Who’s Writing this Story, Anyway?
What Happens When Characters Take Over
by Kathleen Kaska
As writers we’ve been asked the question many times, and have answered with humor, wit, and candor, only to receive that unbelievable stare in response. You know the one that says, “you can’t be serious.” So, a few years ago, when I was asked to write a piece for my writers’ group about how authors develop or invent their characters, I turned my answer into the following short story.
I met the old woman on a back road in Arkansas. It was a bright, breezy Thanksgiving afternoon. My husband and I were taking in the fall colors north of Hot Springs when we made the wrong turn back to town and had gotten lost. As he fumbled with the map, I lowered the window and I gazed out at an algae-covered pond. The air was heavy with the scent of pine and the ease of the moment seemed to settle in. Then I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. I turned and look. And there she was, standing by the car and smiling at me.
“Let me do it,” she whispered. “Let me be the one.”
“Do what?” I said.
“Let me be the one to kill the goddamn bastard.”
Introductions were not necessary, I knew who she was, and I was glad to see her. I had been waiting for two months, but I did not expect her to show up here.
Eighty-two-year-old Ida Springfield was the most cantankerous old woman I had ever known. From Two Horse, Montana, Ida was no bigger than a stick. A stiff wind kicked up and I grabbed her hand for fear that she would fly away with the fallen foliage. She stared straight ahead, pulling at her lower lip the way she does when pondering a critical situation. I studied her profile. Pulled tight from her face, her hair formed a long, thick braid, which hung down her back. A few gray strands had come loose around her temples and with small, firm birdlike hands, Ida brushed the errant hair back.
Everything about her was petite. Her thimble-size nose and slightly pointed chin gave a rather simple face some dimension. Her wrinkles were even tiny, almost as if they had been drawn on her face with a fine-tipped pencil. From a distance, except for the gray hair, she could easily pass for a woman several decades younger. One had to get close to tell Ida’s age. I wondered how close I would have to get to understand what Ida was all about.
“It won’t be easy, you know,” I said.
“Nothing good ever is. I’ll put the body in his car and push it into a pond.” She nodded toward the property across the road. “Like the one you’ve been staring at.” The look on her face frightened me.
“But one murder usually leads to another,” I reminded her.
I glanced at my husband—his nose deep in the Rand McNally, sorting out his own immediate problem, he ignored us.
“I know, sweetie. You let me worry about that,” Ida said. “Do what you do best: take care of the details.”
We returned to the hotel, just as the buffet crowd had begun to thin. This was the fifth consecutive year that my husband and I have celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday at the historic Arlington Hotel. The day’s routine had us hiking across the backbone of Music Mountain in the morning and cruising the back roads for the rest of the afternoon waiting for the families to feed first. We changed out of our grubby shorts and T-shirts, showered, and dressed for dinner in jeans and clean T-shirts and sat down at our favorite table next to the Venetian fountain.
Although the once succulent turkey now competed for dryness with the sage dressing, we preferred the quiet dining room after the masses had left. Over a bottle of Merlot, my husband and I discussed the murder. I told him about Ida and he agreed that she was the best candidate thus far. No one would suspect an old lady of killing her good-for-nothing husband, and sixty-five years later, her hateful son.
Besides, Ida wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace until I gave her the assignment. Despite my reservations about her ability to carry it off, and the fact that she was a pain in the ass, I was growing quite fond of the old gal.
Thanksgiving was the only time of year that I splurged on desserts. A sliver of pecan pie, and this year’s new addition to the dessert ensemble, a mocha-caramel cheesecake sat on my dessert plate. As I sliced a piece of apple torte in half, my eye caught a movement behind the fichus tree at the entrance to the Jockey's Bar. She stood there, head down, lips silently moving. I sat my plate down on the dessert table and rushed over.
“Ida, what happened? Are you okay?”
She pulled away putting more waxy leaves between us as if she needed protection from me. A throaty crackle behind me made me turn. I did a double take.
“She’s shy until she gets to know you, and then it’s Jenny-bar-the-door. You can’t shut her up,” Ida chortled. “Veda, come out from behind that bush and meet your boss.”
“My twin—she’s one special lady and she’s your motive, or my motive, that is. You see, Colter beating up on me is one thing, but the day he laid a hand on my retarded sister, I had to draw the line.”
“I get it now.” I licked apple torte crumbs from my thumb.
“Right. You thought I’d kill those two assholes because of my ranch, and you are right. I’d do anything to save it, but the real reason is because Colter comes home drunk and I catch him raping Veda.”
“Oh, Ida . . . I’m so sorry.” I turned around to reach out to Veda, but she had disappeared.
“She dies too, honey.”
“Pneumonia. With all the shit going on, Veda’s health starts to wear down.”
“I see—it might just work.”
“You gonna eat all that dessert, honey?”
I looked down at my plate, embarrassed by my indulgence and that Ida should know my weakness for sweets. Then she disappeared also, leaving me standing alone at the fichus tree.
This always happens in Hot Springs—the place must be my Muse. One year I met long, tall Sydney Lockhart, the protagonist in my second mystery series. As I was unpacking, she walked out of the bathroom and asked me why there was a dead body lying in the bathtub, the very bathtub where she had been conceived thirty years ago. Before I could think of a reasonable answer, she then asked if I had room for her and her two animals, a cat named Mealworm, and a poodle name Monroe. Regardless of the no pet rule, I welcomed them with open arms, and by the week’s end, we had the plot lined out for the first Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Arlington.
One of the miracles of writing is when my characters present themselves when I least expect it. What’s even more amazing is they often take over and tell the story for me. It’s almost like a seed had been planted a long time ago, and suddenly the conditions turn ideal, and the seed germinates—and for a moment, writing is simple and a heck of a lot of fun.
The Author in all of us
There is a story inside. One that needs out and to be read by others. It's there and now it's time for it to flow from author to the reader. Join us as we celebrate Indie authors.