Friday, August 24, 2012

Test Driving Characters

I never set out to test drive potential novel characters in short stories, it just worked out that way. When Tracy Eaton, detective wannabe and the offspring of eccentric Hollywood stars, and her over-the-top actress mother, Martha Collins, walked onto the page of my short story, “LA. Justice,” which you can read on my website by clicking that link, I hadn’t yet written a novel. I had published a dozen or so stories at that point, though, so it was only natural that I would put them first into that form.

Had I been a more experienced writer, I might have noticed that when I finished that story, it was significant that I didn’t feel finished with Tracy and Martha. I felt I knew so much more about them than the story’s action called for. But it was only after the story won the Derringer Award, and readers told me I should put those characters into a novel, that it occurred me to give them their first novel-length adventure. Next March, they’ll make their fourth full-length outing, along with the other characters that have come out of this series, in Revenge on Route 66. And they still find so much to show me about themselves.

I’ve done this many times now. Zoey Morgan, the edgy, troubled triathletes protagonist of my standalone thriller, Never Say Die, made two short story appearances before she told me I knew her well enough to explore the background that I only hinted at in those stories, in effect making the novel a prequel to the stories. Unusual, perhaps, but it worked. Zoey also told me I’d spelled her name wrong in the original publication of those stories, that she was Zoey, not Zoe, which I’ve now corrected in all of her appearances. You'll find one of those stories, "Deadly Obsessions," on my website as well.

Samantha Brennan and Annabelle Haggerty, the fake psychic and Celtic goddess/FBI agent who star in my Magical Mystery Series, High Crimes on the Magical Plane and Magical Alienation, were also born in a short story, "Showtime on the Winter Solstice," which you'll also find on my website. 

At times I’ve approached it the other way — I’ve started stories thinking their protagonists might make engaging novel characters. I once created a mouthy, yet naïve, ex-nun, who inherits a rundown P.I. firm on sleazy Hollywood Boulevard, in “Nun in the Shadows.” That character, Lynn James, and her circumstances, and the short story in which they appeared, seemed to contain the most ideal setup for a darker cozy that could straddle the light/edgy line. But it didn’t happen. I realized by the ending of that story that while I enjoyed our time together, I just wasn’t eager to repeat it. I discovered not merely that I didn’t know much about ex-nuns, but that I also didn’t want to learn any more than I knew.

It happened again with “Audition for Murder.” That character, Lorna Doone, an unemployed actress, who keeps the boat afloat by delivering singing cookie-grams and giving tours of cemeteries where the Hollywood famous and infamous are buried, also seemed idea for a new series. Again, while I liked her a lot and had such fun with her antics, by the time the story was finished, I felt our relationship had run its course.

I’ve come to see it’s not the story’s action and circumstances that will determine whether it will jump to novel length, no matter how good the setup seems. It’s the characters, the connection we feel, the spark we seem to share. It’s whether those characters are too big, too fully formed, to be contained at story-length.

I recently shared that spark with a character again. As a bookseller, I’ve long had an idea of how to use books and a bookstore as part of a crime that extends beyond the bookstore’s walls. But while I’d worked out most aspects of how the bad guys made use of books, I simply never felt inclined to write the story. I came to believe that story idea was merely an intellectual exercise I engaged in from behind my bookstore’s cash wrap, while waiting for a long, slow afternoon to end.

But then I read the submission guidelines for the latest anthology published by my Sisters in Crime chapter, the Desert Sleuths of Scottsdale, AZ. All at once, an engaging character popped into my head, complete with a detailed history, a quirky voice, and an injustice she’d suffered. That character, Plum Tardy, infused the intellectual exercise of my bookstore-connection with emotional color. She made that story, “The Power of Books,” come to life. I’m thrilled that “The Power of Books” made it into through the blind submission of our chapter’s anthology, SoWest: Desert Justice, which just debuted.

And now I find that I want to know more about Plum and the background she shared in the course of my writing that story. I want to explore it with her.

Will we write a novel together? I hope so, but I don’t know. The characters seem to decide. 

Writers, how about you? How do you test drive your characters?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mercury, you X#&% devil!

Mercury is just coming out of retrograde.  Can’t come too soon for me. I’m used to little electronic oddities popping up during Mercury retrogrades -- broadband slows down,  small, inexplicable changes appear in files, computer applications behave in atypical ways, and other electronic roadblocks show up that require some little time to get around them. But this time, Mercury, that blankety-blank devil,  has really beaten up the Neri household in a memorable way.

Back when I was younger and more of a skeptic, I considered all this doomsday talk about Mercury retrogrades to be pure hooey. The trouble was that even if I didn’t believe in it, my electronics and appliances did. If my appliances were going to break, they did it then. If my electronics were going to burp, those burps also came during retrograde periods. Hey, I might have been a skeptic, but I wasn’t stupid – even I could see the pattern that kept emerging.

If I weren’t a believer now, I sure would be after this current retrograde period. Our biggest mishap was that our bookstore (we own The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, AZ) crashed, taking with it our Point of Sale software, the only way we have to conduct our business, and the only record of our inventory. It took three dawn-to-dark, exhausting days, two computer consultants and numerous calls to tech support, but at the end of it, we were up and running again. Since then my own personal computer has been doing odd things, such as renaming folders, changing them from words that describe that folder’s contents to a random assortment of letters, and has been falling into such a deep sleep, it’s almost impossible to wake it. The bright red LED lettering on my car’s radio/CD player has faded into oblivion. And finally, my brand new external disk drive developed a glitch. Those last few might seem minor by comparison, but I like knowing what my computer’s folders contain without having to guess, and it’s useful to know what my CD player is playing just by looking. Mostly, though, I’m fed up with electronic mishaps.

A sidecasualty in the Mercury-electronic-failings is that they take with us our confidence in those pieces of hardware and software. The absolute certainty we typically maintain that when we turn them on, they’ll always operate as we expect them to. When serious problems occur, that confidence can be replaced by a knot in the gut, and is often responsible for a financial outlay. Either a little, or in our case this time, a lot of money.
I’ve been told that retrogrades are merely planetary slowdowns, but with my schedule, I can’t afford to go any slower. I’ve also been told that retrogrades  are times meant to teach us lessons. I can’t deny that. The backup software operating  in our store’s computer was part of a package we bought from a company providing bookstore POS software. We were assured it would save the day if the worst-case scenario occurred. It didn’t. So we did learn something important, albeit at a high price, financially and emotionally. Now we’ve rectified that with what we think is stronger backup system. I’m grateful for that, although I wish that lesson could have come in a less dramatic fashion.

Sure, I know other planets retrograde as well, but that never seems to affect things the way Mercury retrogrades do. What’s crazy is that Mercury is the ruling planet of Gemini – and my husband Joe is a Gemini, and I have Gemini rising. Maybe Mercury expects more from us. I have news for that $%&# devil – I expect more from it, too.

How about you? Have you had any retrograde mishaps?