Brevity here is key. But, brevity is often a subjective thing.
I want my biography to read like I was telling a story to a stranger on a long train ride. To begin such a self-serving exercise there has to have been a reason why my listener showed an interest in such an aggrandizing exercise. In my fantasy about the character motivations and biographical references I might mention to my stranger-on-the-train, the listener has read one of my books and enjoyed it; and he, or she, wants to know a little more about the characters, the why, the how, and, some stuff about me. That’s exactly what I’d want to know if I ever got the chance to share an overnight commuter with Walter Farley, Len Deighton, Phillip Kerr, Ian Rankin, Raymond Chandler, or John D. MacDonald…you get my point.
Any author’s bio ought to enlighten a reader to his or her family life, schooling, living environment, education, relationships, and how they affected the choice of genres, settings, characters, themes, and point of view in their writing. Every author who endures includes or alludes to some of their roots in every story they tell. If you came from poverty, were born to wealth, had teachers for parents, or was a working member of a police department, those impressions and memories can’t help but surface. That’s the case with me. Why hide it? Embrace it. It’s all about moving a reader with your own “bio” and your own characters.
I had four siblings. We grew up in rural Western New York. We rode a school bus to a central school. I was unruly and disruptive, regularly punished for being overzealous. I was routinely disciplined with “detention” in the school library. The librarian was an elderly lady (probably early forty’s) who was put in charge of our small group of repeat misfits. As we would gather to serve our “sentences” she would point to stacks of un-filed books and with a slight wave gesture start the process of us returning books to the shelves in compliance with the Dewey Decimal System. I liked holding hardback books.
Mrs. Cummings liked me. She made me an offer one day during my freshman year of high school: “start reading books while your here, write me book reports, and I’ll let you out early.” I vividly remember the first book she suggested…Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Nothing before or after (except girls) had the effect on me that that book did. I became obsessed with the dreamy perception of horses. But most importantly, I became a reader.
For Xmas of my eleventh year (I turned twelve two weeks later) my parents, against all common sense, got me a horse. We converted a small shed behind our house into a stable, put up some fencing, bought a Sears and Roebuck western saddle and bridle, and immediately handed the daily responsibility for Rawhide’s well being and manure removal to me.
Brevity here……… For the next five years my brothers and I experienced the full reality of a horse owner’s life. We bought and sold, bred, raised and trained horses. We were regulars on the 4-H circuit. But, that pretty much came to an end for me at the conclusion of my junior year of high school. The principal of my high school told my parents I was not going to be allowed back in school for my senior year. I had become to “disruptive” to the rest of the students. I was sent to military school for my final year of high school.
Now this next stuff is important for context. The military school was near Syracuse, New York. That’s gonna be important. My year in military school was basically harsher and darker than my public school tenure. I was rebellious, disrespectful, a voracious reader, and punished on a daily basis. I hated the regimentation, the rules, the suffocation of free spirit, and total lack of privacy. I did, however, sense the importance of keeping an open, independent mind.
Now it was on my last day at military school when life threw me another Walter Farley……
On graduation day my parents joined me (their first visit). I had not been home for the entire term. I was confined to the school serving disciplinary punishment for my behavior. As we walked to the parking lot for what I believed would be the trip home. I was told I was not going back home…I was going to be dropped at the harness racing track in Vernon, New York, twenty miles away, where I should find a summer job. My parents assumed my horse background would qualify me for a job. My father gave me fifty bucks and said they’d see me in the fall on my way to college.
That summer’s experience at Vernon Downs is the basis of VERNON FIX: Book 1 of the Michael Butler Saga. The entire Michael Butler Saga (four books) is set in the world of harness horse racing.
More brevity…. In my early twenties I became interested in film, photography, editing, and story telling. I mastered the basics of film making with some bare-bones home movie equipment. I went on to have a fascinating, successful, eye-opening forty-year career in film and television production. There was a long period when all I focused on was honing my craft and advancing my career. But in the early eighties I discovered Len Deighton and his Bernard Samson series. Deighton turned a light on. He wrote with total authenticity and his hero, Bernard Samson, reflected every behavioral trait I had admired in men my whole life.
In the back of my mind I wanted to be a writer and tell stories like Deighton did.
During the latter part of the eighties life settled down for me and, among other things, I got back into horses…polo, to be specific. And, I bought and raced a few harness horses…I was the owner, not the driver/trainer. Michael Butler, the lead character in the Michael Butler Saga, was at times a groom, a trainer, a driver, and eventually, an owner. The Michael Butler Saga follows his career and marriage over a twenty-year span. The hero of The Lucas Bowman Trilogy is a polo player. I gave Lucas Bowman some other interesting proclivities…fast draw competitor, reporter, government operative, womanizer.
I have a vivid memory of the day I started writing my first novel (Vernon Fix). I was spending weekends in Florida playing polo at a small polo club east of Tampa. I was living in a dilapidated mobile home on the backside of the polo club (Lucas Bowman lives in such a place only much more romanticized). One Saturday afternoon I opened a Word document and started writing. I KNEW NOTHING about grammar and punctuation. Any writing experience I’d had were short sentences for documentary scripts where the words basically supported the picture. However, it was so exhilarating to try and tell a story on paper, like I might in a barroom conversation. It mattered not if what I was writing might or might not be any good. It was the satisfaction of doing it. I read a thousand “how to” books. I worried about description, character motivation, being factually correct, could I swear?, too long, not long enough. I didn’t know anything about “action verbs”. But, I plugged away at story and character and, when in doubt, I went back to memory and personal experience. I was so comfortable recalling an actual situation. I couldn’t believe I had such a vivid memory. So often I’d use the basis of my memory and my unchecked imagination to be interesting or fit the time frame, setting, or storyline.
Let’s wind my story back a little more. I have had no formal training for novel writing. But I’ve had an amazing life and times. Novel writing has afforded me the opportunity to take any number of experiences I’ve had and rewrite, embellish, totally make up, distort facts, or change to suit a story as long as I entertain the reader. I’m writing fiction, remember? What I hope makes that fiction entertaining is what so many of the greats I mentioned did…they lift a concept from a newspaper article or their imagination, adapt that story to fit a certain theme or philosophy, mix in personal anecdotes with historical periods for settings, and compile characters based on every second they’ve been alive observing.
I have a fairly clear sense of my characters’ code of conduct based on my own life’s experiences. I have a rule-of-thumb building characters: each major character is morally ambiguous when push comes to shove. Everyone makes their own moral decisions to fit a sticky situation.
In certain genres fictional heroes are excused for their decisions and actions if the story’s outcome satisfies the reader’s imagination…. That’s the stuff I read and write. I hope you’ll enjoy the books I’ve written.