by James Polkinghorn
When I started my debut novel, Liquid Shades of Blue, a couple of years ago, I had a simple story in mind and could clearly see the beginning and the end. But what about all that in-between stuff? I’ve come to learn that this is not an uncommon question among writers. Of course, it’s the “in-between stuff” that cements the bonds with the reader created at the beginning and promises a satisfying pay-off in the end. I discovered that my experiences over the years, inhabited by memorable characters throughout, provided great source material for narrative forays in the book when coupled with my own imagination.
So, for instance, a relatively frightening experience as a young lawyer cross-examining a witness in trial for the first time became a scene in the book with some significant adjustments making my lead character, Jack Girard, come off a little better than I did in the event. Similarly, a later observation of a small-town judge handling a phalanx of big-city lawyers inspired a scene in the book where Jack wins an argument without actually saying anything. And, of course, the jumbled memory of countless witness interactions, depositions, hearings, and trials made Jack’s legal experiences relatively easy to convey realistically.
Another source of great utility consisted of the countless hours spent in bars of varying degrees of ill repute and danger. You hear things, some of which stay with you even years later when your buddies bring up that crazy trip to Ensenada. Or Las Vegas. People speak differently in bars after a couple of cocktails than they do elsewhere. It’s interesting to capture that distinction, a task made easier by recollections of specific conversations.
And then there are the people. A novel is populated by many characters, some of whom are pure products of imagination. But, in my experience, even those characters carry traits of real people the author encountered one way or another. While my protagonist, Jack Girard, is a pure work of fiction, he is, physically, the embodiment of a friend of mine from college. Emotionally, he reminds me of another friend I spent time with who viewed me as one of the few people he could confide in. It wasn’t hard to channel this as Jack encountered emotionally draining scenarios in the book. Other people appear in the book almost as though they were transposed from real life. Generally, these are the relatively minor characters who don’t actually move the action. I found that to create the memorable characters, particularly the bad ones, it was necessary to dig deep in the creative mine while assigning certain qualities observed in others in real life. You don’t actually run into characters like this all that often in your day to day life. Or if you do, you don’t have enough experience with them to take them as deep as your plot demands they go. So you simply imagine how they would interact with the other characters you created in the same way.
This is the really fun part of writing a novel: creating these characters, putting them in situations where they interact, and then imagining how those interactions will turn out. In Liquid Shades of Blue, these interactions created the “in-between stuff” that ultimately set the stage for what I hoped would be a meaningful reader experience.
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