Meet a Jerk, Get to Work
Find your fiction characters and settings in everyday life
By Jaqueline Girdner
First off, let me confess. I kill people for a living. Fictionally, of course. In other words, I'm a mystery writer, one of those lucky few who spend their day thinking about murder and committing it. Am I punished for these sinister deeds? No, I'm paid for them, criminally little, but paid nonetheless.
How did I get so lucky? you might ask. Then the question gets a little stickier. You might even ask me about character, plot, and setting. Then you'd really see me panic. Because I know I should think up something profoundly academic in answer to such questions, but in fact I don't really think a lot about character, plot, and setting when I'm starting a new book. I think about people. I observe.
Okay, okay, what I really do is meet people. Actually, I meet "Jerks." And I meet their "Victims."
"So what is a Jerk?" you might ask. Or maybe you already have your own ideas. A Jerk is someone who is supremely insensitive to the hurt that arises from their actions, or sometimes, someone who realizes the hurt all too well... and relishes it.
I talk to people a lot, but I listen too. I can't help it. I believe the curse of the fiction writer is that very inability to turn off observation even while interacting. And when I meet Jerks and their Victims, somehow it always turns into a murder motive for me.
Let me tell you about some of the Jerks and their Victims that I've met. The Jerks (also known as the "murderees") include people who hurt their children, writers who would do anything for a story, people who spread false rumors and threaten blackmail, and people who do evil work without thinking of the ultimate consequences of their work. Not to mention people who think that their own righteousness (in this life and even in former lives) is the primary determining factor in the quality of their lifestyle, so they damn well deserve better than the next guy.
Their Victims? (Also known as the "murderers.") Victims might be people protecting their children, people protecting their lives, and people protecting their livelihoods. Victims might be people who have been abused themselves and are angry about it, angry with the system... and angry with the Jerks.
You've met them. I've met them. An example, perhaps? I was visiting a friend one day, and when I asked her how she was, she began to cry. And I mean real crying, long gulping sobs that seemed endless. I put my arms around her and asked her what was so terrible that it could cause her so much distress. "It's a man," she told me. And I said, "oh," a little disappointed. My friend had seemed too sensible to let romantic entanglements cause her this much grief. "No, not that kind of man," she said. "Not a lover." Then her voice lowered. "This man is a hater." And she told me her story.
A man (read "Jerk") at her place of work had become jealous of her popularity and was afraid of losing position because of it. So he decided to set her up, blackmailing someone in a weak position into accusing her of sexual harassment. A completely off-the-wall idea if you knew my friend, but still. Luckily the would-be blackmail victim came to my friend first and warned her, but told her he wouldn't repeat the truth if asked. The Jerk had too much power. My friend had seen the Jerk at work before, had even seen a suicide result from his actions. But he was very powerful, in a much higher position than she was. We talked over the situation into the late hours of the night and she finally decided she had no recourse but to document her allegations to her union and then seek work elsewhere.
It was then that I found myself saying, "Really, the best way out would be to kill him." She shook her head and replied, "I wouldn't do that." "Nor would I," I told her. Then I smiled. "Except on paper." And she smiled back. "Would you do that for me?" she asked. So I did. Her situation, greatly disguised became the plot for... well, let's just say one of my mystery novels. You'll have to read them all to find out which. My friend was unjustly forced to find work elsewhere, but she felt some sense of revenge when her Jerk became my Jerk and died horribly on paper. And I had a book.
Another one of my plots came from a complete stranger who waited until almost everyone had left after one of my book signings and told me a story about a Jerk that would curl your hair. (Or straighten it if it's already curly.) And there wasn't a thing she could do about him legally. When she finally left she said, "Maybe I'll just have to kill the s.o.b." She said it with a smile, but it was a smile that made me shiver. And a smile that gave me my next book. And no, I won't tell you which one that became either.
And if she did kill her Jerk in real life, would I blame her? I'm not sure. I just hope I never hear about it.
Become the murderer
You may have noticed by now that I have some sympathy for my murderers. In fact, in some cases, I have a lot of sympathy for my murderers.
However, given the motive for the Victims to kill the Jerks, I, personally, still wouldn't beat someone over the head with a hammer. Nor would the woman who attended my signing. Probably. But who would? This is where it gets interesting. The Victim has the motive, but how does this Victim become a murderer? What person do they have to be to translate what we all feel at one time or another into murder? At this point in my thought process, I become that person. What would my childhood have had to be like? What would be important enough to trigger that murder? I pace the house in the Victim's shoes and become more and more murderous. Until I really feel the urge, viscerally. It has to make real sense to me, both intellectually and emotionally, or I don't write it.
And then my mind is flooded with the experiences of that Victim/murderer, not to mention clues, red herrings, interactions, and other people who are angry. It gets deeper and murkier. And suddenly I have the beginning of, well, a character.
Living in Marin County, California, I meet a special kind of Jerk and a special kind of Victim. The Jerk/murderee is often the New Age, spiritually conscious Jerk. Have you ever heard that special phrase, "You create your own reality"? It's a comment which exemplifies the dark side of the New Age for me, urging positive-speak to blame the Victim, whether victimized by sickness, poverty, or just plain bad luck. Well, I'd heard the phrase, about 500 times too many, when I decided to kill the messenger. It sprouted and twined and twisted and turned in my head until my third book, Murder Almost Mellow, was born.
And the Victim/murderer? Well... gulp... they're often a lot like me. Sometimes even vegetarians. They're human beings pushed to their limits, living out their human potential, so to speak, but often abruptly ending that of others—with weapons particular to Marin County's spirit: a Salad Shooter in Fat-Free and Fatal and organic herbal tea in Tea-Totally Dead.
Write what you know
I've always heard you should write what you know. I just take it a little further; I kill what I know. Every experience I've ever had is possible fodder for murder. And I've had a lot of experience: as a divorce lawyer, as a psychiatric aide in a mental hospital, and as a small-business owner. And of course, as a writer.
Wanna talk about Jerk/murderees? Have you ever been in a writer's critique group? Well, Slade Skinner was. And he was a mite bit insensitive in his verbal critiques as he methodically pumped a dumbbell up and down. I don't even have to tell you. I'll bet you can figure out the final use of that dumbbell in A Stiff Critique.
Character begets plot
So now I have my characters. My Jerks and their Victims. My murderees and murderers. But how about plot? Strangely enough, I have a hard time untangling character and plot. They weave together like warp and woof. Because once I'm in my Victim/murderer's shoes, I begin thinking how I will kill my Jerk/murderee. And then I know the problems I'll run into. And then I start thinking, and feeling, the anger that others may have towards this Jerk. And I realize all the interactions that might be sparked by this essential clash between Victim and Jerk. The plot begins to make itself, faster than I can keep up with it. Plot and subplots build as characters come alive. I keep pads of paper in every room of the house to write down each twist and turn as it comes off the skein. And believe me, my stories come alive. My Jerks and Victims, and now the whole cast of characters, follow me everywhere. They even come into my dreams to tell me what they will and will not do.
The plot and characters dance a sinister tango, entangling and weaving themselves into a story. And then the details come raining down.
I look around me and what do I see? Murder weapons. Everywhere I go. At the chiropractor's. Look at that metal bar. At the hairdresser's. All those chemicals. And those women sticking their heads into electric helmets. At the nursery, communing with all those poisonous plants. On the road with all those other people in their automotive death machines. Even my home becomes a Madame Tussaud's of murder. Knives, electrical appliances, even pinball machines appear as instruments of death. My book Most Likely to Die features the unlikely murder of a man by "Hot Flash." Not the usual change of life discomfort, mind you, but a pinball machine named "Hot Flash" that the Jerk rigs to make menopause jokes. What he doesn't know is that the Victim has rigged it to do another trick. When the Jerk steps up to play he is electrocuted, writhing in the agonies of his own "Hot Flash."
Use familiar, real-life settings
As for the setting, well, I do live in Marin County, California. I don't have to look any further for a bizarre and mysterious backdrop. To get to my house from San Francisco, you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and keep going until you pass through the rainbow tunnel. The rainbow tunnel is a clue. You have just entered the land where the New Age is still new, where spirit guides outnumber the walking, breathing residents, and where "consciousness" is measured spiritually instead of medically. A land of moneyed, well-tanned, true enlightenment. Citizens with bad teeth or bad karma need not apply. How can a writer resist?
All I have to do is take a walk in my hometown of Mill Valley and my sense of place creates itself. One day, while I was standing at a corner waiting for the light to change, two women jogged up next to me. One woman said to the other, "I'm advising my clients against the futures market these days." Her friend said, "Oh, really. Why?" And the woman replied, "Because my channeler told me futures were just too dangerous considering my past lives." No, I'm not making this up! In fact, the incident was so strange I never did get to use it in a book. My real problem is toning down the reality of my real-life settings.
When I sent my first manuscript to my editor, she immediately called me on the phone. She couldn't believe they had tofu burgers at the local 7-11 in Mill Valley. But they do. Even my backdrops seem to pounce on me.
My husband says that every time I leave the house I come home with a new place for a murder. It's true. They follow me home like homeless kittens. Homeless kittens with teeth. I go to my chiropractor's and baam, someone gets their neck broken in Adjusted to Death. We go to a run-down health spa with gruesome brown, orange, and black paisley wallpaper and The Last Resort is born. And believe me, it's the last resort anyone would want to visit when I'm finished with it.
A comfy, warm soak in the hot tub leads to Murder Most Mellow. Of course, I started wondering how you could electrocute someone in a hot tub. I'm a mystery writer. I can't help it. Vegetarian cooking ends up Fat-Free and Fatal. A friendly family get-together blossoms into Tea-Totally Dead at the family reunion from hell. My mild-mannered mystery writer's critique group inspires A Stiff Critique. And attending my high school reunion... well, you remember the Jerk who was elected Most Likely to Die. The deserving Jerk.
So how do you find your own Jerks? Your own Victims? Don't worry, they'll find you. All you have to do is observe. When a drunk comes up to you at a party to regale you with tales of cruel revenge, listen. When a couple stands in front of you, arguing in hushed whispers, watch. When complete strangers yell at each other on the street, stand a little closer. You can probably smell their anger. If you work in a corporate office... 'nuff said. There are fictional murders waiting to happen all around you.
It's amazing just how many potential homicides are in the air. Ask your friends if they've ever thought of murdering someone. You'd be surprised how many people have... in gruesome detail. I've had people tell me repeatedly that they've had friends who have literally gotten away with murder, and then those same people have described the gory circumstances to me. I try not to think that the "friend" might be the very person telling me the story. In fact, that might make an interesting plot right there. Now, let's think about it. What if the "friend"... Never mind. You see how it works. You can't run, you can't hide. The stories are just waiting to get you.
You can't write about something until you've experienced it. And you can't experience writing fiction until you've looked around you. And listened. And felt the emotional truth that lurks behind tears and false smiles. As writers, you can't help it. You're the ones who will go into a four-star restaurant and upon leaving neglect to discuss the great food but instead talk about the interactions you heard going on around you. "Did you see that couple? They'll be divorced in a year." "What do you think the relationship was between the white-haired lady and the young man with freckles? Lovers, mother and son, friends?" Victim and Jerk?
So, how do I plot and characterize? I meet people. But I never meet Jerks anymore. I only meet... material.
This article originally appeared in The Portable Writers' Conference: Your Guide to Getting and Staying Published, edited by Stephen Blake Mettee (Quill Driver Books, 1997).