Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sometimes I know more than I think I know

By Gayle Carline
Mystery Author and Occasional Smarty-Pants

I'm actively involved in the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime, and often get to hear interesting and useful talks given by forensics experts. This month, I got a double treat.

I got to actually meet one of the other CFC bloggers, Sheila Lowe, who gave us a fascinating presentation on handwriting and behavioral analysis (and how they go hand-in-hand, no pun intended). It was great to meet her at last! Her information had my mind spinning with ideas of how to use handwriting in the next mystery.

Sharing the schedule with her was Dennis Palumbo. Dennis began as a screenwriter (he wrote the fabulous script for My Favorite Year), then somewhere along the timeline became a licensed psychotherapist, and now writes crime novels.

I joke about experiencing reincarnation while I'm still alive to enjoy it, but it seems that Dennis agrees with me.

Dennis spoke at length about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), its roots and how it affects people from different backgrounds and experiences. He discussed this, not only as a therapist who has seen it, but as a writer sharing ideas for how to create three-dimensional characters.

According to Dennis, people handle traumatic events differently, according to their past and their culture. People who were traumatized as children tend to see additional assaults as inevitable. It is somehow their fault, and they are fated to be victimized. People who have lived without being attacked in any way tend to see a traumatic event as earth-shattering. Their world was safe. Now it is changed, forever.

I am simplifying it greatly, but why am I even talking about it? Two reasons.

One, I'm always willing to share what I've learned with you. By-the-by, if there's a Sisters in Crime chapter near you, I urge you to join and go to the meetings. We're not the only chapter who gets these high-quality speakers.

Two, listening to Dennis made me wonder if I had gotten my protagonist's actions correct in my latest book, MURDER ON THE HOOF (to be released this summer). Willie is attacked by a man who is later found dead in her tack room. As Dennis talked, I was reminded that I made a big deal about how she had never been assaulted, not even spanked as a child.

Uh-oh. Had she sloughed off the event too easily?

Of course, I ran home, opened the manuscript and started looking for where I had let Willie down. I anticipated adding a significant amount of words to have her trauma surface in unusual moments. In addition, I worried that it would take the plot down a different road.

That would suck.

I skimmed through the book, looking for the attack. What do you think I found?

Somehow, I had gotten it almost right. I added a few sentences here and there, but I had already set each scene up for Willie to overreact to stimulus, or have trouble sleeping, or be obsessed with this darkness, wondering if her life would ever be whole again. She was already a good character, but after Dennis' talk, I feel I took her from two-and-a-half-dimensional to full figured. And it didn't take much. I got lucky. Or did I?

I've never been attacked or assaulted. I had a few spankings as a child, but I can't say they traumatized me. I remember the events that changed my world, the way an attack would have changed Willie's. In hindsight, I had used my own view to shape how my character felt about what happened.

How about you writers? Do you instinctively reach for your own experience and reactions to build your characters? When you know you are writing someone completely different from yourself, where do you turn for insight?


  1. What an interesting and timely topic Gayle! I had been thinking about something similar for the last two weeks :)

    I don't deliberately try to weave my own characteristics and experiences in my characters, but I think it's human nature to unconsciously do a little bit of that as our life experiences have made us the writers that we are today. I know a few friends have commented on one of my previous (unpublished) work and said they could totally "hear" my voice when they read the main protagonist's dialogue. In fact, one person even said that Lucas Soul, protagonist of Soul Meaning, had my dry sense of humor.

    I've never gone through the experiences I've put my characters through.
    The place I turn for insight when I'm writing someone completely alien to me is the movie industry. My inspiration very often comes from memorable movie characters that stand out to me as being the closest to the one I'm writing about. I am a very "visual" writer that way and I use a lot of imagery when I'm plotting, from pictures of actors who have the physical attributes of my MCs, to locations and weapons. I'm using Scrivener for the first time this year and being able to use the images in there is fantastic.

    The thought that has been occupying my mind in the last fortnight and kind of touches on your topic is this: can I deliberately make one of my protagonists do something which I would deem illogical, and quite frankly stupid, just to create tension? The most classical example that comes to my mind is that first act from the movie "Scream", when the girl goes to open the front door despite having received a strange, threatening phone call, a scene that has been emulated in countless horror films. I'm sure many of us shouted abuse at the screen involving variations of the word "idiot".

    I haven't been able to "make" any of my protagonists do anything "stupid" yet. Sure, they've been outsmarted by the bad guys a lot but not because they were idiots.

    Does our personality determine how we make our characters act?

    1. I think it's hard to keep our own personalities out of the mix, but it can be done. It's part of why I love to write - to see what I can make words do on a page!

  2. Thanks for a great post! I wish my nearest Sisters in Crime chapter was closer than Portland.

    I dig into my own emotional background for my characters because I've been through so many things! (Including a near-death experience from an assault.) If I need to explore feelings and experiences I haven't had, I reach out to my network of friends, readers, and experts.

    1. I could suggest that you form a group in your area, but I'm afraid you'd lob something at me. LOL!

    2. There's no local chapter in Denver either, which surprises me. And no, I'm not going to start one.

  3. My last book, THE SACRIFICE (gratefully endorsed by Dennis, by the way), has a primary character who lives with profound depression. Since that is something I've never experienced, I sought out advice and direction from professionals. Almost everything else, I'm a little afraid to say, are pieces within me I feel I can access with relative ease. Even the bad stuff.

    1. Okay, that reads a little weird. I was and remain grateful to Dennis for endorsing my book. Sheesh, Peg. Get a grip.

    2. HA HA Peg you crack me up! Dennis was super fun (so was Sheila). I think we all have those dark places we can access in our writing, but they are just one piece of a whole person.


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