Sunday, March 3, 2019

WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?




HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Whatever happened to Charlotte McNally? Where’s Jane Ryland these days? I say—the characters in my series are off having wonderful eventful lives while I write my standalones. And eventually we’ll find out about that.

But did they leave the nest? Or did I? The iconic and fabulous Betty Webb’s been thinking about that--since she’s just experienced a singularly pivotal moment in the writer’s life.


BETTY WEBB:  Ever hear of Empty Nest Syndrome? If you’re a parent of grown kids, you have probably experienced it yourself. One day your children go off to lead their own lives and you find yourself missing their smelly bedrooms, their snarky comments, and the sea of fast food wrappers surrounding them.

Have you ever wondered what writers go through when their protagonists leave the nest? As the mother of two wonderful young men who left home years ago to create their own families, I can tell you that missing your fictional children is eerily similar to missing the real ones. I’ve been sniffling around the house ever since Lena Jones, the Scottsdale, Arizona PI who has lived with me since 2000, finally left home in “Desert Redemption.”

BETTY in Lena Land
Lena and had I covered a lot of ground together. We snuck into northern Arizona polygamy compounds in “Desert Wives” and “Desert Lost,” poked through an A-bomb testing site in “Desert Wind,” and paced the perimeter of a state prison complex in “Desert Rage.”

But now Lena’s ridden off into the sunset on her Appaloosa mare.

I was whining about this the other day while having lunch with a friend. Not being a writer, she didn’t understand.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Betty,” she snapped. “Lena’s not real.”

“To me she is.”

“Off your meds again, are you?”

Well, you see what I mean. Lena would never talk to me that way. Granted, my girl was prone to getting into fistfights, and sometimes even shoot-outs, but she was always sweet as molasses with me. She was respectful, where my flesh-and-blood children were defiant and unpredictable, especially during those interminably long teenage years when they didn’t agree with a word I said. That is, if I was fortunate enough to have them talk to me at all.

Thus, Lena was – is? -- the only person in my life I felt I could control. Tell her to saddle up her horse for a ride across the Rez, and she’d do it. Tell her to investigate that funky-smelling garbage bin, she’d hurry right over. Why, I could tell Lena to do any crazy thing – sky dive, climb a mountain, insult a politician – and she’d do it with gusto.

My flesh-and-blood children?

Oh, ha.

But now that I’ve written my complaint down in black and white (or whatever color this blog will be printed in), I’ve discovered something interesting. When I look back along the years Lena and I spent together, I can recall incidents where she didn’t obey.  Yet I seem to remember feeling especially close to her during those occasions, like the time I told her not to investigate that cult, or the time I told her to stay away from that abandoned building, and like all those times I told her to break up with that two-timing cowboy.

Arguably, Lena was more like my defiant sons than I’d realized. Did I write her that way on purpose? Or did it just “happen”? 

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

How have you handled empty nesta in your life?

If you’re a writer, do you feel closer to your characters when they’re following orders, or when they’re defying you?

 If you’re not a writer, what do you think about this whole writer-versus-character “control” issue?

Or--which do you most enjoy most -- the good girls or the rebels?

HANK: Since 2000! WOW. Standing ovation to you both. 

As to your question--tough one! Certainly I’ve seen my characters come to life, and say things I’m surprised about. My newest heroine, Ellie Berenson (so far, it could change) definitely has said some things that surprised me. (hurray.) And every time I try to write a good girl, it’s a complete failure. 

How about you, Reds and readers?
Ed. Note: Yes, yes, I'm behind! Winners from this week to come asap!
 


ABOUT BETTY WEBB
For 20 years Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and polygamy runaways. A nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 30 years, she currently reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. She is the author of 10 Lena Jones books and 5 Gunn Zoo mysteries.
You can find Betty at www.bettywebb-mystery.com



PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
Desert Redemption: A Lena Jones Mystery
Betty Webb. Poisoned Pen, $26.95 (328p) ISBN 978-1-4642-1095-2
In Jones’s electrifying 10th and final Lena Jones mystery (after 2017’s Desert Vengeance), Scottsdale, Ariz., PI Lena is approached by Harold Slow Horse, one of Arizona’s leading artists, who insists that she investigate the Kanati Spiritual Center, a compound promoting a mishmash of Native American symbolism and philosophy, where his flighty ex-wife, Chelsea, has taken up residence. Lena reluctantly agrees, and discovers that Chelsea is thriving on the fresh air, sunshine, and gourmet cuisine on offer at the center. When the body of a woman with a possible link to the center turns up in the desert, Lena begins to think that there is "something more horrific than religious plagiarism going on at Kanati." Lena gets on a trail that leads her at long last to answers about her troubled past: "I was an orphan… I’d been found comatose on a Phoenix street at the age of four with a bullet in my head. No one came forward to claim me." The resolution will satisfy series fans, though they’ll be sad to see the last of Lena. (Mar.)

73 comments:

  1. I think it’s always a little sad when a series comes to an end . . . for the reader, it’s kind of like losing a good friend [which makes you go back and read the whole series over again . . . and again . . . and again] . . . .

    It makes perfect sense to me that writers would feel a bit of empty nest syndrome when their beloved characters no longer appear on the pages they are writing. When the girls left home [one to the Air Force Academy, the other to college], there were moments of Mom-tears, but, at the same time, there’s pride for what they’ve accomplished and what they’re moving on to in their lives. The girls are good to us . . . they call, they text, they visit, they invite us to their homes, they send pictures of the grandbabies . . . it’s wonderful to be close, even when they live far away . . . .

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    1. You're right, Joan. I've been feeling sad about Lena, and yet I've felt guilty for feeling sad. One of my sons lives in the same area I do, but the other one is way across the country. Empty Nest Syndrome says it all!

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    2. That is so wise, Joan! Lucky lucky girls…

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  2. And, congratulations, Betty, on your newest Lena Jones book . . . .

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  3. I can't say I've ever experienced empty nest syndrome with my characters. Then again, I've never ended a series. And with my standalones I knew they would be standalones from the start, so I guess there was no expectation of the characters hanging around forever. Thinking about it though, I probably would miss my series characters if I knew they would never have another book. Interesting concept!

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    1. Believe me, Marla, you'll miss them!

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    2. Yes, it is a very singular emotion. But you never know, right? They’re not really gone…

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  4. Any time I tell my characters to do something they don't want to do, the book comes to a crashing halt. Like the cat that won't go in the crate because it means a trip to the vet, they Just Won't Do It. So I have to stop, and have a long, heart-to-heart about what they want to do, and maybe completely change the trajectory of the story. It usually comes out better and more surprising. And, yes, I'm always sad to see them go when the story is over.

    I'm interested to know how other writers get to know your characters in the first place. Mine tend to tag along when I'm at the grocery store, commenting on what I want to eat that they would never touch. One always showed up when I was mowing the yard. I hated that chore, but he took pride in it. Am I the only one who does stuff like this? Surely not.

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    1. Gigi, I think it's interesting that different characters show up for different tasks! Surely this means they are so real they are going to disagree with you now and then. How cool. :)

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    2. Hi, Cathy -- in a way, our characters are biting the hand that feeds them, but when my cat does that, I say, "Oh, how cute!" When Lena Jones did that, I felt betrayed. People are weird, aren't they?

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    3. I have had exactly the same experience tell me exactly! And the book was for the better for it! Thank you, Jane Ryland /-)

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    4. I think all series writers have gone through that.

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  5. As far as the empty nest when my two children left home, I had always thought I'd be wailing and pulling my hair and begging them not to go. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the empty nest. I had enjoyed every stage of their growing up, and I found that I enjoyed their college years and going out into the world years, too. Of course I missed them and the activity always going on, but I grew into an easy peace with it. My daughter lives only an hour away (with the grandgirls), and my son lives 3 hours away. I do sometimes envy parents whose children live in the same town, because I'd like to have my kids and grandkids over for meals or on the spur of the moment. But, at least they're not across the country.

    Oh, you authors who are writing these stand-alones now. You do scare me that I won't get to enjoy my favorite characters from your series again. But, your stand-alones are so wonderful that I at least have great writing from you still. I get so attached to the characters of my favorite series.

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    1. Kathy, I've felt the same way. I've even BEGGED writers to write about their characters again!

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    2. It is such a joy when people connect with the characters, right? I haven’t decided whether they feel real to me, but they certainly feel present.

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    3. Lena is still talking to me. That girl just won't shut up.

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    4. Then are you sure that's the last Lena book???

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    5. That's what I was wondering, Deb!

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  6. I love this comparison, Betty. I also raised two sons and now have two (female) protagonists who are on semi-permanent hiatus. One was a professor, so she's on a really long sabbatical. The other, a farmer, well, she's off growing organic food and who knows what else?

    The times when they, and my current three main characters, do something unexpected delights me beyond description. I tell readers it's the magic part of writing, when I feel like I'm simply the channel for the words. And when protags (or other characters) refuse to go or act in a certain way? I try to listen closely to that. It's usually for a good reason.

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    1. That is so true, Edith. Sometimes our characters know more than we do!

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    2. Oh, definitely! Sometimes when I’m stuck, I remember that the book is about them, you know? What they want to and what they’ll do? And then —they do it!

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  7. I'm looking forward to reading this book, Betty!

    As an unpublished writer, I haven't yet reached the point where the characters take over the story. I experienced it briefly when my protagonist told me her name (and it wasn't what I thought it was!). This gives me hope that I really can develop characters who come alive and tell me their story.

    The only other time this happened was when I was writing my Master's Thesis on Ellery Queen. I came to know Ellery so well that he started talking to me. He'd also remind me when I should've been writing my thesis instead of doing something else. I know I can't write stories about him but maybe he'll come back and help me work on my own characters and their stories.

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    1. Cathy, your experience with Ellery is exactly what I'm talking about! Keep on keeping on!

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    2. My goodness, please please please make your book be about that! That’s the best idea ever!

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  8. After hanging out here with the Reds for a couple of years I have reached the conclusion that any good book is a collaboration with author and characters. The more they listen to each other, not that they have to agree, the better the story. So it stands to reason that when the book is finished or the series is over there will be the empty nest syndrome. I often think about characters I met in books and wonder what they have been up to.

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    1. There's a lot of wisdom in what you just said, Judi. I've actually started thinking "pre-quell"!

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    2. That is exactly perfect… If elaboration! And Betty, you’re thinking about a prequel because of today?

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    3. Absolutely. It's an amazing thing to be able to talk to readers real time.

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  9. Congratulations on your new release! I look forward to reading it.

    My protagonist will live on in short stories, so it's not good-bye forever. And I've developed new characters in stories I'll continue to work with. I recently said good-bye to Flavia de Luce. She was on the cusp of adulthood, with many adventures ahead of her. I think about Kinsey Milhone, too.

    Do my characters talk back? You bet! We have contentious conversations about following my outline or deviating down a more compelling path.

    My kids spent senior year of HS developing their independent lives. When they left for college it was time. The youngest was an only child for seven years, and hated it.

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    1. Hi, Margaret. You're comment gave me a lot to think about. Short stories! Thanks for that! I already miss my misbehaving girl!

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    2. Yes, perfect! And I never thought about that either… Brilliant .

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    3. That IS brilliant - my next short will have farmer Cam Flaherty making a reappearance, I'm sure!

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  10. Only one of my flesh and blood children have left the nest - and she hasn't gone far yet (only 10 miles away to college). So I don't know about that.

    My characters? Well, I feel close to them whenever - but yes, they can dig in their heels in an eerily similar way as my teenagers.

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    1. Liz, sometimes I wonder which gave me more trouble -- my sons or my fictional daughter Lena Jones!

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    2. But we agree that’s good, right? Because it shows our brain except the characters as real people.

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    3. If our characters weren't real to us, we couldn't write them.

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  11. That must be a hard decision to come to grips with, Betty--when to let your characters go! I seem to have missed Lena's adventures, so will be looking for the first book. As a reader, I like when a story arc is completed, even if that sometimes means the end of the series--I'll miss the characters, but I can always imagine what they might be doing. A favorite author (fantasy/science fiction) had a book whose characters I loved--then there was a second book with the same characters. It left me longing for more, more! Decades later, I discovered that the author had allowed someone to write two more books with those characters--(what we might call fanfiction today)--but the reviews (by actual book reviewers as opposed to reader comments) were so horrendous that I never read either. I'd rather be left with what I know and what I can imagine the life of those characters might have been.

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    1. Wow, Flora! That's actually a scary story. And thanks for the tip. I'll never let that happen to my Lena Jones.

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    2. Yes, it’s fascinating how sometimes come out of the need the true creator can capture the magic.

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  12. Hi, Betty! Thought-provoking discussion here this morning.

    Having tried to write fiction, it just floored me how the characters themselves kept trying to steer their own story. How does that happen? It's the weirdest phenomenon, isn't it? So many well-meaning people kept telling me to outline, but the characters themselves resisted all my efforts. It was like trying to control a fire hose on full blast. How on earth does anyone ever write a full story, trying to hang onto that live, writhing thing?

    As for real children, I've had much the same experience as Kathy Reel did. I raised them all to become independent and responsible citizens, and that's what they are. How could I complain? But I do miss them all, and so enjoy spending time with three of the most amazing adult women I know. No clue how that happened, but I'm eternally grateful.

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    1. I'll have to admit that the day my youngest son moved out of his room, it became my den (after I'd shoveled out all the debris, of course)!

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    2. Manifest destiny. No wait, Momifest destiny !

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  13. Karen, that is the perfect image! The firehose! And yet… We hope that’s what happens.

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  14. I just realized I didn't mention something I probably should have: the gal on the cover of "Desert Redemption" is my granddaughter. She's wearing MY hat! (Yeah, I know it's unusual for the writer to have a hand in book cover design, but due to a special arrangement with Poisoned Pen Press...)

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    1. Oh, what a treasure! Thank you for telling us!

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    2. That's really special, Betty!

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    3. That's awesome, Betty. (From one who is waiting for her independent, well-adjusted adult sons to produce some grandchildren, already...)

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    4. Patience, Edith. It'll happen!

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  15. What a fun post, Betty. I go through empty-nest syndrome with my characters who are specific to each book--I can't imagine saying goodbye to my main series characters!

    They all seem to have ongoing lives of their own that I can drop into to see what they're up to. And of course that means that I'm not always in charge. I love it when my characters become so real that they leap off the page and make decisions I didn't expect--it's the most exhilarating part of writing.

    Congrats on the new Lena book, and I'm going to be very interested to see if she makes another appearance!

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    1. She probably will, Deborah. I just can't seem to say goodbye.

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    2. We'll be here to welcome her back!

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  16. Try, try again. I think the internet dog ate my comment. I know you authors have a special relationship with the characters you birth. We readers also have our relationships with characters and are quite bereft when a series ends. I would love to read any prequels, short stories, or novellas that would let me know how things are in their world. So, more Cam, Edith! More Charlotte, Hank!

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    1. Pat, I had serious problems today in trying to get my comment to post, too.

      And I agree that I wouldn’t mind reading short stories about series characters who have gone off to new adventures. It would be like a family reunion!

      DebRo

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    2. My cat ate my earlier comments, Pat! So made them again.

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    3. SO doing it. I am inspired by you all!

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  17. Congrats on your latest release, Betty! *Sob* I'm devastated that Lena is riding off into the sunset but the premise of this book sounds fabulous - I can't wait! As the mother of teens, the empty nest seems like a euphoric place to be so I'll just have to grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut until I get there.

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    1. Thanks, Jenn. But I gave my girl everything she always wanted.

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    2. We'll see what you say when the time comes, dear Jenn....

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  18. Betty,

    Of course you miss your characters! You created them!

    Since I retired, I’ve been taking a writing class at the senior center. It meets weekly so there’s only one week to work on an assignment. Some weeks as I leave class I KNOW how my story will go. Other weeks I have no clue if I will be able to come up with anything. Characters often come and go; I’m not sure who will stay. No matter how confident I am about the story, it changes significantly over the course of the week, and is never the story I thought it would be. By the time I’m done—and I’m never done until the last possible minute— characters may have had personality changes. In the story that I did for this past week’s class, the personalities of the two characters I settled on completely switched with each other.

    And now I miss both of them!

    DebRo

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    1. I don't think we ever really say goodbye to our characters -- they just re-emerge with different names.

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    2. That's so great, DebRo! And that's exactly the writing life, right?

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  19. Betty, please forgive my not adding something I certainly meant to in my original post. My only excuse is that I typed my comments right before heading to bed at 2 this morning. Congratulations, Betty on your latest Lena Jones book. I know you must be going through some sadness at it being the last one, as she's been with you so long. You have an amazing resume, Betty. Journalist, literary critic, reviewer, novelist. Wow! I have to ask you, what's next? I have a feeling that you won't rest on your laurels.

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    1. I'm already writing on the next series, so don't worry, Kathy!

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    2. Oh, KAthy, you are a treasure...

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  20. As a reader, I feel sad when beloved characters come to an end. I have been with them only a couple of hours comparing to all the time you spent in their company so, I can understand your empty nest syndrome

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    1. I know, Danielle. I feel the same way when other writers "end" a series. But who knows? Maybe Lena will be back in a different form.

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    2. I feel this happening now! ANd thank you, Danielle....it's wonderful to hear that.

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  21. AND THE WINNER OF Crystal King's The Chef's Secret IS: Melanie Bodin! Email me via contact on my website..and tell me your address!
    AND THE WINNER OF Lisa Unger's Under My Skin is--Susan Emerson!Email me via contact on my website..and tell me your address!
    WINNER of Betty Webb's book is..coming soon!

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  22. And the winner is: Flora Church! Send me your address by my website—just click on contact! Yaaay! And thank you, dear Betty, for a wonderful day—keep us posted, okay? Xxx

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