A Question of Character
I’ve written, and rewritten, four murder mysteries in the David Elliott series over a period of eleven years. I began writing What the Barber Knew in 20 11. The fourth book, The Girl in the Orange Maillot, was published in March, 2022.
Compared to famous authors of crime novel series, Mount Rushmore erodes faster than I write. Agatha Christie wrote an average of two books a year during her career. Lee Child has written twenty-four Jack Reacher books in twenty years. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the four Sherlock Holmes novels during a period of 28 years. But during that same time he penned 56 short stories about Holmes.
Their combination of productive and quality writing amazes me. Writing is hard work. Plotting a murder mystery isn’t the hard part. A murder happens. There’s an investigation. The murder is solved, or usually solved. Creating believable, authentic characters is the hard work of writing.
At a book signing in Greensboro, NC a woman in the audience asked me how I came up with the character of David Elliott. The short answer is I followed the familiar adage to “write what you know.” Who do I know better than me? No one. David Elliott is another aspect of myself. An alter ego.
I hasten to declare I’m not David Elliott. And David Elliott isn’t me. To create a character in my image would handcuff the development of David as a fictitious character, and limit my development as a writer. As a human being, I live under the constraints of common sense and my level of courage. David’s sense and courage have no physical or mental limits except those I decide to give him.
I offer two examples from my books to illustrate the difference between a live human being and a fictitious character .
In scene two of the opening chapter of What the Barber Knew, David and his girlfriend verge on having sex for the first time when they discover the body of the neighborhood barber.
That would not have happened in my life as a seventeen-year-old. I’m not referring to discovering a body. Teenage hormones aside, my girlfriend and I were restrained by the fear of being caught in the act, and how our parents would react. Not well, to put it mildly.
If I were confronted with this situation, I assure you I would place the memo in the hands of the M.P. officers. End of story. Boring.
David and I do have some habits in common. We’re both disorganized and often undisciplined. From a writing standpoint, David must not be perfect. He must be realistic. I’ve lived with him since he was seventeen, and I’ve watched him mature from a self-centered teen to a happily married man. But he screws up from time to time. His interlude with the beautiful and dangerous Nancy Stoddard in Dead to Rights provides a good example of a monumental blunder.
An extraordinary aspect of writing a novel happens when the story takes off in an unexpected direction. In a 1953 interview with Paris Match on The Art of Fiction, E.M. Forster attributed this change of direction to “that wonderful thing, a character running away with you – which happens to everyone – that’s happened to me, I’m afraid.”
David and Judy have “run away with me” a few times. They’ve shown me that I can’t always control their feelings, actions, and decisions.
In Dead to Rights I didn’t want them to fall in love when apparently they were first cousins, but they refused to comply. In The Girl in the Orange Maillot David is an ordained Lutheran pastor. I didn’t want David to become an ordained pastor. That’s too close to my life. I had him pegged as a forensic scientist. I wrote several drafts of David in that role, but it wouldn’t work because David ran away with the idea of living as a minister. It remains to be seen how that will work out.
Writers who craft a series of books about the same character or cast of characters, discover that they’re in an ongoing relationship with their creations. In real-life and fictitious relationships, change happens on all levels. Change can deepen a relationship or destroy it.
Without change, relationships in life and in novels would be a snoring bore. Authors who have written many novels about the same character, may develop a palpable animosity toward her or him.
Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Lee Child eventually grew to dislike their primary characters Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Jack Reacher. In 1938, Christie was sick of Poirot. “Why did I ever invent this detestable bombastic, tiresome little creature? Eternally straightening things, eternally boasting, eternally twirling his moustache and tilting his egg-shaped head.”
Conan Doyle confided to his mother, “If I don’t kill (Holmes) he’s going to kill me.”
Lee Childs effected a less drastic end by turning over future Jack Reacher thrillers to his younger brother.
I don’t have any idea how my long-term relationship with David Elliott will evolve. I haven’t looked that far ahead. I’m researching the next book, and I have some characters in mind. Beyond that, I don’t have a clue. Hey, at my age, it’s risky to buy unripe avocados!
Book Reading in Greensboro, NC
Saturday, September 24th I did a reading and book signing of The Girl in the Orange Maillot at Scuppernong Books, a terrific independent bookstore in Greensboro, NC. I enjoyed interacting with the audience, who were enthusiastic, knowledgeable readers of books. The Girl in the Orange Maillot is available for purchase in eBook, softcover or hardcover through Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo and many other booksellers.