One day back when I was employed by the Maine State library, I was out for a walk on the Rail Trail with a good friend and co-worker. We were chatting away as we generally did while getting our exercise, when out of nowhere came the idea for a book. I don’t think I mentioned more than the briefest outline to her, but when I got home that evening, I sat down and did an outline with character names and sketches, along with a rough description of what was going to happen. Not long after, I went back and added several questions I’d need to answer during the course of writing the story. Life happened and I didn’t think much about the project in the seven years since taking that walk. Family issues, personal health issues and an overarching sense that humanity is one burp away from self-destruction can really do a job on one’s motivation. I had to claw through all three to start thinking and acting like a writer again.
Earlier this year, I decided that after 50 plus years, I wasn’t going to hunt come November. It was a decision that didn’t come easily. However, spending a day removing 34 deer ticks last hunting season, coupled with the complete absence of deer behind our house all summer were the main reasons I went this way. I knew I would need something to replace that time in November and the idea of trying to write 50,000 words in a month had been something on my bucket list, so I decided to give it a shot.
I found the outline and the first thing that struck me was how meticulous I’d been. After reading it, any doubt there was a good story waiting to be written evaporated. The most frequent admonition I’ve heard as a writer is write about what you know. That’s all well and good until you become a fantasy writer and create worlds and races that don’t exist. However Afternoon Break does reflect my experience in many ways. Solomon Walker, the male protagonist, is a recovering alcoholic as am I. He’s also a librarian who spent a lot of time as a kid off in the woods as a way to avoid family craziness, interesting coincidence, eh?
As I write this on November 14th, I’m three days ahead of schedule in terms of word count, but what’s far more exciting is the way my characters and the plot call me back to the computer whenever I have a free moment. I spend an hour or so before work, another hour or two after supper and alternated running errands and finishing up the last of the outside work on an exceedingly beautiful Monday with two and three hour sessions. I’m at that wonderful point where I’m the scribe and Kirin and Solly are dictating the story. When that happens, it’s what writing is all about. A brief description follows.
Solomon is a college reference librarian in his mid-fifties, married to a psychiatrist with two grown children. He grew up in a pretty crazy family, at one point telling his co-worker and friend Kirin, “by the time I was fourteen, I’d been stabbed once, burned twice and shot at four times.” You can see why he might have trust issues. Swearing, like pretty much every drunk I know, that hell would freeze over before he became like his parents, Solomon jumped into the bottle the first chance he got, humiliated himself and really hurting the one girl who was nice to him at a high school dance. He dealt with the situation by stealing money from his parents and hopping on a bus that took him as far as the money, less five bucks for food, would take him. That turned out to be Bangor, Maine where he lived on the street until circumstances came together and he ended up in AA. He’s survived by sticking with the program and building a very rigid code of behavior that protects him from falling back into addiction. Unfortunately, that code has also forced him to live in a way that has stopped him from feeling human most of the time.
Kirin Leach is in her early 40’s and also a member of the library staff. She’s recently divorced from a local TV personality who married his co-host, after carrying on an affair with her for some time. She’s trying to raise ten and twelve year old daughters with continual frustration at Jimbo, her Ex who frequently forgets to pick the girls up when he’s supposed to. She has a quirky sense of humor and views the politics of academe in much the same way that Solomon does. They have fallen in the habit of taking an afternoon walk together almost every afternoon.
On the day the story begins, Kirin is really upset because Jimbo has once again forgotten to pick up the girls and she’s worried that if this continues, something might happen to them because he’s such a narcissistic jerk. She and Solomon are so involved in their discussion that they are blindsided by the approach of a freak thunderstorm. They take shelter on a raised walkway in a culvert beneath a campus road and Kirin is in the process of calling the main desk and alerting their co-workers to the situation when lightning ricochets off a small stand of poplars and hits her phone.
When they come to, they’re on a barren hilltop and Solomon’s GPS can’t pick up any signal. Kirin has a nasty gash on her leg that will need immediate attention and, as Solomon notes, “We’re sure as hell not in Kansas any more.”
Part thriller, part romance, part self-discovery, it’s become a lot of fun to write. I didn’t expect either character to sprinkle dialogue with so many puns based on popular culture, but thus far it works. Solomon, for example, says the following after Kirin reports on her disastrous experiment to use sand from the nearby stream as a toothpaste substitute: “Thanks for doing the research. If the weather improves tomorrow, we’ll put oral hygiene remedies at the top of our to-do list. Too bad Rite-Aid won’t deliver this far out, but I think they stop just before curfew in sectors R and N.” I’ll let you know if I made the 50,000 word goal when I post in December.
Blind Spot by Laura Ellen is getting very mixed reviews on Amazon.com. Once you read the book, it’s easy to understand some readers’ frustrations. I found it to be a really good story and another entry in what I hope becomes a growing trend, young adult fiction about kids who have a disability, but don’t want to lie down and play helpless. In September, I reviewed Freaks Like Us, a mystery where the main character had almost constant severe auditory hallucinations. In Blind Spot , sixteen year old Roz has teen macular degeneration which has pretty much turned her life upside down and made it suck. Her parents, particularly her mother, are overprotective at a time when she very much needs to feel like her life is at least partly under her control. During the process of flailing out while she comes to terms with the fact that life just kicked her in the teeth, Roz alienates her closest friend as well as losing her chance to play sports. To top all that off she’s sent to a life skills class where some students are severely handicapped and the only one she can really relate to, Tricia Farni, is a borderline psychotic who smokes weed to maintain her tenuous hold on sanity. Her anger over being forced to attend is exacerbated by the teacher who is a total jerk whose connection to Tricia seems both inappropriate and mysterious
When Tricia vanishes during a party, Roz’ memories of that night are missing. As she pieces together what happened, her relationships with the other players become more and more convoluted. What role did her boyfriend Ethan play in Tricia’s disappearance? What was the nature of the relationship between Tricia and Mr Dellian, the nasty life skills teacher? How will Roz and Greg, the guy who seems to appear every time she needs emotional support evolve? Most of the action happens six months after the ill-fated party when a trucking accident in the nearby river brings Tricia’s body up from where the icy water has been hiding it.
This is a book I’ll be pushing other librarians to buy, not only because it does a darn good job of portraying a teen struggling with and successfully dealing with a physical handicap, but because it has a really interesting who-dunnit element. Despite the mixed reviews, I think this is worthy of an Edgar nomination. The author dealt with teen macular degeneration herself, adding to the authenticity of the challenges Roz faces including the fact that she has to look just to the side of something to see it directly which gets her in hot water several times in the course of the story.