I’m Talking Cars Again

It has been a week, hasn’t it?  On Monday, focus was a struggle.  By Tuesday it was close to impossible. Now it’s Wednesday, and I think the wisest course is for me to revive a favorite post from the past.

Why did I choose this particular re-run?  We recently bought a Subaru, the make favored by my imaginary pal Joe Gale and many actual Mainers. So wheels have been on my mind, as has this January, 2017 post about the cars that our characters drive.

Next month I promise to come up with a fresh post. In the meantime, please make sure to tune into Crime Bake at 7 p.m. on this coming Saturday night, November 7. Here’s the registration link: https://crimebake.org/

From the MCW archives, January 4, 2017:

One of my beta readers jotted an interesting question in the margin of an early draft of my first Joe Gale book.

Does the reader really need to know what kind of car Joe drives? 

I didn’t even have to think about it. Wheels always matter, at least to me.


Joe drives an aging Subaru station wagon, which says so much about him. (By the third book in the series he’s actually on his second Subbie, having totaled his first one during Cover Story.)


If you’ve never owned one, you have no idea how much stuff these babies can hold.

Joe’s a loyal Subaru guy because his job as a newspaper reporter requires him to drive all over the state in good weather and bad. He carries a lot of gear, and with the back seat down, a Subaru wagon is almost as versatile as a truck. And every Subaru model is equipped with all-wheel drive, making it the all-but-official car of Maine. If Joe drove a VW, he’d be a completely different guy.

To my mind, choosing the right car is as critical as getting a character’s name right. Take Paulie Finnegan, who appears in the parts of Quick Pivot that take place in 1968.

Paulie was not a stylish fellow. He wore lace-up brogans, wash-and-wear shirts and heavy-framed glasses when they were decidedly un-hip.  In the summer of ’68 he drove a 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air. Solid car, but hardly flashy.

By contrast, as a young banker Jay Preble drove a 1968 MGB Roadster.

Jay Preble tooled around Riverside in one of these.

Forty some years later he tooled around in a vintage Jaguar and his golf cart was tricked out to look like a miniature Mercedes-Benz.

Was Jay a foreign car nut, or was he hiding his insecurities behind such high-tone wheels? You’ll have to read Quick Pivot to find out. 

A related technique is to use a car to convey something about setting. Several key scenes in Quick Pivot take place on Peaks Island, where vehicular longevity matters more than style. Jimmy B. Jones—a minor character in the book—drives a rusty pickup truck with spring-sprung seats and a passenger door that can only be opened from the inside. Jimmy’s durable wheels speak volumes about the quirky folks who live on a rock in the middle of Casco Bay, including Helena Desmond, who plays a central role in the book’s plot but, alas, does not drive.

A lot of the writers I read seem to put careful thought into fictional vehicle choice.

Can’t you picture Elder driving this Cougar?

MCW blog-mate Dick Cass uses his protagonist’s wheels to tell us about Elder Darrow’s world view. In his fine first novel Solo Act, Dick describes Elder’s car:  The Cougar’s black vinyl top was shredded, the yellow paint tinged faintly green as if it were molding.  The rocker panels were perforated with rust holes, but it ran and it was paid for.

This passage tells readers something about Boston, the city where Elder operates his jazz bar, The Esposito. Anyone who has lived in that city understands the benefit of driving a car with a few dings and dents. Hub rotaries can be a dangerous place indeed for those in shiny new cars.

A classic Crown Vic, gone, only used models still available.


Cops like Bruce Coffin’s John Byron and Kate Flora’s Joe Burgess don’t drive Crown Vics anymore because Ford no longer makes the longtime police favorite. So Byron drives a Taurus with balky air conditioning and Burgess patrols Portland in an Explorer.

New England colleague Steve Ulfelder is a race car driver in real life, and his wonderful character Conway Sax knows how to use his big Ford Trucks (an F-150 in Purgatory Chasm, an F-250 in Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage) to chase down bad guys in a way that is as entertaining as it is intimidating.

But no post about cars in fiction would be complete without mention of the most complete and terrifying car of all, Stephen King’s Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury that still haunts my dreams more than three decades after I read it.   

Dear readers, do you notice what kind of car a character drives? What do you drive, and what does it say about you?

The protagonist in my new series-in-progress, lawyer Neva Pierce, drives a 2002 Range Rover, a gas guzzling monster that was the only useful thing her father left to her when he died. But it’s paid off, so for the time being it’s the perfect ride. It looks like this:

Neva’s inherited wheels. A behemoth that’s hard to park and gets about 15 mpg, she vows that her next car will be a hybrid.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold.  These days she’s hard at work a new series featuring Portland criminal defense lawyer Neva Pierce, who represents people in all kinds of trouble.





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11 Responses to I’m Talking Cars Again

  1. Kate Flora says:

    Interesting, for sure. Thea used to drive a Saab, as did we. Now she drives a Jeep and loves it. One of my new characters drives a truck. He’s very tall and a truck suits him. My newest character drives a Jeep, but I may have to give her something else. Can’t overuse those Jeeps. I’ve had some fun with tricked-out trucks in a recent book, and a shiny black sports car keeps cropping up in the new WIP. And what about that rusty old van? It is hard for any of us to concentrate this week, so thanks for the distraction. I wonder if many of us have “car prejudices” we carry about, like that people who drive BMWs (mostly males of this species) are jerks, and guys in Hondas tend to be the BMW wannabes.


    • I had to laugh at your comment on BMWs.,Kate. In my WIP, an elderly man who watched a Beemer zooming away from the scene of a drive-by shooting mutters how he never trusts people who drive them.

      Cars do matter, I agree. I love thinking about what my characters drive.

  2. crys101497 says:

    I currently drive a 2013 Honda Accord that was purchased for me by my aunt and uncle who raised me. I have used it to drive them to places they need to go because my aunt had an accident last May and doesn’t drive as much. I love this car. It’s great on gas. I have had all kinds of cars and they have been mainly what I could afford with my tax return. The Honda is used but it’s almost new in my book because it’s the newest car I have ever owned. I do note the cars a character drives because some cars fit certain characters. Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed reading the post about cars and characters and settings.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      I’ve driven many Honda models over the years, an Accord, a Civic and several CRVs. They are great cars! You are lucky to have that ’13 Accord.

  3. MaryAnn says:

    I’m with Joe Gale, I love my Subaru. I enjoyed reading Joe Gale series. Wish it hadn’t ended. Keep hoping for more. Please???

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks for your compliment, Mary Ann! I am not sure my Joe Gale series has ended. Let’s say it is resting. In the meantime, Joe makes appearances in my Neva Pierce books.

  4. Thanks, Brenda.

    Cars, “wheels” matter.

    In the late 1950s I bought a used 1955 Ford Fairlane that a friend soon told me, as we looked under the hood, must have been in an accident, because it had a 1958 Mercury V-8 engine (312 horsepower). I soon found out on the Tappan Zee bridge at 1:00 in the morning, the Fairlane could easily do 110 mph..

    So, when I had need of a car chase scene in a novel I have written, set in 1960, I had to bring the Fairlane back to life for one last “hot supper”:

    “Sean eased the Fairlane out of the parking lot. The atmosphere vibrated and he was on edge, gripping the wheel, hyper-alert. Traffic was light. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Seconds later, another peek caught a car inside a streetlight oval of navy pavement half a block back, with headlights doused. Taking no chances, Sean floored it for the nearby New Jersey Turnpike. He feared a red light’s snare and, sure enough, he had to roll the dice at the next one, with only an eye-shift left and right. The pursuit car did the same.
    As he charged past another streetlight, Sean looked back and glimpsed a man leaning out of the chase car’s passenger side. Two muffled flashes sprouted. He saw sparks ignite ahead. Crossing himself, he put the pedal to the metal until he neared the Turnpike toll booth. He scooped some coins from the ashtray and slowed enough to throw them at the startled attendant.
    He swerved onto New Jersey’s most infamous artery. The pursuers also made it through the toll booth. Sean juiced the Fairlane again and praised the saints above for its V-8 Mercury replacement engine. In an eternity of 12 seconds he was doing 110 mph and what he could see of the pursuing car shrunk in the distance.”

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      110 MPH! On the bridge! David!

      I hope you’ve left that youthful appetite for speed in the rear-view mirror.

      I really like this passage. The scooping of coins from the ashtray (that’s where people kept them) and hurling them at the toll booth attendant is visceral.

  5. I once hit a porcupine at 110 MPH with my first set of wheels, a 1956 Olds that weighed too much, but went up on 2 wheels that night. Best one I’ve owned was the 2009 Dodge Charger street legal version of Kasey Kahne’s race car that I won from Gillette, had that up to 100 on I-95. These days, I’m a bit more laid back with a Hyundai Ionic that gets between 50-60 MPG. While we’re on the topic of cars in crime fiction, how can anyone not mention Miss Agnes.

  6. Thanks for the supportive comment, Brenda.

    Yes, those ways have been left far behind. Now I just spin wheels.

    But you’ve spurred me to send out some more submission queries on the novel. I think I’m too old to go through the self-publishing and marketing process.

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