When A Character Puts Her Foot Down

Hi. Barb here. Please welcome my friend Leslie Wheeler to the blog. Leslie and I were in a writers group together for more than twenty years and were co-editors at Level Best Books for six years. I was lucky enough to see her latest book Rattlesnake Hill take shape and it’s terrific.

Here’s the blurb:

It’s November in the Berkshires, a dreary time of dwindling light when the tourists have fled along with the last gasp of fall foliage. So when a stranger shows up in the sleepy hilltown of New Nottingham and starts asking questions, the locals don’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

Bostonian Kathryn Stinson is on a deeply personal quest to solve a family mystery: the identity of a nameless beauty in an old photograph an ancestor brought with him to California over a century ago. But, as Kathryn quickly discovers, the hills possess a host of dark secrets – both ancient and new – that can only be revealed at the price of danger and even death.

Take it away, Leslie!

I remember the moment vividly. I’m standing in my mother’s sunny, Southern California kitchen, while a scene in the novel I’m writing plays out in my mind. Coincidentally, the scene takes place in another kitchen, where Miranda Lewis, the main character in my first mystery novel, Murder at Plimoth Plantation, reveals her feelings for a male character in the second series book. She goes to him and starts kissing him as he stands at the sink. Or rather, that’s what she’s supposed to do. Instead, she puts her foot down and refuses! I mean, the nerve!

“I’m the boss lady,” I say, “so you’ll do what I tell you.”

“No way,” she fires back, “You gave me a perfectly fine love interest with Nate Barnes, and I’m sticking with him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Earl Barker’s a great guy—handsome, sexy, and a marvelous storyteller.”

“Yeah, what more do you want?” Earl chimes in from the sink, where he’s still waiting to be kissed.

“I want Nate,” Miranda says stubbornly.

“You mean all those times we were together, and you seemed to be falling for me, it was just an act?” Earl demands, his face turning red under his tan.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lead you on. She made me do it.” Miranda points an accusing finger at me.

Now they’re both glaring at me. “Hey, guys, calm down,” I say. “There must be a way we can work things out.”

“And what about Nate?” Miranda flares. “Did you even bother to ask him how he feels about the situation?”

Uh-oh. Miranda has no sooner spoken his name than Nate strides into the kitchen, and I’ve got another angry character on my hands. “She most certainly did not,” Nate declares. “After giving me a few paltry scenes in the beginning, I get kicked to the curb for this, this . . . hillbilly.” He scowls at Earl.

“Hey, you’re not supposed to call him that,” I say. “That line belongs to another character.”

“Another character,” Miranda repeats slowly. Her expression turns thoughtful, then she has a lightbulb moment. “That’s it!” She beams.

“What?” the rest of us ask.

“It’s another character’s story. C’mon, Nate,” Miranda says, linking arms with him. “We’re outta here.”

Earl watches them go, dumbfounded. “If they’re bailing, where does that leave me?”

“Oh, you’re still in the book,” I assure him, “But like Miranda said, it will be another character’s story.”

“Who?”

“Well, I’m not sure yet . . .Who would you like it to be?”

He considers this a moment. “Young, hot, and drop-dead gorgeous.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say, though that’s not quite the character who’s beginning to take shape in my mind.

“When you’ve got her, let me know and I’ll be back for the re-writes.” Earl turns to go, but almost immediately stops. “One more thing. If this book was going to be the second book in your Living History Mystery Series, and now it’s not, what happens to that series?”

“Oh, there’ll be other books. I promised Miranda and Nate there would be be at least two more.”

“And the book I’m in?”

I hesitate. “Well, I was kind of thinking it would be a standalone.”

His furious look makes me sorry I made him such a hot-tempered dude. “No! You either give me the three-book series you’re giving them, or the deal’s off.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I repeat.

“You damn well better!” He storms from the kitchen.

After a few moments of blessed silence, my mother, who’s been sitting patiently at her sunny, Southern California kitchen table all along, says, “If you’ve finished arguing with those people, can we have lunch?”

And that is how Murder at New Nottingham, which was supposed to be the second book in my Living History Mystery Series, featuring Miranda Lewis, became Rattlesnake Hill, the first book in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, featuring Kathryn Stinson.

Readers: Has anyone else had a similar experience with their characters? If so, I would love to know how you handled it.

An award-winning author of American history books and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written three living history mysteries: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. Her short stories have appeared in such anthologies as Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, and Level Best Books’ New England Crime Stories series, where she was formerly an editor. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she is Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond

31 thoughts on “When A Character Puts Her Foot Down

  1. Congratulations on Rattlesnake Hill, Leslie! I love it when characters are so vivid! Seth Anderson in my books was supposed to be an unnamed throw away in the first book. He just kept coming back.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sherry. Sounds like you had a similar experience with your character, Seth Anderson, and I’m sure others have, too. I always find it amazing and wonderful when characters take on a life of their own, and do things you never anticipated.

      • Hi, Liz, although your message is to Sherry, I’m going to answer, too. I had an ATF officer who simply showed up on the page one day. I decided I liked him and so did the members of my critique group, so he was allowed to stay. He ended up becoming an important character in the book. Fortunately, he showed up early enough so I didn’t have to do a lot of rewriting.

    • Hi again, Liz, good to hear that you argue with your characters also, and interesting that you lost the argument, just as I did. Makes me wonder if there’s anyone who has won an argument with their characters.

  2. Welcome to the Wickeds, Leslie! I always say I have enough real people in my life who won’t do what I want them to, it’s insult to injury when the fictional people act up.

    Best of luck with Rattlesnake Hill. It’s a terrific book.

  3. So true about the real people in one’s life who won’t do what you want. I definitely have the argumentative gene myself, as you well know from writers’ group where I often argued with critiques I didn’t agree with, and I seem to have passed it on to my son. Hmm, wonder if that’s where my characters got it.

  4. I’m a little worried about you people. This is the kind of behavior that gets people . . . wait, I forgot, you’re all writers. Never mind.

  5. Welcome to the blog Leslie! And congratulations on your new book/series! Can’t wait to read it!

    And yes, my characters argue. Sometimes a character from one series talks to a character from another series, which is super confusing.

  6. Love the argument! And I love your mother. I’m not a writer, but I have written a couple of short pieces for specific purposes and the stories do just sort of write themselves. I really don’t know where it comes from, but I never feel I have a lot of control over them.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Ginny. I think it’s great that your stories do sometimes write themselves. That’s pretty much what happened to me. The characters started arguing and the rest of the post fell into place.

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