Showing posts with label Milt Kovak. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Milt Kovak. Show all posts

15 August 2016

Origins of a Character

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Way back in the olden days when I came up with the character of Milt Kovak, then deputy sheriff of Prophesy County, Oklahoma, I imbued him with the best features of every man in my life: husband, father, brothers, and even a little bit of my father-in-law. And, yes, there was some of me in there, too. They say we all have a feminine side and a masculine side. My masculine side went wholeheartedly into Milt.

Later came E.J. Pugh and her family, which were basically loosely patterned after my own nuclear family of husband, daughter and myself. So much so that, in the first book, when my husband read it, he asked (he said commanded, I said begged) me to let E.J.'s husband Willis save her at least once, instead of E.J. saving him four times. I reluctantly agreed.

My short-lived Kimmey Kruse series came from watching too much Comedy Central on cable, and the fact that a good friend of mine had moved to California and become a stand-up comic. Kimmey wasn't really based on her, but rather inspired. And, of course, my friend gave me all sorts of inside scoop on the biz.

But have you ever just met someone you'd love to turn into a character? Well, I met that someone last week. I'd known her since I was nineteen years old – we won't say how long ago that was – but only as my best friend's cousin. That older cousin who told her what to do and when to do it and took all the fun away from what we'd been about to get into. We'll call my best friend Kathy, mainly because that's her name. Her cousin, we'll call her Jon, again because that was her name, I'd only known as that mean one who was always making Kathy sad, mad, and very occasionally glad.

Then last week I drove to Houston for Jon's funeral. She'd been fighting cancer valiantly for the last two and a half years, but lost that battle last week. Theirs is a big family and well represented, as was every place Jon had ever worked in a long and varied career of helping people – mostly kids and the elderly.

And then something wonderful happened. Jon's granddaughter, now the mother of two small children, took the podium and began to speak. Her sister came up with her and held her hand as she gave the eulogy. She talked about how many things her grandmother had taught her, how her grandmother and stood by her in thick and thin, and then she asked for a show of hands of the people in the room that Jon had pissed off on a regular basis. Almost every hand was raised. Then she asked for a show of hands of those people who loved her anyway. Again, almost every hand was raised. And I began to discover, listening to her granddaughter and later hearing her friends and other family members speak, that this was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. She said what she thought and to hell with those who didn't want to hear it. She fought unconditionally for those she loved and those who had no one else to fight for them. And it occurred to me, sitting in that over-crowded chapel, that I could only hope to have a quarter of the amount of people at my funeral, hoping that a lot of daughter's friends would show up. But Kathy and I agreed, on the drive back to her house, that we'd come to each other's funeral. It might be hard to achieve this goal, but we're going to try.

Since then I've been thinking about Jon and the kind of person she was and what a profoundly challenging and awe-inspiring character she would make – if, God willing, I have the talent to do her justice. She laughed loud, fought hard, and loved unconditionally. It's going to be a privilege to attempt to do her justice.

01 August 2016

The Four Seasons

By Susan Rogers Cooper

Okay, so the title is a misnomer. Since I live in Central Texas, we only have two seasons: summer and winter. Winter is generally mid-December to mid-February. Everything else is summer. We consider our winters to be cold, which, of course, is a relative term. Sixty degrees is cool, fifty-four degrees is cold, and anything lower than that is, excuse the expression, freezing your butt off. I know, I know, those of you who live above the Mason-Dixon line are sneering as you read this. Fine. But before you become too snarky, come spend an August with me, then we'll talk.

The point of this is that this whole two-season thing can reek havoc on the creative process, especially when one is writing about something that happens in January while writing in July. It's sorta cold in January in Austin, which one can easily forget while sweating away in July. Which is why, two hundred and some odd pages into the newest E.J. Pugh mystery, I've had to remind myself that, oops, where are the jackets?

The story takes place at the University of Texas when E.J.'s son, Graham Pugh, comes back to school after the winter break. Yes, that would be January. Then he's accused of the murder of his obnoxious roommate. Just because he'd been thinking about doing it, doesn't mean he actually did it. So of course E.J. has to come to Austin to ferret out the true culprit and free her eldest child. And she should probably bring a coat. Just saying. And just because I'm writing in July when it's quiet plausible to forget about that wet stuff that falls from the sky, doesn't mean it's not available in, excuse the expression, winter. So maybe a raincoat. Okay, just an umbrella. Never rain boots. No one over the age of six does rain boots here. Maybe some ice? We had ice in 2006. It was scary. But I just had an ice storm in my last Milt Kovak book (which was more believable because he lives way up north in Oklahoma).

As I sit here writing this and staring out my window at the relentlessly perky sun, I'm reminded of something my late friend, the writer Nancy Bell, once said to me in a depressed voice: “It's another goddammed beautiful day in Austin.”

So, it's off to the writing mines for me to add the winter stuff: jackets, coats, a nice scarf, a little rain, you know, weather. We don't have weather in the summer months. Just that relentlessly perky sun. I need to go turn the air conditioning down.

09 May 2016

That Damn Book

by Susan Rogers Cooper

It was 9:30 in the evening, April 25, 2016. I was sitting in front of the computer, staring at that damn book. I couldn't take it any more. I decided to take a break and quickly checked my email. There it was, right there in front of me: an email from Leigh, asking where my post was for tomorrow. Post? What post? OMG, that damn book! I quickly explained to Leigh that I was trying to make a deadline in three days and I was still @#*& words short. He rescued me – at least from the post.

So it was back to the book. That damn book. I'd basically finished the story at @#*& words, which weren't nearly enough. So I added weather: an ice storm. That would be good for a few thousand words, I thought. Wrong. Less than one thousand. Okay, bite the bullet (so to speak) and kill somebody else. Over a thousand words! Yay! Still short.

My hero, Milt Kovak, was the only one of the regulars in the book who'd not been targeted by the bad guy. Okay, let's get Milt. I didn't want to shoot him – the Milt books are basically first person narrative. It would be difficult for him to narrate while dead or even hospitalized. I didn't want to physically hurt his family. A fire! I thought. Scary but not necessarily harmful to anything but his house! And of course Milt's not there because --- because it happens in the middle of the ice storm! Two thousand words! I was on a roll! But I still had @#*& words to go.

Someone suggested a bomb. I'd never done a bomb. Did this book even call for a bomb? Not really. But what the hell! I added a bomb.

The minutes, the hours, the days wore on. And still not enough words for that damn book. But with one day to spare, I finished it. It was ready to go. I didn't want to even think about reading it yet again, but I knew I had to. That damn book! Well, actually, it wasn't half bad. It could be better – every book could be better when you send it off – but it wasn't half bad. But mainly, it was gone.

Now on to the second book in the contract!

P.S. And thanks, Leigh, for the title to this post!

18 January 2016

A Little Ditty About Poisons

by Susan Rogers Cooper

When I thought I'd been misspelling “arsenic” in my newest Milt Kovak, I thought I'd write an article on how how bad spellers of the world should untie. But then I found I'd actually been spelling it correctly and thought, well, hell, there goes that thought. (Although if it weren't for spell check I'm sure I'd never have gotten published in the first place.) 
Then I thought about the fact that I'd been spelling “arsenic” at all – in the new Milt there's arsenic found in the peach melba. (Don't ask. Buy the book.) A couple of semesters ago I taught a series of class on writing the mystery and had one class exclusively on poisons. So I've got the research and you're going to have to deal with that. (Info dump, anyone?)

First off, poisons have been around and used about as long as there have been human beings. One fun fact is that Cleopatra reportedly did a little experimentation on poisons before selecting the asp as her way of doing herself in. She did her experiments on her prisoners and slaves. (Fun lady.) She at first tried henbane and belladonna, but, despite their rapid action, they appeared to cause too much pain in her subjects. She ditched the per-curser to strychnine (strychnos nux-vomica) – also rapid action – because it produced convulsions that left facial features distorted at death. (And who doesn't want to be a pretty corpse?) But the asp, her final selection, supposedly produced a serene and prompt death.

Then, of course, there were the Borgias who fine-tuned the act of poisoning, bringing it to the height of its art. In defense came the establishment of the position of food taster in royal households. If nothing happened to him after a short period of time, the royal would go ahead with his meal. Unfortunately, this did little to stop the serious poisoner.

Formal study of poisons began in the early nineteen century, with the isolation of morphine from opium and research into the effects of curare – a vegetable poison used by South American Indians to poison their arrows. Matthew J.B. Orfila, considered the founder of modern toxicology, experimented with and cataloged poisons and their effects. Arsenic, the poisoner's favorite, was tracked down by James Marsh around 1836. But Orfila, using Marsh's test on biological specimens, was an expert witness who helped convict Madame Lefarge. Remember her?

With the increase of industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, new and niftier chemicals became available to the poisoner. Then came synthetic drugs, which only added to the problems of the toxicologist. With the increase of barbiturate use after WWII, the suicide rate increased.

Currently the trend indicates that medicines for internal use are the favorite for both suicide and homicide, while external use goodies – such as cleaning fluids, pesticides, and vegetable alkaloids – run a close second, with gas and fumes running behind.

Unfortunately concentration on antidotes has not been as thorough as one would hope. The old wives tales of using milk (it really only dilutes the poison), and salt water (which can be dangerous as large amounts of sodium chloride can bring on fatal heart attacks), are just that – old wives tales. Basically, get medical attention when poisoning is suspected.

And on that happy note, have a nice day.

21 December 2015

An Early Christmas Present

by Susan Rogers Cooper

In my latest Milt Kovak book, COUNTDOWN, I told three stories that were mostly connected.  The first half of the book deals with Milt's wife and all his female employees and wives of his male employees being held hostage at what was supposed to be a surprise wedding shower.  But while this is going on, Milt's son, Johnny Mac (yes, Johnny Mac Kovak -- it rhymes, get over it) and his friends ride their bikes into the woods after a teenager who they believe is going to kill a dog he's dragging in there.

The reason why I'm telling you this:  My grandson who is eleven -- the same age as Johnny Mac in this story -- has always wanted to read one of my books.  I've always thought they were a little too adult (read boring) for an eleven year old boy.  But Johnny Mac's story has him and his friends getting caught in a tornado and having to survive.  My grandson is way into survival stories.  So I thought:  Yay, an early Christmas present!  I took the book and highlighted just the portions dealing with Johnny Mac and his friends and gave it to him to read.  It took a while -- he was reading two other books at the time and, oh, yeah, there was homework, but we won't go into that.

Finally, the day came.  He brought the book back and handed it to me.  I had to ask: "What did you think?"

He shrugged.  "It was pretty good," he said.  "I mean I liked the part with the tornado and all.  But--"

"But?" I queried.

"Yeah, you know.  Where were the zombies?"

Have I failed as a grandmother?  Or, even worse, failed as a writer?  Yes indeed, where were the zombies?  Or at least an alien or two?  What was I thinking?  So for Christmas next year I'll write him his own story full of zombie aliens caught in the snowy wilds of Alaska trying to survive.  Think he'll like it?