The Evolution of a Bad Guy
By Maggie Toussaint
When I began plotting my second paranormal mystery, Bubba Done It, I knew one thing for sure. All the suspects had the nickname of Bubba. Other than that, I didn’t have a clue.
Before I could cast men in the suspect roles, I considered my setting and the types of characters I needed. I’m familiar with the setting as I use a fictional locale that’s similar to where I live in coastal Georgia. We have townies and imports. We have people with plenty and people with nothing. We have blacks and whites. We have a stalled economy and our share of foreclosures.
All of the top suspects needed a motive to kill the banker. Some good motives to consider were previous criminal record, financial trouble, and love.
The sheriff immediately adds four Bubbas to his suspect list. Since seafood is the main industry around here, it would be good to have a fisherman Bubba. I also wanted someone who’d moved to the county as a retiree, someone who didn’t quite get locals or their customs. That worked. Two Bubbas down, two to go.
Lastly, I wanted to ensure my sleuth Baxley Powell had a definite call to action. She’d taken the heat in Book 1 as the top suspect, so for Book 2, I found a patsy in her brother-in-law. Why would he want to kill the banker? Baxley knew her Bubba was a dreamer who often needed money for get-rich-quick ventures. Baxley and her husband had bailed Bubba Powell out of financial scrapes for years.
With her husband dead, the task of saving Bubba fell to Baxley. She’s certain he couldn’t have done it.
Or at least she feels that way at first. With each layer of story revealed, she discovers more reasons for the Bubbas to have killed the banker. Her challenge is to sort through the evidence, in this world and the next, to finger the killer.
Populate your suspect list with characters fitting to your setting.
Give the suspects motives to kill your victim.
Layer the suspects’ relationship with the victim to create complex characters.
Make sure the sleuth has a clear call to action.
An Interview with Jaden Terrell – Jared McKean Mystery Series Author
DHG: You write a very character-driven series…tell us something about it?
JT: The seeds of the character—Jared McKean—were sown during the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. I watched those young men being cut to pieces, the surf turning red, and they just kept getting out of those boats, pushing for the shore. And I thought, “This is what we ask our men to do. And then we expect them to come home and be loving husbands, gentle fathers, and loyal friends. And they do. For the most part, they do.” I wanted to write about that man—not necessarily about a military man, because Jared served in law enforcement rather than the military—but about a man who is strong enough and brave enough to do what needs to be done but is able to hold onto his kindness and compassion. Jared lives in a dark world, but he is not a dark man.
DHG: You’ve said you developed a supporting cast to showcase various aspects of Jared’s character. What can you tell us about that?
JT: I always wanted to start with the typical tough-guy detective and then show his deeper, more complex interior landscape. He’s good friends with his former partner on the homicide squad, and their interactions show his ability to detach, his competence as an investigator, and his tougher side. His relationship with his ex-wife is complicated. They still love each other deeply, but their core needs are diametrically opposed. She needs safety and security, but his Galahad complex constantly leads him into danger. He takes risks. “You’re a hero looking for something to die for,” she says. He doesn’t have a death wish, but he does have a serious need to be—and be perceived as—heroic. Her remarriage to a steady, less exciting but good man is a challenge they all have to work through.
His housemate and best friend is Jay, Renfield, a gay man living with AIDS. They’ve been friends since kindergarten, and their relationship, along with Jay’s illness, has helped develop Jared’s compassionate side and his tendency to take up for the underdog.
His son, Paul, has Down syndrome, and I think that relationship, more than any, reveals his gentler side.
DHG: You were a special education teacher. How did your experience in the classroom influence Paul’s character?
JT: I knew from the beginning that Jared would have a son with a disability, because that experience would give him a greater sensitivity to others. Paul began as a composite of several students I taught. By the time I finished the first book, he’d developed into his own individual person, but several of his traits, such as his taste in movies and his love of Beanie Babies, came from children I worked with. There are a few exchanges that came straight from real life. One of my favorites is when Paul has his eighth birthday, and Jared asks how old he’s going to be. Paul says, “Seven.”
Jared says, “No, Sport, you’re going to be eight.”
“Eight?” Paul says. “What happen to seven?”
I loved the innocence and wisdom in that exchange, so of course, I had to use it.
DHG: How do you balance the character development with the plotting of the mystery?
JT: It’s one of the hardest things for me. My first drafts are over-full of Jared’s personal life—I’m especially guilty of putting in more and longer scenes with Paul than I should. In subsequent drafts, I pare all that way down. It’s like panning for gold. You sift out the extra words and if you do it well enough, you’re left with the clearest essence of the relationship. At the same time, I punch up the action. I’m always asking, “How could this be worse?”
DHG: What are the names of the books in your Jared McKean mystery series?
JT: Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight.
DHG: Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
JT: I just finished the third book in the Jared McKean mystery series. It’s called River of Glass and is about human trafficking. In the opening chapters, when the body of an Asian woman is found holding a decades-old photo of Jared’s father, Jared learns that the man he’s spent his whole life trying to live up to had a secret life—and a second family—in Vietnam. A few days after the body is found, the sister he never knew he had arrives on his doorstep asking him to help her find her daughter, who has been taken by traffickers. The book comes out in October but just became available for preorder. Meanwhile, I’m working on book four.
DHG: Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
JT: My website is the best place: http://www.jadenterrell.com. I always love to hear from readers and other writers, too. You can reach me on my Facebook author page or email me at email@example.com. Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog.
Shamus award nominee Jaden Terrell is the author of the Jared McKean mysteries and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Learn more at http://www.jadenterrell.com.
Researching Everything under the Sun! by S.L. Smith
Few things turn me off faster than books with factual errors. I tend to put them down—permanently. For that reason, it’s important I get it right. If I don’t know it, I research it. I’m talking about the smallest details. Some of the research is almost as fun as the writing. Some of it is a headache.
Let’s start with the enjoyable stuff. I ventured into writing mysteries only because a friend spent thirty-five years as a cop, and agreed to perform a reality check on the law enforcement aspects. One battle won.
It didn’t take long to discover I also needed a contact in the medical examiner’s office. I had to muster the courage to make that call. Thankfully, I connected with a gem. This investigator answered all of my questions for book one, Blinded by the Sight. When the book came out, I met him and gave him a copy. That paid off in spades.
He assisted, again, with Running Scared: The Second Pete Culnane Mystery. At that time, he mentioned several items I should verify with my law enforcement expert. I explained this time my law enforcement expert needed, but lacked, an insider’s knowledge of the St. Paul Police Department.
He lined up two. One is the head of homicide. The other is a retired investigator/detective. He obtained permission for me to call both men, and provided their direct phone numbers. Thanks to him, both St. Paul PD contacts took my calls and answered all of my questions. I was blown away! I learned so much from them.
I spoke with the St. Paul Fire Marshall to determine which vehicles would be sent to the scene, who would be in the vehicles, and what they’d do on site. Needing answers about hospital procedures and descriptions of the injuries, I connected with an emergency medicine physician. Both of those men were wonderful!
High school kids play a significant role in Running Scared. I called local schools to learn the times school starts and lets out. I had to know the procedures parents follow if their kids are ill. I needed the dress code. After all, the story occurs in Minnesota—in January. I had to put clothes on those kids.
Interviews are the fun part. The rest is interesting—but often a challenge.
The kids also needed names. The Internet provided popular names for the relevant decade. I use that same system to help select names for most characters in my novels.
One kid claims he wouldn’t play a part in the crime, because he’s intent on getting into Notre Dame. The Notre Dame website indicates whether the kid has an acceptance letter by the time the story occurs.
In Running Scared, the victim is struck by a car. The driver had to escape post haste, so the car couldn’t have air bags. Online, I determined the year air bags became standard equipment. I selected a car, and still had to determine if it had air bags. Once I had the make and model, I also had to learn the exterior colors available that year.
The two investigators remark on the vehicle stolen to commit the crime, and the fact that across the street sat the car most commonly stolen at the time. Yup, I had to find out what car was most commonly stolen that year.
This book includes a U.S. citizen who works in Canada. I had to learn whether jobs in Canada are available to U.S. citizens, responsibilities for the selected job, common living arrangements for this transplant, travel methods and time required for this person to return to the U.S., as well as conditions that would delay an emergency trip home.
With help from a Facebook friend, I learned the age of homes in the neighborhoods playing a part in the book. I rode through those neighborhoods, getting a feel for the landscape and houses. I even learned the types of trees.
I wanted to know what the victim and attacker saw, so I could paint a realistic picture. For that reason, I repeatedly traveled the path they followed in the book.
Wondering how all that fits into a single novel? Check out Running Scared.
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S.L. Smith, a lifelong resident of Minnesota, was born in St. Cloud and moved to the Twin Cities after graduating from St. Catherine University in St. Paul. She is the author of Blinded By the Sight and Running Scared: The Second Pete Culnane Mystery. When writing mysteries, S. L. draws upon her degree in psychology, a career with vast amounts of law enforcement interaction, and her thrill for the investigative hunt. A voracious reader since childhood and a lover of mysteries, she uses her knowledge of Minnesota and human nature to create stories.
S. L. is a member of Sisters in Crime. Feel free to contact her at: