Unreliability — Seeing in the Dark

I am taking my heroine into Hades.  Urgency and fear propel her.  She is becoming a shadow of her former self.  The dimming corridor, the steps leading into the bowels of the hotel will cause her a painful yet necessary transformation.  She fumbles through the dark, exchanges a soiled dress for a mourning gown. Once the descent begins, she is a child at the top of a thin metal slide, greased without handrails. There is no turning back. She will slide into the depths. I will enjoy taking her there. She will look for herself and not find her. As a writer, it is my job to take the reader along and build momentum as we travel.


I have a guide as I take my character into the darkness.  The novel REBECCA by Daphne De Maurier was published in August, 1938.  In this year, leading up to WWII, readers may have searched for a lighter read.  They wouldn’t find it in REBECCA.

The world was a frightening place as REBECCA reached its first readers. Germany had invaded Austria. The Czech government had resigned. The English King had abdicated the throne before being crowned. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain placated Hitler. The United States held fast to its stance of neutrality. England’s surprise king stuttered through his speeches.

Like her country, the heroine of REBECCA entered into the darkness. Her dumb fumbling youthful innocence carried her and the reader into a fast-paced funnel swirling ceaselessly, it appeared, toward danger.  How we readers enjoy the quickening pace.  How we wish we could emulate this tension in our own work.

We, writers of today, can learn much from De Maurier.  Take a page where her heroine enters dark confusion and see how the imagery informs the mood. Take a paragraph and study the structure. Take a sentence and note the length. Take a word and then another to see how they are placed.

My current project, BECOMING GENEVIEVE, is set in 1938. Yet unlike students attending school in prewar England, coeds at the College of William and Mary are coddled within the historic walls. The women flirt, they dance the swing, they major in education and home economics. The war brewing in Europe is as distant to them as is Genevieve’s chance of earning a living through art. Yes, she interviewed the rebel O’Keeffe for the college paper, but she will not follow her footsteps. Not until she enters Hades and lives in the darkness and confusion.

As a writer, I am gifted with the examples of Daphne De Maurier, whose work lives on many years after her death.  Reading REBECCA provides a textbook example of how to build tension within the frame of an unreliable narrator.   Applying such learning to my own work, and seeing how quickly my character can descend into Hades is part of the fun!

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