Buried Treasures: Treats for the Watchful Reader
For me, writing is a lonely sport, thousands of hours invested in a novel with only sporadic feedback from my critique group and beta readers. In early drafts, when I'm focused on building characters and weaving plots together, solving the puzzles that make a novel sizzle provides its own thrill. The grind of revising later drafts can become tiresome, though, and I find myself yearning for more entertaining tasks. One I particularly enjoy is planting buried treasures for watchful readers to find. (I'm easily entertained--ask me the capitol of any state!)
Some of these little Easter eggs are identifiable only to a limited audience (like significant dates, meaningful numerology, and "coincidental" character names or descriptions), but others take the form of homages, themes, and trivia I hope will intrigue others.
For example, movie fans will like the way Frank Paine, my protagonist in King of Paine, thinks. He's a former Hollywood stud who's joined the FBI in search of redemption for his excesses. He draws inspiration from his old acting mentor and the way respected actors have handled various predicaments on film. In one scene, Frank throws a punch at an armed adversary and then has immediate regrets:
Hand stinging, Frank bounced on his toes like a boxer, poised to deliver another blow if Zack wanted to duke it out. The big guy’s surprise showed in his blue eyes, the only feature he shared with his kid sister. He looked like a denim gorilla. An angry denim gorilla with a forty-five caliber, FBI-issued Glock.
Frank recalled the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where an Arabian swordsman dazzles Indiana Jones with his ferocious blade work until Harrison draws his pistol and slays him with a smirk and a single shot. Maybe we should’ve thought this plan all the way through, old man. His mental image of Lee Fields shrugged. That’s why we have rewrites, Frankie Boy.
I love movies, and these homages to notable actors and films are littered throughout the story. Frank's status as a former insider also created some irresistible opportunities to poke fun at the Hollywood scene. I crack up every time I re-read his troubling flashback about Jack Nicholson in a Speedo at a Playboy Mansion party. (As mentioned earlier, I'm easily entertained.)
Tributes to authors who have inspired me also dot my writing. While my novels read at contemporary thriller pace, some themes and devices are drawn from surprising sources.
Umberto Eco's Foucalt's Pendulum can be dense at times, but the story is amazing (spoiler alert). When an intellectual's research unearths a medieval list which could be interpreted to describe a centuries-long conspiracy, or not, a group of pseudo-conspirators take up the ancient cause with tragic consequences. In my first novel, The Jinx, a young lawyer inadvertently discovers a cryptic poem hinting at a 140-year conspiracy against the American presidency. In case Eco's influence was not apparent, a character in my novel recognizes the similarity of the presidential conspiracy to Eco's contrivance and speculates that the poem may be the work of pseudo-conspirators like in Foucalt's Pendulum. This uncertainty whether the scheme is real or imagined propels the suspense in the early going.
King of Paine more subtly honors another favorite, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. While that story rants against the alienation of wealth producers who ultimately rebel against over-taxation by fleeing to a hidden free market commune, King of Paine suggests that focusing on achievement and greed at the expense of family and tradition can lead to alienation of a different sort. Lonely seniors are drawn to another secret haven where a reclusive biochemist is either curing or killing them with a mysterious new drug. See if you can spot my own take on Rand's classic "Who is John Galt?" line, a literary device that creates suspense without any action or threat whatsoever.
Another understated theme in King of Paine takes cues from classic fiction. I've been running a contest on my website in which a $50 Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift certificate will be awarded to the first reader to correctly identify all three literal and figurative references to a legendary novel buried within King of Paine. One is easy, but no one has found all three yet. Can you?
Hiding Easter eggs in books may seem trivial (okay, it is trivial), but few things give me more pleasure than when a reader gets excited about finding one. After I left my first law firm in 1992, I lost touch with several valued colleagues. A few months after The Jinx came out, a senior lawyer called me out of the blue after recognizing an expression he invented (look for my hero's "clong"--the sickening feeling of one’s stomach accelerating into the throat--and the stunning twist that prompts it). My old friend's joy in being honored this way was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a writer.
So if you read one of my books and discover a buried treasure that makes you smile, drop me a note. Maybe I'll name a character after you!
I hope you'll join me tomorrow when I visit Alive On The Shelves for a guest post entitled “When Eye Candy Fights Back: Adding Depth To a Love Interest.” It's about Jolynn Decker, Frank Paine's feisty ex-girlfriend, who alternates among suspect, tease, lover, sidekick, and victim in King of Paine with the ease of a more experienced actress. Speaking of teases, would you like to win a Kindle Touch 3G before Christmas? Check out the contest on my website!