Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consistency in Characterization

One of my favorite stories as a child was about a large family living in an old Victorian mansion with pets, a dozen children, a cook, a maid, and a driver/caretaker. I've forgotten most of the book but remember it for its humor, including the moment when the father looks down at one of the boys rolling around on the rug and says, "Which one are you?"

I sometimes feel like that father. I'm deep into a scene with one character taking over and doing wonderful things to complicate the plot, and out of nowhere enters the protagonist's half-brother or long lost cousin or the neighbor who shows up at every barbecue without anything to contribute. I look at what I've typed and wonder, "Which one are you?"

In my current work-in-progress, Chief Joe Silva must deal with a death ruled a suicide in one of Mellingham's better neighborhoods (okay, I admit it, they're all better neighborhoods). The house sits near the inner harbor, which of course means lots of activity involving boats and sailing, and into this comes Joe's stepson, Philip. So far, so good. But I've forgotten what I knew about Philip. Who is he?

I keep three-by-five inch notecards on each character and certain aspects of Mellingham. All I have to do is pull Philip's card and note what I've written about him in previous books. Seems easy enough. He came into Joe's world in Family Album, as a nine-year-old boy, and stayed when Joe fell in love with the boy's mother, Gwen McDuffy. I read the notes I've made on Philip and once again see the young boy. But I know there's more, so I pull out the two previous books in which he has appeared and read every section, gleaning crucial details and nuances of expression that I should be mindful of as I write.

Philip is older, by two years, since his last foray into Joe's world of crime and misbehavior typical of a small town, but he's not an ordinary teenager. I have given him certain qualities and quirks, and I have to continue these. It wouldn't do to have him turn into an avid soccer player or a hard-core junkie when his character in A Murderous Innocence promised an entirely different future.

Any writer who has written at least two books in a series recognizes this problem. Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle was famous for changing a character's eye color halfway through a story, and lesser writers have changed a character's name and left the evidence on the occasional page (find/replace function notwithstanding). These superficial things bother me less than an unexpected change in character or unresolved plot threads.

My job as a writer is to tell a good story while being observant of the way people behave and expressing that honestly. I want readers to recognize in the teenage Philip the nine-year-old boy introduced in the third book in the Mellingham series.

I have learned that no matter how careful or detailed my notes are, nothing can convey the full sense of a character better than going back to the earlier passages and getting to know him or her all over again. I've been doing this with Philip, a teenage boy who discovers that he loves sailing, thanks to Joe deciding that anyone who lives on the water should know how to manage it. And fortunately for everyone, Philip manages very well.

Come About for Murder is Philip's book, despite all the other characters sailing through it. He's still a teenager, but a maturing one, and I love getting to know him again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Writer in the World

Anyone who writes knows a life of writing means long hours staring at a page or a computer screen, watching words take shape across the mass of white. But whenever I've been writing hard for several days, I'm reminded of a story I came across years ago. I wish I could remember the author because it is a parable worth remembering and giving credit for.

Two writers sat down to describe a county fair (or wedding or business meeting or whatever you want). One writer provided excellent detail and grounding in the event, but the other writer made you feel you were there. You forgot you were reading. The teacher who passed along this tale meant to impart one lesson. As much as we may love writing, we also have to live. The stories we discover as we explore and work through an idea come out of lived experience. The first writer made the story feel like a research project. But the second writer had been to the wedding and had a great time, and she conveyed that in her story.

As much as I love writing, I also love getting out in the world. On a recent visit to Salem and the Peabody Essex Museum, I passed an exhibit of sticks, yes, sticks. Let's face it, modern art is peculiar. But it is also fun.

"What the Birds Know," or Stickworks by Patrick Dougherty, is a cluster of half a dozen human sized
stick nests. You can walk into each of them and peer out through a window. They're illuminated so you can explore them at night or at least see them, and two or three people can crowd into each one. They sit behind the fence, on the lawn of a federalist house in downtown Salem, opposite the Hawthorne Hotel. They are right where we might think they don't belong.

The sculpture of huge nests is intentional art, and the brochure reports that it will be gone in a year, the result of natural forces and time. But what about the man who collects hubcaps and one day decides to nail them to the fence so he can admire his collection? He has scattered across his back yard, to the consternation of his neighbors, various parts of old cars and trucks and farm equipment. "They're so handy," he tells anyone who complains. "They're right there when I need them." And indeed the array of rusting artifacts has a certain beauty to it.

And then there's the man whose house sits on a hill looking down on the narrow street. He has positioned white buckets along the gravel path, to store extra gravel in case of icy weather. Clutter or art?

Whenever I see such things, I wonder about who these people are and how much I enjoy their way of living in the world. But I also think of the teacher/writer who reminded his/her students to get out in the world. It's full of interesting people doing interesting things with their lives and back yards.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Whose story is it?

My current project is rewriting a Mellingham mystery from Chief Joe Silva's point of view. I first wrote the novel as an extension of a short story centered around a day spent sailing along the coast. I liked the idea of the discovery of the attempted murder so much that I decided to turn the story into a novel, making the intended victim the sleuth. This went along well, I thought, until my editor rejected the novel. (Another editor is reading the short story.)

For several months I felt stuck with a novel whose basic story I loved but whose lead character didn't seem to rise to the necessary heights. Something was lacking. At the same time I came to be interested in writing more about Joe's family. Readers like hearing about Joe's birth family, and I thought it was time to write more about the blended family he created when he married Gwen, who came with two young children, Jennie and Philip. I'd already written about Jennie in Last Call for Justice, and I thought now it was time for Philip to make an appearance. I decided to rewrite the rejected novel with the focus on Joe with his family in a supportive role.

When I taught writing courses, years ago, I used a variety of exercises to make various points. One point I liked to get across is that each story depends on who is telling it, or, in my case, who is the protagonist leading the investigation, however informal or formal that may be. I assigned students the task of writing the first few paragraphs of a story from the point of view of each character in the story, to find out whose story it was. Students were almost always surprised to find that the story differed according to who became the main character. I'm learning this lesson again. The story of a woman who drowns while out sailing told from the point of view of the surviving sister is a very different story from the one told by Joe Silva in his role as chief of police of Mellingham.

As I recast each scene, expanding some and eliminating others, and add more, I can see where I went wrong with the creation of the protagonist in the first version. Annie Beckwith, given a name I thought would lead to a great career as an amateur sleuth, seemed stunted and edgy. Under the astute gaze of the chief of police, however, she is emerging as a woman grappling with the loss of a dearly loved sister and her sister's husband, and learning things about her sister's life that she'd never known and never would have guessed.

Here I imagine the reader is thinking, "Ah, dark secrets are uncovered." Well, the reader is partly correct. Not all secrets are dark. But any secret can change the one who discovers it, and faces the challenge of abandoning old assumptions for new truths.

When I began the rewrite, I wasn't sure it would be worth the effort, but I felt compelled to see it through. I love the Joe Silva/Mellingham series, and willingly block out stories to write when I have the time. But now that I'm deep into this story, I am once again hooked. I think about Joe and his little family, Gwen and Jennie and Philip, and the life they have created for themselves in the small town on the water. In this installment Joe teaches Philip to sail, and Philip turns out to be the son the townspeople of Mellingham might expect for their beloved Chief Silva.