Interview with an Author: Debra H. Goldstein on Creating Believable Characters

Debra H. Goldstein

Debra H. Goldstein

Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. She also writes short stories and non-fiction. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, Joel.

In Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (April 2016 – Five Star, a division of Cengage), when attorney Carrie Martin’s mother appears, out of the blue, twenty-six years after abandoning her family, she leaves Carrie with a sealed envelope and the confession she once considered killing Carrie’s father. Before Carrie opens the envelope, she finds her mother murdered at the retirement home where Carrie’s father lives.

Instructed to leave the sleuthing to the police, Carrie’s continued investigative efforts, aided by the pink-haired Sunshine Village Mah jongg players, put Carrie in danger and at odds with her former lover—the detective assigned to her mother’s case. In this fast-paced mystery, she learns truth and integrity aren’t always what she was taught to believe.

ShouldHavePlayedPokerFrontJudy: In Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery, your characters include a young lawyer protagonist, pink haired Mah Jongg ladies, a minister with dementia, a retired children’s librarian who runs the world, a young widow and his child, and a detective who is the protagonist’s ex-lover and is assigned to run the murder investigation. That’s quite a line-up. Tell us how you went about a) inventing these characters and b) how you made them believable.

Debra: Characters, like real people, have extended family connections. Consequently, I took each character and diagrammed who that character would naturally interact with. For example, the protagonist had to have parents – whether living or dead. I then considered whether she had siblings, pets, an employer, co-workers, and because her mother abandoned her twenty-six years earlier, people who helped raise her. Next, I examined the connections between her father and the communities he lived in. Once I established characters in those communities, I analyzed their relationships.

Believability of these characters comes from their interconnected relationships and giving each one a physical or mental trait that the reader could identify with.

Judy: What or who inspired you to become a writer?

Debra: I was about to enroll in a structured journalism program, when my high school journalism teacher said, “You’re going to want to do more than be a newspaper journalist, so you need to go to the University of Michigan and expose yourself to the thoughts and ideas of Marshall McLuhan and others who are viewing media differently.” She was right.

I graduated mid-year with two goals: obtain a job in publishing and get on Jeopardy. While job hunting, I hedged by submitting law school applications. Eight months later, goals accomplished, I went to law school. For years, creative writing was replaced with briefs, motions and decisions, except when I wrote the skits for social events. Periodically, I talked about wanting to really write, but it wasn’t until I wrote a comedy skit for a Leadership Program that someone gave me the guts to try.

At rehearsal, a friend’s husband, who I respected, said, “This is hilarious. You should write.”

“I can’t.”

“But you can.” From the look on his face, I knew he meant it. His belief gave me the confidence to try writing. Sometimes, a small word of encouragement is all it takes to change a life.

Judy:  What advice and/or resources would you recommend for aspiring writers?

Debra: Don’t put off writing. There will never be a better time. Instead, take whatever classes you can afford at schools, online, or at conferences; read books like Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft; network – what you learn from other writers is invaluable; and, write! Finally, whether by editing, volunteering, or providing encouragement to others, pay it forward.

Judy: Do you have a favorite book of all time? One you reread for a better understanding of characterization?

Debra: I don’t have a favorite adult book, but scenes in several children’s books helped me gain a better understanding of characterization. The scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom gets the other boys to paint Aunt Polly’s fence is simple but successfully shows rather than tells Tom’s personality, physical stance, ability to manipulate, and behavioral premise of doing things little by little. The description of the objects each boy pulls from a pocket to give for the honor of painting the fence depicts their characters and involvement in the community. Aunt Polly’s reaction successfully establishes her motivation and relationship to Tom.

First Edition Cover, Pollyanna, by Eleanor Porter, 1913

First Edition Cover, Pollyanna, by Eleanor Porter, 1913

Another book that helped me in the same way is Pollyanna. Every character is simplistically drawn to illustrate specific character traits that change by the end of the story. The good doctor, the thundering voiced minister, the orphan boy, the lonely man, the sweet but simple maid, the bossy maid, the closed off aunt, and the effervescent Pollyanna are stereotypically drawn until the “glad with everything” plot reverses after Pollyanna’s fall. Then, the actual complexity of each character to step out of his/her original role and adopt some of Pollyanna’s characteristics is illustrated. As a writer, rereading these passages allowed me to see how personality flaws can be patched, accepted and reinterpreted.

Judy:  Do you read your genre when writing? If so, why? If not, why not?

Debra: Because of time constraints, I don’t read as much when I’m writing, but I will alternate reading mysteries and biographies, with a few more literary fiction books. The hardest thing for me since I’ve become a writer is that I tend to critique or dissect the writing of others in terms of structure, poor composition, or excellent prose. I’m always on the lookout to learn something new, especially in reading a mystery.

Judy: What’s next for Debra H. Goldstein?

Debra: Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery was published on April 20, 2016 by Five Star, a division of Cengage. For the next few months, I will be attending a number of conferences, writing personal and guest blogs, and participating in book talks and signings. At the same time, I have a number of stories and another book at different stages in the writing/publishing process.

I’m also excited to be chairing the Sisters in Crime “We Love Short Stories” initiative and the Monitoring Project. The first because I write and believe in the power of short stories and the latter because I know, as a former litigator who successfully tried the higher education equal pay case of first impression, Marshall vs. Georgia Southwestern, and was one of the first women appointed as a federal Administrative Law Judge, the importance of gender parity for our writing efforts.

Thank you, Debra. 

Find out more about Debra on her website/blog.

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2 responses to “Interview with an Author: Debra H. Goldstein on Creating Believable Characters

  1. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for commenting! Debra made such a good point, and one I hadn’t considered before. That’s what I love about interviewing other authors. I learn so much.


    I like how Debra described the importance of books from childhood in illustrating strong character traits. We may find more finesse in adult books, but those characters, we never forget! Important lessons. Thanks Debra and Judy!

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