Friday, August 27, 2010


People often ask me who my favorite characters are. After thirty-six books, I've had quite a few. But I'll be honest with you. My favorite character is often one of the secondaries. The supporting players who fill out the story, but don't make it.

The reason for that is perfectly selfish. In any popular fiction book, the protagonists basically exist within a certain behavioral range. They aren't allowed to be amoral or completely selfish. In my current book, BARELY A LADY, what criticism I get is for my hero Jack, who wakes up from a bad head injury with amnesia. Among the first things he remembers --in detail--is the mistress he had after he divorced my heroine Olivia. There are people who simply can't forgive Jack for not vilifying the woman he believes was a positive force in his life, or for admitting that he had feelings for her.

He broke the rules, and some readers won't forgive him. Which is perfectly understandable. Now, if Jack had been a secondary character, nobody would have thought about it at all. Secondary characters can be anybody, do anything, and it's okay, because they're not the moral center of the book.

One of my favorite characters of all time was in my books BAD MEDICINE and HEAD GAMES. He is a lawyer named Frank, who is a sociopath. Not a violent sociopath, like Mouse in the Easy Rawlin's series. More your jolly con-man kind of sociopath. And he knows it.

I didn't know when I first wrote about him that he was a sociopath. I just thought he was a lawyer who had sued my heroine Molly Burke. Over the course of the book, though, I realized that he was so much more.

Frank was really fun to write, because he had few boundaries. And he was a surprise. The same happens with most of my secondaries. Because there aren't any restrictions on them, they become kind of my gift to myself, the surprise that makes the book exciting. I mean, I know what the story is. I know how it ends. But it's my secondary characters who change the flavor, at least for me.

In my Drake's Rakes series, I got to give my character Lady Kate an entire household of fun characters that I'm continuing to play with throughout the course of the series. In fact, as I write Kate's story, her staff is about to go out on a rescue mission.

Even more fun, I gave Kate a companion. An elder woman named Lady Bea, who was Kate's sister-in-law. But Bea is special. After suffering a head injury of her own, she suffers from a condition called expressive aphasia. She can hear the words and concepts she wants to express in her head. But the correct words simply don't come out. So Bea has figured out a rather convoluted way of communicating that most of the time only Lady Kate can understand. And if it gets really hard for Bea to communicate, she sings. I've had people tell me that Bea is their favorite character in BARELY A LADY. And truly? I can't argue with them. I adore Bea. And she hasn't even had her starring turn yet. Until then, I hope to have a lot of fun with her.

Secondary characters are like that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Details, Details

One of the choices authors make as they write their books, is whether or not to write the story in its proper order. Some write back to front. Some write the scenes as they come to them, some the character scenes, the clue scenes, the action scenes, all in a bunch. Me? I'm a firm proponent of writing the book in the order the story takes. I can't do it any other way, for several reasons.

First of all, I'm a lazy writer. If I wrote scenes as they came to me, I'd never write the tough stuff. It is a sad truth that it often takes only hours to write a chapter-long action scene. And then, the next page, which simply moves us from one scene to another, takes a week.

The other reason is because it's impossible to write a scene toward the end of the book first, for the simple reason that I don't know who these people are yet. How do I know what they're going to do?

As most people who know me realize, I am massively right brain dominant. It means I have a much easier time seeing the whole picture than I do the details. I can see my story in my head like a jigsaw puzzle I just have to assemble. What I don't see as well are individual pieces. It doesn't matter if I do storyboarding or astrology or character outlines. I can think I know everything about a character, but the characters don't really come alive for me until they act. Not only that, many times, the secondary characters show up completely without my permission.

For instance, in the book I'm working on now, EVER THE TEMPTRESS, the third in my Drake's Rakes series, I realized that the hero, Harry Lidge, has a batman. It certainly makes sense. Harry is a Major in the 95th Riflemen, who has just survived Waterloo. It's a great supporting character who can reveal all kinds of things about the hero and the backstory, and often provide comic relief.

So, who is the batman?

Beats me.

Oh, I figured I knew. But when I introduced him, it wasn't the hard, wiry, little Scotsman I'd intended. Instead, the introduction line went something like this; "(Harry) looked up to see his batman there before him, already throwing open windows to let in the air. The moonlight spilled in over the young man's features. Once when Harry was on the continent he'd seen a painting of angels by Raphael. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that one now stood by his desk; young, beautiful, with curly brown hair and big, liquid brown eyes that looked as innocent as a child's. Definitely too beautiful to be thrown into a troop of riflemen without protection."

Even worse, I realized that this angel's name was Mudge. Not exactly the moniker for one of the heavenly horde. So, what the heck did that mean? Where did he come from? Well, I have no idea. But I've spent so long doing this job, that I know that the best thing I can do is trust my muse. Somehow Mudge had been materializing in the sludge of my right brain, like the Urukai in Lord of the Rings (although much prettier). I know that he belongs there. I just have to figure out how. And why.

And that's just one character.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pull Me A Pint

As I tootled along the back roads of England, I found myself obsessing over pubs. I photographed them, counted them, and wanted to sit in each and every one and have a drink. What is it about those places that draws me? It isn't the drink. Believe it or not, I don't drink beer in any incarnation, be it lager or bitter or porter (yes, I am a sore disappointment to my Irish family). And it's a dead cinch that I can't drive around for long if I'm downing gin and tonics all day. But I really want an excuse to get inside those old doors and sit down.

I can't help it. Every time I go through a small town like Tetbury or Banbury, or Stow-in-the-Wold and see the white stucco or half-timbered front, the ale sign in the window, the name that evokes bygone eras, names like The George, the White Hart, the Bell Inn, and the tables out front in the sunshine, I have to stop. I order a gin and tonic just to have an excuse to sit either out under those umbrellas to watch the town pass by, or inside, where the chairs are worn, the floors flagstone, the walls half-timbered and the ceilings low.

It's not a proper pub if the floors don't list or the doors hang straight. An added bonus is a big, soot-stained fireplace, walls covered in framed black and white photos of the street out front over the years, and a bar that has been buffed by thousands of elbows. And then there is the name. The Merrymouth, the Royal Oak, the Kings Arm (do they really mean his arm? His gun? The branch of his government?For some reason it's always Henry VIII on the sign) and my favorite of all, from Tetbury, the Snooty Fox.

I've decided that it isn't the pub. I don't simply want an excuse to drink in every town in England (I don't even really drink the G&Ts. I just put them on the tables in front of me to give me a reason to be there). I think it's the history. I was walking through Burford, a town that reeked of the sixteenth century. The buildings were constructed of the famous honey-colored Cotswold stone, set with mullioned windows and topped with steeply pitched roofs. What, I wondered, were the insides like? If I closed my eyes, could I feel the lives that had passed through the rooms? Could I hear the centuries of feet that had trod the floors, smell the dinners and woodfires? Would I sense the pain and joy and grief that had resonated within the walls? I don't know. But I itch to see.

Well now, there's the problem. Most people have more sense than to invite a perfect stranger into their living room just because she wants to breathe the same air their ancestors did. The pub, on the other hand, is delighted to see me step through its doors. Even better, as long as I'm not flinging tables--or other customers--around, I'm welcome to stay. Even more, I've found that most of the people who own or work in the pubs don't need much encouragement to talk about the history of the place. So I don't have to simply imagine the people who have passed through. I have names and dates.

I can sit quietly, not necessarily even talking to anyone, and imagine the Royal Mail coach pulling into the couryard, horses snorting and stomping as they're being readied, women in long skirts and quaint bonnets being shown into back rooms for tea. I can see the farmers and shopkeepers gathered after a long day in the smoky taproom with their pints and their Wellington boots and their flat caps. I can feel the core of village life passing through these doors.

And since that is what I traveled to England to do, I don't mind at all that I've missed seeing a National Trust property so I can sit in the pub down the road for another hour.