The reality of the fictional person

Somebody (was it you?) asked if I ever use real people as models for fictional characters. This question ties into the topic of Mayme (of Pajama Girls) that I raised in my last post, but first let me answer it more generally:

No. And, yes. I think it’s fair to say that any character of mine is an amalgam of people I’ve known and people I’ve heard or read stories about. All the raw material in my head comes from somewhere, after all.  So for example, if I’m writing about the trading post in Paradise and the people who bought out the McGarrity family, I think about that on multiple levels: is this an individual or a big family? \Who are the primary characters we’ll see in the trading post? Where did they come from? How do they fit in, or don’t they? And the crucial question: when I close my eyes, who do I see standing behind the counter?

Pajama Girls of Lambert SquareWhen I do close my eyes, there’s a kind of slideshow. The store manager at the grocery store where we shopped when I was a kid (his name was Ray, and he and I had the same birthday, and he always wore a bow tie); a woman named Anneliese who sold me a coat in Austria, she smelled of vanilla and her hands were scrubbed so hard they were a painful shade of red.  A dozen different shop keepers from novels and television shows and movies. And hat is how it starts.

But there’s still the question of whether I ever take a whole person out of real life and just plop them into the fictional storyline. Are there any lawyers reading this? Go away.

Once in a while I have done this, but never for a major character.  That is to say, character x may be based  on person z in that I draw on my experiences and understanding of Z to create X. The few times this has happened (and please don’t ask me to be specific, because you know the lawyers didn’t go away) Z has been a very, very strong personality. And you can read that whatever way you like.

I can tell you about one set of associations, because in this instance, the connection between the real life person and the fictional character is svery loose, and also very positive. The secondary storyline in Pajama Girls has to do with Mayme Hurt, an African-American woman born and raised in the fictional town of Lamb’s Corner. She’s about thirty, divorced, with one daughter, and she lives with her mother in the house where she grew up. She goes to school part time, and she’s a full time employee at Cocoon, Julia Darrow’s shop at Lambert Square.

Mayme’s storyline is about the attraction between opposites, namely between herself and a newcomer to Lamb’s Corner. I’m going to leave it at that for the moment because the point I’m trying to make is this: I’m not African American. I didn’t grow up in a small town in the deep south. I don’t have an ex-husband, and I’m not raising a daughter on my own. So where does Mayme’s character come from? How do I channel her?

This is a rather unusual case, because Mayme is based, in small part, on Monica Jackson. You know Monica’s website? I mention it now and then. She’s an African-American novelist, somebody who is passionate about the things that are important to her and is willing to speak her mind. Somebody with a sense of humor. Somebody from the south, who has a daughter to raise (although I don’t know anything about Monica’s marital status, whether she’s divorced or married or what). I’ve read enough of Monica’s writing, her novels and her weblog, to be able to imagine (and note that word, it’s crucial) her acting and reacting.

So when I was writing Mayme, Monica was in my head.

Does this mean that Monica is Mayme? Absolutely not. Monica may read Pajama Girls and find Mayme completely unbelievable. Of course I hope that’s not the case, but it’s a risk I take — it’s the risk any author takes when they write about any character, real or imagined. Monica may tell me I’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards or that the character Mayme is unbelievable in the way she reacts to one particular event or how she talks to one particular person. There will be something that doesn’t ring true to Monica, and probably other African American women from the deep south.

This is true of every character I write who isn’t a 50 something white woman born and raised in Chicago. Unless I am writing about me, my characterizations are always open to close examination. Which they might fail.

The bigger the difference between the author and the character, the harder it is to get it done right. When the difference is very big, I personally sometimes try to bridge the gap by reading diaries and biographies (especially if it’s a historical character) with the hope that I get a strong enough sense of the character that I’ll be able to channel him or her. When he character is contemporary, I draw on a lifetime of experiences and associations. Once in a very rare while, I draw more specifically on a person I know or have some sense of.

I am taking a chance telling you about the Monica/Mayme connection. I don’t think Monica will take offense, as Mayme is a great character. She may laugh at how wrong I’ve got things, but I’m braced. In fact, I think this whole association happened in part because of her reaction to Tied to the Tracks. She wrote a great review, in which she pointed out that the cast of characters is exceedingly white. True. She also pointed out how hard it would have been for me to write the pov of an African American born and raised in a small town in the south. Also true. Maybe on some level I took that as an artistic challenge. I wanted to see if I could pull it off.  One thing I am sure, Monica will be honest in her reaction.

 

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Spring-ish things

It’s grey and blustery today, very Pooh-and-the-Hundred-Acre-Wood like. I have all four critters curled up on the futon in my study. Tuck as appropriated the biggest pillow to sleep on. Tuck loves him some pillow. Bunny inches closer and closer to my legs until I find myself perched on the edge, and send him back to his spot. At which point the whole process starts again. The cats sleep on, oblivious.

Lamby cake to be sacrificed at Easter

We don’t celebrate Easter now, but I am always swamped in memories of what Easter was like when I was a kid. The importance of the clothes in pastel colors, and gloves. We wore gloves to church on Easter Sunday, believe it or not, with our bell-like taffeta skirts.  One year I remember it turned very cold on Easter, but we didn’t have coats to match our new dresses and so we ran, shivering, the three blocks to St Benedict’s and then shivering even more on the way home again. I remember a hat flying away on the wind. I remember the pound cake in the shape of a lamb with coconut frosting, called, appropriately enough, lamby cake. I remember jelly beans, which I really disliked, and those neon orange circus peanut candies, which made my stomach turn. And that’s about it. That’s what Easter means to me, unless you want to talk about Lent and the Stations of the Cross.  I have never done hallucinogenics, but those memories seem to me  outlandish and exaggerated and pretty much what it must be like to indulge.

Today we have no pound cake in the shape of a lamb, and I’m not even sure what we’ll have for supper. But it’s warm and cozy in the house and I have lots of interesting things to read (too many, truth be told).

And then this morning a very nice surprise. The Coffee Time Romance people have given The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square a CTRR reward. You can read Kimberly’s review (five coffee cups!) here.

Finally, via Charlotte, a manifesto from people who think like I want to think:

 

The Cult of Done Manifesto

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more

updates: reading and readings, Pajama Girls

All kinds of little bits of information and commentary I’ve been meaning to post:

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be contributing a once-a-month column at Writer Unboxed. Please stop by and say hello. I would like to see some familiar faces over there.

The ‘tell me what happened in 1883’ experiment is going better than I ever imagined. Y’all have dug up some fantastic stuff… more on that when I close the post and do the giveaway drawing.

I just finished reaading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a novel I really liked for a variety of reasons. I’ll post a review soon.

Thank you for all the suggestions on how to resolve the when-is-the-book-coming-out question. I’m going to implement a couple of them and hope they do the trick.

On February 12 I’ll be reading and answering questions at the Burlington Public Library here in northwestern Washington State. If you are nearby, please stop in.  The session starts at 7pm.

[asa book]0425225917[/asa] The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square will be coming out in trade paper on March 3. If you do plan on buying a copy, please consider pre-ordering from your favorite book store or from Amazon. Preorders are one of those factors that really contribute to a book’s success. Pajama Girls needs to do well if I want to write another book.

The puppy mill saga is still ongoing. They’ve now seized more than five hundred dogs from mills owned by one family in two different counties. I offered to foster one or two pups when they get that far. This is a dangerous thing for me to be doing, as I will find it hard to give them up. But I do have experience with small-breed rescue, and I think my two monsters would be a great help at rehabilitating dogs who have been shut up in cages.

In my next post I’m going to talk about The Endless Forest and the publication process.

why contemporary instead of historical?

I had a short email from Joel, with a good question. It’s a good question because it keeps coming up, so I had better answer it.

Joel asked:

I’m confused about something and I’ll be honest… sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to make me confused.

Where does  Tied to the Tracks fit into your writing.

The two stand-alone contemporary novels I have out there (Tied to the Tracks and Pajama Girls of Lambert Square) are a departure from those novels I am best known for — the Wilderness series — in a whole slew of ways. In fact, it’s hard to think of things they have in common.

Lemme see if I can tease out the questions within the question.

1. why the change from historical series to contemporary stand-alone?

I’ve been writing the Wilderness series for 10+ years, and while I’m not tired of my characters, I still need a change of pace. And I have other stories I’d like to tell.

2. why Tied to the Tracks in particular?

The idea behind TTTT simmered in the back of my brain for years. Many years. I wanted to set a novel on a college campus, in part I think to deal with a lot of my own unresolved issues about my twelve years as an academic (or twenty years, if you count my education post high school). I wanted to tell a story about a couple who don’t fit the traditional mold.  That is, if you were to rewrite the book and switch gender on the characters (John as Angie, Angie as John) it would be a pretty standard approach to telling  a love story. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me. I wanted to set a story at least partially in Hoboken, a city I really like. And I wanted to be able to use my cousin Tom as a model for a character. He says no way is he like Tony Russo, but trust me, he is.

2. why the Pajama Girls of Lambert Square?

One of the things I like about writing fiction is the way it allows me to explore things I chose not to do with my life. I have always been interested in retail sales. I still think all the time about opening a shop of my own. There’s even a space I have my eye on.  This is a shop I would love to frequent if it really existed, and my guess is that if I had the time and money to get it started, it would in fact do very well.

So I’m a frustrated retail person. Here’s an example. Our grocery store is fairly small. It has a little cafe with about a dozen tables set into the middle of the deli area. I’ve had this idea for a long time so I finally approached the store manager about it. I said, You know, if you invested in six or ten general cookbooks and left them in the cafe area for people to use (along with paper and pencil for making lists), I think people would really take advantage of that. And you’d sell more groceries. She said, wow, that IS a good idea. I’ll bring it up to my supervisor (this is a local chain of about six stores).

That was over a year ago, and so far, nothing. I doubt it will ever happen, but I don’t understand why it won’t. We’re talking about an investment of (tops) $150. Is that not worth a try? It seems not.

To the same manager I said, you know, if you put one sm all section of your books/magazines aisle aside for local authors, you’d get a lot of appreciation and attention for that. Because there are a lot of local authors, and not everybody makes it to the local independent bookstore, so they just wouldn’t know.

Again, nothing.

So to get back to the original question, Pajama Girls was a way for me to explore all the various ideas I have had over the years about retail sales.

The other, more important impetus for PG was my interest in writing a novel about people with phobias that restrict the way they live their lifes. I wanted to really explore Julia’s mindset and her understanding of what she had to do to keep herself safe. The same was true of John, of course, but Julia was the most interesting phobia to me. I think because I worked through all of those issues with Julia I have a special affection for her in the long list of characters born out of my subconscious.

3. why not stick with historicals?

I love writing historicals, but they take a lot out of a person. The research is rewarding but demanding. And I need to pick up my pace and put more books out there if I want to keep writing full time.

Have I missed any nuances of the original question? Please let me know.