I keep coming back to Struggles, the imaginary town in Arkansas that is grappling with its history of poor management, populations flight, and an uncertain future. I say I keep coming back to the town, but I haven’t been writing much about it. I’ve been thinking about it. My mind has been on the people of the town and how they are coping with the less-than-gradual disintegration of municipal services and almost daily business failures. The business that my main character owns and operates, the Fourth Estate Tavern, is clinging to a shrinking clientele who increasingly can’t afford to buy food and drink “out.” But the tavern was ordered closed for awhile to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Many of the tavern’s regulars lost their jobs when Sternberg Refrigeration closed its doors. The three firefighters who lost their lives when battling the blaze at Sternberg’s shuttered plant had been regulars, too. Calypso Kneeblood, the owner, is facing his own battles, aside from a business forced to temporarily shut its doors; his lung cancer surgery and precarious financial situation are both on his mind. Those heavy matters are changing his usual curmudgeonly cheerful disposition to one utterly devoid of cheer. Even so, an unexpected visit from a young woman who offers Calypso a way to turn things around for the town and the tavern.
The reason I keep coming back to Struggles is that the solution the woman offers is hard for me to make real. And the few influential people who remain in Struggles are skeptical of anything Kneeblood says or does, so his attempts to sway them will be rebuffed, automatically. Maybe I don’t want to introduce the reality of COVID-19 to the story. Perhaps I should envision it taking place in another time. Or in this time, but without the pestilence. I think of Struggles and Kneeblood every day. And I think of the young woman. I am trying to imagine her motives for offering to help Kneeblood resurrect Struggles and the Fourth Estate Tavern. Her name and her background remain mysteries to me; the guy writing her character into the story! But I know she and Kneeblood will become involved romantically, despite the fact that he is a good twenty years older than she; maybe more. Whether that entanglement lasts has yet to be determined.
I think I haven’t named her yet because I want her to have a “classic” female name that is timeless. When I look at popular names for women past and present, I see Amber and Destiny and Madison and Zoey and Meghan. While they will be around for years, they will cycle in and out. I want something strong and permanent and awash in respect and admiration. That’s not asking for much, is it? How about Gabriella? Or Stella? Or Josephine? Why her name is so damn important is beyond me. Her background is far more relevant to the story. I have to know her. I have to live with her for awhile. Wake up with her in the morning and observe her routine. Listen in on her phone calls. Watch and listen as she interacts with people, both those she knows and those she doesn’t. I need to know why she and Kneeblood will mesh; what about her allows her to be attracted to a much older man. I already know Kneeblood. He’s not just a lecherous old man. He has crafted a rough, impenetrable, crusty façade to protect his tender, emotional core; the too-fragile, too-easily-wounded framework around which he has hung his work of deceitful art.
Despite knowing so much about Kneeblood and many of the regulars who visit the Fourth Estate Tavern, when I write their conversations and their circumstances, they seem wooden. I’ve been thinking about that, too. Why can’t I bring them to life on the page the way they are alive to me when I think about them? Maybe the problem is the story and the conflicts that must be resolved. I have to know what they are and how they will be resolved—if they will be resolved—before I write them.
So, that’s how I’m starting my day. Bound to the struggles of Struggles and to the mysteries of lives I am living vicariously through characters about whom I know too little. Time to have breakfast. Waffles with pomegranate-maple syrup. I am a lucky man. I have to keep telling myself that.