This week's CFBA featured book is Off the Record by Elizabeth White. I finished this book last week and enjoyed every minute of it.
Beth was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine about what went on behind the scenes as she developed this story and her characters. I think you'll enjoy this interview.
And, after you have finished reading please be sure to leave a comment by clicking on "comment" . I will draw a name to win your own copy of Off the Record next Monday, August 20th. Don't forget to leave info on how I can reach you.
1. Beth, your characterizations were strong and written in close POV or deep POV as some call it. What is your method for developing your characters? How much did they tell you about themselves after you started writing? Did any change a lot by the end of the book in a way that surprised you? Did you base any of these characters on people you know—not an exact copy LOL—or were they strictly from your imagination.
To know that my characters are vivid and memorable is a high compliment. Thanks! Character development for me often starts with a vivid mental image of the physical person. And that physical image usually springs from their function/place in the story.
For example, in Off the Record I started with Laurel, a highly educated woman with strong enough self-confidence to run for a high state office. So I imagined a strong physical presence as well. Tall, beautiful in an off-beat way, dramatic coloring. But...why would a woman like that not already be married at the age of 32? Because she intimidates most men. She's been raised in a well-to-do family with good connections (which is how she could afford law school and the money it takes to run a statewide campaign). So what would her family be like?...Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself before I begin to write. Some of it I write down as notes in a Word document, paragraph style. Some of it is in my head. But as I develop the character, usually someone I know who may be similar in either appearance or personality will appear in my head. When I get to a situation where the character must make a decision or respond to someone else's dialogue, I picture what that real-life person would do or say. It's like a game of chasing reactions to stimuli--based on the character's background, temperament, emotions--and I have to keep switching my own point of view so that I put myself inside that person's skin. Sometimes I get it wrong, or I exaggerate for dramatic effect, and an editor or critiquer like my husband will reel me in with a challenge. It's a very weird, messy process.
I don't do those character interview charts or biography sheets. They make me freeze.Do the characters change as I write? Yes, because I do learn about them as I go. Some of that is because I'm the puppet-master, and I know what I want to happen. So I tinker with the backstory to make it plausible. I love backstory. Usually before I begin a novel, I will freewrite, as if I were writing a character's diary, about some event that occurred way in the past. Some event that triggers or deeply affects what happens in the present story. That freewriting won't be in the actual novel, except in fragments of dialogue or stream-of-consciousness thought. But it undergirds the narrative like an imbedded stream of water that seeps to the surface occasionally and feeds the growth of the story.Do the characters surprise me? Yes, and that's the coolest thing about this. Often a line of dialogue will pop out naturally from the flow of a scene, and I'll think, "Now where did that come from?" So I track it down to see if it fits the character. Maybe it doesn't exactly, so I have to either delete it (painful) or adjust backstory. Or maybe the story yaws off in a completely different direction than I'd anticipated.
Like the line at the end of Chapter One, which told me that Laurel and Cole had had a physical relationship in the past. That was a pretty powerful surprise. As far as basing characters on people I know, like I said, I start with a character type and refine until they become real individuals. I know people who are just as strong and admirable as my lead characters, but they don't have the same traumas. The secondaries start out as sidekicks as needed, then they develop as I go.
Usually I'm looking for "foils" to the hero and heroine. If you have sisters, like Gilly and Laurel, they're going to share some environmental characteristics--the bossy, self-absorbed mother, for example--but Gilly is sixteen years younger than Laurel, so of course she's going to have a different take on circumstances. Why did I make Gilly 16 years younger? I honestly don't remember, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.A lot of a novelist's job is armchair psychology. Why do people behave the way they do? I study and listen to people constantly. I find myself interviewing if I meet someone interesting. It's a lot of fun.
2. Since my (Pam) family hails from Alabama on my mom’s side, I was caught up in Laurel’s travels as she campaigns about the state. The few places I’ve been that you used obviously came to life for me because I’d been there, but even the places I haven’t been I could feel and experience as though I had been there. Did you actually visit all the sites you used in the story? How did you pick which places she would visit while she was campaigning?
I was looking for interesting sites. I visited the Judicial Building in Montgomery, and I've been to all the places in Mobile that Laurel went to. I haven't been to the Chicken and Egg Festival or the Bollweevil Museum, but there are fascinating web sites with pictures and stuff that were really helpful. I corresponded with a woman who wrote the Bollweevil Museum's history. Even without actually going to those places, I have a really good imagination, and I've been to enough places like them in Alabama and Mississippi that I could pretty well capture the essence of them--I hope! I thought about having her visit Talladega and the Space Center in Huntsville, but just couldn't figure out how to work it in. Story rules.
3. Where did the idea for On the Record come from? In other words, trace it’s first inception to finished manuscript.
Woo. That's a big question. A couple of years ago I read a newspaper article about a female judge announcing her candidacy for Alabama Supreme Court chief justice (in Alabama judges are elected). If she won, she would be the first woman in that position. I thought that would make a cool story premise, so I tried to think of what could keep an otherwise qualified judge from winning. And I was writing a romance, so I tried to figure out a way to involve the hero to block her. Who would be an antagonist to a candidate? A private detective hired by her opponent--if she had some kind of secret in her past--or a reporter. Or maybe both! So Cole became the reporter, working hand-in-hand with Matt Hogan, the detective, who in turn was working for the nasty George Field.Once I had an idea what the story parameters were--who the main characters were--it was a matter of interviewing people who actually work in those professions, and asking what would be the worst and funniest things that could happen. Then you let those things happen in the story. I interviewed a professional campaign manager, a female judge, and a reporter. I hung out on a private detective's website and blog. That was really a lot of fun.
4. Cara Putman on her blog gave you a great review. She stated that as an attorney she’s skeptical of authors writing about attorneys and other legal types if they aren’t attorneys themselves. She came away from On The Record highly impressed that you portrayed Judge Laurel’s working life accurately and that you had done your homework. How much research did you have to do? How important was it to portray that side of Laurel’s life accurately even though the plot basically centered on her personal relationship with Cole and her campaign to be Chief Judge for the state of Alabama?
I really appreciate it when my research is acknowledged. It's very important to me to get things as "right" as I can. I have a very good friend who's a single female attorney, and she did a lot of the initial brainstorming with me. She has connections in the Mobile legal community, and she took me with her to a meeting of the Christian Legal Society. She also introduced me to a Christian female judge, who allowed me to observe her court and sit in her chambers as she negotiated with lawyers (all this with prior consent from the lawyers involved). So Laurel is based on these two brilliant women, with her own personal angst created by my imagination. After I wrote the scenes in the courtroom and Laurel's chambers, I had my friend read them for accuracy. She corrected me on a couple of minor counts, and also tweaked the "lawyer" lingo. Some of it I picked up just listening to her over the years. Also, I have a pretty good ear for terminology, just from doing a lot of reading.
5. What else is on Beth White’s plate for future novels?
Controlling Interest will come out in April from Zondervan. Matt Hogan is the hero, trying to rescue his detective agency after the George Fields Debacle, while negotiating a competition with his unwanted new partner, Natalie Tubberville. Did you ever see the old Bruce Willis-Cybil Shepherd show Moonlighting? That'll give you a flavor of Controlling Interest.In the meantime I'm developing a story based on the further adventures of Gilly Kincade. I don't know enough to tell you much now, but she's a rising New York ballet star. It's a Zondervan release scheduled for next December.Also, I'm in the midst of hacking a bunch of word count out of a Civil War suspense for Love Inspired Historicals. Submarines (yes, there was one way back then). Underground Railroad. Blockade runners. Cool stuff. It will release November 08. And soon I'll be working on its sequel, which will release a year later. That one will feature a runaway daughter of missionaries who wants to attend Tulane Medical College. She falls in love with her arch rival. Picture Grey's Anatomy in 1879 New Orleans, without all the skanky sex scenes.
Thanks for asking such hard questions. Thanks for your interest. May the Lord bless your ministry here.
If you don't win your copy of Off the Record here, you can buy it at Amazon.
Woo hoo. Beth's future books sound wonderful. I can't wait to read them.
Remember to leave a comment to win your own copy of Beth's Off the Record. Drawing is Monday, August 20th.