A Matter of Characters

I try to roll with the feedback if a reviewer doesn’t like some aspect of a book I’ve written—or even doesn’t like any aspects of any book I’ve written. To each his own, right? One reader’s can’t-put-down book can be another’s can’t-get-into-it.

However, I can feel quite protective when someone criticizes not the book as a whole, but a character in particular. That is especially true when the character under fire is my lead, Leah Nash. I will be the first to admit that Leah is not always even-tempered, or wise, or mature, or forgiving. She is prone to acting impulsively. She has a quick tongue and doesn’t always filter what she says. And she’s pretty bossy and hates to be wrong. Hmm, as I write this I can see where the critics are coming from. And yet … She is generous of heart, loyal to a fault, quick-thinking, self-aware, fearless and funny. I enjoy writing her because she is a sometimes contradictory combination of light and dark.

But I’ve had to accept that some people don’t see her the way I do. A parallel for me in real life is when a friend informs me that she can’t stand a person we both know, but I find that person delightful. Some readers respond to Leah as I do, and some don’t.

Because the series is set, for the most part, in the small town of Himmel, Wisconsin, a recurring cast of characters pops in and out of the stories as foils and friends of Leah. Sometimes readers take a shine to a minor character and want to see more of her or him. The request I get most often is for “more Miguel, please.” Miguel Santos is a young reporter at the Himmel Times Weekly. He’s extroverted, optimistic, tolerant, good-looking and gay (in both the old-school and the modern sense of the word). No one has a bad time when Miguel is around. He’s a perfect counter-point to Leah’s more cynical outlook on life. And I’m happy to spend more time with him, myself.

On the other hand, Courtnee Fensterman, the receptionist at the Himmel Times is a polarizing figure among my readers. She’s a pretty, vapid, self-centered receptionist in her early 20s, who is described this way:

Self-confident without any basis, incompetent without any awareness, unencumbered by any sense of responsibility, she is perpetually aggrieved and slightly perplexed by job duties that pull her away from Tweeting, Tindering, and [Snap Chatting].

Readers either love her for her blissful state of self-absorption or hate her for it. I understand why some people urge me to kill her off. But despite her ditzy, self-involved ways, I do have a soft spot for her as one of my offspring. And she’s useful at times in furthering the plot.

One of the nice things about a series is that you can allow your characters to grow and change and that can be reflected, in part, by the way they interact with other characters. For example, Charlie Ross, a detective with the sheriff’s department, started out in a small role as an adversary of Leah’s. Eventually, he became a friend. I leave it to readers to decide whether Charlie changed, or Leah did, or if they both grew a little in understanding.

To say that Leah has trust issues is putting it mildly, and given her life experiences, it’s not surprising. However, she has no reservations about trusting her best friend, a man she’s known since they were both 12 years old, growing up in Himmel. David Cooper, known to Leah and almost everyone else as Coop, is a lieutenant in the Himmel Police Department. They both enjoy the easy comfort and tolerance that long-term friendship can bring. I get frequent calls for their friendship to morph into romance, though to date both have chosen other romantic interests. And to be honest, I’m not sure if they will ever be more than very good friends. Then again, I’m not sure that they won’t be.

I think that the characters a writer creates—even the not very nice ones—have a claim on the author’s affections. But, as is the case with parents, writers must send their characters out into the world to face whatever fate awaits them. Some readers will love them, some will hate them. But the worst response to a character isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Because attention, good or bad, is what all characters—and maybe all writers—crave.

Note: This first appeared as a guest post on The Book Diva Reads blog.

 

 

My Day at the Office

donotdisturbWhen I worked in a traditional job in a traditional office, it was common practice during a push to meet a deadline to retreat to cubicles or offices, close doors, send calls to voicemail, and focus entirely on getting the project done.

I find that harder to do in my home office because the other person who lives in the house cannot easily be ignored by the mere closing of a door. Gary is a very active person for whom to think, is to do. He is in and out of the house at least half a dozen times a day: to have coffee, to attend a meeting, to go to the hardware store, to visit a friend, to talk to a neighbor, to organize a meeting, to go to the post office, to stop at the library. If an idea pops into his head, he acts on it. And he gets an amazing amount of things done in a day.

I, on the other hand, spend quite a lot of time thinking before doing. But once started I like to work straight through for long periods, focused and undisturbed. Gary likes to share regular updates on his progress, and he usually meets this need as he interacts with people on his rounds. Except on the occasional day when he decides to spend time working on projects at home.

This is what my day at the office is like then:

9 a.m. Gary looks at a two-year-old tax return that he has come across “organizing” his files. He calls to me to come downstairs to his desk and look at the item that is disturbing him. I look. It does not disturb me. I go back to my desk.

9:30 a.m. Gary sees something odd on the surface of the river. He goes out to explore. I do not see it because my blinds are closed. He asks me to video what he’s seeing. I go outside to shoot the video. I go back to my desk.

10 a.m. Gary calls me downstairs to hold the tape measurer for him. I do. I do not ask why, or what he is doing. That might land me in a project I want nothing to do with.

10:30 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me we’re out of toner for the printer. I suggest he might like to run to the store to buy some. He does.

11 a.m. Gary returns from the store. He comes to my office to tell me about a person I don’t know, who is doing something I don’t care about. Then he gives me some flowers. Now I find it harder to order him out of my office, but I do anyway.

11:15 a.m. Gary calls up to me from his desk downstairs. He asks me if it’s going to rain tomorrow. I tell him I don’t know.

11:25 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me that yes, it is going to rain tomorrow.

11:26 a.m. I close my door. Loudly.

11:40 a.m. Gary taps softly on my door and whispers—as though the act of speaking softly cancels out the disturbance—asking if I know where his meeting file is. I do not.

11:45 a.m. I have hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob. I can hear Gary walk down the hall toward my office, then footsteps retreating after he sees the sign. Then it is quiet. Then I hear him in the kitchen faux whistling an unrecognizable tune—making half humming, half flutey-sounding noises. Then he stops. Then he starts. Then he stops. A few minutes pass. Then he starts again.

I start laughing. Because, well, Gary. I take the sign off the door and catch up on my email instead of writing the next chapter. Tomorrow is another day.

Note: This post first appeared in March 2016. It’s here again both because I’m hard at work on the fifth Leah Nash Mystery and I’m behind schedule, and because the content is still true. 😉

 

A World Away–Reading and Writing Mysteries

Mystery Street

Nothing in my life, outside of the people that I love, gives me more pleasure, more comfort and more joy than reading. And there is no genre I enjoy more than a murder mystery.

There’s something very reassuring to me about a mystery novel. Perhaps it’s the underlying orderly structure—even in a fast-paced, hit-you-from-all sides thriller. After all, every mystery, from the coziest of cozies to the darkest hardboiled novel is, at its core, about the restoration of order.

Whether the mystery takes place in a quiet English village or on the mean streets of Los Angeles, the story moves from the disruption of the natural order of things to the eventual return to normalcy. The killer is unmasked, punishment is meted out, and the detective, amateur or professional, completes her mission. When the realities of my own life are far messier, I find it very nice—and sometimes necessary—to step into another world for a while.

The rhythms of a mystery series are especially good at drawing me in because, in addition to the puzzle and suspense of a stand-alone like Gone Girl, there’s the added dimension of a cast of characters I’ve come to know. In the most satisfying series, those characters continue to grow and to surprise me. I’m not fussy about subgenres. I like the gritty realism and imperfect hero of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, but I’m just as fond of the lovely writing and more measured pace of Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache books.

I start a new book in a favorite mystery series with the same anticipation I feel about visiting a good friend I haven’t seen in a while. When I’m reading, I leave my own world and the people in it far behind—even though those people may be as close as a couch cushion away. Quite often when I need it most, I get caught up enough in their fictional problems to forget about my own. A meme that’s been circulating on the Web sums it up pretty well: I don’t want my favorite fictional characters to be real, I want to be in their fictional world with them.

I discovered that as a writer, I experience that longing even more than I do as a reader. When I finish writing another installment in the Leah Nash mystery series, I miss my characters and the small town of Himmel, Wisconsin where they live. I wonder what they’re doing while I’m away. In a way, I feel left out of things, as though their lives are going on without me.

Silly? Yes, of course it is. And yet I can’t help it. I’m not so far gone that I don’t realize my characters aren’t real people. And the small town in Wisconsin where they live is definitely not the small town where I live. For one thing, the per capita murder rate is far too high. But I think that a mystery series, mine or anyone else’s, is reality one-step removed. It’s the world as we’d like it to be, where tragic events may happen, and innocent people may suffer, but in the end, there is justice, and sometimes mercy, for all.

For me, a well-ordered mystery is very satisfying, and I relish the time I spend in its world. And I find there are some places I return to visit quite often. If you’re a reader (and I’m assuming if you’re reading this you must be) you’ll know what I mean. Perhaps we’ll run into each other in Santa Teresa, or Northumberland or Three Pines sometime–or maybe even in Himmel, Wisconsin. Until then, happy reading.

Note: This first appeared as a guest post on Lori’s Reading Corner, part of a virtual book tour I did recently.

 

 

 

Let the Writing Begin

You have to start somewhere …

Today I am stuck. I am in the early stages of writing the next Leah Nash mystery, and I know what the two main threads of the story are. I know how they will come together. I know who died and why.

I’ve done all the research, I’ve written all the backstories, figured out where and how the various suspects connect, and yet I’m hesitating. My ability to generate excuses for not actually writing is boundless. I need more research. I need a more detailed outline. I need more colored markers. I have to clean my closet. (That last one shows the level of my urge to procrastinate).

It’s the same thing each time I start a book. I’m excited to move into a world that is familiar, but different from mine. I’m eager to once again inhabit the mind of a character who is not me, but part of me. But like a skydiver before she leaps out of the plane, I am paused on the precipice of unknown outcomes. Will I land safely in the drop zone, or will I get caught in the metaphorical branches of a miscalculated plotline, or even worse will I crash to the ground in a tangle of poorly conceived characters and improbable clues?

The journey into the unknown is always daunting for me, as I am not an adventurous type by nature. In fact, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being Marco Polo and 1 being Emily Dickinson, I’m probably hovering at about 2.5. I always have to fight the urge to stay in a perceived safe place, in life, and in writing. The Mock Turtle’s advice in Alice in Wonderland has a certain resonance for me

There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England, the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

Regardless of how this next work comes out, it’s time to join the dance in earnest, leap from the plane with abandon, push off from the shore, and trust that all will unfold as it should. I’ll keep you posted on how the adventure is going.

This post (with minor edits) appeared on the website several years ago. As I force myself to move from planning and prewriting to actual writing of the fifth Leah Nash mystery, unfortunately, it still rings true. 😉

Those Who Can, Teach

The other day I had a chance conversation with one of my oldest daughter’s favorite teachers. After I updated her on Sara’s life, she reminded me of the time in high school when Sara decided to take a stand against what she felt was an unfair application of school dress code rules. She had written a protest letter about the issue and planned to post it anonymously in a prominent place in school. I had told her that if she couldn’t stand behind her opinion, she shouldn’t post it. If she could, then she should sign it. She did.

Shortly after, she was called to the office to answer for it. Sara was about to learn the cost of standing on principle, and she was pretty nervous. Without being asked, and without hesitation, her teacher insisted on going with her to stand in as a responsible adult.

When I mentioned the conversation to Sara later in the week, she immediately recalled the high-anxiety of being summoned to the office and the sweet relief of facing discipline with a supportive teacher by her side. I felt a fresh wave of gratitude for that teacher, (and yes, Leslie Thomas, I’m looking at you) and for all the teachers who every day stand up for, beside, and with their students.

That led me to ask a few of the teachers I know about what motivates them as teachers.

They all responded with some variation on the following themes:

  • Seeing a student experience that “aha!” moment when a difficult concept finally makes sense
  • Tracking students’ progress and watching them grow from grade to grade
  • Collaborating with and learning from colleagues who care as much about kids as you do
  • Helping students see that it’s OK to make mistakes, and to understand that they’re part of learning
  • Feeling energized by the idealism and enthusiasm of students
  • Working with parents committed to the best learning experience for their kids
  • Having students return to tell you that you made a difference, not just in their learning but in their lives.

Those seem like really good reasons to be a teacher.

But, why then, I wondered is there a shortage of teachers in Michigan? Why are so many retiring early, or leaving the profession after only a few years?

I asked my teacher friends those questions, too. And sadly, there was a uniformity to their answers.

  • Lack of respect for the profession
  • Feeling scapegoated for political purposes
  • Ever increasing class sizes
  • Disparity of funding for schools
  • Lack of support from administrators and parents
  • Unfunded mandates and “revolutionary” programs that ignore front-line teacher experience
  • The shift in priorities from educating students to churning out paperwork that has little impact on student learning
  • So much testing–post-testing, benchmarking, unit testing, proficiency testing, mid-year exams, end of year exams–that test-taking seems to be an end in itself

And then there’s the salary. None of the teachers I talked to cited money as a primary frustration. Nonetheless, it’s a factor. Just like everyone else, teachers can’t live—or raise a family—on love alone. In Michigan average starting salary for a teacher is about $36,000. Mind you that’s also at a time when most teachers are heavily burdened with school loan payments and the additional costs of the ongoing education that’s required to keep their jobs.

In many districts, teachers haven’t had a raise in years, some have had salary rollbacks, and all have seen higher insurance costs. It’s not uncommon for teachers to work second jobs on the weekends and in the evenings to make ends meet. Which is extra hard to do, because most teachers spend many hours on the weekends and in the evenings grading papers, writing lesson plans and participating in after-school activities.

Tuesday, May 8th is National Teacher Day. It’s an occasion when politicians and others will trot out platitudes, make meaningless declarations of support and respect, and then continue to underfund, overburden and disrespect the profession of teaching.

Thank teachers, by all means. But don’t stop there. Support, respect, and fund public education. Let your legislators know how important it is to you. And vote like you mean it.

I’ve had many teachers who made a difference in my life. Mrs. Hurry, Mrs. Hawkins, Mr. Tobin, Mr. McMacken, Mr. Stuckey, Miss Adams, Mrs. Snellenberger are just a few of them. Who’s on your list?

 

 

And Another Thing …

I can’t even …

There are times when I breathe deeply, center myself and send silent blessings to the people and things that are impinging on my attempts to find inner peace. There are other times when I freely and fully focus on the breadth and depth of stupidity in this world.

This is one of those moments. I don’t feel like looking at the big picture, realizing how insignificant daily irritations are in the big scheme of things, or comparing my situation to people who have it much worse. No. I feel like unleashing my inner two-year-old for a minute or two. So, here we go. Following is an incomplete list of things that cause me to wish for the power to make people spontaneously combust with my mind.

However, if you’re in a rainbows and kittens frame of mind, it’s probably best to skip this post. I don’t want to drag you into the darkness with me.

It makes me crazy when:

  • People in meetings repeatedly ask questions that were already answered. Bonus irritation points if they were checking their email when the aforementioned queries were addressed.
  • People appear to be surprised that they’ve called a meeting and have no agenda prepared and no apparent idea why they’ve gathered us all together. Double bonus irritation points if they then, in a bit of loaves and fishes magic, expand one inconsequential item that could be dispatched in five minutes into an hour-long debate.
  • People wait until they get to the cash register in a long store checkout line to dig through their giant purses or into every pocket on their cargo pants to find their checkbook, wallet, or coupons. Extra irritation points if their coupons are expired.
  • People promise to do something and don’t.
  • People think saying “Oh, well, you know how I am,” excuses every sort of irresponsible and/or self-centered behavior.
  • People apologize by telling you that it was really your fault they treated you badly.
  • People read a text or take a phone call that is not of serious import in the middle of a real-time conversation with you.
  • People think it’s comforting to tell survivors of a tragedy that God was looking out for them, implicitly indicating that anyone who did not escape was beneath God’s notice. A corollary irritation: people who attribute their success in life to being blessed, while apparently others who aren’t similarly situated are either cursed or at best worthy only of some divine form of benign neglect.
  • People wait to merge until the last minute even though lane closure signs are posted well in advance, then expect you to let them in.
  • People who make lists of petty annoyances that reveal their lack of inner resources for dealing with the minor frustrations of life.

Yes, it’s true, I am in such a crabby mood that I’m even annoying the bejesus out of myself. But now, having cataloged my current list, I feel strangely lighter. I’m ready to interact with my fellow humans with a greater measure of equanimity and tolerance.

Unless, of course, my next encounter is with a store clerk talking on his mobile phone while ringing up my purchases.

OM

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