That was my “duh” moment from last week’s critique group.
I should have remembered that St. Mary Mead provides endless resources for Miss Marple to solve Agatha Christie’s mysteries because the village is populated by real, if slightly exaggerated, people who are wrapped up in each other’s business. Miss Marple always solves the crimes because she listens to the gossip and recognizes the quirks and predictability of human nature.
However, I had written my peripheral characters without a presence outside reporter Janelle Martin’s interviews. I was focusing so hard on moving my story along, was working so diligently on make my writing flow and my characters come alive, that I didn’t think to connect the characters with each other when Janelle wasn’t in the vicinity.
Although characters in every book wouldn’t necessarily talk with one another, they would in the small Iowa town where my story takes place. An out-of-town reporter conducting interviews with friends of an accused bioterrorist would be a hot topic of conversation. Maybe people would compare notes about what they had told her or speculate among themselves about what she was after and how her story would characterize their neighbors and hometown. Maybe there’d be a secret – relevant or not – some people wouldn’t want revealed.
I thought I’d covered all the bases, but I’d gotten so entrenched in Janelle’s head, I was beginning to see the world through her eyes. Since she didn’t know what people were telling each other when she was not around, I didn’t consider it. I was missing those unseen conversations that had the potential to build interest and make the reader wonder what really happened.
My “duh” moment reminded me that to make characters – and novels – believable, they have to take place in a world to which the reader can relate.
Sometimes we writers try so hard to be clever, to close every loophole, to fabricate memorable plots or characters that we forget the way people really interact. For that, we can take a page from Jane Marple and become students of human nature. People are unfailingly predictable and surprising. Many of our sticky writing problems will solve themselves, if we just observe.