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Most novels that feature mentally ill characters annoy the $#%!@ out of me. They’re stupidly unrealistic. I’ve worked with mentally ill people in an institutional environment and otherwise have experience dealing with mentally ill people, and it’s nothing like what most authors write as fiction.

People, if you’re writing a novel and you don’t have personal experience dealing with mentally ill clients, *DON’T*. Just don’t. Because out of ignorance and stupidity you’re just feeding into stereotypes that don’t at all reflect reality, sometimes with tragic results.

As for my current novel that I’m wrapping up (The Doorways of Winter), I don’t have any mentally ill characters in there. Some criminal characters, but not mentally ill ones. But that’s because treating mental illness with the subtlety and thoroughness that it deserves was well beyond what would reasonably fit into a novel that has nothing to do with mental illness. Plus I admit I follow my own advice — I’m not sure I could give it the treatment it deserves, thus simply don’t.

– Badtux the Annoyed Penguin

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91,300 words. That’s how far I am in writing the novel right now. I’m aiming for 120,000 words, so we’ll see how far I get towards that goal.

I have photo albums here. Old photo albums, old family photo albums. Some of the people in these albums are people that I knew when I was growing up, great-aunts and uncles, cousins of various degrees. Others… I have no idea.

There is one photo in particular that I look at from time to time. There are a number of children gathered on a swing set in early 70’s attire, complete with bell bottoms and button-up vests. I know three of the children in that photo. One of them is dead now, dead of diabetes that she refused to control. Two others are still alive but it is many years since I saw them last. In this photo they are young and healthy and dressed in that groovy early 70’s way, and will be forever like that in my memory.

Someday all of us will be gone, and then someone will come across this photo, and look at it, and then throw it into the trash. Because without the memories, it is just a photograph of some children, children that no one remembers, children that no one would ever know.

Went into a dark place for the past few thousand words of the story. It will get lighter. Sort of.

– Badtux the Writer Penguin

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At the climbing gym

[Emma has been trying to conquer one route for most of the time they’ve been there, over and over again.]

“She’s very stubborn,” said an older climber to Mara during one period while Mara was resting between climbs. “Too bad she didn’t start five years ago, that kind of determination could have taken her to the top.”

“Yeah,” Mara said softly. “Too bad.” Five years ago, Emma had been busy being beaten by a father who wanted to toughen her up, and by a brother who simply enjoyed beating up people smaller than him.

Just more evidence that the land of opportunity held opportunity for only some people, not all. Still, she heard enough from the network of “uncles” to know that Russia itself was more brutal than ever, making America, as brutal as it was, look almost like paradise by comparison. There was no place there for a Natalie, or for most of these young happy people testing their bodies and their will against these climbing walls. She supposed that a land of opportunity for some was better than land of opportunity for none.

If only there were other possible worlds that were better than this one….

But how could Mara find them? She had read the books. The majority of the world for most of human history had been horrific for women. Due to the need to outbreed disease and war women of necessity had become little more than brood mares throughout most of history, impregnated as soon as it was likely a baby could be brought to term then repeatedly impregnated until dying in childbirth or of simple exhaustion in hopes that at least two children and hopefully three or four of the dozen or so born managed to make it to adulthood. If it had not been that way, the human race would not have survived. It was not a life that led to opportunity for women. It was a life of brute survival.

The chances that any world through the doorways was at a level of development where women could be more than just brood mares was slim. Of the thousands of years that civilization had existed, and the hundreds of thousands of years since modern man had evolved, conditions for women had become acceptable only the past fifty or sixty years and only in certain civilized parts of the world. It was an almost impossibly slim amount of time.

Emma’s anger as she attempted to climb an unclimbable route, over and over again, was not a new anger. It was an anger held close by women for many, many years. Thousands of years, maybe tens of thousands. The anger of a life curtailed by a universe that cared nothing for fairness and nothing for dreams. It was an anger that, Mara feared, would consume Emma in the end. And there was all too little that Mara herself could do about it.

[note — at 63,000 words now]

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There are doorways

A quarter mile away, Emma pulled her bicycle over to the side of the road and stepped off of it and let it fall to the sidewalk as she sat down on the curb and buried her head in her lap. Mara pulled up beside her and carefully put down the sidestand and leaned her bike on it, then sat down beside her. Emma was panting for breath, coming down off an adrenalin high, crashing hard. Mara just put a hand on her shoulder, waiting.

Eventually Emma straightened up and turned towards Mara and said “God, I was so fucking terrified. I just centered myself and said to myself I was going to be badass and… that came out. I didn’t even know what I was going to say or do and… it just happened.”

“That was the most impressive thing I’ve seen in my entire life,” Mara said sincerely. “I couldn’t even tell you were terrified until at the end when you said as much and your hands started shaking. I’ve never seen anybody do anything like that in my entire life.”

“Well, you’re just a kid,” Emma said, smiling. And Mara smiled back. Yes. Yes she was. And she’d mentioned that to Emma a lot, when Emma was looking to her for answers that she didn’t have or that Emma needed to find for herself.

“You are an impressive person,” Mara said seriously. “That took courage.”

Emma smiled. “I guess I am impressive.” Then her smile fled. “Too bad it’s all for evil. At the end of the year he’s going to put me to work as a distributor. I’ll be selling evil shit to school kids, probably. That’s what Lakes do in this town. That’s part of the deal. He quits beating the crap out of me and I join the family business.”

Mara closed her eyes. “I wish….”

“Yeah, me too. But what’s that saying you’re so fond of? It is what it is.”

“Reality sucks,” Mara said.

“Yeah.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes while Emma slowly calmed to normal, both thinking about that. But there was something else bothering Mara.

“When you said you would come back from the dead again… your brother didn’t think you were joking.”

Emma turned her head to Mara and touched her forehead, pushing her hair back slightly. “See this scar?”

“Okay,” Mara said. It looked like it’d laid out a nice flap of Emma’s scalp, there would have been a lot of blood, but it shouldn’t have killed her.

“When they killed my mother for not wanting to be part of the family business anymore… they killed me too. Todd clocked me with a steel crowbar and knocked me woozy but mostly just opened up my scalp. Then they threw my mother’s body and my tied-up self down a mine, and laughed as I begged them to come back. I quit begging after a while.” She turned over her wrists, and Mara realized there was a series of small scars there. In the area where a rope would have tied her wrists together. “I managed to scuff through my ropes on the rocks. I was lying in a pool of my own blood by then, feeling a bit woozy from blood loss, but then I could bind up my wounds and stop the bleeding. So they drove home, and when they walked through the door, I was sitting on the sofa watching television, wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing except clean not covered with blood and dirt, with just these scars to show that anything had even happened.”

Mara puzzled over the story. It made no sense. How had Emma gotten from the bottom of a mine to beat her father back home?

There are questions where, if you don’t know the answer, the world makes sense as an orderly place where the laws of cause and effect hold sway, where the unexpected always has easy answers that make sense. But if you ask the question, and receive an answer, then it is as if all of reality rests upon quicksand, anything could happen, anything makes sense.

Mara asked the question. “So how did you pull that one off?”

Emma looked at Mara as if wondering if Mara would think she was crazy if she answered the question. Then Mara saw Emma make the decision that she didn’t care what Mara thought. And then Emma spoke and Mara’s world shifted off its axis and nothing was the same again.

“You see,” Emma said, “There are doorways…”

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Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. — Margaret Atwood

I was contemplating how a female protagonist in a mystery/thriller of necessity has to work differently than a male protagonist. Too often if a man is writing a female protagonist, she’s either written drop dead Hollywood gorgeous as an idealized sex toy, not as a real person, most of whom aren’t drop dead gorgeous and most of whom aren’t tall and thin. Or if he believes himself to be a particularly enlightened writer, she’s depicted basically as a man with boobs. But given the difference in size in and of itself that last can’t work. She has to operate with her wits and tongue and friends in low places, and if necessary fleet feet, not her fists, because trying to get into a one-on-one physical matchup with someone who outweighs you by sixty pounds and a shit-ton of testosterone-fueled muscle is a fool’s errand. She isn’t going to engage in the sort of monkey dance shenanigans that boys and men get up to (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve never observed the beginning stages of a schoolyard fight between boys, which are more about monkey hooting and howling than about actual fighting), and if she needs to kill someone she’ll just kill him, preferably with a distance weapon, she isn’t going to try to hammer him to death with her bare hands or do all sorts of posturing and talking about it. There isn’t much room for error in the life of the bad-ass woman protagonist, so if she has to get physical she will do so with the most deadly weapon possible as quickly as possible because if the bad guy gets his hands on her, she’s toast.

Add in sex. Sex works different for women. Sex for most women requires a lot more trust than for a man, because of that difference in size and strength. Despite that, women have sex drives too. Yet most depictions of female protagonists by men have their female protagonist either be basically virginal and asexual with no discernable sex drive, or have her slinking up to villains to use sex as a weapon. But you can’t use something as a weapon that a villain can basically just take from you. Neither of these extremes, asexuality or hypersexuality, are normal or healthy. Depictions of healthy sexual relationships between men and women in fiction with female protagonists, especially in the mystery/thriller genre, seems oddly scarce. One of the things I like about the fiction of Janet Evanovich is that her female protagonists do have a healthy sex drive and some healthy sexual relationships. But then, she isn’t a male writer.

There is a scene in “The Doorways of Winter” where the female protagonist has basically the same thought as Margaret Atwood above, knowing that this murderous drug dealer she is dealing with in an attempt to save a girl’s life could kill her with his bare hands with no more thought than swatting a fly and there would be very little she could do about it regardless of any bad-assitude on her part because she is just physically too small to deal with him without a firearm, which she doesn’t have. What she does have is a support network including both a retired cop and some very scary relatives to call upon to convince him that it would be a bad idea. But for women without that support network or without the wits and tongue to enlist them in support and convince the potential abuser that their existence means attacking her is a bad idea, well, that explains the domestic violence statistics.

Which is why the first thing domestic abusers do is cut women off from their support networks…

Do I think that it’s possible for a man to write a realistic female protagonist? I think the answer to that is “maybe”, but not easily. I sort of dodge the question by writing female protagonists who aren’t normal in some way. They were orphaned and abused, or raised by a predator to be a killer, or otherwise have an abnormal background that can be used as an explanation for them behaving in ways that normal women don’t behave. Still, I try not to treat them as men with boobs and instead make them abide by the same realities that normal women have to abide by, such as the realities of physical limits compared to most of the men they’ll encounter and things like bras and birth control and periods, and try to give them a relatively normal and healthy sex drive. I also try to avoid stereotypes. I don’t always succeed, but (shrug). So it goes.

– Badtux the Fiction Penguin

Exercise: “Depict a woman in your fiction.”

Okay….

Emma put the food on platters in the middle of the battered table, then put out plates and silverware, worn spoons and forks and steak knives on pieces of paper towel. Emma nodded at Mara. Mara nodded back and walked to the door to the garage and opened it to the sight of a large tattooed man working on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and Todd drinking a beer leaning against the opposite wall. Todd saw Mara at the same time that Mara said “Dinnertime!”

The large tattooed man turned. He had greasy black hair and was wearing a wife-beater t-shirt and blue jeans and combat boots that looked all stompy. He looked at Mara up and down, looked at Mara’s red sneakers and brown cargo shorts and khaki t-shirt and short brown hair, noted the solidity of her build but also clearly noting that she was fairly small and not a physical threat to him, and then said “Who the fuck are you?”

Not depicted as a seductress or sultry or a sex object. Could be gay (note, she isn’t), but could also be just a strong willed person who is practical and annoyed by pants that have insufficient pockets for all her treasures and hair that is a pain in the rear to take care of and gets in the way of her doing things she wants to do. Not at all the sort of description that I usually see of women (or a teenage girl in this case) in fiction written by men.

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“You were right and I was wrong,” Mara said. “I went into the situation not knowing enough. I could have been killed.”

Mara’s mother smiled on her end. “Yet you were not. I am very proud of you. Not many fifteen year olds can walk into the lair of a predator and come out getting more than they expected, and few of them are fifteen year old girls. I am not pleased that you disobeyed my direct instructions, but I am pleased that you proved to be the person I believe you to be. Someone of consequence. Someone to be taken seriously. Even at age fifteen. When you grow up you will be something spectacular.”

“I was channeling you,” Mara said quietly. “I was thinking, what would Momma do? Then it was on autopilot. I just did it, what I thought you would do, without thinking about it. When everything changed, when I realized that my assumptions were wrong, I didn’t even need to think about what to do next, I just did it. I… I guess I should thank you for that. All those years observing you, observing how you think, how you handle things. Not many fifteen year old girls get to grow up with someone like you.”

“I remember when I realized, when you were eight years old, when I realized that you being quiet was not you being a sheep, it was you observing. I am pleased that your observing worked so well. But Mara… don’t do anything like this again against my direct instructions. You swam into dangerous waters, and you still have much to learn.”

“I understand,” Mara said.

“Still. Also understand that I am pleased that you proved someone of consequence. Do not squander that. I will talk with you later.” Then she signed out.

Mara’s mother… Mara understood that her mother did love her, in her own way. Her mother was who her mother was. It made her happy when her mother called her someone of consequence, someone to be taken seriously. For people like her mother, that was perhaps the ultimate compliment.

How was she going to teach that to someone who had not spent fifteen years observing a predator?

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[Note: Earlier that day Mara basically verbally kicked an abuser in the balls, saying “I am only sexually attracted to men. Too bad you’ll never be one.” One of the abuser’s friends has now tracked down Mara and is trying to convince her to go easier on his friend. Mara is still 15 and this is in the school cafeteria.]

“I live two houses down from him. We’ve been friends since we were little. But when he got to high school… he’s not… smart. He got angry. He started doing things he shouldn’t do and taking it out on people around him like his little sister. He’s not a bad person, really, he’s just….”
“Weak,” Mara said.
Will looked down at his own tray. “Yeah.”
Mara ate another mouthful of food and Will picked at his.
Mara continued. “He models his behavior after his father, who is also weak and scared that someone will discover that. They abuse that girl to make themselves feel powerful. That is evil.”
“Evil is a strong word,” Will said. He didn’t look like he disagreed. Just having trouble stomaching it.
Mara shrugged. “Every day, we make a decision about how we will live life that day. Every day we choose. He has made his choices. So be it. He is what he is and nothing you or I say or do will change that, in my experience.”
“You’re not talking like a Russian anymore,” Will noted. “You’re talking like someone from Southern California.”
Mara replied in Russian, “I am Mara Kramarov from Moscow, Russia.” Will, of course, did not understand a word, though he may have picked up her name and the word “Rosiya”. Mara continued in English. “English is not my native language, so I try to imitate whatever seems to be an appropriate accent. Unless I am being very formal and Russian. I sound very Russian then.”
“What… what were you in Russia?”
“I was a child of course,” Mara replied. “What, you think every Russian child comes out of the womb as a KGB agent with a dozen ways of killing people? No. My mother is a police agent and she hired me as an interpreter to translate for some bad people, so I have seen bad people. I have conversed with bad people. None of them turned good. It may happen, I suppose, but not in my experience. Once someone has made the choice to be evil they do not choose otherwise.”
“But Todd didn’t really choose, it was sort of chosen for him…”
“He could have chosen otherwise. You, you are not evil. You are concerned about your friend, that is not the act of an evil person. He could have modeled himself upon you rather than upon his father. There are likely others in the community that he could have chosen as his role model. He did not. He chose. He continues to choose. If you feel otherwise feel free to prove me wrong and convince him to not do evil. I will admit I am wrong then. But only then.”
“You are very cynical,” Will complained.
“I am Russian,” Mara said. “If our winters are not trying to kill us, our government is trying to kill us. Cynicism is our national sport. But as I say, feel free to prove me wrong. If so, I will admit I am wrong.” She glanced at her watch, realized lunch period was almost over, and started eating faster.
Will was picking at his food. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. Pointlessly, Mara thought.
Mara swallowed the last of the mixed vegetables, then slurped down the applesauce. Her tray was empty. She looked for where to take the empty trays and spotted it. But before she stood up she gave Will some advice.
“You do what you can. You do what you must. You do what is right. You make that choice, every day, to do what is right. That is what you do.”
“You make it sound easy,” Will complained.
“No. Never easy. But every day you choose what kind of person you will be. Will you choose the way of good and stand up and do what is right, or will you choose evil? That is your choice, every day. Choose.” And Mara stood up and took up her tray. She saw Will looking troubled. But there was no more advice she could give him.

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