Starting Afresh, With Hope

by Janis Patterson

Happy New Year! Hopefully 2021 is going to be a better year than 2020. It would have to work very hard to be worse!

I’ll admit I was off my game during 2020, and I’m not sure why. My life did not change that much during the lockdowns. My normal day (if writers do indeed have anything that could be regarded as a ‘normal’ day) consists of spending most of the day sitting in the den in front of my computer all alone with my invisible friends. During the lockdown I spent most of the day in the den in front of my computer all alone with my invisible friends. The only change was that The Husband was here for about two months before he had to go back to work. Then I sat alone in the guest room/my office all alone with my invisible friends. I did miss the lunches with my real living friends, but we talked on the phone and made do with that. I also missed – and still do – our various clubs’ meetings and fear greatly that some of them will not come back after this plague is over.

Now the big change in our lives is The Husband is officially retired as of January 8 and that is a big adjustment for us both. I have pretty much moved my work into my office, leaving the den and the television – and our spoilt and yappy intrusive little dog – to him during the day. The only chore left – and it’s a big one – is to train him that when I am in my office with the door closed I am working. I’m not retired like he is – and has to learn he shouldn’t disturb me unless there is death, flames or blood. I honestly don’t know how that will go; a former Navy captain, he is not used to taking orders.

So – assuming that I am able to work at least semi-uninterrupted in my office – what will I be doing? As I said, I did a lot of goofing off this year, letting my writing and publishing slide, a distressing situation which I must endeavor to correct. I must quit taking an afternoon break bingewatching Netflix and chatting for hours on the phone. I must set up a writing schedule for the year, as I have done for many years before the disaster of 2020, and more importantly stick to it. I must set a daily routine, just as if I had an office job, because we all know writing is not only a real job, it is a strict taskmaster. Dilettantes don’t last long.

Can I do all that and become the hard-working, dedicated professional novelist I used to be? I honestly don’t know. Two years ago after a long recovery following my very first surgery ever I claimed the sloth as my spirit animal, and he is a stern taskmaster. Maybe that’s ‘anti-taskmaster.’ I can find all kinds of real and logical reasons why I shouldn’t get up and accomplish something, and let’s be honest, the madness of 2020 most definitely did not help. Sometimes it takes hours to force myself off the couch and back to the computer. Bad sloth, teaching me such self-destructive but pleasurable habits! Bad me, for giving in to them!

And, to prove I’m really working on it, tomorrow I’m releasing not one, but two brand new books. ROMANCE AT SPANISH ROCK, written under my romance name of Janis Susan May wherein an LA photographer inherits a ranch in Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon, and A WELL-MANNERED MURDER, a murder mystery written under my crime name of Janis Patterson wherein a middle-aged woman trying to survive a divorce is researching a long closed charm school and gets involved with the Kennedy assassination. Both are available as ebooks only (at the moment) on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. You see, I am trying!

2021 will be better. I will see to it. I promise.

Who’s In Charge Here?

by Janis Patterson

Once someone asked me to do a workshop on creating characters. He had read several of my books and was impressed with how ‘real’ they all were. Could I, he asked, share my creation process?

I told him I couldn’t do such a workshop, and explained why, but somehow I don’t think he believed me. And I couldn’t blame him, because it’s pretty unbelievable.

You see, I’ve taken all the workshops. I’ve done character sheets and created questionnaires for them, some even to the extent of their favorite flavor of Jello. And every character so created died. Just faded away into cardboard flatness. I have never ‘just created’ a major or even secondary character. Minor characters and walk-ons, yes; but let’s be honest – one doesn’t have to go very deeply into a character who appears just a time or two and has only a couple of lines, if that.

So what do I do to have these apparently wonderfully realistic characters? The basic truth is, I stay out of the way.

You see, my characters come to me. They march into the story and tell me what they’re going to do. If I say the leading man has to have sooty black hair and he says he has a curly red mop, I have to go along. If I don’t, he’ll go sit in the corner with his back to me and not say a word. He won’t speak to me, he won’t do what I tell him to – he just lies there like a lump. Trying to bend him to my will is sort of like trying to make pantyhose out of an oak tree. Sooner or later – if I’m smart – I give in.

It’s the way I’ve worked all my life. I believe in character-driven stories (always have) and therefore by necessity have become a thorough pantser. Though I do have some vague idea of where the story is going, and usually a pretty good idea of where it’s going to end (though not always!) for me writing is simply hanging on for dear life until the characters are satisfied.

On one of my mystery novels I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be. There were several villains of one persuasion or another, but the murderer was going to be someone special. I wrote along happily, until about the last third of the book, when I had a sinking sensation in my stomach that the person I had always thought the murderer couldn’t have done it.


Okay, I thought for a while and decided that another character just had to be the murderer. Except a chapter later I found he couldn’t have done it either. All in all, I changed the murderer’s identity five times in the last third of the book, and for one reason or another not one of them could have done it.

Double urk.

I was almost to the point of giving up when like a light from above the perfect solution came to me. It was a character I had never associated with the murder and for a reason that had never occurred to me, but everything fit together as if it had been planned from the beginning – means, motive and opportunity in one well-wrapped package. I finished the book with ease. But then – there was the problem of clues. The solution was perfect, but now I quailed at the thought of having to go back through the entire book and plant clues to the murderer. One should always play fair with the reader, after all…

Finally I girded myself for the task and plunged in… where I found to my utter amazement that they were already there. I did add one or two more, just so I’d have some feeling of being in control, but the story would have worked equally as well if I hadn’t. When I think of how many hours I spent worrying and how many scenes I wrote and then trashed…! It would have been so much simpler if I had just sat back and let the characters do the heavy lifting.

That was several years ago and that book is still selling well. It has also won more awards than any other of my books.

My current Work-In-Progress is a straight romance set in the Palo Duro Canyon kindle world of the fantastic Carolyn Brown (who is also a friend, I’m proud to say) and it is ticking along most pleasingly, which means the characters are behaving quite well. Jeri and Doug are total opposites – she’s a sophisticated globe trotting photographer, he’s a tall, strong and handsome rancher – and their mutual attraction is working just fine. I was about 10K into the book when all of a sudden her half-sister who is also her agent (and who I had no idea even existed) started banging about and now she’s worming her way into being a major part of the story… and perhaps the heroine of yet another book that I had never even thought of!

Years ago my late – and adored – mother, a supremely practical woman, listened to me talking about writing with something like despair. “They’re your imagination,” she said half angrily, half condescendingly, “they should do what you say.” Of course, very few living people ever defied my mother… When she tried to write a book on her own, though, she changed her tune. Apparently her characters were a strong-willed as mine. It was a pretty good book, too, but unfortunately she died before it was finished. I’ve been asked why I didn’t finish it for her (like I did her memoir THE LAND OF HEARTS DELIGHT) I can only say that her characters won’t speak to me and I have no idea of where she was going with it. It’s sad.

The Husband has no intention of ever writing anything except a technical report, but when I tried to describe my writing process to him, he thought for a moment, then said “Sounds like possession to me.” He might be right. I just know that I can only pretend to be in control.