It’s The Final Countdown

My next novel – THE FANTASTIC INVENTIONS OF DR. FLAX – drops March 21, 2023. Wahooooooo! I’m counting the days (253)!

Here’s the link to its page on Macmillan:

I’m really excited about this one. It’s the story of three kids who win the Charleston County Middle School Science Fair and get to spend the summer in the laboratory of the eccentric and brilliant Dr. Flax who perhaps invents some devices that cause more harm than good. Theresa, Ashley and Jon find themselves in trouble with these troublesome inventions quite quickly, because there is a mystery in the laboratory before Charleston (and the rest of the planet) ends up in big trouble.

I love these characters. They’ve been living in my head for several years now, and they’re about to go out and live in the world. I couldn’t be prouder.

Where do characters come from anyway?

Many of my writerly friends say their characters are based on several people they’ve known blended together. I suppose that’s true for me, too. Sometimes, especially after writing about them for a while, my characters’ original prototypes disappear in the blending, and these supposedly fictional people soon have their own original personalities. But whether they stem from one or twenty people, I find that when these imaginary friends do arrive, they’re usually carrying heavy luggage.

Their stories unravel as they unpack.

The main character of this story – Theresa Brown – has grown and changed many times over the last two years. She only barely resembles who she once was when she first arrived. But I remember the very day she showed up.

I was on the second floor of the hospital in Charleston introducing myself to my new patients. I work as a respiratory therapist there three days a week (the other four days I’m writing, parenting, and putting off exercise). A hospital is a wonderful place to work because you meet all kinds of people.  Illness and injury spare no one, so all sorts of folks end up there – rich and poor, young and old. They all have stories to tell, even if they can’t tell them out loud.

One of these patients was the mother of a twelve-year-old girl who sat in the corner and played with Legos.

The twelve-year-old girl was very shy and most likely traumatized because her mother had been in a horrible accident during a hurricane the year before leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. She required a tracheostomy to breathe and was confined to her bed. She had come to our hospitall because she had developed a terrible pneumonia and not for the first time either.

The mother was clearly well loved. Her room was always full of people – her brother, her three sisters, her friends from church, her two grown children, and the shy twelve-year-old girl who was her youngest.

The girl had long braids with beads on the ends. She wore a school uniform, she never smiled, she never looked up. She sat on her knees even though there were plenty of chairs to go around. There was always a plastic bag of Legos at her side, and she was gluing them one by one to a Servo motor. A Servo motor is a simple motor that can be operated with a remote control to make a small device move forward or backward or sideways. The girl was building a new robot that could have been a marching spider or a walking dog or a mechanical alligator that swished its tail back and forth.

I was already inventing a story about her and I hadn’t even introduced myself. That’s rude, isn’t it?

I tried though. I asked her what she was building. But she didn’t answer and didn’t even look up at me. I soon realized she never looked at her mother either. Even when her mother asked her for something, she kept her eyes down and this clearly made her mother very sad. The girl could have been scared or angry or completely unsure how to act with this broken version of her mother who now needed her.

The story I was inventing continued to unravel: Perhaps their roles had been reversed by that one horrible moment in a hurricane. The twelve-year-old girl now had to be the caretaker, the mother now the one that needed help brushing her hair, getting dressed, using the toilet. Perhaps this burden was too much for the girl to bear – or at least too new to bear – and so she consoled herself with small robots.

And then, as often happens when you work at a hospital, I never saw them again. By the time I returned to work, the mother had been transferred to another facility. I never even learned the girl’s name or what her voice sounded like. I didn’t know what she thought of her aunts and uncles and siblings, and I didn’t know what they thought of her. I didn’t know if her love of these little robots on the floor was temporary or if they had been in her life for years. Perhaps the little robots were only short-term friends to give her comfort until everything in her life returned to normal.

Of course, her life would never be normal again. I knew that much.

The girl without a name was gone, but in my head Theresa Brown had already been born. Because she was a character in my head and not the real world (yet), I could ask her whatever I wanted! She would answer these questions by opening her luggage. He story would spill out. Her reality would form and would diverge from the real twelve-year-old girl that left my hospital without a good-bye. Theresa Brown has her own identity now and her own problems and a family completely different from the real version of her that sparked into being the day I walked into the room where a girl was building robots on the floor.

You know, I can’t even remember what the girl looks like. But Theresa becomes more vivid and detailed in my mind every day.

I’ve really grown to like her. So much so, that I made George Brown her dad. George is an alter-ego of mine that frequently shows up in my stories.

He looks like me, talks like me, is anxious and works in healthcare like me. He tries really hard to be the best dad he can but often fails – like me.

But he’s not me. I swear.

Just like Theresa Brown isn’t that twelve-year-old girl.

I wish I could thank that shy robot builder.

In THE FANTASTIC INVENTIONS OF DR. FLAX, Theresa’s mother isn’t a quadriplegic. She’s as dead as dead can be. Can you believe that? As Theresa’s story unraveled, I killed off the mother. I left Theresa alone with George Brown from the age of three on. Why would I do something so cruel? I tell myself it was to give my main character the motivation needed to want to slow climate change to prevent horrible hurricanes from taking away loved ones. For Theresa, fighting climate change is personal! Or so I tell myself.

Maybe there’s more to it than that.

Just when you think your character has unpacked all her luggage, she reveals there’s a locked box at the bottom of her backpack.

Maybe I’ll unlock it in the sequel.

⁓ George 7/11/22