William Andrews: I find cute-grandchildren stories as boring as the next person, so a warning: this posting starts with my granddaughter. She’s 3, and obviously she’s cute. She’s discovered how much I enjoy making her animals (when did they become “stuffies?”) talk. She enjoys their tales as well and often presents one or more of them to me with the command: “Make them talk.” And so they do, telling stories of their adventures, asking her questions, speculating about what her parents are up to, and so forth. I don’t know how long this period of magic will last, but I love every minute of it. And it naturally got me thinking about what writers do all the time.
We make our characters talk. Of course we also make them do things, and we create a background upon which they both talk and act and a theme that underlies the whole. But fundamentally, at least for me, writing is about making them talk.
I can’t prove it, but based on my own experience and on conversations with other writers, the most common question we get asked at signings and readings is a variant on “Where did the story come from?” Every writer is different, some starting with the story, others with the characters, still others with a theme. But I think the most honest answer, at least for me, to the question of how the story started is that writers hear voices, or at a minimum that once the story is underway it’s the voices we hear that sustain it. My first mystery, Stealing History, began when I read a newspaper account of items stolen from New England historical societies. The plot came quickly into my head, but almost simultaneously I imagined the central character, Julie Williamson, and before I knew it I heard her voice, and the voices of her secretary, her trustees, visitors to the historical society where she works.
The voices are no doubt composites of voices I’ve heard—and in some cases still hear regularly. For example, Julie’s secretary, Mrs. Detweiller, is not at all like the several secretaries I had the pleasure of working with in my other career, but her voice combines qualities of a number of people I’ve known: accusatory, distracted, somewhat pompous, often talking more to herself than responding to others. Her voice defines Mrs. Detweiller and reflects the troubled relationship Julie has with her because of Julie’s being “from away.”
The voices I hear as I write raise an interesting question: are they talking, or am I making them talk? If you hear voices in your head you may be a candidate for therapy. Or you may be a writer. Or maybe both. Let’s assume you’re a writer and reasonably sane. As you make your characters talk you give them the power to move your story along, to act in ways that create tension and present conflicts to drive the narrative. And you let them develop their personalities, their habits, quirks, likes and dislikes. Who knew my Julie Williamson doesn’t like to cook but is fortunate to have a boyfriend who does? I didn’t know that when I first met her, but over time as she talked that part of her personality and her relationship with her partner helped define her for me. The way she talks about food—she loves it, and all the more when her friend cooks it—reflects her personality and helps explain her actions.
But back to my cute granddaughter. Two of her animals, twin badgers named Badger 1 and Badger 2, are frequent story tellers. I’m asked to make them talk, I’m sure my granddaughter knows, at some level, that I’m the one doing the talking. But note that she says make them talk. In other words, let the badgers have their say. When we write fiction, we always aim to let the characters use their own voices, while we also know we are making them talk. Are we talking or listening? That’s a mystery for mystery writers to ponder.