Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts

30 August 2021

Where Do Characters Come From?


Last week, Barb Goffman talked about how your best characters are desperate. A character who doesn't want or need something  serves no purpose in your story except to drag things down. If nothing is at stake, why should we keep reading? 

Only days before Barb's post appeared, a friend at the health club (Yes, I have friends. I pay them.) asked me if I've used any real people in my stories. I said I had, but that he wouldn't recognize them.

Interviewing classmate, later to be Megan Traine

High school classmate Susie Kaine Woodman, whom I met at a reunion, inspired Megan Traine, the female protagonist in the Woody Guthrie series. I changed her appearance, but the important music details made her recognizable. She's the exception. Real people inspired characters in many of my other stories, but not as they really are.

A character is a combination of yourself, people you know, and stuff you make up. Someone told me once the ratio should be about 1/3 for each facet, but I disagree. I make up more details than I copy.

Using yourself helps you understand how a character might react to certain issues and situations, and you know your backstory and quirks. But nobody needs to know about 99% of that. Using yourself has two dangerous traps, too. First, you will take many details for granted and not explain them to readers even if they are important, which means the reader might not understand something. 

The other problem with a selfie character is that we often demonize people who disagree with us. If "We" are the hero, the villain becomes an ogre instead of a fully-developed foil or antagonist. I only use myself for a reality check. Would this situation shock or upset me? Would a particular injury handicap me (At my age, a hangnail is a major concern)? The character's reactions might be different, but would that be believable?

Somerset Maugham had a stammer. When he wrote Of Human Bondage, which was thinly-disguised autobiography, he gave his main character a club foot instead. I play guitar, but Woody Guthrie plays much better (We share musical tastes). It didn't occur to me until years after creating him, that he nearly lost his left leg in a shooting, and I blew out my left knee playing football. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into The Night is his own family, which explains why the play was not produced until after his death.

People you know, the second part of the equation, can include relatives, childhood friends, teachers or coaches, and colleagues from work. They can supply physical mannerisms, speech tics, and maybe quirky behavior. Be careful, though. Sinclair Lewis used people from his home town in Main Street, and they recognized his portrayal of them as narrow-minded idiots and wrote angry, and in some cases, even threatening letters. Change enough so the person won't see himself or herself. It also prevents lawsuits, which is another reason not to base a villain on someone you know.

If it won't affect the plot--or will enhance the conflict in some way--I change the character's gender. If that's not possible, give him or her a different hobby, or job. I gave one character glasses and another one became left-handed. Give a single person a spouse, or vice versa. Many of the real people I've used have been composites of two or three people, too. 

Made up details are best because that is where you can create what you really need. If your character struggles with guilt, it's better to make it up. Woody Guthrie survived a shoot-out as a cop--that leg injury I mentioned above--but his partner, who had a wife and two children, died. Guthrie met the widow and the kids, and his survivor guilt is part of what drives him as a PI.

Give your character a fear of heights, dogs, or speaking in public. Karin Slaughter's Will Trent has severe dyslexia that he tries to conceal from everyone else while finding ways to investigate cases. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an alcoholic. The protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke is a sex addict (Who doesn't see that as a problem).

I usually begin building a character with Barb's advice. She or he must desperately want or need something. It's life or death. Once I know what it is, I can explain why it's so important, and it's better to make that up, even if something in real life inspires it. If you can't manipulate a detail in service to the story, you need a different detail. 

The need builds the character because it dictates action and behavior. That drives the plot. I seldom describe characters in any detail. Readers won't remember the character's physical appearance unless she's seven feet tall or has six fingers on one hand, but they will remember that Megan Traine loves children because she miscarried several times, and the last time nearly killed her. 

Characters are looking for something that they think will make them "whole." That's why villains need money or power and why protagonists must fix a problem this time that they failed to fix before.

It all sounds so easy…

10 August 2021

Pay It Forward


I owe the existence of one of my recurring characters to the kindness of a famous mystery writer.

Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins, received his last Edgar Award nomination for “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women,” which I published in my first anthology, Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (Wildside Press, 2001).

Not long after the release of Fedora, in a letter dated April 17, 2002, Jeff Gelb wrote, “Dennis Lynds suggested I contact you to see if you’d like to submit a story in consideration for the erotic mystery anthology series I co-edit with Max Allan Collins, Flesh & Blood.” (I already knew of Gelb from his work on the Hot Blood horror anthology series he co-edited with Michael Garrett.) Gelb provided some general guidelines as well as the pay rate and deadline. Toward the end of the letter, Gelb notes: “I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with your work, but if Dennis recommends you, that’s a pretty strong nod in your direction!”

This was, shall we say, a big break. A famous mystery writer had recommended me to the co-editor of an anthology series published by a major publishing house.

I submitted “Feel the Pain,” a private eye story featuring Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette, and, after making minor revisions at the request of Gelb and Collins, the story appeared in the third book in the Flesh & Blood series: Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003).

“Feel the Pain” became the first of my stories to be selected for a “best of” anthology when Maxim Jakubowski included it in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4 (published in the UK by Robinson, 2005, and in the US by Carroll & Graf, 2005).

I followed up with “Pumped for Information” (XL Girls, 2004), a sequel to “Feel the Pain” that put more emphasis on erotica and less on investigative work, before writing a string of Boyette stories where the erotic content was significantly reduced in favor of solid private eye work: “My Client’s Wife” (Thrilling Detective Web Site, Summer 2007), “Breaking Routine” (Hardluck Stories, Winter 2007), “News Flash” (Untreed Reads, March 2011), and “Yellow Ribbon” (Needle, 2012).

Then, nothing. I moved on to other characters and other stories...until a Boyette story I’d been toying with since 2003 caught my attention again. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Tough, April 2018) was named an “Other Distinguished Mystery Story” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, and I followed up with “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 2020).

I have notes written in 2003-2004 for three additional Boyette stories, but they don’t catch my attention when I reread them. So, I expected Boyette to again go quiet.

Then Michael Pool contacted me about his new publishing venture. I had previously contributed to his Crime Syndicate Magazine, and he received his first Shamus Award nomination for “Weathering the Storm,” a story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019). Pool has started P.I. Tales, a new book publishing venture dedicated to private eye novels and the Double Feature series of paired private eye novellas.

Pool invited me to contribute to the second volume of the Double Feature series, where my novella is paired with Hallmarks of the Job, written by Frank Zafiro, a writer who contributed to and played a key role in the launch of Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-edit with Trey R. Barker.

I considered creating a new private eye and then thought better of it. So, Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette returns in Aloha Boys, the longest story I’ve ever written about him.

In Aloha Boys, Boyette is still adjusting to his new digs above Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings when a homeless woman hires him to find her missing half-brother. Searching for the young man sends Boyette through the depraved underbelly of the local university, reunites him with a mob boss best left in his past, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew about families.

Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys releases August 17 but can be preordered now.

Is this the end of the road for Boyette? I doubt it, but I don’t know when or where he will next appear.

RELATIONSHIPS

Though I originally intended this post to be about a series character and how I continue to write about him, while researching Boyette’s history I was reminded of something more valuable: The importance of relationships within the writing community.

Boyette exists because Dennis Lynds connected me to Jeff Gelb, and the new Boyette novella exists because Michael Pool and I have worked together on other projects. In between, I’ve worked with editors such as Rusty Barnes of Tough, who once suggested I write a novel about Boyette, and his suggestion was on my mind when Pool approached me about writing a private eye novella for Double Feature.

While I’m loath to conclude that who you know is the key to success, it certainly plays a role in the opportunities that come your way.

Most of us break in the same way: by submitting manuscripts via slush piles, submitting our work on spec, hoping that editors will select our stories from the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other submissions. But once that happens, it’s up to us to act professionally, to develop relationships, and to share opportunities with one another.

And always, always, always, pay it forward.

Morris Ronald Boyette and I are forever grateful that Dennis Lynds did.

24 October 2020

Setting as Character...Really? Bad Girl Makes a Case (and gives an example)


What do we mean by "Setting as Character?"  Students always ask me that, and here's what I tell them:

Setting is important in helping to establish the mood of your story.  It should be treated with as much attention as you would give any other character.

In the 14 week Crafting a Novel course I teach at Sheridan College, we spend most of one class talking about setting.

One of the first things you must decide when writing your novel, is the reality of your setting.  Is it a real place that exists today, or that did exist in another time?  A place you can research?  Or is your setting completely from your imagination?

The trouble wtih many beginning writers is they set their novels in 'Anytown USA.'  Thus, no character, no unique feel to the place...the 'why it is different from everywhere else?' is missing.


For this reason, I usually opt for a real setting, even in fantasy novels.  No, you may not be able to go back to 4th century West Country in England (when WILL they come up with a time machine that works, already?  I'm waiting...)  But you can visit the area now, take in the beauty of the countryside, and particularly, visit the local museums to get more details on how people lived and how the land looked at the time.

That's what I did.  Here's how the location for my time-travel trilogy came about.

 All of our families have pasts.  Have you looked into yours to see if there might be inspiration there?  That's how I found my setting for Rowena Through the Wall.  In a corner of England called Shropshire, more known for sheep than people, there once stood a Norman castle of fantastic 'character.'

The original castle, erected after Harold fell to William in 1066, went to ruin in the early 1500s.  The new abode, Hawkstone Park, was built in 1556; it was forfeited in 1906 to pay off the gambling debts of my rakish relative.

My late cousin showed me around the countryside.  Tony Clegg-Hill was the previous Viscount of Shropshire and Shrewsbury.  I adored him.  He had that particular dry British wit that reminded me of David Niven.  It was his great-grandfather who lost the castle.

Tony would regale me with anecdotes about the family villains: the original Viscount Huel, who was basically a henchman for William the Conqueror.  More recent rogues like Sir Rowland Hill gambled away anything that could be taken as a stake.  It's a damning history, but a vibrant one.  But not all the family were black sheep.  One Lord Hill distinguished himself as the second in command to the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo.  When Wellington was made Prime Minister in 1924, Hill succeeded him as commander in chief of the British army.

So when it came to writing Rowena Through the Wall, I leaned back into the family history.  The original Normal castle with it's rounded turrets, crenellations and merlons had been waiting for a writer to bring it back to life.  Rowena walks through the wall to her ancestor's land, and she falls in love with it too.

"Outlander meets Sex and the City"
"Game of Thrones Lite"
Rowena Through the Wall was featured on USA Today, and was an Amazon Top 50 Bestseller (all books.)



17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard


I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.


A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.
Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

13 April 2020

Spare Time and Spare Parts


We all need to fill much too much spare time right now, but social distancing is easier for a writer because it's part of our life anyway. Unfortunately, I may have domesticated Zach Barnes and Woody Guthrie too much and fear that I'll turn them into family sitcoms, so, for the first time since 2003, I have no novels in progress. I have a few ideas for short stories and a novella, but a few weeks ago I turned to the Nostalgia Plan, AKA Recycling 101.

I store pretty much everything I cut on flash drives or external hard drives: a line of dialogue or description, scenes I cut from novels or short stories, an interesting character, projects I abandoned, and even stories rejected so often I ran out of places to send them. I cannibalize enough to make it worthwhile.

I published Blood on the Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, in 2013, but I wrote the first version of that story late in 2003. In various forms, revisions, and under at least four titles, the book(s) received over 110 rejections.

Sifting through the wreckage, I found a complete MS called The Cheater, an earlier version of what eventually saw print. Between 2006 and 2008, I pitched it to 58 agents. Interestingly, three of them asked for a full MS, another asked for 100 pages, and two others asked for 50 pages or the first three chapters. They all turned it down, usually without comment, but one with the kind of rejection that makes writers crazy: "You're a good writer and there's a lot to like here, but I can't sell this."

No further explanation.

Eleven years later, I still don't know why that MS was rejected, but I suspect that it was because I changed genre in mid-story. The premise was that the PI who would later become Woody Guthrie met Megan Traine at their high school reunion and they teamed up to solve a murder that involved one of the their classmates. Alcoholism and domestic abuse were important themes, and I suspect agents freaked when the cozy went south.

A few weeks ago, I went through the book again. I even found two pages of revision notes from 2010, when I considered revising that 78K-word story for my then-publisher, who had a 70K-word limit.

The cozy high school reunion idea is autobiographical. I met the inspiration for Megan Traine at my own reunion. Although we graduated together (Our class graduated 691 students), we never met in school, and she became a session musician in Detroit. The reunion idea was the crux of several versions of the book, but I finally decided that was the problem and abandoned it for Blood on the Tracks. 

The Cheater, which I also sent out twice as Alma Murder, presented another problem. The PI was from Connecticut and his name was Erik Morley, but Megan Traine was constant through all  versions of the book. Her character deepened, but changed very little between 2003 and her real debut ten years later. I figured if I put her in Detroit with a different lover, she'd look a little slutty, so I decided to change her name and background. The plot would still work, and I liked the POV of the classmate, a woman accused of killing her abusive husband. She was a lawyer and a functioning alcoholic. So much for the cozy, right?

I studied my revision notes, revised them some more, added new ideas, and rewrote about 40 pages of the book. I changed Megan Traine's name and background and cut all the music scenes from earlier versions (Erik Morley still played guitar, another constant with Woody and one of the few things he had in in common with me).

It was like sticking my hand into a garbage disposal.

The more I read, the more I realized that Meg and music generated some of the best scenes in that book. Changing her would force me to re-write or cut parts that gave all the characters more depth.

Fourteen years ago, I loved the book and the characters and we were a team. The rewriting. . . not so much. It became a chore instead of a passion. I stuck it out for about three weeks, then remembered the advice all doctors have at the top of the list.

First, do no harm.

I was mutilating something I loved and the changes would make it different, but not better. I decided to leave the book alone.

Maybe I'll publish it someday as an eBook, and UR-version of Blood on the Tracks. If I do, Alma Murder still works as a title. Or, maybe, I'll just leave it sleeping on the hard drive where it's happy.

I was surprised that a 14-year-old MS still felt like I actually knew what I was doing. Now, the biggest change would be a global edit to replace the double-space after end punctuation. And maybe to eliminate a few semi-colons.  I have several short stories on that same disc that don't merit reworking. I guess this particular story was more important to me.

Samuel Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason other than money. But sometimes money's not enough, either. Sometimes we do it for love.


What do you have in your closet?


18 December 2019

Breaking into Showbiz II


We did this back in 2017.  Here we are, back again, with all new entries.

Below is a list of characters from popular culture.  But how did they become popular? See the box on the right?  All the characters began life in one of those media.  See if you can match 'em up.  Be warned: there isn't a one-to-one match up, meaning exactly one character started in a TV show, etc.

Answers  below.

Bambi

The Lone Ranger
Radar O'Reilly

Jimmy Olsen

Raylan Givens

The Mighty Casey

Stuart (Stu) Bailey

Lamont Cranston

Mack the Knife

Alexander Waverly



Bambi.  Novel. Austrian novelist Felix Salten (an enthusiastic hunter, by the way) wrote Bambi: A Life in the Woods.  It was more or less what we would today call a Young Adult novel.   Published in 1922 and became an immediate success.  British novelist John Galsworthy called it  a "little masterpiece."  The Disney film version came out in 1942.  By the way, Thumper the Rabbit broke into show biz through the movies.  He is part of the Disneyfication  process, not appearing in the book.

The Lone Ranger. Radio. The mysterious masked man started life on the radio in 1933.  I bring him up because of a story that has spread in recent years that the character was inspired by Bass Reeves, a legendary (though very real)  hero, the first African-American U.S. Marshal in the west.  A biography of Reeves suggested that he inspired the Lone Ranger, but there is zero evidence that the creators of the show had ever heard of Reeves.

Radar O'Reilly.  Novel. The very first character to appear in the novel MASH by Richard Hooker (real name Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr.) is Radar O'Reilly of Ottumwa, Iowa.  In the movie he was played by Gary Burghoff, who went on to repeat the role in the TV series.  The only other actor I could think of who brought a character from the flicks to the small screen was Richard Widmark with Madigan, but it turns out there have been others.

Jimmy Olsen.  Radio. The eternal cub reporter, Superman's Pal, first appeared on The Adventures of Superman radio show in 1940.  He was created basically so the hero would have someone to talk to. We all need that from time to time, don't we?  Jimmy made it into the comics a year later.  Since then he has been in TV and movies as well as having his own comic book.

Raylan Givens.  Novel.  The Deputy U.S. Marshal first appeared as a supporting character in Elmore Leonard's Pronto.  He also showed up in Riding the Rap, before getting a starring role in the short story "Fire in the Hole."  This story, in which Givens is punished for an iffy killing by being assigned to his home state of Kentucky, inspired the TV series Justified.  The producers were so dedicated to making a work in the Elmore Leonard mold that they gave out bracelets to the crew that read What Would Elmore Do?  Most critics agreed that they succeeded and Leonard was inspired to write Raylan, supposedly a novel, but essentially designed to be broken up into three episodes of the series. In fact, two parts were used that way.

The Mighty Casey.  Newspaper.  Ernest L. Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat," first appeared in a San Francisco newspaper on June 8, 1888.  It happened to be read by Arch Gunter, a visiting novelist nd playwright.  He was so taken with the work that he clipped it out.  When he arrived in New York he shared it with a theatrical producer who asked his star comedian, DeWolf Hopper, to memorize it and recite it during that evening's performance.  Thus Hopper began a new career as the prime interpreter of the poem for forty years, on stage, radio, records, and movies.  It does make you wonder what minor masterpieces are buried in a century of newspapers....

Stuart (Stu) Bailey.  Novel.  Roy Huggins created private eye Stu Bailey in The Double Take.  He felt the character was so clearly a ripoff of Philip Marlowe that he sent a copy to Raymond Chandler with an apology.  Chandler apparently replied that he'd seen worse.  When Huggins moved to television Bailey became one of the P.I.'s who worked at 77 Sunset Strip.  Of course, Huggins also created Maverick, and The Rockford Files.

Lamont Cranston.  Magazine.  I just know I'm going to get an argument over this one.  Bear with me.  In 1930 the Street and Smith company decided to create a radio show to promote their Detective Story Magazine. The narrator was a mysterious character called The Shadow.

Pretty soon listeners were going to the newsstand and asking for "the Shadow magazine," which didn't exist.  There is a modern MBA rule that says: Let your customer tell you what business you are in.  Street and Smith tookthe hint.  They founded The Shadow Magazine and magician Walter B. Gibson filled it with a new novel twice a month (he had to be a magician, don't you think?), writing under the name Maxwell Grant.  He wrote 282 of the tales over 20 years.

In the pulp magazine the Shadow's real identity was Kent Allard but he sometimes pretended to be other people, including man-about-town Lamont Cranston, who was frequently out of the country.  In the radio version, the Allard name was dropped and the S-man was simply Cranston.  Simple, right?

Mack the Knife.  Opera. Yes, but which opera?  The popular song is a bowdlerized version of the song from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's Three Penny Opera.  But the song tells the story of Macheath, who first appeared in John Gay's Beggar's Opera, written two hundred years earlier (and inspired by an idea of Jonathan Swift's!).

Alexander Waverly.  Television. The regional head of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement was created for The Man From UNCLE, although some see a strong resemblance to the Professor, a spymaster who appears in North by Northwest.  Of course, both characters were played by the wonderful Leo G. Carroll.

Waverly and Carroll almost missed their big chance.  In the pilot for the series  the boss was Mr. Allison, played by Will Kuluva.  However, the network executives told the producers to get rid of the guy whose name began with K, so Kuluva was replaced by Carroll.  Turns out the network had really wanted to dump Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. Fortunately for the show (and thousands of adoring young women) Ilya dodged death, not for the last time.

Carroll, in his seventies. had health problems  during production.  When you see papers scattered across Waverly's desk, some of them are Carroll's script, available for easy reference.  At one point he told the producers that his grandchildren complained that Mr. Waverly never did anything but talk, so they created a scene in which he karate-chopped a bad guy.  When he nailed it the whole crew cheered.

Oh!  Here's a bonus question for you.  The star of The man From UNCLE was, of course, Robert Vaughn.  But do you know what he did in his spare time during production?  The astonishing answer is here.


28 September 2019

Being a Goddess Sucks When your Characters Won’t Behave… (warning: more silly stuff from Bad Girl)


(Dave, are you smiling down on me? My comedy is back)

Recently, my characters have become more mouthy.

I like to think of myself as their creator. Goddess material. Without me, they wouldn’t have a life on the page, or anywhere, for that matter. This should buy me a certain amount of respect, I figure. Sort of like you might give a minor deity. After all, I have created five series for them to live in.

Unfortunately, my characters haven’t bought into that. Worse, they seem to have cast me into the role of mother. That’s me: a necessary embarrassment for the perpetuation of their lives. And like all kids, they squabble. They fight with each other for attention. I liken it to sibling jealousy.

To wit: “You haven’t written about me lately,” says Rowena, star of Rowena Through the Wall.

I try to ignore the petulance in her voice.

“Been busy,” I mumble. “Gina (The Goddaughter) had to get married in Vegas. And Del, a relative of hers, started a vigilante group.”

“I don’t care if she started a rock group. You’re supposed to be writing MY story.”

I turn away from the keyboard and frown at her. “Listen, toots. You wouldn’t have any stories at ALL if it weren’t for me. You’ve had three books of adventures with men. A normal gal would be exhausted. So please be patient and wait your turn. Jennie had to suck it up for Worst Date Ever. Del and The B-Team were next in line. You can be after that, maybe.”

Maybe. I wasn’t going to tell her about the 6th Goddaughter book currently in the works.

“It’s not fair. I came first! Before all those silly mob comedies,” Row whines. “Don’t forget! I was the one who got you bestseller status.” She points at her ample chest.

“Hey!” says Gina, fresh from cannoli central. “And which book won the Derringer and the Arthur Ellis? Not some trashy old fantasy novel.”
“Who are YOU calling trashy?” says Rowena, balling her hands into fists. “Just because my bodice rips in every scene…”

“Like THAT isn’t a plot device,” chides Gina.

“Oh, PLEASE don’t fight,” says Jennie, the plucky romance heroine of Worst Date Ever. “I just want everyone to have a Happy Ever After. Can’t you do that for us all, Mom? Er…Melodie?”

I look at Del, from The B-Team. “What do you think?”

Del shrugs. “Sounds sucky. What kind of crap story would that be? Bugger, is that the time? I got a second story job that needs doing. Cover for me, will you? And this time, let me know if the cops start sniffing around.”
“Cops?” says Gina. “Crap! I’m outta here.”

“Cops?” says Rowena. “There’s that little matter of a dead body in book 2…” She vanishes.

“Cops?” says Jennie, hopefully. “OH! Is one of them single?”






Book 15 is now out! THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS

(Don't tell Rowena…)

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






www.StephenRoss.net

23 March 2019

But Do You Have a Plot? Bad Girl whittles Popular Fiction Bootcamp down to 10 minutes…


(Bad Girl) 

Last month, I wrote about Endings, and reader expectations for each of the main genres.  The response was positive, and some people have asked that I bring more stuff from class onto these pages.  So here are some notes from the very beginning, class 1, hour 1.

People often ask what comes first: character or plot?

Do you start with a character?  Or do you start with a plot?
This is too simplistic.

Here’s what you need for a novel:
A main character
With a problem or goal
Obstacles to that goal, which are resolved by the end.


PLOT is essential for all novels.  It’s not as easy as just sitting down and just starting to write 80,000 words.  Ask yourself:
What does your main character want?  Why can’t he get it?

Your character wants something.  It could be safety, money, love, revenge…

There are obstacles in the way of her getting what she wants.  THAT PROVIDES CONFLICT.

So…you need a character, with a problem or goal, and obstacles to reaching that goal.  Believable obstacles that matter.  Even in a literary novel.

There must be RISK.  Your character must stand to lose a lot, if they don’t overcome those obstacles.  In crime books, it’s usually their life.

So…you may think you have a nice story of a man and woman meeting and falling in love, and deciding to make a commitment.  Awfully nice for the man and woman, but dead boring for the reader.  Even in a romance, there must be obstacles to the man and woman getting together.  If you don’t have obstacles, you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a plot, and you don’t have a novel.

Put another way:
When X happens, Y must do Z, otherwise ABCD will happen.
That’s what you need for a novel.

GIVE YOUR CHARACTER GOALS

1. Readers must know what each character’s goals are so they can keep score.

2. Goals must be clearly defined, and they must be evident from the beginning.

3. There must be opposition, which creates the possibility of losing.
   >>this conflict makes up your plot<<
4. Will the character achieve his goal?  Readers will keep turning pages to find out.

If you don’t provide goals, readers will get bored. 
They won’t know the significance of the ‘actions’ the hero takes.

To Conclude:
Until we know what your character wants, we don’t know what the story is about.
Until we know what’s at stake, we don’t care.

Melodie Campbell writes fast-moving crime fiction that leans toward zany.  If you like capers like the Pink Panther and Oceans 11, check out her many series at www.melodiecampbell.com

Lastest up:








21 November 2018

Meeting Some Old Friends


I had an odd and interesting experience today.

I am working on the seventeenth story in my series about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks.  This one will include several characters who have been mentioned before and I realized I needed a scorecard, so to speak. So I skimmed through all the previous stories to see what I have already mentioned about any characters who have, or are likely to, appear more than once.

And am I glad I did.  It turns out that the woman I have been referring to in my draft as Meghan McDonough is really Megan McKenzie.  Oops.

More annoying is the fact that another character I wanted to bring back is Fiona Makem.  It is an absolute grudge of mine about authors who confuse their readers by giving characters similar names.  If you have five people in your story why name them Pete, Pat, Paul, Polly, and Thusnelda?  There are so  many initial letters to choose from!

But in my case Makem and McKenzie had appeared in separate stories so I hadn't noticed the similarity before.  So in my current tale I got them on a first name basis immediately.

Another reason to make careful notes is that Fiona is attempting to write a mystery novel set in each county in Ireland.  I need to remember that she has already covered Death in Donegal, Whacked in Wicklow, and (my favorite) Plugged in Cork.  God only knows how she is going to handle Fermanagh and Laios.

My list of characters also set my fevered brain to work. What if straight-laced Officer Dereske met eccentric philanthropist Dixie Traynor?  That might provide some fun.

I always make character lists before starting a novel (for one reason, to avoid multiple use of the same initial, of course).  But this is the first time I have had to do it with a series of stories.

And I guess that's a good thing.  I like a series with a large supporting cast.  Think of Nero Wolfe or Amelia Peabody.

Now I had better get back to story #17.  Our hero is just about to reveal the solution...