A few weeks ago the novelist Laurel Dewey graciously shared with us her story about writing her debut suspense novel Protector . It's a book driven by a complex protagonist named Detective Jane Perry. We were curious to know how Laurel created her hero so we called her up for an insightful and fascinating conversation about character development:
VT: You describe your latest book, "Protector," as a character-driven crime thriller. What do you mean by that?
Laurel: Well, the book is driven by the main character, Detective Jane Perry. I developed her over a period of two years, but it goes further back than that. She was an image in my mind's eye years before I ever researched the story. But then I created a character that was so real to me that it was difficult to believe that she didn't exist.
VT: How did you accomplish that?
Laurel: I wanted to learn everything about her so I needed to know where she lived and where she hung out. I chose Denver as her hometown and trolled the streets looking for her house. When I found what I felt was her house, I took a photograph of it and put that picture up on the wall in front of my computer when I was writing the story. Also, this character's an alcoholic who frequents bars, so I found a bar that I thought she'd visit. I hung out in that bar to get a sense of the place, to know what it smelled like, what kind of people frequented it, what the colors of the walls were.
But I wanted to go back even further. Where did Jane grow up? She had a horrific childhood which was critical to the story. So I went to the boonies outside of Denver, where I decided she grew up, and again chose a house, and took pictures of the house and the yard.
VT: Sounds like that took a lot of time.
Laurel: I really took the time to research her character before I sat down to write the book. This was also after interviewing and spending time with cops and homicide detectives and sheriffs. I did a lot of research on that end to get a feel for her work.
VT: What was that like?
Laurel: I went to the sheriff's department in Grand Junction, Colorado, and met with a wonderful detective there who spent hours with me. A brutal crime takes place in the book so I had to look at graphic crime scenes to understand what they look like. I wasn't going to sit down and write a crime thriller if I didn't understand the nature of the beast. When I sat down in March of 2001 to write the first chapter I knew everything about Jane Perry. I knew where she liked to eat, what brand of cigarettes she smoked, what brand of whiskey she drank, what she would and wouldn't do. I also knew what kind of clothing she wore, where she shopped, even what kind of coffee she drank.
VT: But a lot of these details didn't make it into your book, right?
Laurel: No, they didn't. But from a writer's viewpoint, you have to understand these details, the whisky, the cigarettes. The writer must inhabit their main character, that's really the crux of this whole thing. At some point you don't know where you begin and they begin or you end up. You start to entangle yourself with this character. That's the interesting part of really getting into this creation.
VT: Sounds a little scary.
Laurel: There were many times when I was writing the book that my friends would tell me I was acting differently. Jane Perry has an extremely crusty mouth, she uses lot of profanity. I'm not saying that I don't, but I'm nowhere near her. But friends would say to me, my God, what had gotten into me, because I was talking like her. My husband noticed this too. He told me I started walking differently. It was kind of strange. It was the way I envisioned Jane Perry walking.
VT: It seems to me like you were just going along for the ride.
Laurel: I've said this before, it is so true. I was along for the ride but I learned a lot from her, too. I feel I became a more compassionate person after writing her story, and I can't even describe that. I've subsequently written the sequel to "Protector" which is titled "Redemption." It's a long way from getting published because they want to keep "Protector" out for a while. But after writing the sequel I became even a more compassionate a person. I tended to be a little judgmental before I started writing about Jane Perry. People say, well, this all sounds kind of woo-woo, you know, but I'm not a woo-woo person.
VT: You don't sound like it.
Laurel: It caught me off guard as much as anyone. There were times I'd sit back in my chair as I was writing and I'd have to take a breath and kind of ask myself, what's happening here.
VT: It's so interesting because while you're talking about a character, it's a creation that really came to life.
Laurel: It did. As far as I'm concerned Jane Perry's still living in Denver on Milwaukee Street and if I just drive by that house maybe she'll walk out and I'll get a glimpse of her because she's that real. As far as the character development she became so real at times that when I would start writing a scene, and as I would get into the character of Jane Perry, she, I, we -- however you want to say it --- would completely go in another direction. Now it wasn't a direction that was off the charts but a lot of times I would sit there and write this dialogue and I think, wow, that's not what I planned but it's much better. She would carry a scene in a certain direction, and the more I got connected to her the more it became that way.
VT: This seems like it circles back to what you said in the beginning, that you took the time to really inhabit this character's space.
Laurel: People have said to me, are you Jane Perry? I've had agents ask me if I was really Jane Perry because if so, they were a little nervous about representing me. I'd say no and they'd say how can you write about this kind of life if you haven't experienced it? But as one reviewer put it, Jane Perry was one of the most real fictional characters she had ever read.
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