Friday, April 09, 2010

When Characters Take Over

It seemed to be an isolated incident when John Logan, one of the background characters in Past Imperfect, then called Out of the Past, followed me into my dreams. He nagged me for days before I finally gave in and listened. I had to get some sleep or I wouldn't be able to write anything. So I listened and he changed the course of the story and my writing life. He was right.

John Logan had taken on a life of his own and, even though it trespassed into my life outside writing, I am glad he nagged me until I paid attention. The novel that resulted was much better than the one planned in my head and the ending surprised even me. I was just along for the ride.

I'd heard about characters talking back and refusing to be pushed around and maneuvered like pieces on a chess board, but I didn't really believe it until John Logan. From the moment I listened to him, writing changed for me. It's also likely why I write more nonfiction than fiction; I get to write what I want and the characters don't make cameo appearances in my dreams. Not usually.

A lot of my writing is done in my head before I put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Scenes, dialogue and exposition play out in my mind, the words arranging and re-arranging into more pleasing shapes until, like the ice Kai must arrange into a word in The Snow Queen, they spell out the story. The good thing about writing this way is that I can write anywhere--in the shower, while doing housework, driving and grocery shopping. The bad thing about writing this way is that I write anywhere and any time--in the shower, while I'm working, watching a movie, reading a book . . . and sleeping.

The more I write, the more my writing affects other aspects of my life and now spills over into my nonfiction. Last night, or rather early this morning, is a good example.

After waking up at 3 a.m., I fully intended to go back to sleep for another couple of hours, but something switched my mind into writing mode. I couldn't sleep. I tossed. I turned. I used my relaxation and breathing techniques. And in my mind, I rearranged the words into a story that has been on the edge of awareness for weeks. No rest would be had this morning, not until I got up and put down on paper or on my computer the words that slithered and slid and rearranged themselves in my mind.

This time it's not a character but a story I've been trying to write about a great love. The deadline looms and so I will lose sleep until what's in my head is on the page and safely sent to the publisher. But characters will follow since I'm finishing rewrites on a finished novel, except that one thing I've learned is that no novel is every really finished. There's always more to do and more I want to do even when the book is in print.

Characters jostle and play hide-and-seek for a while, but eventually, when they begin invading my dreams, I know they're ready to find their way to the page and they won't let me sleep until I give in and let them have their way.

The one goal I've worked toward for so long is being able to quit my day job and spend all my time writing, but I'm beginning to wonder if that's such a good thing. Characters barely recognize the boundaries now. What will happen when I have nothing else to occupy my mind but writing? Will I disappear and the characters take over, using my body to give their dreams and realities life? Probably. And yet that doesn't seem like such a bad trade-off.

When the author disappears and the characters take on a life of their own it's magic. What's a few sleeps nights when the results is the creation of characters who are living, breathing, nagging, dream invading magic?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Apache Attack

This one was chosen for a Cup of Comfort anthology and then got lost in the shuffle when the publisher down-sized the book.

Apache Attack

“Watch out! He’s right behind you.”

The buckskin horse lunged, teeth bared. I stepped aside just as Dad caught the reins and hauled the horse back.

“You have to watch him. He bites.”

“I’ll say.” I took the reins, avoiding snapping teeth and stamping hooves. Putting one foot in the stirrup, I mounted. The buckskin danced and lunged.

“Maybe you’d better get down.” Dad held out his hand for the reins.

“I’ve got it.”

“All right, then. Take it easy. Just out to the highway and back.”

Settling into the saddle, I reached down and patted the buckskin’s long graceful neck. His ears flicked. He placidly tore up a clump of grass; he didn’t intend going anywhere. Munching, he turned and looked over his shoulder at me, mischief glinting in his deep brown eyes. He blinked.

“If you’re going, then go.”

Nudging his sides, I held the reins loosely and clicked my tongue. He took a step, hesitated, took another—and bolted. Screams dwindled in the distance as the buckskin raced through the grass, headed straight for a clothesline—a wire clothesline.

Pulling on the reins and leaning backward over the saddle, I urged him to slow. The buckskin jerked his head and lengthened his stride. I ducked. The clothesline caught my chin, burning a deep groove below my lips, but it missed my neck. I flipped the wire over my head, turning my head sideways.

The buckskin didn’t hesitate; he raced for a barbed wire fence enclosing a stubble field. Clamping my thighs together and hauling back on the reins, I leaned back. Screams and yells moved closer, but they didn’t make any sense. Pulling harder, nearly horizontal over his rump, his head nearly touching his chest, the buckskin skidded to a stop on the wet grass inches from the fence, bucking and rearing while I hung on. Suddenly, he stopped and stood still, panting lightly.

“I don’t think so, buddy. You’re not getting rid of me that easily. Now, let’s go.”

The buckskin took two tentative steps and stopped. I nudged his sides. He took two more steps, lengthening into a trot and then an even gaited run. We sped along the grass and onto the dirt road, hair and mane flying in the crisp autumn air until reaching the highway. We slowed and turned, trotting back, gait dropping to a fast walk as we neared my family.

“Just what did you think you were doing?”

“Riding, Dad.”

“You can get down now.”

“Are you going to buy him?”

“Don’t know. Dad stroked his flanks. The buckskin gently butted Dad’s shoulder.

“He likes you.”

“He needs a lot of training. He’s been abused.”

“Then we have to buy him.”

“I’ll think about it. Now, get down.”

Reluctantly dismounting, I held the reins and stroked the soft velvet of his nose. The buckskin whickered, lipping the palm of my hand for the sugar cubes I pulled from a pocket. “If he’s been abused…”

“I said I’d think about it.” Dad led the buckskin away while my family closed around me, questions flying.

Mom glared at me. “You should’ve stopped.”

“I was fine.”

“You could’ve been killed. If that wire had caught your neck . . .”

“Yeah!” chorused my brother and sisters. “Killed.”

“I wasn’t.”

On the way home, we talked about the horse. It was clear Dad liked him but Mom wasn’t so sure. Ever since they moved out past New Rome down U.S. 40 to the farm, Dad and Mom decided to buy some horses. Although I wasn’t going to be there long, I wanted some say in which horses they bought.

It was obvious Dad liked the buckskin, and hearing he’d been abused made him that much more appealing, at least to Dad and me. He’d buy the horse, that much was certain. It was only a matter of time.

And he did.

The next time I saw the buckskin, he was decked out, saddle and bridle covered with conchos and buckskin ties. He looked like he belonged in a western beneath a hero riding into the sunset. His light tan coat gleamed and his pale mane looked like a silken waterfall as he danced and sidestepped while Dad brushed him. Catching the reins tied around the top log of the fence, the buckskin pulled them loose, nudging Dad, and tossing his head. He wanted to go. Grooming could wait for later, he seemed to say.

“Got a name for him?”

“Apache.” Dad mounted and headed off down the driveway at a canter, dirt puffing beneath Apache’s hooves.

Every evening after work, Dad brushed the buckskin until he gleamed, mounted, and took off down the road, sometimes with Mom on the brown saddlebred mare, living a long held dream of owning horses and living in the country.

Apache settled down, but very few could ride him without Dad close by; he had a tendency to attack without warning or buck whenever anyone else mounted. The only exception was children. Apache loved kids, even my two little boys who never sat still for anyone or anything, unless they rode with Dad on Apache.

The buckskin didn’t give his love or his loyalty lightly or easily, probably remembering the harsh treatment of his former owner. He adored Dad, acting more like an enormous dog than a horse as he followed him around. Children fascinated him and he gentled whenever they approached, taking carrots and sugar cubes from their hands as delicately and gently as a refined gentleman. But Apache was a devil with the mares, a sort of mare’s stallion even though he had supposedly been gelded. (We learned later that he was still a stallion.)

Apache’s eyes gleamed with mischief whenever I wanted to ride, teasing me with nips whenever my back was turned, and whinnying when I turned and caught him, as though playing some private game. He never bucked me off or ran away with me again, having decided on some kind of truce as if I had won his admiration the day he attacked and ran away with me. But no one knew the depth of his loyalty until the day Dad was breaking an Arabian mare he’d just bought.

Lakaya seemed fine when Dad mounted her the first time, flanks quivering, nostrils flared, but she stood still, silent, head bowed. He started to put her through her paces when suddenly she reared and lunged forward. Dad went down with a sickening crunch.

Apache grazed in the pasture when Lakaya bucked Dad off. Two seconds later, the buckskin cleared the fence and raced to where Dad lay, beating the rest of us. He lowered his head and pushed at Dad’s shoulder. Dad groaned.

Lakaya took off down the driveway. Apache tore after her, racing ahead, and turning her back toward the house. He herded her all the way back up the driveway, nipping at her flanks when she stalled or tried to take off again. When they were almost up to where Dad now sat holding his right wrist, Apache nipped Lakaya again. She squealed and reared. My brother took her reins and led her back to the barn while the buckskin stayed near Dad until we got him in the car and Mom took him to the hospital.

Dad’s wrist was broken in two places. When he came home with the cast on his arm, no one was happier to see him than Apache was. He crowded the fence neighing and calling as Dad got out of the car, refusing to settle until Dad went over to him and stroked his nose and patted his neck. Apache was satisfied.

My parents eventually gave up the horses and the farm and bought a house outside of town. The owners of the farm had decided to sell the land to a developer and canceled their option to buy.

I don’t know who was sadder the day the new owners came for the buckskin, Dad or Apache. We never saw the buckskin again, but there is no doubt in my mind that wherever Apache went he made his presence felt every time he attacked.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Avoiding the Slush Pile

If you haven't heard about HarperCollins UK, you haven't been paying attention. They have a website called Authonomy. It takes time to go from the bottom of the slush pile to the top, but the books that make it avoid the usual waiting time and get the editors' attention.

Since I want to break into the European market, I posted Among Women on the website and have been making my way to the top. It takes time and you have to participate, but it's worth the effort.

If you'd like to take a look at Among Women before it's published here in the US, go sign up (it's free), comment and/or back my book. It's an interesting cyber twist on the old fashioned method of printing out your babies and sending them through the mail with fingers crossed in hopes you'll make it out of the slush pile and onto the bookshelves. Enjoy yourselves.

That is all. Disperse. It's time to read.

In the Darkness

The mountains outside my cabin are covered with snow, blurring the sharp craggy lines, blue in the full moon against a star spangled sky. It's the same sight I see every night as I sit here working or -- like now -- trying to download work and being ignored. There's nothing out there for me to type. I'd rather be in bed, but this is what I signed on for, this is what I need to do to continue working and living and hoping for something better, something more than I have had for the past nine months. I'm tired and lonely and alone, but not for much longer. At least not physically alone. There will be others in the house when I move, soft scrapings and footsteps in the hall, on the other side of the wall, beneath me. I don't know if I can live with people again. I am out of the habit.

The first time I moved from an apartment to a house I didn't sleep for several nights. It was too quiet. No scratchings or fumblings, yelling or snores leaking through the walls, the floors, the ceiling. Just silence. The tick-tick of a light switch from time to time was all I got, a ghost turning the lights on and off as she left and entered rooms. But she was a quiet ghost, just the tick-tick of the light switch is all I ever heard from her. Still, I knew she was there and I wasn't alone.

Other places, other times, and soon I came back into the noise and furtive scramblings and earthy calls of sexual tanglings all around me, back into the midst of civilization, alone and not alone, and then here where the nights are blacker, the stars sharper, brighter, closer, the silence thicker and sometimes smothering, but not alone. Woodpeckers drum me awake. Squirrels chitter and call with the rising sun. Raccoons scratch and scatter when I walk outside to embrace the night and hold it close. Upstairs in the loft, he paces softly, a whisper of sound back and forth, back and forth across the carpet, another ghost, and I'm not alone.

In front of this glowing screen, with the work screen on the other computer behind me waiting to be filled with sound files and words so I can earn my way back to civilization, I work, looking out at the dusky sky toward the mountains, blue with failing night and rising dawn, and wait to be filled. I wait to return to the noise and civilization, to walk away from this cocoon of silence.

Another ghost, George, waits for me in the silence of the new apartment. I wonder how we'll fit together as he goes about his ghostly tasks. He's expecting me, just one person, but there will be another. A visitor who in time will become more, who will come to stay and share my life and whisper to me every night as he holds me in the darkness.

I am not alone. I will never be alone again.


Monday, April 05, 2010

The quality of light

As the light fades and colors deepen, I look out my window at the garage roof next door. The squirrels are settling in for the night, climbing into their warm nests above my head where they stomp and race. The sky is gray, but the horizon is a luminous white. The edges of the vista blur and the mountains dim and darken, growing larger, a backdrop of rock and trees and stability. The view softens with the coming of night, the fence and garage outside my bedroom window solid and clearly drawn, the details sharply defined. The rain today settles into the cracks in the wood and spill like tears down the warped face that separates me from the mountains. The fence and stones of the garage breathe in the moisture forcing flaws and wrinkles into painstaking relief.

The horizon glows with the sun's descent and the wind picks up rattling loose branches from their connections, twigs and budding leaves dipping and ripping from their moorings and floating to the ground. Darkness closes in and everything outside is delineated and defined in the momentary deep purple glow.

There is a quality to dusk that blurs the edges of the view as it creeps closer, settling in like a lover's arms in an intimate embrace. Color flees and silhouettes take solid form out of the riot of daylight.


And soon night...

...when the stars flare and fly across the vault of heaven, and the moon's pale silver face lightly blues the darkness.