by Janis Patterson
We all know that a writer’s work is far from glamorous. We work weird hours, usually in pajamas or sweats or grotty jeans. Deadlines make us crazy, ill-behaving characters even crazier. Sometimes people just don’t understand that the people in our heads can be more real than those live people beside us. However, sometimes something lovely and sparkly and so incredibly ego-boosting happens and we feel as pampered and admired as movie stars.
Earlier this week a friend welcomed me to speak at her book club about my Egyptian murder mystery A KILLING AT EL KAB. We had arranged the date several weeks before, and each member bought the book to read by the meeting time. The ladies bought snacks based on some of the meals described in the book. I figured since they were so invested in the story, I’d go above and beyond and bring in a little theatre. (Yes, I’m a long-time and admitted ham…)
I wore the beautiful silvery-blue galabeyah I had tailored in Egypt and several pieces of Egyptian jewelry, including my incredibly ornate Berber silver necklace. I took two other titles (THE EGYPTIAN FILE and THE JERUSALEM CONNECTION) to give away as door prizes. I took my big 17” laptop (the same one I hauled all over Egypt last year) to show a small collection of 50 or so pictures out of the 2,500 or so.
It was a most pleasurable evening! The ladies wanted to know about how the book came to be, and were suitably impressed that The Husband and I had been invited to stay at a dig house – which NEVER happens to civilians. They were overawed that our host, the Director of the Belgian Archaeological Mission to El Kab worked his way through three dense layers of Egyptian bureaucracy to get us official permission to come. Remember, the Egyptians invented bureaucracy – that’s why they had all those statues of scribes!
Several of the ladies were interested in the process of writing a book, as if there were any kind of single answer to that! I told them how I wrote – which in the best of times is a skimble-skamble kind of affair – all the while telling them every writer had their own way. I wish I were more organized; I wish I were more disciplined; however – if I haven’t become either by this time it’s probably not going to happen, so I just go on the best way I can. Then one of the ladies asked how I created my characters; specifically, why had I chosen to make Sandra, the protagonist, a fake psychic.
Okay, there comes a time when everyone must reveal their dirty little secrets. I told the ladies about several ways writers created characters – interviews, lists, etc. – and then confessed mine. As expected, they were startled as I told them I didn’t create characters. Oh, I had tried – I had made lists, decided what my characters’ grandmother’s maiden name was, what flavor of jell-o they liked, etc, until I had a nice long description of what the character was. A description that was never used, because the character became a dead thing, a creation without life that simply lay there flaccidly on the page.
What I do, I said, is nothing. My characters simply march in, demand to be written about, and let me get to know them as we go along. Once I had two characters – a major one and a minor one – who fought viciously through the whole book. In the last third, the major character was talking to another major character, and just happened to drop the little bit of news that he and the minor character were divorced.
Well, that startled me, right along with the entire rest of the book’s cast. And the ladies. Some of them – mostly the ones who were ex-schoolteachers – were appalled. I shrugged, said that was the way I was built, and that if the writer wasn’t surprised, the readers wouldn’t be surprised.
The ladies were certainly surprised, but I guess they’ll get over it. Maybe they already have – they’ve asked me to come back next year!