At first it surprised me that the characters I created in my books chatted and interacted with each other even when I stepped away from my desk. While I weeded the garden, walked with friends, washed dishes, fell asleep, I eavesdropped on Owen Archer, Lucie Wilton, Bess and Tom Merchet, Archbishop Thoresby, Magda Digby… . Occasionally I woke in the morning recalling entire scenes played out in my dreams—some useful, some not. I had never imagined such strangeness when I first tried writing fiction, but I welcomed it with open arms—what writer wouldn’t?! The continuous exposure deepens the characters for me. It’s especially helpful when writing a series in which many characters appear in each book, and some return after long absences. It’s invaluable to me to imagine these people’s lives between their appearances, to glimpse what’s going on behind the scenes.
As the characters settled in and began to feel as if they were part of my family, they developed autonomy. My first experience with this involved Potter Digby in The Apothecary Rose. He was a fishy smelling weasel of a character in the outline; but Owen listened to him, giving him the chance to reveal his individual moral code. This wasn’t planned. Owen Archer, my creation, took the time to talk to Potter, allowing him to reveal his humanity. I wound up deeply regretting how things were going to turn out for him.
Brother Michaelo, definitely not one of the good guys in The Apothecary Rose, also changed my mind. John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, made him his personal secretary in an act symbolic of donning a hair shirt. But, in the course of ten novels, Michaelo developed a respect for the archbishop and a desire to redeem himself. He was a good friend to Lucie Wilton’s father, Sir Robert D’Arby, in his last days (A Gift of Sanctuary). By the tenth book, A Vigil of Spies, Brother Michaelo became a tragic figure—deeply flawed, but honorable and admirable. Just this week a reader messaged me on Facebook urging me to stop Michaelo from leaving York and returning to Normandy.
How does this happen? How did Geoffrey Chaucer, a man who annoys Owen, become his friend? How is it that Owen deeply mourns—well, best not say who, in case you’ve not reached book 10.
This isn’t just about flawed characters becoming lovable. Many of my characters aren’t planned, but arise in a scene and take on an unexpected significance. In A Trust Betrayed, when Margaret Kerr met her uncle’s groom, Hal, he was meant to be part of the scenery, needed for a few scenes but expendable. But Maggie and Hal formed a bond, and he kept stepping up to help her. In A Triple Knot (one of my non-series novels), Joan of Kent’s childhood nurse, Efa, was meant to appear only in memory; but she was just the person to step back into Joan’s life and help her cope with her unhappiness.
Most recently, Sir Elric, a knight in the service of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, popped up in a scene in The Service of the Dead. Kate Clifford was meeting her loathsome brother-in-law Lionel Neville and found he was not alone—not planned, but I found myself adding that detail. It occurred to me that it would be fun if Lionel were accompanied by someone who sees right through him, someone he’s desperate to impress. Sir Elric’s was to be brief walk-on role. But the chemistry between Elric and Kate—well, I couldn’t waste that. He’s back in the second book, and the third.
The eeriest one of all happened late one afternoon, just around quitting time. In the midst of an action scene late in The Service of the Dead, Kate pauses at the edge of the road, uncertain which way to go, and a little hand takes hers. I remember lifting my own hands off the keyboard and looking around my office asking, Who is this? It didn’t take me long to figure it out, but, as with Efa, this character was to be someone mentioned, but never met. Now I cannot imagine the series without her.
This is one of the joys of the writing life—I never know who will stride into the scene, or defy me.