For some reason, I opened the story that was to become Camp Expendable with Casey, my protagonist, waking up out of a dream. In it, he was standing at the edge of the water in a flooded downtown Miami. What he wakes up to is his arrival, along with about thirty other men, at an internment camp somewhere in America’s southwestern desert. As the story developed, I couldn’t find any reason why the dream was relevant, except to tell the reader that we might not be in the early 21st century anymore, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete it, even though it’s the perfect example of introducing something that raises reader expectations for no reason. I think it was Anton Chekhov who said that if you have a pistol lying around in a scene, you have to use it.
So there I am, a week before NaNoWriMo is due to start, and I still can’t find a reason for the dream, and still can’t delete it. I know a lot about Casey, but there are still gaps. I know that he’s been drifting through life since his wife and child died in a nationwide salmonella incident. I know that he feels guilty about it, but not why. I know that his protective instincts are strong, as much as he tries to bury them and avoid becoming involved with some of the violence that takes place in the camp. Then it comes to me — the memory of a nightmare that got me out of bed one night when I was just a kid, terrified, to make sure my little brother was still safe in his bed. We lived a couple of blocks away from a canal, and I dreamed that he had left the house, ridden his tricycle to the canal and fallen in.
And I finally had my reason for Casey’s dream, which he can’t remember in detail until much later. I gave Casey my nightmare, and had his brother actually drown later, as an adult. As unreasonable as it is, Casey feels he should have been able to prevent it somehow, another burden of guilt he’s piled on himself. When he remembers the dream about the drowned city, in full, and understands how it connects to his brother and his various guilts, that understanding frees him, turns his life around and makes my planned ending believable.