Listen to Your Characters
By Leslie Wheeler
Voices often fill my head. Sometimes it’s my voice I hear; other times, the voices belong to people who are in my life right now, or were important to me in the past. For example, when I’m rushing to get something done, I hear my father’s calming baritone: “Take your time.” Or when I wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, I hear my mother singing in her slightly off-key mezzo-soprano great hits from the nineteen thirties and forties like “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “On a Slow Boat to China.” And I get on that slow boat and drift back to sleep, as my mother tiptoes from my childhood bedroom.
As a writer, I also hear the voices of my characters. I’ve learned to listen to those voices, because they usually have important messages for me. When I was writing the mystery novel that became Rattlesnake Hill, I arrived at a scene where the main character, then Miranda Lewis, the heroine of my three Living History Mysteries, was supposed to kiss a male character, and she flat out refused! I was shocked. How could she do this to me? I was the boss after all. Finally, I realized she was trying to tell me she didn’t belong in the story—that it was someone else’s tale. And it was up to me to figure out who that person was. Thus, was born Kathryn Stinson, the heroine of both Rattlesnake Hill, the first book in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, and the second book, Shuntoll Road, released in August, 2020.
Fortunately, the story line for Shuntoll Road came to me with relative ease. While I was working on Rattlesnake Hill, another set of characters took up residence in my head. When they started throwing wild parties, I knew I had to deal with them. To appease these characters and get some peace and quiet, I promised to work them into Kathryn Stinson’s on-going story. They settled happily into their roles, and everything was fine.
Yet as I approached the end of Shuntoll Road, I hit another road block. I didn’t have a clue about the plot of the next book. What to do? My main character, Kathryn Stinson, was clueless herself, so I turned to the supporting characters for help. And one of them, who was not part of the partying crowd, but showed up later in the book, came to the rescue. Charlotte Hinckley, the executive director of my fictional town’s land trust organization, invited me to join her for drinks at her house around dusk. As we sipped our rum coolers and watched the light fade from the sky, she opened up to me about the tragic losses she’d suffered many years ago. And presto! I had the story for the third book, Wolf Bog, which I’m hard at work on, even as I write this.
Still, in the back of my mind, there’s a nagging worry. Once I’m finished with Wolf Bog, what will the next book be about? At least now, I know what to do. I’ll put out a call to my characters and see what they have to say.
Readers of this blog: to what extent do your characters determine what you write?
An award-winning author of nonfiction, Leslie Wheeler writes the Miranda Lewis Living History Mysteries. beginning with Murder at Plimoth Plantation (recently re-released for the first time as a trade paperback) and the Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, which began with Rattlesnake Hill and continue with Shuntoll Road.