I had it all planned out.
I had large white squares of Bristol board, thousands of post-its and an outline. I had jot-noted a world into being. I had peppered my universe with my little puppet people and I had a pretty good sense of how I would make them dance and talk and interact.
It was all skeletal really. But I knew the setting and I had my main characters:
Merinda Herringford ( a play on Sherrinford Holmes, Doyle’s first idea for Sherlock) with her blonde hair and brilliant cat eyes and angular profile. Jemima Watts, our Watson, our intermediary, classically beautiful and always falling in and out of love. A kind of counterpart to the fictional ( and oft-married ) John Watson.
There needs to be a romantic lead of course! – my pen hovered mid-air-- I cannot do anything without romance.
Constable Jasper Forth. Jasper! Just like the stuttering man I had a major crush on while watching Road to Avonlea growing up. Perfect! He’ll be tall and look like Andrew Buchan from Garrow’s Law and Cranford on PBS! Nice, open face. Perfect contrast to my lady sleuths.
I wrote out a few sample chapters and tweaked and played and flitted about. I painted my scene: a bustling Immigrant populous of 1910s Toronto, all creaky smoggy poetry- in- motion. Mechanical wheels clashing with horse-drawn carriages. Women who cannot solve crime unless they disguise themselves as men, who stumble amateurishly and trouser-clad into a barrage of adventures.
It would have turned out quite differently if I hadn’t seen the picture, of course. The picture was what made me stop and think and punctuate my fledgling prose with another male character. Who is this man who is so down on his luck that he is shining shoes in Toronto’s slum? Look at the cap pulled over his eyes, the cotton sleeves rolled up over a waffled undershirt. What a contrast! There he is polishing shoes while his own are scuffed, the toes near worn of their leather!
I threw him into a scene. Just a dash. Then I played some more. Another dash.
Then I realized that my fingers were typing of their own accord. That wonderful, magical moment where you can’t tell where you stop and your characters begin. He took over. He became a p.o.v character.
I didn’t want a scene without him in it. I wrote 10 times as many words as a novel required: pitting him against other characters, making him interact, wondering where he would show up and what he would say when he got there.
I couldn’t stop.
“He’s too exotic.” One editor said in a rejection letter. “That relationship is a little strange. The one with Ray," another editor remarked as she read from notes in a face-to-face meeting. But my Ray had become, quite of his own accord, one of the hills I would die on as I inched my way toward finding a contract. Ray had to be a p.o.v character. Ray, this strange character who wasn’t in the initial outline and who showed up out of the blue and wouldn’t stop talking.
Now, he features very prominently in my first novel and is spattered as a lead character in all six stories featuring my lady detectives.
As writers it is hard to know what lines to cross and what boundaries to push and what lines to colour in. It’s all abstract, even as we lay out our best intentions as pantsers or plotters. But the magic of writing is letting your imagination create things you are not conscious of. It allows you
Let your characters speak for themselves. Sit there and wait. Practice and crumple pages and try, try again. One might surprise you. Shove his way in and interrupt the logic of your crafted world. And that’s okay.
Stop! Let the characters take over. They are borne of your instinct and as a writer, you need to trust that with all your gut.
Rachel McMillan lives in Toronto where she is currently watching way too many made-for-tv Christmas movies.
A Singular and Whimsical Problem: a Christmas-themed prequel novella to her Herringford and Watts series is available today on all major retailers, including Amazon.
She and Ray DeLuca have a special relationship.