In Bernie and the Putty, the lookies had a harrowing encounter with two air angels.
The concept for air angels comes from two fish I used to have when I kept fresh water aquariums as a kid.
The first was an angel fish. They were remarkably thin, having evolved in waters full of reed-like blades of weeds. Their thin shape was perfect for maneuvering between the weeds. Their graceful nature, seeming to float in the water, was translated into the idea that a really light creature could do the same thing in air.
The second part of the inspiration for the air angels came from gouramis. What I drew from them was the way they used their remarkable ‘feelers’ to touch things and examine their surroundings.
In Bernie and the Lost Girl, Bernie shows Lenny and Suzie some of the creatures that live in the woods.
One creature is called a two-legged snake. It had the ability to drop off its tail when threatened, which left an edible portion of itself behind for a predator, giving it time to escape.
There are creatures that can actually do this. It’s called ‘autotomy’ which means ‘self-severing.’ The ability is surprisingly common and found within reptiles, amphibians, mammals (two species of African mice), and quite a variety of invertebrates (molluscs, crustaceans, spiders, and bees).
I had personal experience with the salamander pictured below. As a kid, I discovered they lived under fallen logs. They would scurry away when I rolled the log back. Naturally, I tried to catch them, only to discover that they left their tails behind (twisting and wiggling) as they scurried for cover. I was sad to think I’d hurt them, but fascinated by the implications of what they could do.
Later on, I found other creatures with the same ability. I had salt water aquariums for several years and one of my hermit crabs dropped one or two of his legs whenever a particularly aggressive snail started chasing him. (Unfortunately, the little crab eventually ran out of legs, and the snail won.)
In Bernie and the Lost Girl, there is a scene where the children run into a group of giant apes who howl at them.
This is the photo that inspired that scene. They’re called Howler Monkeys and are native to South and Central America.
They’re widely considered to be the loudest land animal. Their howling ability is very real, and, according to Guinness Book of World Records, they can be heard as far as three miles away through dense rainforest. The function of howling is thought to relate to intergroup spacing and territory protection, as well as possibly to mate-guarding.
When Bernie left the universe building putty on the planet, strange things began to happen.
The putty, being an essence of creative energy, ‘reached out’ in an attempt to ‘become’ something. It was pure creation looking for substance. It wanted a purpose and meaning for its existence.
This is the picture that inspired the scene in Bernie and the Putty.
In fact, I still spend a lot of time thinking about putty…
In Bernie and the Putty, Billy created monster storms that ravaged Bernie’s world. The raw power he put into these powerful storms caused them to set fire to everything that would burn.
This is the picture that inspired my description of those storms…
What about Bernie’s dad, the Great Simeon?
He was a challenge. Simeon is a world re-known universe builder who won an unprecedented THREE Universe Awards. Unfortunately, the fame went to his head and he left his family behind in his pursuit of fame and fortune.
The flashy lifestyle led me to think of many different people, but who typifies this better than Liberace? No one I can think of.
So Liberace became the inspiration for Bernie’s father, the Great Simeon…
Later, as I added more refinement for my mental image of Bernie’s father, I found it here:
That’s when I realized that Elvis “The King” Presley was even closer to the image I was after:
So this is the process and the images that inspired the Great Simeon…
When I work on characters, I try to visualize them. I need to be able to describe the way they look, their background, their history and more. To do that, I look through pictures until I find one that ‘speaks’ to me.
Lenny was a tough one. He’s geeky, confident, and more than a little out-of-the-loop socially. And he’s strange by all accounts.
I thought first of the old TV show called Dobbie Gillis, where I was introduced to Maynard G. Crebs (played by Bob Denver).
Maynard had the right look, but he was too out of it, to be right for Lenny, who is very smart (book-smart, anyway). This is the picture that finally resonated for me:
The only thing missing is a little fur-ball on his shoulder called Sissy.
People often ask me where I got the idea for the ‘tiny eyes’ that watched Bernie in the opening chapter of Bernie and the Putty. They turned out to be one of the most popular elements in the story.
Originally, the ‘tiny eyes’ were nothing more than an attempt to introduce an element of other-worldliness to the story. That changed when one of my author friends (Linda Watkins) said, “I want to know more about the ‘tiny eyes.'” When I tried to explain they were nothing more than an element of the description, she said, “That’s not good enough. You need to write more about them.”
So, the tiny eyes were born. For me, I like to be inspired by pictures. A good picture helps me to visualize something so I can better incorporate it into the story.
This is the picture I chose as my inspiration.
These are meerkats, small carnivorians belonging to the mongoose family. They’re native to deserts in South Africa. If you haven’t checked them out, please do. Their pictures are amazing. I had a chance to see some at the San Diego Zoo and still remember their curious and friendly antics.
They were the inspiration for the lookies in Bernie and the Putty.
I just saw this on Amazon. It’s hard to believe there are so many books out there. And these are just the ones on Amazon.
It gives some perspective to the idea of how hard it is to promote a book when there are so many others trying to do the same thing.
What a fun day I had.
John Mierz, a teacher at the Whitehall Middle School, and I met at the Barnes & Noble book signing on November 6th. The students there are preparing for a big writing assignment that will last an entire month. John invited me into Ms. Kibart’s classes to talk with their seventh graders about writing and, in particular, how to develop strong and memorable characters.
I put together a PowerPoint presentation with things I’ve learned about character development, including strategies for introducing humor and compassion into the characters.
Such bright and inquisitive minds. They kept me busy answering questions all day long. Where did you get the idea for the book? How did you decide what to name your characters? How did you come up with the strange characters in Bernie’s woods? Are you writing another book?
The time just flew.
I asked John and Vicky to invite me back next year!