Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Should You Care?

Craft: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

From Frank

Short answer?

No, they do not have to be sympathetic. But they have to at least be someone the reader can understand.

Longer answer?

My speciality.

If you make a character sympathetic, that's the easiest path. And it may be the one that pays off the most for the reader, I believe. It's a great approach, and I think one that most of us strive to achieve. But there are degrees, right?

Full sympathy would be like the golden ticket. If a reader identifies with a character to that degree, you literally have their heart strings clutched in your little Machiavellian fingers. Tug away.

Most of the time, we get some sympathy. Just like real people, we may not like everything about a character, but we mostly like that character. And you can get a lot of mileage out of that, believe me.

But all it really takes is one or two connections between reader and character to make something meaningful happen, to keep their interest, and make them care.

But what if they don't like anything about the character, but they still understand where she is coming from? I contend that's still enough. It's a harder row to hoe, but it's enough to keep a reader hooked.

Does genre matter? I think so. I think romance has some pretty specific expectations in a narrator and a romantic lead, for example. But mystery seems a little more forgiving of characters who are more gray.

That's my answer.

There's a similar question to comes to mind, though. What if the character is someone you think you'd hate in real life (or at least find annoying) but you love the character on the page? This seems to be the reaction of many readers when it comes to the character of Detective Wardell Clint of the Charlie-316 series that I write with Colin Conway. I mean, people love Wardell Clint. They've told me this in person, on social media, and in private correspondence. But then they usually go on to admit that they probably wouldn't like him much in real life.

That's undoubtedbly true. Clint is brusque and appears arrogant to most people. He has a strong defiance to authority and a paranoid and unhealthy belief in multiple conspiracies. From the outside, he's mostly unlikable. But the reader gets the benefit of his own point-of-view chapters, so s/he sees inside his mind and person, which makes him far more likable. Probably puts him into that 'one or two connection' category, or at least into the 'understandable' range.

I also think there's some fantasy projection occurring with this character. He is secure in who he is (and he's good what he does), and he speaks his mind without compunction. Most of us couch our interactions for the sake of civility, and I'm guessing most of us would like to be more like Clint if we could.

Anyway, that's just a side note, probably included because the second book in this series just came out about a week ago. It's called Never the Crime. Books three and four will follow in September and November of 2020, so for Clint lovers out there, you're going to get your fill!

But if you're looking for characters who fall into that golden ticket category, you're going to have a rough go of it. The color of this series is gray, not gold.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Othello, Iago, and the complexity of character

Q: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

-from Susan

I sure hope not. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment? Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s crime novels? Sometimes the lead character is also the villain and we have to like him or her in order to finish the book - a neat trick. I just read a book I think is very good in which I disliked the protagonist from page one – and he wasn’t the villain!


But I'm choosing to focus on villains. Of course the villains in crime fiction don’t need to be too sympathetic, although a nuanced bad hat is more interesting and more the fashion than it was in Agatha Christie’s day. We are voyeurs looking at these fictional crimes, and we’re curious about the whys as much as the hows. And if the whys are more about character than plot, it can draw us in deeper to the story and its outcome. 

I recently watched a terrific TV short series, “The Victim” in which we’re not sure who the victim is and who the villain is. In fact, they are both victims and villains and I had sympathy for them both. (Highly recommended – I saw it on Britbox, not sure if it’s available elsewhere.)


I never much liked the 007 books (only read one) or movies (saw two) because all the characters were so cartoonish. The bad guys in particular. But I didn't much like Bond and had a tough time rooting for him.


I’m old enough to remember early TV shows with the Lone Ranger and Tonto (groan) and the villains might as well have had “I am the bad guy” stamped on their cowboy hats. The two main characters were sympathetic in a way that matched the 1950s culture. Today, Tonto would get his own show!


If you watch crime series, especially American-made ones, I guarantee the nice guy with the weak chin, the sexy woman with thin lips, the middle aged rich business man, they have “I am the villain” stamped on their foreheads from the first scene. Too many crime novels do the same thing with words. 

Then, there's Snidely Whiplash...

Villains in other genres and media have to satisfy their readers and viewers. Sometimes in terribly trendy novels, there is no villain, only the endlessly self-absorbed protagonist whom I might want to strangle by the end of the book. But what do I know? Truth is, all characters, if they're good, reflect the truth that we incorporate a range of characteristics that can show as sympathetic one moment and off-putting the next. It's what makes us human and makes our fiction worth reading.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Read All About It

How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores? Etc. And what’s the most important factor in your decision?


By Abir

 

Happy Friday everyone! I’m in a good mood this week. I sent off the first draft of my new book to my editor a few days ago and while it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast, I’m sure she’ll come up with ways of making it better. She is, after all, a miracle worker.

 

Right! So on to today’s topic. How do I decide what to read?

 

My reading decisions can be summed up under the following headings:

 

1.     Crusty old coot afraid of change

2.     Nerd Alert!

3.     Aww do I have to? Yes, we’re paying you.

4.     Oooh, nice cover!

5.     Man, moral obligation.

6.     Ok, shut up already, I’ll read it.

7.     Just me, jumpin’ on the ole bandwagon

 

The above are in no particular order, other than the order in which they popped into my head. I could rearrange them into something more meaningful, but I feel it’s important that we have  some secrets.

 

Number 1: Crusty old coot afraid of change

 

I’m only forty six. That’s no age at all. I still have half my life to look forward to, assuming my wife doesn't poison me for the life insurance (If I die under mysterious circumstances, I want you to bring this article to the attention of the police, ok?), but the thing is, these day’s I’ve become a bit of a crusty old fart.

 

 

This is basically me.

 

I’m like old grandpa Simpson. I love authors that are familiar to me. So any time, Ian Rankin, or Val McDermid or Ann Cleeves or Martin Cruz Smith or one of a dozen authors releases a book, even if it's just Inspector Arkady Renko investigating the intricacies of the Russian tax system, I’m there at the front of the queue throwing my cash at it.

 

 

 

Number 2: Nerd Alert!

 

There are certain things I will be drawn to like the Starship Enterprise caught in the gravity well of a black hole. This includes a lot of Star Trek Fan fiction, much of which is pretty dire, but some of which is really really good! I’ll still read the dire stuff, because Star Trek.

 

 

I Khannn't keep reading books like this!!

 

 

Also under Nerd Alert comes a lot of non-fiction, firstly, the Brain Bursting Science books. I love anything to do with quantum physics, especially if it’s been dumbed down to the level of a six year old. Even if it's more complicated, I will buy a book by the likes of Professor Stephen Hawking, read the first seventeen pages, at which point the maths and the physics gets too complicated and my brain melts. But I’ll keep reading for another forty odd pages, basking in the glow of Professor Hawking’s intellect and feeling smug that I’m still reading words but understanding nothing.


Easy


 

Third sub-category of Nerd – the History Books. I love history. I will literally pick up any history book I can, the more obscure the subject matter, the better. This enables me to be the life and soul of dinner parties, keeping everyone riveted by my discourse on subjects as diverse and vital as the Classical Greek period, and the Chaco War of 1932 to 1935 between Bolivia and Paraguay. (Spoiler: Paraguay won on penalties).

 

Number 3: Aww do I have to? Yes, we’re paying you.

 

Right so I’ve been lucky to judge a number of literary prizes over the years, and this entails reading a lot of books, many of which are about as far from my comfort zone as you can get. I once had to read a book written entirely from the point of view of a swan. It was actually pretty decent, but it has left me with an innate hatred of Canada geese, the sworn enemy of the magnificent swan.


This guy is not just a majestic bird but a fabulous writer and a bloody nice chap too.


 

The point is, these competitions have forced me to read lots of stuff I would have simply walked by in a bookshop, and quite often the books have been great, and they’ve broadened my horizons.

 

 

Number 4: Oooh, Nice Cover!

 

I know. I know I shouldn’t. I know it’s a bit shallow and there’s even a damn proverb warning against it, but on many occasions, I have bought a book because of the cover. I’m a sucker for any cover which has a pop art feel to it, or a comic book vibe. I think this may be due to deep seated Tintin related psychological issues buried in my childhood. (On a side note, As I get older, I begin to realise what a racist and tin-pot fascist Tintin really was. Way to go, HergĂ©. Thanks for ruining everything.)

 

 

Tintin in the Congo – So racist, they didn’t even publish it in English when I was a kid.


Number 5: Moral Obligation

 

Here’s the thing about being an author. You send your books out to other authors to read and hopefully they’ll like it and give you a nice quote, and similarly all the other authors are sending you books, hoping for the same thing. The problem is the average author receives fourteen thousand such books a month and is only able to read at a fourth grade level. This means we need to be selective in what we read and what we blurb about, otherwise the whole of an author’s existence would be taken up by reading books that are sent to them with little notes from publicists saying things like 'this debut set in the cut-throat world of focaccia-baking is the best thing since sliced bread!'.

 

‘So Abir,’ you’re no doubt asking, ‘how does a writer of your astounding mediocrity and limited reading ability decide which such books to read?’ To which my answer would be, ‘Thank you for asking, and simple, I read those books by authors to whom I’m most indebted to. So if an author has been kind enough to read my work and give me a quote, they’ll go straight to the top of the pile; if an author is someone I know personally and like, they’ll also go up near the top; and if an author is someone I owe money too, I shall definitely read their book and praise it to the stars on the understanding that certain financial obligations could be forgotten about. 

 

Number 6: Okay, shut up already. I’ll read it!

 

There are a number of people whose opinions I trust when it comes to book recommendations, and if they nag me for long enough, I’ll always go out and buy the book they’re banging on about. People in this group include, but are not limited to:

 

-        My agent. He will say something like, ‘You should really read that. It’s brilliant. If you wrote something like that, I could definitely get you six figures.’ I think it’s all mind games to make me feel bad.

-       The other members of my podcast group, The Red Hot Chilli Writers. They are all British Asian Writers and they’re all brilliant. If one of them recommends a book, I’ll probably tell them I read it.

 

One person whose recommendations I will NEVER follow though is my wife. She has no business reading other peoples’ books in the first place. Having the gall to then recommend them to me just feels like a betrayal.

 

Number 7: Jumpin’ on the Bandwagon

 

You know how there are some books which everyone tells you are brilliant, the whole world loves, and you’re like, ‘no, I’m not going to read it. It’s overhyped and will probably leave me feeling broken and empty inside once I’ve finished it’, but then, after it’s been top of the charts everywhere from Afghanistan to Zambia, you decide, ‘Well, I might just see what all the fuss is about,’ and then you buy it, and The Silent Patient is absolutely bloody amazing, and you think, ‘why didn’t I buy this before?’ – That.


One of my favourite books of the last year.


 

So there you have it. These are the ways in which I choose books. Some people may think that this is less than optimal. Those people are wrong.

 

Have a good weekend everyone. And stay safe.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

What to Read? from James W. Ziskin

How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores?

In November 2017, we had a similar question. At the time I answered that the very first thing I look for in a book is my name on the cover. If it’s not there, I can tell you I’m pretty disappointed. Just kidding. I look at the picture too.

Here are my thoughts.


When there’s time, I like to read all different types of books. Usually it depends on my mood, but I love mysteries, thrillers, historicals, so-called literary novels, and of course the classics. I don’t read much non-fiction, unless I’m researching for one of my own books. Neither do I read a lot of romance, fantasy, or science fiction, but I’m open to them. There’s great, good, average, and bad writing in all genres. I don’t like to prejudge. But here we’re talking about how we choose a book, not necessarily what we should read in order to be a well-rounded reader.

In recent years, I’ve read significantly less than I did in my graduate school days. I was forced to read then, and I can tell you that does not make the experience more enjoyable. Nowadays, I read friends’ books, books of note and best-sellers in my genre, and anything else that strikes my fancy. If a favorite writer publishes something new, I’m all for it and will probably buy it right away. The same way I’ll return to a restaurant I’ve enjoyed. I tend to steer clear of the latest fads since I’m a notorious non-joiner.

Do reviewers influence my choice? Not the negative reviews.


I look more at the plot summary than I do the subjective opinion of a reviewer. People have different tastes, so I don’t expect anyone else to react to a book or a film or a dinner the same way I do. Now if a reviewer points out that there are lots of historical errors in the latest volume of the Adventures of a Victorian Dogcatcher series (I call dibs on that title, by the way), I might pay attention. But when a reviewer say s/he dislikes the characters, or that the ending didn’t work for her/him, I might just as easily find myself intrigued and more likely to read it.

The same is true for blurbs. I don’t believe they sell books. They represent someone’s opinion, which I may or may not share after reading the book.


What about awards? Conventional wisdom holds that awards do not drive sales, and I would tend to agree. Unless the award or awards creates a buzz around a book. But a buzz flies dangerously close to being a fad, and you know how I feel about those.

I’ve found that recommendations from my friends—especially writer friends—are the most reliable. Maybe it’s because we read a lot and have gone through the process of creating books ourselves. So when one strikes us as remarkable for any number of reasons, we pay attention. I’ve discovered wonderful writers this way.

Which brings us to covers. Do I ever buy a book for the cover alone? No. But if it’s evocative (and I don’t mean precious or clever), I’ll read the synopsis on the back. I don’t mind plain covers, or fancy ones for that matter, either. But if a cover is going to pull me in, it better not be one of those literary-looking graphical designs with a handwritten title. Not that those books can’t be fine books. It’s just that cover itself won’t attract me.



So what attracts me to a book?  Basically, it’s my mood at the time, a great cover, or the advice of a friend. Or, failing all else, if it has my name on it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Bring out your read

How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores? Etc. And what’s the most important factor in your decision?

by Dietrich

All of those ways work for me: word of mouth, reviews and browsing the bookstores. When I find an author’s work that engages me, then I check for a backlist. And I keep them in mind for future works. I have a growing list of favorite authors, and I always look forward to what they’ve got coming next. Authors like Don Winslow, George Pelecanos, James Ellroy and James Lee Burke top my list. And there are those authors who aren’t around anymore, and I’m still going through and catching up with their backlists, authors like Donald E. Westlake, Robert B. Parker and George V. Higgins. And there are some authors who I like to reread, like James Crumley, Charles Willeford, and Elmore Leonard.
Sometimes a friend recommends a book because they know the type of book I like. And I also like to stop in at one of my favorite indie bookstores, pick up something that catches my eye and read the first few pages. Often I can pick a winner from the first few paragraphs. If the author’s voice works for me, then that usually does the trick. We’re lucky to have some great indie bookstores in Vancouver, and the folks behind the counters often make some great recommendations too. Most libraries have a ‘librarians picks’ section, and I often browse titles that I might otherwise pass up. Best-seller lists and award winning-books can also get my attention. I also like to listen to author's read their work at events like a Noir at the Bar, book launches and writers festivals.

There are reviewers and bloggers whose opinions I respect. Col’s Criminal Library on the net is a good source. Colman Keane’s tastes run much in the same direction as my own, so when he gives a book four or five stars, I take his word for it. Of course, there are the daily newspapers that feature book reviews, and sites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Bookish, Kirkus, Book Riot, to name a few. And there are blog sites like this one, and my fellow criminal minds often recommend (as well as write) some great books.


I can also be swayed by a blurb on the back of a book jacket, although, let’s face it, no publisher’s going to put a bad review or blurb on the back cover.

Titles and cover designs often catch my eye. And that can get me picking a book off the shelf too. Of course, from there it’s up to the opening pages.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

What to Read

Reading: How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores? Etc. And what’s the most important factor in your decision?

Terry answering the question:

A few years ago, I was an Edgar judge, which meant having to read a carload of books—some of which were books I would normally not have chosen. I was generally an eclectic reader, but I discovered that I could expand my reading horizons even more.

Never a fan of cozies, I discovered cozies that were smart and clever. I had been wary of the trope that so many cozies have of an everyday person, usually a woman, upon finding out that a friend or relative had died in mysterious circumstances thinks, “I should investigate!” No matter how this gets tweaked, it rarely works for me. But not all cozies are created equal. Some have protagonists with perfectly legitimate reasons for prying, and are well-written.

On the flip side, many hard-core thrillers didn‘t appeal to me because they feature a god of a man with no personality and his adoring women (who invariably have green eyes and red hair). And they kick butt again and again in increasingly preposterous circumstances. But nope, I found out there are thriller writers who write nuanced stories with real characters.



So how do I go about finding the ones in either extreme or those in the middle that will appeal to me?

1)    Word of mouth. There are certain writers I’ve learned to trust. If Timothy Hallinan tells me to read a book, I read it, knowing his standards are high and I’m likely to agree. Steph Cha’s book Your House Will Pay is not a book I would necessarily have picked up, but I did so because Tim raved about it early and often.  Same with Kristopher Zgorski, a reviewer I trust. Even then, I pay careful attention to the review, because not everyone loves everything.
2)    Awards. Some argue that a lot of awards are popularity contests, and I suppose some books that get nominated for awards are chosen because their authors are high-visibility. But I don’t think voters are fools (at least not in the writing world—but I’m not going there). I read a lot of nominated books, and find some gems I might never have otherwise read. That’s how I discovered Abir Mukherjee, Carol Goodman, Angie Kim, Sujata Massey, and Steve Hamilton, to name a few.

The Edgars are nominated by committee rather than by popular vote. Before I served as a judge, I thought the Edgars were suspect because the books were chosen by a handful of people. Through serving as a judge, I found that those who take on this onerous task take their responsibilities seriously. This year’s crop of Edgars is no exception. I have read almost every nominated book and found only two that I didn’t care for. And even then, they were well-written, just not to my taste. Most of them are outstanding, and I have touted the books widely.

3)    Knowing the author’s work. That speaks for itself. I know when Deborah Crombie has a book come out that I’m going to find it nuanced and well-written.
4)    Being on a conference panel. I usually try to read a book by each panelist, although I have to admit I often will read the first chapter on Amazon before I commit. That’s how I became a fan of Rachell Howzell Hall.
5)    Hearing authors speak on panels or in bookstore readings. The latter are especially useful for discovering independently-published authors. I would never have picked up a book by Heather Haven if I hadn’t found her to be ridiculously funny at a book event. Her books are hilarious. Same with Cindy Sample.  
6)    Bookstore recommendations. My local bookstore has mini-reviews in some of the books. I read the reviews and often buy the book. This is especially true of popular so-called literary books—although I recently bought one that made me really sorry I had trusted the reviewer. I also love to browse, and will sometimes buy a book because of the description and/or the cover.
7)    New York Times Book Review. That’s how I almost choose the non-fiction books I read. And their reviews of “literary” books sometimes prompts me to read the book.
8)    Special circumstances. Since becoming aware that writers of color are routinely under-published discovered,, under-estimated, under-reviewed, and under-appreciated, in the last few years I’ve gone out of my way to seek out those writers and not only buy their books, but spread the word when I enjoy the books. That doesn’t mean I find every book I read in that category to my liking. But it does mean my world has been expanded by reading about cultures and  outlooks that I don’t experience.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Choosing My Next Read

How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores? Etc. And what’s the most important factor in your decision?


It's Brenda Chapman kicking off this week's blog posts.


I employ several strategies for selecting a book to read. 


The first and perhaps most powerful filter is word of mouth. I belong to a bookclub and often receive recommendations from my friends' wide reading lists. Sometimes we exchange books and this might lead me to buy other books by the same author. This only works if we all buy books to trade and happily all my friends are big book buyers too.


The leads to another prime way I select a book -- an author I've read before and liked.  I have a large and growing number of authors whose books I seek out, especially in the crime fiction genre. I've read several series by the following authors: Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Denise Mina, Adrian McKinty, Giles Blunt, Elizabeth George, Val McDermid, Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, Louise Penny, Harlan Coben, Liza Marklund  Stuart MacBride, Linwood Barclay ... and several more too numerous to mention. The point is that I often buy a book based on the author's work once I've sampled and enjoyed one book in their library.


I'll also try a new author and the selection can be more whimsical. If I'm in a bookstore, a cover might entice me to pick up the book. I'll read the synopsis on the back cover and the first page to see if the premise and the writing style engage me. If I buy and like the book, I add the author to my my list of go-tos.


Recent pandemic reading purchases


Sometimes, but not as often, I'll read a book because it's won an award. I recently ordered The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides because the books was the readers' crime fiction choice on Goodreads last year. I enjoyed the read, which I see is soon being made into a movie.


I've picked up quite a few books at book conferences and events over the years. Many times I've listened to an author on a panel and gone on to buy their book, sometimes from the conference bookseller or when I return home (suitcases can get heavy). Other times, I've met an author whom I've enjoyed chatting to and buy their book as a result.


I met Ann Cleeves at Left Coast Crime and have been reading her books ever since!


I've been fortunate that as I was starting to be published, I was welcomed into the Ottawa/Eastern Ontario crime-writing community, which was burgeoning fifteen years ago. We support each other at events, on blogs, at launches ... and by purchasing each other's latest book. Some are in the cozy category - Mary Jane Maffini, Linda Wiken, Vicki Delaney and others are grittier - Rick Mofina, Barbara Fradkin, Robin Harlick, Jim Napier, Kathy Prairie, Michael McCann, Mike Martin, Madonna Skaff. It's been great fun following along on the writing journeys of all of these people I know and like immensely.


At a book event with Linda Wiken and Mary Jane Maffini


And last but not least by a long shot, I'm starting to read books by the authors on 7 Criminal Minds blogspot with the goal to sample everyone's work in the not too distant future. I've currently got Abir's Smoke and Ashes and James' Turn to Stone on my laptop. I'm keen to read everyone's work now that I know them through their blog posts!


We're indeed fortunate to have such a wealth and variety of books to choose from, no matter how the final decision is made. When all is said and done, there aren't enough hours in the day to read as widely and as often as I'd like, but that won't stop me from giving it the old college try.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Who's Hiding Behind Your Characters?

Do you ever base characters on real people? Famous or people you know in your real life. And, if so, how do you deal with that?

by Paul D. Marks

This is sort of a two part question. First there’s the question of basing characters on people that you know. Then there’s the question of basing them on celebrities or historical figures. I do both.

A lot of my characters are based on people I know —including on myself. I think there’s a little piece of me in all of them. Or sometimes a bigger piece. But when I do base them on people I know or who I’ve come across they’re usually composites of multiple people. So far no one’s come up to me —probably because the people I know don’t read my books, just kidding —and wanted to bop me on the head for a portrayal. Most people see the good and the heroic in a character in themselves. They don’t see the bad.

Villains are often based on people I’ve come across one way or another. At least certain traits of theirs. But I don’t want to make them exactly like the real person for obvious reasons.

Just released 6/1/20
In my just released novel The Blues Don’t Care, the main character, Bobby, is loosely inspired by a real person. But that person didn’t become a detective in any way, at least to my knowledge. There are other characters in the book also inspired by real people. Tony Leach, the gangster who runs the gambling ship off the L.A. coast, is sort of a combination of infamous L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen and Tony Cornero, the guy who ran the real gambling ships off the coast. But probably a little kinder and gentler than either, though still a gangster under his fancy suits. Cary Grant’s real name was Archie Leach and the gangster’s last name was chosen because of that, so he has a little of Cary in there too. (See my website for my close encounter with Cary Grant.) Bobby’s tough guy pal, Sam Wilde, is based on some people I knew, though I knew them in contemporary times but set their character traits in the 1940s of the story. And there’s a character in The Blues Don’t Care, Mary Cooper, named after a girl I knew a long, long time ago. I’m sure she hasn’t thought of me in ages. But she crosses my mind every once in a while and since she’s a benign character in a small part I used her name. Others in that story are also composites of real people.

In Broken Windows, the second in my Duke Rogers series after White Heat, there’s a producer character named Joseph Hartman who, if you call him Joe the thunder will reign down. He is definitely patterned after a real person —or at least that affectation is patterned on a real producer. Though I think when I’ve mentioned him before I conflated him with another famous person who hung up on someone for calling them by their first name.


I sometimes pepper real people into a story because it hopefully gives the reader a sense of verisimilitude (one of my favorite words) —a sense that the world the characters inhabit is a real world with people they know and landmarks they might have heard of. But you have to use the people in small cameos and not show them in a bad light unless there’s something demonstrably provable that they did that you want to include. They might get only cameo parts but it gives the story a feeling of being set in the real world. For example, in Blues Don’t Care Bobby runs across Gable at the zigzag moderne Sunset Tower Hotel and Louis B. Mayer at the Coconut Grove, as well as others in various situations. The book is, after all, set in Los Angeles and seeing movie stars from time to time is part of the L.A. experience:

Someone bumped into Bobby.
“Excuse me,” the man said in a familiar voice.
Bobby was too flustered to respond to Clark Gable, as the King of Hollywood walked past. Bobby went to the front desk.
“May I help you?” the clerk asked.
“I’d like to see Tony Leach.” The words stumbled out. Bobby hoped his nervousness didn’t show. He’d heard that Leach lived here. Bugsy Siegel too, as well as several movie stars off and on. Infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had said so.
“Can you just call up and tell him Bobby Saxon, from the ship’s band, is here.”
“You play in a band on his ship? I’m afraid he’s too busy for—”

And in Broken Windows, Duke, the main character, goes to a producer’s house above Sunset Boulevard. He finds two Jags in the driveway and expensive art in the house. The character who lives in the house is the Joseph Hartman character mentioned above. But in real life the producer who lived there was another person. And in real life, though he lived in the lap of luxury he wanted me to work for free.

And then there was the time that I based a character on another producer—a major ass—in a script I was rewriting…for him. He never made the connection. And I’m not telling what it was.

The character of Warren in White Heat is based on a friend of mine, though someone who isn’t as angry as Warren.
Duke Rogers series

So, yes, I base characters on people I know or have come across. Which is a good way to have more realistic, well defined characters ’cause you have real life experience in how someone acts.

Everyone I come across is fodder, the way they look, the way they talk. Their character, etc. Not just people I know, but people I may cross paths with for only a few seconds or a few hours. A clerk, someone on a street corner. Someone in a bar. It’s like we costume our characters, disguise them and send them out into the world incognito.

The first novel I wrote, about a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood, was basically a roman a clef. All the characters were based on people I knew, some very well known, others obscure and struggling, including little ol’ me.


So, not only do I base characters on family and friends, but on people I dislike, too, enemies. And isn’t that fun? We get our little revenges against people who’ve wronged us and, as long as we disguise them somewhat, we get away with it. What’s better than that? Sometimes just naming the bad guy after someone can be a satisfying way to get back at someone who wronged us.

So, yes, everything, everyone, is fodder. So be nice or reach a gruesome death…at least on paper.
What about you? Tell us about how you base characters on people you know.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care is getting some great reviews:

"It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series --- mysteries that not only have the requisite twists, turns, surprises and reveals, but also offer a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws: greed, corruption, fear of the “other” and, especially, racism."
—Jack Kramer, BookReporter.com

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."
—DeathBecomesHer, CrimeFictionLover.com



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Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Gang's All Here - by Catriona

Life: Do you ever base characters on real people? (Famous, or people you know in your real life.) And, if so, how do you deal with that?

Do I? (Hint: I do) And in at least six ways I can think of, off the top of my head.

First there's Mo Heedles in SCOT AND SODA and Cindy Slagle in SCOT FREE. They made generous winning bids at auction to have their character names appear in the books. 

In both cases, I asked "Do you want to be a bland, blameless, bit-part or would you rather be a fully-rounded, possibly flawed character who's essential to the book?" (I've got no sort of future at all designing poll questions, have I?)

SHOCKER - Cindy and Mo both plumped for the latter. So I've got Prof. C. Slagle, entomologist, with a strong stomach and her foot in her mouth most of the time in SCOT FREE. And I've got Maureen Heedles (Original Mo) and Maureen Tafoya (Also Mo) because Real Mo happened to choose a character who had the same name as another one, for hilarious plot purposes. 


It's lovely when someone gives you a great name like that. More often, you need to name a slew of characters all by your own self. And it's hard. To help, I've got a little book my granny used in naming my dad back in nineteen-oatcake. She got "James" from it and he should be grateful because she could have picked "Norbert".

Fun as it is to flick through Naming Baby - with its nuggets of warning like "kept alive by the film industry", "exotic" and "now associated with barmaids" - there was one time I needed thirteen names in a oney to give to members of staff in a posh house in THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS, and I didn't want to interrupt the flow.

So I plopped in Sheila, Audrey and Wendy (my sisters), Claire, Amy and Megan (my nieces), and Callum, Lewis, Fraser, Ross, Harris, Mathew and Iain (my nephews). In the published book they had become Celia, Ethel (short for Etheldreda, as is Audrey), Gwen (short for Gwendoline, as is Wendy), Clara, Amelia, Meggie, Colm, Mr Louis, Miss Frazier, Miss Rossiter, Harry and Ian the bootboy. So they were a wee bit disguised. But still, I think the fact that none of my nearest and dearest noticed reveals that they don't actually read my books. None taken.


That's the only time I've used living relatives. But twice I've memorialised women I love and mourn. In THE BURRY MAN'S DAY, which is set in August 1923 in my home village of Queensferry, I had my aunt and Godmother - Doreen - at the village fair, winning the bonny baby competition, which Dandy was judging. 

Doreen was only six weeks old (she really was) and so she was one of the smallest entrants in a category that pretty much goes on poundage, much like the competitions in the agricultural arena. But she reached out a little hand like a starfish and stroked Dandy's fur stole, chuckling with delight. And she would have too. Aunty Doreen loved the finer things in life - and loved sharing them with her nieces. Yay! Here she is at my parents' wedding. I don't need to tell you which one is her.


At the other end of life, I gave my beloved late step-grandmother-in-law, Laura, a strong supporting role in THE CHILD GARDEN, as Miss Drumm. Laura and Miss Drumm were both blind and used wheelchairs. But, while Miss Drumm lived in a residential home, Laura lived alone in her own house and wouldn't even let Neil and me make the tea when we went round. "Leave it, leave it. I've got a system," she'd say before starting another argument about where various Edinburgh bus routes ran or what the name of a particular shop was . . . in a city we lived in that she hadn't seen for thirty years! Miss Drumm has got that trait in spades. It's a lot less annoying when you write it, mind you.


A much more frequent way I put a real person in a novel - and I'm guessing every writer does this - is when I see a stranger and am unaccountably struck by them. Alec Osborne, in the Dandy Gilver series, is a Belgian waiter I saw for perhaps ten minutes all told; Lowell in QUIET NEIGHBORS is a bookseller I met once, who haunted me . . .


And Gus in THE DAY SHE DIED was a real person too. I don't suppose he'll read this. I was in Tesco in Dumfries and saw a man looking at the birthday cakes. Every time I got to the end of the aisle he was still there, holding a different Disney princess cake and staring down at it. So far so what? But then one time, as I rounded the end of an aisle, he wasn't holding a cake. He was counting the money in his pockets.

Did I go over? Have we met? I sidled up and pretended to be inspecting the iced buns until I caught his eye. "Sorry," I said. I don't care what anyone says about Brits and Canadians; it is the perfect opener for any occasion. "But I just noticed . . ." I went on. "Listen, I haven't got a wee girl of my own and I'm not likely ever to have one. This might be my only chance to buy a princess cake. If you'll let me."

He let me. I think of him often and hope things are going better. I also kind of hope neither he, his daughter, or her mum are in a book club. Because my God did I run with it.


To end on a happier note. In the Last Ditch series, Lexy has a Fabulous Gay Best Friend, Todd. I mean really. He wears Hello Kitty babydoll pyjamas and says things like "Oh my God-etia corsage!" After I wrote him I was a bit scared that he would come over as disrespectful to LGBTQ+ people, who'd feel ridiculed and stereotyped, and be hurt by the unending thoughtlessness of straight people. After Kris Zgorski read an ARC and found Todd to be lovely, I relaxed a bit and decided I was worrying for nothing. Because . . . have you guessed yet . . . Todd is based on my real FGBF, Alex, whom I've known since I was fourteen. Todd is just Alex dialled up to California. (Which doesn't take much dialling.)



Happy Reading.

Tinkety-tonk and down with the Nazis,

Cx