Samantha Norman didn't plan to be a novelist, but when her mother, the best-selling writer Ariana Franklin, passed away in 2011 and left a half-finished manuscript, Norman felt called to carry on her mother's legacy. In a guest blog post, she reveals what it was like to finish The Siege Winter.
Guest post by Samantha Norman
When my mother, the best-selling historical novelist, Ariana Franklin, died suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago, she left a great big hole in my life and a half-finished novel.
Although she’d always nagged me to start writing novels of my own—convinced somehow that I’d inherited her talent—I never got round to it. I’d written features, lots in fact, for newspapers and magazines but never anything longer than about 1,500 words and had no particular desire to, either. Writing is hard—I’d done enough of it to know that much—and, what’s more, I’d seen my mother—both parents actually, my father is also a novelist—sweating blood over their work and I just didn’t feel that that sort of hard labour was for me. And yet all of a sudden my Mum was dead and there was a novel to complete and I was suddenly imbued with a zeal I’d never felt about anything before, absolutely determined that I was to be the one to finish it.
It was an enormous responsibility. My mother had a large and devoted fan base whose members were vociferous in their admiration of her beautiful prose and unrivalled attention to historical detail and accuracy. Therefore, to do her justice—I should point out here that mum was an absolute pedant when it came to research and getting things absolutely right—and to continue her remarkable legacy without public outcries of “Shame!” I had to do a crash course in the medieval history she so adored, and in a matter of mere weeks—I had a fairly punishing deadline—assume a knowledge of 12th-century English history which she had carefully garnered over more than 35 years.
Not only that, but I also had to assume her writing style. I had always loved, envied even, the way she wrote, the seemingly effortless almost mellifluous way in which she strung words together, but could I emulate it? Well, only you can be the judge of that. The book’s out now and I’m terribly proud of it and I hope, I really, really hope that my mum would be too.
It's been 10 years since the publication of Boy Proof, Cecil Castellucci's groundbreaking young adult debut, now one of Time magazine's 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time. Ten years ago, sci-fi fans—especially young females—felt like they could let their geek flags fly after reading about Egg, who styles herself after the heroine of her favorite sci-fi movie, Terminal Earth, by dressing all in white, shaving her head and coloring her eyebrows. She's got her shields up—especially against boys. But then she meets Max.
Castellucci looks back on the book that defined her as an author and encouraged nerdy girls to stay weird while finding their courage:
It begins at a bookstore: one of my favorite indie bookstores in Los Angeles, Skylight Books. When I was first trying to sell my first book and dreaming of becoming an author, I would walk to the store, which is funny because nobody walks in Los Angeles. I went there to haunt the shelves, paw the books and dream that maybe one day I would be an actual author. The staff was friendly and encouraging. They let me stay for hours.
In those early years of being a dreamer, they asked me to help out at inventory. I came in to support, but also needing the grocery money to help clean the store and count and shelve the books. I still do inventory with them every year—15 years and counting. I had written two novels and a picture book that had not sold. I was blue. And poor. And dreaming. Somewhere in fiction while I was dusting and lamenting my rejections both by the book industry and gentleman suitors. Then Steven Salardino, the manager of the bookstore and now a dear friend, turned to me and said, “You should write a book called Boy Proof and the boy should be named Max.” Instead of shrugging him off, or throwing a dust rag at him, I said, “OK,” and set about to do it.
The title had struck me deep in my core. And as a nerdy girl myself, I had felt like that growing up and wanted to write a book about a girl who was a true nerd and the star of the book, not the sidekick or the best friend. A girl who, like me felt a little boy proof. I wanted to write the book that I had needed and wasn’t there when I was growing up geek. I had a few loose threads in my head that I thought I could pull on to make a story.
While time coding for my friends production transcript company, I had seen footage of a girl who dressed up as Trinity from the Matrix movies. To give myself swaths of time to write, I was an extra in movies and once got a call to interview to be a child ape on Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. I was not chosen to be an ape. (Tim Burton’s loss, to be sure!) The interview was at special effects make-up artist Rick Baker's studio, which was truly inspiring. Living in Hollywood with all of this buzz of making it and reinvention made me think to back to when I was in high school. I had a great friend whose mother, a famous singer and actress, was making her big comeback, and there was a boy I was too shy to figure out how to make my boyfriend who sat next to me in math class. His name was not Max, but the shadow memory of him was a place to start.
I put those things together to write a book called Boy Proof about a girl named Egg who dressed as the main character of her favorite sci-fi movie. Who loved post-apocalyptic movies and read comic books. Who felt uncomfortable around the new boy. Whose dad was a special effects make-up artist. Whose mom was a TV star making a comeback. A nerdy girl who lets down her guard to let love in.
It was the first novel I sold, and it was born in a bookstore.
And to this day, I always ask Steven to help me title my novels.
Author photo credit Eric Charles.
There's a hot new genre that's been floating around the publishing world for a few years called New Adult Romance. If that's leaving you scratching your head, no worries! Best-selling author K.A. Tucker, whose New Adult romance Becoming Rain is now in stores, is here to explain what New Adult really means.
When I'm asked what genres I write in and answer "New Adult Contemporary Romance" and "New Adult Romantic Suspense," the follow-up question tends to be: "What does ‘New Adult’ mean?” It's a question with an answer that varies depending on whom you ask. But over the past few years, a number of defining characteristics have emerged.
Most New Adult authors will agree that their characters should fit into an age window of 18 to 26 years old. Anything younger is typically termed Young Adult; anything older is simply Adult.
These characters are not simply a specific age, however; they’re also emerging into the world as adults and are no longer under parental supervision. They're making decisions about their futures and, many times, those decisions are inspired by a sense of newfound freedom. They're driven by emotion and learning through mistakes. This is a very real stage of growth that most people go through, and New Adult is meant to capture the triumphs and struggles that accompany it.
How these triumphs and struggles play out varies drastically for the individual, however. Many young people go to college, but many don't. Some still have the financial support of their parents to keep them afloat; others are maintaining full-time jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. Some are already looking for that significant person to spend the rest of their lives with, while others can't see themselves settling down for another decade. Most really don't have a clue what they want to do with the rest of their lives now that they're in the driver's seat.
All of these motivators, combined with evolving personalities, make this stage incredibly rich for story-telling.
In fiction, an author's own experiences, belief systems and comfort levels influence how their characters will handle the obstacles they face. I like to create characters that make bad decisions. I put them in uncomfortable situations and weave in unusual challenges to see how it will all play out for them. This makes for somewhat unconventional New Adult plot lines (in Becoming Rain, the two main protagonists are an undercover police officer and a guy entering a car theft ring), but I don’t let that deter me. The only question I ask myself is, "If it were me, how would I have handled this in my early 20s—and how would I handle it now?" If the answers are drastically different, that's when I know I'm onto something.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini is no stranger to research—she's included historical elements in many of her 23 novels. In her latest, Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, she goes back to the 19th century to explore the life of First Lady Julia Grant and her slave, Jule. In a guest blog post, Chiaverini shares five of the most memorable tidbits from her extensive research.
guest post by Jennifer Chiaverini
In March 1865, only a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the tempestuous Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant’s military headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where she had a very public meltdown. In the thankless role of Mrs. Lincoln’s hostess, Julia Grant tried to calm her, only to bring Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath down upon herself. Mrs. Lincoln angrily accused the general’s wife of coveting her place in the White House, a charge Mrs. Grant calmly denied—little suspecting that four years later, her husband would be sworn in as the 18th president of the United States and she would become First Lady.
This astonishing altercation between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant has gone down in history thanks to the many eyewitness accounts recorded in letters and memoirs, but most people today don’t know these five other surprising things about the famously friendly and admired First Lady Julia Grant:
1. Julia Grant was afflicted with strabismus, more colloquially known as crossed eyes.
Her vision was so impaired that she could read, write or sew only briefly before the strain exhausted her, so Ulysses often read aloud or wrote letters for her. She was self-conscious of her appearance, and whenever she was photographed, she almost always sat in profile in an attempt to disguise her condition. As Ulysses’ fame grew and Julia became more of a public figure, she inquired about corrective surgery so that she “might not be so very, very plain.” She was disappointed to learn that nothing could be done, for the operation could have succeeded only if it had been performed in childhood.
2. Julia claimed to experience prophetic visions and dreams
She was correct so often that her family learned to trust her intuition. In her memoirs, published 73 years after her death, she describes several unsettling premonitions that she later learned coincided with moments her husband had been in grave danger on the battlefield. In Washington a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, she was seized by such intense, overwhelming dread that she begged Ulysses to depart for their home in New Jersey immediately. A few hours after their train left the capital, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
3. Although Julia and Ulysses enjoyed a long and happy marriage, when they first fell in love, their families did not want them to wed.
Although Julia’s mother thought highly of Ulysses and supported the match, her father argued that Julia’s constitution made her poorly suited for the arduous, roving life of a military wife and suggested Ulysses marry her younger sister instead. When Ulysses rejected this proposal, Julia’s father insisted on a long engagement while the enamored lieutenant was off serving in the Mexican War. For their part, Ulysses’ staunchly abolitionist parents were appalled that their son intended to marry the daughter of Missouri slaveowners, and they refused to attend the wedding.
4. Throughout the Civil War, rather than remain safe at home, Julia often lived with her husband at military headquarters.
Ulysses hated to be away from his family, and as the army moved, he would summon Julia to join him as soon as he established a secure location. According to historian Candice Shy Hooper, during the four years of the Civil War Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles to be with her husband, sometimes through enemy territory. In an era when long-distance travel was difficult and exhausting even when the trains ran on time, the weather was fair, and the roads weren’t thick rivers of mud, Julia—and her four young children, who often accompanied her—risked disease, death and capture whenever they journeyed between home and headquarters.
5. Although Julia was married to the commander in chief of the Union armies in the war that would end slavery in the United States forever, she herself kept slaves.
Her favorite maid—a woman also named Julia but usually called Black Julia or Jule—often accompanied her mistress when she joined Ulysses at military headquarters. Both women risked certain danger as they journeyed to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity, and she eventually made a daring bid for freedom. Though historians debate whether Julia or her father was actually Jule’s legal owner, there is no doubt that the future First Lady benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings for almost 40 years.
author photo by Steven Garfinkel
Best-selling author Robyn Carr is celebrating the release of One Wish, the latest novel in her Thunder Point series. In this blog post, Carr writes about what women's fiction and romance mean to her. If you thought romance novels were just about the steamy scenes, Carr is here to set you straight!
When my son was in Iraq, we Skyped almost every day. We had more long and meaningful discussions while he was in a war zone than we had when he lived under my roof. And there were times it could get a little awkward, like when I was on a writing roll, in the story zone, and his first question is, “Do you know David Baldacci?”
“Not personally,” I said. “Why?”
“Someone gave me one of his books and told me to read it; I might like it.”
“I don’t have one,” he said.
“Stand by,” I said.
So I emailed him a book. It was with great satisfaction that I heard him say, “Hey. This is good.”
The more interesting thing happened later. First, he found that many of his female co-workers had known about me for a long time and were fans. That really jazzed him up; finally made his mother somebody. He did some mild raving about the book, and I offered him the next one in the series.
“No offense, Mom, but it’s a chick book.”
Yes, it’s a chick book, something I’m rather proud of. But what I do is write romance and women’s fiction, which is about women, for women and written largely by women. My books, the chick books of this century, celebrate women. And because of the digital age, the response is immediate! Any writer of fiction for women who doesn’t know what their readers most enjoy, what brings the greatest reader satisfaction, is asleep at the switch. They tell us every day: Dear Ms. Carr, I know just how Mel felt because I lost my husband at a very young age. Dear Ms. Carr, I escaped from an abusive relationship and you really nailed it—thank you. Dear Ms. Carr, My son was bullied in high school and I’m so glad to see one of my favorite romance writers address that subject.
I have a lot of male readers, too—I hear from them regularly. One of them surprised and thrilled me. I lost my leg in Afghanistan and it was after reading your book about a soldier in an almost identical situation, I’ve decided I really need counseling. I don’t know how my wife has lived with me this long!
I realize that what I really do when I write romance is less about love and sex and more about hope.
I write about the things that are part of a woman’s world: the family drama, community cohesiveness, neighbors helping neighbors. My readers visit my books daily for the chance to relate to the characters who share their burdens and joys, to use strong characters as role models, to be entertained while they struggle to find their own happy endings. Sometimes, they come to me at their most vulnerable and entrust me to take them on a meaningful journey. By the time I’m on the home stretch of a new book, I realize that what I really do when I write romance is less about love and sex and more about hope.
My son has been home from Iraq for quite a while now, safe and sound, and I’m meeting the most interesting people in Thunder Point. In One Wish, I met a former figure skating champion who craves a quieter life and Mr. Hottie High School teacher, Troy Headly, who is on hand to prove to her that it doesn’t have to be all that quiet. And in A New Hope, which will be out in June, Ginger Dysart chooses Thunder Point as the town in which she’ll reclaim her life. Who would have guessed she’d find it in the arms of a handsome Basque farmer? And there’s more—join me for Wildest Dreams at the end of summer when a world famous triathlete mixes it up with a local nurse, and together, they dare to dream the wildest dreams.
Join me in Thunder Point—the place where wishes are made, hopes are finally realized and dreams come true.
Till now, Judith Flanders has confined herself solely to nonfiction as one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era and the best-selling author of The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City. With her debut crime novel, Flanders takes on the cutthroat publishing industry and spices it up with a bit of that Victorian-style macabre.
Chosen by librarians for the February 2015 Library Reads list, A Murder of Magpies is a darkly funny romp that takes readers between London and Paris in pursuit of a potentially libelous manuscript.
But how did Flanders make the leap from Victorian crime to contemporary crime fiction? As she reveals in a guest blog post, it's just more fun. (And now we know never to get on Flanders' bad side . . .)
Fiction has some definite advantages over nonfiction. I’ve been writing nonfiction for nearly 20 years now, specializing in Victorian Britain. I truly can’t complain: It’s a great job. As with every job, though, there are some days that are just a slog. At one point I was writing about a fire along the river Thames in 1861, and I wanted to incorporate an eyewitness’ description of seeing the fire from a train. To do that, I needed to say where his train was heading. It took me nearly a week in the library to find that out. Even though it was one of those boring little details that nobody reading my book would care about, still, I had to get it right.
If I had been writing a novel, I grumped to myself, I could have just made it up. And then I bumped into an ex-colleague in the library, someone I’d worked with years before. And I remembered how much I disliked her. (The feeling, I believe, is mutual.) So, to relieve the boredom of researching trains, I began to imagine ways of killing her. From making up train stations, to making up murder methods, I moved on to just making things up.
And before I knew it, I’d started to write a crime novel. Sam Clair is an editor in a publishing house. I worked in publishing for 17 years, and publishing is full of people that belong in a novel. The 20-something editor who thinks he knows everything? Check. The last remaining Goth in Britain, who loves commercial women’s fiction? Double-check. And of course then there’s the general murder and mayhem. After all, there isn’t an author alive who hasn’t wanted to murder her editor, and vice-versa.
With my nonfiction hat on, I wrote a book on 19th-century murder and how real-life crimes were used for entertainment purposes: Where today we have films about the Boston strangler or whatever, they had plays and novels and even puppet shows. What struck me was that real-life murder was, on the whole, not very interesting. Thug A hits Thug B over the head, fighting over a few pounds. Thug B dies. That was the pattern, over and over.
Crime was dull. Crime fiction, however, now that was fabulous. From Dickens to Dracula, authors everywhere found themselves invigorated by these very ordinary, very ugly events. They took the dull stuff—Thug A, a railway station, a fire—and turned it into magic.
Publishing can be dull, too. Like a lot of glamorous jobs, on a day-to-day level it’s often just paperwork: admin and schedules and budgets. But if you make things up, you can liberate the routine, turn it into magic, too.
So I decided that I’d give myself a break from researching train stations, or even Thugs A and B. Instead I would take the ridiculousness that is publishing, and the magic that is making things up, and see what happened.
Thank you so much, Judith! Readers, A Murder of Magpies goes on sale tomorrow!
Judith Flanders author photo by Clive Barda.
Andrea Laurence's latest series, Brides and Belles, focuses on the women behind the romance: wedding planners. And we'll admit that we're doubly intrigued by this series because it takes place in Nashville, home of BookPage! In this guest blog post, Laurence writes about her inspiration behind the series and the favorite wedding details.
This January, I was very excited to kick off my new Brides and Belles miniseries with Harlequin Desire. It’s the first of four books that follow the love lives of a group of Nashville wedding specialists. I came up with the idea several years ago when I was going through a period when all my friends were getting married. Every wedding was different; every one was special in its own way. It’s also very stressful. While I love the concept of weddings—picking out cake flavors and dresses—the reality is hard work.
It made me wonder about the people who manage weddings for a living. I couldn’t imagine the stress of creating someone’s perfect day each and every week. There’s always drama: The bride can be a handful, and so many little pieces have to fall in place perfectly to pull it off. Hats off to the folks who make these days happen! It got me thinking that it probably takes a toll on their personal lives.
Oh, the irony of being in the wedding industry and incapable of finding someone to marry! That’s where the story began for me. I picked four different women who join together as friends to become business partners. They each have their own specialty—planning, catering, photography and decor. They also each have their own relationship drama.
I started with Bree, the photographer, and asked myself what the single most uncomfortable thing would be for her to do. The answer was to take engagement photos of her ex and his new fiancée. Ouch, right? And so Snowed In with Her Ex was born. In the second book, Amelia, the caterer, is the one who has always wanted the big, fancy wedding. What was the worst thing she could do? Elope in Vegas with her best friend! That’s where my February release, Thirty Days to Win His Wife, starts.
I’m currently finishing up the last two books in the series, and I have to say that writing about weddings and the people who plan them is so much fun. I really do enjoy all the wedding details. It’s hard for me to narrow down my favorite part, but I would have to say it’s seeing which dress each bride chose and what her wedding cake looked like. I think those details tell a lot about the bride and the couple as a whole.
What’s your favorite part of a wedding?
Thanks Andrea! You can visit Andrea's website and find more titles by Andrea Laurence here: BAM | B&N | Indiebound | Amazon
Do you love romance? Be sure to sign up for our monthly romance newsletter, Smitten. You can also enter to win tons of romance goodies, including signed copies of Andrea Laurence's new books!
Best-selling author Jayne Ann Krentz's latest romantic-suspense novel is Trust No One. But you may know the author by one of the two other names she writes under, Jayne Castle or Amanda Quick. So why did she decide to write under three different names? Allow her to explain the allure of the pen name.
Yes, it’s weird but true—I write under three names. Why? It’s complicated.
I swear I did not set out to create three writing careers. I do not recommend this publishing path to aspiring writers. I mean, what kind of strategy is that? The drawback to having three names is obvious at every signing event that I do—about half the people who come through the line will say: “I didn’t know you were Jayne Ann Krentz,” or “I didn’t know you wrote as Amanda Quick” or “I didn’t realize you were Jayne Castle.”
The fact that I write under three names is in every bio on every one of my books. Hey, it’s not like I’m trying to keep it a secret. But evidently very few people actually read those author bios!
So, for what it’s worth, my advice to budding authors is choose one name and stick with it, because if you don’t you will spend the rest of your career trying to explain yourself to readers.
That said, the reason my path took three different names is not because I write three very different kinds of stories. I have always written romantic-suspense under each name. It is my core story—the book of my heart, as writers say—and I expect to spend the rest of my career exploring that story. Romance and danger is a perfect combo for me. It’s what I love to read and it’s what I love to write.
But I do like to shift fictional landscapes, so I decided to use a different pen name for each world. Turns out readers have strong preferences when it comes to settings. A lot of people won’t read my paranormal landscapes, even if they love me in my other worlds. Others only want my historical or contemporary backdrops.
So, the only big advantage of my three-name career? When readers pick up one of my books, they know exactly which fictional landscape they will enter.
In Trust No One, you will enter my Jayne Ann Krentz contemporary world. The setting is Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. The heroine, Grace Elland, has a past that she had hoped would stay buried. Let’s just say that going home can be murder. . .
Thanks Jayne/Amanda/Jayne! You can find Trust No One online here: BAM | B & N | Indiebound | Amazon
(Author photo by Mark Von Borstel)
Do you love romance? Sign up for our new monthly romance newsletter, Smitten, here!
Romance author Terry Spear continues her Heart of the Wolf series with a holiday twist in A Highland Wolf Christmas. In this guest post, Terry Spear talks about holiday traditions—both for her family and for her wolfpack!
In my newest paranormal romance, A Highland Wolf Christmas, the wolves find their Christmas traditions changing with the changing dynamics of the pack, just as they are in my family. We always open one Christmas present on Christmas Eve and have a nice dinner of some sort—usually a roast. When the kids were little, we either spent Christmas at home or visited one set of grandparents. Now my kids live far away from me, and while they're both married, one of them still comes home to visit both her in-laws and me during the holidays. My son, however, is in the Air Force and has had to fly missions the last two Christmases, so we celebrated Christmas early at Thanksgiving last year. This year, my son and his wife are coming to visit, and we'll celebrate Christmas early again.
So you see, family is still very important, but because of jobs and where everyone lives, traditions are always changing. But the one thing I still am able to do with my daughter and son-in-law is have a turkey and all the fixings, open Christmas presents on Christmas Day, play games and watch Christmas movies. Then they’re off to visit the son-in-law’s family for even more Christmas presents and food.
We had a really small family growing up—no cousins, no family to speak of—just Mom, Dad, my sister and me. So we never went anywhere for Christmas; we just stayed home and celebrated with the family. One year, to change things up, we opened all of our Christmas presents Christmas Eve. The next day, getting up to stare at the bare floor around the tree, was a total anticlimax. From then on, we always opened one present on Christmas Eve and saved all the rest for Christmas Day.
Just like with the wolf pack in the Highlands, traditions have evolved as well. Americans have brought some new traditions to the Highland wolf pack, and the Highland wolves have shared some of their interesting customs. The one I loved most was the burning of the Christmas lists in the fire, the smoke going up the chimney and carrying the list to Lapland and Santa. Because of the botanist in the family, the wolves also started a new tradition of putting up a real Christmas tree. And they've started a Christmas bazaar, which has brought the pack together in a fun way. Learning new traditions and keeping the old can be enjoyable and add a spark to holiday celebrations. The key is to share the enjoyment with friends and family!
Colby Marshall is a writer by day and a ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, as well as a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. She kicks off her new FBI profiler series, starring Dr. Jenna Ramey, with Color Blind. The FBI has detained a mass murderer, but his partner is still on the loose, so Jenna has been called in to put a stop to any future murders.
Marshall and her heroine share a rather unusual trait—they both have synesthesia, a neurological condition that triggers color associations with people, places and things. We wanted to know—and apparently, everbody Marshall meets wants to know, too—how much of her own experiences contributed to Color Blind. Her answer may surprise you.
As an author, I won’t deny that I love answering questions, even if only so for a minute I can pretend I’m the latest runaway best-selling author letting loose in an exclusive interview for People magazine. Some questions readers ask surprise me. Others come up over and over again.
And while frequent-flier questions aren’t always the same types of things I’d ask an author—I’d rather hear what earned her the most time-outs as a kid than where her ideas come from (mostly because I’m pretty sure we all snag ideas the same way, from that guy on the corner selling them out of his van)—I guess I can understand the curiosity of a reader, a bookstore patron . . . or a stranger I’ve cornered at a party who I’m pretending is my number one fan. If you don’t enjoy or make a bad habit out of telling stories, I guess the details surrounding how we think up imaginary people, make them have sex and then kill them could be interesting, whether in a fascinated way or a the-more-you-know-the-better-you-can-hide-from-the-lunatics way.
Yet, one question used to surprise me every time, no matter how often it cropped up. It’s been put to me by the neighbor dying to sneak a gossip-gathering peak inside my garage door, by the glove-snapping gynecologist only talking to distract me from the forthcoming, oh-so-cold evil, by my mother’s hairdresser in between not-so-subtle hints that I could use a few highlights, and by my devious nemesis of a mailman, who I’m convinced starred in at least one Nightmare on Elm Street sequel before he was featured on "America’s Most Wanted" when I was 8. But I digress . . .
That two-part question asked at every family reunion and inside every white-walled church fellowship hall is: Do I write about myself, and do I get my characters from those who fill real-life roles in the crazy one-woman show that is my life?
Until recently, this question routinely set off a seemingly pre-programmed string of thoughts through my head. Is this a more common practice than I realized? Could all of my favorite authors who have entertained and wowed me with their ability to weave mesmerizing fiction (read: big fat lies) out of nothingness be, in reality, regurgitating personas they see every day onto their books’ pages? Are they using their manuscripts like public journals, only ones they’re willing to turn toward the people close to them to serve as honest-but-sort-of-fictionalized-even-if-most-of-it’s-true mirrors?
My second thought always hit like clockwork: If all authors do this, then damn. After the things Thomas Harris has seen, he’s bound to be a vegetarian by now. And I bet R.L. Stine wishes his parents would’ve moved him to a town where he could’ve taken piano lessons from a teacher without a creepy hand fetish . . . and maybe lived on a cul-de-sac with fewer shadowy homeless men carrying cursed cameras.
But with my newest book, I’ve gained some perspective. A few years ago, I found myself writing about an FBI forensic psychiatrist—something I, a 5’1”, indoor, glitter-heel-wearing blonde girl, am not—and giving her a little bit of something I am. I gave her a brain quirk. Made her a graphemeàcolor synesthete. A neurological phenomenon that causes a person to associate colors with everything from letters to days of the week and even people and emotions, graphemeàcolor synesthesia doesn’t have many practical uses in my own life, unless you count the time I filled awkward silences at my spouse’s company Christmas party by entertaining acquaintances with the colors my brain links to two particularly unpopular high school foreign language teachers with whom everyone in the group happened to share an F-filled history. But for Jenna, it’s useful. It can’t do her job for her—a flying-off-buildings kind of superpower, it ain’t (sadly)—but the subtle flashes of color in her head can illuminate important details and fine-tune theories as she sifts through clues she already has.
On paper, Dr. Jenna Ramey does lots of things I don’t: I like movies with explosions, but she actually shoots at bad guys. I research abnormal pathologies for stories, but she’s a trained expert at getting inside the minds of those relevant to her case. I dream of reaching the cereal box on the top shelf; she stores dishes on all three levels in her kitchen cabinets. But she and I are alike in a big way that helps her life and career run smoother. That little bit of me I used from real-life guarantees she—and I—can save fictional lives in a way no other FBI agent can. At least, none in Jenna’s world.
Maybe in the past I’ve taken the idea of authors pulling personas from their Rolodexes too literally. (Do you know anybody who still owns a Rolodex?) After all, your main character’s partner-in-crime doesn’t have to be an exact replica of your own best pal right down to her neverending coffee mug collection and penchant for breaking the news that the joke you thought was so hilarious five minutes ago only made you laugh because one Fuzzy Navel was affecting you way more than a single wine cooler ought to be. If an author does her job, a character trait can be inspired by someone’s quirks or killer fashion sense and still shape an entirely imagined character. That way, the front-of-the-book disclaimer that says any resemblance of the story’s characters to real-life people is unintentional can hold stronger legal teeth than semantics and a prayer.
Heck, an author can even pay homage to a pal if he likes. As long as he doesn’t blab about his bud’s embarrassing fourth nipple removal (while changing only one letter of her first name), coloring stories with distinctive habits and idiosyncrasies can be just what a book character needs to transform her from so flat she might as well be a paper doll to someone . . . well, someone readers might want to meet. Maybe even hang out with for a while.
Next time I run into another author, I think I’ll ask if he uses people in his real life in his writing. Who knows? I might find out something plucked from reality is that thing I love most about a favorite character.
Thanks, Colby! Readers, Color Blind is out today.