This week someone asked me about my background. It was unclear whether they were referring to education, work experience or my efforts writing. Turns out she was curious about my nationality.
After considering it for a moment, I shrugged and said, “I’m a mutt.”
Her response was a stunned expression. “A mutt?”
I went on to explain that my ancestors can be traced to Ireland, Scotland and Russia, with a bit of England and the French part of Canada thrown into the mix as well. I’m a long way from a thoroughbred. So that’s where the ‘mutt’ came from. That explanation was met with a smile.
Which also works with my characters. I remember reading stories in my youth where everyone looked the same, sounded the same and had similar upbringings. While the overall story may have been entertaining, I found the cast of characters to be somewhat…boring.
So in my own efforts, I strive to make each player distinctive. They should have characteristics or traits that the reader can identify with. Perhaps it reminds them of someone from their own life.
Or maybe themselves.
Here’s an example of a different background. In this scene from “Why 319?” Chene is coming from the crime scene to debrief with Pappy Cantrell.
Captain Prescott “Pappy” Cantrell was in his office when I arrived. The fluorescent lights were off, but the brass floor lamp in the corner was lit. Behind him, a window was always cracked open, no matter what the weather. Despite the state law banning smoking in public buildings, Cantrell continued to light up whenever the mood struck. As a chain smoker, he was perpetually in that mood.
He was tipped back in his chair, gangly legs crossed at the ankle. The bottom drawer of his desk was open, allowing just enough space to prop his feet. In faded khakis and a blue checked shirt, Cantrell looked nothing like the stereotypical police captain. Maybe that was part of the reason he was so successful.
Taking a seat on the other side of the desk, I waited for him to start.
“Crime scene look the same?”
I nodded. “From the photos we viewed last week, it looks identical. No signs of a fight. No struggle. The victim was on her back. No splatters. No bruising. The girl was spread-eagled. It was like she’d been posed, as if she was waiting for her lover to arrive. For all intents, she could have been asleep.”
“Same message?” Cantrell worked a pen across the back of his knuckles. This was an old habit. He claimed it helped him concentrate.
“Yeah. Didn’t measure it, but I’m sure Fen will include that in his report. Lipstick will probably be the victim’s.”
“Y’all got a name?”
“Janet Calder. She drove a four-year-old Honda. We found it in the saloon parking lot next door. She checked in after six. Room had been reserved with her Visa card.”
“What else ya got?”
I checked my notebook. Koz called while I was on the way back with more details. We had yet to find her purse or wallet, but he’d pulled the information from the driver’s license when the Bloomfield cops brought the copies.
“She was twenty-five. License shows her at five foot three, with green eyes. She was tiny. Nails polished, some makeup, but not overdone. She fit the profile of the other victims.”
“Not yet. Koz will call me when he’s leaving the motel. We’ll meet up at the address on the license. I think it’s an apartment building. The car registration has a different address. That could be her parents.”
Cantrell paused to light a fresh smoke. “Tell the giant to give y’all the details. Ah pulled Megan off the chop shop surveillance. Take her with ya.”
I hesitated, trying to follow the logic. “You got something against Koz?”
“You two can look about as copasetic and unnerstandin’ as two linemen going after a quarterback’s fumble in overtime. It won’t hurt to have a woman there.”
I chewed on that for a moment. “You’re pulling in the whole squad, Pappy?”
By tilting his head back, Cantrell was able to blow a plume of smoke directly at the opening of the window. Like an ancient signal, it drifted quickly through the screen. “Yep. We got the green light. It comes all the way from the capital.”
I've been on the road a lot lately. This classic from Wilson Pickett popped up more than once.