Bill Cameron is the author of dark, gritty mysteries featuring Skin Kadash: County Line, Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. Bill’s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler, as well as the Portland Noir, First Thrills, and the forthcoming West Coast Crime Wave and Deadly Treats anthologies. His work been nominated for multiple awards, including the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery, the Left Coast Crime Rocky Award, and the 2011 CWA Short Story Dagger Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently trying to get a handle on a new character.
I'M NOT A 16-YEAR-OLD GIRL
by Bill Cameron
You might notice something about me: I'm not a 16-year-old girl. In fact, I have never been a 16-year-old girl, though I once knew a drill sergeant who begged to differ.
So it was with some trepidation that I tackled the story of the teenaged Ruby Jane Whittaker in County Line. What do I know about being a 16-year-old girl? Hell, at my age, I barely remember being a 16-year-old boy. Clearly I was out of my mind when I set foot on this path.
But the way I see it, if the writing isn't hard, it's no fun. I want to explore characters well outside my range of experience. With each book I've written, I've tried to put myself in a life I've not lived, whether it's Eager, the skate punk of Day One or Jake, the damaged killer in Lost Dog. Skin Kadash himself is a stretch. Though there are pieces of me in him, he and I are more different than alike in many ways. Still, compared to many of my characters, Skin is a comfortable pair of well-worn loafers.
To me, reading is about understanding. And through understanding we gain empathy. Whether we're reading for escape or for a challenge (or both), I think our greatest takeaway is our world grows larger. As a writer, I see the same process at work, only magnified. It's been said writers need to know everything about their characters, right down to the color of their underwear, even if it never appears in the story. We can't limit ourselves to the character on the page, but must see the character beyond the page.
So when I turned my attention to young Ruby Jane, I endeavored to know as much about her as possible.
And what do I know about being a girl becoming a young woman? On one level, not much. How could I? Aside from the fact I'm a middle-aged man, we're all islands living inside our heads. We don't even share a present with those around us, as the speed of light itself restricts us to ever reacting to events infinitesimally in the past.
But on another level, I think there's a fundamental humanity we all share. As Haley Isleib, friend and fellow writer, said, "We're all people." And how do we come to understand the people close to us? We listen.
I'm a reader even more than I'm a writer, and to the extent I've captured the essence of Ruby Jane's young womanhood, I owe a debt of gratitude to other writers. Fiction may not necessarily be about facts, but it is about truth, and from it we can gain great insight into what it means to live other lives.
Of course, though I sometimes forget it, life is more than reading. I'm a father of a daughter, now a young woman herself. She's elegant and intelligent and beautiful and funny. I learned a lot from her watching her grow up. And she has friends, and my own friends have sons and daughters. As writers, as readers, as people, I think we are well served to open ourselves up to the experiences of others. When we listen, we learn to feel, and our lives are enriched.
My goal with Ruby Jane was to express an understanding of a life I will never lead, to honor a pain I can never feel and to celebrate a strength I hope I never need. It's a goal I have for all my characters, a goal which grew out of seeing what others have shared through their own stories.
So my question to you is what characters have leapt off the page for you and enlarged your own view of the world?