Tuesday, January 26, 2021

This Baby is Different

Writing my latest novel ‘Playground for the Devil’ began, like all the rest, as an exercise in blindly following my instincts and believing that it would all work out in the end. When I started the project last summer, it was a decision forced upon me by the COVID-19 pandemic which had closed down ‘live’ theater, made my planned group reads impossible and creative music sessions not realistic. My only option seemed to be writing another novel to add to my portfolio of vernacular ramblings.

I’ve blogged about this process of creating my twelfth novel twice before in El Pais Grande Del Sur and Fractured Love Affair.

With all due respect to childbearing, for me writing anything is like giving birth. Each manuscript was conceived out of the germ of an idea, thought, or image swirling around my head. They then began to take shape and form as I delved deeply into the storyline and the characters that began to inhabit that space.

My first gestation of story-telling took place in Reisterstown, Maryland in 1973 and then again in 1974. Impressed by the writings of several well-respected western writers like Will Henry, I took the first tentative steps toward creating my own storyline. The result was ‘Apache Death Wind, a trilogy’ and ‘Apache Blue Eyes.’

After those respective births in print form, it was off to the races. Next came a semi-autobiographical novel entitled ‘Love in the A Shau’. Then an Ode to Palm Springs in the form of a trilogy entitled: ‘Debris.’ That streak of novel writing ended with my 566-page doorstop entitled ‘Follow the Cobbler.’ ‘Cobbler’ featured a female protagonist called Katherine (spelt with a K) who came the closest to resembling my wife. The character is modest, reserved, very smart and intuitive. The kind of woman who can cut any man off at his southern fork.

Last summer, while deep into creating the ‘Playground for the Devil’ storyline, I tried to share the background for my novel and the interesting characters who lived in that fictional world in a blog. It really wasn’t until I had finished my first draft last fall that I felt I knew them all pretty well. And what a collection of characters I had created! All of them were (cliché here) not what they seemed to be. What I didn’t know was the extent to which some of them were damaged and almost bi-polar. They ended up saying and acting in ways my fingers didn’t understand as I frantically typed in an attempt to keep up with them and their antics.

My two protagonists, Brad and Laci, changed, evolved, and slowly began to reveal more and more about themselves as their story progressed. The emotional bantering back and forth surprised even me but I just let them’ go at it’ as I took copious notes in the form of story chapters. I realize now I was retelling the story of my own relationship with my better half.

Granted the comparison was done on a very subconscious level but it was there nevertheless. The Bradley-Laci story is, in retrospect, a metaphor for my own marriage. As in the book, first impressions don’t count and it’s only after a period of time and circumstances that the true characteristics of my protagonists reveal themselves. What seems to be a power imbalance at first slowly morphs into a realistic balancing act between two strong-willed, determined personalities.

My first pass at the book jacket showed a two story cabin. However, as the storyline progressed and my protagonists finally reached their quest, the cabin in question didn’t fit the image I had created in my mind.

At that point, a one story cabin was more in line with the structure that emerged in the novel. The first book cover showed a Big Sur landscape that was simply too bright and colorful. I needed something dark and sinister that better conveyed the dangerous environment my protagonists entered into when they ventured into the backwoods of Big Sur. Vida, my editor and creative designer came up with three versions of the cover.

Finally, my editor and I settled on a darker, more sinister landscape that seemed to better reflect the danger and mystery the Big Sur area presented to my main characters.

When I began writing ‘Playground’ I worried that there might not be enough ‘red herrings’ and twists and turns to my plotline. I needn’t worry because as the chapters slowly came rolling out of my head, the characters and their quest took on a number of surprising twists, turns, detours and stumbles. I even surprised myself by the conclusion to the story.

I asked myself at the end of my FracturedLove Affair blog whether Brad and Laci would be together at the end of the novel. I never really knew for certain until I typed in ‘The End’ one day. Theirs was a fractured, wounded relationship that ended the way it was meant to end for the personalities involved. I think the three of us knew it probably would end the way it did. No one is complaining.

At one point, I was torn between labeling my novel a murder mystery or a suspense thriller. Unsatisfied with either description, I’ll simply call it a suspense novel with, I hope, enough action and mayhem to satisfy either audience.

A little over a year ago, I drove up to that big San Francisco mansion for what turned out to be a swingers party. It only got more complicated, intriguing and dangerous from there on. It’s been one heck of a venture exploring the backwoods of Big Sur with these characters who carry more than their own weight in issues, attitudes, and attributes.

We’ve completed the journey. At least some of us have. There is a deeply satisfying feeling being able to pull it off and hopefully leaving my readers asking for more.

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