I felt like I had been cast in the story

By Ben Beagle
Oct. 28, 2006

Yes, I knew she was going to do it. No, Kevin Costner will not play me in the movie. No, I don’t get royalties. But as a conversation starter it’s priceless.
And, please, don’t blame me if you think the questions Ben Beagle asks of the Rev. Clare Fergusson are too probing.
In her new book, All Mortal Flesh, mystery writer Julia Spencer-Fleming introduces an investigative reporter to Millers Kill, the fictional setting for her Clare Fergusson mysteries. His name: Ben Beagle.
Back in December, an e-mail from Julia popped up in my inbox. The 2005 “Tale for Three Counties” author had been using the name Ben Beagle as a place marker for a new character in All Mortal Flesh.
“I’d love to make it official,” she wrote. “How would you feel about becoming a fictional character? (Don’t worry, he’s a good guy.)”
Cool. I’d never been fictionalized before. Maybe I’d get to ask a key question and break the case wide open. Of course, I had no idea what she was planning, but without hesitation agreed. Months went by. I waited. I wondered. Was it such a good idea? I told only a handful of people, fearing that if I got too excited something would happen and the character would disappear. What if she killed him off?
But then an occasional e-mail would offer a tantalizing hint that Ben Beagle was still in the book.
Even though I knew it was coming, it was still startling to read “Ben Beagle” on page 98.
And 126. He’s wearing a Snoopy tie! And 201. And 242. Especially 260. And É
“A reporter is a really useful character to have in a mystery. He can help to put in a few more pieces of the puzzle,” Spencer-Fleming said during a talk and book signing at Richmond Memorial Library earlier this month.
Afterwards, she talked more about where she finds the characters that populate Millers Kill. Here are excerpts of our conversation at Main Street Coffee:
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Did you see the Amazon review? Someone wrote ‘Ben Beagle (love that name).’
BEN BEAGLE: I understand it’s something of a tradition among novelists to use the names of real people for characters.
JSF: I do it mainly to amuse myself. Friends, relatives. A lot of them are very small parts. But I still need a name. Sometimes the real name is just a placeholder, and I will go back and replace it later with something more fictional. It’s helpful, though, to use a real name. It gives me a mental image to hang my hat on.
BB: You do this often?
JSF: In All Mortal Flesh, the hotel manager, Barbara LeBlanc, is my sister’s first married name. The high school principal (Jean Ann Rayburn) and guidance counselor (Suzanne Ovitt) are named for my two favorite teachers.
BB: Those are all minor characters. They make an appearance and move the story forward. Ben Beagle kept showing up. I know reporters have a tendency to do that, but I wasn’t expecting to see my name on so many pages.
JSF: I thought he’d just pop in and ask a few difficult questions to make the main characters uncomfortable. But the character took on a much bigger life than I expected.
BB: How did that happen?
JSF: I write in an organic style. I know a few things about the story when I started. Then, when I’m writing, stuff happens. It got to a point where I realized that if the chief of police’s wife was found butchered, there’s no way that doesn’t become a major local news story.
BB: Do you have rules on when to use real names? Ever name a bad guy after someone, say someone you didn’t like in high school?
JSF: Once, and I did it inadvertently. In my first book, In the Bleak Midwinter, the killer is a real person in Argyle. I found that out after publishing. I didn’t do it consciously.
BB: How do you keep all the names straight?
JSF: Most of the key players go through some elaborate protocols. I have a name bible. It’s all the names I use in all the stories. And I keep a name list. I highlight the first and last initials so not all of the character’s first and last names have the same initials. There are a lot of different names, and using a lot of different letters makes it easier for the readers.
BB: There were a few times reading this book where I felt like I had been cast in the story.
JSF: Usually, I just borrow a name. I don’t quite make the character a doppelganger. You just fit the part. It was like I had gone to central casting for a youthful investigative reporter.
The only other character like that is Lois, the church secretary. I based her on my mother. She’s a real doppelganger.
BB: You’re working on the next book. Will Ben Beagle make another appearance?
JSF: In the next book you’ll start to notice more separation. He’ll start to become my character. He will develop his own quirks.
BB: But you’ll keep the Snoopy tie?
JSF: I couldn’t resist.

Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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