Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Don't Touch That: The 3rd Rail in Fiction

Once upon a time, I went hunting for my first house. The neighborhood was a mid-city mix of '50s brick army housing and '80s vinyl townhouses. What you got depended on the block. But there was one house, one oddball house straight out of a French fairy tale. No, no, not the castle. The cobbler's cottage. Oh, how I loved that cottage. I'd ogled it for years, and when finally came on the market, I rushed to see it. It was at the tippy top of my budget, but that meant it was in reach. Any improvements could be made over time as I rebuilt my coffers, right? Sure.

The inside...needed love. A lot of love. And a pry bar. A jackhammer. A plumber. Okay, it was full gut on the inside. Faux wood beams were shedding their foam. The green shag carpet had known many a cat. The windows whistled their own tunes. The kitchen listed toward the backyard. The wiring was older than I was, so were the appliances. Then there were the walls.

Asbestos walls.

I was crushed. You can't remodel a house while you're living it if it has asbestos walls. And I knew if it was loud and proud on the walls, well, it'd be hidden in all the nooks and crannies of the home too. It'd have to be a full-gut and abatement all at once. Alas, that would be well beyond my budget for a quite a few years.

My friend laid his hand upon my shoulder and said, "Hey. Don't look so sad. You can still live here. Just don't lick the walls."

That's pretty much my stance on dealing with third-rail topics in my writing. Yes, of course, there's risk involved. However, I can and will still have the dangerous oogey-boogey topics in my writing as long they're pertinent to the story and advance the plot. If I let go of the third rail, and the story still flows without that to power it, then I didn't need that shock, that jolt, that trigger. Including certain topics purely for the sake of being "edgy" breaks the unspoken contract between author and reader. It's careless and sloppy craft. It's like face-planting in the trail of cat turds embedded in the shag carpet.

Remember, you can still live the house of your fantasies.

Just don't lick the walls.