Ask any writer about their process for creating a character and you’ll surely get very different answers. For me, it’s not so much about creating as it is uncovering, as if the character already exists out there and it’s only a matter of getting to know them. Less architecture, and more archaeology. The idea for Roxane Weary, the troubled private investigator at the centre of my novel The Last Place You Look, first came to me with only a name. A first name. Roxane, with one N, like Roxane Gay or Cyrano de Bergerac’s wife. I loved the name because it sounds both hard and feminine to me--you’ve got rocks, plus the ladylike sound of “Ann,” plus that sexy, bold X in the middle. I knew that was the kind of character I wanted to write about.
Other than a first name, the only thing I had to go on was an image in my head: my Roxane answering her phone from the floor under her desk. How did she get there? What was she going to next? I had many questions.
But Roxane wasn’t saying much yet.
While waiting for her to talk to me, I started to examine the tropes of the mystery world to see what I did and didn’t want her to be. The hard-drinking, bad-at-relationships loner type of private investigator is classic in the genre--when it comes to male characters. I wanted to explore that identity but from the point of view of a woman. I also wanted to explore the genre from a bisexual identity, which isn’t often represented in mystery fiction. And lastly, I wanted to write someone with a messy interior and personal life, for whom solving mysteries is not just a job but a necessity for her well-being.
She finally started talking when I figured out her last name while watching television--I saw the actor Jake Weary in the credits of whatever I was watching, and something immediately clicked.
That was it.
From there, I started getting a clearer picture of her I learned that she likes whiskey--specifically, Crown Royal, a preference she inherited from her father. I learned that she lived in the same city as me. She told me she was thirty-four years old, the baby of the family. One of her brothers was a construction worker, and the other was a bartender and small-time drug dealer. The family was still reeling from the recent death of Frank Weary, Roxane’s father.
To further complicate her personal life, she told me she has two on-again-off-again sexual entanglements. One with homicide detective Tom, her father’s former partner, and one with Catherine, an art teacher who Roxane has known since high school.
It wasn’t until I had a good sense of her as a person that I was able to figure out the type of case she should investigate--because I wanted it to challenge her, to overlap on her past, and build to a climax that she alone could resolve.
The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka is published by Faber & Faber in July (£7.99).
Nobody knows what happened to Sarah Cook. The beautiful blonde teenager disappeared fifteen years ago, the same night her parents were brutally murdered in their suburban Ohio home. Her boyfriend Brad Stockton―black and from the wrong side of the tracks―was convicted of the murders and is now on death row. Though he’s maintained his innocence all along, the clock is running out. His execution is only weeks away when his devoted sister insists she spied Sarah at an area gas station. Willing to try anything, she hires PI Roxane Weary to look at the case and see if she can locate Sarah. Brad might be in a bad way, but private investigator Roxane Weary isn’t doing so hot herself. Still reeling from the recent death of her cop father in the line of duty, her main way of dealing with her grief has been working as little and drinking as much as possible. But Roxane finds herself drawn in to the story of Sarah's vanishing act, especially when she links the disappearance to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases involving another teen girl. The stakes get higher as Roxane discovers that the two girls may not be the only beautiful blonde teenagers who’ve turned up missing or dead. As her investigation gets darker and darker, Roxane will have to risk everything to find the truth. Lives depend on her cracking this case―hers included.
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