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

12 September 2018

In The Corner


Ever painted yourself into a corner? Writers obviously set targets, like a page count or a due date, or decide on a specific setting or circumstance, maybe a card game, or Elizabethan London, or a child's narrative POV - and then of course we move the goalposts. I'm thinking more particularly of stepping into a snare of your own devising, creating a problem you didn't know you had.
Writing's an obstacle course. And one of the things you learn early on is that you can't leave stuff out, you can't skip something because you think nobody will notice. This is obvious if we're talking about forensic detail, say, but less so when it requires us to bring more to the game. We all play to our strengths, and have lazy habits of mind, or avoidance mechanisms. It's about the comfort zone. 

For example. I first blocked out my spy story "Cover of Darkness" a very long time before the end result saw print. We're talking years. Partly, it was cold feet. I wasn't even entirely sure I wanted to write about the Cold War, and my time in Berlin, and I had a handy alibi, because I knew I was crossing the line between inside information and actual classified material. But the real stumbling block was my own skill level. The set-up for the story - the rainy tarmac, the stuffy car, the security, the briefing - was all very fluent. The  problem was, once the story really starts, once McElroy makes the dive into the icy river, everything takes place underwater. It was claustrophobic, there was no dialogue, it was all physical description. I broke it up a little, of necessity, but the basic story is one long action scene. It was a toughie.

Another story, "Winter Kill," stopped me a third of the way in, because I'd written myself into an impossible box. I had a murder victim, a cold case, skeletal remains, but no ID on the victim. How do you pin it on somebody? Doyle claimed that the Holmes stories were written back to front, he knew going in what Holmes would deduce, so it was a matter of reversing the plot. In my case, I don't think I've ever known going in how a story would turn out. The work-around, in "Winter Kill," is that I blinked. I realized it couldn't be made to happen, and I came up with a way to narrow the possibilities, and put a history to the bones. In other words, I fudged it.

I've talked before about the sex scene in my novella Viper. This is an example where there wasn't any work-around. I put my head in the lion's mouth. I hadn't planned it that way, by any means, but as the story took on shape and momentum, the inevitability loomed. And it had to be full-frontal, it couldn't happen off-stage. I've speculated previously that I did this accidentally on purpose, just to see if I could navigate the rapids.

I'm wrapping a Benny Salvador story now called "Second Sight," and I've hit a snag right at the end. The question isn't what happened, but how to explain it - more exactly, how not to explain it, how to paper over the details because the truth will do more injury than a comforting lie. There's the moral issue involved, Benny being pretty much a straight arrow, and a part of him knows he owes an honest account, but the lie will own him. And then we have the actual mechanics. How do I manage this convincingly?

This last is a different kind of obstacle from the ones I've outlined above, and of course that's the point, that each of them presents a new, and individual, difficulty. The specific, not the generic. I'm perfectly ready to entertain the notion that we're testing ourselves, pushing the boundaries, raising the bar. That it's a contest, or even a contact sport, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling an intransigent syntax to a weary draw. Or is it simply the quiet satisfaction of getting it right? No. There's more to it than that. There's that place we all know, where you get to say it out loud. Gotcha, you bastard.



02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains


Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.

20 February 2018

Make Them Suffer--If You Can


Authors in the mystery community are generally known for being nice folks. Helpful, welcoming, even pleasant. But when it comes to their work, successful writers are mean. They have to be.
An author who likes her characters too much might be inclined to make things easy for them. The sleuth quickly finds the killer. She's never in any real danger. In fact, there's no murder at all in the story or book. Just an attempted murder, but the sleuth's best friend pulls through just fine.

These scenarios may be all well and good in Happily Ever After Land. But in Crime Land, they result in a book without tension that's probably going to be way too short. That's why editors often tell mystery authors to make their characters suffer.

Yet that can be easier said than done. If you're basing a character on someone you don't like, then you might have a grand time writing every punch, broken bone, and funeral. But not every character can be based on an enemy. And sometimes characters seem to plead from the page, "Don't do that to me."

It's happened to me. I started writing a certain story a few weeks ago. I had a great first page, and then I got stuck. No matter how I tried to write the next several sentences, they didn't work right. I walked away from the computer. Sometimes I find a break can help a writing logjam. But not this time. In the end, I found I simply couldn't write the story I'd planned because, you see, that plan had included the death of a cat. And I just couldn't do it.
Don't do it!

The publication I was aiming the story for would have been fine with a story that included a dead animal. But I wasn't fine with it. And I knew my regular readers wouldn't like it either. Sure animals die in real life, and sometimes they die in fiction too. But those deaths should be key to the story. The Yearling wouldn't work if the deer didn't die. And Old Yeller needed the dog to die too.

I'm going to refer back to these very points if and when another story I've written involving animal jeopardy gets published. Sometimes that jeopardy is necessary for the story. And that's the key question: is it necessary? In the story I was writing about the cat it wasn't, and I knew it in my gut, even if I didn't know it in my head at first. That's why I couldn't bring myself to write the story as planned. Instead, with the help of a friend, I found another way to make the story work, one without any harm to animals.

It's not the first time something like that has happened to me. About six years ago I wrote a story called "Suffer the Little Children" (published in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). This is the first story of mine involving a female sheriff name Ellen Wescott. She's smart and honest and way different than I'd planned. Originally she was supposed to be a corrupt man. But as I was thinking through the plot during my planning stage, I heard that male sheriff say in my head, "Don't make me do that. I don't want to do that." Spooky, right?

Sometimes characters
just have to be nice

While part of me immediately responded, "too bad,"--he had to suffer--another part of me knew that when characters talk back like that, it's because my subconscious knows what I'm planning isn't going to work. Either it won't work for the readers, as with the cat I couldn't kill. Or it won't work for the plot, as was the case with this sheriff story. So my corrupt male sheriff became an honorable female sheriff, and large parts of the plot changed. My female sheriff faced obstacles, but she was a good person. That was a compromise my gut could live with.

Readers, I'd love to hear about stories and books you've enjoyed that involved a plot event you didn't love, yet you accepted it because you knew it was important to the story. And writers, I'd love to hear about times you couldn't bring yourself to write something. What was it? And why?


26 June 2017

The Lie Detector


My Time magazine came yesterday. The man on the cover is Special Counsel and former FBI Director, Robert Mueller. Underneath his photo is the sub-title Someone's not telling the truth.

Wow. Can this man with his extensive education and background and work experience be able to sort out fiction from lies? Surely he can, but this is a new challenge for him. He's never had an investigation like this. But he does have plenty of money and a dream-team of legal eagles on his side. Personally, I think he will eventually cut through all the lies, deceits and cover-ups but it will take time.

As writers we are hoping to be as Lawrence Block (a belated happy birthday, Larry) titled his book, Telling Lies For Fun And Profit. We are liars of the first, second, third and last order. And, boy, do we have fun doing it.

Just a couple of things to remember. If we have a character who is a police officer and we interrogate people to find out who committed the crime, do we rely on the old stand-by like body language? Do we express that? How the suspect, slouched and seemed uninterested.

Does our amateur sleuth draw any conclusion from the person who will not look directly into the character's eyes. That is another basic "tell" of a liar.

Do we ask the right questions in order to catch the suspect in a lie? Of course, we do these things. And Class, be sure you set things up so that you either have an idea the suspect is lying. Or have your character acknowledge that he or she knows they need more proof.

Most parents have a built in bull-pucky meter in their head and know almost instinctively when their child is lying. If that's true then your character might even say or think that. It's doesn't guaranteed they know when a suspect is lying.

You know, as a writer you must make your story or book believable so be sure and check on the reality of your character either detecting a lie or missing it altogether. If your character misses it then be sure you set it up that way.

If all else fails, have your suspect take a lie detector test. I remember Very Special Agent Tony what's-his-name in the NCIS  TV series telling a suspect once that every time the man lied, his (meaning Tony's) ears would itch. Tony had proof of part and part he suspected, but scratched his ears at the right time and the suspect confessed. Makes me laugh every time I think about it. And I do know Tony's last name, I just am not sure of the spelling at the moment.

I realize most of you reading this are published writers. Most also have awards and honors for writing excellence. But gentle reminders of details are always welcome in my book. Just continue telling and detecting lies because that's what we do.

05 June 2017

Shirley, Birly, Mo Mirly


If you write mystery, there's a good chance you write a series with a continuing character. People may even refer to your books by that character's name: Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum, the Hardy Boys (Would that series have survived if they'd been called the Sickly Boys?).

Your character is your brand, so you have to give him, her, or them a memorable and evocative name to help readers remember it. Sometimes, I don't find the right name until I'm struggling with the fourth or fifth draft, and I may change it several times before I find the one that sticks.

Yes, you can be symbolic, like Faithful in The Pilgrim's Progress or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. For years, I've said the ultimate victim name, especially in a book about a con game, is Patsy. Allusions are good shorthand, too, like naming a lover Romeo or a martyred character Jesus or Santiago. But symbolism and allusion get pretentious quickly, and then you have to go for the ordinary without succumbing to the mundane.

Postcards of the Hanging, originally my sixth-year thesis/project at Wesleyan University under a different title, teems with symbolic names because I was using it to show that I'd read the classics along the way. I thought I was heavy-handed about it, but nobody--including my adviser--has ever mentioned them.

Maybe a lyrical or pretty name--I know, that's subjective--or very unpleasant. Flannery O'Connor's protagonist in "Good Country People" calls herself Hulga because she wants to sound ugly. The name almost rhymes with the adjective. And what does that tell us about her as a person? Naming dictionaries for babies abound, and some of them sort the names by gender, language of origin, culture, or meaning. Pay attention to sounds, too.

Many heroic characters have short names with strong consonants. Shane, Sam Spade, Shell Scott (Shell suggests a bullet or armor, too), Joe Pike or Carlotta Carlyle. Sara Paretsky's V.I.--Victoria Iphegenia--Warshawski gives us an interesting rhythm and a fully-realized symbolic and allusive name. Victory and a sacrifice in one person.

I keep a spreadsheet with all the names I've used for novels and short stories. It serves two purposes. First, if I want to return to a location in a later book, I can check on the characters who were there quickly (My fourth Zach Barnes novel returned to a setting from the second book, and several of the characters showed up again) and easily.

The second reason is to be sure I don't repeat a name or sound too often. Left to my own devices, most of my characters would have names starting with "M." Don't ask me why, but in various drafts of the Guthrie series, my main characters were Morley, Maxwell, and Megan Traine. I eventually changed Morley (My great aunt's married name and sounding like "morally") several times, and Maxwell became a supporting character who shows up less often now, replaced by Eleanor "Shoobie" Dube. Megan is still my female lead, and more about her later.

When I find the right name, I know how and why the character has it, too. Taliesyn Holroyd in Who Wrote the Book of Death? is a man writing romance under the pseudonym, and Taliesyn is an over-the-top romantic name. It's also originally King Arthur's male bard, so it suggests the gender, too, even though most people wouldn't notice that. It was my ninth choice for the character and occurred to me while I listened to an old Deep Purple CD in my car: The Book of Taliesyn...

Zach Barnes became the protagonist in the revised edition of that book and the ensuing series. I had him in an unsold Detroit series, too, and changed his name in that first book with a global edit to save time. He became Greg Nines, but I didn't like the softer consonants as well. Neither did readers who told me so on my website. Besides, spellcheck went crazy because it interpreted "Nines" as plural.

Blood On the Tracks introduces my Detroit PI Elwood Christopher Guthrie (My daughter pointed out that "Elwood" suggests the Blues Brothers and Guthrie does play guitar). Over the course of 115 rejections and subsequent revisions, he was Rob Daniels, Erik Morley, Zach Barnes (see above), and at least one other name I no longer remember. Now he goes by Chris, but everyone else calls him "Woody," which is fine because of the guitar-playing. Megan Traine, his companion, is smart, feisty and gorgeous, and her name rhymes with the name of my high school classmate, the female session musician in Detroit who inspired her character in the first place.

Zach Barnes got traded to my Connecticut series, and he often encounters two Hartford police officers. One is Tracy Hendrix. His grandfather admired actor Spencer Tracy, and his father liked Jimi Hendrix enough to change the spelling of his own last name. When he played high school basketball, Tracy had a bad mouth that led people to call him "Trash." His detective partner is Jimmy Byrne, and the other cops call the duo "Trash and Byrne."

Trash and Byrne star in The Whammer Jammers, a crime novel built around roller derby, in which I gave all the skaters a rink name that suggests what they do in the "real world." That got to be far more fun than it should have been.


Grace Anatomy is a physical therapist. Roxie Heartless is a divorce lawyer. Goldee Spawn is an OB/GYN. Tina G. Wasteland (Hendrix's girlfriend) is a social worker. Annabelle Lector is a nutritionist. The bank president from the Deep South is Denver Mint Julep.

That book's sequel is Hit Somebody, due out next week, and it continues the joke/conceit. The announcer at events is Lee Da Vocal.

I've added twin sisters who run a bake shop, and their names are Raisin Cain and Ginger Slap. The original Ginger Slap works out at my health club and gave me permission to use her name when I told her how much I liked it. There is even a data base of all roller derby names: duplicating a name is a serious no-no, akin to a circus clown copying another clown's make-up design.

My daughter, once the captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire, likes to bake. Roller Girl (check it out, it's terrific), skates on the West Coast as Winnie the Pow. Who says you can't make this stuff up?


Her rink name was Hazel Smut Crunch. And Victoria Jamieson, who wrote the Newbery Award YA graphic novel

My roller derby books have that Greg Nines problem again, too. Tina G. Wasteland's real name is Tori McDonald, and spellcheck thinks "Tori" is the plural of "Torus."

It could be worse. When I bought my first computer decades ago and worked on a mythology unit for my classes over the summer, that primitive spellcheck flagged the name Achilles and suggested the alternate: asshole.

How do you come up with names?

13 March 2017

What's In a Name




Naming characters can be easy or difficult depending on your own method of writing. Again, I have to say, every writer does things different. Every book or story can be totally different. That's what makes the good book even better. Naming the characters might not seem too important to readers but if a character lives in your mind forever, then you have to admit, naming them can be important.

Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, V.I Warshawski, Phillip Marlowe, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, Rick Blaine, Charlie Allnut, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. All memorable characters that seem so real in our minds.

I decided to ask writers on Facebook to tell me how they choose a character name. Here are responses:

  • EllaDaye Flowers: You name then after your friends… LOL (I used EllaDay's name in a story that never got finished or published. I love her beautiful but unusual name. JG)
  • Jill D'Aubery: They usually tell me their names.
  • Joan Hall Hovey: Yes, I agree with Jill. They tell me their names; I just need to listen, If I've got it wrong, they let me know.
  • Orania Papazoglou: Weirdly enough, with me, the name often comes first. It's as if names have characters attached to them.
  • Janet Christian: Sometimes I mix and match the first/last names of people I've known. If the name is important to the "theme" of the character, I search by culture, history, time period and even actual meaning. In one novel, I gave a character an unusual name that had the meaning of "death." Guess what ultimately happened to him? The site I search is: www.meaning of names.com/
  • Kris Neri: Mostly, characters tell me their names. But when the right name doesn't come, I have some go-to techniques to stimulate name thought. I have a "name notebook" that I've built up for years. When I get a play program for instance, that credits lots of people by name, I rip out those pages with names and put them into the notebook. Anything that lists lots of names, goes into the notebook. I also look at TV credits at the end of shows or movies. Or read the white pages of phone directories. Once at the airport, I heard two names paged and I put parts of each of those together to form one name. Names are everywhere.
  • Lisa McClendon: All of the above for names of characters set in my own country. The book I'm working on now is set in France so I use a site that generates French Names...I just tap through the names until I find one I like. I try to never have similar names which is a challenge at times. At a minimum the top ten characters need to have names that start with different letters and do not sound alike.
  • Les Roberts: I try to use names that are not completely ordinary. Looking back on my third book (the first Milan Jacovich), I could kick myself in the butt for naming the romantic interest "Mary." It's a fine name, and I know many lovely people named Mary, but since then I've tried to name differently. In the book I'm writing now I got the first and last name from a young woman who is the cashier at my local Honda dealer. I'm not going to tell you what it is here, though because it's almost impossible not to steal.
  • Donnie Price: I was writing a short story with my then five year old daughter. I was stuck on naming the characters-she pointed at a phone book and said, "There is a whole book full of names, Dad."
  • Angela Crider Neary: The name of my cats. Of course my characters are cats, so that helps.
  • Jeff Baker: I've scrambled up names from football players in games that were on while I was writing. Then sometimes, I use names that are appropriate, a story I'm working on now has a sweet old lady who practices magic. Her name? Ellie Faye Morgan, a scrambled up version of Morgainne Le Fae... I read once that Eddie Murphy complained that white writers couldn't name black characters, so he renamed characters he played after friends he'd gone to school with (last names anyway.)
  • Jerry Kennealy: Pick an actor you like for his role - check him out on Google IMBD for the roles he's played - pick one of the names from his films.
  • Denise Dietz: For the villain I use names of people who have "done me wrong." Like Kris, most characters tell me their names, but if I'm really stuck I look at the cast and crew of a classic movie.
  • Terrie Moran: Usually the characters tell me what they want to be named. When they don't, I open an old phone book and pick a first name from one page and the last name from another. If the character isn't happy he lets me know and we change. Quite often the phone book name sticks.
  • Dona L. Watts: You can use mine anytime you want, hint hint...lol. (Dona is my niece. JG)
  • Jeff Cohen: Honestly I go by sound. I hate naming characters and wish I could change everyone I've ever written. But I wouldn't come up with anything I liked better and would end up changing them all again.
  • Susan P. Baker: Sometimes from a baby name book. Sometimes from the obits, if I see an interesting name, I save it. When writing about a particular geographical area, then by who lives there. With my mystery novel set in Fredericksburg, TX, I have mostly German and Spanish last names and some first names, too, like Rufina Gonzales is the defendant.
  • Gary Warner Kent: I go back to my high school and college yearbooks, then play with combinations, esthetics, sounds...the worst and best were one and the same. "Hyman Fartzenberry." True name.
  • B.K. Stevens: I taught for many, many years and never threw a grade book away. When I need a name that sounds real, I reach for a grade book. I also have a dictionary of names that I use when I want a name with a particular meaning. Some character names are allusions to literary works with similar themes for plots.
  • Eve Fisher: I do what B.K. does. Use old student lists. Also the SSA has the post popular names for every year for decades.
  • Leigh Lundin: I use a combination of techniques, often going by sound, but especially relying upon the meaning of names. For example, Linda and Belle mean beautiful, Morse and Morris mean dark. I used the Hopi name Chu’si, meaning ‘snake flower’, because a dangerous woman had qualities of both. I named a team of Zimbabwean/Rhodesian bad guys according to their ethnic backgrounds, Afrikaner, Zulu, etc. Both words of a Shona name, Magondo Svitsi, represent two different ways of saying ‘hyena’. (I actually built a database of names, their origins and meanings. Deborah Elliott-Upton tapped me a couple of times to dredge up names for her.)

Great information everyone. Thanks. Most ideas I use myself but the one about looking at credits of movies and TV shows is a great idea that I never have thought of and certainly plan to in the future. I used a grocery cashiers first name once, It was Dwanna. And in a western story I wrote the town I used was a real town between here and Austin called "Nameless." When they first named their town they first sent "Sandy," into USPS service. USPS wrote back and said, "No. There is already a Sandy." This went on for two or three other names the town council tried. Finally, they just said, "Well, dang it, we'll just call it Nameless" and that one passed the USPS. I drove out there to get a feeling for the town which really was only a community now. I wound up walking around in the cemetery and writing down names on the tombstones to use for character names.

I think character names are interesting and fun. You just never know when a name will become famous, like Jan Grape, for instance.

Additional Comment: you never know when something you wrote for SleuthSayers is read by a person who you don't know, but they were touched by what you wrote. I received a sweet note from a young woman who had been surfing around for information on her grandfather, Clark Howard who had passed away the first of Oct. 2016. I wrote a tribute to Clark back in October for SleuthSayers. Amanda Howard wanted to thank me for the nice things I said about Clark. Her grandparents had raised her and Clark's wife Judith had passed away in 2004 and she was Clark's caregiver until the end. I friended her on Facebook and told her I had known Clark and Judith when they lived in Houston, and thought so much of both of them. She was surprised yet pleased to learn I had known them way back that long ago. She is 27 now so she had not even been born then. Sometimes we forget how much good FB can do. And how much good SleuthSayers can do. We are lucky to have this, my friends. Thanks to all who make it possible.

01 March 2017

Breaking into Showbiz


by Robert Lopresti


Usually I put a picture of myself at the top of this piece, figuring you should suffer in order to read my wisdom.  However, that is not me over there.  It is Charlie, who likes to sit on the desk between me and the screen.  He decided to co-author this piece, sort of.

Years ago  I saw an artwork by Robert Rauschenberg entitled ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, which was just what it sounded like.

And such is the case here, with me playing de Kooning and Charlie as Rauschenberg.  (You get to decide which is the bigger stretch.)

See, after I had poured hours of research into this piece and done most of the writing Charlie stuck his paw on my keyboard and erased it.  (Blogger is unforgiving about some things, as all of us SleuthSayers know.)    I put it back together as best I can.  When you go to Heaven perhaps St. Peter will let you read the Platonic ideal of this blog entry. Unless, of course, St. Charlie gets there first.


Today I am offering a quiz of a type I haven't seen before. I am going to give you a list of familiar characters from popular culture.  (You may not know all of them, but trust me, most will ring a bell.)  The question is: How did each of them start out?   The answer is, in one or more of the categories you see on the left.

Here is an example, not on the list below: Zorro originated in a short story by Johnston McCulley. See how easy?

One warning: Some of those categories on the left might get used more than once, or not at all.  Okay.  Go!

Rosie the Riveter.

Smokey Bear.

Harley Quinn.

Arthur Dent.

Topper.

Boba Fett.

Ma and Pa Kettle.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Cisco Kid.

John Henry.

Dr. John H. Watson

Made up your mind?  Here are the answers.

http://groundedparents.com/2015/05/08/a-fond-farewell-to-rosie-the-riveter/
Grounded Parents page
Rosie the Riveter.  Song.  The iconic symbol of women in the World War II war effort originated in a song created by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942.   The image most associated with her during the war was an illustration by Norman Rockwell, cheekily based on Michaelangelo's portrait of Isaiah.  The illustration we associate with Rosie now ("We Can Do It!") was created by J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse factories, and didn't get its Rosie connection for decades.

Smokey Bear. Advertisement.  A lot of people think Smokey started with the black bear cub rescued after a fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 1950.  But the cub was named in honor of the Forest Service symbol who first appeared in ads in 1944.  By the way, the real-life bear lived to old age in the National Zoo and was so popular he had his own zip code (20252).

Harley Quinn. Television.  In the Batman universe Harley Quinn was a psychologist who tried to shrink the Joker.  She went nuts and wound up as his sometimes lover/sometimes enemy. She was the only character who made the jump from the animated TV series to the comic book.  Her portrayal by Margot Robbie was generally considered a highlight of the unloved movie Suicide Squad and is supposedly scheduled for another flick this year.

Arthur Dent.  Radio.  Poor confused Arthur Dent has wandered  throughout the universe (usually in a bathrobe) in a multitude of media but Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started on the radio. It then became a series of wonderful novels, a clever TV show, and a dreadful movie.

Topper.  Novel. Cosmo Topper was the mild-mannered bank clerk who bought a car possessed by the ghosts of the Kirby's, a fun-loving, hard-drinking couple who dedicate their afterlives to making Topper's life more exciting, whether he wants excitement or not.  Before it became a movie and a TV series (with the wonderful Leo G. Carroll in the title role) Topper was a novel by Thorne Smith.  If Hollywood paid Smith fairly for all the ideas they cribbed from him, his descendants would be heating their mansions by burning thousand dollar bills, just to keep them from cluttering up the place up.

Boba Fett. Parade or Television.  Boba Fett, the iconic bounty hunter from the Star Wars movies, right?  A lot of people know that.  Some fans know he appeared earlier in the legendarily-despised Star Wars Holiday Special.  But two months earlier he marched, with Darth Vader, at the San Anselmo County Fair Parade.  Why?  Well, Lucasflm was headquartered at San Anselmo back then.  

Ma and Pa Kettle.  Real Life or Memoir or Novel.  You tell me.  In 1945 Betty MacDonald published The Egg and I, a comic memoir of life on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula.  Among the characters were the disreputable Kettle family, a lazy and not-too-bright couple with many children.  The movie version was a hit and the Kettles were so popular that they were spun off into a series of popular comedies.

Later the Bishop family, ex-neighbors of MacDonald, sued her, claiming that the Kettles were based on them and they had been libeled.  They settled out of court but when they sued the publisher MacDonald testified and swore she had made the whole thing up. Okay, she said the characters in the book were all composites, not based on real individuals. The jury believed her, or  maybe they didn't care for the plaintiffs, and found in her favor.  So: Memoir or Novel?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Advertisement.  Robert L. May created the ninth reindeer for an ad for Montgomery Ward in 1939.  A decade later May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the famous song, growing a number one hit for Gene Autry, and a permanent part of our holiday culture.

The Cisco Kid.  
Short StoryThe idea for this blog entry came when I read this piece in Dear Rich, a wonderful advice column about intellectual property issues.  Turns out the Cisco Kid originated in a story by O. Henry of all people.  In "The Caballero's Way," he was an American outlaw, and a nasty one at that.    By the second movie (1928) he was a Mexican good guy.

By the way, Dear Rich concludes that Cisco is in the public domain but his sidekick, Pancho, is still under copyright.

John Henry.  Real Life.  Most scholars seem to agree that the song (songs, really) about John Henry were based on an African-American prisoner working on a railroad tunnel after the Civil War.  (They have reasonable doubts about the steam drill contest, however.)  The problem is they disagree as to which tunnel was involved, with major candidates in Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia.  I lean toward the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, because I have read Steel Drivin' Man, by Scott Reynolds Nelson.  His choice was a resident in the state prison with the right name, although he was a slim young man from my home state of New Jersey. Nelson provides one convincing bit of evidence:  Some of the old versions of the ballad say that the hero was buried at the White House, which sounds like the craziest of fantasies.  However, see the postcard of the Virginia Penitentiary?  That white building in the middle was the work house and when they tore it down they found 300 skeletons in unmarked graves, just outside.  They realy did bury prisoners at the white house.

The ballad of John Henry became very popular during the left-leaning folk revival of the 1950s as a metaphor for the noble worker battling soulless automation, but the early songs about him written by and for African-Americans mostly had a different message: Don't let the bastards work you to death.  Tom Smothers spoke truer than he knew when he summed up the song as follows: "Dumb smart alec.  Thought he could beat a steel drill."

Dr. John H. Watson. Novel.  Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Didn't you know that?

17 September 2016

Namedropping


Something I've always enjoyed, when reading novels and short stories, is finding things in the story that are familiar to me. Things like street names, restaurants, movies, quotes from movies, quirks of regional dialect, etc. When authors insert those into stories, it seems that it can establish an instant connection between writer and reader.
Because of that, I suppose it shouldn't have been surprising to me to find, after I'd published a number of stories, that readers sometimes approached me (usually friends, and often jokingly) with the suggestion that I should someday use them in a story. Or at least use their names.

You know, that's not a bad idea …

My reaction to that was Why not? We writers dream up names all the time for our characters; it would be easy to stick a real name in, now and then. Especially if you know that those folks already like what you write and would enjoy seeing themselves as a part of it.

I don't do it all the time, of course--most of my character names continue to come from the same place my plots do: my overactive and usually scary imagination. But when the situation's right and it fits the character and I can remember to do it, I try to plug in a familiar name.

Examples:

- Teresa Garver, an old friend and avid Woman's World reader who lives in Georgia, made an appearance a couple years ago as a high-school English teacher in one of my WW mini-mysteries.

- Chuck Thomas, one of my customers during my IBM days (and one of the smartest programmers I've ever known) showed up as one of three schoolkids who captured a python that had escaped from the zoo in a story called "Not One Word." It first appeared in the now-defunct Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine in 2002 and has been reprinted several times since.

- Charlotte Hudson, a former student in my writing classes, has been featured in two of my Woman's World mysteries. In one of them, she and her real-life husband Bill were farmers who owned a pond where the main character liked to fish.

- Cheryl Grubbs, a dear friend from my high school days, will be the deputy of Sheriff Ray Douglas in a story called "Trail's End," coming up soon in AHMM. She's also on hand in the next installment of that series, which I sent to AH a few months ago. Whether they decide to buy it is (pun intended) another story …

- Charles Heisley, an old Air Force buddy who lives in Honolulu (I visited him there once, back when I was globetrotting with IBM), became a Louisiana state cop in my story "The Blue Delta," which is included in the Bouchercon 2016 anthology Blood on the Bayou. (Note to all readers: Invite me to Hawaii and you get featured in any story you want.)

Sometimes the mention of a name can be oblique, and subtle. In honor of my friend and fellow Mississippi writer Larry Chavis, my lead characters in a Strand Magazine story a few years ago were passengers on the Chavis Island Ferry--in fact the whole story took place on that boat. And a lady in one of my many stories for Futures was Janet Bailey, a combination of the names of two of my writer friends, Janet Brown and Carole Bailey. I have also often used the last names of friends in stories, when those names were interesting and/or unusual: Denbroeder, Prestridge, Cash, Bishop, Wingo, Higa, Liggett, Valkenberg, Pennebaker, Zeller, Bassett, McClellan, Fenwick, Boatner, Fountain, Parrott, Stovall, Stegall, Blackledge, LaPinto, Tullos, Crowson, Burnside, Moon, Speed, Fetterman, Lindamood, etc.

Other writers, other approaches

All this is, of course, nothing new. Fiction writers use real names for fictional characters a lot, and it might be worth noting that Nelson DeMille--one of my all-time favorite authors--has taken that practice a step farther. In the Acknowledgments section of most of his novels, DeMille mentions those people who have made generous contributions to charities in return for his using their names as characters in the book.

My favorite memory of this kind of thing is of something my SleuthSayers colleague Rob Lopresti once did in "Shanks Commences," a story which appeared in (and on the cover of) the May 2012 issue of AHMM. At the time that Rob created that story, he and I were among seven writers who did weekly columns for the Criminal Brief mystery blog, and he chose to put all of us into the story. I still remember how much fun it was to read it--and how pleased I was to find that I didn't turn out to be the murderer. Rob talks about that story here.

How about you?

The obvious question is, have any of you tried using real people's names in your stories or novels, either as themselves or as characters? I know some writers are afraid that might backfire, but I think the chances are slim. As with statements about real places or real companies or real products, you'll get into trouble only if you say bad things about them, and if the mentioned characters are friends of yours, they'll almost certainly be pleased. If they're not pleased--well, maybe that's a good way to find out who your friends really are.

According to one of my writing buddies, part of the fun of being a fiction writer is being able to look at someone and say, "Be nice to me. If you're not I'll put you in a story and kill you off."

Fair warning …

15 August 2016

Origins of a Character


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.

25 June 2016

Damn Right, there's ME in my Characters!


Several times a year we do these reading and signing events.  And people ask you a pile of questions about your books.  Most are repeat queries that you’ve heard a dozen times before.  So you get pretty good at answering them.

Lately, I was asked a question that I didn’t have a pat answer to.  In fact, it really made me think.

“Do you make up all your characters, or do you put some of yourself in them?”

I’d like to say that every character I write comes completely from my imagination.  For the most part, they do.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a real person who matches the physical description of any of my characters.  (Not that I would mind meeting Pete.  But I digress…)

Back to the question:  are there bits of myself in my protagonists? 

PROOF NO. 1 (others will follow in later posts)

“I am SO not a salad girl.”

Some people say this is one of the funniest lines in my screwball mob comedy, THE GODDAUGHTER.  It is spoken by Gina Galla, goddaughter to the mob boss in Hamilton, the industrial city in Canada near Buffalo, also known as The Hammer.  Gina is a curvy girl.  She says this line to her new guy Pete, as a kind of warning.   And then she proceeds to tell him she wants a steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and a side of mushrooms.

Apparently, that’s me.  So say my kids, spouse, and everyone else in the family.

Eat a meal of salad?  Are you kidding me?  When there is pasta, fresh panno and cannoli about?  (I’ve come to the conclusion that women who remain slim past the age of fifty must actually like salad.  Yes, it’s an astonishing fact.  For some people, eating raw green weeds is not a punishment. )

Not me.  I’m Italian, just like my protagonist.  We know our food.  Ever been to an Italian wedding?  First, you load up with appetizers and wine, or Campari with Orange Juice if you’re lucky.  When you are too stuffed to stand  up anymore (why did you wear three inch heals?  Honestly you do this every time…) you sit down, kerplunk.  Bring on the antipasto.  Meat, olives, marinated veggies, breadsticks, yum.  Melon with prosciutto.  Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip.  White wine.   

Then comes the pasta al olio.  Sublime.  Carbs are important fuel, right?  And I’m gonna need that fuel to get through the main course, because it’s going to be roast chicken, veal parmesan, osso buco, risotto, polenta, stuffed artichokes (yum), more bread, red wine.

Ever notice that salad is served after the main course in an Italian meal?  Good reason for that.  We aren’t stupid.  Hopefully, you will have no room left for it.

So yes, my protagonist Gina shares an important trait with me.  She likes meat, dammit.

So you can be a bunny and eat salad all you like.  Bunnies are cute and harmless.

But Gina and I are more like frontier wolves.   Try making us live on salad, and see how harmless we will be.

Which is what you might expect from a mob goddaughter from The Hammer.

Do you find bits of yourself sneaking into your fiction?  Tell us here, in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes the award-winning Goddaughter mob comedy series, starting with The Goddaughter which happens to be on sale now for $2.50.  Buy it.  It's an offer you can't refuse. 
P.S.  My maiden name was 'Offer.'  No joke.  Although I've heard a few in my time.

07 March 2016

Nothing Much Here


The hour to post my blog draws nearer and I honestly don't have a topic or even an idea of what to write. I had read a blog written by a friend this week and sent her a message asking if I could repost on my blog. I haven't heard back from her and I'm sure it's because she's busy or else she's been goofing off but not on Face Book.

It was a subject I've talked about before but hers has a new take. Dealing with gaining a deeper understanding of your characters. She mentions something she uses in her writing classes and I've used it also.

Take your character on a field trip to the grocery story or perhaps a WalMart. The way your character responds can tell you a lot. Do they make out a list or do they just go up and down the aisle picking up what happens to catch their eye.

Does your character not only make out a grocery list? If the character is very organized, she may even plan a week or two of meals, that could make the list quite long.

Then how does the character dress? Just in typical jeans and t-shirt or sweats? Or does he or she dress in what might be called crazy laid-back attire? I've seen women in stores in long dresses and high heels as if they were going to a big party after leaving the store. To top it off, one lady wore her hair in rollers because she had to do the comb out in the car as she heads to the party. Okay, maybe you can believe her if she's buying a party tray or dip and chips. If not, then not so much.

Or how about the guy in pajamas? Flannel pajamas with very loose elastic at the waist so that the bottoms sag and you can see his butt crack. Do you feel like you need eye bleach?

Then there is the items your character buys. All junk food? Or all fruits and veggies? Perhaps it's a busty, fussy looking lady who buys Redi-Whip and when you turn the corner to the next aisle and there she is squirting the whipped cream in her mouth.

How about when he or she gets to the Express check-out line. Perhaps your character only has three items and is in a big hurry,  he agitatedly sighs and you can tell he has a short temper on an equally short fuse. You just know he's going to explode any minute. There's a young mother in from of him with a ten month old baby in the baby seat of the grocery basket. The baby looks up at the man and lets out a huge laugh. It's the kind of laugh that no one can ignore.

The demeanor of the man changes immediately. A baby looked up laughed. Somehow the time frame slows and the man can't help smiling back. Now the baby is chuckling and so is the man who now looks at the person behind him in line. It's a older man with a bouquet of yellow roses. Obviously he's bought them to take home to his wife. Maybe it's their anniversary or her birthday. Your character smiles at the older gentleman and they both laugh at the baby again. At that moment, you know your character is actually a likable person although you originally thought he was a horrible stinker.

A little shopping trip with your character constantly in your mind can make a world of difference. It adds depth to your character and to your writing. No editor will come back at you and say your characters are two dimensional or wooden.

Okay class, that's all for today. Use if you need for your own work or as an aid in your role as a writing teacher.



Am sure you all have hear about the death of Nancy Reagan. I'm sure that now she can Rest In Peace.

22 February 2016

Too Many Cooks...er,Uh...Characters


by Jan Grape

I love to read good books with characters I can care about, root for or at last give them a chance to grow on me enough to keep turning pages and finish the book. Sometimes I think an author gets carried away or else so many characters keep talking that he has to write them all down before they quit talking and he doesn't know what to do.

There are many, many books that have characters that I like so much I'll keep buying that authors books forever. Even in hardback because I can't wait for the next installment. Lee Child's books starring Jack Reacher is one. Child starts off many times giving you a bit of background, a bit of scenery or immediately telling you the problem that Reacher is facing. You may read twenty or thirty pages with only three or four characters introduced. There might be two or three other names mentioned but they probably aren't going to be major...like a sheriff who picks up the walking Jack Reacher or Navy lieutenant who will escort Reacher to a private jet. Before long you've read the aforementioned twenty or so pages and you are right there into the story and know what is going on.

I looked at a half a dozen books on my shelf and discovered that was more or less exactly what Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Michael Collins, Marcia Muller, James Lee Burke and Bill Pronzini do. In the first twenty or thirty pages they will introduce their main character and perhaps two or four other characters that may have something major to contribute to the story. They may even mention three or four other characters who probably only have a walk-in part but are necessary.

Recently, I read a book by an author I admire very much but had not read in years. Everything was fine in the first twenty-five or thirty pages but suddenly a new scene opened up with two new characters. Okay, I guess these two were necessary. Turned out they were what I might call minor/major characters.

They showed up every so often and were important to the story but before I could turn around twice another major/minor showed up and then three more major/minor folks and this happened in the first fifty pages. And the real major character was lost in the shuffle in my opinion.

Honestly, it seemed to me as if the major character should be the one introducing in these other characters and not handling them all out at once. I more or less got so lost that I lost interest in the book. It took me weeks to finish it. And in between I read three other books.

No, I can't say I enjoyed that book as much and I doubt I'll ever purchase another by that particular author. The author did connect all the dots at the end but I mostly didn't care one way or the other. I may be the only one who feels this way but I don't think so. After thinking about it this week, I remembered when we owned our bookstore there were a few customers who complained about too many characters dumped on you immediately. I don't mind if you wind up with 79 characters but please don't dump them on me in the first forty or so pages. I confuse easily.

Which in turn led to my title...too many cooks spoil...er...uh too many characters spoil the book.

Let me know what you think. See you on down the road.

10 January 2016

Shout at the Devil


© DreamsTime
© DreamsTime
by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been wrestling with a story. I know the plot, I know where I want it to go. But the characters are fighting back and they’re dirty combatants.

The first draft– too funny. Humor is difficult to craft, tricky to get right. Here I’m striving to craft a serious mystery, one with a dark twist ending, and it comes out… amusing, comical. Funny doesn’t work with dark, deathly endings.

If you don’t believe me, check out Shout at the Devil, Wilbur Smith’s novel or Peter Hunt’s movie. Setting: German East Africa. British aristocrat Roger Moore falls in love with Barbara Parkins, daughter of hard-drinking, hard-fighting poacher Lee Marvin. Those two bear a daughter. They enjoy tweaking the noses of the humorless and relentless Germans colonizing Tanganyika. Fun and games. Very droll, slapstick. Then World War I breaks out and the wicked German commander sinks their dhow, burns their house, and his nasty Schutztruppen kills Moore’s and Parkins’ daughter– Lee Marvin’s granddaughter.

Within a page, the story jettisons its humor and turns 270°. The light comedy: gone. In its place: death, destruction, misery, heartbreak, revenge.

No! No! It’s like digging into a lovely dessert and there, under the chantilly lies sauerkraut. Give me cabbage or give me cake, but not both at once, please.

Back to the writing board. Literally from scratch, I start again. The characters behave seriously at first. A woman wronged is designated my protagonist, kind of an anti-heroine. But then a guy steps in and, if you know men, they can’t resist heroically saving a damsel in distress– it’s coded in their DNA. But now it’s interfering with the plot where my anti-heroine is supposed to find her own resolution. Just like a guy, huh?

And then two characters decide to fall in love. That’s a tribulation because guys with their defective DNA can’t get hints. Despite her best efforts at subtlety and suggestions, the lad can’t decide if she’s interested in him or it’s strictly business. He’s petrified she might think sexual harassment, ruining a friendship and career.

While I haven’t started from zero again, I’m negotiating with my characters, wanting my anti-heroine to get through the plot. I’m willing to put the aforementioned relationship on the table and let the oversexed pair have their way with one another, but so far the greedy sods want everything their own way. They’re pretty certain they’ll win.

© Booker Prize

28 November 2015

I’m Not My Protagonist! Oh, wait a minute…


My college Crafting a Novel students often hear me say, “You can’t make every character sound like yourself.” And it’s true. Most beginning novelists (at least the ones in my class) write themselves into their books. The star of the book – the protagonist - sounds and looks an awful lot like the writer himself. Has the same likes, dislikes, and insecurities. But is of course, more heroic.

In fact, we come slamming up against the famous saying, “Write what you know.”

And some know themselves pretty well. (Others, not at all, but I digress…)

A protagonist who is a barely veiled, idealist version of yourself? We’ll allow you that for your first book. But if an author persists in writing the same protagonist over and over again, in every book and series they write, things get pretty stale.

So that prompted me to look at my own series to see what I had done. Ten books in now, I held my breath.

The Character I wish I was

I started the Land’s End Fantasy Trilogy when I was dearly in need of escape. My mother was dying. I remember looking at her hospital bedroom wall, and thinking, ‘if I could walk through that wall into another world right now, I would.’ That’s how the first of the series, Rowena Through the Wall, came about. I started writing it in the hospital.

Rowena isn’t me. She is the ‘me I wish I was,’ at least at that difficult time. I wrote the character I wanted to be. She’s prettier than me, more generous than I am, and in the end, more courageous. I was dealing with the issue of courage at that time. Courage to face what was coming and what was inevitable. I wonder how many readers of that series would nod their heads, hearing me say that now?

The ‘Me’ my Mother Wanted Me to Be

Next I grabbed A Purse to Die For off my shelves, a book I co-wrote with Cynthia St-Pierre. This book is in a different genre – it’s amateur detective, or classic mystery. The second book in the series, A Killer Necklace, has just come out.

The protagonist is a fashion diva – a television personality from the Weather Network. She’s drop-dead pretty, and always put together.

I am not. Spending more than ten minutes on my long hair is an impossible chore for me. You won’t find high heels in my closet. I like clothes, but am not a slave to fashion.

But my mother was. My mother was a fashion diva until the day she died. We’re pretty sure she was the longest subscriber to Vogue magazine, ever. Mom dressed me in designer clothes all my childhood. She was delighted when I did a little modeling as a young woman.

I never quite came up to her standard of fashionista though. “Put on some lipstick,” she would say.
“You look like a ghost!”

Looking at the series now, I can see that the main character is the ‘me my mother wanted me to be.’ It was, in a way, my tribute to her. Wish she could have been here when the first book was published.

The Closest I get to Me

So where am I in all my books? That’s easy.


I’m The Goddaughter. Sort of. In this wacky crime caper series, the protagonist is a mob goddaughter, who doesn’t want to be one.

I’m half Sicilian. I had a Sicilian godfather. I had to wait until certain people died in the family before I wrote this series.

In Gina Gallo, the ambivalence is there. ‘You’re supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is this one?” Gina says this in every book of the series. Those words came directly from my mouth.

This book is meant to be laugh out loud funny. I let loose with my own wit, and shook off the inhibitions. Not that I’m very inhibited normally. But in The Goddaughter series, you get the real me peeking out. Not idealized. Not always upstanding. Sometimes just looking for a way out of a real mess, possibly of my own creation. But kind of fun to be with, I think.

So that brings us back to the beginning. One of the delightful things about being an author is allowing yourself to ‘become’ a character other than yourself, as you write. Fitting yourself into their skin, so to speak. As you write more, this becomes more fun, and more of a goal. I LOVE putting myself into the mind of a killer in a short story, if only for a little while. It’s a kick to ‘pretend’ to be someone else, by writing their story.

Let’s be honest: who needs drugs, if you’re an author? THIS is the ultimate escape.

Do you relish creating characters and living their lives through your fiction?

On Amazon

14 September 2015

Put The Words In The Right Order


Jan Grape    He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked between his enormous fingers. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

    His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.
— excerpt from Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell My Lovely


Chandler - Farewell My Lovely
As I read this I couldn't help wondering, did Chandler actually see a huge man dressed this way? Or was it entirely from his imagination? Or a combination of real life and imagination? I always thought it a combination… surely he didn't see a real person, as huge as Moose Malloy dressed in this way, but after yesterday when I saw how a man was dressed exactly as he wanted to be. He obviously dresses like this routinely, as he seemed comfortable.

The man I saw was not big, standing probably five feet and eight inches, and from the rear looked somewhat slender until he turned around and I saw his beer belly. He was wearing a navy tank top tucked into a pair of overwashed faded blue denim farmer's overalls. The front part of the overalls had pockets for pen/pencils and I'm the sure what else the man deemed important might be stuffed inside. The overalls were rolled up to his calves, like he'd been river wading and on his feet were a pair of bright pink rubber flip'-flops. He had a silver toe ring on the second toe of his left foot and on the left ankle was a bright orange woven ankle bracelet and a wooden bead ankle bracelet. On his right ankle was another bracelet of woven material. On both wrists were bracelets, two on each side of beads and woven material.

On his head way grungy muddy-brown-rolled brim straw hat with a dark hat band. A couple of long feathers were stuck in back of the band which were knotted and had one green dice attached. Around his neck was an assortment of chains of silver or gold or woven material. He had a pair of sunglasses which he'd pushed down in order to look over them.

There's almost no way Chandler could imagine the way Moose Malloy looked or was dressed, however if you had perhaps seen some real person dressed or built this way, you could make up the rest. There's almost no way I could imagine the way the man I saw was dressed. You'd expect an editor to write you back saying this character is totally unbelievable. As I stood looking at him, I wanted to take his picture but dared not make someone angry. Yet I kept wondering, did he honestly think he looked good or okay? Maybe he was working on his Halloween costume? Had he been playing dress-up with some pre-school grandchildren and decided to make a quick trip to the store to buy something electronic for his mother? (NO, it wasn't Walmart although a picture of him would surely be voted into the Walmart you've got to be kidding, hallmark hall of fame.)

I'll admit that I love to people watch. It's great fum to sit someplace and see people and imagine them as characters in your next story or book. I've seen oddities many times. I've used a gesture I've seen someone make or the way they look. It does give you a chance to draw from those characteristics to make my characters look and act more realistic. I'm probably going to have a character looking like the man I saw eventually and I've decided he'll be an eccentric billionaire. But no one will suspect he's rich until he's dead.

Sometimes a story just writes itself, you just have to put the words in the right order.

17 February 2015

Who Are These People In Our Heads?


When Northcoast Shakedown originally came out, I got accused by a coworker of basing most of my characters on people in the company where we worked. We worked at an insurance company. Nick Kepler scored free office space from an insurance company, and both were big property/casualty companies. However, I would be a little disturbed if the executives at TTG Insurance bore any resemblance to the ones at the company I discreetly refer to as BigHugeCo. The truth is the two executives who make Nick's life difficult in that story started out as stock bad bosses. That's how they got into trouble. Elaine, the secretary? She started out as someone for Nick to vent to while having a beer next door to TTG's offices.
The trouble with basing a character on an actual person too closely is that the writer then starts trying to bend a character to the real person, which makes for stilted, dull writing and poor dialog. A person may inspire a character, but if a writer is skilled or, at least, has good instincts, the character will take on a life of its own.

Sometimes, a central character is the author himself or herself. Sue Grafton has admitted as much about Kinsey Milhonne. She has stated that Kinsey is her if her life had taken another turn. Ditto for Spenser and Robert B. Parker. The darker tone of the earlier novels reflect a lot of the personal struggles Parker himself spoke of in that period of his life while later, when he was in a better place, the novels took on a lighter, clearly amused tone.

(Incidentally, I am not Nick Kepler. He's not as technically savvy, and I never had as many girlfriends as Nick. Though I think I had better luck with them.)

A clichéd piece of advice I used to get when I first started was to base a character on an actor. (Early on, I envisioned John Cusack as Kepler, though that faded away after a couple of stories.) Sometimes, that works as long as it's not someone over the top like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. The trick here is to use the actor's persona as a jumping off point. Let's say you love Kaley Cuoco Sweeting from Big Bang Theory and want to drop her into your novel. Well, I'm sure Kaley will be flattered, but most likely, you really like how she plays Penny on the show. But if that combination of appearance and personality works for you in a tough-as-nail lady sheriff in rural Wisconsin, knock yourself out. Just know that a woman who has managed to get elected or appointed sheriff of a Midwestern county is going to already have a different background from an aspiring actress and waitress at a California Cheesecake Factory, particularly if there are no nerdy scientists around to color her life. (You might get away with a Sheldonesque coroner, but that's pushing it.)

Often, for me, characters just arise. They are functions of the story. Take a guy, put him in a situation, and ask yourself who he is and why he's there. More often than not, that's the first scene of a story as well as the birth of a story. It's not creating a role and then building a story around him. It's all about finding this imaginary person and creating a story to find out who he is. Nick Kepler is a function of a rainy night and having walked down at least two or three semi-rural highways in my time.

Sometimes, it really is a real person who inspires a character. Sherlock Holmes, probably the ultimate crime fiction protagonist in the English language, came from a rather quirky and highly intelligent doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew or knew about. A more extreme example comes from the 1990's. Mike Judge, the mind behind Office Space and King of the Hill, actually based the dimwitted, gravel-voiced Beavis on a guy he used to know (though I'm assuming the real Beavis was nowhere near as... um... intellectually challenged.  Heh-heh. Heh hmm heh. Fire!)

And sometimes, a character just demands to be written. You get a character like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones whose personality is so clear that one has to write a story or three about him.