Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Mahu Fire

"I love the contrast between light and shadow, metaphorically, good and evil. . . . Graham Greene wrote that there was something about shady characters in sunny places. You're isolated down here, and there's a certain type of person who gravitates to these edge communities. You find the same thing in Hawaii. And I love the cultural mixing we have here, the multicultural melting pot."
Neil Plakcy quoted in the Miami Herald

We're all going to Left Coast Crime in Hawaii, right? Right? Here's the guy who knows all about it.

And we've always wanted to say Book'em, Dano. But we can say it to Neil, because his books are set in Hawaii. (And he's probably really tired of hearing it.)

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, and Mahu Fire, mystery novels which take place in Hawaii. He is co-editor of Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog (Alyson Books, 2006) and editor of the gay construction worker erotica anthology, Hard Hats. A journalist, book reviewer and college professor, he is also a frequent contributor to gay anthologies.

On Neils website, we found this fascinating and useful stuff.

Lolo means crazy in Hawai'ian. Mahu means gay.

As you might know, every syllable in a Hawai'ian word must end in a vowel. Neil says he's sure that this, plus the fact that there are only fourteen letters in the Hawai'ian alphabet, was a real challenge to the first missionaries, who sought to translate the Bible into the native language. And here's what you really need toknow: By using the next available letter, and adding vowels to the ends of syllables, "Merry Christmas" became "Mele Kalikimaka." Now you can go to Hawaii at Christmas.

How intimately do you know your characters? Neil's been thinking about this...and wants us to, too. Welcome, Neil!

Recently, my friend Nancy Cohen sent me some character development tools she’d built to help her with her Bad Hair Day mysteries. The tools asked a lot of questions about your characters, things like their favorite speech phrase, ruling passion, and dominant trait.

It was all interesting, especially thinking about the dominant trait, which Nancy defines as a non-physical adjective + decision-making noun–i.e. protective guardian, charming nuisance, compassionate caretaker, restless homemaker. I feel that if you’re going to write about a character, at least a main character such as the protagonist or antagonist, you should know this stuff.

When I was discussing this with Christine Kling, who has written four mysteries about tugboat operator Seychelle Sullivan, she sent me an even more detailed list of questions to ask, including things like the character’s body language and mannerisms, birth order, diet, grooming, and romantic history.

It’s all great—but it didn’t help me when I got my favorite (so far, at least) question from a reader. He’d read my first two mysteries (Mahu and Mahu Surfer) and wanted to know if my protagonist, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, had a hairy body.
I’ll bet the big names in literature and mystery don’t get that kind of question. (Well, maybe Janet Evanovich does.)

It made me stop and think. You can fill out all the character questionnaires you want—but how intimately do we really know our characters? And how intimately do we need to? Should we know everything about them before we start to write? Or is writing about someone the same as starting to date someone—a process of getting to know them?

Of course, no matter how long you and your character (or your significant other) are together, there’s always something new to learn. In my case, I sat down to consider my fan’s questions. Kimo is part Hawai’ian, part Japanese, and part haole, or white. Since neither the Hawai’ians nor the Japanese are known for much body hair, there was my answer. Kimo’s pretty smooth. I didn’t want to totally alienate that fan, though, so I assumed he’d have a little hair here and there.

Since I’m writing about Kimo’s coming out process as well as his investigation of the cases, sex does play a part in the books. In describing his first experiences, Kimo says that denying his attraction to other men was like standing outside a candy store with his nose pressed against the glass. Once he accepted himself for who he was, he was able to open the door to that candy store and start sampling the wares.

So I guess I do need to get more intimate with him, and I’m glad that my fan raised that question for me to consider. The results may never show up on the page, but at asking and answering those questions helps me get to know Kimo better. Going back to those character questions that Chris and Nancy gave me, I’m still working on figuring out what his most treasured object is. Maybe that will show up in the next book.

Not so fast, Neil. Before we say aloha, Time to take: the Jungle Red Quiz!

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Miss Marple

Sex or violence?

Pizza or chocolate?

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan? (We won't even include Sean Connery because we know the answer. Don't we?)
Pierce Brosnan

Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
That's a tough one. Audrey, I guess.

First person or Third Person?
First person

Prologue or no prologue?
Prologue. Sometimes you have to set the scene before the story starts.

Making dinner or making reservations?
Making dinner (and dessert.)

And Finally: The Jungle Red Stump Your Readers Quiz:
Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess.

My "nom de porn" is Dirk Strong
I am a very distant descendant of the Russian royal family
Only as an adult did I discover that my father's nickname for me, Noodnik, meant 'pest' in Yiddish.
I was "Mr. Flag" in my second-grade class play and sang "You're A Grand Old Flag" to thunderous applause.

JRW: Oh, Neil, we hope you were really Mr. Flag....and we demand to see the photos.

And by the way, Aloha nui oe.
Tomorrow: Another wonderful author! And this one: hunted rats on a first date! Some fun.
And she'll--oops! a clue--will be giving away a free book or two!


  1. welcome to Jungle Red Neil! Isn't that a good question about characters...I would love to see the lists. Your post makes me realize I know very little about the details of my characters' physiques--but then they close the door if sex is involved!

    Definitely, the Mr. Flag pix need to be posted here! then we can legitimately say:"Book 'em Dano!"

  2. I've seen those character charts. Tried 'em myself a few times. And since I'm working on a series, I do need to keep track of the characters. But aside from the very very basics such as body type, hair and eye color, I usually don't get too much into that until I need to know it. The tricky part is remembering to add it to my 'character' file so I have it on reference, especially when that character shows up in another book.

    I'll usually have a vague idea about family history, again, in case he mentions being an only child, or youngest of 5.

    My big 'get to know them' is more like Nancy's approach, which is very similar to Deb Dixon's. I usually start with my hero (writing romantic suspense, we're not allowed a single protagonist--have to have two virtually equal ones), figure out what he wants and why. That usually leads me to backtrack to his past. Once I have his GMC, I work on the two word descriptor so I know how he'll behave in any situation.

    And then ... I interview them.

  3. Okay, I want to know which of those things ISN'T true. That's going to drive me nuts.

    And for some reason I knew Kimo wasn't hairy. (grin)


  4. Oh, keeping track of things. How I wish I had known how important that was. I scrambled, in the midst of book 3, making a chart of everyone's bithdays. Charlie, my main character, was just on the verge of having been 46 for a year and a half.

    Readers, do you notice stuff like that? I'm so paranoid about it.

    As for the two word descriptor. I've never heard of doing that! And now it's going to drive me crazy. Thanks gang.

    Although in preparing info for the art dept, I had to pick one word that described Charlie, from a list they'd prepared. It was really difficult. I decided on "determined." And sure enough, there it was on the teaser page of the book. Huh.

    And making that choice was incredibly helpful.

  5. On those descriptors -- the one Deb Dixon uses in her workshop is "cocky smuggler" for Han Solo. I find that's a good example when I'm trying to find mine (although technically, she says you're not really supposed to use the character's 'real' job in your descriptor.

    It's not easy to nail, but once you do, you'll have less trouble knowing how your character will react no matter what you throw at him.

  6. Hi Neil...I really liked this post because it's nice to know more intimate details about the process, and about you, too.

    I was fortunate enough to have been included in Neil's book, HARD HATS, so I'm really enjoying the conversation here today. Working on a book is hard work and there's never time to get to know anyone on a more personal basis.

    Great Post!!

  7. Hi Neil, welcome to JungleRed and thanks for a great discussion on character, not to mention body hair! But i agree, I think learning about your character is a process of discovery. In fact, It think that's the fun of it

  8. The worst thing for me is keeping track of the ages of the miscellaneous kids who pop up in the Mahu books. An Amazon reviewer pointed out that one kid had regressed from six to five in the course of Mahu Fire.

    Now, that's a copy editing mistake-- but it comes from my sad lack of experience with little kids and knowledge of them as human beings.

    I finally sat down yesterday and made a list of all Kimo's nieces and nephews and the kids of his friends, and figured out how old each was, including giving them a birthday so that I'll know as they get older.

    These kids are really minor characters, but all you have to do is make one mistake and you'll lose or confuse a reader.

  9. I don't know if there are any pictures of that appearance in 2nd grade; I'll have to check with my mother.

    (By the way, there is no Russian royalty in my family, though my uncle used to sing a song about "Shootin' with Rasputin."

  10. Better an age regression than a sex change. One NYT best-selling author ended one book with the birth of a baby girl which was a baby boy at the beginning of the next.

  11. I don't know where I got my author bio forms from but I found them really valuable, especially those really obscure questions that one can answer in a snap. That means that your character is truly imbedded--or you've got a split personality. Good job, Neil.

  12. I think developing the character as fully as possible before you start writing is key to presenting a fully fleshed out, 3D, believable character.

    Josh Lanyon and I are collaborating on a new romantic crimes series, Crimes & Cocktails, called Mexican Heat and it was especially important that we both know and understand all about the two main characters in depth before we could possibly write about them.

    We spent hours throwing emails back and forth and talking it all out, so many that by the time we were done we have scenes and dialog for the second and third books written where we explored family dynamics, named siblings, introduce parents, friends, old nemeses and so forth--all so we could get book one started. We built a solid base to hold the whole series before we ever wrote more than one scene.

    It also helps to cut out a picture of someone who looks as close to your vision of the characters as possible. I have Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas looking back at me by my laptop because they are who I would cast in the roles. It helps kept physical descriptions consistent.

    It wouldn't be possible to stay consistent throughout if we hadn't. And it was huge fun bring Gabriel and Antonio to life! They are two of my best friends now. LOL!

  13. Plus, Jeri, I bet, using the character bio forms helps you keep focused on your thematic goals. You know?
    So that at every turn, what the characters do seamlessly reflects the whole book.

    In writing my current book, I have a post-it on my computer that says "secrets." It's there just to help keep me on my track. It sounds--simple. But I look at it all the time.

    Laura, I love the email idea. What a terrific way to get it all working! Let us know when the book comes out! And I have a photo of Diane Keaton (in glasses and a white suit in a L'oreal ad) on my bulletin board--I always this this particular photo looks just like Charlie McNally.

  14. Gee, I have a calendar called "Men of Hawaii" up on my wall, so Kimo changes how he looks from month to month!

    (Well, maybe not, but the calendar sure is inspiring.)

  15. The emails were great because we printed them out and added them to the series notes, copied the scenes over into a file and labeled each scene or the thrust of the topic it covered. A series bible was up and running in less than a day-- without having to retype everything in again and we had 3 books plotted out, carrying elements through them all so they tied together. Our characters' identities remained consistent but we could see the character arc forming.

    And we leave the door open on our intimate scenes so consistency was very important there as well.

  16. A series bible is a compilation of all the important data on your characters, primary and secondary, plus places they have been and key elements from each story so you can go to one place and look up what color the butler's eyes are and the main protagonist's mother's name to use in book three that you mentioned in book one.

    We mention a guy in book one that is nothing more than a small comment but who will be introduced in book two as a key secondary reoccurring character. We have his name, background, relationship to the main characters and habits already flesh out in the bible to use when we get to #2.

    When you're writing a multiple book series, it get hard to keep track of everything book to book, year to year. This helps a ton.

  17. Thanks, Laura, for the series bible info. It sounds like a very organized way to keep track, especially with the minor characters.

  18. Oh, Laura, what a good good good idea! Thank you!

    Keep us posted on your progress..

    Tomorrow--come meet another fun writer with a hilarious new book.

    She reveals she sometimes gets mistaken for another famous author...and it's tempting to allow people to think that's who she is. Why does it happen?
    Check it out starting Friday...

  19. Neil,
    I think the fact that you're a good writer has a lot more to do with your characterization than any of the tools.

    I know they help keep track of things.

    Good interview, Neil