“Convincing small town atmosphere and a vivid supporting cast are a plus.” – Publishers Weekly Review of A Killing at Cotton Hill
“The characters were so realistic they seemed to crawl off the pages.” – Lee Lofland: A Cop’s Eye Review
I’ve started on the third book in the Samuel Craddock series and have been thinking about the characters who wove themselves into the first two books, making the town of Jarrett Creek come alive. Notice I said, “wove themselves.” I sometimes felt as if they were talking to me from my laptop screen, saying, “Can I be in the book, too?”
When my sister read A Killing at Cotton Hill, she said she knew who I had used as a model for the victim, and named a woman from our past. But she got it wrong, because Dora Lee isn’t drawn directly from one person in particular. Like most of the characters in the book, she is a mixture of people. Here’s another example, describing the murder victim’s best friend, Ida Ruth:
“Ida Ruth is a large, unattractive woman with big teeth and a burn scar along her left ear where a kerosene stove exploded next to her when she was a girl.”
Ida Ruth is a combination of three people I knew as a child—one a big-boned, tall woman; another a woman with a mouth full of big teeth; and the third, my uncle who had burn scars not on his face, but on his legs, from when a kerosene stove exploded near him when he was a toddler.
The art teacher, Alex Eubanks, is a combination of a bandy-legged artist I once met and a puffed-up yoga teacher I knew, who, like Eubanks, “thinks he’s doing (somebody) a big favor” if he offers to give them lessons.
I usually claim that my grandfather was the basis for the character of Samuel Craddock. The truth is more complicated. In actuality my grandfather was not much like Samuel. He was smart and quick and had a wry sense of humor, but he also could be short-tempered and dismissive. My friend Charlie, who died a few years ago, feeds into Samuel, too. Charlie was philosophical and intuitive and saw people with a keen eye—and his voice often speaks to me from Samuel’s character. But Charlie didn’t have the patience or compassion that Samuel does. That part comes from me. I am cursed with seeing more than one side of an argument, and with understanding that sometimes people’s behavior comes from deep needs that can drive them into evil territory. So Samuel comes from strong antecedents.
A few of the characters are taken more or less from real life. One example is Reverend Duckworth. Tucked in the back of my mind was something I heard when I was a teenager about the Baptist preacher in the town where I grew up. Rumor had it that as pious as he was in church, outside of church he had a bad temper and a foul mouth. Someone saw him lose a bowling game, after which he cussed out everybody in the place!
Samuel’s brother and sister-in-law are based on real people. I know them intimately. Like his counterpart, DeWitt is a hearty fellow, and his wife has fears that keep her housebound.
Maddie Hicks is straight from my memory of a woman who cut hair in my grandparents’ town, working out of the mobile home where she lived. She smoked and talked non-stop. Apparently she had been a wild teenager, but as a mother of two young boys, she was cheerful and breezy, and seemed to take life as she found it, as Maddie does.
How is it that these people from my past have ended up in the Samuel Craddock novels? How do their names pop into my head effortlessly? Why do I hear their voices as if I had seen them last week? I wish I knew how that magic worked. All I know is that every time I need a character description or trait, something leaps from my memory and onto the page. And I hope it keeps happening!
One last note: What of Jenny? She isn’t as transparent as some of the other characters. She intrigues me and I can’t wait to get to know what her real story is—and that will happen in Book 3.
Copies of A Killing at Cotton Hill are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Terry Shames will speak about and sign A Kiling At Cotton Hill here at BookPeople on Friday, August 16th at 7pm.