Listening to One’s Characters

I am a product of my age and education. As a result, I read instruction manuals rather than pounding buttons on gizmos to see what happens. When I open the box, I look for the manual (or, these days, for the web address of the manual).  So quite naturally, I looked for instruction manuals on writing when I decided to write my first novel.  Stephen King, John Gardner, Anne Lamott, William Zinsser.  All fine books on writing. Manuals.

When I read how a character comes alive,  how the author follows along behind, discovering the character his own words create, I was, shall I say, skeptical.


Damn, they were right.

I discovered this through my critique group’s discussion of my elderly female hacker whose internet handle is Jake. In my novel Open Circuit, she has been called on by a fellow hacker, HoHumJr, for help.  He is being pursued by bad people and needs a place to hide while he decrypts dangerous messages and alters software.  My first draft pass has Jake quickly advising him to get on a bus and travel from Miami to her remote Wisconsin home, where he can hide out.  Critique group says, “Nope.  Not plausible. Jake would find some way to help him, but not bring danger on herself by having him come to her.  Doesn’t make sense.”

Hmmmpf, I thought.  They just don’t understand the reality that others in the hacker group wouldn’t help HoHumJr.  Wait a minute … the first aha … I know the reasoning, but I haven’t told the reader.  I often make that mistake.  No problem. I added a couple of paragraphs to hammer home why the trip made sense.

Next meeting … Nope, the group said.  Still not justified.  Yet, I had this strong feeling that HoHumJr had to travel to Wisconsin.  I agreed with my friends.  It didn’t make sense.  Was I just wanting it to happen because the plot required it?  No, that wasn’t it.  I could leave him in Miami, and the plot would work.

I finally realized that my character Jake had a life and feelings.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t help HoHumJr from afar, it was that she wanted to be part of the solution he was going to bring to the plot. That was what I had to tell the reader.  I had been going with plot logic, which my helpful friends in the critique group quite correctly shot down.  I should have been going with motivation.  I should have listened to Jake.

 

Google and Real Places

Google is wonderful.  For a person writing thrillers, it’s a critical resource.  Need a Russian phrase?  No problem. An overhead view of a village like Hainburg an der Donau in Austria (my second novel)?  Google Maps has you covered. The uniform of a Florida state trooper?  Google images. But … there is no substitute to actually having been there, having heard, having felt, having smelled.

I’m reading the end of a draft by a marvelous writer, Tim Mahoney.  (Extended sidebar:  If you’ve been feeling inundated by screaming headlines about today’s madness … an entirely new chapter beyond yesterday’s … take a look at realnews.ink.  Mahoney is a newspaperman, and he aggregates the news that matters.  No Kardashians, no triple repeats of the latest presidential silliness.  Stuff that one might look back on a few years from now and say that was important.)

And now, back to the story at hand: Tim’s story takes place in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  He was there.  Of course, I know that, and therefore am more inclined to believe the picture his protagonist paints.  But I can’t help thinking that an author can’t know when to mention the heat and humidity, when to comment on the exhaust from the motor bikes, without having been there.  Or maybe it’s writing with the confidence of deep knowledge.  In any case, his good writing plus having been there has taken me out of myself and into the story.

Hainburg panorama

In my second novel, I needed a place for an important event to happen (no spoiler … the book may yet get published), and the speed of the Danube current (google search) and the rate of progress  of a lovely riverboat  (ditto) called for the place to be Hainburg an der Donau.  I needed to have action in the hospital (google maps) and the police station (ditto).  I wrote Hainburg into the story and was quite pleased (well, after Tim and a cadre of other writers tore the draft apart).  Then I had a chance to go to the town itself.

I’m not sure why I changed the few words I did.  I left the hospital inaccurate but changed the police station to be just as it is.  An my constable benefitted from a friendly discussion with the constable on duty.

Maybe it’s just that I now believe what I wrote is real.