Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Finding Characters

I suppose introductions are still in order. I’m Terry Odell, and my first book with Five Star, WHEN DANGER CALLS, was released in December of 2008. The sequel, WHERE DANGER HIDES, will be released in May of 2011.

The most important facet of any book for me, whether I’m reading or writing, is characterization. Without characters the reader loves, everything else is secondary. So, how do I find the characters for my books? I advertise, of course! Here’s how I found Frankie, the heroine of WHEN DANGER CALLS.

Meet Frankie Castor … and Molly.

"Yes?" I say when my secretary calls. I have a break between appointments, and I'm trying to refine some of my yet-to-be-discovered heroine's goals, motivations and conflicts.

"We might have a problem with the next applicant," she says.

I consult my list. Frances Marie Castor. Four o'clock. So far, all I've seen are women who look like they're applying for a job at a strip club, not an action-adventure romance heroine. True, there are a few scenes where the heroine will have to play a cocktail waitress, but that's not what I'm looking for. "What kind of problem?"

"Her sitter can't make it, and she can't find anyone to take care of her daughter."

"How old is the daughter?" I ask.

After a moment, my secretary returns to the line. "She's almost five."

I wonder. Would it asking too much that I might be able to cast both roles at once? "Tell her to bring her daughter along."

Promptly at four, my secretary informs me Ms. Castor and her daughter have arrived. "Show them in," I say. Giving a silent prayer that this will be my final interview, I flip to a clean sheet of my notepad and turn my attention to the door.

When it opens, my secretary leads the candidate in. She gives me a look that says, "Am I supposed to entertain the kid?"

I give her a quick headshake. "Please come in, Ms. Castor." Outwardly, she's got promise. Honey-blonde, with clear, blue eyes. Minimal makeup, and a few strands of hair escape her ponytail. She's wearing khakis and a beige-and blue striped polo. Definitely not the stripper type. Girl next door all the way. My hopes lift a little higher. My gaze lowers to the child who's hanging back, clutching a backpack to her chest like a shield. Strawberry blonde, slight. Not exactly the image I had. For tension and conflict, I was looking for someone who resembled the Hispanic youngster Ryan Harper had failed to rescue before the book started.

Frances hesitates. "I'm sorry for the … inconvenience, and I really appreciate you seeing me today. This is Molly." I detect a quick nudge to the child, who lifts her head and gives me a polite smile, still keeping her eyes downcast. "Hello."

"Molly knows this is grownup time. She'll sit and read, or color. And will be very quiet." Another nudge.

I get up, circle my desk, and crouch to Molly's level. "Hi, Molly. Do you like to read?"

She nods.

"Well, I love to read, and I love to write stories, too. What's your favorite book?"

She meets my gaze with a smile, and her cobalt-blue eyes are irresistible. I'm already revising Molly's character description from a brown-eyed, dark-haired child to a blue-eyed strawberry blonde. Writing is all about the rewrites, after all.

"Green Eggs and Ham," she says. "I have it in my pack. I can read it to Mr. Snuggles all by myself."

"Very good," I say. I settle her on the loveseat against the wall. "You can read here while I talk to your mommy."

Molly unzips her pack and takes out a well-worn copy of the Seuss classic. Next comes a well-worn, once-white stuffed dog, which she places on her lap. Mr. Snuggles, I presume. I make another mental note. As soon as she opens the book, she's reciting the familiar rhymes in soft tones.

I haven't mentioned the role of a child, and I don't say anything yet. Casting children is a headache. I prefer to see them in their natural state, not performing, but it's almost impossible. Today is a rare exception.

"Please sit down, Ms. Castor." I direct her to one of my client chairs. "Or should I call you Frances."

"Call me Frankie," she says. "Only my mom calls me Frances, and then it's usually Frances Marie Castor, which means I'm in trouble." She sits. "Excuse my appearance. I had to come straight from work—I teach elementary school art—and I didn't have time to change. We've been working on collages."

As she sits, I get a brief whiff of Elmer's glue. Much nicer than the cloying scents I've been exposed to all day. "Tell me why you applied for this job."

She takes a breath. "Bottom line? The money."

Honest, straightforward. I jot a note. "You mentioned you have a job. Teaching."

"I'm only a sub while the regular teacher's on maternity leave. I had to move from Boston because my mother fell and broke her wrist, and my sister's husband got a great job, but it was in London, and they moved, and there was nobody to stay with Mom, so Molly and I moved out here and things are tight." She glanced at Molly, then gave me a quick grin. "Sorry. I … um … tend to babble when I'm nervous."

"There's no need to be nervous. Tell me about yourself. Your backstory, as we say in the business."

She jumps right in. "I was born in Broken Bow, Montana. I wanted to experience the city life, couldn't wait to get out. I wanted to be a photojournalist. Went to school in New York. Things got … complicated." She looks at Molly again, her gaze lingering this time. She turns back to me. "I ended up working for an interior design firm in Boston, until I got the call about Mom. And I'm worried about her. She forgets things, and the budget—well, it's in trouble, and the furnace needs to be fixed—replaced would be better—and there's Bob, her new boyfriend, and—" She gives me another wide grin. "I'm babbling again, aren't I?"

I smile and add some notes to my page. "Not a problem." After making sure Molly is still engrossed in her book, I lean across my desk and lower my voice. "You do know that you'll have to have a consummated relationship for the job. Will that be a problem?"

She, too, checks on Molly. "Do I have to be … you know … real experienced? Because I'm not looking for a man now. Not unless he's going to put Molly first, and I've pretty much given up on those. I haven't … you know … done it. Not since—" Another glance at Molly.

"I've found that one experienced partner is usually enough," I say. "But it does happen on the page."

She blushes a delightful shade of pink. "The guy isn't going to be a brute or anything, is he? Or too ... kinky?"

"No, definitely not a brute. And I don't write erotica, so there's a very low kink quotient."

After a brief moment of lip-chewing thought, she says, "I think I'll be fine with it. No, I know I'll be fine with it. There's always a bright side to anything, and a little romance, even pretend, seems like a definite bright side to me right about now."

I run through the last few questions quickly, making sure she's willing to deal with a German Shepherd, and isn't afraid of horses or heights, before I drop the final question. "How would you feel about Molly being in the book with you?"

Her eyes pop open. "I don't know. She's so young. It's an adult book, after all."

"If she can differentiate between real and pretend, she can probably handle the job. And I'll run any of her scenes by you first, for approval."

"That sounds fair. But those … romance scenes?"

"Trust me, she won't be on the page during any … romance." With a smile, I add, "And she'll get paid for her time. Same rate as you."

Frankie chews her lip again. She gets up and sits beside Molly. She whispers in her ear. Molly's eyes widen. She looks at me. "Can Mr. Snuggles be in the story too?"

"Of course," I say. He'll be very important."

Molly grins. She stuffs her book in her pack and dangles Mr. Snuggles in front of her face. "We can be in a storybook. Just like Sam I Am."

Frankie crosses back to my desk, her hand outstretched. "We'll do it."

I shake her hand and escort the pair to the door. "My secretary has the paperwork. We'll start Monday, if that's all right."

"It'll be fine," Frankie says. They leave, and I tell my secretary to cancel tomorrow's appointments and to hold all my calls. I have some writing to do.

Author’s note. Sadly for me, WHEN DANGER CALLS is out of print. However, that’s your gain, because I have all the remaindered copies sitting in my house, and I’m offering them to readers at 50% off the cover price. If you’d like an autographed copy, please send me an email with Author Expressions Blog Special in the subject line—I’ll even waive shipping for readers of this blog. If you want to ‘try before you buy’ the first chapter is on my website. You can also visit me on my own blog, Terry's Place, where I discuss all aspects of writing--among other things.

If you enjoyed this job interview, leave a comment to let me know, and I'll post what happened when Ryan Harper, the hero showed up at my office on my next turn to blog.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

My second Five Star mystery THE DROWNING POOL has also been remaindered. These too will become rare books. I have a feeling WHEN DANGER CALLS will be in demand after your new novel is released. THE TRUTH SLEUTH, my third mystery in the Kim Reynolds series, will also be released May 2011. Good luck to both of us! May we get good reviews and lots of library orders!

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - thanks, and the best to you as well.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

This post was entertaining but more important very helpful. It broke a block I've had about the character interview.
Thanks so much.
Giggles and Guns

Terry Odell said...

Maribeth - so glad that it was helpful as well as entertaining.

Carol Kilgore said...

What a cool post! I've never interviewed my characters before - they've just shown up. But I have one that I need to have a chat with. Maybe I'll just give this a try :)

Terry Odell said...

Carol-nice seeing you here. Let me know what happens when you chat with your character!

Mason Canyon said...

Neat idea to interview you characters. Enjoyed the post.

Thoughts in Progress

Terry Odell said...

Mason, glad you stopped by.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Love this post! What a wonderful idea.

I just got when Danger Calls, btw. It looks great! So glad I got a copy before they're gone. Thanks for the authograph. :) It adds to the specialness.

This blog looks good and I like the image at the top.

Terry Odell said...

TerryS - so glad the book arrived. I hope you'll enjoy it (and if you do, you'll tell your friends how to get their own copy!)

Thanks for the blog feedback. I had nothing to do with its design, but I agree, it looks good.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great stuff Terry - love the interview - what a great tool :)

Unknown said...

Nicely done, Terry! I love interviewing my characters. Isn't it amazing what you learn when you start asking them questions? And they're so grateful when you take the time to listen and then show you've been listening by asking follow-up questions.

By the way, you chose a perfect name for the little girl.

Terry Odell said...

Jemi, glad you liked it.

Molly - I love letting my characters talk. To me, each other, the walls--anyone!

Mary Ricksen said...

I love the excerpt. Interesting blog, thanks Terry, I enjoyed it!

Cleo Coyle said...

OMG what a great idea to give your character a job interview. This was a lot of fun, Terry. My favorite lines --

*She blushes a delightful shade of pink. "The guy isn't going to be a brute or anything, is he? Or too ... kinky?"

"No, definitely not a brute. And I don't write erotica, so there's a very low kink quotient."*


~ Cleo Coffeehouse

Terry Odell said...

Mary - glad you liked it.

Cleo -- thanks for coming by. That interview was fun to write! Glad you enjoyed it too.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

I love the way you've interviewed Frankie and Molly - this is a great technique for bringing characters to life. Thanks for this insight!

Terry Odell said...

Leigh- thanks. Glad to share.

Christine Hammar said...

Interviewing your characters is a good tool indeed! Think I'll get right onto it. Will be interesting... Thanks so much, Terry, for this post.

Terry Odell said...

Christine - I'd love to see it.

Anonymous said...

Terry, this was fun to read and a great idea. I'll be looking for Ryan next.

Terry Odell said...

Ellis - Ryan will be here June 4th.

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