Different Hats for Fictional Characters

In my younger years, my mother, far ahead of her time, knew that working in the sun could cause cancer. She tried to make me wear one of her sunbonnets for protection while working in our backyard garden. I refused that hot covering. Later, she urged me to wear a large brimmed hat. Not for me. In my teen years, Jacqueline Kennedy inspired a small hat to complement dresses worn in public. I fell for that minimum style. I bought a few to match my Sunday church outfits. I had a full rack of various colors and materials for many years. Then the woman’s hat craze quit. Now, I wear a brimmed hat when I walk on sunny days.

Symbolically, I juggle several hats from writer to editor. Even editing has two hats different hat styles. As the publicity editor for Tri-Valley Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club, I’m required to use Associated Press (AP) style. As a writer and freelance editor of stories and novels, I have to follow the Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition.

So what’s the difference? Many things from punctuation to capitalization. That made me think of the quirks of my main character. A detective with a sheriff’s office, she has a greater responsibility to solve major crimes than the deputies assigned to traffic duty, but she often forgets she’s part of the team. What attributes does she have that earned her that promotion? What quirks make the other deputies dislike her? After hours, what hat does she wear to distinguish her in the community?

I’ve crafted a resilient character filled with an inner turmoil that surfaces too often and creates external conflict with her coworkers. She prefers to work alone, keep her personal life secret, and fight her own emotional demons. That’s only resolved during a conflict when life is in danger, and she has to shuffle hats to let others help her.

Too bad she wasn’t an editor before she made a career in law enforcement. She could have learned to work with others, and I wouldn’t have had to put her in that life-threatening situation.


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Hurrah for Editors (and Proofreaders, and Those Who Produce Documentation)

I seldom reblog, but this post today is worth passing on to my readers.

Lani Longshore's Blog

My son reminded me to pack paper maps in my evacuation supplies bag, since relying on my phone’s GPS might be risky. It isn’t easy to find maps these days. I eventually bought a road atlas for the whole country. I like maps, so I don’t mind having another atlas in the collection.

The lack of maps at the local drugstore reminded me of other rare things – a good editor, a diligent proofreader, and the priceless writers who create useful documentation for all the devices, apps, patterns, and machinery I use. YouTube videos may be practical for some folks, but I prefer a well-indexed paper manual.

The next time you sigh over the high cost of editorial services, consider the cost of not paying for them. Your reputation, your readers’ enjoyment, and your very life could depend on the skill of that professional.

Luck and wisdom!

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Creating Unique Characters

I had planned to interview Captain Luis Rojas, Commander of MCSO District 12 in Ironwood, Arizhttps://violetsvibes.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/shh-smiley-face.png?w=141ona. The author’s plans don’t always prevail. Before I could draft the blog, Morgan Madrid, the main character in the Ironwood trilogy, interrupted my sleep again.

Morgan was calm, sensible, and agreeable to moving to Texas. I don’t know how she found out about my plan unless she’s reading my blog because I didn’t include that in the draft first chapter of this third book that I sent to my novel critique partners in early August. I suspect Sergeant O’Sullivan, another Ironwood Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office fictional character I created, may have told her, but he’s admitting nothing.

Getting O’Sullivan to keep that secret might be more difficult than Morgan’s agreement to move to Texas.


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When a Strong-willed Character Won’t Bend to the Writer

Have you ever had your focus fictional character disagree with you? I had my first encounter when Morgan Madrid, the main character in Next of Kin, my crime fiction novel in progress, not only refused to be interviewed for this blog, she gave me a tongue-lashing so strong it could be described as “hit me with both barrels.” Her disagreement was about the setting and theme for the draft of the third book in this trilogy, not the first one. It shocked me so, I couldn’t blog last week. Even now, I don’t dare repeat her conversation. Here’s what happened.

One evening when sleep evaded me, I tossed and turned in restlessness. I used that time to prepare questions for Detective Madrid’s interview. That’s when she appeared, like a vision, but it turned into a writer’s nightmare. She stood facing me, a scowl on her face, her amber eyes glaring. With no greeting, she peppered me with her demands for book three.

Without spoiling the last chapters of the current manuscript, I can only disclose that it involves a career change I made for her. In that draft manuscript, I switched Madrid from a detective with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) to a private investigator with her own business. Not once did she mention that I kept her connected to MCSO with a fictitious position that allowed her to remain a part-time special investigator with that department while she pursued her PI interests.

I had created a strong-willed woman who forged her way toward a higher level. Through her thoughts and a conversation with Sergeant O’Sullivan, her superior, I revealed the steps she had planned toward the rank of commander of a different district so she didn’t butt heads with Captain Rojas, her ally. That evening, she went beyond strong-willed and became obstinate and belligerent with repeated blows that kept me awake.

I’m puzzled how she knew about book three—she didn’t tell me—but she slammed me with her demands to stay in law enforcement, even if not MCSO. “I’ll decide when to leave,” she said.

So I took a time out from revising Next of Kin, the first manuscript, to draft the first chapter of a different theme for book three. I couldn’t give her a higher level in the MCSO to gloat, so I moved her out of state. When it’s time for that book, I hope she doesn’t refuse to go.




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A Minor Character Plays a Crucial Role

You’ve met Sergeant Gavin O’Sullivan, a secondary character, from Next of Kin, my novel in progress. Today you’ll meet Ezekiel Ramsey, a minor character with a crucial role.

Me: “I know you’re busy at the towing yard, Mr. Ramsey, but I hope you have a few minutes to talk about Ironwood.”

Ramsey: “Yeah. I’m on lunch break, so I gotta get to Sonny’s Diner soon. But call me Zeke, everybody does.”

Me: How long have you lived in Ironwood, Zeke?”

Ramsey: “All my life, I guess.”

Me: “You guess? You don’t know how long you’ve lived here?”

Ramsey: “I don’t remember much before first grade, but when I got my driver’s license more than 25 years ago, my birth certificate said I was born in Phoenix. I started first grade here though. I remember that.”

Me: “So you know everybody here?”

Ramsey: “Not all, but I’ve towed most cars or jumpstarted batteries, some more than once, so I  know them that way. And I know the crowd that eats at Sonny’s every day like I do.”

Me: “Is that how you met the murdered woman?”

Ramsey: “Yeah. She got hired the first day she came to town.”

Me: “Were you close? Pete Quamback from On the Spot News on TV9 says it was more than that.”

Ramsey: “Pushy Pete. All he wants to do is make news. She stayed to herself mostly, but I talked to her at the diner.”

Me: “I’m sorry to bring up unpleasant memories, Zeke, but Pete says you found her body.”

Ramsey: “I get nightmares every time I think about it.”

Me: I don’t tell him I know that. I’m the one who set him up in that role. “Who do you think did that?”

Ramsey: “I don’t know. All I know is it wasn’t me.”

Me: I’m quiet, contemplating my next question. “Rumors also say you went back to drinking that day after almost a year of sobriety.”

Ramsey: “You’d get drunk, too, if you knew what I saw.”

Me: Again, I don’t tell him I know that because I wrote the manuscript. “And how are you doing now, Zeke?”

Ramsey: “I’m back on the wagon. It’s hard though. Every time I pass the RV at the Judge’s ranch, I get the shakes all over again.”

Me: “Well, thanks for your time. I hope you get the help you need to stay sober.”

A smidgeon of guilt crosses my thoughts as Zeke leaves, head down as though even eating at Sonny’s has lost its appeal. Maybe I should have apologized for casting him in such dire circumstances, but somebody had to find the body, or this would have been a cozy mystery instead of a crime fiction novel.



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Cure for Writer’s Procrastination

During downtime, resting from a tough manuscript edit, I read an article in Romance Writers of America (RWA), a magazine a friend gave me. Although romance isn’t my writing genre, one article about avoiding writing procrastination urged me to make a date with the characters in my book. I began with gruff Sergeant Gavin O’Sullivan, a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Arizona. He’s a pushover for coffee so he accepts without asking why I’m inviting him. Here’s the secret. I want to ramp up the tension between him and the main character, Detective Morgan Madrid, not smooth it over. I served him coffee, black like he prefers.

Me: “Sergeant, why do you dislike Detective Madrid so much?”

O’Sullivan: “Because she’s so uppity, trying to do things to get promoted to the next level.”

Me: “Uppity. Is that a Texas word? That’s where you’re from, right?”

O’Sullivan: “What’s wrong with uppity? Yeah, I lived in Houston. But you sound just like her. Always thinking you’re right.” He plops his cup down on the table and coffee splashes on my white damask tablecloth.

Me: “Didn’t she earn the promotion?”

O’Sullivan: “It shoulda gone to Maclin Jeffries, her patrol partner. He’s been here longer than she has. She got promoted because she’s a Latina. How can that be? She’s a blonde. Maybe it’s a bleach job. Still, she’s got blue eyes.”

Me: “Sounds like you’re prejudiced. Isn’t your job to treat all the deputies under your supervision equal?”

O’Sullivan: “There you go. Defending her, just because you’re a woman.”

Me: “Let’s move on.” I consult my list of questions. “You worked for Captain Rojas, the commander of your MCSO district, when he was Chief of Police in Houston. Detective Madrid says that’s how you got this job. What do you say to that?”

O’Sullivan: “There she goes again. Finding fault with everyone else and overlooking her own shortcomings.” He looks at his empty cup. “Got any more coffee?” I refill his cup and shift to another sore spot in the novel.

Me: “Madrid seems to be accomplishing her career goals. What about you? You could be Lieutenant Genesee’s replacement if she can’t return to work after her motorcycle crash.”

O’Sullivan: “That would be nice, more office time, but I’d still be Madrid’s supervisor ’cause she’ll push to be the next sergeant.” He drains his cup one more time. “Gotta get back to work. Thanks for the coffee.”

RWA is right. Now that I know more about this character, I can increase the tension between these two. I don’t tell O’Sullivan—he won’t like it now, but he’ll understand later—that he’ll change his attitude near the end of the book.




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Writing Inspiration

The process of learning consists not so much in accumulating answers as in figuring out how to formulate the right questions.

Gordon Livingston, M.D.

Day 122 of the shutdown here. Five months without novel critique group meetings to toss around writing ideas. Where to go for inspiration? I remembered another quote by Dr. Gordon Livingston, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

I see the bad in this shutdown, but I’ve found solace in a few good things. Things are not perfect, but things are good. The good may not be as visible, but it’s there, waiting to be unearthed when I search for answers. Maybe I need a map.

There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition, and a willingness to be surprised.

-Gordon Livingston, M.D.

I’ll take that as my inspiration during another stay-at-home weekend. A good time to write. A chance to surprise myself.







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Clichés and Book Covers

Analogies compare two unlike things as being similar. Does that sound like a paradox? Perhaps it is. Unlike people you know who use these expressions at random, they are considered clichés when a writer uses them in a novel. In an article on how these expressions should be used, one bit of tongue-in-cheek advice was to “avoid them like the plague.” Other advice says to use sparingly. But what if your character talks like that?

That’s the way I viewed Sergeant Gavin O’Sullivan in Next of Kin, my crime fiction novel in progress. He says “Cool as a cucumber” and “hot as blazes.” On the advice of my critique group, all published authors, I reluctantly deleted those expressions and a dozen more. Here’s one saying O’Sullivan skipped because he’s not a reader.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

But we do. The cover is what pulls the reader to take the book off the shelf. Or peek in the pages of an e-book advertised online. The design has to be compelling. From colors to title, the cover should depict the story, or at least a hint of the theme. Then there’s the back cover text which writers call a blurb. Considered the drawing card, this is what pulls the reader to open the book, maybe even leaf through it.

I’ve alternated my writing time between changing my country-style sergeant’s vocabulary and drafting a cover that tells the story focal points—or at least the theme. I’ve smoothed out O’Sullivan’s rough edges (cliché) but I’m back to the drawing board (one more cliché) on the cover. I’m no artist. I’ll leave that to the designer, but I need ideas—something that grabs you.

What are your favorite cover colors for mystery crime fiction?



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Celebrating the Red, White, and Blue

My elementary school teachers referred to today as Independence Day. My family called it the Fourth of July. Businesses closed for the day. Even then, the US flag with 48 white stars on a field of blue flanked by red and white stripes waved in the wind, or hung limp, on flagpoles depending on the presence or absence of a breeze. My family picnicked that day.

Our destination was random, usually beside a gentle river. The men fished. Ladies spread tablecloths while keeping a watchful eye on the children wading in the shallow water. Mothers were prepared with an iron skillet, cornmeal, and grease for a fish fry, but experience had taught them to be resourceful. About lunchtime with no sign of fish, they put fried chicken and potato salad on the colorful tablecloths. And, of course, a homemade birthday cake for my oldest brother’s youngest son. At home later that evening as darkness closed in, a few disobedient children in my neighborhood set off firecrackers. The rest of us waved lit sparklers with mothers chaperoning nearby.

One year, there was no family celebration. Among the many reasons, one of my married brothers owned a farm and another worked at a dairy. “We have to work,” they said. “Cows don’t take holidays.”

For several years, strangers have blocked my street at dusk, waiting for darkness. From tailgate parties to individuals in lawn chairs, they ate and drank and celebrated while waiting for the downtown fireworks to begin. Tonight my street is quiet. There will be no fireworks because of the coronavirus shelter-in-place order.

This morning, I thought of the cows when I tied red, white, and blue ribbons on my door beneath a computer-generated sign that proclaimed Happy Fourth of July. My own quiet celebration.


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Southern Greenhorn and a Green Ham

I grew up in California with transplanted southern parents. I didn’t realize they had accents because they sounded similar to dozens of other families in our small town that had migrated west from Oklahoma and Arkansas. They adapted to California words, as much as could be expected from folks in their mid-forties and fifties. My mother fried eggs in bacon grease and used lard in her flaky piecrusts. She made hogshead cheese, too, but that’s a post for another time. She baked hams, usually the shank portion because they were cheaper. I thought I had heard every southern cooking term, then I married a military man from the South. He spoke of foods I’d never imagined.

Jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo. Yes, foods but words from a song, but I didn’t know that, either, until years later when we relocated to Louisiana. There’s where this greenhorn first heard the words “green ham” one winter when I was preparing a Christmas menu. How would I find it if I didn’t know what it looked like?

“Just ask our butcher. He’ll know.”

Courtesy: Wiki Clip Art

Not a soothing answer, but I drove the few blocks to a full butcher shop where the meats were custom cut, never prepackaged. I plastered a smile on my face, pretended I knew what I wanted, and asked for a green ham large enough for eight with leftovers. Imagine my surprise when he brought an uncured ham from the cooler, a cut of pork my mother called a fresh ham.

And filé gumbo. That’s a seasoning powder made from dried, ground sassafras leaves, sprinkled over gumbo before it is served.

I’m thankful that wasn’t on the Christmas menu. One new southern cooking term at a time was enough for this California transplant.


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