Since I tend to write character-driven more than plot-driven novels, my first step in starting a new manuscript is to give my characters the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual depth that will make them believable and interesting to the reader.

To do this, I have to know everything about those characters, therefore I make various check list (I do mine in Microsoft Excel) to create and maintain those qualities. One of my favorite  involves making an inventory of that character’s purse/backpack/wallet, car glove compartment, refrigerator, medicine cabinet, gym locker, book shelves, closet, dresser drawers, desk drawers etc. My feeling is: the more I know about the character, the more I can filter into the story to make that character unique and interesting.

Much to my delight, while re-reading a favorite novel, I found one of my favorite writers doing something very similar.  In Origin in Death, Nora Roberts (writing as J.D. Robb) creates a scene with Nadine Furst, an ambitious, appearance-conscious on-screen reporter and Eve Dallas, a no-nonsense homicide lieutenant totally unconcerned with her own appearance. The situation described is a meeting between the two women in which Dallas will be sharing information (off the record) on a homicide with Furst but wants to make sure the reporter will not televise the information before Dallas gives permission to do so.

Even though they are close friends who trust each other, Dallas still makes Furst dump the contents of her handbag on the table to make sure there are no listening devices hidden there.

On page 276, Roberts writes:

Eve rose, passed her a cup of coffee, and began going through the contents. Wallet, ID, credits and debits, two herbal cigarettes in a protective case, two note pads–paper–six pencils, sharpened. One electronic notepad–disengaged–two ‘links, one PPC–also disengaged. Two small mirrors, three packs of breath fresheners, a little silver box holding blockers, four tubes of lip dye, brushes–face and hair–and eleven other tubes, pots, sticks and cakes of facial enhancers.

“Jesus, you carry all this gunk and put it on your face?  Is it worth it?” [Eve asks.]

“I’ll point out that it’s three in the morning and I look lovely.” [Nadine responds.] “You, on the other hand, have shadows under your eyes a pack of psychotic killers could hide in.”

In this scene–with the help of the inventory of Nadine’s purse (and Eve’s reaction to it)–Roberts shows a great many things about these two characters that will make them memorable and interesting to the reader.

As I’ve said so often before, I learn more from reading the works of the master story tellers than I ever learned in a creative writing class. It was nice to have affirmation that one of the techniques I use is practiced by one of those masters.


About Sharon K Owen

I am a fiction writer, a university professor, a copy editor and an online writing teacher. My first Romantic Suspense: Thicker Than Water (Brands Crossing Series) was published in 2011 and the second book in the series, Whatever Goes Around, will be published in 2016. My short stories and poetry have been published in Descant, Concho River Review, Iron Horse, American Literary Review, Trinity Writer's Workshop newsletter and collections of Christmas stories. I am blessed with a loving, supportive family, a multitude of friends and the good fortune to share a cozy sanctuary in North Texas with my two cats (Matt and Cinders).

Posted on September 13, 2011, in Book Recommendations, Writing, Writing Exercises, Writing Lessons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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