Ask the Skeleton!
I recently asked my Facebook friends if they had any questions about the Family Skeleton series, or on mystery writing in general, and they come through with a bunch of fascinating ones.
Just for context for those who haven’t read the books, my Family Skeleton series features adjunct English professor and single mother Georgia Thackery and her best friend Sid the Skeleton. That is not a nickname. Sid is an ambulatory skeleton. He walks, he talks, and he makes horrid bone jokes. Other characters include Georgia’s older sister Deborah, her teenaged daughter Madison, and Byron the family dog.
And on to the questions!
A.C. asks, “What are some of story design questions you had to solve in order to use a "live" skeleton as a character?”
Can Sid detach his bones? Does it hurt? If the bones are separated, which one carries the personality? What senses does he have: taste, touch, hearing, smell, sight? Why does he talk without any of the usual equipment? And that’s just for starters—every book requires me to think it through a little more thoroughly.
For the record, the answers are: yes, no, the skull, all except taste, and because I didn’t want to write about a skeleton mime.
B.M. asks, “You seem to be quite familiar with the "adjunct lifestyle". Direct experience or research?”
Thank you, but it’s all research. I have a friend who was a longtime adjunct faculty member, and she pointed me to other firsthand accounts. Plus it turned out that some of my Facebook friends were or had been adjuncts, and were happy to share stories. It was a real eye-opener. More recently there have been several national news stories about how hard it is to live on an adjunct salary—a frightening proportion of adjuncts need food stamps to get by. I’m just as glad I never lived that life.
S.O. asks, “Does your skeleton age? Does anyone have hip replacement?”
Sid hasn’t aged yet—goodness knows his sense of humor is as juvenile as ever. He has broken a bone or two, but a little Super Glue and he’s good to go.
D.A. asks, “Have you ever thought about skeleton re-constructing? Similar to facial reconstruction?” This was followed up by the following from L.M.: “I like what D.A stated- a facial reconstruction. Let Georgia met a guy who can do that and let him make Sid look human for further adventures. So my question is- is this possible? I thought I read it one of the books Georgia was sort of thinking of it or Madison did.”
Interesting idea, I probably won’t do a facial reconstruction on Sid or anything more drastic. By the end of the first book, Georgia and Sid know who he was before he died, and they’ve seen photos, so they don’t need any more documentation than that. Nor do I think that facial reconstruction would work as a disguise—the face would still have to move. Besides, Sid is very proud of his physique as is, and doesn’t feel the need to cater to cultural norms.
That being said, Sid will be wearing a costume that enables him to go out in public in the book I’m working on now.
K.Z says, “The mother/daughter and Sister/sister relationships are very believable. How important is family to you and how does that manifest itself in the Family Skeleton books?”
Thank you. You can give my first editor Ginjer Buchanan credit for the mother/daughter part. I’d originally pictured Georgia as a younger woman, unmarried and without children, but Ginjer thought it would be more interesting to make her a mother of a girl geek, and mentioned The Gilmore Girls as a model. I’d never seen the show, but I do have teenaged daughters, so Madison is kind of a meld of my two girls.
As far as my family goes, I lost my mother and one of my three sisters to cancer, within of two weeks in late 2012, and I suspect a lot of that emotional energy has gone into the series. I miss them both every single day.
R.B. asks, “What's it like to take Sid on outings with your family. Any funny stories? Any strange reactions from the public on seeing Sid or seeing you and the family interacting with Sid?”
Okay, I admit to carrying a tiny plastic skeleton in my pocketbook, and posing him for photos whenever I get a chance. (See Facebook for proof of this.)
One of the funniest stories was when I was at Disney’s Hollywood Studios over the summer, and went to the 50’s Primetime Diner for lunch. The servers all show attitude, telling customers to eat their veggies, and sit up straight, and so on. After we ordered, I asked our server if I could take a picture of him with a skeleton. He totally dropped out of character and said, “Okay, I’m going to do it, but I have to ask why.” I explained, and he went on his way. A minute later, a waitress sauntered over and said, “I hear you have a skeleton. Can I see it?” She posed for even more pictures. So I guess that counts as one confused reaction and one intrigued one.
D.S. asks, “How does having a fantastic character affect how you put together a realistic mystery?”
First off, thanks for calling Sid a fantastic character. He likes you, too.
But seriously, one could argue that no cozy mystery is realistic since the number of adjunct English professors researching murders is fairly low.
Putting that consideration aside, I’d say just a little. Since I usually write about amateur sleuths, I always customize the murder plot to the skills, abilities, and background of my main character. So when I was writing about a computer programmer, one of the mysteries involved computer code; when I was writing about a freelance entertainment reporter, it took somebody who knew TV trivia to solve a particular crime. So now the mysteries have to require Sid-like shenanigans to reach a resolution.
M.O. asks, “How does having a skeleton as a protagonist influence the types of stories you can tell? What advantages/disadvantages does a crime solving skeleton have in comparison to a typical protagonist?”
Officially, Georgia is the protagonist, but just as Sherlock Holmes gets all the glory from Dr. Watson, Sid tends to steal the spotlight.
The types of stories aren’t that wildly different from what I’ve written before: murders, friendships, a little romance, families. Sid just adds a bit of a different spin. No wonder he gets all the glory!
For a writer, the advantage of having a skeleton is that it helps me around the age-old problem for writing about amateur sleuths: Why don’t they let the cops do their job? Once Sid gets involved, Georgia can’t bring in the police, so it’s up to the two of them. Plus Sid doesn’t sleep so he’s great for researching the web all night long, he fits into small spaces without need for ventilation, and he’s terrific for guard duty.
I’ve had to edit E.Q.’s question just a bit to avoid spoilers, but the bare bones of his questions (har!) are, “Did Georgia get back the abandoned pieces of Sid at the end of the first book? She could claim that she wanted to put them in an urn as a memorial, seeing as how he had no living relatives.”
She wouldn’t have wanted to ask for the bits back because the police already thought she was a weirdo because of some of the other events in that book. The memorial for pre-skeletal Sid is interesting. I think that Sid has pretty much put that part of his existence behind him, since he doesn’t remember it, but now that you ask, maybe he’d want to look at his roots some day. Say in Sid #4. Excuse me while I jot some notes.
A.H., another writer who recently finished her first novel, writes, “What do you do after you write The End?”
I cheat. When I start a new manuscript, I take an old manuscript file, delete everything but the first and last page, and save it as the new file. So The End is already there. Looming.
But when I do finally get to those taunting words, I save repeatedly, just in case. Next I tell everybody around—family, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, guinea pigs. Then I go to bed. I usually write in to the wee hours of the morning, so by then I’m tired!
D.M. asks, “Did you have to do any kind of research before writing the book?”
I do, and I hate that a lot of it never goes into the book. I’ve learned how to clean a skeleton and how long it takes, but so far I’ve never had the opportunity to describe the beetle colonies that a lot of museums and universities maintain to clean their specimens. That’s right. Beetles!
With the book I’m working on now, I’ve found out that haunted house workers track how many times they get people to, um, lose control of their bladders during a season.
I have a great job.
Z.H. asks, “Will we ever learn of Sid’s origins? Will you ever write him a skeleton companion or pet?” S.G. adds, “Can Sid ever get a girlfriend?”
Sid’s origin story was pretty well outlined in A Skeleton in the Family. If you’re asking about how he came to life, so to speak, when a mommy skeleton loves a daddy skeleton very much… Otherwise, Sid prefers to remain a man of mystery.
The Thackery family has a pet, a dog named Byron. Sid doesn’t like him. Dog, bones… I think you see the problem. Otherwise, Sid plays on a game site called Neopets, and has several virtual pets. That’s enough for him.
As for companions of a skeletal nature, if there are other living skeletons in other family attics, Sid has never heard of them. Would you tell anybody if you had a skeleton living in your attic, closet, or armoire?
When it comes to women, I can see Sid having a flirtation or two with women over the web. Surely that can’t cause any problems. (Cue ominous foreshadowing music.)
D.S. asks, “Is Deborah's attitude towards Sid a form of sibling rivalry?”
Now that you mention it, it probably is. But the way I usually think of it is this. Georgia and her parents are all academics, and not the most practical people. Deborah, on the other hand, has her feet firmly planted on the ground. She wants the world to make sense, and face it, Sid does not and never will make sense.
H. D. asks, “How did you come up with the idea for the series?” and V.K. adds, “Love Sid, how were you able to develop a character like him?”
This is embarrassing, but I don’t remember. I do know I’d had this idea floating around for a solid ten years before I pitched it to my editor, never thinking it would sell. The best I can reconstruct is that I was noodling over the idea of a supernatural mystery series, and I already knew of such great ones with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, witches, and so on. Nobody had done skeletons.
And he didn’t actually develop. Sid came out of my head exactly how he is now. The voice, the sense of humor, the sweetness. I had to rewrite and adjust Georgia, who went though half a dozen name and age changes. Big sister Deborah was originally a brother. Madison and Byron were added late in the game. But Sid was Sid from the first paragraph I wrote about him.
G.A. asks, “Will Sid ever develop arthritis?”
Nope. Arthritis is usually either a problem with the cartilage, the synovial membrane, or an infection. Sid has no cartilage or membranes, and nothing to infect. There’s also juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, but that only affects people who are sixteen or younger, so he dodged that bullet, too.
Now for a couple of more writerly kinds of questions. H.D. asks, “Plotter or pantser?”
In other words, do I carefully plan out my plots, maybe with post-it notes or different color hightlighters? Ha! That sounds too much like work to me. I work purely by the seat of my pants.
B.G asks, “How far is too far in a cozy? Have you ever wanted to write something but stopped yourself, saying that your readers wouldn’t like it? Have you ever had an editor tell you you’ve crossed a line?”
I’ve made a couple of missteps when it comes to cozies. The first was dropping the F-bomb in the first of my “Where are they now?” series. Frankly I wasn’t expecting the book to be marketed as a cozy, and I did it for comedic effect, but it was and not everybody has my sense of humor. That won’t happen in the Family Skeleton books because Sid uses his own kind of profanity. As in, “Coccyx, I forgot to feed my Neopet!” and “That ossifying piece of sacrum!” It’s rather satisfying.
My first go at a plot for A Skeleton in the Family went too dark, and my editor nudged me in a lighter direction. She was absolutely right, too, and not just to fit me into the cozy box. It would have been a huge mistake to get dark and gritty with Sid—the book wouldn’t have worked.
Without bribery from me, L.M. asks, “My major question is will there be more Sid books? I love him.”
Sid loves you, too!
I’m working on the third, and it will be out next October. As for more, well if I weren’t typing right now, I would have my fingers crossed that my publisher will want more--I’m having a blast writing them!
I really hope that is you haven't read these books you will get them today and jump right in , Sid is amazing and will win your heart! I got to meet Leigh at Malice is she is an awesome Lady and had a wonderful costume there!
Get to know her and Sid, you will be very glad that you have.