Tag Archives: James Lee Burke

The naming of characters

Character names often outshine the titles of novels, lodging in readers’ minds and entering popular culture as nouns, a shorthand way of describing an acquaintance, such as Tarzan, Sherlock, Gandalf, Hermione or The Wicked Witch.

I’m currently reading James Lee Burke’s novel The Jealous Kind, whose protagonist is distinctly named Aaron Holland Broussard. He’s the grandson of Hackberry Holland who featured in four of Burke’s thirty-six novels.

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I try to make my fictional character’s names memorable and am blessed that Cornwall, where my detective stories are set, has a rich array of unusual family names from its Celtic roots.

Thus, I called the owner of a chain of massage parlours Caradoc Honeycombe, which suited his gelatinous nature. Gordon Honeycombe was a popular British newsreader in the 1970s and 1980s, who organised a get-together of 160 members of the Honeycombe clan in 1984. There are 350 Honeycombes worldwide, all descended from one man called Matthew Honeycombe, who lived in the Cornish moorland village of Saint Cleer 350 years ago. Caradoc was a Knight of the Round Table during Uther Pendragon’s time.

Other of my character names include:

*Cleaver— for a heavily-scarred bodyguard who favours blades.

*Noah and Nina Shrike—ex-secret agents, who turn out to be cannibals. A shrike is also known as a butcher bird, as it stores dead prey on spiked vegetation.

*Luna Moth—a massage therapist from Vietnam, who has a large tattoo of this green-winged insect on her back.

*The Watcher—the title given to a sniper by his comrades in the Croatian War of Independence. He was turned into a killing machine by his traumatic experiences as a boy soldier, sating his bloodlust in peacetime by playing a real-life murderous role-play game. I didn’t mention his original family name; he’d dissociated from his origins.

*Esau Tregenza—a reclusive farmer whose mummified body is found in the kitchen of his remote farm, where it has been sitting for five years. A staunch Methodist, all of his ancestors were named after characters from the Bible.

*Tabitha Anstock-Struthers—Devon & Cornwall Police Authority’s press officer. More of a spin doctor, she has the soul of a cyborg.

Some of the names I use hint at the personalities of my heroes and villains, and there’s research evidence that how we’re named affects out entire lives:

The Name Game: how names spell success in life and love

Have you invented any memorable fictional character names?

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When Writing Gets Personal

Some time ago, I posted about authors and their friends appearing in their own books and film adaptations, in a thread called You In Your Book

It’s still going on, for quite by chance, I’ve recently read three novels in a row which feature personal appearances. James Lee Burke’s excellent Dave Robicheaux series has long seen the Louisiana detective raising an adopted daughter called Alafair. In the books she’s an El Salvadorean refugee he rescued from a crashed plane. She grows up to become a lawyer and screenwriter. In reality, his own daughter Alafair is a lawyer and crime novelist. I don’t know how tightly he’s based his book character’s mannerisms on his own daughter, but there was an unsettling moment towards the end of the latest story, New Iberia Blues, in which Alafair is kidnapped and threatened with death by a nutter. It really looked like she was dead at one point, which felt ominous—surely, he’s not going to kill his own daughter, thinks I—but no, she survived. Imagine the atmosphere, if he’d bumped her off.

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Sadder, was the way that crime novelist James Oswald handled the real-life death of his parents in a car crash when he was 40, by having his protagonist in his Inspector McLean series lose his parents in a plane crash when he was four. Write what you know, certainly: writing as therapy, maybe.

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Touchingly, Amanda Coplin based the titular character of her debut novel The Orchardist on her own grandfather, who tended orchards in Washington state, where the story is set. It’s all the more realistic for being drawn from her own memories. She acknowledges his influence when giving thanks in the end matter.

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In my Cornish Detective series, I’ve based two recurring characters on friends, with their permission. One is a retired social worker, the other a photographer and maker. I don’t steal details from their lives, striving more to capture their attitude to the world.

Have any of you used friends, family members, acquaintances or work colleagues as the basis for fictional characters?

Did you do so in an admiring way?

Or, for revenge!

Did you tell them?

I Couldn’t Put It Down!

I find that, as a reader, I approach books in different ways. Some titles I hope will be edifying, such as philosophy and self-help books. Volumes of poetry and studies of a painter’s work may lift my spirit. Sometimes, I read non-fiction as research for my crime novels, delving into forensic medicine, autopsies and poisons.

I tend to base my library requests on book reviews and works praised in author interviews. There’s always the drawback, when reading in my chosen writing genre of Crime, that I’ll be less likely to enjoy the ride than look for ways that it could be improved.

There aren’t many authors whose work blows me away every time, making me thrilled when I see that they’ve got a new book being published, keeping me alert for its UK publication date, so that I can be first in the queue to request it at the library. When I’ve got my hands on it, I’m voracious!

One such author is James Lee Burke, whose 400-500 page novels I usually read in a few days, but then I’ve been a fan of his 22 Dave Robicheaux detective novels since the first title, The Neon Rain was published in 1987. After so long together, I’ve invested in his protagonist’s story arc, even wondering about how he’s getting on from time to time, which proves how real he is to me.

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Reading a new Robicheaux story is like meeting up with an old friend—and it’s not always good news—Burke’s protagonist is a deeply flawed man, which he realises himself, and it makes him all the more compelling. I’m currently 50 pages from finishing the latest story New Iberia Blues, already having mournful feelings that I won’t be able to find anything as good to read next.

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In the Crime genre, the only other author I know of who portrays such a conflicted hero is Jo Nesbø whose Harry Hole is self-destructive, determined and excruciating to keep company with—which again makes the books unputdownable. There’s definitely an element of “What’s the idiot going to do next?”, that keeps me reading on.

It’s a key element of story-telling, that we care what happens to the main characters. Their story becomes our story—their truth becomes ours—a merging occurs. From the time of the caveman telling tales around a fire to people reading e-books on smartphones and Kindles, the narrator needs to create that empathy.

In historical fiction, I’m transfixed by the dilemmas that C. J. Samson’s Tudor era lawyer Matthew Shardlake faces.

Shardlake is one of the most likeable fictional characters ever created, and one who lives on his wits and cunning in what were incredibly dangerous times politically—with heads rolling off the Royal chopping block—and, where a man could be stabbed to death by the henchman of a courtier as he walks along a darkened street.

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What these three protagonists share is that they walk a fine line between normality and oblivion. They all want to make things right in society, but the evil forces they oppose threaten to corrupt and destroy them. They’re living on the edge. As Friedrich Nietzsche warned:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

As a reader, I stand alongside them, glad that I’m not them, but eager to know how they’ll survive.

Whose books can’t you put down?

Which characters have you bonded with?

My Favourite Reads of 2018

Now is the time of year when newspapers and websites are full of lists detailing critics and authors’ best books of the previous twelve months.

I gave my favourite reads of 2017, so I’ll continue the tradition with my baker’s dozen (or so) of favourite reads.

Not all of my choices were published this year, and there are several novels that are part of a long series, including a couple that are sequels or prequels to successful stories.

1) Lamentation by C. J. Sansom. The sixth story in the Matthew Shardlake series.

I can’t praise these books enough. Even if you don’t normally read historical fiction, you’d like them, as they hook the reader in. I prefer Sansom’s handling of the Tudor period to that of Hilary Mantel, as he has more warmth in his writing and conveys the fears of ordinary citizens better. A new story in the series was published in October, called Tombland.

2) Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. I’ve read all of the Dave Robicheaux series, and this is the twenty-first story. Burke is a writing heavyweight whose technique is something to aspire to. He gives a strong sense of place, tying historical events into contemporary attitudes with great characterisation.

3) All That Remains: A Life In Death by Professor Sue Black.

A humbling read from a Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, who literally knows death inside out. Not as macabre as you might think, with unexpected moments of humour, her memoir is gripping and full of wisdom.

4) Norwegian By Night & its sequel American By Day by Derek B. Miller.

An unexpected pleasure. I’d read favourable reviews, but Miller’s unusual approach to crime writing gave me food for thought, as he goes off at tangents, making his stories as much character portrayals as they are entertaining and involving mysteries.

5) Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

I normally steer clear of alternate histories, but I liked the blurb on the cover of this novel that I picked up in the library. I was soon gripped, as the author’s premise of a continuing form of slavery was believable and there were plenty of ‘what-would-you-do?’ thrills. Good characterisation and an effective condemnation of corporate America. I preferred it to Colson Whitehead’s highly-praised The Underground Railroad.

6) The Last Painting Of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith.

I read this novel as part of my research into the world of art and forgery, for my latest Cornish Detective novel is set in the art colony of Saint Ives. I was captivated by the masterful writing and how the author wove two time periods into the narrative. Smith has a lightness of touch using arresting imagery that makes you think deeply about creativity and possession of the finished product.

7) The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman.

A prequel to Practical Magic Hoffman’s most successful novel, and adapted into a Hollywood movie. The author weaves her spell in an entrancing way, making the reader believe that witchcraft has a place in contemporary society. Deft handling of intimate moments makes you feel a part of the story.

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8) Sapiens: A Brief History Of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book appeared on so many listicles, that it almost put me off reading it. I’m glad that I did, for it’s a mind-expanding challenge. The author makes some rather woolly assertions, which made me wonder if he was being deliberately provocative, as surely so and so was more likely….Damn it, he made me think!

9) French Exit by Patrick deWitt.

After enjoying The Sisters Brothers, which was an offbeat Western, I wondered how the author would handle a modern setting. The plotting is off kilter, making you wonder what’s going to happen next…almost as if deWitt is throwing a dice to decide the action. The mother and son protagonists are not people you’d want to get too close to, as you’d be safer observing them at a distance. Gloriously and madly self-destructive, they stick in the memory. Oh, and there’s also a bonkers cat character called Small Frank who’s the reincarnation of the mother’s dead husband! A fun read.

10) Pendulum by Adam Hamdy.

You know how we’re advised to start our story with a hook, and that it’s wise to have a moment of tension or a question at the end of each chapter, that compels the reader to turn the page? Well, try reading Adam Hamdy’s third novel, which does just this really well. His hero is quite the most resistant to injury character I’ve encountered, but the plot is thrilling and the tension never quits.

11) Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

Powerful storytelling with a strong sense of place in a claustrophobic coastal community in Maine. Sure to divide sympathies, the main character Olive is a force of nature. Lots of truth about what it means to be human, so not always an easy read.

12) The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

I was drawn to read this novel, after watching a BBC documentary on Flanagan in which he discussed the writing of it. He’s a personable chap, with his feet firmly on the ground and not one to bullshit about the mysteries of his craft. His novel is also fluff-free and though a harrowing read is life-affirming.

13) Walter Mosley

This year, I read his Rose Gold, Known To Evil, When The Thrill Is Gone, Down The River Unto The Sea, And Sometimes I Wonder About You and And All I Did Was Shoot My Man.

Not only does he come up with brilliant titles, but his plotting is serpentine and engrossing. Mosley is great at thumbnail sketches of incidental characters, and inserting his MC’s internal dialogue into the action. Even if you don’t like crime novels, his are worth a look to see how he makes everything look so easy. 

If you’re new to writing and looking for an advice book, I recommend his This Year You Write Your Novel

It’s a short book, but full of comforting and common sense tips.

What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.

Nobody Does It Better

Which writer’s work do you eagerly anticipate reading, impatient for their new novel to be published?

It could be someone who writes a series of novels featuring the same characters, or an author who takes years to pen their new story, which finds itself shortlisted for major literary awards. You might be working your way through a writer’s back catalogue, enthralled by their skills, while still taking glee from the occasional stinker of a title, that simply didn’t work.

We’ve all got our favourite authors, and some of them aren’t highly regarded by the critics, but who cares? If books are like food, why not have the occasional naughty treat?

My own list of got-to-read authors includes Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Camilleri, Annie Dillard, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Henning Mankell, Elizabeth Strout, Jo Nesbø, Justin Cartwright, Haruki Murakami, C. J. Sansom, Ann Patchett, Joe R. Lansdale, Don Winslow, Donald Ray Pollock and Jane Harper.

I read two hugely impressive debut novels in 2017, which whet my appetite for the second titles by Lars Mytting and by Kim Zupan.

My list of authors I seek out is based on those that I like. There are plenty of novelists whose books I admire, but don’t particularly like. As an example of this, I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which was written in a complex way, with long sections devoted to streams of consciousness. Woolf was experimenting with ways of writing a novel, as part of the Modernist movement, but it doesn’t make for easy reading.

Who floats your boat?

Which author makes you forget what you’re doing, to read their story?