Those Characters that Talk in my Head

Elizabeth Zelvin

For Open Book Society Authors Corner

My series protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, started talking in my head long before I wrote my first mystery about him. I was running an alcohol treatment program for homeless people on the Bowery, which at the time was still New York’s skid row. I used to run around saying, “Some day I’m going to write a mystery about recovery.” It must have been some time between 1993 and 1999 that Bruce’s distinctive smartass voice first floated up into my inner ear:

I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth. Out of the corner in my eye, I could see twinkling lights….from a drooping strand of blinking bulbs flung over a dispirited-looking artificial pine. A plastic Santa, looking as drunk as I remembered being when I went into the blackout, grinned at me from the treetop. I had an awful feeling it was Christmas Day. (from Death Will Get You Sober)

Since then, I’ve written three novels, four short stories, and an upcoming e-novella about Bruce and his friends, computer genius Jimmy and world-class codependent Barbara. And the creative process each time has started with the three of them wisecracking in my head as I lie in bed in the morning not quite ready to open my eyes and get up, running around the Central Park reservoir, or in the shower. The plot—who done what to whom and how Bruce & Co. will figure it out—comes later.

My contemporary New Yorkers had the inside of my head all to themselves until 2008 or so, when I woke up in the middle of the night with a brand new character beating on the inside of my brain, crying, “Let me out! Let me out!” I didn’t want to get out of bed, but he gave me no peace until I got up and scribbled the beginnings of what he had to say. This was Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus in 1492. He’s now appeared in two stories, “The Green Cross” and “Navidad,” and in a sequel, a coming-of-age novel set in 1493-95 about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, that I’m having a lot of trouble selling. One of my most powerful characters, Diego’s 13-year-old sister Rachel, has yet to make it into print. It’s a shame, because I love Rachel’s voice. When Diego exclaims, as Columbus himself did at the time, that the Taino they encountered in the Indies were exceptionally “robust and comely,” while those they’ve brought home as captives are sickly and prone to dying, Rachel says, “Perhaps being slaves in Spain does not agree with them.”

Although I’m Jewish myself, the Jewish voices in my head—Diego, Rachel, and Emerald Love aka Amy Greenstein, the country singer and shapeshifter in my e-novella “Shifting Is for the Goyim”—have been as much of a surprise to me as any of the others. If I were deliberately inventing characters for their marketability, they’d be vampires or globetrotting damsels in distress in thriller plots or sassy teens with divorce or drug problems. But I don’t put them together like Legos. I don’t say, let’s see, a protagonist has to be flawed, so should I give him a limp or an addiction? My characters have a mysterious existence in my brain, independent of my will. When they call, I come. When they speak, I listen.

Thank you to author Elizabeth Zelvin for a great guest blog!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!