CRAFT: and I’m not talking about a boat

“It’s not a boat! It’s a ship!”


I just found this neat-o new way to look at Book-in-a-Week or “fast drafting” or outlining-with-benefits.

Go see it at Then come tell us what you thought. I might just try that to finish up the mystery really quickly, and then go back to try to fix it to make sense! I always end up going back over stuff a zillion times anyway.

Okay, but HERE is the “CRAFT” post. I wanted to talk about secondary characters.

I was thinking today about how many incidental characters you’ve got to have in a mystery. And how you need to describe them with that flash-on-it telling detail or quirk, but you don’t want to make the reader visualize them too clearly or eagerly, as they’ll never be seen again. I’m thinking about the people that your sleuth interviews. There might be a hotel clerk, a maid, a travel agent, a bus driver, a homeless woman who sits outside the library where a suspect works, a real estate agent, and so forth. You wouldn’t even want to name some of them, because a name gives readers a hook, and sometimes they get hung up on that.

Mainly I’m speaking here about the walk-on parts that offer the secondary bit player a single scene or a couple of lines in a scene. Some novels have up to thirty of these or even more. But they’ve got to be colorful, yet not TOO colorful. You need to do a quick caricature, like the guy on the boardwalk who sketches people in under a minute and captures something of their essence.

It’s shorthand. The guy is fat, with a square head that reminded her of a Rubik’s cube. (What? Is this SF? Well, that just came to mind off the cuff. Maybe he has multicolored tattoos or zits.) Her thick black hair was wiry and tied back with a skinny shoelace, accentuating her round head. She looks like a snowman, a graduated stack of round balls with a round nose and black-coal eyes. His voice had been smoke-cured from years of Marlboro Man puffing, and he had the wrinkles to prove it.

Or use the costume. She wore a bimbo-ready sundress complete with popping-out assets. The Goth had a tattoo of a skull and crossbones on his upper arm. Or a pink-princess girl carries a black messenger bag decorated with a pattern of dead raccoon cartoons. The guy has a beer gut . . . maybe not from beer, so say it’s a “French-fries gut.” Something like that. Start with the cliche, then twist it a little.

You don’t want to say too much about the character, though. YOu just want the bottom line on his or her appearance: hair color, eye color, glasses or sunglasses, squinting or scowling. A suggestion of build. Something about the outfit–one wears a beret, another has a Marine haircut. A bald woman could be bald by choice, accident, or the result of an illness. You don’t have to specify, so it’s a bit more mysterious. Let the reader conjecture.

For others, you can embellish just a bit. A banker has flowers on her desk, or someone wears colorful ties with business suits. Mama has one doctor, her gastroenterologist and surgeon for her colon, whose trademark is crazy ties. We always bring him one, and his other patients have been doing that for years.

Maybe a mannerism or affectation. The woman who ends all her sentences with a lift, as if everything’s a question? The guy who talks fast enough to be an auctioneer? Or the one who just won’t wear a hearing aid, so she gets everything you say just a little bit wrong? An accent? Nods a lot or has a constantly shaking head, as if in disapproval?

Note: repeating speech tags/tics such as “you don’t say” or “and so forth” are best reserved for your medium-duty characters, as in the detective that we’ll see several times over teh course of the novel, or the neighbor who’s just this side of being a major chracter. When you have a good tag, it’s too good to waste. Don’t overdo it. I thought that in one particular novel a character CONSTANTLY said “so to speak,” but when I went to yellow-highlight every instance, I found only about three or four in a 75K mystery. The idea came across and it seemed as if he said it all the time.

One thing I have a lot of “trouble”* with is naming characters similar names. But I fix that at the end by going through and renaming them. Many of them balk at being renamed mid-book, so I just wait until the end. I currently have Aaron, Ariadne, and Arlene (now spelled Orlean, but probably that’ll change); I’ve had David, Daphne, and Dolores in the same book. I ended up changing the names of the more secondary characters. But save that for when you have a completed, mostly-polished final draft, because otherwise they may balk and change their personalities, and then where will you be? In inconsistency land without a continuity editor, that’s where.

So have fun with ’em, but don’t go there full-time.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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