Barb: When I read your first book, Cold Hard News, I was impressed with the depth and complexity of your amateur sleuth, Bernie O’Dea, a small town newspaper owner/editor who struggles to manage her life, her business, and her adult ADHD. In No News Is Bad News, what I was most impressed with was the depth of the other characters, including your almost-co-protagonist, Police Chief Pete Novotny, the denizens of Bernie’s newsroom, and Bernie’s youngest brother, Sal. Following up on a discussion we’re having on Wicked Cozy Authors this week, how do you create characters? Do you do elaborate pre-work, interviews and bios, or let them develop on the page as you write, or some combination?
Pete started probably when I was 9 or 10 years old and started having crushes on TV characters and rewriting TV episodes in my head as I lay in bed (particularly with Pete on the Mod Squad but some others as well), but I also put a lot of thought into his development so he’d complement Bernie, but also be a strong character in his own right.
Other characters in the book, like Sal, sprung out of my head and developed on the page, though once they started developing, I’d give a lot of thought to who they are, how they’d behave, speak, etc. Since I have five siblings, I felt I could draw the relationship between Sal and Bernie accurately, but I also don’t have a brother like Sal, so had to consider him in detail as I wrote. One quick story: I used to be a high school track official and at one meet, there was a girl in the 3,200 (two-mile) race way, way behind the others, who finished while she still had a lap or two to go. Her little brother, still in his Catholic school uniform, with his little windbreaker in his hand, about 10 years old, starting running next to her on the infield. I’ll never forget that scene. It’s not in my book, but that’s what I was thinking of when I first started writing Sal. I don’t want my characters to be cardboard cutouts, so once they arrive, I try to delve into them a little more. A lot of this happens in my head and on the page, though I realize with the third book germinating, I need to get a lot of it down in a “series bible” so that I’m consistent and can also develop them further.
Barb: No News Is Bad News weaves together a complex story across three recent timelines, 2003, 2007 and 2009. However did you plot out this book? Did you have a vision for the forward story in each timeline separately, or write it as the books flows or what?
Maureen: Good question! What actually happened is that several years ago, I began the book as the story of Bernie’s brother Sal’s appearance and the plot that develops from that. I put that aside as I worked on Cold Hard News revisions. When I went back to writing the second book after I found a publisher for Cold Hard News, I found the plot, or what little I’d developed of it, didn’t motivate me as much as it had before. At the same time, I started getting excited about a possible prequel to CHN involving Pete’s case and how he ended up in Redimere. The idea had been sparked by a documentary “The Imposter,” that I’d watched that winter about a guy who pretended he was a missing kid and the the missing kid’s family oddly went along with it. So that was exciting me and beginning to form as a story in my head. But part of me was really disappointed, as I knew readers would be, too, that we weren’t going forward with Bernie and Pete’s relationship, which to me is a big part of the books. Then one day when I was in the shower, it hit me: Cold Hard News sequel, but with flashbacks! Why hadn’t I seen it before? It would be so easy.
Of course, it wasn’t. I see it really as two story lines, since 2003 is one chapter with some serious implications later in the book. I ended up writing the 2003-2007 part as one story, then the “actual book” as another. But I also had to make a lot of decisions about what to reveal, when, in the earlier plot in order to keep the suspense and surprises in the later one moving along, as well as how people in 2009 would talk about what had happened in 2007 and what would be revealed. So there was a lot of moving scenes around as well as reworking the writing once I merged the two story lines together.
In the end, the main goal was to try to make the writing as clear as possible, tell the story and be entertaining, but also raise questions that would intrigue rather than frustrate, and have faith that readers would go along with it, have the smarts to follow it (which of course, they do) and in the end the story would be richer for it all.
Barb: As a resident of a small Maine town, I loved the way this book focused the dump (or more politely, transfer facility). Every small town resident knows that while the grocery store, post office and churches all have a claim to be community centers, the real action is at the dump. What inspired you to make the dump the centerpiece of this story?
Maureen: Well, ha ha. There are a lot of things that come into play here. One is, like Bernie, I started obsessing about my prescription bottles going into the recycling and started thinking, as a mystery writer, what would happen if some enterprising dump worker started looking at addresses. I also became obsessed with the garbage hopper at my local dump — it really is fascinating to watch it crush and compress all that trash — and the possibilities there, and had to put it in a book. Like you point out, the dump is the center of all activity in a small town — at mine politicians campaign there, Girl Scouts sell cookies, you name it. So it had to be in the book.
So all that was already going on with me. Then one day last summer, when I went to dump my garbage, it was closed because someone (from away, of course) had backed his pickup truck into the hopper. I talked my way in so I could get some info for the newspaper, then I was given the bum’s rush by a very condescending, fairly rude transfer station manager who didn’t understand freedom of press access. On top of it, the poor kid at the gate who’d let me in and who became the physical model for Moses Mosher in my book, got thoroughly scolded for letting me in, something I’m not ashamed to say I watched with interest. Immediately, the dump’s role in my book expanded, as did the manager, though the one in the book bears no resemblance to the one in my town and the pickup truck story never made it into the book.
Barb: In No News Is Bad News, you bring your protagonist Bernie to a new level, showing and not telling us what the jangle inside her head caused by the ADHD does to mental processes, her confidence, her judgment and her life. When Cold Hard News came out, you wrote in your post here about how self-conscious you were about giving your heroine the same condition you were managing and how you braced for people’s reactions. A year later, what has the reaction to been Bernie’s ADHD? How do you feel about having outed yourself?
A little background: I was diagnosed with ADHD the same week I thought I was “finished” with Cold Hard News. While it explained SO MUCH, not only about me, but about Bernie, it took another year or so before I did a revision of the book that officially gave it to Bernie, too. My resistance to putting it in the first book was because, as I said, I didn’t want to tell the world I had it, and also I didn’t want it to feel like a gimmick or superficial “flaw” for a character. I felt good about it ultimately, because it gave me an opportunity to say a lot about a disorder that is really misunderstood and also overlooked in adults. One big thing is how many of us my age and older weren’t diagnosed as kids, we were just “bad kids.” It has a huge impact on people who grow up being told that. It also explains behavior that is considered not socially acceptable: talkativeness, loudness, interrupting, ditziness, poor organization skills, among other things. And it’s a reality that people would rather just wish people would stop acting like that, and believing they could if they want to, than having compassion for those of us who are different and realizing that stuff really isn’t so horrible in the big scheme of things.
After a particularly trying day at work, I came home to write and added a passage to the book where someone complained to Pete about how annoying Bernie was and Pete stuck up for her, though he was a little annoyed with her himself at that time. I feel everyone with challenges needs someone to do that for them. It doesn’t really happen much in real life, though. I feel like having ADHD and having to endure (and this still happens) lectures about the things that make me annoying to be around, have made me (and Bernie) more empathetic. In the end, everyone has something that makes their life a struggle. Pete has PTSD, and I’m not sure he and Bernie have yet discussed their issues, but I can see that happening in Book 3. In general, I try to have compassion for characters in my book who are out of the mainstream, who may be treated superficially by the world around them, but are human beings who deserve understanding. It’s easier in books than in real life — I don’t want people to think I’m a hypocrite. It’s something I try to remember daily, but don’t always succeed. Bernie, too. So whether it’s ADHD, PTSD, a mental illness or intellectual disability, I try to create characters who are more than their “flaw.”
Barb: Compassion for our characters. Great writing advice. What are you working on now?
Maureen: Book 3! Yet to be named, but with News in the title, of course. I can’t say much about it — not because I’m secretive (you KNOW by now I’m not), but because it’s forming and gelling in my brain. I’ll say this: It takes place six or seven months after NNBN ends. Bernie and Pete are still feeling their way with each other. It’ll involve a missing hiker, a fugitive hiding in the woods and some more woods dwellers (because we have had major stories at the newspaper I’m city editor of recently involving all those things and the plot started forming itself despite any objections I may have had).
I’m also appearing at author events and signing, and in cyperspace, including Facebook, Twitter, my webpage and with emailed web updates, since that’s how we writers roll these days. And on blogs like this, of course!
Thanks for the opportunity, Barb, and Wicked Cozies. I love talking about writing, both with writers and readers. Anyone who has questions or wants to elaborate on the discussion is welcome to track me down through my website, maureenmilliken.com, or my author page on Facebook, Maureen Milliken mysteries.
Thanks for coming, Maureen!
Readers: How do you feel about multiple timelines and flashbacks in books? Personally, I love them. I am a huge fan of non-linear narratives. But I also think they require huge skill to pull off.