Category Archives: Art of Writing

The Magic of Writing

As I write this, and as I was writing on Second Chance this morning, the wife is watching the first Harry Potter film on television (for the umpteenth time) but I was struck by how close the writing process is to being "magical".

For instance, the way things come together.

Early on in the book I had one character give the other characters a mojo bag to wear for protection. I knew that somehow it was going to play a part in the book but didn't know how. Yesterday, I decided to take a break and grab a shower and when I was walking to the bathroom suddenly the explanation popped into my head. I was thinking about an entirely different part of the book, the mojo bags not anywhere in my conscious minf and then BOOM! suddenly there was a solution. It happens like that all the time.

I know I've told this story before but back when I was writing Junebug and the Body I was stuck on a part and had no Idea where it was going to go. We were returning from a trip to visit my mother in Louisiana and Karren was driving, the kids in the back asleep, I was dozing in the passenger seat and BOOM! the rest of the story tied together with only a minor amount of rewriting the prior pages to get there.

I always wonder if mu subconcious (or my muse) knows the endings to the books already and just dribbles them out to me a little at a time. That would explain why things are in the story already that are necessary to get to the ending.

Until I started doing this a lot I thought writing books was magical anyway, then I realized that mostly it is just a lot of chair in the butt working time but, even so, there is a little magic every now and then.

Saying Goodbye to a Family Member and Building a Character

Last Sunday, our family had to say goodby to my wife's mother (my mother in law). She passed away suddenly and without any warning. Ellen had a severe heart attack and a stroke some years ago, was in the hospital for months first in a coma and then trying to recover from the effects. She seemed to be doing well lately and we were totally floored to get the news.

Like many son in law / mother in law relations, ours wasn't always great. I freely admit it was as much my fault as hers but over the years the relationship had improved and I can genuinely say that she will be missed by many. I was extremely touched to find that all the copies of my books we found at her house were all well read, marked by creases and other signs of use that a book which has been read and reread should contain.

However, this post isn't as much about our loss as it is about my discovery.

In my wife's process of going through the many papers and mementos left behind we quickly discovered that even though we may know someone well, we often forget little things about them that make them such a well rounded person. Ellen was a meticulous "keeper" of old newspaper articles, letters, photos, and other things which show what a unique character she was. 

It's the little things that make a person so memorable, both in our lives and in our books.

A Writer’s Goal

After a long day at the Dallas International Book Fair we returned home and I put in the movie Battleship for some mind numbing entertainment. I don't know if you've seen Battleship but it was panned to a certain extent. I've found that many movies which the critics hate, I love. I don't love Battleship, but I do enjoy it and as I was watching it I realized that the writers managed to achieve at least one goal in the movie, they evoked an emotion from me.

One thing that I always react to in movies is when a person exhibits quiet or selfless heroism. I don't mean the one where Arnold Schwarenegger walks out into a bunch of enemies firing a mini-gun. To get a reaction from me it has to be authentic. Battleship achieved this in a very, very subtle way, when one of the characters has lost his modern destroyer and is wanting to take the old battleship the Missouri to fight the bad guys. Another character mentions they don't have enough people to man the ship, and the next shot shows a number of elderly ex-crewmen from the Missouri who now work on what is a museum.

The idea that these elderly men were wiling to take this 70 year old battleship into a fight with aliens who had destroyed the most modern naval vessels in a matter of minutes choked me up.

When I write, it is that type of emotion that I hope to evoke in my reader at least once. Unfortunately, it's not easy to do and there are some books that don't lend themselves to that type of reaction. Junebug and the Body, for instance, will make you laugh but that type of emotional scene just didn't fit the book I was writing.

I think I managed to achieve it in one part of No' Chance and I've been told that I managed it twice in  The Bottle Tree. To be honest, there is one scene in  The Bottle Tree that chokes me up every tiime I read it. I still don't know why it does it and definitely didn't write it specifically hoping for that reaction but, without bragging, I think I achieved it through sheer dumb luck.

If you have or are getting  The Bottle Tree, watch for any sections that create a sensation like I've described. For me it's in Chapter 10 and at the end of Chapter 19 and beginning of Chapter 20. Let me know where it is for you.

Being an Outside the Genre Writer

Right now I have three novels published under my name and have ghost written a number of non-fiction books. I'll have another novel finished pretty quickly and have 4 others partially written, in addition to working on a few other ghost writing projects.

One thing I heard from an agent once was that writers should find a genre and stick to it. However, I think that is analog advice in a digital world. 

The main reason for my belief is that it is the publishers who want a writer to be defined in one genre, not necessarily the fans.

I pulled one book from an agent because they wanted me to squeeze it into a pre-defined formula which I really didn't want to do. Instead, I wrote it the way I wanted it and I've sold some copies and gotten good reviews so far. Sure, it isn't on the bestseller lists but I like it and am proud of it.

In addition to the non-fiction, I've written No' Chance,  the first book in a series that has been called horror as well as a supernatural thriller. The next book in the series, Second Chance, is in the same vein.

Junebug and the Body is also the first in a series but this one is a humorous mystery. It's set in the early 70s so it has an innocent quality and I have been told that it is both nostalgic and laugh out loud funny in places.

The third novel I've published is The Bottle Tree and the closest I can come to pigeonholing it into a category is literary fiction. It has some humor but is more of a serious book with racial conflicts throughout. The book is set in the early years of the 20th century in a turpentine camp located in the Kisatchie National Forest region of Central Louisiana. I'm proud to say that the camp was real and my grandfather and his family lived there when he was a boy.

So why do I write in more than one genre? Because the story that wants me to tell it doesn't cooperate a lot of times. I've told people before, and I hope that they did't think I was BSing them, that I don't write the books so much as the books write themselves. I do try and write every day and sometimes it is a struggle just putting together two or three coherent paragraphs. However, at other times the characters take over and I just let them go. On those days I can knock out 10 to 15 pages with no problem. As the book approaches the end sometimes the last 30 pages will be written in one marathon session not by choice but because the book took over and I'm just providing the fingers for the typing.

I write in more than on genre because I have more than one type of story to tell. I hope you like them all but they are very different.

A Favorite Movie Line

I was watching one of my favorite movies the other day, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (anyone have any idea why it was spelled that way?) and Brad Pitt recited one of my favorite quotes from any character in any movie.

To set it up, Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of an Allied squad working in Germany to kill, and scalp, Nazis. Aldo Raines is looking out a window and across the street to where there is a rendezvous scheduled between three of his men and a German actress working for the British. He is quite upset that the meeting is to take place in a tavern, which he knew, that was located in a basement, which he did not.

The exchange goes as follows:

 

Aldo is dressed like a French civilian. Hicox is dressed in a

German grey S.S. Cap't uniform. They look out of a window, in an

apartment, in the village of Nadine, overlooking the tavern.

 

          LT.ALDO

          You didn't say the goddamn rendez-vous

          was in a f**kin' basement.

 

          LT.HICOX

          I didn't know.

 

          LT.ALDO

          You said it was in a tavern?

 

          LT.HICOX

          it is a tavern.

 

          LT.ALDO

          Yeah, in a basement. You know,

          fightin’ in a basement offers a lot

          of difficulties, number one being,

          you’re fighting in a basement.


I'm not sure why I like that so much, other than it absolutely rings true as to Pitt's character and writing conversation that stays true to a character is one of the hardest things a writer ever faces.

The Birth of Characters

Most people who don't write tend to believe that the hardest thing about writing a book is coming up with the story, but that's really not true. I, like most writers, have tons of notes about book plots, stories, or just smidgens of ideas. Actually the hardest part is naming the characters after you come up with them. 

In most books, the names are just randomly chosen to reflect average, everyday people. One notable exception to this rule are the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling does a masterful job of naming things, places, and people in a way that fits them perfectly.

However, what I wanted to talk about here is the characters in books and where writers get their ideas.

I can't speak for everyone but most of my characters are based on bits and pieces of people I have known throughout my life.

In The Bottle Tree, one of the characters is named Johnny Robinson, which was the name of a black friend of mine from elementary school in Louisiana. The character himself is not a lot like Johnny, but I remember one occasion when we were kids and my great grandmother either hired Johnny's mother to help her pick peas or agreed to let her take a share if she helped pick.

Johnny and I hung out that morning and there was a little awkwardness as we engaged socially, which was rare in Central Louisiana in those days. Some of that awkwardness is shown in the book although the real Johnny was nowhere near as shy as the Johnny from the book.

I took a little different approach with No' Chance. I needed a female character who was likable yet tough, so Jennifer Johnson is an amalgamation of a few different girls/women I've known. Her name was taken from a Robert Earl Keen song, Jennifer Johnson and Me, about a man who finds a strip of those photo booth pictures that you used to be able to take for a quarter. When he finds them in his jacket pocket it immediately brings back memories of one of his loves from his teenage years.

Although I realize that the reference will be lost on many/most people, to me Jennifer's name and character brings back those reasonably carefree days when I was a teenage boy chasing girls, being grown up still a distant prospect.

Writers take characters from people they meet. If you ever have a chance to interact with a writer there's a reasonable chance that one day you or some part of you will make it into a character in a book. Several people I met recently at the Natchitoches NSU Folk Festival are in line to make their appearance once day when the right story presents itself.