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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Writing Is A Learning Experience

The best way to learn about a time, a place or an activity is to write a novel about it. In  my very first book, Magic Creek, the heroine joins a group of settlers heading west. Even as most of the others stop to build homes, Magic and her partner continue on because, as they say, they want to go to the very edge of civilization. For this book, I spent hours researching the northwest territory and how the pioneers lived. How did they plant their crops and cook their food and sew their clothes and build their houses? What were the Indians of the area like? What motivated them to suffer such hardship and take such enormous risks to start over? I fell in love with these courageous people and my own book led to reading many more, both fiction and non-fiction, simply for pleasure.

County Cork scene

I never sit down and plot out my books. They just develop themselves as they see fit so in Sticks and Carrots, my main character, Cole McCarran, had a dual Irish and American citizenship. I'd never had any particular interest in Ireland before. I'd never realized that this small island contained so many magnificent landscapes of various kinds - golden beaches and high mountains, beautiful lakes and green pastures and cliffside shorelines and virgin woods. A part of Ireland is almost tropical with palm trees and abundant flowers. The Burren is an exotic environment, as if a giant stone carver had purposely constructed it. In Ireland, you will find thatched roof cottages and medieval circles and fantastic castles.

After all my research, if I was approached for that commercial that asks: "if we offered you a free trip but you had to leave today, would you go?" Yes! Yes! I would. I be winging my way to Ireland as we speak! 

Almost there: Action heats up as season nears its end

Probably the greatest impact on my life was when I had to learn about NASCAR so Rafe Vincennes (of the Rafe Vincennes Series) could be a stock car driver. I did this oh-so-reluctantly. There was nothing that interested me less than auto racing. But I bought a book, Sunday Money by Jeff McGregor and sat down to read and take just enough notes to sound knowledgeable enough about NASCAR to be able to write my own novel. 

I was fascinated from practically the first paragraph. I became enthralled with the drivers, the tracks and the cars. Soon, my weekends revolved around racing. I watched the pre-race shows, the races and the post-race shows. My friends know not to call me when NASCAR is on. I picked Jimmie Johnson as my driver and became a fan-atical supporter. 

I've since attended a few races and discovered I love the smell of burning rubber and car exhaust in the morning! I can recite you chapter and verse about bump stops and sway bars and wedge. I can define the difference between aero and mechanical grip. I have probably spent 1000's of hours watching NASCAR since 2008. I have yelled and jumped; my heart has raced; I've experienced joy and heartbreak. NASCAR has become one of the passions of my life....all because I wrote a book about a hero who drove race cars.

My most recently published novel, Eureka Spills, required research on New Mexico and ranchers, cowboys and wild horses. Cattle ranching and cowboys have a special place in the heritage of America. It is a lifestyle that is uniquely its own and beloved of the people who would probably not work nearly as hard while making more money doing something else. Although I developed great affection for the humans, I have to say my heart is with the horses. There are now fewer wild horses running free on the American range (46,000 +/-) than we are keeping in captivity (50,000). We say that is because they breed too quickly and overrun their habitat but of course, the actual fact is that they are our competitors for forage and like the Native Americans before them, we put them on the least desirable "reservations" and then decide that's still too much. So we round them up with helicopters during which horses are injured and babies are separated from mamas. Then we either pen them up or sell them to be butchered (which we deny but our denials are true only because we allow it to happen through a third party.) So my passions were stirred in writing this book but in a completely different way than my fervor for NASCAR.

In the book I'm currently writing (as yet unnamed), my hero, Luca Quai, was raised in Romania. He's half-Jewish and half-Gypsy. Right now, I'm working on trying to learn as much as I can about Jewish culture and customs, holidays and food. And, oh my Gosh, I have to say that in my life I have studied a great deal about various religions but none of them are as complicated or complex as the history and the beliefs and the rules about being Jewish. My head is filled with tzitzits and tzniut, menorahs and mezzuzah, kugelach and latkes, Rosh Hashanah and Purrim and Yom Kippur. 

I can't wait until my character grows up to make his home in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. The Atchafalaya is the largest wetlands in the United States containing over a million acres of bayous and cypress swamps, marshes and backwater lakes and hardwood forests. More than half of all species of migratory birds visit there seasonally. It is home to bears and panthers, alligators and other smaller wildlife in addition a myriad of aquatic life. I've already begun reading about the intriguing and mysterious Atchafalaya and about the Cajuns who live there. 

So writing a book forces you to delve deeply into your subject matter. It encourages you to develop fascinating interests you'd never considered before. Writing a book is every bit as educational as reading one.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Eureka Spills - Stepping Outside the Box

My latest book is now live on amazon and smashwords. Eureka Spills is different than anything I've written before (for one thing, it doesn't require an "adult content" rating!) It is more of a love story than my other novels. I very much enjoyed writing this book. I always fall in love with my characters and it was no different with Shea and the elusive stallion, Phantom. The research about ranchers and cowboys and wild horses and northern New Mexico was fascinating and fun.

Still, there is a element of stress when a writer steps out of what has been her comfort zone. Will faithful readers be disappointed not to find the graphic sex they are used to in my books? Will they scorn Shea, who is a more traditional hero than my harder men like Rafe and Ethan? Will they roll their eyes when Shea finds true love of the type more likely to be found in romance novels than anything I've written?

I don't mind for myself if some readers believe I've gone all squishy on them. (My next character, Luca, is more like what they've come to expect from me) but it makes me feel protective of Shea. I want readers to care for him and appreciate him as I do.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that some readers will say, "well, finally, something I can read without cringing - no taboo subjects, a hero who is worthy of the name, and love, sweet love".

I don't really have my audience in mind much when I write a book (although I know the marketing gurus would tell me that's a no-no). I write what has to come out of my head and this time it was Shea.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Andrew Vachss - After Shock


There is no more satisfying experience in life than discovering an author, falling in love and finding that there are many more books in his or her library just waiting for you. This is what happened to me with Andrew Vachss when I read my first in his Burke series. I don't even remember now which one that was, not the first or the last, somewhere in the middle (I've re-read them all in order since then although it isn't really crucial to the plots, only that you know more about the chronology of the characters). 

I was thrilled when I saw that I had only read the first of many episodes of Burke's life and I proceeded to buy the rest. I didn't want to finish them too soon so I forced myself to read other books in between. I held on to the last one for months in order not to reach the end. When I was done, I read them all again (which is unusual for me). That was several years ago. From that first book on, whenever I participated in polls that asked - "who is your favorite author?", I didn't even have to think twice. Andrew Vachss! Though I've found authors I enjoy immensely since then (Iain Banks and the Culture, Declan Hughes' Blood series, Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander books, the Patrick Rothfuss' trilogy being four of them), that is still the case today.

You would never say about Andrew Vachss - "his writing reminds me of....." because his style is so uniquely his own. His plots are twisted and clever, his locales are gritty and brutal, his characters are rebels against the system with a moral code that is honorable and true though it would never be recognized as such by a legal system that often lacks those qualities itself.

Many people who've lived normal lives might question the reality of the harshness of the world inhabited by Burke and his family. Perhaps I can relate because of all the years I worked law enforcement and the judicial system and saw much of what he talks about first-hand. 

My heart was broken when Vachss announced the last Burke novel. He's written many books besides the Burke series and I've liked and appreciated them all but I much prefer series over one-offs because I like settling in to reconnect with the same people I've grown attached to in previous books and seeing what is going on in their lives.

Now Andrew Vachss has come out with After Shock and reading it gave me the same tingling feeling of exhilaration that a new Burke book always did. Like Burke, the new character, Dell, is a hard-ass. He's lived a life of violence, thrown into an environment where he touches man's inhumanity to man first hand. He's tough and merciless about taking down those he perceives as threats. Like Burke before him, Dell will cross boundaries most people aren't even aware of.

Though retired as a mercenary soldier and French Legionnaire, when a perverted and horrific underbelly that victimizes young girls is revealed in the small town Burke and his wife, Dolly (who served with Medicins San Frontieres), have chosen as a place to find peace, Del knows he has to summon old rage and his previous skillset to expose and destroy the perpetrators. 

Del shares his life lessons with readers in language that is hard-edged and beautiful as a stiletto.   

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Leap of Faith

White Spotlights Stock Photo

Leap of Faith 

That's what every piece of writing is, from column-writing to novels. The writer starts out with the smallest germ of an idea and let's it shape itself into what it wants to be. Of course, with columns and essays, the point is to say as much as you can in the fewest amount of words. As a mentor once told me, "you spend words as if they were dollars" in any short piece.

Book-length fiction allows for more room to roam and explore your subject matter and characters. My own novels always begin with one first name that lodges itself into my brain - Magic and Cole, Rafe and Ethan, Shea and now, Luca.

It's like the spotlight pictured above, I don't know who is going to step out on that stage until they appear out of the darkness and pick up the microphone. For instance, my latest character, Luca, is a native of Romania (and he is NOT a vampire). Huh, Romania? I don't know anything about Romania and was never especially curious to know either. Now Luca lives in Terrebone Parish in Louisiana near the Atchafalaya Basin in Cajun country. More research. Geez, why don't any of my book people ever live on a farm in Indiana, a locale I know a lot about? 

I am often rather spellbound by the process of writing. There is no way I'm telling my characters' stories, rather they are telling their own stories through me. I often wonder where they came from, how they sprang full-blown into my head with such definite ideas. 

I never write from an outline or have any idea of a known-in-advance plot. "Just trust us," say Rafe and Shea and Luca, "we'll guide you to your destination and tie everything up in a bow at the end."

And I have learned to do that. At first, I sometimes fought with them, trying to drag down them down a path I thought was the right one. My way always lead to deadends or unrealistic outcomes so I gave up and admitted that I was, essentially, a transcriptionist.

But I still marvel at where they existed before they made themselves known to me. They have to somehow be a part of me, don't they?  I wish I knew how that process works....but I guess I should just be grateful that it does.