Saturday, June 6, 2015

Researching the Story: Grandmothers, Gun Ranges & Doohickeys

Okay, picture this…a woman in her seventies sitting on the second floor balcony of her house overlooking her perfectly kempt, picturesque backyard. The backyard is divided into four sections: the vegetable garden all the way to the left next a clear blue swimming pool, a grassy lawn complete with  a long, wooden swing, and to the right what the woman likes to call her “secret garden.” Here there are birdfeeders and birdbaths surrounded by a stone path and flora in abundance—confederate jasmine, ferns, butterfly bushes, and big, poofy, blue hydrangeas even the most seasoned gardener would envy. The secret garden is shaded by large, leafy trees and invites all winged creatures to enjoy what it has to offer. It’s summer and it’s Florida so the air is warm, damp, and tepid. It’s early in the morning, though, so the air isn’t yet heavy or hot enough to chase her back into the air conditioning. There’s a languid quality to the air and the early sun spills like liquid gold through the morning mist. The woman sips her coffee and watches the birds start to gather in the garden.

Suddenly, there’s a disturbance. The birds scatter from the feeder as a large squirrel climbs from the trees above and stealthily begins to shimmy his way down the feeder. The woman sighs. Along the back fence line, she and her husband have set up feeders designed for these nosy squirrels. They were a summer craft project for two of her six grandchildren. Yet this squirrel is deliberately worming his way to her “squirrel-proof” bird feeders instead of easily partaking breakfast from the squirrel feeders not ten feet away. “I don’t think so,” she says. She slowly reaches for something set against the wall to the left. It’s an old BB gun her father gave to her years ago. Still moving slowly as not to draw the attention of the animal, she rests the butt of the gun against her shoulder and sights it over the squirrel’s rear-end. A handful of seconds later, a loud report pierces the peaceful, morning lull. Birds scatter from the trees. The offending squirrel chitters his way back to the fence line and over it into the neighbor’s yard after being taught a thorough lesson.

This is a true story. In fact, I’m related to this woman. She is my grandmother. Next month when my new Harlequin Superromance novel hits the shelves, you could say this story is given its very own reincarnation. In the opening scene of the first chapter, the heroine, Adrian Carlton, is sighting her seven-year-old’s BB gun over the half-door leading out onto her own covered porch and she’s about to teach a squirrel a similar lesson. The squirrel gets away in this version but comes back later for another go-round, resulting in a trip to the emergency room for the book’s hero, James Bracken, who winds up in the crosshairs by accident.

Inspiration comes in many forms to the writer. For me and my July Superromance, His Rebel Heart, one of the many inspirations packed into this contemporary romance is my grandmother.

Can a rebel ever change his ways?  
Being a single mother and successful florist is tough, especially when your next-door neighbor is the man who shattered your heart. Eight years ago, bad boy James Bracken walked away from Adrian Carlton…and their unborn child. Now he’s back. And Adrian’s desire to protect her son from the truth of his biological father isn’t enough to hide the wild blue eyes of father and son, or to keep Adrian from surrendering to the raw passion between her and James. But is he truly the changed man he claims to be? Maybe this time his rebel heart really is home to stay.

When it came time for researching His Rebel Heart, I found my knowledge of BB guns sorely lacking. With a son well on his way to that "cowboy" age where interest in things like water guns and NERF guns becomes a reality (dear sweet lord, help me), I realized that I might need to know a bit more and not just for the purpose of my story. Fortunately, my husband knows quite a bit about guns and ammunition. He’s a cracking good shot. Or should I say “crack shot?” (Gun lingo? Not my forte.) When I started asking questions, he not only gave me the answers I needed, he asked if I would like a shooting lesson.

One afternoon we go into the woods—sans kiddies, of course. The hub tells me to put a few rounds in an old printer that once tormented me with regular error messages and random whining noises. “Only fair to put it out of its misery,” the hub tells me before we begin and I heartily agree. My shoulder tingles from the kick of the old weapon. He teaches me gun safety and marksmanship all in the course of a few hours. All the while, I ask what might seem like random questions to an outsider. (“If you accidentally wound up in the crosshairs, how bad would it hurt?” “Would you need a trip to the ER?” “How long would it take you to heal?”) The hub is accustomed to me peppering him with strange questions. He’s my live-in scuba diving, automotive, ammunitions, building and handyman expert. In the rare case he doesn’t have an answer for me, he does the research himself and gets back to me quickly. In return for my questions, he asks things like “At what range?” (“Fifteen to twenty feet,” I answer.) “Where’s the wound?” (I clear my throat and answer a little sheepishly. “In the hind quarters.” At this, he raises a brow. “It’s the dude, isn’t it?” he asks. I smile. “Of course!” He shakes his head and the corner of his mouth lifts into a wry smile. “That’s mean.” “It’s not out of spite,” I explain. “It's important to the story that I get him to the hospital.” He frowns “Does the shot have to be down below?” “Yes,” I tell him. “Why?” he asks. “Because it’s funny?” I say, again a bit sheepishly. He pauses, considers then nods. “You’re right. It is a little funny.”) And we go back to shooting.
When we’re done with the BB gun, I expect the lesson to be over. The hub looks around, makes sure there’s no one in the area and reaches back into the waistband of his jeans. “While we’re here…” he says and takes out his pistol. I frown. “Is this where you kill me?” He points to a target twenty feet away. “I want you to practice with this. Aim for the inner circle.” I give him my I-don’t-like-handguns face. I don’t. I really, really don’t. It took me a while to reconcile myself with the fact that we keep weapons in our home. However, I married a man who was introduced to guns at a very young age and who was raised a hunter and not likely to change. He understands the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with gun ownership. He keeps all his guns locked up tight and up high away from little hands. When he comes home at night, I hear the comforting clicking sound which means he’s double- and triple-checking that there’s nothing chambered. (Another comfort? Knowing that if we’re ever in a bank or a store or anywhere else in public with our children and there’s a gunman at large, the steadfast and levelheaded man next to me has a conceal-and-carry and won’t hesitate to defend their lives.)

Back in the woods, he sees my hesitation and he reminds me of several break-ins in our neighborhood through the years, most of which took place during the day. He also mentions the break-in at my other grandmother’s house months before while she was away from home. I think of the scene in the latter half of the book that I'm dreading writing during which the heroine's life in endangered by her abusive ex-husband. More so, I think of our babies and the frightening world we live in and I take the pistol. I get another lesson in gun safety. “Red is dead,” he tells me. “Wait,” I say. “Red means the gun is dead or the person you’re aiming at is dead?” “The person,” he tells me, making sure that gets across. I digest that tidbit before the hub teaches me how to load the clip and how to check to see whether or not there is a bullet in the chamber. He stands behind me as I face the target. There’s much more of a kick to the pistol than the BB gun so he stands behind me and fixes both my hands in place over the gun. I’m shaking like a leaf by this point so he holds my arms steady as he counts off and I squeeze the trigger. Despite his front braced against my back and his arms locked on mine, I still shriek like a girl and jerk at the report, so much so that the empty shell pings back and hits me in the nose as it is ejected from the gun. The hub curses and says, “Should’ve brought safety glasses.” “You’re damn right,” I say, shaken up a good bit more. The gun feels heavy in my hand, a foreign object I sense that I have no business touching. It occurs to me more than ever that my dislike and fear of guns stems mostly from the fact that I know nothing about them or how to handle them. So I listened carefully as he walked me through it again. By the time we are done and I watch the hub put the now unloaded pistol back into the waistband of his jeans, I’m still not comfortable with the weapon. I believe firmly that it’s never safe to be too comfortable with firearms. But I now know enough to use one in the event that I ever have to. As we walked out of the woods, I tell him how much I hate that our children live in a world in which we have to learn to use weapons to protect ourselves. Knowing how much that keeps me up at night, the hub puts his arm around me and assures me, “You’ll probably never have to.” I say, “Even if I don’t, all this will be great book fodder one day.” He laughs and says, “That’s my girl.” (I encourage everybody to learn about gun safety or to take a gun safety course, especially those with access to firearms. You can never be too careful.)

A few days later, the hub gets peppered with more research questions. He’s out in the garage changing the brakes on the truck. Our son is sitting next to him on the concrete floor, rearranging the shiny, silver pieces in the hub’s master socket set. I pick up one of the tools spread across the floor around them and ask, “What’s this doohickey?” He glances up and answers, “Torque wrench.” I pick up another tool and ask, “And this one?” He looks at me like I should know this one. “A crescent wrench,” he says. “Hm,” I reply and glance over the tools again. “Would you say you need all these to work on car engines, too?” “This is about your book, isn’t it?” “Yes,” I say. I explain that the hero is a skilled automotive mechanic. “Why do you ask?” I ask him. He reminds of that time he was working on his brother’s truck early in our relationship and he tried to walk me through basic engine mechanics. “Oh,” I say, remembering that interlude well. Even after the thorough lesson, I failed to understand how an engine works. I still have only a rudimentary knowledge of engine parts. Battery. Starter. Spark plugs. That’s about it. It’s really fortunate that I married such a know-it-all who can tell me these things (and fix them if needed). The hub smiles and says, “If you’re interested in tools or engines, that usually means you’re up to something.” “Guilty,” I say with a grin.
In the "Dear Reader" letter at the beginning of His Rebel Heart, I couldn’t help but note my husband’s influence on this book in particular. It just so happened that over the course of writing the story that the hero slowly evolved into somebody tall with a beard and at one point (probably one of my favorite scenes of the book) with a tool belt slung low around his hips, much like the man I’m married to. (Sh! The name James might come from the hub's middle name, too.) I owe a good chunk of the character of James to him, just as I owe the opening scene of the book to my grandmother. Hopefully neither will mind finding small reincarnations of themselves in the book when they read it.

Just for you, Roses, I'm revealing the first excerpt of His Rebel Heart here on the blog today. I hope you enjoy! You can preorder your copy of the book for just $3.99 at Harlequin, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo today....
"I don't want you to be alone..." 
Adrian sighed. "James, I have been alone, for a really long time." 
"I'm sorry," he said. "Adrian...I am so, so sorry." 
When he drew her into his arms, she was helpless to stop him. She felt his lips come to rest on the top of her head. His arms wrapped around her back, closing her in, tightening. 
He simply held her, for what seemed like ages. 
A small eternity passed in the space of moments. Memories stirred, whispering to life, ghosts of what had been.  
When his lips touched hers, it felt so natural. The simple press of his lips brought her back to life. Her heart fluttered, lifting and soaring.
She should have pushed him away. After everything, she should shove him back, make him leave. Instead, she let the moment stretch, deepen until she felt him brush up against the soul she'd buried from everything and everyone...


Margo Hoornstra said...

Great excerpt, Amber. It is good to have a live in research marvel. I actually have one of my own too. Makes research 'nice and easy', doesn't it?

Jannine Gallant said...

Love your grandma and the BB gun. I could picture the scene beautifully! Best of luck with your new release!

Leah St. James said...

Great story about your grandmother, Amber! Like you, I really, really don't like handguns, but I'd take the opportunity to learn all about them from someone I trusted. Sounds like you and your hubby have some fun conversations. :-)

Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

I envy your grandmother's garden. Sounds beautiful and peaceful, except for the pesky squirrels. My ex-husband has a gun shop and I learned a lot about weapons and repairing them from him. I've fixed my fair share of rifles and handguns. I learned how to reload ammo. It wasn't really my thing, but I did it to help lighten the load for him. I spent hours at the gun range, but my ex was not as patient with my questions as yours. He sounds like a real sweetie.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Your husband sounds like a deep well of knowledge about tools and guns. Mine holds facts in his mind, and loves to add more to his brain, so I ask him questions all the time. Good thing we married useful men, hmmm? :-)