“Why is your main character Muslim?”
Even though Scarlett Undercover hasn’t come out yet, I get asked that a lot. And you know how I always want to answer?
She. Just. Is.
But that’s never what I say, because it would sound flip. It’s true, though. I mean, how does any writer invent characters? How do we decide whether they’re nice or mean or have long hair or short, what music they like, what kind of deodorant they buy, and whether or not they pick their nose when no one’s looking?
I triple dog dare you to try and answer.
For me, writing is alchemy. I watch the world. I LOVE watching people (just ask my husband how often I ignore him when we’re out to dinner). I play “What If” in my head all the time. And then I write and re-write and re-write some more, and on good days my words knit up into something colorful and coherent and maybe even pretty.
Ultimately, writing isn’t so much about not never using bad grammar, or: abusing punctuation or eschewing adverbs studiously. Those things matter, of course. They really do. But more than that, writing is about capturing the wildness in your head and shaping it – crafting it – into something coherent, entertaining, and valuable to the reader. My character, Scarlett, was born at the Tulsa State Fair when I saw a silver-haired biker dude playing with a beautiful, brown-skinned little girl in a giant sandbox. She was about four years old, had a red bucket, and laughed a lot.
Over the years, that sweet girl grew into a wisecracking, simile-obsessed Muslim teenage detective (in my head, at least). And after that, her story transformed from an unholy hash of supernatural cliches into a pretty straightforward mystery. It took a lot reining-in and willingness to listen and get past hurt feelings and keep trying. Oh yeah – and a lot of revising. But now this particular story is done. Scarlett’s ready to go out into the world.
And that’s pretty much what writing is. You take things you care about, things bound up in your heart and playing on repeat in your brain, and turn them into stories worth sharing. Scarlett is Muslim because she just is. Your characters are who they are because…well, because they just are. Our stories are explanations in their own right, and when things go right, everything fits together because it just does. That’s the alchemy of writing — what makes it hard and wonderful all at once.
So go ahead and write something. Work your alchemy. And when people ask you why you’re a writer, tell them: You. Just. Are.
Jennifer Latham writes because it’s the only job she’s stuck with for longer than two years. Seriously. She lives in Tulsa with her husband, two daughters, two dogs, a cat, three turtles, three hermit crabs, and a bunch of fish.
Scarlett Undercover, published by Little Brown, is her debut novel