Not long ago I finished an excellent novel called “Help for the Haunted.” It’s about two sisters, ages around 14 and 18 and their parents who make a living by helping expunge demons from haunted individuals. Hmm. Well, never mind the plot – it actually works quite well.
When I was about halfway through I happened to notice the name of the author. Isn’t that awful? I didn’t even pay attention to the author’s name until then. Shame. Anyway, the author’s name is John Searles. A male . . . writing in the point of view of two young females. The characters were so well formed and realistic I was surprised to learn they were created by a man.
I began to wonder how many other books I’ve read had characters developed by an opposite sex author. One that came to mind immediately was “Memoirs of a Geisha.” In this book, the author, Arthur Golden, does an excellent job of portraying the opposite sex main character. (Not to mention all the cultural differences that required a great deal of research.)
The other book I recalled was “She’s Come Undone,” by Wally Lamb. Also an excellent portrayal of a female character by a male author. Here the protagonist deals with rape, the death of her mother and suicide. How much tragedy and trauma can one woman deal with and how can the male author empathize so poignantly?
In “Help for the Haunted,” clearly I assumed the author was female. I applaud John Searles for getting into the heads of two young women so artfully. But how did he do it? Does he have daughters? Does he teach high school girls? Does he vet his characters through other young women to see if they are, indeed, realistic?
In my novel, “The Triangle Murders,” I attempted the same thing. The main character is a male homicide cop, Frank Mead. However, Frank had been developed in other books with the help of a female character. In this book I simply let him fly on his own. The point is that Frank “grew” around my female protagonist in other books and I felt I knew him well enough to give him the lead. But how well did I know him compared to my female lead? As a woman, how well can I know any man?
As I write this, I’m listening to Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo. I have a hard time writing to music with lyrics – the words tend to wind up on my page — so I opt for background music, usually classical.
Music is a terrific way to bring your characters to life. Let’s take a peek at a fictional guy, Ray Salvo. He’s eighty-five, fought in two wars, a widower with four kids, nine grandkids and two great grandkids.
Ray’s at home now, a small craftsman in southern California, dusty, threadbare, mostly because he can’t see well enough to care. He’s alone, as he often is. How can we paint a more vivid picture of Ray? Use music.
He rises stiffly from his old recliner, ambles to the record player, an old Kenwood turntable, and his large assortment of record albums. His kids want to get him a CD player, his grandkids, an iPod. He’ll stick with vinyl. As he sorts through his albums, memories blow in and out of his mind. Is he thinking of his dead wife? Good place for a flashback.
The albums are sorted by date, decade, actually. The 30s and 40s, when Ray was a kid, he was one of the lucky ones to have a radio. The sweet sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Maybe Ray’s picturing his old family home in his mind?
The 50s. Elvis and Buddy Holly. The Isley Brothers, twistin’ and shoutin’. Ray picks up a photograph of his wife – ahh, she could dance the lindy.
The 70s brought the Disco craze: Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People. Ray gives a few hip lurches as he hums “Y.M.C.A.” Ouch. He remembers watching Saturday Night Fever with his kids.
He flips some more. Classical albums: Ravel’s “Bolero,” hmmm. “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Mozart, not his favorite, actually. He loves the Russian composers better. But classical is not the choice for today. Too maudlin. Good opportunity for description here. Maybe Ray’s worried about his finances, his son’s cancer?
He smiles when he gets to some newer recordings stacked on a side table — CDs that his grandkids have given him, in hopes he’ll upgrade from his turntable. He reads a jewel case label: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Or is it “Imagine Dragons” by Radioactive? Argh. Now he really feels old
Which record will it be? This is the defining moment for the character. Is he locked in the nostalgic 40s? 50’s? What does he want to listen to? What is he thinking about, what is his mood?
Ray flips back to earlier albums and after a few seconds finds exactly what he’s looking for. Not swing or jazz or blues. His fingers grasp the music he loves best. Classic Rock. The Rolling Stones. Yea. Now, he can get some satisfaction. So can you. You have a better handle on this character, solely through his music.
It’s become a tradition for me to send this story out every Christmas. I hope you enjoy.
When it started, World War I was predicted to last only a few weeks. (The same was true of the Civil War, by the way.) Instead, by December of 1914, WWI had already claimed nearly a million lives. In fact, over fifteen million died in a war that dragged on for four miserable years.
But a remarkable thing happened on December 24, 1914. The front fell silent except for the singing of Silent Night. A truce! There are many examples of truces during wars, but none as famous as this one. The Christmas Truce of 1914.
In the Ypres region of Belgium on Christmas Eve, guns stopped, leaving a deathly silence across the fields. Then suddenly the British watched in astonishment as Germans began to set tiny trees along their trench lines. Soon a familiar tune with unfamiliar words carried across No Man’s Land, the battered and desolate space between the enemies. Silent Night. Stille Nacht.
Soon the British were singing along with the Germans. Soldiers on both sides crawled out of their trenches to meet in the middle and greet their enemy. They exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs. Perhaps a drink or two. And they collected their dead and wounded, carrying them back to their respective sides.
Peace for the day. Only one day because the next day they were back killing each other. Is there something wrong with this picture?
The story of the Christmas Truce came to my attention after reading the non-fiction, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, an amazing story of WWI. I highly recommend.
I’ll leave you with this thought. If Christmas can bring together mortal enemies for a day, why not for a week, a month, a year or longer? Or forever?
I hope you click on the youtubes below. They will make you sad and happy but most of all hopeful. Wishing you a happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy New Year.
Belleau Wood: Christmas Truce by Garth Brooks. https://www.google.com/search?gs_ssp=eJzj4tFP1zcsNM2qSq6sqDBg9JJMTywqyVBIKsrPzy5WSErNyUlNLFUoz89PAQAlgA6Q&q=garth+brooks+belleau+wood&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS792US792&oq=garth+brooks+belle&aqs=chrome.1.0i355i512j46i512j69i57j0i512l3j0i22i30l3j0i390.5951j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:9cb457f4,vid:bMJek4X4Db0
Christmas Truce 1914, Music with captions to tell the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsCpLMPI7IY
Behind the Christmas Story: The Christmas Truce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgLcvjA8NDk
Christmas Truce of 1914. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p05E_ohaQGk
Vincent van Gogh – Suicide, Homicide or Misadventure?
The research for my book, Deadly Provenance, took me places I never expected to go. To the dark recesses of the brain, its power over the body, and all that could possibly go wrong with that relationship. How did I get there?
For my premise, I needed a painting that was plundered by the Nazis during World War II and never recovered. I chose Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase With Oleanders” because he’s one of my favorite artists and one whose life, as much as his art, touched my heart.
I’ve had one of those giant coffee-table books of his artwork for years. I read Stone’s “Lust for Life” and saw the movie with Kirk Douglas as Vincent. I wanted to know more and the most comprehensive, well-written and beautifully poignant account I highly recommend is a book by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, called Van Gogh The Life:
The book is astonishing in its breadth of research from Vincent’s history, family ties, relationships, such as they were. But their conclusions about how Vincent died simply blew me away. Only this is certain. On July 27, 1890, Vincent sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He stumbled back from his painting foray to the Ravoux Inn, his residence, in a town twenty miles north of Paris-Auvers, France. Thirty hours later he was dead.
No forensics was available, no gun was ever found. The bullet was never removed from his body. His painting supplies were never recovered. The location of the shooting was never verified. There were, supposedly, no eye-witnesses. When Vincent was asked by the police if he wanted to commit suicide, his answer was a vague, “Yes, I believe so.” When they reminded him suicide was a crime, he said, “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.”
Why do the authors make a case against suicide? They believe Vincent wanted to die and actually welcomed death. Here are the points they make:
The bullet trajectory was oblique and from further away than Vincent’s arm could reach.
If he were indeed painting in the wheat field, as suggested, it would have been too far and difficult to return to the Inn with a bullet to his gut.
The gun and art equipment were never located.
He left no suicide note and he was a prolific writer.
Rather than go into details here, and there are many convincing ones, I urge you to read the book, at the very least the Appendix, where the authors make their case against suicide.
So who might have shot Vincent, either accidentally or on purpose? There were, apparently, in this little town, two or more teenagers who enjoyed tormenting the artist, who, unlike, the fiery and handsome Kirk Douglas, was a rail-thin, emaciated and dirty wretch with a bad temper.
A bit more is known now about Vincent’s personality “disorder” and it is suspected that, with family history and symptoms that prompted bizarre, dramatic behavior, the diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy is a viable possibility.
The question remains even today: how did van Gogh die?
In an attempt to answer that, I am considering having my characters from Deadly Provenance return to the mystery with the help of state-of-the-art forensics and technology.
A dear friend and colleague passed away recently. To honor her memory, I wrote this short free-verse poem. I know very little of poetry, so please forgive the amateur effort. Most of my writing is from the mind. This piece is from the heart.
A Light Shines Through
When darkness comes
It slips in on padded feet
Silently, stealthily, unknown
It comes to us all
Young, old, in-between
And no matter how prepared
We may be
Still we must accept it
The best we can
And move forward
But it leaves a tiny hole
In our heart
A hole that never heals
But that same hole
Lets in light and life
And so we go on
With the memories
We hold precious
Until darkness comes