Seeing Eye to I

Much as I love a good mystery—print, ebook, or audio—and although in my hand the TV remote control is a crime-seeking missile programmed to land on any available true or fictional detective show, if I were involved in a crime in real-life, I would be of absolutely no use.

I have very limited powers of observation. As a witness, if called upon to describe what the bank robber looked like, or what kind of car the hit and run driver used, I would come up with nothing. I tend to move through life—or at least travel to my destinations—focused only on the road ahead. I’ve been taken to task many times by family and friends, who insist they waved at me with the vigor of someone waiting for rescue by a search plane, to no avail. Which is one indication that I’m an adequate looker, but not a very good see-er.

If it’s not straight ahead of me, there’s a good chance I won’t detect it. Sorry, officer I didn’t notice the arsonist setting fire to the building on the corner while I waited at the light. No, detective, I didn’t see a man in a yellow banana suit coming out of the bank with a bag full of money.

If required to work with a police sketch artist to come up with a composite picture of the villain who snatched my purse, I’d be stumped to try and recall, let alone describe, physical characteristics clearly. The end result would no doubt be a cross between an Etch-A-Sketch drawing and Mr. Potato Head. His hair? Umm, blondish. Eyes? Smallish. Nose? Big. Face shape? Not exactly round, but sort of. He had a mustache. No, wait, a beard. Well, you get the picture.

While my literal lack of attention to the world around me is lamentable, even more troubling is the realization that in a figurative sense, I often don’t see what is in front of me. Typically, if I encounter a receptionist, or a clerk, or a random person at the market who is brusque or impatient with me, I look at them as bad-tempered and rude. I rarely take the time to see what might lie underneath the offending  behavior. If a friend is expressing her opinion, I may say that I “see” her point of view, but I’m really focusing on my own, and looking for an opening to push it forward.

The verb “to see” has many synonyms: detect, examine, contemplate, recognize, discern, take notice, observe, perceive, regard, view, eye, see, spot, witness, behold, and more. It’s an indication, I think, of how complex and layered the act of seeing is. Perhaps I’ve been thinking about that idea  more lately, because I’ve been wending my way through a series of appointments and treatments to resolve my physical eye problems. But as my literal eyesight continues to improve, I hope to work on my metaphorical vision as well. Henry David Thoreau said it much better than I have:

 ♦It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ♦  





Welcome to my world …

Downtown Himmel, Wisconsin
drawn by Melanie Lewis

After some time away from it, I’m now immersed in writing the fourth novel in the Leah Nash Mysteries series. In fact, I’m so involved with my characters and the felonious happenings in their fictional world that when one of my sisters called me last week and asked what I was doing, I answered without thinking: “I’m arranging my murders.”

She was taken aback for a second, having expected “I’m arranging” to be followed by “my closet” or “my spice shelf”—not “my murders.”

It’s easy for me to get lost in the world of my characters, but it’s really fun when I hear that a reader has engaged enough with the people and settings of my stories to follow up after the last page of the book is read.

Recently someone wanted to know how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s considerably larger, and there’s a lot more homicide going on. For another, it’s in Wisconsin—although to be honest, having spent quite a bit of time in both places, I think of Wisconsin as Michigan with cheese. Lots of cheese. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers often wonder if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of works of fiction: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met, or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own town try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email from a reader to that effect. She wrote that she had really enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly said that she felt kind of bad that she and the murderer shared a somewhat uncommon first name.

To make it up to her, I’m including a minor character in my next book whose first and last names are a match for the reader’s. And like her real-life namesake, the character is a very nice person, who I’m sure would never kill anyone. 😉