Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Guest Post from Russ Hall, author of To Hell and Gone in Texas

Writers willing to talk about themselves often amounts to a literary oxymoron.  Many people in this dilemma, like myself, are introverts who favor staying in the cave writing new engaging tales, or revisiting the characters they have created who they have come to know as friends. So I will seek instead to discuss how characters happen, how they come to life, and how they liberate writers by living daring, dangerous, and even (gasp) extroverted lives. And I will certainly want to touch on how the process is therapy for the authors, while at the same time managing to provide entertainment, discovery, and exploration for the readers.

We create characters we like, who have foibles, likes, dislikes, and complexity. We learn the most by what a characters wants. Writers must know a great deal about their characters, but it is not necessary to put all of it on the page, for that is part of the reader’s opportunity to discover.

So, here’s how I went about character development in To Hell and Gone in Texas.

Al Quinn and his brother Maury are in their sixties and should be in their golden years of sharing memories of good times, yet they haven’t spoken to each other in twenty years. Al has just retired as a sheriff’s department detective and looks forward to quiet times spent alone in his lakeside home on Lake Travis near Austin. He plans to go fishing, play chess (though most often with himself), and listen to classical music. He feeds his neighborhood deer and hasn’t enough close friends to need the counting fingers of even one hand, yet he is happy and content with his life. Maury, on the other hand is a mess.

All his life Maury has been a womanizer, and let’s face it, for someone getting rapidly older and who already isn’t in the best of health this is a pursuit doomed to diminishing returns. He is starting to become like the dog who chases cars but doesn’t really want to catch one, or wouldn’t know what to do with one if he did. Yet his lifelong wants and desires drive him unthinkingly on. Now, I had a great deal of backstory in my earlier drafts of this book, scenes that detailed the two boys growing up that demonstrated how Maury got the way he was. But that he is the way he is becomes apparent to the reader, so my publisher and I agreed to trim about ten thousand words of backstory of the growth, development, and interaction of the boys. This kept the pace of the suspense/thriller galloping along.

Lest you think that makes Maury a bit too one-dimensional, a horndog of a brother and nothing more, consider that he is most certainly facing a future where he is man whose wants are going to be increasingly less realistic, something he hasn’t thought about enough. Yet the stark comparison and contrast between Maury and his brother Al gives the reader the opportunity to watch how Maury behaves and how he progresses or changes, however slightly. This is part of the path of interaction and discovery that is part of reading. Suspense readers are tuned to this and grasp every nuance, and, as Stephen King said in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

I will make an authorial intrusion here to explain that I have a brother who is a year older, and the germ of Al and Maury’s lives stems from that. But my real life brother is by no means a womanizer. In fact, he plays the piano and organ at his church. So I had to apply a little creative juice to let the brothers the reader sees happen on the page. Okay, a lot of creative juice.

There are a number of other important characters in this tale, but let me touch on a couple of favorites. Consider Bonnie, a day nurse from the hospital who agrees to come to Al’s home to tend to Maury. The fact that her daddy taught her to shoot comes in handy. I was at a public park watching a nephew play baseball when I saw the real-world model for Bonnie, just as I describe her. Everything else about her came from the same creative place as Maury’s quirks.

It seemed only fair too to bring in Detective Ferguson “Fergie” Jergens, who Al once took to high school prom, the worst night of his life. At six-foot two and wearing heels Al spent much of that evening looking up her nose. I’m not exactly certain where Fergie came from, but from the moment she first walked into the same room as Al I knew she belonged. Earlier, I mentioned therapy. The way Al interacts with Fergie, Bonnie, and his brother Maury, all provided me with hours of free psychiatric-couch therapy about dealing with wants, fears, and even desires.

Now, the characters in the Los Zetas killer cell, as well as Jaime Avila, the boss of the area’s ICE agents, are the kind of animal fierce people in the news each day as the battle of millions spent by federal agencies competes with billions made by the Mexican cartels. As the sort of characters they are, they provide the stark reality that haunts anyone seeking to live a calm and protected life, while meanwhile the menace creeps closer each day.

You mix up a batch of characters like this and turn them loose on the pages of a book and you can have a ripping good time following the adventures of a wide mix of participants. That’s just the sort of thing I was going for, and what I hope every reader enjoys!

Get your copy of To Hell and Gone in Texas from Amazon US (paper or ebook), Amazon UK (paper or ebook), or Barnes & Noble. And be sure to enter below for a chance to win some great prizes from Red Adept Publishing.

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1 comment:

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

"hours of free psychiatric-couch therapy about dealing with wants, fears, and even desires." I once heard a writer say he 'worked out his own fears on paper', and I think it makes for the most interesting characters when an author uses writing as a kind of therapy. The reader gets real people, real problems and real solutions. Great post.