Much like air dancers at a garage forecourt, shiny new characters often leap to the forefront of a writer’s imagination. Others are years in the making. A character can be seeded but not given flesh until the right plot or the right setting presents itself.
I once lived in a block of early 20th century flats variously inhabited by an Iranian family with two small boys who used to play on the common stairwell, a retired school teacher who used to invite my husband and I to her home once a month for two carefully-measured gin and tonics, and by a very refined lady who drove a black cab. Perhaps the reason the lady taxi driver stuck in my mind over the years is because we inherited a cast-off, duck-down sofa from her at a time when our only seating was two deckchairs on loan from a nearby sporting club.
This encounter along with other personal experiences that were not so positive, informed my thinking when I came to develop an outline for the character that would become Ellie in The Bride Collector.
Rather than go down the route of a police procedural as a framework to solve the mystery of women discovered dead, laid out in their wedding dresses at home in Kerry, I thought I’d chance the less-trodden route of the amateur detective. It proved a challenge, as outside the realm of police detecting, jobs that lend themselves to amateur investigating are few and difficult to identify. That’s when I got to thinking about the possibility of my protagonist being a taxi-driver.
Such a job makes a person privy to information that ordinary citizens are not. Throughout the course of their work, taxi drivers can figure out who’s on holiday, what houses are unoccupied, who’s getting treatment in a hospital, or who’s conducting an affair. All of this is possible with the bare minimum of an exchange from the back seat of a cab. Even more can be gleaned from passengers whose tongues are loosened after a spell in the pub or a night on the town.
By virtue of their jobs, taxi drivers come across situations which often make them a point of contact for the police. Consider incidents with late night revellers or happening across the scene of a road traffic accident. These are only two cases in point. There are many more.
With all the obvious hazards that go with the job, it is rare enough to come across a female driver. This too influenced my decision to choose it as a way my protagonist could earn her living. I wanted Ellie to be an extraordinary, ordinary character in my novel – to be someone readers could readily identify with and make certain assumptions about.
Anyone who seeks out a job as a taxi driver needs to be able to handle themselves. A curious phrase, that in reality means a facility with handling others. It’s a job that demands a high level of emotional intelligence – certainly if someone wants to remain safe. The ability to make a rapid assessment on a prospective fare on the street, solely from their body language in their approach to the car, is critical. And how do drivers assess their safety when a fare is set up over the phone? How do they discern whether someone may present a danger or the encounter is likely to prove straightforward?
Even less can be discerned about a passenger when a fare is set up over the internet. All of this is stuff we know innately. And so, with this in mind, readers of The Bride Collector can reasonably assume that Ellie Gillespie can handle herself.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she deflects questions of a personal nature. Unfortunately for my protagonist, this has the opposite of the desired and effect, and the more Ellie seeks anonymity, the more her fares and her neighbours seek to know about her.
She bristles when asked whether she’s married, whether she has children, and what age she is. She resists any efforts to pigeon-hole her, and she’s also a non badge-wearing feminist and an independent thinker. Ellie’s curious relationship with authority unfolds as she’s drawn deeper into the mystery of ritualistic murders of women in the tourist town of Kylebeggan in Kerry.
Unlike amateur sleuths in older crime fiction, Ellie is neither a nosey-parker in pursuit of a hobby, or an intellectual fired-up by a seemingly intractable conundrum. She’s a relatively ordinary person, reluctantly caught up in a shocking series of murders.
Against this backdrop, there are other conflicts at play. Ellie is something of a loner by nature, or more probably by nurture. A writer’s job in making a character believable and three-dimensional in fiction is to put that character into conflict situations to see how they’ll react.
Readers are adept at adding between the lines, and characters can become greater than the sum of the sentences that describe them. As I was writing Ellie, I imagined all her inner conflicts as she negotiated her way through various situations, even though only some of her reactions made it onto paper.
I hope that readers of The Bride Collector will enjoy being drawn into the world of loner, Ellie Gillespie, part sleuth, part taxi driver, with a somewhat dry sense of humour. I think a sleuth should always have a sense of humour. Don’t you?
(c) Siobhan MacDonald
About The Bride Collector:
Winter brings more than fierce Atlantic storms to the thriving tourist town of Kylebeggan in County Kerry. On a cold January night, a woman is murdered and laid out in her wedding dress on her bed. And then another woman is discovered murdered in her flat, laid out in the same way. Weeks later, taxi driver Ellie Gillespie collects a bride-to-be on her hen night and drops her home. Ellie is horrified when this woman too is later discovered dead in her gown.
The gardaí, mayor, and tourist board are desperate to end the negative publicity of a town that relies on the holiday trade; they cannot afford to have a rumour spread that a serial killer is at large.
Ellie also has her own suspicions about the killer. She is persuaded to share her thoughts with investigative journalist Cormac Scully; digging into past secrets of the town, can they figure out who it is before the Bride Collector strikes again?
Praise for Siobhan MacDonald:
‘Vivid characters, great storytelling and a spine-tingling twist.’ Jo Spain
‘Dark, tense and richly atmospheric, the past is never far away in this twisty thriller where nothing is quite as it seems.’ Sam Blake
‘This is a terrifically dark, twisty thriller, skilfully plotted and stylishly written.’ Irish Times
Order your copy online here.