Ready for the Padded Cell

me-at-mellonA former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power; Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “The Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in workbook form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

 

“Hi. My name is Johnny Casino. I’m a retired P.I. with a past. I just hope it doesn’t catch up with me. That’s how I was introduced in the first book about yours truly. It was fun reading about my exploits. I guess when you’re in the middle of it; you don’t see what’s happening around you. But the stories in The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect do a pretty good job telling part of my life story.past-imperfect-cover-12

 

“Since the book is about pasts, mine and a few other people I bumped into along the way, it gives you a pretty good idea who I am. Anyway I thought so when I read it. But sometimes what you think you know isn’t the truth. I found that out the hard way.

 

“You see, I grew up in a Mob family in New Jersey. Nothing like having a father who is the consigliere for one of the top Mob families in the country. And my darling mother was the daughter of another Mob boss right outta Chicago. What a pedigree. My name was Johnny Cassini back then.

 

“Me and my brother were raised thinking this was the only life there was. But after a while I got tired of it. Maybe that’s because I watched a lot of old movies while waiting for protection money to be dropped off at my hotel room in those days. These were Black & White films on the movie channel. But a steady diet of Bogie, Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson opened my eyes. And it wasn’t just seeing them splattered on the pavement. Sometimes these tough men played the good guys. That’s when I started seeing a different side of things.

 

“So I fled to Miami and joined another Mob. I know that didn’t exactly remove me from the life I was starting to hate, but I was seeing it from a different perspective. I worked on a gambling ship and met a lady who changed my life. She wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot, but this gal was the wife of the Mob boss in Miami. She was steering me away from her daughter who was even more trouble. And then everything went to hell.

 

“A dealer on that gambling ship went overboard one night, literally, so I switched identities with him and then hightailed it to Los Angeles. So Johnny Cassini died and Johnny Casino was born. But the story didn’t end there. I was having a hard time shaking my life of crime and got myself into some hot water when I was working for this guy in L.A. He had me kidnap this lady. She’s the one who really changed my life.”

 

“Let me take over from there, Johnny. Hi, my name is Ginger Caulfield. I’m a private detective, too. I was on a case and ran into Johnny during his crime wave here in Los Angeles. It was an odd meeting to say the least. He kidnapped me, but I could tell the guy had something, so when the case was over I told him to look me up sometime because I might have a job for him. He did.

 

hedgebetfinalcovercropped“Johnny worked for me several years until he had enough P.I. hours under his belt to go out on his own. I hated to see him go, but I knew he worked better alone. Most of the time I do my work solo like the case at the racetrack in Hedge Bet. I should amend that statement because I got my husband, Fred, to do some work for me. His trip to Mexico to bring back a witness led to a few choice words from him, mostly unprintable. But the guy’s a natural P.I.

 

“I had been in the detective business for a while and knew good people like Johnny when I saw them. In fact I knew a few things about Johnny that he didn’t know, but I have a reason. You see my uncle is a spy. His name is Robert Mackenzie and he has had some incredible exploits around the world ever since World War II. His story, at least the parts that can be told, are in a series called The SPYGAME Trilogy documented by a writer who I got to know through the years. She’ll explain this next part.”

 

“Hello, folks. My name is Elaine Barton. My dad was involved in Colonel Mackenzie’s exploits and I got caught up in a few exciting adventures in books like The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. The trilogy covers about fifty years and follows not only Mac’s life but also my father’s Air Force career. Parts of my life got caught up in this tale, too, and I put it all in book form. Though you’ll see in the books, some of it almost didn’t get written.”

the-odd-man-cover-4-croppeddry-bones-cover-view-2-smallstar-power-cover-trial-2

 

“Thanks, Elaine. Since I knew my Uncle Mac had ways of checking on people, I had him check out Johnny Casino. I learned his real name, bookcoverpreviewcroppedor at least I thought it was his real name, until another story in the Johnny Casino Casebook series uncovered something that even Johnny didn’t know. It changed everything for him. It’s in The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody. That’s when I started seeing a pattern.”

 

“Hey, Gin. Johnny here. You aren’t the only one who is starting to see a pattern. When I had a case in Las Vegas, I met one of the biggest headliners in the world, Jack Lynn. He turned up in two of my stories, but then I noticed he was also in The Santa Claus Singer about a lounge singer called Frankie Madison. He met Jack, too.”

 

“I’ve got another one for you, Johnny. One of the guys I trained after you went out on your own, Chance McCoy, has a story about him and me in the upcoming short story collection called Second Chance. Chance is a special guy. You see, he got killed on a case, but his story doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot.”

 

“I can give you another one, Gin.”

 

“Lay it on us, Elaine.”

 

“I’ve heard a rumor that there is a particular elf, yes, I did say elf, who is thinking about starting his own private detective agency to help ‘the little guy.’ How does something like this happen?”

 

“Maybe we should ask the author of all our books. Hey, G.B. What goes? The ladies and I want to know.”

 

“Okay, Johnny. I’ll confess. When I started creating this fictional world I had no idea you all knew each other, but as this world grew I saw connections between all of you. First it was Johnny knowing Ginger Caulfield. Then I wondered how Gin knew so much about Johnny’s past and I realized her uncle was Mac Mackenzie. Who else would have access to all that secret stuff?

 

“As for Chance McCoy, he told me a bunch of his stories and when he needed a fellow P.I. to help him out in a case, it just happened to be Gin Caulfield.

 

“Did I say he told me’? Yes, I did. If any of you readers have ever been to an author panel, I bet half of those writers mentioned that when they write their stories, especially the dialogue, they just sit back and let their characters speak because those people really do talk to us. That doesn’t mean we are ready for the padded cell… yet.

 

“We do ‘hear’ those voices if we have created a character with a past and a personality. And by that I mean that you should try writing a biography of your main characters and even for a few of the other people who play an important part in the story.

 

“You, as the writer, need to know as much as you can about the character you are working with. If you know where he or she was born, their education or even lack there of, or maybe even their desires or hates, you will be able to craft a character with depth. And maybe, just maybe, you will discover something about a character that they didn’t know. That’s what happened when I found out something about Johnny that shocked him and me.

 

“I can’t explain it, but by knowing who my characters are, I hear their voices and I basically transcribe what is being said in my ear. On top of that, I marvel at the fact that some of my characters actually know each other, but the small world I created is only a part of the larger world around us. I sometimes wonder if any of my other characters know or have run into these people sometime or somewhere. Anything is possible in fiction… if it is fiction. Or maybe there is a parallel universe where they all live—”

 

Knock, knock, knock.

 

“Excuse me; somebody is at the door. I think it’s the guys from the asylum. They tracked me down and they are going to take me back so I can do some more writing.

Catch you later.”

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DIVERSITY MATTERS

by Bonnie Schroeder
 
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
 
The recent uproar over the lack of non-white nominees for the Academy Awards got me thinking, because I seldom explicitly depict people of color in my books and stories. I don’t think I’m a racist, so why is that?
First off, although I have many friends who are Black, Asian and Latino, I don’t think of them by that label. I think of them as my friend who was with me during a traumatic purge at our former employer, or my gal pal who shares my love of classical music. And so on.
Therefore, I don’t often assign a racial label to the characters I write about. Many of my characters could be black or green or blue or purple, but it’s not relevant so I don’t go into it.
Should I?
The reason I ask is that our books and stories are often source material for films and television programs, so in a sense, diversity starts with the writers. But is it myjob to impose diversity? I’m not sure.
When I was working in the business world, I certainly enjoyed a diverse assortment of co-workers, many of whom became close friends. Then I retired and spent more and more time in my home community, which has a predominantly White population. I didn’t notice the change at first, preoccupied as I was with making the transition from worker bee to independent writer.

Then I joined a Tai Chi class at the local Y, and the first people to welcome me were an Asian couple. The teacher was Black. A graceful Filipina taught me some of the moves. Suddenly, my world grew more colorful again—no pun intended there, or maybe it is. And I realized how I’d missed hanging out with people who didn’t look or talk like me. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

We need variety and color in our lives; it enriches us and makes the world more interesting. The universe offers a panorama of colors, shapes, sizes, sounds, tastes and smells to experience.
But back to my question: should I be more explicit in my character descriptions to make it clear that the protagonist or her friend or her boss is a particular race or color? Is there a way to denote ethnicity—to make my writing more polychromatic—without being obvious or patronizing?
After all, despite the self-important proclamations of certain performers, Hollywood would be nothing without the written word. So to circle back to my original premise, your book or my short story might be the starting point.
Sometimes the story or the situation demands a character be a certain race, but often he or she could be any race, at least in my stories. Then the reader can decide for himself or herself if the character is Black or Asian (or Martian.)

 

Weigh in with youropinion on this admittedly tricky subject. Do you consciously include a variety of ethnicities in your writing? Do you think it’s a good thing to do? Or is it better to let the reader fill in the blanks and imagine a character in any color they want?

A young orphaned girl who survives an attack on her village, a divorced professional whose terminally ill ex-husband is gay, a private investigator struggling to overcome gunshot wounds and an addiction to pain killers, a child princess lost in a forest with only a wolf for protection, a trio of woman who drive each other crazy: How did you all come up with your protagonists?

***********************************************************

Jackie Houchin

Back in the Olden Days (okay, well, maybe 15 years ago), two friends and myself made it a habit to have lunch together once or twice a month after a Tuesday Bible study class. Our choices of eateries were eclectic, but our companionship was always fun and supportive.

Although we were different in either age or inclination, we had a jolly good time sharing jokes, heartaches, experiences and wishful thinking.

Joyce, older and more importantly, a woman of “The Old School,” was very modest even though she’d been a “looker” in her youth. She regaled us with hilarious (to us) stories of how she’d be “accosted” by leering men as she rode the bus to work in downtown LA.

We got to teasing her about being molested as a child, just to see her horrified response. (Okay, I know that is not funny, but her affront was!) She became Celeste, the older of my trio of sisters in “Sister Secrets;” the one who helps abused women in her legal practice, while fighting her own deep terror of men.

Rita battled weight-gain problems and yet often gave in to rich, hi-calorie choices when we ordered lunch. She also “confessed” a near-uncontrollable chocolate craving and sometimes whispered (as we leaned in close) the ways she indulged that addiction.

She also had a tender heart for kids and neighbors with problems. Rita became the needy but nurturing, finger nail biting, self-indulging but sweet, middle sister, Helena.

The third sister, Evangeline had to be me. (Jacqueline=Evangeline…get it?) She is a professional photographer, a bit naive, and an “incurable romantic,” which often gets me…er, I mean…her into trouble.

From this foundation of close friends, it was easy to expand on personalities, problems, pasts & passions, and … well-kept “secrets,” for the protagonists in my novel.

***

MK Johnston

It’s a funny story, really.

When I was a child, my mother would tell me stories about her life and her family. She’d repeat them so often I began to tune them out. After she passed away, though, some of those stories began to re-circulate in my brain, especially the one about how my grandmother, a five year old girl living in a late 19th century Russian shtetl (peasant village), went to the nearby river to wash laundry. She returned to discover her village has been destroyed in a pogrom that killed many villagers, including her parents.

My imagination took over and a story emerged.

Although my work was fiction, I clung to the factual part that launched my novel. I can recall arguing with my writers group over my protagonist’s age; they insisted she needed to be at least eight, and I countered that, although it defied belief that a five year old could do what she did, it really happened. Eventually I bumped her age up to six going on seven, but not without a fight.

Now here’s the funny part.

I visited my aunt – my mother’s sister – just after I finished my first draft and told her about my novel. When she seemed confused, I repeated the story about her mother, which my mother had told me countless times. I will never forget her response.

“That never happened.”

She then told me the real story about my grandmother, with such detail and clarity that I knew it had to be true. I went home and immediately changed my protagonist’s age to eight.

Would I have written my novel had I known the truth about my grandmother? Probably not. The actual story, while interesting, didn’t move me in the way my mother’s version did.

I always planned to dedicate the book to the woman who inspired it. For years, I thought it was my grandmother, but now I know the truth.

***

Bonnie Schroeder

I actually knew a woman whose husband left her for a man – about the time she learned she was pregnant. This was a smart, pretty, successful woman. I’d met her husband, and they seemed like a pretty solid couple. You just never know.

Anyway, I got to thinking about her situation and how I’d feel in her shoes – I’d probably want to murder the jerk. I’d stayed friends with my own ex-husband, too, and I wondered how I’d feel if he came down with a terminal illness.

The physical prototype for Susan was a business associate whom I admired – a tall woman with masses of curly black hair who once remarked that her size (and she wasn’t overweight or anything, just big) had colored her whole outlook on life. Anyway, these elements all converged to create Susan Krajewski.

The last name, BTW, came from another business associate, a guy who lamented about the mispronunciations of his name. I decided to saddle Susan with it as a token of her connection to her ex-husband – the fact that she kept his surname despite the obvious inconvenience.

***

Jacqueline Vick

Family. Lots and lots of family. That’s the secret to my characters. I come from a line of Lithuanian/Luxembourg/French immigrants, a good Catholic family with 13 children including my father, the oldest. Most of them are married with children, and some of those children have children. My family is a wealth of human eccentricities.

There’s the uncle with nine lives. He’s almost burned alive trying to escape a bonfire he set, fallen off a glass roof while shoveling snow, and come this close to electrocuting the entire family. And that was on Monday.

I have Chinese relations, Japanese/Filipino relations, Mexican relations. At any moment, I can draw on The Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Y.

And then there’s my Mother’s side of the family. Proud English/Irish/Scottish/Dutch descendants of those who arrived shortly after the Pilgrims. There’s a historic site in PA, The Harlow Old Fort House, that was built by one of my distant relations in 1677–Sgt. William Harlow. (I’ve named a character after that side of the family.)

My Grandfather was a Protestant and a Mason; my Grandmother was Catholic. His mother wore black to the wedding.

I have a picture of five gorgeous Irishmen, my grandmother’s brothers. I have the great uncle who never swore because it was lazy. (There are so many more interesting words in the English language, he said.) There was even a publisher in the family. Alas, he was before my time.

All I have to do is dig into the family pool and I can come up with characters who will hopefully delight readers for years to come.

***

GB Pool

Where do these characters come from?

The final version of the character, Gin Caulfield, the private detective in my current mystery series, came from reworking clay I had been painstakingly molding for several years. But her original incarnation came from something my husband, Richard, said.

I had been working on a spy trilogy for many years, but agents and publishers weren’t interested in the ponderously long tomes. That’s when my dear husband uttered the words: “You used to be a detective. Why don’t you write a detective novel?”

I knew the guy was smart, but he’s also brilliant.

So I started writing a series about a former P.I. who gets back in the business. I fashioned Ginger after myself, and her husband, Fred, after Richard. Fred and Ginger were going to be a modern-day Nick and Nora Charles eventually (book number three) with Nora the pro and Nick the seat-of-your-pants type of detective.

But then I got an agent and she had other ideas. I wanted Ginger to be “over fifty and still packing heat.” My agent put on the brakes and said, “No, no, no. That’s too old. Publishers want younger protagonists.” So I hid Ginger’s age and continued my rewriting. Then my agent said she had to have a flaw or something that makes her edgy. I had her more of a female Dick Francis character…and I liked her that way. After all, she was based on me.

Okay, so I’m a little vanilla. So I rethought Ginger’s personality. First, I started calling her “Gin.” That changed everything. She was tougher (though I’m an NRA Life Member), she had attitude (I know every four-letter word there is, but usually keep that reserved for private rants), and she was shot in the back and left for dead a few years before the opening on the latest book, Hedge Bet.

That last little tidbit set her apart from me and let her have a life of her own. Now she can have a little drug dependence in her past, a dark side every now and then. It was good for both of us. We will still consult over a good martini. I didn’t come up with the name “Gin” for nothing.