Michael Haskins

Monday, June 11, 2007

Do characters really take on a life of their own?

I bought a new computer and it arrived (kind of) mid week. Kind of, because the monitor didn’t arrive. After two days of phone calls to Dell they accepted that the two packages they sent did not include the monitor; the second package held the fancy speaker for the monitor, but not the monitor. I am not computer savvy; I am probably not savvy in anything, but by knowing that about myself, I usually avoid situations where savvy is important or necessary.

I don’t name my computer, like some writers I know do. To me the computer is basically a fancy typewriter that corrects my spelling and saves me a lot of trouble when it comes to editing. Transferring files from the old computer to the new one took all Saturday afternoon and early evening.

With nothing to do but deal with my frustration, I went to the Hog’s Breath to hear my Texas friend Clint Bullard sing. He’s at the Hog’s mid shift – 5-9 p.m. – through June 15th, so go to http://www.hogsbreath.com/ and catch him on the bar’s live video-cam.

I was sitting there, enjoying a good cigar and some Jameson on the rocks when Art, one of the managers, came over and says he doesn’t believe I don’t control what the characters I write about say and do. He got that from one of my blog posts that mentioned characters sometimes take on a life of their own.

“You’re like God, you have total control and can do what you want with them,” he said, and told Julie my drink was on him.

I love Art and Andy and Patrick and Lori – the other bar managers – when they do that.

With all the time I’ve spent in Key West bars – not to mention bars I’ve enjoyed in other cities I’ve lived in or traveled to – I would not presume to tell bar managers how to do their job. I say something like that to Art.

“Yeah, but I have a real job, you just write stories, so you don’t have bosses or rules to follow,” he replied with the innocence of one-year old.

I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to explain the reality of writing to him, because he wouldn’t have believed me. Deal with editors and agents and deadlines, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

“Let me give you one cryptic example of how characters take on a life of their own,” I said instead, as I sipped from my iced Irish whiskey and let its flavor slide down.

“Why does it have to be cryptic?”

“Because I don’t wanna give away the story,” I had another sip. “If I do, you won’t be surprised when you read it.”

I relit my cigar, because of too much talking it had gone out. “Early on in the new book.”

“What’s this one called?” he interrupted.

“Free Range Institution,” I answer him.

Isn’t that the title of a Scott Kirby song?”

“Yes it is.”

“You’re stealing his song title?”

“Art, which topic do you want to discuss here, because the ice is melting and diluting my drink,” I chewed my cigar and blew smoke into the air.

“Go on,” he sat down, ready for a long story.

“Early on in the new book, there is a conversation about killing people . . .”

“Because you write murder mysteries,” he interrupted again.

“Yes, Art, because I write murder mysteries,” I agreed with him. “The topic is brought up between Mick Murphy, Padre Thomas . . .”

“The Jesuit, right?”

“Yes,” I sipped my Irish before it lost its taste. “And Mick’s friend Norm and Tita . . .”

“The spy and the girlfriend,” he smiled, proud of remembering my first book.

“Very good,” I chewed ice from my plastic cup. “You read the proofs.”

“Go on, I want to hear your explanation,” he rushed me.

“One of the characters mentions taking a life, for any reason has to have an affect on a person, even if that loss of life is justified . . .”

“Has to be Padre Thomas . . .”

“Art, I can’t tell you who,” I grumbled. “Let me finish.”

“Okay,” and he signaled Julie to refill my drink. Gotta love the guy!

“I wrote the conversation a few months ago, I am at least one-hundred pages more into the story when I begin to wonder about my ending. Someone has to kill the corrupt city commissioner . . .”

“Which commissioner is it?”

“It’s fiction, Art,” I tried to explain to him. “It’s not a real commissioner.”

“Yeah, but I bet I can figure out who it is when I read it.”

Everyone in Key West sees themselves or someone they know as characters in books by local writers. Just ask Tom Corcoran.

With a deep sigh and fresh drink, I went on. “I am thinking about the ending when the earlier conversation pops into my head and I think ‘what if so-and-so kills the commissioner to save Mick’s life,’ and pow, I have my ending. I have major conflict and surprise,” I puffed on the cigar and sipped the chilled Jameson, proud of myself. “That was not anywhere in my plans for the book,” I explained. “It came from a conversation I never thought would have anything to do with the ending.”

“That’s your argument?” he sounded disappointed.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, smoked and took a good swallow of my drink. “It happened without my doing it. The character popped out with something from earlier in the book. Something I never gave a thought to, until I looked for an ending.”

“You didn’t have an ending before you began?” his disappointment was growing.

“I knew how I wanted it to end, but not exactly,” I said. “I had my notes, but they're only guides that usually get lost as the pages mount up.”

“You aren’t going to be mad at me, if I write a mystery, are you?” he stood up. “I can just plot something out and write it. I wouldn’t let characters tell me what to do. That’s why it takes you so long to write a book.”

“I tell you what, I’ll trade places with you,” I suggested. “You write the book and I’ll take your shifts managing the bar.”

“No, I am not sure you could handle real work,” he began to walk away. “But thanks for the insight, it was a lot of help.”

As Art walked away I could almost see him formulating his future novel in his head. I smiled to myself and wondered if God ever had days like this.

I sipped my drink and listened to Clint sing a few of his original songs and thought maybe I should become a songwriter; it sure looked easy as he performed on the Hog's outdoor stage, people singing along and yelling for more. Hell, how many words in a song? I can write short stories and novels, how hard can it be to write a song?

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