Coming Up with a Character: Behind the Scenes on The Perfect Place to Die

We’re coming up on a month to go until THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE comes out. Yesterday I got my author copies, and the book looks fantastic. The cover really pops, and the illustrations I commissioned turned out really nicely, as well. (They’re floor plans of the infamous Murder Castle.) Seeing the starred review from Booklist on there definitely gives me warm fuzzies. It’s in paperback, not hardcover, so it’ll be gentle on your wallet, as well. Now I need to figure out what to do with 25 copies of the book. I imagine I’ll hold onto them to give them away when I get to that halcyon day when I can actually visit classrooms again . . .

If you want to get a sense of the book beyond the synopsis, Daily Dead just posted an excerpt from the middle of the book. It’s exclusive to their site, so I encourage you to head over there to check it out.

In the meantime, I also wanted to give you something over here focused on the book today. I thought I might talk a bit about the main character. This was the first time I’ve gone back to a female protagonist in a good long while. It was also only the second time I’d ventured into historical fiction. Trying to get into the head of a 17 year-old girl in 1893 was an interesting experience, to say the least, and sticking with a first person point of view made that even more complicated. But I really wanted the first person for a couple of reasons: I feel like it’s a POV I excel in, and I wanted the immediacy you get with first person, especially since she’d be going up against a historical villain who many readers would already recognize.

(Reading over some early reviews, that aspect of the book hasn’t clicked with some readers. I get it: how do you write a suspense book when the audience all knows who the killer is, but the main character doesn’t? In the end, I decided to approach it like James Cameron’s Titanic. Yes, everyone knows the ship is going down. But we don’t know who might survive. Knowing the ship sinks is no reason to hold it against the people for getting on board. They don’t know that. Likewise, Etta (the main character in my book) only knows her sister has disappeared. Plus, she’s living in an era long before the grisly stories of murders and killers would become common place.)

Setting out, I had the premise of the book and that was about it. A teenage girl goes undercover at Murder Castle in Chicago to find out the fate of her missing sister. It’s a great premise, and it had a lot of promise, but there’s a whole ton to dig into before you can make an actual novel out of it. How much of the history was I going to follow? Who was the girl? Was she on to what was happening at the hotel, or didn’t she know. (As I said, I went with “she didn’t know,” because if she knows, then you have to ask how she knows. That implies proof of some sort, or at least her witnessing something first hand. If she’s got something that strong, then it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to have her just go to the police. End of story. Who wants to read that?)

One of the works that really helped me figure out how to approach this was actually Charles Portis’ True Grit. I first encountered the work in the John Wayne adaptation, which was fine, but I loved the Coen adaptation that came out in 2010 enough for me to want to read the source material. I adored the book, and I was blown away by the main character: 14 year-old Mattie Ross. The setting was 1878, but it was close enough to the time period I’d be in to give me some inspiration.

One of my favorite parts is the horse trading scene, hands down:

When I first watched the movie, I was convinced the Coen Bros. must have done the dialogue for the scene, but when I read the book, I realized it was practically all Portis. (I should have remembered the same scene from the Wayne adaptation in 1969, but on the other hand, it isn’t nearly as memorable.)

See what I mean?

With that in mind, it helped bring the rest of my book into focus. I actually began to think of it in terms of a western. Not that I’d be having shoot outs and horse trading, but this was set in the tail end of the Wild West. Just in Chicago, not rolling prairies. I wanted a strong protagonist, because any 17 year-old girl who was going to try and make her way through Chicago in 1893 was going to have to have a really strong backbone and plenty of persistence. But I didn’t want her to be too experienced, because I wanted this to be a challenge for her. I didn’t want her to be an ace detective, or to have extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the city. I thought it would be better to have her be much more out of place.

At the same time, I was trying to come up with her name. I’m not a huge fan of naming things. It feels like such a commitment. And in this case, I had to have a name that was right for the period. What names were popular back then? When I was writing, I was also doing some family history work on the side, and it suddenly hit me: I could just check out what some of my ancestors from back then were named. In the end I settled on my great-great grandmother, Zurretta Eliza Palmer. (And I used her real life sister’s name (Ruby) as the name of the sister in the books as well.)

As soon as that connection was made, I made another. I could have my main character come from Utah. I was familiar with what life was like there at that time period (generally), and it would certainly make for a good fish-out-of-water background for the main character and her sister. (In the course of writing the actual book, I began to feel progressively guiltier for everything I was putting my great-great grandmother’s namesake through. (Imagine if Stephen King decided to name Wendy Torrance in The Shining after a family member. Yikes.) Nothing about the character was based on her other than the name. Hopefully she understands.

In any case, once I had those pieces in place, the book began to move forward. Knowing where a character starts and where they are later on in the book does a lot to give you a sense of trajectory. I might write about that later, but that’s all the time I have for now. The book comes out August 3rd!

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