Working Lunches

May 15th, 2015

At a library event I spoke at this past summer, a woman said to me that she thoroughly enjoys Pete Thorsen and the other major characters of my books, but that the minor characters “really give your work color” (her words). Not all minor characters, of course, but the ones who play a significant role in the story. The “major-minor” characters if you will.

Are those characters purely a product of my imagination? I’d like to say yes, but I have a confession to make: many times the appearance and mannerisms of minor characters are modeled after real people. I have a half-dozen favorite lunch places and every day I go to one of them, mostly to take a break from my keyboard, but secondarily to observe people. The most interesting of my fellow diners sometimes find their way into my novels. I’ll give you two examples. I kept seeing this guy at one of the restaurants who was rail-thin, always wore outlandish clothes like a jacket festooned with cannabis leaves and ornate cowboy boots decorated with serpents and roses and toes so pointy he must have made every woman in the place envious. Topping it off was a shock of obviously dyed shaggy dark hair with a lavender streak on one side, hoop earrings in each ear, and a western style hat. After seeing him a dozen times, I asked and was told by a waitress that he was a local rock music impresario. This guy eventually made it into DECEIT as the Seattle real estate agent who feeds Pete information—not willingly, of course—and worshipped Jimi Hendrix like he was God.

A second example is a man I saw several times in another restaurant. He had a long thatch of unruly red hair pulled back in a ponytail and, regardless of season, wore long-sleeved plaid shirts with some shade of purple as the base color. He usually wore baggy camouflage pants held up by broad brown suspenders decorated by waterfowl taking flight. When I was designing a major-minor character for PAYBACK, he kept creeping into my mind. I slimmed him down a bit, tweaked another feature or two, and he slid into the part like a duck slides into water (no pun intended, of course).

So if you see me in a restaurant, don’t get the misguided impression that I like to eat. I’m really there working.

Telling Stories

July 4th, 2014

One of my enduring childhood memories was when a handful of relatives — maybe eight or ten adults — would descend on our small farm in northern Wisconsin for a family reunion. The men would congregate on one part of the lawn and talk; the women had their own area and alternated between exchanging news and taking turns in the kitchen baking apple pies and roasting chickens. In between, they’d bring fresh lemonade to the menfolk. I loved lemonade and so was careful not to stray far from those who controlled the pitcher, but at the same time kept a watchful eye on the male contingent.

Norwegians, our family heritage, are great storytellers and the men would position themselves in a circle on buckets or other makeshift seating. Except for my grandfather; Gramps would sit ramrod-straight in a wooden rocking chair that had been moved out of the house for the occasion, wearing a dark coat regardless of the weather, his robust mane of steel-gray hair framing his ruddy face, the unquestioned patriarch of the family.

The warm-up acts always came first — the weather, how the crops were doing that year, the sad state of political affairs. Then the stories began. I made sure my glass was filled with lemonade and would find a spot just outside the ring of men so I could hang on every word. The air resonated with stories about how someone had negotiated a near-criminal price for a used Model A Ford, how another had caught a trophy musky in a lake that no one else even knew existed, and how a third had saved the country from the Nazis by single-handedly building warships in Portland, Oregon.

Gramps nodded in appreciation at each story and then, following custom, the storytelling mantle devolved to him. He cleared his throat and began in his sonorous voice, “Well, sir, I remember the day at Wrigley Field when that fat guy from New York pointed toward the center field bleachers and then hit the home run.” He went on to describe in exquisite detail his train ride to Chicago, the weather the day of the game, and a blow-by-blow lead-up to the home run. Everyone was mesmerized.

When I got older, I found out that Gramps had chronicled Babe Ruth’s controversial “called shot” off Charlie Root in game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Had Gramps really been at the game? No one knew for sure. He was born in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, in the southwestern part of the state, that much was clear, but as far as anyone in the family knew, he’d never strayed more than fifty miles from his place of birth except when he came north to visit us. But along the way he learned to tell a helluva story.

I think about the tales Gramps and the others would spin in those days and am reminded of how lucky I am. I get to make stuff up (mostly), too, and have others read it.