Saturday, February 25, 2017

Where Do My Characters Come From?

An author event in Charleston where
I, no lie, answered this exact question.
As you may recall, last week I started a short series in which I respond to common questions I get at author events. Last Saturday, I discussed where I get book ideas. This week, I begin responding to the folks who want to know where my characters come from. So here goes. There's no short answer to that, so I'm going to concentrate for a while on one character at a time, starting with this question:

"Is Harry Shalan you?"

Seriously, you should
see my classroom. It's
like a museum.
I get that all the time. The short answer is no. The long answer is a little more complicated. It's really hard to deny that he and I are strongly connected. I'm an English teacher and he's a former English teacher. He only taught for one year, though, and I'm in my twentieth year at my school. I was a seminarian and he was too. But I quit to take a job at a church while he quit to become a gumshoe. I like trains and superheroes and he likes trains and superheroes. And my friends who read my books say that Harry sounds like me in their heads, but that is pretty much where the resemblance ends. He's a tough guy and I am decidedly not. He has shot people and put away lots of criminals. I have shot paper targets and put away lots of pizza. He is athletic and muscular, his body only marred by the occasional bullet wound. I give dad bod a bad name and my body is only marred by my gall bladder surgery scars. He's happily married to a gorgeous, sexy redhead. I am decidedly less successful in the romance department. Ladies, I am, as hard as it is to believe based on my description of myself, available.

Probably my proudest moment as a teacher,
the year I received the Milken National
Educator Award. The young lady with
me is one of many inspirations for
Harry's adopted daughter Jenn. Her name
is Marissa and she and her husband
are expecting a baby soon!
Because we have the same voice and I know we have the same speech patterns, I guess you could say that Harry is, to borrow a DC Comics concept, me from a different Earth in the multiverse. Actually, if you want to know where I got the idea for creating a character in this way, the answer is my writing hero Robert B. Parker, who stole the idea from his writing hero Raymond Chandler, creator of the iconic Philip Marlowe. He was open about the fact that he based his main hero, Spenser, on himself. He created a character who sounded and thought about the world just like he did, but that was where the resemblance ended. I loved Spenser from the moment I started reading that first book back in the 1980s, but his worldview is a lot darker than mine, so it makes sense that in stealing Parker's idea, it would be by creating a character who wasn't as sullied by the world as Spenser is. Like Spenser, Harry sees himself as an Arthurian knight born out of time and believes he's in the world to help the weak and defend the downtrodden. And he has a code that guides his life. But Harry's code and Spenser's code are different in a lot of ways. One of the big differences between Harry and Spenser is in religious beliefs. Harry, like me, is a man of faith, while Spenser is agnostic. That gives a completely different tone to my work from that of Parker. For one, you'll find not a single curse word in any of my books. There are, hopefully not too graphic, sex scenes in my books, but they are always between Harry and Dee and that's on purpose. I think it's important for the world to understand that Christians aren't anti-sex. And while Harry never judges, always helping and encouraging, he and Dee are quite open about their beliefs, especially with their daughter Jenn.

I could go on and on talking about the one fictional character I probably know better than Spenser, but I think that will suffice. To sum up, the answer to the question with which I started this post is yes and no. Harry is me, but he's most decidedly also not me. Does that clear it up?

Next week: Dee Shalan

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Where Do I Get My Story Ideas?

I like to answer questions about my writing. I much prefer that to the actual readings. I just realized that as I typed it, but it's true. I don't know if it's the interactivity of it or that I'm not confident that I do a good job of reading, but I do know that I like to talk about the process I go through in my writing. And that's true despite the fact that, no matter how many times I do events, I get the same few questions every time. Once in awhile, someone will surprise me, but mostly it's some combination of the same three or four questions. So I thought I would do a short series of posts in which I answer those queries. 

One thing that is almost always asked, especially at events that aren't with other authors, is where I get my story ideas. The first time I was asked that, I have to admit that I was taken aback to realize I didn't have any idea. And the reason for that is that when I first started writing Harsh Prey, my first book, it was more about the characters than the story itself. I had two people who loved each other deeply, but one of them wasn't sure if she could deal with the violent job of the other. It was almost like I had a snapshot and I built the whole story out from that still frame. It's not almost like that, actually. It's exactly like that. I had no idea where the story was going. At the beginning, I asked myself, what if she's been gone to decide if she can deal with his being a detective and she calls, only to have the violence of his job intervene? And that seemed to work, so I had to ask why the violence happened. The answer was what propelled the story. But regardless of what happened in the detective half of the books, they were, and always will be, more than half about that relationship between Harry and Dee, and now Jenn and Emma Grace too. The Shalan Adventures are, for good or bad, stories about a loving family and the things they go through together. It's almost incidental that he's a gumshoe. 
The second Shalan story, Kisses and Lies, was loosely inspired by an event in the life of the young lady upon whom I based the leggy blonde at the beginning of the book. She had gotten married--in fact, I had performed the wedding--and found that her new husband changed immediately afterward. It was nowhere near as violent as it was in my fictionalized version, but it was, as usual, this series of what-ifs. What if he had been hiding something darker? What if it got violent? What if there were a family dynamic that added a level of depth? And the story grew from there.

The next two, In the Shadow and Dawn of Grace, are really one giant story arc broken into two books. The arc actually begins at the end of Kisse and Lies when Harry finds out that Dee is pregnant. That story was always going to be primarily about them losing that baby and then getting it back. I made the story of Jenn to parallel that. The Jenn part was again inspired loosely by real life events, though no one incident in particular. I'm just exposed to and touched by stories of abuse against young people because of my job as a high school teacher. And when I started writing In the Shadow, I just chose a young lady who was my student and made her the face I saw when I imagined the story in my mind. This young lady wasn't just my student. She was one of my adopted kids, the gang who eat lunch in my room and stay after school to watch movies while I make pancakes and come see me after they graduate when they come home from college. So when I pictured someone doing terrible things to her, it helped me tap into the rage that drove Harry to do what he did at the end of the book. 

As for my current work in progress, it grew out of a scene from a classic book. I read it as part of the AP reading last summer. It was about a young lady taken in by someone purporting to be her father, but he turns out to be a very bad man. Over the course of the week of the reading, I started building a story on that concept that had nothing to do with the original book at all, but that evolved from that situation. What if a teenager had no family and suddenly someone came along saying he was her long-lost father and he wanted to take her in? So that made me ask the next question, which was how did she come to have no one? Was she always an orphan or did she have a family that she lost somehow? And what if, like in the original book, he wasn't really her father? Why would he be interested in taking her in? I knew he had to have some ulterior motive, but I really didn't want it to be anything sexual. I'd had enough of that dark realm and wanted his motivations to be evil in a completely different way. So the story built from there. 

So I guess the answer to the question of where I get my story ideas is that I start with a character or a group of characters and a beginning point--a snapshot in time--and I start asking what if. What if this happened? What if he or she reacted in that way? And once I've asked and answered enough of those what-ifs, I have a book. Piece of cake. Mmm, cake. I better wrap this up and have some breakfast. 

Next week: Where Do My Characters Come From?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Do Authors Have To Have Had a Miserable Life?

I've heard a lot of people say that in order for someone to be a good writer, he or she must have led a dark life full of sad experiences and alcoholism and just misery in general. When I first heard that, I thought I was doomed to failure because, as I only half-jokingly say, I grew up in a combination of a Norman Rockwell painting and a situation comedy. Sure, there were tough times, but life in general was happy. Or at least that's how I remember it--I've found over the years that there are less than positive events, like family fights, that, when I've been reminded of them, I realize I have absolutely no recollection of them. You may think that means I'm blocking out bad memories, and maybe I am, but I would argue it's more about having a terrible memory in general. I am occasionally reminded of happy events that I don't recall at all either. 

But I digress. Let's get back to the question of whether an author's life must be one of abject wretchedness in order to be successful. I should probably say that, depending on your definition of success, I may have no right to answer the question. I've made no best-seller lists, won no contests, or even succeeded in obtaining an agent or publisher. So if your definition is a traditional one, I've been an utter failure. And maybe that's made me a better writer. But that's not how I measure success. The fact that I've written four novels and a novella that people have enjoyed makes me successful. I have people who like my characters and my voice as a writer. I have a tribe. It's a small one, but it's real nonetheless. So I feel successful. And like I said, I haven't been abused and filled with mental anguish all my life. 

So why do people think that authors need to have lived like that? I guess probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many authors, like creative people in practically every field, have suffered from hard lives, substance abuse, and/or mental illness. But I think we only notice those folks for the same reason we notice the bad news on TV and the Internet before the good. We're drawn to the negative, the lurid, the spectacular, not really paying attention to the fact that for every wacked, out pill-popping, drunk author/actor/singer/artist, there are many quite successful ones that lead lives of quiet normality. 

But what of the argument that in order to write about sad things, one must have experienced those things? Well, the short answer is that that's just silly. Based on that thinking, no man could ever write in the voice of a woman, no white person could ever write in the voice of someone of any other race, and no one who has never been to another country could ever write about that place. And yet people successfully do this every day. How? Paying attention and being sensitive. 

Harry and Dee, the protagonists of my Shalan Adventures series, lost a baby. I've never experienced that, and yet people who have read my books say that I handled the emotional responses to that event accurately and with sensitivity. I've also never been sexually molested, physically or psychologically abused, been shot, or shot anyone. And yet my readers tell me that I've told stories about these events with believability. How? I know people who've gone through many of those things. I've listened to them talk of their experiences. I've hugged and cried with them as they've struggled with them. And their experiences have informed my writing. 

What of the things I've not experienced directly? As I've said before (like last week), good writers are first voracious readers. For every word I've written about the ins and outs of the life of a detective, I've read thousands. I've read books, articles, pamphlets, interviews, medical reports--you name it, I've read it for the sake of being able to write about it in a way that rings true. 

So successful writers don't have to write or drink themselves blind in order to get the voices in their heads to shut up for a while. They don't have to have been beaten or neglected or abandoned as children. They don't have to have been or done anything. But they do need to be aware and sensitive enough to internalize those experiences when they happen to the people around them and/or the characters they read about. So I guess the key to being a successful writer is compassion. Well, that and the ability to, you know, actually write. All the sensitivity in the world won't help if you just don't have a way with words. But the reverse is true too. Great wordsmiths who can't feel others' pain will write beautifully crafted, eloquent words that ring hollow to the reader. 

So maybe being good at writing is less about any one thing and more about lots of things coming together. Which makes writing a lot like life in general. The happiest, most fulfilled people are the ones who have the ability to enter into and come alongside the lives of the people around them and also have found a career that combines their passion and best abilities. 

You notice I didn't mention money in there. In my opinion, anyone who measures success based on their bank account is going to end up miserable. There's nothing wrong with making millions of dollars, but it should be a by-product of success, not the end product.