Point of View

by RS on May 19, 2011

Now that I have my trusty new Mac it’s time to get back to work on Julius. I recently gave a sample to a writer friend and even though she liked what she read, she suggested I try writing in the third person. This was the second person who recommended this. Now there’s that old saying that if someone calls you an ass, he’s being mean, if two people call you an ass it’s a conspiracy, but is three people call you an ass, you’re an ass.

I don’t want to venture into the ass territory so I thought I would give this third person point of view a try. There are certain issues about switching point of view, the biggest one is that it’s told strictly from Corinne’s perspective and she has a certain way of expressing herself that I personally like (of course you like it, you ass, she sounds like you). Well, not really. But after all these years of fooling around with the first person, I’ve become attached to her voice.

Now here’s a true confessions moment. I’ve attempted to write with an omniscient narrator before and had a whole megillah of problems–mostly committing the serious transgression of switching point of view in a paragraph. So the confession is that I’m afraid to venture into this territory. However as a very wise man said to me about this time last year, don’t be afraid what you need to do. Now obviously I don’t need to do this because it’s my bloody book. But there’s always the question of “what if.” What if the story flows better in the third person. What if you get more into your character’s heads with the third person. What if an agent says I like it but I want to see this in the third person.

Ack. I don’t know.

There are sections that push me to keep it as is, especially the sections that deal with Corinne’s feelings about the Spanish Civil War, her miner, and her thoughts about Alvah Bessie. Yet, maybe it would be more literary if I changed the point of view.

Ack. I don’t know.

So fellow readers, maybe you can help me. I’m inserting the two versions of the the first chapter. Tell me which one you like and why you think it works better.

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Version 1: First Person POV

Westchester County, 1978

I first saw Sing-Sing on a cold, gray-white February Sunday. I was only ten.

My father and I were heading back home to Chappaqua when we drove through the Hudson River town of Ossining. From the passenger side of the car, I admired the old architecture of the Ossining Municipal building.

“It’s pretty here,” I said.

My father pulled at his graying beard with his long, slender fingers and muttered, “If you like prison towns.”

We continued forward and passed the train station. My father pointed to a concrete wall topped with coiled barbed wire and a pair of tall watchtowers loomed on the other side of the barrier. “Remember the movie we watched the other night, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing with Spencer Tracy? This is it.”

I unbuckled my seat belt and turned for a better view.   A moment later he added, “Miserable town, and its electric chair.”

My head snapped around and I gaped at him. Electric chair? A few weeks earlier in the study, I had discovered Dear Dead Days, a macabre picture book that captured my attention for hours. Among the numerous pictures, one ink etching stood out—a man in dark prison garb with a black hood over his head. He was strapped in an early model of the electric chair and his legs and ankles were clamped down on a high, narrow ottoman. From the hand switch that would turn on the electricity, a wire snaked across the wall to a mounted box. The other end of the wire was attached to a metal ring at the hood’s tip. The executioner sported a bushy mustache and wore a black boxy suit. His hand grasped the over-sized handle;  his face registered no emotion. Beneath the picture it said: “Execution by Electricity—the Chair and Apparatus Used in Producing Death. 1889.”

I had memorized the details of the sketch: the insipid expression on the executioner’s face, the prisoner’s heavy-heeled boots, his turned out ankles and his knotted, fisted hands resting on his belly. The image flickered and faded when my father pulled my down jacket’s sleeve. “Corinne, honey, turn around and put on your seatbelt.”

I sat back in the seat and tugged at the belt. “Do they still use it?”

He shifted to fourth gear and accelerated, putting more distance between us and the prison, he said,“No. It’s gone now.  I came here a long time ago to protest. A month later I left for Paris and tried to forget what happened.”

The car seemed to have gotten colder; I leaned closer to the vents and rubbed my mittened hands together to generate more heat. “Protest what?”

“An execution,” he said.

“Who got executed?”

He turned his head to face me and the heavy, lost look in his brown eyes made me wish we had not driven past Sing-Sing. “Two people on the same night—a man and his wife.”

I swallowed hard. “What did they do?”

“The government accused them of giving secrets to the Russians. The wife’s brother betrayed her.”

I mulled over this information, and stared at the red, yellow, and purple stripes of my mittens. It was bad to give up a secret, but tattling was worse–at least that’s what my mother believed. She always said, “Never, ever, point your finger at someone and name them.”

We drove in silence and few a moments later we were on our secluded street. Our mailbox with its painted red star stood out in defiance from the rest of the ordinary gray tin mailboxes.

“Why did the lady’s brother tattle on her?”

My father’s fingers made their way back to his beard, twisting and pulling at the bristles, a habit he had when he wanted to avoid an explanation. “It’s complicated. They were scapegoats . . . like so many others.” He approached our driveway and flicked on the turn signal.

“Did you know them?”

“No, but they shared the same beliefs as your mother and me.”

He turned left, and the sound of gravel crackled and popped beneath the tires. My father switched off the headlights and ignition. He stepped out of the car, and stared at the sky. The gray-white afternoon had turned to a deep purple, velvet night.

I climbed out of our old, blue Peugeot and slammed the door. “What were their names?”

His kept looking up and didn’t say anything.

“I want to check if they’re in the encyclopedia. I won’t bug you about them any more. Cross my heart.” I motioned, making the sign.

“Rosenberg.”

“And their first names?”

“Ethel was the wife … Looks like snow.”

The sky’s color was now a lighter violet cast. I clasped my mittened hands, pressing them hard against my chest and crashed down to my knees. Squeezing my eyes shut, I mouthed a prayer for no school, and finished it with the monotone “Snow, no school” mantra.

After a deep breath of cold air that caused a coughing fit, I dropped my hands to my sides. I opened my right eye first, then the left one. My prayers were answered.  Plump snowflakes floated down from the heavens as if God had gotten into a pillow fight with his angels. I pumped my small fist, cheered “Yes!” and continued to celebrate with a clumsy pirouette, stumbling over the gravel while trying to catch the frozen fluff with my tongue.

My father climbed up the stairs to the front porch and shouted, “Come inside before your mother starts moaning about pneumonia.”

“Hey! You didn’t tell me the man’s name,” I yelled back.

He stood on the top step and leaned against the white wooden railing; his hands shoved deep inside his coat’s pockets and said, “His name was Julius.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Version 2: Omniscient POV

Westchester County, 1978

Corinne Sand first saw Sing-Sing on a cold, gray-white February Sunday. She was only ten.

Her father and she were heading back home to Chappaqua when they drove through the Hudson River town of Ossining. From the passenger side of the car, the little girl admired the Beaux art architecture of the Ossining Municipal Building.

“It’s pretty here,” she said.

Her father pulled at his graying beard with his long, slender fingers and muttered, “If you like prison towns.”

They continued forward and passed the train station. At the southern end, her father pointed to a concrete wall topped with coiled barbed wire. On the other side of the barrier stood a pair of tall watchtowers. “Remember the movie we watched the other night, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing with Spencer Tracy? This is it.”

Corinne unbuckled her seat belt and turned for a better view.  A moment later her father added, “Miserable town, and its electric chair.”

Corrine’s head snapped around and she gaped at him. Electric chair? She thought. A few weeks earlier, while recuperating from a head cold, she had wandered in her father’s study and discovered in the massive built-in oak bookcase a copy of Charles Addams’ Dear Dead Days, a macabre picture book that captured her attention for hours. Among the numerous grotesque pictures and photographs, one ink etching stood out—a man in dark prison garb with a black hood over his head. He was strapped in an early model of the electric chair. His legs and ankles were clamped down on a high, narrow ottoman. From the hand switch that would turn on the electricity, a wire snaked across the wall to a mounted box. The other loose end was attached to a metal ring at the hood’s tip . Off to the side stood the executioner sporting a bushy mustache and wearing a black boxy suit. His hand grasped the over-sized handle;  his face registered no emotion. Beneath the picture it said: “Execution by Electricity—the Chair and Apparatus Used in Producing Death. 1889.”

The sketch had made an impression on Corinne, and she revisited the world of Charles Addams often. She even commented one evening, while her father worked on an economic analysis of a labor dispute between the electrical union and a large real estate developer, that she had a difficult time tearing herself from the book and couldn’t fathom why she was fascinated by these dark images.

Her father, in his typical dry and succinct manner, said, “Morbid curiosity.”

She had accepted that response, and now in the car recalled all the details of the drawing: the insipid expression on the executioner’s face, the prisoner’s heavy-heeled boots, his turned out ankles and his knotted, fisted hands resting on his belly. The image flickered and faded when her father pulled her red down jacket’s sleeve. “Corinne, honey, turn around and put on your seatbelt.”

She tugged at the belt and asked, “Do they still use it?”

He shifted to fourth gear and accelerated, putting more distance between them and the prison. “No. It’s gone now.  I came here a long time ago to protest. A month later I left for Paris and tried to forget what had happened.”

The car seemed to have gotten colder; Corinne leaned closer to the vents and rubbed her mittened hands together to generate more heat. “Protest what?”

“An execution,” he said.

“Who got executed?”

He turned his head to face her, A heavy, lost look in his gray eyes made Corinne wish they had not driven past Sing-Sing. She hated to see her father sad. “Two people on the same night—a man and his wife.”

Corinne swallowed hard and thought of her own parents when they were arrested at a recent protest. “What did they do?”

“The government accused them of giving secrets to the Russians. The wife’s brother betrayed her.”

She mulled over this information, and stared at the red, yellow, and purple stripes of her mittens. It was bad to give up a secret, but tattling was worse–at least that’s what her mother believed. She always said, “Never, ever, point your finger at someone and name them.”

They drove in silence and soon they were on their secluded street. The Sand’s mailbox with its painted red star stood out in defiance from the rest of the ordinary gray tin mailboxes.

“Why did the lady’s brother tattle on her?”

Her father’s fingers travelled back to his beard, twisting and pulling at the black and white bristles, a habit he had when he wanted to avoid an explanation. “It’s complicated. They were scapegoats . . . like so many others.” He approached their driveway and flicked on the turn signal.

“Did you know them?”

“No, but they shared the same beliefs as your mother and me.”

He turned the steering wheel to the left; the sound of gravel crackled and popped beneath the tires. Her father switched off the headlights and ignition. Stepping out from the car, he stood erect and stared at the sky. The gray-white afternoon was now a deep purple, velvet night.

Corinne climbed out of the old, blue Peugeot and slammed the door. “What were their names?”

He kept looking up and didn’t say anything.

“I want to check if they’re in the encyclopedia. I won’t bug you about them any more. Cross my heart.” She motioned, making a swirly sign on her chest.

“Rosenberg.”

“And their first names?”

“Ethel was the wife … Looks like snow.”

The sky’s color was now a lighter violet cast.  Corinne clasped her tiny mittened hands, pressing them hard against her chest and crashed down to her knees. Squeezing her eyes shut, she mouthed a prayer, and finished it with the monotone “Snow, no school” mantra.

After a deep breath of cold air that caused a coughing fit, Corinne dropped her hands to her sides. She opened her right eye first, then the left one. Her prayers were answered.  Plump snowflakes floated down from the heavens as if God had gotten into a pillow fight with his angels. She pumped her small fist, cheered “Yes!” and continued to celebrate with a clumsy pirouette, stumbling over the gravel while trying to catch the frozen fluff with her tongue.

Her father climbed up the stairs to the front porch and shouted, “Come inside before your mother starts moaning about pneumonia.”

“Hey! You didn’t tell me the man’s name,” she yelled back.

He stood on the top step and leaned against the white wooden railing; his hands shoved deep inside his coat’s pockets. Corinne saw the sad, faraway look in his eyes, staring into the dark distance. And although she was only ten, she sensed that maybe it was best not to know the man’s name. But it was too late. Her father straightened up, walked to the front door with the painted red star, and said, “His name was Julius.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Obviously there’s little I’ve changed, just added more description and changed the chapter’s ending. I like the second ending better. And to be honest, I like how it sounds to my ear, but….

Ack. I don’t know.

 

 

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