Saturday, January 2, 2010

Talented Characters

Summer Session at Ballast Point 1930--Charles Reiffel-1862-1942 Yesterday I stretched myself a little.

The stretching exercise involved the garbage disposal, which spitefully kicked the bucket on New Year’s Day, following a visit by my husband’s family.

I grabbed the phone number of the appliance repairman to throw myself on his mercy.

My husband, on the other hand, was intrigued. What was wrong with the garbage disposal? “Look--there’s something lodged in there,” he said. “Can you get me some pliers?”

I gave him a dubious look. Were pliers the pinchy things?

After my husband decided to locate the pliers from the garage pegboard himself, he attacked the disposal with enthusiasm. There was a penny lodged in there. How or why the penny had gotten there, I couldn’t say.

“There’s a hole at the bottom of the disposal…under the sink, “ my husband told me. “If you put an Allen wrench in there and turn it, you’ll get the penny to this spot where I can get it out.”

So there I was, sitting on the kitchen floor, turning an Allen wrench into the disposal. Fixing things, solving problems? I’m not good at that. That’s one reason my husband was so fascinating to me when I met him in college. Oh! He knows how things work by just looking at them.

Novels are usually about interesting people. And interesting people have skills, talents, and hobbies. In the mystery genre, there are many talented sleuths. They’re not only talented at sleuthing, either. Depending on the book, they might be crocheting, knitting, scrapbooking, or doing crosswords. Having a hobby is a big deal these days in mysteries.

I write the Memphis Barbeque series for Berkley Prime Crime. I'm not Bobby Flay. But my Lulu is.

The thing is…we can’t afford to write characters that are limited to our own abilities. I need characters who are chefs, expert gardeners, and mathematicians. I need athletes, chess players, and painters. If I only write what I know, then my books are going to get stale.

Sometimes? It means research. I cringe when I type research because I’m on such a limited schedule. But if it means lending authenticity and depth to a character, I’m going to do it.

Why creating a talented character is good for our book:

* The character introduces something new, different, and interesting to readers. Dan Brown created a professor that taught Religious Symbology at Harvard. There isn’t any such course of study. In fact, MS Word underlines “symbology” in an angry red color to tell me the word is made-up. But Brown made it real and interesting to readers with his research into symbols and religious history. He mixed fact and fiction with successful results.

*The character is a rounded person with an occupation, hobby, curiosity, or interest. They have a life, they have talents—they’re thinking, breathing people. And, honestly, if they’re not like us, we have to work harder at making them live. And hard work, with characterization, isn’t such a bad thing.

*We get to learn, too. I know a lot more about owning restaurants and cooking after spending time working on my Memphis book. And Myrtle, with her helpful hints column, has had me busily searching through the old wives’ tales and home remedies.

With work and creativity, we can stretch our boundaries and those of our characters. Then they get to use their own, specific talents to grow and solve problems.


I also wanted to thank Mason Canyon , who was sweet enough to give me the Honest Scrap award. She asked her recipients to mention ten things about themselves.

I wish I were more interesting. :)

1. I break a vacuum cleaner every single year. I got my newest one, a Hoover Windtunnel, 2 days ago. 2. I backpacked around France and Italy in college. 3. I don’t sleep much. 4. I have a hard time sitting still. I leap up and pace around when I write. 5. I took 5 years of French and 2 years of Latin. 6. I have a political science minor. 7. I’m incredibly clumsy. I fall down the stairs at my house on a regular basis and have trouble walking through doorways without hitting my shoulder on the doorjamb. 8. At parties where I don’t know anyone, I gravitate toward quiet, nerdy types. 9. I’m at least the 5th Elizabeth in a row in my family tree. I was always called “Little E” to distinguish me from the other Elizabeths, since I was youngest. But I wasn’t little—I was always tall. 10. Being the low girl on the totem pole at the 2 periodicals I worked for taught me to be able to write on anything. At a moment's notice.

If you haven’t had a chance, pop over and see Mason’s blog. Her blog is well-organized and thoughtful—a huge accomplishment for such a new arrival in Blogdom.