Sunday, July 26, 2009

Where My Characters Come From


Please allow me to introduce this Sunday's guest blogger, Peggy Ehrhart. I'd like to say we met in a smoky New Orleans bar where she had come, guitar over her shoulder to sit in with my R&B band. Sadly, the reality is more prosaic: we were introduced by Vicki D at Bloody Words in Ottawa this past June. The rest of it may come true some day, though. You never can tell...

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I’d been watching her for years, sometimes up close as I stood in line with her at the neighborhood deli, other times from across the street as she headed one way and I another. She didn’t belong in the small New Jersey suburb where I make my home and where normal street attire runs along the lines of baggy pants and T-shirts for all ages and both sexes. She wore four-inch heels, iridescent spandex leggings, ruffly blouses cinched tight at the waist with wide colorful belts. And her jet black hair was always teased and sprayed into a complicated twist. The face beneath it was made up as if for the theater, complete with thick false eyelashes and blazing red lipstick. The get-up would have been striking on anyone — but it was particularly striking on her because she was at least eighty years old.

A character, for sure, and in more ways than one!

I never consciously said to myself, I’ll use her in a book some day. But she ended up in Sweet Man Is Gone, my first published mystery. Early in the story, my blues-singer bandleader sleuth, Maxx (real name: Elizabeth) Maxwell shows up to collect her guitar player, Jimmy Nashville, for a gig. She finds Jimmy sprawled on a patch of concrete beneath the window of his ninth-floor apartment. As Maxx watches the police and emergency personnel bustle about, she’s approached by his neighbor Helen.

I knew I needed a neighbor in my story because my sleuth had to get into Jimmy’s apartment a few chapters later. And what better way to engineer that than a friendly neighbor with a set of keys? But I had no idea what the neighbor would look like, even what sex the neighbor would be, until eighty-year-old Helen (which is what I named her) stepped forward in her spike heels, iridescent purple leggings and tight purple shirt, her black hair teased into an impressive crest and her narrow lips outlined in bright red lipstick. Helen figures in several additional scenes as well, and fear for her safety helps trigger the book’s climax.

So I’m contributing my thoughts to the past week’s discussions on this blog about where characters come from. Some come from observation, as was the case with Helen. I’d watched her for so long that every detail was stored in my brain, ready to pop out unbidden. Other characters are inspired not by people I’ve merely seen but by people I’ve known. When I do that, though, I change either the appearance or the personality so my friends (or people I’m not so friendly with) don’t recognize themselves.

One of my sleuth’s challenges is dealing with the sometimes annoying quirks of the musicians in her band. Most of these characters have real-life counterparts that I kept in mind while I was writing. But I made strategic changes lest they recognize themselves — though maybe I needn’t have bothered. A wise friend once remarked that people who are annoying never realize they’re annoying.

One character in Sweet Man Is Gone is an explicit homage to someone I admire greatly. Josh Bergman, the ultra-hip and mega-talented guitar player Maxx tries to recruit to take Jimmy’s place in the band, is based on a man I studied guitar with for many years. When I gave him a copy of Sweet Man Is Gone, I challenged him to figure out which character was him. He zeroed right in on Josh — and when I told him there was a sequel in the works, he emailed me, “Please don’t kill off Josh Bergman any time soon!”

Then there’s Stan Dunlap, the goofy, hapless guitar player who Maxx fired and who becomes a key suspect when she realizes that he was in Jimmy’s apartment right before Jimmy’s death. He popped into my head fully formed, six foot six with unruly hair, a guy who’s only happy when his fingers are busily making their way around a fretboard and who’s woefully lacking in the social graces. One reader of Sweet Man Is Gone described him as grotesque, but I’ve spent so much time hanging out with guitar players that I have a soft spot in my heart for all of them, no matter how eccentric. Stan is too much of a caricature to derive from any one specific person, but he’s an amalgam of many many that I’ve known.

My characters, then, just come, with little struggle. In that realm, I’ve never felt the need for elaborate brainstorming techniques: keeping journals in the character’s voice, listing personality traits... But characters might be one of my particular strengths. And writers — all artists in fact — find that some aspects of their art come naturally and others require work.

My guitar teacher, the model for Josh Bergman, once told me that even as a child he had a natural sense of rhythm. He used to walk around the house clicking his teeth in perfect time, and when he began to study music formally, that was an aspect he never had to work on.

In the case of one character, though, I accomplished the effect of keeping a journal in the character’s voice, though inadvertently. Sweet Man Is Gone is my first published Maxx Maxwell mystery but it’s not my first Maxx Maxwell mystery. Maxx has solved a few other crimes in manuscripts that are sitting on the shelves of my study — manuscripts that got high marks from prospective agents for voice, style, and milieu but whose plots were as directionless as a self-indulgent guitar solo.

Plot is the aspect of mystery writing that doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’ve learned to brainstorm, outline, and plan so thoroughly that I know exactly where I’m going before I start a new project.

But the time I put into those unpublished manuscripts wasn’t lost. Each one placed Maxx in a situation that forced her to use her brains and musical knowledge to solve a murder, and in each one a little more backstory crept in. I must confess that at the beginning Maxx was a complete fantasy creation — the me I’d love to be if I could sing well enough to front a band. (Not to mention the complete opposite of my suburban wife and mother, college-professor self.)

But I know a lot more about her now. I know she got her nose fixed when she went off to college, bleached her hair blonde when she joined her first band, attributes her sexy figure to the fact that she wears a push-up bra, buys her clothes at thrift stores, has a weakness for guitar players, and isn’t really over her old boyfriend, Sandy Wilkins, who she left because of his womanizing.

I know her as well as if she were an old friend, which is what she has become.

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Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor who now devotes her time to writing mysteries and playing blues guitar. As Margaret J. Ehrhart, she has published widely in the field of her academic specialty, medieval literature, and she has also won awards for her short fiction. She is a longtime member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. As a guitar player, she has performed with The Last Stand Band and other bands in the New York/TriState area. Her first full-length mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, was published by Five Star/Gale/Cengage in August 2008. Visit her on the web at www.PeggyEhrhart.com.

3 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Creating characters is the best part of writing for me.

Your characters sound like they really shine. I'll look for them at the bookstore.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

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