Memphis in the Meantime

by J.T. Ellison

It’s very hard to introduce a new character into a series.

Honestly, that’s not true. It’s easy to introduce a new character into a series. The difficulty lies in bringing said new character to life, giving them a purpose, a role, a reason. Doing it seamlessly is what’s so hard to pull off.

There. That’s better. Now that we’ve established the ground rules…

What if you’re an American writer, and somewhere deep in the recesses of your brain a character is born who isn’t going to be easy to write because he’s not anything you have any experience with. He’s not even from your own country. And you haven’t got the foggiest idea of how to make him come to life.

Meet James, the Viscount Highsmythe, officially called my Lord, but more commonly known (in my mind and his work) as Memphis.

What?

Exactly. This was what I saddled myself with. Don’t ask me where he came from, he simply appeared one day, cleft chin and all. And in the way of all stubborn characters, he simply refused to be anything but. James "Memphis" Highsmythe is the son of a Scottish Earl, works for the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard, lost his wife (who looks eerily like Taylor) and his unborn child. He got the name Memphis because his mother was an Elvis fan. He’s got blue eyes, blond hair, a strong jaw and is exactly Taylor’s height. And he’s not subtle when it comes to wanting her.

Excellent. Wonderful. I know who this man is inside and out. But I haven’t the foggiest idea of what he sounds like. And herein lies the problem. Not only is my command of British vernacular limited to Bridget Jones’s Diary, I don’t have any idea about the written form. Despite a valiant attempt on Lee Child’s part to help —

Me: "Lee, just say "Please, do call me Memphis." 

Lee: "J.T.," shaking his head sadly, "Memphis sounds the same no matter how you want me to say it."

— I still had no idea what he sounded like. Sigh.

I’ve been writing this book (EDGE OF BLACK, 9/09) for months now, killing myself trying to get Memphis’s voice in my head, watching Oxford Blues (mistake #1) and interviews with Hugh Laurie (mistake #2), trying to get the wording right. You can’t write British phonetically, I found out, it just doesn’t work well. And no matter how faithfully you try to recreate the right sounds, it doesn’t work.

I went back to the drawing board a couple of times. What was important about Memphis was the parallels in his life to Taylor’s. Privileged upbringing, idealistic natures, a strong sense of right and wrong. He had to be someone who – despite the fact that she’s very much with Baldwin – she found attractive. Which meant humanizing him, making him real. I found all the universals for Memphis — family issues, career issues, woman troubles — everything that an American male would have common ground with. But then I stumbled across a real problem.

Memphis, who is coming to life on the page bit by excruciating bit, ahem, had an erection to deal with.

And I was in his point of view.

And I don’t know what the Brits call an erection.

And that’s not exactly the email you want to be sending to your few British male acquaintances: "’Scuse me, can you tell me what you Brits call a woodie?"

So I called upon our glorious

Zoë. I could see her arched eyebrows all the way here in Tennessee.

Zoë immediately jumped into the fray with me, pointing out that what a regular British male might call an erection is completely different from what an upper class British peer would call an erection. We spent a glorious afternoon trading slang terms across several time zones and a wide blue ocean, both of us cracking up on our respective computers. Her husband and my husband got quite a charge out of it too, I’ll tell you. Really, what’s two nice girls doing with the gutter talk anyway???

When we hit upon ‘sporting a stalk like a spotty youth,’ I knew I was in serious trouble. Zoë, in a kindness that was so far above and beyond the call of duty, offered to read the pages Memphis was on, and make sure I was hitting the mark with his terminology.

Suffice it to say I accepted, and got myself quite an education. I was so far off base, if Zoë hadn’t saved me, I would have made a real fool out of myself. I had a character named Penelope who went from uneducated British to Cockney to Irish and back all in a single sentence. Yikes. She was just a good British girl, and I mangled her to pieces.

Aside from the most egregious of my errors (and one rather massive generalization that I thought was completely obvious but was surprised to hear no longer mattered) what struck me was how by simply changing a word here and there, Memphis started to sound like an aristocrat. He came to life. He fulfilled his role, and his purpose. And I learned a very difficult lesson.

If you’re trying to be authentic, you must, must, must do your homework. I did mine, and it wasn’t right, because I didn’t realize just how complicated the class structure is in the UK, and how very different each segment of society sounds. We don’t have that here. There’s educated and uneducated, and regionalisms that are dead giveaways (hoagie, sandwich, grinder, sub, anyone?) But we don’t delineate our class structure by our accents.

This carries over into any kind of research you may be doing. If you’re writing about guns, you need to get the guns right. If you’re writing about medical terminology, you need to be accurate. Accuracy is what makes you a reliable author, one who the readers trust to give them the right information. As a writer, I am certainly not an expert. But I sure need to sound like one, because my characters ARE.

This is true of anything. Jews writing Christians. Blacks writing whites. Southerners writing New Yorkers. Knitting aficionados writing about murder. Anytime you write about something that you aren’t intimately familiar with, you have a chance. A chance to make it right, or a chance to screw it up. A little extra effort, and the good luck to have the right people to ask, can make the difference between a good book and a great book.

You know, I had a horrible time writing this book. For the first time, I honestly thought I might miss a deadline because it JUST WASN’T WORKING. When Zoë stepped in and bailed me out, all of the little pieces I was looking for fell into place. For the record, she also made a tiny little comment that blew up the entire end of the book, which I had to rewrite this week. And thank God she did, because the book is ten times better for it. I was able to turn it in yesterday, at 3:00 p.m., a full two weeks early.

When you step outside your comfort zone, you have an opportunity to shine. Or to fall flat on your face. You MUST be open to criticism, to hear that you got it wrong, in order to have a chance to make it right. You have to check your ego at the door and open your mind. Otherwise, why are we doing all of this? For our own edification? Naw. We want to create stories that the reader remembers long after they close the cover.

Writers, have you ever researched completely outside your comfort zone?

And readers, just how much are you willing to forgive a writer who makes mistakes in a book?

A small P.S. –

My new Taylor Jackson novel, 14, is set to release on Tuesday, August 25. Rumor has it (okay, it’s not a rumor) Amazon and B&N are already shipping copies, and it’s slipped into a couple of stores (Walmart in Maine? You gotta love that.) You can order your copy here or here, and please, don’t forget to support your independents. Here’s a link to Indiebound — you can find a local indie store that’s carrying 14 through them. We’ve also launched a brand new website, designed by my intrepid and patient husband, which still needs some content updating, but has information on my tour schedule, etc.

Next week I may talk about how surreal it is to have two books on the shelves, or I may just regale you with stories of my search for the perfect margarita during a much needed break at the beach. We’ll see what I’m up for : )

Wine of the Week: I have to do it. I’m not proud of myself for this, but I’ve always vowed to be honest here on the blog. I’ll admit it now: I drank "champagne" from a can. And liked it. It’s called Sofia Blanc de Blanc.

22 thoughts on “Memphis in the Meantime

  1. Ally

    That’s not champagne, it’s sparkling wine. If you like drinking it from a can, well… good for you. Just mind you don’t have any of your European characters make the same mistake, we’re quite particular about that sort of thing!

    Best of luck with the new book.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, JT, sometimes I despair of ever getting some things through to you.

    “And that’s not exactly the email you want to be sending to your few British male acquaintances: “‘Scuse me, can you tell me what you Brits call a woodie?””

    Sweetie, there’s not a British male I’ve ever met who wouldn’t be delighted by the question and more than happy to – uh – help. And it’s not AS dangerous to ask it by e mail…

    But you were fabulously lucky to have Zoe step in for a polish – now I really can’t to read the book!

    WIll look for 14 at Quail Ridge tonight at Margaret Maron’s launch. and report back.

    Reply
  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Hey, JT. Congrats on 14. I’ll look for it in St. Louis. You really need to come up here for a visit.

    As I alluded to in Zoe’s blog, I am writing a Brit killer into my second book. Getting the dialog right is getting difficult so I’m sure I’ll be looking for a consult down the road.

    Oh, I have a killer Marg recipe from a Mexican joint in Ft. Collins, Colorado. They have a strict limit of 3 per night. It’s needed.

    Reply
  4. R.J. Mangahas

    JT — I once set a story (I think I was still in high school) completely in London. I figured I’ve seen a couple of different shows and movies with British people. I thought I had it right. Hoo boy, was I off. Glad I learned to REALLY look into a subject I wasn’t familiar with.

    By the way, loved the cover for JUDAS KISS and I can’t wait for EDGE OF BLACK.

    Reply
  5. billie

    Congratulations, JT, on 14’s release AND the turning in of the new one. You must be floating right now!

    I left my comfort zone in the first book when a SF soldier marched into a nightclub and grabbed my main character to dance. Suddenly I was immersed in reading about guns and military and elite units, and quickly found that wasn’t enough.

    I was very lucky to be allowed onto a private list where I could hang out and ask questions. But my favorite part of that research was when I decided to interview some of the WIVES. I met a woman who has since become a friend at a restaurant for breakfast (in our local army base town) and she ordered a shot of whiskey! I knew I was in for a gritty, wonderful time, and she made it happen.

    For several years I had dreams about Blackhawks and inserts and missions I myself was involved in. Funny how involved we can get in our fiction, isn’t it? I had forgotten that for a while when I was quite young, I wanted to be a spy. 🙂

    Reply
  6. pari

    JT,Congrats on the new book! I’m on my way to Las Cruces but wanted to get that shout out in before hitting the road.

    Also, as far as champagne in a can . . . my friend tried it and said, “Well, they managed to make champagne taste like lousy beer.”

    Different strokes for diff folks.

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  7. j.t. ellison

    Tash, you’re meeting him sooner than you think ; )

    Will, I didn’t even think about that. I was actually surprised — and full disclosure, it was the last adult beverage of the evening — I might have felt differently if it were the first. But it was surprisingly good, a little fruity, but hey. It was free.

    Thanks, Louise! I refuse to get behind the eight ball again — I’ve been a big mass o’whine for the past month. Never again, she says. Never again.

    Pari — I can attest that it doesn’t taste remotely like beer. I detest beer, loathe it with every fiber of my being. I can’t even smell it. So it definitely didn’t taste like beer. : ) Travel safe!

    Reply
  8. j.t. ellison

    Billie — I want to meet this woman who orders shots for breakfast! I can imagine that was an eye opener. I really do believe it’s the mark of a good writer to get taken in by the tentacles of research and discovery. Just think of all the stories you an write now. And all the stuff you can blow up : )

    RJ, I did the same think in college. I set a ghost story in a British seaside town, complete with what I thought was proper dialogue and constabulary. Sadly, it wasn’t even close. The story held up, but not the setting or characters. Thanks for the kind shout out about JK and 14! I’ll officially debut my cover for JK next week. It’s so awesome, Mira has outdone themselves.

    Back to Will — I do need to add St. Louis in. Maybe for JK or Edge. I’m heading to Colorado for tour the first week of September — maybe I’ll leg it up to Ft. Collins and try one out.

    Alex, it was just too open for interpretation. Too open. I imagine I would have gotten more than I bargained for. Honestly though, Z made it so much for for me, and taught me so much. I will be forever in her debt!

    Ally, please forgive me. I meant to put “champagne” in quotes last night, but it was late and I’m brain dead. : ) I’ve got it fixed now.

    Reply
  9. tess

    Two weeks early?!! After all those struggles, you still managed to turn it in TWO WEEKS EARLY?

    That calls for champagne out of a bottle, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  10. JDRhoades

    JT, can’t wait for the second book!

    And boy, Brit killers are thick on the ground, it seems.The WIP I just turned in to my agent brings back Mr. Phillips, the Hammett-loving mercenary sniper from SAFE AND SOUND (this time around he kills time between killing people by reading Swierczynski). I just love that guy.

    But now you’ve got me paranoid about the accent and idioms. Oh Zoe, darling….

    Reply
  11. Zoe Sharp

    JT – as I said before, you are entirely welcome. It’s a great book and, as I said yesterday, I can’t wait to read the final version ;-]

    I’m a big believer in pay it forwards. A lot of people have been incredibly nice to me since I joined the mystery community, and I was glad to be able to help.

    And Dusty – you know where to find me …

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  12. JT Ellison

    Brett, thank you! If there’s anything I should know about launching the second, let me know.

    Tess, after the meltdown Tuesday night, I still can’t believe it myself. I’ve now learned that nervous breakdowns are good for the soul. I’m at the airport now and about to start celebrating. Heavily.

    Dusty, that is weird. Of course, last year several of us did severed hands, so a British invasion is tame by comparison

    Z, that’s my philosophy too. Pay it forward. I have been overwhelmed with kindness this year. I want to give back. so

    Reply
  13. Catherine

    JT I’ve been commenting like a mad woman all week on Murderati as I’ve caught the last of some winter bug going on around here. I’ve been laid up in bed with a book binge and copious amounts of tissues and every now and then when I’d need water I’d lurch out and read some murderati. It’s kept my seclusion from being boring.

    Then at the very end of the week, when I’m finally feeling better I’m greeted with the timely reminder of your next book and the next one again waiting in the wings.

    Had to laugh at your intercontinental dilemna re:erection….and yet it is the type of detail that either rings true or can fall flat . Yay for Zoe, and your own intuition telling you to run it past her. It’s actually quite a feather in the cap to be called on as an erection expert. lol.

    Also the new website looks good…congratulations to Randy for his hard work.

    Good luck with the Margaritas…

    Reply
  14. j.t. ellison

    PK, you read my mind. I loved the name too — so haughtily overdone.

    RJ, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about.

    Catherine, you made me laugh so hard I nearly spilled my margarita. Nothing like an erections expert. Feel better!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  15. Fran

    We have “14” at the shop and I’m reading it now, so soon it will be plastered with Staff Pick stickers, I can tell.

    It’s odd, the little things that pop me out of a book. A local guy had me read a short story set in El Paso, and he had his protagonist “look out over the steppes”. Threw me completely. I mean, yeah, they are, but we never referred to them that way. From a New Mexico standpoint, the steppes are in Russia. We got us foothills and mesas and things. Right, Pari?

    (And have fun in Cruces! Eat at the Kiva and tell George we said hi!)

    Congratulation, JT, on getting the right research, getting the voice right, and getting the book in early. Woo hoo!

    Reply
  16. Um Omar

    Great information about research and finding someone who can “speak” the language you are striving to acheive. I have a great idea in my head, but I know that I know nothing about the subject area and I am scared to death to botch it up. Thanks for some ideas.

    Reply

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