Charlie Smythington

Welcome to the Charlie Smythington Mystery Series Blog.

Late one night a few years ago, I suddenly got an urge to write a murder mystery after working on science fiction novels for years. When I sat down at the computer, I was feeling whimsical, and out popped Charlie – he didn’t have a last name then. But the name Charlie seemed to perfectly reflect his carefree, outgoing personality – much different than Charles, which seemed stuffy and formal, and definitely not Chuck, which seemed way too casual. Charlie could be professional yet have a sense of humor, be mischievous, and be capable of enjoying life to the fullest.

I didn’t have to think about whether he was young or old, married or single, tall or short, handsome or ugly, etc.; he came fully developed into my imagination and took over.

I wanted to open with something unusual. Charlie should be off guard, caught in an embarrassing situation, and not looking for any intrigue. It just seemed so much more playful.

What better way than to wake up in a strange place, hungover and in pain? The horrendous pain that only comes from inebriation, and I well-remembered what that felt like from the wild and crazy days of my youth.

But it wasn’t enough to be hungover. He was naked, and in bed with someone, he didn’t know. While I hadn’t experienced that problem, I could certainly imagine it.

So, confused, embarrassed, and in pain, he decides to quietly leave without confronting the woman. Not that he’s cowardly, it just seemed the better part of discretion not to make her deal with it, assuming that she would probably be as embarrassed as he was.

But Sonja awoke and caught him leaving, and even more embarrassing moment. How Charlie deals with the situation is a clue to his personality. He takes responsibility for his actions and manages things instead of escaping unpleasantries. And he’s always sympathetic to other people’s feelings and needs.

So, I had a situation ripe for an additional setback. Both characters are awkward, ill-prepared for their condition, and in enough pain to try to avoid any more problems.

Then they discover Sonja’s husband murdered in the spare bedroom. Now, while I liked the complication of the dead man being her husband, it painted a picture of Sonja as a person with loose morals, and I didn’t want that connotation at all.

It was shocking to portray Sonja that way, so I wanted to rectify the situation as soon as possible. But it took an additional two chapters to explain why she was married and dating. And with the explanation, Charlie discovers that she is someone who really needs a friend, and he feels responsible for her situation. I hoped that the readers would stick with the story long enough to learn that Sonja is a good person, probably even a better person than Charlie.

I had an interesting beginning, but that’s never enough. Charlie had no last name, no profession, no lifestyle other than drinking, no problems, no hopes, etc. He was a shell of a man.

So, where did the name Smythington come from? Good question. I wanted an unusual name, something you didn’t hear every day. I have always enjoyed English characters, so many of them have such interesting names. I must have played with fifty different last names before Smythington popped up. I like it. I liked how it sounded with the “y” sounding like an “I.” Smithington just didn’t sound right. But with the “I” sound, it seemed British and distinguished. It added to the qualities I wanted Charlie to have.

The problem with the name Charlie Smythington is that it is long. I should have used a name more like Joe Doe, short and easy to type. If I had a dollar for every time I mistyped Charlie or Smythington, I’d be a millionaire.

Later, we’ll discuss why the revised version starts with Charlie and Sonja meeting at her shop, and that’s another long story.


Selling Insurance

Charlie got licensed. Then the fun really started.

Selling is never easy. Selling insurance is even tougher.

Learning to sell was different than anything Charlie had ever done. While it was a little like acting in stage plays while in college, the other actors in this real-life situation weren’t following the script. So, it was more like improvisation. Charlie always enjoyed improv, so he unleashed his imagination and went after it.

It turned out that he was good at the selling insurance improv, if he could find someone to talk with. And that’s where the rubber hit the road. He was one of hundreds of insurance agents contacting businessowners about their insurance needs.

Hundreds of phone calls became thousands. He heard every reason in the universe why people didn’t want insurance. But his sales manager told him it was a numbers game – you just have to keep banging your head on that wall until the wall gives in, or in other words, the prospect will meet with you. So, Charlie banged away, day after day.

It got to the point that it was all rote. He didn’t even know what he was saying after a while. It was all a big, staticky buzz.

But occasionally, like one in every hundred calls, someone would say yes, and he got to go talk with them about their insurance needs. After he got over the initial terror of selling a total stranger something, he enjoyed it. The trick was to convince himself that he wasn’t calling on a stranger. He was going to meet a friend that he hadn’t seen in a long time – like forever! Once he started treating everyone like long lost friends and put himself in their shoes, he would find out if he could actually help them. That’s when he started enjoying the process.

After selling a few policies, he started using references to his clients when he contacted people. When talking to an auto garage, he would mention another client (not by name) who saved 25% of their insurance cost while improving their protection. The more clients he got, the easier it was to find references he could use to get an appointment.

Then he discovered the real gold – referrals. When he helped clients save money, he made a point of asking for referrals to anyone that would like to save money, which was everyone. Using referrals, his accounting became a little more complex. He created a customer relations database with a page for each client, listing their basic information, who they referred, and the results of the referral. When he needed more appointments, he called clients who had referred someone and caught up with them. During a five-minute call, he discovered any changes that may be needed to their coverages, and he would get another two or three referrals.

So, life got better. Charlie didn’t have to spend as many hours every day calling total strangers, and he used his time more effectively in talking to people interested in what he offered.

He was in business. He had a product and service. He knew how to sell it. The way Charlie saw it, there were unlimited new friends to meet.

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Charlie Smythington graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Journalism. Like many students, Charlie’s real degree was in having a good time, and at that, he excelled. At journalism, he didn’t.

After graduation, he had to find work. After applying for all the newspaper positions that he could find, he realized that he didn’t really want to be a reporter. He wanted a profession where he could meet a lot of people, explore a wide variety of businesses, and never have the same day twice. Variety, new people, new places, new businesses, new situations, new personalities… He discovered that he wanted to be self-employed.

While that decision was a step forward, it was a short step. He had an old, beat-up car, but no money. And he had no products or services that he could offer anyone. It didn’t sound like a successful situation. And, most importantly, he didn’t know how to sell.

One day, while studying the postings on an internet job site, he found a position selling business insurance. He wasn’t sure what business insurance was, but the listing promised to teach him, help him get licensed, and show him how to sell insurance to businesses. They indicated that the average income after three years for their agents was substantial. If he qualified, they would start him with a minimum wage income as an advance on actual earnings. Charlie applied with Halvorson and Milhouse, multi-state insurance brokers with offices from San Diego to Seattle, including Portland, Oregon.

Charlie worked part-time jobs for three months while getting licensed in all forms of business and personal insurance. He didn’t see any reason to only be licensed in one or two. When he found clients, he wanted to be able to provide for all their needs and be their one-stop resource for insurance.