One of the difficulties of writing about a book-in-progress, is that just about every time I think something would be fun to write about, right after that I think doing so would create a spoiler. It has kept me from recording quite a few moments on my way to draft 1 of The Murder in Skoghall.

I think I can tell you about a surprise character without spoiling anything. I hope so.

Jess, the main character, has to unravel a mystery and time is, naturally, running out. Her house is haunted and the ghost is getting pissed. So, she has to track down the ghost’s father.

That’s a pretty good example of the kind of rough outlining I do. I create a story board with the main beats, or action moments, written out. When I sit down to write for the day, I look at where I left off the previous day and then I look at the story board. That tells me where I need to get to next. In this case, I knew Jess had to find the ghost’s father. Seems simple, doesn’t it?

It’s never that simple. I calculated that the man would be about 86. I had to decide how Jess would track him down. We are in the digital age, after all. Turns out, the ghost’s father is still in the White Pages (or the virtual White Pages), and Jess walks right up to his house, and…

A short and wide-set woman in a straw hat and gardening gloves came around the side of the house carrying a spade and a bucket that was overflowing with the broad, heart-shaped leaves of a hosta. She stopped and stared at Jess a moment before continuing across the yard to meet her on the path from her door to the sidewalk. “Hello,” Jess said. The woman wore a pair of sweatpants with dirt-stained knees and a faded souvenir t-shirt from Lake Okoboji. Her face was sagging into jowls that hung on either side of her chin, which had sort of melted into her neck, giving her a basset hound look. “Doing some transplanting?”

“Oh, yeah. I should have done this sooner, before the weather got so hot, you know? But well, I been busy with other things around this place. Sprucing it up. Gonna sell it soon.”

“Really? That’s nice.” Jess hated small talk. She had no idea if it was nice or not.

“Yeah. My uncle’s gone now. This is his place, so you know how it is. Someone has to care for it.”

Jess nodded. “Is your uncle William?”

“Yeah. Are you looking for him? If you are, you’re too late to find him here.”

Jess stammered, “I’m s-sorry…”

“No!” The woman put a gloved hand on Jess’s arm, rubbing dirt from digging up the hosta against Jess’s skin. “I don’t mean too late that way!” She laughed and the loose skin between her chin and shirt collar shook. “He’s gone to the nursing home.”

“Oh…good. That’s good.”

“Why do you want my uncle?” She tilted her head and the brim of her hat made a sharp shadow that cut diagonally across her face.

“I don’t. I’m an old friend of John’s. From college. I was hoping to track him down and this is his last known address. To me, I mean. We came here sometimes and visited his grandparents, so I thought I’d stop by.” Jess couldn’t believe how easily she was lying. And then she couldn’t believe how happy this woman was to talk to a total stranger about anything. After about ten minutes of chatting, Jess made her getaway. She waved to William’s niece as she pulled away from the house and felt like she was beginning to understand the kind of leg work detectives do for a living.

I realized almost as soon as I’d written this little scene that it might not make the cuts to come. I feel a mild affection for this middle-aged niece, but I could get Jess to the nursing home in a quick line or two of summary. This is a disposable scene. The woman doesn’t even have a name yet, so clearly she’s not important.

The next day, I was working on the plot. While the story board exists as the major moments I need to hit, a lot happens between each point in the getting from one to another, and sometimes that action takes a left turn. So I was working out how to get Jess to the climax, and it turns out the ghost’s father holds the key to putting the ghost to rest.

I made notes of all the possible scenes in no particular order–order reveals itself to me as I work. And lo! That no-name niece is going to come back. She is the key to unlocking William.

And with that, if I say anything more about it, I will spoil something.

Lots of authors say their characters have a life of their own. A few say that’s bull, since we control the characters.

I think it’s like this: as we write, we know some things, but not everything. The plot, characters, and setting all come together in this alchemy of creation. It was enough for me to know Jess was going to William’s house and somebody had to be home when I sat down to write. This niece came to me as I wrote. One thing led to another–the hosta, the dialect, the dirty glove on Jess’s arm. I had no idea I was going to write that scene until it was done, but it didn’t come from nowhere, it came from the stew of this novel I’m writing, and that was enough.

Our minds are funny things, and I’m always delighted when my work surprises me!


If you want to read The Murder in Skoghall before it’s done, check out the Wattpad page! You can tell me what you think and help me make draft 2 way better.


a surprise character


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