Wednesday, November 28, 2007


We writers think of them as character builders. They are anecdotes that tell the reader what kind of person or person you are writing about. The rule is, show rather than tell. If you want your reader to know something about a police detective, don’t write, for example, “He loved to play cruel practical jokes.” Write a scene in which he hires an extremely hard-bitten street walker to come into the station and ask if she can talk to her boyfriend Sergeant Wilcox for a minute. If he’s kind-hearted, write an amusing scene in which he stops traffic on a winding suburban road to keep a large snapping turtle from being run over. Snapping turtles crossing roads are almost invariably female. They are looking for a place to lay their eggs, or trying to get back to the pond after doing do. They do not want to be rescued, they want to be left alone. They cannot be herded and can bite through shoe leather. They can be pushed by a shovel – if you have one handy. Or, they can be picked up by the tail, if you are quick and careful. But then they must be carried at arm’s length or they will extend their sharp-beaked head on a surprisingly long neck and bite a surprisingly big chunk out of your thigh.

The thing is, these scenes, fun as they are to write, often don’t work toward solving the mystery. They are allowed only as far as they reveal more about the mind or character of the people in your novel. (In a short story, there is normally no time for these digressions.) I am beginning to think that the longer a series goes on, the more of this sort of thing there is, at least in my novels. I am at least as caught up in the personal lives of my “running” (repeating) characters as my readers, enough so that I’m no longer sure how much of this is character building and how much is gossip.

For example, my heroine goes three mornings a week to water aerobics – something I do myself. In Thai Die, I describe a visit based on something that actually happened. This is meant to reveal more about Betsy. Dave is never mentioned again. Is this scene necessary? Or do I just want to get it off my chest?

At six-thirty Betsy waded gratefully into breast-high warm water and began taking broad side steps, raising and lowering her arms in the water. The Courage Center’s Olympic-size pool had flat platforms that stepped down at wide intervals, rather than the sloping bottom of most pools. There were about nine other women there, most of them her age or older, and two men, all stepping sideways, warming up. Greetings were murmured as they passed one another. “Hi, Carol; hi, Rita; hi, Betsy; hi, Ruth; hi, Joe; hi, Ingrid; hi, Renee.” A collection of classic rock songs was playing, not too loud. Instructor Heidi stepped into the pool and called them to order. First head to toe stretches, then a slow jog, and pretty soon they were stepping lively, their heart rates at or close to where they needed to be.

Dave, whose occupation was serious and highly technical, had an amusing prelediction for gently nudging or splashing April and when April objected claiming loudly that she was picking on him. But April was home recovering from surgery. Betsy saw him look around, as if for another victim. He was a handsome man despite his balding head, with a strong build and a captivating North Carolina accent. He came to the pool because he was facing knee surgery and wanted to stretch and strengthen his leg muscles in preparation.

Dave’s eye settled on Irene, who had the most beautiful smile Betsy had ever seen. Her mouth was shapely and she had deep dimples, but it was more than that. When she smiled, somehow everyone around her felt warm and blessed. On the other hand, she was black and Dave was a southerner, so when Betsy saw him focus on her, she held her breath. Dave moved subtly out of his path to nudge her on the shoulder as they passed one another. It could have been an accident, they each murmured “Sorry,” and kept going.

But Irene evidently saw something in Betsy’s face when this happened. She flashed her smile at Betsy, and continued grape-vining placidly across the pool. On her way back, Irene deftly avoided another collision and flicked a few drops of water onto the back of Dave’s head as he went past. Dave shouted, “You saw that! You saw that! First April, now Irene! Can’t get a moment’s peace in this place!” Amidst the laughter Betsy was reminded that not all southerners were bigots – and that in her own concern for Irene, she was herself guilty of condescending racism.


Kathryn Lilley said...

Thanks for sharing that scene, Monica! I think those are the bits that really bring life to a character. And the more that readers get involved in your stories, I think the more they want to know these revealing asides. And your scene also contains a bit of suspense and potential conflict, which is also important to be in every scene. Well done! Kathryn

Deb Baker said...

I love it, Monica. Sucked me right in (to the water).

Snappers are so prehistoric. And dangerous to handle.

Sheila Connolly said...

You raised a very interesting point--do we have to justify every scene we include? If we were creating a mystery like a building, then the mystery plot itself would be the steel skeleton, necessary to hold the whole thing up. But once you have that, how do you cover the skeleton to make it appealing? (I think it's too early in the morining to make this analogy work much further--our characters are doors? windows? elevators?) Every scene, every character has to be there for a reason, not just because we fell in love with a pretty piece of language or a quirky character. But a scene such as the one you cited tells us something about the character rather than the plot, and that matters too.

Monica Ferris said...

I'm glad none of you -- so far -- thinks the scene too long or not as relevant as it should be. I enjoyed writing it and I hope it doesn't make my readers too impatient to get back to the action. (Of course, they can just page past it, but that's a dangerous thing to learn about reading a particular author.)

Camille Minichino said...

I agree, this moment is very revealing and not at all too long.

It's hard to say more without seeing the rest of the book ... what I try to do is make SOME connection to the story even if it's just a metaphor that reminds the reader of a plot point. Maybe Dave's balding head is as bare as a .... something in the story itself.
Like Shiela I'm having morning problems -- too early, so I'll come back later!

Dee Winter said...

But you need scenes like this to show Betsy as a complete person. That her whole life isn't just the needlework shop. Though when you work retail it seems like it is.

Anonymous said...

You have shed light on something I've wondered about - does every single scene pertain to figuring out "who done it" in mysteries. I read for pure enjoyment and don't always concentrate on piecing together the clues...although my husband grins when I mutter (or shout) "I KNEW it was him/her!". These "bits" or side notes do build the characters and the areas they live in as well. I know what the main characters look like, act like, where they live; the 'picture' usually stays the same, which is why it's like visiting old friends with every new book.
As an aspiring writer, I take note of these "lessons" from you all, the experts. Thanks to all of you for sharing your worlds and expertise.

Linda O. Johnston said...

To me, no scene is inconsequential, not if it helps to establish characters or setting or story. I like this one!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Fascinating, Monica. Thanks for teaching me more and more about our craft. I liked the scene because it brought me back to my days of taking a water aerobics class. You perfectly captured the cameraderie (sp! help! where's my spell-check!)and the way water makes folks playful. I don't think that every scene has to "drive" the mystery. In fact, I think there should be an ebb and flow to let the reader catch her breath.