Tomorrow I'm a panelist with Linda Jacobs and Craig Holden on the Las Cruces Press Women’s Creative Writers Roundtable. Several local writers will be talking about how we go about writing novels. Where do our ideas come from? How do we develop them? How do we create characters? Do our stories take sharp, unexpected turns, or do we maintain complete control?
Back in 1980, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians flooded into refugee camps in Thailand, and my family sponsored one of the families. We maintained a degree of contact with Cambodians in the Lowell, Massachusetts area for over a decade. I'd been writing freelance nonfiction for a few years as a sideline, and in the late '80s woke up in the middle of one night thinking I had to write a novel. So I took a Writer's Digest course and a workshop, did tons of book research, and wrote a bad novel entitled Freedom Country. (Now I call it my practice novel.)
My second novel was meant to build on the research I'd already done. Knowing I could never truly understand the Cambodian psyche or culture fully, I created Sambath Long, a refugee who strove to be Americanized. That way, only his flashbacks dealt with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the novel could dwell more on the intermixing of disparate cultures. Little Mountain was intended as a murder mystery, but it's more accurate to call it a crime thriller, since "whodunit" isn't hard to guess. Sam is my most tightly controlled character. He could never stray too far from the original character and still maintain credibility.
Mack Durgin, the star of When Pigs Fly, had more latitude. He's widowed and a retired cop with a sense of humor he uses as a shield. When I wanted him to have a slightly different background as a divorced P.I. in Getting Lucky, I spun him off as Clay Webster. Same guy, really. Maybe they're cousins. My other characters in these two novels tend to be quirky, like the oafish criminal Diet Cola or Ace and Frosty, the talented but dumb petty thieves. Characters often told me what they wanted to do, like Mack's mother fending off an intruder with a bullwhip.
Speaking of sharp turns, I was well into the second or third draft of my untitled comic novel when I decided to give a young Indian girl a pet javelina she named Poindexter (the first name that popped into my head). Poindexter had his own point of view and even got his own plot line. This fed nicely into a major story theme, that we'll all win the lottery when pigs fly.
So the panel discussion will be fun. I haven't done one of these for awhile.