Tag Archives: The Medicine People

The Part Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn’t Play by Lazarus Barnhill

Philip Seymour HoffmanMy uncle was Ben Whitekiller. He was also Robert Vessey. Actually, of course, his name was Herbert — not Ben or Robert.

Herb was a peace officer in central Oklahoma and I grew up adoring him. As I became an adult and understood more of what it means to be a grown up, I began to see Herb in a clearer light, to have more of a circumspect understanding of his life. After he died in 2005, I wrote him in as two of the main characters in my police procedural, The Medicine People. Herb was the embodiment of Ben Whitekiller, the aging Native American, recovering alcoholic, who knows he has to come back to his little hometown to settle accounts from his misspent youth. Herb was also the essence of Robert Vessey, the whip-smart, jaded police lieutenant and investigator who never forgot what an encounter with Whitekiller had cost him. The resolution of the conflict between those two men was, in its way, my resolving of Herb’s legacy in my own heart.

So if you are like me, some of the characters in the books you write are conceived, developed and refined with a specific individual in mind — not always, but sometimes. And because that’s the case, I particularly mourned the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

When I created the fictional character Magnus Thorsen in my novel East Light, I tried to envision a tall, clever, shaggy-headed, blonde fellow. Thorsen is an artist, a complicated, high-achieving, substance abuser who is discontent with what he has made of his life. He lives on the North Carolina coast in a cottage, the third story of which is an art studio that faces the rising sun. When he decides to take his life, he goes to his favorite secluded beach, only to discover a terribly injured young woman, whose life he saves. Throughout the remainder of the book, Thorsen engages in a complicated dance with Lt. Dot Stipling, the African-American detective who figures out his suicidal intentions and needs to keep him alive at least long enough to prosecute the girl’s attackers. I always thought the ideal person to play the part of Magnus Thorsen—complex, determined, supremely artistic—would have been Hoffman.

So here is my homage to Philip Seymour Hoffman and the part he never played. The book, by the way, will coming out this summer from Second Wind:

~~~~

Magnus opened the big glass doors onto the deck and slid open the screens.  He stepped out to the railing and looked down.  The tide was going out.  Down the beach someone was throwing tennis balls into the surf for a retriever to chase.  Twenty yards away, a gull was hanging nearly motionless in the air, waiting in case Magnus had food crumbs to throw.

“Forget it.  I’m not a tourist,” he muttered.

It was nearly thirty-five feet from where he stood to the dunes below.  Almost forty if he stood on top of the handrail.  When he first decided to kill himself, he thought about jumping from this upper deck, making it look like an accident.  Only, if he had been pretending that he didn’t mean to die, he couldn’t leave notes for his son and parents and lawyer and bookkeeper.  Then too, he might have survived the fall and been crippled by it.  He also thought about hanging himself from this railing.  The problem was that, if he didn’t break his neck, hanging would be slow and awful.  And no one in the family would want to live in the cottage.  And its worth on the real estate market would have diminished as well.

Where was the lieutenant, he wondered.  Turning from the water, he saw her walking around the room, looking at the canvases on the walls and easels.

“See anything you like?”

“They’re really very beautiful.”

“You think?”

She faced him.  “I can’t help but notice that they are all finished.”

“. . . Well most of them are fairly old.  I didn’t do any of these for customers.  I did them for myself, or to try a new technique, or to demonstrate something to someone.”

“Where are your ‘works in progress?’”

He shrugged.

“Did you run out of clients who wanted portraits done?”

“I have a whole stack of work over there on my desk.  I just haven’t started them yet.”

“Why haven’t you?”

Magnus took a drink of his coffee.  “Just waiting for my muse, I guess.”

She walked through the studio toward him.  “You know what I think?  I think you finished everything you were working on and didn’t start anything new because you intended to take your life.  Everything about this place and your actions before you stumbled onto Lisa Faucet reveals an intent to commit suicide.”

She stood beside his main drawing table, her hands on her hips.  It was a place, he noticed, where—with the sun streaming into the studio—the pure consistency of her complexion and the finely etched lines of her face appeared to glow with their own light.  And at that instant she didn’t seem to Magnus to be a police officer hounding him, but an exquisite countenance, begging to be captured on canvas.

“I have a friend who is a musician,” Magnus said.  “To him, the whole world is reducible to beat and melody.  If you’re a doctor, you view everything according to how it impacts a person’s health.  And if you’re a police officer, everything and everyone is suspicious.”

She smiled grimly.  “Mr. Thorsen, you can change the subject all you want.  You can have me follow you from one room of your house to another.  You can try to distract me with egg coffee and beautiful artwork.  But nothing changes the reality that you were going to kill yourself yesterday.”

Slowly he shook his head.  “That is strictly your assumption.”

The phone rang.

“Now what!” he exclaimed.  He looked at the little clock on the supply table.  “It’s just now 7:45!”  The phone rang again.  “How did I get so popular?”

She stared at him.  “Aren’t you going to answer it?”

“No.”

“Might be the hospital.”

There was a third ring.

“No,” he said.  “The hospital has my cell number.  Nobody who has my home number would dare call me before 8 a.m.”

“Why’s that?”

There was a fourth ring.

“Because they know I’m painting.”

The answering machine, with a robotic voice, spoke, “Please leave a message after the tone.”

There was a protracted beeping sound and suddenly Grady’s angry words were amplified through the room: “Mag-man!  What’s this shit in today’s paper?  You better pick up.  I saw your name listed by a gun permit.  What the hell you need a gun for?  This has something to do with going down to Scotch Bonnet by yourself, don’t it?  You didn’t tell me nothing about no goddamn gun, son.  You better, by-god, be calling me back or I’m calling that hot police lady myself about this.  And you better, by-god, be at the meeting tonight.”  There was the sound of Grady abruptly slamming down the phone.

Magnus stared at the answering machine, refusing to look at her.  He didn’t know what to say, and he felt like a little boy caught in some naughty act.

“Hot police lady?”

He shook his head.  “That’s not what I called you.”

“So he is talking about me,” she said.  “I take it that’s you A.A. sponsor?”

“Well he was, up until a minute ago.”

“. . . You have a black sponsor?”
He tilted his head and looked at her.  “Yeah.  Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know.  Just surprised me.”

“Surprised him,” Magnus said, “when I told him that a black woman is Chief of Detectives. . . .  I told him he would have met you before I did, if he just hadn’t sobered up.”

She laughed.  She had a beautiful smile.  Somehow it was a relief to Magnus to see her smile.

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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The Death of Smut Boy by Lazarus Barnhill

It was a voice mail and it alarmed me.

In early autumn, 2008, I came home from work to find a terse message on our answering machine: “This is your mother. I need you to call me right away.”

My immediate assumption was that something had happened to my father. Dad was in mid-stage Alzheimer’s at the time and was given to wandering. When a dementia patient “sundowns” and get lost in an urban area, that’s dangerous. Only Mom and Dad lived on a 400 acres farm in central Oklahoma, where wandering is equally dangerous and it’s pointless to put out a “silver alert” sign. And even though Mom had become the official operator of all vehicles, Dad was not above climbing up on the tractor for an unannounced excursion or deciding he needed to sneak a ride in the truck to “check the culvert” or “see if the water in the pond is down.”

It was a relief to me—momentarily—when my father answered the phone. Then, as soon as I identified myself, the other shoe dropped.

“Oh,” Dad said, “is this ‘smut boy’?”

I knew immediately why my mother left me an urgent phone message. Several days before the call came in I had sent my folks copies of my first two novels published by Second Wind Publishing: Lacy Took a Holiday and The Medicine People. Each of those books had a love scene that was—in my view—tasteful, realistic and nicely written (and maybe a little arousing). Mom found those passages, along with a few scattered naughty words here and there, to be unacceptably graphic. We spent half an hour on the phone having an intense discussion about poetic license, the expectations of fiction readers in the third millennium, and the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate language and sexuality in a novel. My mother also warned me that my “day job” might suffer. I was, after all, the senior minister of a church and she cautioned me that the congregation might find out about my books and the naughtiness therein and, yea verily, fire me. When none of that impressed me, finally Mom fired up the big guns.

“Listen, son. I want to give your books as gifts to your aunts and uncles for Christmas. And I can’t do it with those words and all that sex in there.”

Hmm. Well, the books were still in proof. So I did what I thought I would never do as an author. I cratered. I had the publisher remove a couple paragraphs and a few words from each of the books. Mom was happy. For me it was strangely defiling. I did not feel embarrassed at content of my novels before I censored them, but I did after I took out those couple paragraphs. I felt as if I sold out.

Next year, on the sixth anniversary of the release of Lacey and Medicine, I’ve decided to reclaim my literary prerogative. Along with a couple new titles I’ve written, Second Wind will rerelease my first two novels with new covers and with the original text intact.

What about my aunts and uncles? What about the sensibilities of the congregation I pastored? Well, between them my surviving aunts and uncles have sixteen children and more grandkids than I’ve ever been able to count. I’m pretty sure there’s no physical act I described that they haven’t experienced—and probably weren’t embarrassed at the time. And I have retired from the ministry. A couple from my former church bumped into me a few months ago and discovered during our conversation that I had completed a sequel to Lacey Took a Holiday, called Caddo Creek, which is about to be published. As the dear lady expressed her delight, I had to warn her: “Linda, I’m not a preacher anymore.” She didn’t get it right away, but her husband roared. I think he understood what I was getting at.

Smut boy lives! Well, actually, I never was smut boy. I’ve reclaimed my right to write as seems right to me. So I guess that means “smut boy” is dead and Lazarus has risen to write again.

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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How To End a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

What about a good ending? Here are the final paragraphs of Charlie Cherry’s Ninth Step, a work that will be coming out in the spring of 2014 from Second Wind:

Susan answered the door, barefoot and wearing the clothes she had worn to school that morning, her shirttail out.

“Charlie!”

“Hi.”

“Uh—did you—did you find her?”

“Yep.” He nodded. “I did.”

“Are you—did she—”

He shook his head. “She’s remarried.”

“Oh.” She tried not to show the relief that spread across her face. “What about Sloan? What about, you know, your amends?”

“Well,” he said slowly, “I can tell you all about all that. But that’s not really the reason I came back.”

Susan slouched against the doorframe. There was a hint of anger in her voice. “Just looking for a cheap place to spend the night?”

“Not really.” He looked over his shoulder at the Mazda. “You have a week-and-a-half off beginning now, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she replied cautiously.

“Well, I got my doings done and I’ve still got the better part of two weeks myself. I have a few hundred bucks just burning a hole in my pocket, and I was wondering if you’d like to go down to San Antone and walk the river with me.”

For a moment she hovered in the doorway. She stepped toward him and leaned forward, looping her arms around his neck and pressing her lips to his.

She breathed at length and said, “Do you want to leave in the morning?”

“Well look. We kind of rushed into things last night. Surely we can slow down and do thing a little more romantically.”

Her expression was curious. “More romantic than last night? Like how?”

“Well, let’s go pack your stuff, and I’ll take you for a moonlight ride with the top open on my rocket. We’ll cruise on down to this barbeque house I found in Dallas. Best pecan pie I’ve had in fifteen years.”

She was smiling, her arms a swing and her face moving gently a few inches beneath his. “Then what?”

“Well, then we’ll drive on down the road ‘til we find just the perfect spot to spend the night.”

“Salado.”

He shrugged. “Wherever you want, darlin’.”

They kissed, a deep, sweet kiss. He straightened.

“Come on now. I’ll help you.”

She turned and went inside. He watched her graceful steps. “Pack light. I imagine I’ll be picking you out a few things. How do you suppose you’d look in one of those white senorita dresses?”

“A senorita with freckles?”

“I love freckles. . . . Susan?”

“Yes?”

“How do you feel about stepchildren?”

Before we talk about what’s right (I hope) with the passage above, let’s talk about what can go wrong with the ending of a story. If we put our heart’s blood into writing a manuscript, we need to make sure we don’t bleed out before we reach the end of the story.

First, there is no “happily ever after” if we are writing for adults. In this sense, Margaret Mitchell did a better job of ending Gone with the Wind than Shakespeare did with Hamlet. At the bittersweet ending of GWTW, Scarlett is torn with grief and guilt, and yet clinging to hope. The story has come to an end, but the reader is left yearning for more. Indeed readers immediately and constantly clamored for a sequel. There could never be a sequel to Hamlet—everybody was dead. Killing off your main characters is often (as demonstrated by the current most popular male romance author) just another way of not having to deal with the complexity of human life. Hollywood movies, of course, are the land of “happily-ever-after-pat-ending-where-the-good-prevail-and-the-bad-get-what-they-have-coming.” But if you decide your story is going to be more real-to-life than a Hollywood blockbuster, you as an author have to decide to give your readers what the story allows you to give them.

In the passage above from Charlie, I give my readers multiple resolutions to several issues the main character faced throughout the story: what became of the girl he loved and was violently separated from in high school; what will he do to the vicious adult who beat him mercilessly when he was a teenager; what will happen between him and the girl who secretly loved him in his youth? In each case the result was not what the reader might have suspected. My intention is that the reader find the ending surprising, hopeful, plausible, uplifting and fun.

Another huge, disappointing mistake authors make is that the ending does not live up to the buildup of the narrative. There is a famous horror author who does a splendid job of building suspense and anticipation throughout his overly long novels, only to have them fall flat time and again because of really lame endings. Your ending has to be as big as the story that precedes it. When readers hear Charlie, above, promise Susan he’s going to tell her what happened to him that day, they know that she will be astonished—just as they were surprised—to hear what he found out in the previous few hours.

Finally, leave your readers wanting more. All of the major questions and issues Charlie Cherry faced at the beginning of his story have been resolved by the end, but the resolution is intended to make the reader want to know what happened next in the characters’ lives. I’m not suggesting that you leave yourself an opening for a sequel—although books do sell better if they are part of a series. Rather I’m saying that you want your readers, after they finish that last line, to keep wondering what will become of these characters they’ve come to know, with whom they’ve experienced adventures.

So a good ending 1) is plausible, realistic and complete enough to satisfy all the main themes of the story without solving all the world’s problems, 2) has an ending that is as big and satisfying in its resolution as the story that precedes it, and 3) leaves your readers brooding about the characters and events and feeling sorry that the story has ended.

And that, I think, is a good place to end the essay.

***

This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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How To Begin a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

Novels, novellas and short stories are very distinct literary forms. O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi is hugely different in its construction from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One would be tempted to say that, as different types of literature, they have virtually nothing in common.

The longest epic and the shortest tale, however, can have two enormously important things in common: they can engage the reader from the beginning and they can leave the reader satisfied but wanting more at the end. In this brief essay I’d like to share my ideas about what makes workable beginnings and endings. I think these ideas are universal in that they apply to creative fiction regardless of its genre, setting or length.

A key idea expressed to me repeatedly by the folks at Second Wind is that my story should grab and hold the attention of the reader from the very first line. As one of the editors expressed it to me, the first line should seduce the reader deeply into the narrative. I’ve been told that a good example of this is the first line of my novel Lacey Took a Holiday:

She woke up realizing she had been sleeping in a bed smaller and softer than the one in which she made her living, and that she was wearing the sort of flannel nightgown she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl.

What’s good about this sentence? It begins a story with no build up (back story). Another way this is described is in media res (“in the middle of things”). Speaking for myself, I find that introductions, forwards, preludes, prologues or whatever you want to call them tend to slow down the process of a story. True, there are a lot of great novels with prologues (Brad Stratton’s White Lies is one; so is Nicole Bennett’s Ghost Mountain. These two novels, however, each use their prologue to describe a crime and they do so with no back story whatever. In this they are exceptions that prove the rule).

In the text above, the reader immediately knows something about the character being described, the setting and even a little of the history of the character. An author should be able to weave back story into the narrative as it moves along. By the bottom of the first page, the reader knows a lot more about the woman being described, but not because the author has blatantly explained it. I have found that readers will be quite attentive and sleuth out the things they want to know about your characters, which will further draw them into the story.

This leads to the concept I call “introductory mystery”: the beginning paragraphs of a story, regardless of its length, deposit curiosity in the mind of the reader so that she/he will be drawn along into the narrative at least long enough to discover why a character said something or reacted in a certain manner. One example of this appears in the opening pages of Come Home to Me, Child, the crime/mystery novel I co-authored with Sally Jones. Within half a page the main character, Elaine, is interrupted and overwhelmed by her new neighbor, Police Chief Larry Daughtry. As the narrative continues after Daughtry abruptly walks away, Elaine asks Tim Starling, her contractor, to explain this intrusive man with whom he has long been acquainted:

“What about the chief?”

“He went into the Marines. Became a military policeman or shore patrol—whatever they call ‘em. Did three or four hitches and came back to work in law enforcement around here. He started as a Cochran County deputy and, about five years ago when the chief’s spot came open in Veil, he was the natural choice. I guess.”

“He seemed happier to see you than you were to see him.”

Starling chuckled. “I always thought Larry was a kind of a thug. He bullied me. Not that he was the only one.” He began to stretch his tape measure along the yard. “It’s the divine right of football players to torment band guys.”

Although the contractor’s explanation satisfies the introductory mystery of what sort of person has just barged into Elaine’s life, the story proceeds to plant more elements to hook the reader’s curiosity: why does the officer know so very much about her family; why is he so interested in her recent medical problems; and why is the police chief so interested in Elaine’s plan to move her gazebo twenty feet across the yard? These seeds of mystery blossom through the course of the narrative in ways intended to gratify the reader’s curiosity, but also to draw him/her ever deeper into the story.

As the police chief in his oppressive manner reveals to Elaine just how much he knows about her and her family, the reader is also learning the back story of what brought the main character to this place at this time and what is happening in her life. If, as an author, you can keep the pacing and dialogue smooth and natural—allow subject matter to emerge as it would in the flow of normal conversation—the narrative will give ample opportunity to simultaneously reveal the back story of the characters even as you develop them and their relationships.

So a good beginning 1) seduces the reader further into the story, 2) begins with narrative at the expense of back story, 3) plants elements of mystery in the reader’s mind—some to be quickly revealed even as seeds of greater mystery are planted, and 4) reveals back story through the narrative process so as to introduce the reader to the characters without impeding the process of the story itself.

***

This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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Interview with Lazarus Barnhill, Author of “The Medicine People”

What are your books about?

There are two answers to that question. First, I’m very fortunate because my publisher allows me to have books in more than one genre. Currently I have both romance and crime/mystery titles in print. Coming up soon, I hope to have several mainstream novels in print as well. The second answer is that my books are all about believable characters facing believable issues, forming believable relationships and rising up in inspiring, creative but believable ways.

How long do the ideas for your books take to develop?

Beside my bed I keep a spiral notebook that has the outlines for two dozen books in it. Whenever I get an idea for a book, I write down a tentative title (you call the baby something when it’s born, although in the long run it creates its own true name), the basic plot and the key characters. Over time I, as I brood about the stories, I’ll go back to my notebook and add more detail, alter the plot, rename the characters, etc. The stories continue to grow. In a way they “become ripe” over time—that is, I get to a point where I can’t help but start the actual writing process. Each ripens at its own pace. Caddo Creek, the sequel to Lacey Took a Holiday, chronologically takes place ninety years after the original story and was actually conceived after the “first sequel,” Lacey’s Child. I guess the bottom line to the question for me is that a story is a living thing: it develops within the author’s being and emerges when the time is right for it.

Who are the main characters of your stories? Do you have a favorite? Is part of yourself hidden in them?

All the characters in my stories are based at least in part on people I’ve known or encountered. I embellish or diminish aspects of them as suits the need of the narrative. In The Medicine People, Ben Whitekiller, the catalytic figure whose return to the little town where he is wanted for murder sets off an unstoppable chain of events, and Robert Vessey, the detective who hated and wanted to kill Whitekiller for decades, were actually both based upon the same person: my uncle Herb, an Oklahoma peace officer and Native American who wrestled throughout his life with his own demons. Lacey, the beautiful and feisty main character in Lacey Took a Holiday, was based upon a very spirited artist I knew many years ago. Andy Warren, Lacey’s antagonist and eventual love interest, was based upon a fellow I knew who was everything I’m not: tall, quiet, confident and patient. I have not yet written myself into a novel as a character. I’m not sure I’d give myself an even break. Because I try to breathe life into all of them, I can’t say that one is my favorite. I am partial to strong-willed, bright, determined female characters like Lacey, Deena in The Medicine People, Elaine in Come Home to Me Child and Corral in Caddo Creek. I like creating male characters who are independent and will go their own way, yet care enough about others to make sacrifices: Dan Hook and Johnny Whitekiller in The Medicine People, Andy Warren and Curly the saloonkeeper in Lacey Took a Holiday.

Do your books have “takeaways,” goals you intend your readers to grasp? How do you know when you’ve finished a novel?

The course of my life has exposed me to a lot of good and bad experiences, a lot of admirable and wicked people and a lot of wisdom and stupidity. I think, as we age, we discover many of the same truths in life, which is to say that a story can be true or it can be false: true in the sense that it resonates with what we learn as live; false in that the action, dialogue or development of the characters violates our sense of real life. For example, at the conclusion of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which is a great romance novel that breaks a lot of the genre’s rules, the reader is confronted with a huge irony: Scarlett discovers she loves Rhett just as Rhett decides he won’t squander anymore time trying to win her love. As melodramatic as the setting is, it’s a “true story”. So I would say my goals for my stories are 1) to write truth stuff (all the characters are believable, engaging and worth caring about) and 2) to end at a point where the specific themes of the story are resolved, but the reader is left wondering what happened to the characters next. At the end of The Medicine People, one of the characters has been shot, one jailed for attempted murder, one exonerated, a secret love has been revealed and two passionate but completely unconventional love affairs have begun. I want the end to be satisfying, but also compelling. Years ago I wrote a fantasy novella. It’s still the first piece of my fiction that I still consider worthwhile. I sent it to my mother who read it at one setting, called me up and demanded that I write a sequel. “Ah,” I thought, “I have arrived!”

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was a child of four or five, Wednesday nights were “dollar nights” at the Riverside Drive In: a whole car load of people could see the movie for a buck. My parents and sister would sit in the front seat and I’d sit in the back. Periodically during the show, I would say what the character on the screen was about to say. Eventually my parents got really tired of that and forbade it. But something took root in me even back then. As an elementary school child I would constantly start stories that ended up being only a page or two long — and made me feel like a failure. When I was in sixth grade I lay awake one night and created a story that involved every child in my homeroom class. With the blessing of Miss Roach (and, no, I did not make up that name), I laboriously wrote the story down — probably thirty-five or forty pages — and was given permission on the last day of school to read it to the class. With about five pages left (I was just about to be machine gunned by the villains, having recovered the money they stole from the bank), the principal came in and said that we were free to go to the playground or to stay inside. The students immediately bolted — not one even asking how the story ended. I decided then to write the sort of stories that people would not be able to put down . . . and I’m still working on that.

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“Come Home to Me Child” by Mike Simpson

Laz Barnhill has submitted another manuscript to Second Wind—a crime/mystery novel called Come Home to Me Child. Right now it’s in final editing and, in a couple months, his third title with us will be available. It’s about time. His romance (Lacey Took a Holiday) and his police procedural (The Medicine People) have been in print since 2008 and continue to sell. As with his earlier works, Come Home to Me Child does a good job of drawing the reader into a deceptively simple world full of interesting, believable characters who find themselves in remarkable predicaments; the characters develop along with the story and the resolution leaves the reader wanting more.

This novel tells the story of family that finds it necessary to move away from the Dallas Metroplex so Elaine, a wife and mother in her forties, can recuperate in a peaceful setting after a near-fatal aneurysm. Just after they move into their new house in the backwater town of Veil, Elaine discovers that years before a little girl was kidnapped out of the very bedroom in which her own young daughter now sleeps. Things start going “bump in the night”; or do they? Creepy neighbors intrude on her privacy; or do they? The unfolding story of the missing child reveals a miscarriage of justice; or does it? Elaine can’t be sure whether things are really happening in the world around her, or just within her injured mind.

What’s fundamentally different about this novel is that Laz has a co-author: his wife. She has chosen to write under the name “Sally Jones.” Why did they decide to collaborate on the novel and how did she come up with the pseudonym?

As he tells the story, two years ago they were traveling to the beach. Knowing they had hours of nighttime driving ahead and he was already a little sleepy, Laz badgered his wife into helping him outline a murder mystery in which his in-laws were the main characters. Since his wife has four sisters and four brothers-in-law—all with distinctive personalities—there was no shortage of vivid characters for the story. Over the course of four hours—and with lots of negotiations about the story, the heroes and villains, and the resolution—the novel was plotted out just about the time they got to Sunset Beach. And it was promptly forgotten. After all, it was just an exercise in staying awake on a long drive.

Months later during a Christmas visit with his in-laws, Laz’s wife mentioned to her parents the mystery they had dreamed up on the way to the beach. Immediately his mother-in-law insisted that they complete the story and submit it for publication. Fifteen months later, the story is at last complete—and the Barnhill’s are still married. The one concession Laz regrets making, he says, is that there is no sex in the book:

“I can bump off my in-laws, beat them up and throw them in jail. But the thought of writing about them having sex just creeped me out.”

So what about his wife’s alias? Years ago Laz and his wife (real name “Nancy”) were invited to a very prestigious gathering of corporate executives, the sort of folks who could make or break his budding career. At the opening of the banquet, the important guests paraded down a receiving line, introducing themselves to Laz and all the other young professionals in attendance. In those days his wife had bright red hair and that night she had worn a very attractive, attention getting yellow dress. At one point as the noteworthy movers-and-shakers were passing by, greeting his wife and then him, Laz noticed he was getting a number of strange looks. Turning to Nancy, he saw she had removed her wedding ring and was wearing a nametag that read: “Sally Jones.”

“When we started thinking of a penname for her, ‘Sally Jones’ instantly came to mind,” he said. “My wife is like a character in my novels—unpredictable and unforgettable. It’s always risky not keeping an eye on her.”

Maybe after Come Home to Me Child, Laz will have to write a novel in which “Sally Jones” is the main character.

–Mike Simpson

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Writing: Uncovering A Surprising And Beautiful Buried Treasure — by Lazarus Barnhill

Decades ago when I was in my early teens, my father and I were driving through the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma — laden with switchbacks, dips and hairpin turns — when we saw a motorcycle come toward us and flash past in the opposite lane. It was ridden by a helmetless Native American whose face was totally expressionless. Sitting behind him, a young woman pressed herself against his back, her eyes closed — whether in ecstasy or fear I did not know. The bike was moving so rapidly I caught only a two or three second glimpse of them. Still the impression, as you can tell, remained with me for a lifetime. My dad was also seized by the vision. I could sense him reflecting on their appearance and disappearance and I heard him mutter, “What about that? An Indian on an Indian.”

That solitary image remained with me in the brooding recesses of my awareness for forty years until it became the central vision, the cathartic scene of a novel that built itself around that impassive visage of the man on the motorcycle. My second published novel, The Medicine People, began in my mind with an imagined picture of that Native American standing silently in a jail cell, his hands around the bars, waiting for a certain person to come and speak with him, knowing the dialogue between them would permanently alter both lives.

That’s my creative process; that’s how stories develop themselves for me: I experience something striking and the retained memory of it marinates and evolves in the depths of my mind. The stories grow, sometimes as with Medicine from the middle simultaneously toward the beginning and end, but sometimes from the end backwards or even, conventionally, from the start to the finish.

Once the basics of the story have germinated and I have a grip on where they are going, the real fun begins. With my first published novel, Lacey Took a Holiday, I was inspired by a Natalie Merchant song that described a cowboy professing love to a drunken saloon girl. She wakes the next morning to discover he has disappeared. From that image, Lacey the character and Lacey the story took root in my thoughts. By the time I started actually writing the book, I knew where the journey was going to take this saloon girl. The actual writing process had more in common with uncovering a surprising and beautiful buried treasure than figuring out how to put the “flesh” of details on the “skeleton” of preconceived story. From that single original image, the story develops and completes itself.

That’s the basis of my little literary world. Writing is exciting and strange — how odd to think that an entire story can coalesce and emerge from the flotsam from my lifetime of disorganized observations and faded memories. And, for me, perhaps the most exciting aspect of writing is the notebook I keep by my bed with the basic images—some with partial outlines and possible characters — for two dozen “treasure chests” I haven’t yet begun to open.  —- Laz Barnhill

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The First Chapter of Rubicon Ranch Has Finally Been Posted!

We’ve been promising you a novel experience, a collaboration by authors of Second Wind, and finally the day has arrived! The first chapter of Rubicon Ranch has been posted. You can find the first chapter here: “Chapter One by Pat Bertram“. Next week we will be posting a chapter by Lazarus Barnhill, author of the wonderful books Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People. We hope you will join us in our adventure!

Here’s how the story begins:

Melanie Gray dressed all in white—loose cotton pants, billowing long-sleeved top, wide-brimmed straw hat, flowing scarf. She checked her pockets to make sure she had her cell phone, camera, and extra memory card, then grabbed a canteen of water, slung the strap over her shoulder like a bandolier, and stepped outside. Heat scorched her lungs and the glare of the desert sun burned her tear-sore eyes.

She hesitated. Maybe she should stay inside today. Seven o’clock in the morning, and the temperature had already climbed into the hundreds. She was more of a mountain girl—though at forty-three she could hardly be called a girl—and preferred the cool of higher elevations. To be fair, Rubicon Ranch lay three thousand feet above sea level, and the harsh weather and bleak desert vistas suited her present mood, but she hadn’t slept well lately, hadn’t slept much at all since Alexander died, and she had little strength to deal with the present heat wave.

Damn Alexander anyway. Why did he have to wreck the car and get himself killed? Didn’t he know better than to text while driving? And how could he have already spent their advance? Had he squandered it on the woman he’d been texting?

Melanie strode down the driveway to Delano Road, wishing their publisher wasn’t holding her to the contract for this final coffee table book. If she still had the advance, she could return the money, find somewhere to burrow, and heal in privacy, but now she had to finish the book of desert scenes by herself, and she knew nothing about photography—Alexander always took the pictures, she wrote the blurbs. Her only option was to shoot as many photos as possible using her small digital camera, and hope that by lucky accident some would be publishable.

When she reached the road, she hesitated again. Right or left? Odd how she couldn’t seem to make up her mind about anything since Alexander’s death. Not that it mattered which way she went. Most roads in Rubicon Ranch eventually wound to the desert.

Turning left on Delano Road was the shorter route—the desert lay a scant one hundred yards from her rented house—but she seldom went that way. Cut off from the vast stretches of wilderness by rocky knolls, the region had become a cross between a town park and a city dump. She’d have to dodge bicyclists, skirt discarded furniture, and climb over the steep knolls to get to the wilds. Turning right, as she usually did, she could amble through pleasant suburban streets before reaching the trails that would take her to the remote wilderness areas.

The heat radiating off the blacktop made up her mind for her. It would be cooler in the desert, if only by a couple of degrees, so the sooner she got there the better. She turned left.

As she neared the house two doors down, she felt the disturbing sensation of being scrutinized. She didn’t need to search for those observant eyes. She knew exactly who was watching. An old man always sat on the porch, like a land-locked amphibian, staring at everyone going by. Another reason she preferred the long way—she hated anyone knowing her business, especially now when her emotions were so raw.

“Damn you, Alexander,” she whispered fiercely. “How could you have done this to me?”

Click here to read the whole chapter: Rubicon Ranch, Chapter One by Pat Bertram

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Why Do You Write Fiction?

Yesterday, author Lazarus Barnhill posted an article here on the Second Wind Blog about why he writes fiction. He wrote:

”When you write about a controversial issue, you don’t have to make it the center of your story to express it fully.  You just work it in.  For instance, when I wrote The Medicine People, I dealt a lot with the quiet underlying bigotry Native Americans and Western European descendants still harbor for one another but never express out loud.  And while it was essential to the story, it didn’t overwhelm the novel.  Stories have the power to make an issue live in the mind of the reader the way a speech never can.

“And the best thing about being a fiction writer is, you don’t have to brag to get your point across.  The best writer is one whose reader gets absolutely lost in the narrative.”

When I began writing, I had a lot to say about the way we are manipulated to suit the needs of big business and big government, and that theme underlies my first four novels. Though that theme was important to me, I tried to make the story even more important so as not to overwhelm the readers. I used up that theme, so I don’t know what I want to say in my future books, which is perhaps why I haven’t been able to write — I don’t know what I want to say, or rather, why I want to say it. I tried to write a story simply for the story’s sake, but that manuscript is stalled halfway through. I do have a theme for that — freedom vs. security vs. responsibility — but the book is not a thriller, has no mystery, is more of an apocalyptic allegory, which is something I would never read, so I don’t imagine anyone else would want to either. The point being, I write fiction because . . . Apparently I have no reason since I am not writing fiction at the moment. 

So, why do you write fiction? What is the best about being a fiction writer? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? How do you make sure readers get lost in your fiction?

Let’s talk.

The Gather.com group No Whine, Just Champagne will meet for a live discussion about writing and the writing life on Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 9:00pm ET. I hope you will stop by — it would be nice to see you. You can find the discussion by clicking here. If you can’t chat live, we can chat on this blog.

***

Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado and a lifelong resident. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own.More Deaths Than One was Bertram’s first novel to be published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC. Also available are Daughter Am I and A Spark of Heavenly Fire.

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Bumping Off My Inlaws

I’m about to bump off several of my in-law’s—and I don’t feel bad about it all.  Truth be told, I’m really looking forward to it.

This mayhem all began, you see, when my wife and I were invited to spend a couple days at the beach last October.  We didn’t leave until later in the day and our destination was four hours away.  I’d been burning the midnight oil in preparation for the excursion and felt myself getting really sleepy a couple hours into the drive.  Over the years I’ve learned a number of secrets that help keep me alert: drinking large soft drinks (particularly if they are in paper cups setting between your thighs), chewing sunflower seeds, playing the A harp (blues harmonica) or singing along with my CD’s.  Rather than resorting to those tried-and-true methods, however, I decided to try something different.

I turned to my wife and said, “We’re going to write a book together.”

Nancy is an unequivocal critic of novels—mine and others.  A lover of crime/mystery novels, she is quite definitive in her taste.  She was aghast at the thought of writing with me.  “Besides,” she said, “every good idea for a murder mystery has been used again and again.”

“Then let’s come up with something new,” I persisted, “an idea you’ve never heard before.  There will be some common themes, but let’s make the story as original as possible.”  The more she resisted, the more determined I was to draw her into the creative process.  “Who is the most unlikely hero you can imagine?” I asked.

She named her youngest sister, a person who is not only unassuming, unassertive and extremely dignified, but suffers from the sort of chronic illness that places certain restrictions on her physical activities.  So we focused on little sister and upon recent actual happenings in her life (moving to a new, smaller community; an oldest child going away to college; meeting new neighbors).

At that point it began to be fun for Nancy.  We started casting various members of her family in the story and plotting what sort of wonderful and tragic things might befall them in the novel.  We found that, by using the personalities and characteristic traits of her kinfolks, we agreed on what sort of people they would be in the story and what roles they would fill.  We figured out eventually where we wanted the story to go—including whom we wanted to bump off.  We could not agree, however on the precise series of events that would allow us to bring about the desired conclusion (when it comes to actually typing out the story, I’m going to wait until she goes to bed and change things around to the way I want them).

So here’s where the story begins (and no, my sister-in-law did not have this happen to her and her family): the family of a woman in early 40’s moves from a large southern city to a small rural community.  Doctors encouraged this move as a way of providing a bucolic setting for the woman to continue recovering from a near-fatal aneurysm that left her with severe stroke-like symptoms.  The first night in her new home, she rises and walks through her darkened house to the kitchen, only to see what she thinks is her new next door neighbor stalking through her backyard.

What happens next?  Mostly to assure herself that she only imagined seeing him, the woman begins a passive investigation.  She discovers the previous residents of the house had a young daughter who disappeared ten years before.  The boyfriend of the neighbor’s teenage daughter had disappeared the same night, and the little community had come to assume the teenage boy had abducted the girl, harmed her and then fled.  After waiting and hoping there would be some resolution to their daughter’s disappearance, the family made the decision to give up on the tenth anniversary of the abduction.  They put the house up for sale and moved away.  As the main character discovers what has happened, she becomes quite alarmed because she has a young daughter who is sleeping in the very room from which the little girl was abducted.  The working title of our little murder mystery is Come Home to Me, Child, the words spoken every night for ten years by the mother of the abducted girl.

Nancy assumed I would drop the idea once we made it home from the beach and back to our “real world” concerns.  In fact it sort of irritates her that I still intend to write the book and list her as co-author (I have the perfect pseudonym picked out for her).  I must press forward with this, of course.  How can I resist snuffing out a few of my favorite in-laws?  —Lazarus Barnhill, author of The Medicine People and Lacey Took a Holiday

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