“Music, Food, and Characters.”

January 18, 2010 | Karin's Blog | 19 comments

Hey, everyone, real quick I’d like to intro a cyber friend of mine Terry Odell who I had the pleasure of meeting last year at RT.  She has most graciously accepted my invite to blog here at The Write Life today.  So, heeeeeerrrrrzzzzzzzzz—Terry!

 Thanks, Karin, for inviting me to “The Write Life” today. I’m excited to be here, and I’d love to chat with your readers. I’m talking about characters today, and how they come to life for me.

When I am pulled into a book, it’s because of the characters. I’d go so far as to say it’s 80% characters and 20% story for me. Obviously, when I write, I want to create characters my readers will remember. I’m not a plotter—I have only the barest idea of a story before I start writing. Even if the seed of my idea was a storyline, or a scene (or even a line of dialogue—heck, anything will trigger a story!), I need the character before things can move very far forward. Although I’m supposed to be in control, there are times when the characters introduce themselves as much as I’m trying to create them.

I know some writers fill out long, involved character history sheets before the write word one. I can’t do that. What if something happens during the story and my character background doesn’t work? Change the character or change the plot? I do like to know about my characters, but I’m more of a “what would make someone do that kind of a writer. Why do they have the job they do? Are they happy? If not, what job would they rather have? Why would a woman agree to give a ride to a man they’ve just met? As the story grows, so do my characters.

 When I started writing FINDING SARAH, all I knew about Randy was that he was a cop who saw everything in black and white. I had no idea he was also an accomplished pianist until more than halfway through the book. Yet when he insisted on sitting down at his grandmother’s piano after a miserable day, I listened. In going back through the manuscript, I discovered that I had to delete exactly one line in order to keep things in character for him. For that book, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Pathetique” seemed to guide the characters.

Blake, in WHAT’S IN A NAME? came to me almost full-blown when I was listening to Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band.” The line, “Papa I don’t think I love you near enough” defined his character, and any time I needed to know what he would do, I could listen to that song.

Another instance came about when I heard “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles. It was slow, dreamy, and I knew that I had to write a scene where my characters danced to it (since no way was my husband going to do it). It wasn’t the lyrics, but the mood the melody invoked. Sure enough, I had Ryan and Frankie meet while dancing to that song in WHEN DANGER CALLS.

In other cases, it’s food that clicks the characters for me. I like to know what they eat, if they cook, and their favorite foods. In one of my early short stories, Pasta Puttanesca was a major story ingredient.

In WHAT’S IN A NAME? Blake doesn’t cook. He can make coffee, but that’s about it. So he’s delighted to eat a meal prepared by Kelli, the heroine. Later in the book, he connects with Kelli by trying to cook that same recipe, and by baking chocolate chip cookies, which evoke poignant memories of his childhood.

Single-mother Frankie cooks to a degree, but her cooking prowess stops at the kid-food level. She makes things like macaroni and cheese, happy-face pancakes, or tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. But this comfort food ends up helping Ryan face the death of his mother.

In my upcoming July release, NOWHERE TO HIDE, instead of making music, Graham cooked. Here I had this macho deputy sheriff, who worked on his Harley during his time off, but when he sat down and picked up the magazines on his coffee table, he read a salmon recipe in Gourmet Magazine. When he was stressed, he made Moussaka. He let me in on his secret a little earlier than Randy had, but he was definitely a closet chef. I admit I had to call upon my brother’s expertise as a pastry chef when Graham tried to make pancakes but Colleen didn’t have baking powder.

What sorts of things inspire you? Are you more of a character person or a story person?

Thanks again to Karin for having me at The Write Life today. You can find more about me at my website, http://www.terryodell.com where I have a special “Behind the Scenes” section where you can see what other things inspired my writing. You can also fine me at my blog, “Terry’s Place” http://terryodell.blogspot.com.  I posted my personal writing playlist there at http://terryodell.blogspot.com/2010/01/sounds-of-inspiration.html


Thank you for being my guest today, Terry!


  1. Terry Odell

    And thanks for having me, Karin. I’m delighted to be here. I hope your regulars will chime in.

  2. J. Carson Black

    Terry, it’s great hearing how you work, and grow your characters.

    Everyone is different, but I think there are always similarities–it’s just the way we tease things out from our minds that is different. I do have character sketches (got the idea from Elizabeth George, who makes up a sort of questionaire about the character and then free-writes about him/her in stream of consciousness). But I see the character sketches as a starting point and write my way in to the story to find my character. It’s like blazing one trail through the woods, and then, the next time you go through, you find a better path. Halfway through I’ll look at the character sketches and think, Why did I ever write that? No way would he be into interpretive dance!

    But the essence of the character is the same, and that’s where the fun is. My killer in THE SHOP can do math in his head, corrects people’s grammar, has a passion for horse-racing (owns a race horse), and is starstruck by the beautiful celebrity–previously unknown to him—that he kills. He can’t get her out of his mind.

    I’m half in love with the guy, but he’s a stone-cold killer.

  3. Terry Odell

    They do surprise us, don’t they! I think that’s half the fun. And I totally agree, the sketches get filled out as you go along. I love your path through the woods analogy.

  4. Edie

    My process is similar to yours. In my wip, I already started my book when I decided my hero needed a passion. He ended up being a brilliant saxophone player, though not professionally, and this became central to the book.

    Love the happy face pancakes!

  5. Terry Odell

    Edie, those characters definitely need passions – but I think it’s often better to let them tell us when they’re ready, rather than force them into a mold we’ve created.

    I’m an expert at kid food — saving my skills for my grandson now, though. Kids are out and can cook for themselves.

  6. susan leech

    I love to get into a books and be able to relate to the people in that book. I take myself into the story line so many times but that’s one reason I read. susan l.

  7. Galen Kindley

    Yep, I write using the seat-of-the-pants method. I do have some idea about where the storyline is headed very short term–maybe a chapter, but nothing much beyond that. I also have no idea how the chapter will get to the the destination. My characters dictate that as they go along. Sounds crazy, but, it seems to work.

    Best Wishes Galen.
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  8. Mary Ricksen

    Great blog Terry. I find myself doing what the character wants me to do.
    They lead the direction my story will go.

    Good luck with sales Terry!
    Good stuff Karen!

  9. Tiffany Green

    Terry, I really enjoyed reading your post. You have given me some great ideas! Like you, I feel the characters are the most important part of the story. If they are cardboard, I rarely read more from the same author. Thanks for the great information!

  10. Debra St. John

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today, Terry. I’m never sure what comes first, the story or the characters, when I write. Maybe it’s that whole chicken and egg thing, huh?!

  11. Karin Tabke

    Hola, chicas! Just popping to say a quick hello then back to cleaning up this mess of a wip!

    Have fun, and thnx for guesting today Terry!

  12. Terry Odell

    Elizabeth, I forgive a lot for good characters. That’s 95% of why I read a book (and why I love mystery series where you get to hang with friends and watch them change over time.)

  13. Terry Odell

    Susan – and if you’re like me, you keep wanting more, and then realize that the book is over, and unless it’s a series, that’s all you’ll see of them.

  14. Terry Odell

    Galen, I tried storyboarding an entire book once. Total failure (but from that, I developed my ‘storyboards for non-plotters’ tracking system, which works for me.

  15. Terry Odell

    Mary, thanks for coming by. Yes, the discovery keeps writing fun.

  16. Terry Odell

    Tiffany – I’m learning as I go, so glad to share what I’ve found that works for me.

  17. Terry Odell

    Debra, for me, it’s kind of a blend. Maybe an omelet with chicken?

  18. Terry Odell

    Karin – thanks SO much for inviting me. I’m used to getting an alert when someone comments, so I forgot to check back when I got busy this afternoon.

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