what everyone was thinking and feeling, as if I were a camera floating about a scene, but one that could also dive in and out of characters’ heads at will and somehow record their thoughts. I think this tendency to the omniscient POV is very common among beginning writers. For me, it was probably an effect of being steeped in classic literature. But the problem was that I was not writing in a true omniscient POV. Instead, I was “head hopping,” that is, changing POV from one character to another and completely confusing the reader. I learned early on that if I were going to write in third person, I had to stick to one character for an entire chapter or at least an entire section. In this way, I could write in a close third person POV without getting into too much literary mischief.
When I started writing A Fence Around Her, I so strongly identified with my protagonist Ruthie Conoboy, that I naturally switched my usual close third person POV to first person POV. Ruthie tells her story directly to the reader, and when the reader comes to my theater, I seat her right there in Ruthie’s head so that she can look through Ruthie’s eyes and hear with Ruthie’s ears. When I was writing, I felt that I was Ruthie writing the story as if in a journal or diary. People always ask me if I journal. When I was studying for my Master's degree years ago, I bought myself one of those cute little fabric covered blank books and dutifully filled the pages every day. Then I stopped, because frankly, journaling wasn’t as fun for me as it is for others. The strange thing is that when I write in first person, it feels as if I am journaling, but I’m doing it in character. And when I’m journaling from the point of view of one of my characters, it is most certainly fun!
|A Fence Around Her|
By Brigid Amos
Can a girl break free from her mother’s past?
About the book:
Having a mother with a past is never easy. For Ruthie Conoboy it becomes the struggle of a lifetime in 1900, the year Tobias Mortlock arrives in the gold mining town of Bodie, California. Ruthie is suspicious of this stranger, but her trusting father gives him a job in the stamp mill. Soon, Ruthie suspects that her mother and Mortlock have become more than friends. Can Ruthie stop this man from destroying her family?
When I left the house that day to go to the Sawdust Corner Saloon to fetch my father, the day we met Tobias Mortlock, my mother was still lying in bed moaning as if from a mortal wound and threatening to do herself harm. While I was gone, she had gotten up and tried to console herself by working on her latest landscape. But something had gone wrong, for when we came through the front door into the parlor, we found my mother slumped on the floor. Her silk dressing gown lay in folds around her and her blond curls stuck to her head in a multicolored array. Little pots of oil paint were scattered across the floor dribbling the last of sky blue, forest green, and yellow ochre onto the Persian rug.
“Lilly, what have you done?” My father reached down and lifted her to her feet, then walked over to where the easel lay collapsed on the floor and righted it also. He peeled the wet canvas from the rug and set it on the easel, then stepped back to have a look at it.
Somewhat distracted by the bits of red fuzz from the carpet embedded in the wet paint, I fixed my eyes on the canvas, trying to sort out the swirls of color into a cohesive image. My mother waited silently for our verdict. She seemed, in that moment, as fragile as a sparrow. I was relieved when my father broke the silence with his jovial critique.
“Why Lilly, it is the spitting image of Mono Lake. Yes, here are the islands in the center, and here the mountains rising up in the background. It is quite an impressive site, just as we saw it that day.” Two summers before, my father had taken us on a trip to the lake on the narrow gauge railroad that brought us firewood from the lumber mill on its southern shore. I remember how much my mother enjoyed that rare outing, saying over and over that the lake reminded her of the San Francisco Bay.
“It’s a fine painting, Mother,” I said. She moaned.
“What was that, Lilly?”
“No, Father, she didn’t say anything. She only made a sound.”
“Not good enough!” Mother wailed. Her sticky, colorful curls quivered like bunting in a light breeze.
“That’s not true, dear,” my father said. “You are a fine artist. It’s these fools in this town who don’t appreciate it. Look around at all the beauty in this parlor! Every day, I come home and think, who else has so many beautiful works of art on their walls? Maybe just Leland Stanford, Randal Hearst, and me.” He reached out to brush back her sticky hair. She slapped his arm away, smearing paint on the cuff of his sleeve.
“I’m not talking about the stupid painting," she said. “It’s me. I’ll never be good enough, not in Bodie.”
“Of course you are. I married you, didn’t I?”
At this she let out a wild scream and shook her head as if fending off a swarm of bees. Oil droplets sprayed in all directions, and I looked out the window to see if anyone could have heard. Mortlock had long moved on, and the street was deserted.
My mother stopped shaking and screaming, but she was still furious. “I am so sick of hearing about how you did me this grand favor by marrying me. If you’d wanted to do something for me, you would have taken me away from this awful place. You would have taken me somewhere people didn’t know me, where I could have been a regular woman.”
My father looked at the paint-spattered rug. “Ruthie, why don’t you go in the kitchen and start boiling water. I think your mother needs a bath.”
As I lit the stove and poured water into pots, I could hear their voices in the parlor, still going back and forth as they always did. Hers was like a mournful violin, his like a jolly French horn hopelessly out of step with the violin. Together they made a dissonant sound like musicians trying to play a duet, but each playing a different piece of music. And it never mattered what they were playing since it was always a variation on the same theme.
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About Brigid Amos:
Brigid Amos’ young adult historical fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Storyteller, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Words of Wisdom. A produced playwright, she co-founded the Angels Playwriting Collective and serves on the board of the Angels Theatre Company. She is also an active member of Women Writing the West and the Nebraska Writers Guild. Although Brigid left a nugget of her heart behind in the California Gold Country, most of it is in Lincoln, Nebraska where she currently lives with her husband.
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