Thursday, November 29, 2012

Creeping out the Wife

     I’m in the middle of assuming the role of my character Rainey Bell. She is a former FBI behavioral analyst and is always battling evil around every corner. When I write these books, I first review all my research on the process of analyzing criminal behavior. I immerse myself in a library of books and data, assimilated over many years of fascination with the subject. I’ve been reading true crime since childhood, (I pilfered my mother’s stash of novels and a few detective magazines, very scandalous reading for a pre-teen,) and studying the FBI Behavioral Analyst Unit since the seeds of its development were sown in the seventies. I’m John Douglas’s nightmare, an armchair analyst. I won’t say worst nightmare, because I’m sure his worst nightmares are out of the realm of understanding for most of us. (Douglas was one of the first “profilers,” along with Roy Hazelwood and Robert Ressler.) I’m a “Criminal Minds” devotee, able to spot the facts of actual cases in the plot lines, playing “name the real serial killer modus operandi or signature” with every episode. (The guy that put the lipstick on the dead bodies out in the woods, that was Ted Bundy.) Assuming Rainey’s character heightens my awareness of the existence of evil. I totally agree with Rainey’s thoughts on the matter, “I’m not paranoid, just prepared. There is a distinct difference and a higher survival rate for the latter.”
     So, I’m in this frame of mind and Deb calls me from her office. She was just passing the time before her next class and saw an article in the paper she thought I would be interested in. Some guy cut up his mother and put her in the freezer, just a few miles from here. Yep, she knows me well. This article led to the following conversation:

Me: You know there could be one of those people in your class and you would never know it.
Deb: I’ve had a few that gave off that creepy vibe, but that guy they arrested for murder was nice. I had no idea he was the leader of a gang and killed his girlfriend.
Me: And then dug her up twice to move the body. Yep, it’s the ones that don’t creep you out you should be worried about. You can see the creepy ones coming. Speaking of weird vibes, have you seen that one guy this year?
Deb: No, I haven’t seen him since the middle of last semester, but I still have his gym bag in my office.
Me: Have you looked in the bag?
Deb: No, and I have no desire to.
Me: (laughing) There could be a head in there.
Deb: I think I would have smelled a head by now.
Me: Not if it was only a skull.
(Long pause where I hear only breathing.)
Me: Now you’re staring at that bag, aren’t you?
Deb: Yes. Thank you for planting that seed.
Me: No problem. Anytime. (lots of laughter.)
Deb: I have to go to class now.
Me: Watch out for the ones with that shark-eyed stare.
Deb: How long are you going to be channeling Rainey this time?
Me: As long as it takes, honey.
Deb: Okay, got to go.
Me: Look in the bag.
Deb: Not a chance. Bye.

     I’m not the only one living with my characters. Bless all those poor spouses of authors out there. Living with us and our creations has to be an interesting ride. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What did your character have for breakfast?

     Deb is watching football and I'm thinking up a signature for the serial killer in my next Rainey Bell Thriller, typical Sunday afternoon. Deb tried to help with the signature, but she finally said, "I don't think I can think like those people, and I'm not sure I want to." We had a long discussion about what it must be like to really know all of the human depravities to which the FBI behavioral analysts are exposed. When I write, I approach it very much the way I prepared to play characters on stage, during my acting days. I had to truly KNOW the character - backstory, motivation, the soul of the person, the inner monologue – so that when I spoke the character's words on stage, I spoke them as if they were my own, generated from my thoughts. The ability to do that is what separates the great actors from the good ones. The highest compliment I ever received for a performance was from a close friend, who said, "I totally forgot that was you up there." It boils down to a basic concept of acting – the suspension of disbelief, to react “as if” you were the character. The trick is to think like the character, not think like an actor trying to think like a character. If I could embody a character, bring it to life from the written page, I could make the audience forget they were watching a play. As a writer, I want the reader to forget they are reading a book.
     My theatre mentor, Shawn Smith, sold me on the first question he would ask of an actor, "What did your character have for breakfast?" That sounds simple enough, but it isn’t really. It opens a floodgate of questions. Where was this breakfast consumed, if in fact there was a breakfast at all? Did it occur before sunrise or late in the afternoon? If late in the afternoon, then why? Who cooked it? Was it good? Was it found, stolen, bought, bartered for, etc.? Said breakfast is not in the script. The author did not describe this breakfast, but he or she did tell you all about it. In a play, all you have are a few notes from the author and the spoken word of the characters. In a well-written play, what the character says and does tells the actor all they need to know. Maggie the Cat, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” had a much different breakfast from Jessie, in “ ‘night, Mother.” The actions and words of a character are the culmination of life experiences leading up to the moments of the play. In those actions and words are the keys to the character, what shaped them, and yes, what they had for breakfast. When I write, I know what my characters have for breakfast.
     Writing romances allows me to ride the roller coaster of emotions that exist in a love affair. I may break my heart a few times and use up a box of tissue writing those tear jerking scenes, but in the end, the darkness fades, the sun shines, and everyone is happy. If you’ve ever felt the ache of a character’s emotions, then know it is so very painful to the one writing it. At least it is for me. I am also allowed the rush of emotion when it all works out in the end, a blessing after all the angst in arriving there. It is the essence of empathy, the in-depth understanding of someone else’s feelings. I know those characters. I’ve lived inside their heads. Those characters eat breakfast with me sometimes. I know them inside and out. When and where they were born and to whom, the childhood years, the years never mentioned in a book, the secrets they keep, it’s all written down somewhere or stored in the recesses of my mind. Much of what I know about my characters has never seen the printed page. What they say and do in the books should give the reader a fairly clear picture, if I’m doing it right.
     The point to all that rambling, besides trying to cram seven years of theatre acting classes into a few paragraphs, is that I do have to think like a former behavioral analyst to write about one in the Rainey Bell series. To do that, I also have to know what she knows about the monsters among us. For several days now, I’ve been inside the head of Gerard John Schaefer, convicted sadistic murderer, not a pretty place. His collection of short stories is a way into his twisted mind, and about as deep as I’ve ever been into that shocking world. I’ve visited the volumes of knowledge on Bundy, Fish, Dahmer, and other violent murderers and rapists. My bookshelves are crammed with books by Douglas, Ressler, Hazlewood, Burgess, and other experts in criminal behavioral analysis. I’ve been inside the head of the monster about as far as one can go without a badge or access to more transcripts of the actual conversations with these convicted serial murderers. I’m not sure I want to go too much further. What people see on TV shows like “Criminal Minds” is the version the public could stomach. The truth of what some of these depraved individuals do is far outside the realm of general understanding.
      So, the question is, “What did Rainey Bell have for breakfast?” Did a crime scene from her past flash in her mind just as she was about to bite her toast? Did she shake it off and take the bite, or did she abruptly stand and leave the table? What did she see? How often is her life interrupted by these memories from her past? I have to know the answers, but the more difficult and disturbing aspect of writing about a woman who hunts monsters is the answer to one other question. What did the serial killer have for breakfast?