Today I welcome Janis Patterson to the Casting Couch, although maybe I should introduce her as Janis Susan May or Janis Susan Patterson, or even J S M Patterson because those are the other names she also uses as a writer, so the couch is pretty full today.
Interviewing Janis has been a roller coaster ride of enthusiasm and challenging ideas. how she discovers the characters in her books is a story in itself. I like, too, the way she compares writing to archeology. She is also the first writer I have interviewed who has actually owned up to not liking all the characters she writes about.
As well as writing, Janis has lived a varied and exciting life and she has her own romantic story to tell too, so make yourself comfortable while she takes you on a journey.
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When an idea strikes, do you work through the plot first and then cast the characters, or is it characters first? Or does it vary?
Hmmm. Never thought about it from that angle. Of course it varies. Everything always varies, especially with something as evanescent as the writing process. I do envy those who can create their characters with lists and such. Mine simply walk in, announce themselves and order me to keep on writing.
Usually it’s a single thing – an incident, a scene, an object, once it was a temper tantrum – that is the catalyst for a story. Oddly enough, sometimes this catalyst does not survive into the finished story. I can’t really quantify the process – it’s almost like figures emerging from a thick swirling mist. As I’ve often said, writing is the process of magic.
Can you give an example from a published story?
Okay – regarding last winter’s release BEADED TO DEATH (cozy mystery, Carina Press): I gave a workshop on mysteries at a local writers’ group and there was a somewhat heated discussion on when the body should appear. I personally believe the body should appear when it’s right for the body to appear. I also believe it should be fairly well into the book so the reader has had a chance to get to know the victim as a person and not just as a prop. Make the reader invest in the character’s death, the same as they would with someone they really know. A few people in the workshop vociferously held to the time-honored dictum that the body should appear almost immediately. The discussion was… memorable and borderline acrimonious.
Being a stubborn sort, I decided to prove I, too, could write a mystery with an immediate body in spite of the fact I believed the ‘requirement’ to be spurious; so I started on BEADED TO DEATH without having any real idea of what the story would be, just that there would be a body on the first page. Well, it turned out the body didn’t appear until the second page, but… anyway, the mystery worked out all right, but the body was never more than just a stage prop, not the remains of a once living human being. I didn’t even give him a name until about three-quarters through the book.
What was interesting was that I started to wonder what would it be like for someone with no criminal connections to find a dead body? And what would they be like? Then Lilias Ruiz walked in – six feet tall, silvery-blonde, middle-aged, a widow and a bead artist with an Hispanic surname. I’m not like that and don’t know anyone who is, but I do know how I would react if I walked into my home and found the dead body of someone I had never seen before. I think it’s pretty much a universal reaction. Then Lilias’ best friend Annie showed up. She was very short, much younger, red-haired and an absolute shark of a criminal lawyer. I don’t even know any criminal lawyers, but that’s what she was and I couldn’t change her. The story grew from there and sometimes even I was surprised where it went. For example, Toby – Lilias’ 7’3” nephew, on the run from an unwanted basketball scholarship – wasn’t even in the original concept of the book; yet he walked in and became one of the pivotal characters.
When you start writing a book, which characters are the hardest for you to develop? Is it the hero, the heroine, the villain, or the secondary characters?
I don’t develop my characters. I record them. I tried to explain this process to my beta reader who sometimes acts as critique partner, who suggested a change in one of the characters in my current WIP. She looked at me weirdly when I tried to tell her that the characters were their own people and since I didn’t make them up I couldn’t change them, only write them down. When I finished, she asked, “So it’s like you’re possessed?”
Sometimes I have to expand on the main characters’ personas to fit the genre – or at least try – deepening the emotional quotient in a romance, for example. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Heroes in romances are the most difficult about that, but men are generally less open about their feelings than women.
All characters have goals. Can your characters’ goals usually be summed up in a word or two, or are they multi-layered? Do they always keep to their original goals or do things change as you write the book? Please give some examples?
Multi-layered, of course, though we may see only one layer at any given time. Goals are always flexible things and not always clear even to the character at any given moment. The villain, for example, may think he wants the money when what he really wants is what the money will buy - respect, the fancy car he dreamed of as a poor or abused child, whatever. However, when he gets the money and buys the toy he’s been yearning for and discovers that it doesn’t guarantee his happiness/satisfaction, another goal materializes. Again it is just out of reach and he usually has to do something drastic to achieve it. I don’t think achieving goals is the driving force in fiction – the striving for them is.
An example would be Geraldine Brunton in THE HOLLOW HOUSE (cozy historical mystery – Carina Press). At first her goal is just a job so that she can survive, but when she is finally hired as a companion, her goal morphs into maintaining her anonymity, the preservation of her secrets, and safety from the horrors that are chasing her. Once assured of her place in the household where she finds employment, her goal is to solve the murder of her dead friend, a murder that also threatens her employer. She does solve it, but to do so and to protect herself, she must reveal all the secrets from the past she has tried so hard to leave behind.
Motives drive a character. How do you discover your characters’ specific motives? Are they based on back-story or do they develop as you write?
They always develop as I write, as does the story. Of course each character has a back-story, some of which I know, and some of which they reveal as the story grows. Some of their stories we never know. Sometimes I feel that a writer is more like an archaeologist than a sculptor. A sculptor removes the surrounding material to create the image he wants. A writer scrapes and picks and dusts away the detritus to reveal what is already there. A lot of the perception of the character depends on how deep the writer digs.
And last but not least, do you always like your characters? Are they people you would want to spend time with? Assuming they are not just a paper exercise, who, out of all the characters you have written about, would you most like to meet, and why?
Always like my characters? Good Heavens, no! Nothing could be nastier than a book full of sweet, loving, giving people whom you love to like. Good books are made out of believable conflict, and there cannot be conflict without good and evil – or at least, between a perception of good and a perception of bad. I know someone will point out that conflict is conflict even between two thoroughly nice people, but I cannot see anything interesting in – for example – two wonderful women conflicting over whether to sell chocolate or strawberry cupcakes at the church bake sale. (Unless one of them turns up dead, choked with a strawberry cupcake, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…)
As to whom I would like to meet; hmmm, that’s a poser, because I feel I already know my characters, good and bad. They’ve lived in my head for months, sometime for years, whispering in my ear, waking me at night to demand attention, sometimes changing direction in the middle of the book to keep me (and the reader) from becoming complacent.
A story. Years ago I was working on a story called COLOSSUS (soon to be re-released as an ebook by Safkhet Books) about a cursed Ancient Egyptian statue. One of the characters was a plodding detective who was supposed to die about a third of the way into the book. Except – he didn’t want to die, and he kept slipping me interesting little bits of his history… his estranged wife, his daughter, whose idea of a career clashed with his, the problems with his partner; all the little touches that made him so human.
Only problem was, for the shape of the story, for the moral meaning of the story, he had to die. Period. Finally, three chapters from the end, I killed him by giving him a very dramatic and honorable death, and I cried gallons of salt tears while I did it. My late mother, a very practical and unimaginative woman, happened to call during this traumatic episode and hearing my tear-choked voice, immediately panicked and demanded to know what was wrong.
“I killed Lipscomb,” I sobbed. “He’s dead.”
There was a moment of thick silence, then Mother said with a voice that could cut steel, “You’re crying because you killed off a person you made up?”
She never understood.
Just to prove that I’m not alone in my craziness, I point to Giacomo Puccini, who was forced to kill the gentle servant girl Liu in the opera TURANDOT. The music around her death is superb, some of the most emotional music every written. Having to kill Liu so upset Puccini that he took to his bed for several days after doing the deed, so distraught that he couldn’t write a note for quite some time.
You asked who I would most like to spend time with. I honestly don’t know, because he/she/it hasn’t come to me yet. The ones in process are always the most fascinating because writing them is a process of discovery. Of the ones already written, hmmm… I really can’t just choose one. Flora Melkiot (EXERCISE IS MURDER) but she can be difficult – fascinating, but difficult. Angelina Barstow (CURSE OF THE EXILE) a traditional Gothic in the final editing process. Because she is so quiet and contained I keep feeling there is much about her I still don’t know. Then there is Thomas O’Connell (BEADED TO DEATH) simply because he is so gorgeous (yes, I’m shallow…). Geraldine Brunton/Rosalind Fairfield (THE HOLLOW HOUSE) because of her wisdom. I could go on and on – imaginary or not, these people are real to me, and I regard them as friends.
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Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, who is also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.