Billy Craig on Characters

January 25, 2010

Please welcome Billy Craig, my guest blogger for today. Bill has a gift for character creation as well as in depth prose. Today he discusses characters.

Characters: Making them real

By

Bill Craig

When any author sits down to write a book, there is one thing he needs before he can even get started. That is a character. At least that is where I start. I create the character and then build the cast around them and then pretty soon they are creating the story. In my very first novel back in 2000, I created the character of Jack Riley. Riley was a Chicago Police Detective Sergeant with a shadowy past that included time working for the Central Intelligence Agency in Central and South America. He was divorced and had three grown children that his ex-wife had done a good job of convincing that he was the Devil Incarnate.

Now, what kind of character did I need to compliment Riley and give him someone to play off of. Next came Ken Alston, a former Navy SEAL turned cop and Riley’s partner on the CPD. Alston was a divorced father raising two young girls. Next we needed a love interest for Riley and Moria Clark was born. Moria was an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun and Riley’s off and on girl friend. Next came the hook. Moria’s brother was missing. He was a pilot, working for an oil company doing oil exploration in the Arctic Circle. Moria’s brother makes a discovery in the Arctic and sends her a video tape of what he has found.

The Oil company in the form of its CEO Harlan Esterhaus doesn’t want that tape to get out and sends mercenary killers to retrieve it. Cue the music and start the action and Valley of Death is running like a freight train towards a slam bang finish.

The cast of the Riley books continued to grow, with the introduction of Julie Carr, a cross between Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. Julie made her debut in Mayan Gold and appeared in every book after. The growing ensemble included Riley’s grown son Josiah, a rookie cop on the department, living in his father’s shadow. His older sister Liza also showed up working for the FBI.

Then in the final book of the Riley series, The Mummy’s Tomb, one more character made his debut appearance. Pulp hero Michael “Hardluck” Hannigan made his very first appearance as a former mentor and family friend of archeologist adventurer Julie Carr. Hardluck Hannigan was an interesting character and I liked him so much, it spawned him his own series.

The Fantastic Adventures of Hardluck Hannigan started with Emerald Death and we meet young Mr. Hannigan for the first time as a young man on a tramp steamer as it arrives in the Congo. In The Mummy’s Tomb, Hardluck Hannigan was in his eighties, so this gave me the opportunity to explore the character and the events that forged him into the man he would eventually become. To say the least it was a daunting challenge.  Because it made me have to go back and look at where exactly Mike Hannigan had come from.

Mike Hannigan was born in a small town in Indiana. His father was a war hero in WWI and a member of the elite Fighting Hawks led by Colonel Dane Hawkins. As he got closer to 18 years old, Hannigan ran off to New York looking for adventure. Carrying a .45 that was a gift from his father, Hannigan found work as a strong arm man for one of the Irish Mobs. Not exactly heroic right? But then this series is about the coming of age and the transformation of boy into man into hero. After a run in with the Mafia and the death of a mobster’s son at the hands of his friend, Hannigan finds himself shouldering the blame and is given the option of fleeing the country by his boss. He takes it and takes work as a seaman on the tramp steamer The African Queen heading for Africa.

One thing about working on a series set in the 1930’s and 40’s is that it allows room for certain in-jokes, especially if you happen to be a fan of old movies like me. The African Queen is one such joke, an homage to the Bogart movie. On the voyage to Africa Hannigan has made friends with the ship’s Russian first mate, Gregor Shotsky. Gregor is an interesting character in his own right, a Russian expatriate who fled Russian with the fall of the Czar. Gregor is a man of science, but also a warrior in his own right. His is the voice of reason that more often than not off-sets the younger Hannigan’s brash fly by the seat of your pants way of doing things.

Together the two men find themselves drawn into a quest to recover an enchanted gemstone said to carry the power to grant eternal youth. The catch, they aren’t the only ones after it and it happens to be held by the legendary Priest-King Prester John deep within the dark Jungles of The Congo. Along the way they meet an interesting assortment of characters from river pirates to a sailor named Rhino Hayes, and a Priest working as a missionary that fought along side Hannigan’s father in the Big War. The priest has an adopted daughter that catches the eye of Hardluck Hannigan and hangs his nickname on him because “you have the hardest luck of any man I ever met,” the lovely red-haired Bridget O’Malley tells him. From his introduction to the end of Emerald Death, we can see a transformation in Hardluck Hannigan. From a man on the run, to a man with an appointment with destiny.

In each of the subsequent books, more cast members have arrived, and Hannigan is well on the way to becoming a hero. He is guided by a deep sense of responsibility for his friends and is not especially sure he likes being forced into the role of a leader. The second book The Sky Masters hails the arrival of Abigail Grayson, and heir to the house of Greystoke as Hannigan’s new love interest. This time Hannigan and his friends face off against a flying legion that are using flying saucers recovered by the Nazi’s from a hidden base in the Arctic.

The third adventure finds the intrepid adventurers traveling to the Amazon to search for the legendary adventurer Sir Percy Fawcett who had vanished in the Amazon while searching for a fabled lost city said to be the last Atlantean outpost. It was interesting writing a real character from a fictional pov. Figuring out Fawcett’s personality and mannerisms from books and reports was certainly interesting. The relationship continues to grow between Hannigan and Abigail and it reaches a pretty serious place.

The fourth title in the series reveals a secret that Abigail has been keeping from Hannigan, and it starts to affect their relationship. Gee sounds almost like a real couple doesn’t it? Through words and actions, you can make your characters very real, not only to yourself but to your readers as well. The fifth Hannigan book which will be out this spring, brings Hannigan face to face with his first love Bridget and that causes certain tensions with Abigail. The Curse of the Kill Devil will be a pivotal point in the development of Hardluck Hannigan and will affect his future for a long time to come.

I started my third series because I wanted to try my hand at writing straight mystery without the high adventure stuff getting into the story. To do that, I needed a private eye, one that had a lot of connections. Sam Decker, P.I. was born. Decker is a former DEA agent that “retired” himself when he got fed up with watching the crooks walk away after getting their hands slapped. He took up residence on a small island in the Florida Keys called Scorpion Cay. He has had a off and on romance with Monica Sinclair the Chief of Police on Scorpion Cay.

One of the most interesting characters that I have come up with is Joe Collins. Self-contained, quiet, doesn’t say much unless he has something to say. With Collins you learn more from his actions than his words, but his words are important. Collins is the cop hero of my noir suspense thriller The Butterfly Tattoo. Collins is a man that is driven to do his job. His wife was murdered, possibly by the very serial killer that he is hunting. Is he too close to the case? Or not close enough? Will he be able to handle the truth if he finds out? Or will he totally lose it? All important questions that need to be answered by both the character development and the plot itself. For example, here is how the reader is introduced to Joe Collins.

Joe Collins looked out at the night. Raindrops splashed against the window then flowed down in small rivulets to the ledge, pooling there until the pools grew too large and then flowed over the edge. He picked up the tumbler of whiskey and ice from his desk, sipping it as he watched the rain. Charlie Parker was playing on the stereo, the soft melodies haunting the room and his mood like the ghost of an old friend. Soon he would abandon this refuge to go out into the streets.

Collins studied his reflection in the window. Dark hair, chiseled features that cast sharp dark shadows over his flesh in the room’s half-light. His eyes were cobalt blue, piercing looking, almost black in his reflection. Somewhere, out there on those rain swept streets was a girl in grave danger. Danger she didn’t even know about, but marked nonetheless by a killer with a burning passion.

One thing marked her, just as it had marked his other victims; a butterfly tattoo. The whiskey burned its way to his belly, despite having been poured over ice to cool and dilute its fire. He needed the fire in his belly to warm him, to help focus him on finding ‘The Butterfly Killer’ as the press had taken to calling the newest serial sensation to grip their attention. Four young women from various walks of life, no known connection between them, yet all linked by two things: they were embellished with a butterfly tattoo and brutally murdered.

That introduction sets the tone for the character and lets the reader know that he is a man who will pursue his quarry to the bitter end. It also gives the reader a visual impression of him that they didn’t get from the cover because he doesn’t appear on it. They know instantly that Collins is a cop to be reckoned with. All of my titles are available on Amazon.

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Good Morning all!

I’m happy to introduce today’s guest blogger, Elizabeth Sweetman, second place winner of my Redemption contest. She wrote a great story about . . . well, you’ll just have to go back a few entries and read it. And keep reading here because she’s going to tell you about it below!

Have a great day,

JB

“Tell Me About It. Maybe I’ll Give You a Book”

by Elizabeth Sweetman

J.B. Kohl invited me to write a 500 word story about a flawed character on the Second Wind Publishing group on goodreads. An invitation I just couldn’t resist. The contest was about my two favorite things: reading and writing.

I’ve been reading and writing for most of my life. The wonder of words on a page which take the reader to places never imagined was incredible to me as a four year old and it’s a marvel that continues today. As a kid I decided I loved stories so much that I should write my own. Aside from plagiarizing “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (a gift to my second-grade teacher; I adored both the story and Miss Maguire equally), I’ve been writing my own stories, essays, journals and observations ever since.

This invitation from Ms. Kohl galvanized and worked the story “Lying in State” into a 500 word piece of exactly what I wanted to write about a funeral home getting struck by lightening because it really happened in the summer of 2008.

There was no warning on that humid day and I had never experienced a supercell of weather. When lightening struck less than a block away from our house, it felt like a bomb exploded. It intrigued me that the chimney of a funeral home was hit. The fire department was there within less than five minutes and from what I could see, only the chimney was blasted apart, although they were hosing down the roof and the lawn. The newspaper carried the story the next day, just a small piece which was more about the weather. It did mention that the inside of the funeral home was coated in ashes. I wondered who, if anyone could have been lying in there to elicit such a strong message from the powers that be? There was my story.

Unfortunately my story went nowhere when I started writing it. I was getting bogged down in details of why the flawed character, Royal Hellmann Dorset III was such a creep and his saga was barely limping into what was supposed to be an explosion that reveals this bad guy in his final resting place. The more I added, the less flawed and more boring my character.

The invitation to write in 500 words or less was a challenge to be certain. My first attempt at shortening it resulted in a far better tale but it was over 1.500 words. She wants the impossible! I thought of Ms. Kohl but started I whittling away at it and discovered that less was more with this story. I am delighted it came in second.

I had an art teacher in high school, a gifted artist who once said she would die if she couldn’t paint. That statement had a profound impact on me. Was there anything I do that would cause me to die if I couldn’t do it any longer? It was her passion and conviction that struck me more than her actually dying if she couldn’t paint. As a high school kid, I was certain I would die without music, running, my friends, my LL Bean boots…and I wrote all about it in my journal. I love to write, I need to write.

I am not a writer by profession, I work as a registered nurse to help buy the things we like around us: a house, cars, food, heat and clothes. It’s a good job. It’s difficult and demanding but always interesting. I wasn’t called to it, I didn’t want to be a nurse from the age of four. I became a nurse when I was thirty after realizing that while picture framing was the best job I ever had, it was a tough way to make a living.

There have been stretches of time, years even that I’ve done very little writing except keeping a journal. Life rears it’s beautiful or ugly head and takes my concentration and time. Creativity must be directed to more concrete things, mostly family and work, then beekeeping, baseball and bicycles although not always in that progression. We have two dogs that keep me pretty busy too.

I’ve had more time and inspiration lately as well as a desire to write much more. Most of the writing I think is worthwhile goes on my blog: http://lizybee.wordpress.com. I have a second blog on wordpress for finished writing which is http://sweetmanon.wordpress.com. I’ve been posting on an incredibly fun blog, http://storieswithoutwords.wordpress.com which challenges one to put a story to a picture. It’s not just that I write a story to these fantastic pictures, I’ve read some extraordinary poetry and stories from other writers as well, it’s very enlightening.

The importance of writing well has come from what I read. My influences are Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James and E.B. White. In this amazing modern age we live in, I am still trying to figure out how to manage putting my work in the right place.

In closing, I have this to say: J.B Kohl is as a remarkable woman. She’s a gifted writer, I’m reading One Too Many Blows To The Head, co-written with Eric Beetner (congratulations on that successful joint venture–I’d never successfully co-write, I’m tyrannical in writing). I am struck by her reaching out to other writers for the contest of the 500 word short story. I imagine the response must have been great, like any general call for authors. I can’t imagine going through all those entries and I had a good laugh at her 2nd rule: “Prose should be lighthearted and humorous. It’s the holiday season and I don’t want to get all suicidal”. The guidelines made “Lying in State” good but nothing beat the thrill of being recognized by a published author. Sweetman, 1/13/2010

As you know I held a contest recently where writers were asked to submit a 500 word story on second chances or redemption. From the pool of entries a first and a second place winner were chosen.

Today I’m happy to introduce J. Conrad Guest to you as first place winner of the Redemption Contest. Mr. Guest won with his short story “A Case of Writer’s Block.”

For more information on Mr. Guest, please check out the links included in his post and be sure to visit Second Wind Publishing to buy copies of his books.

JB

Unblocking Writer’s Block

By J. Conrad Guest

Truthfully, I think procrastination is a greater enemy for me than writer’s block. It’s often easier to put off until tomorrow what I’d planned to do today. However, A Case of Writer’s Block was written in response to a block I suffered nearly 10 years ago.

I was working on the second book in the January series—the sequel to January’s Paradigm. The trilogy is a very complex storyline composed of an alternate reality in which Germany has won World War II. The backdrop is based on my revisionist theory to an actual conspiracy theory that Roosevelt and Churchill had conspired to allow the attack on Pearl Harbor to take place, thereby enabling Roosevelt to declare war on Japan without political consequence. For One Hot January, I asked myself, what if Roosevelt had thwarted the Japanese attack on Pearl, delaying U.S. involvement in the war by a matter of even a few weeks? Would such a delay allow the Tripartite to grow too strong to defeat?

The trilogy spans two centuries and deals with speculations on time travel and creation of alternate timelines rather than the paradoxes normally associated with traveling through time to change the present. Throw in elements of romance and a man’s regrets over a love lost and I began to feel bogged down and, well, blocked.

In September 2001, a woman I was dating at the time invited me to come along with her on a business trip to New York City. Since the protagonist in the January books, Joe January, is a private investigator from Brooklyn, I readily agreed, thinking I might visit some of the same haunts he does in an effort to catch up with him.

The trip was just what I needed. In Hell’s Kitchen, the building that once housed January’s office—across from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle—had been replaced by a huge medical facility, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. We visited Zabar’s deli on the Upper West Side, where January had had, in the 1940s, a sandwich named for him—J.J.’s Special (pastrami with grilled onions and Swiss on Jewish rye bread). Through Gramercy Park and down to Greenwich Village we traipsed, all the places with which my protagonist was so familiar.

Then one day, as we crossed Central Park east to west, the idea for a short story took seed—told from the perspective of a character in a novel, abandoned by his author the result of writer’s block, its denouement so hopeful.

We returned to Michigan on September 9, two days before the WTC fell. I watched events unfold the night of 9/11, the images of the towers dominating the view of Lower Manhattan I’d seen a few days previously from the top of the Empire State Building relegated to memory and jpg. So I resolved to finish January’s saga, using January’s voice to espouse my own discontent with the political climate of this country at the turn of the century, and how it might impact the world order for the next 75 years.

I finished One Hot January and January’s Thaw, eventually combining them into one shorter novel—January’s Penitence—at the urging of a publisher who reluctantly turned it down.

As for A Case of Writer’s Block, what started out as 1,000-word short story, much maligned by everyone who read it, it’s always been a favorite of mine. I continued to pull it out every year or so, when I found myself between major projects, to rework it, polish it. We bonded and became great friends, and now, in its abbreviated 500-word format, it won a contest! Which goes to show that a writer should never give up on a piece about which he or she feels strongly. It’s also a lesson on the power of rewrites and the editorial process. Some might say it’s not my best work; but it holds a special place in my heart because of its autobiographical nature, and I couldn’t be happier that it connected with J.B. After all, that’s in part why writers write—to connect with others.

I’m in a good place in 2010, the best place in which I’ve been in many years. My latest novel, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings just launched through Second Wind Publishing, I’m heading down the backstretch with my fifth novel, Cobb’s Conscience, a murder mystery that spans two centuries centered on baseball legend Ty Cobb, and I’m looking forward to working my next case with Joe January as we embark upon possible publication with Second Wind as they expand this year to include a science fiction imprint.

Oh, and let me also add that Second Wind is having a launch party on January 29 and 30, which will include Backstop. I’m inviting readers to submit a personal account, between 200 and 400 words, of their most memorable baseball date. It could be disastrous, it might’ve led to marriage. The outcome of the game is really unimportant; what is important is what happened between the couple.. In addition to a signed copy of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, the winning submission will receive a signed baseball from Backstop himself!

J. Conrad Guest

Contest Winners

January 7, 2010

Congratulations to J. Conrad Guest and Elizabeth Sweetman, winners of our latest short story contest. The mission: to write a 500 word story about redemption that dazzled. I’m posting the stories here for your entertainment.

On Monday, Mr. Guest will be blogging from here. Ms. Sweetman will also be posting from here, so keep checking back.

And now, here’s some great work:

A Case of Writer’s Block

By J. Conrad Guest

I once had a life outside this park. Years ago, and it was a pretty good one, too. I’d been a private investigator and some of the cases I worked on would’ve made good reading had they been fictional. As a matter of fact, my last case had started out as a simple missing person—an attractive young woman from Gramercy Park had hired me to find her missing father.

It seems her father had, for six years, been on the lam from a very elite overseas group. When I finally caught up with him, he spun a wild yarn about an alternate reality future in which the Nazis had won World War II. Of course the story sounded crazy to me, and I hadn’t believed any of it, but I couldn’t disbelieve the two Germans after him—I’d met them both.

That was 50 years ago and all I remember until …

I first noticed the tall man passing through the gate at 86th Street. Obviously he was a tourist, with a Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes, wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, and holding hands with a pretty woman who had eyes only for him. He looked familiar—slender with broad shoulders and gray hair showing from beneath the edges of his cap. Because I have a good mind for names and faces, I knew I’d never seen him before; yet I felt we had unfinished business between us.

Our eyes met as we passed, going in opposite directions, and I saw brief recognition in his eyes followed by a look of shame mingled with guilt. The woman holding his hand, oblivious to the look we exchanged, laughed and whispered, “So do you love me just a little, J. Conrad Guest?” and the name registered, although I couldn’t say from where or when. That feeling of unfinished business grew stronger.

I followed the two of them across Central Park, not intending to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of their conversation—two lovers on vacation from someplace in Michigan, and something about an unfinished novel and the writer’s block that seemed to have crippled the man’s creativity.

Just before they exited the park from its west side, the tall man glanced back at me. I considered pretending I hadn’t noticed, but somehow I knew I couldn’t pretend anything in front of him: he had known I was here from the moment he entered the park. Even from a distance I could see his nearly imperceptible nod. A smirk came to his mouth; a moment later he winked at me and turned to leave the park with the woman.

The exchange puzzled me, yet it seemed to comfort me as well. Somehow I knew this tall man who seemed familiar but whom I had never met, knew me intimately. I also knew that he wouldn’t forget me in this park, and that one day soon my life outside its walls would resume …

Lying in State

by Elizabeth Sweetman

Royal Helmann Dorset III was lying in state at Colbin’s Funeral Home dressed in his navy wool suit, a crisp white shirt and his favorite silk tie. In his hands was a small, new bible. Jack Colbin had done a nice job with Roy, his final resting pose was dignified. His face had the same expression in death as it did in life, he didn’t look dead.

It was quiet at Colbin’s. In two hours the hushed gathering of mourners would stand in small huddles, murmur it was a blessing Roy didn’t suffer and solemnly shake Luella’s hand while telling her they were sorry for her loss. The wake of Royal H. Dorset III would last about 3 hours. In accordance with his final wishes, all mourners would have to file past his open casket (it was their choice to pause or kneel) to pay respects to Luella Jeanne Hastings Dorset.

The weight of the silence in Corbin’s pressed in on the windows and doors. Suddenly the air was exploded! The deathly stillness was destroyed by a supercell which broke directly over Cobin’s Funeral Home. Lightening struck the chimney, made a hole in the roof which smoldered while bits of burning wood, shingles and brick pelted the green manicured lawn.

The fire department responded within five minutes. Thankfully the lightening strike didn’t cause the whole building to blow up. The damage was limited to the chimney, a small area of the roof and to the main room with the fireplace. Ash and cinders blew down coating everything in a layer of gray dust. Some cinders scattered about the fireplace and made small burns where they landed. The very unfortunate thing about the room was the body of Royal H. Dorset lay in it. Damage to the room was superficial, Colbin’s staff would have it ready for the wake that afternoon. But the body, there was no quick fix to that.

The corpse’s skin was singed and peppered. The blast had retracted his lips from his teeth and caused his hands, comfortably clasping the small bible, to pull back and upward. His head, which rested on the soft white pillow rose several inches. His peacefully glued-shut eyes were wide open. It looked like good old Roy had gotten a hard glimpse at his future and it wasn’t pretty.

Jack Colbin could have, with time and hard work, repositioned Roy back to his comfortable repose but there was nothing he could do about the skin or lack of lips and eyelids. As it was, all Jack could do was slam the lid of the casket closed and inform the Widow Dorset that it would be impossible to fulfill her departed husband’s wishes for an open casket.

Not one single mourner present at the wake (which took place one hour late due to the unexpected weather) was disappointed with the closed casket of Royal Helmann Dorset III. No one wanted one last look at that smug face.