Players in a Play, Warts and All

            My friends and I were talking the other day about habits – particularly how, as we get older, we have to temper the habits, especially the bad ones, we once had as younger folks.  The older we get, the less able we are to handle bad habits, the ones like smoking, drinking and cussing.  Our bad habits don’t get us in as much trouble these days as they used to because we simply can’t handle trouble the way we used to.  I think it’s a subtext of that thing called growing old gracefully.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

            But I reminded my friends of what Mark Twain once said about bad habits.  He said we shouldn’t abandon them too readily.  We should keep some in reserve for the day we really need to give up something.  He told the story of the woman who went to her doctor with an ailment.  He advised her to give up smoking.  Well, she didn’t smoke.  Drinking?  She never touched a drop.  Cussing?  She was appalled at the idea.  The doctor, unable to help, sent her home and she died soon thereafter.  She didn’t, you see, have anything to give up.  Twain never had that problem.  He smoked, drank and cussed.  He always had something in reserve.

            I thought about this business of habits when I was talking to a group of folks about my writing, about how I imagine characters and place them in a story.  I told the folks that in order for a story to begin for me, I have to imagine one person who absolutely intrigues me – a person with energy, quirks, foibles, warts, enough rough edges to make them truly interesting.  A person with some bad habits.

Once I know enough about that character to get started (never too much, because I want to discover things as we go along), then I can put them in a particular time and place, surround them with other characters, give them a compelling dilemma to deal with, and we’re off and running.  Then, my job is to be honest with the characters, present them warts and all.  To be, in other words, genuine.

Sometimes my characters infuriate me.  Often, they embarrass me.  I know from experience that they can have the same effect on my readers.  The central character in my novel Home Fires Burning is Jake Tibbetts, a crusty old southern editor who says his main purpose as a newspaper man is to “keep the community’s bowels in an uproar.”  He is a wonderfully maddening human being.  I once got a phone call from a reader who said, “I stayed up all night with that book, and if I could have gotten hold of Jake Tibbetts at 3:00 this morning, I would have wrung his neck.”  There were times in the writing of the book I felt the same way.

As a writer, I’m vitally interested in the inner life of humanity – those things that go on deep in the heart and soul, often concealed from the rest of the world, but crucial to knowing who a person truly is.  As William Faulkner put it, the secrets of the human heart.  There are dark and light places in all of us, and as a storyteller, I want to explore all of those places through the lives of the people who populate my tales. 

One thing I promise you.  The people in my stories may make you cringe, make you cry, make you furious.  But they will never be dull.  They will always have something in reserve to give up.  Mark Twain got it right.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

It’s an old joke.  A fellow goes to New York to attend a concert, but gets lost.  He spots another fellow who’s carrying a violin case.  “Sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The musician smiles and says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

I think of that story sometimes when I’m working on a writing project.  In this sense, practice doesn’t mean practicing writing, it means all the work you do to get ready to write.  It’s like a sports team, spending the long hours it takes to hone skills and work on a game plan before the game actually happens.  The game itself is the culmination of all that practice time.

The practice time a writer spends often means the hours of research that go into making characters and their story authentic, and that’s true of both fiction and non-fiction.  If your audience finds something in your work that doesn’t ring true, it’s likely to affect how they perceive the whole of the work.  If the inauthenticity is serious enough, the audience member thinks, This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Why should I believe anything he says?  Get the details right and the audience will willingly take a leap of faith into the story.  Get it wrong, and you’ve lost them.

I know from experience how that can happen.  In my novel Old Dogs and Children, I have a character cutting his finger in a woodworking accident.  He goes to the emergency room, and I have the doctor splashing alcohol on the cut before sewing it up.  After the book came out I was talking about it to a group that included a retired physician.  He said, “A doctor would never put alcohol on a wound like that.  Alcohol damages tissue.  There are much better things to use to sterilize.”  So the doctor in my audience didn’t believe my emergency room doctor, who – in my bumbling representation of him – didn’t know what he was doing.  I don’t think the error ruined the book for the doctor in my audience, but it taught me a lesson: make sure you know what you’re talking about.

Now here’s an example of how my practice worked.  A few years ago I wrote a play for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte called “The Drama Club,” which featured as its theme a struggle across racial divides in a high school.  I knew going in that I had to portray an honest and authentic world of high school, so that the high schoolers who came to see the play would find it plausible.  If they got it, I was successful.  If they didn’t, I lost them.  So I did a lot of research, including spending hours with a high school drama group, just being part of the furniture, watching and listening.  Several thousand high school students saw performances of “The Drama Club,” and the overwhelming response was, Yeah, they got it right.

I also know about bad practice, and that comes from my totally undistinguished career as a high school football player.  One season, our team won 1 game and lost 9.  The team we beat was 0-10 and we thrashed them 7-0.  Our practices were abysmal.  We spent most of our time just banging into each other, the harder the better as our coach saw it.  We learned nothing about our upcoming opponent, had no game plan to speak of.  The results spoke for themselves.

Writing practice – the kind I’m talking about – partly involves thinking about the heart and soul of the characters and having some idea about the general shape of their story.  Given the characters we’ve imagined, is what they do, say and think during the story believable?  It also involves getting the other details right, as much as humanly possible. 

It doesn’t all have to be done before a word is put on paper. The danger there is getting so caught up in practice that the game itself never begins.  Instead, it’s an ongoing process as the story unfolds and we began to understand more about who our people are and how and why they move through life, bumping up against themselves and each other, making sparks, making a story. 

So if we’re going to get it right, we practice, practice, practice.  Because it’s the only way to get to Carnegie Hall.

And That Reminds Me...

The ultimate payoff for a writer is when a reader says, “That reminds me…”  meaning that something you wrote – a character, a place, a situation, an emotion – triggered something from the reader’s own experience.  Sure, a check in the mailbox is nice, especially when it arrives in the nick of time, but checks get cashed and money gets spent.  What connects with a reader is more likely to last.

I thought about that when I got a note from a friend who had read my recent blog “Among The Graves At Thiacourt,” about my visit to an American cemetery in France, the final resting place of 4,000 of our soldiers from World War One.  For my friend, it brought back the memory and emotion of his visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach, where American casualties from World War Two are buried.  And that’s the magic of writing and reading: two imaginations intersect through the telling of a story.  What I wrote resonated with my friend.  I couldn’t ask for more.

I get a fair number of similar responses from folks who read my stories.  My first novel, Home Fires Burning, is set in a small town somewhere in the South.  It bears a pretty good resemblance to the small southern town where I grew up.  I set the story there because it was familiar territory.  I populated my fictional town with the kinds of people I knew growing up.  After the book was published, I got a letter from a reader who said, “You wrote about my hometown in Iowa.”  That told me there was a good measure of universality about the characters and the story, and that’s why it resonated with a reader from another part of the country.

Setting and plot can trigger something in a reader’s imagination, but the part of a story that’s most likely to connect is character.  For that to happen, a writer has to be honest and authentic with the characters he or she imagines.  The writer is asking a reader to take a leap of faith into the story, and to do that, the leap has to start from solid ground.  You have to be able to believe the character is plausible – someone you might know – and the character has to be presented warts and all.  We human beings are combinations of dark and light, and if, in presenting a character’s story I omit the dark places, you know right away the character isn’t authentic.  The same goes if something the character says or does doesn’t ring true.  And that probably means you aren’t ready to take the leap of faith.

The central character in Home Fires Burning is a crusty curmudgeon of a small-town newspaper editor named Jake Tibbetts.  I knew I had presented Jake honestly and authentically when a reader called me and said, “I stayed up all night with that book, and if I could have gotten my hands on Jake Tibbetts at three o’clock this morning, I’da wrung his neck.”  But then he went on to say that Jake had a fiercely independent streak and a willingness to speak his mind, good traits for a newspaper editor.  My reader and I had connected through Jake.

A story is a meeting place between two imaginations – the writer’s and the reader’s.  Every reader brings his or her own knowledge, experiences, beliefs and emotions to the reading of the story and finds things in it the writer might never have suspected were there.  It’s a kind of alchemy, a magic that exists nowhere else, and it makes each reader’s experience with the story unique.  When a reader tells me it worked, I’m satisfied.

But…I’m also happy to find a check in the mailbox.

Barry Hannah and the Big Tricks

My fiction teacher in graduate school was the late novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah, who told his students in general right off the bat, “I can’t teach you to write, but I can encourage your writing.”

To me in particular he said, “When you learn the big tricks, you’ll be okay.”

“What are the big tricks?” I asked.

“You’ll figure them out as you go,” he said with a smile.

I think, after a good number of years of making up stuff and putting it on paper, I’ve figured out at least a couple of the big tricks:

  1. Be honest with your characters;

  2. Trust your readers.

Since all stories are about people, the way to make stories authentic is to tell about authentic people, and that means presenting them warts and all.  We human beings are a fascinating stew of good and evil, joy and sorrow, light and dark.  Even the best of us have some secrets of the soul we’d rather nobody else know about.  And even the nastiest, smelliest of us have some tiny redeeming quality.  Since the great privilege of the fiction writer is to plumb the depths of characters’ souls, what we find down there – the dark as well as the light – is what makes them real.  Sometimes my characters infuriate me; sometimes they embarrass me.  But always, they fascinate me with their spirit, their energy, their insistence on being human in every way.  My job is to be honest with them.  So if you read one of my stories and find characters who seem authentic, I’ve succeeded.

Then that other big trick, trusting the reader – first, to be able to deal with authentic characters honestly presented.  My characters may occasionally infuriate and embarrass you, as they do me, but I believe you can handle that.  I trust that you will find something in them, in their honest presentation, that rings true and possibly resonates in your own life, or the lives of people you know.

Then too, I have to trust that you will bring your own imagination to the work.  I don’t have to tell you everything, and in fact, the more I try to tell you, the more I get in the way of the story and the characters.  I need to tell you just enough to get your imagination engaged, and you will fill in the blanks and make the story much more than what I could offer.  It will become your story, and the characters will become your people.

My good friend Ralph Keyes, a wonderful writer and a wise and perceptive man, has written a book called The Courage To Write.  Every person who writes, or wants to write, should read it.  Ralph talks, in part, about this business of being honest.  I don’t know if Barry Hannah ever read Ralph’s book, but part of what he encouraged in my writing was this business of honesty.  It was the best thing he did for me.

By the way, Barry encouraged some pretty darn good writers in his many years of teaching, including Mark Childress and Donna Tartt.  He was generous and nurturing, and he knew what he was talking about.  In a way, Barry’s at our elbows every time we sit down to write.

In my next post, some thoughts about the writer’s imperative to be honest with himself.  Warts and all.  Stay tuned.

Christmas Is For Storytellers

My favorite time of the holiday season is Christmas afternoon.

It stems from my boyhood in a small southern town  in a family of storytellers to whom I owe much of who I am as a writer today.

We were a large, rowdy group – my mother, her three brothers, in-laws, cousins, and my grandmother,  Nell Cooper.  She was a feisty, independent soul – widowed at a fairly young age with four children at home.  She raised and educated them and in her later years enjoyed having them close at hand.  Especially on Christmas afternoon, when we all gathered at Mama Cooper’s house.

It was the family tradition for the twelve cousins (I was the oldest) to draw names a couple of weeks before and exchange small gifts.  Mama Cooper would hand out presents to each of us, we would all have punch and cookies, and then the kids were sent outdoors to play with the stuff we had gotten from Santa that morning.  The adults would gather around Mama Cooper’s dining room table and tell stories.

Mama Cooper was the tee-totaling daughter of a Methodist minister, and she did not allow fermented spirits in her house.  Except on Christmas afternoon.  The boys would concoct eggnog, liberally flavored with bourbon, and the more eggnog that was consumed, the better the storytelling got.  My dad and three uncles had been in World War Two – two pilots, a sailor, an infantryman – and much of the storytelling involved that time in their lives.  Never about combat, but about far-flung places, girlfriends who became wives, the fast-moving and often chaotic world into which they had all been catapulted  from that small southern town.  And about life back home while the boys were off at war – the ration books, the gold stars in windows, the heady uncertainty, the powerful sense of relief when it was all over and they could put small-town lives back together.

Nell Cooper and her family, c. 1927

Nell Cooper and her family, c. 1927

Curious kid that I was, I would leave the little young’uns playing in the yard, sneak back into the house, and hide in the living room, listening to the tales being told on the other side of the wall.  I don’t remember many of the details of the grownups’ stories, but I do remember vividly the realization that I was hearing things about my parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother that I could have scarcely imagined.  I understood that there was a rich texture to their lives, an undercurrent, that shaped the people they were now, and that the texture, the undercurrent, was the most fascinating part about them.  It made them intriguing, even exotic, and it had a profound impact on my evolving view of the world and human experience.

As a writer, I am all about characters and relationships.  There are things about people we see and hear, and there are things unseen and unheard.  There is a tension between the faces we show to the world and the things that are in our hearts and souls.  That tension has a great deal to do with who we are and how we relate to the people around us.  Our relationships are profoundly affected by our hidden places, our secrets, the soul stuff.  And how we each reconcile the tension between the obvious and the secret has a great deal to do with how genuine we are as people.

Okay, that’s all a mouthful, but it’s as close as I can get to my approach as a storyteller.  My job is to present a character who bubbles up from my imagination, present that character as honestly as I can, warts and all, and plumb the depths of the hidden stuff.  I hope, when the work is done, you’ll find something that resonates with your life, your world, your relationships.  If I do, I’ve been successful.

It all goes back to Christmas afternoon at Mama Cooper’s house.  Ever since, those few hours have been special to me.  This Christmas afternoon, I’ll take some time to be quiet and think about those good people there in Mama Cooper’s dining room and thank them for the gift they gave me without ever knowing they did.

Merry Christmas.

A Sense of History

I like history.  I think we have to know where we’ve been before we can understand how and why we got where we are now.

It’s true of the world at large, and a lot of what we call history is the recounting of momentous events and larger-than-life people doing momentous things.  But I’m even more interested in small histories -- the very personal, intimate stories of individuals.  The sum of our small histories gives texture and meaning to the larger sweep of mankind.

Personal History.jpg

If you read one of my novels, you know the importance I attach to backstory.  I have to know how my characters got here, how the baggage they tote from their past affects how they’re moving through the present.  When I offer a story, I’m like a lawyer arguing a case before a jury.  I need to give enough background to let you know that my story and characters are authentic.  I need to offer what lawyers call extenuating and mitigating circumstances.  In my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, I devote chapters to my central character’s history.  In other works, it may be a sentence or paragraph here and there.  But the backstory is crucial to me in understanding the character, and then presenting the character to my readers.

That really hit home when the Hallmark Hall of Fame folks were making a movie from my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  I adapted the two-hour screenplay from a 500-page novel, so I had to leave out a great deal.  But Glenn Jordan, the director, required the cast members to read the book before they came to the set, and I’m sure that in a thousand ways, they brought a richer understanding of their characters to the portrayal.

StoryLine Bus.jpg

My love of histories large and small is what intrigues me about an oral history project going on these days in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  It’s called StoryLine, and it’s based on the premise that when people in a community share their stories, it fosters an understanding of what they have in common.  StoryLine does its work from a small bus that serves as a studio.  You and a story partner sit down before microphones and have a conversation about who you are and where you come from.  Some of the stories, in edited form, air on local radio stations.  They all go into an archive at the Forsyth County Library: a treasure trove for the community’s understanding of itself, now and in the future.

But you don’t have to have a studio in a bus to record history.  Any kind of recording device will do just fine.  The thing is to sit down with a friend or relative and just talk about who you are, how you got where you are now, your hopes and dreams.  It’s especially important for the older generations in our families.  Before it’s too late, preserve their stories.  I wish I had been smart enough to do that with my parents.  When they passed on, I lost a good bit of my own history.  I’m poorer for that.

I once heard a semi-famous man say, “We never see the handwriting on the wall until our backs are to it.”  I think he was right in the sense that we often turn our backs on our history and keep repeating mistakes.  But it needn’t be that way.  It takes having a sense of and appreciation for history – and then, like StoryLine, doing something about it.

Giving Birth to an Elephant


Writing a novel is similar to giving birth to an elephant: the gestation period is very long, and when the dear thing finally pops out, you hope nobody notices that it has long, floppy ears.

Well, I’m in the final stages of labor.  My new novel, The Governor’s Lady, debuts August 29 at Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC.  My first four novels were birthed at the same great store, where owners John Barringer, and later Sally Brewster, have nurtured and supported my scribbling from the beginning.  You might call them the delivering physicians.

This book has been more than ten years in the making, and there were times I wondered if I’d ever finish it, and if so, if it would ever see the light of day.

The book publishing industry has changed dramatically in the time since my fourth novel, Captain Saturday, came out.  It’s mostly a bottom-line business these days, and midlist writers like me, even with decent publishing records, have a tough time placing a new work.  So many books of merit that used to get published with little problem now have a much slimmer chance of finding an audience.

I’m incredibly fortunate.  The Governor’s Lady will be birthed by a wonderful house, John F. Blair Publishers in Winston-Salem, NC.  Yesterday, I held the first copy off the press and marveled at the beautiful presentation Blair has made of my story.  Carolyn Sakowski and her staff have done everything right and given the work its best possible chance to succeed in the marketplace.  They’ve arranged an extensive promotional tour ( where I’ll get the opportunity to present my book to booksellers, librarians, and readers.  It will also have an e-book edition for those who are making the move to devices like Kindle, Nook and Kobo.  I’m proud to be a Blair author.

Now, it’s up to me and my little elephant.  Readers will decide the merits of the story, and I’ll do everything I can to help the cause.  It’s where art meets commerce.  I’m proud of the work – the characters and the story -- and immensely grateful to everyone who has provided wise counsel and guidance along the way.

If you see me on the street pushing a very large baby carriage with a long-eared little darling inside, at least honk and wave.  We’re on a mission, and we need your good wishes.  A few bucks for the book would help, too.

The Art of Geometry


          I’ve never been a whiz at math.  I take after my father, who once said, “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can’t.”  In my family, my mother kept the checkbook.  In junior high and high school, I was fortunate enough to have math teachers who, through patience and compassion, managed to teach me enough of the basics to get by.  In college, I took geology to avoid freshman algebra.  I know more about rocks than numbers, which isn’t much.

            So it was a surprise to me in high school that I discovered a love for geometry.  I might be a semi-klutz at equations, but I was good with shapes.  My teacher wasn’t surprised; geometry isn’t really math, she said, it’s logic.  It’s the way things fit together, the beauty of lines and angles in time and space.  Sure, there are numbers involved, but they are numbers you can see and feel, that you can push and pull and twist into fascinating objects.  The limits of geometry are imagination.

            When I began to think about how I do this storytelling thing I do, it occurred to me that part of it is geometry.  A story has lines and angles and shapes that exist in time and space – geometry as architecture. 

I start with a central character I believe in, and that’s the foundation.  I surround that person with other characters, some of which are actually places (a town, for instance, can be a character in my story).  I put the people in a particular time and place, give them a dilemma, and turn them loose to bump up against each other and make sparks.  Things begin to happen, to move in directions.  I’m building a house, with walls and doors and windows, floors and roofs, furniture and interior design, clothes in the closet and toys on the floor, all of the things that make the house a home where people live.

I don’t know how the whole thing will look when I start, or really even while I’m building.  I know a few things that might serve as signposts when I’ve reached a certain point.  But I have to be open to possibility and serendipity.  When I finish, there it is: a geometric shape, something like no other, fashioned out of my over-active imagination.  Each reader, looking at my geometry from a special and unique angle, will see something a little different.  Hopefully, all will see something artful – a memorable thing or two, and the geometry that helps it hang together.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo. 

The Art of Transparency

       When I was in graduate school eons ago, my fiction teacher, the late novelist Barry Hannah, was kind enough to say my work showed some promise.  “When you learn the big tricks,” he said, “you’ll do okay.”

       “What are the big tricks?” I asked.

       “You have to learn those for yourself.”

       “How do you learn them?”

       “By doing the work.”

       I’ve done a good bit of the work since then, and I’ve learned a couple of big tricks.  The biggest, I’ve decided, is learning to trust my readers.  It sounds simple, but it’s not.

       I have to see a scene in my own mind before I can write about it – what the place looks like, who’s there, how they move about, how they interact, what they say.  The challenge is putting what I see on paper so you’ll see something similar when you read the words.  The more I try to describe, the more I inevitably burden the story with so much verbiage that it sinks of its own weight.  The words get in the way.  The big trick is deciding what not to say.

            There’s a sort of magic that transpires between writer and reader, an alchemy that occurs when two imaginations meet.  If I write a book and a thousand people read it, I’ve really written a thousand books, because each reader brings a unique and special consciousness to the process.  And that makes each reading experience special and unique.

            I constantly remind myself that I don’t have to do all the work, and the more I do, the more I’m likely to get in the way.  All I need is a few well-chosen words to set the reader’s imagination in motion.  If I write “cowboy,” you’ll provide your own image.  It won’t be the cowboy I see, but that’s fine.  Your cowboy is just as good as mine, probably better.  My job is to be transparent, to stay out of the way so you get right to the cowboy.  It’s the cowboy’s story, and I’m just there to be a conduit.  If you hear me, I’ve failed.

      Another of my grad school professors, the poet Tom Rabbitt, said there are three kinds of writing:

  • Art -- we know what that is when we see it.  The characters and their story leap off the page and grab us by the soul.        
  • Artsy -- words begin to get in the way, a sure sign the writer is becoming enamored of his own verbal virtuosity.        
  • Artsy-fartsy – this guy is screaming, Look Ma, see how clever I am!

     When I finish a manuscript, the first thing I do is go back and ruthlessly slash modifiers and florid excesses of description.  I may need them in the first draft to help me visualize, but in sober reflection, I realize that for my readers, they’re largely unnecessary and get in the way of the story.  I dang sure don’t want to leave any artsy-fartsy, and I want artsy held to a bare minimum.  If what results is something vaguely similar to art, I’m a happy guy.

     Next time: another big trick: geometry.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.