Craig Allen Heath
The Little Red Hens to the Rescue
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
I find it difficult, thinking back five years later, to remember and explain the origin of the five women known in my novel as "The Little Red Hens". The entire story of the book evolved, slowly, from a simple start to something quite different in that time.
When I began drafting Where You Will Die in the summer of 2017, I didn't have much to go on. I had the protagonist, Alan Wright; I had the victim, Ruth MacKenzie; I had the setting, Eden Ridge (modeled after Paradise California); and I had a bad guy who ended up being not quite so bad and who shall remain nameless here. I had no real plot, no story arc outline, no chapter summaries, not even a three-paragraph blurb. I sat down and let the words fall where they might.
A writer who does this is called a "pantser" - as in "writing by the seat of your pants" - versus a "plotter". It's a valid way to write, and though it ends up needing many more passes of editing than plotting, it is a great deal of fun. I laughed and cried as I wrote. Some call the method "telling yourself the story for the first time."
My wife Pat and I shared in that fun. We took our beloved German Shepherd, Coco, for walks every day we could, and we’d spend many of those hours ad-libbing dialogue and dirty jokes for the Hens. The majority of that dialogue never made it into the book, but the ideas for their characters did. And my lord, did we laugh.
The resulting first draft, 44 weeks later, was of course rubbish. But the frail framework I started with had fleshed out, and one of the best outcomes of that was the clique of Ruth's friends I dubbed The Little Red Hens. Maryellen, Inga, Alice, Millie, and Georgia began their lives as comic relief, and retained that role while becoming real characters in their own right. It's no exaggeration to say they saved the story.
Maryellen Woodcox went through the most dramatic transformation. The oldest Hen, she is frail and physically challenged from many injuries and ailments, slipping in and out of consciousness due to her heavy medication regimen. At first, I thought this running joke would be all she would contribute to the story. Instead, she takes over as leader of the Hens and we see a savvy businesswoman and strong executive, who takes the raucous women in hand and whips them into a cohesive unit. Yes, she does have trouble staying awake when the action dies down, but when needed she is a powerhouse of strength and determination, who brooks no nonsense and does not suffer fools gladly. Her inner warmth comes out in small ways through her cool and elegant manner.
Inga Holder, it turned out, evolved the least from my earliest ideas of her character, but her personality deepened. I first expected her to take up the captain's role, but it turned out she was the natural lieutenant and right-hand to Maryellen. Short and stocky, the retired Army nurse is all grit-and-spit on the outside, a drill-sergeant type with a soft heart, who loves the women as she barks orders at them. That heart comes out most when the Hens are trying to help Ruth's daughter, Anna, deal with her grief and decide her fate. It is Inga who, as Anna breaks down in tears, holds the young woman's hands, petting her wrists with her thumbs, "whispering words of consolation she knew would not salve the wound, but had to be spoken."
Alice Nusbaum blossomed into the perfect foil for Inga. The tallest Hen, usually wearing loose farm dresses or peasant skirts, is as free-spirited as Inga is regimented, the yang to Inga's yin. The two women share a wicked sense of humor, but Alice made a career as a Deadhead the way Inga did as an Army nurse and officer. With constant nips of bourbon from her ever-present flask, Alice is always quick with a quip, and we see that most in her big-sister teasing of Georgia. Her mean streak is wide but it's her way of showing affection. Alice has walked a long and difficult road but keeps her spirit of fun and adventure alive with pseudo-Buddhist attitudes, an open-armed love of life, and the occasional chemical support.
Millie Vanderhoek became in many ways the soft heart of the group. Her "always a bridesmaid" luck has led her to keep up appearances in her later years, always on the lookout for male attention. She's a hair-styling artist and though a bit sentimental and self-indulgent, she holds a key place in the community as owner of Eve's Figleaf, the salon known as "The Switchboard". Again, I thought she'd be little more than a running gag, but her gift-of-gab and inner strength came through at a key juncture in the story when she flatters another woman into giving up vital information. When she isn't checking herself in her compact mirror or fluttering her eyelashes at Alan, she's standing up for her friends like a momma bear.
Georgia Beaufort rounds out the clutch of Hens as the wide-eyed innocent, always teased by Alice for her verbal gaffes but still beloved by all the women. The youngest, smallest, and thinnest Hen, she's a true southern belle, "with a soft Carolina lilt that carried the scent of magnolia trees and tasted like sweet tea". Her heart is as big as the moon, but her brain could use an upsizing or two. The women tend to dismiss and patronize her a bit, but her hidden power comes to the fore when she demonstrates a keen understanding of the human heart by asking a key question no one thought to ask. Georgia is the little sister who takes all the taunting but whom all the Hens would protect with their lives.
The whole idea for this team of intrepid senior women evolved out of the character of Ruth. Her mother was an old-school philanthropist and raised her daughter in that mold. Given Ruth's natural leadership, when she came to Eden Ridge she began organizing charity groups and events and gathered like-minded women to join her. People first applied the title of Little Red Hen to Ruth herself, after the old fable about taking initiative and getting things done. Each woman who befriended Ruth and followed her lead was then awarded the accolade. By the time of my story, the women are famous and beloved in the community, having set the standard for good works and camaraderie among women.
When Alan, having befriended Ruth only a couple of years before, takes up the task of tracking down her killer, it is only natural that her oldest companions would join in the crusade.
What began as a set of foils for laughs evolved into one of the most vital aspects of the story - a group of friends who take a perilous journey to find justice for one of their own. In doing so, they very much came to the rescue of Alan and of my book. It was a privilege to follow along and chronicle their adventure.
At the end of Where You Will Die, having helped to solve the mystery, The Little Red Hens consider the idea of officially setting themselves up as a team of detectives. Ridiculous, says Inga. But not impossible, says Maryellen. And so, the seed is planted for a key sub-plot in the next book, Killing Buddhas.
I've also toyed with the idea of their own book series. I envision a set of caper novellas like the youth mysteries popular when I was coming up, but with drinking and dirty jokes. I was more a Hardy Boys guy, of course, but if you take Nancy Drew, add The Dana Girls, Penny Parker and Judy Bolton, then age them by fifty-to-sixty years, you've got the basis for a few enjoyable tall tales.
I pray for the longevity and determination of The Little Red Hens to write them.
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