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.


Darkest Places….

Creatures and monsters are the bread and butter of the horror trade, it seems, but never discount the real and present effect of atmosphere.  William Hope Hodgson had it.  H.P. Lovecraft pulled his readers into the scenes through a myriad of sights and smells and sounds.  Sometimes, the darkest moments take place among the every day and mundane.  We don’t see them coming.  We’re surprised by them.  I suppose it’s because, in the end, we’re all alone in our heads.  No one really knows what we’re thinking.  No one really knows how events and emotions are conspiring with us … or against us…

I’ve been thinking a lot about atmosphere.  I’ve been thinking quite a bit about In Dark Places, and I believe I’m on to something because other characters and stories are calling… it’s as if I’m somewhere very close to getting it right, but I don’t particularly want to get it right, because to get it right is to go somewhere far removed from any light.

So, in that vein of thinking, I’m sharing a scene. Granted, it’s a long scene that I wrote in November, when I was plugging away at In Dark Places as part of NaNoWriMo.  I hated the thought of it because I hated the thought of, well, it.  I fought it happening.  It comes from what must be the most lonely and desperate place in the human mind…..

The crew has been up at South Adit for nearly three weeks.  A message arrives from the Mine Manager summoning Nils Bergdahl to the General Manager’s Office.  The problem is, Nils is laid up at Upper Ridge Bunkhouse with a broken leg.  Tin and his crew don’t know the nature of the message, but Nils’ recall must be important.  Toby Caddock and Peter Quinn ride the ore buckets back down the mountain with every intention of taking Mine Manager David Killian’s message back to Nils at Upper Ridge.  It all begins in the Concentration Mill….

Quinn followed Toby down the wooden steps that descended, turned, descended, turned, and twisted down through the mill.  The grinding of the ball mill, the jolting assault of the shaker tables shook Toby to his core—changed his breathing, unsettled the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.  He shuddered, wondering how he had survived
all the twelve and fourteen hour shifts in the concentration mill.

They reached the fifth level.  Quinn took Toby’s arm.  Toby turned and watched Quinn point away to the far south side of the mill.

“That way,” he said simply and tugged at Toby’s arm. “There’s a short cut through the Hancock Jig.”

Toby stepped gratefully through the heavy wooden door into the circle of lamplight.  Quinn shut the door against the incessant vibration of the enormous Hancock Jig that continued to pound and sort through the heavier gravels poured down the grizzlies above.  Before them, a narrow, planked walkway wound away toward the Manager’s Office.  Toby took a breath and smiled.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said as brightly as he was able. Quinn stuffed his hands into his coat pockets as he followed Toby down the walkway.

Toby pushed open the door of the Manager’s Office.  The warm
blast of air that suddenly hit him nearly knocked the breath out of him.

“Shut that door!” snapped a voice within, and Toby snapped himself back to himself, stepping over the threshold, quickly followed by Quinn who took the door and closed it.  Toby unwound his scarf and quickly removed his cap.

The white painted walls of the room fairly glowed with their cleanliness.  Toby pushed down the unexpected sensation of feeling too filthy to be standing in the office.  Several of the clerks regarded the two of them briefly before turning back to their desks.

Upon each desk, a stack of ledgers and papers upon which the men scratched out meticulous notes and figures.

Quinn shot Toby a nervous glance.  Toby attempted a reassuring smile before his gaze swept the room again.  The relative silence in which they stood was nearly palpable.  A woman at the far end of the room sat at a desk beside a door that led into another office.  The door was closed.  The woman’s skin was ashen white, contrasting
starkly with her jet black hair that she had bound up in a bun at the back of her
neck.  Her grey green eyes were fixed upon the paper that lay on her desk, and her hand tapped a pencil rhythmically, thoughtlessly, beside it.  While she had not a trace of sympathetic feeling in her appearance, Toby, hat in hand, crossed the room quickly toward her, Quinn following in his wake.

“Excuse me,” Toby began quietly, politely.

The woman’s expression became slightly more severe as she looked up from the paper and turned her gaze to the two young men who stood before her desk.  “Yes?” she inquired, her eyebrow tilting slightly.

“Um,” Toby started unsurely.  He leaned closer.  “We’re from Upper Ridge, ma’am,” he started quietly, all the deference at his command wrapping itself around his words.  “Mr. Killian said he wanted—“  Toby stopped and drew back, startled, as she pushed herself back from the desk abruptly.

“One moment,” she said.  Toby bowed his head and nodded—his hands turning at the cap he held between them.

“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered before casting a glance back at Quinn who, he realized, shared his discomfort and maybe more.

The woman rapped on the door twice, quietly, before she pushed it open slightly and slipped within.  She closed the door with a snap.

“See why I hate—“ Quinn started in a whisper, but stopped as the door opened.

“This way,” she said coldly as she ushered them into the room. “The men you wanted to see, sir,” she said to the man who sat on the other side of the desk.

The man at the desk did not respond at first.  He continued writing rapidly on a piece of paper, not looking at the two of them.  “Thank you, Miss Atkison,” he said finally.  He continued to scribble.  “That is all.”

“Yes, sir,” Miss Atkison replied and walked from the room, closing the door with a soft snap.

Toby and Quinn stood uneasily within the room.  They could hear the background sounds of the mill pounding relentlessly through the relative stillness.

“Mr. Killian,” Toby started finally.  The man behind the desk hesitated before he looked up.  His brow furrowed as he switched his gaze between Toby and Quinn.

“Who are you?” he asked, an edge of annoyance to his voice.

“Toby Caddock, sir,” Toby started.

“Toby Caddock,” the man repeated.  “Please wait outside.”

Quinn shot Toby a panicked glance.  “Sir,” Toby faltered,“we’ve–”

“Outside, please.”  Killian’s voice sharpened.

“But we–” Toby began again.

He drew back as Killian rose to his feet and swept quickly to the door, pulling it open.  “He’ll be along momentarily, Caddock.  I must ask you to leave.”

Quinn felt his heartbeat quicken as Toby bowed his head and walked to the door.  “Tob,” he started.

“This will only take a moment,” Killian said again as he closed the door behind Toby.  He turned back toward Quinn who looked away from him quickly.  “Not a man like I’d
pictured,” Killian said quietly, his voice darkening.

“Sir,” Quinn faltered.

“Shut up, Bergdahl,” Killian’s voice was suddenly deadly quiet and harsh.  Quinn stumbled back, his eyes growing wide as Killian crossed the room with amazing speed and was suddenly nearly nose to nose with him.

“Sir–”Quinn stammered, “I’m–”

Quinn’s breath caught, his hands faltered in front of him, his eyes wild as pain ripped
through his chest suddenly.  He tried to speak, but his voice died within him. Killian’s lip twisted into a sinister smile.

“I want,” Killian whispered darkly as he wrapped an arm around Quinn and yanked him closer, burying the knife he held between them up to its hilt just below Quinn’s sternum, “you to know how it felt.”

Quinn’s hands grabbed at Killian’s arms.  He struggled, shaking his head.  Killian, enraged, twisted the knife and began to tear Quinn open, moving the knife steadily,
strongly down, widening the gash through skin and muscle, attempting to lay him open.  The light of the room reflected on Killian’s glasses and Quinn saw himself , blood beginning to trickle from the corners of his mouth, wild-eyed, staring at Killian.

The heavy knife fell from Killian’s hand and thudded dully to the carpet that spread across the floor.  Quinn felt Killian’s arm around him, holding him on his feet.  He felt a
tugging and looked down.  Killian had his hand within the wound, reaching and tearing, widening it, spilling Quinn’s blood easily upon the floor, bathing the two of them in it.

“How it felt,” Killian whispered again, his voice a low growl that shook through the darkness that began to edge in upon the periphery of Quinn’s vision, “when my Mary
called for you, Bergdahl.”  Killian’s voice shook with tears, the shuddering emotion with which he spoke his wife’s name.

Quinn’s vision darkened as Killian released him, pushing Quinn away from him, holding tight to the slippery bit of intestine he had managed to wrench from the wound.

“I held my guts in my hand last night,” Killian continued darkly.

Quinn staggered slightly and dropped to his knees as his heart finished pumping the life out of him.  He fell heavily to the carpet, his blood pooling darkly around him, twisting in the fibers.

Toby started.  “What was that?”  He glanced worriedly at the door and then at Miss Atkison.

The secretary sighed profoundly and turned her eyes up to Toby. “I’m sure Mr. Killian just dropped a book,” she said, her voice carrying a bored edge to it.  She sighed
again.  “Mr. Killian does that quite a bit.”

Toby bit his lip and moved toward the door.  “That was heavier than a book, ma’am,” he said quickly, as politely as he was able. His hand closed on the door handle, and Miss Atkison was on her feet.

“Where do you think–” she demanded.

Toby ignored her and pushed open the door.  He froze.

Toby’s gaze shot around the room and fixed upon the figure of Quinn upon the floor, lifeless in the spreading pool of darkened blood. Toby’s heart raced, his brain screamed commands that his body refused to obey.

“Quinn–” Toby’s voice caught as he sprinted into the room and dropped beside Quinn.  Quinn’s blood soaked through Toby’s clothes as he struggled to gather Peter into his arms. “Quinn!” he yelled.


Toby’s eyes snapped to the man who sat behind his desk.  He was covered in Quinn’s blood.  A revolver trembled in his hand, the muzzle against his temple.  Killian’s eyes were deadened, darkened, beyond redemption as he stared through Toby and Quinn.

“Peter Quinn, sir,” Toby continued, his voice catching as his arms trembled around Quinn’s body.

The man’s brow furrowed and the hand on the revolver faltered slightly.  “Nils Bergdahl,” he said distantly.

Toby shook his head.  “He’s laid up at Upper Ridge, sir,” Toby said quickly, his voice shaking with fear.  “We came to tell you and take your message back to him.”

Toby watched as the man’s eyes behind his glasses moistened with tears.  “I’m sorry,” Killian’s voice broke frantically around the words.  He took a shuddering breath and steadied his hand on the gun. “I loved my wife, Caddock,” he said, his chest heaving with the effort of filling his lungs with breath.

“Mr. Killian…,” Toby felt his voice fade as he shook his head.

“And I loved my children,” he continued as if Toby had not spoken.

Toby cleared his throat, feeling his arms slip from Quinn, setting him gently back to the
carpet.  “Sir,” Toby’s voice was desperate.

He watched the hope and humanity drain suddenly from Killian’s eyes.  He watched the color drain completely from the Manager’s face.  He pressed the muzzle of the revolver firmly against his temple.  “I am no coward.”  His voice was the merest whisper.

Toby struggled to his feet and lunged toward the desk.

“Killian!” he screamed.

Killian fired.

Saltus Teutoburgensis

   In AD 9, the Roman General Varus was routed by Arminius in the the saltus Teutoburgensis–a battle which later became known as Teutoburg Forest …. It’s always held a fascination for me, and when Camp NaNoWriMo appeared on the horizon, I thought this would be a great time to leave Alaska and work on something completely different.  The research has been frustrating and fascinating.  The characters are coming together … It is a completely fictitious telling of a story of three survivors of the massacred legions, some of whom make it through to meet Germanicus when he visited the battlefield and interred what dead he could find in AD 15.

Written as a YA Horror/Supernatural story, it may be that it is relegated to the files of experimentation that may or may not go awry.  Any way it pans out, I’ll be serializing it here.  Watch for new posts as the story unfolds…..