Some Assembly Required

Molly MacRaeMolly MacRae is the author of Last Wool and Testament, first in the Haunted Yarn Shop mysteries, available in mass market paperback, e-book, and audio. Dyeing Wishes, second in the series, comes out July 2, 2013 and is available for pre-order.

You can find Molly on the first Monday of each month at Vintage Cookbooks and Crafts, on the 23rd of each month at Killer Characters, on facebook and Pinterest, or at

It’s sort of a given, if you’re writing mysteries, that you’re going to lose some characters along the way. Because, face it, people in mysteries tend to have bad luck. They’re poisoned, they’re bludgeoned, they get pushed down the stairs or out of an airplane—and worse. It’s terrible! And if you’re the author in charge of all that misfortune, then you’re the one who has to go out and get more characters for the next story or book to replace the ones who’ve . . . oopsed.

So what are you going to do? Where are you going to find the next flawed person, the quirky guy, the bookseller, the museum curator, the uptight cop who dreams of retiring to New Mexico, the burglar who’s an excellent cook? Where do I get them? Do I go shopping for them? Well yes, sometimes I do. What better place to find the kind of people who shop at the local Farm & Fleet than the local Farm & Fleet? You walk inside, scout around, find your marks, size them up, and take them home. Very convenient!

But once you’ve mastered that basic technique, it’s time to be more adventurous. You can still go shopping, but now you want to look for fresh ingredients and avoid those prepackaged, all-in-one characters. Look for specific physical characteristics – noses, for instance, or posture. Look Last Wool and Testamentfor shoe size, aged hands, the right laugh. Look for hobbies, reading preferences, taste in music. And try these items out to be sure they perform the way you want. Check their actions and reactions. How does that head tilt when contemplating? How does that breath change when you point a gun at it?

One of my favorite ingredients to shop for is dialog. I must have a natural inclination to eavesdrop. If you don’t have that inclination, try to cultivate the habit. It’s fun! And be sure to keep paper and pencil handy.

The trick, then, after you’ve gathered all your ingredients, is to put them together. You want to do that in such a way that you end up with “real” characters, but not so real that your sister or your neighbor says “hey, wait a second . . .” Especially if you’ve been unflattering. But if you do your job right, if you mix things around enough, adding glasses here, changing an accent there, dyeing someone’s hair a color she’ll never recognize, and if you’re constantly on the lookout for fresh supplies, then you’ll never run out of characters, no matter how unfortunate the poor things are.