Family and Friends

My sister Patty called today and said she was running to KFC to grab a bucket of chicken and sides, and what if she brought them to our house for a late lunch?  The hub and I love fried chicken, but I never make it.  I make more chicken recipes than any woman should, but frying a whole, cut-up one always seems like a lot of work to me, so I avoid it.  Having a bucket of it delivered to my door, though?  That was sort of like having the heavens smile on me.  So, of course, I said yes.

My cousin, Jenny, lives with Patty and came, too.  Once we finally all got settled and dug into the food, the usual flow of conversation began.  There’s nothing like family to sort out recent happenings, old stories, and new gossip.  Family remembers the time Patty thought her hair was too greasy, so I washed it for her with Comet cleanser.  It took my mom a month to get all of the green powder gunk out of her hair.  That led to the time Patty wanted her hair teased for the biggest updo she’d ever had and went to the prom looking like the Bride of Frankenstein.  And then Patty remembered my false eyelash phase and the time I took them off and left them on the sink top and Mom thought they were a spider and flushed them down the toilet.

The hub and I have friends that go back years and years, too.   John and Scott buddied up in second grade and are still BFFs.  He’s known a lot of his friends since high school, and every time one of them marries, the wife becomes part of the “group.”  When all of us get together, the talk often goes back to the old days when the guys worked together at a little hamburger drive-in near Packard Park and the girls’ softball games.

When I start a new book (like I am now), once I have the hook and the big question the plot hangs on, I usually write a chapter to see and hear my characters, and then I make character wheels to flesh them out.  And one of the first things on each character wheel is the character’s family.  What was the mom’s name?  What does she look like?  Did she work?  What job?  What kind of personality did she have?  Any habits?  Did she and the character get along?  Any special memories?

My mom was a wonderful cook, but she always shooed us out of the kitchen, so when I married my hub, I had no idea how to boil a potato, let alone brown a pork chop.  I’m always jealous of my friends who learned special family recipes by cooking with their mom or grandma while they were growing up.

I repeat the same questions for my character’s dad, any brothers and sisters, and any relatives that influenced him/her.  Did the son tinker with cars in his dad’s garage?  My dad raised chickens, and it was my job to gather the eggs and feed them every morning.  My mom hated the sound of the recorder when I had to learn to play it in school and made me practice it in the chicken coop.  Luckily, the chickens weren’t music critiques and seemed to enjoy it.  Often, once I see my character through his family’s eyes and how he sees them, it helps me understand what motivates him and why.

After I scribble out his family background, then I work on his education.  Did he graduate high school?  College?  Trade school?  Did he like school or loathe it?  My grandson had serious ADD/ADHD and school was an every day torment for him.  Was my character popular or a loner?  And what did he do once he grew up?  Escape as fast as he could or stick close to home?  Then I scribble out where he lives and what kind of vehicle he drives.  And finally, I list two friends and how he gets along with them.  Are they old friends or new?  Did he lose any old friends and how?  Any romantic interests presently or in the past?  And then I list someone he doesn’t like and it’s mutual–an antagonist (in his life) or a villain.  By the time I finish all of those, I have a pretty good feel for my character and what shaped him.

If it’s true that no one goes unscathed by family (for better or worse) and friends are the family we choose, there’s a lot of rich history and drama, along with memories, before a character steps onto our pages.

Wherever you are on whatever project you’re working on now, happy writing!


Writing: Why don’t you try . . .?

When I first started writing, I only wrote short stories, and most of them were a bit bizarre.  They didn’t quite fit any genre, so the majority of them ended up in a file cabinet in our basement.  They’re still there.  I don’t want to read them.  I don’t want to know how bad I was when I thought I was pretty good:)  I sold enough of them to small chapbooks, though, that I tried magazines and anthologies and sold to them until someone at my writers’ group finally asked, “Why don’t you try a book?”

So I did.  I was drawn to mysteries with  sturdy plot lines built into them.  I had a structure to follow,  but books are LONG.  My first attempt fizzled at 20,000 words, but Penny Paper Novels in Baltimore was buying “short novels” to print in newspaper form and sell at airports  as quick reads.  The editor bought GOURMET KILLINGS and then STING OF DEATH, at 25,000 words.  I finally learned how to do plot lines and character wheels and finished a 60,000 word mystery.

“Why don’t you try selling it?” a fellow writer asked.  So I sent to editors at every publishing house who’d take unsolicited manuscripts (they almost all did back then), and I got wonderful rejections–even though no one was buying cozies back then.  That’s what I knew how to write, though, so I wrote more until I sent one to Anna Genoese, who was at Tor at the time, and she said, “I’d love to see an urban fantasy from you.  Why don’t you try one?”

So I did.  And I sent her one she liked and wanted to buy, but someone had recently sold Tor a novel too similar to mine, so she had to pass.  And then she left Tor, but I’d been working on a paranormal mystery for her and had no idea what to do with it.  I sent it to an agent, and she liked it enough to make me a client.  I’d fiddled for so long, though, the urban fantasy market was crowded, so Lauren said, “Why don’t you try a romance?”

So I did.  And Kensington liked COOKING UP TROUBLE.  And I learned that I like writing romance.  I’m not suggesting that anyone else follow my route of trial and error, but I am suggesting that stepping outside of your comfort zone isn’t the worst thing that can happen.  I learned every time I tried something new.  I learned from writing short and concise.  I learned from writing long.  I learned every time I tried a new genre.  Whatever and however your writing journey goes, I hope you enjoy the trail.


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Twitter: @judypost



Writing-does a happy childhood work against you?

A friend of mine read one of my manuscripts recently and said, “You need to show more anger, more emotion.”  Now, I thought I had, but she went on to say, “You’re always on such a level keel, no wonder you have trouble letting your characters be dirt bags once in a while.”  That gave me pause for thought.  I mean, I work hard to be a fairly nice person, but does that hurt me as a writer?  I’d had someone else, earlier in my career, tell me much the same thing.  She asked, “Were you happy as a child?”  “Oh, yes,” I answered.  “Well, that’s why you’re having trouble writing,” she told me.

Could that be true?   Do people who grow up with parents who argue or hit or worse have the edge because they have more emotions to pull on?  I do think that a writer needs a certain amount of life experience to enrich their writing.  And adversity certainly builds character…and the ability to draw from anger, disappointment, and loss.  But I don’t know many people who’ve breezed through life, free of scars.  Not all of us, though, have the perspicacity to dwell on those things to enrich our writing:)

A new writer came to Scribes a while ago to read a piece about how she’d been sexually abused and then turned to drugs to deal with the issue.  She became addicted, and now she was finally drug free.  It was a deep, moving story of her journey that would be impossible for me to tell.  Her words had a raw emotion and aggressive strength that came with her pain and turmoil.  I can’t tell that story, because I don’t know it, and to some point, “write what you know” makes perfect sense.  But I can tap into other emotions, ones I’ve experienced, to bring other stories to life.   Me and Suzanne K were the tallest people in our class, year after year, through school.  We both hit 5’10” before high school.  She had a figure.  I was a stick.  Did the nickname Olive Oyle bother me?  A little.  Not much.  I spent a lot of time living in my own head.  And that was probably my biggest obstacle to being a writer.  I had a lot more fun living in worlds other writers created.

My friend, who teaches handwriting analysis, still badgers me to “open” my vowels.  My a’s and o’s and e’s are legible, but scrunched.  She tells me over and over again that scrunched vowels mean that I need to “let loose,” to “open up.”  Maybe.  But I’ve learned that even if I tend to be a mite private in my life that doesn’t have to apply to my characters.  I can let them have tempers, be “kickass” or mouthy–all of the things that I’m not.  My characters aren’t me, thank goodness!  They can be anything, as long as I can relate to their emotions, and that makes them fun to write.

I’ve played with a few characters who aren’t “nice,” that I’m pretty attached to.  Caleb, in Fallen Angels, left Heaven because he didn’t want to follow rules.  He wanted to do as he pleased, and if that meant that he had to drink human blood to replace the benefits of the Light, then that’s what he’d do.  I meant for him to be a villain, Enoch’s adversary.  But Enoch still loves him, and oddly, so do I.  Does that mean I’m embracing my “dark side”?  Beats me, but I know I have one.  We can all be selfish once in a while.  And let’s face it.  Readers like certain villains.  Look at Hannibal Lecter or Walt in Breaking Bad.  I think what involves readers is the human condition.  If a character meets a hurdle and makes the wrong turn, that might add more interest, not less.  If we can make a character real, even if he’s flawed, and make him sympathetic, even if he kills people, we can identify with him.  So dig deep and let your characters show true depth–their worries, fears, and uglies.  Readers have felt those things, too.  They’ll understand.

Writing & Boys

I didn’t write my blog on Sunday, like I usually do.  Why?  I rented the movie Jack the Giant Slayer and watched it with Tyler and Nathan.  A fun movie, but a great evening.  I didn’t dust the house or weed my flower beds on Saturday.  I spent the afternoon watching repeats of the TV show Psych with Tyler–one of his favorites.  He intends to watch every segment before he goes back to IU this Fall–a worthy challenge:)  And I’ll watch quite a few of them, right along with him.

I take my writing goals seriously and make deadlines for myself that I intend to meet…and usually do.  But my grandsons are staying with us this summer, and this will be the last summer that Tyler means to come home.  He’s moving into an apartment in Bloomington before college starts and plans to live there year-round.  Nate will be a senior in high school this year and after he graduates, he’s itching to move away, too.  I have to enjoy them while I can.  Even now, while they zoom in and out of the house, they’re usually too “busy” for me.  That’s the way of kids.  They have jobs, friends, and plenty of things to do.  So when they finally want to spend time with me, I make time.

I learned a long time ago that kids talk to you when the moment strikes, not before and not after.  When I ask, “How was your day?”–I usually get “Okay” or a few mumbled words for an answer.  Over supper, we might get a few more sentences about this or that, but a kid only really talks to you when he’s in the mood.  And if you’re too busy to listen?  The moment passes.

So, for this summer, I write while the boys are out and about, and when a boy wants to “hang with me,” I save whatever I’m working on, put my writing aside, and make myself available.

More Memories Than Usual

My grandson graduated from high school on Friday, May 25th, and on Saturday, we had an Open House to celebrate the event.  John’s brother flew in from Oakland, California on Tuesday, so that we could visit and enjoy ourselves before things got too busy.  Our daughter, Robyn, and her husband, Scott, drove up from Florida (they live near Clearwater Beach) on Thursday.   My daughter, Holly, and her two boys live with us, so our cozy bungalow bulged at the seams,  full of people, and a magical thing happened.  Kids who’d grown up in the houses behind us or across the street or around the corner showed up to join in.  And I found our house filled with laughter and memories.

I love kids.  Always have.  My sister, Mary, is 12 years younger than I am, and I think it started with her.  My parents looked shell shocked when they got the news there was an unexpected surprise on the way, but they quickly looked forward to having a baby.  I was thrilled.  My sister, Patty, and I are exactly ten months apart.  Cohorts in crime.  But Mary was someone to read stories to, to drag to the ice cream parlor, and to play with.  So when it came time to choose a career, I went for elementary education.

I taught for six years before I had my daughters.  I’m sort of a nerdy brain, and lots of professors tried to talk me out of “wasting my talent” on teaching reading and arithmetic.  But my question to them was, “If you don’t have dedicated teachers in first and second grade, what kind of students do you think you’ll get by the time they reach you?”  Teaching was a lot of hard work, but it was every bit as fulfilling as I thought it would be.  I meant to go back to it once Robyn started first grade, but the rules changed while I stayed home with my girls.  A Master’s Degree became a death sentence to my career.  No one would hire a teacher with a Master’s because they had to pay us more money.  So I stayed home, and Life had other plans for me.  John’s father got sick and died.  His mother didn’t do well on her own.  My dad got blood cancer, and I took my turn sitting with him at the hospital in the afternoons.  And I filled my house with kids.

We became the “neighborhood house.”  We made our basement into a kid zone.  My husband built a craft table and kids hung paintings to dry on a clothesline that stretched across a side wall.  We mixed salt clay and used cookie cutters to make Christmas ornaments.  John and I laid indoor/outdoor carpet, perfect for roller skating, and bought fold-out seats for kids to stretch on while watching the TV down there.   One Halloween, the kids beheaded every Barbie doll in the house to hang from the basement rafters to make a haunted room.  We bought a dehydrator to dry fruits.  I baked after school snacks.  And we enjoyed.  The kids gave more to us than we ever gave to them.

If Holly’s boys needed something, growing up, one or another of those kids have been there to help.  Jerod took Ty to hunting school and Jason taught him how to fish.  Heidi and her husband, his godparents, faithfully contributed to sending him to St. Therese and Bishop Luers.  Nicky took Ty out to supper when he needed some “guy” talk.

When I put kids in my writing, like Reece’s step-brother and sister in Wolf’s Bane, a young son in the novel Empty Altars, or Thea’s cocky niece in Fabric of Life, I hope I make them as special as I think kids should be.  Because I’ve been lucky.  I have wonderful daughters.  Awesome grandsons.  But I have more.  I have wonderful neighborhood kids.  And it was great to see them at Ty’s Open House, because they’ve been a part of his life.  And mine.

My John was in the Vietnam War, and I usually think of soldiers when I watch the parade that marches past our house each year.  But this Monday, I had so much more to think about.  Floods of memories.  All of them good.