Sunday, July 21, 2019

Finding Your Characters

Last week I bumped into my friend Mary, who recently started reading the Jefferson Chene series.  She enjoyed “Why 319?” and was delighted with the many twists and turns throughout the book. Now she was about halfway into “Your Turn to Die”.

“I love how you portray your characters,” Mary said.  “I get the feeling that we could jump into a car, drive to Detroit and we would have no trouble finding Chene. He’s right there. He’s real!”

Her comments were delightful to hear.  One of a writer’s most important challenges is to create realistic characters that people can identify with. Then you put them into a conflict where the reader follows along and wants to learn how they handle themselves in these situations.

But it all starts with the characters.  These are the people who drive the story.

On average I read a book a week. I’ve picked up some novels that have received rave reviews and numerous awards, but discovered quickly that the conflicts were convoluted and there was more nonsense than story taking place. After reading 30 pages, I’ve dumped the book. Life is too short to waste it on a story I’m not enjoying.  Especially when I didn’t care about those characters. 

It’s the people in the books that keep me coming back, particularly if it’s part of a series.  Look at John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher for starters. The more you know about those people, the more you want to know, the more you want to see them work their way through the pages.

As to a road trip to Motown in search of Jefferson Chene, I’m all for it. Who knows, we might come across Jamie Richmond at the same time. 

Since we’re talking about Chene, it’s only appropriate to put him in the spotlight. So here’s an excerpt from “Why 319?”.  In this scene, Chene is meeting with Pappy Cantrell and the other detectives to determine the best way to proceed with investigating three homicides.  Pappy’s decision to include a detective from a local department catches everyone by surprise.  Chene wants to talk to him alone before they proceed. 

I waited until everyone else filed out of the room. Cantrell let his eyes close as if he were meditating. With the smoke curling up around his head, he looked like something out of a Tennessee monastery. The Art of Zen, courtesy of Jack Daniels.

“Well?” he muttered without opening his eyes.

“When were you going to clue me in on this plan, Pappy?”

“Y’all weren’t ready.”

I didn’t try to keep the anger from my voice. “Bullshit. I’ve been the lead on ninety percent of the investigations we’ve handled for the last three years. You know it. I know it. The whole freaking squad knows it.”

He took a long drag and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “But not everybody likes it.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “You mean Barksdale. The guy’s a dinosaur.”

“Would that be a triceratops?”

I was surprised he was able to name one, but then, Cantrell could be full of surprises. Like this new plan. “So how do you see this?”

“We split into three teams, just like Ah said. We put Koz with the new girl, Laura. Give them the oldest case, the Wayne County. You and Megan take the Macomb one. Bloomfield will want their girlie working their crime. We stick her with Barksdale.”

“So why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You all right, Chene, but you ain’t no actor. Ah wanted everyone to know this was a surprise, even you. It made your reaction real. You gettin’ pissy ’cause Ah didn’t tell you about it first.”

I considered it for a moment. The old bastard had it down cold. Barksdale would have pitched a holy fit if I’d made the decision to split the team by case and assign him the outsider. He and Megan could barely stand each other. Laura was too new to stick with him. That left the Bloomfield detective. Since the orders were coming down from Cantrell, there was no way he’d argue it. Especially when it appeared that Cantrell did not trust me to make the call. It was a stroke of genius, pure logistical genius. I told him as much.

“’Tweren’t nothin. You might have figured it out in a couple of days.”

“Don’t be so modest, Pappy. You know how to manipulate him.”

“Uh huh.”

It took me a moment to admit the rest. “And me too.”

He nodded slowly. “Hell, Chene, if Ah can’t ever manipulate ya, y’all ain’t no good to me.”

Here's a shot at what Pappy Cantrell may look like.

Buy Links for Why 319?

Music this week comes from Eric Clapton with an old favorite.

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