Past Writers Workshops
About the Book: First cousins Ellison (Eli) Winfield and Adeline (Delia) Green are meant to grow up happily and innocently across the street from one another amid the supposed wholesome values of small-town Green Branch, South Carolina, in the 1960s and 70s. But Eli’s tragic accident changes the trajectory of their lives and of those connected to them. Shunned and even tortured by his peers
for his disfigurement and frailty, Eli struggles for acceptance in childhood as Delia passionately devotes herself to defending him.
Delia’s vivid and compassionate narrative voice presents Eli as a confident young man in adolescence—the visible damage to his body gone—but underneath hide indelible wounds harboring pain and insecurity, scars that rule his impulses. And while Eli cherishes Delia more than anyone and attempts to protect her from her own troubles, he cares not for protecting himself. It is Delia who has that responsibility, growing more challenging each year.
Bells for Eli is a lyrical and tender exploration of the relationship between cousins drawn together through tragedy in a love forbidden by social constraints and a family whose secrets must stay hidden. Susan Beckham Zurenda masterfully transports readers into a small Southern town where quiet, ordinary life becomes extraordinary. In this compelling coming of age story,
culture, family, friends, bullies, and lovers propel two young people to unite to guard each other in a world where love, hope, and connectedness ultimately triumph.
1. Sadness and despondency:
I am one of those people for whom physical activity is a tonic for darkness. It doesn’t make the gloom go away, but, like aspirin for a brutal headache, it sometimes softens the hard, throbbing edge. Today, I’d walked about four miles past the outskirts of town in the thick August heat to assuage my spirit and also to escape my hovering parents.
This summer at home in Green Branch—my small South Carolina town situated on a natural ridge between the Broad and Catawba Rivers—I’d done not much more than live out my days, and for the most part my folks had let me be. Other than, from time to time, Mama proclaimed I ruminated too much. She called it “paralysis by analysis.” And my father—who is not by nature demonstrative—touched me often, sometimes with a light arm across my shoulder or a quick stroke on my arm, as though he might ask an important question.
But now, since the start of August, I had begun to feel a shift in my parents. Not exactly overt, but it was there—an unspoken plotting about how to get me back to school. I’d left just before exams in the spring, my senior year at Tulloh College, an all-female school about two hours from Green Branch. My current status, thanks to a sympathetic dean, stood at Incomplete. My parents were anxious for me to return and finish. Who could blame them? And I had no desire to worry them. But I also had no desire to return to school.
I pounded the sidewalk in heavy steps—sweat dripping from my eyebrows—as I turned the corner at Stapleton Avenue and approached the Green Branch Town Cemetery on my right. I stopped to unscrew the top of my old Girl Scout canteen and take a swig of warm water. I’d found it at the back of my closet and liked carrying it slung across my chest when I went out walking, not just to quench my thirst but also for the nostalgia. Swiping my hand across my eyes to clear the sting of salt and unfog my vision, I heard voices and looked toward the direction of the graveyard.
Writing prompt: Write a scene that shows a contrast between what should be a pleasant circumstance for your character (for my narrator it’s summertime out of school), and the sadness or despondency the character feels. Include other characters, dialogue and any other elements to support your purpose, or keep the scene to one character and that character’s thoughts.
2. Excitement and happiness:
The next morning, waiting with Mama and Gene on the Winfields’ porch for Eli to return, I still didn’t see how it would work. And then I saw with my own eyes a red cap covering the hole in Eli’s throat. Uncle Gene sprang mid-pump from the porch swing where he sat with Mama—Helen on her lap—when Mary Lily parked at the curb. He jumped so quickly the back slats rammed into the porch rail, leaving Mama to catch herself and keep both her and Helen from falling out. I sat safe in a rocking chair out of range of the flying swing.
Gene ran to Eli walking up the path to the porch, grabbed him around his middle, and whirled him into the air. Eli’s face transfigured. He became all eyes—brimming green pools—staring out at us. His hands grasped at the red cap. I thought he was scared he couldn’t breathe and soar aloft at the same time. I stood. I looked up at my cousin. He smiled at me. I understood then that, though he might have been scared, his eyes were liquid happy, too. I watched him breathe in and out of his mouth. He hadn’t quite gotten the hang of his nose.
Writing Prompt: Concentrate on a moment of happiness in your life. Choose something not typical like your graduation day, wedding day, or the birth of one of your children. How is the moment you choose unique to you? Write a short scene revealing your happiness and excitement on a particular occasion without using any cliché.
I watched as Eli caught Nancy by the hand and pulled her into the middle of the floor during “Love (Can Make You Happy)” by Mercy, song that made my heart swoon whenever I heard it. I watched her arms stretch around his shoulders. I watched her melt into him, his arms enfolding her waist. They barely moved, just swayed back and forth. And who could blame him? What boy wouldn’t be taken with my voluptuous cousin?
Nealy caught me staring as Nancy and Eli embraced. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“How would you know what I’m thinking?” I asked, turning quickly from the direction of the dancers to face my friend standing beside me.
“I can see the rejection on your face.”
“He’s my cousin, Nealy. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’re in love with him,” she said. “You always have been.” I stared hard at her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Nealy Simmons,” I admonished her. “You’d better watch what you say.”
She raised her eyebrows and cocked her head at me. “I know you better than you know yourself,” she said, all pleased. I ignored her.
Writing Prompt: Emotions in characters are often best understood and conveyed when we can tap into our own emotions. Think of a time, place, or person, or even thing you desperately long for. Evoke the essence of the time, person, place, or thing through the senses: taste, smell, touch, sound, sight. Write this passage as a journal entry, as though no one else will ever read it so that you can let go of your inner critic.
4. Irritation mixed with concern:
It’s not so much that I’m mad about the phone call, but you woke me and half the hall. And people weren’t too happy with me. When the phone rings, it rings down the whole hall, you know? It was after midnight. The phone’s in the middle of our hall, and I’m at the far end. Meg and Donna’s room is right by the phone, and one of them has to get up to answer late at night, unless someone just happens to be walking down the hall to the bathroom. I wish Tricia and I had a private phone in the room, but it’s expensive. Not something Mama and Daddy, or Tricia’s parents either, have wanted to spring for. So until and unless we get our own phone, don’t call late.
And what could I do anyway in the middle of the night?
You’ve got to calm down, Eli. Isabel doesn’t even live on my hall. How would I know where she is? And it’s not my business to ask her, either. That’s between you and her.
I’ll see you next week, cousin. All will be well.
Writing Prompt: Write a short character sketch in which one of the most irritating people you know is traveling in the car with you. The narrator should not engage in dialogue with his/her irritating companion, but should observe the character’s appearance, movement, actions, etc. to reveal the narrator’s irritation. Try to tie the irritation to something specific the narrator naturally dislikes about this person.
5. Fear among several characters simultaneously:
He planted his feet on the slats, withdrew to the opening, passed through, and began to descend. Isabel and I strolled toward the bottom of the ladder, our chatter marking our relief, when I heard a grinding pop and then a clank of metal. It wasn’t loud, but it was distinct. I looked up to see my cousin dangling on rungs come loose from their connection to the tower, maybe twenty feet above us. He’d not swung far, but clearly, the ladder was no longer anchored below him. Eli had come unmoored.
I opened my mouth involuntarily to scream, but what came out was a dry, hollow gag. Isabel screamed with as much might as I’ve ever heard in a human being before or since.
“Stop,” I croaked at her. “Please stop.” But she continued. “You’ve got to stop. You’re making it worse,” I said, but she couldn’t help it. Her instincts had taken over. I don’t think she heard me. I ran from her, spanning the few remaining yards to the ladder.
“Don’t touch it,” Eli yelled down, his voice trembling, and I knew he, too, feared the loose section would break off. I shielded my eyes with my hand and looked up again into the sun’s glare. The white soles of his tennis shoes quivered on the swaying ladder.
“Listen to me, Eli. You’ve gotta get off the ladder, now. I can see from here what you have to do.” Before it falls all the way, I thought. My throat clogged tight. I coughed hard and spoke again. “Put your left foot on the cross-support beside you and then your right. Hold on above and inch both feet into the corner at the steel column.”
“I’m going to jump,” he called.
“It’s too far!” I warned, my voice suddenly returned.
Isabel arrived beside me, no longer screaming, but breathing hard in spasms.
“I’ve got to jump. I can’t stay up here,” he said, leaning out, making the ladder shudder. Herculean as he was in aspect, he believed he could leap safely to the ground. I knew he’d kill himself.
“No, Eli, don’t you dare,” Isabel called to him, panting, but clear. “Be still.”
“He’s got to get off the ladder,” I told her. She looked at me dumbfounded.
“I’ve got to jump,” Eli called again.
“No, no, no, you’ll break your neck.” I remember trying to make my voice calm, knowing it was close to hysterical.
Writing Prompt: Fear is an emotion that has physical responses as exemplified in the passage when Eli descends the rescue tower and nearly falls when the ladder breaks loose. Think of a time when you felt great fear and make a list of the physical responses you experienced. Think about a repetitive thought you had, a key smell or taste or image that dominated your thoughts, and perhaps how you felt just prior to feeling afraid. Create a one-page scene using the physical responses and thoughts you had in the situation to show your fear.
Qualifications for featured instructors:
Georgia Writers Museum is a premier resource for readers and writers throughout the state of Georgia. Therefore, all instructors should have published works through a professional publishing firm and have teaching experience.
Check out our past instructors!
Valerie Joan Connors, How to Make Your Characters Come Alive