It’s the 13th. I publish posts to my blog on the 13th of every month. Have you ever wondered why? I was born on the 13th and, when young, told people it was a Friday. It wasn’t. I suppose that I needed to feel special. Being born on Friday the 13th was special, in an off-beat sort of way. I still need to feel special. Who doesn't?
I've been puzzling over my writing lately. Perhaps I’ve made a grave mistake in not making my novels’ characters “special.” They are all run-of-the-mill villagers, really. Delightful characters, folks I would love to meet, but rather ordinary. No one is a medium talking to ghosts. No one has a cat that can solve crimes. Even my killers are regular Janes & Joes. No psychopathic serial killers in Barrington Bay, only people who are—as our lovely DCI William Tremaine once said—just ordinary people stretched a bit too far.
Much as I adore the everyday man, I am rethinking these characters. I’m searching for that balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. My ink has been running thick when highlighting foibles that make us human—those shameful shortcomings and silly attributes that make us so very real and relatable. Should I instead be giving life to unbelievable characters? Are they still endearing? I imagine all people are, in some way or another.
The idea is so unsettling that I have closed my laptop to sort through it. I’ll set aside my writing for a while to wander the lake's shoreline in search of sea glass and inspiration. Perhaps I'll pick up a much-needed tan along with that fresh perspective.
When I was a child, my family had the tendency to move. One of the places we called home was a stretch of land in an agrarian community named Caledonia. At the time, I had no idea that “Caledonia” is Latin for “Scotland.” Nor was I aware that the southern Wisconsin countryside had been settled by U.K. immigrants. Unknowingly steeped in that sovereign nation’s culture, I had learned every lyric of “Drunken Sailor,” “Oh Danny Boy,” and “Loch Lomond” in school. Neighbors spoke of banshees in the gloaming and selkies in the sea. The library stacked Brontë, Burns, and Dahl beneath highland landscapes trapped in ornate frames. Heck, I thought every American parade featured old men wearing wild skirts and blurting bagpipes.
We moved. The deep snows of northern Wisconsin froze out those lush childhood memories. The turbulent echoes of the Vietnam War eroded such bucolic images from my heart.
I was driving down a back road in Scotland when our vehicle was surrounded by a fold of Highland cows. Weighing over 1,000 pounds each with a three-foot horn spread, I gave way. We sat in the middle of the road, engine idling while my erstwhile navigator and I fell madly in love with the ridiculously cute beasts. Their long horns and wavy red-brown hair both frightened us away and beckoned us closer.
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
-- Paul James McCartney
I grew up surrounded by Red-winged Blackbirds that would flock over tilled fields each spring and then returned to bent, barren corn stalks in the fall. Their endless songs, echoing across farmland in the gloaming, would carry me off to sleep and just as often wake me in the morning.
It’s early April. The spring migration is in full force. Birds course along the edge of Lake Michigan, heading north. The call of Red-winged Blackbirds again fills my mornings with dewy memories and delight. It is a bird watcher’s heaven.
It is also incredibly appropriate, since I am penning my fourth cozy mystery, The Nighthawk’s Nemesis. The story is woven around bird watchers—twitchers, as they are called in the UK. As usual, I’m knee deep in research as I begin a new novel. I am studying ornithology, birder’s slang, and the stunning migration along England’s coast. It is made all the more fascinating by the actual spring migration that hovers over my own head in Wisconsin.
In that recent research, I have learned that a group of chickens is a peep, a group of owls is a parliament, a group of larks is an exaltation, and a group of blackbirds…a murder. How terribly appropriate.
Writing is both wondrously fulfilling and endlessly challenging. I am always trying to improve my craft. I find it all fascinating: character development, pacing, plot twists, grammar, dialog, and setting. Nothing, however, captures my attention more than similes (a metaphor that uses 'like' or 'as'). Perhaps it's because I adore the imagery they create, but I also find them so very hard to write! Spotting this weakness early on, I endeavor to write them into all of my novels simply to grow that skill. So, smile for awhile as I review some similes from the Barrington Bay series:
I have struggled with time throughout my life. I grew up with the analog clock and, for whatever reason, I never could figure out how to tell time. Imagine my relief when digital clocks arrived.
As a teenager, I was ahead of my time, reading books as a freshman that weren’t offered until senior-level English classes. I was behind my time as an adult, not getting married or having children until my mid-thirties. I always seemed to be a step ahead or a step behind everyone else.
I’ve been spending my dreary winter days punching up the characters who live in Barrington Bay. Bringing fiction to life is a fascinating, lengthy process. Although I love dwelling in the actual mystery, it turns out that readers are typically more vested in the characters than the plot. All this character analysis on my part has led to rewrites with some surprising changes, new scenes, and added depth to my stories as I strive to improve the read.
I must admit that I struggle with character development. I can map out a convoluted plot or swiftly pen a passage describing a setting but then flounder when I drop a character into that scene. After much research, online lectures, and personal reflection, I simply tasked myself to consider some of my favorite characters from literature and popular culture. What attributes make them steal my heart and reverberate in my mind? I thought of all the suave, brilliant, stunning, eloquent, athletic, or cultured characters that jump off the screen or glide across the pages of a book. Oddly enough, I couldn’t recall a single one. I was surprised to realize that—at least for me—it is character weakness that makes them memorable. For example, the ever-depressed Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh), Barney Fife shivering in fear (The Andy Griffith Show), the oh-so-fastidious Hercule Poirot (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), the tightly-wound Beverly Hofstadter (The Big Bang Theory) and, of course, our drug-addicted Sherlock (A Study in Scarlet). It is these characters’ limiting wounds that makes them dear-to-heart and unforgettable.
Armed with this insight, I returned to Barrington Bay with a big eraser and bent pen, intent to do damage to my characters. The result has been encouraging. I could more readily embrace these fractured friends who now struggle within their own limitations and join the rest of us imperfect humans. I hope you enjoy their faults, as well.
This blog is where I post my inspirations for each book as well as behind-the-scenes tips, pics, and other tidbits. Feel free to click 'Read More', leave a comment, and share!