Karen McCullough’s wide-ranging imagination makes her incapable of sticking to one genre for her storytelling. As a result, she’s the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which span the mystery, fantasy, paranormal, and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business to support her writing habit. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy; three other Eppie finals; Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
A mystery novel, or any other piece of fiction for that matter, needs a main character or possibly more than one character who’ll engage the reader’s attention and sympathy. He or she has to be someone the reader can accept as a stand-in for themselves in the book’s world. That goes without saying. (Okay, I said it anyway, just to be sure I didn’t forget.)
I try hard to be sure my main characters are people that readers will root for and maybe even come to love. They have lots of admirable characteristics and a few faults as well to keep them from being too perfect.
But I like to go beyond just making them someone who is admirable. I try to engage readers’ interest by giving them some slightly unusual traits and offbeat quirks as well.
My main character in A Question of Fire is one of my favorite heroines ever. Catherine Bennett is smart, courageous, and has a great sense of humor. But her humor can be quirky and even seem a bit strange to people.
If I might share an example:
The call came around eleven-thirty and caught her in the midst of cleaning her refrigerator. It was a task she despised, ranking right next to scouring the oven on her list of least favorite chores, but every few months she forced herself to dispose of the collection of inedible leftovers that reproduced in the back while the door was closed. The assortment of mold and fungus accumulating there might delight a biologist, but Cathy had to hold her nose and try not to look while she scraped them into the disposal unit. She’d just dumped a particularly nasty mess growing on a bit of meat loaf she couldn’t remember making and was relieved to get away from the job for a while.
“Cathy?” It was Peter. “I think this may be something solid. Can you come to my office at twelve-fifteen? I don’t want to talk about it over the phone. We’ll have lunch afterward. Oh, and I’ve asked Danny; I need to talk to him about this, too. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Shows what a lot you know, she thought, but he didn’t need to hear that. “Fine, I’ll be there at twelve-fifteen.”
She put the dishes she’d scraped into a pan of soapy water to soak, congratulated the rest of the little containers on their reprieve but promised them their turn would come, then went to clean up.
Throughout the book, I tried to mix in the occasional small episode to demonstrate her slightly off-center view of life. It helps lighten up what is basically a pretty serious story, and I hope makes readers appreciate Cathy more. She was a joy to write and even to read about again and again in various editing processes.
But I often have even more fun writing secondary characters because I can get a lot more creative with them. I like introducing my readers to people who are interesting and different, fun to meet and amusing to watch in action.
Here’s a snippet from A Question of Fire where Cathy meets Ike Hudson, the owner of a junk yard. He’s a very minor character in the story, though ultimately he plays an important part in the resolution:
She pulled her car into a small paved area in front of the shop. A screened door stood partly open, so she walked in. And stopped, frozen by astonishment. Dozens of pairs of beady little eyes stared at her from the protection of bird cages hanging or standing around the room. She identified the finches and budgies, but there were a few larger birds she couldn’t name. The cacophony she’d just noticed subsided when she entered the room. The birds watched her with suspicious glares.
A creaky voice drifted from a back room. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”
The room in which she stood must have occupied at least half the building, but the clutter made it seem small and stuffy. There was a lot of rickety, dusty furniture: several shaky tables, two overstuffed armchairs with faded upholstery, a loveseat leaking entrails in more than one direction, an ancient refrigerator, still humming, and a marvelous old roll-top desk nearly buried under a blizzard of papers, magazines, and bird cages.
The bird cages impressed by their sheer numbers. She counted fifteen, some housing three or four of the smaller birds. Surprisingly, considering the condition of everything else in the room, the cages had all been recently cleaned.
A few of the birds concluded she didn’t pose any threat and resumed chirping. Encouraged, others joined the raucous chorus.
Ike, it must have been Ike, poked a bald head through the curtain that draped the doorway to the other room. Reassured, the rest of his body followed thereafter, until he stood near her, a thin, bent old man with the smile of a mischievous leprechaun. He looked her over again from the closer vantage point.
“Don’t know why everybody has to be so tall these days,” he muttered. His voice creaked as though his jaws needed oiling. “Oh well, guess you can’t help it. I won’t hold it against you. Sit down, young lady. What can I do for you?”
“Are you Mr. Hudson?” Cathy asked.
The gnome burst into cackling laughter. The chirping suddenly swelled, as though he and the birds shared a private joke. “Mr. Hudson?” he asked gleefully. “Guess I am, though don’t nobody call me that no more. Old Ike I am, to all and sundry who calls. You might as well, too.”
Not that I want to go overboard with oddball characters. Use too many and it can overwhelm the story. But the world is so full of interesting and varied people that it can be fun to let your protagonist meet a few of them along the way to resolving the mystery plaguing them.
In a strange sort of way, it helps to keep it real.
A Question of Fire
When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won’t enjoy it. But she doesn’t expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother’s lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he’s hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location.
The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her.
Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby’s prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.