Today author Fran Stewart is visiting us to talk about her new book, A WEE MURDER IN THE HOTEL and her use of minor characters in her work.
“Minor Keys, Minor Characters” by Fran Stewart
My son, now in his forties, has recently taken up the piano. And the accordion, too, but that’s another story altogether.
He’s turned out to be as intrigued as I have always been with minor keys. In fact, as I write this, I’m listening to Tchaikovsky’s magnificent First Piano Concerto in B-flat minor.
Years ago I remember hearing someone say that minor keys always made her so sad. I countered with Ella Fitzgerald’s comment (or was it Etta James? or someone else altogether different? If you know who it was, please inform me!) that happy songs needed to be composed in a minor key and sad songs in a major key.
Whoever said it, I find that minor keys and minor characters can be fascinating, whether the subject matter is uplifting or depressing. When most people think of the ScotShop stories, they call to mind Peggy Winn, the owner of the ScotShop, and Dirk, the 14th-century Scottish ghost who aids and abets Peggy’s amateur sleuthing. Now, Dirk is a delightful man and a major character. It’s really too bad he’s dead (minor note). Peggy and Dirk would be the major keys in this series. But the minors?
Take, for instance, Moira Pettis, the police dispatcher in Hamelin, Vermont. She’s a transplant from South Georgia, who’s lived in Hamelin for 25 years and practically run the police department for that entire time. She has a truly minor, minor role in the first two books, but in A WEE HOMICIDE IN THE HOTEL, the president and his Secret Service contingent will be in town for the opening of the annual Hamelin Highland Games, a possible assassin has eluded capture, the police chief is being a twit, as usual, and Moira is feeling nostalgic. Here’s a scene to illustrate what fun a writer can have with such a minor character.
Moira Pettis kept an eye on the front door, the phone, the computer, the officers, the chief, everything that moved and a lot that didn’t. She couldn’t blame the chief for being nervous. It wasn’t every day the feds moved in on a small town. Wasn’t every day the president came to visit, either.
If anybody from Washington came for a visit, though, she’d rather have it be her nephew Russell Fenton. He’d left Cuthbert, their small hometown in southern Georgia, twenty-five years ago, about the same time she had, and all she’d known of him since then was from his chatty letters about the quiet life he lived in the nation’s capitol. He worked in a bank or something—he’d never been too specific, but then Moira hadn’t been too specific about what sort of job she’d gotten. Her bootlegger relatives wouldn’t appreciate her working with the enemy. Better they thought she owned a fabric store.
She pulled open her top right-hand drawer, careful not to nick her red polish, and removed a framed photo. She balanced it on the clutter of notepads, pencils, call sheets, phone directories, paper clips, and maps that constituted her daily work environment. Ignoring the mess, she studied her family. Her whole family. Her parents, grandparents, all the siblings, nieces and nephews, everybody lined up in front of the high school on Russell’s graduation day. He sure did look like his daddy. She compared that picture to the latest one he’d sent her last Christmas; she’d stuck it in the corner of the frame. Russell, two and a half decades older, in front of a Christmas tree. No wife, no kids, not even a dog. She sure did hope he liked the bank, since he didn’t seem to have too much else going on. Of course, who was she to talk? No husband, no kids, and no dog, either.
She still had the picture in her hand when the front door opened and the photo came to life.
What happened to his southern accent? “Russell?”
“What are you doing,” he looked around him, “here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” Only she didn’t have to ask. The careful dark blue suit, the subdued tie, the hint of a wire dropping from his ear and disappearing into his collar. She unhooked her headset and stood to embrace him. “So this is your bank job, huh?”
He hugged her back and swept his gaze around the station again. “Nice sewing shop you’ve got here.”
“There’s usually a lot of dark blue fabric around this place.” She smiled when he chuckled.
Over his shoulder she saw the blinds on Mac’s office door part. “Uh-oh. We’ve been discovered.”
“We could always keep people guessing, don’t you think?”
“Moira!” Mac’s voice boomed across the open space. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Why,” she increased her drawl to maximum ooziness, “ah’m jest makin’ shore this little ole agent feels raht welcome hyeah.”
Mac scowled, and Moira felt her nephew’s shoulder shake with suppressed laughter as he turned to meet the Hamelin police chief.
Who are your favorite minor characters?
Who are your favorite minor characters?