Monday, May 28, 2012


My husband and sometime collaborator (or cohort in crime), Larry K. Collins, is my guest blogger this week. Hope you enjoy his  unique point of view.

Nora Ephron once said that being a writer was like being a wallflower at an orgy. While all those around you are having a good time, you’re standing nearby taking notes.

I’ve found that to be true. As a writer, I observe differently. Every person, event or situation can become fodder for my next novel.

My work in theme park construction provided excellent training in how to view things differently. I’ll explain using an actual event.

One day while working at Universal Studios Hollywood, I found myself trapped on the upper level of the Jurassic Park Show Building with the ride in full operation. Every thirty seconds, a boat containing twenty-five guests would pass my hidden location. As soon as one vehicle disappeared from sight, another would enter the scene. However, escape was relatively easy once you were familiar with guest mentality. No rider, who is not in the entertainment industry, ever looks back!

After the boat passed, I stepped out onto the emergency egress path adjacent to the stream and followed. I was about three feet behind the raft and could easily have tapped a rider in the last row on the shoulder. I had to pause a moment to let the Dilophosaurus (spitter) finish spraying the guests with pseudo-poison. Then, as they stared ahead at the menacing T-Rex and began the eighty-five foot drop out of the building, I exited unseen through a backstage door.

Of course, since I’ve built several attractions, when I’m riding, I always look forward and back. Now, when I ride, I’m noting where they hid the speakers and lights, how the effects and gags are done, and the quality of the scenery. Good effects still impress me, but I don’t appreciate shoddy workmanship.

My enjoyment has not decreased; I just see it differently. I’m still and will always be a theme park junkie.

The same happens with writing.

Sometimes, nearly forgotten memories from personal experiences will appear in my writing. Skinny-dipping off Molokai took thirty-five years to show up in a story of newlyweds on a honeymoon on Maui. I had the incident stored in my memory banks just waiting for use.

More often, I’ll see a person or witness an event and think, “Boy that would make a good story.”

My book Lakeview Park developed from observing interesting people during noontime walks around a local park in Orange County, California.

One day, I saw an old man in crisp white pants, starched shirt, and yachting cap seated next to a young boy in a ragged tee-shirt and cutoff jeans. Each was sailing a radio-controlled model sailboat in the small lake. They looked to be from two different worlds, and yet they laughed together as they shared a common interest. From this brief observation came an imagined story of how they met in “Alex”.

When I watched caregivers lovingly attending to patients in the nursing home where my mother-in-law lived for five years, I said to myself, “I want to write about the devotion and care that these strangers perform, often unrecognized and unrewarded.” Several stories in Lakeview Park, including “George” and “Alex,” were enhanced by these observations.

People and events that cross my path each day become stories to set down on paper. Perhaps being a wallflower at an orgy isn’t such a bad place to be, especially for a writer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Creating Characters

We’re often asked how we create characters. Do they just appear or do we make them up? The answer is “YES”!

The truth is that we sometimes start with a plot, and the characters emerge from that. At other times we ‘cast’ them based on friends or celebrities. Here are a few examples:

We were attending the Maui Writers Conference when Larry got the idea of writing a mystery set at a writers’ conference. So Murder… They Wrote began as his brainchild.

The next day, we met Love Smith and talked to him about ten minutes. As we walked away, I said to Larry, ‘We have to write that guy!” Thus our protagonist Agapé Jones was born. He’s loosely based on Love. However, whenever we see him, we discover that we’re writing what he’s actually doing! So maybe we’re channeling him… And here we thought we were creating the whole story.

For my novella, “Winter’s Song” in the anthology, Seasons of Love, I decided to use our friends Amy and Dan as the inspiration. He’d been after me for years to write their story, and this was the perfect opportunity. (I used their real first names with their permission. Find out what happened after the story here: )

Of course, I fictionalized most of the story. At least I thought I did.

Amy’s mother is a member of our writing group. Several times we’d read a chapter and she’d say, “How did you know about that?” I’d answer, “I thought I’d made it up.” Then she’d proceed to tell me the real story which was eerily similar to what I’d ‘made up.’

For Murder… They Wrote, we decided to create an older lady as one of the suspects. Larry’s speech teacher in grammar school was Countess Elektra Rozanska. I said, “I’d love to use her real name!” “So would I,” he said. So we tried to locate her family without success.

We decided to use her name anyway since she was long gone and she’d have loved being a suspect! So we wrote the character based on her with a few embellishments. (Find out why she was so important to Larry here:

A couple of years after the book was published, we were contacted by her grandson. He was delighted that we had written her as a character, and he agreed that she’d have loved her role. He later contacted us to let us know that, although she’d convinced Larry that her title and exploits were all true, she had actually made up not only the name but also part of her back story! Still, we’re so happy that we could pay homage to this very special person in Larry’s life.

Another special lady in my life was Lovie Cooper. (You can see her photo and read about her on our website ( When we created Agapé, we decided he needed someone to confide in. Thus was his dead mother, Lovey created, based on our own Lovie. She’s really easy to write since I just close my eyes and imagine her talking to me.

When we first discussed our anthology, Directions of Love, I knew I wanted to take the west. I love Hawaii and wanted to set at least some of my novella there. So “Finding Love in Paradise” was begun. I also decided to take advantage of our own experiences even farther west: Japan.

In this case, Kimi grew out of the storyline. She had to be at least partially Hawaiian so she had a connection there. I’ve seen many lovely Hawaiian girls in our many trips to that special place. We also know many young Japanese women. So Kimi’s appearance was based on a composite of them. Since she was raised in the US, her personality, speech, etc. were easy to write.

Her love interest, Jason, needed to be Japanese/Hawaiian for the story to work. Again, he grew out of the story. However, one night we were watching “The Mentalist” on TV, and Detective Cho (Tim Kang) walked onscreen. “That’s Jason!” I exclaimed. From that moment on, Jason looked like the actor.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story. A couple of years later, we were visiting Oahu and decided to spend a day at Queen Emma’s Summer Palace. We were assigned a docent, and when she appeared I gasped. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But you look exactly like a character I created for a book.” I went on to describe “Finding Love in Paradise” to her. It turned out that this young lady shared many characteristics with Kimi. Both were Irish/Hawaiian. Both studied anthropology at UH. Kimi was a docent at the Bishop Museum, and this one was at the Summer Palace.

And once again I wondered just how much I’d made up.

The character of Nan Burton in my new novel Ghost Writer is loosely based on the young ladies I worked with at my last job. I tried to capture their speech patterns and language since they were close to her age.

Max Murdoch, the ghost, was really based on some of the characters portrayed by Clifton Webb in his old movies, particularly Three Coins in the Fountain ( He is an old curmudgeon, egotistic, and insensitive. He’s also a bit arrogant and British like the character Jonathan Harris Played in the TV Show Lost in Space (

Even though I think I made them up, I have a sneaky suspicion that, given my record to date, I may actually meet people like them someday.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mothers’ Day

Since yesterday was Mothers’ Day, I've been thinking about and missing both my mom and my mother-in-love. Letha, Larry’s mother, died six years ago, mine last summer. So this is the first Mothers’ Day without both of them.

Mom had a really rough time after my dad died. She was left with a seven-year-old (me) and a four-year-old (my brother) and no means of support. She made a lot of really tough decisions, among them: to remain in our home in Alhambra, to take a job in the school cafeteria so that she could be home with us when we had vacations, to make it on her own. This was a really gutsy position in 1954 when few women worked at all, and even fewer mothers did.
But we received wonderful mothering from others when Mom couldn’t be there. Our ‘village’ was our close Midwick Tract neighborhood. We always knew that if we needed anything, the neighborhood parents were present for us.

My major surrogate mother was Wilma Sehnert, who lived two doors down. She was funny and caring and irreverent. All the neighborhood kids knew they’d find love in her home. She only had one son, so she treated me as the daughter she never had. The night of my senior prom, a friend offered to do my hair for me, but she wasn’t used to dealing with a mane as thick as mine. The net result was terrible. I arrived home sobbing. Mom sent me to Wilma who combed it all out (we teased our hair at the time), wet it down, and styled it into a chic French roll. Then she cut wispy bangs, and added one of her own tortoiseshell headbands studded with rhinestones across the front. Finally, she did my makeup. I went from utter despair to elation. She’d made me feel like a princess.

That was far from the only time she stepped in on my behalf. Whenever Mom and I had a disagreement (mostly during my adolescence), I’d go to Wilma. She would arbitrate. Sometimes she argued Mom’s position in a way I could understand. But just as often, she explained to Mom why she should allow whatever it was I wanted at the time. I could count on her to be fair and objective.

She was not only a surrogate mother for me, but she played that role for many of the other kids in the neighborhood.

When she died, I was asked to speak at her memorial service. It was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

Another of those ‘other mothers’ in the neighborhood was Laura Lee Graham. She always supported our hair-brained schemes. Several times her daughter, Diane, and I put on variety shows where we sang and danced. Laura Lee taught us the songs and steps and helped us to choose our costumes.
Once, we decided to stage a circus featuring all our stuffed animals. She helped us craft ‘cages’ out of cartons and, once again, assisted with the planning and costume selection.

We were never able to take vacations as kids, but one year the Grahams asked me to go to Yosemite on their family camping trip. The first night, I was bitten by a scorpion in my sleep and developed blood poisoning. Rather than grousing about my spoiling their vacation, Laura Lee rushed me to the emergency hospital, obtained the necessary medicines, and monitored my recovery. I insisted we stay there, even though I was unable to go in the water. The parents gave up their tent so that we girls could sleep inside. They took the air mattresses on the ground. I still remember the campfires and seeing the fire fall. Despite being ill, it was a memorable trip—one of the very few in all my growing up years.

Another significant ‘mother’ in my life was Letha Collins, my precious mother-in-love. She was the Avon lady and started calling at our house when I was five. She seemed very glamorous, and her bright smile was like a magnet to everyone she met. She loved me as a little kid, and that love continued until the day she died. It was mutual.
Larry and I have always joked that if there were arranged marriages, we’d still have married each other. Letha loved me, and Mom loved Larry.

Shortly before we were married, I asked her what I should call her. In our neighborhood, all the adults were addressed by their first names, but she was now changing roles in my life. Her own mother-in-law was ‘Mother Collins’ but that sounded too formal. She asked what I’d like to use. I answered, “Well, I call my own mother ‘Mom’ so how about ‘Mother’ and Murl can be ‘Dad’?” She started to cry and so did I.

She was Mother from then on. She sometimes confused friends because she always introduced me as her daughter. And I never received a birthday card that didn’t say, “To our Dear Daughter.” As far as she was concerned, I was her daughter, not her daughter-in-law.

I have been truly blessed to have been mothered by all of these wonderful women and others as well. And I truly hope that you have been as blessed in your life.

Who played a mothering role for you? For some people it’s grandmothers or fathers, teachers or friends. On Mothers’ Day, I gave thanks for them all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Losing a Job

Even before the current financial crisis, people have lost their jobs. However, as the economy began going downhill, more and more American jobs have disappeared. I’ve been there several times, and it isn’t fun!

The first time, my position ended because the manufacturing company I worked for decided that doing business in California was too expensive. So they outsourced the basic operations to China and the Dominican Republic. The administrative functions, including Document Control for which I was the manager, were sent to Texas. This was one of those special companies where the employees became an extended family. We genuinely cared about each other, and even after our work ended, we continued to meet at least once a month.

I was originally given two months’ notice, but ended up working seven. The company provided lots of resources and assistance with resume writing and retraining. Nearly everyone was reemployed within a couple of months. But that was in 2003.

I moved from manufacturing to banking, a ‘secure’ profession. I was unemployed exactly one day, and only because the bank had that Monday off as a holiday. I was hired as the Document Control Lead in the Information Technology Department. A few years later, I became the Change Manager. 

The bank was a smaller, local one where the employees were very close. We still hold reunions, including one last year at our house.

As the banking crisis began, we started to hear rumors that our own bank, previously the ‘gold standard’ for conservative fiduciary responsibility, might be in trouble. In November of 2008, the FDIC shut the bank down, and another larger institution took over.

This time, the resources provided were few. Since the acquiring bank had its own IT Department, there was no need for most of us to stay on. I assisted with the transition for six months, and then my job ended. This time I was out of work for two months, following which I accepted a contract as a Sr. Technical Writer.

A year later when that contract ended, I was again unemployed for two more months before accepting another contract as a SharePoint Administrator.

Even though I was fortunate to have found employment so soon after each job loss, the period of job hunting was frustrating and disconcerting.

So whenever I hear about a friend or acquaintance losing a job, I truly understand the stress and uncertainty.

This is the situation the protagonist in my new book, Ghost Writer, to be published this summer by Oak Tree Press, finds herself in. Nan Burton is employed as a computer programmer by a bank which is taken over by the FDIC. Sound familiar? I could feel all her concerns and frustrations, which made her story an easy one for me to tell. Have you lost a job in the current economic crisis? How did you cope?