James Hayman: Like most novelists I try to people my imaginary worlds with characters who make their livings in ways that are both interesting to read (and write) about and relevant to the story. The storyline in The Cutting involves illegal heart transplants. Not surprisingly one of the key characters in the book is Philip Spencer, an arrogant and obnoxious transplant surgeon. Another, more minor character, is Sophie Gauthier, a French woman who is a perfusionist. For the benefit of those of you who don’t know, a perfusionist is the medical specialist who, in heart transplants, operates the heart-lung machine that keeps patients alive in the critical period between the time their diseased hearts are removed and their new hearts are put in. Obviously, in the process of making both Spencer and Gautier believable, I did quite a lot of research on transplant procedures and the people required in the operating room.
In The Chill of Night, one of my lead characters is John Kelly, an ex-priest who, disgusted by the abuse scandals, quit the Church and opened a home for runaway teens. My research for Kelly included reading a terrific book about the abuse of children by priests called Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal written by an ex-Wall Street Journal reporter named David France. I also read a couple of biographies of Father Bruce Ritter, a Franciscan priest, who founded Covenant House, a home for runaway teens in New York. Ritter was eventually accused of sexually abusing at least 15 male teenagers who were being sheltered at Covenant House.
Naturally in all three of my books minor characters abound. These include attorneys, real estate and insurance agents, lobstermen, journalists, bartenders, artists, and gallery owners. One minor character who keeps reappearing is Josie Tenant, an ambitious and bitchy on-camera reporter for NewsCenter Six in Portland.
Sometimes I find fun dreaming up unusual occupations for my minor characters. For example, in the third book in the series, Darkness First, my heroine, Portland Detective Maggie Savage has a brief but passing flirtation with a guy who works as the replacement pitching coach for the Portland Sea Dogs, “his predecessor in the job having keeled over with a massive and subsequently fatal coronary in a bar in Altoona, Pennsylvania, home of the Altoona Curve.”
A minor character in The Chill of Night is Kyle Lanahan, AKA “the hotdog man.” Kyle sells hotdogs and Italian sausages cooked over a charcoal grill out of a pushcart in Portland’s Monument Square. But, as my murder victim, Lainie Goff “knew, because she was a customer, Kyle sold merchandise far more profitable than snacks. Need a little happiness? Need a little joy? Go see the hotdog man.”
In Darkness First one of the truly minor characters is a man named Clarence “Squidgy” Kelly. Kelly’s a pool hustler who, years earlier, met his demise in a bar named The Musty Moose when he “choked to death on a cue ball stuffed down his throat by a three hundred pound logger who was irate he’d come in second to Squidgy in a high stakes game of straight pool.” Another of my personal favorites from Darkness First is Annie O‘Malley who runs an imaginary dive bar called Dirty Annie’s, which is “without question the darkest, dirtiest, dingiest bar anywhere in Eastport or, for that matter, anywhere in Washington County. In fact, had anyone been foolish enough to hold a competition for the least appealing watering hole anywhere in Maine, Annie’s would have been an odds-on favorite to walk away with the prize.”
Needless to say it can be tough dreaming up ways for characters, especially minor characters, to make a living. This past weekend I discovered a resource for this effort where I never expected it. I was doing some basic research to develop leads for my own “day job” as a freelance advertising and marketing writer and in the process discovered SIC codes. SIC stands for Standard Industrial Classification which the SEC uses to classify industries and professions into numeric codes. Naturally all the expected business and occupations are listed. But there were also a bunch that went way beyond my fondest dreams.
Perhaps in a future book I’ll create a character who makes his or her living as a pond stocker (SIC code 097108). Another possibility is a pooper-scooper service provider (SIC 075232). Then there was a category that has to be useful to any and all mystery writers “plotting services” (733406.) Another of my favorites: philosophers (729997). If these don’t fill the bill for your book, there are also SIC classifications for poi manufacturers, sauerkraut makers, sinkhole consultants, swine insemination technicians, tiki hut makers, and sabotage prevention services. The list is almost literally endless.
If as a writer you ever find yourself in a quandary over what a character should do, have no fear. The US government, in all its wisdom, has given us all SIC codes. They even make amusing reading if you’re not a writer.