Most of my books begin with an idea. It's usually not much of an idea – most often, a person in a situation. I usually don't know how the person got into the situation, and I never know how he/she will get out of it. I figure that out by writing the book.
But three years ago, when I was writing the third Poke Rafferty book, BREATHING WATER, I began to hear a voice. I heard it in snatches of dialogue, and then it began to tell me bits of story. That was my first glimmering of Junior Bender, the burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks, and who is now at the center of two books, CRASHED and LITTLE ELVISES.
BREATHING WATER had been a difficult book to write, and it was just beginning to resolve itself. I sometimes visualize writing a book as climbing a long slope, picking up things you think you'll need when you go down. The uphill portion is often tough, and in BREATHING WATER it had just barely been on the good side of possible. So I'd crested the hill and started down, and I was at the point where speed was picking up and I could sense the shape of the book and see half a dozen possible endings, and . . .
. . . and this voice wouldn't shut up.
Not only wouldn't it shut up while I was writing, but it obviously napped while I was having dinner and then had a great big pot of coffee, because it went into filibuster mode the moment I tried to go to sleep. One night, I gave up and went downstairs and wrote a long scene about a burglar trying to steal an ugly painting in a house full of Rottweilers, and the only weapons he has is a shelf full of “marital aids” over the bed in the room he's burglarizing. When it's over—and I will say, with all immodesty, that it's a very exciting and very funny scene—he gets into his car and someone in the back seat pushes an automatic into the back of his neck.
At four in the morning, I made a decision: I put BREATHING WATER aside for what I thought would be four weeks, and wrote CRASHED.
It turned out to be five weeks, which is still the fastest I've ever written a book. And I didn't actually feel like I was writing; I felt like a ventriloquist's dummy. Junior never let up until I'd (or we'd) finished, and then he went to the Bahamas or something, and I went back to BREATHING WATER. I finished that book, edited and published CRASHED as an ebook because I couldn't get a good enough offer from a traditional publisher, and wrote THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth in the Poke Rafferty series.
Ninety minutes after I finished that book, Junior started talking again.
The Junior books are written (obviously) in first-person, but he's very generous about sharing the page. He's brought a whole gallery of supporting characters with him, crooks mostly, whom I hear just as vividly as I do Junior.
One of my favorites is his friend Louie the Lost, who earned his nickname when a getaway car he was driving with four nervous crooks in front and two million in stolen diamonds in the back wound up stuck in traffic in Compton with half the black population of Los Angeles staring in through the windows. Louie is a free-associator, which is heaven for a writer. For example:
“This is a hypothetical,” I said into the phone. The light in the intersection where I was going to turn left went from green to yellow, and I slowed behind two massive SUVs whose owners were doing everything in their power to ensure the future prosperity of Saudi Arabia. “So. Let's say you're suspected of murder. Let's say you know you're suspected of murder. Let's say you're sort of sitting around waiting for the cops to come and get you. You even hire someone to try to do something about it, try to get you off the hook.”
“This has a familiar ring,” Louie said.
“And now let's say that it turns out you have a perfectly good alibi.”
After a beat, Louie said, “For?”
“For the murder. Let's say several people can place you at home the entire day when Derek Bigelow, your hypothetical victim, got made dead.”
I could hear Louie working on his cigar. “How hypothetical is this?”
“Actually, not at all.”
“This is like a word problem,” Louie said. “Remember word problems? If Karen gets on the train in Chicago going West and Harvey gets on another train in San Francisco going East and the two trains are on the same track and one of them's going 59 miles an hour and the other one is doing 83 miles an hour, and it's 1600 miles from Chicago to San Francisco, and Harvey's in the front car when the trains crash into each other, then how much did Karen weigh?”
I said, “It's like that? How is it like that?”
“Because it doesn't make any sense,” Louie said.
So Junior has talked me through two books now, and I have to say they're the most fun I've ever had with my fingers on a keyboard. It's been three years now since he started yammering in my ear, and he remains unique—no other character has done it. And as long as he wants to talk to me, I'll continue to write it down.
So far, other people seem to like him, too. Of the 32 reviews CRASHED and BREATHING WATER have received on Amazon, 32 are 5-star and one is 4-star. A third book, MUTHER'S DAY, is about one-fifth written but has been parked while I write the next Poke Rafferty, THE FEAR ARTIST.
And this time, Junior seems to understand. He's shut up for the present.
Timothy Hallinan, the 2011 Edgar and Macavity nominee for Best Novel, will have his fifth Poke Rafferty novel published by Soho in 2012, and brings back Junior Bender, the crook who made his debut in last year's highly-praised CRASHED, in this year's LITTLE ELVISES.
So glad to have Tim Hallinan here! Well, Tim isn't really here-here, he's actually at Bouchercon in St. Louis (waiting on news of his Macavity nomination), but I bet he's thinking of all us debut-ers--who may join him at B'Con next year!
That is interesting! We write in completely different genres, but our experience seems to be similar! The person, the situation and then the voice; that is how it begins! I will definitely be reading Tim's work the next time I am in the mood for a thriller!
That is really interesting, Connie. Amazing how some things are universal, no matter what we write. Connie, incidentally, writes about a hero who grows too old to do his job. I find THE LAST GOOD KNIGHT one of the most evocative titles I've heard in a while.
Very cool post. I'm always interested to hear how books get written, because no two ever seem to come about in the same way. Today's my birthday, and when I get home tonight I'm downloading CRASHED as a present to myself...
Happy Birthday again, Al! That will be a great present, too :)
Crashed and Little Elvises are WONDERFUL books that haven't gotten NEARLY the attention they deserve. So many people in this world are missing out on a truly wonderful thing.
Have I said how wonderful I think they are?
So glad you said it, Everett, and so glad to see you here, too!
I wish characters would talk to me like that.
Both "Crashed" and "Little Elvises" are wonderful. Junior is one of the most delightful characters I have ever read. I hope more people enjoy him.
I enjoyed meeting you when you spoke with the Border Crimes Sisters in Crime Chapter. I'm glad I'm not the only one who hears voices when there's nobody else around.
I love it. A character that tells you the story instead of the other way around. I have to confess, my protag usually only talks to me when I'm not writing fast enough for her taste.
She used to sit on my bed and talk to me non-stop when I was first writing the story, mainly because I wasn't writing enough. When I finally began to dig in, she went away, but not too far.
My apologies to everyone -- I've been at Bouchercon in St. Louis, and it ate me alive from 7 AM through midnight. Met a million people and heard enough nice things said about my books to keep me blushing through Easter.
Thanks for all the comments, and I have to stress that my characters don't usually dictate their books to me. Normally, I do it the way pretty much everyone does, which is to feel around in the dark, with the help of an occasional flash of inspiration, until a story finally emerges, and then I just follow it the best I can.
Karyne, my experience is the opposite of yours -- the longer I stay away from my characters, the more likely they are to snub me, to stop acting like real people and turn into ugly little action figures that I have to move around by hans.
Warren, thanks for remembering me, and it was nice to meet you, too. Hope I didn't talk too long -- I sometimes come down with Khadaffi syndrome and go on as the room empties.
Hi, Lil, and thanks for telling everyone how much you like old Junior. I like him myself.
Sara, as noted above, most of my characters really wait for me to invest a lot of energy in them before they can be coaxed into life.
Everett! My MAN!! Follow me wherever I go. When my next royalty check arrives, I'll buy you the brand-new Apple YELLING CAPS app, which turns everything you say about me into an audio file voiced by James Earl Jones.
Al, hope you gave yourself that present, and I hope it wasn't a dud. Send me a note at my site and let me know, if you feel like it.
Connie, I think practically all writing, no matter the genre, comes from the same place, which is the ancient impulse to make sense of our world by telling ourselves stories. And aren't we privileged to be able to do it?
And Jenny, you are the jewel of the Internet, and thanks for your inexhaustible generosity and good spirits.
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