Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Plot Is in the Characters

by Kay Kendall
Author of Desolation Row

I don’t give a fig how a car works. Or electricity. 
Or a computer. They all might as well be black boxes, as far as I’m concerned, inside which mysterious things happen. Poof! The car turns on. Poof! Electricity powers the air conditioner. Poof! The computer recalls everything you type into it. 

What I do care about is how people work. Why they do the things they do. I discovered this passion one teenaged summer when my boyfriend dumped me and I drooped into churlishness. After a week my mother tired of my moping around the house and suggested I work at one of her charities. 

I ended up volunteering at the county’s psychiatric clinic, helping with rudimentary clerical tasks. As I typed up forms and patients’ reports, I was shocked to see so much pain appear on the pages. But later I was gratified to see the clinic’s psychiatric social worker help some of those patients whose woes I’d typed up. Sometimes they left our office with springier steps. I fancied I could see their anxieties and depression lift, if only a little.

That same summer my favorite cousin began exhibiting behavioral problems. Merle was super bright but troubled. I never saw him act out or be mean to someone, but I began to hear stories.  I wanted to help him but didn’t have the skills. Ah-hah, I thought! I’d study psychology in college and become a psychiatric social worker so I could fix him.

Please note that I never aspired to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Perhaps that was because I’d only seen a psychiatric social worker in action and therefore could imagine being one. But also note the date was 1962, the year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.  And eight years before I became an ardent feminist. 

When I entered college in 1963, most courses I took fascinated me, including for a short time even geology and astronomy, subjects taken only to fulfill liberal arts distribution requirements. Psychology, however, was a letdown, a huge bore. 

I wanted to learn about people. All we studied were rats. While two friends in my class did manage to cope with rodentia behavior, I couldn’t.  These women went on to earn their doctorates in psychology and help countless people. For me, however, the gap between the actions of rats and people was too great a leap. I never took another course after Psych 1.

I toyed with various majors, but English literature was my mainstay. Fiction encompassed everything about humanity, and I’d always been a ferocious reader. Writing was a joy. After getting a graduate degree in history—real crimes that happened in the past, I now say—I fell back on writing and developed a solid career as a corporate communicator. 

I never felt I’d found my niche, however. My heart did not sing.

When I began writing fiction a decade ago, I finally responded to an inner compulsion. What I had to explore is why people do the things they do. Character development and plot are almost synonymous to me. It’s like attending another high school reunion and seeing old friends again after ten years. I’m reading the newest chapters in their lives. People are walking, ongoing stories. Curiosity drives me to learn everything I can and then fictionalize it—showing their behavior and uncovering their motives.

The mystery comes in when good people do bad things. Anne Perry was the first mystery author I noticed whose killers weren’t thoroughly evil, but I didn’t know what to make of this. And then the film Heavenly Creatures came out in 1994, exposing her secret. As a teenager she had helped murder a friend’s mother. Maybe Anne Perry has been trying to fathom her motives ever since? No wonder the killers she devised—especially in the first half of her career—are complicated, unfathomable people, jolted into acting horribly in bad situations. 

Each of us is a mysterious black box. Inside are so many factors all jumbled up—memories, desires, hurts. How can other people ever hope to understand us? How can we hope to understand ourselves?

Yet still we try. We must try. I was never able to decode what caused my cousin Merle to derail. I did solve part of the puzzle but was helpless to alter his sad trajectory. Alas, after living for twenty years in a hospital for the criminally insane, he wandered off into a field while on furlough and simply lay down and died. He was forty.

As a mystery author, though, I can put characters into extreme peril and see if they’ll sort out their own complicated lives as well as the sometimes vile things that others do. Solving the puzzles of people living only on pages (or in E files) is a full-time job. After I figure out one set of interconnecting lives, then I go on to develop another set, another, and another. This is a job I relish. You can call me a contented Sisyphus.

Kay Kendall’s debut mystery, Desolation Row, is set in 1968 and features 22-year-old Austin Starr, homesick Texas bride of a Vietnam War draft protester. When her husband is accused of murdering a fellow draft resister, the black sheep son of a U.S. Senator, Austin must prove her husband’s innocence. Learn more about Kay and her writing at


Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, Kay! I completely agree with your search for the "why." Otherwise a mystery is just a pretty puzzle with no subtlety or depth. And a really lazy writer would simply say, "he was a sick person" and leave it there.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to PDD, Kay. Your post resonated with me. As a clinical social worker/psychotherapist and a fiction writer (and poet and singer-songwriter), I've always said that everything I do is of a piece. It's all about human connection, whether I'm listening to a client, writing about (or listening to!) my fictional characters, giving a poetry reading, or singing to an audience. And ardent feminist, yes! I grew up in the Fifties, and I can remember when the connections between women were not considered particularly interesting. The "important" conversations went on among men, and we were lucky if we got to sit in on them. Thank goodness that's changed!

Kay Kendall said...

Sheila and Elizabeth, thank you for the welcome. I am so happy to be here among you wonderful deadly daughters of the great Poe.

Yes, back in the day when women got together to talk it was just chit chat, deemed inconsequential meaningless stuff.

What puzzled me was hearing men talk ugly or sexist in a way that was sure to upset women in the room. As a youngster I didn't understand why the men would risk the women's ire. But the women just sat there, saying nothing.

I know the answer now. It's called POWER or the lack thereof.

I'm going to a fundraiser on Tuesday at which the superb Gloria Steinem will speak. I am so excited that I am practically levitating. The mystery I'm working on now is set in a women's liberation consciousness raising group in 1970...titled RAINY DAY WOMEN--sequel to my DESOLATION ROW. Yes, my amateur sleuth is a big fan of Bob Dylan.

Sheila Connolly said...

Your next book sounds like a treat. If you need any "women's fiction" titles from back in the day, I kept them all, and they even have their own bookshelf. The Women's Room? It's there.

Love Gloria Steinem. I've had the privilege of meeting her a couple of times, most recently when she gave the commencement address at Smith College the year my daughter graduated.

My mother always said the men's conversations were more interesting and hung out with them at parties, which is probably why the wives hated her and she had few female friends, back in the '50s.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for a delightful blog entry, Kay. The late 60s and early 70s were such a rich a time, filled with turmoil and change, but surprisingly few writers have explored the era in fiction. It's far enough away in time now to feel "historical" -- although some us just think of it as "when I was young" :-)-- and I hope you'll find an appreciative audience for your books.

Speaking of Gloria Steinem, the oddest bit of trivia I know about her is that she was briefly Christian Bale's stepmother.

Kay Kendall said...

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to connect with your readers, Sandra. It was great.

I was stunned to read that Ms. Steinem's younger husband died suddenly only three years after their marriage, and here I'd been thinking of her as happily married since 2000. What a shame.

Then Wikipedia went on to say that she was the stepmom of Christian Bale…surprising all the way around!

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Kay,
While I'm an incurable people-watcher and my characters are often strong alloys of personalities I have met over many years, I disagree with your thesis: story is king (I'm talking about fiction). I've reviewed many books and am very disappointed when an author has a lineup of interesting characters but basically no story. Maybe one day I'll write a spoof of Pirandello's famous play and call it "Six Characters in Search of a Story." :-)
To paraphrase Tom Clancy, I think the best advice for an author is to just tell the damn story. Fiction started out as a story-telling and vocal tradition. For me the story defines the characters (you might be saying that, but that's not what I perceived).
I'm not disagreeing with everything you say. But if one is not telling a good story, why write it down?
Oh, and I welcome you here too. I'm just this ye olde male lurker for this interesting blog, all too often admiring the Deadly Daughters and their intelligent manipulations of the written word.

Anonymous said...

that is so true... Individuals need to be mindful in the details they share online

My website; online dating sites for over 40

Anonymous said...

UNBELIEVABLE This can be Awesome

Also visit my homepage; six pack shortcuts printable workout log

Anonymous said...

You are so appropriate, my husband does ROCK. I Adore Adore my potting shed.
I would really like to see pictures of your new space!
Keep in touch.

Here is my site :: arrow metal sheds parts

Anonymous said...

I checked out an online classifieds to satisfy having a lady to
go out dancing with and 8 from 10 turned out prime be ripoffs why is that this?

my site ... how to Get Girls

Anonymous said...

s this kind of, I am concerned with this particular
development at my age of forty one. tarted consuming
coffee and eating tomatoes once more but I require feedback

Have a look at my site: homemade weight loss food for dogs

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, thanks Chris. I'm seriously considering picking one of these up to replace my year-old S3. Do you think it worth the price I'll really need
to pay considering the return I'll get from selling my old phone?

Look at my web blog: premature ejaculation treatment reviews

Anonymous said...

Asking questions are in fact nice thing if you are
not understanding something entirely, but this piece of
writing gives fastidious understanding even.

Feel free to visit my page ::