Most writers sprinkle pieces of themselves throughout their work. Often, during the writing process, we aren’t aware of it. The bits we leave, a kind of bread trail, are unintentional and unavoidable.
The best fiction allows me to lose the line between the author and the story. They’re tangled together, inseparable. Does the author love cheese fondue or is it just the character? Has the author been skydiving and felt that rush of adrenaline, ran a marathon, rescued feral cats? Does the author hate oatmeal, love cherry pie?
A well-written book will often make the author and the narrator feel like one and the same. Authors need to be aware of this, because it can sometimes backfire.
I recently read a book I won’t name because I hated everything about it. This book was filled with the most unlikable characters I’ve ever come across. The pages overflowed with vitriol. The characters spewed bigoted statements at every turn, as if their insight into their city and its people was fact rather than opinion. All the characters shared these intolerant, prejudice views. Because of this, the characters and the author easily became tangled in my mind. I not only disliked the book, I disliked the author.
I don’t know whether the author shared his characters’ opinions, though I find it unlikely that he’d be able to - or want to - give every character this same mindset if he did not agree. Had the author given only one character this trait, preferably not the narrator, he and his characters would not have fused together as they did.
Books like this make me wonder how much of myself I spill onto my own pages. Hopefully, I don’t leave readers spitting nails, as I was while reading the unnamed book. For those who have read my books and wondered if it’s me or the character, I thought I’d share a couple secrets today.
Some of my readers know I have late-stage Lyme disease, with neurological complications. A few of the symptoms I contend with show up in two of my characters.
Corinne, from Hit List, suddenly lost her mind. She can’t hold onto a thought, is easily distracted, and has forgotten much of her past.
Corinne sucked in her bottom lip. The wallpaper behind Dr. Endicott’s head had little pastel flowers scattered about. She’d had flowers in her garden once. Now just weeds grew there. She’d been telling Ian that they needed to pull out those weeds and buy new plants. Hadn’t she told him that?
My symptoms are nowhere near as extensive as Corinne’s. I’m not quite that crazy - yet.
Corinne shuddered. An image flickered like a dying light bulb in the recess of her mind. Too elusive to grasp. Too intrusive to ignore. Words attached to strange voices skittered just out of reach.
Corinne’s character came to me easily. My own frustration with my brain’s malfunctions showed up in her character. This caught me by surprise and was completely unintentional. Corinne popped into my head one day with a story and, somewhere along the way, the two of us intertwined. This is not to say that she and I are the same. Her life and personality is absolutely not autobiographical in any way. But bits of me are sprinkled in there.
The other character with flashes of my Lyme symptoms is Nicki from No Justice and Beyond Salvation, my two Michael Sykora novels. When Nicki talks to Michael, she often jumps from one topic to another so fast that Michael has a hard time keeping up.
Michael had gone to Sal’s and rented a Toyota Camry for the night. He didn’t plan on doing anything illegal but he also figured that it wasn’t wise to be driving around Dover Street in a flashy Porsche.
Nicki sat in the passenger seat, making him crazy with her erotic perfume and never-ending legs. His attention was divided between thoughts of sweaty sex and navigating the constant flow of traffic. Consequently, he didn’t have much concentration left to devote to following Nicki’s train of thought.
“Derek and Jay are really good kids,” she was saying. “They deserve so much better than what they’ve gotten in life.”
“I agree,” Michael said.
“Not that our government sees it that way. They’d prefer kids like them to disappear. Easier that way. Are Isaac and Nadine having a band or a DJ at their party?”
“I’m really looking forward to that. I haven’t been out dancing in a long time. Can you believe Charlie has never even seen a computer? He’s been on the street since before cordless phones were popular. Now everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear.”
“Mary Ellen, the woman who does the billing where I work, bought her daughter a cell phone last week for her eighth birthday. Isn’t that insane? What does an eight-year-old need with a cell phone? And she had a huge party. Catered by some fancy chef. Don’t kids usually prefer chicken nuggets and french fries?”
“Nicki,” Michael said. “Do me a favor.”
“Sure,” Nicki said.
“Pick a topic and stick to it for five minutes. You’re making me dizzy.”
This, I will confess, is a trait I intentionally gave Nicki. I do this exact thing to my husband all the time. I can be midsentence and suddenly shift to something else. Sometimes I do it because my brain loses the original thought. Other times I’m not even aware I’ve done it. Nicki, of course, isn’t dealing with Lyme brain. But she is a high energy character, whose mind works quickly. A more coherent version of my flightiness became a good fit for her character.
And now you know. Bit and pieces of me are scattered throughout my books. Pick them all out, fit them together, and I’ll be fully exposed.