Heroes We Can Live With

This week, we watched the Ken Burns’ special series on Vietnam. As a Vietnam vet, I was particularly interested in what he would have to say. He said a lot. The series was informative and compelling. It certainly took me back to the sixties, especially the early sixties when I served in the military after I graduated from Berkley. It took me back to a war that was said to have triggered a national loss of innocence. It was a war that had to be questioned, along with how and why it was fought in the first place.

As a student, and pretty much all my life, I have felt both a need and a right to question things. Ultimately, a lot of troops asked themselves questions about that war, our involvement in it, and what they personally were doing there. The ability to question and reason: part of what makes us human. Therefore, an inherent responsibility.

As writers, we seek to entertain, to share our thoughts and ideas, and perhaps to inform. I think we should do this responsibly. Being a writer does not give us tacit license to dump our opinions and values on others, but we do have a voice through our writing and should be conscious of what messages our stories impart. Especially those of us who write about murder.

I have long felt dislike for gratuitous violence. I have been uncomfortable with fictional characters who used torture and committed other unlawful things to get information they wanted, or to achieve a sense of payback against someone considered a villain. I grew up on westerns. In some westerns, the good guy only shot the gun out of the hand of the bad guy. Always found that hard to believe. In others, the lone hero rode into town and ended up killing the bad guys. He was a romantic hero, basically a good person attempting to overcome daunting odds and achieve justice. That was pretty cathartic. It was never a matter of two killers fighting each other with any resultant good only a coincidental benefit. It was a hero fighting a bad guy for the sake of what was right.

As an adult, I enjoyed things like the 007 series. James Bond seemed tough but principled.  He was understood to be fighting for queen and country and the good of all. Kind of like a modern-day cowboy hero. I didn’t mind that he exercised his license to kill against bad people out to hurt the world. But, I have gotten tired of the myriad near-nuclear explosions in scene after scene. Gratuitous violence. And, as in the sixties, I think we need to question whether political power and authority means something is right, or good or just.

As writers, we create our heroes and villains and their social settings. We own the narrative. We create the story that entertains, possibly informs, and may exemplify moral character. Or it may not. Does it matter? I think it does. What’s your opinion?

When I was developing my mystery series, and its protagonist Bobby Navarro, I liked the idea of him being a biker because it seemed romantic, reminiscent of a western hero, or the old television series, Route Sixty-six. I didn’t make him an outlaw, even though he lived on the fringes of society. I didn’t want him to be a tattooed hate-monger who would ride as part of a gang to enjoy a sense of power through intimidation. I wanted him to be a decent person others might relate to, think of him as someone they might like to know, or even be like.

I think contemporary fiction is producing interesting and complex characters, all the more believable because they are not overly simplistic. But I think the good guys should have and reflect moral value. I can’t say we always find that moral value in our real-life leaders. But, we’re writers. Now more than ever, we need to reinforce that which is good and decent and honorable. We need to create heroes our readers can love, but ones we can respect as well.

It’s About Surprises

I’m noticing a lot of the mysteries I read or watch these days have an understory that appears to drive the protagonist’s behavior. It may be their drinking behavior, or their attraction to the wrong people in their personal life, or an unresolved issue from an earlier trauma.  I like that. It gives the story depth. And, since I enjoy mysteries but think they ought to be more than a simple whodunit, depth is important. But so is surprise. Life is full of surprises, and we usually like our mysteries to contain some elements of surprise. Of course, the surprises should also move and enrich the plot. They may provide an unexpected clue as to who the villain might be, or why the villain is a murderer. They may impede the ability of our protagonist to carry on the investigation into what happened. They may develop character.

Surprises don’t have to be whimsical events, though, like an airplane engine falling out of the sky and landing on the hero’s head. In fact, I think it’s better if they’re not. If the protagonist is suddenly injured, it works better if we have known all along the protagonist is prone to taking risks. Getting injured at some point is almost predictable then, and thus believable. The timing of the surprise mishap adds excitement to the story. Realizing at some level that the potential is there all along adds tension. The surprise event also adds an element of challenge for the hero to overcome, and overcoming obstacles is what it’s all about. Getting injured makes danger real. So, writing a good mystery should include some ‘predictable’ element of surprise that still catches us off-guard.

Surprises don’t have to be calamitous or even major events to add to the fun. Occasional little surprises are a part of everyday life, and can add reality and tension to our hero’s quest. Bumping into someone unexpectedly, discovering a surprising relationship between characters in the story, etc. can provide telling information about someone, or just create an awkward moment for the hero to deal with. Still adds to the fun for the reader.

As I’ve been working on my latest Bobby Navarro mystery, I’ve had a few surprises of my own as a writer. That happens, and I usually enjoy it when it does. In this work-in-progress, I dropped a character Bobby knows well onto the scene of his latest investigation—his mother. The thing I hadn’t anticipated was how much it would impact him and how it would shape his personal growth in this novel. He also has several other unexpected encounters in the story, which hopefully will add to the readers’ enjoyment when the work is finally done and the book comes out. So, I think surprises should affect the plot, be ‘predictable’ at least after the fact, and add tension to the story. What are your thoughts?

Hiking on the Lake

 

Write Up a Storm

I’ve loved storms since I was a kid growing up in the hills of northern California. They were so dramatic, especially at night. Massive clouds driven before the wind would nearly obliterate the sky. Wind-slanted rain lashed against the flesh on my face, and threatened to knock me off balance. In other storms, a brilliant moon would shine high above everything and you could look upward and catch glimpses of it through breaks in the bulky darkness. Lightning flashes outlined trees and hills and cloud shapes, and I could count the interval between flash and the boom of thunder to estimate how far away the lightning had been. I’d fantasize that it was what being on a ship at sea would be like. I wanted to sail across the ocean. Later, I did.

When I came East, thunderstorms provided dramatic interludes to summer heat and humidity. You can sometimes predict a storm when you see maple leaves turn upside down and shimmer in the wind. Clouds hang low and mass heavily in the sky overhead and a distant roll of thunder will announce the storm’s approach. We were at a block party recently, trying to guess whether the storm would pass a little to the north of our location and allow the party to continue unaffected or we needed to seek shelter. A Torrential downpour announced the winners and losers of that speculation. Fortunately for a time, the rain came down straight onto the tent-like roof of the shelter we sat under and the party went on. Had we been caught in the rain, we would have been drenched in seconds.

I’ve seen eastern rainstorms pound heavily for a few minutes then suddenly stop, leaving the streets and sidewalks steaming in the humid aftermath, the rain not having managed to dry the air out. Sometimes, the other side of the street will still be dry and everyday activity unaffected.

It’s always dramatic watching, even enjoying, a storm. Lighting strikes pose a real threat, though. A neighbor of mine was hit by lightning that jumped across the room from her furnace and struck her. She was lucky, and walked away uninjured. A lightning strike split a fireplace chimney a few feet from me in a house I had in Connecticut. It nearly knocked me off the couch I was sitting on. During a storm in Oklahoma, the sky filled with lightning as though a strange meteor shower had erupted overhead. I was on a motorcycle, and thankful it didn’t rain until I reached my destination.

In the West, I’ve watched storms approach from miles across the open desert, hurtling lightning bolts earthward and wetting the parched land with rain from the moving column of moisture. It’s beautiful. It’s awesome, and humbling. I once raced an approaching storm on my motorcycle out west in an attempt to slip through a pass in the hills ahead of it. As I cleared the pass, another front struck violently from the other side of the hills. There was a motel just through the pass, so I bailed out, happy to have the opportunity to do so. Storms are dramatic, and I often love them, but not on a motorcycle. Of course, I have put my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, at peril in storms on several occasions, and he gets hurt in one.

When you think about it, a storm is a lot like a good mystery. Signs foretell a storm’s approach. The threat builds. Wind picks up, letting you know the storm is getting closer. Then thunder explodes and lightning flashes to announce the storm’s arrival. Wind and rain punish anyone out in the open. Humankind, thrown to the mercy of malevolent violence. It’s how we try to write mysteries. It’s how we should write mysteries. And, if we’re good at it, there will be something dramatic and memorable in the telling. I think that’s a worthwhile goal—to write up a storm.

Approaching Storm

Finger Lakes and Freedom

We recently paid a visit to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. You often hear it talked about as wine country, and the vineyards and wineries provide a good reason for visiting. Small distilleries have grown up in the region as well, the same way they’re popping up in other places with a healthy micro-brewery industry. The area has a lot to offer beyond scenic enjoyment and a glass of wine and good, local cheese though. This time, we visited the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Senaca Falls, where the Suffragist Movement began. 

What struck me about the display, which was thought provoking and moving, was the way the suffragist cause was linked to other causes such as anti-slavery in America and the plight of people seeking asylum from war and oppression around the world. Part of the exhibit consisted of a cluster of bronze statues of people associated with the suffragists’ movement. I had my picture taken next to Frederic Douglass. While some people in the larger society opposed the Suffragist Movement as a violation of an order they took to be natural and sacred, and others sympathized but didn’t want to anger the men in their lives, Frederick Douglass responded by recognizing the oppression of women by men. White men. The same men who defended  the slavery of blacks.

I am a white man, and while I’ve sometimes been treated badly as a member of some category or other, being a white male has had its advantages. The exhibits made me take some time to think about that. It didn’t put me on a guilt trip. It just made me take some time to be more aware of the negative effects of forcing people into categories and excluding them from basic rights we tout as inalienable.

The inclusion of materials from the WWII Japanese American internment camps  was a reminder of the tenuousness of ‘secure’ social position. Economic vulnerability leaves many people in contemporary society without effective social rights as well.   Without any blatant harangue, the exhibits left a clear message: we all lose something when a group is denied basic rights and liberties, and none of us are safe when some of us are denied.

I don’t intend to turn my series protagonist into a traveling civil rights crusader, although I am glad he cares about others he meets on the road, even to the point of risking his own wellbeing to address the rights and needs of a murder victim or victim’s family. Well, I guess that does make him something of a crusader, doesn’t it? To Bobby, it’s just trying to do what he thinks is right.

It was a fun trip in a picturesque region of upstate New York. I enjoyed it. We all need a break once in awhile. Any comments to share?  

Boat Houses on Seneca Lake

A Moment With Frederick Douglass

Paint Like a Writer–Write Like a Painter

I used to enjoy painting landscapes with watercolors. I find the creative process of painting is very similar to that of writing. A good painting does not come from a recipe, formula, or set of instructions. A good painting does not spring from prescribed colors laid down on a pre-constructed, numbered pattern. It comes from the successful transference of thought to canvas.

A painting likely starts with a few light pencil strokes to make a rough outline of the major objects intended. However, in a form of Japanese ink painting called Sumi-e, the artist is encouraged to sit before the intended subject and meditate before making any brush strokes in order that each one then fully captures the essence of the subject. No pencil outline is needed.

Writers vary as to whether they use an outline, or write from the seat of their pants. In either case, I think most writers have at least a mental outline of where the story is headed, and I think major story ideas have been tried out in the writer’s mind. I like to think story outlines are tentative suggestions to help the writer get started. The creative work comes later.

 If the painter is satisfied with the rough outline on canvas, the painting begins. Heavier, bolder strokes begin to express the intended subject. Suddenly, there is a spark of life to the work. There is form, shape, even the suggestion of movement, if needed. Each stroke is critical for they express the concept the artist is attempting to communicate. They cannot be blotched, too heavy, too tentative, or shaky rather than confident and knowing. They must be just right.

Once the subject has been determined by these initial strokes, the background, shading, and form can be layered-in. Shapes are completed, objects are given greater depth, details are added to give the work authenticity. This is like the middle work of a story, the details that support the plot events and character-defining statements of the story are layered in to support the main plot and character points. The desired object is fleshed out and the work approaches closer to completion.

With details in place and the desired form and shading accomplished, there is still more work to be done. This is a particularly delicate stage because a single stroke too many can ruin the intended effect. An accent stroke left out can leave the final work lacking. A bit of hesitance, a sloppy addition and the work is ruined. But, amazingly, these few, final brush strokes bring the work to the point of perfection. It is finished, and nothing more can be done to improve it. Similarly, in a written story, a small wording change can bring a desired thought or action into bolder view. A single line of dialogue can better capture the intent of the conversation from the writer’s point of view. A stubborn sentence can be reworked to get rid of an awkward expression or fix a tempo-robbing pace. Beyond that, nothing can be improved. Of course for many of us writers, the written work is never completed to perfection. We are always tempted to try another minor word change. And that says nothing of the myriad changes an editor is likely to suggest, but the ideal remains.

So, the story must spring to life with the major plot elements. Our hero’s character must be developed and nuanced with meaningful dialogue and thought description. The plot must unfold as a live experience. It cannot be accomplished by forced and clumsy assertions and explanations. When you view a finished painting, every element is simply there, awaiting the viewer’s emotional reaction. A good story is simply felt. It is not necessary for the reader to first dissect the work to understand and experience the writer’s intent.

I think one can paint like a writer, and write like a painter, but how about living like a work of art. Is that even possible? I think some people do it. I ask myself whether my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro’s life would be like that. What are your thoughts? Now, I’d better get back to work in the garden while the sunshine lasts.

The Soul of the Writer

Last weekend I visited an area I had lived in for many years. As always, the roads and highways were the same but somehow looked unfamiliar as I passed through towns and villages along the way. New houses and businesses, new shopping strips and renovated or expanded commercial areas, gave the waysides a very new look. Fortunately, the beautiful character of the area was retained. This was Connecticut, and I remember the state as being very attractive. It still is. And, I enjoyed driving while also listening to some great blues music on the car radio. Of course, this produced a sweet-sad emotional reaction to seeing former stomping grounds.

As I thought about my experience, I first chalked up the emotional bit as simply being nostalgia. However, the guest on the program I was listening to, Guy Davis, happened to be talking about playing music associated with another artist. He said that you don’t want to simply play the same notes, or even attempt to capture the style of another artist. Instead, you need to capture how that artist affects you. And when you do this, it lets the audience see into your own soul a little bit as well, and this should be a goal of the musician. I found his comment very thought-provoking. And, it occurred to me that Guy’s take on music might relate both to my nostalgic experience and to writing as well.

As to the nostalgia bit, revisiting places that brought back memories was like viewing a moving tableau of my own past. The roads were essentially the same, and some of the scenes familiar and even pretty mundane, but they offered me a connection both to past experiences and my emotional reactions to them at the time. It gave me a little glimpse into my own emotional life, or putting it another way, a glimpse into my own soul.

As to how Guy’s comments relate to writing, a compelling story is not simply a bunch of scenes cobbled together with technical skill, it is a glimpse into the characters being written about. It is also a bit of a glimpse into the soul of the writer. Just as a piece of music may be interpreted in many ways, the scenes of a story are created and told with words and a rhythm that is uniquely expressive of the writer herself, or himself. I find this difficult to explain when asked how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. The ideas are relatively easy. However, creating the glimpse into Bobby Navarro, the hero of my mystery series, is more difficult, and more important than coming up with a story idea or coming up with a clever plot twist. But ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. When Bobby is caught-up in solving a mystery or points his Harley down an open highway, I’m telling another, and hopefully more poignant, story than “who dun it”. I’m sharing a bit of Bobby’s soul with my readers along the way, and maybe even a little of mine.

Driving through New York

 

Springtime in Upstate New York

We’ve been hearing Canada geese flying overhead, mostly in the mornings and evenings. They come in low, in two’s and three’s, circling toward the pond nearby. I don’t know if they are early arrivals, but they don’t seem to be part of the larger flocks we saw in the fall heading south. In any case, their sounds are welcome. I’ve missed their music over the winter. One large goose was in the creek, taking a bath the other day, apparently enjoying a clean-up after a long flight. Robins are back in healthy numbers hunting worms in the yard and crows are out and about. I assume the crows have been here all year. A couple of days ago I saw about a dozen large birds circling over the village. I think it was a kettle of migrating hawks, vultures, or both, circling to gain altitude and then moving on.

We’ve been here two weeks now, and it’s a joy to see the birds coming back, as well as all the plants coming to life. I’ve already mowed the yard twice, and it needs it again. That will have to wait, though. It’s promising to rain for the next several days, and threatening snow sometime during the next two. Springtime in upstate New York. Time for boots, sweaters and waterproof jackets, putting away the shorts and summer clothes we started off with when we left Florida. I’ve been busy setting things straight, like cleaning the back room where we store a lot of things we need to move inside when we leave in the fall. Then, there was the light switch I had to replace on the stairs, aka puttering about. There’s always work to be done after a move, even a seasonal one. I need to get back to my writing.

Speaking of writing, from time to time I’ve asked myself why I had my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, living in New York even though his debut book was set in the Southwest. So far, no one has asked that at a program or signing. Hopefully I can make it understandable when I get to the next story, set in the Adirondacks. There are times when the forests of Upstate impart a feeling that Bobby could readily capture in the open, lonely stretches of highway in the Southwest.

If you can put up with or avoid the blackflies, Upstate is an area rich in woods, rural farm scenery, ponds, lakes and streams. Lesley thinks my enjoyment of the cold and rainy weather can be attributed to having too much of the North Sea in my DNA. I even like the bleak scenes from Wallander  or Shetland. I think they offer a mood rich in possibilities for murder mysteries. But, that’s another story. Anybody else like spring rains and gloomy days? Assuming, of course, there aren’t too many of them in a row.

The Mockingbirds’ Nest

This is our last weekend in Okeechobee for the season. This coming week we will join the many others trekking north in the semiannual shift of location. That means we are in the throes of packing things away, loading the pickup, checking out the trailer for the bike, and attending to the many little things that must be done before departure. One of the jobs I took on this week was to prune one of the bushes next to our house. If I don’t, it goes wild and starts to overtake the house. Unfortunately, I discovered a mockingbird’s nest in one of the larger branches I cut off. When I looked, it had three eggs in it. With the damage done and not being sure what to do next, I propped the branch against the house and finished the pruning job. As I did, I became aware of a pair of upset mockingbirds sounding an alarm over what was happening to their happy home. Now what?

The best I could think of under the circumstances was to tie the branch with the nest still in it to the standing bush and secure it enough to hold the nest in place in its modified location. To our amazement the mother came to the nest as soon as I walked away, and started tending her eggs. Mockingbirds are feisty creatures, and the ones around here are used to having people all around. While she flies off if someone comes too close, she isn’t overly frightened and quickly comes back.

Of course, the newly relocated nest was considerably more exposed than in its old spot, both to the sun and to predators. I had to do more. The solution was to cut a couple of palm-like fronds from a nearby tree and tie them in position over the nest to provide a little shade and some protection against predators. Again, she came right back to tend her renovated nest once I was finished. What a role model for hope and endurance.

I don’t know if the attempt to set things right will work well enough to result in the hatching of a healthy brood , but now it’s down to waiting. In the meantime, we peer out the window frequently to see whether she is still tending the nest. So far, so good. Now we can finish packing and loading things up for our own relocation. Looking forward to spending more time on editing my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript. Hope the work awaiting me up north is not so extensive as to slow my writing down too much. It’s easy to lose the feel for a story if you are away from it too long. That worries me. Anyone else have this problem?

The Mockingbird’s Nest

A Visit From the Snooze Muse

Some talk about having a muse to inspire their writing. Sounds great. Kind of wish I had one.  I don’t.  At least I think I don’t. My inspiration, if you want to call it that, comes in the wee hours, usually only after several sleep-deprived nights of trying to get my overactive mind to shut down for a few hours. Then suddenly I’ll be thinking about writing. I’ll see a scene I’ve been working on in a new light, or have a sudden thought about how I can move the plot better, etc. This time was different. I was aware I should relax, pay attention and let it happen. No getting up and taking notes—that would ruin the spell. No self-admonishment to ignore the thoughts until morning. This wouldn’t wait, and I knew it. It was a visit from what? Something I might call the Snooze Muse? Maybe. Never thought of it that way before.

This middle-of-the-night visitation doesn’t happen often, but it did last weekend.  The Snooze Muse brought important messages concerning major thoughts and commitments I have about how I want to write.  The Snooze Muse reminded me of what I need to keep in mind as I grind through the editing of my latest Bobby Navarro work in progress, Murder in Key Largo. These messages did not concern plot twists, clever cliffhanger chapter endings or the need to cut out overused words, but rather character development and what I want my stories to be about.

My stories are character driven, so a character must represent something I want to say, not simply provide a source of dialogue or an actor to play out some scene element. When I write, I see and hear my characters, but they sometimes take on a life and purpose of their own. They take over and I just try to get everything written down. That doesn’t always result in the story I want told. Things may go astray, especially when I am grinding away at fixing plot holes, time lines, poor dialogue and critical events. Once in a while I will take a break from a problem I’ve been working on, and find the solution pops up later. This was different. Instead of giving me insight to fix a troublesome scene, the Snooze Muse brought me clarity and purpose concerning some characters I am working with. It gave me a means to examine them in terms of their intended purpose.

It was a neat experience. Worth the lost sleep. If anything, the visit allowed me to sleep better once the messages had been received. What I found interesting, was that this didn’t concern anything I have been consciously struggling with. It was just there, and I realized I should pay attention. Anybody else have experiences like this? I’m not all that familiar with muses, and how they operate. If this was a bit of help from a muse, it was definitely worth the snooze. Not that I’ve ever been reluctant to take a nap. How about you?

Enjoying Rural Florida

When Wee Monsters Lurk

 

I’m in the process of revising my recently edited manuscript, and I’m running into old, familiar writing patterns (problems). I’m also finding some new issues. I have commas where they don’t belong and words I can’t explain. I think the latter result from new wee monsters in my fingers. I’m a touch typist, and rely on my fingers knowing where the keys are. It’s annoying when they get it wrong, and frustrating when my too-smart computer comes up with a word it thinks I must have had in mind, but didn’t.

The older problems are just as troublesome, but intriguing as well. My editor made several comments about sections of the manuscript I had sensed as problematic all along. It’s as though I was waiting for someone to point the issues out and not let me get away with sloppy writing. Now, my question is, why didn’t I take care of the problems earlier? Procrastination? Not this time. Laziness? No way. The worse one’s writing is, the more work it is to rewrite and push toward a finish. No, this is the work of some wee monster. It like when our male cat misbehaves (not unusual) and continues misbehaving even when we tell him to stop. He usually ends up running off to the bedroom for a little time out, and then expresses anguish over his punishment. He knew, and we knew, how the scenario would play out, but it’s as though it must be played to the end regardless.

In a related manner, I’ve often found a word or written passage bothers me. I read it, try to change the culprit, only to later return and find it still doesn’t work. When my editor says it’s a problem, it’s like having someone point out the obvious. Oh. Yeah, I knew that was a problem. It didn’t seem right all along. The strange thing is, once it’s pointed out to me, I can easily take care of it. Wee monsters. Definitely.

With editorial help, the wee monsters become exhausted and the writing improves. I should mention, I have never been able to read one of my published manuscripts in its entirety. If I were to do so, I know some wee monster would tell me I should change the wording here or the plot flow there.

I’m republishing Murder on Route 66, the first book in the Bobby Navarro series, and just received the updated cover. (I ran out of the old books at a recent writers’ signing event.) Working with the people doing the cover design, etc. has made me eager to start the publication process for Murder in Key Largo, my-work-in-progress. First, I have to get through the edits. Hope I can keep those wee monsters at bay—sometimes they can be murder.

At a Recent Book Signing