Madness does not always howl. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “Hey, is there room in your head for one more?”
That tongue-in-cheek quote sits on the shelf behind the desk in my office. It always makes me smile, but it also contains a certain amount of truth about what it means to be a writer. Simply put, I’m not always alone in my own head.
A news article, a song, or any number of other things can spark a new idea, and suddenly a new character starts stirring around in the back of my mind. If I’m very lucky, that person will step out of the shadows to tell me her story. At other times, they refuse to come into focus and gradually fade away. I’ve always liked to think they simply moved onto another writer, one who can better tell their story.
I don’t claim to understand how all of it works. I do know that truly bringing a character to life involves working on both a conscious and a subconscious level. For example, to create my new amateur sleuth, I began by having her try on different names until together we found one that fit—Abby McCree. And yes, before you ask, her opinion mattered because Abby is that real to me. That might sound a bit crazy, but if my characters don’t become fully three-dimensional to me, I would never be able to bring them to life on the written page.
Once Abby and I settled on her name, we moved on to her physical appearance. She has reddish brown hair, hazel eyes, and she’s in her mid-thirties. Those details don’t usually take very long to decide, but they also aren’t the ones that really define her as a person. What she is like inside is far more important.
So how do my readers get to know Abby McCree? The same way they do with the real people in their lives—by watching what she does and listening to what she says. That means I have to give her characteristics that portray her as the strong, caring woman I know her to be. It’s all in the details.
For example Abby is curious to learn more about Tripp Blackston, the handsome but slightly curmudgeonly man who rents the mother-in-law house in Abby’s backyard. Yet she does her best to protect his privacy from her elderly friends who like to watch him working in the yard, especially when he’s taken his shirt off. Those same ladies insist Abby’s late aunt would have expected her to take over Sybil’s duties as head of the quilting guild. While she could have refused, Abby misses Sybil. By joining the guild, she honors her aunt’s memory. Both of these two things were conscious decisions on my part.
By way of contrast, as the story unfolded I came to realize that Abby spent a lot of time puttering in her kitchen. It just felt natural to me. My agent was the one who later pointed out that it was because Abby likes taking care of the people—and the dog—in her life. Offering them cookies and coffee was her way of doing that. She also drew comfort from an activity that she used to share with her aunt. Besides, fresh baked cookies also make for a handy bribe when the local chief of police gets upset with her for poking her nose in his investigation.
In a cozy mystery, it’s important to make sure readers will make that leap of faith to believe an ordinary person like Abby McCree would take incredible risks to help solve a murder. By showing Abby’s deep connection to her late aunt, her loving care of the dog she inherited along with Sybil’s home, and her relationships with the people in Snowberry Creek, it becomes clear that she takes things like friendship and justice seriously.
Getting to know Abby and the people around her has been an ongoing process for me. I love learning about their likes, dislikes, and especially their quirts as I write. I also can’t wait to see who steps out of the shadows to introduce themselves to me next.
One person who comments will win an ARC of DEATH BY COMMITTEE and a key chain with Zeke’s picture on it. Zeke is the mastiff mix dog in the book.