Saturday, January 26, 2013

Winter in the Desert

     I loved growing up in the Midwest and raising my children there.
     The winters, however, were another story.
     Extreme cold, broken pipes, ice on sidewalks and roads, snowstorms that kept people stuck inside until someone could plow them out, and power outages were not pleasant. Sometimes they were downright scary. In fact, the weather-related cancellations of events made life uncertain. The worst time I can remember was the weekend of my father's funeral in a February. A huge snow and ice storm blanketed the Midwest, my power went out for three days, and my children and small grandchildren were stuck in airports all over the country trying to get home. After that experience, I vowed that if I could live in a warm place in the winter, I would.
Phoenix has gorgeous sunsets. I'm told it's the dust.
     It helped that all my children eventually ended up in the Phoenix, Arizona area. They remembered those winters too. I knew I raised smart kids.
     Now I sit at my computer in January and I can hear the plop-plop of rain failing outside the window. I don't mind it at all and am struck by the irony of the current weather map where no precipitation is happening anywhere else on the US map. Phoenix, today, is the precipitation capital of the country. Amazing! In all the years I have lived here or visited, I have not seen rain like this. The early traffic report has numerous accidents since Phoenix roads are not made to handle lots of rain and people aren't used to driving in it. We are setting a Phoenix record for rain today.
     Living in Arizona in the winter and having friends back in Illinois is like being in a different universe. Unless I see the snowstorms on television, I'm not aware of what is going on in the middle of the country. The first winter I lived in Phoenix I was in awe of every morning when the sun came streaming in the windows and the skies were always blue. The gray, Illinois skies were a thing of the past. As one of my parents said on a visit one time, "It doesn't seem like a place where people should live. No character-building from rugged winters or wet, soggy springs. Sunshine every day just isn't natural."  Perhaps correct, but I'm getting used to it!
     Driving is interesting in Phoenix. Back in Illinois I can drive across my entire town in about ten minutes. In Phoenix I spend three times the money on gas compared to back home. It is a city of freeways. The first winter I spent in the city, I drove mostly on the surface roads because the freeways were daunting. The second winter I ventured out on the freeways occasionally, but I always felt like I should pray before leaving the entrance ramp with a green light indicating I could go. Now I drive on the freeways most days and it has become quite ordinary. Even rush hour traffic is do-able.
     I have threatened to live with each of my three children one month a winter. I know, however, that this plan would be cruel and unusual punishment for all of us. So I rent a house, and so far I have lived in three different houses out of four winters. That experience is always a challenge, filled with surprises. This year the plumbing under the kitchen sink flooded the floor, the refrigerator had a cracked part that flooded the kitchen floor, the smoke alarms [five of them] signaled a squawking low battery sound [always at night], and no one had changed a dead light bulb in years. I had my work cut out for me. Lately, no strange noises and no floods. Ah, peace and quiet.
     Even more satisfying is meeting former students and friends from back home for lunch. It is amazing how many Illinois people live in Phoenix. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone, anywhere in Phoenix, who has lived here for all of his or her life. They are often from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, or Nebraska. When I tell them I am from Illinois, they assume I am from Chicago or the suburbs. I guess downstate does not exist in the minds of non-Illinoisans..or, actually, in the minds of Chicago natives.
     The rain is starting to slow down and the gentle patter of it on the window and rocks in the yard is stopping. Another "terrible storm" is over in the Valley of the Sun.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

All Characters Are Not Created Equal

       I saw the movie version of "Les Miserables" this week and the order of actors in the credits reminded me of the Shakespearean quote about the world being a stage. Yes, it's true that each player has his time and size of role. But even the most obscure part has its function. (Think of all the bodies at the end of the revolution or on the battlefield of "Lincoln.")
       What functions do authors think about when they create characters in their minds or on their pages?
       Orson Scott Card, who has written multiple books about the writing craft, mentions that characters can be divided into walk-ons and placeholders, minor characters, and major characters. In a movie like "Les Miserables" or a mystery novel, an author has to consider how much time and description to give to each character he creates.
       The walk-ons and placeholders are part of the background of a story. They have their purposes either in large ensemble groups or in small parts. They come in, do their thing, and then leave. In movie credits, such a character might be labeled "second man with gun." In the Sherlock Holmes' stories, the Baker Street Irregulars, a band of street urchins that Holmes relies on for intelligence, is such a group. In "Les Miserables," the priest who gives Jean Valjean the candlesticks or the foreman of the factory who throws Fantine out, help send each character toward his or her destiny. Then the priest and foreman leave the stage/screen, mission accomplished.
       In the mystery I just finished writing, Three May Keep a Secret, the county coroner, Dr. Ron Martinez, identifies a fire victim and then escorts her body to the larger city of Woodbury to keep the chain of evidence intact prior to her autopsy. I describe him only briefly, with a few details to show how tired he is when called out in the middle of the night. I also mention he is actually a pediatrician who doubles as a coroner in the tiny town of Endurance. Multiple titles is a characteristic of small towns.
       The second category, minor characters, helps the plot along and we learn more about them than the walk-ons. They have their purposes too, and without them the story wouldn't work as well or take some of the turns it takes. In "Les Miserables," Samantha Barbs plays Eponine, a tragic character who is in love with Marius, and she has more screen time than the walk-ons, but she is not considered a major character. It is important that we feel her despair when she realizes that Marius is actually in love with Cosette, because then we understand Eponine's motive in hiding Cosette's letter from Marius. Major plot point!
       In Three May Keep a Secret, Grace Kimball has two friends who play supportive roles in her life. One is Deb O'Hara, former junior high school secretary, married with two grown-up daughters, and always ready for a party, especially if it involves margaritas. Deb raises the alarm when Grace goes missing. She is in sharp contrast to Jill Cunningham, another friend who makes infrequent appearances in the book.  She is there when Grace learns of an unexpected death and she always keeps the group in focus. She is an accountant and a no-nonsense kind of disciplined person who jogs two miles every morning. Unknowingly, they put Grace in the path of a killer when they volunteer her for a job. They are necessary to the plot, but not major characters.
       A sub-category of minor characters is those who provide comic relief, especially in such a tragic story as "Les Miserables." Those characters would be Madame Thenardier (Helen Bonham Carter) and her husband played by Sacha Baron Cohen. In Three May Keep a Secret, two characters offer comic relief. A dark mystery needs to give the reader time to catch her breath after something terrible happens. Ronda Burke is such a character. She is pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian and is Grace's former student. She has an enormously ugly dog she has named "Adonis." Grace's sister-in-law, Lettie Kimball, is also a comic relief character. She believes everything she reads in the tabloids, listens to all the gossip around town, and has outrageous opinions. A minor character, she reflects a kind of small town person, but she also keeps her ears open for what is happening. She knows the pulse of the town.
       We get to know the major characters well and want to know their fates. Their lives--and often their points of view--drive the plot. These major characters have both strengths and weaknesses and what we think of each of them determines how we feel about their fates. We must care about them, however, to stay involved in the story.

       "Les Miserables" can only work because every character has his role to play. The same is true in any novel we read. The author determines page time and description length by the function of the character. Next time you read a novel or watch a film, think about the role each character plays, large or small. How would the movie or novel be different if that character, no matter how minor, didn't exist?