So you can read my books

Friday, March 19, 2010


Several readers have emailed me asking how to make the locale a character in their novels. I am hardly an authority, having published no novels. But what I do know I am more than willing to share. And what I know might just be so.

Just take what seems reasonable to you and leave the rest to the winds.

As for FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE, I lived on the streets of New Orleans for a time so the images, smells, and despair were fresh in my mind. Which was a help and a hindrance. What one written detail brought into focus for me would not be in the memories of most of my readers. I had to enter the blank slate of the reader's mind. Evoke in him/her an archetypal detail of touch, taste, and sight that would paint a landscape of the mind. Every reading experience is a collaboration between reader and author in that way. No two readers will take away the same mental images from the same author's words because each reader has his own distinct treasure-trove of memories and beliefs.

Still every author must bring his readers into the "now" of the novel's locale. Not just by sight but by smell and by touch -- and even more important by the emotions evoked by each of those details. Go from the universal to the specific with words. Meld detail with the characters' emotions.

In FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE, I used actual quotes of politicians at the time of Katrina to ground the reader in the reality of the hurricane's aftermath, slowly melding the fantasy aspects so that the fantastic became more acceptable. And at the same time, I used specific sensory details, blending them in with the main character's emotions to give the locale a personality of its own. As in the beginning of chapter five :



“We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans.
We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
- Rep. Richard Baker to lobbyists.
{as quoted in The Wall Street Journal
September 9, 2005.}

An odd feeling came over me as I looked at the crowd in front of the Convention Center. For a fleeting moment, I saw the overgrown square of trees and brush it once had been. I remembered when I had been young, when every moment had been crisp and fresh, where happiness and heartache had quickly changed positions, and life was full of hope and promise. Now, things were crowded, ugly, and the only hope was for a good death.

What had Elu once told me? "When you were born, you cried and those around you rejoiced. Live your life, Dyami, so that when you die, those around you will cry, and you will rejoice."

I put my Ranger face on. The one that told onlookers that their deaths would make my life easier. And judging from some of the sullen, angry faces in front of me, sadly, that was probably true. It was a harsh look, but if it saved me from killing then it was a pretense I was willing to fake.

Most of those sitting, standing, and laying in front of the center were just scared and filled with uncertainty and dread. But those things quickly turned crowds into mobs. The water was only ankle-deep by the time I got to the front walk. But the shit I was about to walk into was much deeper.

I looked into their hollow eyes. Like most folks in this day and age, they had gone about their lives, quietly trying to swallow the fear that their lives had somehow gotten out of control and things were falling apart. Now, their worst nightmare had come to life before their eyes. Their predictable world had crumbled before their eyes. Their next meal was no longer certain, much less their safety. What did Al Einstein tell me during that last chess game?

"The true tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he still lives." Then, I heard the squalling.

I made a face. As I have stated before, I am not a nice man. For one thing, I hate screaming babies. The more of them I hear, the more I want to lash out and hit something. Maybe it was because I never had one of my own. Maybe it was my sensitive hearing. Or maybe it came from me being a man. Men just naturally want to fix whatever they see that is broken. And I couldn’t do that with a squalling baby. Most folks get downright cranky when you snatch their howling baby to see what is broken with the damn thing.

And there were a lot of babies crying as I stepped onto the water-covered sidewalk. I frowned, and those closest to me cringed. I have that effect on a lot of folks. Go figure.

My better self urged compassion. I found it odd that there was a me that I couldn't see, that walked beside me and commented on my thoughts, urging kindness when I would be cruel. I snorted. I was too old to go crazy. Hell, at my age I should already be there.
Another route to making the locale a character in itself is to bring into sharp focus the essence of the particular times when you are bringing the reader to walk among your characters in their struggles.

Hurricane Rita scattered my friends and I all over the southern United States. A good friend, Debbie {her last name I will leave a mystery to protect any potential fallout from this story,} was in a church-run Katrina/Rita shelter. As a teacher, it fell to her to teach an English class of displaced urban high schoolers. The one book that the church shelter had multiple copies of was THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKEBERRY FINN. Many of her students were outraged at the portrayal and seeming acceptance of racism in the novel.

In an emailed plea, Debbie asked that while I was driving rare blood over Southern Louisiana, if I could write a short story that would help her paint the times of the novel in such a way that her students would better grasp the mindset of that period -- and that for such a time, Samuel Clemens was actually a liberal humanitarian. And if I could make it a horror story that would be great. And if I could make it a horror story that wouldn't outrage the church leaders that would be even better.

"Was that all?," I emailed back. "You're sure that you don't want me to establish world peace while I'm at it?" She assured me that she had faith in me. That made one of us.

But I gave it my best shot.

I tried for a rural horror story that would present the actual timbre of the 1840's in a way that was acceptable to urban highschoolers. Irony is a great way to hook a reader. So I tapped my epic undead Texas Ranger, Samuel McCord, for the Mission Impossible. His scholar's mind, philosopher's spirit, and poet's soul made him an uneasy fit for the Texas Rangers. A man whose belief in the worth of any human, no matter the skin color, made him perfect to espouse values readily accepted in today's culture but made him a pariah in his own. And for good measure, I threw in a 12 year old Samuel Clemens and a monster whose natural habitat was the dreamscape of humans. And to top off the irony, I focused on the painful problem of how did a lawman who despised slavery keep true to his vow to uphold the law when slavery was legal.

Debbie emailed me that my story held her students captive and led to a week-long discussion of what the times must have like, what Manifest Destiny was, and how difficult it must have been to live honorably in times when compassion to minorities was a crime. Debbie assured me it was my story that made her teaching HUCKLEBERRY FINN possible.

To show you how I used detail plus a character's emotions and thoughts to make a locale a character in its own right, here is a small excerpt from the short story, DARK WATERS :

Mrs. Clemens gave me a hard look, then nodded and called out, “Jennie!”

A black woman, her lined face a sad map of the harsh life she’d led, came hesitantly into the room. “Yes, Miss Jane.”

“Please show Capt. McCord to the guest bedroom.”

She flicked uneasy eyes to me, seeming to prefer being alone with a rattler than with me. “Will do, Missy.”

As we walked down the spacious hallway, she edged closer to me. Her whole body quivered as if she wanted nothing so much as to run as far away from me as possible. I didn’t blame her. Fact was I felt much the same way, but I was stuck with me. She stopped suddenly.

She swallowed hard once, then managed to get out her words, “Mister, there’s monstrous mean haunts in this world. And then there be some who are damn fool enough to try and do good, only they ends up making things terrible bad for everyone around them.”

She forced herself to look me in the eyes. “Which one is you?”

“The damn fool kind.”

She almost smiled. “Leastways you be a truth-telling haunt.”

“It’s a failing.”

“That kind of thinking is what makes you a haunt.”

She was wrong. But there was a lot of that going around. Why tilt her cart if I didn’t have to?

I noticed as we walked that the walls showed clean squares where ornate frames had once hung, depressions in the wood floor where heavy furniture had once long stood. I said nothing. But my straying eyes had betrayed me to the slave, whose life I wagered had often counted on her being able to read the expression of the whites around her.

“Miss Jane has gone through terrible, sad times. Mr. Marshal he done tried, but he ain’t got a lick of business sense. Me, I’m the last thing they own of any value. And if’n I hadn’t helped birth little Sammy and saved him from drowning that time in Bear Creek, I’d be gone like everythin’ else.”

I felt sick. Thing. She had called herself a thing. What kind of world was it when one race made another think of themselves that way?

I shook my head. “They don’t own you anymore.”

Her dusky face went as sick pale as it could get. “M-Mr. Marshall done sold me to dat devil Beebe!”

I reached inside my buckskin jacket and pulled out the hastily written bill of sale. “He was going to. But ... things didn't turn out like he planned. So he was forced to sell you to a stranger ... to me.”

I gave her the paper. She took it with trembling fingers. She stared at it hollow-eyed as if it were the parchment selling her soul to the devil.

“I - I can’t read, mister.”

“Get Sammy to teach you.”

She glared at me. “You is evil!”

“Turn it over, Jennie.”

“I done told you I can’t read!”

“But Sammy can. Show it to him. He’ll tell you that I’ve given ownership of you to --”

Jennie’s face became all eyes. “T-To little Sammy? Oh, bless --”

I shook my head. “No, Jennie.”

She took a step backwards, her voice becoming a soft wail. “Not back to Mr. Marshall? He’ll just be selling me again.”

I reached out with my gloved right hand that must never touch bare, innocent flesh and softly squeezed her upper right arm. “No, I gave ownership of you to --- you.”

“I’m -- I’m free?”

“Well, the judge said you were priceless.”

“Oh, you is one of the good haunts!”

She rushed and hugged me, stiffening as she felt how cold my whole body was. She edged back a step. I met her suddenly hollow eyes.

I smiled sad. “But still a haunt.”

We were silent all the way to the guest bedroom. She opened the door then her mouth. No words came out. But she did give me back my sad smile. I watched her walk away staring at the bill of sales as if it were holy writ. It was something. More than a haunt like me had the right to expect. Maybe my pillow would be the softer for it.
Later on in the story, McCord is inside the nightmare of 12 year old Samuel Clemens :

I slipped up far behind the boy. I stayed in the shadows to get the lay of the land. With his slight, shuffling gait, Sammy was making his way to a row of tiny log cabins. I smelled sweat and weariness. But I heard muffled, happy singing inspite of it. My guts went cold. Slave quarters.

Sometimes I was glad I wasn’t human.

It was on the far side of an apple orchard. I drew in the smell of the fruit. It might have been winter in the waking world, but I had a hunch it was always spring about these parts for Sammy. I realized then that I was standing at the edge of a thicket of hickory and walnut trees. Their scent caught me up with my own memories of a lost childhood. I forced them back. Memory Lane was a dead end street. Leastways for such as me.

From the nearest cabin a figure appeared in the black, open doorway. Tall, muscular, his dark face strong and wise and kind. Only with the farthest stretch of language could you call the sorrowful accumulation of rags and patches which he wore clothes. I hung my head. How could I call myself a lawman and let this evil go on around me?

Elu kept on telling me that what the white man called legal wasn’t necessarily right just because of the name he slapped on it. I could see his dried apricot face in my mind as I heard him sighing. "There is a difference in the white man’s world between justice and his rules. And that difference is as wide as the Mississippi you head to, as sharp as day is from night, and as simple as greed."

Because I believed Elu was right and lived accordingly, I was an outcast among civilized folks, hell, even among the Rangers, for I made no allowance for the standing, class, or race of any man I dealt with. I felt my face go tighter. All I cared to know was that a man was a human being -- that was enough for me. He couldn’t get any worse than that. Except for me. I had become much, much worse.

And to make the locale of FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE more real, here is a music video :

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