Guest Blogger~ Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

Character Matters

by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

The prep stage of writing can be a time of enchantment when characters and motivations emerge like flowers blooming.  As I laid the groundwork for a story that would eventually be called “Perfect Strangers,” I felt as though I were not creating so much as discovering the answers to key questions.  Specifically, what kind of person creates multiple identities in order to rob a marijuana dispensary?

Authors say there are two kinds of writers, plotters and pantsers.  Plotters write outlines, sketch character bios, run their stories past lawyer friends to see exactly what kind of trouble they’ve gotten their protagonist into, and generally research down to the last stray molecule of information.  By contrast, pantsers prefer to fly by the seat of their…trousers. 

 I am a plotter.  This may have something to do with my days as a middle school teacher, when I would routinely tell my students that failing to prepare is preparing to fail.  Mostly, though, it just has to do with being me.  I like knowing where I’m going before I set off, and I like knowing who I’m writing about before we embark on mayhem together. 

For “Perfect Strangers,” I filled in a bio sheet that I’ve developed over the years.  I started with the basics:  name, age, sex/gender identity, job; and went on to such details as education, hobbies, and living and work spaces.  I decided how many kids were in the family of origin, whether the parents were married, and if so whether it was a happy marriage.  I described my character’s religion, ethics, and politics, and added a brief timeline of his life up till now.  Thus did I make my protagonist, Gershom McKnight, a recently paroled convict.  He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the single child of unhappy parents who did not encourage their son’s talent in visual arts (useful for a career as a forger later in life).  He was a juvenile delinquent who became a felon at age eighteen, and his best friend is his cellmate.

My biographical information on Gersom also told me how he sounded.  My notes under “Tone and Narrator” read as follows:

Narrator has spent 10ish years in prison.  S/he, but probably he, is smart, resilient, and resourceful, but at best an autodidact. Can have plenty of humor, but not lotsa highfalutin’ vocab and descriptions.  Tone is conversational, a cross between boasting and confiding.  He knows stuff, and how to do stuff, and is proud of it.

Suddenly, I could hear my fictional character talking.  I knew his voice, his sense of humor, his wry asides.  Now he and I could tell his story.

Many of the details I come up with never appear in the story they undergird.  For example, Gershom’s family life is never mentioned in “Perfect Strangers.”  However, all these data points serve me in the aggregate by giving me a precise picture of who I’m dealing with, what they sound like, and how they will behave once the action starts.  For me, it is a joyful process of discovery.

Mystery Writers of America Anthology

“It’s been said that all great literature boils down to one of two stories — a man takes a journey, or a stranger comes to town. While mystery writers have been successfully using both approaches for generations, there’s something undeniably alluring in the nature of a stranger: the uninvited guest, the unacquainted neighbor, the fish out of water.  No matter how or where they appear, strangers are walking mysteries, complete unknowns in once-familiar territories who disrupt our lives with unease and wonder. In the newest collection of stories by the Mystery Writers of America, each author weaves a fresh tale surrounding the eerie feeling that comes when a stranger enters our midst, featuring stories by prolific mystery writers such as Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger, and Joe Hill.”

IndieBound / / Barnes & Noble / Amazon / Books-A-Million  / 

Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is the bestselling author of two crime novels, one middle-grade fantasy book, and numerous short stories. She is a judge in San Francisco’s Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and a board member of Mystery Writers of America-New England. HarperCollins describes her as one of  “crime fiction’s top authors.” Tilia has taught middle school, high school, and college; she also teaches writing classes for prison inmates.  She lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and pleasantly neurotic poodle.


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Twitter Handle:  @TiliaKJacobs

Weird and Wonderful Surprises

I love the unexpected, don’t you? Celebrating unusual experiences is part of being a writer. I’ve had a number of unexpected encounters with humans and other animals over the years.

Once I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, along with a number of other people, when a woman walked up to me and asked “Ou est La Bon Marche?” (Where is the Bon Marche? Bon Marche was a big department store at the time in Seattle.) I pointed in the general direction and said, “La-bas, l’edifice beige.” (“Over there, the beige building.”)

Now, how weird is that? This woman asked a perfect stranger on an American street corner a question in French and that stranger happened to be me, who sort of speaks that language. She didn’t even look surprised when I answered.

One time I was scuba diving at night off of Grand Cayman with a group of friends. We were in fairly shallow water (maybe forty feet), down in a canyon, when we heard rumbling and saw lights shining over the ridge. I didn’t think much of it because we were in an area with a fair amount of boat traffic, and I knew we were deep enough to be in no danger from boats zipping by overhead. Then suddenly, a small submarine zoomed over the canyon rim and nearly mowed us down.

Yeesh! Who knew you had be on the watch for deadly underwater vehicles?

In college, I was crossing the campus in Oklahoma, my eyes focused on a newspaper in my hand that I was reading as I walked, when I heard what sounded like a very loud trumpet from an elephant. I looked up. Standing before me on the sidewalk was indeed an elephant. The man on his back waved to me. I stepped off the sidewalk, and the elephant and rider continued on their way.

Elephants wandering around the University of Oklahoma. Of course. Why not? (I later found out that one of the fraternities was having a circus fundraiser that day.)

When I was having tea on vacation in Kenya and gesticulating with my spoon to emphasize some no doubt fascinating comment to my comrades, a Colobus monkey leapt onto the table and grabbed my spoon. I held on. He bared his teeth. We played tug-of-war for a bit. I won. Maybe that incident is not such a surprise if you have a lot of experience with monkeys. I gained a bit more experience with those furry devils on that trip, especially on one memorable day when the crew left the windows down in our Land Rover and returned to find an entire troop of monkeys partying inside.

During a spectacular meteor shower, I was standing out in my yard on my rural property at around 3 a.m., simply amazed by the light show going on all around. There were so many meteors that I stopped counting at 100. They looked as if they were falling so close that I kept expecting to hear explosions on impact.

Then I heard a loud snort behind me (ACK!!) and whirled around to see a magnificent buck standing only a few feet away, starlight gleaming off his incredible rack of antlers, his breath steaming in the cold air.

I can never see meteors now without thinking about the “magic buck” I encountered that night.

Those are just a few of the weird and wonderful encounters I’ve experienced in my lifetime. They enrich my life and add spice to my novels when I can find the right places to sprinkle them in. What surprises have you had that delighted you?

The Pains of Getting it Correct by Paty Jager

I have had book 7 in the Gabriel Hawke Novels written over a month ago. It went through my LEO (retired Law Enforcement Officer) and my CP (Critique Partner) But I have been waiting for my sensitivity reader to get to it.

This book is set on a reservation, deals with a missing Umatilla woman, and is set predominately in an Indian casino. For those reasons I have someone who lives on the reservation, is part of the MMIW organization, and she has worked in an Indian casino reading the book.

The problem: I had this book slated to publish May 1st in coordination with May being the month 15 years ago my first book published. This book will be my 50th. I have planned a HUGE Facebook 50 Book Bash event to last the full month of May. The plan was to start the month out announcing the 50th book was published.

That is not going to happen now. I will have to announce the pre-order on May 1st and set the publish date for the end of May. There are still too many people the book has to go through before it can be published. And I have to get it returned with my sensitivity readers comments first.

2nd cover/ deleted the 1st

I also sent her the cover… Her comment was the woman on the cover wasn’t brown enough. My cover designer made another cover with a different woman on it, with a browner skin tone. But then I thought, “None of the other Hawke covers have people on them. So now we are working on a cover without a person. Hard to do with the main location of the book being a casino and I don’t want to put a casino on the cover.

Covers with casino scenes will be for my Spotted Pony Casino Mysteries that will be my new series coming out in June. This fictional casino is the one featured in Stolen Butterfly, Gabriel Hawke Novel #7. And the main characters in that series are introduced in this Hawke book.

So I plunge on with book 1 of the new series, and hope my imaginary casino and how it is run and the employees will work for my sensitivity reader and I won’t have to rewrite too much of the new book.

While I enjoy using fictional settings, I like to get all the nuances of a culture and work place correct. And that is why, my 50th book may be released later than I’d planned.

Curses! The Poor Abused Asterisk

by Janis Patterson

At least it used to be mistreated by overuse. Now, with the new ‘freedom’ (or abuse, as some would say) of the language, the poor asterisk has almost been forced into retirement.

These days there seems to be no depth to how low some users of the language can go. Years ago in the rare times they were used, vulgar words were filled with asterisks, such as ‘f**k’ and ‘d*mn’ ‘p*n*s’ and – well, you know what I mean. Nowadays more often than not those words are not only fully spelled but repeated several times as if the writer wants to make sure you see them and – probably – expects you to applaud or at least acknowledge their courage and honesty in using them.

Sorry, I’m not buying that.

I’m a purist about language. Language is perhaps the highest order of civilization, one which allows precise and exact communication for the exchange of ideas. To let it not only sink down to but revel in dirty words is to me a crime.

Ah, you say, but aren’t you being judgmental to condemn certain words as being ‘dirty’?

You bet I am. I believe when a word describes something dirty or societally disapproved of, a function or action not welcome in polite discourse, it should be judged. (I can hear some of you muttering most unflattering things such as censorship and prudery, but – hey – this is my column and I’m going to say what I really think.)

I was raised to believe that language is a living thing, and like all living things it should be handled with respect, if not reverence. There was a time – for most of history, actually – when use of ‘those words’ was a sure marker of either being very uneducated or very lower class, or probably both. Then suddenly the earth heaved and to use them became a mark of modernity, of freedom from antique societal restraints. And, like most revolutions, it went too far.

In the literary arena writers had to straddle both worlds – to be modern enough to interest readers and publishers who put sales above mores, but still, for those who loved and respected language or more honestly feared the censors, they tried to preserve the integrity of the language and moderate offensiveness. An impossible task.

Thus the necessity for the asterisk. It found itself inserted into words that were at best questionable and at worse obscene, turning them into a form of code understood by all, but still standing barely under the edge of decency’s shadow. In those antique days, it is to be noted that villains and bad people were the ones who used those words, even with asterisks inserted. You could almost tell who was a villain and who was a hero/heroine just by the language they used. Sort of like smoking is used as such an indicator today.

No longer, though, and both language and culture are the poorer for it. When a so-called hero or heroine rips out with what I will call the full version of the ‘f-bomb,’ ‘the c-word,’ ‘the n-word’ or any other rude/pornographic/nasty word they immediately drop in my estimation. If the usage is egregious enough, the book usually does too, all the way to the wastebasket.

While mysteries have produced more than their share of curse words, usually masculine-type expletives, it is romance novels which blew the lid off any semblance of scatological restraint. In the late 70s and early 80s romance went from a dreamy landscape of feelings and handholdings to a clinically correct – albeit originally rife with euphemism – technical manual of lovemaking and the physical parts used to do it. Not all, understand – even today you can still find romances filled with dreamy feelings and chaste kisses, but sometimes it’s a difficult hunt.

Maybe I’m just a dinosaur who lives in a different age. If so, so be it. I know what I like, and I will stand up for it. That does not mean, however, I am a total nerd. In person I have been known to let fly with a hearty ‘d*mn’ when I put a finger through a brand new pair of pantyhose or a loud ‘bl**dy h*ll’ on the rare occasion, but usually only when alone. I have been known to write those words too, but not often and usually only with villains and other slime – the only exceptions being when an insertion or six (usually mild words, like d*mn or h*ll) were not only insisted on but demanded by a publisher. (I guess they were wanting to appear au courant with ‘modern’ usage.) I’ll admit to being sometimes overly picky and proper, but not to being positively antediluvian.

I know there are those who do not find those ‘asterisk words’ – bowdlerized or not – as offensive as I do. That is their right, but on the other hand it is my right not to like, use or choose to read them. Chacun à son goût!

Putting Flesh on the Bones

My work-in-progress is a Jeri Howard novel, titled The Things We Keep. In this case, the things that have been kept are bones.

Jeri, my Oakland-based private investigator, is off-duty on a Saturday in October. She’s helping friends inventory the contents of an old house in Alameda. Up in the attic, she pries open an old footlocker to see what’s inside. She finds herself looking down at a skull and a jumble of bones.

Whose bones? How did they wind up in that attic? And why?

It’s my job as a writer to put flesh on those bones.

Each book gets off to a similar start. I have an idea and I go from there, butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. A structure emerges, with a timeline that gets revised over and over before I reach the end.

With each new project there are familiar characters—Jeri, of course, and her family, friends and associates. And there are new ones that give life to the story and setting. At the start, those characters are stick figures—bones, if you will.

Right now, I’m working on a section of the book where Jeri is looking for information on a musician from the 1960s who went missing decades ago. She’s talked to his ex-girlfriend, who seems to be an unreliable source, so much so that Jeri feels the need to get another perspective. She searches out his friend from the old days, when the two men were playing guitar in a rock band. He gives Jeri another version of the missing man’s past and disappearance. Then the old guitarist tells Jeri she really should talk with HIS former girlfriend.

That’s the scene I’m working on now.

What do I know about HIS former girlfriend? Well, not much, at first. I hadn’t even been planning on her as a character, until her ex the guitarist brought her up in conversation. Once she appeared on the scene, I couldn’t even decide on a name I liked, but finally chose one—Anita—that works for now.

I had the bones and gradually I’ve been adding flesh.

Let’s see. Anita is the former girlfriend of a guy who was a musician in San Francisco in 1969, when they all hung out together in the Haight. Probably a hippie, back in the day. Now she’s an old hippie. In years, anyway. I know she left San Francisco and lived in Mendocino for a while. Married? No, never did. But she has a daughter.

She doesn’t live in Mendocino now. She migrated back down the coast to . . . Bodega Bay? No. Point Reyes Station? Yes, that works. It’s one of my favorite places and I’ve been there plenty of times, walking the streets and exploring the shops and restaurants. I can see the storefronts on the main drag even now. And taste the morning buns from the Bovine Bakery.

Besides, it’s really easier—and more interesting—if Jeri Howard can go interview people face-to-face, and that small town in western Marin County is an easy drive.

Aha! She makes jewelry. In a gallery? No, a workspace created from the detached garage at her cottage. It’s a small but comfortable space where Anita brews herbal tea. And she has apples in a ceramic bowl. I can smell them.

Anita sells the jewelry at a local gallery. What kind of jewelry? What does it look like? I’m thinking lots of colorful ceramic and silver beads are involved.

What does she look like? I decided she a mane of curly gray hair. In the past, she may have worn hippie clothes that recall the Summer of Love. But not at her current age. As I just discovered, she’s a grandmother now.

Meet Anita, who now has flesh on her bones—and provides Jeri with vital information she needs if she’s ever going to solve this case.