Shaking the Family Tree

Kathleen DelaneyKathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to talk about the secondary characters an author can find in her own family tree.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue will be out in July 2017.

I’ve started a new mystery and, as usual, I’m trying to figure out the plot, who killed who and why, and learn who all these new characters are. I already know the main characters. I’ve especially spent some time thinking about this new heroine, who she is, what she looks like, what brought her to the situation I’m about to throw at her, but there are a whole lot of other characters in this book I’ve not met yet. But I’m about to.

Dying for a Change 2Stories, as you know, need more than the main character. Even the most insignificant one helps move the story along and may, inadvertently, help solve the mystery. In the first Ellen McKenzie mystery, Dying for a Change,  Ellen, in her capacity as a real estate agent meets with a woman who wants to sell her house, a woman who dithers, can’t seem to complete a sentence let alone a complete thought, but she drops a vital clue at Ellen’s feet. In the upcoming 3rd Mary McGill and Millie canine mystery, a member of one of Mary’s committees mentions he saw someone where that someone shouldn’t have been, thus helping Mary figure out who murdered Mr. Wilson during the 4th of July fireworks celebration. These characters don’t have a huge part to play in the story but what they say or do is important. So is who they are. Alice Ives had no idea what she told Ellen was important, but if she’d been a different kind of person, less flighty, she might have and the story would have taken a completely different path. So, how does an author come up with these people? How does an author find someone who seems to fit in the slot the author needs filled?

There are several ways. One is simply to pay attention to the people around you. Listen to what people say, how they say it, take note of their idiosyncrasies. You’ll get lots of ideas. Another way is to comb through your family tree.

I come from a large and diverse family. On both sides. Mostly they’ve been good, hard working, church going people, but that hasn’t kept them from having some interesting quirks. Life has a way of doing that to you, giving you quirks. But quirks can be fascinating, at least to an author. One of my aunts on my father’s side was what can only be described as a “maiden lady.” The story goes that she Purebred Deadhad a “gentleman friend” but that he jilted her at the altar. It was sometime after that she moved to New Mexico where she taught school on an Indian reservation. I found this amazing because when I knew her she was a sweet but definitely not adventurous elderly lady, retired, who “enjoyed poor health’ and spent much of her time taking care of herself. She never opened the refrigerator door without putting on a hat and coat so she wouldn’t catch a chill and chose her doctor because he didn’t ask her to unrobe while he listened to her heart. I loved her to death and wouldn’t use her in a story but that doesn’t mean her little quirks wouldn’t show up in another character. She and her idiosyncrasies would have started a train of thought and a new character would be born.

Then there’s my great great grandfather on my mother’s side. The only picture I have of him shows him as an old man. Handsome still, with side burns and an impressive mustache, he lived a full and not always blameless life. If the stories about him are true, he was not a kind and gentle man. He served in the Confederate Army as a colonel during that tragic war, then when it ended loaded his wife, three children and, so the story goes, a slave girl into a covered wagon and headed for Texas where he joined the Texas Rangers. Eventually he left them and the Rangers to fend for themselves and went to California where he founded another family. Left them and went to Anacortes, Wa. where he became its first mayor and founded the Chamber of Commerce. When he died, he left behind a cape, top hat, cane and a safe no one could open. He also left a reputation for malfeasance although I’ve never found out what exactly he did to earn that dubious title. Whatever it was, they didn’t hang him.

Murder by SyllabubWould I use him in a story? You bet. Not him, exactly. Even if I’d known him, I wouldn’t, but the stories about him suggest a type of man that is fascinating. Not a very comfortable man, but a colorful one, and one that just might make the wrong person mad enough to kill him. Or, maybe I’d make him a suspect. It seemed he was the type of man it would be easy to suspect of something shady. He could also, given the right situation, drop a clue or two into our heroine’s lap. I wonder what he would have wanted in return.

Not every relative is as interesting as Frank Hogan or my sweet aunt, but everyone has a story and everyone has a quirk or two. They don’t need to be extraordinary to serve the purposes of our story, but they do need to fit the situation. My aunt wasn’t flighty, so she wouldn’t have been oblivious to the clue she was to impart as Alice Ives was in Dying for a Change. She would have wondered about the incongruity of the situation, but her other odd little habits fit Alice perfectly.  If I had used a woman in that story with my aunt’s other personality traits, more logical thinking and strict adherence to never gossiping, I think I’d have had her overhear something while waiting in the doctor’s office. She was there a lot and that would be a natural thing for her to do. Alice would never have wondered about a piece of gossip, but she’d have repeated it. While my aunt, or a woman like her, would never have repeated gossip but she would have worried about what she heard and that would have changed the whole story.

blood-red-white-and-blueI’m not sure what would be natural for Frank Hogan, but I think he’d fit somewhere I needed a cold man, someone who wasn’t bothered much by a conscience, but I don’t see him as a murderer. However, I think he might pass along information that would help solve a crime he wasn’t implicated in, but if Frank was half the man I think he was, only if it was to his advantage. I can think of several plots where a personality such as I think Frank possessed might fit right in.

A new book, new characters, new situations. Where am I going to find the characters I need? I think I’ll go back and shake the family tree one more time. Who knows who will fall off this time? Surely there’s someone up there whose little quirks are perfect to fill the slots in the plot that I’m building. The trick is going to be finding his or her story. Hummm. Another mystery to solve.

Until next time.