Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Behind the Scenes: Darla

© Halfbottle | 
I don't abandon a book midway through very often, but when I do, most of the time it's because I don't care enough about the characters to bother seeing whether they get out of their mess in the end or not.

Which is a harsh thing to say. Someone out there presumably sweated blood to bring that book to life. But, if the people in the story inspire nothing more than 'meh, I'd rather be watching a Law & Order re-run,' the book is dead in the water.

Sure, it can have a clever plot, a detailed setting, intricate thematic elements. But if I don't care about the people (or the robots, or the ghosts, or whomever the book is about), it's a waste of time, at least to me. I'm looking at you, Atlas Shrugged. Didn't care after the first six pages, didn't care when it was assigned reading, don't care now, and won't care later. Classic work of literature, my ass.

I try not to write books people will put down. Look, I know my strengths and weakness as a writer. I'm damned good at writing dialog. I'm middling good at pacing and scene construction. I'm lousy at creating villains. Which doesn't mean I populate my books with poorly-penned bad guys. It just means it takes me forever to get them right.

But it's my characters I'm proudest of. They're people I enjoy spending time with.

Today, I'm going to take you backstage, and reveal a few secrets concerning Darla, Markhat's partner in everything from crime to boatsmanship.

My Markhat Files series, in case you're not familiar, focuses on a fantasy-world private eye named Markhat. The series is 8 books long now, and while Markhat started off as a bachelor, his life took a turn in Hold the Dark.

Markhat did something tough-guy private eyes seldom do -- he fell hard in love. Darla was the quick-witted accountant working at a high-end whorehouse called The Velvet. She and Markhat hit it off immediately, and things quickly progressed to the wine and roses stage.

Generally, when you see an established series character get all goo-goo eyed over someone we've never seen before, the love interest gets killed along about Chapter Ten, and the rest of the book, and perhaps the series, focuses on the protagonist's boundless rage and broken heart.

Ha. Sure, plenty of lesser authors go that hackneyed route. Amateurs. But not me, I'm better than that.

What's that? I did? Are you sure?

Oh. Right. Here's part of the behind the scenes bit I mentioned earlier -- see, in the first draft of Hold the Dark, Darla is murdered by the blood cult as an act of petty vengeance against Markhat. Which sends him on a bloody rampage, fueled by magic, that puts a permanent blot of darkness on his soul, one I planned to spend the rest of the series exploring. Darla was going to stick around, yes, but only as a wandering phantom that Markhat could never get close to, never touch.

Yeah. I did that thing. I was young and stupid.

Happily, though, the editors at Samhain raised certain arguments against Darla's murder. Even more happily, I took their advice to heart, re-wrote the book, and quickly realized that Darla and Markhat together were a far more powerful combination than a morose Markhat haunted by poor Darla's silent ghost.

The series is still chugging happily along, and Darla is Markhat's wife, and together they're hysterical.

Think Nick and Nora Charles. If you don't know the old movies, look them up. Now, Nora and Darla are alike only in a few aspects. But the dynamic is there -- the banter, the easy trust, the subtle but unbreakable bond they all share.

Darla quickly demonstrated a bloody-minded practicality that Markhat sometimes lacks. She's proven to be every bit and devious and as dangerous as anyone in the series.

And she's a lot of fun to write.

Even so, I have a few rules concerning her. I have them for all the series characters, but today, here are the Rules for Writing Darla.

Darla's Rules:
1) Darla does not get kidnapped, forcing a rescue.
2) Darla has her own money, her own schemes, and her own ways and means.
3) Darla is always armed. She might be tinkering with the houseboat's steam engine, or lounging on the deck, but she has a revolver and a knife somewhere on her person.
4) Darla is not a springboard or a foil or a catalyst.
5) Darla may or may not be a witch.
6) Darla loves clothes. Because she realizes deliberate fashion choices are a means to create one's social persona. Also, complicated gowns are excellent at concealing small firearms and handy edged weapons.
7) Darla was born dirt poor. She came up hard and she's seen awful things and she is determined to never see them again.
8) Anyone or anything that threatens Markhat, Darla's home, Buttercup, or even Cornbread will simply be shot until it falls down dead. Darla won't hesitate. Won't issue a warning. Won't threaten. She will simply act, with the cool deliberation of a threatened cobra.

The new Markhat book, Way Out West, puts Darla and Markhat on a long train ride out into the new frontier. Could there be a murder on the train? Could there be a killer on the loose, stalking his prey from car to car?

Could be. I'm not saying.

So what does does Darla look like?

She's tall and skinny. Willowy, I suppose is the term. Brown eyes. Black hair, cut in a Roaring Twenties flapper's bowl cut. She tends to dress in dark colors, and she always wear a hat and long sleeves on the deck of Dasher, because the sun makes her freckles show up.

I was thrilled when Darla made her first book cover. Here's how the artists have seen her:

That's from the cover from Brown River Queen.

Below is the cover from The Darker Carnival, showing Darla preparing to show a bunch of nasties precisely what befalls anyone daft enough to disrupt her dinner plans:

And how do I see Darla?

Given that my artistic skills are frequently exceeded by chimpanzees, cantaloupes, and asphalt, creating character images on my own is a waste of time. I tried it once, using Poser 10 and the kind assistance of a friend -- but even then, the project was an abject, hopeless failure.

By the way, I have a perfectly good copy of Poser 10. Barely used, well cussed at. If anyone wants it, hit me with an email and it's yours, free. I know when I'm licked. Art just isn't in my wheelhouse.

But The Markhat Files series has fans, and they have talents, and I have email. Sometimes all these things combine, and I wind up getting images like the ones I'm about to share. So meet Darla, as interpreted by a reader who prefers to be identified only as CatapultHA.

I think CatapultHA captured Darla perfectly, and I am deeply grateful that he or she has graciously allowed me to share these. Wouldn't it be great if CatapultHA sent some images of Makhat too, hint hint? Maybe if enough people praise these images and ask, we'll get more (that's also a hint).

So, without further adieu, here is Darla, courtesy of artist CatapultHA.

The gown even looks like it stepped right out of one of the books.

So does the next one. I can see Darla wearing this. Probably has a dagger in the hat. I won't speculate as to the hiding place of the revolver.

I started to put my own best Poser image here, but ugh. I'll spare you that. I envy people with this kind of talent.

Finally, here's Darla all dressed up for a formal dance aboard the Brown River Queen. I figure the red stoal weighs in at about a .44 calibre.

Now that, ladies and gents, is ART. Many thanks for allowing me to share it.

See you all next week!


  1. I love your Darla rules! My favorites are #1 and #8. The images of Darla are awesome, but I like her hair on the cover of Brown River Queen the best.

  2. On God! A train book. I love trains! I may spontaneously combust.

  3. Great artwork! I picture Darla with lighter hair and the old fashioned styling as shown on the first cover. Less dark around the eyes, but the dresses are spot-on.

    I'm really glad that your editor talked you out of the cliche. One of the things that makes the books is the strengths in all the characters. They all have their own specialties and I enjoy reading about all of them. Darla is Most Excellent.

    Although I must admit, if she were to be kidnapped, it would be a close call as to whether she rescued herself (and anyone else in the vicinity) or if Markhat and gang got there first. Either way, someone would pay, and dearly!

    Kudos to your lovely fan who took the time to draw such great artwork!

  4. I love it when I get to see an artist's rendition of what a character looks like! Do you ever look back and think about what would have happened if the editors LET you murder Darla? SHUDDER!

  5. Thanks for all the comments! And yeah, woe betide any kidnapper who dares grab Darla. Before the afternoon is out they'll be paying her the ransom. And Lyse, the series would be far weaker without her -- might not even be ongoing.