Today the Femmes welcome our dear friend and fellow author, Carolyn Haines!
She writes, she teaches, she takes in homeless animals!
Many of you know about her funny Bones mystery series starring Sarah Booth Delaney. You may not know that Carolyn's also well-respected in the literary fiction world. In 2009, she was awarded the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award. Previous winners include Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Elizabeth Spencer, Barry Hannah ... you get the picture. Can't beat that, right? Well, she did. In 2010, she received the Harper Lee Award, surely the ultimate honor for a Southern writer.
Would you believe she also writes dark scary thrillers? Amazing. In fact, this week, her publisher is offering one as a FREE e-book. But more about that later. Right now, let's see what she has on her mind ....
When Bad Characters Go Good—The Reversal
from Carolyn Haines
It happens to every writer at some point or another. A character you conceived goes awry. You have this magnificent creation of evil, and suddenly he does something noble and kind. It’s often called the redemptive moment in a character arc, and it is highly satisfying for the reader.
And frustrating for the writer of a series.
Imagine if Moriarty suddenly donated to a charity hospital. Sherlock Holmes would be stymied (and Holmes was NEVER stymied). Or what if Cruella de Vil insisted on volunteering to work in an animal shelter. Or Mrs. Danvers decorated a nursery for the new Mrs. deWinter.
Such acts of compassion would completely undo our understanding of these characters. And it would rob our protagonists of a truly vile enemy to thwart.
Much to my dismay, I’ve had character reversals occur when I least expected them. Sometimes, no matter how happily I’ve plotted my mystery, I discover that the person “who done it” really isn’t the killer. This is truly an unhappy turn of events.
The question I ask myself is: have I lost control of my story? OR, have my characters come to life to show me a better way of doing things? The problem is that I never know the answer, and so I have to go about writing the story to find out.
Writing is a peculiar joy and misery. I teach fiction writing at University of South Alabama, and I read a lot of student writing. Editing requires a lot of time, patience, and skill, but it is more analytical than magical (though I have had moments of inspiration while editing someone else’s work—where I see the whole picture clearly and can give good advice on improving the work).
With writing, there is never a “right” way to do it. Each story, each character, each scene needs a particular approach. I call it “listening to the story.” The art of “listening to the story” is an off-shoot of “reading with the gut.” All readers do this. We read fiction for emotion. But we read and process so quickly that we seldom think about the emotional impact. We follow the thoughts and actions of our favorite character with joy or dread or frustration. But we’re seldom alert to the ways that an author manipulates our emotions for deliberate effect. And it is the writer’s job to manipulate the reader.
When a character acts out of character—this can be a real problem for an author. Or it can be the most incredible piece of luck ever to fall in a writer’s lap.
The story of the Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries series involves a lot of happenstance, some luck, some determined characters, and my willingness to let the characters grow into the people they wanted to be.
I had just finished a two-book contract with Dutton for general fiction novels when I heard Sarah Booth and Jitty arguing. I clearly remember that Fall day. My anxiety was high—I was out of contract and wasn’t certain where to step next. As I watched my horses graze from my office window, I heard Jitty and Sarah Booth ragging on each other.
And I began to write.
The book became THEM BONES. And when I finished, I realized I’d written a mystery. I couldn’t believe it. I’d actually plotted a mystery! I was thrilled. And the book went to auction and was bought by Random House for a series.
For a child who’d wanted to be a cowgirl AND Nancy Drew, it doesn’t get any better. I found myself writing a mystery series with a tomboy protagonist. This was better than I ever dreamed.
The story of Tinkie is a bit more convoluted. In THEM BONES, Tinkie catapults Sarah Booth into the realm of the private detective when Tinkie hires her to check out Hamilton Garrett V. Tinkie is a hardcore sorority girl. She is vain and shallow and self-centered.
My intention was to conclude her story arc in the first book and be done with her.
Tinkie had other plans.
She popped up in BURIED BONES. And I began to realize that she is the balance for Sarah Booth. Beneath Tinkie’s glitzed and styled hair is a brain. In many ways, she is smarter than Sarah Booth, though she has been taught to hide her intelligence to be a successful Daddy’s Girl.
By book three, Tinkie becomes Sarah Booth’s partner. Tinkie gives Sarah Booth balance, and Sarah Booth gives Tinkie permission to grow into a multifaceted person (character).
I wish I could claim responsibility for this transition and arc—it has made both characters better and more enjoyable—but I can’t. I merely allowed the characters to follow their own destiny. I am not smart enough to have figured this all out in advance.
But I am smart enough to trust these willful, ornery, wonderful characters.
Tinkie has become such a force that we are now celebrating the second annual Daddy’s Girls Weekend, April 13-15, in Mobile. It is a writers/readers/mischief conference where folks come together to learn from each other and have fun.
Now, I can’t imagine the Bones books without Tinkie. And maybe, one day, she’ll talk some sense into Sarah Booth. I’ll have to keep writing to see if that happens.
That's good news for us readers! Thanks so much for being with us, Carolyn.
As I mentioned earlier, Tyrus Books is offering one of Carolyn's darker books, FEVER MOON, as a FREE ebook this week only. For info on all her books and upcoming events, check out her website at carolynhaines.com. And you can find out more about the upcoming Daddy's Girls weekend here - daddysgirlsweekend.com