Sunday, October 27, 2019

Only Human

Years ago I was reading a book that had been recommended by a friend. It was supposed to be part mystery, part thriller.  I got about halfway through it before disgust took over.  While the story itself was interesting, the main character completely turned me off.

The problem?

It was too unbelievable. Every time this guy got into a situation, it was magically revealed that he knew how to do everything.

Hand-to-hand combat? No problem.

Expert marksman with a variety of weapons? No problem.   

Able to speak half a dozen languages? No problem.   

Gourmet chef? No problem.

Fly a plane? No problem.

The real problem for me was that this author had done nothing to set the stage that this character had all this prior knowledge and training. There was no foreshadowing, no details of his background shared during lengthy conversations with others or self reflection. There was nothing he couldn’t do. 

And he never made a mistake.

That’s when I chucked the book into the pile that gets donated to the library. No mistakes!   How can that be believable?

When creating characters, one of my goals is to make someone that readers can relate to. Whether it’s difficulty with relationships, a drinking problem, a couple of divorces, conflicts with authority or sibling rivalry, there needs to be an aspect of your character that your readers can identify with.  

Because deep down, we all make mistakes. We’re only human.

Last week a colleague at the college mentioned that when another professor stopped by her office, she thought it was me and made a couple of jokes utilizing my last name. It was only after the confused prof didn’t respond that she realized her error.  She explained and they shared a laugh. When I saw her a day later, she was still laughing about it.  Neither I nor the other professor were offended. 

It’s human nature.  We all make mistakes.

As writers, so should your characters. Because that makes them real.


Here’s an excerpt from “Devious” the first Jamie Richmond mystery.  The story line is that while doing research for a character in her next novel, Jamie rides along with Herman Kleinschmidt, a state police trooper. During the course of the evening’s patrol, Jamie witnesses him get shot. When the police investigation stalls, she becomes obsessed about the case and wants answers.

In this scene, Jamie has been working on her computer for several hours when she decides to take a break and get out of the apartment for some fresh air and a quick bite.  Only when she returns does she realize her mistake.

There's a little bakery down the block from my place, where they take huge chocolate chip cookies out of the oven and surround them with a heaping scoop of French vanilla ice cream. Then add gobs of hot fudge and more chocolate chips. So sinful. They even let you sit in the back, away from the store window, and devour it. I hadn't indulged in one in months.

I washed it all down with a cup of coffee and waited for my system to explode from the sugar shock. Surrounded by the aromas of bread baking and cinnamon rolls, I probably gained five pounds by osmosis. I wondered how long I could continue to eat like this before my figure went to hell. I’m not scrawny like a fashion model, but I am slender. I like the shape I’m in. And apparently, so does Malone. One of these days, I’ll get back to my yoga classes.

After the feast I went for a long walk, bundled inside my down coat. Yesterday's heat wave had been Mother Nature’s cruel trick. Today was typical November weather, cold and blustery with a snappy wind. Even in the frigid air, it felt good to stretch my legs and let my mind wander. I walked about two miles, circling back toward my apartment. As I approached my building, two people came out of the entrance and trotted over to the parking lot. I froze.

One of those two was Herman Kleinschmidt. Even if I hadn't been close enough to see his face, there was no mistaking his bulk. The right sleeve of his jacket flapped loosely at his side. His arm was still in the sling. The other person was nondescript, smaller than Smitty, wearing a nylon parka with a hood.

Don't ask me why I didn't hurry after them instead of stepping back behind an oak tree. Maybe it was something about the way they moved, or the way Smitty kept looking back over his shoulder. Either way, it made me uncomfortable. I waited until I saw them drive away together before I went inside.

My apartment building isn't fancy. It's part of a complex where six rental units make up each three-story structure. I've got the east side of the top floor, with a nice view of the park. I'm the only person who works at home. Chances were nil that Smitty was visiting one of my neighbors.

I'd been gone over an hour. Since I hadn't taken my car, I hadn't taken my keys, which meant I hadn't locked my door either. My heart was thumping erratically as I reached for the doorknob. The door swung open at my touch and I remained in the hall, afraid to go inside. Where the hell was Ace Richmond, Private Eye when I needed her?

When no one jumped out from behind the towering pile of magazines in the corner, I took a cautious step inside. Everything looked the same as when I left. The handmade quilt from my cousin Linda remained draped sloppily off the bentwood rocker. Someone could have been hiding inside the sofa, but it would take them ten minutes to struggle free of the cushions. Okay, so I’m not Holly Homemaker. 

I went down the hall to my bedroom. The blankets and sheets were in the same twisted clump I'd left them in after attacking Malone's naked body over the dirty breakfast dishes. My clothes from the New York trip still protruded from the closet door. 

"Anybody here?" I whispered foolishly.  I don’t know what I would have done if someone had answered.

That left the bath and the spare bedroom. It's not really a bedroom, since there's no bed in there. I use it as my office. A desk, two file cabinets, a bookcase and some plants make up the majority of the furnishings. My computer dominates the room, with cables running everywhere. Printer, monitor and keyboard are perched precariously on various parts of the desk.

If I hadn't already been nervous, I certainly was now. My computer was on. Not just the hard drive or the monitor, but the entire system, even the printer. I never leave the system on. Call it being economical or superstitious or environmentally concerned, I don’t care. I never leave the system on, because I never know how long I'll be gone. And I hadn't been using the printer. There’s an independent switch for it, used only when needed.

"You bastard!" I slammed my hand on the desk. Too late now, I ran to the front door and latched the bolt. Then I grabbed the phone and started to call Malone. I got through six numbers before hesitation settled in. Nothing was moved. Nothing was stolen. What exactly did I expect Malone to do? Swoop over to protect me?

I went back to the computer and began checking the data. Every file I could remember was still there. I'd been working on the revisions earlier and all of my changes were intact. Nothing had been disturbed. What could he have been doing? I keyed in the directory and scrolled through a list of all my files. At first I didn’t notice anything wrong.

 I sat back and closed my eyes, concentrating. Like most writers, I use code names for the files in my computer. Since there's no master list that will reveal to anyone what each file actually contains, the only way to discover the contents to any particular file is to call it up on the screen. For the project I was considering about the state trooper, I had named the file Licorice. There's no connection between that and the story, it's just what popped into my head. Beside the file name is the size of the file in bytes, and the last dated entry. My system automatically creates a backup whenever a file is changed, sort of a fail-safe system. I hadn’t been in the Licorice file recently. My first and only entry had been on Monday, before my trip to New York City.

But the directory showed activity today. The main file showed a slightly different number than the backup file. I swallowed hard and punched in Licorice.

Four pages of notes lit up the screen. There was my own unique style of speed typing for rough drafts. No care with regards to spelling or punctuation, just rambled lines of words with an occasional break for a new paragraph or thought. My notes ended in the middle of the fourth page.  There was a gap of five or six lines then this message appeared.    


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The musical interlude this week comes from Billy Joel.  Enjoy!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Author Events

Last week I was one of a dozen local authors who participated in an event at the local bookstore. Although I’ve not had the greatest success at these type of events, since it was only for a couple of hours and just a few miles away, I decided to give it a shot. Besides, it would be a good opportunity to catch up with some of the other authors I knew and perhaps meet a few new ones.

Despite the fact that this is a good size store, part of a national chain, they opted to jam everyone into one long table down the central aisle.  Authors were given two feet of table space, directly in front of your chair. No room for banners, displays, or even swag beyond bookmarks.  There are sections in the store for different genres, but management wanted to keep all the authors tightly together. Picture sardines in the can. You get the idea.  Maybe they were concerned we’d get too rowdy and make a mess of their displays.

There was little attempt to help promote our appearance. I saw a sign about the size of a sheet of paper that said “Local authors” and the date and time. This was visible only as you were leaving the store.   No photos, no book covers, no list of attendees, no pizzazz to draw your eye. 

During the two hours, I talked briefly to three people who were perusing the table. I was sitting beside a young author who writes speculative fiction and a woman who wrote a children’s book.  I did have the opportunity to chat with Rachael Brownell, who has written more books than there was room to display.  We compared notes about previous events, both indoors and at festivals and gauged our success. 

At the end, we packed up and headed out. I’m unaware of anyone actually selling a book to a stranger. A couple of sales were made by others whose family and friends stopped by.  

But this is a part of the writing life. Unless you’re an international bestseller, like John Sandford or Stephen King, you have to spend some time in the trenches, participating in these opportunities and hoping that you’ll have the chance to engage potential readers. 

Sometimes it works. 

Sometimes it doesn’t.  

One of the people I did talk with that night was Olivia, an acquaintance who works out at the same local gym I go to. She glanced at the books in the Jamie Richmond series, and picked up “Fleeing Beauty”.  

‘Where do you get the models for the covers?’ she asked.

‘At the gym” I quipped.

She burst out laughing and replaced the book. ‘That was very quick.’

I shrugged and explained the publisher works with artists and models. I had some input for the artwork and have final approval. But I’ve yet to meet the models.

Here’s an excerpt from “Fleeing Beauty”.  In this scene, Jamie and her young friend Ian are on their way home from her late father's art studio.  They were surprised there by the appearance of Vera, Jamie’s mother, who has invited Jamie for dinner.

We were almost back to the house when I heard a phone ring. I’d been so preoccupied with thoughts of Vera’s sudden appearance that I’d forgotten Ian was with me. It took a moment to realize it was his cell phone ringing. Sheepishly, he pulled it from his pocket and glanced at the screen. A flush of crimson colored his cheeks as he answered. I tried not to eavesdrop. The conversation was brief. I glanced at him as we exited the freeway.

“That was Brittany. She just invited me and Logan down for a barbecue.”

“And I suppose her parents will be there?” I tried to make my voice sound stern.

He fidgeted in his seat. “C’mon, Jamie, be real. Her whole family is going to be there. They have a pool too. I’m sure you can come, but I thought you were going to dinner with that Vera lady.”

“That is no lady. That’s my mother.”

“You call your mother by her first name?” His expression was questionable.

I blew out a breath and eased the car into the driveway. “It’s a long story. What time is this barbecue?  Does your mom let you go to things like this?”

“Brittany said six. And my mom is cool with it. She and Caitlin are doing some movie thing tonight, just the two of them. I’ve got time to get cleaned up and take Logan for a walk.” He was giving me the same kind of hopeful, sad puppy look with those big brown eyes that Logan would use when he wanted a treat.

“Okay, you can go. But I want to meet this family before I leave.”

Shortly before six, we walked down the block to Brittany’s house. I met her parents and her younger brother and sister. An above ground swimming pool dominated the backyard. Tucked into a corner by the rear of the house was a large charcoal grill. A thin ribbon of smoke rose from the chimney. 

“Don’t worry about Ian, we have enough food for an army,” Brittany’s father, Tom, said.

“That’s good to know. I’m still getting used to how much this kid can eat.”

He nodded. “With three kids of our own, we always stock up. What time does Ian need to be home?”

I was unaccustomed to this maternal role. But I knew he had a game in the morning and he needed a good night’s rest. “Eleven. I should be back by then as well, but he has a key.”

“We’ll take good care of him,” Tom said. He glanced over at Ian. He and Brittany were standing close, petting the dogs and talking quietly. “I’ll keep a close eye on him.”

“Now that sounds like a very good idea.”

I was heading out the gate when Ian called my name. I turned as he approached with Logan tagging along. Without a word he wrapped his arms around me in a quick hug. I hesitated for a moment and felt my arms go across his back.

“Thanks,” he whispered in my ear.

“Have fun, but not too much fun.”

Walking away I realized that was the first time he’d ever hugged me.   
 Two hours later I was in the Hotel Baronette’s dining room. Recalling Vera’s reaction to my shorts and T-shirt ensemble earlier, I’d taken some time to get ready for dinner. I was wearing a sleeveless linen dress in a pastel shade of turquoise along with a pair of black leather sandals and gold dangling earrings Malone gave me for my birthday. I’d curled my hair, applied some lipstick and a touch of makeup, and spritzed on just a little perfume. This was about as feminine as I get. The restaurant manager, acting as host, steered me to a special table and informed me Vera would be down shortly. She appeared ten minutes later.

“Jamie, darling, you look so much better. But where is this new man I’ve heard about? I expected him to join us for dinner.”

“Malone’s working. He’s on afternoons.”

Vera perused the menu. As if by magic, a handsome young waiter appeared at her elbow. She flashed him a smile, ordered a vodka martini and the Lake Huron trout.  I opted for tonic water with lime and the farm salad, which included apples, walnuts, and cherries. She raised an eyebrow at me as the waiter departed.

“No wine or alcohol with dinner?”

“I don’t drink anymore, Vera. And before you ask, I don’t miss it.”

She considered it and gave me a slow nod. “Very well. You do look good, Jamie. I think your life agrees with you.”

“I’m happy with the way things are.  Are you happy, Vera?”

“Yes, I am. I get to live the life I’ve always wanted. I’m surrounded by friends, by people who share many of the same interests and desires. Some of them are very generous. They enjoy my company.”

My eyes flicked to her dress. It was probably from some French or Italian designer and worth more than my entire wardrobe combined. It was a soft red number, with a tightly cinched waist and a flared skirt. I didn’t know if it was a combination of diet and exercise or the result of a plastic surgeon’s knife, but she wore it well. 

We were quiet until the waiter returned with our drinks. Vera sipped hers and nodded her approval. The dining room around us was busy, but there were no occupied tables close by. She was staring at me with what could only be described as a smirk on her face.

“Go ahead and ask me, Jamie. It’s obvious that you have something on your mind.”

“How come you never told me more about Peter?”

Vera took a moment to choose her words. “It was too difficult. He meant so much to me, and to have him taken away so suddenly, I’ve never been able to get over it.”

“Even after all these years, you’re still not over him?”

“People deal with grief in different ways. You might say Peter ruined me for other men. I think that’s why I could never stay in a relationship very long after that. I was always afraid of having my heart broken again.”

“What about you and Bert? You were married to him for more than five years.”

The mention of Bert brought a genuine smile to her lips. Her entire face glowed. “Bert was my favorite man. He captured a special place in my heart. I think he still has it.”

“So you never talked about Peter because it was too hard. But why didn’t you ever tell me about the estate?”

She paused as our entrees were placed before us. The waiter hovered while Vera tasted the trout. After bestowing a smile on him, he disappeared into the background. 

“Lincoln Banning helped with the estate. Once he assured me that there was enough money to take care of us each year, I never gave it much thought. Until you turn thirty-five, everything remains in the trust. I have no idea how much that is worth or what impact these new works will have on it. That’s still three more years before we have to know.

“Once you were off to college, I thought about telling you. But you’d earned a partial scholarship and I was pleased to see you willing to work for your spending money. I just told you the rest of your tuition was covered. The estate paid for it. When you graduated and started working, I didn’t see the need to burden you. Peter would have wanted you to earn your own way.”

“So you were protecting me?”

She reached over and took my hand. “No, Jamie, I was protecting me. I can’t think about the estate without thinking about Peter and our lives together. He was everything to me. You were everything to him. His whole spirit lit up whenever he saw you.”

“Will you do something for me, Vera?”

“Of course I will.”

“Will you tell me about him now?”

What looked like tears formed in the corners of her eyes. “I’ll tell you everything.”

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Music this week is an old favorite from Sting.