I don’t give a fig how a car works. Or electricity. Or a computer. They all could be black boxes, as far as I’m concerned, inside which mysterious things happen. Poof! The car turns on. Poof! Electricity powers the air conditioner. Poof! The computer recalls everything you type into it.
What I really care about is how people work. Why they do the things they do. I discovered this passion one teenaged summer when my boyfriend dumped me and I drooped into churlishness. After a week my mother tired of my moods and suggested I work at one of her charities.
I began volunteering at the county’s psychiatric clinic, helping with rudimentary clerical tasks. As I typed up forms and patients’ reports, I was shocked to see so much pain appear on the pages. But later I was gratified to see the clinic’s psychiatric social worker help some of those patients whose woes I learned about. Sometimes they left our office with springier steps. I fancied I could see their anxieties and depression lift.
That same summer my favorite cousin began exhibiting behavioral problems. Merle was super bright but troubled. I never saw him act out or be mean to someone, but I began to hear stories. I wanted to help him but didn’t have the skills. Ah-hah, I thought! I’d study psychology in college and become a psychiatric social worker so I could fix him.
Please note that I never aspired to be a psychologist or psychiatrist. Perhaps that was because I’d only seen a psychiatric social worker in action and therefore could imagine being one. Betty Friedan had just published The Feminine Mystique. I hadn’t read it, and it would be years before I became an ardent feminist.
When I started college in the sixties, I loved all my classes—even for a short time geology and astronomy, subjects taken only to fulfill liberal arts distribution requirements. Much to my sorrow, however, psychology was a letdown, a huge bore.
I wanted to learn about people. But all we studied were rats. While two friends in my class did manage to cope with rodentia behavior, I couldn’t. These women went on to earn their doctorates in psychology and help countless people. For me, however, the gap between the actions of rats and people was too great a leap. I never took another course after Psych 101.
I toyed with various majors, but English literature was my mainstay. Fiction encompassed everything about humanity, and I’d always been a ferocious reader. Writing was a joy. After getting a graduate degree in history—real crimes that happened in the past, I now say—I fell back on writing and developed a solid career as a corporate communicator. However, I never felt I’d found my niche. My heart did not sing.
When I began writing fiction a decade ago, I finally responded to an inner compulsion. What I had to explore is why people do the things they do. Character development and plot are almost synonymous to me. It’s like attending another high school reunion and seeing old friends again after ten years. I’m reading the newest chapters in their lives. People are walking and ongoing stories. Curiosity drives me to learn everything I can and then fictionalize it—showing behavior and uncovering motives.
The mystery comes in when good people do bad things. Each of us is a mysterious black box. Inside are so many factors all jumbled up—memories, desires, huge grievances. How can others hope to understand us? How can we hope to understand ourselves?
Yet still we try. We must try. Sadly, I never deciphered what made my cousin Merle derail. I was helpless to alter his sad trajectory. Alas, after living for years in a hospital for the criminally insane, he wandered off into a field while on furlough and simply lay down and died. He was forty.
As a mystery author, though, I can put characters into extreme peril and see how they react. Can they sort out their own complicated lives? Can they figure out who has done what vile thing to whom? Solving the puzzles of people living only on pages (or in E files) is now my full-time job. After I figure out one set of interconnecting lives, then I go on to develop another set, another, and another. This is a job I relish.
Want to read the first 20 pages of Kay Kendall’s second mystery, RANY DAY WOMEN? Go to her website http://www.austinstarr.com/ That book won two awards at the Killer Nashville conference in August 2016—for best mystery/crime and also for best book. Her first novel about Austin Starr‘s sleuthing, DESOLATION ROW, was a finalist for best mystery at Killer Nashville in 2014. Visit Kay on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/KayKendallAuthor