Character Building

Still in Florida. Had a lovely visit with family and will be heading back to Michigan in a day or two. Don’t want to go. But don’t want to be without Al at Christmas more. All the while down here I have been thinking about my story and especially my main character. It’s like an old-fashioned flash bulb going off: click, click, click.

Each click, another part of her personality fits into place. Or a plot point. Or an important setting, like where the murderer came from and how he got into a secure gated community with a 24 hour guard. All this is happening like it always does at the start of a new project, without effort. Effort will come later. There’s so much to writing novels that requires work. I love this part, when things are first taking shape.

It feels like anything can happen. The story is wide open.

Those story clicks happen in all sorts of places. Having coffee at the clubhouse, sitting watching a sunset, strolling through the Dali. While the guys were off on a pirate ship, my daughter-in-law, Jessica, liked the museum option. My main character is involved in the art world, so going to the museum with Jessica and Julia produced a whole slew of clicks. Jessica was an art major in college, so I explained a little about the character and said “I may be calling you with questions.” She’s fine with that.

Meanwhile, I listened to the docent for the entire Dali experience for the first time. When I couldn’t quite see what she meant, Jessica helped me see those double exposures and things. Third trip to the museum, first time really getting into Dali’s art. (Those other times I was just consumed with Frida. I still am.)

Dali’s paintings remind me of tarot cards in the way that they are dense with symbolic images that a casual observer might miss. The docent and Jessica were there to answer questions and point out all the stuff I hadn’t really seen before. Dali’s an interesting artist and the museum is lovely but I’m not particularly drawn to his work. That’s okay. He’s inspiring to me for so many other reasons. Click.

White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.

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The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.

 

 

How To Find Writing Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? For writers, that is the most frequently asked question. It seems to vex many of my writer friends, but I’m not sure why. Maybe they don’t want to admit that they do nothing to produce ideas, that ideas simply float into their heads. Well, anyway, that’s what happens to me.

It starts with one little thought and builds from there. Does that sound difficult? It is.

For example, Sister Issues. I got the idea for my first published novel, an indie, while driving down a charming, winding river road in my town. I noted, not for the first time, that the quaint old Victorian houses were being torn down and cheap chain restaurants, strip mall drugstores, and branded coffee shops were replacing them.

I noticed this with some dismay because the house I was passing, one of the few actual homes left on that road, had always been a favorite. The lawn in back sloped down to the river, where the delicate leaves of an ancient willow tree trailed in the stream. What would happen to that house, it’s gingerbread architecture and flower gardens so lovingly painted and trimmed?

I felt a pang in my chest. Not for the first time. But what to do? People have to shop and eat and so forth. It’s progress. Which I cannot stop. But I can, in my head, put a young woman in that house and have her open a coffee shop on the main floor. She lives upstairs. Cher’s place is called the Sugar Shack because that song, from the early 1960s, floated into my head once the woman was up there getting comfortable.

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An early cover from Sugar Shack

Sugar Shack eventually became Sister Issues

And so on. From the first idea comes setting or character and before I get too far down the page I start thinking about conflict. Which also comes out of the character and setting. I’d just been feeling conflicted about suburban sprawl, so that’s the larger issue, or the theme, as we former English teachers like to say. So the original idea bursts and flowers and then I pick it apart and arrange it in a vase…I mean a novel. I arrange it all into a novel. And there will be lovers because there just always is—I like to see people happy together. Well, first they have to suffer a little bit. That’s conflict, too. Then maybe they’ll be happy together. At least some of them.

So much of my novels come from my life. Not one word or deed in any of them is taken from my own experiences, but every single emotion of all the primary characters is something I’ve felt. This is not alarming, I’m just telling you the real answer to the question. Happily, I have never written from the point of view of a psycho-killer, at least not yet.

But I have had evil characters. Just like there is evil in life, and I have observed it, so too do my flawed, imperfect (but not psycho-killer) characters observe the evil around them. Frankly, they’re as baffled and dismayed as I am by all the hate and mayhem. Sometimes there are unexpected grace notes, too. You need them in life and in fiction. For example, soon after I self-published Sister Issues, The Wild Rose Press offered me a contract for my second novel, The Paris Notebook.

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Library at USC where my son matriculated from grad school

At the time I came up with the idea for novel number two, I was teaching, it was my very first day, at a university. Before that I taught at a community college and before that I taught high school. So climbing the rungs of academia was a bit daunting for me, but I was a good enough teacher of English to muddle through. Except in my very first class on my very first day we heard The Simpsons coming through the wall. And another class laughing and laughing. I was teaching these young people how to write a college essay, and writing is not easy, and nobody was laughing.

My students looked at me like “Why aren’t you showing us cartoons and making jokes?” I did apologize for our rather dry subject matter, but I was curious. What was that other professor teaching? So being the questioner that I am, after class, I went over, introduced myself, and asked him. Turns out he was teaching the same exact course as me. He just did it different. We became friends, despite the fact that he was younger than I was and single to boot. And we still see each other once a year or so. He’s a Shakespeare scholar now.

And I write novels. That little story of meeting John set the first scene (later cut, alas) for The Paris Notebook. Two English teachers, with wildly different lives and at-odds ambitions, share an office. Sparks ensue. Also mayhem and evil. You know, I have to take my former comment back. I did delve a bit into the mind of a would-be psycho-killer in that novel. Just a bit, but the way I did it was to take that Super Ego “it’s all about me” part that is in all of us (but perhaps larger in myself than in you) and enlarged it to Big Box store size.

That’s how you find your way into a psycho-killer. Ha! Also, I read a couple of books for research. One was called The Psychopath Next Door. Evil becomes much less bewildering when you understand that most murderers and bad people simply have no empathy. They are born without a conscience. And they learn to hide this fact very early in life. They are charming and you probably love some of them, at least the ones who are not evil psychopaths. The gentler form of folk who lack empathy are simple sociopaths. Most sociopaths are not murderers or evil. They just don’t have the “I care” gene. Or, they only care about themselves. There’s more, and it’s fascinating and creepy, but I read that book a long time ago so I don’t want to muck up the authors’ research any more than I might have already done.

I love research. Usually non-fiction books. I like social science a lot, neuroscience and psychology, but I’ll read anything if it makes my story better. I’m a reader after all; most writers are. All writers should be. I read everything, including every genre of fiction. I like strong female characters in fiction. I also like strong females in real life. I once knew a strong woman who invited me to her place on Lake Huron up north.

She and her husband had bought these beat up hunting cabins. There were six of them. Together, they renovated these places, just as they had their historic home in our town. Then, the strong woman, who could plaster walls and refinish wood and hammer nails, also decorated these now sturdy cottages in the most adorable shabby chic style.

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I’m from Michigan, so I love big water. 

I spent the day in awe of her and a few years later I wrote the novel that would become the first in my Blue Lake series for The Wild Rose Press, Blue Heaven. My husband gave me the idea for Luke’s #1 Rule, the second book in that series. We’ve literally been married half our lives, but back when we were still newlyweds he said “I only had one rule when I was dating.” He kind of chuckled ruefully when he said this. But I was intrigued. “What?” I wanted to know. “No single moms.” He looked at me with his big blue eyes and we had a good long laugh because he’d married me, a single mom, and we were both pretty happy about it.

Our wedding almost didn’t happen. We broke up for a minute after we were engaged. But then we got back together and it was quite romantic and we went on in this fashion for more than twenty years before I remembered that remark and asked him if I could use his “one rule” idea to write a book. He wasn’t thrilled with that plan. But I begged and he said yes as long as absolutely nothing in the book resembled our real lives in any way. I promised. Then I asked my sons, who were little boys when we married but were now grown up men. “It won’t really be you and it’s not about us.” They didn’t mind, so I went ahead and wrote that book.

Husbands aren’t the only givers of ideas. Writers sometimes have critique groups that help. My critique partner gave me the final scene of Luke’s #1 Rule. She read my final scene and said, oh no, you don’t want to do that, do this instead. So I did. And then I had to turn in my next novel and I didn’t have the right title because hate and mayhem had ensued and it wasn’t the sweet little love story I thought it would be.

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The largest writing group I belong to is Detroit Working Writers.

They’ve been around for more than 100 years.

I emailed my partner and said “Any ideas?” I listed all my bad ones. She felt so sorry for my broken brain that she sent a list, and down that list a bit was the perfect title. That is the name of my next book: Love and Death in Blue Lake. I hope it comes out sometime this summer, but you never know. I’ve had lots of writing partners through the years. Really, I can’t get by without them. And then there is my editor. She’s lovely. Having an editor is one of the best things about working for a publisher instead of going indie.

I have a couple of indie novels too. Sister Issues of course, with my daughter-in-law and her real life sister as cover models. Then I wrote a couple of indie paranormals and one of them, Sweet Melissa, actually does have a segment that is from my real life when I was a young hitchhiking hippie. Everything in that one section where Melissa’s friend talks her into hitching to Colorado really happened; I just moved it from a short story I’d written years ago. So writing is also about being willing to break your own rules for a story idea’s sake. And just following thse ideas wherever they lead you.