We talked about expectation last week, but I didn’t mention the most important place to set up expectation: the first scene.
The problem with expectation is that while you can manipulate it to some extent, you can’t control it. If your reader thinks she’s getting a romance and she gets a ghost story, she’s going to be upset. She wants to be surprised, she doesn’t want to be disappointed. That means the first scene sets up the expectation for the rest of the story by using
PoV Character & Internal Monologue
Conflict & Dialogue
The voice of the PoV character and her internal monologue will set up the tone of the story, the setting will tell the reader what kind of people the protagonist is apt to encounter and what kind of environment she’s in (urban, rural, cold, hot, safe, dangerous, etc.), the conflict and dialogue with other characters will set expectation for future events, and the ending that propels the protagonist into the next scene pulls the reader into the story. At least, I always hope it will.
So here’s the first scene of Lavender’s Blue. If you want to play along, tell me what expectations you have for the story based on just this scene (I know you know a lot more about the story, you probably know more about the story than I do at this point, but pretend, please.)
I saw the Welcome to Burney sign around two o’clock one gloomy Thursday afternoon when the air was crisp with the scent of rain that might turn to snow (the end of March in Ohio is iffy), and in spite of the fresh air and the tree-crowded landscape, I felt sick. You know your hometown is bad for you when it gives you stomach cramps. So at the last minute, I floored the Camry past the turn-off, running like the coward I was. The old car coughed a little because it does not like being stomped on, but it was hurtling along like a champ when I heard the siren. I looked in the rear-view mirror, saw a cop on my tail, said, “Oh, hell, no,” and pulled over onto the muddy edge of the two-lane highway.
It was my own damn fault for coming home.
My palms were clammy which was ridiculous: I was not eighteen any more. I was perfectly fine. I took a deep breath, shoved back the five-foot purple teddy bear in the passenger seat so I could open the glove compartment, and prayed that whoever was about to bust me didn’t know me. I’d been gone for fifteen years. It was possible.
When I popped open the compartment, a bunch of papers slithered out before I could catch them, and I unbuckled my seat belt and leaned over to sort through the mess on the floor, and then somebody knocked on my window.
At first all I could see was a nice expanse of uniformed chest. Then I shut off the stereo—Terri Clark singing “Bigger Windows,” so appropriate—rolled down the window letting in the cold air, looked up, thought, Thank you, God. The cop wasn’t anybody I knew, which meant I wouldn’t get any ‘Well, here’s trouble back in town’ crap, although he did fit the general description of ‘Burney Guy’: a good old boy with eyes narrowed in exasperation over a nose that had been broken at least once.
I smiled up at him, cheerful and innocent as all hell.
He didn’t smile back, but he didn’t look particularly upset, either. And when he said, “Ma’am, do you realize you were going eighty in a fifty-mile-an-hour zone?” he sounded more bored than anything else. Well, he was doing highway traffic in Burney on a dim Thursday afternoon.
“Yes, officer,” I said, holding onto that smile. “I wasn’t thinking. I apologize and I certainly won’t do it again.” Because I am sure as hell never coming back here again.
He held out his hand. “License and registration, please.”
I got my license and insurance card out of my billfold and handed them to him, and said, “I’ll be just a second with that registration.” I shoved the bear back again, stuck my head between its legs and into the space under the dashboard, and sifted through a couple of dozen old repair bills, insurance cards, and expired registrations as fast as I could before I found the current one. When I straightened up again, he had bent down to look through the window.
“Nice bear,” he said with no expression at all.
“Thank you.” I handed him the registration.
He took it and looked at it and then at the license. “Your name is Elizabeth Danger?”
“Any relation to MaryBeth Danger?”
Oh, hell. “She’s my mother.” Don’t tell her I’m here.
He nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
He walked back to his cruiser, and I rolled up the window and watched him in my rear view mirror to see if he was going to call my license in. He had a nice ass, but that was peripheral to the fact that he got in the car and of course he was going to call it in. It didn’t matter because I was going to take the ticket, mail in the fine, and never come back again, so really, anything that happened next was immaterial and irrelevant and nothing at all to worry about. Unless my mother heard I was there and came looking for me.
Maybe he wouldn’t call it in.
The worst thing about traffic stops is the waiting. You’re sitting there like an idiot while people drive past, and you really can’t do much because the cop’s going to come back, so you’re stuck with your thoughts. My thoughts were generally Fucking Burney, and I missed lunch, and I can’t believe I panicked like that, must be Post Traumatic Burney Syndrome, and I wonder if it looked like I was blowing that bear, and Fucking Burney, and That cop was cute in a Neanderthal kind of way, and Anemone hasn’t called me in twenty-four hours, I wonder if she’s trapped under someone heavy, and Fucking Burney. Well, you get my drift. You can’t do anything worthwhile because at any minute—
He knocked on the window again and I rolled it down.
“Since you’re a local, I called the station. Mike Crider says hi.” He passed back my registration and license.
“Mike’s a cop now?” I said, surprised. The police department was not where I would have guessed Mike Crider would end up.
“Yep. He wants to know if you’re in town for the wedding.”
“There’s a wedding?”
“I’ll tell him no.” He sounded bored now, like he wanted to be gone. “He also said not to give you a ticket and to say hi to your mom for him.”
“Good old Mike,” I said, with real enthusiasm. “Tell him I said thank you. Except I can’t say hi to my mother.”
He raised his eyebrows, clearly in question, so I went on: “I was stopping by home because it was on my way to Chicago, and then I decided I didn’t want to, and that’s why I gunned the car, and once I’m done here, I’m going to keep on trucking, so I won’t be telling my mother anything for awhile, and I definitely won’t be speeding in Burney again.”
He nodded. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to say, ‘I sure will say hi’?”
“That would have been a lie.”
His eyebrows went up again on that one, but then he was a cop, so he probably figured everybody lied. Then he said, “Is your mom going to worry when you don’t show up?”
“She didn’t know I was coming.” I glanced at the bear beside me. “It was going to be a birthday surprise.”
He nodded. “Then you’re good to go.”
“Uh,” I began, and he waited. “Could you ask Mike not to tell my mother . . .” I stopped, realizing how lame I sounded. I’m thirty-three and I’m asking the cops not to tell my mom I got busted. “Never mind.”
“Too late anyway. The grapevine here makes sound look slow.”
The way he said it and the accent, which sounded a little bit New York City-ish, made me think he was still getting used to it, so I said, “You’re not from here, are you?”
“How’d you end up here? People usually leave this place, not move in.”
He frowned at me, and I remembered I wasn’t the one who was supposed to ask the questions.
“Sorry,” I told him. “I’m used to interviewing people. Forget I asked that. Thank you very much for not giving me a ticket. You’re a good person. I hope you enjoy living in Burney.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, and stepped away from the car.
I turned the ignition and the car sputtered, as usual, and then the engine kicked in. Good old Camry, I thought. I stepped on the gas pedal, and my tires spun. Hell. I’d forgotten I was in mud. I looked in the rear view and saw that the highway was still deserted except for the cop walking back to the cruiser behind me so, apologizing to the Camry, I floored it. The car spurted out of the mud and onto the highway, fishtailing a little, and then it coughed in mid-surge and died.
I steered it back onto the shoulder using the last of its momentum, feeling guilty and stupid and cowardly. I knew that was no way to treat a twenty-year-old car, but it was Burney for God’s sake. I tried to restart it. No go. “Come on, come on,” I said and tried again. No go. No, no, no, I thought, panic rising, please, not in Burney, and cranked the ignition again but there was nothing there.
I put my head on the steering wheel and tried to stay calm while my stomach churned. I was not trapped in Burney. This was not happening. A minute later, the cop knocked on the window.
I rolled it down.
“How bad is it?” he said.
“I think it’s dead.” Because I was stupid. And because I’m in Burney.
He nodded. “I can call the Porters.”
The Porters. Their mom Kitty had baby-sat me. I’d baby-sat their little sister Patsy. Their big brother Cash had felt me up in the front seat of the blue truck they’d probably send to tow my car. And they all knew my mother.
“Or not,” the cop said.
The problem was, I didn’t have that many options. It would take hours for some out-of-town tow truck to find its way to Burney, and by that time, my mother would have heard and driven out to the highway to find me. “That would be . . . fine. Thank you.”
“How about this,” he said. “I give you a ride into town, you talk to the Porters in person and ask them to keep it quiet, and you’ll be back on the road by dinner.”
I squinted up at him, back lit as he was by the weak winter sun. He mostly looked monolithic, and his ears kind of stuck out, but I was warming to him. This was a man who understood the importance of avoiding family. “Thank you,” I said. “That’s very kind of you.”
He opened the door for me, and I got out into the cold and looked up into his sharp brown eyes and realized there was something going on there. He’d give good interview, I thought, and then I realized he was staring at my chest.
I looked down at my T-shirt that said Attempted Murder with the silhouette of two crows on a branch under it. “I’m not advocating murder,” I told him. “It’s a play on words. A bunch of crows is called a murder, like a bunch of seagulls is called a flock, but there are only two crows on the branch so they’re just trying for a murder.” When he didn’t say anything, I said, “I’m not going to murder anybody, I swear.”
“Better get a coat,” he said.
I reached in for my hoodie and my laptop bag and saw the bear. Hell. I could just leave it in the car. If somebody stole the damn thing, I wouldn’t have to mail it to my mother. But it had cost almost two hundred dollars.
“Wait a minute.” I handed the cop the laptop bag and pulled the hoodie on. Then I went around to the passenger side of the car, opened the door, and tugged on the bear. I’d jammed it in there before I’d left Pittsburgh that morning, but evidently in Pittsburgh I’d had more muscle mass because when I put my arm around its non-existent waist and pulled, it didn’t budge. I yanked again, and it popped out, and I stumbled back and lost my balance and let go of the bear as I flailed my way down the embankment and fell on my butt in the mud.
I checked my hoodie. No mud. It’s a Wonderfalls hoodie that says I Surrender to Destiny and it’s a collector’s item so that was important. Then I looked back up at the road and saw the cop holding the bear, my bag still under one arm.
“It’s fine,” he said, holding the bear higher. “I got it before it hit the ground.”
“My hero,” I said.
“Should I cuff it?” he asked.
He was definitely not from Burney.
“We’re good,” I said. “Give me a minute here.”
He took the bear and my bag back to his squad car while I climbed to my feet, examined the damage to my jeans—there was a laundromat in my future—and began Plan B. The Porters had a bathroom at the garage. I could wash out the dirt in their sink, leave town, and hit a laundromat when I stopped in Indiana for lunch. I was pretty sure my mother wouldn’t follow me to Indiana. She was still at work. I wiped the worst of the mud off on my jeans and began the crawl back up the embankment, and when I looked up, the cop was there again, holding out his hand.
I looked at my hand and said, “Mud,” and showed him.
“No problem,” he said, his hand still extended, so I put my dirty paw in his nice clean cop hand and let him drag me up onto the highway.
Once I got there, I held on for a moment. He had those eyes, and he’d hauled me out of a ditch, and he’d saved the damn bear. I could spare a moment.
“I’m Liz,” I said.
“I’m Vince,” he said.
“Vince, I’m going to get mud in your car.”
“You can sit in the back with the bear,” he said. “There have been worse things back there.”
And that’s how I came home to Burney after fifteen years gone, sitting beside a giant purple bear in the back of a cop car, praying nobody would notice I was there before I could get out of town again.