John Milliken Thompson’s first novel, The Reservoir, is based on actual events in the late 1800s. Though drawing on court transcripts and newspaper accounts, he still was required to imagine how certain things took place in order to describe them in detail. Mr. Thompson graciously offers this post describing his process for recreating some of the more violent scenes in the book:
My new novel, The Reservoir, is based on a real court case that occurred in 1885 in Richmond, after the body of a young woman was found floating in the old city reservoir. At the heart of the story is a lover’s triangle between Lillie (the victim), Tommie (her cousin), and Willie (Tommie’s brother). In order to fully imagine what might have happened—and how—I enlisted my wife to help me act out several scenes from the novel. I may’ve gotten the idea from a TV show we used to watch called “Crossing Jordan.” Every episode featured a scene in which the actors mimed a crime scenario they’d put together from the clues; intercut were the gruesome scenes they were imagining.
It’s a great way to test the possibilities, and if you have a good, willing actor like my wife you can get a real physical handle on what works and what doesn’t. For instance, I had a scene in which Tommie rests his chin on Lillie’s head, and he cups her bottom so he’s nearly lifting her. Turns out that even with a short woman this would be nearly impossible, unless the man’s arms were like a great ape’s. I changed it so that his head was resting on her shoulder.
We also acted out some crucial business at the reservoir—how far one would have to reach to pull a person in from the water, how a man might grab a woman from behind to suppress a scream, what it was like to crawl through a broken board fence, and so on.
I remember reading something about Charles Dickens writing at a desk in the living room, with people constantly coming and going. Every so often he would jump up and run to the mirror, make a peculiar face, then dash back to his writing desk; or he would burst into some strange bit of dialogue. I loved picturing Dickens pantomiming his crazy characters, as oblivious of his family and friends as they were of his antics. He was also known as a performer of his own works—reciting from memory and taking on the voices of his many characters.
Borrowing a leaf from Dickens, I often find myself going to the mirror to try out an expression, and then returning to my desk to see if I can capture it in words. I live in a family of actors, so they all get it. For the most part. What I don’t get, though, is how anybody could write regularly in a busy room, shutting off the noise of the outside world while populating your mind with imaginary characters—that seems like a theatrical act in itself. But I guess that’s what real actors do all the time.
P.S. Don’t forget to check out my review and enter for your chance to win a copy of The Reservoir courtesy of the publisher, Other Press.