Friday, June 6, 2014

Keeping Up with Your Characters

The hardest part of writing crime fiction has turned out to be something I didn’t expect, and something I’ve only now, after nine novels, started to think about. Working out some of the clues in the third Anita Ray novel, For the Love of Parvati, taught me some important lessons about keeping up with my characters. 

In graduate school I read through all of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels without ever being troubled by the woman’s age, or her failure to age along with the world around her. The elderly woman of the 1930s accepting invitations to weekend parties in the country was the elderly woman of the 1950s exploring the new housing developments on the edge of the village. In contrast I also read Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, and enjoyed the subplot of the inspector’s personal life, including the challenges of dealing with his growing children.

When I started writing the Mellingham series with Chief of Police Joe Silva, I hadn’t considered how his life would change. He was a man in his fifties when he walked onto the page, and I thought I would find enough murderous business while he was in that decade to not worry about anything else. I was wrong. He fell in love at the end of the third book in the series, Family Album, and his beloved came with a ready-made family.

Things have evolved differently for Anita Ray. I hadn’t given much thought to her getting married and starting a family, but I assumed that would happen, and was waiting for the right setting to develop. But again, I was wrong. Instead of the traditional passage, Anita becomes more deeply involved in photography. She appeared as a photographer in the first line of the first story, and in every adventure she’s using her camera to solve crimes.

Anita uses a Pentax because I use one. I have my eye on another camera but that will have to wait. Meanwhile I find myself trying to keep up with Anita. She’s curious, so she has opened her camera to see if there’s anything wrong inside. Professional guidebooks always warn against this, but Anita doesn’t take advice. And apart from the advice for beginners, professional photographers like to know their equipment intimately. This was a challenge for me, but I rose to it and opened my camera and took a look inside.

Anita looks at everyone and everything as though she were looking through a lens. This gives her distance and a sense of the narrative of what she’s looking at. To her everything is an image, and everyone is telling a story.

For a while Anita has had a gentleman friend, someone her aunt doesn’t approve of. This has provided me with numerous opportunities to play with Auntie Meena’s prejudices and frustrated dreams as a mother and marriage broker. But the man in question is leaving Anita in Book 4, and will not return as her beloved.

Anita runs a photography gallery, which brings her a modest income and gets her out of her aunt’s Hotel Delite, with its attendant duties and mini crises. I have mounted two photography exhibits for a local library gallery, so I know how much work it takes. I’ve also submitted to juried shows (and been accepted for a few).

I’m keeping up with Anita, but just barely. For each story I have to learn about and do more with my camera. Usually when writers talk about characters getting away from them, they mean the characters say unexpected things. With Anita, she veers off in directions as a photographer that make me scramble to keep up. She forces me to learn, and perhaps in the end I’ll be as good a photographer as I think she is.

For more about Susan and the Anita Ray series, including links to her books, go to


Rosemary McCracken said...

Insightful comments, Susan. I know what you mean by keeping up with a character who knows more about her profession than you do. Pat Tierney, protagonist of my mysteries Safe Harbor and Black Water, is a financial planner, which I am not, although as I financial journalist I interview financial planners and attend their conferences. But I find looking for financial crimes for Pat to explore a challenge. I've definitely haven't been there, done that!

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Interesting (and amusing) article, Susan! I thought writing historical fiction would help me keep up with inventions, etc. but that's complicated, as well. I suppose it's easier, though, than keeping up with other types of more contemporary technology.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Rosemary, I had no idea I could end up worrying about this aspect of Anita's life. It's fun and challenging but I keep waiting for a reader to tell me I got something wrong. I have only admiration for your choice of profession for your protagonist, Pat Tierney.

Bobbi, I once mentioned to a writer that I preferred contemporary fiction because I know what life is like now. She replied that she preferred writing historicals because "the past stays put." I never thought about it that way before. I'm not sure one is easier than the other.

Thank you both for commenting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Having now written four Kim Reynolds mysteries, I find it important to "keep up" with my characters lives as well. Like real people, they are subject to change in their lives.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, you're absolutely right. When I wrote the first Joe Silva I didn't think beyond the next chapter. It's good to step back and consider how our characters develop. Thanks for commenting.

Gigi Pandian said...

This is a wonderful example of how the advice "write what you know" is more about "write what you find interesting." We can always find out what we need to know -- as long as it's interesting to us and keeps us digging and trying.

I love the picture you've painted -- or should I say the picture you've "shot" -- of scrambling to keep up with Anita :)

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Gigi. You make a very good point. I made Anita a photographer because I love photographing in India--everything is so vivid and bright. I often told students "write what you love." I agree that we can learn what we need to know, especially if it interests us. Thanks for commenting.

Jackie King said...

I also enjoyed your post. I've just finished my 2nd Grace Cassidy mystery and am getting started on No. 3. I hadn't realized how much fun it would be to grow with Grace, and through her eyes, to evolve into a better woman.

Carole Price said...

Not only do we have to keep up with our characters, but also technology. A book I wrote ten years ago received rejections and I filed it away. I still like the plot, location, and characters, but the computers and cell phones have to be updated before I can try to have it published.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jackie, I love your idea of your character growing into a better woman. Anita certainly has evolved, and I hope she will continue to do so.

Carole, I sympathize with you. I can barely keep up with today's technology. I read a post by Cara Black, who decided to keep her character in 1999 Paris, and stick with the technology of the time rather than continuously update. Her husband is a tech person, so she has a resource for accurate information. But it's a challenge.

Thank you both for commenting.

marja said...

Excellent post, and a reminder about how much research I've had to do for various books. Thankfully, the things I need to know are fun to learn about. It sounds like you're experiencing the same thing. Thanks for sharing!
Marja McGraw