Thursday, September 01, 2011

How I Came to Write This Book: Bill Cameron

County Line: How I Came to Write This Book

by Bill Cameron

Skin Kadash was born of a need for an identifying mark on a character I expected to appear on the page one moment, and vanish forever the next. Back in the 90s when I started Lost Dog, I had no plans to write four novels and three short stories featuring the crusty cop. He existed for one reason only: to freak out protagonist Peter McKrall at the crime scene where Lost Dog opens.

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, Peter and Ruby Jane's incipient romance was to be cut short by the killer, leading to an explosive, final confrontation. All very Hollywood: melodramatic, overwrought, and — I suspect — forgettable.

But as the story unfolded, Peter, Ruby Jane and Skin developed a relationship more rich and varied than simple friendship or romance. 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.

To be sure, Lost Dog is Peter's story far more than Skin's or Ruby Jane's. For all the detail I share of their histories and motivations, I only imply 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 show snippets and snapshots and leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps.

But when the book was done, I had more to say about Skin and Ruby Jane.

In Chasing Smoke I turned my attention Skin. With him, I brought back his partner Susan Mulvaney and his nemesis Richard Owen. And, of course, Ruby Jane.

But 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. Brian is a thoughtful, intelligent reviewer whose opinion I respect. My immediate reaction was to wish I'd handled Ruby Jane's response to Peter differently.

But once Lost Dog evolved from a standalone to first in a series, this apparent flaw became an opportunity—the chance to turn a less than ideal choice into a foundational element of Ruby Jane's character. Why would the smart, witty, funny, attractive, ambitious Ruby Jane Whittaker take a 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.

Ruby Jane herself had a small—if important—role in Chasing Smoke (Peter appeared only as a topic of conversation). 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 imply a past which contributes not only to her strengths, but as yet unseen weaknesses.

Day One was also 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. But not yet. For one thing, I wanted to tell Ellie's story first. 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 bided, 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 her out of my head contributed as well. When you wake up at 2am with thoughts churning about a particular character, your brain is probably trying to tell you something. 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.

Bill Cameron is the author of dark, gritty mysteries featuring Skin Kadash: County Line, Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. Bill’s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler, Portland Noir, First Thrills, Deadly Treats, and the forthcoming West Coast Crime Wave. His work been nominated for multiple awards, including the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery, the Left Coast Crime Rocky Award, and the 2011 CWA Short Story Dagger Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Bill tweets at Learn more at


Anonymous said...

Patti - Thanks for hosting Bill.

Bill - Thanks for sharing your story. Isn't it interesting how characters who are supposed to just pop in and out end up becoming so much more? That happened to me, too, in the manuscript I just finished. I had a minor character whose sole purpose was supposed to be to ask a few questions of witnesses to a crime. He ended up taking on a major role in the novel...

Al Tucher said...

It's exhilarating and scary when that happens.

Bill Cameron said...

Thanks for having me, Patti!

Margot, I sometimes feel like I need to get a few drafts into something before I figure out what's really important. And, yes, Al, it is both exhilarating and scary, but I like it!

Charles Gramlich said...

Some characters just won't go away. Those are the ones that speak to you as a writer, and speak to readers too.

Crystal Posey said...

What a great post! And dang it, I'm remembering how great Peter is all over again. Which is great and sad all at the same time. Sigh.

Bill Cameron said...

Peter was quite the lightning rod. Some people love him, some people REALLY hate him. :)