Sunday, October 27, 2019

Naming; the Seeds of Character-Building

As Halloween celebrants set about carving up pumpkins in creative ways for the holiday, consider extracting the many seeds from the gloppy guts of your purchased or homegrown gourds. Yes, they're tasty when baked and salted. But for me, those seeds represent another form of organic growth, related to the very important artistic process of writing, particularly the naming of characters.

In the early drafts of my sixth novel, Now I'm Here, at first I used names of actual people to solidify my initial inspiration. A few find/replaces later, I found a somewhat biblical theme under-riding that work-in-progress. Thus the name Joshua for my main character. The piano-playing teenager becomes somewhat zealous in his devotion to music, particularly the rock band Queen.

In these thematic essays, I've focused on the marvelous Freddie Mercury, and the music aspects of the work. With Halloween only a few days away, let's turn to Joshua's love interest, David Koenig.

Omitting the real name of the cute high school acquaintance on whom I had a crush since grade school, let's bump to the second name I gave the character; David. One day, as I stopped at a local small grocery store, I saw bags of edible seeds on display. As kids and as an adult, I had enjoyed home-baked pumpkin seeds, but seeing that bright red, yellow and green bag so clearly displaying the name, I chose the new and final name for my farm boy.

I thought of the biblical couple Jonathan and David, but that felt too obvious. In search of a last name, I pored over my favorite source, Egerton Sykes' Who's Who: Non-Classical Mythology. 

It was in that book that I found perfect names for major characters in my first novel, PINS. Donald Khors' last name, while a known contemporary name, also represents the Slavonic god of health and hunting, and takes the image of a stallion. Many of the names in PINS reflect the equine metaphors and the actual wrestling team name, the Colts. Each of the several cars in the novel also bring horse breeds into the story: Bronco, Mustang, Pinto.

The fun in finding such correlations serves to narrow the symbology of a story while revealing a sort of true nature to a character. While in the writing process, when trying to figure out how a character should or could behave, I found a point of focus by recalling the symbolic/real name.

For David, however, I couldn't find a name in Sykes' book that fit him. I knew I wanted a Germanic or Norwegian name, since many of the southern Ohio farming families of the era had ancestors from those countries. This brings up a character's family history, an essential part of thorough development. Even if it's not included in the published story, an author should know his or her background, at least for a few generations (orphans and supernatural creatures excused, perhaps).

This is why I find so many pop-oriented books, gay romances in particular, to be lacking. It's all set in the 'now,' with little sense of history (unless of course it is historical). When you can't feel a sense of the grounded nature of a character, they seem flimsy and less believable.

Koenig sounded right when I discovered it from poring over a phone book from Ohio that I'd saved for decades in a box of other research materials for Now I'm Here. An online search confirmed it.


K├Ânig is the German word for king. While David is by no means royal –he's humble, shy, even reclusive– he does 'rule' the fields where his father's pumpkin and corn fields are annually harvested. It seemed organic, true, ethnically logical, and a little bit sexy.


Now I'm Here cover photo shoot
I've humble-bragged here and elsewhere about having worked on a pumpkin farm for a few months in between colleges in 1981. The exhausted, overworked 20-year-old me at the time had no idea those grueling yet satisfying experiences would gestate into parts of what would be my sixth novel. That younger me was still dreaming of the idea of a first novel, in between all the labors.

That's just one story of one name, with a few tangents. I could go on about the nature themes in my two previous novels, Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love, but the two main characters' names, Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester, are pretty obvious.

My second novel, Monkey Suits, refers to Egyptian ruling class versus slave culture (the first and near-final scenes are set in New York City's Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur; pretty obvious!), and when you read it, you can figure out how the four main character's names and natures match the four elements.

For Cyclizen, it's not only about a bike messenger and AIDS activist, but the name puns refer to mythical centaurs, Hercules, and a few other creatures.

This isn't done just to be clever, but to provide me a guide to focusing the story, and keeping the process fun.


But back to pumpkins! Have you saved the seeds? Rinse them, soak them in salt water, or sweeten them with cinnamon or pumpkin spice if you like.

You may not notice the pumpkins on the book cover, but since we shot it in May 2018, I'd saved a few small and big ones from October 2017! One can't just go out and buy pumpkins in Northern California in Spring.

And when you reach the last chapters of my latest, Now I'm Here, I hope you'll enjoy a bittersweet pumpkin and Halloween-related moment in the novel.

And please, do post reviews on Amazon, GoodReads and elsewhere. It's a way of sharing, but also helping get the word out on independent authors' stories.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

PINS 20th Anniversary; Wrestling with the Publishing Industry

This week is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my debut novel, PINS, a wrestling coming-of-age story about patron saints, headlocks, crash diets, thrash metal, dogpiles, nutpulls, and only the occasional assault.

It's been a long fascinating journey from those first scratches of writing (I started with Chapter 16, by the way) to having not one but two high-powered agents fail to sell the book, then 56 rejection letters, most brief, a few quite educational, to self-publishing the book the old-school way by starting a sole proprietorship home office, shipping cartons to wholesalers across the country while having a stack of cartons serve as a hard makeshift sofa in my living room, to creating ebook, stage and audiobook adaptations, and even getting a German translation. This was all while actually wrestling for 14 years and winning a few matches.

Yes, to paraphrase SNL actor Garrett Morris' baseball-playing character, 'wrestling's been very very good to me.'

The story follows Joey Nicci, a 15-year-old Catholic boy and his family after they've moved from Newark, New Jersey to the small nearby suburb of Little Falls. Joey's crush on his wrestling teammate Donny "Dink" Kohrs leads him to joining Dink and a few other teammates in increasing dangerous activities that lead to the death of a teammate. While Joey narrowly escapes jail, the second half of the novel focuses on his outcast status, and a layered religious theme, to the point of Joey's near-martyr-like near-death.

And yes, it is spelled PINS, not Pins. That word/acronym takes on multiple meanings in the novel, including one (spoiler), a different term for juvenile delinquents used in the New Jersey state court system of the time: Person in Need of Supervision.

That's just one of the many research tidbits that helped shape the novel, while I was simultaneously writing others, since 1991 when I inherited a tiny Mac and stayed up too many nights struggling with them all, like a garden of prose (not unlike the scraggly garden next door to my early 1990s East Village apartment where it all began) after watching, and videotaping, a few TV shows about a violent crime (The Hail Mary murder), a wrestling team gang assault (covered on The Phil Donahue Show) and being haunted by the atmosphere at a Queens protest after the murder of Julio Rivera, to whom the novel is dedicated. 

The author in 1999. photo: Rick Gerharter
Old-Schooled
By May 1997, as a graduate in the Master of Arts English/Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University, an early version on the other-titled manuscript was my thesis. But it wasn't the only novel I was working on. 


I must have really annoyed my fellow novel-writing classmates when, instead of submitting the same reworked manuscript as others did, I switched gears and shared works-in-progress of what would become my third, fourth and (hopefully seventh and eighth) novels. 

But the wrestling novel soon became my main focus. You can read a hardbound embarrassing early version of PINS at the university's library (a requirement for completing the degree). But even then, I had some intense interactions with a few wrestlers, both good and bad, that would change the story even more. 

It would be nice to say that things would have been more successful if either of my two high-powered agents had sold PINS by 1998. But in retrospect, it wasn't finished. It wasn't even called PINS.