My work-in-progress is a Jeri Howard novel, titled The Things We Keep. In this case, the things that have been kept are bones.
Jeri, my Oakland-based private investigator, is off-duty on a Saturday in October. She’s helping friends inventory the contents of an old house in Alameda. Up in the attic, she pries open an old footlocker to see what’s inside. She finds herself looking down at a skull and a jumble of bones.
Whose bones? How did they wind up in that attic? And why?
It’s my job as a writer to put flesh on those bones.
Each book gets off to a similar start. I have an idea and I go from there, butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. A structure emerges, with a timeline that gets revised over and over before I reach the end.
With each new project there are familiar characters—Jeri, of course, and her family, friends and associates. And there are new ones that give life to the story and setting. At the start, those characters are stick figures—bones, if you will.
Right now, I’m working on a section of the book where Jeri is looking for information on a musician from the 1960s who went missing decades ago. She’s talked to his ex-girlfriend, who seems to be an unreliable source, so much so that Jeri feels the need to get another perspective. She searches out his friend from the old days, when the two men were playing guitar in a rock band. He gives Jeri another version of the missing man’s past and disappearance. Then the old guitarist tells Jeri she really should talk with HIS former girlfriend.
That’s the scene I’m working on now.
What do I know about HIS former girlfriend? Well, not much, at first. I hadn’t even been planning on her as a character, until her ex the guitarist brought her up in conversation. Once she appeared on the scene, I couldn’t even decide on a name I liked, but finally chose one—Anita—that works for now.
I had the bones and gradually I’ve been adding flesh.
Let’s see. Anita is the former girlfriend of a guy who was a musician in San Francisco in 1969, when they all hung out together in the Haight. Probably a hippie, back in the day. Now she’s an old hippie. In years, anyway. I know she left San Francisco and lived in Mendocino for a while. Married? No, never did. But she has a daughter.
She doesn’t live in Mendocino now. She migrated back down the coast to . . . Bodega Bay? No. Point Reyes Station? Yes, that works. It’s one of my favorite places and I’ve been there plenty of times, walking the streets and exploring the shops and restaurants. I can see the storefronts on the main drag even now. And taste the morning buns from the Bovine Bakery.
Besides, it’s really easier—and more interesting—if Jeri Howard can go interview people face-to-face, and that small town in western Marin County is an easy drive.
Aha! She makes jewelry. In a gallery? No, a workspace created from the detached garage at her cottage. It’s a small but comfortable space where Anita brews herbal tea. And she has apples in a ceramic bowl. I can smell them.
Anita sells the jewelry at a local gallery. What kind of jewelry? What does it look like? I’m thinking lots of colorful ceramic and silver beads are involved.
What does she look like? I decided she a mane of curly gray hair. In the past, she may have worn hippie clothes that recall the Summer of Love. But not at her current age. As I just discovered, she’s a grandmother now.
Meet Anita, who now has flesh on her bones—and provides Jeri with vital information she needs if she’s ever going to solve this case.