Thursday, April 27, 2017

Characters Waiting in the Wings

Most of the characters who populate my fiction arrive unbidden. I’m fascinated by them and let them reveal themselves gradually, as the story unfolds. I keep track of the details of their lives—physical features, family, education, and other information—on note cards. I have a ready list of things I should know about them and go through it, filling in the blanks as I go. The settings can be somewhat real, such as the lovely town of Mellingham and its harbor, but not the people. I avoid using real people, and make a point of checking names, to avoid selecting one that belongs to a known person. But there is one group of characters I have intentionally kept out of my fiction.

Right after college I worked for a year as a case manager in a rural area that was designated as a hunger region by the US government. When the survey was published, municipal officials across the country pounced on it, and the map of the country according to access to food was loudly debated. Most of my co-workers didn’t argue with the conclusions about our area. We’d been out in the field every day since we were hired. We saw what was happening with our clients. These are the people I haven’t forgotten, and the ones I haven’t been willing to let into my fiction. At least not knowingly. I put them in the same category as relatives—people I know intimately who haven’t agreed to be used in this way.

Every writer has had the experience of seeing someone do something a little outrageous, and think, “That would make a great story.” It’s easy to take a piece of someone else’s experience, and use it as a springboard for a story because the real person is left behind, unknown. But a person whose trials in life are vivid and pungent can emerge to take over a story, and claim it as his or her own. And that’s the challenge I found myself facing this week.

The spring brought thoughts of warm weather and summer at the nearby beach. On a recent walk I smiled at the number of early beach goers determined to get in at least one beach day before the cold and drizzle of the season returned. The light sparkling on the calm tidal pools brought a story idea, and when I finished writing it two days later, a neat 5,040 words, I was pleased. And then startled. I knew the main character. I recognized him at once. He had been one of my clients almost fifty years ago, when I was a newly minted case manager and he was a difficult teenager. I don’t remember his last name, and I’m confident I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him on the street. But I remember that personality, and the trouble he brought. And there he was on the page, the unintended consequence of thwarting my imagination for all those years.

What do I do with the story now?

A couple of years ago I returned to my experiences as a case manager to write about a farm wife who took in a teenage girl. The story was more about the farm taking in someone who didn’t belong in that environment, and I was confident that I hadn’t drawn on any real individuals. The story appeared inAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine last month. But the story I’ve just finished is different. I remember the character and his two families, foster and birth.

I’ve rationalized that I’ve moved far from where I used to work. Most of the people in my former office are dead by now (the other women were all much older than I was), and my clients have long since forgotten me. I’ve persuaded myself that I’m past the time when I can violate someone else’s privacy with this story, so I’ll send it out and hope it finds a good home. 

And now I wonder what other characters have been waiting in the wings for their chance to emerge in a new world.

To read more of my fiction, you can find my work at these sites.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Signs of a Professional Writer

One of the topics I come across often on various websites is a discussion of what makes a professional writer. I read and ponder and wonder if the writer is correct. Most of the definitions seem too grand for me. In my world, which I admit is limited, the signs of a professional writer are simple and obvious. Here they are.

1. You write even when you don’t feel like it.

2. You maintain a writing schedule, knowing that over time you will get better. It may take years, but you won’t get where you want to go without effort over time.

3. You take reviews for what they are, good or bad—just the opinion of one other person.

4. You learn from everything—good and bad reviews, story rejections, questions that seem to come out of left field.

5. If you have a day job or other responsibilities, you still find time to think about your next scene or any other writing issue. You’re not dreaming about being famous or rich.

6. You help other writers coming along and listen with interest to those who have gone before.

7. You carry out the various parts of being a professional writer, even those you may dislike or feel unprepared for—arranging talks, writing reviews and marketing materials, and the like.

8. You accept the limitations of those who work with you—Beta readers, agents, editors.

9. You’re patient with the process of publishing, choosing the path that is right for you and no one else.

10. You make mistakes, correct them, and move on. You’re human, after all.

And one that shouldn’t have to be included but here it is.

11. You read as much as you can because this is one of the best ways of learning how to improve as a writer and thinker.

I included this image because he looks so content and absorbed, and I think that's the way we want our readers to look regardless of what we write. For my books, check out the links below.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Writers in the Time of Trump

A few years ago another writer and I discussed some of the differences between fiction written in the US by American writers and fiction coming out of Europe, especially Eastern Europe. My view was that most of us (certainly most whites) live very different and protected lives in the US, and have never faced the kind of threat to our existence as was common during the period of the Soviet Union (and is still common in some countries). I cited the movie The Lives of Others, which is set in 1984 East Berlin. An agent of the Stasi asserts to a colleague that everyone has something to hide, and to prove it he offers to spy on a popular writer, Georg Drayman, who has long been considered loyal to the government. So begins the gradual change in the agent as he becomes involved in the target’s life.

There are plenty of novels about a future dystopian America, and most of them establish extremes of government and life. The Giver by Lois Lowry, a 1993 YA novel, presents a society equally destructive of humanity as that found in In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (1987). But the movie made me wonder what writers in this country would do if pushed into the same circumstances as the playwright, Georg Drayman. I didn’t expect the next president of the United States to offer an opportunity to examine the question at length.

The first response was the ongoing arguments over the election and Trump’s policies and personal conduct. Stalin has his supporters even now, and many well-intentioned voters defended their choice of the GOP winner, disregarding his most egregious behavior. Sometimes they were smug and rude, but lately they’ve grown quieter. Perhaps reality is sinking in, along with the economy (unless you’re very rich and have money in the stock market).

But the challenges to the new guy have been many and swift. First was the Women’s March on Washington (and on almost every other city around the world) the day after the inauguration. With our pink hats and signs and goodwill, we marched (or stood patiently in place, moving perhaps a foot an hour) for many things but mostly for unity and mutual support.

We offered safety to strangers, and marked that with safety pins on our jackets and FB logos for our profile pictures.

When Kellyanne Conway provided us with one more of her fabulous gaffes, we made that into a logo to commemorate the Bowling Green Massacre.

And then there was the Tinfoil Hat Brigade, for those loyal folks who need to be grounded in reality but seem to lose their grip on it regularly. The hat has a sparkling style, you have to admit.

These moments are fun, and the use of humor is not to be discounted.

Equally important, however, are the protests with links that writers have posted on FB and elsewhere stating facts (real ones, the kind that can be verified and stand the light of a thousand days), discussing positions, and keeping track of government activity. is a progressive news site. investigates news stories and determines how accurate they are. is a page on Congressman Capuano’s website. There he lists actions taken by Congress that may not make the news but are still changing people’s lives, and usually not for the better. While newspapers foam at the mouth over every little tidbit about Russia, the Republicans in Congress are removing protections for clean drinking water, whistleblowers in nuclear power plants, and more.

One of the signs of a healthy personality is the variety of ways such a person copes with adversity. For some of us, we are living in a state of deepening adversity but we appear to be coping well. We are standing up for our views and values, reaching out to help others, using humor to underscore the absurdity or cruelty of a situation or position, and staying abreast of truth, facts, and information.

I’ve always believed that anything that can happen in another country could happen here, but I never expected it to happen so fast or in quite this way. Now I’m waiting to see how this new reality plays out in crime fiction.