I’ve been stuck a few times while writing my historical novels. My characters got into situations and I didn’t know how to get them out. When that happened, I brought in Mrs. Tuller.
Mrs. Tuller is one of the main characters in my Oregon Trail books. She is the wife of Doc Tuller, an older woman who is childless after all her sons died before she and Doc left for Oregon. Without children of her own to boss around, she mothers everyone in the wagon company. She bustles about, telling everyone what to do as she hands out a pot of stew or a fresh loaf of cornbread.
Here’s an example from the draft of my current work-in-progress:
[Jenny, the heroine, who teaches school, has given her pupils the assignment of writing about “home.” Jenny and Mrs. Tuller are reading the children’s essays and talking about their journey along the Oregon Trail a few years earlier. Watch how Mrs. Tuller prods Jenny, who is raising a child alone in the wilderness, into considering her life.]
“They won’t ever remember the life we had in the States,” Mrs. Tuller said. “Why the younger ones won’t even remember our trek. Sometimes it seems so long ago even to me.”
“I remember the journey like yesterday. Almost every day of it.” Jenny sighed.
“Why is that, Jenny?”
Jenny brushed her fingers along the feathers on her quill pen. “Maybe because I was so afraid. Maybe because I was expecting William, and every day was new to me.”
“Or maybe because of Captain McDougall?” Mrs. Tuller asked.
“You did write him, didn’t you? Asking him to come back?”
Jenny nodded. “But no response yet.”
“Isn’t it too soon to expect anything?”
“Yes. But I still check for mail every time I go into Oregon City.”
“When will you give it up?” Mrs. Tuller’s question was gentle, but her lips tightened into a thin line.
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve got to get on with your life, Jenny. If he doesn’t come back.”
“I know.” Jenny turned back to the compositions, but tears blurred her vision.
You probably know someone like Mrs. Tuller in real life – someone who pushes you to think about your life, who makes you think about the problems you’d just as soon not deal with.
So why did it help my writing to bring in Mrs. Tuller?
Sometimes Mrs. Tuller had good advice, like in this situation with Jenny. On other occasions, she told characters to buckle down and get to work, or to tell the truth, or to live righteously. In general, she told them to do what they should have known to do, but didn’t want to admit to themselves.
But sometimes Mrs. Tuller told my hero or heroine to do things that just weren’t right for them at that point in their lives.
When we were first married, my husband used to ask for my advice about buying his suits and ties, then he would buy the ones I didn’t like. I got mad one time and asked him why he bothered to ask, if he wasn’t going to follow my advice. He said I was “a foil.”
Mrs. Tuller became a foil for the other characters, someone against whom they could test their reactions – did they agree with her or not?
Whichever it was – good advice or bad – Mrs. Tuller made things happen. She was a catalyst.
Writers: Who are the catalysts among your characters? When have they helped you write through a stumbling point in your manuscript?
And here’s a question for all my readers: Who are the people who are catalysts in your life? Who makes you notice what is happening in your life, and tells you what to do – whether you follow the advice or not? Who are the people in your life who make you think?