Write what you know was written for the Big Thrill Thriller Writers blog.
I’ve often heard this advice, and just as often heard the opposite. Fortunately for me, my career provided the perfect subject for my books: forensic art. Unlike the fancy holograms and computer generated bells and whistles on television, forensic art is about visual communication using something as simple as a pencil and piece of paper. Working as a forensic artist since 1981 gave me a host of plot ideas based on actual cases. As a forensic artist, I could reconstruct skulls, prepare courtroom exhibits, draw composites of unknown suspects, age progress missing children, capture courtroom drama, sketch crime scenes, illustrate unknown remains, clarify video surveillance images and a host other skills. Step aside, Bones! Choosing a career for my protagonist was a no-brainer.
Choosing a location came next. As a resident of Cataldo, Idaho, once saluted in the Corn Patch of the television show Hee Haw, I knew far more about my neighboring moose and wolves than big city life. I decided I’d slide one step away to Montana and create a fictional town called Copper Creek, based on Hamilton, Montana. . . and I did work on a triple homicide there once . . .
Now that I had a protagonist and a location, I needed details of this life. Gwen Marcey (Gwen coming from a name my husband, Rick, liked, and Marcey from his mom’s maiden name,) needed a dog. Of course. But not just any dog. No Golden Retriever, Collie, or German Shepherd. The dog HAD to be a Great Pyrenees. Remember the write what you know? My family raised this breed since 1959 and I’m currently the president of the national club.
I wanted to write from a Christian world view. No cussing or sex. Just tight tension and action. I knew it wouldn’t be a cozy, or sweet or light because of my job, but I also knew it took a bit more work to show the gritty side of forensic art without resorting to bad language and gratuitous violence and sex.
Now came the hard part: actually writing. Keeping tension high; showing, not telling; hooks at the end of the chapters; weaving in backstory or leaving it out; constructing layers within the story. That learning curve took ten years of hard work. I had a NYT bestselling author as a mentor, a harsh critique group, and attended numerous writing conferences taking copious notes. I signed up for on-line classes and read every book on the topic.
In that ten-year journey, I gathered rejections, worked full time, battled stage II breast cancer, and took care of my dying mother.
I was not, WAS NOT going to quit. Rejections meant more revisions. Cancer? I’d use it in the book.
I’m sharing all this with you, m’friends, because we all have that writing journey, that yellow brick road with witches and flying monkeys. But we also have our big hearted tin man, bright scarecrow, and brave lion to help us.
Oh, and yes, it all paid off. A three book deal at auction with HarperCollins Christian taking the highest bid. And finaling in two mystery/suspense competitions.
Although many people suggested to me that I should self-publish if I couldn’t sell my manuscript, I just couldn’t see going that route. I had to keep improving my craft until it was good enough for a large publishing house. I looked into Createspace for others, but not for myself.
Then I re-discovered work I’d done back in 2002 or so: a DVD and workbook on signs of deception. My speaking career was much more active back then and I’d done a lot of presentations on deception. The workbook and DVD were developed for back of the room sales. I’d also given them out for two years in our forensic certification class.
Re-reading the workbook was a surprise. It wasn’t badly written. I could easily see the mistakes I made, but it had promise, especially as a workbook. In two days I’d uploaded the provided template and, voila! An updated and professional looking training book for my classes.
Now I’m inspired to work on a new project-a workbook for my composite classes. Stay tuned.
"Author Parks piles too much on Gwen Marcey's shoulders. The forensic artist is loaded down with a snide ex-husband, a bratty teen daughter, and is a breast cancer survivor. Her feats of physical exertion were just unbelievable for this reader."
I quoted this comment because it wasn't the first time someone had said this. I mean, really? Could someone reasonably have had all those problems I dumped on my character at once? And been able to do all that she did?
The funny thing about this is that it never occurred to me that Gwen was going through more than she could handle. After all, my life is somewhat of the template for Gwen. Gwen was two months from her last chemo treatment when the story opens. The picture of me (yeah, that's me. Not Uncle Fester from the Adams Family,) is about three months into chemo. Two weeks after my last chemo treatment, September 15, 2004, I drove from North Idaho to Sacramento, taught five workshops for ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International.) I had a booth for those three days, then drove from Sacramento to San Jose and taught a 40-hour series of forensic classes, followed by a two day art show. Then I drove home.
While going through chemo, every other week for four months, I continued to work on art, writing, and teaching forensic classes. My mom was dying of emphysema and I took care of her for dinner Monday through Friday, weekends, and holidays. I ran our kennel of Great Pyrenees and continued to work on our ranch.
Stamina? I didn't think about it. I did what I had to do. I had to work. I had to take care of mom. Gwen is the same.
As for lousy ex-husbands, mine took the cake. We were divorced after almost fifteen years of marriage (much like Gwen.) He remarried. Then killed his wife. He's serving 16 years to life in prison.
I guess for a lot of folks, Gwen has more than her fair share of problems, but I don't think they are unreasonable. No one said life was easy. It's how you go through life, how you persevere, keep faith, and have the right attitude that gets you through the troubling times.
I posted Hebrews 12:1 on my refrigerator. It's still there. The last line you'll see in my books, because it's one of the things that got me through:
"Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
And Hebrews 12:2 completes the thought:
"looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Amanda Bostic, editor extraordinaire, informed me today that the sales rep for Barnes and Nobles will be submitting A Cry From the Dust for
consideration for the Discover New Writers selection. I screamed whoooohooo, then researched it more. Here’s what Barnes and Nobles had to say about the
“Founded in 1990, the Discover Great New Writers program highlights books of exceptional literary quality from authors at the start of their careers.
A small group of Barnes & Noble bookseller volunteers convenes year-round to review submissions to the program and handpick titles for our promotion, currently featured at 700+ Barnes & Noble and 100 prominent Barnes & Noble College Bookstores, and on www.bn.com/discover.
Publishers recommend writers making a strong literary debut.”
Catch that last line? It left me breathless!
One of the requirements for a writer is to get a good photograph for the book cover. Of yourself. Ugh. I hoped maybe I could buy a model's image and use that. Change it out at times, offer variety. I could be a drop-dead red-head for the first book, maybe a curvy brunette the next. Sigh. Nooo, the publisher wasn't going to go with that.
Dave and Andrea Kramer of Stampede Lake Photography agreed to the dreadful task. Rick and I have known the Kramers since we were married ... in fact, they took our wedding photos. I had to find three or more shirts of different colors for the photo shoot. I guess a stained Great Pyrenees T-shirt wasn't going to cut it. I thought about looking serious, pensive, like I had another Great Novel just spinning in my head. Instead I grinned like a village fool. Oh well, the deed was done. We ate a great dinner together, caught up on our lives, and off they went.
A sneak peek into my book: Dave Kramer, retired Chief of Police of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, is the template for Dave Moore in my books. More about him later.
I’ll start off with a confession. My husband, Rick, plays the banjo. There, I’ve said it. Not a lot, but enough to make me wonder if we’re cousins. For a time, he would jam with his bluegrass friends, a sweet group of people prone to wearing denim bib overalls and playing the saw as a musical interlude. After a few months, Rick started to rave about this one particular banjo picker. He extolled this fellow’s abilities so much that I was forced to politely respond. I asked if he had all his teeth. Unable to arouse my slightest interest, Rick moved on to point out that I simply had to meet his beautiful wife. She was gracious, slender, and movie-star beautiful.
Right. I felt dumpy already. I ignored Rick’s ranting about the banjo-picker-and-his-beautiful-wife and ate another slice of pie. I was depressed so I added extra whipped cream.
Rick’s crusade to have me meet this wonderful couple continued. “Did you know,” he asked me one day, “that my banjo-playing friend is an author?”
Okay, he had me there. I love books. “What has he written?”
“I think it’s called ‘A Clear and Present Darkness.’”
Great. A Clancy wannabe. Rick persisted, however. In desperation, he told me they owned a Great Pyrenees. That was the deciding factor. I’d owned Pyrenees since just after Noah’s flood. We invited them to dinner. Frank and Barb Peretti.
I had no idea who Frank was. I’d never read his books. When they returned the favor and invited us to dinner, I got some inkling of Frank’s reputation and success. Their home was gorgeous, sprawling on emerald green lawns and overlooking the river. Discreetly tucked on the walls leading to the
basement were a variety magazine covers and awards for selling a bajillion
Clever person that I was, I put it together that Frank wasn’t just an author, he was an Author. Big time. Important. A list. I could have been intimidated, but Frank and Barb were such lovely, down-to-earth folks that we became friends. I discovered that Barb wasn’t just movie-star beautiful, she was
a talented artist (actually, so is Frank, but he’s pretty busy writing.)
I’ll skip over all the great times we had, because I’m sure you’re now chomping at the bit to find out how Frank came to mentor me in my writing. Fast forward a number of years. It was Christmas and I’d not found a single thing for Barb. We usually exchanged simple gifts-well, mine were simple, Barb’s were delightfully thoughtful. So I wrote a story. An adventure about two women on a quest: one fat and jolly, the other movie-star beautiful.
I know. I know. I’m so original…. I wrapped it up and gave it to Barb. She started to read it at home and burst out laughing. Often. Frank wanted
to know what she found so amusing and she read excerpts to him. He called and asked to see me. And he did. He told me I had writing talent and that he would “teach me to fish.”
I was stunned and thrilled. I decided to not enter any art shows that year and devote myself to learning the writing trade from the master. That was January of 2004. Two months later I was diagnosed with stage two breast
Funny thing about God. He sure knows how to time things. Throughout that awful/wonderful year, through surgeries, chemo, baldness, sickness, everything-hurt-times, Frank would sit across his kitchen table from
me and listen to what I’d cranked out on my computer. Barb would listen and ply us with lattes.
It was a time of refining fire. I posted on my refrigerator Hebrews 12:1 and took courage from the last line that said, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Not only was I battling cancer, my mom was slowly dying of emphysema and I was caring for her. She died a year later, never knowing about my disease.
I finished my first manuscript that summer of 2004, but my writing, like my life, needed that refining fire. I had much, much more to learn. Rejections, rewrites, more rejections, writer’s conferences, classes, critique groups, still more rejections, classes again, and finally, finally success. Through all of this, Frank patiently, skillfully, taught me to fish.
Driving through Darby.
Gwen Marcey lives in the fictional town of Copper Creek. In writing, the author either needs to be accurate about a location or make it up completely. I made it up. I chose the name of Copper Creek as a nod to Montana’s copper industry. At the turn of the last century, the Anaconda copper
mine was the largest copper producer in the world. I did a search on the Internet to be sure there really wasn’t a place in Montana with that name. I placed this fictional town in the very real location of Hamilton, south of Missoula on Highway 93. I liked the area and spent some time there doing a composite drawing on a triple homicide. Did I mention my cases influenced my
writing? Copper Creek looks more like Darby, a smaller town farther south of
Hamilton. Darby is a slice of the old west, and Rick and I were charmed by it in
our research travels.
I decided to place my series in Montana rather than Idaho because I was born in Missoula. How simple an explaination is that?
Your turn. Where would you place a story?
I admit it. I’m blessed. Not lucky, but very blessed to have learned writing from the brilliant author, Frank Peretti. There’s just no way to share how awesome it is to spend an afternoon in the breakfast nook of the Peretti home honing my writing skills. Frank would sit across the table from me, my manuscript open in front of him, while I, pen, post-it notes, and highlighter ready, would read that day’s efforts. Barb, my dear friend, would make lattes for us, and then listen to the exchange.
Over the next few months, I plan on sharing with you the tips, insights, and advice from my nine-year odyssey from unpublished, want-a-be novelist to landing a three book deal at auction with major publishers. Sign up for email notification of my blog entries (found on the connect page.)
Your turn. What was the best advice you ever received?
Fine artist, forensic artist, author.