Mannequin Monday – The Prison She Built For Herself

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Advice from Ernest Hemingway. Looking this week for the hurt in our story. The hurt in our characters. The hurt masked by our mannequin’s facade.

I am reading Under a Gilded Moon, historical fiction set in North Carolina in the time of the Vanderbilts.

And I offer a character sketch for Tessa Warren from book two in my Film Crew series. Welcome to another Mannequin Monday!

What I’m Reading This Week

A quote from Ernest Hemingway has been rattling around in my head all week: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

I am reading Under a Gilded Moon, by Joy Jordan-Lake. The book is historical fiction set in North Carolina at the time when the Vanderbilts were opening up their palatial Biltmore House to their friends and associates. “The country’s grandest example of privilege, it symbolizes the aspirations of its owner and the dreams of a girl, just as driven, who lives in its shadow.”

Kerry MacGregor reluctantly returns home after two years at Barnard College in New York City to care for her dying, abusive, alcoholic father. Their cabin is in the shadow of the new Vanderbilt estate. Following on the Hemingway quote, I looked for examples of “hurt” in the story. Here are a few quotes.

Pained at having to leave New York to return home, Kerry waits to board her train. “Kerry heard the whish of releasing steam and wondered if she was also hearing her lungs giving up the last of their air.”

Family and friends consider Kerry to have a gift of observation. Her take on it: “Just a survival skill she’d never asked to learn.”

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

“She needed send a telegram but had no money for payment. Mountain people asked for no favors.

“Digging in her skirt pocket for a stamp – her last from her Barnard days, when she’d had a small stipend with her scholarship – Kerry stepped to the trash outside the telegraph office and, head high, sorted through clean, though used, slips of paper.”

Only a few examples of hurt from the beginning chapters of the book, but they illustrate that the author knows how to draw on the pain and wounded pride of a young woman.

What I’m Writing This Week

This is another character sketch for Surfrider, book two in my Film Crew series. In book one, Off-Road, Tessa Warren and her friends spent Labor Day weekend sweltering in the Mojave Desert to film an off-road race . Book two will find them dealing with a drug-smuggling panga boat and a homeless man’s murder around the Malibu Pier. I tried to capture the emotional anguish Tessa is still grappling with two years after her brother’s death.

Under the Malibu Pier

Tessa Warren sat in the warm sand under the Malibu Pier, staring out through the support pilings at the  activity farther down the beach. A sun-drenched Saturday in September.  Dozens of volunteers from local high schools swarmed the beach for the annual Beach Cleanup. Picking up trash, taking selfies of one another, enjoying the Southern California sun. 

Tessa saw her friend Eric Pyne still working the crowd on the beach. He talked with the school moderators. Laughed with other students. High-fived the local surfers in their wetsuits. 

“You know everybody,” Tessa had said to him.

“This is my second home. My dad and I have been surfing here since I was a little kid.”

She lifted her video camera. Captured shots of the underside of the pier. Of the incoming waves as the pilings slowed them. The small waves inching up, disappearing in the sand. The pier offered shade from the noon. She panned to the right to capture the surfers as they rode the waves to shore. Panned farther for the beach crowds. Her shots were framed by the support pilings of the pier. The bars that broke her view. So appropriate for the prison she built for herself in her heart. A prison walled by grief, guilt, anger.

…the prison she built for herself…

She and Eric had just walked the beach, recording interviews with the teens who picked up the trash. They got shots of bags full of cigarette butts, water bottles, fast food wrappers, an occasional syringe. All the students were excited to be there, intent on cleaning the environment, picking up a few service hours for their school records. Eric would later edit the footage into a report for the school’s online magazine.

Tessa drew her knees up, stared at the water. The happiness of all the kids she and Eric interviewed seeped into her consciousness. A happiness she had not known since she hung with her friends in eighth grade. That had been two years ago. Two years since her brother Ryder died in a car crash. Her brother the filmmaker. The college graduate. Starting out on his life’s work. Cut short because of her selfishness. Her need to hang with friends instead of spending time with family. He was looking for her when a drunk driver t-boned his car. He died in the ER before she could see him.

For two years Tessa spent every school lunch period in the library, avoiding her classmates. She watched her brother’s films over and over. Tried to find him in the stories. Find his spirit in the visuals.

If she could find him, she could maybe recreate him in her own films. Bring something of his spirit back to life. If only for her peace. If only to find his forgiveness.

Tessa lowered the camera. Stared at the edge where water disappeared into sand. She had to admit, she enjoyed working with Eric on this project. She enjoyed feeling the joy and energy of the other teens. But, like the dying waves, the joy faded into the sand of her grief. She saw it, grasped it…and felt it dissolve.

She set the camera down carefully on the sand. She picked at her nails. Peeled them short. Worried at them as she watched wave after wave soak away in the sand. She drew up her knees and hugged herself. Ryder.


Tessa jumped.

“I got all the info I think we need for the story,” Eric said. “Want to head home?”

Tessa shrugged.

Eric sat down next to her.

“Sitting under here,” he said. “Kinda like hiding out in the school library at lunch, huh?”

Tessa managed a weak smile. “I guess.”

“It’s cool.”

Eric picked up the camera, aimed up at the underside of the pier. Caught footage of the planks above. 

“How about we get fast food from the place across the highway, then walk out on the pier. See it closeup from the top…in the sun.”

She nodded. “We can get some establishing shots from up there.”

Eric smiled. “Let’s do it.”