My wife Linda and I were visiting Rome, Italy, when I reached a particular point in my third novel for adults, Such Thy Mercies. I needed to know whether or not my main character, Rebecca – later to become Joanna’s mother in my young-adult stories – could extricate herself from a particular church in that city. I had already advanced far enough in the novel to know that the enemy had set a trap for her, and had led her to believe that she needed to enter the church at noon on a particular day, where she would, she was assured, find the clues she would need to rescue a person being held captive in Amalfi, Italy.
Rebecca and her twin brother, Luke, were skeptical that these clues would be anything other than a trap. They decided, however, that they would make the attempt, feeling that, as Christian people, they should allow for the possibility that their enemies might, under some circumstances, behave compassionately and, in this case, tell the truth.
Linda and I attended Sunday services at that church, and, as soon as the service ended, we went quickly downstairs to the basement level. Since, in the novel, all doorways, both at street level and in the basement, were going to be guarded, we searched every basement passageway to find whether or not some other way out of the church might be possible. And there was. There was a small pantry in the basement with a window that not only could be opened, but was large enough for Rebecca to crawl through during the emergency in which I expected her to find herself.
The remaining problem was that the window opened not onto the ground (remember, this is a basement), but into a concrete chute with a metal grate at the top, on ground level. Rebecca would have to crawl through the window, stand at the base of the chute, and, pressing upward with her hands, dislodge the grate, so she could climb up and onto the ground surface. And she would have to do it fast, for she would certainly be pursued by the enemy.
Difficult, but possible, Linda and I saw, provided the grate could actually be dislodged. So, in the novel, Rebecca’s twin brother, Luke, climbs over the church wall the night before Rebecca is to enter the church at noon, uses his tools and his strength to loosen the grate so that it can be dislodged quickly from below, and exits the church grounds in just minutes. This provides Rebecca the escape route she knows she may need 12 hours later.
It is true, of course, that an author can just invent conditions that will allow his central character to escape danger, but most of us who write novels, if we are describing an actual place, have no interest in doing that. We want to know that if any of our readers went to that same place and looked at the same exit route, they would find that the novel depicted the actual conditions that exist there. A fictional story, yes. But non-fiction physical conditions, described just as they really are.
And that has been my approach with all my novels, adult and young-adult alike. Insofar as possible, I want my characters to face conditions that actually exist in the world. My characters, after all, are not superhuman. Rebecca and her brother are exceptional athletes (as is Rebecca’s son, Joanna’s twin brother, Samuel, in the young-adult stories), but none of them can do things physically that no human could actually do.