Favorite First Chapters: The Accidental Tourist

While in Italy a month ago, I began writing a novella, or perhaps a novel. Actually, I began writing a short story based on this interesting idea I had a couple months ago, but I seem to be too verbose for the 7,000 word maximum for short stories.

The opportunity to begin my career as an author came with laundry. After the rest of the family went to bed on our last night in Rome before traveling to Tuscany, I was left in charge of the laundry. If you’re unfamiliar with dryers in Europe, they are small front loading units which use heat to remove the water from the clothing and a cooler section to collect the condensation. They do not vent to the outside as is typical in the U.S. and they dry very slowly. I thought the collected water was allowed to evaporate in a pan at the bottom of the dryer, but for the apartment in Rome, the water condensed into a plastic bin which needed to be emptied when full. It was a few hours before I discovered the condensation bin, so laundry took a long time and I began writing my novel.

By the way, I strongly recommend the apartment in which we stayed in Rome. It’s nicely located and has three large bedrooms, two baths and full kitchen. It’s available at http://www.vrbo.com/468953.

So back to the novel. I wrote the first four chapters that night and felt pretty good about how freely the story was flowing. In Tuscany, I was able to spend a few more hours on the project and did some tweaking on the flight home. I was pleased with the progress and was up to 6,000 words.

Then we got home. I got sick for a couple weeks and didn’t do a lot of writing. Then I completed eight individual, business and trust income tax returns for us and the rest of the family. That took a couple more weeks. My father-in-law fell and broke his pelvis and is now in a (hopefully) short-term skilled nursing facility for rehab, and that was a learning experience. (Side note: a broken pelvis generally heals well even in the elderly and there’s a decent chance he will recover enough to move back to assisted living.)

Yesterday was the first day in a month that I looked over those chapters I wrote. Chapter One is dry. Part of this could be that my expectations were high. In my memory, the writing flowed well and I associated the writing with that feel good state of mind that comes from being on vacation in Italy with family. Now that I’m home and it’s cold and dreary, the writing wasn’t as good as I remembered.

So, what to do?

I got my copy of The Accidental Tourist and started reading. Actually, I have three copies – hardcover, digital & audio which is read spectacularly by George Guidall. How exactly did Anne Tyler hook me so quickly with her first chapter? She did it with the senses and by appealing to my emotions. She wrote that chapter in such a way that I could hear, see, feel and smell what her protagonist experienced.

Here are some examples of how Ms. Tyler tickled my senses and tugged at my heart.
1. “They were supposed to stay at the beach a week, but neither of them had the heart for it and they decided to come back early.”
2. “Macon drove. Sarah sat next to him, leaning her head against the side window. Chips of cloudy sky showed through her tangled brown curls.”
3. “Sarah had a tan but Macon didn’t. He was a tall, pale, gray-eyed man, with straight fair hair cut close to his head, and his skin was that thin kind that easily burns.”
4. “Macon switched his wipers on. Tick-swoosh, they went – a lulling sound; and there was a gentle patter on the roof.”
5. “Rain flattened the long, pale grass at the sides of the road.”
6. “There was a moment of watery blindness till the truck had dropped behind. Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.”
7. “She had a broad, smooth face that gave an impression of calm, but if you looked closely you’d notice the tension at the corners of her eyes.”
8. “Earlier the air conditioning had been running and now some artificial chill remained, quickly turning dank, carrying with it the smell of mildew.”
9. “They shot through an underpass. The rain stopped completely for one blank, startling second. Sarah gave a little gasp of relief, but even before it was uttered, the hammering on the roof resumed.”
10. “Great lashings of water flung themselves at the windshield.”
11. “He passed a line of cars that had parked at the side of the road, their windows opaque, their gleaming surfaces bouncing back the rain in shallow explosions.”
12. “A wide lake, it seemed, in the center of the highway crashed against the underside of the car and slammed it to the right.”
13. “Then he started rubbing his knees with his palms. Sarah huddled in her corner. The only sound was the drumming of rain on the overhang far above them.”

When I first read that chapter as a twenty-something, I could feel the car hydroplane, smell the dank, mildewy air, hear the brief silence of driving through the underpass. Like Macon, I was more likely to drive through a storm than pull over and wait for it to pass.

With those quotes, I wanted to present some of the lines which triggered my senses and made me experience the action. I hinted at the emotional issues with a couple of those quotes, but I don’t want to spoil the story for those who wish to read it.

After rereading the first chapter of The Accidental Tourist, I realized I had a problem. The things that hooked me in Anne Tyler’s novel are missing from my first chapter. She likely went through many drafts before she got to the finished product, but I’ve decided to work on my first chapter until I’m satisfied. It’s a test. I want to see if I have the skill to write a chapter that can hook a person like me.

It will not be easy unless I make a major change to the story. Anne Tyler began The Accidental Tourist with a drive which started off hot and dry and changed into a strong summer storm. The storm was indicative of the changes that had happened and were about to happen to the protagonists. There was also dialog. Two characters were in the car and they could and did interact.

With a drive through a violent storm, there are many opportunities to introduce sights, sounds, smells and emotions to the reader. My story begins with a single character hiding alone in a well-fortified bunker in a desert. Oh well, I do like a challenge.

About tonyj126

I'm a 50+ married man who always seems to have a large backlog of work to do, but also a lot of flexibility in my schedule. Much of the work I do is volunteer or taking care of extended family members. I suffer from, as my priest calls it, "the sin of self-sufficiency," which means I can figure out how to do most things myself, and consequently, reduce the need for community to solve problems. As a logical extention (at least to me), I find myself called to comtemplate the country's and the world's woes and offer my observations. I hope someone out there will find them useful.
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