Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pat Browning, my MYSTERY WE WRITE guest for today

Pat Browning was born and raised in Oklahoma. A longtime resident of California's San Joaquin Valley before moving back to Oklahoma in 2005, her professional writing credits go back to the 1960s, when she was a stringer for The Fresno Bee while working full time in a Hanford law office. 
     Her globetrotting in the 1970s led her into the travel business, first as a travel agent, then as a correspondent for TravelAge West, a trade journal published in San Francisco. In the 1990s, she signed on fulltime as a newspaper reporter and columnist, first at The Selma Enterprise and then at The Hanford Sentinel.

Her first mystery, FULL CIRCLE, was set in a fictional version of Hanford, and published through iUniverse in 2001. It was revised and reissued as ABSINTHE 0F MALICE by Krill Press in 2008. An extensive excerpt can be read at Google Books --

The second book in the series, METAPHOR FOR MURDER, is a work in progress. ABSINTHE takes place on a Labor Day weekend. METAPHOR picks up the story the week before Christmas. Log line: Reporter Penny Mackenzie tracks an offbeat Christmas story and finds herself in the middle of a murder and the mysterious desecration of an old Chinese cemetery.

Pat's articles on the writing life have appeared in The SouthWest Sage, the monthly journal of SouthWest Writers, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her web site at is under construction.

Pat's subject for today? Give your character a little status

Quoting award-winning author Marcia Preston, who writes as M.K. Preston: “Often we know something but don't know that we know it. I think that's especially true of story structure; we have story-arc ingrained in our breastbones, but often don't translate that subconcious knowledge into the stories we try to write.”

Marcia’s SONG OF THE BONES won the 2004 Mary Higgins Clark Award for suspense fiction and the 2004 Oklahoma Book Award in fiction. You can read about all her books, with excerpts, at her web site:

At a recent Pen and Keyboard meeting Marcia spoke on building characters. She covered back story, actions, dialogue, point of view, status – status? That’s not status as in social or professional standing, but status as in domination. One character gets the upper hand over another character.

To illustrate status here’s an excerpt from my mystery, ABSINTHE OF MALICE. Reporter Penny Mackenzie is at work in the newsroom when her college crush shows up after a long absence. Status of the two characters is constantly adjusted and negotiated, with Penny finally gaining a slightly upper hand.

Elmo dropped my calendar, which slid under my desk as it hit the floor, and hustled off toward the back room.
I leaned down to retrieve the calendar, a maneuver that made my head swim. Maxie cleared her throat loudly enough to be heard in the next block. I sat up and looked into a pair of dark blue eyes. Thirty years flipped by in a heartbeat.
“Hey, babe,” Watt Collins said. “How’s it going?”
He was as ruggedly handsome as ever. Face just a little thinner maybe, dark hair smudged with gray, same long, thick eyebrows above eyes still hot enough to melt wax. His expensive white cotton shirt was open at the throat, sleeves turned back at the wrists. Faded Levi’s hugged his hips.
“Forgive me for staring,” I said finally. “My life just passed before my eyes.”
He flashed a smile, took a business card from his back pocket, laid it on my desk. Watt Collins Investigations. A toll-free number, nothing else.
“Investigations? Sounds mysterious. What brings you to Pearl?”
“Family business. I grew up about ten miles from here, remember?”
What family? All dead, if I remembered correctly. And why would he look me up after … was it this life or the last?
I rummaged through a drawer, located a card and handed it to him. Penny Mackenzie, Lifestyle Editor. The Pearl Outrider, Central California’s Best Little Newspaper, Between the Mountains and the Sea. Local phone numbers—office, home and cell phone. There it was, in black and white, proof that I had no life of my own.
“Lifestyle Editor. I’m impressed.” He tilted his head to sneak a peek at my left hand, looking for a plain gold band, a sparkly engagement ring, a white band left by a previous ring on a tanned finger.
My lucky day, his smile said. “You look sensational.”
“Oh, please!” I couldn’t remember my last diet. Exercise? Who, me? Shaggy hair—too late now.
He looked at my card again. “So you’re still Penny Mackenzie. Does that mean I wasn’t the only one dumb enough to let you get away?”
He’d lost plenty of sleep over it. I could tell by the absence of bags and shadows under his eyes. “Married to the job,” I said. “Life couldn’t be better. I don’t cook, I don’t iron, and I sleep in the middle of the bed.”
I jerked up one hand to push hair out of my eyes, knocked a couple of phone directories to the floor, kicked them under the desk, and smiled up at him. “Home, sweet home.”
In her talk Marcia listed several aspects of status: an air of confidence, eye contact, stillness or saying nothing, and self-control. Re-reading my excerpt, I can see that I had some hazy understanding of status without knowing it. I do know I would like to tweak it a little to make the character of Penny a little stronger but, as Penny says about her shaggy hair, “too late now.”

Marcia also discussed her method of sketching complete life stories for her characters before she begins a book. The sketch, she said, “is for your eyes only. If you have trouble, writing your sketch in first person helps you sink into that person.” Only when her sketches are complete is she ready to write her book’s first draft.

“You learn who your characters are on the first draft,” she said. “I never feel that I know my characters until the third draft.”  To illustrate both character sketches and giving characters status, she read excerpts from her work in progress.

I bummed a ride to the Pen and Keyboard meeting because I knew from past experience that Marcia Preston is well worth hearing whatever her topic. I was still living in California when I met her in March of 2001 at the now-defunct William Saroyan Writers Conference in Fresno. Marcia was then editor of Byline magazine and was publishing her first mystery, PERHAPS SHE’LL DIE.

At the Saroyan conference she gave a workshop on how to write a short story. I still have the cassette tape. In fact, I roughed out a short story after listening to it a few years later. The short story, like everything else I’m writing, is still waiting in the wings … but stay tuned.

Fast forward to Oklahoma on September 10, 2011. At the Pen and Keyboard meeting, Marcia referred us to a Writer’s Digest article, “How to Raise Your Characters Above the Status Quo” by Steven James.

Things move in ever-widening circles. Pen and Keyboard is an affiliate of Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. (OWFI). Steven James will be keynote speaker at OWFI’S annual conference May 3-5 in Oklahoma City. Looks like I’ll be bumming another ride.


Pat R. said...

Was surprised to read about M. K. Preston. I've read two of her books but haven't been able to find any others. I haven't read your most recent book but it is in my TBR pile and I've heard many good things about the book. Thanks for the blog.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Hey, Pat, I miss that old Win/Win aka Wm. Saroyan conference--and I miss you.


M.M. Gornell said...

Good information, Pat. You have a wonderful smile...


john M. Daniel said...

Great post, Pat. I love those moments in fiction when there's a shift in the balance of power.

Jinx Schwartz said...

Buenos dias, Pat and the gang. I will be in the USA tomorrow and can catch up on my blog comments. Hasta, jinx

Mike Orenduff said...

Timely post for me, Pat. I'm struggling with a dialog between two characters (struggling being defined as having re-written it twenty times), and I now know why. They are struggling over status, and I didn't recognize it. Thanks.

Alice Duncan said...

Fascinating post about how to give your protagonist status, Pat. I never thought of it that way!

WS Gager said...

Another very informative post! I wish I was close enough to a offer a ride but it would be quite the trip. Sometime I will have a Southern book tour and then a West Coast tour. (At least in my dreams.)
Great post, Pat!
W.S. Gager on Writing