Literary is built on characters

When I asked my good writing friend, Rachel Roberts, to contribute a story to our murder anthology, she bravely said “yes,” and then panicked. Rachel doesn’t think about PLOTS. She thinks about CHARACTERS. Both of my daughters love to read literary novels more than genre writing. I’m the opposite, but I appreciate a really good literary writer when I discover one. And I’ve admired Rachel’s writing for a long time. So I sent her a Q & A about how she writes, and if you’re driven more by characters than plot, you might enjoy her answers. Here’s Rachel:

Author Judi Lynn posed questions about my writing of “Swallowtail” for the MURDER THEY WROTE anthology. Her questions were intelligent, perceptive, and insightful, and I enjoyed thinking about them. I will answer them now.

1. You wrote the mystery SWALLOWTAIL for the MURDER THEY WROTE anthology. I know you’d never written a mystery before. What was your biggest concern?

When I was invited to contribute to MURDER THEY WROTE, I felt overwhelmed. I had never written a mystery, and I didn’t know what, who, or how to commit a crime and/or reveal it. I began with a character, Lorraine, and let her sensibilities lead me toward “something.”  I tried to follow her discoveries and moods.

2. You’re a literary writer. Characters drive your stories. Do you have a special technique for developing them? How did you create Lorraine Hepplewhite?

Literary fiction is my genre. I think it may be because I come from a large family where personalities, intentions, and deeds regularly got analyzed.  Plotting a story is hard for me because as I develop a character, I find he/she doesn’t always want to follow my linear plan. Lorraine Hepplewhite reflects no one I know. Somehow the idea of an innocent but gifted person with few opportunities falling into what some people would call “luck”—marrying well, being well-off financially etc. — might not be the great result most people would expect. In her new life, Lorraine gets all sorts of opportunities to flourish and she does, but her situation imprisons her as well. Crazy with boredom and loneliness and without emotional support, she experiments with theft—mostly out of curiosity.

3. Lorraine’s mother is unusual, to say the least, and she caught me by surprise. Lorraine’s dead husband’s mother is a bit unusual, too. How did you create them?

Lorraine’s mother is complex. She loves her daughter, but she too is rudderless. Her husband abandoned her, although he provided for her. She is a dreamer and longs to travel and to live fully. She focuses on what is necessary to survive, gets a job and even moves up in her work. After Lorraine leaves home, however, she isn’t emotionally attached. She sends her daughter money or a card from time to time to show that she recognizes her daughter’s life events, but that’s about it.

Lorraine’s mother-in-law, Sybil, also is a figment of my imagination, the idea of a talented artist who has faced so many devastating changes in her life; she closes herself away from everyone to grieve, that is, everyone except her priest. She is emotionally deprived, but eventually accepts Lorraine enough to see her as a friend.

4. Did you have to do research about the prized swallowtail in your story?

Yes, I did a great deal of research about butterflies, and especially the rare swallowtail butterfly.  I initially wanted the butterfly to sell for a great deal more money on the black market than it does, but although it is rare and does sell for a lot of money, it wasn’t enough to warrant killing someone for it. What to do?  I went over this part of the story many times.

5. Most of the story takes place in the Hepplewhite’s conservatory with the narrow pool. It made a great focal point for the events that happen. Do you love water? Swimming? You made the room come to life

I was given the game of CLUE to consider when I was invited to write a story. I selected the conservatory as my place for the crime because I could put a pool in there and have that work as the place of interest. For Quinton Hepplewhite, conservatory was a place to be enjoyed; for FM, it posed a challenge to maintain, and for Lorraine it was both a puzzle and a place for escape. Personally I enjoy and swim regularly; therefore I could easily imagine Lorraine swimming back and forth trying to figure out what to do.

6. You also write plays and scripts. How did you get interested in those?

I write plays and scripts because I like to develop characters and consider the drama of their dilemmas. I especially like theater, and I can reveal characters by what they say and how they say it. Writing dialogue seems natural for me.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Your media links?

I write a blog about once a month, and it is on my website. I am listed in Author Central, and my plays are on New Play Exchange. I am a member of The Dramatist Guild of America.

My email is:

My website is:

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