Writing the leading man…from Tom Hanks to T.J. Hooker to Han Solo

As I started writing my second novel, Unattached, I was already well acquainted with the three main female characters–Amanda, Leah, and Zoe.    They are so alive in my head that I have sat in my real life social work staff meetings and wondered which new case should go Amanda.   I knew that my second book would continue with the same characters, but I needed new leads.    Leah, Amanda’s experienced, jaded, fellow social worker felt like an obvious choice for the main character, but the search for the male lead was harder.

My new leading man was going to be a cop, and I wanted him to be different from Jake, who was so Tom Hanks-esque in his sensitivity and support for Amanda that one reader told me, “I loved him, but he’s almost too nice.  Is any guy like that?”

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks

While I think sensitive Jake was the right choice Amanda,  I decided that Leah’s love interest needed to be edgier, more of a mess.   I struggled with how attractive to let him be.   In early drafts, I strayed too far from the typical handsome leading man, instead describing a balding, pudgy jerk that my sister (and best editor) said reminded her of T.J. Hooker.   Um no.  Not what I was going for.

T.J. Hooker
T.J. Hooker

With a sense of urgency to save this Pete Kemper that smarmy fate, I took inspiration from my first movie star boyfriend: Han Solo.

Han Solo
Han Solo

I was first introduced to Captain Solo when I was six, sitting on the sticky floor of the Cinema Unique movie theater in my hometown where they sold way too many tickets to one of the first showings of Star Wars.    One of my earliest memories is looking up at his crooked smile with a happy sigh.

A little more Han Solo, and lot less T.J. Hooker, and Pete Kemper was starting to come to life as he is introduced here in Unattached:

Pete Kemper was blonde and slightly balding (“That’s my natural hairline!” he swore to anyone who would listen), wearing his uniform of a polo and worn-out khakis.   Kemp, already tan from many weekends spent on his boat, had permanent, deep laugh lines around his eyes casting doubt on whether he took anything too seriously.

But readers will find that not only does he take his job seriously, Kemp also has a serious interest in pursuing Leah, who would prefer to remain…unattached.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at local book stores.

The challenge of full disclosure in the Land of Nice

“I need to talk to you about your drinking.”

I am often asked what it takes to be a child protection social worker.      While there are so many necessary skills, none is more important than the ability to be unflinchingly honest and direct, while at the same time being kind and respectful.   As a lifelong Midwesterner, where so many would rather eat hairy soup than find the words to send it back, the challenge in this is great.

“I know you said that you haven’t been drinking today, but you are slurring your words and I can smell liquor.”

What usually follows at this point is shock that these words have been spoken aloud.    These straightforward conversations become part of the trauma of working with child protective services because being direct is so uncommon, and therefore painful.

Midwesterners are often afraid of words.  We struggle with accepting compliments, expressing an opinion, asking for what we need.   Instead we have perfected the art of heavy sighs, eye rolling and stony silence.   But non-verbals, which can be quite effective in communicating messages to those who recognize them, aren’t enough when a child’s safety is at risk.

Don't Speak

“I’m concerned about the impact your drinking has had on your family.   Your kids keep missing school because you are not awake in the morning to help them get on the bus, and they are frequently going to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house.    Let’s ask your sister to stay with you for a few weeks while we get you an assessment.”

When a family becomes involved with Child Protective Services, fears abound.     Families assume that CPS will put their kids in foster care forever.    In actuality, foster care placement is rare, but the possibility of losing their kids looms.

The remedy is supposed to be full disclosure.      We are expected to tell families in clear, upfront language what needs to change, and be just as clear and upfront when we tell them what will happen if they don’t make those changes.

I understand that you don’t like this idea.   But if we can’t agree on a plan to get you help, I may have to ask the court to have your kids formally placed with your sister. 

As difficult as they are, these conversations pave the way for change.     Families understand what is expected, and even though they may not agree at first, most family members do what they need to do.

The conversations don’t have to be limited to child protection workers.    Anyone who is worried about a child’s safety needs to find the words to talk about the concerns and get help.

My novels, Unprotected and Unattached tell the stories of Minnesota social workers who struggle through these uncomfortable conversations.     My books can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and in local book stores.

Jump In

I have to admit that I forgot.

I started this job so long ago, I don’t remember what it is like to not know.

I am starting to hear back from people who have read Unattached.   Some have said that they enjoy the mystery and quick pace, or they love the romantic tension between the two leads, and they are excited to continue with characters they enjoyed from Unprotected.

But I have also heard this:

“The abuse cases were awful.   Does that stuff really happen?”

“The child abuse parts were hard to read.”

I could never do your job.”

The comments caught me off-guard; I genuinely forgot that child abuse is hard to read about.  And then that realization surprised me even more.   When did child abuse become routine for me?  Is this what happens to people who do this job for 20 years?

One of the major storylines of Unattached involves a case of a 2 year old who is severely beaten and suffers a brain injury and multiple broken bones.  It is not a “typical” case–it is child abuse at its worst.   I have only experienced a handful of such cases in my career, and they were anything but routine.   There have been times when I fall asleep thinking about a kid on my caseload and wake up with that kiddo’s face still in my mind.    Sometimes I meet with a kid and hear such awful things that all I can do is go back to my desk and stare at the wall.  Terrible cases make it clear that child abuse still gets to me.

It reminds me of the story about frogs and their tolerance for heat.   It has been said that if a frog that is dropped in boiling water, it will recognize the danger and jump out.   But if a frog is placed in cool water and then the heat is slowly increased, it will never realize it’s getting hot and will die.   .

frog in water

I want to believe that those of us who last in child protection find a way to take a break from that boiling pot long enough to rest and restore, and hopefully to allow the water to cool down.   Unfortunately, even when we get away from the cauldron of work, we can’t get away from the worries of whether we asked right questions or made the safest decisions.      The hard part is that if we are going to stay in this job, we have to jump back in.

I wrote Unprotected and Unattached because I wanted to try to explain that heat–the worry about decisions made, the frustration about being misunderstood, the fear a child may get hurt again.   I hope to give a glimpse of what is happening to kids and families in every community, every day.    Writing these books was also therapeutic for me because I got to choose the ending, and I chose to find the resilience and the hope in the characters, just like I do in my clients.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and some local bookstores.   I hope readers will decide to jump in.


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