I WENT TO A BOOK FESTIVAL AND MY PROTAGONIST SURRENDERED

Mother Nature must love a good book. What else can explain a Labor Day weekend of perfect weather, clear skies and just enough of a breeze to turn the pages? Before I bury the lead along with some of the characters in my next book, let me simply say it was a profoundly beautiful weekend for the Decatur Book Festival. Billed as the largest independent book festival in the country, the event draws upwards of 80,000 book fans and hundreds of authors for three days of celebrating the written word. That can be tricky during a Georgia summer. If you’re not drenched in your own perspiration, you can count on a sudden downpour to soak you to the bone. But this year we had none of the above: no humidity, no storms. Just book bliss for all genres, ages, shapes and sizes.

I’m between two books, much like some people are between two jobs or two husbands. Desert Remains is out the door. I’m working on the second book in the Alex Mills & Gus Parker series. The gap between the two is the perfect time for a book festival or fair, a conference or a convention; it’s not a bad time for Maui either, but Decatur was cheaper. The gap—this protracted pause between one story and another—gives me permission to clean the slate, to explore, and to conjure. It also gives me permission to take very deep breaths, silence the chatter of my muse, and just listen. Just fucking listen to what others have to say.

I loved what others had to say at the Decatur Book Festival. Particularly other writers of mystery and suspense. I attended a panel discussion featuring the accomplished Hank Phillippi Ryan (Say No More), Roger John (Dark River Rising), and Megan Miranda (The Perfect Stranger). Called “Police Procedurals: Thrilling Suspense Fiction to Solve the Crime,” the panel offered readers some insights about the way writers choose what they write, how their plots unfold, and how they cast their characters. I think the latter interested me the most. Because what resonated from all the authors on the panel was the sense that sometimes characters have a mind of their own. A writer can’t always be sure, despite the best of plans, what a character is going to do. That may seem either pretentious or eccentric to the general reader, but there’s no pretense. Writers, by nature, are eccentric so I’ll give you that. But for those who might say, “Of course you know what you’re characters are going to do, you created them! You’re in control,” I say, no, we’re not.

Ultimately writers get to decide what stays on the page and what goes to Word Heaven, of course. But if a writer doesn’t watch and listen to where the character wants to go, he or she might miss an important development in the story like a new plot twist that wouldn’t have happened or a personality flaw that might not have been revealed. Sometimes our characters do things that we don’t like. But that’s not what the “DELETE” key is for. Authors are not responsible for cleaning up their characters’ messes. If the mess makes sense, we stick with it. If it doesn’t make sense we dump it. But we have to let our characters explore who they are, who they’re with, and the world in which we place them. We have to let them be. In Desert Remains, for example, I didn’t plan on Gus being estranged from his family. He told me he was. And I believed him. No, seriously, as I was writing Gus I knew this man had something deep inside him that tugged at him like regret and remorse. I knew he had made the best out of other disappointments, as well. I knew, despite his mellow, New Agey disposition, he had his own storms to contend with. And so I wrote another dimension for him.

At the panel discussion, Hank and Megan talked about how a character’s surprising action had changed events or outcomes in their novels. Roger explained, much to the audience’s amusement, how his main protagonist was written as a male police detective before becoming female. No, the change was not a hat tip to the transgender community; the male character just wasn’t working. It wasn’t resonating. It wasn’t taking Roger where he wanted to go with the story. It was as if the character told Roger, “Hey, I’m not working as a guy. Can’t you tell? Consider rewriting me as a female.” And he did.

As I explained in an earlier blog, I talk to my characters. And they talk back. And I listen to what they have to say. I’m not as bat-shit crazy as I sound. Most writers must indulge their characters this way so readers can experience them as fully formed people, flaws and all. The goal is to create characters readers believe in. You will see (hopefully) in Desert Remains that Detective Alex Mills is not fond of the media. He’s consistently contentious with members of the press. I don’t know why. He hasn’t full explained it to me. Even now, as I complete the second book in the series, I don’t fully understand the rancor. But walking through Decatur on a lovely summer day, immersed in all things booky, my sweat glands unperturbed, I heard from Alex. He said, “If you do right by me, Cooper, I’m going to surprise you. I’ll explain why I hate the media and then I’ll transform. And it will make a difference.”

And I said, “That’s great, Alex, but right now I’m at a book festival and the weather is perfect for a Popsicle. So, excuse me.”

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