What’s the secret of writing good characters?

What happens when the wrong man learns the secret he shouldn’t know?

The Muse shows up at odd hours, always when I’m alone and usually when I’m watching the night try to get up enough never to rip its cloak of darkness away from the face of the sun.

I stagger out to my machine about five o’clock while the sun is touching the coast of Florida but nowhere near Texas.

He’s waiting.

He’s watching the clock.

He never stays long.

Doesn’t want to waste the whole day in one place, he says.

I don’t blame him.

Over the years, we’ve discussed plots a lot, and he knows my opinion. He should. The opinions were his long before they were mine.

We believe that there are only seven basic plots in the world, and at least one of them forms the lynchpin for every novel ever written, good or bad.

Love.

Hate.

Greed.

Revenge.

Power.

Ambition.

Jealousy.

That’s all the Bible needed. That’s all Shakespeare needed. And I have no reason to argue or quarrel with either one of them.

But this morning, I asked him: “What creates the foundation for a novel?”

“There’s only one,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“A secret.”

I looked perplexed.

He laughed.

“Let me give you some scenarios,” he said.

“Okay.”

And he began.

The man has a girlfriend, and his wife doesn’t know it.

His wife is planning to kill him, and he doesn’t know it.

The murderer hides the murder weapon in plain sight, and the police can’t find it.

The man made a second will and didn’t tell his wife.

The preacher had gone to prison as a young man but changed his name.

The company is going bankrupt, and the accountant is going abroad.

The plane crashed, and a widow buried her husband. He wasn’t on the plane.

He was righteous and godly but the most dangerous man on the planet.

He knew he would never be elected if the Press learned about his first wife.

“What do they all have?” The Muse asked.

“A secret,” I said.

“I rest my case,” he said. “Want to write a novel? You don’t have to waste your time worrying about plot, subplots, characters, denouements, or which participle you may want to dangle in public.

“Just find the secret.

“Everybody has one.

“And as soon as you find the secret, everything else will fall in place.”

Maybe it does.

I began Place of Skulls with the secret Ambrose Lincoln possessed.

AMBROSE LINCOLN watched the ragged edges of night paint the streets below and waited for the dead man to step from the shadows. They were never together, he and the dead man.

They were seldom apart.

They had never spoken.

Their eyes had not yet met. 

Death was the only thing they had in common.

Often Lincoln had wondered which of them had really survived and which was destined to roam the earth in search of an empty grave.

The rest of the novel was built around the demons that seared his soul. Wherever Ambrose went, the dead man trailed his footsteps.

“Do you have one?” I asked the Muse.

“What?”

“A secret?”

The Muse grinned. “I just told you mine,” he said.

“One question?” I asked.

“Go ahead.”

“What happens when the wrong man learns the secret he shouldn’t know?”

“That’s where you come in,” the Muse said.

“What do I do?”

“Put a gun in somebody’s hand and shoot the bastard, he said.”

One last cup of coffee, and he was gone.

Please click HERE to find Place of Skulls on Amazon.

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