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Saturday 2 September 2017

Writing – character conflict and backstory

Story needs conflict. It doesn’t have to be physical. It can be psychological, verbal, or even natural – the weather, for example. These moments of conflict can also provide an opportunity to fill in backstory – where past events ripple into the present…
This excerpt is an example of physical conflict, but underlying it are other elements – guilt, shame, disgust, and inevitably power-hunger and lust; and a determined strength.
Sudden Vengeance, my vigilante crime thriller set in the fictitious seaside town of Alverbank in Southern England presents the Knight family facing a number of conflicting emotions shortly after burying an elderly family member, her death attributable to a burglary. The book is quite short, so description is pared down, but there should be enough to help the reader visualise the scene. (Character descriptions occurred much earlier). Also, for the scene to be fast-paced, there mustn't be too much extraneous description. It's all about inner turmoil and emotional response.

And, hopefully, leaving the scene quickly, breathless.

Extract from Chapter 11: Detective Sergeant Roger Muir is calling on Cathy Knight at her home while her husband David is working late at the office.

“It’s damned cold out here, Cathy. Can I come in and talk?”
She eased the door shut a fraction. “No, I don’t think so. There’s nothing to talk about.”
“I think there is.” He grinned. It was probably his intention to appear lascivious or seductive but it came out lopsided.
As she made to shut the door his hands darted out of his pockets and pushed at the wooden panels. For all his bulk, he was quick and strong. The force of his weight sprung the chain and fixings from the jamb. Pieces of painted wood sprayed her as she stepped back in sudden alarm.
Realising she couldn’t shut the door on him, she backed away down the hall, brushing against the wall, her heart fluttering, legs feeling weak, stomach gyrating in fear.
This was her home, he had no right!
“I don’t like being dropped, Cathy.” Muir grimaced and massaged his left hand. “What’s the matter? Are you too good for me? Is that it?” He shoved his hat back from his brow and advanced along the hall, leaving the front door half open. He began unbuttoning his overcoat, smiling.
It had happened on a bleak dark evening last winter. At the time, David had been out of work for just over a year and she was thoroughly depressed, though of course she never let any of the family know how down she really felt.
David was in Leeds, staying overnight in preparation for a job interview first thing next day. (There were ninety applicants, and although he ended up on a short-list that meant an extra evening’s stay, he didn’t get the post). The children were out with friends. She attended the evening art class, glad to get out.
But her attempts at drawing the quite attractive life model failed totally to give the subject depth. And the perspective was wrong.
During the tea break, she sat next to Muir who was studying photography with another evening class. They chatted and he’d sounded quite interested in her artistic leanings. He said, “I let the camera depict my emotions. But drawing or painting, now that’s a real skill, of eye and hand in tune.” They arranged for a drink at the Red Lion after the class.
She welcomed the company as she dreaded going home to an empty house.
Over a couple of brandies, they talked, but she soon found him rather shallow. He offered to drive her home, apologising for the age of his car. He explained, “Getting a new one next month, just waiting for the right colour – gunmetal grey.”
Halfway home he pulled into a lay-by. Alarm-bells should have sounded, but the alcohol had dulled her wits – or, perversely, perhaps she wanted it to happen. No, she didn’t, that was male chauvinist claptrap! Roger Muir leaned over, began kissing her. His face was rough with early bristles and he pressed too hard. He fumbled for the controls and both seats leaned back and he was all over her, hands pulling at her clothes.
A part of her cried out for love, tenderness, understanding, while another part shuddered at what she was doing.
When she got home, she sat shivering in a hot bath, wondering what she’d seen in him. She felt like an adolescent again. She’d been stupid, naive to accept the lift, because all the signs of imminent seduction were there, but she’d ignored them, lost in her own despondency. “Serves you right, you silly bitch!” she’d fumed, and stepped out and rigorously towelled herself.
Muir had been rough, so unlike David or Ralph – dear Ralph with whom she had been unfaithful the only time in her marriage and the result of that ill-starred love had been still-born Rachel. She even wondered if it was divine retribution for her sins. David had mourned the loss as his own, because he never knew. Those aspects of her past were thrust in some dark recess, to be forgotten – until tonight.
Now Cathy stood in the kitchen with her back leaning against the mock-marble top.
Muir sauntered through the doorway. “I’ve learnt a few little sexy tricks since we last did it, Cathy,” he said. “An extension of my art portfolio. You must come up and see it sometime.” He chuckled throatily.
“Please leave, Sergeant Muir.” Her voice sounded steely calm, though inside she threshed madly with fear. “I don’t want you here – or anywhere.”
“Dear me.” His mouth turned down. “After all those signals you kept giving me, too! I was really pissed off when you stopped coming to the class. Was it something I said? Or the wrong deodorant, perhaps?”
“No.” She closed her eyes for a moment, swallowed, trying to keep a lid on the bubbling hysteria. “Please go. That night was a mistake.”
When she opened her eyes again, she started as he had soundlessly stepped closer.
“The mistake was all yours, dear Cathy.” His large hand reached out, its back covered in fair hair, and caught her collar between finger and thumb. “You’ll have to pay for it now.” The tone was threatening, awful.
She could feel her chest heaving and wanted to stop, unless he construed it as an invitation.
Abruptly he moved forward, dropped his palm over her right breast.
The suddenness was shocking. Cathy wanted to be sick, tried backing away, but the kitchen top dug into her back. Fleetingly, she remembered reading about a poor woman who was paralysed because the rapist rammed her spine hard against a table-top. Oh, God!
He pressed against her and his peppermint breath, sickly-sweet, evoked the ugly memory of their coupling in the car.
Reaching behind, her fingers closed on the wooden knife handle and she swung round and up, slashing desperately as his thigh pushed heavily between her legs.
Muir let out a snarl and in that split second of his unexpected pain she twisted free and stood, chest heaving, in the middle of the kitchen. Some blood from his cut arm had sprayed her blouse but she didn’t care.
“Get out!” she shouted.
Holding his cut arm, he growled, “I’ll call again, Cathy. When you’re in a better mood.”
Shaking her head, oblivious of the tears that streamed down her cheeks, she shouted, “Don’t ever think of coming back!”
“Oh, I shall. Oh, yes, indeed, I’ll return when it pleases me.” He stopped at the door, added with a crooked smile, “And you’d better be ready to please me then!”
Tentatively, her stomach and insides twisting and turning in fear, she followed him down the hallway, fillet knife held out steady in front of her, its long thin blade dripping his blood.
As soon as he stepped onto the porch, she slammed the door shut and snapped the lock, rammed the bolts home.
He laughed loudly, the sound diminishing as he walked down the path.
Then the trembling started and unsteadily she sat down on the floor, back against the wall. Pieces of broken doorframe littered the carpet. Oh, God, what a mess!

SuddenVengeance – Crooked Cat Books – paperback and e-book

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