Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writerslife, #writetip, #WritingCommunity, Writing and tagged , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" 2013-2021). Sue lives with her husband and two spoiled guinea pigs in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield). And recently, she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series Storm of Suspicion, and will be a panelist at the 2021 New England Crime Bake. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

36 thoughts on “Two Important Points for Writers

  1. Sue, your post regarding forensic taphonomy is extremely timely, given the events surrounding the disappearance and of Gabbie Petito and the apparent discovery of her body. I didn’t know the name of the field of study, but now I do thanks to you. I find the topic fascinating, speaking only for myself, since it is part of the general process of entropy, which affects…uh, oh, I turn it off now or I’ll go on for miles.

    Re: writing for the reader…the flip to Stephen King’s position on writing for filthy lucre would be that of the late Harlan Ellison’s, who was fond of telling anyone who would listen that if you were going to write you should be paid for it. This is one of those issues where both positions while seemingly contradictory are correct.

    Thanks for yet another terrific post to start the morning. Good luck with that WIP.

    • Thanks, Joe! Forensic taphonomy really is a fascinating field. Just heard about the discovery of Gabbie Petito’s remains. Heartbreaking case. Reporting the boyfriend as “missing” is ridiculous. Obviously he fled to avoid prosecution.

      Yes, I agree. Both Ellison and King are correct. While we may write for fulfillment we still need to eat. 😉

  2. Great post, Sue. Thanks for reminding us of the two important points. You had me with, “Since when is decomposition not fascinating?”

    A favorite secondary character? You reminded me of this one with your discussion: “Code Maker” is an ally in my second book, “The Tetra~Chrome Spiral~Skyway. Code Maker makes the building blocks (paving stones) for a giant DNA molecule in the sky. I was all excited about how DNA controls the manufacture of proteins. My wife: “Honey, I don’t think the reader will understand or even care.” I needed that reality reset.

    Good luck with I AM MAYHEM and the next round of the Kindle Book Review.
    Have a great day! And don’t set up too many taphonomy experiments all over your backyard.

    • Hahaha. I get all fired up about DNA advancements, too. Writer spouses deserve an award. 😉 One time, I fell so hard for one of research topics that I ignored my husband’s advice to delete numerous pages about it in my WIP. When my editor finally received the MS, the only parts she slashed were those same pages. They’re now decomposing in my Unused Scenes file.

      Wishing you a fab day, too, Steve!

  3. So glad I’m not the only one who finds decomp interesting. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as forensic taphonomy, so thanks for that education!

    One of my current favorite secondary characters is the half-sister of my MC. Her arrival throws all kinds of spanners into things and she eventually ends up being an important character in her own right.

    • Haha. You are not alone, my friend. Imagine our spouses’ expressions if we ever double dated? 😉

      Your secondary character sounds like a winner. Happy writing, Carolyn!

  4. My romantic suspense books follow the convention that there’s a pool of characters that show up in all the books, each one getting a turn at taking center stage. When I love a secondary character, I know he/she will appear as the star in a future book.
    In my Mapleton mysteries, Gordon’s the head guy, but his girlfriend turned wife has a shot at her own story, as does Gordon’s go-to cop on the force. Secondary characters let me dig more deeply into my primaries.

    • Interesting idea, Terry. I’ve never given a secondary character their own book in my series, but I have expanded their role to include their own POV. Hmm…

  5. Sue, I write for dough, because writing is my job. It happens to be the best job I’ve ever had and the one I enjoy most, but I also want the product to be the best it can be for the ultimate consumers—the readers. So yes, as you indicate to Joe H. above, fulfillment and food can go together.

    In my Romeo series I have a major secondary character a la Travis McGee’s Meyer. He operates as Romeo’s conscience and mentor.

    I also have a minor secondary character whom Romeo has taken under his wing. This provides a bit of comic relief and is a natural way for Romeo to impart some life wisdom.

    • Yes, I agree, Jim. It’s easy to claim you only write for joy after the first million. 😉

      Perfect examples of secondary characters who pull their weight, thus earn their rightful place in the story.

  6. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Dr. Watson by his side taking notes? Secondary characters also prevent your hero from being a know it all. I don’t really need another story with an encyclopedia of knowledge who is a crack shot, rally driver, hacker, …

    • Thanks for plugging Elaine’s series, Alan! Forensics can add a lot to series. Hence why I include different forensic techniques in all my Grafton County Series books. 🙂

  7. That would have been a heavy post for a Monday morning. However I like your message in between the lines, which to stay grounded.

    I had a great secondary character in my current WIP. Sadly, she had to die. Having some writer recourse about it, though her death moved the story to a great ending.

    Have a safe week.

  8. Decomposition. Isn’t that the action an editor takes on the first draft of a novel?

    My favorite secondary character in my cozy series is Cece, the MC’s half-sister. Cece is an actress and an expert in disguises. She’s artistic, right-brained, funny, creative and grounded in her friendship with her brilliant, analytical half-sister. Many of the book’s reviewers mention Cece. She was so popular, she earned co-MC status in the second book.

    Thanks for a great way to start Monday.

    • My pleasure, Kay! That’s the ideal situation, for readers to connect with our secondary character to an extent that they ask for more. Happy writing today!

  9. Actually, I was discussing body decomposition online on Friday. I was explaining why the zombie apocalypse might last a month or two at best. Mom Nature has a vast team of animals, birds, insects, and microbes whose entire purpose in life is to chow down on dead bodies. Those zombies don’t stand a chance. One flock of crows, and they are goners. Moral of the story. Hunker down where it’s safe with half a year of supplies, and you’ll probably be fine. (And, no, I don’t believe that shambling zombies could happen.)

    And, I’m not kidding, I was also discussing body decompostion a few days before that online about the bodies of the Titanic victims. No, they did not all float away, but all that’s left of the dead in the debris field are tannin-coated shoes lying in sad little pairs. Respect the wreck. It’s a giant tomb.

    So, yes, body decomp can be interesting, and, yes, I do have lots of weird conversations.

    • I knew you were my kind of people, Marilynn! 🙂 Fascinating about the Titanic victims. And yes, totally agree about zombies. The premise is not even in the realm of possibility. No one can fight Mother Nature.

    • Speaking of zombies, has anyone ever noted that the zombie genre is a metaphor for itself? A grotesque genre that staggers and lurches onward, without dying, which I wish it would, a veritable meta-meme.

  10. You chose the wrong audience, Sue. We don’t understand the problem. We’re dying to hear more about forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology. (or at least I am)
    I also understand your excitement about learning a new *shiny*. The best part of this writing business –at least for me — is researching and learning new things.
    I created a Lakota hacker, who is one of five important characters in my series, and I decided to let him occasionally mumble a word or two in his native language. Not more than one word per two books, mind you. And what did I do?
    I’m learning the Lakota language right now, of course. God forbid I use the wrong word.
    It’s fascinating, even more than learning about white-hat hacking.

    • I love learning new things, too, Mike! I share forensics all the time on my blog (my audience expects it from me), but I wasn’t sure about TKZ readers. Now I know. So, don’t be surprised if I write future forensic posts. 😉

      Ooh, your Lakota character sounds amazing! I delve into Dine (Navajo) in my Mayhem Series, and love every second of the research. The language isn’t easy to learn, but like you, I include a word here and there. Have fun with your research!

  11. If you easily and casually use the word ‘decomp’ you’re comfortable with the subject. LOLOL!!!!!!! We love to abbreviate our interests. Yes, it’s serious business, but that aspect struck my funny bone

  12. I did research for a one-act play about a psychiatrist who discovers his patient is a murderer and has the weapon with him. Two years later, the short play was a 260 page novel with five appendices. Oy.

    Coincidentally, yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the discovery of Hitler’s pretty niece, dead of a GSW, and locked in her room from the inside, with his gun beside her.

    My most interesting minor character? The mapmaker from my S&S novel. “…The center of the map bore two words in small, neatly printed letters, correctly spelt: Skull Sandsea. The map showed no other details of the great Sandsea, not even its perimeter, except for a single spot labeled, ‘𝕀ubynz-ℚruud.’ “

  13. Fascinating facts, Sue! Of course, we KZBers would find them fascinating 🙂
    However, I agree completely with your two points.

    My favorite secondary character in my published fiction is Keisha McMillan, from the Empowered series. Keisha was dubbed “the Steel Witch” because her superpower was conjuring and manipulating metal. She was roughly the same age as my hero, Mathilda Brandt. Initially, they were enemies when they first met in the super criminal organization, The Scourge, when Mat joined the cell Keisha was in, but eventually became best friends. Keisha never flinched from telling Mat what she thought and holding her friend accountable for her actions.

  14. Sorry I’m late for dinner, Sue. Been remodeling the palace. What started as a kitchen paint splash & dash turned into a multi-K renno. Gotta cut that HGTV channel from our cable list…

    Your two points are spank-on. My experience is you have to write from the heart with the wallet in mind and find some sort of balance as you tell Ideal Reader your story. If I ever get the formula right, I’ll share it with you and Stephen King.

    Secondary characters rule and ruin. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em. In my based-on-true-crime series, my partner Harry is a special sidekick. In real life and in the books, Harry is a large lady with large hair and an even larger personality. She’s the only cop I ever heard tell a Taoist monk to F-Off.

    • Love Harry’s spunk! I hear ya on the demo work. As we speak our bathroom has nothing but rafters for a ceiling. It’ll be nice when it’s done (Bob promised me a pine ceiling) but he still needs to demo the shower, add the jacuzzi, and extend the roof. Roof first, since we’re trying to beat the arrival of snow.

  15. I’m with Steve, Carolyn, Marilyn, Mike. I’m utterly fascinated by forensic taphonomy and wanted to hear more!

    Were I around 30 years younger, I’d be changing my entire “plan” for the future and heading off to (somehow) be employed on a Body Farm. (Employed, not interred! Although I have considered donating myself to the cause after this ride is done.)
    A tall order since, back when I first learned about them, it was only the FBI who utilized the idea, but now perhaps other entities have taken it on?
    Your hubs was right, though, darn it. Fascinating as the subject is for us, most find it something quite the opposite of “fascinating.” Heh.

    I have a great many of those research black holes like your taphonomy. Somehow I manage to pause, compartmentalize the new info, distill it down to what’s needed for the story, and move on. Never an easy task.

    But, oh how I love secondary characters! I love to play them off my single-minded, hyper-focused MC like billiards off a cue ball. So much fun! I couldnt imagine having cardboard characters. Writing someone two-dimensional would be more difficult for me, honestly. Good Secondaries are like crisps: you can never stop with just one!

    Keeping the reader in mind truly is a crux though, isn’t it? We write for ourselves, but we must still write for our audience, or there won’t be an audience!
    Thanks for a great post!

    • Love your enthusiasm, Cyn! I’m right there with you. If I were to start my life over, I would definitely go into the forensic science field. Dr. William Bass started the Body Farm in Tennessee. Now, there are several throughout the county, including some mobile body farms, which is super cool. I wanted to donate my body, too, but my husband said he couldn’t handle it. We finally settled on becoming trees. 🙂

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