Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Guest Blogger: Ridley Pearson, author of Killer Summer

Today, I have the honor of welcoming author Ridley Pearson to the pages of Somebody Dies. His latest novel is Killer Summer, the third in his series featuring Sheriff Walt Fleming. Below, Pearson has some very interesting things to say about the origins of the character.

When Real Life Characters Inhabit Fiction

It's interesting and challenging to write "about" a real-life character, especially one who has been a friend for the past twenty-plus years. I first met Idaho's Blaine County Sheriff, Walt Femling (the fictional Sheriff Walt Fleming in the Killer series) when recruited by him to serve on a board evaluating the need for a new county jail. At the time, I was an up-and-coming crime writer, with a (slightly) recognizable name in a (very small) local community. I think Walt believed my presence on the board might lend visibility to the goal of winning public support for a new county jail. (If so, I failed him in that regard — read on.)

Our county jail was in miserable shape. Built thirty years earlier, it had no means to accommodate privacy needs of female inmates, an "exercise" yard about the size of a picnic table, and — I kid you not — "hatches" between hallways that resembled submarine hatches that required, for instance, a stretcher (with the sick inmate on it) to be turned sideways in order pass through. The board, myself included, decided a new jail was the right idea given that we were constantly being sued by inmates that the current jail was not up to regulations — it was not, so those lawsuits were being won, costing the taxpayer unnecessarily.

The bond needed to fund the constructions of the new jail went to vote and was defeated (see above!). Then again, six years later — defeated. And, I believe, defeated a third time as well. But you get the picture: no new jail. The board was disbanded after the first election loss, but my friendship with Walt Femling had just begun.

When, a few years ago, I decided to write a series of suspense thrillers set in Sun Valley, it was clear to me that, if permitted, I would base the protagonist on the real-life Walt. Trained, in part, by the FBI, once the president of the Western Sheriff's Organization, known and respected nationally, Walt was both an avid outdoorsman, family man, politician (Sheriff is an elected office), and consummate investigator. What attracted me to the idea (of the series) was both the access I would have to Walt, the relative abundance of weird and unusual real-life crimes for such a small community (about 10,000 full-time residents spread between three towns), and the huge amount of personal wealth in the area. I mean, these people are rich. "Rich" with a capital R. Their millions have zeros after them, sometimes two or three zeros.

But this is fiction, and fiction requires conflict, both externally (story) and internally (character). If I wrote about Walt's real life (thinking: real crime) readers would either: 1) not believe it 2) lose interest. 1) because the real life Walt is smart, incorruptible, a terrific father and husband, and a true public servant in all the good ways; 2) because without conflict, fiction has no engine to drive it.

So my job, as creator/writer of the series was to fill the fictional Walt with foibles, a failed marriage, a strained relationship with his father, a brother who likely committed suicide (as yet unconfirmed, years later). A nephew who has lost his way. A sister-in-law who can't stop talking. And on and on. With Walt's cooperation and blessing (he'd been reading me for years, so I was lucky!), I got to work.

During the course of the first draft of the first book (Killer Weekend), I sent it off to Walt to review my police and legal work. What came back was a phone call saying that I'd handled the technical work well, but "What's going on with Walt? Jenny [Walt's real-life wife] is asking if you have it in for her or something?" (My portrayal of Gail, Walt's soon-to-be-ex was, to put it mildly, unflattering.) He was concerned about how I'd painted his father, who, again in real life, is charming, smart, and fiercely proud of his warm and wonderful relationship with his son the sheriff.

I had to walk Walt through the difficulties of trying to craft crime fiction — conflict; reluctant, flawed, "heroes." He's very well read and grasped immediately what I was up to, and calmly commented that he didn't mind the character — he liked the character, but maybe it shouldn't carry his name. We talked. I offered to change the name. In the end he graciously relented, and allowed me to keep it, lending the books a realism, at least for the two of us.

I teethed in series writing with Lou Boldt/Daphne Matthews series, a series I've continued in an anthology or two, and hope to return to in long form soon. Boldt and Daphne (yes, I think of them as living, breathing people; so sue me) have taught me some useful lessons — some of them hard lessons — about the challenges of series fiction. I've made series mistakes, some of which I've had to work around or even reverse, often time-consuming and difficult (creatively) choices/solutions.

Hopefully I won't make the same mistakes in the Killer series (now three books "deep," with a fourth to completed soon). But I will probably make others. When creating a series you are stretching character and plot developments over thousands of published pages; you are stringing together hopefully compelling and suspenseful events, again for both story (plot) and characters; you are constantly working to keep your protagonist both believable and larger than life — a delicate and often tricky line to walk.

The rewards are worth it: I enjoy writing both stand-alones and series; but in the end I think series characters are given a chance to live with you and the reader for a long, long time.

I hope Walt Femling feels the same. I always to try to provide a happy ending: Two years ago, after a 15-year effort, the jail bond was approved. The new Sheriff Offices and county jail opened a year ago — it's an amazing state-of-the-art facility and should serve the county well for decades to come.

— Ridley Pearson

1 comment:

klromo said...

Ridley Pearson - thanks for your blog post - it was very interesting and informative. Glad to see how you handled entertwining the fact with the fiction. Also, I love your books. My late father was an avid fan and got me hooked as well. Thank you for the great characters and great books!

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