Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is happy to welcome Sarah Black to our blog today. Ms. Black’s book The General and the Horse-Lord is being released today at Dreamspinner Press. I can pick out a Sarah Black story or character because of her distinctive characters and style of writing, both of which have turned her into a “must read” author.
To mark the release of The General and the Horse-Lord, Scattered Thoughts and Sarah Black is giving away one copy of her novel to one lucky person chosen from those who comment on her guest post today. Winner will be chosen at the end of the day.
Here Ms. Black gives us some insight into how she creates her characters or maybe that is how her characters demand to be written.
Soap Making for Boys and Men
I walked up the stairs to my son’s new bedroom and looked at the empty soda bottles on the floor, right next to the new trash basket with its pristine white bag. “I would not want General Mitchel to see this room, son.”
He said, “Who’s General Mitchel?”
“Um, he’s the main character in my new book.”
“Pick up that trash. Pronto.”
My son is used to living with fictional characters, but I admit the men in my new book have moved into the house with us and appear ready to stay. I like these guys a lot. The two main characters, General John Mitchel and Gabriel Sanchez, are my age. They feel like my peers in many ways—we were both in the military together, and went to war together. They were in Kuwait in 1990, and so was I. They served during Haiti and Somali and Bosnia and Grenada- names that are immediately understood by veterans of our age.
I was challenged to write the character of John Mitchel by something I read in a book on writing—not sure now which book—but I read that it is very difficult to write a character who is smarter and more accomplished than the author. Naturally I determined to do that very thing. Then I read a passage written by Hallie Burnett, whose book Fiction Writer’s Handbook I have always found to be an excellent guide. Though she makes a strong distinction between genre and literary fiction, I’ve always found her advice very high caliber. And it’s my goal to try to do more than I know how to do. Anyway, she said something about how difficult it was to write truthfully about love.
So I decided to write a character who was smarter and more accomplished than I, and to tell the truth about the way he fell in love and the way he behaved when his love was threatened. Like all characters who have a strong POV, this character sees some things about himself very clearly, and in other ways he does not know himself at all. Very much like me. I tried something, writing his character, that may backfire on me. I noticed the way people can be extremely accomplished in some areas of their life, and utter fools in others.
When I joined the Navy Nurse Corps in 1981, I worked with many women who had made the choice of career over family- a real hard line, then, because they kicked you out if you got pregnant. That rule had only changed a few years before I joined. So I could see these women, very passionate about their work, very smart and tough, but sort of clueless about men and women. They didn’t know how to have relationships because they had never had the opportunity. Relationships take practice!
General Mitchel gave it all up for the work he did for the country. And he is clueless about love, and relationships, sort of numb to the whole thing, which is the way people protect themselves when they have been forced into an untenable situation. So I hope I have written him to show this dichotomy. I really like him. He reminds me so much of those tough girls, the Navy Nurses who had been in Vietnam on the hospital ships, and who gave it all up so they could have the life they chose to have. They trained me to be a military nurse. Anywhere, anytime, anything. We didn’t just say that. We did it.
So this is why General Mitchel is refusing to discuss soap with me. He doesn’t see himself as a person who wastes time on nonessentials like handmade soap, not when you can buy a three pack of Dial soap at the PX for a dollar seventy nine. Eventually he and I are going to get to the bottom of this and I will have his soap. But for now, I have been working on the soaps for the other men in the story.
Gabriel Sanchez- oh, we are so in love with Gabriel, have been for twenty-five years, since he was a hot shot young helo pilot. He has rich warm depths, great passions, great sorrows, great courage. We are ready to swoon over this man. He’s down to earth, so I tried some woodsy scents, cedar and pine and fir, and he’s mysterious and warm, too, with hidden depths in his dark eyes, and massive passion, so I tried some sage and lemon verbena and cinnamon, scents with heat, and he’s sweet and funny and he has a weird little quirk about eighties dance music, so he needs something light, as well. I lined up the little glass jars and got out my Q-tips.
This is how you make scent combinations for homemade perfume and soap. You put a drop of essential oil on a Q-tip and put it in a sealed glass jar. Then you smell it, you wait a couple of hours and smell it again, and then you smell it the next day. All different! Then you try some combos, and drop two Q-tips with different scents into the jars together. You weed out the ones you don’t like. Then you mix three Q-tips. Gabriel’s scent is cedar and sage and orange. I’ve been walking around the house with a little glass jar held up to my nose. I bet the neighbors think I’m smoking a hookah. Swoon! It’s him. We are so in love. John agrees. He was not enthusiastic, until he smelled Gabriel’s scent. Then he asked me to make him some soap. It crossed his mind what the bathroom would smell like, when Gabriel was in the shower, using his new soap.
Kim is a delight, a beautiful boy who laughs before he wakes up in the morning. John has loved him since he was a baby, when Kim crawled madly to him across the crowded floor of a Korean orphanage. He’s talented, passionate, throws himself headlong into Quixotic adventures, and never looks before he leaps, because his darling Uncle John and his Uncle Gabriel will always be there to catch him. He’s young, too, as clear and bright as a waterfall. Kim wanted to help make his soap, and has been playing around with colors- he’s swirled two colors of soap together, lemon and blackberry, and his soap is as beautiful as he is. It smells good enough to spread with butter on warm toast.
Billy and his father, Cody Dial, are next on the soapmaking block. Billy Dial doesn’t know it yet, but he is the sort of genius artist who changes the world. Sometimes that sort of talent can tear holes in you. I don’t know yet what’s going to happen with Billy. He is going to play a critical role in the new story, and may even get to be the hero.
His father, the ex-bullriding champ Cody Dial, fears for his talented and delicate son. He doesn’t know what to do to keep him safe, and if he could cut off his right hand to protect Billy, he would gladly do it. Cody Dial runs a ranch up in Wyoming, and he needs a strong soap, soap that actually gets your hands clean without taking the skin off. I’m thinking of making him some soap with cornmeal, which I think will be more gentle than pumice. He admits he likes the smell of the flowery perfume his wife wears on their anniversary, they have date night once a year, but he doesn’t think that smell would work for a cowboy. He does think that sage isn’t a bad smell. Or horses. The leather tack is okay.
Billy is just a bit frail, and I’m worried about him. His soap is going to smell faintly like lilies of the valley, and is going to be very white and gentle.
Abdullah, oh, what a sweet boy. He just plays a tiny part in this story, crucial but tiny. His book is coming, but what sort of soap? The dusty smells of ancient Persia, orange blossoms? Some slight scent of tragedy, and great beauty. Rosewood? Abdullah plays the cello. What does cello music smell like? Bach’s cello suites? Classic, formal, delicate. White roses and orange blossoms and sandalwood.
Still nothing for our main character. He’s standing over my shoulder, saying, “Don’t you have some medical records to finish? For the job that actually pays you?”
“Yes, General, I do.”
“Perhaps the prudent thing to do would be to proceed as if this writing is a hobby. You do, after all, have a family to support. According to one of your publishers, you sold 6 books in the last 3 months. From all vendors.”
“Sir, that is true. But I have not explained to you how important this is to me. How hard I am willing to work. How much I believe in the power of my fiction.”
“Very well, Ms. Black. Then I might suggest you spend some time learning marketing skills.”
Ouch. He doesn’t pull his punches, this guy. So I will have to play with my synesthesia later. Here’s a bit from The General and the Horse-Lord about Kim:
Kim had been the darling of his tiny Catholic orphanage in Seoul. There was no question, from the moment he had crawled delightedly into John’s sister’s arms, which baby they were going to take home. John’s sister and her husband stayed with him on base while they worked through the lengthy system for foreign adoptions. The Koreans required a six month wait between the initial application, done in person, and the final award of adoption. When they had gone back to the States for their six month wait, John had walked the two miles from his quarters to the orphanage nearly every evening to check on Kim. Kim would see him from across the tiny playroom and would climb over the furniture and any playmates in his way to get to his big uncle. The boy would reach his leg, then tug on the cuff of his pants. Two tugs, and John would reach down and pick him up. It was their secret signal. Kim still did it, though John couldn’t believe he remembered that far back. When he was in trouble, when he’d been so outrageous he’d scared himself, he would curl up next to John and give his sleeve a couple of tugs. And John knew it meant that his baby needed to be picked up, lifted high above the scary world.
And here is Gabriel:
Gabriel followed him home from the restaurant, parked his pickup truck behind John’s in the driveway. Inside, John pulled out the Kona Gold coffee beans from the cabinet and put a handful in the grinder, listened while Gabriel settled into the couch. He stretched his arms out along the top of the couch, laid his head back and sighed. His eyes were closed, his face relaxed. Not many people got to see Gabriel like this.
When the coffee was finished brewing, John carried a couple of mugs into the living room and handed one to Gabriel. He set his cup down on the coffee table and settled down next to him on the couch.
“So what’s been happening with you? You’ve been in practice about six months. Is the law what you were hoping it would be?”
Gabriel had his nose in the cup, smelling the rich coffee. “Yeah, it’s good. Fine. Not…”
Not like the Army. He didn’t need to say it. John felt it too. “You miss it still?”
“Yeah, me too. But it’s a young man’s game.”
Gabriel had finished law school the year before, deciding on a mid-life career in public service. John also suspected he was doing it to make Martha happy. She’d been a good Army wife, following him across the world, managing the family while he was deployed. John thought she would like being a lawyer’s wife.
“I don’t like the young lawyers right out of school much. I sound like an old man to myself, looking at them and thinking what a bunch of selfish, spoiled little pricks they are. Money, money, money. You could take the whole crowd of them right off a cliff following the sweet green scent of money. I don’t know, John. I look at them and think, who the fuck is left? Where are the leaders? Is there an ounce of fortitude in any of them? They get hysterical when they can’t remember the pocket where they stowed their phones.”
John picked up his cup and drank the coffee down. “Now you know why I had a shit-fit and pretended to flunk my entire freshman class. Not that I think it did any good. I just wanted to see if any single one of them would stand up and admit they hadn’t a clue because they’d bought their papers.”
John shook his head.
“I like the practice, though. It’s like the law firm of last resort. For the clueless and the desperate. And the broke. I don’t think I’ll ever have a pot to piss in. But I’m always happy to stick a thorn in the fat asses of the establishment.” Gabriel reached out and took his empty cup. “You want a refill?”
“No. I think I’m going to grab a quick shower. Finish what’s in the pot if you want.”
John stepped into the shower off his bedroom, gave himself a brisk scrub-down. He toweled off and wrapped the towel around his waist. Gabriel was waiting for him, sitting on the side of the bed. He’d undressed down to his boxers, clothes neatly folded over the back of a chair. He reached out, pulled John closer by the towel around his waist. He leaned forward, moved his warm mouth across John’s shoulder, up his neck. “I love the smell of Dial soap on your skin.” He pulled the towel away and gathered John into his arms. “My old friend. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you.”
“Hello, Gabriel.” John reached up, traced his fingers along Gabriel’s strong jawline, across a mouth that had always curved into a smile at his touch. Gabriel moved his hand down into the curly brown hair that covered John’s belly and chest, still mostly brown, with just a few notes of silver. Gabriel said the silver looked good, matched the color of his eyes.
General John Mitchel and his favorite pilot, Gabriel Sanchez, served together as comrades and brothers-in-arms for more than twenty-five years. They followed the warrior’s path: honor first, and service, and the safety of the tribe. Their own needs for love and companionship were secondary to the mission. Retirement from the army, however, proves challenging in ways neither expected.
When old warriors retire, their armor starts falling away, and the noise of the world crowds in. That changing world sets up longings in both men for the life they might have had. After years of loving on the down-low, the idea of living together in the light seems like pure sweet oxygen to men who have been underwater a little too long. But what will it cost them to turn their dreams into truth?