Tag Archives: Research

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

Creating Character: Flaws

Creating flawed characters in ink

Creating flawed characters in ink

For the last several months, I’ve been fascinated by Donald Trump. Not because I agree with him and I voted for him.  No. He’s a perfect example of a character with hubris. What is hubris? Pride and arrogance, full on demonstrated by narcissists who possess absolutely zero internal power, i.e. a healthy self esteem. They make fabulous characters in fiction, especially for tragedies. Why is hubris considered a character flaw? Well, the excessive pride and arrogance tend to fuel fantasy thinking rather than reality thinking. Watching someone with hubris is like watching an out-of-control train heading for a massive wreck.

Characters with flaws are far more interesting than perfect characters. Human beings are imperfect creatures, so to have a perfect character is to strain credulity. The challenge for writers is how to create imperfect characters without going to the extreme. Donald Trump is an extreme character. I suppose his wife sees other aspects of his personality as well as those he displays in public, but his choices still point to an extreme character. For example, he chooses to respond to something inconsequential but that he perceives questions something about him whether it’s intelligence, ability, or his “alternate facts,” as KellyAnne Conway so hilariously put it regarding Sean Spicer’s comments in his first meeting with the press as Trump’s press secretary. You can be certain that Spicer, as well as Conway, was saying what Trump wanted them to say. So, I’d say that Trump would be a warning against creating an extreme character, unless of course, the writer wanted to make the point that extreme personalities tend to lead to or cause tragedies.

Writers must notice human behavior, write notes about it, study it, explore it, all in the service of creating plausible human characters. People-watching, then, is part of a writer’s work whether that be politicians or people in an airport, restaurant, walking down the street. And what of human flaws?


Start with “the seven deadly sins,” for example: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Greed is a wonderful flaw (Trump has this one too, in my opinion) and lust doesn’t need to refer to sex, but also could be a lust for power and/or control. It’s a good place to start. Nowadays, there are all sorts of psychological flaws that humans can have — narcissism, PTSD, mental illness whether mild or extreme. And there are physical flaws, also, of such variety and degree, and how that affects a character’s personality and/or psyche. Sometimes flaws become obstacles that need to be overcome. Sometimes they end up being what has strengthened the character to overcome the obstacles in his way. For a character to NOT have any flaws at all would nowadays be greeted with a certain amount of disdain for not being plausible.

When I was learning about the characters in Perceval’s Secret (or rather, they were teaching me about themselves), I would make lists for each character — one for strengths, one for weaknesses or flaws. Sometimes each played roles in the stories, sometimes not.  For Evan Quinn, his flaws are obstacles that he must overcome.  He is stronger than he realizes, as is true for most people. But he also possesses a flaw that is an effect from another flaw, i.e. the way he perceives the world and other people, as well as himself and what he wants. Because of this flaw in thinking, he makes choices in the moment that are motivated by the deeper flaw. So you see, writers can layer flaws, have one feed into another, and do the same thing with strengths. That will give depth and richness to the character.

Although I’m not at all happy about Donald Trump now being President, it will be interesting to see how he lives out his story as the deeply flawed main character.

Venerable Conductors

Evan Quinn, protagonist of the Perceval series, earns his living as a symphony orchestra conductor. As a result of his choice of profession, I researched conductors, conducting, and everything related to them for several years. One of the conductors I spoke with was Sir Neville Marriner, so when news of his death at 92 two weeks ago came, I felt especially sad and flooded with memories of my experience with him and his wife, Molly, when I worked at the Minnesota Orchestra in the 1980’s.

Neville Marriner in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis 1978 (Mike Zerby/Star Tribune via AP)

Neville Marriner in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis 1978 (Mike Zerby/Star Tribune via AP)

I requested 20 minutes of Neville’s time to ask him about European orchestras, how they function compared with American orchestras, and how conductors respond. When I walked into his office, he stood and extended his hand with a genuine smile. Then he offered me a cigar. I laughed and declined. We began talking, and soon I realized that my 20 minutes had passed. But Neville continued to talk, answering my follow-up questions. I realized that he was enjoying our conversation. After 45 minutes, I finally stood to go, thanking him for his generosity and time. Outside his office, a line of people waited.

What Neville told me informed my writing in Perceval’s Secret and continues to serve as a foundation for the series. In talking with people who also knew him, I learned how much he loved talking with people, that he enjoyed being with people, that his wife, who also worked as his manager, had the huge challenge of keeping Neville on time with his schedule when he was in a particularly social mood. I was always grateful for the time he gave me, and for the knowledge and experience he shared with me.

Another conductor that has been on my mind recently is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Conductor Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra.  This month, he celebrated his 93rd birthday.  I’ve written about him before when I reviewed the biography Seeking the Infinite that Frederick Harris wrote about him. He’s an amazing guy. I saw him conduct Anton Bruckner’s 8th Symphony last weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. This symphony was the first Bruckner symphony that I really heard. I love it.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in 2014 (MPR Photo: Jeffrey Thompson)

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in 2014 (MPR Photo: Jeffrey Thompson)

When Maestro Skrowaczewski walked onstage, the audience erupted, leaping to its feet in a raucous standing ovation that astonished me. From his expression, it astonished Skrowaczewski, too. He has aged, appears frail, stooped, and thin. I wondered if he’d make it through the 83-minute symphony. I needn’t have been concerned. With the downbeat, it was as if he was 20 years younger, and considering that he was climbing mountains still in his 80’s, that is truly younger. He conducted the entire symphony from memory. His baton technique has become economical, and he moves very little on the podium. This orchestra, however, knows him well. I was astonished by the inner voices that he brought out in the symphony instead of focusing only on the main melodies and big moments. A co-worker called it a “slow burn.”  It was indeed. Captivating, deep, and spiritual, as the devout Bruckner’s music should be.

Another surprise after the symphony ended. Yes, the audience gave him and the orchestra another standing ovation. What was unexpected was the orchestra musicians’ response: applauding him, stomping their feet. This is quite the compliment given by orchestra musicians for a conductor. And profoundly moving.

Neville Marriner succeeded Stanislaw Skrowaczewski as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra in 1979.


Time Suckers

FB-f-Logo__blue_512This morning I stumbled onto a blog post at Online Writing Simplified about Facebook and how it could be killing your writing career. Jaipi Sixbear did mention that Facebook can be a good place to promote your writing, but her post focused mostly on how Facebook can distract you from actually writing. I agree that Facebook can be a huge time suck, and I’ve fallen victim to it more times than I want to admit. But it’s not the only way to procrastinate, as most writers know.

It’s hard work to write. Most people, especially those who’ve never tried to write a book well, don’t realize just what hard work it is. While it’s important to get the butt in the chair and do the work, we writers, much like cats, like to take a circuitous route to that chair….

My Time Suckers (in addition to Facebook)

  • E-mail: second only to Facebook in time spent on it. I have business e-mail accounts as well as personal, and I’ve learned that if I don’t want to make myself crazy, I need to keep up with my e-mail on a daily basis as much as possible.  If I do, the time spent on it decreases.
  • Reading blogs: As I’m cleaning out e-mail, I’ve received e-mails of blog posts. They beckon me with their interesting topics.  I often read them, comment on them, and return to cleaning out e-mail. This activity takes time, true, but it also builds relationships across the internet.  Sometimes I even find ideas for my own blogs.
  • Research: I think I finish the necessary research for a piece in the first third of the time I work on it.  The rest of the research is purely me satisfying my curiosity and having fun.  But it can be a major time suck if I’m supposed to be writing.
  • Computer issues: I recently spent a week cleaning my hard drive, updating drivers, and giving my computer a tune-up.  I hadn’t done all that since I’d bought it two years ago and it truly needed the attention.  But it was time-consuming and often left me in a bad mood, certainly not a place for writing.  Computer issues can really suck the time and life out of a day, though.
  • Home projects: I work at home (as well as part-time in an office) and I have projects all around me that scream for my time: filing, possessions sale project (photography, documentation, advertising on the internet, contacting experts for appraisals, etc.), filing, and of course, cleaning, which is never done. At the moment, I’m up to my ears in home projects because I haven’t had the time (or energy because of my health) to work on them with the part-time job demanding my time, too.

I remember a time (she noted wistfully) before personal computers when I seemed to have unlimited time for everything in my life, even socializing with friends.  Electronics have not necessarily freed up time for other things in our lives.  They certainly haven’t freed up time for my writing!

What are your time suckers?

My "Office"

My “Office”

From the Top

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

So, you want to be a virtuoso soloist in classical music?  No, this is not like that trick Carnegie Hall joke (customer in taxi asks driver how to get to Carnegie Hall, driver says “practice, practice, practice!”).  Classical musicians have several options for pursuing a career in music, and virtuoso soloist is only one.  None of the options is easy, either.  But virtuoso soloist can be next to impossible.  And yet, musicians still try.

In my Perceval series of novels, the main character, Evan Quinn, is an orchestra conductor who works with soloists when he conducts.  One of his good friends, Vassily Bartyakov, is a young pianist who is just starting out on his career, and he wants to be a soloist.  One path for a young musician to build a solo career is to come to the attention of a well respected and sought after conductor who could request her for solo gigs with orchestras he conducts.  Evan had already begun to function in that role for Vassily by the end of Perceval’s Secret.  Conductors, however, don’t support just any musician.  The aspiring soloist really has to have the talent and the drive to succeed.  The soloist’s life is as tough and lonely as that of a conductor and requires total dedication and really an obsession with the music and the work.  When I was studying piano in college, I was thinking of pursuing a solo career.  I’m grateful that I realized at that time that I did not have the drive to achieve it.  Saved me a lot of time and heartache.

FTTlogo_rgb_webOn Sundays at noon, I listen to a radio program on Minnesota Public Radio called From the Top that showcases kids performing classical music on the instruments of their choice.  I love this show.  Host Christopher O’Riley, a virtuoso soloist pianist, encourages them, supports their aspirations, and sounds like he revels in their demonstrated talent.  This show travels around the country and even abroad, and occasionally, as it did yesterday, does updates on some of the musicians they have showcased in the past — what are they doing now kind of thing.  It must be gratifying to all involved with this show that so many of the young musicians go on to achieve music careers — some as orchestra musicians, some as soloists, opera singers, or teachers.  This show also proves the Cassandras wrong that classical music is dead or dying.  These kids are passionate about the music, and they have the drive to succeed.  They provide the pressure from below to keep the momentum going for classical music to endure.

One musician really caught my attention yesterday: Natasha Paremski.  She’s a 27-year-old pianist who was on From the Top as a teen.  Her career has developed into a virtuoso soloist career — something that can be especially difficult for a pianist because there are so many of them out there — and it was interesting to listen to her talk about her teen years, the decisions she made in order to achieve what she wanted.  She talked about the necessity of being obsessed with technique, with developing virtuosity, as a teen, and the work necessary to do that.  She took a different route than usual — kids usually stay in school and go on to attend a conservatory or music school.  But not Paremski.  She dropped out of high school (got her GED later) in order to concentrate on the piano and her obsession.  She knew exactly what she wanted to do.  I thought: Wow, she definitely had/has the drive to be a virtuoso soloist.

Photo: Monte Stevens Photography

Photo: Monte Stevens Photography

As a twentysomething, Paremski’s focus began to change in her piano work.  She found herself focusing more on the music, on the sound she was making and asking if it was what the composer had wanted, and realizing that technique was only a part of piano performance.  But once she had the technique mastered enough, then she was ready to move into the much more difficult area of “interpretation.”  This is really not a good word for what musicians do — they study a music score, the musical language that the composer has used, and the signs the composer has left in notation that will help them bring the music’s sound to listeners’ ears the way the composer wanted it.  Paremski confessed that now pieces that she had thought she’d mastered were now even more difficult than they’d been before because each time she studied them, she learned something more from them.  This is another indication that Paremski is a true virtuoso soloist.  To plunge into the music’s depths is the real work for a musician, and technique is only the top few steps down into the music.  Now I’m looking forward to attending Paremski’s performance with the Minnesota Orchestra this coming fall.

If you’d like to listen to Paremski for yourself, you can listen to yesterday’s program here.

Every Sunday at noon, From the Top confirms my decision not to pursue a music career because I hear the kids perform and talk about music with such a passionate obsession and drive that I did not have at that age.  They really are necessary characteristics for a musician to have in order to succeed in a music career — I think that’s probably also true for all artists, even writers…..