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.
During the Covid years, I, like so many of you, had time on my hands. I finished my latest novel, The Tree of Lost Secrets, but I also wrote a few short stories, and bits and bobs of memoirs. Here is one I thought I would share. Enjoy!
A Girl From Brooklyn
Five-year-olds have a pretty creative way of viewing the world. When the world is made up of brick and concrete, automobiles and elevators, their perceptions are even more creative.
At five, I lived with my mother and father (my brother wasn’t born yet, thank God) in a classy, at least at the time, apartment building near Linden Boulevard. The apartment itself is a blur. What has remained in my memory, were the hot summer evenings I spent catching fireflies, those amazing flying bugs that blink on and off in the night as if battery-powered.
I would accompany my parents to the rooftop, “tar beach” they called it, greet their friends, assembled in deck chairs across the asphalt, drinking Long Island Ice Teas and smoking Lucky Strikes and Camels (before they became Kool Kamels.)
Friends like Mrs. Goldblatt, a syrupy, buck-toothed woman whose hair was always perfect. I mean perfect. Blonde, cut short, and poufed to a bubble shape, it was coated with so much hair spray that if you accidentally bumped against her head, you’d be bruised for a week. Mr. Goldblatt, on the other hand, must have wished he were so fortunate to have hair like his wife’s, since he was mostly bald with some long, wispy black strands stretched across his shiny pate.
The evenings always started the same. Mr. Goldblatt would grab me around the waist, lift me from the ground and spin me around until he was dizzy. I learned to close my eyes so I wouldn’t get dizzy too, although it would have served him right if I threw up on him. Then, he would set me down and pinch my cheeks in his calloused fingers, leaving two red welts behind. I grinned and bore it.
I tried to make my escape to my favorite corner of the roof, but fifteen-year-old Tony Parucci began his usual cant, “Lynnie, Lynnie, what a little ninny.” Everyone laughed. I kicked his shins but made no impression.
“Beat feet, you little ankle-biter.” His ugly, pimply face chortled at his own dumb humor.
Meantime, Mrs. Goldblatt began her litany about the heat. “Oy vey, this is the hottest summer I ever remember, never such humidity, mein Gott, what is happening to the planet?”
“Hilde, love,” Mr. Goldblatt would reply. “You say this every summer. It’s always hot.”
Two points for Mr. “G.”
The rooftop door opened then and two of Tony’s pals from high school swaggered out. The three of them clustered together yukking it up, hands in the pockets of their baggy shorts and tank top undershirts that made them look like hoodlums. I knew about hoodlums, of course, from watching Dragnet on the brand new black and white television my father brought home one day. Sergeant Friday would frown and tell his partner, “Those kids will turn into hoodlums yet.”
“Yup,” his partner said, in a tone so serious you’d think he was talking about something important. What an odd ball.
I loved TV, even though my mom wouldn’t let me watch much. She thought my time was better spent learning to read and write. In fact, the only reason we had a television was because my dad owned an appliance store on Atlantic Avenue.
My father was cool. He was six foot-two, fair-haired with hazel eyes–a Kirk Douglas look-alike, arrogant and smooth and super smart. I inherited his hair and eyes. My mother, on the other hand, was a tiny, five foot-0, dark-haired woman with blue eyes and high cheekbones. She had a lot of spunk but not much education. I got her high cheekbones, short stature, and spunk.
Rooftop soirees were a stage for my dad. He would entertain the neighbors with his adventures from the War, how he captured a Japanese flag in the Philippines and received the Medal of Honor for killing a kazillion “gooks” along the way. Was that a good thing? Mr. Carney from the first floor would pipe in with his experiences and off they would go, back to Germany, or Italy or the South Pacific.
At this point, I was thoroughly bored, so I reached into my mother’s giant canvas bag, pulled out my jar and slipped away to a dark corner at the top of the world. There I would sit cross-legged (we said Indian-style) and gaze up at the black sky dotted with shimmery stars.
Each sojourn to the roof gave me the opportunity to hone my bug-trapping skills. I would open the hole-punched top of my mayonnaise jar, its insides smeared with a tiny bit of honey, and sit quietly with it, waiting, hardly breathing, until a blinker would alight. Then, if I were lucky, I would catch him in the jar with the lid and twist it on. I could spend hours and hours watching him buzz and twinkle inside the jar.
At some point in my forays into the science of entomology, perhaps I had turned six, it dawned on me that the little critter was desperately trying to escape and not just flitting around to amuse me. I was horrified. How could I be so cruel? Immediately, I unwound the top and set him free. From then on, my rooftop visits were no longer as thrilling, but I glowed in my new magnanimity.
What’s So Funny?
I’ve always heard that movies rarely live up to the great book from which they originate. Often, when the movie is spectacular, I find it was written originally as a screenplay and not a book.
What I have noticed recently is that books with a sense of humor do not translate well to screenplays. Two authors come to mind: Richard Russo and Liane Moriarty.
Richard Russo’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Empire Falls, had wry humor throughout the story. In the television series, however, much of that was missing. I didn’t find myself laughing out loud like I did in the book. That’s disappointing. Still the series kept my interest. The characters, setting, and pace were all glorious. And the story was poignant and compelling.
The same was true of Russo’s Nobody Fool. Perhaps the humor in the book would have made the scenes too comical in the movie? In this case, the author and the screenwriter were the same so I assume he left out the humorous lines because he felt they would not work as well in viewing as in reading.
In the last few months I have been engrossed in books by Liane Moriarty. After reading Big Little Lies, I decided to try the HBO Series. Truly, it is wonderful . . . suspenseful, delightful characters and a storyline that builds to a heart-pounding ending. However, where did the humor go? As I read this book, I recall many laugh-out-loud moments. As I watch the series, none. Did I miss the funny lines?
Which brings me to the reason for this blog. Is it not possible to translate humor from a book to a screenplay? Does the script writer make that decision because it is too difficult or because it simply doesn’t work on the screen?
Big Little Lies works as both a book and a film series. But in my opinion, without the wry and clever humor of Moriarty, which is her signature, it loses something in the translation.
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
As a writer of historical mysteries, I try to remain loyal to the details of the historical period I’m portraying. I use real settings with real characters, then insert fictitious characters with fictitious events to create the mystery.
Staying true to the facts of the historical period is fairly straightforward . . . until those facts change. You may wonder how historical facts can change. After all, they happened in the past and they’ve been documented. But historical facts can be altered based on new research and evidence.
So, what’s a writer to do? Case in point. My novel, Pure Lies, begins with a prologue in 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, where several witches are about to be hung. It was initially believed that they were hung from a tree atop Gallows Hill. In the last few weeks, we’ve come to learn that the hangings took place, not at the top of the hill, but at the bottom, on something called Proctor’s Ledge. Oh well, you think. Top, bottom, so what? Proctor’s Ledge is now the site of a Walgreens pharmacy. (Methinks there’s marketing opportunity here at Halloween!)
Interestingly enough, this actual site was pinpointed nearly a century ago, but research was lost to time and replaced by legends and misconceptions. Eventually the top of Gallows Hill became the “factual place of the hangings.” If I had known, might I have written the hangings onto the Ledge? Maybe. The location is not nearly as literarily romantic as the hanging tree at the top of Gallows Hill.
There have been other examples of history changing over time. For centuries we believed Pluto to be our outermost planet. Now it’s been downgraded to a dwarf planet and is one of 40 other dwarf planets. A bit of a disappointment for Planet 9.
One transformation that particularly bothered me was the reclassification of the most iconic of dinosaurs, the Brontosaurus, or “thunder lizard.” Since 1903, the scientific community has believed that the genus Brontosaurus was really the Apatosaurus. Now, after serious research, paleontologists provide conclusive evidence that the Brontosaurus is distinct from the Apatosaurus and has been reinstated as its own unique genus. Yippee!
And then there’s the case of the 15th century king, Richard III, whose portrayal in both English history and English literature has created ongoing debate. It was long thought that he died in ignominy and was buried in a crude grave in an unknown location. However, in 2012, archaeologists discovered his remains under a parking lot (not a Walgreens) and through forensic analysis learned that he suffered 11 injuries at or near the time of his death, indicating he died in battle. More to come, no doubt, as further analysis is done.
History is a dynamic and ever-changing discipline. As a novelist, fortunately, I can invoke artistic license and save myself the trouble of re-writing my books to conform to changing history. Whew.
When history evolves . . . what’s a writer to do?