real people v fictional people

I have to say, I am impressed (and thankful) for the great questions that are piling up. I will answer them all, but probably not in any order that will make sense to you.

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?

When 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.


overheard on the subway

In New York you often get a subway conductor or bus driver with a big personality, funny or cranky or philosophical. You know this because the conductor or bus driver has a microphone, and knows how to use it. He or she will broadcast personality along with the information  about stops and transfers and so on. When I was working in Manhattan and using the subway many times a day, I had conductors who started Elvis Presley singalongs, who did impressions (and good ones) of various actors and presidents, who did a fashion-show like commentary on the people on the platform.

I’ve mentioned Overheard in New York before. I try not to post about it too often, but these I’ve got to share because I laughed until I got a stitch in my side. All overheard on the subway:

Overheard by Silvy:
Conductor: This is Fifth Avenue. Transfer here for… Aw, hell, there ain’t no transfer here. Get in the damn train.

–E train from JFK, around 5th Ave

Overheard by: ntrprnr
Conductor: Okay everyone, we’re going to evacuate the train now. Just stay calm. This isn’t the Titanic. I repeat, this is not the Titanic.

–Acela, to NYC

Overheard by: The Titanic was on-time
Conductor: Board the train so the doors can close. [Girls slowly shuffle around doors.] You must physically board the train to ride. The platform does not move.


Overheard by: NCtransplantGirl

Conductor, very politely: Ladies and gentlemen, please stand clear of the closing doors so this train can leave the station. Thank you. [Later, not as politely] Sir, maybe the fact that you have to hold on to the outside of the car to stay inside is a sign that you should wait for the next train!

–Crowded Bronx-bound 6 train

And one more, not on the train:

Suit on cell phone: No, I’m just saying that you are being very unresponsive… Unresponsive! Do you know what unresponsive means? … Hello?

This last one is so good that I am tempted to take it as my motto. I wonder if I could get it translated into Latin.

short short short stories

There is an anecdote that gets passed around about Hemingway which may or may not be true. He wrote what he (supposedly) called a six-word novel, (supposedly) on a bet. And henceforth considered the six word novel his most accomplished piece of work. And here it is: For sale: baby shoes. Never used.

For some reason this popped into my head the other day and I haven’t been able to shake it. So maybe if I write a little about it I can free myself of those six words.

My first observation / opinion: if this mini-novel had been written by a woman, it would have been dismissed as sentimental slock.

Next: A hundred different nouns could be substituted for “baby shoes” and some of them would be far more evocative. Wedding dress comes to mind, but of course that would be equally as melodramatic. For sale: wedding dress, size 22, never used. The size gives this what little punch it’s got. And yes, I know it’s eight words instead of six.

If I had the energy, I would try to come up with a long list of nouns that could be substituted for baby shoes, and see what happens. Most of them would fall flat, some would be melodramatic and/or sentimental, some would be funny, and a few might really be evocative.

For sale: AK47, never used.

For sale: typewriter, never used.

For sale, bowling ball, never used.

I think it would be far more interesting to try to make a story out of a bowling ball than out of unused baby shoes. The baby shoes have a very simple and straightforward backstory, all tragic, no complexity. The bowling ball you could a lot with.

You could go all quirky: For sale, sense of humor, never used. Or: For sale: PhD in Theoretical Physics, never used.

Any ideas for other revisions to Hemingway’s six word novel?

good game

Paperback Writer has a great post up here. It’s one of those rare magical posts that gives you a way to work that actually feels like procrastination.

She’s asked the characters from her next novel (Evermore) to write blurbs for the book. I suppose you have to know the earlier books in the series and all the characters in order to appreciate the humor but believe me: it’s there.

So now I can’t get this out of my head. What quote would Elizabeth or Jennet or Curiosity (or anyone else) give for the cover of Queen of Swords? How about Angie or John or Miss Zula, what would they say about Tied to the Tracks? I can imagine Curiosity saying something like this: Don’t you know a good story when you see one? You look simple, staring that way. Buy the book, I need people to listen to me talk.