Hi, Sharon here. One of my favorite things in all the world is hearing people’s stories. Maybe it’s why I consider myself a storyteller first and a writer second. The idea behind the Spoon River Anthology, the author going grave to grave and telling (making up) the stories of the townsfolk and their interrelationships sounds like my idea of a great week—though, apparently, Spoon River was a depressing place to live!
In any case, when I did briefly work as a bartender, the best part of the job, hands down, was hearing people’s stories. (Sound familiar?) From the beginning of time, we humans have loved hearing stories. Reading them is wonderful, and now watching them is a great pleasure. But hearing them can be a special treat. So I was thrilled when it was time to turn my latest books, The Bartender’s Guide to Murder, into audio books–and thrilled again when actor/director Abbie Pfaff was chosen to perform them. Listening to each of them, Death in Tranquility, Death By Gravity and Death Among the Stars, I am happy to report, they’re great!
Curious to find out what goes into recording an entire novel, I got Abbie to answer some pressing questions.
How did you decide to produce and narrate audio books?
A friend of mine in Chicago is a Talent Agent, she told me during the 2020 beginning of the pandemic that I would probably enjoy narrating since my background is in Directing and Film. She was absolutely spot-on.
What parts of your theater education came in most handy? Script analysis was crucial; piecing together every scrap you can find about a character and making them as round and squishy as possible. Directing instincts kick in when setting a scene, such as keeping track of the environment around the characters and how it affects them. And then, also bringing the scene that has just happened into the next by carrying the emotions or lack thereof.
What goes into the process that normal listeners might not realize? Staying up until 4 or 5am recording to avoid the neighbors’ lawnmowers being in the background [if you have your own home studio]. Or the amount of thought that goes into which characters will be afforded a lower resonance. I’m not a big masculine creature, but I sure try to sound like one every once in a while.
What were the most enjoyable parts of theBartender’s Guides to Murderto record? The climactic scenes where Avalon is in the thick of it, practically stepping on the murderers. Those scenes carry themselves in Avalon’s emotional state and anxious thoughts.
What parts were most challenging? Most challenging of all, would be the beautiful art of pronouncing words, specifically alcohol brands. I worked as a bartender in Chicago for multiple theater venues and even with that, I can say with certainty, I was not prepared. Challenging, yet very rewarding to learn.
Which characters did you enjoy voicing? The way Investigator Spaulding somehow both takes charge of a room and then also cares so deeply for what Avalon has gleaned, he was absolutely enjoyable to play opposite of Avalon’s curiosity and playful nature. Glenn MacTavish has my heart in the recording booth, he is a teddy bear of love. Sally, she was a blast, a firecracker personality I’ve met many times in the theatre world. Alma Eddings, for her terrible discomfort with visitors. Isobel Lester, the woman could side-eye. To name a few.
Any that were harder? Accents were a struggle at times. Glenn MacTavish’s thick Scottish accent, as well as Avantika’s soft Indian accent, were difficult to get right. Eventually, with enough takes, I was able to hear their personalities shine through.
What is your usual process for working? Read the book, script analysis, highlighting, and plan the voices. Record for a few days, edit files for a few days, repeat. Proofing multiple times for any mistakes. Communication with the author throughout.
What is your prep work? What percentage of the process is the actual reading?
It is a huge chuck of the process, at least a week goes into reading/rereading and analysis/notes. I place time “beats” and emotion based “beats” in the script to make the recording smoother later. I highlight character dialogue and character thoughts, this creates a quick signal in the booth to prepare for vocal shifts so that I will not need to stop. I research accents, research specific people’s voices, and pronunciation research. Luckily, I find joy in paperwork and zen in small details, otherwise it might have not been such a great career switch.
Is there a time of day you prefer to work? An amount of reading you can do at one time? I am a night owl. My workday begins around 3pm when editing and ends before midnight. With breaks, of course. On recording days, I start at 11pm and end sometime before 2am, preferably. Though, sometimes it is necessary to record up to when the birds wake up. I’ll go as long as I can, depending on how rough my vocals sound. I take a 10 minute vocal break for every 50 minutes recording.
Any thoughts for someone who might be interested in audio book narration? Tell the story. Whatever you can do to help the words come to life in a way that benefits the narrative, do it. Your author matters, they know the meaning of each sentence they have written. They are a valuable resource that you should respect and communicate with.
If you are listening to a well performed and produced audio book, what do you know to appreciate? Their silences and pauses. The way the spit sounds and click sounds are edited out. How they use their breathing as a tool. How they are able to not annoy people even after hours of hearing them speak.
Since each of the Bartender’s Guides to Murder features the recipe for a cocktail or mocktail after each chapter, it seems we should ask, what’s your drink of choice?
Amaretto Sour is my natural go-to. However, I made a deal with myself that once I finished narrating the Bartender’s Guide to Murder series I would make some of the drink recipes from the books. “Waffles and Sympathy,” from chapter 10 of the first book, is at the top of my list.
Has a novel ever helped you get through a hard time? They’ve helped me, so I was just wondering. Usually, when a book “takes me away,” it’s not the dense, classic type you study in school. Right now, when I need to get to sleep, I’m finding Fannie Flagg’s new novel THE WONDER BOY OF WHISTLE STOP is a great help. I love revisiting those folks from FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and finding out that some of them are doing just fine, thanks.
I’ve loved hearing and telling stories since I was a kid. I loved creating worlds and populating them. I had so many friends! Of course no one else knew them, or knew where the secret rock was, where we met. I also had breathtaking adventures as the youngest secret agent. Again, it’s nowhere on my resume (but would anything employing the word “secret” be on a resume?).
For me, now, writing is therapy. It’s where I channel my emotions and explore life’s questions. As you know from my last post, I started writing the Bartender’s Guide to Murder series after our catastrophic house fire. One thing you can be sure of: someone facing murder is worse off than me.
The mysteries I write tend to feature of cast of characters who are, for the most part, good folks. They’ve got issues–everybody’s got issues–but only one or two of them would actually kill anybody. The rest of them are dealing with life, in all it’s joy and sorrow and messiness and complexities, and with all it’s questions and quirks. That’s the part I love.
That’s why I’m so lucky to have Avalon Nash, my young bartender heroine. Avalon is smart, she’s intuitive, she’s got issues that go deeper than mine. But mostly, she asks questions. That’s what I love about writing these mysteries, is that I get to explore life’s questions–sometimes, the tough questions–alongside folks I like. Even if they’re fictional.
The second of Avalon’s adventures, Death by Gravity, is coming out on December 2. In it, she deals with some more difficult issues than she did in the first book. I’m grateful for the reviews the book has gotten, but I’m a little afraid when people call these books “cozies.” One person said the first book was “squeaky clean” except for some language in difficult scenes.
I never meant the books to be cozies or squeaky clean. I do believe difficult things are sensitively handled. Violence is referenced but happens offstage. They’re rated PG-13, at most.
I do hope the tone is one of hope. That’s what I need to work through all the craziness in this world to get to. That’s where I direct my stories.
If novels have helped get you through hard times, I’d love to hear which ones. I always feel those of us who have read the same books have friends in common.
Oh, here’s a special offer. If you’ve read a Bartender’s Guide mystery, or even if you haven’t, if you email me at Sharon@SharonLinnea.com with the subject line Drinks to Die For, I’ll send you a fun ebooklet with some yummy recipes from the books.
Five years ago, we had a serious house fire. We had to live somewhere else for a year while our home was rebuilt. It was traumatic, to say the least (see previous post). My wise husband suggested, no matter how fraught life had become, I should be writing. Writing is my therapy, my way of processing. Harlan Coben says it this way, “If I don’t write, I hate myself. Simple as that. My life is out of balance.” Okay, I don’t hate myself. But my life is out of balance. Bob suggested I write something “fun” to counter the stresses in other parts of life.
But write what? Or, for a novelist, the question is, write who?
The summer between his junior and senior year of high school, my son Jonathan announced he’d like to train to be a bartender. I said, funny thing, so would I. So we did. We decided to take the course in 1 week. Hardest thing either of us had ever studied for. We studied together in the car for the hour and a half down to the school, we went to school all day, we studied the hour and a half back. There was a written test and a drink test–you had to make 6 cocktails randomly called out to you in four minutes. But! Once you are a bartender, a good deal of your job is talking to people. And for voyeurs like novelists, it’s hog heaven. Or vodka-heaven. Perhaps it would be for a sleuth. The irony is, I’m not much of a drinker. I’m in it for the mixing of flavors and the conversation. I sat down and started to write, wondering who would show up.
A young woman, at a train station. She was running away from her life in Los Angeles. Her mom is a successful, if controversial, comedian and her father is a well-known conservative pastor. Her name is Avalon, her best friend has just died. She is changing trains to head to her family home in Brooklyn.
A young woman, unexpectedly at a crossroads, not knowing for sure where she’s going or what’s coming next. A young woman searching for a home who loves hearing people’s stories–and who knows how to bartend. Sound familiar? She turned out to be someone I might enjoy travelling with through the changes in this crazy world. Perhaps you would, too. If you’d like to meet her, keep reading. Here’s the first chapter of Death in Tranquility, Book 1 from The Bartender’s Guide to Murder.
Chapter 1 Death in the Afternoon
“Whenever you see the bartender, I’d like another drink,” I said, lifting my empty martini glass and tipping it to Marta, the waitress with teal hair.
“Everyone wants another drink,” she said, “but Joseph’s missing. I can’t find him. Anywhere.”
“How long has he been gone?” I asked.
“About ten minutes. It’s not like him. Joseph would never just go off without telling me.”
That’s when I should have done it. I should have put down forty bucks to cover my drink and my meal and left that magical, moody, dark-wood paneled Scottish bar and sauntered back across the street to the train station to continue on my way.
If I had, everything would be different.
Instead I nodded, grateful for a reason to stand up. A glance at my watch told me over half an hour remained until my connecting train chugged in across the street. I could do Marta a solid by finding the bartender and telling him drink orders were stacking up.
Travelling from Los Angeles to New York City by rail, I had taken the northern route, which required me to change trains in the storied village of Tranquility, New York. Once detrained, the posted schedule had informed me should I decide to bolt and head north for Montreal, I could leave within the hour. The train heading south for New York City, however, would not be along until 4 p.m.
Sometimes in life you think it’s about where you’re going, but it turns out to be about where you change trains.
It was an April afternoon; the colors on the trees and bushes were still painting from the watery palate of spring. Here and there, forsythia unfurled in insistent bursts of golden glory.
I needed a drink.
Tranquility has been famous for a long time. Best known for hosting the Winter Olympics back in 19-whatever, it was an eclectic blend of small village, arts community, ski mecca, gigantic hotels and Olympic facilities. Certainly there was somewhere a person could get lunch.
Perched on a hill across the street from the station sat a shiny, modern hotel of the upscale chain variety. Just down the road, father south, was a large, meandering, one-of-a-kind establishment called MacTavish’s Seaside Cottage. It looked nothing like a cottage, and, as we were inland, there were no seas. I doubted the existence of a MacTavish.
I headed over at once.
The place evoked a lost inn in Brigadoon. A square main building of a single story sent wings jutting off at various angles into the rolling hills beyond. Floor-to-ceiling windows made the lobby bright and airy. A full suit of armor stood guard over the check-in counter, while a sculpture of two downhill skiers whooshed under a skylight in the middle of the room.
Behind the statue was the Breezy, a sleek restaurant overlooking Lake Serenity (Lake Tranquility was in the next town over, go figure). The restaurant’s outdoor deck was packed with tourists on this balmy day, eating and holding tight to their napkins, lest they be lost to the murky depths.
Off to the right—huddled in the vast common area’s only dark corner—was a small door with a carved, hand-painted wooden sign which featured a large seagoing vessel plowing through tumultuous waves. That Ship Has Sailed, it read. A tavern name if I ever heard one.
Beyond the heavy door, down a short dark-wood hallway, in a tall room lined with chestnut paneling, I paused to let my eyes adjust to the change in light, atmosphere, and, possibly, century.
The bar was at a right angle as you entered, running the length of the wall. It was hand-carved and matched the back bar, which held 200 bottles, easily.
A bartender’s dream, or her undoing.
Two of the booths against the far wall were occupied, as were two of the center tables.
I sat at the bar.
Only one other person claimed a seat there during this low time between meal services. He was a tall gentleman with a square face, weathered skin, and dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. I felt his cold stare as I perused the menu trying to keep to myself. I finally gave up and stared back.
“Flying Crow,” he said. “Mohawk Clan.”
“Avalon,” I said. “Train changer.”
I went back to my menu, surprised to find oysters were a featured dish.
“Avalon?” he finally said. “That’s—”
“An odd name,” I answered. “I know. Flying Crow? You’re in a Scottish pub.”
“Ask him what Oswego means.” This was from the bartender, a lanky man with salt-and-pepper hair. “Oh, but place your order first.”
“Are the oysters good?” I asked.
“Oddly, yes. One of the best things on the menu. Us being seaside, and all.”
“All right, then. Oysters it is. And a really dry vodka martini, olives.”
“Pimento, jalapeño, or bleu cheese?”
“Ooh, bleu cheese, please.” I turned to Flying Crow. “So what does Oswego mean?”
“It means, ‘Nothing Here, Give It to the Crazy White Folks.’ Owego, on the other hand means, ‘Nothing Here Either.’”
“How about Otego? And Otsego and Otisco?”
His eyebrow raised. He was impressed by my knowledge of obscure town names in New York State. “They all mean, ‘We’re Just Messing with You Now.’”
“Hey,” I said, raising my newly delivered martini. “Thanks for coming clean.”
He raised his own glass of firewater in return.
“Coming clean?” asked the bartender, and he chuckled, then dropped his voice. “If he’s coming clean, his name is Lesley.”
“And you are?” I asked. He wasn’t wearing a name tag.
“Skål,” I said, raising my glass. “Glad I found That Ship Has Sailed.”
“That’s too much of a mouthful,” he said, flipping over the menu. “Everyone calls it the Battened Hatch.”
“But the Battened Hatch isn’t shorter. Still four syllables.”
“Fewer words,” said Joseph with a smile that included crinkles by his eyes. “Fewer capital letters over which to trip.”
As he spoke, the leaded door banged open and two men in chinos and shirtsleeves arrived, talking loudly to each other. The door swung again, just behind them, admitting a stream of ten more folks—both women and men, all clad in business casual. Some were more casual than others. One man with silvering hair actually wore a suit and tie; another, a white artist’s shirt, his blonde hair shoulder-length. The women’s garments, too, ran the gamut from tailored to flowing. One, of medium height, even wore a white blouse, navy blue skirt and jacket, finished with hose and pumps. And a priest’s collar.
“Conventioneers?” I asked Joseph. Even as I asked, I knew it didn’t make sense. No specific corporate culture was in evidence.
He laughed. “Nah. Conference people eat at the Blowy. Er, Breezy. Tranquility’s Chamber of Commerce meeting just let out.” His grey eyes danced. “They can never agree on anything, but their entertainment quotient is fairly high. And they drive each other to drink.”
Flying Crow Lesley shook his head.
Most of the new arrivals found tables in the center of the room. Seven of them scooted smaller tables together, others continued their conversations or arguments in pairs.
“Marta!” Joseph called, leaning through a door in the back wall beside the bar.
The curvy girl with the teal hair, nose and eyebrow rings and mega eye shadow clumped through. Her eyes widened when she saw the influx of patrons.
Joseph slid the grilled oysters with fennel butter in front of me. “Want anything else before the rush?” He indicated the well-stocked back bar.
“I’d better hold off. Just in case there’s a disaster and I end up having to drive the train.”
He nodded knowingly. “Good luck with that.”
I took out my phone, then re-pocketed it. I wanted a few more uncomplicated hours before re-entering the real world. Turning to my right, I found that Flying Crow had vanished. In his stead, several barstools down, sat a Scotsman in full regalia: kilt, Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket and a fly plaid. It was predominantly red with blue stripes.
Wow. Mohawk clan members, Scotsmen, and women priests in pantyhose. This was quite a town.
Joseph was looking at an order screen, and five drinks in different glasses were already lined up ready for Marta to deliver.
My phone buzzed. I checked caller i.d. Fought with myself. Answered.
Was grabbed by tentacles of the past.
When I looked up, filled with emotions I didn’t care to have, I decided I did need another drink; forget driving the train.
The line of waiting drink glasses was gone, as were Marta and Joseph.
I checked the time. I’d been in Underland for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. It was just past three. I had maybe forty-five minutes before I should move on.
That was when Marta swung through the kitchen door, her head down to stave off the multiple calls from the center tables. She stood in front of me, punching information into the point of sale station, employing the NECTM—No Eye Contact Tactical Maneuver.
That’s when she told me Joseph was missing.
“Could he be in the restroom?”
“I asked Arthur when he came out, but he said there was nobody else.”
I nodded at Marta and started by going out through the front hall, to see if perhaps he’d met someone in the lobby. As I did a lap, I overheard a man at check-in ask, “Is it true the inn is haunted?”
“Do you want it to be?” asked the clerk, nonplussed.
But no sign of the bartender.
I swung back through into the woodsy-smelling darkness of the Battened Hatch, shook my head at the troubled waitress, then walked to the circular window in the door. The industrial kitchen was white and well-lit, and as large as it was, I could see straight through the shared kitchen to the Breezy. No sign of Joseph. I turned my attention back to the bar.
Beyond the bar, there was a hallway to the restrooms, and another wooden door that led outside. I looked back at Marta and nodded to the door.
“It doesn’t go anywhere,” she said. “It’s only a little smoker’s deck.”
I wondered if Joseph smoked, tobacco or otherwise. Certainly the arrival of most of a Chamber of Commerce would suggest it to me. I pushed on the wooden door. It seemed locked. I gave it one more try, and, though it didn’t open, it did budge a little bit.
This time I went at it with my full shoulder. There was a thud, and it wedged open enough that I could slip through.
It could hardly be called a deck. You couldn’t put a table—or even a lounge chair—out there.
Especially with the body taking up so much of the space.
It was Joseph. I knelt quickly and felt for a pulse at his neck, but it was clear he was inanimate. He was sitting up, although my pushing the door open had made him lean at an angle. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was one of pain or surprise. There was some vomit beside him on the deck, and a rivulet down his chin. I felt embarrassed to be seeing him this way.
Crap. He was always nice to me. Well, during the half an hour I’d known him, he had been nice to me.
What was it with me discovering corpses? It was certainly a habit of which I had to break myself.
Meanwhile, what to do? Should I call in the priest? But she was within a group, and it would certainly start a panic. Call 911?
Yes, that would be good. That way they could decide to call the hospital or the police or both.
My phone was back in my purse.
And, you know what? I didn’t want the call to come from me. I was just passing through.
I pulled the door back open and walked to Marta behind the bar. “Call 911,” I said softly. “I found Joseph.”
It took the ambulance and the police five minutes to arrive. The paramedics went through first, then brought a gurney around outside so as to not freak out everyone in the hotel. They loaded Joseph on and sped off, in case there was anything to be done.
I knew there wasn’t.
The police, on the other hand, worked at securing the place which might become a crime scene. They blocked all the doorways and announced no one could leave.
I was still behind the bar with Marta. She was shaking.
“Give me another Scotch,” said the Scotsman seated there.
I looked at the bottles and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. “I think this calls for Black Maple Hill,” I said, only mildly surprised at my reflexive tendency to upsell. The Hill was a rich pour but not the absolute priciest.
He nodded. I poured.
I’m not sure if it was Marta’s tears, or the fact we weren’t allowed to leave, but local bigwigs had realized something was amiss.
“Excuse me,” the man in the suit came to the bar. “Someone said Joseph is dead.”
“Yes,” I said. “He does seem to be.”
Marta swung out of the kitchen, her eyeliner half down her face. “Art, these are your oysters,” she said to the man. He took them.
“So,” he continued, and I wondered what meaningful words he’d have to utter. “You’re pouring drinks?”
It took only a moment to realize that, were I the owner of this establishment, I’d find this a great opportunity.
“Seems so,” I said.
“What goes with oysters?” he asked.
That was a no-brainer. I’d spied the green bottle of absinthe while having my own meal. I poured about three tablespoons into the glass. I then opened a bottle of Prosecco, poured it, and waited for the milky cloud to form.
He took a sip, looked at me, and raised the glass. “If I want another of these, what do I ask for?”
As he asked, I realized I’d dispensed one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite libations. “Death in the Afternoon,” I replied.
He nodded and went back to his table.
It was then I realized I wasn’t going to make my train.
Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) absinthe
1/2 to 3/4 cup (4 to 6 ounces) cold Champagne or sparkling wine
Hemmingway’s advice, circa 1935: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
I’m sick of Dystopia. I don’t want to live on an Animal Farm in 1984. I don’t want to run with Logan or snack on Soylent Green. I don’t even want to be Divergent while Catching Fire.
While I understand the the books mentioned above are very well written, their worlds fully realized, I am afraid that, instead of being enabling calls to fight for a just world, they tend to make readers feel helpless, as if the world’s problems are unsolvable, and much bigger than all of us. They impart the fatalistic feeling that we as a world, or a society are heading for a brick wall at lightning speed–at such lightning speed, that there’s nothing to be done.
In fact, one study done two years ago found that many adult women felt that global warming, or terrorists, or whatever, were so likely to end the world as we know it that they admitted to thinking, “Well, at least I got to…” have children, afford food, breathe clean air, live in a nice house, participate in democracy…even if their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have the same opportunities.
I’m not saying that things aren’t going to Hell in a handbasket. They absolutely are. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t read or write books about villainous people doing terrible things. We absolutely should.
What I am saying is that it’s time to become less obsessed with societies rooted in despair and start imagining ourselves citizens of KickAssTopia because we’ve got to face our problems head on and feel empowered to get out there and fix things before society devolves to the place that someone comes for our little sisters to make them fight to the death. Seriously.
This doesn’t mean riding unicorns to utopia (or eutopia) while pretending everything is sweetness and light. (Although apparently some people have other ideas. )
To my mind, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is an inspiring book. It looks at hard situations head-on, but promotes the idea that the characters can have some control of their worlds and affect change. The same goes for books such as THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.
A few years ago, sociologist Jon Haidt did a study of the emotion he calls “elevation.” What he found was that people who witness or even hear stories about people doing good deeds and putting themselves out there in altruistic ways are more likely to do such things themselves.
It’s true of real life and–thank goodness!–it’s also true of fiction. If you want to be an effective agent of change in the world, think about what you watch and what you read. (And what you write. I write what I write, often, as a pep talk to myself.)
Do you agree or disagree? Have any books driven you to take positive action? I’d love to hear.
Okay, I realize that what constitutes sexiness is a very personal thing. Could be you’re a curvy size 0 with a name like Tapathis Nau with no fear of disease or desire for commitment and Bond, James Bond, is right up your alley. God bless, you’ll get no tussle from this quarter. All yours.
For some of us, what makes a character attractive is a more robust mix of attributes. I’ll admit my top, in real life, is nobility of spirit. Courage, commitment and caring are right up there. Talent seasons everything. But something’s different on the page. In literary life, I like my heroes unattainable. Someone who is so heroic, he has too much on his mind to fool around with this silly little thing called love.
EXCEPT when he falls, for one singular woman, he falls HARD. And we all know, were we ourselves fictional and he’d only met us first, it could have been…one for the ages.
So. Here’s my short list. These are presented with the hope you will share your list with me.
Ari Ben Canaan. This is where it all began for me. Politics aside, in Leon Uris’ book Exodus, there was a character so selfless, so courageous and so heroic, I was instantly in love. Ari exuded nobility of spirit, and I knew immediately that was not only the kind of fellow I wanted to marry, it was the kind of fellow I wanted to become. Even Paul Newman, bless his heart, did not capture the full essence of the Ari who was on the page.
Ambrosius. Yes, the Crystal Cave is about Arthur, and Merlin and (very notably) Uther Pendragon. But Mary Stewart presents Ambrosius is the prince that rises above all of them to repel invaders at the wall, live in a just way, temper his hotblooded brother Uther, and basically sew the seeds of the beginning of Great Britain and what would become the Round Table. He was also celibate…well, except for this one princess with whom he was still (secretly) in love, and the child they’d had together…
Atticus Finch. Need I say more? To Kill A Mockingbird is narratred by his young daughter, so the sexy isn’t front and center. But Atticus had a wife, obviously loved her, and could sure use help with some world-changing. If you ask me. Moral integrity and quiet courage are in as short supply today as they ever were.
Jamie Fraser. Oh, Diana Gabaldon. In Outlander, she created that most illusive of characters, the courageous, heroic, sexy man who finds his soulmate and stays true to her while continuing to have really really sexy conjugal relations. Yes, it involves time travel and the Scottish highlands. And yes, it is finally being made into a series by Starz. Whether Jamie will remain the well-spanked, well-built Scotsman who swaggered onto the pages of Outlanderremains to be seen.
Sergeant Mike Flannigan. Of the Canadian Mounted Police. When 16-year-old Bostonian meets her Canadian sergeant with “eyes so blue you could swim in them” in 1907, a love story with a man and a wilderness was born. Mrs. Mike is not only a love story, but a story of a marriage and how love deepens and grows through hardship and wonder.
Yani. So it should come as no surprise to readers of the Eden Thrillers that our heroine Jaime Richards has a thing for men who have nobility of spirit. As she says in the upcoming Plagues of Eden, “For many years of her life, Jaime had assumed she would never get married. Not that she had anything against marriage, but she tended to fall for knight-errant types who were too busy slaying dragons to consider applying for a mortgage.” In other words, Jaime is me (and B.K.) in this regard. Bar set pretty darn high.
So in Chasing Eden, she meets this mysterious man who kidnaps her in the ruins of Ur, enlists her help to recover a lost sword, and runs her through the ruins of Babylon, where she’s kidnapped once again. But before the story is over, he has also cared for and saved a terrified young boy who is bleeding to death, and an elderly man who is being pursued by the baddest of the bad. Now that I think about it, Yani is kind of Ari meets Jamie meets Atticus and Ambrosius. Mostly the first two. But did we succeed in creating a sexy thinking woman’s hero?
Let us know. And let me know who YOUR nominees are for sexiest hero!
Real life. Technically, the blog about the literary heroes is over and you’re free to go. But this all got me started about the fact that, sure enough, in real life, I really have always been a sucker for nobility of spirit. In fact, I remember reading the book A Man Called Peteras a girl, and bursting into tears at the end. Not because the courageous Scottish preacher died, but, as I cried to my father, “What if I can’t find a man like Peter Marshall or you to marry? Statistically, there just aren’t enough to go around!”
So, the fact is that I also appreciate real life heroes and nobility of spirit. It’s why I spent two years talking to Holocaust survivors and family and friends of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved over 100,000 Jews from Hungary at the end of World War II.
It’s probably why I’m married to Bob Scott, who is currently planning CREATING COMMON GOOD. A Practical Conference on Economic Equality, a conference with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rachel Held Evans and others, next January. And why I’m so proud to visit my dad, on whom Peter Marshall had nothing, and who goes to dinner at his retirement community as “God’s secret agent,” sitting with different folks each night, just seeing where he can listen and bring healing. It’s probably why my co-authors are Chaplain (COL) B.K. Sherer, who cares about each and every soldier and cadet under her care. Oh, and Axel Avian who truly believes that every kid (and grown up) can change the world. How that has happened, I really can’t tell you, except that I am blessed indeed.
Perhaps some weeks ago you read my lament, “Sometimes, Being a Writer Sucks.” Honestly, I believe admissions like that are part of the creative process that others rarely glimpsed before the advent of the blog.
Lest you think I’m here to repent, I stand by each and every bitchy statement made therein.
HOWEVER. This is the paragraph I’m here to address:
“The first problem is, I’m never as good as I want to be. There’s a paradigm in my head of the story I’m telling, the book I’m writing, and as hard as I try, I seldom achieve it. I am also writing this post at the particular moment in time because we’re inching towards the finish line on the next Eden thriller, and it’s 85 percent there. Which is a depressing number. The lifeblood and brilliance and paths of engagement with the reader are in that last 15 percent, and, as of now, I don’t know how to get there.”
So, when you last saw me, we were stuck at 85%. Yet PLAGUES OF EDEN is now signed off on, copy edited and , last I heard, off to the interior designer. I even did a little dance.
What was the 15% solution?
The simple answer: You. The Reader.
I’m sure every novelist has her or his own secret formula for working with readers and editors to bring their stories to fruition. Let me pull back the veil on my own.
What I’m talking about today is PLAGUES of EDEN, the next in the Eden Thriller series. That’s the one I was bemoaning in my previous post. And, to my mind, it wasn’t exactly surprising.
The Eden Thrillers (Chasing Eden, Beyond Eden and Treasure of Eden) are by far the most complex books I write. They’re done with co-author B.K. Sherer (about whom you’ve likely read in this very blog, see “Return to Eden” Jan. ’13). Each book is told from the point of view of multiple characters, has settings in multiple countries, and requires a working knowledge of several world-wide happenings and issues. Putting all of this together is HUGE. And the first draft, always, is a huge glorious MESS.
So how does it go from HGM to Sharon’s Little Dance? (SLD)?
Readers. New pairs of eyes. I include editors in this because editors are really readers with special skills. But ALL our early readers contribute to the final (hopefully) sleek final draft. The different readers come in at different stages. At this point, we have a fairly good idea of who to go to for which stage of reading. Each stage requires different skills.
CO-AUTHORS. B.K. and I tag team each other as we go along. We hammer out the plot and characters together. In PLAGUES, there are several returning characters as well as a whole sheath of new ones. The book also takes place in multiple time zones at once; when we had half the first-pass scenes written, I took one insanity-inducing week off to become one with the website 24TimeZones.com and put them all in order-of-actually-occurring, although the action in China would likely happen in a different day than events in Argentina taking place simultaneously. So many story arcs in so many time zones: it wasn’t just getting them put into order, but having the action rise in such a way that they FIT together. It didn’t drive me to drink, but I probably ate a couple of macaroons I shouldn’t have.
At this particular moment in time, B.K. has a few things on her plate with her other job. Often during her deployments, I longed for the day she’d stay Stateside while we wrote. Well, now she’s not only in the same country, she’s in the same TIME ZONE! She’s at USMA at West Point, and I can drive there in 45 minutes! All well and good, but as senior chaplain, she takes her job seriously and she’s very good at it, which often means she works seven day weeks. In other words, she’s busier than she was even on deployments to Iraq. Time working on PLAGUES was slotted and intense for both of us–though we loved it, or we wouldn’t have done it. It also usually involved Mexican food. Writing fiction is not for sissies.
Once a first full draft is done and B.K. and I have discussed it and made any necessary first changes, it’s time to put it into the “magic drawer” and turn it over to readers. Now, here’s the trick: there are different stages at which we need different advice. Knowing which readers to turn to at each stage, and how to decipher their responses, is a necessary art.
ALPHA READERS. There were only two of these for PLAGUES, and they are two people we’ve known for a very long time. It’s an odd thing with which we’re trusting them: something that will change quite profoundly before we’re done. People who don’t know us or our process would likely throw up their hands and say, “WTF? Who ever told them they could WRITE??” (Okay, I’m told neither of them felt that way, but I felt that way.) They have the ability to look at the glorious mess and say, “I got this, didn’t get that…” in some sort of cohesive fashion.
In the case of PLAGUES, they came back with 1) too many characters; 2) characters who came in the end and seemed like they were from a different story; characters whose motivations they didn’t understand, and several plot holes, information dumps about characters that went on too long.
Great! Ready for another draft. 1) we did have too many characters, took out any with only one scene, including Yani’s U.N. supervisor and the little boy (who later became a girl) sickened by a plague. 2) Right again, since those characters were important, they came in at the beginning and had a fuller story line. 3) True again. The first time through we were lurching to get the plot in order. Some of the characters’ motivations were sketchy. We provided more. 4) Also true. Trimmed a lot of character stories (it is a thriller, after all) and moved some of the rest of the info.
Okay. Now we were ready for the first test group that would read something more closely approximating the finished book. We still had some structural and character work to do, but we were ready for the bulk of the editorial readers. We have some tried-and-true standby readers who’d been alerted. Also, some months earlier I had asked for volunteers on my FB page (Facebook.com/SharonLinneaAuthor) and several intrepid souls had volunteered. We had among them some Eden-followers and some Eden-newbies. Both were needed. In this case, we also needed some readers from the autism community who had been on the path with us. We sent the manuscript without any notes, as we wanted unbiased first responses. We had a list of questions lying in wait for after they had sent their first thoughts.
This is where things get fun and helpful in different ways. You’ve obviously come to these readers for their opinions, and you get them! As it turns out, they also read for vastly different things. (Too much sex! Not enough sex! Too much bad language! Not enough language! Yani would never do that. Yani would do that all the time!) And hearing what those new to Eden got and didn’t get was also invaluable.
Fact checking also becomes interesting at this point. We had readers who pointed out the order in which events had to occur to spark gasoline explosions, and the difference between a “choir loft” and “choir stalls.” One woman said, “My bridal processional was Trumpet Voluntary and I could never have heard someone’s cellphone ring.” “I hadn’t read other Eden books; here’s what I was willing to go along with, here’s what I wished I understood.”
In general, at this stage, it’s all interesting. If one person says it, pay attention. If two people say it, it’s probably true. Somewhere along the line, you’re getting to know your new characters better, and your running characters in new ways. You make the changes that need to be made (much of it is fleshing out parts that were really shorthand to you, the author, and now the reader needs the full version). You pay attention to where they became interested and where they said they couldn’t put it down. Then tried to turn the first into the second.
This is the point at which I’m ready to turn the manuscript in to the professional editor at the publishing company. In the first days of Eden when our editor was Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s, her comments were always great and spot on. They mostly consisted of “more here, less here, MORE YANI.”
Our current editor, Margaret, who had not read the first Edens, was invaluable. She noted that several characters needed to be more pro-active; the ending in Italy needed to be re-staged; backstory needed to be dispersed further, and (oh, yeah) MORE YANI.
Done and done.
Finally. The readers whose judgement we trusted, but whom we saved to the last. Who could read the ms. like it was a “real book,” and wouldn’t find fault to find fault but would call our attention to things that still needed fixing.
And they did. The good news: so much closer!!! Finally the comments included comments like, “I don’t think I’ve been this enthralled with a book for a long time. I sat on a folding chair for about 4.5-5 hrs straight, just reading,” and, “I wanted to keep reading. In fact, I was irritated when my husband needed me to help him with yard work!”
They also noted that one part of the resolution was still abrupt (and it was). So we jumped in to rework and finish that before it headed off for the copy editor, who is final eyes-on before it goes to the typesetter. She was impressed at how clean it was. Copy editor, meet Alpha through Delta Readers.
When it came back from the copy editor and we read over it to approve any changes, it was a real sense of having made the long sea voyage. Thanks to the readers at so many stages, the 15% I couldn’t see past originally seemed grappled with, to me. When we finally hit “accept all changes,” and sent it off to Karen in production at Arundel, and therefore, to Mie, the interior designer and type setter, I did do a little dance.
One I couldn’t have known how to get to only weeks ago. So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, readers! The book wouldn’t be the book it is without you. Did we make it up past that 85%, at least into the 90th percentile?
I guess you’re going to have to tell us. Which of course makes you the EPSIOLON READERS.