County LineCharacter Genesis
Please note: the essay below includes some spoilers for the Skin Kadash series.
Skin Kadash was born of a need for an identifying mark on a character I expected to be on the page one moment, and gone forever the next. Back in the 90s when I first began Lost Dog, I had no plans to write four novels and even more short stories featuring the crusty cop. He existed for one reason only: to freak out protagonist Peter McKrall at the crime scene where the novel opens. Peter didn’t like cops, and Skin’s seemingly cavalier attitude and unlovely appearance only added to Peter’s distress. As the first draft of chapter two ended, I expected Skin to fade away, his work done.
Ruby Jane’s origins grow similarly out of the need for a character to serve in contrast to Peter. In her case, my goal was someone who would counterbalance Peter’s acerbic cynicism, add a note of levity in an otherwise grim tale, and provide a romantic interest for my hapless protagonist. Unlike Skin, I planned from the beginning that she would be a significant character: intelligent, funny, ambitious. Someone to love distinct from Peter, a guy I knew would be hard to even like.
I also planned to kill her off.
In my earliest notes on Lost Dog—not exactly an outline, just free-form thoughts scribbled on paper—Peter and Ruby Jane’s incipient romance was to be cut short by Jake. This would lead to an explosive, final confrontation between Jake and Peter. All very Hollywood: melodramatic, overwrought — and forgettable.
But as the story unfolded over the years, Peter, Ruby Jane and Skin developed a relationship more rich and varied than simple friendship or romance, a relationship which belied my original simplistic plot conception. And Jake himself, conceived as a dark foil to Peter’s feckless innocence, found his own richness. I came to see that the Hollywood ending would be too pat, too uninteresting—not just to readers, but to me. Running and jumping and gunplay amidst snappy one-liners and ending in 9mm justice lost its luster. I wanted to dig deeper into these characters’ lives.
To be sure, Lost Dog was Peter’s story, and to a lesser extent Jake’s. For all the detail I shared of their histories and motivations, I only implied it with Skin and Ruby Jane. That’s as it should be, I think. Lost Dog would have been twice as long and half as interesting if I’d rooted into the interior lives of my supporting players. For them, I showed snippets and snapshots and left it to the reader to fill in the gaps.
In addition to all this, Lost Dog was to be standalone. I never thought of Pete as a guy who could sustain more than one story. But when the book was done, I realized I may be done with Peter, but I had more to say about Skin and Ruby Jane.
Chasing Smoke started as Death With Dignity, another standalone featuring new characters and possibly a new setting. At various points in early planning, I considered Seattle, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. The main character, a fellow investigating a series of mysterious deaths all connected to the same cancer doctor, might have been a reporter, or a private eye. In retrospect, it seems almost a “duh” decision to make Skin Kadash the investigator, and a cancer-victim himself. After all, in Lost Dog I’d set him up as a lifelong smoker, and had even hinted at the potential consequences of his habit. But as important as he was in Lost Dog, he was still a supporting cast member in what I saw as a standalone tale. Moving him to the forefront was not the obvious choice as it now seems.
I’m glad I did. Once I realized Skin was the ideal protagonist for Chasing Smoke, it was hard for me to believe I’d ever looked at other options. With him, I had to bring others back, including Skin’s partner Susan Mulvaney and his nemesis Richard Owen.
And, of course, Ruby Jane.
Besides, I was in a pickle about Ruby Jane. In his review of Lost Dog, Brian Lindenmuth observed that the speed with which Ruby Jane entered into a sexual relationship with Peter struck him as out of character and implausible.
An aside: I agree with many others that reviews are for readers, not for writers, and that as an author it’s inappropriate to respond to them. The book is finished, published, and isn’t going to change. Reviewers are talking to readers, not authors. The best thing authors can do is focus on our next story, and not fret about what others are saying about our last.
But Brian is a thoughtful, intelligent reviewer whose opinion I respect. My first thought — shared with Brian — was that I should have handled Ruby Jane’s response to Peter differently. But once Lost Dog evolved from a standalone to a piece of a larger whole, this apparent flaw became an opportunity — the chance to turn a less than ideal choice into an element of Ruby Jane’s character. I set out to understand and reveal why the smart, witty, funny, ambitious Ruby Jane Whittaker would take an annoying near stranger — a man suspected of murder no less — into her bed.
The seeds of County Line were planted.
But first, I had work to do.
Chasing Smoke was Skin’s story. Peter appeared only as a topic of conversation between Ruby Jane and Skin. Ruby Jane herself had a small—if important—role. My plan was to focus on Skin in the short term, but lay the foundation for further exploration of Ruby Jane in future stories. During her chats with Skin, I hinted at her self-doubts and implied a past which contributes not only to her strengths, but her weaknesses.
Day One was still more Skin’s story than Ruby Jane’s, (also Eager Gillespie’s story, and Ellie Spaneker’s story, and others). Ruby Jane’s time on the page was limited. Yet she was becoming an increasing significant figure in Skin’s life. I was moving closer to telling her story as well. In the early planning for Day One, the role of Ellie Spaneker was almost filled by Ruby Jane. The book would have been very different, of course, despite certain shared themes in the lives of Ellie and Ruby Jane.
But, no. Not yet. For one thing, I wanted to tell Ellie’s story too. Ellie Spaneker was a character who has been with me far longer than Skin and Ruby Jane. She appeared in an earlier, unpublished novel in a form very different from the Ellie in Day One. But the fundamentals of her story — a woman fleeing domestic abuse — remained.
So Ruby Jane waited, and Ellie and Eager had their day.
The risk of a long path like this is you never know if you’ll get the chance to finish the story. Setting aside for a moment how sudden death or lesser tragedies might interrupt writing, the nature of publishing is such that even a well-received series can fail to find long-term traction. (And, yes, the barriers to entry in self-publishing are at an all-time low, but self-publishing offers no more guarantees than traditional publishing, despite the claims of self-pub evangelists).
To confuse matters, after I released Day One into the wild, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. That book had been exhausting (if also rewarding). Part of me was ready to try something new. Maybe it was time to set Skin and Ruby Jane aside to give the fantasy I’d been ruminating on a try. Or perhaps a techno-thriller. Or a contemporary YA.
A number of factors figured in my decision to move ahead with County Line, not the least of which was the interest of readers. The fact I couldn’t get Ruby Jane out of my head contributed as well. When you wake up at 2am with thoughts churning about a particular character, your brain is probably sending you a message. In the end, my flirtation with other projects was short-lived.
And so County Line began, with Ruby Jane missing and a dead body in her bath tub.