Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Girl named Charley

I think it was Ed’s idea during one of our Writers Corner meetings (Palm Springs Writers Guild) this spring. We were all bantering back and forth about the importance of names to create an image for our fictional characters. I mentioned that the names of female protagonists was especially important for me to create an identity for the characters I like to write about.

Ed was the first person to suggest another name for one of my female protagonists. I was surprised at first but resolved to listen carefully to what the others had to say. The other writers chimed in with their own renditions of ‘Name that Character.’ For whatever reason, Ed’s suggestion stuck and I quickly jotted it down for future reference.

Naming characters in a novel is one of the more critical and challenging aspects in the formulation of an engaging storyline. For me, it is one of the most important initial actions I can take. The names of characters present images in the reader’s mind. They can often define their personalities better than physical descriptions. A memorable name can accentuate their dialogue and meld seamlessly into their backstory.

Because of my propensity to ‘fall in love’ with my characters, I need a name I can attach myself to and generate feelings for these fictional folks. I need to feel their pain, their happiness, their joy and their fear. But most importantly, I need to understand their motivation for whatever actions they take and the emotions they feel.

Ed’s comments got my creative juices flowing. Less than half-way home from our meeting, it struck me where I might use the name Ed suggested and which character it might describe.

The story, if written, would be a murder-mystery or a suspense thriller. The background setting would be the publishing industry in either San Francisco or Los Angeles, present day. It would have a cast of characters, some of which might be clichés but hopefully others would be quite unique. The common denominator here is that most of them are not what they seem. And first appearances are often the most misleading.

There would be both a male and a female protagonist (no surprise here considering my other writings.) The lead female character (always the most fun to develop) started to grow in my minds-eye between Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs. I saw her face, her slim figure, her commanding presence and heard her sharp tongue. She is probably in her mid-thirties.

In addition to this intriguing woman, the story will include the woman’s sixteen-year-old daughter who is giving her all kinds of teen-age grief, a father who is suffering from dementia but holds the knowledge that could save her life and a mysterious figure-who might be the father of her daughter. The woman has a sharp wit and even sharper mind. She has skin tougher than leather and no need for a man in her life. Yet there is this guy who keeps bumping into her at the most inappropriate times, purposely or by accident-she isn’t sure which.

My protagonist would just as smart as Katherine, the lead female character in “Follow the Cobbler” but with a lot more issues.

A woman as complex as that can’t have a normal name like Mary or Jane or whatever. She has to have a name that is memorable and easily identifiable with her unique and sometimes quirky personality. Charlene might be her given name but a name like Charley would hit her image right on the nose. So Charley it was.

All that for a storyline that was just starting to germinate in treatment form and was still many months or years away from even a first draft.

I’ve gain a new appreciation and interest in female names now that it’s become a major part of my creative story-telling.

Maya, Samantha (Sam) and Charlotte are the next generation born into my extended family.  Remarkably, (I sound like a grandparent here, I know!) each is a unique and very individualistic person in their own right. I first realized that in Constant Charlotte.

But before the grand daughters, there came many others…not all girlfriends or just friends who were female. These were women with whom I had crossed paths, shared experiences, worked with, argued with, fell in with love with, had my heart broken by and ultimately chalked it all up to that grab bag called life experiences.

There was the one in high school who was always looking for something more. High school was just a way-stop for her. A brief distraction until college. She married a doctor and got what she wanted.
The one in college who was an enigma back then and still remains one today.  I never could figure her out. Communication was a handicap on both sides of the fence. It was like Dancing with Blindfolds On.

The other one in college whose personality burnt like a bright star ever so briefly. Ironically, she
moved to Colorado, a state I’ve come to love.

I’ve written about Susan in Looking for Susan’s House.

A woman named Chris reinforced the fact that I wasn’t the smoothest dude on the planet. I dropped out of her life for three months to travel Europe and was surprised when she wouldn’t take me back afterwards.

Then I met Sharon whose life I’ve chronicled in The Girl with Seven Suede Jackets.

Each name congers up fragmented and fading images based on past experiences. In turn, each of those brings with it a treasure chest of emotions. It’s a wonderful memory basket I can dig through every so often as I think about ‘what would my female protagonist do?’

In fiction writing, at least for me, the female protagonist’s name must be reflective of the character I’ve envisioned. It’s far from an exact science but rather one built and supported by emotional interludes with memories of my past, exaggeration imaginations of ‘what if’ and simply trying to craft an interesting storyline.

What is most amazing to me is the solid connection between the name created for a character and the image that fictional person holds in my mind. I tried to breakdown that connection with my female protagonists in Undressing my avatar. But it also holds true for my many treatments (future books or screenplays) and the female characters I’ve chosen for each of them.

Medbh (pronounced: Meave) in Trans Con
Recovering from surgery, her life is at a crisis point and has ended as she knows it. The answer seems logical enough. She will take a cross country bicycle ride to discover America and find herself.

Brook in Polar Opposites.
Uber-wealthy high society woman who has sworn off of men after several betrayals. She only trusts gay men then finds herself falling for one.

Brianna in Northern Crescent
She is a kick-ass millennial who is caught up in a web of murder, mystery and foreign espionage that stretches from Duluth, Minnesota to Los Cabos, Mexico.

Amber in Phnom Penh
Beautiful, talented, addicted actress who is desperate for a normal life and real love.  A photo shoot in Cambodia forces her to face real dangers from terrorists and enemies within her group and all around her.
Rose in Siloso
Born into pre-World War Two British high Society, she is married to man she doesn’t love. She finds herself falling for a brash, young Australian officer in Singapore just before the outbreak of the war.

Rachel in Georgia Howl
Survivor of the Civil War, she is on a journey back home, facing dangers from both Union and fellow Confederate soldiers alike. She finds herself falling in love with a married man and facing an uncertain future in a war-torn country.

There are a lot more female characters still lingering on in my field tape recordings, paper scratches piled high in a folder and numerous file folders floating around in cyber-space inside my computers. They’re unique, interesting and I’m more than anxious to draw them out of hiding and into some story that has yet to be thought out and formulated.

All I need to do is find a suitable name for them. And with that moniker, we can both begin our fictional journey together.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Going Back into the A Shau

There are many ways to die in the A Shau (pronounced A-Shaw) Valley in South Vietnam. It could be a clean shot from a sniper, a slow painful death from a poison bunji stake or the instant flash and demise from a claymore mine. I survived a number of firefights and battles in the A Shau Valley but now it looks as if I may have to go back there one more time.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way… or so I thought. After writing “Love in the A Shau,” I assumed I had put that part of my fictional past behind me. I thought I was done falling in love freshman year, feeling the exhilaration and angst of that first romantic entanglement, harboring wonderful fantasies of our future together and ultimately experiencing the painful realization that it wasn’t meant to be.

I thought I was done reliving that long, monotonous bus ride from Minnesota down to boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. A reflective ride in the middle of the night when my sweetheart and all my friends were safely ensconced in their beds, dreaming of a bright collegiate future ahead of them.

But much to my surprise and chagrin, my journey as author and protagonist wasn’t over yet. For reasons that gradually began build in my subconscious, I slowly came to realize that I had to return to the A Shau and rewrite the story there. My journey back in time wasn’t over yet. 

And I’m very grateful for that. 

With the advent of POD (print on demand) and the help of several very talented associates, I am now able to go back to change, edit, improve and hopefully enhance the story of Daniel and Colleen in “Love in the A Shau.”

It will be labeled as the second edition and I think the changes will be subtle enough as to not rob my first readers with any changes that resemble a different storyline. But it will resolve my desire to make improvements that bring final closure to this story.

Since the first publication of my novel “Love in the A Shau” last fall, the feedback I’ve received has been encouraging but also surprising at times. Overall, there seemed to be two consistent messages from all the comments I’ve received.

Readers loved the segments on Vietnam. This was especially surprising coming from my female readers. I worried that the graphic descriptions of war and the profanity of military talk would turn off my female readers.  I feared they might see it as just gratuitous profanity used for shock value. But the opposite was true. As one friend mentioned out to me, quite pointedly. “Oh, come on, Denis, give us credit. We’re much smarter than that. We understand the violence of war and the profanity-laced dialogue that comes with the territory. It just added to the flavor of the moment and painted a vivid picture of the profound changes your protagonist was going through.”

Since then, I’ve found even more relevant bits of dialogue and details I’d like to add to the Vietnam segments if I were to do a rewrite.

But it was the second message that gave me pause. Most of the reviewers found the storyline interesting and quite engaging…after a while. The red flag for me as a storyteller was the comment: “after a while.” 

They said the storyline was compelling…after the first section of the book which they found a bit slow. I was never able to pin-point exactly where the story began to pick up speed until a friend pointed out where she felt the story actually began to accelerate. So I finally had a roadmap for a rewrite. At that point, I decided that with the clear advantages of POD, I could, indeed, go back into the A Shau and correct those earlier writing flaws. 

There were also a couple of segments I had deleted from the first edition that in retrospect, I wanted to put back into the second edition. With POD, it was a simple exercise in rewriting those segments that needed work, adding those segments that had been left out, changing some font sizes and including a quote that struck me as timely and relevant.

“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”

It might be a tough trip back because I tend to get very vested into my characters. Yet it’s not often that I get to go back in time and revisit the bloody battlefield and detail the death and gore and dying all for the sake of adding realism to that moment in time.

Or to go back on campus and enumerate the enounces of campus life where most of the women
were virgins and manual dexterity with the boys didn’t refer to their working on cars. 

And re-examine a love lost amid the dissipation of fragmented moments and changing personalities. Proving once again that in fiction you really can go back to what once was and change it for the better. It’ll be an interesting journey back in time once again. But I think the journey will be well worth the effort if I can keep my fear of dying in battle and conflicting emotions of love in tack.

It’s all fiction anyway.

In the end, reality is a lot more realistic.

Just not as interesting.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Living Dead (Life after Retirement)

For some folks, retirement is an insidious trap that suddenly dumps an extra forty to fifty hours each week into a person’s life just when they thought paradise was at hand. Instead of having work take up most of their lives, these folks suddenly find themselves with more time on their hands than they’d ever had before. And they don’t know what to do with it. Father time has become an anvil hanging over their consciousness. And it won’t go away. I tried to address that observation in a past blog entitled Dying as an Exercise in Futility.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Once busy, active, vibrant men and women gradually find themselves prioritizing the most mundane of daily tasks in an attempt to fill out each day with something to do. It’s a gradual shift of priorities to those tasks or events that weren’t even on the radar when they were working. For many folks, men especially, retirement becomes a spider web of missing opportunities and a time for reflection on what might have been. They walk into it blindly with naïve ideas of what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. Then they find that all their grand plans took all of a couple of weeks and now they’re facing the rest of their lives. What are they going to do with it?

For many without a plan or clear thinking, their focus changes from feeding their soul to feeding their bellies. Rapt attention is given to the best bargains that thrift stories have to offer. Grocery shopping becomes an art in itself. They spend hours debating the merits of two ply vs. three ply toilet paper, thread on tires and thread count on sheets. They go from doing significant things in their lives to insignificant things. Daily visits to the coffee shop, grocery shopping and putzing around the house dominate their time.

Social gatherings become more prominent in their lives. And I’m not just talking about the corner coffee shop. The Post Office provides a wonderful opportunity to visit in line and strike up a conversation with the clerk about the real cost of stamps.

Stitch together morning coffee, the post office, grocery shopping and the senior center and there goes an entire day. Television fills in the evening hours until the ritual starts up once again the next morning.

Like Sun City in my back yard and The Villages in Florida, retirement communities today have been forced to come up with a host of busy activities to keep even the most active senior hopping all day long. It’s all one big happy distraction from the core essence of living. For many, it’s enough to fill the time until…

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have met many folks who have taken their retirement to a whole new level of self-fulfillment and mind-expanding explorations. A lot of folks were travelers like myself.

One of the most poignant memories I have is of our extended family sitting in a London hotel bar, after closing, and discussing future family travels. The only caveat was that it couldn’t be to a country or city one of us had already been to. The list ended up being very small.

The Palm Springs Writers Guild is full of talented, energetic, active older folks (no one will admit to being a senior) who have gravitated toward entirely new careers and ways to expand their talent for writing, design, drawing and overall story-telling in many different genres.

Back home, I have one friend who has taken up gardening to fill his summer hours with labor intensive planting and growing and harvesting his crop of flowers and vegetables and plants. He and his wife spend their winters in Florida doing much of the same thing.

I have another friend who spends six weeks plus on the road each late winter or early spring.
He and his wife explore our country from the Midwest to the south to the east coast. He’s also become an expert on internet exploration and discoveries. His collection of like-minded colleagues has grown exponentially since his retirement. For this guy, it really is true that he’s busier now than when he was traveling the world as an insurance executive.

When I wore a younger man’s shoes, I once explored Northern California on motor scooter. Gold Coast.. the Wild Coast. It was an exciting and exhilarating time but one my back probably wouldn’t let me enjoy if I wanted to do it again. Having said that and with a bow to Jack Kerouac, I’m looking forward to exploring the great state of California when I’m back in the desert.

The volunteers of Palm Springs are legendary in their willingness to devote countless hours and energy for the betterment of their community. That attitude of sharing and contributing seems to be ingrained in so many of the year-round residents, as well the seasonal snowbirds too.

Social service agencies throughout the Coachella valley have a long list of volunteers willing and able to help in a wide variety of activities and charity functions. It’s the largest collection of 503B charities outside of New York City.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to live in two locales, each can provide a smorgasbord of different activities to expand your mind. I have another friend who divides her time between Maryland and South Carolina, choosing the best of each locale to feed her interests in gardening, travel and various culinary adventures.

In the past, I’ve tried to explain my take on this whole retirement game in another blog called Growing Old without Underwear. Upon reflection of that blog, I’d have to concur that nothing has really changed since I wrote it a year or two ago.

Whether here or there, I tend not to focus on the condition of my tidy whiteys and instead on expanding my mind while I drag my body along for the ride. Like my Mother who was dancing or playing cards well into her nineties, I hope to go on furiously writing and running until that legendary figure cloaked under a dark shawl catches up with me.