Even Fictional Characters Need a Home

Have you heard the old joke about the husband who comes home late one night, opens the bedroom closet and finds a half-dressed man hiding there? “What are you doing in my closet?” the husband asks. “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere,” the man answers.

It’s a groaner, but its silliness holds a kernel of truth. Everybody does have to be somewhere, even fictional characters. I find it hard to relate to a character, unless I can place him or her in a setting. Consider Miss Marple ambling along the village streets of St. Mary Mead, Dr. Zhivago riding across the frozen Russian landscape, or Jane Eyre scuttling through the dark and dreary rooms of Thornfield Hall. Would they be as alive, as compelling, if their environments were not compellingly described? Not to me. So when I decided to set the first Angelina Bonaparte mystery, Truth Kills, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (I qualify this with the state because a taxi driver in the deep South once wondered if that was in Hawaii!), I found it natural to include local landmarks in the story.

Every private investigator relies on sources for information. Angie schedules a meeting with a possible insider informant at Blu, the cocktail lounge at the top of a landmark downtown hotel. She tells the reader: “The Pfister is an old Milwaukee gem, an 1890s Victorian built of local stone and graced with bright red awnings on the sidewalk level.  Inside, a permanent art display decorates the walls of the five-star hotel.  The builder, Guido Pfister, was a German immigrant who envisioned a ‘palace for the people.’  Guido died before the building was completed, but his son Charles finished the father’s dream.  Even today, guests claim they can see the portly, well-dressed Charles patrolling the halls.”

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And what’s a good PI mystery without a homicide cop insisting that there’s no place in a murder investigation for an amateur – especially a female. When Angie and Detective Wukowski get into an argument while sharing a cup of coffee at Ma Fischer’s the owner, George, pockets their bill and asks them to leave. “As I walked out, embarrassed by the attention and longing to get to the car, I heard George pull Wukowski aside.  ‘Women, they can be very irritating, no?  But it does no good to lose your temper.  You are the man, you must be in control of yourself.  No?’ I smiled all the way to the car.”

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When there are murders, there are bodies that require last rites. Angie gets ready for Elisa Morano’s funeral in Truth Kills: “The service was slated for eleven at the Church of the Gesu.  Known locally simply as Gesu, the 1890s French Gothic stone structure sits in the midst of the Marquette University campus on Wisconsin Avenue.  Parking is fierce there, so I slid the Miata into a paid lot and walked five blocks to the church.  The day was fine, and during the short stroll, I tried to reassure myself that it would be years before people would be walking to my funeral.  Of course, Elisa’s age denied the security of that belief.”

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In Cash Kills, Adriana Johnson hires Angie to locate the sources of previously unknown wealth, left to her by her Serbian parents, who were brutally murdered during what seemed to be a robbery at their small hardware store. Angie searches the family home and finds a locked container in the attic. After locating the hidden key, she opens the container and finds three boxes inside. “The bottom box contained fabric within layers of paper. I took the top item out and let it shimmer open. It was a lovely deep red silk dress, floor length and embroidered in gold thread. I draped it over the garment rack so that I could get a good picture. There were five similar pieces in the box, with little matching pillbox-style hats and soft shoes.”

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The people in my mystery series inhabit a place and time that I take great care to make real in the stories because, without that, the narrative seems flat and the characters without substance. P.D. James, whose iconic Adam Dalgliesh series sets a very high standard, wrote this in Talking About Detective Fiction: “Place, after all, is where the characters play out their tragicomedies, and it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that we can enter fully into their world.” Welcome to the world of Angelina Bonaparte!

Watch Your Mouth!

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I admit to having a bit of a potty mouth – after all, I grew  as an Army brat and heard foul language with some frequency. My mom would caution me, “Watch your mouth, young lady,” when she heard me use a mild expletive. In today’s culture, those words would hardly be noticed.

After retiring from a long career in telephony, God got hold of me and dragged me to seminary. (Can you tell it was a bit of a struggle?) I had to give up a lot of things to comply, including the occasional cuss word.

Which brings me to my current dilemma. I write mystery novels, and they are not in the Christian fiction category. While my protagonist, private investigator Angie Bonaparte, uses fairly inoffensive language, my writerly instincts tell me that neither her homicide detective boyfriend nor the killers necessarily would. So what’s a woman who wants to paint a realistic picture and yet not violate her internal standards to do?

An interesting article by Elizabeth Sims helped me to clarify my thinking on the subject. She defines the subsets of foul language thusly:

  • Profanity – using God’s name in improper, irreligious ways. My books don’t include this kind of usage.
  • Cursing – calling on God to deliver a bad outcome, as in damning someone. I’ve been known to use ‘dammit’ as a sign of frustration by Angie’s guy, Wukowski. After all, as Ms. Sims notes, “characters do need a verbal pressure valve.”
  • Swearing – making an oath to God. “I swear, next time I’ll …” This one has lost its original oath-making impact from normal usage.
  • Obscenity – the infamous f-bomb is the most egregious example. I don’t let that litter my pages.
  • Vulgarity – a word that is considered impolite, often used for body functions. Since Angie is a former librarian turned PI, her vocabulary is up to the challenge of using language in ways that don’t require vulgarity. Wukowski is not crass enough to indulge in that kind of language.

Are there readers who object to even the mildest use of these kinds of words? Yes. Amazon reviews sometimes include a comment to that effect. But a writer has to decide who her audience is and how best to engage them. My work is not so pure that I could submit it to a Christian publishing house, nor is it so offensive that I am embarrassed to have church friends or seminary professors read it. My mom’s stricture to “watch my mouth” has extended into the written words that I produce. I think she would approve.

This link will take you to Ms. Sims’ insightful post: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-use-profanity-and-other-raw-talk-in-your-fiction

 

 

 

 

I’m a Writer, Not a Terrorist!

I wonder what my online browsing history signifies to the government agencies that collect copious amounts of personal data on us. I’m a mild-mannered writer and an ordained minister, but I often browse for information about weapons, spying devices and military information. Am I on a list somewhere – a list I’d rather not be part of? I’ll probably never know.

The truth is that a writer of mysteries and crime novels needs to do her research if she wants her work to appear credible. For my Angelina Bonaparte private investigator series, I’ve Googled “guns suitable for women,” “reverse peephole viewers” (scary, isn’t it, that someone can use your peephole to see inside?), “U.S. military special forces,” “Interpol art theft,” “Bosnian War,” “offshore banking,” and other assorted topics that seem rather … well, nefarious.

But I also frequently search for clothing and related topics, because Angie is, unlike her creator, something of a fashionista. I look for Italian phrases that the Bonaparte family might use, as well as Polish phrases that Angie’s homicide detective boyfriend, Ted Wukowski, would say. Even alcohol and wine are in my search history, despite the fact that those who know me know that I’m a proud connoisseur of cheap wine and I rarely drink liquor.

None of this makes me a terrorist, or a gun-toting mama, or a clothes horse, or a drinker. It makes me a writer, who uses the Internet to do everyday research. Heaven help me if the NSA ever takes a look at my search history!

This blog was inspired by Karoline Barrett’s guest post on The Editing Pen, “Don’t Judge My Search History.” http://www.editingpenandpublishing.com/dont-judge-my-search-history/

 

Too Much Coffee?

I was eighteen years old, working my first full-time job and trying to fit in with a mature group of women from the phone company’s payroll department. (In those days, there was only one “phone company.”) It was a highly regimented environment. We were allowed two fifteen-minute breaks per day, including “travel time” to and from the cafeteria. I looked down the line and saw soft drinks, milk and two gigantic stainless steel urns of coffee – caf and decaf. Each of the women ahead of me in line grabbed a thick ceramic mug and filled it with coffee. Wanting to fit in, I did the same. Then I added cream from what seemed like a gallon-sized icy cold pitcher, took several sugar packets and a teaspoon – with the Bell System logo engraved on the handle – and followed my new co-workers to the table. There, I doctored my cup with two sugars and stirred. Slightly bitter. I added another sugar and tasted again. To my delight, I found it tasty and, a few minutes later, I felt a burst of energy. I’ve been a coffee addict – no, make that aficionada – ever since.

A beta reader of my newest Angelina Bonaparte mystery, Cash Kills, noted that there were too many references to coffee in my books. I checked. In Truth Kills, the first in the series, coffee is mentioned fifty-nine times. It gets eighty mentions in Cash Kills. I’m only fifty pages into Deception Kills, and I counted thirteen uses of the word ‘coffee’ so far. Excessive? Not if you love coffee, and Angie does! So does Bobbie Russell, her cohort in the Cash Kills investigation. And Ted Wukowski, her love interest. And Bart Matthews, the Mafia lawyer who’s helping her find the sources of the hidden wealth of her client’s murdered parents. And … just about every character I wrote. It’s my mindset. I can’t imagine going hours, much less days, without coffee.

Coffee drinkers don’t consume it simply for the flavor or the little rush. We associate coffee with places and times, with feelings and occasions. Angie starts her day with coffee. (Sixty-five percent of coffee is consumed at breakfast.) Bobbie brews it as a hangover remedy for his friend Guy. While being interviewed at the Milwaukee Police Department’s homicide division, Angie observes that “Police issue coffee sits on the burner all day and the pot is almost never cleaned. Lethal stuff.”

I’ve been known to laughingly say that even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all. (I did not plagiarize this from David Lean. It is an original thought occurring independently between us, like calculus, Newton and Leibniz.) How could it be otherwise? We writers, at least in the US, are known for guzzling coffee as we struggle to get words on the page. I am no exception. I start my day with a caffeine infusion and then change over to decaf, due to a dratted heart rhythm problem. In the afternoon, I’m allowed a second serving of caf and I don’t waste it on soft drinks! It’s java for me. Coffee fuels my writing and, quite honestly, the rhythm of my days. I’m right there with T.S. Eliot, who wrote: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

We refer to coffee in lots of ways that reflect our state of mind and the culture: morning thunder, mother’s little helper, wakey juice, brew, C8H10N4O2 (the molecular formula for caffeine – probably only used by scientists!) … The list is long, I think because we Americans have a love affair with coffee. I’ve graduated from my youthful days of drinking it like syrup, to appreciating a full-bodied blend, with just a slug of cream.

Want to read some great mysteries that focus even more on the brew than mine do? Pick up Sandra Balzo’s Maggie Thorsen series, or Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries. Or learn how coffee was introduced into English society and its economic impact, from David Liss’ highly acclaimed and entertaining The Coffee Trader. And while you’re reading, enjoy a cup of Joe!

Originally posted on http://www.latteda.com/book-reviews/ on November 1, 2014

The Physical Act of Writing

For some, there’s pleasure in the transfer of ideas via pen – or pencil – onto paper. Others may prefer the rhythm of their voices activating speech recognition software. There are those who cling to the typewriter or to obscure software programs they learned years earlier. I write on a laptop using MS Word – fairly predictable, fairly standard.

I know writers who must be at a certain place – a desk, a room, a coffee shop – to write. They may play a particular soundtrack or recording , or even the TV in the background, to release their muse. I write in silence, not needing a specific location, as long as I can find a chair that accommodates my back.

The variety of things we writers claim to need in order to write  is almost endless – scented candles, sounds, images taped on the wall, hot tea or coffee or water or wine. I confess, there are times I let the “requirements” be an excuse, so that I don’t have to struggle with the process on that particular day. But then I recall Philip Roth’s words:

The road to hell is paved with works in progress.

And I sit down, open the laptop and write. Simply write. Because any day when I put words together to tell my story, no matter how few, is a good day.