Characters Who Live in Bookstores

Two of my favorite mystery writers have characters who live in bookstores. The hero of Steve Berry’s series, Cotton Malone, leaves his post as a Justice Department agent in the Magellan Billet, and buys an antiquarian bookstore in Copenhagen. Located in a four-story building on Højbro Plads, Malone’s apartment takes up the 1,000 square feet of the top floor. He has a bedroom, kitchen, bath and a few closets. The bookstore proper takes up the first floor, with the second and third used as storage, the third for general used books and the second locked and secure for those rare treasures he loves to discover.

Once a spy, always a spy, or so the saying goes. This is true for Cotton Malone, whose shop is torched in one novel. Yet it comes back remodeled and better than ever in the next. Malone has installed wooden risers that announce footsteps in notes “like keys on a piano.” He also keeps a gun nearby.

Malone attends antiquarian book conferences and auctions, but Berry doesn’t go into much detail about the business. Malone also has three employees, something that made me wonder. Is the bookstore business still that good? I hear independent stores are making a comeback.

Dion Fortune presents another antiquarian bookstore in her 1936 metaphysical fantasy The Goat Foot God, this one in London. Hugh Paston, wealthy and non-magical, discovers his wife has been having a long-standing affair when she and her lover die in a car crash. Close to a breakdown, Paston stumbles into a bookshop and buys a book on Pan. Expressing an interest on raising Pan through a Black Mass, proprietor Jelkes takes the poor man under his wing, knowing full well that mischief will come of trying to evoke a Greek god using a Catholic ritual turned on its head. Freud being very much in vogue at the time, his theories and Dion Fortune’s very deep knowledge of Western metaphysics are put to use by Jelkes and an artist friend, Mona Wilton, to cure Paston.

The shop itself is almost enough to cure him, though. Jelkes has a sitting room curtained off in the back of the shop where he can jump up to attend to any customers that might appear. Few do, since this is mostly a postal business. Paston enjoys the casual, shabby comfort of the old leather chairs, their bottoms shored up by stacks of books from the penny bins, the strong tea always available from the hob, and the amazing meals produced by Jelkes on his hotplate.

A cleaning woman comes in once a day to wash yesterday’s dishes that are unceremoniously piled in the sink, dust and sweep, and then do the shopping. Paston sleeps upstairs in an old bed with mismatched curtains hanging from it and washes from a bowl since the tub is broken.

Unlike Berry, Dion Fortune does populate the shelves of this store with real titles of ancient and contemporary magical works and metaphysical novels. One could get quite an alternative education reading the books she mentions.

Home: When You Have To Go There

Robert Frost was my mother’s favorite poet; she quoted him frequently and kept a book of his poems on her bedside stand for nights when sleep wouldn’t come. In “The Death of a Hired Man,” Frost said, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

I am blessed with a large family, although it wasn’t originally designed that way. Technically speaking, my mother gave birth to three children—myself and two older brothers. But she and my dad , much like the couple in Frost’s poem, tended to collect outsiders when the need arose. Better than stamps, I suppose. You can’t watch movies and eat popcorn with stamps.

Mom and Dad started out by taking in relatives of all ages. Several cousins stayed with us, sometimes just for a summer, sometimes for years. My Aunt Nellie, aside from a couple of brief, apparently unsatisfying forays into marital bliss, lived with us for most of her life. And we never thought it was weird, either. She never paid rent, but she footed the bill for a huge, in-ground pool, she cleaned the windows when they got dirty,  and for some reason, she assigned herself the task of purchasing my shoes every September before school started. Each fall, Nellie and I would set off for Sears or Penneys, and then she’d treat me to McDonalds. The yearly jaunt became a strange, autumnal rite of passage.

When they ran out of relatives to harbor, my folks branched out into a new program being instituted by the county social services. A pilot program for long-term, treatment foster care, it was designed to provide care for children and adolescents who had “failed” out of regular foster care and who, for various reasons, were unlikely to return home to their bio-families.

I was nine years old when my folks started taking in kids. It was an exciting time. At one point, we had thirteen people living in. Looking back now, the thought of the mountains of laundry my mom must have had to do gives me the willies. Before assigning a child, a case worker would come out to our house and give us what little background might be available on the child. (Considering the red-tape, heaps of paperwork, and length of time in the system, info on most of the kids’ histories was astonishingly sparse.)

Bit by bit, as they settled in, we learned about their pasts. For me, hearing their stories was a glimpse into a world I’d never, ever imagined. A world where “home” didn’t look like any Hallmark card I’d ever seen. I learned, then, that for every “warm,” “caring,” and “nurturing,” there was a “cold,” “uncaring,” and “abusive.”

I started to understand how lucky I was.

My mom was often asked how she reconciled her “own” children to the idea of bringing others into our home. In fact, several foster parent meetings (held monthly as training and support) dealt with the problem of the “natural” kids—don’t get me started on the labels; I didn’t pick ‘em—resenting and even sabotaging the placement of the foster kids. I don’t know why that was never an issue for me, but it wasn’t. I’m no saint, but I never once felt like my home was being intruded upon or that I was getting cheated of “my” home in some way.

Recognizing how lucky I was certainly helped, but I think part of it was just genetics. I must have inherited my parents’ insatiable curiosity for people, for the desire to learn about others—their motives and lives and thoughts and history. The corollary to those tendencies is the need in me to do something to help. That’s obviously why I’m a psychotherapist. But it also explains my passion for reading (learning about people and their worlds) and writing (reaching out to connect with others).

Whatever the reason, my parents’ decision to open their home was the greatest blessing of my childhood. My parents taught that home isn’t the place where we withdraw from the world, but should instead be used as a base to reach out, welcome, and draw in.

I am a lucky girl.

Home is Where the Character Is

I’m about to confess something here that maybe I shouldn’t: I wrote an entire novel without giving any background information whatsoever about the protagonist.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I was simply more focused on crafting a mystery that hung together.  So I kept putting off developing her backstory…eventually I’d finished the whole draft and it still wasn’t in there. (At one point, a detective asks her where she’s originally from and she says, “the east coast.” I didn’t even name a specific state.) It didn’t seem necessary somehow: the action in the text had to do with here and now. She seemed fully realized enough as a character without it.

That’s fine, I told myself.  After all, I teach literature for a living, and there are plenty of texts that don’t tell you diddly jack squat about the main characters other than what they do in the story.  Shrug.

After I revised the manuscript, though, my novel was still too short to submit. So I signed up for a course with a local writing group focused on building strong character arcs.  I thought the class might trigger some ideas for development.

And the first thing we did was write about backstories. Insert gnashing of teeth here.

The teacher claimed that for an effective character arc, I needed to know where my protagonist was from and what she most wanted.

I already understood who she was as a person, and I didn’t want to talk about her childhood.  But what she wanted seemed obvious, given the genre: she wants to solve the mystery.

The teacher said: go further.

She wants to solve the mystery and still be alive at the end?

More.

She wants to solve the mystery, be alive at the end, and keep her job?

Deeper. What internal conflict has she never resolved?

Hmmmm.

I politely noted that many texts didn’t overtly give characters a backstory.  My patient teacher said, yes, but if you know your character’s whole life, you will write her better. Her motivations will become clearer.  Even if you never state anything about her home, as long as you’ve done the work, the effects will find their way into your manuscript by a sort of magical osmosis.

I decided to shut up and do the work. (Mostly to prove her wrong. I knew my character, thank you very much.  I’d just spent two years creating her.  I was clear on her motivations. I mean, you can’t write a mystery without knowing the motivations of all your characters.  Harrumph.)

But exercise by exercise, something happened. Although it was painful and I resisted every second of it, I could see that certain things I’d glossed over — especially her hometown (or lack thereof, as it turns out) — were extraordinarily important to her sense of self, which affects how she makes decisions, which affects the conflicts in the book. And as I incorporated some backstory into the novel, it led to ideas for other characters and future adventures. Bonus.

My teacher was absolutely right.

Sometimes it’s good to be a student again. Which is another kind of returning home.

Coming Home on Veterans’ Day

Like many people my age, both of my grandpas served in World War II.

My generation is attached to the Greatest Generation by a few degrees of separation and the kind of time that makes it difficult to associate either grandpa with his vitamins and cranberry juice and attachment to Matlock with the square-jawed young men raising the flag at Iwo Jima or posing in uniform in the German countryside.

And like many grandchildren of vets, the stories I know I only know in fits and starts. Either because I was too young to understand or the stories, even decades later, were still too fresh to be told.

Still, what I do know is that home was a talisman, at least for one of my grandpas.

R. Gregory Warren was only a year into military school in Claremore, Oklahoma, when he enlisted and was sent to Germany in May 1943 as a paratrooper. He was an only child, famously orney, and pretty much joined up to earn some discipline along with the fact that he was compelled that fighting against the Nazis was the right thing to do.

He doesn’t tell many stories about the war. Mostly mentioning how he was super careful about having clean socks and took up smoking because personnel got cigarettes for free. (He quit smoking when he returned but has been obsessive about cleanliness ever since.) No stories of bravery or killing Nazis or saving innocents, though, I’m sure there’s some mixture of those things locked up tight in his 89-year-old mind.

But the story he does tell, and that I’ve heard many times, is about when a piece of home found him in the middle of Germany.

As I’ve mentioned, he was an only child—The Great Depression kind of ruined his parents on having other kids—but he was very close to his twin female cousins, called Bob and Frank by the family and everyone else (though their names were Barbara and Frances). They were like his older sisters and they we extremely important to him and he missed them dearly, though both had wartime jobs as nurses.

One day, in the middle of Germany, Greg’s supervisor drove up in a Jeep and said, “Warren, come with me.” Of course, he did, because by then the onriness was underwraps and he was pretty good at doing as he was told. Plus, in an active war zone, you always do as you’re told.

He followed the commanding officer over to a Jeep. There, in the back, was a woman. And as he got closer, his heart started racing.

It was his cousin, Bob.

The nurse had been given time off and went in search Greg, and in doing so, both found a little home, there in the middle of Germany, in the middle of a war.

Greg’s commanding officer waited for the pair to stop hugging before clearing his throat and saying, “Warren, can you drive a Jeep?” Greg nodded. And was told he had three hours and the Jeep to do with as he pleased.

The pair jetted off as far as they could go, trading stories and catching up half a world away from the farm in Oklahoma where they’d pal around each summer together, along with Frank, who was on leave in England and missing out on the fun Greg and Bob were having in Germany.

And fun they did have, even taking a picture together in front of a bombed out church: My grandfather’s only picture from Germany during his entire tour.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how amazing that experience must have been for both of them. Now, we’re all so utterly connected, and finding a friend in a crowd or even a foreign country is as easy a single text, an address and time. Maybe an email, if necessary.

It will probably always be exhilarating to get a taste of home when far away, true. But I’m fairly certain that feeling doesn’t hold a candle to his surprise and her delight at connecting a world away.

Happy Veterans’ Day, everyone.

Interview: Maxine Nunes

Please welcome Maxine Nunes, author of Dazzled.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I wake up and discover that overnight I’ve lost 5 pounds. Then, while I’m having my morning chai (and a croissant, because I feel so skinny), I go to my Amazon page and (another amazing discovery) Dazzled is now the #1 best-selling mystery. Off to tDazzleCover hihe gym and then, with endorphins soaring, my workday begins. Time to break the back of the plot that’s been busting my chops for weeks. I stare at the bulletin board and the index cards that still don’t quite add up, and then, voila! I get it! I move a few things around, devise three perfect transitions. And Bam! I’m ready to write. But not here. I pack a few things into my car and drive up to Big Sur, where, from cliff over the ocean at the edge of the world, I watch the sunset. Later, at a rustic inn in a redwood grove, as the stars emerge and the moon rises in a jet blue sky, I pull out my laptop and the words just flow. It’s wonderful, and yet… something’s missing. Something important. Then, five minutes before midnight, there’s a knock at my door. I open it to a man who is not at all handsome. But there is something about him, his lean height, and the way his sandy hair hangs lank over his forehead, and the warm intensity in his eyes. “Hi,” he says. “I’m staying next door. And I was wondering if you might like to take a midnight stroll. It’s such a beautiful evening.” A little voice in my head says, too perfect. Be careful. I ignore it.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I’m addicted to Tazo chai lattes — all sugar and caffeine, alas — but I can’t sit down to write without a cup in my hand.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
My first boyfriend, whose brilliant but short life was all about creativity and seeing the world in an original way. My dear friend and teacher Gregory Armstrong, who encouraged my own writing and whose own book I often re-read and still love, a little-known classic called Wanderer’s All. And…wow, I haven’t thought of this in a very long time, but Mrs. Korn, my fourth-grade teacher, who was horrified when my “summer vacation” story ended with a family being killed car crash (which had actually happened to my neighbors that year). But she got over her shock and gave me an A, and that might have been the moment I first saw myself as a writer.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I put on music when I need a break! But my main character, Nikki, loves music from the sixties, so if I’m using a song in a scene I may listen to it while I write.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Dark chocolate truffle.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I was actually writing something else at the time, and Nikki’s voice and predicament — a friend disappearing — kind of came full-blown out of nowhere. And it was so much fun, I just ran with it.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
One theme that fascinates me is how the past, our own and our family’s, can control us, and how hard it is to free ourselves from its grip. And I also love writing about place. A lot of people tell me Los Angeles is like another character in the book. And it is.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today? Nikki had a tough childhood that we’ll learn more about in future books. She ran away at 15 and had a hard life on the road before she finally landed in LA, realized she wasn’t a kid anymore, and decided to try to build a life for herself. She’s drawn to acting because it allows her to express her emotions in a way she never could before. But she’s not beautiful in a Hollywood way. In fact, when she tells a guy she meets that she’s an actress, he kind of looks confused, then says, “Oh, I guess you could play a real person.” It’s funny, and of course, that’s Hollywood.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

What a great question! Okay. Clare Danes in Homeland (minus the manic depression), Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and a young Holly Hunter.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Benjamin Black (the pen name for John Banville), Arthur Conan Doyle, Georges Simenon, Dorothy Hughes, Megan Abbott and Raymond Chandler. I hope there’s a band, too, so I can fox trot with Chandler. I hear he was a great dancer.

What’s next for you?
Nikki’s acting career will be taking her on location, and she’ll get involved in mysteries in Paris, New York, Lisbon and a lot of other place I’ve lived in or have a strong connection to. I’m also working on a stand-alone novel about a murder that takes place in the publishing world of Manhattan around 1968.

***

Like her heroine Nikki Easton, Maxine Nunes grew up in New York did a bit of wandering and some fascinating odd-jobs before the allure of glamour drew her to Los Angeles with the idea of launching an acting career. Instead of waitressing like most of her peers, though, she lucked into a gig writing romance novels — quickie potboilers, which she wrote at the rate of one a month to make her rent. While Maxine did have a role in one feature film, Seasons in the Sun with Terry Jacks (alas, it went straight to video), she found herself much more interested in writing. And writing seemed much more interested in her. She wrote game shows, produced programming for Game Show Network, co-authored What’s Really Wrong With You, a book on muscles and health, and currently writes for several publications, including the L.A. Times. Her satiric parody of a White House scandal won the Pen USA West International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Dazzled is her first mystery.

Website: maxinenunes.com

Interview: Theresa Crater

Please welcome Theresa Crater, author of Under the Stone Paw, Beneath the Hallowed Hill, and The Star Family.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I wake up in Glastonbury and have cream tea for breakfast, then climb the Tor to walk it off. Then fly to Egypt and visit Sekhmet at Karnack. For lunch, a sumptuous repast at the Old Cataract across from Elephantine Island in Aswan. In the afternoon, I am whisked off to the next magical spot that will inspire my next novel. Who can say where—India, Tibet, Mexico, or Cambodia? And I always stay well.thestarfamily

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I usually wear rose oil from Egypt. My husband leads tours there and brings me a fresh supply often.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Doris Lessing, because she tells the truth no matter what, even in her fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien, for writing against the grain of his time. I read him in college and loved his world, although I don’t think we’d get along when it comes to feminism. Dion Fortune, who continued the British magical tradition and wrote some great mystical novels.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No, but I’m thinking of giving it a try.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Looks like milk chocolate, but turns out to be 78% cacao with bursts of sour cherries.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
While my husband was being interviewed at a book fair, I picked up a copy of William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision. I mean, wouldn’t you? In the introduction, I discovered that his mother was raised in the same tiny Protestant church I was raised in—the Moravians. OK, sex and the Moravians? I didn’t think so. Reading further, I discovered that in the 18th century, my ancestors were mystics and taught sacred sexuality. I imagined my grandfather’s outrage on learning this. I had to know more. Lucky for me, Craig Atwood, who now teaches at Moravian College, had already done a lot of research about this period. Who knew my ancestors were so colorful?

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I love to explore old myths and power spots, like Stonehenge or the pyramids. I’m also interested in esoteric (as in hidden) branches of contemporary spiritual traditions. My characters are always looking for artifacts of power that really depend on developing higher consciousness. I taught meditation in my twenties and often return to the themes of expanding human consciousness and possibilities.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Jane Frey is a burnt-out corporate executive who is replaced by a younger, more attractive woman. She’s lost touch with her childhood ideals and feels she’s taken the wrong path. When her old music teacher dies, she decides to recapture her dream of playing and teaching music. But the fates have something much more exciting in mind. She begins to uncover secrets about the house she’s inherited, her childhood church and her family that change her forever. Also, she rekindles an old flame.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Alice in Wonderland, because Jane falls into a whole other world. Hermione Granger, because she’s smart and figures things out. A mix between Éowyn from Lord of the Rings and Lisbeth Salander with the dragon tattoo, but not as extreme, because she’s brave.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Doris Lessing, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dan Brown, H.D., Dion Fortune, and James Rollins along with Rebecca Cantrell, and J.K. Rowling. (OK, that’s eight, but . . . )

What’s next for you?
I’d like to go back to my Power Places series and do another adventure with those characters. I also have a three-generation Southern women’s tale—all Gothic and tragic and still funny—that keeps following me around. Some short stories here and there.

***

Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her paranormal mysteries. In The Star Family, a Gothic mansion reveals a secret spiritual group and a 400-year-old ritual that must be completed to save the day. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill. Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “Bringing the Waters” and “The Judgment of Osiris” Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver.

Visit Theresa Crater at her blog, http://theresacrater.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tlcwrites, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/theresacrater. I also hang out with the Mysteristas, blogging every first and third Thursday.

Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

Home. It’s an emotionally charged word. For me, “home” brings up images of warmth, good food, comfort, and a sense of rightness. And for me, that sense of warmth and rightness has always included books.

In fact, as I sit here writing this post, I am surrounded by books. When we bought our house, one of the first things my husband did was install custom built, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the small room we turned into a den/library. It took us all of one weekend to fill them. While I was away last weekend, he moved a smaller bookshelf into the room. It’s already more than half full.

Literature and music is full of the sentiment that once you’ve left “home,” you can’t go back. But I’m not sure that’s true. If home is where the heart is, then don’t we take home with us wherever we go? In our mobile, 21st century society, most of us will call many physical locations “home.” But I bet if we think about it, those places all share some things in common – whether it’s a color scheme or piles of books everywhere, from the back of the toilet to the living room.

Yes, home exists in the mind. Which means it can exist in places other than a physical address. It can exist in fiction and literature, too. A favorite book can feel like “home.” For example, Pride and Prejudice feels like home to me – something I can read over and over, and still get the warm fuzzies.

And I think that’s why books, especially series books, connect so deeply with readers. We spend time with these characters. We learn their world, put down our own roots. Series books invite readers to come in, put their feet up, and stay a while. Maybe have a cup of tea while we’re at it. It’s a complete “come as you are” invitation. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne don’t care if we’re in our jammies when we visit. Harry Potter doesn’t mind if we take our shoes off and there’s a hole in our sock. It’s home.

Just as we enjoy catching up with family over Thanksgiving dinner (well, most of us), we enjoy learning about new doings in the lives of our favorite characters. What is Kinsey Milhone up to now? Will Jake Brogan and Jane Ryland ever get it together? Who knows? That’s part of why we read.

As a writer, I know my characters feel more like friends than fictional people. As such, I want to spend time with them, see what’s going on in their lives (okay, yes, I’m supposed to know that, but characters have a way of surprising you). I’d like to sit on the back porch and have a beer with my PSP trooper Jim Duncan, share a glass of wine with Sally, or have a girls’ night with Jaycee.

Because for me, as I hope it is for my readers, all of it is just like going home.