As advertised in last week’s blog, this was the week for A Christmas Carol at our house. My favorite Christmas movie happens to be The Man who Invented Christmas. It’s a fictional treatment of Charles Dickens writing his classic A Christmas Carol. I have no idea how much of it is based on fact or fancy. Was Charles Dickens on the verge of bankruptcy when he sold the idea of writing the unnamed and unwritten book to his publishers? Did he have a friend who functioned as his agent? Did he write the entire book in only six weeks? Did he have to pay for the illustrations himself? Did he really have an ill nephew who was the model for Tiny Tim? At the end of the film there’s a notation that claims the book went on sale at Christmas on 1843 and was a total sellout. I’m pretty sure that’s true. The rest of it may well be nothing more or less than what is sometimes called “literary license.”
But what really rings true about the movie, and what speaks to me—is that it offers an incredibly accurate depiction of writer’s block—if not everybody’s experience of writer’s block, then certainly mine. I, too, have had the experience of selling an unwritten manuscript, cashing the check, and being faced with an approaching deadline while still having absolutely no idea of who or what was going to be in the story.
That was certainly the case with the first Ali Reynolds book, Edge of Evil. Tired of all my characters,I was whining on the phone to my editor when she said, “Okay, write a book. It can be an old character or a new character. Set it wherever you like. Just have it here by the beginning of January.” Naturally, I said fine. That was in May. I had been writing two books a year for years, so that didn’t seem like a problem. The contract came. I signed it. The check came. I cashed it. Then June and July passed. August and September passed. Suddenly it was the middle of October, and I had no idea who was going to be in the book that was due in New York January 1.
At the time, my way of dealing with writer’s block was to watch the news incessantly. So that day in Tucson—a Thursday—I went to the family room and watched the noon news. i was expecting my favorite local newscaster, Patty Weiss, to be on the air. She was 53 at the time and had started working in local television news while still attending the University of Arizona. That evening, when I went to watch the Five O’clock News, Patti Weiss had vanished. She’d been sacked by her new news director for being too old to be on the air. By Monday, I was writing about someone named Ali Reynolds being yanked from her news anchor desk in LA for the same reason—for being too old. In case I haven’t mentioned this, it’s a really bad idea to make mystery writers mad! (By the way, when I gave Ali that name, I had no idea there was a baseball player from Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a very similar name, but thanks to my SERs—my sharp-eyed-readers—I know that now.)
I have no doubt that at some point in time an acquaintance of Charles Dickens, speaking about the plight of poor people, made the following comments. “Are there no work houses? Are there no prisons?” I believe that arrogant comment stuck in his head and went into his story with one of his characters quoting those real words verbatim.
I know what it feels like to have characters keep me awake night after night because they refuse to do what I want them to do. The person I thought was the killer in Payment in Kind just flat-out refused to do it. In the movie, Charles Dickens’s whole cast of characters go on the warpath due to his intention of having Tiny Tim die at the end of the story. His whole crew insisted that was absolutely wrong! Something very similar happened to me when I wrote the third Beaumont book, Trial by Fury. The way I wrote it to begin with, Ron Peters was, as Charles Dickens would say, “dead as a doornail” at the end of the story. But it was my beta readers, as opposed to my cast of characters, who sent me a chorus of “No way, José!” As a consequence the end of the story was rewritten and Ron Peters is alive and well to this day. Ditto for Frigg, the fictional artificial intelligence in Man Overboard. I thought she was a goner by the end of the story, but my readers, including my then editor, begged to differ, and Frigg is still around and playing an active role in the upcoming Ali book, Collateral Damage.
Bill watches a lot of car shows on TV and YouTube. His current favorite is Vice Grip Garage. In it, a talented mechanic named Derek, an incredibly cheerful and optimistic guy, drags long-dead vehicles out of fields and swamps, coaxes them back to life, and then drives them home to rehab them. You’ve got to like a guy who starts out by letting you know the following at beginning of every episode: “I am an idiot. Don’t do what I do. And don’t follow my advice unless you’re desperate.” For those of you who have read Nothing to Lose, I can tell you this series is currently Twinkle Winkleman’s favorite TV show. But it was due to another one of Bill’s gear-head shows—Wheeler Dealers—in which someone rehabbed and sold a 1970’s International Harvester Travelall—where Travelalls first came to my attention, and that’s why that vehicle in particular happens to be Twinkle Winkleman’s ride.
Because that’s the real cure for writer’s block—living life and being aware of the world around you. Locking myself away in a solitary attic just doesn’t work. I find inspiration by paying attention to the world around me. For example going to coffee at a local Denny’s years ago and watching a real estate transaction go south was an inspiration all its own. The whole thing played out with me sitting in a booth across the room. The real estate agent was already on hand and waiting impatiently when the customers showed up—an older guy accompanied by his much younger, arm-candy, much bride. She was the one looking for the house, and she was focused on the buying only the high-priced spread. The guy knew what he could afford, and it didn’t come close to what she wanted. I never actually met the guy, and he has no idea that he ended up in a book, but he turned up as a detective from Pullman, Washington, in one of the early Beaumonts.
And that’s how The Man Who Invented Christmas plays out. When Charles Dickens began to write this book, he wasn’t planning on writing a “classic.” He was focused on meeting a deadline because he needed the money. He found the inspiration for his wonderful story by living his life and by transforming the people he met along the way into unforgettable characters. Was there an aging waiter at his club named Marley? Maybe, maybe not, but even “dead as a doornail,” Marley lives on. As does Scrooge. As does Tiny Tim.
The day after Bill and I watched the movie, while I was busy getting that day’s steps, Bill broadcast Jim Dale’s audio version of A Christmas Carol throughout the house. Having watched the creation of the story the day before, listening to it gave me goosebumps in more than one place, most especially when Mr. Scrooge wakes up in his own room in his own bed and discovers it’s still Christmas and he still has time to live his new life.
And so, for this week, rather than wishing you a Happy New Year, this writer—and meeter of deadlines—would like to quote Tiny Tim.
“God bless us every one!”