Nicky’s Bridge: When Characters Come Calling

Bridge 1 BW

I call this Nicky’s Bridge. I don’t know the real name of it; I don’t know that it ever had one. And as you can tell, no one has driven on it for a long time.

Nicky is my fourteen year old rumrunner. He appeared to me one day while I was on a walk. Not literally, of course — but one second I was walking along minding my own business, and the next, I had this smart-ass kid in my mind. I could see him as clearly as the trees in front of me:  short, a thatch of dark blond hair, dark eyes, this huge overcoat that almost dragged the ground, white shirt and suspenders, and one of those tweed driving caps that sort of matched his coat. He cocked his head at me and said, “Lady. LADY! Yeah. You. Listen up. Here’s my story.”

It doesn’t always happen like that, believe me — but when it does, it’s amazing. Of course, it’s also VERY hard to shut them up when they come to you like that, those characters. Nicky’s been no exception, but I think I love him more than any other character I’ve ever written about.

So because Nicky grew up in a small town near where I live, I had to start exploring and figuring out what life would have been like in 1924. The landscape has changed a lot since then;  large chunks of the region were turned over to the Kaw Reservoir, and a lot more turned over to the Kaw Wildlife Refuge. I knew a lot of his driving routes would have been in that area, so I needed to go exploring. Road maps apparently weren’t common back then, so I’ve been combing through newspapers from 1924, looking for clues about the area and its topography back then. It’s not easy! If you want to do historical fiction, even something that recent (not even a hundred years ago) just remember:  you may not always find what you need.

But this bridge is still there. I’m not sure where it originally went; you can see the vestiges of the roadbed, but nothing to indicate where it would have gone after it disappears into the trees. A little further away, on the other side of the current road, there’s an old iron trestle. For a railroad? Or a real road? I have no idea. And because it’s on private land (there’s a sign out front that simply reads “NO.” Not “No Trespassing,” or “Private Property,” just “NO.”) I may never know. But this bridge, with its wooden slats and low metal railings, and the boxy frame underneath — this one, I’m sure was part of a road that no longer exists. A road that Nicky might have driven, alone at night, no headlights, just going by memory of how the road curves and straightens, of where the deer pop out and where the family of coons live (Nicky loves animals), and where the sheriff likes to sit, ready to tip his hat at Nicky when he drives past, acknowledging their little arrangement.

It’s funny, that in researching Nicky’s world, I’ve discovered more of my own.

Something to think about this time of year. . .

I wrote this last year for my YA course at at Oxford. It seemed appropriate for this time of year. 🙂


I was in the bath when the doorbell rang.

Let me tell you why that sucked. First, I’d just filled the tub with lots of bubble bath – the rose scented kind, and it was full and lovely and warm. Second, I was daydreaming about a certain somebody with blue eyes and dark hair and . . . and then third, it was ten at night and who the hell rings the doorbell at that time?

If I ignored it, they’d go away. I sank back into the bubbles.

It rang again.

And again.

With a sigh, I grabbed my bathrobe and went to see who it was. Down the carpeted steps, across the living room floor. My heart sort of fluttered in my chest, and I grabbed the fireplace poker before going to door. I peered through the peephole and didn’t see anything.

It rang again.

My heart wasn’t fluttering anymore; it’d already flown away, and my body wanted to follow it. But I hefted the poker and threw open the door.

“Girl Scout cookies!”

I stared at the eight-year-old standing there. Blond pigtails. Brown eyes. Ridiculously cute smile. Her little green uniform displaying like fifty badges.

“If I sell a dozen more boxes, I’ll be the biggest seller three years in a row!” she said. “So. How many?”

“None, you little creep! Go home!”

Before I could slam the door, she’d wedged a foot in it and I felt something at my stomach. I looked down and saw something silver there. In her hand. I looked at her face. The cute smile was gone

“Like I said,” she said, “I’ve only got a dozen boxes to sell. So.” The knife pressed a little harder against my stomach. “How. Many?”

Write What You Want to Write

Yesterday, a friend called and said, “Come with me this afternoon to hear Lois Ruby at Watermark.” (Watermark is an independent bookstore in Wichita; Lois Ruby is a YA author whose books include Steal Away Home, The Secret of Laurel Oaks, and her most recent, Rebel Spirits.)

So I went. I love hearing authors speak and always have, ever since I was in fourth grade and the biggest thing that could have happened to me, did:  my favorite author, Bill Brittain, came to my school and gave a workshop and signed books for us. It was magical. It was fantastic. I got to ask him a question. I still remember it:  “Why do you write about the supernatural?” His answer, which I still (mostly) remember, was this:  “Why does Judy Blume write about teenagers? I do it because it’s what interests me. It’s what I want to write about.”

Keep that thought in mind . . .

Lois Ruby was a wonderful person:  enthusiastic, gracious, genuinely grateful that we were there. She remembered my friend (she’d come to my friend’s class on a few occasions), and listened to me prattle on about my own books for far too long. But what she had to say during her talk surprised me. A lot.

As I mentioned earlier, her newest book is Rebel Spirits. I was really interested in it because it’s a YA paranormal romance involving a ghost, which is what I write about, too. In this case, the ghost is a Union soldier, murdered during the Battle of Gettysburg. Union soldier? So why is it called Rebel Spirits, then? Because Lois didn’t name it.

Yup, that’s right:  she didn’t get to name it. In fact, she was given the basic premise by her publisher, and then had carte blanche to come up with the characters, setting, etc. It was very frustrating for her, because even the cover art wasn’t correct!

I still have all of Bill Brittain’s books, signed to me. All the Money in the World. Who Knew There’d Be Ghosts? The Wish Giver. I think Wish Giver was my favorite — it was so dark, so eerie — although I know I read Ghosts at least fifty times that summer. He wrote the books he wanted to write, and it showed.

Lois Ruby admitted she doesn’t believe in ghosts, though she came to care for the characters she created for Rebel Spirits. Then she talked about a book she painstakingly researched and wrote — I won’t give away the plot here, but it’s a historical YA — that has yet to find a publisher. They like it, but they want changes. One wanted the protagonist to be older, so she changed it. Then the next editor wanted him to be younger. And so forth. They like it, but they fear it won’t sell well.

As she put it, she writes the books she doesn’t want to write so she can write the books she does want to write.

I wonder at what point we as writers begin to lose the “want to” and instead embrace the “need to.” I write about the supernatural because I want to. I’ll never forge the fierceness in Bill Brittain’s eyes as he said that, standing on the tiny stage in our rural school, his voice echoing through the gym. I felt almost like he was mad at me for asking such a dumb question, but now I realize he was simply defending his decision — and telling us that we shouldn’t bow to the mainstream.

The world of publishing has changed in the thirty years since then. I get that.l I really do. But at what point is it simply not worth it? I’m beginning to see why e-publishing is so enticing to so many writers. Being able to maintain control over your stories, writing what you want to write . . . not having to worry so much about numbers and sales and all that (though of course that’s important, too). We write what we want to write, and then we put it on Amazon or Smashwords, and hope it finds an audience. If we’ve done the job well, it will. But we get to remain in creative control.

Write what you want to write.

College is a Job

Just like the title says — college is a job.

I was reminded of this fact this past week. We just had the first real snowfall of the year here in Kansas. My classes were not cancelled, but some students decided not to come anyway.

That’s bad, because we had quite a bit of ground to cover AND we needed to discuss the exam for next week. Go over the study guide. Explain how the exam will go. Answer questions. About half of my students were there.

After class . . . the emails arrived. “I couldn’t get out.” “I thought class was cancelled for today.” “I didn’t want to drive on the roads.” Blah, blah, blah.

Here’s the simple truth:  if the college is open, you need to be there. That’s not an excused absence. No one told you to buy a rear-wheel-drive car as your only vehicle. No one told you not to pay attention to the news or the college website or the text message alert system that tells you if class is in session or not. Yes, I know, there’s a safety factor involved, but please see the above lines. I had to be there. That’s my job.

But it’s also YOUR job.

As adults, it’s always your choice whether you go to class or not. There is no way to compel you to be there. But if you’re serious about your studies — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — then you need to take your classes just as seriously as you do your job. Because in all honesty, that’s what it is. A job you’ve chosen to take on. A job that’s a stepping stone, leading to a new career.

So take it that seriously. Show up to class when you need to be there. Read the syllabus. Know it. Whatever the instructor’s policies on absences are — follow them. If the instructor says she won’t give out the notes or Power Points if you’re gone, then don’t ask! That is the policy of that instructor. Finding a way to get you the notes creates more work for you instructor. Worse, it’s not fair to the other students who did come to class that day. Take responsibility. If you choose not to be there, then arrange to get the notes from someone who was there — with the understanding that you will reciprocate at some point, or at least pay the favor forward. If someone covers for you at work, you’ll need to cover for them at some time, too — same thing here, in class.

Sorry, that was a bit of a soapbox, but I meant every word and I think I speak for a lot of adjuncts when I say those words.

Terrible Ideas

One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, when Frances meets Catherine in the square, looking at the small drawing of Bramasole in the real estate office window. Catherine asks Frances if she’s going to buy it, and Frances says no, it would be a terrible idea.

Catherine nods. “Terrible idea. Don’t you just love those?”

I’m reaching a point in my life where I’m beginning to wonder if the only good ideas are terrible ideas. The ones that fill us with fear — no, not fear, abject terror is more like it — and the ones that make our hearts pound and keep us up at night wondering “what if.” What if I went back to school? What if I bought that fixer-upper house? What if I sent my novel to an agent? What if I bought that car sight unseen? What if I put my photos in a photo show? What if . . .

All of these are questions running through my mind right now.

I’m beginning to think that terrible ideas are nothing more than missed opportunities. They’re the fear that keeps us from living the life we’re supposed to be living. We hear that little voice inside that says “Is this all there is? THIS? What the fruitbat? This is not what I signed up for.” And yet when we’re given the chance to change our lives and do the things we think we’re meant to be doing — we hesitate. Sometimes we openly balk. Jerk our heads back against the reins, and refuse to take another step further. So someone else buys our car. Someone else renovates our house — or tears it down. Someone else goes back to school, gets the job, goes on the trip.

Because we let fear get in our way.

Sure, I’ve done things that scared me, and they almost always turn out great. I was terrified to take online courses through Oxford University’s Continuing Ed department. Who was I to think I could compete at that level? But I took the classes anyway and they challenged me and pushed me and made me better. And I loved them. And as soon as I can afford it, I will take more.

Terrible ideas. Fear. Money. Family obligations. It’s impossible to compartmentalize our lives. Whether we’re writers trying to sneak in another paragraph or two before the kids get out of school, or trying to decide how we’ll organize supper plans if we have a night class this semester, or how we’re going to fit a car payment into our monthly budget when we already have so much debt . . . Is it about taking a leap of faith? Is there a time when the terrible idea is really just that? A terrible idea? Or are they always good things in disguise? Things that will reward us if we just have the courage to do them?

I wish I knew. I’m still seeking that answer. Maybe no one really ever knows. A million things can always go wrong. You lose a job. The car blows a transmission. The house needs more work than you thought. College is taking more time away from your family than you’d planned.

But I’m beginning to realize that there’s another saying that’s true:  the only things in life you really regret are the things you didn’t do.

I believe in arming yourself with as much knowledge as you can. You want to buy a house? Get an inspection. Get pre-approved for a loan. Know what you can and can’t spend. College? What will tuition run each semester? Can you schedule classes around work and family schedules? Will you be able to do the degree in the required time — or will you need an additional semester or two? Plan for that. What about student loans and scholarships? Investigate them. That’s what all those resources — financial aid officers, advisors — are there for. Take advantage of them.

Whatever it is you want to do, even if it really does seem like a terrible idea — at least look into it. You don’t know. It might be exactly the thing you should be doing.