My journey with Peri and her friends

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Posts Tagged ‘character’

Who is Peri Minneopa?

Posted by Gayle on October 15, 2008

I had been joking for quite awhile about a private eye named Peri Menopause, who solved every case by crying, eating chocolate, and bitch-slapping everyone until someone confessed. I figured she’d bat a thousand with that approach. But when it came time to actually write a murder mystery, I didn’t want such a caricature. You just don’t get as many miles on stick characters.

First, I had to come up with another last name. There is a general rule that your protagonist should not have a difficult name, but I decided that it would be a funny gag if she did. It could be a running joke, that people would mangle her name a million different ways – including ‘Menopause’.

So I spent a lot of time googling different words and spellings that could be mangled into “menopause”. At last, I found ‘Minneopa’ – a creek and a state park in Minnesota (www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/minneopa/index.html). It’s a Dakota word, but I really didn’t want Peri to be from Native American roots, because I wasn’t prepared to deal with any subplots about her heritage. It would have meant research into the Dakota tribe(s), and I was already doing research about what a severed hand looks like, and sometimes I’m just lazy. Because the park is in Minnesota, I decided to make Peri’s family Scandinavian, figuring that if their Viking ancestors stole the Dakota lands, they probably stole their names, too.

So Peri is tall, blonde and blue-eyed, just like Ingrid Bergman, or Ann-Margaret… or Hans Christian Anderson. She’s fifty years old and used to clean houses for a living. She still likes cleanliness, so her house is immaculate, and going into Benny Needles’ messy house makes her skin crawl.

When I began Freezer Burn, I really didn’t know much more than that about Peri. I wanted her to be sassy and independent, which have turned out to be her strengths and her weaknesses. She is curious and willful – this works for her when she is reaching for a goal, but when she cannot temper that with caution, it puts her into danger.

I thought long and hard about how to let the reader know who Peri is. I hate to “jump into” a character in a book. No offense to Patricia Cornwell, who I really like as an author, but the first Kay Scarpetta book I read (All That Remains) kind of hit me in the face with Kay getting all weepy at the mention of her ex-boyfriend’s name. I wasn’t ready to cry with Kay.  So I tried to let Peri’s emotions and beliefs build thru the book, like layers. I introduced the subplot about her personal life to let the reader find out about who Peri is – at least, who Peri thinks she is.

You see, one of the things I wanted to do with Peri was to show a 50-year old woman who thinks she knows who she is and what she wants, and then turn that supposition on its head. I hope I did it correctly, and I hope my readers like it.

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Intuitive structure (slapping my own forehead)

Posted by Gayle on September 29, 2008

I just returned from a weekend at the Southern California Writer’s Conference, a group I highly recommend if you are a serious writer (www.writersconference.com). One of my favorite workshop leaders this year was Trai Cartwright, whose energy made her classes absolutely joyful.

When I first walked into “Intuitive Structure:Exploiting What You Know” I had absolutely no clue what I was going to learn about. I went because it was an intriguing title. What I got was a lesson on how important it is to have underpinnings to your tale that go beyond the basic plot outline. A good story must obey the rules of its genre, a world that provides conflict for the main character, and a main character with a fatal flaw. And, perhaps most of all, a story needs a theme. It can’t just be a “dime store western” – it has to be a classic struggle between good and evil, set in the western genre.

I confess, at the end of the workshop, I wanted to call Karen Syed and yell, “Wait! My novel’s not ready yet! I don’t have a theme! What’s my character’s fatal flaw? How is she in conflict with her world? It’s Placentia, for Pete’s sake!”

Fortunately, I’m no dummy. After I thought about it, I had the answers all the time, I just didn’t know it. It was intuitive.

Peri’s fatal flaw is that she is both nosy and impatient. She should wait for Skip to come and help her. She should call someone instead of walking through Benny’s dark yard alone. She should stay in the background, under the radar, instead of poking around, asking questions. These traits will always get her into hot water.

The world of Placentia, California, doesn’t seem like much of a conflict in Peri’s life. But if I open that world up beyond the physical and look at Peri’s life, I see, in the story, where everyone’s fine with her being a private eye until she is endangered. And being endangered is the catalyst for Peri to decide that she really wants to be a private eye. There’s my conflict.

But what’s the theme? I thought I had written a breezy little murder mystery, kind of a ‘cozy’ in terms of the level of violence and gore. But when I looked at how I told it, Peri’s unrelenting curiousity transcends her desire for justice, for fairness, for truth. The thing that makes her tick follows my own heart: life is a riddle to be solved.

I am reminded of something I heard Willard Scott say one morning, “When you’re green, you’re growing, and when you think you’re ripe, you’re rotten.”

This is why Peri will continue to solve cases and I will continue to write stories about her – because we both want to keep growing. Even when we’re both brittle and old.

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