Even if you just started writing five minutes ago, you’ve heard the phrase before I said it. Kill your darlings.
I know what you’re thinking. No, that doesn’t mean you can murder your relatives so you’ll have more time to write.
I’ve heard “Kill Your Darlings” defined as, in so many words: if you absolutely love something in your writing, it’s probably too writerly, and you should delete it.
But that advice kind of stinks of condescension. So I took it like this instead.
When rereading, if you encounter a section in your work that doesn’t need to be there, cut it out even if you love it.
For me, this took the form of background material. My novel, tentatively named Illustrious, has tons of background material, because the main characters are solving a mystery that happened more than 80 years in the past.
I lavished love on the background sections. They are woven with research and detail.
BUT they are too long. And some of them play the same role as others. So as one of the last steps before I start querying, I’m shortening some of them, and I’m deleting others.
Here is one I deleted:
I was a string-bean girl of nine. Out at nightfall with my father in his tow truck, we drove the main streets looking for someone in need of a mechanic or a lift. When a man in a tux hailed us on the side of Volusia Avenue, my father picked him up and drove him north. In those days, Daytona hadn’t yet sprawled together with Ormond, so there was a great deal of rough driving through the woods before we arrived at the Ormond Hotel. Painted white and lit up like a riverboat. All those red-shingled roofs. It was a castle. A dream. I couldn’t believe a place like that was only eight miles up the coast from my paltry life.
I also distinctly remember the man’s rebuff when I asked if we could go inside. My father was a mechanic. I was the daughter of a mechanic. We weren’t destined to rub shoulders with people bathed in light.
Rather than letting this rejection put the Ormond Hotel out of my head, it took over my thoughts. Soon I daydreamed only of that sparkling castle on the shore. I asked everyone I met about it, and once in a while, I’d find a kernel of hope. The man who delivered the milk had met a Vanderbilt. Even my father crossed paths with John D. Rockefeller. Their stories added details to the romantic fiction in my mind. In the morning, I was having tea with Mrs. Astor. At night, I’d be kicking my heels up with Fred Astaire. Whether I was canning marmalade from our orange groves or learning how to do a quick patch of a radiator on the side of the road, my head was in another place, adorned with pin curls, diamonds at my throat, taking up a dance step to a big band of which I’d never seen the likes.
I was going to be somebody. I decided that the moment that man in his fancy tuxedo put a tip in my father’s hand and told us both to run along like we were serfs. Only it took me about ten more years before I got out from under life’s thumb and did something truly daring.
It was 1936. We were in the deep, dirty heart of the Great Depression. My mother sent me to the bank on Beach Street the day there was a run. I was too late, and we never saw a penny. My brothers begged to keep their jobs, and every fortnight, hollow-eyed men jumped from the train and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. They picked unripe oranges from our groves and waded by the dozens on the river bank, netting a few measly shrimp and looking at me with hungry eyes like touching a mechanic’s daughter might fill the emptiness they had inside.
And me? I was starving for life to begin. Eighteen years old, and I had never been farther from my home than that eight miles it’d taken me to see the Ormond Hotel. My sisters had all gotten married to boys who lived across the street. I jilted one of them the night before our wedding, sentencing myself it seemed to a life of pining for things that were beyond my reach. It’s true that I lived in a world disillusioned by lost promises. Even the Ormond Hotel, according to rumors, had fallen into a grand state of disrepair. Once I heard that, I drove alone there to see it for myself. That was a scandalous thing, if you can believe it, a young, unmarried woman by herself behind the wheel of a car. It was a raw, hot summer day when I came upon the symbol of my hope abandoned. Mildew ran in streaks down the flaking siding. Patches in the once bright-red roof had turned black.
I drove back to Daytona and hennaed my hair the color of fire. It would have been so easy to let my hunger turn into despair. Instead, what I saw of the Hotel Ormond emboldened me, and I made a decision. If I stayed in Daytona, I was going to rot like the wood of that hotel, like my dreams. For the next three months, I spent every cent I could scrape together on movies. I would sit and watch, my face aglow, and take notes. I made a study of the women there: Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, and Myrna Loy; these were my standards for beauty, for how I’d talk and how I’d act, for the shape of rouge I’d paint onto my lips and drape of my dresses.
The first I heard about the Ormond Hotel’s rebirth was not the rumor about the swinging party thrown the first night of the season in November 1936. It wasn’t really word at all that flew to me. Rather, it was a train with a green locomotive that gleamed, followed by black Pullman cars stenciled in gold leaf with the words “Ashcroft-Whitney Transcontinental.” Their windows were blocked by shades, yet somehow I knew American royalty travelled past in those cars.
I walked to Ormond Beach. The next day, I got a job as a maid in a doctor’s house there, and that very night, I made my debut. In a dress I’d sewn out of parachute silk (my mother had helped make them during the war), with earrings made of crystals I’d stolen from my boss’s chandelier, I snuck into the hotel’s kitchen and came out in the ballroom right next to the punchbowl. All of this espionage and to-do just in the hopes of catching the eye of a man rich enough to whisk me away from my menial life. And I did. His name, as you may have guessed, was James Ashcroft, and I would quickly come to wish I’d caught anyone’s eye but his.
The party swam around us; more than once, I saw his eyes linger on me through the shimmering jewel-tones of the crowd. There was a quality of golden light about him, dark blond hair, tan skin. His tuxedo was immaculate, and the body underneath athletic and slim. He looked like an Arrow Collar man. Calculated perfection. It’s difficult to remember the exact moment when he first spoke to me, because the next several weeks would tumble into a riot of secrecy and deceit, but during our first few meetings—all in the ballroom or at the bar of the hotel—I was enthralled by him. There was something about him, his countenance, his aura, that held me captivated until I was released.
James convinced me to join him on the widow’s walk one night. It was at the tallest point of the hotel, a deck that looked out on the ocean, only a narrow railing to separate us from the steep roof. The wind that night was bitterly cold. It would snow that December, only a few days from then, one of the only times in my entire life that I would see the tiny flurries shiver across the sand; but at that moment, I didn’t know. I was consumed by the darkness around us. The ocean and the sky were one deep, endless blue, cut only by the beam of the lighthouse far to the south as it swept over the water. James faced me from the end of the walk and said this is how he thought death would feel, the cold and endless dark. He had always been obsessed with death. He dreamed of looking on the corpse of his lover and feeling the cold, dead skin of her cheek. Then he started speaking in a way I didn’t understand.
“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”
“It was the famous speech from Hamlet. He knew it by heart, but I had never heard anyone talk like that. He said it all with the fiery light of the stairway’s lantern reflected in his eyes. He wanted to truly know what it would feel like to die. He said all these things that frightened me, then he put his foot up on the railing of the widow’s walk and jumped out on the singles. I shouted his name and ran to pull him back, but he was out of my reach, laughing like the maniac he was. The crest of the roof extended out into the darkness, and he placed his feet toe to heel to toe, arms out steady like a man on a high wire, the wind blowing his hair out of place and whipping at his jacket. He reached the end of the ridge and lifted his foot. I cried out, and he turned around, grinning.
“What would you do for me, Ruby?” he said, using the false name I’d given only days before. “Would you walk out here and save me? Prove your love to me!”
I should have just left him there. But no, the foolish, desperate girl that I was, I climbed out. I stood with him at end of the world with my cheek warm against his chest. It was that aura of his, that sorcerer’s spell. James could charm anyone. Lure them to their deaths.
Somehow, we got off that roof and returned to the hotel bar to find it empty. He said it wasn’t a couth time of night for a lady to be out, that he would show me to my room, but I refused. He blocked me from leaving. He said we had conquered death together, but I had finally come to my senses. I wanted to get away from him. I said as much, and he let me leave—or so I thought.
To hide the fact that I wasn’t truthfully a guest, I climbed the stairs then went down a fire escape. I made it all the way to the doctor’s house and into my quarters in the attic, and I bent to take off my earrings, to see myself in the vanity mirror, when James stepped through my door, his face ghastly white despite the cold, so much like an apparition that I turned around to make sure he was truly there.
“You thought you could fool me,” he said with a smirk. He told me to do exactly as he said.
“For the next several weeks, I was a cog in the clockwork of his plan to win the woman that he loved away from his brother Maximilian, the would-be inheritor of the family fortune. Max Ashcroft was away in Europe at the time, in Spain or Morocco, something to do with Francisco Franco and the Fascists and the Spanish Civil War. I would never meet Max, but this is what I knew of him: he was three years older than James, making him 23 that year. He had attended Yale, where he played football and had been deeply enmeshed in a secret society called Scull and Bones. He once saved James from drowning, and both of them had been in love with Olivia Marchbank since they were children.
Max and Olivia were engaged to be married, and the Ashcrofts were all on holiday here to escape the limelight and await Max’s return three weeks from that day.
“But,” James said with a laugh. “Olivia loves me.” His disposition sobered. “Only she she won’t admit it.”
For three weeks, my duties included burning letters from Max that I was not allowed to read, continuing to pose as a guest at the hotel but with real silks, furs, diamonds, and an honest-to-goodness room bankrolled by James himself, and infiltrating the veil of secrecy that eclipsed Olivia from the public eye.
You see, up until a few days before the party, I had only heard Miss Marchbank mentioned in by James. I hadn’t seen her. Judging by James’s obviously tenuous grip on sanity, I thought it entirely possible that Olivia Marchbank was a figment of his imagination.
That is until I snuck into her room bearing the tea service. Olivia sat up straight at a desk. Her back was to me, and I saw her shoulder blade moving through the lilac-blue silk of her dressing robe as her pen flitted at a letter. Her black-brown hair was collected in a clasp at the back of her head. Wisps of it trailed down the white skin of her neck.
Without turning around, Olivia told me to put the tea service on the table. Envelopes were arranged there in neat piles. There was a name on one of them that made me rush to pick it up. Max. But the surname wasn’t Ashcroft. It was Hartmann.
“What are you doing?” Olivia had turned to find me squinting at the envelope. How she could see in that dreary room, I had no idea. But she was on me before I knew what was happening. She wrenched the envelope from my hand. Her face as pale as death, eyes black and livid, fringed by dark lashes. I could just see the blue veins in her throat.
“James sent me,” I blurted out.
“I’m sure he did,” she said.
The venom in her voice struck me speechless. I was supposed to say he told me to tell her that he didn’t love her, and I mumbled something to that effect, to which she said, “It isn’t going to work this time.” I wish he had me stop there. I thought she didn’t care, thought she was immune to his manipulation, but this foray did what he wanted. It flushed her out.
The next five days, he paraded around with me, touching and laughing as if we were in love. Olivia made believe it didn’t effect her, but every now and then, I would glance her way on the verandah or in the hotel bar and see a distant look on her face, a mist of tears collecting in her eyes. By night, James and I lay on the dunes and gazed up at the stars, and he told me of nightmarish things, of all the ways that he could choose to die, all the poisons one could find in the hotel, all the knives, just how much silver polish he would have to drink to equal a lethal dose of cyanide, how guns are far too messy, how the most gruesome way to die is drowning because of how the body fights. He was obsessed with love and death and fate, with dreams and nothingness, eternity and the soul; and I would return to my room in the hotel each night and cry myself to sleep.
Want to read more? Well, you can’t, because the novel isn’t out yet.