I killed my mother, I must confess. And while I’m at it, I should admit I killed my baby brother too. In the interest of full disclosure I should also own up to doing away with an uncle and a few cousins as well.
I know full well that matricide, fratricide—familycide in general—are frowned upon in polite society. But I’m not the least bit sorry. In fact, under the right circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to repeat the act. I had to do it. My story, a fictional novel very loosely based on my life, was drowning with the weight of its characters.
To assuage any sensibilities that may be aroused by my dastardly acts, I will let you know that the murders were done off stage, very discretely. I could have lined them all up against a wall and shot them, right in front of God and everybody, and been totally within my rights. My story, after all, is set during the Cuban revolution in 1958—executions were common place. But I disposed of my family gently, elegantly. My mother, bless her soul, died giving birth to me. With one stroke of the pen I not only got rid of one very significant adult, but I also gave my protagonist a reason to have guilt—because she lived, her brother didn’t have a mother. I transformed the baby brother into a 17 year old and morphed the essence of the combined souls of the rest of my relatives into his character.
Having to kill and change people is a peril you run into when you write a novel loosely based on fact. Not just historical novels, like mine. When we know the story so well—when it’s our story, or the story of someone we know or have come to know—it is difficult to sacrifice the truth in order to let that fictional story shine through.
I think it was Stephen King that said you have to kill your darlings. I’m not sure he meant fratricide and matricide, but in essence, he said get rid of anything that doesn’t move your story forward. That is particularly hard when it comes to characters. Each one of those people had a story, an experience, which was significant to the historical context. Their experiences weren’t darlings to be cast aside. They were representative and exciting. And my real life was so lame, I had to draw on their experiences for my plot. I needed their experiences. Every one of them. But even I realized that the reader would need a cheat sheet with the names and life stories of each relative in order to keep up with the plot.
It was my friend Ivy Ruckman (Night of the Twister), who suggested an older brother replace the uncle. Why hadn’t I thought of that? That simple change made everything simple. In the brother I could develop the mindset of the young revolutionary, in love with Fidel Castro who could be the foil against the pro-establishment and anti-Fidel father. The brief discussions about the revolution which happen as a result of the action, are now organic. A perfect case of the new pared down cast showing rather than telling what it was like living in those first two and a half years of Castro’s revolution.
Another result of my murderous binge was that now my protagonist participated fully in all of the experiences without having to take a taxi. In the previous version, an older cousin (it happened, I promise) was writing pamphlets against the revolution to hand out at school.
Eventually, someone finds out, calls her and tells her she’d better stop of else. My cousin ended up in an embassy not long after that phone call. But in order to get my protagonist to see that, I had to invite her to a meeting at her older cousins’ house, find a way to get her money for a taxi and a way to sneak off to her cousins’ house, hear what the older kids are saying and later find out about the phone call and her cousin’s exile from her father. With the brother embodying some of the experiences of other characters, my protagonist is right there, in the same room. She chooses to write pamphlets of her own to distribute at church, and she is the one who picks up the phone when the ultimatum is received—who’s the ultimatum for, her or her brother? Now the book is full of energy and the narrative moves quickly from one exciting scene to another. No more taking a figurative taxi or a bus to get the protagonist to the action.
It was a significant change in the book, I must admit. More of a re-imagining of the whole story than a revision. But I believe it has been well worth it. Now we’ll see if a power that be agrees with me and buys my story. I really hope someone does. My cousins are really not happy that I killed them, whether on or off the stage. They were all hoping for a cameo. The only way I’ll keep them quiet is to prove them wrong and have a best seller.
Terry Jennings began writing in 1999. Her first piece “Moving Over to the Passenger’s Side,” about teaching her fifteen-year-old to drive was published by The Washington Post. She has written a few other articles for them and Long Island News Day. Since then she has written for Ranger Rick and had a family humor column in her local newspaper, The Reston Connection. Primarily she writes educational text for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and other educational outlets. Gopher to the Rescue! A Volcano Recovery Story (Sylvan Dell, 2012) was named Outstanding Science Trade Book by the National Science Teachers’ Association and the Children’s Book Council. Her other book, The Women’s Liberation Movement: 1960-1990 (Mason Crest, 2013) was named to the Amelia Bloomer Project’s recommended feminist literature for women birth to 18. Sounds of the Savanna, a book about sound as told through predator/prey interactions in the African savanna is on its way with Arbordale Publishers. It’s due out fall of 2015. Currently she is working on a historical novel about the Cuban Revolution (1959-1961) loosely based on her childhood along with a couple of other picture books–one on Magnetism and one on Erosion.
Thanks Terry for sharing your article with us. I will be doing a lot of killing this week.