“Discovering a Character” (by Melodie Johnson Howe)

Melodie Johnson Howe’s fiction has been recognized at both novel and short-story length with nominations for the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Barry Awards. Though her output is not large, she is one of our genre’s most dependable writers in terms of quality. The appearance of a new novel from her next spring, after many years devoted exclusively to short stories, is something to look forward to (see City of Mirrors: A Diana Poole Thriller from Pegasus Books).—Janet Hutchings

Every time I finish a short story I feel as if I just completed a magic trick; pulled a rabbit out of a hat; turned a scarf into a dove. I’m the hapless magician who doesn’t know how the rabbit got into the hat in the first place. Yes, I’m a professional writer, meaning I get paid for my work, and therefore I should understand exactly what I’m doing—but I don’t.

When I was an actress I had a script. I knew where the camera was. I knew my marks. I knew if I kept my focus and listened, or at least pretended to listen, to the other actors in the scene I could create a sense of reality. I also knew the camera loved me. And if the camera loves you, in Hollywood little else matters.

There is no camera, not even a net, when I’m writing. I sit in my chair and I begin. Poof! A rabbit. Poof! No rabbit! A good shake of the hat. Still no rabbit. File the story away.

In spring 2013, City of Mirrors, A Diana Poole Thriller, will be published. Diana Poole would not exist without the short stories I wrote about her for EQMM.

When I first began to write the novel I thought great, I have my rabbit in a hat. I’ll just plop Diana Poole down in a brand-new, suspense-ridden plot and I’ll be off to the races. But like so many of my ideas about writing, this didn’t work out that easily. I quickly learned that Diana Poole was born out of the short-story form. She was in essence a short-story character. What do I mean by that? A few sharp brushstrokes described her: “My husband Colin, a screenwriter, had died suddenly of a heart attack over a year ago. He left me with what the realtors euphemistically call a ‘tear-down’ in Malibu, an old Jaguar, two Oscars—each for Best Screenplay—an empty bank account, and an emptier heart. So I had gone back to what I had been doing before I married him—acting. Except now I was older and the parts were fewer.”

That is all I know about her. When I placed her against a much larger canvas, Diana dwindled. There was no rabbit in my hat.

Where did Diana come from? She needed to be fleshed out. I spent days trying to figure out how to do this. Give her a sister? A mother? A father? Multiple lovers? She had to have some connection to the real world. But if I gave her family members, then her aloneness would disappear and she’d just be barraged with the problems of relatives. Then I had an idea.

In an old manuscript I could never make work, I had created a wonderful character—an aging, ex-movie star. She had smarts, and a ruthless flair. I’d always regretted that she languished in a file on my desktop. So I took her out, dusted her off, and put her in the novel as a friend of Diana’s. But that didn’t work either. As friends, the scenes didn’t go anywhere: There was no tension. I couldn’t connect her to Diana’s life or, for that matter, the plot.

This is where hard work pays off. I had an epiphany. (My moments of insight rarely happen without the tossing away of many stupid ideas.) I would double-down, to use a popular phrase. If Diana had a dead husband why couldn’t she have a recently dead mother? A mother that had been a famous movie star. Diana’s early life was set. She grew up alone in boarding schools, coming home on vacations. Home was wherever her mother was filming at the time. And the house was always rented. And with each new house there was a new strange man. Diana earned her singularity and grit early in life.

The novel opens with her returning to one of these houses and sets the tone for the entire book.

If a dead husband is painful, a dead mother is powerful. Diana is riddled with memories. The character I rescued from an unfinished book not only defined Diana’s past, but also opened up the novel in unexpected and surprising ways. Because of these discoveries I was able to make connections that turned my narrative into a multi-layered piece. And isn’t this why writers write?

Will I still feel like a magician on tightrope the next time I sit down to write? Yes. I’ll be shaking that hat looking for the rabbit. After all, writers are always beginning.

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2 Responses to “Discovering a Character” (by Melodie Johnson Howe)

  1. Congratulations on your forthcoming novel. I am sure it will be a good one. I miss seeing your work on the old CB!

  2. Pingback: Discovering a Character

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