By Tracy Clark
I’ve had a heck of a time writing lately. Shirtsleeves up. Eyes on my laptop. Fingers on the keyboard. Digging for diamonds like those seven little Disney guys.
I started a new crime series. And I’m a pantser. Feel me? This means I started with zip, which is fine. I always start with zip. My problem was I languished in misery with zip for far too long.
No voices, you see.
You hear about writers hearing voices and creating characters that speak to them. I had that wonderful experience while crafting my first series featuring a PI named Cassandra Raines. Cass talked a blue streak. She wasn’t shy. She came to me fully formed yakking her head off, bossing me around, pulling me through her cases like I was a cantankerous shih tzu on a rhinestone leash. Cass ran the show, I just went where she told me to go.
It’s weird how that happens. Oh, there were things as the writer I had to do. Cass was not sitting down at my laptop and writing the stories for me. I had to pull out my old writers’ toolbox and put down all those nifty craft elements to fill the pages, but voice was not something I had to worry about. Cass had voice in spades. She also brought the snark and a lot of grit and hutzpah. I knew exactly who she was. I didn’t have to guess. I liked her instantly.
Then I started a new series. And the silence was deafening.
I’d often wondered how writers of popular series shifted from one to the other effortlessly it seemed. How could Spenser and Hawk and Sunny Randall coexist in Robert B. Parker’s head? How could Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple and Tuppence and Tommy Beresford hang out in Agatha Christie’s head without her losing the thread? Did Christie wander around her house shaking her head and throwing her hands up trying to figure out who was who and what was what? Or the prolific Margaret Maron who set up brain space for Sigrid Harald AND Deborah Knott?
I would like to think that those writers suffered some self-doubt and endured a few moments of indecision because I sure did. I hoped I wasn’t the only writer who walked the floors at odd hours wanting imaginary people to talk to them.
But it wasn’t easy, the shift from old characters to new. The process was akin to kicking off an old comfortable pair of runners and stepping into a stiff new pair that rubbed your heels and crowded your baby toe. More than once I found myself saying, “How the heck did Christie do it!?”
Maybe it was the investment in time and effort I’d spent on my first series and my old characters that I was reluctant to let go of? I mean, before I wrote my first PI novel, I studied the genre. I read loads of PI novels. I absorbed the genres conventions, its tropes, everything. You have to know what a thing is before you can jump in and add your take, right? Put your own stamp on it? That’s how Cass Raines in all her shamus goodness came to be, and writer and character fit like hand in glove. Bam. Go. We got this.
Then came the pivot. Enter Detective Harriet Foster.
She’s a homicide detective with the Chicago Police Department and the protagonist in my new police procedural series. Readers will meet her on New Year’s Day when she debuts in my new book Hide.
It’s fitting that the book releases on New Year’s Day, a day of new beginnings, the start of a new year, a clean slate, a whole new adventure. But Harriet was hard to come by, let me tell you. She didn’t tell me squat. I had to dig for her. We faced off across my writing desk like two boxers glaring at each other across a boxing ring.
I asked questions that she refused to answer. I would write her into a scene, and she would absolutely refuse to play along. I would tell her who she was, and she would shoot me a sly grin and then turn her back and walk away from me. Then a chapter later she’d drop a detail. Just one. And I’d grab it up greedily … only to have to dig again.
If I wrote primarily plot-driven novels, I might have been able to massage the character-building a little bit, ease into it backward, maybe, but I don’t. I write character-driven stories because characters interest me most. Who they are, why they are the way they are, what they say, what they try hard not to – intriguing. And now here was Det. Harriet Foster holding out on me. What was she hiding? What didn’t she want me to know? It was infuriating.
Months went by with me writing around Harriet, getting the story down, writing, writing, writing … knowing I didn’t have her, knowing she knew I didn’t have her, knowing she was taking a certain pleasure in knowing I knew I didn’t have her.
And then I wrote two sentences of internal dialogue, and suddenly there she was. Talk about an AHA moment. What a relief. It was a relief story-wise, of course, but also deadline-wise because I had a due date, and Harriet was threatening to mess me up big time.
I wish I could say there was some process I followed to break the dam and get Harriet going, but it was just pure plugging away, digging, turning things this way and that, begging for the voices, writing scenes, deleting scenes, then writing new ones that went a little deeper. Amidst all that shoveling and digging and angling, the voices slowly emerged, most importantly Harriet’s.
Cass was so sure of herself, so bold, so shamus-y, so cocky. She started talking before I even booted my laptop up. Harriet? Harriet was a job.
Det. Foster is guarded, quiet, slow to pass judgment, a keen observer of human nature (which is why she had so much fun messing with me). She’s meticulous and thorough, taking her cases step by step, lead by lead, breadcrumb by breadcrumb. Harriet’s intensely loyal and dedicated to her job. And best of all she is far from perfect. She’s been through some stuff. I think that’s the bit she was hiding from me. No one wants their imperfections, their flaws, blasted all over the pages of a book. But, hey, as all writers and all readers know, the good stuff’s always found in the things we all hide.
So, I don’t know how Christie did it so well, or Parker or Maron or all the other writers who jump from old shoes to new ones like the geniuses they are, but my new shoes took a minute to get comfortable in. Now I’m good, I think. I like Harriet and I hope readers will like her too. Cass isn’t quite sure she likes Harriet yet, and vice versa. The two of them are in my head keeping to their separate spaces each waiting to see who gets called up next. Neither is particularly patient. Fun writer times, huh?
How do you deal with either writing new characters or engaging with new characters? Is it like breaking in a new pair of shoes for you too?