Category Archives: Character

Writing the women of Jennifer’s Weave


Jennifer’s Weave is technically a sequel to my first published book, Monkey on a Chain, but it is a bit more closely tied to Monkey than is usual for series books. That happened because the main character, Jennifer Murphy, first appeared in Monkey as a stock figure designed to emphasize Porter’s isolation, but she kept pushing back into the story, until by the end of it she was helping April count a fortune in jewels on Porter’s kitchen table.

Normally, that would be a good enough ending for a minor character, but it wasn’t enough for Jenny. When I began planning Rainbow’s second adventure, she pushed her way into the new story. It wasn’t hard. Her character was intelligent and just as far from conventional society’s norm as Rainbow himself, though in a different direction. After all, when she pushed into Rainbow’s house at the end of Monkey and found April, stark naked, happily running her fingers through a mound of diamonds and rubies, sapphires and emeralds, she didn’t apologize and run. No, she asked, “Can I play?”

She was a puzzle I had to explore, so when I needed a convenient spot to drop the corpse that triggered the next book, I picked her kitchen floor. But no dead man exists in isolation. Each lies at the heart of a constellation of questions: Who was he? How did he come here? Who loved him? Who hated him? What part did he play in the life of the woman who found him and ran?

That was enough for a start, anyway. I began writing, and within a few pages a detective with the NM State Police gave the dead man a name: Juan Murphy. Suddenly there was a connection between Jenny and the body, and her character became far more complex.

As I wrote, the first part of the story reflected my interest in Jenny. I’d made her a weaver without knowing why, but that occupation suddenly made sense. What had been a random choice became a metaphor, and Porter’s search for a killer hinged on his ability to read the warp and the weft of the choices that formed the fabric of her life.

I’d always seen Rainbow Porter as a damaged character. In Monkey, I imagined him as damaged by the war. With the new story I realized that the war was just the blow that fractured him, much as a sculptor’s hammer will break a marble slab along a hidden fault. In Porter’s case, that break didn’t weaken him so much as it left him with sharper edges. He became more dangerous, less human. Jenny was affected differently. What shattered her psyche left her unable to accept a complete human connection; she could love, but she would not be loved, and the two flawed characters were not compatible. As you might imagine, this sort of realization can complicate the process of writing a book.

When it became obvious that Porter and Murphy had no future to offer each other, I began to wonder what kind of woman could fit into his life. About the same time, the book started feeling like it was running a little short. The search for Jenny had Rainbow running all over central New Mexico, but all sorts of clues were pointing to California. Jenny’s father and brother lived in Santa Barbara. Her first husband and the daughter she abandoned were there and her third lived in the San Francisco area. Questions needed to be asked and Porter couldn’t ask them, so he hired a P.I. in Los Angeles to do the job. That’s where Sharon Coulter came in. Like Jenny, she also started as a character of opportunity, an ex-cop from LA working as a P.I., but she quickly became an opportunity to explore another side of Rainbow Porter.

Suddenly I had a new subplot. Porter and Sharon replaced Porter and Jenny. My problem with a short word count disappeared, but the new character was a cipher. All I had was a rough description and her name, Sharon. That was enough to keep me typing, but the woman still needed a character and I had no idea how she’d fit into the story. Then Sharon and Porter walked into a restaurant in Sausalito and Sharon limped as she walked.


When I asked her (and, yes, authors do talk to their characters) I learned about the car thief who’d run her down, destroyed her hip, and ended her career with the police force. More important, I discovered her anger and her regret, not that she’d lost her job, but that she’d missed her shot at the man who took it. The injury left her with a wound and an obsession. Both helped her stand out as a character. That made writing her easier. She and Porter shared an understanding of violence, violence tempered by a rough appreciation for justice. Both had been damaged by their histories, and both had healed themselves to the extent that they could. More important, just as a broken bone is stronger along the old break, they each gained a strength Jenny could never match.

Where did that leave Jenny? She remained the heart of the story but she was finally free of the plot constraints created by her relationship with Porter. She could return to her loom, to continue that metaphor, and examine what she had made of herself in the light of whatever self-knowledge she’d gained from the deaths and betrayals. She hadn’t lost anything to Sharon Coulter because Rainbow Porter had never been more to her than an occasional companion, a sounding board, and a bit of comfort when the nights grew too long. What she’d found far outweighed that: a fresh chance with the daughter she abandoned, a renewal with her discarded husband, and even a chance to reconnect with a father who’d never forgotten her.

Counting Down: PLENUM – 9

Time travel is one of the great tropes of the Science Fiction genre. I’ve loved it ever since Wells’ The Time Machine filled my imagination with Eloi and Morlocks and, far more important, showed me that a work of speculative fiction could have a terrible relevance. Then I picked up The End of Eternity. I was captivated by the romance and adventure of time travel. Asimov had a lot to say about both our human need to control our own destiny and the pride that convinces us we have enough wisdom to do a good job of it, but at the time I was a boy on the cusp of adolescence. All I needed to be happy was a story about a pretty girl, a desperate quest to save the world, and a hero I could sort of recognize in the mirror, if I squinted hard enough, and Asimov provided that in spades.

I’ve read hundreds of stories about time travel since those early years. Most were not memorable, but some stand out. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Silverberg’s Up the Line. Dozens of others. Even Mark Twain sent a Connecticut Yankee back in time, but the stories that impressed me most were written by Connie Willis. I think the strongest of her stories was Doomsday Book. The tremendous power, clarity, and pathos she brought to her depiction of one of mankind’s greatest tragedies gave me a mark to aim at when I started writing PLENUM.

Writing in a genre populated by so many gifted men and women was more than a little intimidating, but somewhere in my second year with the book I realized that time travel was just a convenient metaphor. We were all writing about different things. Wells wrote about a society divided against itself, perhaps inspired by the English caste system. Asimov wrote about pride and power in the shadow of Hiroshima. Willis writes about the human spirit and its ability to transcend the bleakest of circumstances. I was writing about free will and the nature of reality, but mostly I was writing about a desperate quest to save the universe, a couple of very pretty girls, mostly human, and a hero I can still sort of recognize in the mirror if I squint very very hard.

PLENUM: Love and War in Five Dimensions

PlenumEBookCoverAMy first book release in six years is available for pre-order for the Kindle at the Amazon bookstore at the discounted pre-release price of $3.99. It is also available as a trade paperback suitable for mounting, framing, or even gold plating for $16.95.

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Writing Concerns

When I created a website to sell my first book, Monkey on a Chain, I wrote what others might call a mission statement. In my mind, it was just the purpose of writing: “A writer of fiction has just one obligation — to entertain the reader. Only if he has done that superbly can he deal with his personal concerns in a story.”

I still believe that, but even back when I wrote it I knew I wasn’t being quite truthful. The motto implies that an author can write an entertaining story and then go back and somehow sprinkle it with themes and “personal concerns,” kind of like Tinkerbell sprinkled fairy dust over the Darling children to get them airborne.

That never worked for me and I doubt it ever got another author’s stories aloft. In fact, one of the best ways to ruin a good story is by over thinking it. That doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t think about the story.

As an aside, it might be possible to judge a writer, and a book, by the kind of thinking the writer puts into the work. The first level is thinking about plot: What can I do to these characters to make them do what I want? This can lead to a decent read, maybe even a best-seller, but it isn’t likely to result in a memorable story, and it is very unlikely to yield anything that resonates with the audience.

To do that, we have to think about our characters. What drives them? What do they love? Hate? Fear? Worship? How far will they go to get what they’ve got to have? Perhaps most important: How much of our characters will our audience see in themselves? This is a deeper level of thinking about our work, and one indicator of success in it is how we answer the question: How much of ourselves are we prepared to reveal in our characters? If we will invest nothing of ourselves in our work, we may as well crack a bottle of decent bourbon and get on with the next car chase or sexual encounter, because we are just selling titillation. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. People need it to get through life, and it pays well if done well.

But there is another level of thought that affects our work. We can think about the human condition: the world and our place in it. These are the personal concerns I warned myself about in that first paragraph. They are dangerous because they are compelling and we run a serious risk of surrendering to them. Our work can become didactic, preachy. Our characters can become subservient to our obsession or, worse, to an ideology, and if that happens we may as well chuck all our aspirations in the waste basket; we have become pamphleteers.

My warning, however, was not to avoid wider thought. We need it to avoid drowning in the tsunami of vacuous cliche that daily spews over us from our politicians, religious leaders, and media pundits. The trick, I believe, is not to allow ourselves to believe that our truths, the small insights we gain so painfully by swimming against the flood, is the only, capital T, Truth. We can speak only our private truth, and if we want our books to matter to anyone, our best strategy is to con our characters into talking for us.