Lisa here, delighted along with my fellow Chicks to welcome multi-award-winning author Tracy Clark as our guest today. We’re sure you’ll enjoy hearing about her process for getting her new detective character to talk–or not. Take it away, Tracy!
Checkmate! Writer 0, Protagonist 1
by Tracy Clark
Remember that iconic chess scene from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film “The Seventh Seal”? Black & white. Gloomy. There’s the old beleaguered medieval knight sitting at a chessboard all morose and yakking in Swedish to the guy on the other side dressed for Halloween six months early? That guy, we come to learn, is Death come to drag Mr. Knight you know where. Mr. Knight’s not all that jazzed to go, so he challenges Death dude to a match. If Mr. Knight wins, he skates. If he loses, there’s not enough ice water for the trip he’s going on.
I recalled this scene many, many times while writing my new book HIDE. I was beginning a new series with a whole new cast of characters, and the voices weren’t coming. The writing process, always harrowing, was twice as harrowing, and my struggle felt an awful lot like that chess match. I was the knight, of course, (minus the Swedish), making a dead man’s deal. My new main character, Det. Harriet Foster, was Death, and she seemed really serious about making me work for it.
Picture it. Me sitting there at my laptop, clock ticking, deadline looming, with nothin’. Even my trusty Twizzlers, my favorite writer brain snack, weren’t knocking anything loose. My head still swam with the voices of my old characters, you see, but I couldn’t use them. I needed new people. A new heroine. New backstories. New everything. So, Harriet and I went rook to rook, pawn to pawn.
I dug into Harriet’s past looking for her secrets. To fill out a character you need to know what forces created them, right? I had the basics. African American, forty-three, homicide detective, yada, yada, yada, but I needed flaws, I needed baggage, I needed stuff. Opening salvo? My white pawn. A2 to A3. What’s your greatest fear, Harriet?
She glared at me (figuratively, of course, though on the page, her eyes are described as dark brown and piercing). Her black Knight came out hot. B8 to C6. Her answer? None of your business.
See? Uncooperative. Kiss. Of. Death. Some characters talk your ear off. They talk so much you can’t shut them up even when you cycle your computer down for the night. Harriet? Quiet as a graveyard at midnight. Who was she? What motivated her? What was she thinking?
I tried again. Say, Harriet, what about… Nope. Steel trap. It didn’t take me long to realize I was outmatched. You know when you’re outmatched in a game of chess? When your opponent (Death/Harriet) has all your pieces off the board and you’re sitting there like a schlump with nothing but two pawns, a bishop, and your queen. Lights out Marie.
No matter what way I came at Harriet, I could not “get” her. I had a story, a plot, other characters, but she was THE character. If I didn’t get her right, the rest of the elements weren’t going to work. Forcing it wasn’t working, so I stopped. I slid away from the chessboard for a time and listened. Listening to voices is important for writers. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes listening and not writing is the way to get going. When I returned to my writing desk, I stopped trying to lead and followed Harriet for a while. She had a murder to solve, after all, she couldn’t just do nothing for three hundred pages. So, as I followed, keeping my gob shut, but my fingers busy on the laptop keys, Harriet slowly took shape. Aren’t characters funny? And by funny I mean a pain in the Ashtabula?
Maybe things would have been easier if I were an outliner instead of a pantser but flying by the seat of my pants is how I know how to do it. Maybe Harriet would have respected me more if I’d had a plan instead of a hope. I’ll never know. She has clammed up again.
Oh, she won the chess match. She demolished me way back in those early months. Wrangling with her likely shaved years off my life, but I’m a writer, and I’m no quitter. Luckily, my defeat did not end in a one-way trip to Hades. But there are things I still don’t know about Harriet yet. It looks like she’s going to be a tough nut to crack, too, but I’m there for it.
It’s funny how some characters come easy, and some don’t. It’s a challenge fleshing out the difficult ones, no doubt, but ultimately the discovery is more than worth the effort. The deeper you can go into a character’s inner most feelings and thoughts, the better the character will likely resonate with readers. Three-dimensional is always better than one-dimensional. You want multilayered book people, after all, not caricatures.
Harriet eventually took my queen in that imaginary chess match. She did it without cracking a smile. She just looked at me, shook her head in pity, and swiped that monarch off the board like she paid for it, then got up and walked away.
I may have let loose an expletive or two, but, again, I’m no quitter. I’m setting that board back up for book two in the series, and next time I’m coming ready for a showdown. She has to crack at some point, right?
Readers and writers, do you have favorite book characters who took a while to show their cards? Let us know in the comments below!
ABOUT THE BOOK:
When a young red-haired woman is found brutally murdered in downtown Chicago, one detail stands out: the red lipstick encircling her wrists and ankles.
Detective Harriet Foster is on the case, even though she’s still grieving the sudden death of her partner. As a Black woman in a male-dominated department, Foster anticipates a rocky road ahead acclimating to a new team—and building trust with her new partner isn’t coming easily.
After another victim turns up with the same lipstick markings, Foster suspects she’s looking for a serial killer. Through a tip from a psychiatrist, Foster learns about Bodie Morgan: a troubled man with a twisted past and a penchant for pretty young redheads with the bluest eyes. As Foster wades into Morgan’s sinister history, the killer continues their gruesome assault on Chicago’s streets.
In her desperate race to catch the murderer before they strike again, Foster will have to confront the darkest of secrets—including her own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tracy Clark, a native Chicagoan, is the author of the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series, featuring ex-cop turned PI Cassandra Raines. A multi-nominated Anthony, Lefty, Edgar, Macavity, and Shamus Award finalist, Tracy is also the 2020 and 2022 winner of the G.P. Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award and the 2022 Sara Paretsky Award, which honors crime writers from the Midwest. Tracy was also nominated for the 2022 Edgar for Best Short Story for “Lucky Thirteen,” which was included in the crime fiction anthology “Midnight Hour.” She is a proud member of Crime Writers of Color, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and serves on the boards of Bouchercon National and the Midwest Mystery Conference. HIDE, her new police procedural featuring Det. Harriet Foster of the Chicago Police Department, released in January 2023. The second entry in that series, FALL, releases in Dec. 2023. Tracy loves old black-and-white movies, a good nap, and a really spicy ginger snap served with ice-cold milk. When she’s not writing, she’s thinking about writing and admits to finding characters in the most unusual places. Visit Tracy at http://www.tracyclarkbooks.com/.