People often ask me how I know when I have material that I think might work in a novel. It’s no secret that each of my five novels has been based on actual events from the news, but news isn’t what first seduces me. What hooks me every time is usually something that I have to invent—characters in the midst of moral ambiguity. Something in the news might catch my eye, but before I can commit to spending the time and energy it takes to write a novel, I have to play the “what-if” game, and that game always leads me to what I consider the center of the book, and that center is always located within character. A reclusive math tutor who adores one of his pupils fails her at the moment of crisis. An elderly bachelor lets a shameful moment from his past dictate his life, yearning for connection while at the same time protecting himself from the outer world. A young girl falls under the spell of an older woman and finds herself torn between what she knows is right and her desire for love and acceptance. A talented gardener has to decide whether to go along with the status quo or to stand beside his neighbors. The key for me, when I test material to see if it has the depth of content that a novel must have, is whether the central event will meet the main character in a place of uncertainty.

So it is with my new novel, Late One Night. Taken from the true story of a tragic house trailer fire, this books finds its character center in the story of Ronnie Black, a man quick to temper, a man who’s caught between an old life he’s trying to leave and a new one he’s trying to make. This is the sort of situation that draws me in, this feeling of being pushed and pulled. That’s what my imagination created when I played the “what-if” game with the true story. What if the husband lived outside the home at the time of the fire, and what if the fire turned out to be deliberately set, and what if gossip made the husband suspect? Finally, what if the husband was hiding the truth, and that truth turned out to be nothing like what the community members would expect? What if it became impossible to utterly condemn and completely assign blame to any single person?

I’m interested in characters who find themselves in trouble of their own making. I’m interested in what they’ll do to protect themselves from further trouble, what they’ll do to try to save themselves, what they’ll do to try to make amends. I’m interested in characters who are flawed. I’m interested in their missteps, their misdeeds, their missed opportunities. I want to portray them in a way that readers will at sometimes hate them, sometimes love them, sometimes want to be rid of them, and sometimes never want them to leave.

I want, in short, to write a novel in which the characters are just like us: imperfect, riddled with doubts, living with pressure, making mistakes, and trying to redeem themselves.

At the end of Late One Night, Ronnie Black thinks about all he’s lived through and how that’s made everyone he knows more alive to him: “They were more alive to him because of the part of the story he swore he’d never tell, the part that left him knowing in a way he never had how scared they all were, how broken.” I’m interested in the stories my characters don’t want to tell. It’s those stories that remind us of what we share: human weakness and a desire to love and to be loved in return. That’s what the news stories leave out. That’s why I write novels.

 

16 Comments

  1. Allen R Learst on May 23, 2016 at 8:04 am

    The last two paragraphs are what I keep saying to my creative writing students.

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Thanks for reading my blog, Allen, and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Eileen LaCanne on May 23, 2016 at 8:08 am

    This post is fascinating. Certainly spurs my imagination in a special way I had not thought of. Thank you!

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Thank you, Eileen. I hope it will prove fruitful for you.

  3. Denyse Eagleson on May 23, 2016 at 11:09 am

    I have always felt empathy with your characters. We try to think we are all different and unique, when in fact we are more alike than we ever want to admit. I have always felt your characters remind us that no matter where we come from, what our economic status is, or what we have achieved or failed to achieve in our lives – there is a common denominator that is the great equalizer and in fact we are just human

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2016 at 9:46 am

      Denyse, I always think about how people sometime overlook the Midwest, thinking that nothing of significance ever happens here when the truth is, as you say, we’re all human, and we all love and want and fear no matter where we live.

  4. Paula Littlejohn on May 23, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    I found this novel to be very intriguing as it hits close to home my sister-in-law was Rhonda Littlejohn Fletcher and she died in the trailer fire with three of her nine children. There are a lot of things in this novel that ring true with their actual life, but the ending I know is not what happened in real life
    But the novel was very well written and I will be buying more of your books tomorrow night

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2016 at 9:48 am

      Paula, did I miss you the other night? I was looking forward to meeting you so we could talk more. I took the tragic story from the news and let my imagination interact with the facts as reported. It was only after I’d written the novel that I started to learn that my imagination had been closer to reality than I knew.

  5. Margie Stout on May 25, 2016 at 11:16 am

    I may be completely missing them but I see no list of all books written, please direct me and thank you.

    • Lee Martin on May 25, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      Margie, on my web site, just click on “Books,” and that will do the trick!

  6. Katherine on May 28, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Beautiful post, Lee. I love that quote you give from your book. Now I can’t wait to read it! Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on May 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      Thank you, Katherine!

  7. Richard Gilbert on May 30, 2016 at 6:50 am

    I’ve really enjoyed your nonfiction, your memoirs and essays—as you know, Lee. I’m looking forward to reading your fiction now, starting with this novel.

    • Lee Martin on May 30, 2016 at 9:48 am

      I hope you enjoy it, Richard.

  8. Robert Sykes on June 11, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    This cold,dreary Saturday finds me taking shelter at a local library with patrons like myself who feel safer and saner surrounded by books…knowing full well that the characters for my first collection of short stories are right before or next to me…telling their stories with and without words,blessed or cursed,real or imagined…and I fit right in!…thanks for your support as always Lee…

    • Lee Martin on June 12, 2016 at 2:17 pm

      Robert,I’ve always thought of a library as a holy place. Maybe less so these days what with folks talking on cell phones, etc., but still. I so well remember the silence of the library, and, as you say, being surrounded by people of like mind.

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