The Evolution of a Character by Dave White

It’s a pleasure to welcome Derringer Award-winning author Dave White to the site. An Empty Hell, the latest entry in White’s series featuring New Jersey-based ex-cop turned private investigator Jackson Donne (following last year’s Not Even Past), is out now, and White stopped by to talk about where the inspiration for characters can come from, and how those characters’ voices can come and go seemingly of their own volition.

The Evolution of a Character

Way back when I was a kid, my dad wrote a private detective novel called Blood Tells. He wrote it after Ross MacDonald died, and he submitted it—without an agent—to Knopf, because that’s whom he said published MacDonald. Eventually, he got a rejection slip back and to my knowledge, my dad never submitted it again.

I’ve read the novel. It’s good. It features a detective named Matt Herrick, who’s caught up in a very MacDonald-esque case. Sins of the Father and all that. I loved the character’s name. It stuck in my head for years.

Until 2006, when I was in the middle of drafting the first Jackson Donne novel, When One Man Dies. Because of Donne’s situation in the book, I didn’t want to put him in the middle of a new short story, but I had an idea. So, I created a new detective. An older man with a family. He was the exact opposite of Donne. And, he needed a name.

I chose Matt Herrick (with my dad’s permission).

Then a weird thing happened. After the story was published, Herrick’s voice went away. Don’t know why, don’t know how. But several times I tried to write about it and just couldn’t get past a paragraph or two. Herrick was there for one story.

For a bunch of years, the character went away.

And then I read a book about the legendary New Jersey high school basketball coach Bob Hurley. The book, The Miracle of St. Anthony, is a look at a man who’s able to keep a small parochial school in Jersey City open just by coaching good basketball. Hurley is a saint in this state, and as I started to learn more about him I found out that when he started coaching, he was also a probation officer. Kind of cool, being in law enforcement.

I started to think about a PI that was also a high school basketball coach. And I asked myself why a PI would make time for that. And I came up with a backstory—he was in Iraq. He saved his crew, but had to kill a child strapped with a bomb. Now he’s back, and trying to save kids in an inner city school through basketball. And he doesn’t use a gun.

The PI, of course, needed a name. And I had one—Matt Herrick. I wrote about him in a story called “Runaway,” published in Thomas Pluck’s Protectors anthology. And then, when Jackson Donne disappeared after Not Even Past, someone needed to find him in the next book. Which brings us to An Empty Hell.

Who else could be on the case but Matt Herrick?

I mean he’s been through so much already. Might as well keep plugging with him.

Now that I’ve truly figured out who he is.

Dave White is a Derringer Award-winning mystery author and educator. Publishers Weekly gave the first two novels in his Jackson Donne series, When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do, starred reviews. Both When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do were nominated for the prestigious Shamus Award, and When One Man Dies was nominated for the Strand Critics Award for “Best First Novel.” His standalone thriller, Witness To Death, was an ebook bestseller upon release and named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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