Just after we moved from Ohio to Alabama and my daughter was barely walking, I got a laptop. That was 2009. After running into a snooty lady at a Mardi Gras parade, I began creating some characters and tapping out few sentences here and there while my daughter wiggled in her high chair. If I really got lucky and she took a nap, I set the laptop on the dining room table and created character profiles. And then chapters. Those chapters eventually became Want. Then came Shrapnel. Then Need, and finally Shelf Life, with Aftertaste and Dirty Laundry thrown into the mix. I started Shelf Life‘s sequel, but then the shit hit the fan and all writing screeched to a halt.
It’s now 2018 and that laptop finally breathed its last. The fan ran constantly, the battery wouldn’t even stay connected to the case anymore and I somehow managed to mangle the shift key. The internal wifi died a number of years ago, and it’s thicker and heavier than an encyclopedia. (Google it, kids.) That HP went with me to various Panera Breads, Starbucks, critique groups, libraries, author events and workshops. In addition to novels, it wrote resumes and cover letters, blog posts for Novel Novice, a divorce agreement (an oxymoron) and essays to the Cub Scouts on why my son deserved a scholarship for summer camp. It was more than an electronic piece of equipment – it was a constant when everything else was spinning out of control.
A couple weeks ago I bought a new HP Pavillion with a solid-state hard drive (I’m told this is good) that converts into a tablet, which seems pretty handy for editing documents, though I’ve been too busy and too scared to try. All this to say that in preparation for making the switch, I had to clean out my files and move the important ones to Dropbox. That’s when I began poking through my folders for each book. Among the photos of characters, settings and digital swag created by Naj, I found multiple versions of each book, critiques from fellow writers, character profiles and deleted scenes. Here are some of the treasures I found:
[FROM SHELF LIFE’S CUT FILE]
Pete groaned. He’d forgotten to tell Lewis what happened yesterday and why he wasn’t in school. Without a cell phone—“Those things will give you brain cancer”—he hadn’t had time to call. Right on cue, he heard their ancient land-line phone ring.
Pete hobbled into the kitchen, past his dad who was sacked out on the couch, and picked up the phone.
“Dude! Where the hell have you been? You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, but my dad’s not.”
“Oh. What happened?”
“He fell down by the creek and broke his [thigh bone]. I found him just after dark and we had to carry him out of the woods. He got released from the hospital a couple hours ago. I’ll be at school tomorrow.”
“Holy crap, that bites the big one. But it’s not as bad as the rumors about what happened.”
Pete groaned. “I don’t want to know.”
“Yeah, you do. That’s why I called.” Pete heard Lewis talk to someone in the background. “Hey, Lindsey wants to say hi. Here.”
“You still alive?” Pete relaxed at the sound of her voice. It was scratchy but familiar.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
“Yeah, well, Lewis had his boxers in a twist wondering if you’d gotten trampled by a cow or eaten by a bear.”
“Hah. Nothing that exciting. My dad fell.”
“So he broke his leg and can’t walk.”
“Who’s going to keep the farm running?” After a beat of silence, Lindsey answered for him. “Oh, you. Think you can handle that?”
“Don’t have a choice. I can do it.”
“Holler if you need help.”
“Bye, Lindsey.” Pete mouthed “I love you” into the phone, just like he did every time he talked to her and no one was around to see. Some day he planned to tell her for real, but he somehow doubted it would happen soon, or that it would be well-received.
“Dude, you know I’ll help you. I can come over after school and you can show me what to do.”
“Thanks, Lewis. Let me see how things are going first, and then I’ll let you know if I need help. Okay?”
Pete hated to turn down his best friend, but Lewis doing manual labor was as impractical as Sarah painting her nails tonight. The ending would be ugly and twice as much work to fix.
“Yeah, I guess. Okay.”
“So what’s the rumor?”
“Oh! Someone started the rumor that you got kidnapped by a Bigfoot. You were milking the cows or shoveling shit or whatever, and it picked you up and carried you off. It was a girl Bigfoot. She wanted to have her way with you.”
Pete signed and closed his eyes. Lewis had insisted he’d seen a Bigfoot on their property when they were in seventh grade. Each year, the story got more and more outrageous. Now it was a joke between them, except Lewis still swore he saw something weird that day.
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“I’ll survive. See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Okay. Tell your sister I said hey.”
After a quick shower, Pete slipped under the covers of his narrow bed and fell into the deep sleep reserved for those who truly know what it is to work hard.
* * *
[LONG-LOST CHARACTER PROFILE – SOME OF THESE DETAILS CHANGED BIG TIME!]
NAME: Julianne Bienville
HEIGHT: 5’ 7” WEIGHT: 150
BIRTH DATE: HAIR: auburn/brown
EYES: blue BIRTHPLACE: Mobile, AL
OTHER FACIAL FEATURES/OTHER APPEARANCE DETAILS: freckles, pretty, but unsure of this. Fair skin, in the prime of her beauty;
DRESS (Style, colors): Stylish but not enough for her mother – likes to be comfortable
DESCRIPTION OF HOME: out of a magazine, “Traditional Home”, mix of family antiques and high-end Ethan Allen-type pieces; restored Southern Victorian, damaged in Civil War but renovated; belongs to her father’s family. Bedroom is periwinkle blue and white toile.
FAMILY : overbearing mother who is a bit abusive (see profile); father is largely absent; older brother is in college; maternal grandparents are still living; paternal grandfather is deceased; paternal grandmother is involved with older gentleman.
Sees self as: awkward, mother undermines self-esteem
Is seen by others as: a bit mysterious, shy, weird, but likeable; best school subjects are music and English and history.
Sense of humor: GREAT! Contrasts with her mother’s lack
Temper: A bit fiery
Basic nature: sweet, kind
Ambitions: to leave Alabama; go to Juilliard
Educational background: private high school; wants to go to Juilliard in NYC but her mother doesn’t want her to go north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Habits: twirls her hair
Talents (when character looks good): plays piano with real talent
Hobbies/pastimes: scrapbooking (gets teased for this); photography
Choice of entertainments: Like to frequent piano bars on the wrong side of town
What trait will make character come alive?: Humor, vulnerability;
Why is character loveable? Sense of humor, wants to get out of Alabama, falls in love for first time
PERSONAL INTERVIEW WITH CHARACTER (responses in his/her own voice)
OCCUPATION: Uhm, I don’t have an occupation, but I go to school and I’m in lots of extracurricular activities. And I take piano lessons and practice a lot, so that doesn’t really leave me time for a job. But I would totally get one if my mom would let me. But she says it’ll look like we don’t have any money if I go get a job that pays minimum wage.
FAVORITE PIG OUT FOOD: Honey-roasted peanuts – they have protein, right? So they’re not all bad.
NOBODY KNOWS I AM: dating my new piano instructor. He just moved here from NYC where he graduated from Juilliard, where I want to go. He’s 28, so my parents would freak, but he really thinks I’m good and could get into Juilliard. He’s going to help me put together my audition.
I WISH I COULD STOP: Uhm, no one’s going to read this, right? Well, then, I wish I could stop cutting myself. I only do it now and then, and only when I’m really upset, and I don’t really cut myself, it’s more like scraping. I just have this pair of scissors in my room and sometimes I scrape the skin on the inside of my arm. I try not to do it in the summer when it’s so hot out and I have to wear short sleeves. Really, it’s not that bad, but I still wish I could stop.
THE WORST PART OF MY LIFE IS: my mom. I don’t really want to go into details, but let’s just say she’s mental. Seriously.
I WANT TO TEACH MY CHILDREN THAT: I don’t know if I want to have children so I can’t answer this.
A GOOD TIME FOR ME IS: when I get to sneak out to Felix’s, a piano bar in downtown Mobile. It’s kind of in the “bad” part of town so my mom would freak if she knew I was going there, but they have the best jazz and Dixieland players. I have a fake ID and I look older, plus they know I never drink, so they let me in. I just go to listen and soak in the atmosphere, you know?
THE WORST ADVICE THAT MY FATHER GAVE ME WAS: Hah! “Listen to your mother” or “Do what your mother tells you.” Right. Like he has a clue.
I THOUGHT I WAS GROWN UP WHEN: IDK. Am I grown up yet? I’ll be 18 soon, so I guess that means I’ll technically be grown up. I’ve had people tell me I was born an adult, but I’m not sure.
WHEN I FEEL SORRY FOR MYSELF I: lock myself in my studio and play and compose.
MY FRIENDS LIKE ME BECAUSE: I can get almost anyone to laugh. I love cracking jokes. But not mean ones, at least, not usually. I’m a good listener, too. I try not to judge and I try not to give advice unless someone asks me.
MY PET PEEVE IS: that my parents are so racist. They don’t like that my best friend is bi-racial. There’s this weird segregation thing still going on in Mobile. I don’t know if it’s this way everywhere, but I can’t wait to get to NYC where there are people from all over. No one cares there.