A woman on a creative writing e-group I belonged to once said that for her writing is like mowing the lawn – she hates the process, but loves the results. Me – I love the process. Finishing – the ‘result’ – for me is almost a letdown because then the conversation is over. The relationship is over. The door closes, the people (characters) are gone and I have to start over with somebody new. As long as the process is ongoing, then the relationship is still going strong. I like that.
Writing itself is therapy and relaxation, hobby and obsession for me. Writing is watching. Writing is listening. Writing is stillness and manic activity. I live to write – I even pre-write (mentally) what I’m going to write in my journals. I’ve re-written letters to friends so many times that even years later I have the letters committed to memory. I live to write.
Writing is feeling a tension inside of me, part of me that wants to grab onto, hold, embrace, become some bit of something that I can’t shake out of my psyche – a character, an action, angst, dialogue. I want to take that bit of whatever and own it, work it like red hot iron in a blacksmith’s forge, I want to become it and I want it to become me. I want to be, see, hear, smell, taste, touch, experience what I’m writing about. Most of all, I want to feel it, I want to feel the character, their lives, needs, emotions, I want them to become so real to me I don’t just write but extrude the story. Disgusting I know, but that’s the closest word I can find.
The process for me can be as forceful and fluid as the Niagara River sometimes, and sometimes it’s as painstaking as chiseling bones intact out of bedrock. Sometimes the stories impose themselves on my brain so fast and so real that I scramble after just trying to get it all down on paper. And sometimes I have to hammer away at my brain trying to make it come up with the next word, much less the next paragraph.
When I’m happy, I don’t write; I don’t have to write. When I’m crushingly miserable, I can’t write. When I’m stressed or depressed or relieved, I write. I write to make sense of life, to resurrect the dead or put them to rest, to explain what I can’t explain otherwise, to fix the unfixable. So my process involves finding and developing characters who suffer as much or more than I have and giving them plausible trauma and plausible resolutions that make everybody (especially me) happy. I dredge up an old character or create a new one and I rip them to shreds emotionally and sometimes physically. I give them the pain I’m feeling and the comfort I’m not and try to heal myself by healing them.
Most of my stories have the same basic premise, with recent exceptions. A young man (though ‘young’ is becoming more and more subjective) torn apart emotionally and usually physically, tries to hide his pain and his trauma from the world and from himself. His plans of anonymity and stoic suffering are blown apart by the appearance or presence of a new friend, or an old friend or older brother who knows or learns the truth and guides, helps, or forces the young man into healing and back into the world. So generally, the process starts with me seeing a character, or a couple of characters in my head. Sometimes I know who they are and what they’re doing, sometimes I don’t.
So begins the process of figuring everything else out.
One of my earliest stories is my “Scatter of Bones” universe. I started writing it back in the summer of 1978 after I had the image in my mind of a young man dragging himself into his house, beat up and torn apart. Who was he and what happened to him? I forget now what I had happen to him originally, but it turns out it was Mark McPherson (cousin to Stephen, son of Jeffrey, oldest brother to Will & Ben.) He’s a young alcoholic who gets mugged (or whatever the word is back in the Civil War era) and the damage is such that he eventually has to have his left lower leg amputated. That single flash of action, him walking into his house, morphed into more stories than I can even guess right now because I’m right now focusing on Stephen alone. There are a dozen more characters in that universe waiting their turn.
The process of writing for me is figuring things out. I don’t feel like I’m creating anything, I feel like I’m getting to know people who are fully formed and alive. It’s like getting to know anybody I find in my life – the conversation is just a little more one-sided. Or rather, the characters don’t answer me in words so much as in actions. Like online clothing catalogs where you can click what color you want to see a particular shirt in, I try different scenarios on my characters, different emotions, actions, wants, needs, fears, tragedies, until whatever I’m looking for clicks and I know I’ve got it.
Unless something changes later on.
Sometimes I’ll have a scene or action or difficulty hanging on in my brain for days, weeks, months, even years sometimes until I encounter something out in the world that makes my brain say “Bingo! That’s it!”and the Niagara River comes flooding through my brain.
That happened most notably with my “Bones” universe where it took twenty-seven years of dutiful plodding through hackneyed ideas until one day in 2004 I saw a scatter of deer bones up the side of the expressway on my way to work. I thought “A Scatter of Bones” was a great title for a story and I started casting around in my brain for a story to attach it to. I don’t remember now how I chose Stephen McPherson to star in the story, except for all those years I’d had him in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Then nearly fifteen years ago when I started Civil War re-enacting I thought I’d change it to being in a Confederate POW camp. Still, the idea languished there until I saw those deer bones.
Sometimes the process isn’t about changing my characters as much as it is changing myself. A character who doesn’t like John Denver?! Horrors! A character who smokes? Never! A man who’s a chauvinist? A woman who isn’t Superwoman? Parents who aren’t perfect? Liars, cheaters, gasp – liberals?? Someone catch me, I’m about faint!
I only recently (last year I think) let a couple of my characters smoke cigarettes (Chris & Dough) but it’s OK because it’s World War II, and people didn’t know the dangers back then. I don’t know when I’ll have a modern day character smoke. Or vote Democrat.
When I write, things have to make sense. I can have zany things happen – okay, maybe not zany. Bizarre maybe. Tragic certainly. Painful naturally. Characters can have odd reactions to the things that happen to them, but the reasons behind their odd reactions have to make sense. Or, if they don’t make sense, I don’t try to make them make sense; I just have my characters admit that it doesn’t make sense but it’s how they feel, so they feel it.
I don’t remember when I realized it, but at some time in my distant writing past I realized that characters need not just good points & bad points, strengths & weaknesses, but they need quirks, tics, habits, assumptions, odd likes and stupid dislikes. It’s the tiny details that make a character real, that takes a character from being simply a character to being human, simply human.
In my story “Broken Dreams” brothers Jack and Carl Reid are as close as brothers can be; they’re best friends even more than siblings. But for all they have in common, one of the differences they have is in their choice of favorite television shows. Carl (born December 1959): Bonanza. Jack (born January 1958): Gunsmoke. Carl: Star Trek. Jack: Gunsmoke. Carl: X-Files. Jack: Gunsmoke.
In my series of stories in my “Scatter of Bones” universe, Stephen has survived a year in a terrible Confederate POW camp. For no deliberate reason, as I take Stephen through his first year home, I see him eating apples, nothing but apples outside of regular meals. He’ll take six or a dozen apples into his pockets, sit on the back porch, and make his way through every apple almost without stopping. I don’t try to explain it, I don’t bring any more attention to it than showing it happen. It’s just a detail I saw so I tossed it in.
Sometimes I’ll decide a character will have a certain trait, and then it informs the rest of the character’s stay in my story. In my series of stories set in my “Choices” universe (Tommy kills Lester) the father, Tom Sr. said to his wife Rachel when he was courting her (and she was resisting his efforts) “A man don’t need permission to do the right thing.” To me, that said that Tom is a very black and white kind of man. Being a sheriff for most of his life, that’s maybe not an unusual trait to have, but then he comes up against Rachel and for the first time in his life his strength of will isn’t enough. “Well this man,” she pokes her finger into his chest. “Needs this woman’s permission to rearrange my life.” Tom being so strong, I needed to give him a strong woman to love and fight with.
Basically, all my stories have two men in ‘starring’ roles; usually brothers, sometimes friends who become as close as brothers. In “Broken Dreams” we have Jack & Carl Reid. In my “Bones” universe we have Marshall & Stephen McPherson, but as the stories progress through the rest of the story, we also have Nathan & Doug, Stuart & Ross, Will & Ben, and no doubt others as I find new stories to write – between the three brothers/fathers (Andrew, Timothy & Jeffrey) there are 14 sons and 1 baby daughter. In my novel “Friends” there are two friends, Rick & Dan. But Dan has his big brother Brian, Rick has his older brothers Pat & Ken. Plus they have their respective fathers. In my “Hospital” story (or novel, depending on how long it is when I finish) I have Luke Kipling and his brother Sam Carberry. Technically they’re step-brothers or half-legal brothers, (Luke’s mother adopts Sam when she marries Sam’s father) but to them, they’re brothers. Period. Also in the story are Luke’s friend & partner Brendan Fitzgerald and his little brother Sean. In my “Choices” universe, Tommy is the oldest brother & chief sibling boss of Max, Robert, Eugene & Delsin. He’s closest to Max. And there are scores more examples.
Until the past couple of years, I’ve had very few women in my stories, mostly strong mothers when I have them at all. Now I have Annie in my “Apples & Orchards” story (Chris & Dennis & Dough). I have Rachel (and later Sofia) as Tom’s wife in “Choices.” Luke’s wife (whose first name I honestly can’t remember right now) is a doctor who answers her phone with a short “Kipling”, not unlike her husband. Rick & Dan have their girlfriends Lynne & Carly, plus there’s Dan’s mother. Brian’s wife Beatrice is Vietnamese (Brian is a Viet Nam veteran.)
In the past couple years I thought about trying writing romance novels, so I actually have a couple of stories with female leads. Who’d a’thunk it? Nell (short for Eleanor) falls for a tall, dark, shy (has to be shy!) folk singer. Emma falls for a not so tall, not so dark, college professor who turns out to be a famous playwright. In both cases though, though I haven’t gotten that far, Jeremiah (the folksinger) and Nicholas (the playwright) have more painful backgrounds than their lovely costars. I don’t know about Jeremiah, but Nick lost his parents in a bizarre car accident seven years before the story opens.
Rachel & Sofia as recent creations are more dynamic (in personality as well as development) than my earlier female characters. Annie too. They get to have some bad points, some temper, some pain of their own. A year after Rachel dies, Tom meets Sofia who has recently killed her abusive husband in self defense. Her father had given her to the man to pay off a debt. As Sofia says to Tom, “[My father] called me his jewel then threw me like a bone to a dog.” So she has issues with men, but eventually Tom wins her over and they spend a long, happy, married life together.
Mostly though, whatever story I’m writing, whoever the leading characters are, there has to be some angst-ridden young (or not so young) man in the mix. Rachel dies when her son Delsin is just shy of six; her funeral is on his sixth birthday. When Sofia joins the family a year later the once happy, outgoing child has grown lifeless and withdrawn. A(nother) series of stories follows him as he grows up.
He realizes that he’s not Tom Silverlake’s natural son (his father died when he was less than a week old) and he also realizes that wanderlust is in his bones, like his natural father had. “I feel hemmed in by the horizon,” he tells Thomas one night when he’s eighteen and has come home half-dead and gunshot from riding posse with a sheriff in another town. “Robert don’t just seem to care if he ever sets foot off this property, and I don’t fault him for that. But I’m not like that. Most days I feel hemmed in by the horizon and I want t’find a way past it. Only I can’t go out on the trail with you like Tommy did, ‘cause you ain’t a lawman anymore. I can’t just go up talking to people anywhere, anytime, any reason, like Max can. I can’t find the world in books like Eugene does. All I got is me, and where I can get to. That’s the only school I ever learned anything in.”
One very important part of the process of course is populating my stories, casting my stars as it were. I have to hear my characters’ voices to write them well; to hear their voices, I have to be able to see their faces. So I usually “hire” real actors to portray my characters. Rachel Silverlake is a very young Kirstie Alley. Thomas Silverlake is a younger Tom Selleck. Jeremiah Lake is John Corbett from “Northern Exposure”. Wallace Landry (not previously discussed) is Mark Wahlberg. Wallace’s in-laws are Pamela Reed & Gerald McRaney from “Jericho.” When I first started the McPherson’s saga, I thought Richard Gere would do for Mark McPherson; now I think he might do for the grandfather. (Such is the passage of time.) Lester is the actor who played Lurch in the Addams Family, only older and without the fright makeup.
Names of course are important, they tell me who the person is, they tell the reader who the person is. They tell the character who they are sometimes. Like Delsin – when he realizes Tom isn’t his natural father, he abandons the family name Silverlake and takes up his biological father’s name – Tanner. Despite coming to terms with it later on, and despite loving Tom and Sofia more than life itself, he can never totally shake the feeling that Silverlake isn’t his name. Sometimes a character’s name just come to me – Winsome Fedderly, Rachel Silverlake’s best friend forever was a name that just popped into my head. Sometimes I’ll ask my sister for a name. One time I was telling her I saw the name “Proudfoot” on the name tag of an employee at the airport and she thought I said “Progfoot” and thereby grew a character Al Progfoot, ace private eye, the like of which the world hasn’t seen since – ever. He’s a cross between Inspector Clousseau and an imbecile. He’s more of a parody and two sisters’ late night laugh-fest than anything else. But that’s how I got his name.
I use family names a lot, especially the men: Henry, Martin, James, Norman, Pat. I’ll try to use the character’s name if I can, the character I’m physically basing my own character on. If I can’t use their name (if it’d be too obvious in the story) I’ll use the actor’s first name. Or last name. Or a combination of the character’s first name and the actors last name. Like the story I’m writing for the 15 page paper. The character’s name is John, the actor’s last name is Morgan. Bingo – John Morgan.
Ultimately, my process is cataloguing. Names, dates, sensations, remarks, weatherscapes, titles, words, characters, actors, needs, hates, wants, feelings, dreams, emotions. You name it, if I come across it, in it goes to my mental rolodex. And like a crazed lace-maker, my brain stays on constant duty, tossing her shuttles back and forth, making connections, making beauty (I hope) out of an impossible tangle of life’s little bits.
I love writing.