good questions

I’m going to answer all the questions y’all asked in response to yesterday’s post, but I’ll start with asdfg because I had to think about the answer for a while.

She wanted to know how I decide which characters will be upfront in book six, and if I’m bringing in new characters. It’s a good question because as everybody knows, I’m prone to overpopulating my imaginary worlds. Critics often shake a finger at me about this. It’s the most common criticism I get of Homestead, even.

I don’t know why my mind works this way. I have written short stories that have very few characters (there is a link to a set of three such stories in the right hand column) but my novels tend to be crowded. It’s not like I set out with the idea upfront in my mind. I start generally with anywhere from three to six major characters and things just evolve from there.

Take, for example, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. When the idea was first developing, I was sure of the two main characters (Julia and Dodge). Both of them have backstories, but in the early stages I wasn’t sure how many characters from those backstories would show up in the novel itself. I did know that the setting itself — a small upscale shopping/community center — would require quite a few characters, and I did sit down and think about who they were and how they fit into the story as a whole. It was this line of thought that brought me the secondary story line about Mayme and Nils (more about them below), and the tertiary story line about Lydia and Leo — which had to be cut because the novel was too long.

If I tried, I think I could do an approximate reconstruction of how the Wilderness novels expanded, character wise. I remember very clearly the moment at which  I realized I’d have to have a whole boat full of characters to follow through with the Scottish-family storyline. My emotions, as I remember them, were a combination of excitement and dread, because I knew it was going to be a lot of work.  Out of that crowd, Jennet hung on and spawned a couple story lines of her own.

So here’s my answer: it’s an organic process. The story evolves and characters spring up to people the story. If that makes any sense at all. Some characters are happy to fade into the background once their storylines are finished, but others won’t go away and demand more time with the readers. Jennet is an example of that, maybe the best example. She bugged me all the way through Lake in the Clouds about when she was going to get to come back (thus the letters she wrote to Hannah).

Now, for Book Six. The Bonners are in Paradise, all of them. The old-time residents of Paradise are there, the ones who haven’t died or moved away. And the new residents are there. I seeded this idea in the last novel by means of letters that mentioned Ethan’s determination to breathe life back into the village, and the challenges of finding families who would be willing to settle in a village on the edge of the wilderness where Mohawks and freed slaves were landowners and respected citizens. Because you know, I might be able to sell a couple families with progressive ideas like that (such people did exist) but I couldn’t sell that as a common thing. Most people back then, would have been shocked at the idea. Quakers, who were so forward thinking about emancipation and abolition, were the logical choice but even then I had to be really careful about romanticizing them as a group. Quakers could work hard toward abolition and still be prejudiced. There are documented cases of freed slaves being relegated to pews at the back of the meetinghouse, for example.

So in book six the only new characters are secondary ones, the newer settlers brought in by Ethan, all of them Quaker. There’s some, but not a great deal, of interaction with them. They are good neighbors but not friends, for the most part.

And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about that, for now.

Tomorrow I’ll post a little to the question of favorite characters.  You might expect me to give the traditional parental response: I love all my children. But I won’t go that route, because in fiction, as in life, the question is far more complicated than who you love, and how much.

4 Replies to “good questions”

  1. First of all, thanks for the book six tidbits. I’m so eager to read it. And as much as I enjoyed getting “out and about” in the last book, I’m anxious to get home to Paradise.

    As for your crowds of characters, it never really occurred to me that your stories could be carried out (well) without them. They make the stories rich, and believable. I’m currently reading a book with many characters, almost too many for my little brain actually, and I was commenting to my hubby that I appreciate authors like you who write character lists to help me out!

  2. Thanks! That’s exactly the way I thought you decided on characters.

    Next question: When you decide on a new novel/story, what is the main theme of your deciding? For instance, I’d say in Dawn on a Distant Shore, you wondered about Nathaniel and Daniel’s heritage. And then decided to answer the question, what if Daniel was part of an Important Family a distance from Lake in the Clouds and what would the Bonners do about that.

  3. Okay reading between the lines, Daniel is going to hook up with someone we already know, but all my copies of your books are in storage 1000s of miles are way. Roll on 2009!

  4. I love the richness in characters of the Wilderness series. A lot of times i have to reread to grasp a lot of the details of the characters, which is great because it is like eating chocolate, you savor the flavor… You are one of the few writers that can capture the feeling of the history in the background, and characters… the visual that you paint with words…In that time period and the on the edge of the wilderness, would there not be a host of characters that surface in the barely civilize areas to sell their wares, such as skins and such, perhaps game, products from the American Natives or further north, south and west, then they melt back into the wilderness where they feel more comfortable… also coming from other areas, the more civilized, would there not be also people who go to the edge to sell products to people or homesteads further away from the coast and larger towns. Then you have the characters that can pop up from across the pond or from the northern border… i just love the depth that you bring to history.There are so many possibilities for characters to come from so many directions during that time when all was so new and unexplored. I can hardly wait for the next book to come out and i will purchase several to introduce this wonderful series of characters to others… Just keep your writing going… hopefully the books will sell very well… i need to start rereading the series, love the cover of the reissue of ITW.JL 

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