Friday, August 24, 2012

Test Driving Characters

I never set out to test drive potential novel characters in short stories, it just worked out that way. When Tracy Eaton, detective wannabe and the offspring of eccentric Hollywood stars, and her over-the-top actress mother, Martha Collins, walked onto the page of my short story, “LA. Justice,” which you can read on my website by clicking that link, I hadn’t yet written a novel. I had published a dozen or so stories at that point, though, so it was only natural that I would put them first into that form.

Had I been a more experienced writer, I might have noticed that when I finished that story, it was significant that I didn’t feel finished with Tracy and Martha. I felt I knew so much more about them than the story’s action called for. But it was only after the story won the Derringer Award, and readers told me I should put those characters into a novel, that it occurred me to give them their first novel-length adventure. Next March, they’ll make their fourth full-length outing, along with the other characters that have come out of this series, in Revenge on Route 66. And they still find so much to show me about themselves.

I’ve done this many times now. Zoey Morgan, the edgy, troubled triathletes protagonist of my standalone thriller, Never Say Die, made two short story appearances before she told me I knew her well enough to explore the background that I only hinted at in those stories, in effect making the novel a prequel to the stories. Unusual, perhaps, but it worked. Zoey also told me I’d spelled her name wrong in the original publication of those stories, that she was Zoey, not Zoe, which I’ve now corrected in all of her appearances. You'll find one of those stories, "Deadly Obsessions," on my website as well.

Samantha Brennan and Annabelle Haggerty, the fake psychic and Celtic goddess/FBI agent who star in my Magical Mystery Series, High Crimes on the Magical Plane and Magical Alienation, were also born in a short story, "Showtime on the Winter Solstice," which you'll also find on my website. 

At times I’ve approached it the other way — I’ve started stories thinking their protagonists might make engaging novel characters. I once created a mouthy, yet na├»ve, ex-nun, who inherits a rundown P.I. firm on sleazy Hollywood Boulevard, in “Nun in the Shadows.” That character, Lynn James, and her circumstances, and the short story in which they appeared, seemed to contain the most ideal setup for a darker cozy that could straddle the light/edgy line. But it didn’t happen. I realized by the ending of that story that while I enjoyed our time together, I just wasn’t eager to repeat it. I discovered not merely that I didn’t know much about ex-nuns, but that I also didn’t want to learn any more than I knew.

It happened again with “Audition for Murder.” That character, Lorna Doone, an unemployed actress, who keeps the boat afloat by delivering singing cookie-grams and giving tours of cemeteries where the Hollywood famous and infamous are buried, also seemed idea for a new series. Again, while I liked her a lot and had such fun with her antics, by the time the story was finished, I felt our relationship had run its course.

I’ve come to see it’s not the story’s action and circumstances that will determine whether it will jump to novel length, no matter how good the setup seems. It’s the characters, the connection we feel, the spark we seem to share. It’s whether those characters are too big, too fully formed, to be contained at story-length.

I recently shared that spark with a character again. As a bookseller, I’ve long had an idea of how to use books and a bookstore as part of a crime that extends beyond the bookstore’s walls. But while I’d worked out most aspects of how the bad guys made use of books, I simply never felt inclined to write the story. I came to believe that story idea was merely an intellectual exercise I engaged in from behind my bookstore’s cash wrap, while waiting for a long, slow afternoon to end.

But then I read the submission guidelines for the latest anthology published by my Sisters in Crime chapter, the Desert Sleuths of Scottsdale, AZ. All at once, an engaging character popped into my head, complete with a detailed history, a quirky voice, and an injustice she’d suffered. That character, Plum Tardy, infused the intellectual exercise of my bookstore-connection with emotional color. She made that story, “The Power of Books,” come to life. I’m thrilled that “The Power of Books” made it into through the blind submission of our chapter’s anthology, SoWest: Desert Justice, which just debuted.

And now I find that I want to know more about Plum and the background she shared in the course of my writing that story. I want to explore it with her.

Will we write a novel together? I hope so, but I don’t know. The characters seem to decide. 

Writers, how about you? How do you test drive your characters?

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