When people discover I’m a writer, there are a lot of reactions:
Have I read you?
Should I know you?
Are you going to make me a character in your book?
The answer: No. I know somewhere in this world exists that person who is interesting enough to be a fictional character, but I’ve never met him/her. On the other hand, everyone has bits and pieces of their life that are fascinating, which takes us to one of the lesser exalted tools of a writer: Listening. When you listen, you hear stories and details that bring your manuscript to life.
My husband’s father is 96 years old. Tom was born in the Idaho mountains and lived through the Great Depression. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy, worked on airplanes PBYs (amphibious planes) as an electronic technician. After the war he returned to Idaho, worked in the woods as a logger and firefighter, got married, raised three baby-boomers, and worked as a grader in a sawmill. When he retired, it took three men to replace him. In his retirement, he golfed five days a week, including in the winter…
…and at 87 got his first hole in one. Since he quit golfing, he goes to the gym three days a week. He reads vociferously.
What I’m trying to say is — Tom’s life experiences are very different from mine.
Now you know, if you have elderly relatives, that you’re going to hear the same stories over and over. My husband and I have been married since the earth’s crust cooled, so I’ve been listening to Tom for a lot of years.
When I was writing STRANGERS SHE KNOWS, the Di Luca family, father, mother and daughter, are in exile on an isolated island off the coast of California, hiding from a vicious serial killer. I wanted a project for them, something the whole family could do together in difficult circumstances.
The solution: For twenty-five years, my father-in-law owned a goldenrod yellow 1955 Ford F100 pickup with a straight 6-cylinder engine. Ford F100s are coveted among car people, and legendary for being easy to work on. My father-in-law never paid anybody to do anything he could do himself; he did all his own car repairs and maintenance, and taught his sons, too.
Guess what the Di Lucas found in an old garage on their California island? A goldenrod yellow 1955 Ford F100 pickupwith a straight 6-cylinder engine. What a coincidence! Another coincidence — Max Di Luca had wanted for years to rebuild an F100.
While my husband was visiting his dad, I was home writing, and constantly on the phone with them. “What’s going to cause the most trouble with rebuilding an F100?” (Carburetor.) “What would you do if you didn’t have replacement spark plugs?” (Clean them, and be careful with the spark-plug wires.) I learned that a man can stand inside the engine compartment; it’s easier with a V6, more of a squeeze with a straight-6.
Remember how I said my life experiences were different than Tom’s? That’s putting it mildly. I’m the third of three daughters. My father died before I was born. My sisters were older; at the time I should have been hanging around with my daddy while he worked on cars and fixed stuff around the house, I had my nose in a book.
When it comes to car matters, it would be hard for you to find someone more incompetent than me. Which led to conversations like:
The Husband: “Two beams run the length of the pickup, and the masherbumbles connect at the whipdoodles. When the engine wingles snarfle the fiskpopers—”
Me: “You know I’ve never in my life been under a vehicle, right?”
Him: “Okay.” :speaks slowly/uses little words: “There. Are. Two. Beams. That. Run. The. Length. Of. The. Pickup…”
Yes, I did research, but given my level of incompetence, what I needed that hands-on knowledge and the kind of patience you get from two men who know you, love you, and are willing to go out of their ways to help you. You’re never going to ask me to fix your car. At least I’d advise against it. But the knowledge and the tidbits my husband and father-in-law gave me lend verisimilitude to the story, and a writer only gleans those nuggets by listening.
As a comment on life experiences, I’ve also learned that listening is not only useful skill you can have to build a story. You can also build a relationship. You can also cement a friendship. You can also give someone who needs to talk a few moments of your precious time. Listening is a gift; use it.
I don’t know if you’re listening, but I mean this with all my heart — may your masherbumbles always connect at your whipdoodles.
Tom was funny, opinionated, intelligent and a real character. We recently lost him; read The Loss of a Hero.
Tom was honored as a WWII Veteran: Read A Dedication Thank You.
Enjoy the all-star Cape Charade suspense series:
#1 HARD TO KILL: A Cape Charade Short Suspense
#2 DEAD GIRL RUNNING: A Cape Charade Full-length Thriller (Amazon Best of the Month, Booklist starred)
#3 FAMILIES AND OTHER STRANGERS: A Cape Charade Short Suspense
#4 WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER: A Cape Charade Full-length Thriller (Booklist starred)
#5 HIDDEN TRUTHS: A Cape Charade Short Suspense
#6 STRANGERS SHE KNOWS: A Cape Charade Full-length Thriller (Amazon Best of the Month, Booklist starred)
And especially for my audiobook fans:
Three Cape Charade Suspense Stories in Audio!
Downloadable/Printable booklist sorted by genre, series and in order.
Books by Series includes covers and links to excerpts.