Sunday, May 2, 2021

Dear Character, I hope this finds you . . . by Molly MacRae

Interruptions happen. To anyone, in any job. There you are, at home or at work, engrossed, productive, in the zone, when something happens to interrupt you. A cat or co-worker (sometimes the same thing) has a question. An important call or customer requires your attention. A machine blinks twice and dies. 

Speaking as a writer, that break in concentration can snuff the glimmer of an idea that just sparked or frighten away the perfect word the moment before I swoop it into my word net. This kind of interruption is part of life, though. These interruptions often feed our creative lives, and they’re usually easy enough to recover from.

LIFE, though. The one in all caps. LIFE has a way of delivering unavoidable, industrial-sized interruptions that aren’t so easy to get past. These great gaps in creative output aren’t all due to dire or tragic circumstances (though many are). Some are joyful, some pedestrian. The nature of these yawning chasms in our writing productivity doesn’t really matter. They all break the threads of our stories and cut the lines of communication with our characters, and that can feel like another kind of tragedy. Especially to a writer on a deadline. Notice the “dead” in deadline. Makes me shudder.

Over the past dozen years several near-catastrophic fissures have opened between me and books I meant to finish on time. We’re talking interruptions that lasted six weeks and more. How did I get back into those stories? Going over my notes and outlines helped. So did reading the manuscript up to the point I stopped. Those activities mended the threads of the stories. They showed me how the characters were coping with the pickle I’d dropped them into before dropping them and not returning for far too long.

It can still be hard to get back into actually writing, though. I’ve felt distant from the characters’ lives and conversations, their tensions and conflicts. For all I knew, they’d been getting on perfectly well without me. That sounds needy, but a writer needs her characters. So, here’s what I’ve done, on occasion, to reopen the lines of communication—I’ve written one of the characters a short, friendly letter asking how they are, what’s up, and to please write back.

When I wrote to Kath Rutledge, main character in the Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries, she got back to me almost immediately with a ten-page letter that had everything I needed to be off and writing again. Toward the end of that book, Plagued by Quilt, I wrote her again to see if she knew more about how she and her posse from the yarn shop were going to catch the killer than I did. Of course she did; that’s why I’d made her the protagonist in the first place. She shot a six-page letter back to me and the whole experience was very satisfying.

So, my advice if you’re flummoxed by a long or short interruption or stumped by what happens next, is talk to the experts—your characters. Write them or call them. They’re standing by and they’ll be happy to hear from you.

Writers, what tips do you have for restarting after LIFE interrupts your writing routine?


Molly MacRae writes the award-winning, national bestselling Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries and the Highland Bookshop Mysteries. Visit Molly on Facebook and Pinterest and connect with her on Twitter  or Instagram.



  1. I find writing my characters works much better than calling them. I suspect they may have blocked my calls; I know they don't return them.

  2. I've been talking to my characters while weeding all week. It's time for correspondence.

  3. In this crazy world where even more quietly planned lives are often distracted, I find sitting down with a cup of tea, no social media, and quiet sends me back into my characters’ lives. It is amazing how “unquiet” our lives are even when we push for quiet. Interesting process you have, Molly.

  4. What a great idea! I've had a few not-particularly-productive years, caring form my husband with dementia, capped by a few months of moving to a retirement community, his death (fortunately peaceful, in hospice care) and two major surgeries, from which I am still recovering.

    But I'm beginning to feel like I may emerge from all this. I will go back and read the several pieces I was working on (including a virtually complete novel) and write a letter to one of the characters, asking how they're doing and what they've been up to.

  5. Great idea....but I'd probably forget to send the letter... or to read the response /// crazy days :)

  6. Good point, Jim, and if a call from one of my characters came in as "unknown," I probably blocked them. Talk about counterproductive.

    KM, I hope this works for you. You've come through immense upheavals with grace and humor intact. I can't help but think your characters are there for you.

    Weeding is a great time to talk to your characters, Margaret. I'll give that a try, although I usually end up talking to the weeds and the plants I'm trying to liberate.

    It's awfully easy to be the unquiet in our own lives, isn't it Susan? I let myself be distracted far too often, then rationalize and forgive myself, then berate myself. Not a useful cycle. I agree, though; tea helps.

    Crazy days, Debra! They're another version of the "May you live in interesting times" curse.

  7. Molly,
    Sounds like you found a great way to connect with your protagonist to work out plot problems.

  8. So far it's worked, Marilyn. Thank goodness she's chatty and willing to cooperate.

  9. I never thought about doing such a thing. Maybe I'll try it. Can't hurt, can it?

  10. Go for it, E.B. I don't see how it can hurt. Although . . . famous last words?

  11. That sounds like a great idea. Thanks for the tip.