Bleed Over…..

There’s something to be said about art imitating life and then life picking up on art and bending in weird and twisted ways….  Sometimes, when I’m writing, it’s hard to figure out where fiction ends and reality begins–this is especially true when coincidences (if you believe in coincidence) hammer your reality in such a way that makes you wonder if the universe truly is trying to tell you something….


In The Fishing Widow, Ethan, one of the main characters, has a girlfriend.  Her name is Nan Ashton, she arrives in Port Saint Anne from Indiana, and she is the town’s librarian.  Now… I started piecing the story together in March/April 2010 when I was unemployed in Craig, Alaska–a stay-at-home mom for my kids and a volunteer for just about anything that was going on in town after we arrived here in December 2009.  I wasn’t a librarian, nor did I have any aspirations of being one.  In early August of last year, the librarian position in town came open.  I applied.  On August 24, 2010, I became my town’s librarian.  The irony of this was lost on no one who knew Nan and the story.  While that was tongue-in-cheek odd, nothing prepared me for an encounter that September….

I was up late writing because I do most of my writing when everyone’s asleep.  Nan was alone on an island where she had to retrieve something.  There were terrifying creatures on the island, and I needed a weapon–a specific weapon that they were going to be holding, so I started searching.  Southeast Alaskan island …. terrifying creatures …. cross-cultural significance …. there.  A slave-killer.  It’s exactly what you think it’s used for–that is the sole use of this weapon among the Tlingit in times past.  The weapon used to be fashioned from stone, but Post-Contact, they were made of copper.  Even better.  I was sure I could use that to an even more terrifying advantage.

But, I put it away.  I went to bed.  The next morning, my husband remarked that I was up late again, and I told him about the slave killer.  My husband’s comment was, yeah, that’ll work.  I went to the library, and he went to his job….

Then, it got surreal….

That evening, my husband and I walked our dog down to the docks because it was a beautiful evening and the sunset was going to be stunning.  The view from the docks is nice at that time of year–when the sunset lights the sky a million different colors.  We walked down the main dock and passed a man on a pleasure boat.

“Beautiful evening,” he said.

“Gorgeous,” I replied with a smile.

We started to talk.  He was from Washington State.  He was up here looking into a business venture.  He liked to dive, he liked to explore around the outer islands.  And, he liked to pick things up….

“My husband’s an archaeologist,” I said.

“Oh!” he brightened as he said it, “I need an archaeologist!  Wait here–” And he disappeared into the boat for a moment.  When he returned, he was holding something in his hand and beaming.

“She’s an archaeologist, too,” my husband said as he nudged me.

“Great!” he exclaimed, and he gestured for me to come closer.  “Here,” he said, and placed something in my hand.  “What do you think about that?” he asked proudly.

I froze.

I stared at the stone thing in my hand.

“That’s…,” my voice was weak.  I cleared my throat and looked at my husband.  “That’s part of a slave killer…”

“Exactly right!” he laughed as he clapped his hands together.

“Tim…,” I breathed, “it’s a –”

“I know,” my husband muttered, still staring at the cracked piece of stone in my hand.

“This is fantastic!” the man exclaimed.  “We have to have you two over for lunch!  Oh, and you have to meet my wife!”  We watched as he walked back toward the bulkhead door of the boat.  “Honey!” he called.

A woman came up from the fo’c’sle.  She was smiling, beaming.  She walked out onto the stern deck and put out her hand.  “Hi,” she said, still smiling, “my name is Nan.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my husband take a shaking step back.

I smiled and shook her hand enthusiastically.  “Of course it is!” I laughed.

Writing to Character

There is no way on God’s Green Earth that my mother will ever, in a million years, crack open a copy of The Fishing Widow.  I know this because she told me so.  Now, mom’s 81 and has her tastes in fiction, and it’s not the horror part of it that she objects to.

“It’s the language,” she told me flatly, “I object to the language.”

It prompted an argument; an argument between her and my dad (also 81 and a WW II and Korean War veteran–oh, please don’t do the math, yes, he was underage).  The argument went along the lines of reality and how fiction should reflect that.  My mother objected to the fact that the fishermen in The Fishing Widow talk like, well, fishermen.  My dad admonished my mom, saying that I had it right–that’s how men talk when women aren’t around.  Then he got quiet.  Then he muttered something about wondering how his daughter knows how men talk when women aren’t around….  My mother, not to be dissuaded, continued:

“It’s foul.  I object to the language–”

“I object to the language!” I told her.

“You wrote it,” mom replied.

They told it!” I protested.

“It’s accurate, Winnie,” my dad cut in.

“Um… actually,” my husband wandered into the fray, “it’s not.  The fishermen’s language on the docks is much worse than that.  She really cleaned it up…”

So… because of the boys’ penchant for the “s” word (because I’m sure “unholy hell” isn’t the problem), my mother will never read the story.  It’s a little ironic that that’s what put her off.  I was sure it would have been Brett because I’d not really written a major character who is gay before this. My husband wondered why Brett’s gay.  I had to answer in that vein that makes writers sound psychotic: “Because he told me he was.  Just like when he sat down with Ethan in the bar, he said, bluntly, ‘I’m gay,’ and I just said, ‘fine,’ and went with it.”  Luckily, my husband and I have been married for over 16 years, so he doesn’t blink when his wife tells him she has a fishing boat crew living in her head, so I’m safe in that perceived psychosis…

BUT, it got me thinking about an author’s responsibility to write their characters accurately–no matter who it might offend.  It would’ve been easy to write the crew as clean-talking, all around good guys who don’t smoke, drink, have sex, or get involved in fist fights in bars, but then they would be less than believable.  One of the best feedback comments I received about the dynamic surrounding Brett was: “It’s so refreshing to read something where they’re tough and good at fistfights rather than neat and good at interior decorating.”  I wanted to make sure the crew was not cliche as well as not stereotypical.  My second favorite feedback comment has come from numerous beta readers: “They exist.  I don’t know where, but that crew exists somewhere….”

The boys:  Ethan Lindgren, Colin Claybaugh, Brett Riesgraf, Danny Rennick, Mike Passarella, Tommy Ansoategui, and Josh Padgett, are also quintessentially Alaskan.  Even though Ethan hails from the interior bush (Skwentna), Colin’s from Anchorage, Tommy’s from Wrangell, and Brett can be forgiven because he’s originally from Yachats, Oregon, Danny, Mike, and Josh are all from Port Saint Anne.  They’re atypical of some seiner crews because they know each other.  What I’ve noticed on the docks here in Craig is that seiner crews hail from all over.  There are boys finishing up the salmon seine season now who are looking to book airline tickets home–their Alaskan adventure drawing to a close.  For the crew of The Case in Point, Port Saint Anne, Alaska is home.  That connectedness to the town is important to the overall story–especially when things go from bad to worse and potential sacrifices loom large in the story.

So… write fearlessly.  Give your characters their voices.  If they’re mouthy or deranged, go with it.  It may seem like a no-brainer, as it were, but don’t let others’ opinions shape your characters.  They are who they are.  Let them be who they are.  And I’ll leave you with my mom’s comment when I told her that I was writing a story…

“But, you don’t know anything about running a commercial fishing boat in Alaska!”

“Yeah, mom,” I replied, “but I don’t have to.  It’s Colin’s boat.”

Yeah …. like that.


Stories You’ve Forgotten… Influences that Creep In…

We are a family that tells stories..

We’ve always told stories….

Sometimes, we forget the stories we’ve told.  Sometimes, we forget our history.  It’s why I liked to scrapbook when the kids were little–because the days would twist and turn together and I was afraid I would forget.  The other night, we found a scrapbook.  It was an old one from the time we lived in El Paso, Texas after my son was born, and then again when my daughter was born.  Don’t get me started.  Apparently El Paso is where we go to spawn….

Back in those days, when my son was nearly three and my daughter was someone I carried around inside, I was an archaeological resources curator.  That’s a fancy way of saying that: archaeologists dig it up, I preserve it forever.  That wasn’t to say I wasn’t an archaeologist–I was.  It’s just that, well, sometimes field archaeologists need someone even a little more (I hate to say this) anal retentive than they are to keep records and artifacts straight.  That was my job….

But in my job, I got to meet a lot of local archaeologists who were working on a myriad of projects in and around El Paso…

One such project was the San Elizario Mission Restoration.  The mission had been gutted.  The archaeologists were working around in the builder’s trenches.  I have pictures of my three-year-old son in a hard hat working alongside the archaeologists around the trenches.  I remember the daughter of another of the workers.  She was six at the time.  She and my son ran off together around the interior of the mission.  When they came back, smiling, laughing, pointing into the rafters and ducking around the nave, the lead archaeologist had to ask…

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t you see it?” piped up my three-year-old, his eyes bright and his finger pointed up into the rafters of the church.

“See….what?”  I could hear the tentativeness in her voice.

“It’s up there!” Squealed the little girl.  “See it?  There it goes!  C’m on!  Let’s chase it!”

And off they ran.

I watched the lead archaeologist shift on her feet.  “Kids,” I laughed.

She shook her head and followed them.  “Hey!” she called, fairly running to keep up.  “Hey!”

I followed.  More slowly, because my daughter, then at 7 months inside, wasn’t fond of fast movement and would let me know….

“What’s up there?” the lead archaeologist asked when she reached the children.

“The monkey!” Laughed my son.

“Yeah!” The girl agreed.  “A monkey!  In the rafters!  Don’t you see it?”

I watched the lead archaeologist pale and take a shaking step back.  “Up there?”  her voice was nearly breathless, and I noticed she didn’t look up.

“There it goes!” my son laughed, “follow it!”

She didn’t move as the kids ran off.  It was only then that I noticed she was trembling.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light.

I watched her forced smile falter.  “A monkey,” she repeated, “in the rafters.”  She took a breath like she’d forgotten to breath and tried to re-paste the smile on her lips.  “There’s a legend,” she continued, “from the early days of the mission.  From the early days of this building… that one of the priests confronted the Devil here.”

“Freaky…,” I muttered, still trying to smile.

“And the Devil took the form of a monkey and played up in the rafters…” She kept her eyes trained on the floor.  “..and it didn’t leave for nearly six months… the Devil…”

I watched my son and his friend chase up and down the nave–after the imaginary monkey in the rafters.

“Did you know that story?” she shot at me, “before you came to volunteer…had you heard it?”

“No,” I replied …

But it went into the scrapbook alongside pictures of my son and his friend and the interior of the mission and the builders trench where the workers pulled bits and pieces of old San Elizario …

And I’ll never forget it again….